The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.
By Menashe David Israel
Chapter 4 of Hebrew Proverbs
Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter
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So, one of the things that makes a proverb a piece of wisdom is that it needs to be trusted as a reliable way of navigating the situations that it addresses. Often the student of wisdom, the son, will not have had the life experience that is necessary in order to confirm that the proverb or saying given to him is true. But his teacher, the wise man, speaks in his own name and on his own authority—speaking as himself. This is different than messages or teachings that prophets and oracles might give; where the prophet might say, “Thus saith the Lord;” or where an oracle might act as a conduit, or mouthpiece, for divine beings. So what we have here is a man acting as a link between his own teacher, and his student, to pass down a human tradition of knowledge.
And again, like chapter three, chapter four also can be divided into three sections, each beginning with the words, “My son—“ or “Hear, my children-“.
So next to this tradition of human wisdom, we see words like: “Doctrine,” “Law,” “Sayings,” “Instructions.” People familiar with the Bible might be tempted to interpret these words as referring to God’s commandments as given to Moses, or the first five books of the Bible, or the Old Testament as a whole. Indeed, sometimes the word “Law” does have that sense. But here it refers to the admonitions and reproofs of a father who simply wants to give his son some tips on how to make his way in a world he hasn’t yet fully experienced.
One metaphor for wisdom that the father gives to his young son, is the metaphor of a woman. Lady wisdom—who he says the young man must get, no matter what it costs him. The father tells his son to embrace her. To always think about her, in everything that he does. And if he follows this advice, Lady Wisdom will put a crown on his head.
At the end of this chapter, the Wise Man speaks to his son about the heart. For the Hebrews the heart was not merely an organ that pumps blood, or code for the emotions alone. For them, the heart was the seat of intellectual activity, the consciousness and the will, and the center of all a person’s activities. Sometimes the word for ‘heart’ is translated ‘soul’. This Hebrew way of thinking is very different from the later Greek way of understanding the whole of Man: separating the mind from the body, and the emotions. So whenever you hear the word ‘heart’ in this book, think of the whole human self. ☗
Read Proverbs 4 on the Bible App