Imagining That We Can Understand (Some of) God's Wisdom

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Pastor Doug invited me to take over his class for two months this summer -- I guess he's away at camp or something -- and I had already observed that I don't hold a candle to his leadership and pedagogical skills in his chosen topic (the Psalms), so I offered to do something else, perhaps the beginning of Proverbs. He seemed to think it's a pretty tough row to hoe (he's probably right) but I never let other people's opinions of difficulty prevent me from jumping in, so here we are.

Most of the book of Proverbs consists in little 1- and 2-verse snippets of Godly wisdom. Apart the first nine chapters, there are maybe a half-dozen extended sections, more than a half-chapter on the Virtuous Woman in Chapter 31, a couple of not-so-long paragraphs on the perils of alcohol (one earlier in the same chapter, the other in 23), stuff like that. Everything else is those snippets.

And then we have the first nine chapters, divided into maybe a dozen topics -- at least those are the headings in my copy of the NIV; others divide them up differently, but pretty much everybody distinguishes them from the rest of the book. We have eight weeks, perhaps we can do most of this in the time we have.

I will be reading from the (original, 1978) New International Version, which carefully preserves much of the sonorous rhythm of the King James Bible, but replaces most (not quite all) of the 4000-odd English words that have changed meaning in the last 400 years with modern equivalents. Usually I recommend the New Living Translation as more accurately conveying the Biblical message in the language we all think in, but one of the functions of "religion" in our human existence is to give us that creepy "buzz" which the "thee"s and "thou"s and "art"s of the KJV preserveth for us, and which is completely lost in the better modern translations. You won't get much of the buzz from me, and I suspect if Jesus were here speaking English to us today, you wouldn't get it from him either. It's a large part of what got him crucified. Anyway, I have an electronic copy of the NIV on my computer, and I have this very handy pocket-sized New Testament + Psalms and Proverbs, which is easy to carry around.

I'm putting these notes on my website, partly because it gives me a way to have them printed (my printer is old and doesn't work well, so my niece Carol does it for me), and partly so you can pick up any sessions you missed. If you want to. If these notes are not helpful, and if you tell me, maybe I can improve them -- but only if you help me understand why they are not as good as they could be 


All of Proverbs, like Psalms, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and small parts of other books, is Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry has a distinctive form, which translates well into other languages like English, and which all modern translations render as English "poetry." I say that quoted, because the English language made a radical change in what is considered "poetry" maybe 30-50 years ago. Like the visual arts, which started the same transition maybe a hundred years ago, before the change, a picture that you could understand in a glance what you were looking at was art; after the change it has become the "artist"s God-given (or maybe "evolved" which would explain the problem) duty to jerk the audience around and leave them thoroughly confused. If you understand what's going on, it's not "art" -- or "poetry," same difference. Before the change, English-language poetry had rhyme and meter (Shakespeare often didn't bother with the rhyme in his plays, but his meter was almost always rigid iambic pentameter). Here's his Sonnet 18, thought by some to be his most famous:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Every line is exactly ten syllables in five pairs (the five is the "pent" of "pentameter") a weak syllable followed by an accent (that's called "iambic"). The first and third lines both end with the same sound, as do the second and fourth. That's called "rhyme." It's a lot of work to make poetry like that, and even more work to evoke feelings of elation or love or whatever (anything but disgust, which is all you can get from the modern stuff). Rhyme and meter do not translate at all into other languages, because words with the same meaning have different stress signatures and end in different sounds.

Modern "poets" are too lazy to put that much effort into their poems. Any idiot can put random words together to produce nonsense, just like any idiot can splatter paint on a canvas and have it show nothing meaningful at all.

Hebrew poetry is recognized by the structure of meaning. There is no rhyme or meter, the meaning is everything. You get one line that says something important, then a second line that says the same thing, but using different words. Here is the first verse (after the title) in Proverbs:

For attaining wisdom and discipline / For understanding words of insight
This explains the purpose of the book, "For attaining wisdom and discipline," and then he says it again, "For understanding words of insight." Now if you want to be picky, you might think "it's not exactly the same," but you would be missing the point. It is the same, the differences are unimportant. That's the nature of Hebrew poetry. Here's a couple verses from the beginning of Psalms:
1. Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
    or stand in the way of sinners
    or sit in the seat of mockers.
2. But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.
The second verse is clearly in the form we expect in Hebrew poetry. The person who is blessed by God spends all his time thinking about what God has commanded, because (this is the first line) it is a pleasure to do so. Same basic idea. Oh wait, the first verse has three lines, not two. Right, that's emphatic. It happens a few places, not many. The first Psalm is in a place of prominance because it places God at the first of our lives, and we do not associate with them other people (to let their bad habits infect us). The last Psalm has a similar 3-part emphasis on praising God.

All of Proverbs, you will see this doublet Hebrew poetic form. Look for it. It will help you understand what is being said. If one of the two lines is obscure, the other will help you, because you know it says the same thing.

A few poems in the Bible (including the last 22 verses in Proverbs) have an additional quality, that every verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetic order. This form does not translate (words with the same meaning tend to be spelled differently in different languages) but you can usually tell when the Hebrew had that form, because there are 22 verses (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet) or maybe 44, or in the case of Psalm 119, 176 = 22 times 8 verses in each stanza, where all eight verses start with the same letter. Most Bibles tell you what that letter is for each stanza in Ps.119. So when preachers make their sermon title, or the three sections of their sermon, start with the same letter, they are in good Biblical tradition. Mostly it's fun. The Bible can be fun, you just need to look for it 



These are the section headings from my pocket NIV. Others divide it up differently, but I think these are good enough for our study...

Chapter 1 (Handout)

Prologue: Purpose and Theme
Exhortations to Embrace Wistom
Warning Against Rejecting Wisdom

Chapter 2 (Handout)

Moral Benefits of Wisdom

Chapter 3 (Handout)

Further Benefits of Wisdom

Chapter 4 (Handout)

Wisdom Is Supreme

Chapter 5 (Handout)

Warning Against Adultery

Chapter 6 (Handout)

Warnings Against Folly
Warning Against Adultery

Chapter 7 (Handout)

Warning Against the Adulteress

Chapter 8 (Handout)

Wisdom's Call

Chapter 9 (Handout)

Invitations of Wisdom and of Folly


Chapter 31 (Handout)

Sayings of King Lemuel
The Wife of Noble Character

Chapter 30 (Handout)

Sayings of Agur


Psalm 119 (Handout)

(The Longer Version)
(The same acrostic in English)

Tom Pittman
2023 April 12b