If there is one idea that is synonymous with the Book of Proverbs it is wisdom. According to Proverbs, wisdom is something that should be sought, cultivated and taught. It is an aim in and of itself and also something that bestows great benefit to those who exercise it. It is both a highly abstract ideal and also personified as a beautiful woman (the Hebrew word for wisdom, choch-MAH, is grammatically feminine). The opening statement of Proverbs highlights this central role of wisdom:
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
For learning wisdom and discipline;
For understanding words of discernment;
Righteousness, justice, and equity;
For endowing the simple with shrewdness,
The young with knowledge and foresight.
The wise man, hearing them, will gain more wisdom;
The discerning man will learn to be adroit;
For understanding proverb and epigram,
The words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
Fools despise wisdom and discipline.Proverbs 1:1–7
Words of wisdom, this prologue explains, like those contained within the Book of Proverbs itself, are something that must be taught to the youthful and naive so that they follow a good path. But these proverbs, we quickly learn, are not just for the kids. They are also for those who are already wise. Such people stand to gain even more wisdom. All of us, no matter how wise, have more to learn.
Certainly the life of Solomon, who is named here as author, bears that out. Solomon was known as the wisest man who ever lived (1 Kings 3:12), and yet he made catastrophic mistakes at the end of his life, succumbing to the idolatrous cults of his wives. His wisdom was not enough to save him or his kingdom from ruin. And yet he is remembered as a wise monarch and the author of the ultimate handbook on wisdom. Oh, the irony.
If all of Solomon’s prodigious wisdom could not save him and his kingdom from destruction, what hope is there for us? Can we even dare expect to do better? The opening of Proverbs answers that question as well, by pinpointing the way that Solomon went wrong: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Proverbs 1:7) Solomon failed to fear and serve God. But if we, the students of wisdom, stay faithful to Israel’s one true God, we can do better — better even than Israel’s wisest king.
With some help, of course! That’s where Proverbs comes in. Some have called it a manual of wisdom, but that’s not really accurate. It is rather an assemblage of varied wisdom teachings — far more eclectic than a textbook. The book is primarily composed of epigrams of just one or two lines and slightly longer poetic compositions. Scholars have shown that there are at least six different collections sewn together here, including the opening nine chapters, which are framed as advice given by a mentor and inexperienced youth (this theme does not continue in the book); chapters 10–22:16, which display some of the richest examples of biblical poetic parallelism (also not found throughout the book); and a few closing poems, including the famous acrostic that ends the book (Proverbs 31), a paean to the ideal woman (Eshet Hayil). Further, each of these larger sections is a collection itself. Proverbs 22:17–24:22, for example, has been shown to be a reworking of a 2nd millennium Egyptian wisdom text (not Jewish in origin) called the Sayings of Amenemope.
This collage nature of the book leads to some interesting internal differences. While the opening chapters emphasize fear of God as the means to attain wisdom, some later chapters are more secular in nature. Much of the book lacks any reference to the divine covenant with Israel, the revelation at Sinai, or any other major theological tenets that are foundational for the rest of the Hebrew Bible.
So what exactly is this wisdom that is “more precious than rubies” (Proverbs 8:11)? Readers hoping for revelatory gems might be disappointed. Many of the sayings in this book are simply statements that sing the virtues of wisdom. For example:
How much better to acquire wisdom than gold;
To acquire understanding is preferable to silver.Proverbs 16:16
Sure, wisdom has obvious advantages. For instance, in waging war victory often goes to the superior strategist (see Proverbs 24:56). Being wise and witty also wins the favor of others (Proverbs 13:15). Hard work (often elided with wisdom) increases the likelihood of food on the table, as does righteousness (also elided with the wise). Wisdom is even a delight in and of itself (Proverbs 2:10).
Likewise, lacking wisdom (a concept which we can now understand as a catch-all for an array of character virtues including prudence, industry, humility and generosity) is a liability. Consider, for instance, the oft-quoted “pride goeth before the fall” warning (Proverbs 16:18). Interestingly enough, the verse that follows delivers the opposite message, stating that humility is a good in and of itself, regardless of whether it brings the bearer benefit:
Better to be humble and among the lowly than to share spoils with the proud.Proverbs 16:19
In this particular verse, one is expected to choose the right even when it does not bring any advantage — even when doing the right thing brings suffering. This exemplifies one of the many tensions found throughout Proverbs. On the one hand, wisdom benefits the one who exercises it. On the other hand, one should be wise and virtuous for its own sake, even if it proves a material liability.
This is the intriguing, infuriating, strange thing about Proverbs — it is a collection of nuggets of pithy advice, many of them hackneyed, and many of which contradict one another. Is this really what all the secrets of wisdom amount to?
But perhaps the many banal observations, and the many internal contradictions, actually add up to more than they appear. Perhaps wisdom is less universal than situational, and these sometimes contradictory sayings are meant to help us access the right answers when presented with thorny problems — none of which have the same answer. According to Proverbs, there is really only one answer that applies in all these situations: Fear the Lord. This may be true but, as another saying (not from Proverbs!) has it: the devil is in the details.
This is the rub. Wisdom is what we want to achieve, for ourselves and for others we are charged to instruct, but it is more elusive than we might hope. And even a pile of proverbs cannot change that fact. Perhaps that is why chapter 8 of Proverbs famously switches gears and, playing on the theme of a young man in need of instruction (and focus), describes wisdom as a beautiful woman. Lady Wisdom, who is opposed to another character in these chapters — the temptress of misconduct who lures men into evil — is the ultimate prize for the man who seeks her, as she herself explains:
Those who love me I love,
And those who seek me will find me.Proverbs 8:22
The romantic overtones continue throughout this poem. Wisdom is older than the world (Proverbs 8:25), but she’s no hag — she’s alluring and worth courting:
Happy is the man who listens to me,
Coming early to my gates each day,
Waiting outside my doors.Proverbs 8:34
The image of wisdom as a beautiful woman who beckons, but must also compete with other temptations, and who is both familiar and unattainable, is perhaps as good a metaphor as any to explain the entire work. We all know that wisdom is the right choice, and an alluring choice. But even when we know that, and even when we pursue it, we can still stumble. The straightest path to wisdom is through fearing God, but we could all use some extra help along the way. The various sayings collected in Proverbs are like glimpses of this lovely lady, but none capture her full essence. We are called upon to pursue wisdom our entire lives, and there is always more to know about her.