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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Proverbs

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Didactic Discourses ( 1:1–9:18 )

( 1:1–7 ) Introduction

These verses state the purpose and value of the book and the basis upon which its teaching rests. ‘Wisdom’ basically means ‘skill, ability’. The term is used, for example, of the manual skills of craftsmen (Ex 35:35; cf. Isa 40:20 ) and the navigational skills of sailors (Ezek 27:8 ). To learn about (lit. know) wisdom means to become equipped with the skills necessary to live a good and successful life. ‘Instruction’ (lit. discipline) often refers to the training received in wise living under the authority of a parent or teacher (e.g. 4:1–5 ). Here it means ‘disciplined living’ as the outcome of this training. The good and successful life is the disciplined life (cf. 25:28 ).

Wisdom promotes ‘righteousness, justice, and equity’—i.e. right conduct and right relationships—within the community (v. 3 ). It equally promotes ‘shrewdness’ and ‘prudence’ based on a practical knowledge of the ways of the world (v. 4 ). A related form of the word ‘shrewdness’ is used pejoratively of the craftiness of the serpent (Gen 3:1; cf. Josh 9:4 ). Its good sense is captured in Mt 10:16 . Those most in need of this wisdom are the ‘simple’, i.e. uninstructed youth. The word derives from a root meaning ‘to be open’. As portrayed in Proverbs, the simple are ‘open’ to persuasion, and so easily manipulated (cf. 14:15 ). They are accordingly the primary targets for the beckoning of Folly ( 9:16; cf. 7:7, 21 ).

Following a parenthetic observation that through attending to Proverbs the wise can become wiser, v. 6 highlights the importance of an understanding of the literary forms in which wisdom is expressed. This includes not only intellectual penetration but also the ability to apply the right saying at the right time (cf. 26:7 ). A ‘proverb’ (māšāl) may originally have meant a short saying drawing a comparison, later extended to include other kinds of ‘artistic’ sayings (e.g. prophetic discourse, Num 23:7 ; allegory, Ezek 17:2 ; taunt song, Isa 14:4 ). In 1:1 it embraces the varied literary contents of Proverbs. A ‘figure’ is an enigmatic saying whose meaning lies beneath the surface and has to be teased out.

In v. 7 ‘fear of the LORD’ is presented as the prerequisite of true wisdom. The verse is repeated in 9:10 by way of a literary inclusion for chs. 1–9 , and forms a central theme of the book. Fear of the Lord embraces both reverence for God (cf. Isa 8:13 ) and obedience to him (cf. Deut 10:12–13; Eccl 12:13 ). ‘Beginning’ may imply first in order (Gen 1:1 ), or importance (Am 6:1 ), or the ‘best part’ (Am 6:6 ).

( 1:8–19 ) Avoid Evil Men!

This is the first of several instructions addressed by a father to his son in this section of the book. The characteristic features of the instruction are: an appeal for attentiveness (cf. v. 8 ); the directive expressed as a command or prohibition (cf. vv. 10b , 15 ), and motivation clauses explaining why the directive should be heeded (cf. v. 9, 16–19 ). The address by a teacher to his pupils as a father to his sons was a common practice in the wisdom schools of Egypt and Babylonia. However, the parallelism between father and mother (v. 8 ) suggests that the instructions in Proverbs may reflect the less formal setting of parental instruction within the home.

To ‘hear’ (v. 8 ) implies both to listen and to obey (cf. Isa 1:19 ). Obedience will adorn the child's life and character with charm and beauty (v. 9; cf. 4:9 ). Though invoking parental authority, the motivation clauses show that the instruction appeals as much to the child's good sense as its duty to obey its parents.

The child is warned against joining in the activities of a professional gang of robbers and murderers. ‘Entice’ (v. 10 ) comes from the same Hebrew root as the ‘simple’ (v. 4 ), and the passage illustrates the dangers of their ‘openness’ to persuasion. The gang holds out to the young person the attractions of a life of adventure, comradeship, and easy money. In v. 12 they liken themselves to Sheol swallowing its victims whole. The imagery of Sheol—the abode of the dead—as a devouring monster with an insatiable appetite for human victims (cf. also 27:20; 30:15–16; Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5 ) probably derives from the depiction of the god Mot (Death) within Canaanite mythology. Their appetite for violence and murder cannot be satisfied and they destroy their victims just as ruthlessly.

vv. 16–19 explain why the child should avoid such companions: they are evil (v. 16 = Isa 59:7a ) and foolish (vv. 17–19 ). Their crimes are self-destructive and they are their own victims. Like a senseless bird that swoops down to the baited trap, these men are oblivious to all signs of their own danger and plunge mindlessly to their destruction. To join in their company is to share in their fate. The passage concludes with a summary statement of the operative principle of retribution (v. 19 ).

