In my experience, most Christians tend to read the book of Proverbs in fairly disconnected fashion. Individual nuggets of wise advice are isolated not only from their location in the overall framework of the book itself, but also from larger theological realities in the canon of Scripture. Now interpreted and applied in a purely propositional way, as “rules” that can be compartmentalized or abstracted from the rest of faith and life, hungry readers increasingly employ a selective pick-and-choose methodology that is constantly in danger of producing a merely external “righteousness,” or with the sole purpose of gaining a quick boost to their secular ambitions and desires.
I want to offer here a way of reading Proverbs in a larger, more coherent framework, one that seeks to recognize and to keep always in view the narrative underpinnings of the text as a whole. Upon recognition of this intentional scaffolding that surrounds and supports all the individual aphorisms of Proverbs, I encourage that Christians (or any other readers) subsequently view and interpret all the various parts in light of the expansive perspective argued for here.
I would suggest three arguments in support of the conviction that the individual Proverbs are, historically and intentionally, meant to be filtered through an overarching hermeneutical prism before we digest them into our souls.
First, all acknowledge that Proverbs is divided into two main sections: chapters 1-9 and chapters 10-31, with the former serving as the introduction to the latter. In this initial stage of the book, the “fear of the Lord” (cf. 1:29, 2:1-6; Psalm 111:10) appears as an inclusio at the beginning and end. This signifies that all of the sage advice and instructions in between are meant to be understood in light of this priority in the individual’s life.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (1:7)
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (9:10)
Everything that follows in this book—all of which, self-evidently, pertains to the pursuit and acquisition of both knowledge and wisdom in God’s creation—assumes that the reader will be committed to approaching each individual saying from this fundamental disposition of the heart. The emotional attitude that constitutes reverencing and relating to God as the most significant and ultimate factor in reality is, indeed, the necessary prerequisite to actually being able to live out the vision of human flourishing offered in Proverbs.
Second, common sense dictates that we cannot isolate our hearts and their motives, deepest desires and dreams from the rules and routines we actively implement in our lives, much like the modern fantasy of a quick 10 step self-help program. Christians must read the Bible as one grand story that spans from creation, then through fall and redemption, and all the way through to consummation—and hence they must strive to integrate their encounter with the book of Proverbs with what the rest of Scripture says about holiness and godliness and wise, faithful obedience to the Lord.
Third, and most pertinent to my approach, is the presence of a consistent narrative structure extending underneath all of Proverbs, and which unfortunately is missed by most hasty interpreters. What follows are the main components of the “story of Proverbs”:
a.) Proverbs 1:1-7 sets the tone for the rest of what follows by introducing the metaphor of a father giving wise parental advice to his son who has recently come of age, and who is ready to leave home and enter the world on his own. This controlling paradigm reappears often (1:8-19, 2:1-3:12, 3:21-4:27, 5:1, 6:1-23, 7:1-3, 10:1, etc.). The implied reader is asked to adopt the perspective of the “son” as wise counsel begins to be dispensed. Tremper Longman, in his lucid and compelling commentary on Proverbs, notes that:
“The reader of Proverbs, as we have seen, is represented by the son, or in the case of 1:20-33 and 8:1-9:18 by all young men. These are the implied readers of this part of the book. However, as we have argued, the preamble broadens the audience of the book to include everyone, male and female, naïve and wise (1:1-7). Thus, all actual readers must identify with young men, who are the implied readers of the book. Whether old or young, male or female, for the purpose of understanding the book, we all must use our readerly imagination to place ourselves in the position of the son.” (p. 60)
b.) Throughout the remainder of Proverbs 1-9, two women make frequent appearances who are integral to the vision of true wisdom given here: Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly. These two women symbolize, on the one hand, loving allegiance and covenant faithfulness to God (wisdom), and on the other, idolatry and moral rebellion contrary to God’s kingly, gracious rule over humanity (folly). Longman notes that “they represent diametrically opposed relationships with the divine and alternative worldviews” (p. 59). Both women approach the young son at various times in Proverbs 1-9, making relational and even sexual overtures to him as he ponders which path he will choose. Indeed, both serve as potential wives (or mistresses) who he may decide to marry. As the reader moves into Proverbs 10-31, he or she is left with a looming decision to make: which woman will be chosen? What will be our response to their dual invitations? The rest of the book of Proverbs illustrates the sorts of attitudes, convictions, behaviors, and results that flow out of these two alternative “marriages” to either woman.
Lady Wisdom appears first in 1:20-33, before returning to dominate the discussion in 8:1-9:6. Listen to some of the more apt personifications of her:
“Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice.” (1:20)
“Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed…Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.” (3:13-18, 4:6)
“Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud: ‘To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of men. O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right…For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death. ” (8:1-6, 35-36)
So who is this woman who beckons to the young son? Longman points out the obvious: “Woman wisdom represents God’s wisdom” (p. 58). To align oneself with her to is align oneself with the Creator of all things, and thus to guarantee one’s own permanent well-being in the universe. She is associated, above all else, with life.
