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September 6, 2009
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Last week we started a series of Old Testament readings from wisdom books. It might be helpful to give some further background on wisdom.

The wisdom books of the Old Testament – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (or Solomon) as well as certain Psalms – are enjoying a resurgence of interest. Perhaps this is because the wisdom tradition speaks of the search to make sense of life and the world around us, a search that holds resonance for many in our time. Also, the wisdom tradition is quite secular in tone, with infrequent mention of God or use of God language, making it more accessible to a post-modern era.

Some of the wisdom material was controversial in its day, included in the Biblical canon by reason of its (attributed) authorship. This was the case with the Song of Songs, which we looked at briefly last week, and Ecclesiastes, both of which were hotly debated, but finally included because of their connection with king Solomon. The book of Proverbs was likewise attributed to Solomon, although it was less controversial in content. Both Ecclesiastes and Job have epilogues that were likely added at a later time, or by a more traditional editor, to tone down their heterodox content and end on notes familiar in the wisdom tradition: retribution and the fear of God.

Much of the wisdom material circulated orally, so dates and authorship are hard to establish. It is believed that the ancient folktale of Job was fleshed out by a writer in around the 6th century BCE, when the exile brought on a time of introspection into the causes of suffering.

Drawing on oral traditions pre-dating the exile, the book of Proverbs likewise looked back to the golden age of Israel’s history under Solomon’s rule. It had its final editing after the exile, and so hearkened back to a sense of good being rewarded and evil punished. There is in that a bittersweet note in the reflection back on the causes of Israel’s downfall, namely their own sins.

We do not know the identity of the writer of Proverbs; it appears to be an eclectic collection of proverbs, aphorisms, sayings, and wisdom poems from a variety of sources. Until recently, some scholars had suggested that the book of Proverbs or its teachings may have constituted a kind of text book for purported wisdom schools in which the young men of the king’s court were educated. More recent studies have noted that we have little evidence that such schools existed. The teachings themselves, however, imply a mentor/learner relationship, whether father to son, or teacher to a small group of followers.

One helpful way of viewing the wisdom literature overall is to see some of it as mainstream wisdom, and other books as ‘wisdom-in-revolt’. Mainstream wisdom tended to believe that people could ensure a good life by fearing God and following the ways of God with care. If bad things happened, they were an indication that a person had made a foolish choice or worse. The book of Proverbs and some of the wisdom Psalms take this approach. In the books of Ecclesiastes and Job, however, the connection between being a good person and living a happy life is questioned. In both these books, there is an acknowledgment that sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Given the continued tragic circumstances of suffering in many places across the world, preaching from these books may offer surprising resources of faith for people in our time.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Each of the verses contains an aphorism that can stand alone from the other verses, and each warrants reflection on the implications of following the admonitions it contains. The first two pairs of verses are part of a collection of sayings attributed to Solomon. In v. 1, the teacher or mentor counsels discernment, a key wisdom theme. Wisdom entails deciding the best course of action at any point in life. Here, the writer enjoins, ‘A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver and gold.’ There is an inherent choice facing the reader, whether to choose wealth or a good reputation. The way of wisdom is to choose a good name, the writer suggests. This also recalls the story of Solomon seeking wisdom above riches etc. when he first became king (see 1 Kings 3; Pentecost 11).

In v. 2, the writer notes a common humanity between the rich and the poor, because ‘the Lord is the maker of them all.’ One implication of the teaching may have been to counsel humility in the wealthy, who might otherwise (in the thinking of the day) have felt themselves to be especially blessed by God and more worthy than the poor. The verse has a certain resonance with the book of Ecclesiastes, which often is dismayed at the common fate of the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish. But here in Proverbs, the commonality is the origin, not the destination, of humankind. Some themes in the wisdom tradition point to wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, but this verse appears as a subtle counterweight to that sentiment.

Verse 8 warns, ‘whoever sows injustice will reap calamity….’ This accords with the Hebrew Bible understanding of retributive justice, which sees calamity not so much as God’s direct punishment of wrongdoing as a basic pattern woven into creation. If people practice oppression, in the end, events will turn around to bring their hurt back upon them. In preaching on this passage, one might tease out the ways in which social inequality and deprivation can fuel unrest and even terrorism in our time. The second part of the verse says, ‘the rod of anger will fail.’ This follows on from the first part of the verse, implying that the purposes of angry action will not be met, as anger turns back against itself. Again, this might suggest avenues for preaching that explore military and diplomatic responses to situations of turmoil in the world.

Verses 22 and 23 come from another collection of wisdom sayings, and sound a note that is unusually socially progressive for wisdom literature, which has been criticized for generally supporting the status quo. Verse 22 enjoins against robbing the poor ‘because they are poor,’ implying that they are vulnerable and lack the power to defend themselves. It also underscores the illogic and immorality of robbing the poor, who presumably have fewer possessions than others. The second half of the verse again repeats in parallel structure, varying slightly: ‘or crush the afflicted at the gate,’  Here, the vulnerable one is pictured as afflicted, perhaps maimed, and sitting at the gate of the city, in public view.

Verse 23 gives the reason for not robbing the poor, ‘for the Lord pleads their cause….’ This is a rather odd statement on first reading, as one wonders to whom the Lord would plead their cause. It puts God in the position of an advocate, much like the go'el figure that Job wished for; someone to put his case before a heavenly tribunal. The second half of the verse adds a more pressing reason for people not to rob the poor, because the Lord ‘despoils of life those who despoil them.’ Here, the Lord takes a more direct role in retribution against the unjust, despoiling or robbing them of life, even as they had robbed the poor of their life’s blood. Again, this verse sounds a note in resonance with prophetic messages of justice and impending judgement on those who oppress the downtrodden.

Psalm 125

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