Wednesday, May 18, 2011 6:53 AM

Words in Proverbs

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 6:53 AM
Wednesday, May 18, 2011 6:53 AM

The book of Proverbs contains a variety of words to convey what it means by wisdom and it’s opposite. A respected linguist, Michael Fox, has made an especially thorough study of this “rich vocabulary”. In it he notes that “precise distinctions between terms for wisdom” are often not essential for understanding a given verse, nor is the book itself much concerned “with drawing fine distinctions among the types it condemns”. He also cautions that it is often “impossible to find a single English equivalent for each Hebrew term.” Moreover, it is “important to distinguish between lexical and contextual meaning, which is to say, between the nuclear meaning a word contributes to the new context and the enriched meaning it receives by interaction with its new environment”.  Still, he insists, knowing what a given word brings to a text is important, and dictionary meanings are helpful.

 The following is a selected list of terms for wisdom and folly in Proverbs. This is followed by a verse where it is so translated, and then by a quote or two from the analysis of this word by Fox.

 Insight: (for understanding words of insight, Prov 1:2b). “Insight is similar to the modern concept of intelligence, except for the modern assumption that intelligence is innate”.

  Knowledge: (for giving … knowledge and discretion to the young, Prov1:4). Knowledge is the broadest of the wisdom words. It is broader even than English ‘knowledge,’ in so far as it includes minimal acts of awareness and innate intellectual capacities apart from learned information and skills”.

 Purpose: (The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters; Prov20:5a). The purpose “is essentially deliberation: careful thinking and planning, the resolution arrived at by such thinking, and the capacity for such thought”.

 Wisdom: (for attaining wisdom. This wisdom “is essentially a high degree of knowledge and skill in any domain.… The nearest English equivalent that encompasses its semantic range is expertise”.

Discipline: (for attaining wisdom and discipline. “The core notion conveyed by discipline is the teaching of avoidance of faults… discipline is basically correction, whether by verbal rebuke or by physical punishment”.

 Understanding (Good understanding wins favor; Prov13:15). “When understanding refers to a kind of wisdom, its core meaning is ‘insight,’ the ability to grasp the meanings or implications of a situation or message. Understanding is consequently discernment or prudence, the ability to understand practical matters and inter-personal relations and make beneficial decisions. It later comes to include intellectual understanding and unusual expertise”.

 Stupid (He who hates correction is stupid; Prov12:1b). “The stupid is an ignoramus. Animal-like brutishness is his earmark.… The term stupid does not necessarily denote a pernicious defect”.

 Lacks judgment (I noticed … a youth who lacked judgment; Prov7:7). The expression “means the same as the English ‘empty-headed.’ It has a precise equivalent in Egyptian … ‘one, who lacks a heart,’ which refers to the senseless, imprudent person rather than the arrogant or wicked fool.… Since the Hebrew expression is found only in Wisdom literature, it is likely an Egyptianism”.

 Fools (despise wisdom and discipline; Prov1:7b). The fools “are not idiots or madmen, for these would not bother either to esteem or to despise discipline. Rather … [folly] is the willful refusal to make moral choices”.

 Folly (The woman Folly is loud; Prov9:13a). “Folly is smug mental sloth with respect to its impact on judgment and reason. It is stupidity that comes from obtuseness and complacency, not merely from inadequate intelligence”.

 Mocker (The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none; Prov14:6). The mocker “is both arrogant and scornful.” Such people’s “words do not express mockery so much as cynicism and insolence. In their audacity, they imagine themselves immune from punishment”.

 Simple (for giving prudence to the simple, Prov1:4a). The root meaning is to “be gullible.” The “malleability” of the simple “leaves them open to learning and improvement (Prov8:5; Prov 9:4- 6; Prov19:25; Prov21:11). Indeed, according to the Prologue the [simple] is the primary audience of Proverbs’ instruction (Prov1:4)”.[1]


[1] Miller, J. W. (2004). Proverbs. Believers church Bible commentary (329–330). Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.

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