"The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are sometimes called the 'wisdom literature.' The sages of the ancient Near East realized the superiority of wisdom over knowledge, for wisdom encompasses knowledge and includes understanding and moral conduct. One was not wise, regardless of his vast learning, if his actions did not comply with his righteous beliefs." (Institute Manual 2, p. 13)
Proverbs are short sayings that teach wisdom. The book of Proverbs is a compilation of wise sayings from several difference sources. Some of them may have come originally from Soloman. Many of them use the Hebrew poetic forms which teach by the use of paired couplets. Understanding the form of the couplets aids in understanding the truths the proverbs are teaching.
PROVERBS MATCH GAME
Review with the class the following three Hebrew poetic parallelism forms. (Click here for the blog entry on Psalms if you would like a more detailed treatment on the forms.)
- Synonymous Parallelism: The poet says the same thing twice, but with different words, to emphasis the point, or to clarify the meaning.
- Antithetic Parallelism: The second line states the opposite of the first line, usually connected by the word "but."
- Synthetic Parallelism: The two lines are related to each other as a cause and effect. The word "synthetic" refers to the thought being a compound.
Concentration (for small classes): Copy each couplet (partial sentence) below onto an index card. On the reverse side of the cards, and upside-down from the sentences, number the cards with large numbers from 1-20. Tape the cards with a strip of clear tape across the top of the card onto a posterboard so that they are arranged in order in a grid, 5 across and 4 down. On the blackboard, whiteboard, or bulletin board in your classroom, post the types of poetry listed above. To play, call upon a class member to choose two numbers. Lift the cards up and see whether they are a matched set--two parts of a sentence that go together. If they are, have the class member tape them together and post under the appropriate poetic form. If the cards are not a match, play resumes with the next class member.
(Note: if you are teaching teenage boys and you want to really get their attention, substitute Proverbs 30:17 for one of the synthetic parallelism examples!)
Simplified Concentration (for really small classes): Copy the couplets onto index cards, but don't put numbers on the backs of the cards. Sit in a circle on the floor. Spread the cards, face down, in the center of the circle. To play, a class member turns over two cards. If they match, he reads them, the class determines the form, and the cards are laid out as a match. If they don't match, he turns the cards back over, and the next class member tries.
Read and Match (for large classes): Print up the couplets and pass them out to various class members before class begins. List the poetic forms on the board. Have a class member who has the beginning of a sentence stand up and read it. Have the other class members determine if their phrases might be the matching one; the one who has the matching phrase should stand up and read his, and the class can determine which poetic form was used.
(Answers as to the poetic forms follow the list.)
1)The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge...
...but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)
2)A friend loveth at all times...
...and a brother is born for adversity. (Proverbs 17:17)
3)Treasures of wickedness profit nothing...
...but righteousness delivereth from death. (Proverbs 10:2)
4)The merciful man doeth good to his own soul...
...but he that is cruel troubleth his own flesh. (Proverbs 11:17)
5) Train up a child in the way he should go...
...and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
6)The father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice...
...and he that begetteth a wise child shall have joy of him. (Proverbs 23:24)
7)Honor the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase...
...So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine. (Proverbs 3:10)
8)He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding...
...but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly. (Proverbs 14:29)
9)Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out...
...so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth. (Proverbs 26:20)
10)A merry heart doeth good like a medicine...
...but a broken spirit drieth the bones. (Proverbs 17:22)
Synonymous: 2, 6, 9
Antithetic: 1, 3, 4, 8, 10
Synthetic: 5, 7
The word "Ecclesiastes" comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew title for "Teacher" or "Preacher." Although the book's author writes from the perspective of King Solomon (see 1:1), most scholars agree that the author was actually from a later time, and was just using that persona. The key word in Ecclesiastes is "vanity." Its literal translation is "breath" or "breeze" (Harper-Collins, p. 987). The word is used to show the transcience of mortal life.
If you are having trouble understanding Ecclesiastes, you are definitely not alone! Here is a quote from the Harper-Collins Study Bible, p. 987: "Attempts to find a clear structure in the book have not succeeded, and its tension-filled expression of life's contradictions gives the book a puzzlelike character....Ecclesiastes is not difficult to read, but its meaning as a whole is difficult. Scholars offer strongly conflicting accounts of its message."
The spiraling main concern of the book is that life on earth is temporary, it is a "vanity," a breeze passing by and leaving little trace that it was ever there. Much of what we focus our time and efforts on in mortal life ("under the sun") disappears like a vapor. It's a constant "vexation of spirit" to the author. What is the point? he continually wonders.
He observes that life cycles and renews. The sun goes down, just to come up again. One person comes up with a great idea, but someone else has thought of that great idea before. The experiences of mankind, as individuals, do not build upon each other, but each man learns again what others have learned. Life is ever unfinished: Even though the generations pass, "the earth abideth forever" (1:4). "All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full" (1:7).
He accomplishes great works, he learns the full gamit of knowledge from wisdom to madness, he builds an empire, he gains great wealth, he even devises irrigation (a great feat in his arid land). In the end, he observes, there is no profit "under the sun;" everything on the earth eventually decays and returns back into the cycle of life. Earthlife is fraught with trials and troubles, despite the best preparations.
In all his musings and observations about this transitory life, he sprinkles in the truths he discovers:
- Time goes by and does not return for men; therefore we must enjoy the experiences of the present, both work and recreation (2:24; 3:11-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:10). To be a workaholic is a "vanity" (4:8). Besides, those who seek after earthly treasures are never satisified with them (5:10-13), and nothing we gain or create is permanent (2:11). It is the journey itself we must enjoy, the process of the work and the play, and the relationships with others (9:9).
- It is impossible to comprehend the works of God (8:16-17; 11:6). In contrast to the "vanity" of man's life and efforts, God is timeless, and His works endure forever (3:14-15).
- Wisdom is the one thing worth getting (2:13; 7:11-12), and the key piece of wisdom, repeated throughout the book, is that we must fear (meaning to worship, respect and follow) God. This is the one thing that is not "vanity" (5:7; 12:13-14)
"The contrary pairs" in this poem "are a literary device using opposites to represent life's totality and variety" (Harper-Collins). This is emphasized even more by the fact that there are 14 of them. Seven is the number of completeness, perfection. Twice seven (14) is the impossible state of perfection doubled. Despite the transitory nature of life, the way that God has set up the cycles and seasons is absolutely, indesputably perfect.
(For more information on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, click here for the Institute Manual.)