Is Proverbs a child training manual?
In the previous post, Proverbs is not a child training manual (pt 1), we answered the question, Is Proverbs for parenting? The answer is no and yes. There are a number of books and materials available that use Proverbs primarily as a textbook or manual for parenting young children. While I often wish children were born with a foolproof manual for child rearing, there is no such thing. Not even Proverbs.
As the previous post brings out, to merely look at the book of Proverbs as a parent’s manual for child training is to miss the main purpose of the book. So, on the one hand, Proverbs was not written exclusively for mom or dad to figure out how to teach or discipline their child. In that way the book is not for modern parenting.
On the other hand, Proverbs was written to parents but primarily to Jewish fathers of royal or priestly lineage to train their sons in God’s righteous way of living. Out of those specific principles we can draw applications that might apply to parents and their children today. However, before jumping on our pragmatic impulses for the book we must first understand the background and original intent of Proverbs.
1 - Proverbs is a collection of sayings
Proverbs is a collection of sayings composed by various individuals. While King Solomon authored the bulk of these sayings, Agur, King Lemuel and others wrote the rest of the proverbs. A few of the proverbs were even taken from other cultures. Many believe that King Hezekiah’s men may have contributed some of the proverbs, but they certainly gathered them into what we have today (as indicated in Proverbs 25:1-29:27 in the Hebrew text).
Many scholars believe that Proverbs was originally organized as seven poems of twenty-two lines. Each of these twenty-two lines began with a letter of the alphabet (much like Psalm 119 was written). This is significant because in biblical numerology the number seven indicates completeness or perfection, and there are twenty-two letters in the Old Testament Hebrew alphabet. Each line is addressed to a son by his father or elder. A good and faithful father was to build his “perfect” house upon seven pillars. Other sayings were later collected and added to the core teachings, making the book what it is today.
These students were older sons and not young children. We know this because the terms used for sons refer to progeny (almost exclusively male) or young men. There are other Hebrew words for baby, little children, and children. The word for son in Proverbs was most often used in the rest of the Old Testament to refer to males who were in their mid-teens and older. These sons were at a point in their lives to either own the covenantal faith of their fathers for themselves or to reject the faith. The first chapter makes clear that the purpose of Proverbs is to train young men to fear the Lord; and to fear the Lord is to know, to trust, and to obey the Lord of the covenant.
So, in the strictest sense, Proverbs was written for fathers of royal households to train their older sons in wisdom. It was a type of catechism. Wisdom is knowing how to skillfully apply God’s Law-Word to the details of life. We know this is the case not only because of the language used but because of the emphasis upon things that were important for royalty, such as how to conduct oneself in the presence of the king (Proverbs 23:1-3). Therefore, Proverbs was written and collected primarily for young men (in their teens and early twenties) who were royalty and were preparing to lead Israel according to Deuteronomy 17. Proverbs was to help fathers lay a foundation and offer guidance to these royal men as they seek their way in the world to be skilled in the art of life. It was not merely a general book for parents of little children; it was a manual for the royal family.
2 - The immediate purpose of Proverbs
The immediate purpose of Proverbs was to appeal to these young men to make a serious decision that would affect their personal and communal lives. In the culture of the day, one’s life was not independent or as individualized as Western culture would have it. The young man’s life was connected to his father’s household and clan. His allegiance was to the patriarchs of his family. His life not only impacted the family’s honor and reputation but it also affected the entirety of the family: their livelihood, their loyalty to the nation and the king (dishonor to the family elders and the king warranted civil punishment and could result in death), their relationships in the community, and so forth. Proverbs appeals to these young men to decide whether they will give their loyalty and allegiance to the way of wisdom (life by faith in the Lord and obedience to his Law-Word) or to folly (the way of an unbeliever or one who breaks covenant with God).
