When it comes to preaching, the book of Proverbs has fallen on hard times. The thicket of individual proverbs that are located in chapters 10-29 have been marginalized in homiletic circles for a number of reasons. For one, the individual proverbs are perceived as having no context. The sayings, according to customary scholarly consent, are all randomly collected. For another, the proverb itself has no narrative plot. There is no homiletical loop or reversal motif built into the saying. If one were to diagram a narrative, it would be a line rising diagonally toward a climax.
In contrast the most fitting diagram of a proverb may simply be a period. Once a proverb has been spoken, can anything else be said? Tom Long has said that some view the book of Proverbs as “a deserted stretch of highway between Psalms and Ecclesiastes.”1 The book is often treated by preachers as the resident alien of Scripture. Preachers, therefore, feel their hands are tied when it comes to developing sermons from Proverbs.
Donald Gowen sums up the attitude of many homileticians:
Of what use can the Old Testament proverbs be to the preacher? Their very nature suggests they ought not to be taken as texts to be expounded in a sermon. What needs to be said, they have already said in the most effective way. They are like the punch line of a joke; if they have to be explained, better not to bother with it in the first place… When one preaches on wisdom themes the best way to use the proverbs may be as the writers of those sermonettes did [i.e. Proverbs 1-9], to intersperse them along the way to drive home a point and to serve as memorable summaries of what has been developed.”2
Al Fasol, in an essay on preaching from the Hebrew Scriptures, maintains that “Proverbs perhaps could be more effectively shared on Wednesday nights during Bible study.”3 Elizabeth Achtemeier confesses that “preaching from any portion of Proverbs 10-29 … can seem to confront the homiletician with enormous problems.”4 She continues:
What does a preacher do with a two- or four-line text that is unconnected with what precedes and follows it?” That is one of the difficulties with Proverbs 10-29; those chapters seem to have the most random order, simply listing maxims one after another.5
These observations are not uncommon by any means.
The common homiletical resolution is simply to peruse through the collection and gather together proverbs that address a common theme or topic such as wealth, folly, friendship, or speech and shape the topic into the form of a sermon. Achtemeier states, “In short, in dealing with traditional Wisdom, the preacher constructs a topical sermon, and, as we have said before, a topical sermon looks at the entire canon’s view of the subject.”6
There are limitations to this topical approach. First, it does not take the rhetorical and structural sense of the text seriously. Any possible contextual structure that might exist beyond the level of the individual proverb is ignored. Second, dealing with Proverbs 10-29 exclusively in a topical fashion runs the risk of over-looking a number of proverbs because they do not fall within the specific categories that one has listed. Several proverbs are quickly marginalized and get lost in the topical shuffle. Third, many of the proverbs are judged to be quite pedantic because there is no referent or context. But if the context of the proverb is taken seriously, could this not possibly give the melancholy proverb a new dimension and supply the needed referent?
My proposal is that a rhetorical analysis of Proverbs that approaches the texts synchronically can reveal an order to the proverbs that moves beyond the sentence level. Such a rhetorical perspective can reveal that the proverbs are not randomly collected. There is a macro-structure that exists and gives the proverb a context which opens up new horizons and possibilities for sermonic development. A contemporary example of how individual proverbs can intentionally be clustered together to form a coherent unit and even a narrative is seen in the following poem by Arthur Guiterman, entitled “A Proverbial Tragedy”:
The Rolling Stone and the Turning Worm
And the Cat that Looked at a King
Set forth on the Road that Leads to Rome–
For Youth will have its Fling,
The Goose will lay the Golden Eggs,
The Dog must have his Day,
And Nobody locks the Stable Door
Till the Horse is stol’n away.
But the Rolling Stone, that was never known
To Look before the Leap
Plunged down the hill to the Waters Still
That run so dark, so deep;
And the leaves were stirred by the Early Bird
Who sought his breakfast where
He marked the squirm of the Turning Worm
And the Cat was Killed by Care!7
The poem tells of the rolling stone, the turning worm and the cat who sat out together one day on a carefree adventure which ends in tragedy. This proverb poem has been clustered together in a structure which has a narrative sequence to it. It is an example of how proverbs can be pressed into the service of a larger structure.
When one brushes away the deposits from the surface of the individual proverbs in chapters 10-29, what is frequently found is an intentional structure that extends to the surrounding proverbs. However, unlike the proverb poem by Guiterman, the proverbs in the book of Proverbs are seldom structured in a narrative sequence. The structures in Proverbs are not developed around a narrative plot but around such rhetorical forms as inclusios, catchwords, chiastic structures (ABBA patterns), parallel structures (ABAB patterns), and thematic clusters all of which are common forms found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Identification of these patterns and markers expose the macro-structures of the proverb collection and opens up new possibilities for preaching proverbs. A brief description of these rhetorical devices is helpful for identifying them as used in the book of Proverbs.
