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How to Read the Biblical Book of Proverbs

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by Calvin Seerveld

"Knowledge" in Proverbs means "firsthand, intimate experience of what God wants done"; and "wisdom" means "you are able to judge what God wants done"; and "instruction" means "the rigorous discipline of acting according to God's Will."

As a great-grandchild of the historic Reformation, Seerveld's Bible reading is one that assumes "the Bible be read as sacred Scripture." This we do in the communion of the saints, living and dead, carefully trusting the text will lead the community of faith enough to find definite direction in "the entire manner of service which God requires of us."

Such a trusting experience is crankled by practically all Proverbs commentators. They treat the text like a collection of individual sayings, loose from any defined context - a kind of anthology of nuggets of wisdom arranged in apparently random fashion for our benefit and admonition. The assumed contextlessness of the sayings collected, however, easily makes their interpretation arbitrary, truistic, or opaque.

Udo Skladny helped set the record straight, arguing that the earliest original calling of biblical proverbial wisdom is for people to respect and follow the Lord's order for everyday life, which is first of all ordering to be trusted and obeyed truly as the Lord God's will, full of blessing. So too, Ray Van Leeuwen argues: "If the text presents us with larger, unified blocks of proverbial material, the exegete possesses a much surer basis for interpretation than if only a random accretion of isolated proverbs exists." Here precisely lies the underlying thesis of this book: Expect poetic paragraphs within Proverbs, because the artful comparisons and oblique riddles are rooted historically and professionally in the office of wise leaders recounted in the Bible and have been written down by God-breathed educated literary scribes. Finding the poetic parameters in Proverbs so as to discern the unified paragraphs will open up this book of sayings (also for good preaching).