The Doctrine Of The ‘Two Ways’ In Proverbs -- By: Daniel P. Bricker

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 38:4 (Dec 1995)
Article: The Doctrine Of The ‘Two Ways’ In Proverbs
Author: Daniel P. Bricker


The Doctrine Of The ‘Two Ways’ In Proverbs

Daniel P. Bricker*

In reading the book of Proverbs it becomes apparent that people and actions are often presented in polar extremes. Some of the prominent polarities are the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the wicked, and actions that lead to honor or shame. 1 This may leave modern readers with the impression that individual proverbs fail to present real situations because the situations in view seem too simplistic. Some, taking an extreme view, see Proverbs as “generally mediocre as literature, tedious as ethics, banal as religion.” 2 This unmerited scorn may be due to a pervasive unpopularity of the proverb in modern culture, along with centuries of familiarity and repetition that have rendered them trite by modern standards, as well as the apparent lack of topical organization the book of Proverbs presents to the reader. 3

A reading of Israel’s wisdom literature from this kind of standpoint might see the book of Proverbs as a collection of quaint sayings and admonitions whose application and practicality are no longer in effect. But a key to understanding the wisdom of the book of Proverbs is to understand the “two ways,” a concept used to teach the importance of choosing wisely which path or lifestyle would be followed: the path of the wise and righteous, or the way of the foolish and wicked.

A proper grasp of the purposes of Proverbs and a sensitivity to the literary and cultural background of the book will help the modern reader to appreciate the proverbial wisdom of Israel. The tendency to express the issues and concerns of society in extremes was due to at least four factors: (1) the constraints of Hebrew poetry, (2) the nature of a proverb, (3) the use of “way” or “path” as a metaphor for conduct or lifestyle, and (4) the didactic purposes of the book.

* Daniel Bricker is a doctoral candidate in Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 N. Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91101–1790.

I. The Constraints Of Hebrew Poetry

Ancient poetic conventions made it difficult for sages to formulate proverbs other than in short, pithy sayings and admonitions. When reading the sayings in Proverbs in English translations it is easy to forget that we are reading the shortest poems in the Bible. 4 It was not until the RSV appeared in 1952 that the poetical sections of the OT outside the psalms were printed as poetry. 5 A f...

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