How To Read Proverbs as Poetry (Mon. March 14)

The word of the day is “but.”  Almost all people thrive when there is order in society, but hardly anyone can prosper when chaos rules.  We naturally seek balance and equilibrium and consider harmony to be beautiful, right, and true.   Today in our reading of Proverbs 3:21-4:7 we find that symmetry is built into the structure of the sayings of wisdom.  For example, our reading begins, “Surely He [God] scorns the scornful” (vs. 3:34).  Here we discover a basic underlying sense of justice.  It is only right that those who scoff at others will themselves be scoffed (Strong’s #3887, 191).  Today we will analyze some selected sayings of our reading to illustrate this sense of righteousness.  Then we will reflect on where we can find this ideal justice when injustice often seems to prevail against it in our world.

Poetic Parallelism

The Book of Proverbs is poetry, and the poetic device of Proverbs is parallelism.  This technique balances one phrase or thought with another.  One type of parallelism is that of “contrast.”  In the “Opposition Parallelism” poetic device, the thought or image of the first part of the saying is opposed to or contrasted with the second.

Glory or Shame

For instance, the poet writes, “The wise shall inherit glory, but shame shall be the legacy of fools” (NKJV vs. 3:35).  In this case, the wise in the first clause are contrasted with the fools of the second section.  Moreover, the poet contrasts the first thought of the “inheritance” of the wise with the second idea of the “legacy of fools”.  Finally, the proverb asserts that the destiny of the wise is glory, but the fate of fools is shame.

Curses or Blessings

Likewise, the poet writes, “The curse of God is in the houses of the ungodly.  But He blesses the dwellings of the righteous” (OSB vs. 3:36).  Here we find the juxtaposition of the “houses of the ungodly” with the “dwellings of the righteous.”  To the former, God sends His curse.  To the later, He bestows His blessing.

Honor or Disgrace

Finally, the New King James Version translates, “The wise will inherit honor, but stubborn fools [will inherit] disgrace” (OAB vs. 3:38).  Here we find an equilibrium between the honor due to the wise and the disgrace owed the fools.

An Optimistic View of Life

In these examples of “Opposite Parallelism,” we find the underlying sense that the scales of justice in life are perfectly balanced.  Note what an optimistic view this is:  as long as one is wise and righteous, one will receive glory, blessing, and honor.  But if one is unwise and unrighteous, stubborn, and foolish, one will reap shame, cursing, and disgrace.

As practical as the wisdom of Proverbs seems, it is more than human philosophy.  The very structure of the poetry confesses the poet’s faith.  He believes that the Creator has built His righteousness into creation.  The poet says, “God by wisdom founded the earth and prepared the heavens with discernment” (OSB 3:21).  Thus, the balanced expressions of the “Opposition Sayings” of Proverbs reflect the wisdom, discernment, and judgment of the Creator (OSB vs. 3: 21-22).  By learning the structure of the sayings, the student learns the mind of God whose reason, justice, order, and righteousness are built into the universe.

For Reflection

The book of Job is a powerful challenge to the optimism that the parallelism of Proverbs represents.  One of Job’s friends asks the question of the book, “Does God subvert judgment?  Or does the Almighty pervert justice?” (Job 8:3).  The friend meant it as a rhetorical question, but it is not.  The circumstances and conditions of life in this world often prompt the human race to lament, “The righteous perish and no one lays it to heart” (Isaiah 57:1).

Wolves and Lambs, Cows and Bears Reconciled

The Book of Job’s candid examination of the plight of human life inspires us to look beyond this world for the vindication of divine justice and the reestablishment of godly righteousness.  The prophet Isaiah gives God’s answer to the world’s search for the order that Proverbs describes.  Isaiah prophesies a Messianic age in lofty sentences that reconcile opposite but parallel images.  The prophet writes, “The wolf shall feed with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf, the bull, and the lion shall feed together, and a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6).

Isaiah goes on, “The cow and the bear shall graze together, and their young ones shall lie down together.  The lion and the ox shall eat straw together” (Isaiah 11:7).  The writing brings together contrasting images into a resolution of their conflict.  For example, cows fear bears, and bears eat cows.  Yet, in the age to come, their hostility is reconciled.  This structure of composition underscores the peaceful and just order that the Messiah, the Root of Jesse, will establish (Isaiah 11:10).

This prophetic Word reassures us of the justice and righteousness of God that the Book of Proverbs so beautifully expresses.  But we learn not to look in this world for the inheritance of glory, honor, and blessing that the poet of Proverbs promises but to hope for it in the everlasting Kingdom of God.

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