Reading the Poetry of the Proverbs

      As we enter into the proverbs of Solomon starting in Pro 10.1, we should become familiar with the way that individual wise sayings are composed and arranged with other, related sayings. We also need to develop our ear for poetic language and our mind for poetic thought.

      It is likely that each of the proverbs that we read in the Book of Proverbs began as a folk saying. Such folk sayings were pithy so that they rolled off the tongue and were easy to remember. Think of a common English proverb like “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” It’s short, plus every stressed syllable (every “beat” in the rhythm of the saying) starts with the same sound, a hard “g.” “A stitch in time saves nine” functions similarly, since it is short and contains a slant rhyme (an almost-rhyme) between “time” and “nine.” These two qualities—brevity and sound-play—make many English proverbs very easy to remember.

      Hebrew proverbs work the same way: they are usually short, and they often play off of the sounds of the language. The first line of Pro 11.2, for example, reads בָּֽא־זָדֹון וַיָּבֹא קָלֹון, pronounced ba zadōn vaiyahvah qalōn, with the emphasis on the final syllable of each word. It’s short, we hear similar consonant sounds repeated (“b” and “v”), and it rhymes in Hebrew (zadōn with qalōn).

      The English versions usually make a hash of this line. Most of them read closely with the ESV: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace.” The KJV and NKJV are very similar. The NLT (New Living Translation) has ironically managed to suck all of the life out of the proverb in its translation, “Pride leads to disgrace.” Capturing the proverb’s poetic appeal in English requires some fiddling with the translation. “First comes pride, then comes shame” gives us parallel word order but no sound play. “A proud face is made for disgrace” has a beat, and it rhymes, though no one would mistake it for an English proverb.

      By this point, you may be wondering why we’re using so much space to write about half of a proverb. Proverbs 11.2 reads, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, / but with the humble is wisdom,” so why only focus on the first part? We do so because most of the proverbs as we know them are actually compound proverbs. Solomon usually takes two wise folk sayings and adds them together to make what we call a proverb.

      Consider practically any of Solomon’s proverbs from Pro 10-22. It will have two lines. Look at the first line by itself. It will express a complete thought. Likewise the second line by itself. As you read through the proverbs, you will notice some wise sayings repeated and paired with different wise sayings to make different proverbs. (Of course, there are exceptions to this whole pattern, such as 11.22, “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout / is a beautiful woman without discretion.”)

      If each line of a proverb could be its own, independent proverb, then why did Solomon stitch proverbs together the way that he did? The short answer is that he uses compound proverbs to round out his teaching. Consider Pro 11.2 again. The first line reads, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace” in the ESV. The second line reads, “With the humble is wisdom” if we take out the conjunction. As we’ve said, we can take each of these sayings independently, but notice what happens when you combine them together. The second line is the flipside of the first line. We call this pairing of opposite ideas antithesis, and nearly every compound proverb in Pro 10-22 uses this relationship. (Again, there are exceptions, such as 11.7, “When the wicked dies, his hope will perish, / and the expectation of wealth perishes too.”)

      Antithesis serves a couple of purposes. First, it rounds out the teaching of a wise saying. When you read the two wise sayings of a compound proverb, you are getting the same teaching from two different directions. Each proverb is thus its own commentary. Antithesis also serves as the first level of organizing and arranging the wise sayings of the proverbs. In Pro 10-22, each wise saying is guaranteed to be paired with at least one other related saying.

      More broadly, antithesis allows a second level of arrangement in which we can see the wise sayings of several compound proverbs interacting with each other. Pro 11.2-6 speak of the deliverance of the righteous and the downfall of the wicked. By comparing these proverbs, we learn about wise qualities (humility, integrity, righteousness, blamelessness, and uprightness) and foolish qualities (pride, crookedness, avarice, wickedness, and treachery). One set leads to life; the other leads to death. Much of the Book of Proverbs functions in this way.

      I hope that this brief explanation is helpful as you read and consider the wisdom of God contained in the Proverbs of Solomon. Read, and pray in faith for wisdom.