( 1:21–31 ) Wisdom's First Speech

In this passage wisdom (a fem. noun in Heb.) is personified as a woman. Though here Wisdom appears to be essentially a dramatization of the wisdom taught by the father, reinforcing the appeal to heed his instruction, she speaks not only like a wisdom teacher but also like a prophet. This implies that Wisdom speaks with a divine authority. To reject her is to reject the fear of the Lord (v. 29 ). The basis of her authority is expounded in 8:22–31 .

Like a prophet, Wisdom takes her stand in public places and cries out to passers-by to accept her counsel and reproof. Street corners, squares, and the city gates were the centres of the juridical, business, and social life of the city and form an appropriate setting for Wisdom to make herself heard. Wisdom bears on all human activity and has to compete not only with cynicism and wilful folly but also with the distractions of everyday life. ‘Give heed’ (v. 23 ) is literally ‘turn’. The same word is used in prophetic exhortations to (re)turn to God (cf. Isa 44:22; Jer 3:22; Hos 6:1 ). The translation of Hebrew rûaḥ by ‘thoughts’ (cf. Ezek 20:32 , ‘mind’) rather than the more usual ‘spirit’ is supported by its poetic parallelism with ‘words’ in the next line.

There is an awkward transition between the exhortation in v. 23 and the reproach and threat in vv. 24–8 , and this has led some to construe v. 23 as also condemnatory (cf. Murphy 1998: 7, 10). The reproach centres on the continued spurning of Wisdom's counsel (cf. ‘how long’, v. 22 ). The language has close parallels in prophetic indictments (cf. Isa 65:1–2, 12; Jer 6:19 ). The consequences of rejecting Wisdom are spelled out in vv. 26–8 . The imagery of the storm or whirlwind is a common metaphor of judgement (Isa 17:13; Am 1:14 ), particularly in connection with a divine theophany (Ps 18:7–15; Nah 1:3–5 ). ‘Panic’ describes the ‘terror’ evoked by the day of the Lord in Isa 2:10–21 . Wisdom's role will be simply that of an amused onlooker (v. 26; cf. Ps 2:4; 59:8 ). Too late they will realize the folly of spurning her and will be spurned by her. The repetition ‘cry/call out’ points the irony (vv. 21, 28 ). The same motif of futile entreaty occurs in the prophets (Isa 1:15; Hos 5:6 ).

The note of reproach is resumed in vv. 29–30 . Echoing the motto in 1:7, v. 29 makes clear that the rejection of Wisdom is tantamount to rejection of the fear of the Lord. The announcement of doom represents the fate of the foolish as the natural outflow of their own folly: the boomerang of their own waywardness and complacency. ‘Waywardness’ evokes a contrast with ‘give heed’. It derives from the same Hebrew root and likewise has echoes in prophetic passages, where it is used of Israel's backsliding and apostasy from God (Jer 8:5; Hos 11:7 ).

The concluding promise (v. 33 ) contrasts the security and peace of mind enjoyed by those who pay heed to Wisdom (cf. 3:21–6 ). This serves to temper the note of doom in the preceding verses, so that the passage as a whole functions as a warning to embrace Wisdom before it is too late.

( 2:1–22 ) Wisdom as Guard and Guide

This instruction presents wisdom as a human quest (vv. 1–5 ) and a divine gift (vv. 6–8 ), which guards its recipients from the way of evil men and loose women (vv. 9–19 ), and guides them in the way of good men (vv. 20–2 ). The alphabetizing shape of the passage, together with its rehearsal of themes developed in later instructions, suggests that it has a deliberate, programmatic character (cf. Skehan 1972: 9–10).

Wisdom must be pursued with diligence. The first step is to be attentive to the father's words and to ‘incline the heart’ (i.e. ‘mind’) to understanding wisdom (vv. 1–2 ). The dual application of ears and heart is reflected in Solomon's prayer for a ‘listening heart’ (1 Kings 3:9 ; NRSV ‘understanding mind’). There must also be a fervent desire to find wisdom (v. 3 ), matching the fervency of Wisdom's desire to be found (cf. 1:20 ); and it must be pursued with the strenuousness and perseverance of miners tunnelling for precious ores (v. 4; cf. Job 28 ). For wisdom seeker and miner alike, the prize is worth the toil (v. 5 ). The quest for wisdom is a quest for knowledge of God and his ways, and fear of the Lord is not only the beginning of wisdom ( 1:7 ) but also its ripest fruit.

