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The Literary Form of Proverbs

The opening lines to the Book of Proverbs underscores the notions of elegance and insight. Indeed, the passage seems almost to function as might a modern title, outlining what the book is about and its purpose.

The proverbs of Solomon –

the son of David, king of Israel

To know wisdom and instruction,

To perceive the words of understanding,

To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment, and equity;

To give subtilty to the simple,

To the young man knowledge and discretion.

A wise man will hear and increase learning, and

A man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:

To understand

A proverb, and the interpretation;

The words of the wise and

Their dark sayings.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge:

But fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Not only do these opening words preface Proverbs as a book, but these same words also attest to the meaning and inscrutable aura surrounding every proverbial saying. The meaning of a proverb is both immediately apparent and elusive.

As a literary form, the proverb has its roots in human experience which, in turn, confer both a universal as well as a common status. There is a sense of timelessness about them. There is also the conferred status that what is said cannot really be otherwise. The proverb offers no room for dispute or question. Whatever a proverb speaks, it cannot be gainsaid, disputed or even disavowed. Seemingly, the proverbs represents an absolute against which no argument can really counter.

As persuasion, the proverb diminishes the distance between speaker and audience by securing a common ground. According to Aristotle, it is precisely because the proverb expresses what is generally acknowledged that its wording and message are readily acceptable. The way a proverb says what it does may come as an unexpected surprise, but the message itself speaks to a deeper truth within us. A truth we know to be true and could never have been otherwise. The proverb may provide insight, but it also compels us to look deeper as well.

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
But he who heeds counsel is wise.

Proverbs 12.15

It should come as no surprise that Biblical literature is replete with proverbs (Num 32.23; Rom 13.1; 1 Thess 1.3). Even the opening sections of Genesis include this literary genre. Such phrases as being our brother’s keeper and working by the sweat of our brow in time became general proverbs; sayings that we easily recognize today even when we may not know the actual source.

As a literary form, the proverb must be both concise and memorable. The proverb must also provide the reader with some insight; otherwise the proverb lapses into some worn-out cliché. The form of the proverb must approach some semblance of poetry. The message must be universal as well as highly condensed. But most of all, the words must be expressed with elegance.

Elegance and brevity both emerge as definite qualities of the proverb as literary form. Indeed, the vitality of the proverb is in its ability to reduce a moment of life, and then, expand that same moment into what is true of all life and all time. Seemingly, the proverb is a collection of paradoxes, combining the momentary and the permanent, the specific and the general, the elegant and the common – and it must do so in a way that is memorable. It goes without saying that writing a proverb is not easy.

On the one hand, a proverb must be simple. But on the other hand, it must be profound. A proverb must tell us what usually happens in life, and it must do so by citing a specific example or image. This contradictory interplay of such opposites must be present in any proverb and must be expressed in only a few words.

To go even further, a proverb offers rhetorical assertion, evidence, and appeal within the boundaries of a single statement. Argument, evidence, and illumination are all merged, condensed, and then, presented with a sense of literary beauty and irrefutability so that what is said could not have been said any better or any truer. When a proverb is well written, no man can read it, and then, say, “I’m not sure whether I agree with it or not.” Paradox, agreement, and elegance are secured in one swipe.

Consider this simple proverb from Ecclesiastes: He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this also is vanity (Ecc 5.10). Here the words are plain enough – money does not satisfy. Yet, the implication within the proverb immediately goes beyond simplicity, suggesting a materialistic appetite which not only is insatiable, but which feeds on itself. Further, this same appetite which brings about the accumulation of wealth and things cannot ultimately accomplish what it promises. The more money we may have, the more we want. Yet the joy of life and its meaning always remain beyond our grasp. It is all like drinking salt water to quench our thirst.

What is immediately clear here is that the insight of this or any proverb lies in its everyday quality. In its bond with life as it is actually lived. For any proverb to be credible, reality must be present. The proverb must grow out of what actually happens on a day by day, year by year, and century by century basis. A proverb may tell us what we have never considered or thought about, but it cannot tell us what we have never seen or experienced. Regardless of elegance or literary expression, a proverb must ring true for its saying to be forceful and memorable.

Regardless of elegance or literary artistry, a proverb must reflect reality. Otherwise, any saying, however well worded or presented, loses its force and vitality. Without the touchstone of reality, a proverb ceases to be relevant, ceases to be a proverb. To put it another way, without reality, there is no relevance. What people see and hear around us every day, what all of us experience in life must be present in the proverb.

Reality is the defining moment of a proverb. That, and for our purposes, one additional, critical component.

The God-breathed element of inspiration.