Within the larger structure of the book of Proverbs, chapters 1–9 have a particular place. Formulating the importance of a fearful or awe-inspired relation to God, their tone is distinct. And although, as seems likely, Proverbs’ first nine chapters were written last, they were placed first, to set the tone for the entire book (Whybray 1972: 14; Hunter 2006: 80).
Simultaneously, these first chapters show their indebtedness to eastern wisdom traditions. Forms of Egyptian didactic instruction provide Proverbs 4 with its model: a father sharing his wisdom with his son—at times literally using the term ‘instruction’ (vv.1, 13)—about what it means to live a righteous and meaningful life (Whybray 1972: 4).
While the father’s instructions distinguish very clearly between the righteous and the wicked, the light and dark (vv.18–19), the son is also encouraged to live his life and discover the world on his own. The father evokes the fact that instruction is simultaneously inherited and passed on—a gift he received from his own father (vv.3–4) as well as a gift he bestows on his son (vv.11–12). This key message is developed in the three blocks of verses. Each of these three blocks has a distinct approach to (the instruction of) wisdom (Whybray 1972: 29–32).
The first notion is to cherish the value of inherited wisdom. In his 1883 painting, Hendrik Valkenburg depicts a group valuing their perception of the righteous inheritance during a service in the rural Achterhoek area in the east of the Netherlands. Dissatisfied with Protestant ministers who were, in their eyes, too free-spirited, several secessionist groups began organizing services in barns throughout the nineteenth century. The group portrayed here—probably consisting of such secessionists—spans various generations, with even the smallest child sitting on the floor leafing through a picture Bible.
Reinforcing the centrality of Scripture for this group, the notion of fatherly advice is enacted by the practitioner who leads the service, a clergyman not distracted by institutional politics but entirely focused on the Word. Holy Writ is the locus of wisdom for these devotees. He and his listeners together embody the view that institutions had corrupted the value of traditional wisdom and sought to re-pave the right path on their own.
The fatherly instructions of Proverbs very clearly envision what this right path consists of and how it stands out from the ‘wicked’ path of temptation and darkness. Only through gaining wisdom and obtaining insight will the son be able to recognize this distinction in the wider world (vv.14–15,18–19). While these instructions function on a more theoretical level, the actual living of life will offer a more practical test, demanding of the son an ability to see the difference between right and wrong, and to resist temptation. The notion of gaining and applying wisdom, and discovering how it makes one see the world differently, can be recognized in the 2018 installation by Giorgio Andreotta Calò. He transformed the famous fall of light in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam by applying red foil to all the church windows. With this one simple intervention, he completely altered the way that visitors to the church saw the interior of the building. The installation challenged visitors to adapt their eyes (and minds) to perceive anew an environment they might have thought they knew well. Likewise, so Proverbs teaches, wisdom imbues our surroundings, but we have to undergo (trans)formation in order to discern it.
In addition to its instructions about resisting external temptation, the last part of Proverbs 4 reinforces the internal challenges the son will face. The father’s teachings about how to deal with this draw on deep ancestral wisdom. Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s 2008 painting likewise focusses on the wisdom of ancestors as it represents the journey of a group of women to an Aboriginal sacred site. Wisdom is gained through knowing and re-encountering the ancient spirituality of the land, or (as Aboriginals call it) ‘country’.
Such a journey can only successfully be made by attending to one’s embodied presence in the ‘country’ that is travelled; the land in which spiritual ancestors are embedded.
Proverbs 4 speaks a great deal about bodies. The heart, ear, feet, eyes, and flesh are vessels of wisdom in finding the right path. Thus, Reid Nakamarra’s painting also brings us back to a theme of Valkenburg’s work. Despite the vast post-colonial impact on Aboriginal traditions, one of the remaining, defining features of Aboriginal culture is the value of orally and ritually transmitted knowledge (or, indeed, wisdom) from generation to generation, from—to speak with Proverbs 4—father to son.
Hunter, Alastair. 2006. Wisdom Literature (London: SCM Press)
Whybray, Roger Norman. 1972. The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Book of Proverbs (London: Cambridge University Press)
4Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight;
2for I give you good precepts:
do not forsake my teaching.
3When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,
4he taught me, and said to me,
“Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live;
5do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
Get wisdom; get insight.
6Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
7The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever you get, get insight.
8Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her.
9She will place on your head a fair garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”
10Hear, my son, and accept my words,
that the years of your life may be many.
11I have taught you the way of wisdom;
I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
12When you walk, your step will not be hampered;
and if you run, you will not stumble.
13Keep hold of instruction, do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life.
14Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of evil men.
15Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
16For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;
they are robbed of sleep unless they have made some one stumble.
17For they eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence.
18But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
19The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know over what they stumble.
20My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
21Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
22For they are life to him who finds them,
and healing to all his flesh.
23Keep your heart with all vigilance;
for from it flow the springs of life.
24Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
25Let your eyes look directly forward,
and your gaze be straight before you.
26Take heed to the path of your feet,
then all your ways will be sure.
27Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.