The seeker finds wisdom given by God himself (v. 6 ). Solomon's prayer (1 Kings 3:7–9 ) came to typify the prayerful attitude required of the wisdom seeker (cf. Wis 8:18, 21; 9:4 ). The present passage calls rather for concerted intellectual and moral application. vv. 7–8 characterize the wisdom God gives as ‘sound wisdom’, i.e. effective. It maintains God's moral order (‘paths of justice’) by preserving the upright from the pitfalls and snares of evil. The ‘shield’ may either be ‘God’ (NRSV) or ‘sound wisdom’ (NEB ‘as a shield’). The upright are God's ‘faithful ones’ (ḥăsîdîm). This is the only occurrence of this term in Proverbs. It refers to those who are loyal to God and his covenant (cf. Ps 31:23; 37:28; 97:10 ). The wisdom God gives conserves the right ordering of his people.

Echoing the introduction in 1:2–7, vv. 9–11 elaborate on wisdom as a guide and a guard, and this is applied in vv. 12–19 to two particular cases: evil men and loose women. Evil men (vv. 12–15 ) are perverted characters who invert the moral order (cf. Isa 5:20 ). They abandon straight and level paths for ways of darkness, and they go about their evil for profit and for pleasure (v. 14 ). More dangerous than what they do is what they say (v. 12 ), for by their words they seek to entice others in the moral chaos of their ways. The instruction in 1:8–19 serves as a parade example of such men, and illustrates both the wickedness of their conduct and their enticement to evil.

The theme of the loose woman (vv. 16–19 ) is developed at length in 5:1–14, 6:20–35 , and 7:1–27 . The words translated ‘loose woman’ and ‘adulteress’ are literally ‘strange woman’ and ‘foreign woman’, neither of which are the normal terms for an adulteress or prostitute. Various explanations of her ‘foreignness’ have been given—both literal and metaphorical—sometimes linked to participation in the sexual rites of fertility cults. Camp (1985: 116) suggests that the figure functions symbolically for ‘the attractions and dangers of any and every sexually liminal woman’. Warning against illicit sexual entanglements was a standard topic within Egyptian wisdom instruction. But whereas the Egyptian sages warned that it could ruin a promising career, here the seductress is a threat to life itself. ‘Death’ (v. 18 ) is a further allusion to the Canaanite god Mot and ‘shades’ (rĕpā᾽îm, a term for the departed, cf. Isa 26:14; Ps 88:10 ) to the Repha'im, the underworld deities and minions of Mot. The house of the seductress is as the mouth of the god (cf. 1:12 ).

( 3:1–12 ) Trust in God

Among the instructions in chs. 1–9 , this passage stands out by reason of its pronounced religious tone. It may be seen to develop the motto of the book ( 1:7 ). Wisdom consists in complete trust in and submission to the Lord. It is introduced by the customary appeal to obey the father's teaching and a statement of the benefits that obedience brings (vv. 1–4; cf. 1:8–9 ). ‘Teaching’ (cf. 1:9 ) translates Hebrew tôrâ (lit. guidance, direction), in parallelism with ‘commandments’. Both terms commonly refer to God's law but are equally at home in wisdom instruction (cf. ‘my teaching’). ‘Loyalty and faithfulness’ can refer to relationships between human beings and God (cf. Jer 2:2; Hos 6:4 ) or to human relationships (cf. Ps 109:16; Hos 4:1; Mic 6:8 ). Both may be intended. They are to be worn as an adornment around the neck (cf. 1:9; Deut 6:8; 11:18 ) and written on the heart (cf. Jer 31:33 ).

vv. 5–8 form the kernel of the instruction. They contrast trust in God with self-reliance. The Hebrew word ‘trust’ is related to the words rendered ‘securely’ in 3:23 (cf. 1:33 ) and ‘confidence’ in 14:26 . At stake is the basis for security in life, with the confidence to walk boldly without anxiety between the pitfalls and snares that lurk at every step. For this, complete commitment and submission to God (‘all your ways’) is the key. The medicinal analogy of healing and health to the benefits of wisdom (v. 8 ) recurs elsewhere in Proverbs (cf. 15:30; 16:24; 17:22 ).

The admonitions to honour God with the first fruits (vv. 9–10 ) and to submit to his discipline (vv. 11–12 ) exemplify trust in God in the contrasting situations of prosperity and adversity. The offering of first fruits was an expression of dependence on and gratitude to God for the gift of the land and its harvests (cf. Deut 26:1–11 ). But even those who honour God may sometimes suffer adversity. This should be accepted as a divine chastisement and a proof of God's fatherly love (cf. Job 5:17–18; 33:14–30; Heb 12:5–6 ).

( 3:13–18 ) Wisdom's Benediction

These verses form a hymnic celebration of the ‘happiness’ of those who find wisdom. While Wisdom is again personified (cf. 1:20–33 ), the hymn takes up and reinforces the benefits claimed for obedience to the father's instructions (cf. 1:8; 3:1–4 ) and serves the didactic purpose of commending his teaching.

To find Wisdom is to possess an asset of great value. Wisdom unfailingly pays a higher dividend than silver or gold (v. 14 ), and is a rare and priceless treasure beyond comparison (v. 15 ). Wisdom also bestows long life, riches, and honour on her devotees (v. 16 ) and leads them along pleasant and peaceful paths (v. 17 ). v. 16 probably owes something to depictions of the Egyptian goddess Ma'at, the goddess of truth and justice, who is portrayed with a symbol of long life in one hand and a sceptre symbolizing wealth and honour in her other. The ‘long life’ bestowed by Wisdom implies not only longevity but also quality of life. This is expressed in the metaphor of ‘the tree of life’ in v. 18 : Wisdom is the vital source that nourishes growth and fruitfulness and promotes fullness of life (cf. 11:30; 13:12; 15:4 ). The expression recalls the tree of life in the garden of Eden (Gen 2–3 ).

( 3:19–20 ) Wisdom and Creation

In their present context, vv. 19–20 present the credentials for the claims made by Wisdom in the preceding verses. The wisdom by which humans are blessed is the wisdom by which the world was created and is sustained (cf. 8:22–31 ). The water imagery is suggestive of wisdom as fructifying life.

( 3:27–35 ) Kindness and Neighbourliness

The final section returns to the form of instruction and brings together a number of topics. The theme of vv. 21–6 is the secure and tranquil lives of those who hold fast to wisdom (v. 21 ) and trust in God (v. 26; cf. vv. 5–8 ). vv. 27–30 inculcate kindness and neighbourliness, with the avoidance of malicious actions and unnecessary quarrels. vv. 31–5 warn against envy of evil men and the imitation of their ways. God's judgement (‘curse’, cf. Deut 27:15–26 ) rests on their house and they will be utterly disgraced, while the upright will enjoy divine blessing.

( 4:1–9 ) Get Wisdom!

This short passage centres on the value of wisdom and the need to acquire it at all costs (v. 7 ). The father reinforces the appeal to his children (vv. 1–2 ) by recounting his own experience as a child when he was taught the lesson by his own parents (vv. 3–4 ). Here the importance of the home as a setting for wisdom as an educational discipline (cf. Ex 12:26–7; Deut 6:6–7, 20–5 ), together with its transmission from one generation to the next, is particularly well illustrated. His precepts are ‘good’ (RSV ‘sound’, v. 2 ) because they have been proved by experience, but each new generation must choose to receive them and prove them for themselves.

In vv. 6–9 wisdom is personified as a bride to be wooed, and who will in return love and honour those who embrace her. The garlanding (v. 9 ) may be an allusion to a wedding feast. This portrayal of Wisdom is evidently intended to counter the spurious love and deadly embrace of the seductress. According to McKane (1970: 306), the representation is rather of Wisdom as an influential patron offering protection and preferment to her protégés.

( 4:10–27 ) The Two Ways

The metaphor of life as a road with two ways plays an important role in the teaching of Proverbs. It has already occurred a number of times (cf. 1:15, 19; 2:8–22; 3:17, 23 , etc.). In vv. 10–19 it becomes the main theme of the instruction as the father counsels his child to adhere to the way of wisdom and avoid the path of the wicked. ‘Paths of uprightness’ (v. 11 ) implies not only paths that are morally upright, but also paths that are straight and level (cf. 3:6 ). Hence the way of wisdom is not only the good path (cf. 2:9 ) through life but also the secure path (cf. 3:23 ). It is a road along which the traveller can progress with firm, measured strides and even run without fear of stumbling (v. 12; cf. Ps 18:36 ). A further reason why it is the secure path is that it is brightly illuminated. In v. 18 it is compared with the steady increase of brightness from the first flickers of dawn to the full splendour of the noonday sun. No loose stones or potholes can lurk in the shadows to catch the traveller unawares.