We know this because Proverbs is compiled in two main sections and at the end of the first section we see what happens when a father’s call to wisdom (covenant faithfulness and life) is rejected. This is very similar to the main idea in Jeremiah 7. At the end of the second section, the father’s call seems to be left up in the air. The son must now decide what to do and who to serve.
We also know this because Proverbs talks about two kinds of people: the wise and the unwise (Proverbs 1:4-5). Those who are wise are faithful to the Lord. They are ones who rightly apply God’s Law-Word to all of life (personally, family, extended family and as princes or kings over God’s people). Wisdom is walking in the way of righteousness, and righteousness is living according to God’s Law. More explicitly, righteousness is applying God’s Law to relationships in life. This is why we see in Proverbs many applications of the Ten Commandments. For example: honor your parents (Prov. 19:26), do not murder (Prov. 1:10-19), do not give in to adultery (Prov. 2:16-29), do not steal (Prov. 30:7-9), let there be no falsehood (Prov. 12:19), and do not covet (Prov. 15:27).
The unwise can be simple (with a weak or basic faith) or can be foolish (who is a covenant breaker). The fool is one who may hold on to an external faith, a nominal claim to believe in the one true God but he thinks and lives like an unbeliever.
The truly wise will seek and obey the God who sits on his holy hill, known as Mount Zion. The fool will seek and follow the pretender-gods who sit on their hills. As you may know, in the Ancient Near East, only gods were permitted to reside on top of the highest hills.
Now, this is important to understand. Fathers were responsible for training their children, particularly the oldest sons in the way of the Lord. This was so critically important for clan leaders or elders, or the patriarchs of the families. By the way, these elders, clan leaders, or patriarchs were also known as “fathers.” And wise instructors who tutored children in God’s way were also called “fathers.” As a young man learns from his father and mentor about how to proceed in his journey of life, he is constantly given comparative and contrasting treatments of one who is really wise and one who is foolish. At the end of the first section in Proverbs, the youth are introduced to a beautiful woman: Lady Wisdom. Her beauty and virtues are modeled before him in chapter eight. Then, in chapter 9, the young men encounter another woman: Lady Folly. Now, there are two women who vie for his attention, trust, and loyalty. Take note that the description and the appeal for such trust and loyalty would be missed by and inappropriate for young children or girls.
Both Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly are described as residing on high hills. Lady Wisdom comes to symbolize the one true God of Mount Zion. Lady Folly represents Marduk and Ishtar or Baal and Asherah. You will know a fool because he is one who says there is no one true God.
The main appeal in Proverbs is to raise up a perfect, royal son who would live exclusively by wisdom; that is, according to God’s perfect will. The story of the Old Testament is the story of a search for such a perfect man who would rule God’s covenant people as the perfectly wise king. While Solomon becomes the example of such a person, even in his wisdom he still fails the Lord. Sadly, the best of the wise sons did not attain pure wisdom. So, the hope of Israel was to wait until a greater one would come. One who would be mightier than David and wiser than Solomon.
It isn’t until Jesus comes, the begotten Son of the Father who grows in perfect wisdom and stature, that a son of Wisdom’s way becomes the perfect Wise One (Matt. 12:19; Lk. 2:41-50; 1 Cor. 1:30 and Col. 1:15-16).
3 - The ultimate purpose of Proverbs
So, you see, in the strictest sense, Proverbs is not mainly for parenting young children. Its primary purpose is to train royal young men how to lead God’s people in faith and obedience to God’s Word, and to urge them to follow wisdom’s way and reject folly’s way. The main story of Proverbs is to show how we all must make that choice. The main hope of Proverbs is not that a young child would become an obedient, moral, and faithful Christian because the dutiful parent taught him the way, but that God the Father sent Jesus, his royal Son to live righteously and to rule with perfect wisdom. He is true Wisdom who, by his Word and Spirit, gives to his true, covenant people insight and knowledge for righteous living.
What are your thoughts? Did you know this about Proverbs? How does this affect you, particularly if you are a parent?
Don't miss the next installment of this series. Sign up to follow along. Thanks!