Proverbs 1:20-33

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Proverbs 1:20-33

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 1:20-33

The book begins with a prologue (1: 2 - 7) stating very clearly the purpose of the book which is contained in the long sentence (vv.2 - 6) and finishes with a motto (v.7. Murphy: 4). It proclaims that it will be effective in conveying to children and scholars the basic intellectual and ethical virtues (Fox: 53). The fear (awe, worship) of the Lord is the precondition for both wisdom and ethical behaviour (Fox: 69). This leads in to an exhortation to hear the teaching (1:8 - 9), followed by a warning against those friends who will lead you astray (1:10 - 16) and in the end they self- destruct (1: 17 - 19). The lectionary reading could be seen as a midrash/ preaching /expansion of the previous lesson. This passage is the first of those that personify Wisdom as female. We shall discuss this in the theology section.

Having castigated the foolish and declared what will happen because they have refused to heed her words the lesson moves forward into the positive gains of achieving wisdom. There will be rewards in which wisdom will become part of the self and the actions of righteousness, justice and equity will manifest themselves in all aspects of your life (Proverbs 2:1 - 22). As the book progresses through chapters 1 - 9 it continues to give instruction and warnings about many aspects of life.

Insights/Message of Prov 1:20-33

Literary The first paragraph is repeated for those who didn't read it last week in the Lectionary notes on Proverbs 22. 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). Each of these literary structures reinforces the message, either by repetition, or by the surprise nature of the contrast.

Proverbs 1:20-33 is the first teaching poem in the book and the first time for the personification of wisdom as Woman. This literary device is common in the Old Testament where Jerusalem is daughter/ mother: Israel is bride/ whore/ wife. Wisdom as personified is present is Job 28, Proverbs 1, 8-9, Sirach 24, and Wisdom of Solomon 10 -19. To hear the words as personal is a very powerful way to communicate. The introductory thoughts in Proverbs 1:20 - 21 are present in Proverbs 8:1 - 5 and 9:1 - 6.

The poem is structured thus:
vv.20-21 3rd person introduction
vv.22-23 1st person speech exhorting the simple ones to listen
vv.24-30 A speech warning those who fail to heed her in 1st and 3rd person.
vv.31-32 The negative consequences are named.
v.33 The positive response for those who respond to Wisdom's instruction.

Murphy suggests that vv.20-33 are more akin to prophetic warnings than to wisdom teaching (Murphy: 8). I would think this is a deliberate ploy to challenge people by using the familiar in another context. Proverbs 1:20-33 certainly acts as a reinforcement and development of the warning in 1:8-19. 'Reproof' is repeated in vv.23, 25 and 30, which serve to make the point quite, clear about her purpose and unifies the theme in these verses. V.27 has an extra stanza and in Hebrew language alliteration and assonance occurs (terror, calamity, distress, anguish) which emphases the horror to come because it draws the pronunciation out. A change occurs in vv.28ab - 32 from direct address to 3rd person plural, which makes the message less personal.

Message:  Wisdom is proclaiming loudly in a public place to the listeners whom she reproves because they have not heard when God has called (v.24). This issue is named several times in the prophetic material (Isaiah 65:1-2, 66:4, Jeremiah 7:13 et al) in which God is the speaker, but here it is Woman Wisdom who uses these words. People would have been aware of this complaint of Yahweh against the people and they would have been startled into paying attention because she was claiming equal authority with God. It is an astonishing claim she makes in v.33. She is stamping her authority on the remainder of the book.

The two issues she is most concerned about is their relationship with God and their need to listen to her. She doesn't begin with works first, but sets what will be the required behaviour in the context of relationship with God and herself as the spokesperson of wisdom.

It is a theology of retribution similar to that proclaimed by the prophets, but channelled through a different medium. Furthermore, the punishment is the converse of their attitude to her and they will experience similar when they realise their need of her (Fox: 105). That is, as they have failed to respond to Wisdom and God when they call on her in times of trouble she will behave as they did and refuse to hear. Because they will fail to have the knowledge or wisdom to cope with life it will result in disasters, which they have brought on their own shoulders. Individuals and families will reap what they sow. Three types of people are addressed in v.22 - simple ones, scoffers and fools.

The wisdom that is proclaimed is universal and not anything that has to be associated with one particular historical period. However, it is wisdom that has accumulated after long times of reflection on life and experience including the experience of knowing Yahweh.

The message centres around two issues: first, the people did not fear the Lord, and second they hated knowledge, therefore wouldn't listen to Wisdom Woman. 'Fear of the Lord' has different meanings depending on the context. Sometimes it can mean fear as in afraid, which is the major interpretation we in the western world attribute to it. Other meanings include reverence and worship. In the context of Prov.1:20-33 either of the latter meanings is applicable, so the people did not choose to worship the Lord. Wisdom Woman is making very significant claims on her own behalf when she accuses them of failing to hear her counsel.

In our day we have to be called back to due reverence and worship of God through Jesus Christ. However, there is nothing quite like the concept of wisdom as portrayed here. I doubt whether there would be many teachers who would want to make the claims that Wisdom Woman has in this passage. The closest parallel is written in John's gospel in which Jesus Christ is the Word and we are called to hear the Word. The consequence of hearing and living out the knowledge of Jesus Christ is the security and peace that comes from living life as Christ did on earth.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mark 8:27-38; Mark 8:31 appears to have allusions to Isa 53:3,6,10, Ps 118:22, & Hos 6:2 as it deliberately connects many of the traits mentioned in these passages with Mark's designation of Jesus as Messiah- a title that he introduces here for the first time. A Messiah who suffered humiliation, degradation and chose death over life for the sake of others. This was in direct contradition of the Roman Emperor under whose power they existed. Mark 8:37 has direct links to Ps 49:7-9 in which the text suggests that it is better to lose one's life than gain profit/ power in this world. Mark is being incredibly contraversial as he paints this picture of a king who is also saviour. James 3:1-12: verses 7 & 9 refer to the Genesis story in which people are given responsibility over creation. and v.9 has allusions to Gen 1:27. It is not the people's right to curse and bless as God only has that right.

Resources/Worship for Prov 1:20-33

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

The reading lends itself to a female voice as personified wisdom speaking to a small group who will represent the 3 groups named in v.22, using the 1st person speeches (vv.22 - 28a, v.33). Second, have another female reader who addresses the congregation as the real readers saying the 3rd person statements (vv.20 - 21, 28b - 32).


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: