Lecture 1: Introduction
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I. Personal Testimony
My first encounter with Proverbs was back in 1973 when R.K. Harrison was the editor of the New International Commentary on the Old Testament. He contacted me to write the commentary on Proverbs for him. That is when I began to study the book seriously. And in God’s good providence in 1974, I was invited to join the team responsible for translating what became the New International Version of the Bible. That was done on a number of levels of editorial work. There were two who did Proverbs originally, namely Darrick Kidna and Alvin Mallard, a careful English scholar I respect very highly. They did the original translation and then it came to us. We were called the Intermediate Committee. We went over their work, making a number of revisions. I had a summer in Scotland back in 1974 in which I worked on the Intermediate Committee interacting with Alvin Mallard and did some other books as well of which Proverbs was one. My concern was what the writing and thus translation meant to the writer. The Intermediate Committee were to decide what the original author intended. From there it went to the general committee and they were more responsible for style of which I was later promoted to.
With the NIV work, they ran out of funds so they had to speed up the work thus enlisted me as part of the final committee which in turn caused me to deal with proverbs again. So over all, I spent three summers working on Proverbs for the NIV. This is sort of the background with my life and this particular book. So evidently God wanted me to learn and write on Proverbs. I wrote the commentary and R.K. Harrison, professor of Old Testament at Wycliffe College in Toronto University. He accepted the work, but I made the mistake in 1984 or reading a doctor’s dissertation by R. Van Lunin who did his doctor’s dissertation on Proverbs and he persuaded me that it was a good collection and thoughtfully arranged and assembled. So I was convinced of this. Then I reworked the work I had already done on Proverbs and considering it more holistically. I ended up with too much grammar so I stopped for a while, writing a grammar to give me the background for this work. Then I got kind of tired of Proverbs and so I took time and wrote a commentary on Genesis as a change of pace. So I believe that was all God’s providence for my life and it is a privilege to share what God has helps me to learn.
II. The Difficulties of Translation
What the translator faces is shown for example in Psalm 1:1 ‘Blessed is the man,’ and a question, do we want to say man? Is it just male or it, ‘blessed is the person?’ And how do you continue that; with he or she? ‘So blessed is the one who does not walk in the council of the ungodly or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seats of scoffers!’ Interestingly, a new convert one time said to me, ‘Oh I see, we are not to oppose sinners.’ I thought to myself where does that come from, because ‘stand in the way of sinners’ is an idiom. The young convert had no history in regards to Bible school or church or anything. So he reads it literally. This was exactly what the English means but it is not what the text means. So what do you do with translation? You can’t translate formally and neither word for word as standing in the way of opposing someone. So you add, ‘stand in the way that sinners take,’ in the Hebrew text. Therefore it looks like a wrong translation but in truth, it is the most accurate translation because it communicates what the author wants to say. But to do it, I had to add words and therefore you can be faulted as well in that you added to God word. So the addition is more accurate than the word for word. That is what translators are dealing with all the time. You can never separate this from exegesis so you are really doing both at the same time. But my point here, in God’s providence I had weeks in the study of Proverbs as I got up early in the morning to work on this; while others were older retired people. I was young and just starting out. Getting up at four in the morning in a cold Scotland to prepare for the day and then work all day long. I continued this for a while.
Note that in translation, you cannot separate exegesis from style. Translation work that I did at that time had two different targets, one was the horizon of the original author and the other was the target audience. Translations are often different because they are designed for different communities and different target audience. For example, the Basic English translation of 1938 was designed for students at Oxford and Cambridge for whom English was a second language. They reduced the entire translation to eight hundred words with a glossary at the bottom explaining the meaning. That was an excellent translation for that audience; it’s not a translation I want to read! Translations can be written for a scholarly audience while the NIV was designed for about a seventh grade audience. The Kings James is understood today by testing students in their senior year. The American Standard Version is a very good translation written for an eleven grade audience. So the translator is constantly working between trying to represent it as accurately as they can in the language of their target audience.
In regards to our course, we want to interpret the Book of Proverbs according to the accredited grammatical historical approach which means that the Bible authorizes this approach. For example; in 1st Samuel 9:9 it says that Saul and his attendant went to see a seer (ra’ah) and then it said a prophet (nabiy), but then it says it to be call the ra’ah and thus defines what the prophet is. The Biblical writers will define terms that they think their audience don’t know. This is why and how we have to learn to think; they are explaining to their audience but after three thousand years we also have to think in those terms. Another example is with the word ‘mercy’. We can look that word up in the dictionary but that doesn’t tell us the meaning in terms of what it meant to a person three thousand years ago. The Bible comes out of ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek and also ancient Aramaic and translation is not necessarily precise enough unless you really understand the day to day use of the word back then within the cultural and historical context in which it was used. So in interpreting the Bible, you want to be as clear as you can be, not necessarily accepting the status quo. Another example is vessels of storage; some were finely chiseled jars while others were slop buckets. Each was used for a particular purpose and in handling God’s word we need to be responsible to what is correct.
III. Structure of the Course
A. General Structure
In a world bombarded by inane cliches, trivial catchwords, and godless sound bites, the expression of true wisdom is in short supply today. The church stands alone perhaps along with the synagoge as the receptacle and repository of the inspired wisdom from ancient kings and their courtiers that carries a mandate for a holy life. As the course and bulk of biblical wisdom, the Book of Proverbs remains the model curriculum for humanity, especially youth, to learn social skills in relation to God and others. As such, the Book of Proverbs invites serious study to teach and to understand its wisdom in a world characterised by mediocrity, superficiality and blatant foolishness.
Note that wisdom literature from the Biblical period and earlier is found throughout the Levant, especially in Egypt. This literary context enables the modern interpreter to better appreciate this unique inheritance from the beginnings of recorded human history and to intepret its wisdom more accurately. Paradoxically, as the church grows older its memory grows sharper.
- In this course I will be seeking to accomplish the Bible’s own purpose of teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the student may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. In addition to these broad purposes of all inspired Scripture the course’s more specific objectives are:
- to overcome prejudices against the book, such as its promises seem detached from earth’s realities;
- to instruct the student in fundamentals for understanding Proverbs, such as its structure, authors, addressees, and forms;
- to interpret the book according to the accredited grammatical-historical approach
- to teach its distinctive theology and its application to life;
- to prepare the student for a life-time of growth in its wisdom;
- to locate its wisdom in the canon of Scripture;
- to apply the book of wisdom to specific areas of life such as speech, money, marriage, parenting, politics.
Thus, we will begin with the syllabus; next we will deal with hermeneutical Sacra which means sacred hermeneutics. One of things I have come to understand is that you can’t read the Bible like any other book. It is far more than any other book. In reading any book, you don’t have a particular zeal like you would in reading God’s word. You can’t! In reading the Bible, we want to relate to the author. We will study who Solomon is in Proverbs 1:1 and then we will deal with the idea of righteousness. This is also part of the preamble. After that we will look at the topic of parents dealing with their children and in Proverbs 2, there is a topic on wickedness. That lecture will cover the contest between parents and wicked men and women’s wisdom verses the uncommitted. There will be a lecture on safe guarding wisdom but the safe guard is being able to read Proverbs. It deals with the phycology by which the wisdom enters into your heart. The key to the book is the fear of the Lord and how to develop a fear of the Lord. Chapter 2 of Proverbs is very fundamental in understanding Proverbs and perhaps the most important chapter in the book. There is a section on health, wealth and prosperity. The next one deals with praise of wisdom. Several of the poems deal with an adulterous life with easy sex. These will cover chapter five through chapter seven. The woman of the night in chapter seven stands in contrast to wisdom of women who stand in daylight at the city gate; so you have the woman of the night who operates secretively and stays in the dark; it is death and then you have the woman of wisdom. In chapter nine we have the invitation of women’s wisdom vs the invitation of women’s folly to be a simpleton. Number eleven will be on theology, what the book teaches about God. Chapters 12 and 13 will take two lectures and then chapter 14 will be about wise speech. Chapter 15 will only cover the noble woman and 16 will be about the sayings of Bagur. Chapter 17 and 18 will deal with the home and then 19 and 20 will be about wise politics.
It is recommended that the student read through the book first and then before starting each lecture, they should read the chapter that the lecture deals with. Take notes on each lecture and then read through the transcription to better understand anything that you may have missed out on. After that, if there are reflection questions, work through those reflection questions. Of course it is important to pray and ask God’s help in understanding what the lecturer is saying and what God is saying through the lecturer. Some verses to memorize include 1:7, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.’ There is also 3:5-6, ‘trust in the Lord with all you heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.’ The third verse is 4:7, ‘wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and whatever you acquire, acquire understanding!’
You can choose to use any translation as all of them are faithful and adequate. No translation is perfect. Any of the translations will bring you to Christ and sound doctrine. No translation will lead you into error except for the New World Bible of the JW’s. By faithful, every translation tries to be truthful to the Hebrew text and by adequate, I mean all translations communicate. We never comprehend perfectly, but we can translate and communicate adequately for our salvation and growth in Christ. Recommended reading includes a book by Charles Bridges. There is also one by Richard Clifford which is somewhat more scholarship. Michael Fox has a commentary on the book; but he denies Solomon authorship of Proverbs. He is Jewish and introduces you to rabbinic literature. Garrett’s book is also good. McCain has a strange grid to which he reads the Proverbs and divides them into Alphabetical order and believes that the earliest strain was purely secular while the later strains were theological. It really hasn’t been accepted nor should it be but apart from the fundamental grid, it is worth reading. What I mean by theological is, ‘The Lord will not let the righteous go hungry but he frustrates the craving of the wicked.’ This is theological. Note that the Proverbs are written in a way to develop a way of thinking; you have to think about them. It is a way of developing your mind. It is not as simple as it appears. It is more complex than that. For example in Proverbs 10:2b, ‘but righteousness delivers from death.’ Whose death? Yours death or someone else’s death or both; there is an ambiguity built into them that makes you explore it.
