April 2, 2012

Book Review: God’s Wisdom in Proverbs

I recently finished “God’s Wisdom in Proverbs” by Dan Phillips. Dan also authored another book I reviewed not too long ago. I point this out because, while written by the same author, they are very different books. “God’s Wisdom in Proverbs” walks us through the book of Proverbs, not in a 1:1-31:31 style, but topically outlining how God has given us the tools necessary to live as truly wise people.

GWP is a mine of information for someone like me who is Hebrew-illiterate. Dan, being both a student and a teacher of Hebrew, takes us back to the original language of Proverbs to help us understand what Solomon (yes, Solomon – more on that later) originally intended us to take away from his writings. The scholarly side of me loves this. More than once I’ve had people say to me, “The Bible has been mistranslated so many times over the years, we have no idea what it really says anymore.”

Of course, that’s not true. What’s true is that we have so many copies of the original works in their original languages that, as in the case of Proverbs, we know what it “really” said – or, someone who understands Hebrew does. Like Dan. But this is one reason why I appreciate the way Dan approaches the Bible in his writing.

Sometimes it seems like the reader can get bogged down in an explanation of Hebrew grammar, and I didn’t need to know for myself why a word (in Hebrew that I can’t type because I don’t know how to make the appropriate emphatic punctuation or whatever it’s called) is used to mean one thing in four other places in the Bible, so therefore in Proverbs it must also mean that same thing. However, even though I don’t need to know that at this time, I love knowing that I can know it, because we know what the original Hebrew was. And Dan takes the time to show us.

There’s also a fair amount of time in the first half talking about the types of Proverbs in the book from a grammatical perspective. Again, that’s not going to buy me groceries at Walmart, but it was helpful information later in the book, when Dan addresses the authorship of Proverbs.

Anyway, the first portion (probably not a full half) spends a good amount of time on the foundation – studying Proverbs from a Hebrew perspective, understanding the grammar and sentence structure, things I’ve never been exposed to before. That portion did take me a while to read through. I think I would have done better had I not been reading this on my own. This is perfect for a group classroom setting, and I’m sure I would have benefitted more from the instruction and interaction a classroom brings.

Dan begins by telling us,

Proverbs convey pithy points and principles,
not precious particular promises.

This is something of an earth-shattering perspective for a lot of people who read Proverbs generally as a set of “if/then” promises from God. One of the most popular, which GWP devotes a generous amount of space to, is Proverbs 22:6 “Train a child up in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” I’m sure I started memorizing that in AWANAs in first grade.

Or, take Proverbs 31. Many people seem to approach it like a checklist to be followed, rather than a general picture of a Wise Woman used as an example. When we look at the book of Proverbs as principles, not promises, then we can see Proverbs 31 not as a demand that every woman must be a work-at-home-stay-at-home-wife-and-mother. After all, that leaves out whole segments of the female population from ever “being all they could be” (i.e. women who remain single, women who can’t have children, etc.) Instead, in GWP we see that Proverbs 31 shows us that God values women (and therefore, so should men) because of “her prudence, her intelligence, the way she uses her head. God prizes an intelligent, insightful, thoughtful woman.” (page 218)

The latter portion of the book deals with how Proverbs tells us to handle relationships. Relationships in general, the marriage relationship, and parenting. Each of these get their own section and study. This was where I really started to fly through the pages – the practical application. Proverbs 31 is covered in the section on marriage, and Proverbs 22:6 gets not only discussion in the portion on children but also its own appendix.

And oh, the appendices! (That’s “more than one appendix,” if you didn’t know.) Another treasure trove all their own. The first appendix explores the author of Proverbs. The last book I read (and reviewed) on Proverbs made a point to mention multiple times that “we don’t know who wrote Proverbs.” The person didn’t say who she thought did write Proverbs, just that she was pretty sure Solomon didn’t. Dan shows us the various positions as to the authorship of Proverbs and then lays out (conclusively, in my mind) how Solomon is the author or Proverbs.

Now, why does that matter? I’m sure there are plenty of people who’d say, “Proverbs is great no matter who wrote it.” And that’s true. But, for me, it’s important, and I can tell you why with a story from college. I was a creative writing major. Which meant I had to take *groan* a poetry writing class (on top of countless poetry reading classes). I have never been a fan of poetry, or at least of the modern study of poetry. Because the modern attitude to literary criticism is to remove and ignore any possible original intent the author had for a piece, and project your own meaning onto the piece.

This irritates me greatly as a writer. If I’m writing something, it’s because I have something I want to communicate. Maybe serious, maybe frivolous, but either way I wasn’t just throwing random words on a page. There was a definite conclusion in there the read was meant to arrive at, and I think it’s insulting and self-centered to ignore an author’s original intent.

Therefore, if Solomon really did write Proverbs, then I want to be sure I’m considering what he meant when he wrote it.

This is a really pared-down explanation that Dan develops fully in that appendix, but this is why I found it interesting and important.

One of the other appendices was about Proverbs 22:6, the verse I listed earlier. And oh my goodness, was that one a lightbulb moment for me. Dan goes back to the original language and shows how, as modern Christians, we’ve been teaching and understanding this verse all wrong. After all, plenty of kids get fantastic, stable, moral upbringings and somehow wind up veering so far off the reservation the whole community is standing there scratching their heads saying, “What went wrong?” I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I found a much more applicable wisdom in this popular verse about parenting than in the majority view of it.

So, in summary:

The first portion of the book deals heavily in foundational study about the structure of Proverbs and in the proper way to approach Proverbs. Great for understanding some of the concepts later discussed in the book, as well as generally building your confidence in the reliability and authority of Scripture.

These concepts are reiterated so well throughout the rest of book that a person who doesn’t love diagramming sentences as much as I do could skip to the later portions dealing with marriage, children and other relationships first and enjoy what they are learning, and then go back to the beginning later.

The footnotes are not to be missed.

The appendices are, in my view, as essential reading as any of the rest of the chapters in GWP.

If you can find a friend or two (or a spouse!) to read this with, do it.


  1. Your review is excellent. I am reading this book now and finding it very helpful and enjoyable. I read a chapter of Proverbs every day (part of Professor Horner's reading plan). I'm enjoying the book of Proverbs much more now that I have a better understanding of it.


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