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The book of Proverbs is generally considered to have eight sections, each introduced by a verse that usually gives the author of that particular collection. For instance, the book begins with the words, “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel” (1:1). The eight sections are as follows:
Chapters 1-9 (Solomon)
10:1 – 22:16 (Solomon)
22:17 – 24:22 (no attribution)
24:23-34 (sayings of the wise)
Chapters 25-29 (Solomon)
Chapter 30 (Agur son of Jakeh)
31:1-9 (King Lemuel)
31:10-31 (no attribution)
Proverbs 1, then, introduces the first section of the book, which contrasts wisdom and folly and the consequences that typically follow from each, as a way of preparing the reader for the wise sayings that follow, beginning in chapter 10.
Wisdom is personified as a woman here and elsewhere in Proverbs 1-9 (3:13-20; 7:4; 8:1-36; 9:1-6). It seems odd that, in a patriarchal society, scripture would present a woman as speaking and acting with Godly authority. However, “in languages that mark their nouns as masculine or feminine, that gender marking guided the poetic imagination in personifications” (Waltke, 83, citing Karl Brugman’s findings).
Wisdom is the antithesis of the foolish “foolish woman” or “adulteress” of 2:16-19; 5:3-14, 19, 20; 6:24-35; 7:1-27.
Lady Wisdom’s words are reminiscent of the Deuteronomist and the prophets, but she speaks of wisdom versus foolishness instead of right living versus sinfulness. Wisdom, Deuteronomist, and prophets all spell out the consequences of right versus sinful living in the hope of persuading listeners to choose the right way instead of the sinful way.
Proverbs 1:20-33 “is best understood as a sermon. Its goal is to change the hearts and minds of the hearers” (Tucker, 408). In this sermon, Lady Wisdom speaks at length about the consequences of foolishness, but the sermon lacks particulars concerning the behaviors that stem from true wisdom. However, in the prelude to this section, Solomon advises, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7a), and Lady Wisdom adds that foolish people “hated knowledge and didn’t choose the fear of Yahweh” (v. 29). We know from other sources that “the fear of Yahweh” inspires people to obey Torah law and to treat vulnerable people, such as widows and orphans, with compassion.
Garrett sees this section as having a chiastic structure, as follows:
A Introduction: an appeal for listeners (vv. 20–21)
B Address to the untutored, scoffers, and fools (v. 22)
C Declaration of disclosure (v. 23)
D Reason for the announcement (vv. 24–25)
E Announcement of derisive judgment (vv. 26–28)
D́ Reason for the announcement (vv. 29–30)
Ć Declaration of retribution (v. 31)
B́ Fate of the untutored and fools (v. 32)
Á Conclusion: an appeal for a hearer (v. 33)
The chiasmus is a common literary form in the Old Testament. It draws the reader from the edges of the work toward the center—the most important part. In this instance, it highlights the importance of verses 26-28.
PROVERBS 1: 20-21. WISDOM CALLS ALOUD IN THE STREET
20Wisdom calls aloud in the street.
She utters her voice in the public squares.
21She calls at the head of noisy places.
At the entrance of the city gates, she utters her words:
Lady Wisdom is no shrinking violet. She does not wait for people to come to her, but instead goes to them. She does not sit in comfort in a quiet corner of the temple, but seeks out places where people congregate—the streets, the marketplace, busy corners, and the entrance of the city gates.
City gates were especially busy. They were the only way to enter or leave the city, so people had to go through the gates to attend to their fields during the day and return through the gates at night. City elders administered justice at the city gates. Prophets delivered prophecies there. Merchants conducted business there.
When Lady Wisdom arrives at these busy places, she cries out—makes an impassioned plea—pulls out all the stops to try to persuade the foolish to move to the camp of the wise. She assumes that the situation is not hopeless—that God has provided foolish people with the capacity for wisdom—that they can choose wisdom—and that their unhappy situation will reverse itself if they do so.
PROVERBS 1:22-23. TURN AT MY REPROOF
22 “How long, you simple ones (Hebrew: peta·yim), will you love simplicity?
How long will mockers delight themselves in mockery,
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Turn at my reproof.
Behold, I will pour out my spirit on you.
I will make known my words to you.
“How long” (v. 22) is the “stylized language of lament” (Newsome, 505). It is a question often asked of Yahweh (Psalm 13:1-2; 35:17; 89:46; 119:84; Isaiah 6:11), but here it is addressed to simple ones, scoffers, and fools. They have been foolish far too long. It should be clear to them by now that they are on the wrong track. How long will it be before they awaken to their plight? What will it take to convince them?
“you simple ones”(peta·yim) (v. 22) speaks of people who are foolish or simpleminded or naive or lacking insight (Baker & Carpenter, 930).
