22 August 2007

Proverbial pairings, triplings

by Dan Phillips

A hotly-debated topic in deeper studies of Proverbs is the question of the book's arrangement. When I first started teaching the book, decades ago, it was a "given" that each verse of most of chapters 10-30 at least was largely without immediate context. The rule we all apply to other portions of Scripture — pay close attention to the immediate context! — simply does not often obtain here. Hence, Proverbs 10:1 is a complete thought, 10:2 is another, 10:3 yet another, and so on.

This dictum has been challenged by several scholars and commentators. Duane Garrett makes arrangements for the book; and that deep and wonderful Biblical scholar Bruce Waltke (who I admire deeply, but who has driven me a bit nutsmore than once), sees arrangements throughout the book.

The problem, however, is as Tremper Longman observes: these arrangements vary from scholar to scholar, and seem to reflect the ingenuity of the individual commentator more than Solomon's design.

My own position is that as a rule I do not see arrangement throughout those chapters, yet it is (to me) undeniable that some passages have related themes. I'll read (say) Garrett, and say to myself from verse to verse, "Okay... yes... maybe... what?!!" But even among the "yeses" and the "maybes," the tantalizing question is: how much of these thematic groups was Solomon's design, and how far does each verse advance the thought of how large a section?

These verses stood out to me recently as an example:
10 The name of the LORD is a strong tower;
the righteous man runs into it and is safe.

11 A rich man's wealth is his strong city,
and like a high wall in his imagination.

12 Before destruction a man's heart is haughty,
but humility comes before honor.
(Proverbs 18:10-12)
Now, each verse stands on its own two feet, makes perfect sense, and could be expounded irrespective of the others.

Yet, is there more to it? Do the three verses join to communicate a single, complex thought? If so, here's how the thought might develop:

Verse ten depicts the man who apparently has nothing — materially. Yet he has a lively faith in Yahweh. You can't see it, but he has a strong tower in the name of Yahweh. And so, in reality, though having no visible means of support, he has limitless and matchless invisible means of support.

Verse eleven, by contrast, portrays the man who apparently has everything — materially. What you can see looks like a fortress, like a strong city. He seems to have vast and powerful means of support. However, the situation is only so in his imagination. He sees it that way. But he is wrong.

Verse twelve comments chiastically (as it were) on both of those verses, beginning with the latter (v. 11), ending with the former (v. 10). The rich man's heart is haughty, imagining that he has great and real resources and wealth and provisions, and resting on them alone. But he (and they) are doomed to destruction.

By contrast, the humble man who trusts in the name of Yahweh alone is headed — not for the eternal humiliation and destruction of the rich materialist, but — for everlasting honor.

Now, there it is. Clever? I suppose. Biblical? Beyond all doubt.

But was that Solomon's intent? That's the big question.

I see some hints that it was.

There are two connections which are more easily seen in Hebrew than in English. "Strong" in v. 10 is the word `ōz, the same word as "strong" in v. 11. Also, and less visibly in English, "and is safe" in v. 10 translates a form of the Hebrew verb śāgab. It's the idea of being safe by being put up in an inaccessibly high place. It is seen again in "high" in v. 11. Same verb, same stem (niph`al, for any fellow Hebrewiacs).

I don't see any direct verbal connection with verse 12, though there is a semantic one. The word for "haughty" means "high, lofty" — a different word, but arguably a synonym for "high" in vv. 11-12.

So while I'd not argue that it's a slam-dunk that Solomon meant these three stand-alone proverbs to unite to tell a single tale, I'd certainly say that (A) he could well have, and (B) they quite handily do.

Dan Phillips's signature


Quintin said...

Man that is so cool.

donsands said...

Nice study on Proverbs.

"being safe by being put up in an inaccessibly high place."

"But God, ... has quickened us together with Christ, ...
And has raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus." Eph. 2:4-6

This verse came to mind. What safety our souls do have.

James Scott Bell said...

Good work, Dan. Hebrew parallelism and chiasm seem applicable here, and a legitimate way to deepen understanding the verses.

What rules would you suggest for how far one goes along these lines? As you indicate, someone can get lost looking for these connections (a forest for the trees thing). What guidelines help you in this regard?

DJP said...

Oh boy, Johnny, what a good question. Wish I had an ironclad answer.

Verbal/semantic tags and catchwords/catch-phrases are definitely legitimate connectors. But are they just that? I mean, in chapter 16, Yahweh and His sovereignty (subject of my Master's thesis) is very prominent. Did any of the proverbs initially go together, however? Or is it like the trip I took with my boys a few weeks back, when we "played a game" of recalling all the Bible verses about trees that we could think of?

Now, that gets us into gleaning authorial intent from the text, which is paramount — but in Proverbs it can border on authorial mindreading, which is impossible to do with certainty. What we have to do with is the text as given

So, in this case, I could connect those texts with confidence in a sermon (or meditation) because (A) there's good reason to believe they were meant to be connected, (B) they are canonically adjacent, and (C) I would draw no conclusion that wasn't warranted by a host of other passages.

Any help there?

Stefan Ewing said...

"Chiasm" is a fascinating concept, and "chiastic" is a cool-sounding word.

Hebrew literary constructs in general are so foreign to modern English conventions, and yet they're just so rich in their expressiveness. Hebrew poetry is neither metered nor rhymed (and is even formatted as prose in the KJV!), and yet is so beautiful in its geometrical patterns.

(By the way, it was not my conscious intention to write this comment in the form AABB. It just worked out that way!)

Stefan Ewing said...

(Actually, it's AABCBC. Spooky.)

FX Turk said...

"Johnny Chiastic" sounds a lot like "Johnny Chapstick", but that would be a cool blog handle.


FX Turk said...


Stefan Ewing said...


DJP said...

Chiastic, yeah, cool word.

And what term would describe the relationship between the topic of any random Frank Turk comment in any comment thread of any random post of mine, and the topic of that post?

Stefan Ewing said...

What hath been unleashed?

philness said...


That word would be frankness.

philness said...


Meanwhile back at the ranch. I actually get what you are saying here and I chalk it up to the fact that Gods word is truly living.

James Scott Bell said...

Wow. I've become source material. Cool.

FX Turk said...

I want to apologize to Dan for hijacking his thread, but that would imply I won't let it happen again. I have no idea why I do it, but I do it. I can't stop.

DJP said...

...and we love you for it.

Or if not that, then, certainly, for something else.

And, since my new name runs into my head....

DJP said...


Solameanie said...


For a minute, I thought Genesis was getting ready to record Abacab II.

Sorry. Once a radio announcer, always a radio announcer. It's awful when every other word by an interlocutor reminds you of a song.

Sigh. Or should that be pheh?

BTW, good post, as usual. :)

Stefan Ewing said...

That reminds me...our pastor is starting a Genesis series in a week and a half, on the patriarchs after AB-raham. ;)

Stefan Ewing said...

Providential serendipity. :=)

Ben said...

The next question is whether there's any significance to the arrangement of the Psalms, and after that, the canonical arrangement of the books of the Bible (and whether we should follow the modern order of the OT or the Tanak order Jesus seems to have endorsed.

Solameanie said...


I'm afraid I have "no reply at all." If I did, I would be "entangled" in a trap of my own making, and that would haunt me until I experience "unquiet slumbers for the sleepers . . . in that quiet earth."