An inclusio is the repetition of the same word, phrase or idea at the beginning and end of a text. It signals the conclusion of a thought or a text. It serves as a way of enveloping a unit, tying it together as a whole. For example, Proverbs 10:6-11 begins and ends with the proverbial phrase, “but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” These proverbs are also clustered around the theme of speech which makes this text a cohesive unit.
Speaking of theme, thematic clusters are also quite common in the book of Proverbs. For example, Proverbs 18:4-8 address the theme of speech:
The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters/
the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream//
It is not good to be partial to a wicked man/
or to deprive a righteous man of justice/
A fool’s lips bring strife/
and his mouth invites a flogging//
A fool’s mouth is his ruin/
and his lips are a snare to himself//
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels/
they go down into the inner parts of the body//
Some texts of proverbs are grouped together by a catchword. For example, Proverbs 16:10-15 are placed together by the catchword “king” (with the exception of verse 11). Proverbs 26:1-12 is clustered around the catchword “fool” (except v. 2). There are a series of Yahweh sayings strung together in Proverbs 15:33-16;9, the catchword being “Yahweh.”
Another frequent rhetorical device around which proverbs are collected is parallelism. This is not the internal parallelism within a particular proverb. Rather it is macro-parallelism in which a group of proverbs are brought together. One example of this is Proverbs 29:15-18. These four proverbs are placed together in an ABAB pattern.
The rod and reproof give wisdom/
but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother//
When the wicked are in authority transgression increases/
but the righteous will look upon their downfall//
Discipline your son, and he will give you rest/
he will give delight to your heart//
Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint/
but blessed is he who keeps the law//
Verses 15 and 17 concern discipline in the home. Verses 16 and 18 concern discipline in society and the nation.
Chiasmus is also a frequent rhetorical tool used in Proverbs to structure the sentence sayings. Duane Garrett offers Proverbs 14:8-15 as an example.8 The proverbs collected here are formed around an A B C D D’ C’ B’ A’ pattern. The center proverbs affirm that the ap-parent success of the wicked is short-lived. The next two proverbs adjacent to the center (vv. 10 and 13) observe that the appearance of happiness can be deceptive. Proverbs B and B’ are also parallel and affirm that individuals reap what they sow. And finally proverbs A and A’ (vv. 8 and 15) both speak of the prudent and the fools (They also form an inclusio.).
I am not arguing that all the proverbs within chapters 10-29 are tightly clustered units. What I am proposing is that the rhetorical context and function of the individual proverbs be taken seriously within the book of Proverbs. By nature the proverb is most fulfilled when engaged in active duty. That is, it is always seeking a context in order to do its work. Some scholars have claimed that when a proverb is consigned to a collection it dies because it has no context or social occasion in which to work. Whenever a proverb is codified it loses its force and power.9
Such an attitude has hovered over the book of Proverbs affecting its use in the church and in preaching. The position that I am advocating is that because of the proverb’s strong character, it does not wait around to be pressed into service in some social context outside the collection. It sees action within the book itself. The dynamic activity that occurs outside the book of Proverbs is already occurring within the book. By design the proverb clusters itself with other proverbs of like mind and, to its delight, finds itself engaged in spirited dialogue. But this dialogical and structural dimension within the collection of Proverbs has been ignored. When such a dimension is honored, new opportunities are opened up for preaching.
1Long, Thomas G. Preaching the Literary Forms of the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989, p. 53.
2Donald Gowan, Reclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit Edinburgh: T&T Clark, reprint, 1994, p. 104.
3Al Fasol, “Preaching in the Present Tense: Coming Alive to the Old Testament,” in Reclaiming the Prophetic Mantle: Preaching the Old Testament Faithfully, ed. George L. Klein, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992, p. 230.
4Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching from the Old Testament Louisville: Westminster/John Knox press, 1989, 171.
5Achtemeier, p. 171.
6Achtemeier, p. 172. F. LaGard Smith, in The Narrated Bible: In Chronological Order, treats the book of Proverbs topically. He orders the proverbs around topics such as “Insight and Ignorance,” “Good and Evil,” “Control of the Tongue,” “Honesty,” etc. pp. 614-661. New International Version, Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1984.
7See The Laughing Muse, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1915, p. 16
8Garrett,Duane. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993, p. 142.
9Janet E. Heseltine has maintained this: “Looked at in one way, the history of the use and disuse of proverbs is a progression from the concrete to the abstract.” Janet E. Heseltine, Introduction, “Proverbs and Pothooks,” The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs comp. William George Smith, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935): xii.

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