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The Nature of Proverbs

The current structure of our physical Bibles hides the historical fact that each of the "books" in it were originally physically distinct and separate volumes.  To really understand how radically unique and different the book of Proverbs is, we must free it from its modern-day bindery, let it stand on its own, take a step back to facilitate a view of the overall structure, dispose of our preconceptions of what Solomon, the Wisest Ancient, "could not possibly be", and apply the Duck Test to find its equal in our libraries.  When we do so, we find that its structure is closest to modern day achievement test preparation books for the SAT and ACT, with the subject being that of establishing the existence and working of wisdom within the student.  Just as these books start off with discussing the test itself, its structure, and strategies for approaching it, the first section of Proverbs discusses the nature of wisdom, its origin, what one must do to acquire it, and the signs and evidence of its presence.  And just as the test prep books discuss what NOT to do before and during the test, so the first section of Proverbs discusses the behaviors and environments most hostile to the manifestation and presence of wisdom.  And just as these books include sample tests that help the student get an idea of what to expect in real life, the remaining sections of Proverbs contain proverbs and sayings that the student uses to help them determine if they have acquired wisdom.  Of course, there are some differences based on the nature of the "test" for which each of these books is helping their readers prepare: the test prep books have the advantage of knowing the structure and layout of the test they are discussing, its manner of grading, and have a good idea of the kinds of questions that will be on it, while the analogous characteristics of the Test of Life are much harder to discern.  Thus, the test prep books are able to faithfully reproduce the format and layout of the tests the student will face.  In contrast, the mish-mash-mix-up character of the proverbs in the second through fifth sections of Proverbs, including their order and presentation, better reflects the the order and variety with which Life presents its problems and challenges to all of us.  This should not surprise us, for Life is much more complicated and demanding than a five hour test that can be repeatedly taken until one gets the best scores possible.

This method of "bootstrapping" understanding was followed by our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 13.  Jesus tells the parable of the Sower in verses 3-9.  The disciples ask him why he speaks in parables in verse 10, and Jesus explains in verses 11 to 17 that understanding is given by God, implying that the ability to understand a parable is evidence that God is working within the inquirer.  This seems a bit hard and unreasonable of God, but the fact that the Gospel of Matthew (and Mark here and Luke here) record this commentary is a warning that understanding is a critical aspect of one's spiritual growth: to memorize scripture verses is good, but the whole point of memorizing them in the first place is to help us understand them.  The remainder of Matthew 13 has Jesus telling various parables about different aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven (which I take as being the coming of the Holy Spirit into the believer).  He finishes that section of Matthew with the question  "Do you understand what I have said?"  Upon their affirmative answer, Jesus replies "Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old."  The scribes were those who knew the scriptures and copied them using various quality assurance techniques used today to ensure high-fidelity transmission.  Apparently, in Jesus' eyes, of the offices of Judaism of that day (Pharisees, Sadducees, Priests, Lawyers, and Scribes), the office of Scribe was to continue as part of the Kingdom of Heaven's administration.  The emphasis was on bringing out stuff "new and old", which clearly is a warning to not freeze one's understanding of the Scriptures to that which is traditional (old).  In addition to preserving the old, the duty of the Scribe was to bring about fresh understanding of the scriptures.  However, what is pertinent is that the process by which Jesus led the disciples through the process of being able to understand the meaning behind his parables is identical to the process Solomon embodied in Proverbs. 

A word to the want-to-be-wise: You can't skip any of the early stages.  Jesus himself felt that the Parable of the Sower was the Master Parable, since he implied that one had to understand that one to understand all the parables.  That is level 0.  The ground floor.  Chapter 1.  If you "get it", you have the key to all the other parables.  If you don't, you're stuck.

Conjectured Origin and Development of Proverbs

Permit me some conjectures on the probable origin and growth of the book of Proverbs that will motivate and guide my analysis of it.  By all appearances, it was initially written by Solomon as an instrument for replicating the development of wisdom.  After all, not everyone can afford a thousand sacrifices to get God's attention to get into a position to ask for it.  The rulership of a king whose wisdom came from God resulted in a Golden Age of Israel whose accounts begin in the Old Testament here and here.  This is not to say that he was solely responsible for that blessed time.  Given the divine origin of his wisdom, as well as the humility that prompted his request for it, I believe Solomon realized early on that he could not do it all alone.  He would need a cohort of wise men to spread the blessings of wisdom throughout Israel.  There was a precedent for this: Moses, led by the suggestion of Jethro, his father-in-law, and endorsed by God's later approval, set up a system of greater and lesser judges that helped nuture Israel through the wilderness journey.  These judges eventually became the skeleton of the Israelite "government" after their arrival at the Promised Land.  It was to develop such a cohort of wise men that Solomon composed the first two sections of the book of Proverbs.  It is my conjecture that the latter three sections were added by Hezekiah in less than optimal social conditions:  he reigned over Judah during the time when King Sennacherib of Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom and was systematically taking out his defensive border towns.  Del Tackett's commentary on that time captures, better than I can, the sense of desperation that Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem must have had in the face of such a war machine.  I thus conjecture that the Book of Proverbs was revived and expanded as a kind of pre-captivity Manhattan Project to address the crisis of the moment, doubtless inspired by this example.  Thus, the third section appears to be a set of proverbs penned by Solomon for the private training of future kings of Israel that Hezekiah directed to be added to the book as his contribution to its revival.  I further conjecture that the fourth and fifth sections were added at this time as well.  In the end, Judah was delivered by the power of God rather than by wisdom, which was a good thing since the book itself contained specific counsel that was disregarded in the panic of the times that would have told them the effort was doomed.  I will address that part of Proverbs later on this essay because I concur with Del Tackett's assessment that the current crisis mirrors that faced by Hezekiah, so prudence dictates that we learn from the failures of our predecessors lest we repeat their mistakes. 

Since this portion of the essay is concerned with the relationship between wisdom in the Old Testament and the working of the Holy Spirit in the new, and in light of the above conjectures on the purpose and structure of Proverbs, I will confine my review of that book to selected portions of the first nine chapters.  To summarize the conjectured structure, the first section discusses the nature of wisdom, while the remaining sections are compliations of proverbs to test the depth of the wisdom that the student has acquired by following the instructions of the first section.  This is not to slight the last four sections.  It is my belief that all the proverbs are true, in the same way that all the answers to difficult mathematical problems in a math book should be assumed to be true.  To assume otherwise is to defeat their purpose of measuring the quality and depth of that which is being tested.  If you have problems getting the right math answer, then it is more probable that your understanding of the method of solution is deficient than to believe that the book is wrong.  In the same way, students that have difficulty in understanding a proverb from Proverbs should assume that some aspect of wisdom within themselves is lacking that requires remediation. 

Finally, I should point out that literary critics who pan the simplicity of some of the Proverbs as an argument against the divine origin of the book reveal their incompetence in literary analysis: a book claiming to be a textbook for creating wisdom in those who don't have it (Proverbs 1:1-6) must have a graduated and multi-level means of assessing progress at all levels, necessitating that some of the proverbs be "simple" to measure progress at the lower end of the scale.

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