Lady Folly comes to the forefront in 2:16-19, 5:1-7:27, and 9:13-18. She is portrayed like this, in stark contrast to Lady Wisdom:
“So you will be delivered from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God; for her house sinks down to death, and her paths to the departed; none who go to her come back, nor do they regain the paths of life.” (2:16-19)
“The lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol; she does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it…Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house.” (5:3-8)
“For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, to preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but a married woman hunts down a precious life. Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished…He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself.” (6:23-32)
“Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call insight your intimate friend, to keep you from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words. For at the window of my house I have looked out through my lattice, and I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense, passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness. And behold, the woman meets him, dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart. She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait. She seizes him and kisses him, and with bold face she says to him, ‘I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you…Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey’…With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life. Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.” (7:4-27)
As Longman points out, Lady Folly is “a metaphor for all the false gods and goddesses that provided such a tremendous illicit attraction to Israelites. In a word, she represents the idols, perhaps no one specific idol, but any false god that lured the hearts of the Israelites” (p. 59). Consider how in Proverbs 9:14 she is located on the “highest places,” from where she beckons to the son. For astute readers of the Old Testament, the allusion to the stereotypical place of worthless idolatry in Israel’s history cannot be missed. Above all else, Lady Folly is associated with death.
Finally, at the conclusion of the first section of Proverbs in chapter 9, both Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly issue out parallel invitations to the son to join them at table for an intimate meal. First comes Lady Wisdom:
“Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town: ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who lacks sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (9:1-6)
Next is Lady Folly’s turn:
“The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ And to him who lacks sense she says, ‘Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” (9:13-18)
Immediately after this comes the relentless onslaught of hundreds of assorted sayings in Proverbs 10-31. The stakes are high as we transition into the heart of the book. Logically prior to every statement of wisdom is the question: which woman will we respond to? With whom will we enter into intimate relationship and commit ourselves to long-term? Indeed, this seems to be the crux and central burden of the father’s advice to his son, as seen in 5:18-23:
“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths. The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray.”
In many ways, the book of Proverbs represents the good father’s matchmaking designs for his son; he wants the young man to choose the right woman as his wife and be spared the miseries that would accompany his taking up with the adulterous seductress. As Longman once more recognizes, this narrative ought to control how the reader encounters the suggestions and saying of Proverbs 10-31:
“This interpretive move is particularly important for understanding the encounter of the young men with Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly. They both issue invitations for dinner. The invitations suggest intimate, perhaps even sexual relationships. The call then is to become intimately involved with Wisdom or Folly, to make one of them an integral part of our lives. Thus, chapter 9 at the end of the first part of Proverbs calls for a decision. With whom will we dine? Will we dine with Woman Wisdom, who represents Yahweh’s wisdom, even Yahweh himself? Or will we dine with Woman Folly, who represents the false gods of the surrounding nations? This is the background through which we should read the individual proverbs that follow…chapters 1-9 serve as an introduction, even a kind of hermeneutical prism, through which we should read the rest of the book. This first part of the book requires a decision of the young men, who represent the reader. With whom will one dine, with Wisdom or with Folly? This is a call for a religious decision, a decision between the true Gods and false gods.” (pp. 60-61)
c.) Briefly, this narrative framework for Proverbs makes great sense of the ubiquitous contrasts in chapters 10-31 between the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the wicked, the simple and the sensible. Each half of these numerous contrasts depicts the lifestyle, attitudes, speech, and practical results of those who connect themselves to one or the other of these two women.
d.) Paying attention to these narrative dimensions of Proverbs pays off in a significant way at the end. Proverbs 31:10-31 is severely misunderstood when it is heard as being merely or even mainly about the character of a godly wife. This is, of course, true insofar as it goes. But it misses the deeper point of the book, and forgets the crucial introductory role the first nine chapters played in setting the stage for the vision of wisdom that followed. The primary message of Proverbs 31 is that the reader who has listened to and heeded the various streams of instruction contained in chapters 10-31 has, in fact, relationally identified himself with Lady Wisdom—not with Lady Folly, whose invitations he has now decisively turned away from. To hear and live the wisdom of Proverbs is the spiritual equivalent of the young son marrying well, avoiding in the process the attractive yet deadly allure of the wily seductress. The wise life means covenant with God in faith and righteousness:
“This poem [Proverbs 31:10-31] reminds us of the role that women play in this book, which is explicitly addressed to young men. Most pointedly we read here of a woman who is the human reflex of Woman Wisdom herself. She is to be contrasted with the strange and foreign woman (chaps. 5-7) who is the reflex of Woman Folly.” (p. 540)
Besides the core narrative connections which arose earlier, there are also multiple thematic and verbal allusions to Lady Wisdom in 31:10-31. In a nutshell, all that wisdom is and does for those who possess it throughout the book of Proverbs, this remarkable wife is and does for her husband. She embodies many of the specific qualities that have been positively set forth and recommended throughout. She “fears the Lord”, and is to be praised chiefly for this—the essence of wisdom. Her worth is far more precious than jewels, and her gain greater than silver or gold—just as was said of wisdom on more than one occasion. She, like wisdom in chapters 10-31, is generous to the poor, plans ahead and is not lazy, and brings good and safety to her household (not evil or disaster). She does not fear the future but is confident, wise speech and instruction pour forth from her mouth, she shows adept discernment in business practices, and is a consistently hard worker. Most of all, she adorns her husband with joy on account of her presence as his companion, and he now enjoys the truly good life because of her character and grace.
She is, in a word, Lady Wisdom—“the human embodiment of Woman Wisdom herself,” in Longman’s view (p. 542). The young son has married well (and married up!) after all. He has listened to his father’s sound advice, and now he reaps the rewards. He has chosen life, not death. He takes his place among the true worshippers of the God of Israel, and spurns the dead-end futility of idolatry and immorality. May all readers of the book of Proverbs follow his example, and likewise experience the happy ending that only the best stories can deliver.