“will mockers delight themselves in mockery” (v. 22b). “In wisdom literature the scoffer is the opposite of the righteous. God-fearing person (Ps. 1:1). Those who scoff refuse to learn the way of wisdom (Prov. 14:6) and do not respond to correction (9:7f; 13:1; 15:12; 19:25). They reject the messengers of God who confront them with the truth (cf. 2 Ch. 30:10; 36:16). They despise morality and ignore religion because of their obstinate arrogance and foolishness (Prov. 14:6; 19:25, 29; 21:24; 24:9). Their malicious slander is the cause of strife (22:10; 29:8). The righteous particularly are the butt of scoffers’ taunts, and the psalmists frequently complained to God that they had become an object of mockery and derision to their exultant enemies (31:11; 39:8; 44:13; Ps. 89:41, 50; etc.)” (Garland, 357).
“fools hate knowledge” (v. 22c). It is the purpose of this book “to teach prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young man” (1:4). “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7).
Why would these fools hate knowledge? Perhaps because knowledge and “the fear of Yahweh” are closely linked. The person who fears Yahweh will feel constrained to obey Yahweh, and many people resent constraints on their behavior. They want freedom to go where they want to go and to do what they want to do. They fail to understand that their indiscipline will ultimately impose constraints on their lives that will be far more onerous than the constraints that Yahweh would impose on them. They can choose to be slaves to sin, which leads to death or slaves to obedience, which leads to righteousness (Romans 6:16-20; see also 1 Corinthians 7:21-23; Galatians 5:13; Titus 3:3; 2 Peter 2:19)—but there is no such thing as life without accountability—life without consequences.
“Turn at my reproof” (v. 23a). Trying to help foolish people is frustrating, because most will refuse to listen—or will seem to listen but will persist in foolish behavior. Every pastor experiences this kind of frustration when working with disfunctional people. We are tempted to give up—but our occasional success reinvigorates us. So it is with Lady Wisdom. She continues to plead, even though her pleas often fall on deaf ears.
“I will pour out my spirit on you” (v. 23b). Lady Wisdom knows that most of these simple ones, scoffers, and fools will refuse her pleas, but she hopes that some will respond. It is this hope that keeps her going.
When she says, “I will pour out my spirit on you,” it is clear that she has moved beyond dispassionate discourse to passionate pleas—beyond teaching to preaching. She is dealing with life and death issues here, and it breaks her heart to see people choose death.
PROVERBS 1:24-25. BECAUSE I HAVE CALLED, AND YOU REFUSED
24 Because I have called, and you have refused;
I have stretched out my hand, and no one has paid attention;
25 but you have ignored all my counsel,
and wanted none of my reproof;
“Called, refused, stretched out my hand (is) vocabulary that evokes the prophets (see Jer 7:13; Isa 6:9-10; 65:1-2)” (Attridge, 853).
The underlying assumption here is that simple people can choose to be enlightened—that scoffers can choose to lay down their scoffing and to embrace belief—that foolish people can choose to become wise. These people are set on a disastrous course, but it is a course of their own choosing. They have had more than adequate opportunity to understand their plight, because Lady Wisdom has made it plain to them. They could change course, but refuse to do so.
Another assumption is that the failure of the foolish to respond to Lady Wisdom’s counsel holds within it the seeds of their destruction. She does not warn of impending judgment, because there is no need for Yahweh to punish foolish people for their foolishness. Actions have consequences, and people who choose foolishness can expect to suffer as a consequence. Foolish choices come with built-in punishment. What is pictured here is more like a physical law—like the Law of Gravity—than God rendering judgment from a heavenly throne. Someone has said that you cannot break the Law of Gravity, but can only break yourself by disregarding it. So it is with these foolish people.
If these foolish people decide in this moment to embrace wisdom, is it too late? From the tenor of Lady Wisdom’s comments, it would appear that the time for decision has come and gone—but perhaps there is still one last chance. Lady Wisdom is angry, but is still crying out in the street (v. 20) and pouring out her thoughts to the foolish (v. 23). Why would she be doing that if there were no chance that some might turn from their disastrous course onto a more profitable road?
It would appear, then, that Lady Wisdom is still hoping for repentance—for turning around—for choosing a better way. She is not yet saying that the door is forever closed, but rather warning that the door will soon close. She is hoping that some might yet hear her call and respond—take her outstretched hand—heed her wise counsel—listen to her reproof. She has not come to destroy or to revel in destruction, but to save.
PROVERBS 1:26-27. I WILL LAUGH AT YOUR DISASTER
26 I also will laugh at your disaster.
I will mock when calamity overtakes you;
27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm,
when your disaster comes on like a whirlwind;
when distress and anguish come on you.
The emphasis here is quite different from that of the Deuteronomist, who warns that “Yahweh your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24) and outlines the consequences of unfaithfulness to God. However, the Deuteronomist holds out the hope of redemption, saying, “When you are in oppression, and all these things have come on you, in the latter days you shall return to Yahweh your God, and listen to his voice: for Yahweh your God is a merciful God; he will not fail you, neither destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which he swore to them” (Deuteronomy 4:30-31).
