Proverbs 22:1-23

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Proverbs 22:1-23

Background to the Book of Proverbs

This book is part of what is referred to as the Wisdom literature. This includes besides the book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Job. The emphasis in wisdom literature is, 'the lessons and insights of experience on the basis of human conduct '(Murphy 1981).

Certainly, the emphasis is on human endeavour and how one ought to live life. In order to sustain right behaviour the book of Proverbs is the guide that will secure a life of well-being, decency, and dignity (Fox: 3). The universal nature of wisdom contrasts with the Israelite election traditions (God chose them for his own) encompassing exodus, giving of the Law, entry into land, all of which are the basis for prophetic and legal traditions (Perdue: vii). Relationship to God takes a minor place in the wisdom literature. However, God is portrayed as the genesis of Wisdom, which people can possess when taught. Wisdom properly begins from the stance of awe (Hebrew uses 'fear') in God, which after instruction by the sages provides the means of 'a life of success - materially, physically, socially, and morally' (Fox: 6).

The sayings for this instruction are drawn from a number of social and religious situations: the folklore of ordinary people, court circles, schools, cult and government are places in which it was generated. The question of whether there was a school of sages or wise men is a mute point, but certainly the wise are mentioned as if they are a significant group in Israel. The sayings and instruction was significant enough to be gathered into collections as time went on.

Israel was not alone in having this particular genre. Proverbs 22:17 - 24:22 and the Egyptian, 'The Instruction of Amenemope' are very similar. Scholars have considered whether one source is dependent on the other without arriving at a consensus (it was accepted for many years that Proverbs was dependent on the Egyptian Instruction). Wisdom is part of the culture of many countries in the ancient near east (Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria, Mesopotamia).

The book of Proverbs consists of sayings that have been gathered into collections under various headings (8 named by Perdue: ix-xi). When this occurred is difficult to ascertain, however it is clear that Proverbs had a long prehistory of oral tradition before their collection into blocks of material and then finally into the canon. This occurred in 3rd century BCE when the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures was gathered under the heading of the Writings. After the final revolt against the Romans and the fall of Jerusalem the Council of Jamnia (70 CE) met to deal with this crisis and closed the canon.

Context of Prov 22:1-23

The proverbs chosen for the lectionary readings come from two collections. Proverbs 22:1 - 2, 8 - 9 are in the second collection, 'The Proverbs of Solomon' and Proverbs 22:22 - 23 are in the third collection, 'The Sayings of the Wise'. The proverbs chosen for the lectionary reading come at the end of a long collection (Proverbs 1 - 22:16) of proverbs, which deal with a variety of matters arranged quite haphazardly. Scott (130 -131) gathers them into groups under subject headings at the end of the section. This is more helpful than McKane who sets up a whole new order in his commentary and it is extremely difficult to find the text you are seeking. Because of the random nature of proverbs in this collection the context adds very little to the theology or message.

The final two proverbs from the Lectionary reading are chosen from the third collection, 'The Sayings of the Wise'. This collection has close affinities with the Wisdom from Egypt and suggests that the material could date as early as 10th century BCE. However, it is made quite specific to Israel when early in the collection the relationship to God is acknowledged (22:19).

The collection begins with preface instructing the pupils to listen to the wise and in hearing the instruction they will trust in the Lord. Furthermore, the thirty admonitions following the preface will enable them to know what is right and true. The first instruction is a basic one to do with principles of justice (22:22). They continue to instruct the pupils about all areas of life. From the content of some of the sayings the pupils came from the upper levels of society (23:1 - 3).

Insights/Message of Prov 22:1-23

Literary:  The literary structure which comes to the fore immediately is the poetic structure of the proverbs. The book is written mainly in couplets with some variations. The couplets can vary in the second line, which may repeat the first thought in a different way (16:28). Sometimes, the second line is 'saying the opposite, and a contrast is made, with the implicit approval of one of the statements (Proverbs 10:1, Martin:56). The second line can reinforce the thought in the first line (20:20), or it may introduce a new concept (22:1).

This section contains four Yahweh proverbs, two on the training of children, six concerned with wealth and poverty, and one verse on the importance of knowledge. The proverbs in the Lectionary are all concerned with wealth and poverty. The NT reading from James picks up similar themes.

Proverbs 22:1 is the lengthiest in the collection 22:17 - 23:11 because a superscription has been added, 'The words of the wise'. This collection is different from the previous one that was quite haphazard in its arrangement. After the superscription, which gives it authority, it continues with exhortations to youths who are being instructed in the correct way to live their lives.

