Biblical Proverb as a Literary Form

“Beyond even [the Bible’s] poetry, I was impressed by it as a treasury of gnomic wisdom . . . its richness in utterances of which one could, as it were, chew the cud. This, of course, has long been recognized, and Biblical sentences have passed into the proverbial wisdom of our country.”
Francis Thompson, Books That Have Influenced Me

“A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7).  This famous proverb fulfills the classic definition of an aphorism, also called a saying.  It is a concise, memorable statement of truth.  It is one of many proverbs you will discover in the Bible.  In fact, the Bible is probably the most aphoristic book in the world.  Proverbs are embedded within its narratives and poems, and much of the New Testament is inherently proverbial.  And if that isn’t enough, the Bible has the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, which are whole books devoted to proverbs.

What are the essential features of the biblical proverb? Consider these three examples:

  • “A gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4).
  • “Those who trouble their households will inherit wind” (Proverbs 11:29).
  • “A good wife is the crown of her husband” (Proverbs 12:4).

Based on these examples, we can make a few generalizations about the proverb as a literary form.  First and foremost, it is memorable.  It is an insight conveyed with striking brevity.  It is both simple (easily grasped) and profound (it gets to the heart of an issue).  It is often poetic in form, using such staples of poetry as concrete images, metaphors, and similes.  The language used is often specific (tongue, tree, wind), but the situations are universal.

If we turn from the form of a proverb to its content, it is important to bear in mind our most basic literary principle — that the subject of literature is human experience.  The truthfulness of a proverb reflects the way things are in the world.  A proverb encapsulates universal, recognizable human experience.  As you analyze a proverb, ask the following questions:

  1. What human experience does the proverb describe?
  2. How does the proverb achieve its effects? Does it use concrete imagery, figurative language, or other poetic devices?
  3. What does the proverb mean? What virtue does it encourage, what vice does it denounce, and what value does it offer for approval?

As a case study, let’s look at the proverb, “Like a bird that strays from its nest is one who             strays from home” (Proverbs 27:8).

  1. What human experience does the proverb describe? It cautions against the physical dangers and moral temptations that threaten people when they leave the grounding influence of home and family.
  2. How does the proverb achieve its effect? It takes the poetic form of a simile — one who strays from home is like a bird that strays from its nest.
  3. What is the meaning of the proverb? It commends the virtue of home, warns about the vice of getting into trouble when away from home, and affirms the value of home.

If you want to put the foregoing methodology into practice, take a few minutes to read Proverbs 27.  These proverbs touch on all manner of human experience — from the folly of people who brag (verses 1-2) and the deceptiveness of flattery (verse 6), to the trials of having to endure a cheerful early-rising neighbor (verse 14) and the prosperity that comes to diligent workers (verses 23-27).