B. Royalty of Proverbs
Solomon is the principle author of the Book of the Proverbs if not the sole author. Note that you are really dealing with royalty and originally the book was meant for budding officials or people who would be in leadership. And it is very concerned about justice and the values of the covenant community in order that they might have just judges who are filled with the wisdom of this book. So in studying this book, you are seated before inspired kings and royalty. As we will see, there is a lot of similarity between Proverbs and Egyptian instructions. And Egyptian instructions are done by the viziers. For example, Joseph would have been a vizier, next to the Pharaoh. They were the people who gave the country direction and highly respected. Some had even pyramid tombs. Ithiel would have been such a person as seen in Proverbs 30:1 where we see Agur was writing to his son Ithiel telling him not to be such a rebel. The material deals with the Royal Court to a large extent.
C. Holiness and Wickedness
Holy means, being set apart to God; we have Hebrew words such as for justice, mishpat and righteousness, tsedeq, but that kind of righteousness sets one apart from the self-centered world. As we will see, righteousness is another way of saying loving your neighbor, maybe even more than yourself. I have defined righteousness as disadvantaging yourself in order to advantage the other person. Wickedness is disadvantaging the other person rather than yourself. Wickedness is far more than murder and adultery, etc. Wickedness is disadvantaging someone else, while righteousness is when you are willing to disadvantage yourself. This is holy and is what sets you apart and this is not the way the world operators.
D. Boundaries of God
As the course of Biblical wisdom, the Book of Proverbs remains the book that shows boundaries set by God in which we live and he sets standards by which we behave. The Book of Proverbs also sets boundaries to the type of company that you keep. You do not identify with those people who are committed to easy money nor do you identify with those who are committed to easy sex. That wisdom works within the boundaries of virginity and of marriage and those are the limits in which we operate and is the standards by which we observe.
E. The Preamble
Within the course we will look at the Preamble. Two views in the Preamble of which one is called the simpleton relating to the Hebrew wording petiy (pethee) which means to be open-minded. They are the young who become open to everything and committed to nothing. It is to a large extent what western education has produced; an openness to everything and committed to nothing. The only thing that one is committed to is openness. This is Allen Blooms theses, some twenty years ago, the book, ‘The Closing of the American Mind.’ So the mind is closed to decency and commitment. In being committed to nothing, then evil triumphs over you because you cannot escape. It is endemic to humans and society; it’s endemic to the human situation and if you are open, it will triumph because you can only triumph by commitment. So it is really written to the petiy, the youth. I think since they grow up in a covenant home, it’s talking about the Israeli youth. They were circumcised and they were nominal and yet they never made a commitment. It is sort of like the young people who grow up in a church never making a real commitment. That’s the petiy. They know the ritual, they know Christian values, but never made a vital commitment of discipleship. This book is written for that kind of person as well as the child who is committed and is wise and is teachable. So we have these dual audiences of marriageable ages, those who are sexually aware and it is principally addressed to the son, but it is clear that it does not exclude the daughter because he warns them not to forsake what their father says and their mother’s teaching. So the mother is involved in the educational process.
F. The Children
At the end of the book, we have the noble wife, who watches over the affairs of the household and faithful instruction is on her tongue. Where did the mother get the instruction? She had to be taught. So it is an assumption of the book that the daughter is also involved in the educational process, but the son is expected to take the leadership. So it is addressed principally to the son, but not to the exclusion of the daughter. It’s is the two together that is involved in the educational process. The young is especially to learn social skills. Here the word wisdom means skills, skills in relationships. With the Lord, with people and I call it social skills. It is how you relate to your culture and people. As such the book invites serious study. It is like what Augustus said about the Bible, it is shallow enough for a child to wade in it and deep enough for an elephant to drown in it.
G. A Truthful Witness
The book of Proverbs is a truthful witness and very profound and that the character of the person is fundamental to be the validity of the testimony of the preamble. So it is a serious study and we will try to dig in on a basic level of really understanding this kind of literature. And when you really dig into it, it is highly philosophical. It is an epistemology that is a study of how do you know. It is wisdom in a world characterized by mediocracy superficiality and blatant foolishness. For example, it is blatant foolishness not to discipline a child; you will save that child from eternal damnation.