Message: The people are reminded that God is creator of the rich and poor and keeping the proper virtues is rewarded with riches and honour. The wise are those who interpret what is required by Yahweh in order that that his universe is sustained in the principles of righteousness and justice. Verse one says that a good name is better than gold and silver. This virtue is probably more part of their worldview than it is for us today. The name of a person was part of their identity and not something separate from oneself, therefore to have a 'good name' means that the virtues are being sustained.

The second line is interesting with 'favour/ graciousness/ compassion' used as a virtue. When it is used as a noun in Hebrew it takes on the meaning of recipient so to receive graciousness is better than gold or riches, or being known as gracious is better than having wealth.

Verse two is a reminder to the people of Israel that everyone is part of God's creation. Any idea that one group of people is superior is to another is put in perspective.

Verses 8 - 9 continue with the theme and stand in antitheses to each other. V.8 is the negative consequences of injustice and v.9 is the positive reward, in that they will be blessed for sharing their food with the poor. The second line of v.8 is difficult to understand because of the vagueness of the Hebrew, which can have several meanings. Murphy suggests that 'pride has come to an end' (Murphy:165) which seems as good as any other suggestion. V.9 appears to reflect the laws in Deuteronomy 15: 9 - 11.

The next verses are taken from the block of material that is addressed directly to young men who are in high society and it is equally important that they behave in ways that are consistent with the requirements of Yahweh. The repetition in v.22b serves to make the point about unjust behaviour against the poor and the mention of the gate is the place where justice ought to happen, not the converse. As we had in vv.8-9, v.22 gives the negative precepts followed by v.23 which takes the opposite position, but in a different way because the Lord is brought into the equation. God will punish those who cause suffering to others, especially those who are poor and afflicted. If those who ought to care for the poor abdicate their responsibility then God will not only step in and care for the poor, but also punish those who have abandoned their responsibility.

The issues of justice and caring for the poor are directives to people in general (22:1 - 2, 8 - 9) as well as to those young men who will be working and living with the upper echelons of society (22:22 - 23).

As we read through the book of Proverbs we find that the issues above are not isolated, but repeated many times in slightly different formats: fifty proverbs in chapters 10-29 deal with the topic of rich and poor. Unlike the prophetic and legal material the motivation for just behaviour is that it is a moral duty and brings reward. The message is transmitted through the wise who understand this as Yahweh's requirements and transmit their message as teachers. The wisdom material recognises that riches are part of the reward of living a good and righteous life, but those who close their eyes to the poor will be cursed. It is how the riches have been gained and are used is the issue, not being wealthy per se.

On the other hand, in the legal and prophetic material the people are expected to care for the poor because God brought them out of Egypt, showed them righteousness and in response they are expected be just and caring of the poor in their community (Exodus 23:6,11. Isaiah 1). It is not a moral duty that brings reward, but a response to how God deals with them which they are expected to model in turn to others.

The New Testament has an equal emphasis on the need to care for the poor, but not because of moral values or that it will bring reward, but rather because it is our response to the love of God through Jesus Christ to behave in a just and loving way. The Christian understanding is closer to the prophetic material, and certainly the early church understood Jesus as a prophet.

The saying we 'have the poor' with us always is as true today as it was in ancient times. The church has taken its caring role responsibly over the centuries as well as abused the poor and failed to stand by them. I speak as an Uniting Church in Australia member that has watched the church at times spend extraordinary energy and emotion on matters sexual which take up a fraction of space in the Scriptures compared with the issues of wealth and poverty.

To apply these readings to a community today one needs to make it concrete to situations locally as well as the global issue of poverty. The church initiated the Year of Jubilee based on the Leviticus 25 in which the poor countries who were in immense debt to first world countries were given total release from the debt. This was carried through for a number of countries, but not every wealthy country released those who owed them crippling debts.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mark 7:24-37, there are no particular motifs images used in this reading. James 2:1-10,14-17, challenges the people to treat each other as equals, there is no ranking of importance in the kingdom of God and the writer of the letter of James calls on a famous quote from the Old Testament, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself", (Lev 19:18). Many people are unaware that this quote was used by Jesus who in turn quoted from Leviticus. The use here gives double authority to the message that Christians are to treat each other as equals no matter their station in life. This would be very controversial in the cultural setting of the Roman period.

Resources/Worship for Prov 22:1-23

Worship: It would be helpful to give some background to the Book of Proverbs and certainly some brief information about the personification of Wisdom.


Fox, Michael V. Proverbs 1-9: a new Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB. Doubleday: New York, 2000.

Martin, James D. Proverbs. OTG. Sheffield Academic Press: Sheffield, 1995.
Murphy, Roland E. Proverbs. WBC. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1998
Perdue, Leo G. Proverbs. John Knox Press: Louisville, 1989.
Van Leeuwen, Raymond C. The Book of Proverbs. Vol V, NIB. Abingdon Press:
Nashville, 1997

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: