The book of Proverbs is distinct from other texts in the canon in that it offers to bridge the gap between the laws from God and the motivational behavior of the people. To put this writing into context of the Old Testament so far (succinctly): the Pentateuch seeks to establish creation, God’s relationship with man, and His laws and consequences of breaking said laws. Proverbs enters the canon as a behavioral-based text for those seeking to follow and delight in God, specifically the benefits of adhering to God’s commands.
Again, to look to the context of the canon, books such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy targeted the laws given by God for His people: what types of sacrifices He desired and demanded and in what manner to give them, which men would be in leadership for those laws, and how the body of God’s people Israel were to be separated. Also included in these texts were the examples of punishment when God’s chosen disobeyed His laws. Additionally, books such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Chronicles concerned the leadership of Israel and relationships to other nations.
However, in looking to the text of Proverbs, this book begs the question: What would we lose in the story of God if this text were removed or deleted from the canon? To answer this question, we must briefly look to the above texts. The books of law delineate the rules of God. Subsequent books relating to the law describe the aftermath of either breaking those laws or adhering to them. These books address the “what” from God to man. Also, the canon so far addresses individual people and their behaviors to one another and to God. These offer biographies of “who” in roles of leadership or influence. But it is Proverbs that seeks to offer the “why” of following God’s laws. Proverbs directs the motivation to follow God and His laws. If we lost the book of Proverbs, we would miss the encouragement and behavioral actions that Proverbs seeks to present.
The Oxford Annotated Bible states, “Fools are not simply unintelligent, but unethical in their conduct.” We have seen illustrations of God’s people being foolish, and we have seen God’s responses to their behaviors. So how do we, the reader of the text, keep from being a fool? To keep His commandments is not enough, as we have seen in I Samuel 15:22. We must also have the motivation and desire to follow the laws. Action without heart is empty. Proverbs offers instruction and benefit as to the why and how of following the law.
Proverbs focuses on wisdom and knowledge. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). The writer continues to implore the reader to seek wisdom and to uncover understanding and knowledge. Throughout the text wisdom and knowledge are compared to jewels and gold and silver, the most precious objects a person could possess. However, no matter how desirable these objects are, they are nothing, according to the writer, compared to the value and preciousness of wisdom.
Additionally, throughout the text wisdom is personified as a woman calling out on the streets. Wisdom is brought to mankind in the vehicle of the feminine. We, the reader, are to seek her and cherish her and desire to protect her. We are to desire intimacy with her as we would seek intimacy in marriage. To simplify, at the risk of over simplifying, law is “masculine” and wisdom is “feminine,” and no one may follow God without both. Wisdom entails the motivation behind why we follow the law. God gives us law; law establishes boundaries. God offers wisdom; wisdom bestows purpose.
It is the pattern that the writer implements throughout the text which illustrates the balance. The verses in chapters 10-31 can be read like a teeter totter: the first example is of wisdom, the second example is of foolishness. These verses are set up as “If…then…” scenarios to which the reader has a choice: choose wisdom and receive blessings, but choose folly and reap destruction and/or humiliation. Verse 22:4 states, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” This is not to be confused by assuming that if the reader is wise he will win a financial lottery. On the contrary the wise will benefit in the richness of character and attitude. Furthermore, when wisdom is sought and attained, that person will not care if monetary wealth is achieved. Money will be a by-product with knowledge as the true reward.
In another sense, the pattern that the writer uses could also be assumptive, or even sarcastic, as well. For example 13:24 states, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” We could almost add the question after each pairing, “And you surely do not hate your children, do you?” or “You certainly do not wish to be a fool, do you?”
Ultimately, this text is necessary in the canon as it provides the motivation for God’s people to follow His law, that the motivation involves an intimate and consistent relationship with the gifts of wisdom and knowledge, and that cherishing that relationship will benefit the reader with rewards far exceeding anything this temporal world could offer.