IV. Historical Content
Wisdom literature from the Biblical period and earlier; some of our oldest literature goes back to the Sumerian Proverbs and they come from the 3rd millennium and the oldest literature comes from the time of the Old Kingdom, the time of the pyramids, about 2500 BC. It dates way back, throughout the Levant or rather the Fertile Crescent. The Levant would be from Tuckey to the Sinai, but actually most of this is coming from Mesopotamia and the Nile which is called the Fertile Crescent, from Iraq to Egypt and a lot of our comparative material is coming out of ancient Sumer. This literary context knows the world in which it comes and takes the geographical historical approach by which we mean that words have meaning within their historical situation. So when you study a word, you have to understand the world that word represents. For example: ‘hand’ in English is from the wrist to the finger tips and the palm is the underside of the hand, but when the Hebrew says ‘hand’, it is from the elbow to the finger tips. That is why you can have bracelets on your hand. We have bracelets on the arms. So the problem is their language and their world is so different than ours. You have to enter into that world and when they talk about the yawd you need to know that it is from the elbow. We have no word for that. To better appreciate the unique inheritance from the beginning of recorded human history of three thousand BC, when writing first begun, about five thousand years ago. Wisdom ideas come from the beginning of recorded history and the Bible reflects that ancient wisdom. We are really looking at a tested wisdom from over centuries and it is to our peril to ignore it. To interpret that wisdom within the world as paradoxically as the church grows older, its memory grows sharper and that is a paradox. We can interpret far better than Luther or Calvin could have as far as language is concerned, because we know that world better than they did. And the archaeological spade has sharpened our memory so we can read the Bible today with a better understanding that our fathers could. Not to avail ourselves to that information that has been dug up for us to understand, it would be irresponsible. In my mind, God and in his providence with the archaeological discoveries of ancient texts allows us to enter that world. That why I did my degree in ancient Near Eastern Language and Literature and because Hebrew is one of the languages of that world and the Old Testament is a fundamental part of the literature of that world.
We will try to achieve and understand that all of God’s words are God said and God breathed. A concussive theory of inspiration where every word is truly human and truly divine, it is the two together and therefore it is both the Word of God and the word of Man. That is what I mean when I say inspired. All Scripture which is God breathed is profitable. This is an Old King James doctrine, which in itself is teaching. It is profitable for the doctrine. When you learn truth from teaching then inevitably you see that you don’t measure up to that truth and it produces conviction of sin and rebukes you. It is a lot easier to confess sin generally than to confess sin particularly. It doesn’t simply rebuke, it corrects you, it tells you how to be restored and it is beyond correction and therefore it begins to train you in righteous living and it disciplines us and that is why we gather weekly to learn God’s word, to praise, to be corrected so that we are equipped for every good work to do the things that is pleasing to God and therefore are helpful to other people. This is true of all Scripture. In regards to teaching, there is an essay by Isaac Newton in which he speaks about ineffective knowledge; knowledge in itself is not enough, it doesn’t truly transform you. It is necessary but something more is needed beyond that. Doctrine as we will see, it is one thing to learn about God, it is another thing to know God. The word must become internalized as part of your character.
One of my objectives is to overcome negativity against the book. People are really troubled by this book because it seems to promise too much. It promises health, wealth, prosperity; it seems to teach a health wealth and prosperity teaching which in my mind is a really bad doctrine. The Bible teaches the Cross and then comes the benediction; you first have to die and suffer to enter the kingdom of God. Part of entering into the kingdom of God is first being in the wilderness. This problem keeps a muzzle on us and keeps us from feeding on the Bible and the Book of Proverbs. So I want to overcome that limitation to our understanding. I want to instruct the student into the basic understanding of Proverbs in order to feel at home in this book, understanding the structure, its authors, addressees and its forms. . To the rich, the Word of God will be sobering; to the poor it will be comforting. Note that when I teach, I really don’t program too much into what I want to achieve because I can’t dictate what the Spirit will do with the Word of God and with any individual life. There is a creativity that is appropriate to each individual.
V. Distinctive Theology
In terms of theology, Proverbs is distinctive theology. It has a different form of revelation; there is no appearing of God to Moses, there was no visions, nor nothing like, ‘thus says the Lord.’ He doesn’t speak as a direct mouth piece in the way a prophet does. It has a very distinctive way of knowing and presenting truth about God. There are 930 proverbs from Solomon alone so we are limited as to the depth in which can go and this forces us to be selective in what we touch upon. But you will have tools by which to probe deeper into each of them from this course, having a new set of lenses by which to read it. This is to help you to read it more authentically. We want to see how this wisdom fits with Israel’s covenant with God and how it fits with the teachings of Jesus. How does it fits with Moses teachings? For example, how does it fit with the Sermon on the Mound? How are these things related and how do I think about this? We will also look at specific areas such as speech as social skills is a very important topic of the book. All social relationship involves speech and we know we often don’t think about what we say sometimes. What about money, marriage, parenting and even politics?