Prov. 9:10; 12:2; 25:12; 15:3
Starting tomorrow we’re going to begin some more in-depth topical studies on the book of Proverbs, but before we do that, we need a quick primer on Hebrew poetry.
When you hear about O. T. poetry, you probably think of Psalms, and that’s certainly true. However, the book of Proverbs is all poetry as well. And Hebrew poetry has some very different rules from the English variety. Our poetry is based upon rhythm and rhyme (at least traditionally). Hebrew poetry, by contrast, is based upon ideas and concepts. If you’ve ever heard it in the original language, there usually isn’t that much more “flow” than in prose. It’s the ideas contained within each line, not the way they flow off the tongue, which guide a reader or speaker.
The main structural feature is parallelism. This means that the lines are parallel and are linked to each other. The second line builds upon the first, and if there’s a third line then it builds upon the first two. How the lines relate to each other determines what type of parallelism is used.
The first is called synonymous parallelism. The concepts in the first line are parallel to similar concepts in the second line. For an example we have one of the most pivotal verses in Proverbs, namely the first verse listed in today’s passage. This doesn’t mean that the fear of the Lord is exactly synonymous with knowledge of the Holy One, and it doesn’t mean that wisdom is exactly equivalent to understanding. But it does mean that they are similar, and that they’re linked together in this verse. They build on each other.
The second is antithetical parallelism. This is probably the most common form; it’s when the second line is the opposite of, or in contrast to, the first. You see this in 12:2, but I could have picked many more examples.
The third type is emblematic, where one line illustrates or clarifies the other with a word picture. They’re pretty easy to spot, since they’re usually translated as a simile (using “like” or “as”) or just a straight comparison (a metaphor). An example of this is found in 25:12.
Finally we see synthetic parallelism. This is where the second line continues the thought of the first. We see this in 15:3.
Why did I bring this up? Did I set out to bore you today? No, these are important to understand, because they help us interpret a proverb. Take for example 12:2, our second verse. What’s Solomon mean when he talks about a "good" person? He could have been referring to any number of characteristics. But in the context of this verse, "good people" are contrasted with “those who devise wicked schemes.” So the way I would apply this verse is pretty simple: According to this verse, what’s one characteristic of a good man? Among other things, he needs to be the opposite of someone who devises "wicked schemes”; in other words, he needs to be above-board in his dealings and scrupulously honest.
Or take 25:12. I would start by asking myself, “What is it about an earring of gold or a golden ornament that makes it like a wise person's rebuke?” An ornament of gold would be valuable and treated with care. It’s rare. If a friend gave me one, I'd be honored and grateful.
Do you see how these could be valuable in interpreting the book of Proverbs?
Father, your word is shallow enough that a child can wade in it, and deep enough that an elephant can drown in it. Please help me to correctly interpret your word, since it’s the lamp for my feet and the light for my path. May it be as precious to me as it should be.