The contrasting description of the path of the wicked recalls the description of their activities in 1:8–19 and of their twisted paths in 2:12–15 . Wrongdoing and violence come as naturally to them as eating and drinking (v. 7 ). Their path is shrouded in ‘deep darkness’ (v. 19 ). The term is used of the plague of darkness that enveloped Egypt (Ex 10:22 ), and also recurs in descriptions of the consequences of the day of the Lord (e.g. Joel 2:2; Am 5:20 ). It suggests the extent of their moral blindness, but more especially it points to the inevitable consequence of walking along a treacherous, twisting path in utter darkness. Intent on the destruction of others (‘cause to stumble’, v. 16 ) they make victims out of themselves (‘stumble’, v. 19 ). In the darkness of their deeds, they will not even see what their feet strike on that final, fatal step (cf. Job 18:7–12; Jer 13:16; 23:12 ).

The final paragraph (vv. 20–7 ) resumes the appeal (v. 10 ) to accept the father's words, since they are ‘life’ and ‘healing’ (cf. 3:8 ). To walk in the way of wisdom (cf. vv. 26–7 ) requires constant vigilance, self-discipline, and singleness of mind and purpose. This is set out in a review of parts of the body: the heart, mouth, eyes, and feet. These may be sources of evil and death (cf. 6:16–18 ) or sources of goodness and life. If they are healthy, the whole body is healthy.

( 5:1–22 ) Avoid the Seductress

This instruction continues the warning against the loose woman introduced in 2:16–19 (see also 6:20–35; 7:1–27 ). It begins with a typical appeal to the child to listen carefully to the warning so that he might receive the prudence and knowledge necessary to avoid entanglement with her (vv. 1–2 ).

The danger posed by the loose woman is compounded by her seductive wiles. While making use of her natural sex appeal (cf. 6:25 ), it is on her seductive speech that she relies most (cf. 7:14–20 ). Her words are like honey and are smoother than oil (v. 8 ). Honey was proverbial for its sweetness (cf. 16:24; Judg 14:8, 14 ). The figure is used in Song 4:11 of the bride's kisses. Smoothness can denote flattery (cf. 29:5 ) and hypocrisy (cf. Ps 5:9 ). The seductress thus holds out promise of pleasure and enjoyment. But the reality is quite different (‘in the end’). This is brought out by the contrast in vv. 3–4 between honey and wormwood and between smooth and sharp. Wormwood was equally proverbial for its bitterness (cf. Jer 9:15; Am 5:7 ). Her honeyed words leave a bitter taste and her smooth words are as the thrusts of a double-edged sword (cf. Ps 55:21 ). Disregarding the path of life, the seductress travels the path to Sheol (v. 5; cf. 2:18–19; 7:27 ) with the unsteady steps of a drunkard (‘wander’; cf. Isa 28:7 ) as she staggers from one lover to another unmindful of the harm she brings either on herself or on her victims (cf. 7:21–7; 30:20 ).

Following the resumptive appeal for attentiveness and obedience (v. 7 ), the father offers the same succinct advice as in 1:15 (cf. 4:15 ), here emphasized by a wordplay between ‘far’ and ‘near’ (v. 8 ). This advice is then reinforced by spelling out the consequences of liaison with her (vv. 9–14 ): the loss of dignity and honour (v. 9 ), of hard-earned wealth (v. 10 ), and of vigour and health (v. 11 ). This is the antithesis of Wisdom's benediction in 3:13–18 . The phrase ‘your years to the merciless’ (v. 9 ) is obscure. The Hebrew word ‘years’ may rather be connected with an Arabic word meaning ‘honour, dignity’. This gives a good parallel to the first line. ‘Merciless’ is masc. sing. and could be an allusion to Death as the cruel, merciless one. With the support of the LXX, it is sometimes emended to the plural, which might then be a reference to the seductress and her associates. ‘At the end of your life’ is literally ‘at the end’. It echoes v. 4 and more probably means ‘afterwards’, i.e. when the effects of vv. 9–10 are felt. The lament of the victim in vv. 12–14 illustrates the theme of rejecting wise counsel and learning the lesson too late (cf. 1:24–8 ). The reference to ruin before the public assembly (v. 14 ) might be a specific reference to punishment meted out by the lawcourt or may refer more generally to public denunciation and disgrace. Possibly behind the scene is the woman's husband (cf. 6:34–5 ), denouncing the offender in public (v. 14 ) and pressing for compensation (v. 10 ).

Whereas the preceding verses primarily have in view young unmarried men, vv. 15–21 address the married man. They counsel that the best way of avoiding the temptation of the seductress is that he remain in love with his wife and derive sexual satisfaction from her. Drawing on imagery of water and its sources (cf. Song 4:15 ), v. 15 expresses the pleasure which a man should obtain through sexual intercourse with his wife. In v. 16 the ‘springs’ and ‘streams’ could allude to the waste that results from extramarital affairs or to the encouragement of the wife to infidelity through neglect. The image of the wife as a ‘graceful doe’ is symbolic of her beauty (v. 18; cf. Song 2:7 ), with which the husband should be intoxicated.

