Interpreting the Book of Proverbs (Part 8)


With our first seven posts (for the last post, click here), we have looked at three principles for interpreting Proverbs. With this post and the next, we will look at the fourth guideline.

IV. Observing Literary Clues in a Specific Context.

I will give a brief overview of the literary features that are found in paragraphs of proverbial material and in one-verse units.

A. Three Literary Clues

When examining units containing more than one verse, there are many literary clues on which to focus. We will examine three of these.

1. Repetition

This is a major device in biblical poetry for showing emphasis. In the Hebrew text of Proverbs 30:11???14, the Hebrew word translated as ???kind??? in NASB stands at the head of each verse.

    11There is a kind of man who curses his father; and does not bless his mother.
    12There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes; yet is not washed from his filthiness.
    13There is a kind???oh how lofty are his eyes! And his eyelids are raised in arrogance.
    14There is a kind of man whose teeth are like swords; and his jaw teeth like knives, to devour the afflicted from the earth, and the needy from among men (bold print reflects my emphasis).

The Hebrew term translated in NASB as kind places an emphasis on those characterized by whatever is described in this context. This term is best correlated with a group of society having similar characteristics. It is not just an occasional individual but a group within the society who are characterized in this context by showing disrespect for their parents, self-righteousness, arrogance, and oppression of the needy.

2. Synonyms

The use of synonyms will also show an emphasis in a passage. This is demonstrated in Proverbs 6:20???35. After an exhortation to follow his commandments in vv. 20???23, Solomon provides his ???son??? with a proverbially packaged treatment of ???You shall not commit adultery.??? He uses a number of synonyms to describe a potential partner in adultery. She is called an ???evil woman,??? an ???adulteress??? (v. 24), a ???prostitute??? who has cheap price tag and a ???married woman??? who ???hunts down a precious life??? (v. 26). She is also characterized in v. 25 as having ???beauty??? and knowing how to use her eyes (???eyelashes???). The build up of synonyms shows that the adulteress is an evil and cunning foe of God???s moral will.

Through the use of synonyms for wisdom and folly, as well as examples of each, the overall unifying theme of Proverbs 1???9 is an extended conflict between wisdom and folly. The addressees of these chapters are encouraged to choose wisdom over folly (for a fuller development, see Ryken, Words of Delight, pp. 317???19).

3. Other Literary Features

Certain literary aspects of a given text may show the emphasis of a passage. For example, the numerical saying places an emphasis on the enumerated item that corresponds to the highest digit in the last line. In Proverbs 30:18???19 the sage indicates that there are four items which are too wonderful for him to understand. The emphasis of the text is on the fourth enumerated item, ???the way of a man with a virgin??? (see earlier discussion of poetic parallelism with the first principle of interpretation).

More needs to be developed about observing literary clues, but this will have to wait for the next post.

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  1. Paul says

    While I don’t mean to minimize in any way how busy you are, I’m still looking forward to the remaining six posts in this series on interpreting Proverbs, as well as the posts on hermeneutical principles and the bibliography.

  2. Bob McCabe says

    Paul, thanks for the reminder. I have gotten bogged down with my current classes as well as reading a thesis and a dissertation. I appreciate your interest and I should be able to do a post this week end.

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