Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


The Wisdom Teachings of
The Book of Proverbs


We're currently reading some of the writings in the Hebrew wisdom tradition, but the three books we are reading do not all have the same message by any means. Each of the three that we are reading - Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes - has a different approach to what true wisdom is, and each one also has a different way of expressing what they have to say.

The wisdom teachings in Proverbs, profound and meaningful as they are, are not philosophically complex. If we had to summarize the wisdom teaching from The Book of Proverbs, it could be summarized thus:

If you live wisely and follow God's laws, you will prosper and be happy, and your life will go well for you.

This idea was nicely expressed in an image given to us by a student in class in an earlier quarter:

Imagine yourself in a large green lush pasture. All around the pasture is a white picket fence. Outside of the fence is brown dried weeds and hard dry dirt.

The white picket fence represents God's commands for our life. IF you follow God's commands you are inside the fence where life is good. But when you break God's commandments you go outside the fence where everything is dry and dead. The pasture represents God's will for our lives. He wants us to stay inside the fence ( His commands) and as long as we are in there we can go wherever we want.

Following are examples of a few places in which Proverbs expresses this idea that if you live according to the teachings of God's wisdom, your life will be prosperous and happy, but that if you do not live by this wisdom, things will go badly for you. Note that the prosperity and happiness that a person can expect from living wisely and following God's laws are to be found in this world; they are not presented as something that will happen in an afterlife. (The concept of an afterlife as a place for rewards and punishments had not yet emerged in the Hebrew tradition at the time Proverbs and Job were written.)

Examples from Proverbs

  • The Lord will not allow the righteous to hunger,
    But He will thrust aside the craving of the wicked (10:4)

  • The memory of the righteous is blessed,
    But the name of the wicked will rot (10:7)

  • The wages of the righteous is life,
    The income of the wicked, punishment (10:16)

  • What the wicked fears will come upon him,
    And the desire of the righteous will be granted (10:24)

  • The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way,
    But the wicked will fall by his own wickedness (11: 5)

  • The righteous is delivered from trouble,
    But the wicked takes his place (11:8)

  • The generous man will be prosperous (11: 25)

  • He who trusts in his riches will fall,
    But the righteous will flourish like the green leaf (11:28)

  • The house of the wicked will be destroyed,
    But the tent of the upright will flourish (14:11)

  • Much wealth is in the house of the righteous,
    But trouble is the income of the wicked (15:6)

And most clearly of all:

  • No harm befalls the righteous,
    But the wicked are filled with trouble (12:21)

So again, if we had to summarize and simplify the key wisdom teaching of The Book of Proverbs, it could be summarized in the following three propositions:

    1. If you live wisely and follow God's laws, you will prosper and be happy, and your life will go well for you.
    2. If on the other hand you live foolishly and disobey God's laws, you will suffer, you will be unhappy, and your life will go badly for you.

A third proposition sometimes seems to be logically implied by these first two. It goes like this:

3. Therefore, it would seem to follow that if you are suffering and unhappy and your life is going badly, it is probably because you have done something foolish and/or have disobeyed God's laws.

This third proposition is obviously somewhat problematic, but it is clearly the proposition that Job's religious "friends" are using when they tell Job that he must have done something wrong to deserve the kind of tragedies that are happening to him. It is also the proposition that is used whenever people (as the sociologists have told us) "blame the victim" for whatever tragedy the victim has suffered.

In any case, for didactic purposes here, we are going to take those three propositions (with the possible exception of that third one) as our formal expression of "The Proverbsian Wisdom," i.e., the wisdom teaching that is expressed in The Book of Proverbs: If you follow God's laws and live wisely you will prosper, and if you don't you won't. (This teaching is by no means unique to Proverbs; it can also be found here and there throughout The Torah, as can be seen in this example from Deuteronomy.)

Transition to Job

So this is basically what Proverbs teaches us about wisdom.

Now the interesting thing in The Book of Job is that Job is (according to the premise of the book) a perfectly good and holy man and has been so all his life. Yet the most terrible things imaginable happen to him. (In actual fact, many of us probably know, or know of, very good people who have had some terrible things befall them.)

The Book of Job, as we will see, is one of the most powerful (and popular) books of the whole Hebrew scriptures partly because it faces this issue so directly. For people who have themselves suffered deeply, or who have in some way been deeply touched by great suffering close to them, The Book of Job is often felt as a powerful and comforting medicine. Others, who may not yet have experienced great and devastating tragedy close to them, i.e., those who may still believe in the simpler teachings of the Proverbsian wisdom, may not find The Book of Job quite as meaningful and compelling.