Reinforcing the appeals for a prudent weighing up of the consequences of liaison with the seductress, in v. 21 appeal is made to the scrutinizing eyes of the Lord (cf. 15:3; Job 31:4; 34:21 ) and his guardianship of the moral order. None the less, the concluding summary of the consequence of such indiscipline and folly is again expressed in terms of reaping what has been sown (cf. 1:19; 2:20–2 ). ‘Toils’ is literally ‘cords’. By threading a path to folly's door, a man is threading a noose around his own neck, like a senseless bird weaving the net that will ensnare it (cf. 1:17–19 ).

( 6:1–19 ) Four Warnings

The four miscellaneous sayings in these verses are more reminiscent of the proverbial sayings in chs. 10–31 than the discourses in chs. 1–9 . Though the form of instruction is reflected in the first, it lacks the characteristic parental appeal for attentiveness.

vv. 1–5 warn against acting as guarantor for debts. ‘Neighbour’ and ‘stranger’ (v. 1 ; cf. NSRV fn.) perhaps refer to the friend on whose behalf security is pledged and to the creditor, respectively. The expression ‘to give a pledge’ is literally ‘to strike hands’ (cf. 2 Kings 10:15 ). If a pledge has been given, no time should be lost and no effort spared in seeking to be released from it. Not only penury (cf. 22:26–7 ) but also slavery threatened the unwise guarantor (cf. 2 Kings 4:1–7; Neh 5:1–8 ).

vv. 6–11 warn against laziness and encourage diligence. The drawing of analogies with the natural world was common in wisdom circles (cf. 30:15–16, 24–31 ). The ant is a model of diligence and foresight in that it prepares its food for winter without having to be goaded. Wedded to slumber and indolence, the lazy person makes no such provision (cf. 20:4 ) and will suffer poverty and want. v. 11 should perhaps be rendered like a ‘vagrant’ and a ‘beggar’.

The description of the scoundrel (vv. 12–15 ) recalls the evil men in 2:12–16 . ‘Scoundrel’ is literally ‘man of bĕlîya῾al’ (from which comes ‘Belial’) (cf. 16:27; 19:28 ). The derivation of the word is obscure. It may be a compound word meaning ‘worthless’ (lit. not-profit), or may derive from a verb meaning ‘swallow, engulf’ or the like. The scoundrel is characterized by his malicious undermining of harmonious relations within the community (v. 14 ). v. 13 may imply the casting of magic spells to accomplish his evil designs (McKane 1970: 325) or may simply refer to the covert way he and his associates go about their business.

vv. 16–19 form a graded numerical saying of a type common in the HB (cf. 30:15–31; Job 5:19; Am 1:3 ) and in the literature of the ancient Near East. It was particularly useful within wisdom circles, both as a means of classification and as an aid to memorization. The saying complements vv. 12–15 by listing different kinds of malicious and disruptive activity through a review of the unhealthy body: ‘eyes…tongue…hands…heart…feet’ (contrast 4:23–7 ). The ‘false witness’ and ‘one who stirs up strife’ complete the seven items.

( 6:20–35 ) The Price of Adultery

This passage returns to the form of instruction and to the theme of the seductress. vv. 20–4 emphasize the need to hold fast to parental teachings: they are light and life and will protect against her enticements. Though the reference is to parental teaching, vv. 21–2 closely echo the role of divine teaching in Deuteronomy 6:6–8 (cf. 3:3, 24 ). In v. 24 ‘wife of another’ rests on a change on the vocalization of Hebrew ‘evil women’ following the LXX and v. 29 . Here the seductress is explicitly a married woman. Alongside her seductive speech (24; cf. 5:3 ), warning is given against being captivated by her eye make-up and inviting glances (cf. Sir 26:9 ). ‘Desire’ is the word translated ‘covet’ in the tenth commandment (Ex 20:17 ).

In vv. 26–33 the case against the adulteress is closely argued through comparison with a prostitute, fire, and a thief. The Hebrew text of v. 26a is obscure. The English versions are divided between the sense that a prostitute costs only the price of her fee (cf. NSRV; NEB) and that a prostitute brings a man to poverty (NIV). In either case the point is that the adulteress exacts a heavy price: ‘a man's very life’. vv. 26–7 appear to be popular maxims. The point of the comparison is reinforced by a wordplay in Hebrew between ‘wife’ (᾽ēšet) and ‘fire’ (᾽ēš). v. 30 may be construed either as a question (RSV; NEB) or as a statement (NRSV; NIV). In the former case, the point of vv. 30–3 appears to be: how much more will the adulterer be despised than the thief and how much more dearly will he have to pay since he has no excuse? In the latter case, the cost to the adulterer is the same, but it would be contrasted with the lenient view taken of a thief in these circumstances. The concluding verses (vv. 34–5 ) envisage a jealous and enraged husband seeking revenge and demanding a higher price than money.

