Riding the Proverbial Cycle

The book of Proverbs has a remarkable shape. We often jump to one or another of the short, pithy wisdom sayings without taking note of the book’s context. The first nine chapters are filled with voices calling us to wisdom—wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord. This wisdom is the opposite of folly, which rejects the fear of the Lord (1:7). 

We won’t make sense of the collected proverbs starting in chapter 10 if we haven’t first heard and heeded the call of chapters 1–9: a call into a relationship with the Lord whom we fear, reverencing him for who he is according to his Word. As Proverbs 26:7 says, “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.”

Proverb’s Swirling Themes

Having heard wisdom’s call, though, how do we proceed?

We won’t make sense of the collected proverbs starting in chapter 10 if we haven’t first heard and heeded the call of chapters 1–9.

The “proverbs proper” begin in chapter 10 with the largest collection, “the proverbs of Solomon” (10:1–22:16). In this section, we’re immersed in various themes that seem to swirl all around us. A similar cycling repetition characterizes the first nine chapters, though those themes are channeled through distinct instructions and wisdom sections. That feels like swimming in a bay with lots of strong currents. Chapter 10 feels like being out in the open ocean, tossed back and forth between every wave of theme. 

Proverbs’s resistance to ordering shows that wisdom’s qualities are manifold—kaleidoscopic, we might say. The personified figure of Wisdom in the earlier chapters is calling out all over the town, dramatically showing how wisdom invades every part of life. Here’s perhaps the deepest answer to the swirl: Proverbs’s wisdom transforms every nook and cranny of our existence. Reading this book from the other side of the cross, we can see the ultimate point: in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3)—so as we live in a relationship with God, through Christ, we get to live in him moment by moment, to the end and forever. 

And our moments aren’t organized thematically. We human beings don’t wake up in the morning and deal with our issues in an orderly fashion. From the moment we wake, life actually comes at us in the same kind of fluid chaos that Proverbs itself presents, as it teaches that wisdom is applying God’s truth to all of life. This reminds us of Jesus, who came into the messiness of human life to redeem it. 

Shape to the Swirl

Amid the swirl, certain patterns and clusters of themes emerge and interact. We’ll just glimpse the beginning of the process with the first verse of chapter 10. Proverbs 10 leads us into the collection of proverbs by clarifying the book’s basic thematic contrast between wisdom and folly—the contrast introduced in chapters 1–9. Antithetic parallelism (in which parallel units of meaning set up some kind of contrast) dominates this section. It’s beautiful to see how the poetic form communicates the content: what we see as two contrasting “lines” light up the two different paths.

Reading this book from the other side of the cross, we can see the ultimate point: in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

After the first nine chapters’ repeated calls from a father to “my son,” Proverbs 10:1 is a delightful and satisfying transition, with its opening words: “A wise son . . . .” But we must read the whole couplet, which immediately sets up the contrast: 

A wise son makes a glad father,
  but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother. 

Proverbs 10:1 launches the collection of wisdom concerning these two paths. The readers are the “sons” who’ve either heard or not heard the call to wisdom. This contrast develops consistently in terms of “righteousness” and “wickedness.” The “righteous” are those walking wisdom’s path, in relationship with the Lord they fear. This doesn’t mean they’re perfect. In fact, often the point is that they listen to rebuke, and they repent and change. The “wicked,” by contrast, walk folly’s path: not listening, and heading toward death rather than life. 

We know, however, that only one man has ever lived a completely righteous life: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He received God’s full rewards, and believers receive those rewards in him. The “righteous” in Old Testament times looked ahead in faith to this righteous One who would come to save, offering himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins for all who believe, and making possible this relationship with the Lord we fear (Rom. 3:21–22; 4:3). The ceremonial sacrifices only pointed to that final sacrifice. But in following God’s Word, Old Testament believers put their faith in God’s provision for their sin; we do the same, in the full light of the gospel. The “wicked” did not and do not heed God’s word; they follow their own path. 

Following Christ is the path of righteousness that the book of Proverbs encourages.

Kathleen Nielson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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