Lady Wisdom holds out no such hope of an ever-open door. The impending calamity is not intended to prompt a belated change of heart which will lead to redemption. It is an end in itself—an ongoing calamity from which there appears to be no escape.
If Lady Wisdom is a surrogate for Yahweh—either speaks for Yahweh or is Yahweh—we are troubled by the tone of these verses. Why would Yahweh laugh at people who are experiencing calamity? Why would Yahweh mock them when they panic? We can imagine Yahweh allowing foolish people to suffer, but we would expect to see a tear in his eye instead of hearing laughter from his lips.
One possibility is that Yahweh will not be rejoicing in these people’s sufferings, but rather in the rightness of the consequences that they are experiencing—at the predictability of their suffering—at the triumph of good over evil. That must be a part of it, but only a part. These verses make it clear that Yahweh will, indeed, laugh at the foolish when they experience calamity—will mock them when they panic. It seems harsh. It is harsh.
But sometimes we laugh to keep from crying. I see young people gathered at smoker’s alley near the high school—or see kids with studs implanted in their tongues—or see drunks sitting on downtown sidewalks with a bottle in a brown paper bag—or experience an economy gone terribly awry because of disastrous choices by government and business people alike—and shake my head in wonder. Sometimes I laugh at them as I ask, “How could they?”—but it isn’t joyous laughter. It is the laughter of the broken heart. It is laughing to keep from crying.
Perhaps that is what is going on here. Yahweh has warned these foolish people over and over and over again—has pled with them—cajoled them—tried to woo them. They have rebuffed Yahweh’s overtures again and again and again. At some point, they will find themselves suffering the consequences.
PROVERBS 1:28-31. THEY WILL CALL, BUT I WILL NOT ANSWER
28 Then will they call on me, but I will not answer.
They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me;
29 because they hated knowledge,
and didn’t choose the fear of Yahweh.
30 They wanted none of my counsel.
They despised all my reproof.
31 Therefore they will eat of the fruit of their own way,
and be filled with their own schemes.
Lady Wisdom called these people, but they refused her call (v. 24a). Now, when they call on her in their distress, she will refuse their call (v. 28a). She stretched out her hand, but they failed to heed her invitation (v. 24b). Now, when they seek her diligently, as she once sought them, they will not find her (v. 28b). She has provided wise counsel (v. 25a), but they would have none of it (v. 30a). She has pled with them to heed her reproof (v. 23a), but they have despised it (v. 30b).
Their rebuffs of Lady Wisdom are tantamount to rejecting “the fear of Yahweh” (v. 29b; see also 1:7).
The Christian perspective is, at the same time, different and not different. It is different, in that it emphasizes repentance and the possibility of forgiveness. The only unforgiveable sin mentioned in the New Testament is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29; Matthew 12:32; Luke 12:10).
But it is not different in that there is also in the New Testament the promise/threat of Yahweh coming suddenly, without warning (Mark 13:32; Matthew 24:36; Luke 21:34-36). When that happens, the time for decision-making will have passed and we will be judged based on our response to Yahweh up to that time. Death also closes the door. So the New Testament, while replete with the hope of redemption, also acknowledges that there will be a time when the door will close and there will no longer be an opportunity to turn to Yahweh.
“Therefore they will eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own schemes” (v. 31). This is the bottom line. It isn’t that Yahweh will force them to eat rotten fruit, but that they will have spent their lives collecting rotten fruit and will have nothing else to eat.
PROVERBS 1:32-33. WHOEVER LISTENS TO ME WILL DWELL SECURELY
32 For the backsliding of the simple will kill them.
The careless ease of fools will destroy them.
33 But whoever listens to me will dwell securely,
and will be at ease, without fear of harm.”
These two verses contrast the destiny of fools with the destiny of those who listen to Lady Wisdom/Yahweh. Fools will suffer death and destruction (v. 32), but those who listen to Lady Wisdom/Yahweh will be secure, will live at ease, and will have nothing to fear (v. 33).
“The careless ease (sal·wah) of fools will destroy them” (v. 32b). Sal·wah means “security, prosperity, quietness. It indicates ease, a lack of anxiety… excessive complacency or unconcern” (Baker & Carpenter, 1145). This kind of complacency is often a prelude to disaster, because it fails to acknowledge (or to avoid) danger or potential consequences.
Nothing is said here of judgment by Yahweh. The foolish require no one to judge them. The seeds of disaster are deeply embedded in their foolish choices.
“Listens to” (v. 33a) must go beyond hearing with the ears. It must involve hearing with the heart so that the person will have an interior compass to steer away from foolish choices and toward wise choices.
“But whoever listens to me will dwell securely, and will be at ease, without fear of harm” (v. 33). The irony is that the foolish people are currently at ease, because they have foolishly chosen to disregard where their path is taking them. Their current ease will therefore contribute to the disaster that awaits them. But those who listen to Lady Wisdom “will dwell securely, and will be at ease, without fear of harm” (v. 33b).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Newsome, James, in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
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Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan