The book of Proverbs contains more teaching about women than any other book of Scripture. The structure of the book means that it is all about women, and many of the individual proverbs which seem unrelated are actually not at all unrelated. Woman is the glory of man, the capstone of man. She is the best. Woman ruined is hell-bait. She is the worst.
“Wisdom hath builded her house, She hath hewn out her seven pillars: She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; She hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens: She crieth upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: As for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him” (Prov. 9:1–4).
“A foolish woman is clamorous: She is simple, and knoweth nothing. For she sitteth at the door of her house, On a seat in the high places of the city, To call passengers Who go right on their ways: Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: And as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Stolen waters are sweet, And bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Prov. 9:13–17).
Summary of the Text
In the book of proverbs, two different kinds of women are giving invitations to come and taste, come and eat. One is Lady Wisdom, a noble lady presiding over a great table in a great banqueting hall. The other is Dame Folly, blouse unbuttoned, enticing the simpletons. The drastic difference in the nature of these invitations sets up the conflict that is pervasive throughout the entire book of Proverbs—the conflict between wisdom and folly as they relate to every imaginable detail of life. These two women are everywhere.
This is why another theme of Proverbs is the theme of contrasting paths or ways—two paths with radically different destinations. The terms of value or praise in Proverbs are frequently related to jewelry, garlands, crowns, silver and gold, the woman’s touch. Men are commended in their industry—and sluggards condemned for their slack hand— because men were called to bring home the old covenant equivalent of the bacon. All the vocational activity and industry in Proverbs, far from being a snapshot of a “man’s world,” is activity designed to bring raw material home to the woman so that she might glorify it.
The book of Proverbs is a collection of various books of proverbs. The form of the book as we have it breaks out into the following sections. First is a set of didactic poems (Prov. 1:1-9:18). The second section is a collection of the proverbs of Solomon (Prov. 10:1-22:16). This section contains almost 400 proverbs. The third section is “words of the wise” (Prov. 22:17-24:22). The fourth is a very brief collection of more words from the wise, almost a postscript (Prov. 24:23-34). The fifth section is another small book by Solomon, a collection preserved by Hezekiah’s men (Prov. 25:1-29:27). The sixth comes from an unknown man named Agur (Prov. 30-:1-33), followed by another short section by an unknown King Lemuel (Prov. 31:1-9). It is possible that both Agur and Lemuel were of Massa—the word for “oracle” might actually be a proper name—meaning they were descended from Ishmael. The last section of Proverbs is a poem of praise for a very particular woman (Prov. 31-10-31). Although not named, her aspect is very concrete, as distinct from the metaphorical Lady Wisdom at the beginning of the book.
How Proverbs Work
Now proverbs are aphorisms, general truths. They are not axioms in geometry. All triangles have three sides, and you will never find a triangle that doesn’t have them. But a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and sometimes your blinkered uncle dies and leaves you with 3 million dollars. Proverbs are true, but they are not tautological truths. They are truths for living in a rough and tumble world, where there is a constant need for adjustments, interpretations, generalizations, and troubleshooting as you go. So a lazy bum sometimes does have that stupid uncle—but don’t bet on it.
This is why proverbs will often lean against each other. Deal with it, and grow in wisdom. “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” (Proverbs 26:4– 5). If you pay back a fool in his coin, you have stepped in to help support his little economy. But if you don’t pay back a fool that way, then he won’t get paid what he deserves—which would be bad. Sometimes wisdom does one thing and sometimes wisdom does the opposite.
Reality Requires Navigation
Proverbs have all the concrete particularity of legalistic rules, but none of the rigidity. They have all the flexibility of license, but with none of the stupidity and sin. If you take the book of Proverbs as a guidebook for practical Christianity, the way it was given, you will have wisdom that can deal withobvious problems without resorting to a clunky rule. For example, take your entertainment standards. Leonard Ravenhill once said that entertainment is the devil’s substitute for joy. Deal with what you watch with the eye of proverbial wisdom, and not the wall of rigid restrictions.
Christ As Our Wisdom
In the eighth chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom is described in terms that go well beyond the attributes of a creature. “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was . . .” (Prov. 8:22–23). For various reasons, it seems wise to see this as a glorious metaphor—albeit a feminine one—for the Son of God. And how does this wisdom speak?
“The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: Pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, And the froward mouth, do I hate” (Prov. 8:13).
“But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: All they that hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36).
Christ is expressly identified as the wisdom of God.
“But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).
And this is our savior, Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, buried and risen. And this is why, taking it all together, we see that it is either Christ or death, Christ or nothing, Christ or evil, Christ or chaos.