( 7:1–21 ) The Wiles of the Adulteress

The body of this passage is formed by an example story on the wiles of the adulteress (vv. 6–23 ). It is enclosed by parental instruction to accept teaching (vv. 1–5 ) and avoid the adulteress (vv. 24–7 ). The appeal to the child in vv. 1–5 closely echoes 6:20–4 . In v. 4 ‘sister’ probably means ‘bride’ (cf. Song 4:9–10 ), again presenting Wisdom as a counter-attraction to the adulteress for the love and fidelity of the child (cf. 4:6–9 ).

The story is cast in the form of the personal reminiscence of what the narrator observed through the lattice of his window. In the LXX it is the woman who looks out of the window seeking her prey, and this reading has been preferred by some scholars. The story unfolds with a young man making his way through darkening streets towards the house of the adulteress (vv. 6–9 ). The impending darkness becomes symbolic for the story as a whole. He is accosted by a woman dressed like a prostitute and practised in the art of seduction (vv. 10–13 ). vv. 14–20 illustrate the ‘smoothness’ of her words (v. 5 )—the chief weapon in her arsenal (cf. 2:16; 5:3; 6:24 ). She flatters him and invites him to spend a night of sexual pleasure with her, reassuring him it is perfectly safe since her husband is away on a business trip. The significance of the cultic reference in v. 14 and its function in the seduction scene are quite unclear (cf. Murphy 1998: 43–4). In any case, unable to resist her advances and oblivious to the real cost he will have to pay, the young man follows her: one more beast to the slaughter; one more bird caught in her snare (vv. 21–3 ). The final paragraph (vv. 24–7 ) reinforces the lesson by exhorting the child to avoid the paths of the adulteress and warning of the deadly effects of consorting with her. Her house is the vestibule to Sheol and leads down to death (cf. 2:18–19; 5:8 ).

( 8:1–36 ) Wisdom's Second Speech

Personified Wisdom again takes her stand in public places and invites all who would learn from her to receive her instruction. In vv. 1–11 she assumes the role of a wisdom teacher. The prophetic note of reproach and threat characteristic of her first speech ( 1:20–33 ) is lacking. The setting in vv. 2–3 is reminiscent of the ‘patch’ of the seductress in 7:11–12 . It has emerged that Wisdom has to compete not only with the distractions of everyday life and wilful folly ( 1:20–33 ) but also with the enticements of the seductress. The emphasis on the character of Wisdom's words in vv. 6–9 can be seen in this light. While the words of the seductress are marked by duplicity and fraudulence, the words of Wisdom are marked by candour and integrity. Wisdom speaks in plain language, which is intelligible to all who find her (v. 9 ). vv. 10–11 are very similar to 3:14–15 .

In vv. 12–21 she extols her providential role in the good and orderly government of the world (vv. 12–16 ) and as the giver of wealth (vv. 17–21 ). vv. 12–14 closely echo the language of the prologue ( 1:2–7 ). The terms ‘advice’ and ‘strength’, however, anticipate the manifestation of the various qualities of wisdom in the government of kings and rulers (cf. Isa 11:2 ). The role claimed by Wisdom is comparable to that of a royal counsellor (cf. 2 Sam 16:23 ) and even to God himself (1 Kings 3:1–15 ). vv. 17–21 (cf. vv. 10–11 ) are a variation on the theme of 3:13–18 . Wisdom bestows not only the intimacy of her embrace but also wealth and prosperity upon her lovers. The connection between vv. 12 and 14 is interrupted by v. 13 and it should perhaps be transposed to vv. 6–9 .

The hymn of self-praise by Wisdom in vv. 22–31 falls into two parts: Wisdom's origins before creation (vv. 22–6 ), and her place at creation (vv. 27–31 ). As rendered by the NRSV, Wisdom variously describes herself as created by God (v. 22 ), set up or installed (v. 23 ; with royal overtones, cf. Ps 2:6 ) and as born (vv. 24–5 ). However, the significance of the first two terms in the Hebrew is disputed. The first translates Hebrew qānāh, which besides ‘create’ (cf. Gen 14:19, 22 ) could also mean ‘procreate’ (cf. Gen 4:1 ). Likewise the second term, of uncertain derivation, may be connected with a root meaning ‘to be fashioned [in the womb]’ (cf. Job 10:11; Ps 139:13 ). Hence Wisdom may be consistently representing herself as a child of God. None the less, the emphasis of the verses is not the manner of Wisdom's origins but her priority over the created world. Although v. 22 alludes to the creation narrative in Genesis (‘beginning’), the language of the passage stands closer to hymnic celebrations of creation (cf. e.g. Ps 104:5–13; Job 38:4–18 ).

