The Puzzle of Proverbs

Proverbs 25.2 tells us that

It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings is to search things out.

This statement, dropped into Proverbs among many others, might not seem to be that important to understanding the entire book. But it does seem to refer back to the introduction.

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,…

Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles. (vv 1, 2, 6)

So the wise speak in riddles, and listening to (and presumably also reading) Proverbs, will enable you to understand those riddles. But it seems Solomon doesn’t intend to list the answers to those riddles. He wants you to learn to solve them for yourself.

Instead of viewing Proverbs as a collection of simple directives and clear advice, we ought to view it as an intentional puzzle. Proverbs 26.2-3 should end any doubt about this:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

People have written much to explain how these are compatible, but the point is that Proverbs does not tell you. It wants you to go through the process of thinking through the tension.

Since those two verses are together, no one can argue that they were included in the text without anyone noticing the interpretive tension they produce. But Proverbs has more of this kind of thing, though maybe nothing as direct.

Proverbs 16.9 and 21.5:

  • “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
  • “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.”

Or compare Proverbs 10.15 and 18.11:

  • “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”
  • “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his imagination.”

Far from being simple moral observations, reading Proverbs carefully reveals tension that the reader is supposed to wrestle with. It contains some clear directives—the basic moral commands you find in the rest of the Bible—but it can’t be read as an instruction manual for life.

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