During the creation of the world, Wisdom was ‘there’ (v. 27 ), ‘beside’ God (v. 30 ). The particular part she played is obscured by the uncertainty of the meaning of Hebrew ᾽āmôn in v. 30 . The translation ‘master workman’ (NRSV) is based on Jer 52:15 and has the support of the LXX. In this case, Wisdom actively participated in the design and construction of the world. The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon explicitly represents Wisdom as ‘the fashioner of all things’ ( 7:1 ). Alternatively, the word may mean ‘little child’, connected with ‘those reared’ in Lam 4:5 . This suits the metaphor of birth in the preceding verses, while vv. 30–1 read more like a child at play than a craftsman at work. ‘Rejoicing’ is elsewhere used of children playing in the street (Zech 8:5 ). The picture is of Wisdom playing at her father's feet and bringing him pleasure and then making the world her playground. As her ways brought pleasure to God, so they now bring pleasure to humankind.

The final vv. 32–6 form a resumptive conclusion looking back to the appeal in vv. 3–4 . The ‘happiness’ of the man who finds wisdom recalls the theme of 3:13–18 . To neglect and miss Wisdom spells injury and death.

The identity of the Woman Wisdom in chs. 1–9 and especially in 8:22–31 has been extensively debated (see Camp 1985: 23–70). While some view the figure as a personification or hypostatization of a divine attribute, others find her origins in goddess figures within the ancient Near East or within Israel itself. Von Rad (1975: 148) argued rather that she was an attribute of the world, signifying ‘something like the “meaning” implanted by God in creation’. Certainly, she is an ambivalent and enigmatic figure. She belongs at God's side, but she is also at home in the world ( 8:31–3 ). This ambivalence conceals her identity as much as it reveals her place as the link between heaven and earth and the mediatrix of divine revelation and divine blessing.

( 9:1–18 ) The Two Banquets

In the first and last sections of this chapter, Wisdom and Folly are contrasted as rival hostesses inviting the simple to enter their house and dine with them (vv. 1–6, 13–18 ). Though Folly is portrayed in terms of the seductress, her description as ‘woman of foolishness’ (v. 13 ) implies that she personifies every kind of folly. Hence, the contrast reinforces not so much the earlier warnings against adultery as the teaching on the two ways (cf. 4:10–27 ).

The significance of Wisdom's seven-pillared house is uncertain. Among other things, it has been taken to symbolize the world as fashioned by Wisdom; the cosmic temple of Wisdom (Perdue 1994: 94–7), or to be simply a stately mansion. Correspondingly, the pillars have been thought to have cosmic or mythological significance; to reflect temple architecture, or to indicate that Wisdom's house is a rather splendid one which can accommodate all who accept her invitation. The invitation of Wisdom (vv. 3–4 ) echoes her earlier appeals (cf. 1:20–1; 8:1–5 ). It is addressed to the ‘simple’, i.e. to those who most need to dine with Wisdom but who can be most easily induced to dine with Folly (cf. 1:4 ). In v. 5 food and drink is used figuratively of Wisdom's instruction (cf. Isa 55:1–3; Sir 15:3; 24:19–21 ). ‘Bread’ may be better translated ‘meat’ (cf. v. 2 ).

The brash manner in which Folly invites the simple to her house (vv. 13–16 ) recalls the solicitations of the seductress ( 7:11–12 ) and contrasts with the formality and decorum of Wisdom's invitation. That the provision of Folly is water and bread (v. 17 ) may be intended to compare unfavourably with the sumptuousness of Wisdom's spread. However, it is likely that Folly is citing a popular proverb on the magnetic power of forbidden fruit. Whereas the banquet of Wisdom promotes and celebrates life (v. 6 ), to dine with Folly is to banquet with the ‘dead’ in Sheol (cf. 2:18–19; 5:5–6; 7:27 ).

The middle section (vv. 7–12 ) is digressive and is regarded by some commentators as a later intrusion. In its present context it may be intended to contrast two different responses to Wisdom's invitation—the one represented by the scoffer (cf. 15:12; 21:24 ) and the wicked, and the other by the wise and the righteous. It is those who are responsive to discipline and who fear the Lord who will partake of Wisdom's banquet.

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