To reverence and fear the Lord will start to make one wise (Proverbs 1:7a)
About ten years ago I translated the book of Psalms into poetic meter. This is known as a metrical psalter because the plain text of Psalms has been put into rhyme. Metrical psalters go back at least to the Protestant Reformation where many Christians saw the Psalms as the exclusive form of worship text. The primary purpose in converting the Psalms into meter is so that they can be easily set to music and sung. For example, “The Scottish Metrical Psalter,” which was approved by the Church of Scotland in 1650, is in use to this day.
Meter is a way to make plain text more accessible and more memorable. Although any text can be memorized, it requires an intentional and concentrated effort. However, when a text is put to music it can be memorized almost without thought. Just think about how many songs you know simply because you have heard them repeated. Metered verse is also easier to recall than plain text, even when it is not sung. Again, think about how many childhood poems you still remember today.
Proverbs, like Psalms, is a poetical book, which means that a translation into meter would be consistent with its form. However, there are obvious challenges in doing so. For one, Proverbs is not a collection of sacred songs or prayers like Psalms, but is a form of wisdom literature. Furthermore, there are two very distinct types of poetry in Proverbs. Proverbs 1-9 comprise an extended “wisdom” poem. Proverbs 10-29 include primarily two-line poetic couplets that are generally disconnected one from the next with the subject constantly changing. Proverbs 30 and the beginning of 31 include longer poems. The remainder of Proverbs 31 is a poem to celebrate a virtuous women/wife.
Despite its stylistic variations, I have decided to make a verse-by-verse translation of Proverbs into common meter. I have no grand expectations in doing so. Although metered verses could be easier to memorize, it is certain that Proverbs would never by sung as some do with metrical Psalms. Mostly this is a private discipline for study. But it is also challenging and fun, and in these troubled times that is not such a bad thing. My hope is that in the reading others may benefit as well.
Starting with this post, I am going to share chapters as I translate them. Along the way, I intend to comment on anything I find noteworthy.
Comment On Proverbs 1
1) The fear of the Lord is the foundation of all wisdom.
The sure foundation of wisdom is not to be found in “how to” books, or YouTube videos, or the media, or politicians, or our feelings; but only in the fear of the Lord! The key is verse 7:
“To reverence and fear the Lord will start to make one wise;
but fools detest intelligence, instruction they despise.”
“Fear” is also translated as “reverence,” which gives a fuller meaning to the verse because “fear” suggests that we are to be in dread or terror of God. “Reverence,” on the other hand, means to stand in awe of God and regard him with deep respect. Unless we truly revere God, we will not take his word seriously. This is why the fear of the Lord is the start of being wise – the reverence we have for him is reflected in the reverence and value we put on his word.
There is much involved in whether or not we follow the wisdom of Proverbs, but at its root is whether or not we truly revere the Lord. If we do, then we will desire the knowledge and insights in Proverbs. If we do not, then we are unlikely to have much interest in their teaching.
2) Proverbs is both wisdom literature and poetry.
This means that we must read it from both perspectives. As wisdom literature it provides truths about how we are to live our lives. Paramount among these is the importance of wisdom itself in guiding our actions. However, if we think about Proverbs only as wisdom literature conveying unembellished, literal truths, then much will be missed. Remember, this is also poetry with all of the metaphors, imagery and hyperbole that entails. Poetry engages our imaginations in order to reveal deeper truths. For example, consider verses 10 and 11:
My child, if wicked people call, enticing you to sin;
Do not capitulate to them, beware and don’t give in. (10)
For they may say, “Come join with us, let’s find someone to kill –
O let’s attack the innocent, just simply for the thrill.” (11)
If we read verse 11 solely as wisdom literature, we might well pass it over because it’s pretty certain no one has ever asked us to kill someone. But when read as poetry we may want to consder that “killing” someone is hyperbole for any harm done to others. Jesus made this exact point when he said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
Similarly, if we read verse 10 literally, its application may elude us. For where has a wicked person ever enticed us to sin? No doubt this is remote from most of our experiences. Perhaps someone has asked us to lie or cheat for them, but certainly not to rob and kill someone. But there is a deeper truth here because there is much subtlety in wickedness, as is revealed throughout Proverbs. For wherever there is slander, lying, and unforgiveness, we recognize the hand of wickedness. It is not so much that a wicked person asks us to follow them. Rather, the enticement is a psychological permission to emulate their behavior. This we must resist. Proverbs is unequivocal on this point.
Ronald Rolheiser writes that we must always live, “in respect, graciousness, and love. These are nonnegotiable essentials within Christian charity. They are also part and parcel of all that is noble within humanity. Whenever we step outside of these, as we often do in our discourse with those who are not of our political or ecclesial mind-set, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the high cause we think we are serving justifies this fundamental lapse in our humanity and charity. … The perennial temptation, especially when the issue at stake is a critical one, is to bracket the essentials (respect, graciousness, and love) on the basis of cause and, in essence, fall into a way of thinking that says: This issue is so important that I need not be respectful, gracious, and loving in this instance. I may demonize an opponent, assassinate character, name-call, and use everything in my power, perhaps even violence, to have my truth win out. Because I am right, and this is so important, I can bracket basic respect.” (Sacred Fire 265-266)
Proverbs tells us that this is not only wrong, but it will end up badly for us. This is a theme that runs throughout Proverbs 1 – if we follow the path of sin, we will reap what we have sown. In the words of verse 31:
“And thus, you’ll eat what you have grown – the fruit of your own way;
You’ll doubtless get what you deserve, as one who’s gone astray.”
1 These proverbs are from Solomon,
whose wisdom was renowned;
As David’s son and Israel’s king,
he royally was crowned.
2 He wrote these down so we may know
and learn to recognize,
Insightful words and good advice,
and sayings that are wise.
3 They teach us wisdom we can use,
instruction we can trust –
To live in truth and honesty
and do what’s right and just.
4 For those who lack experience,
they demonstrate what’s true;
For those still young and immature,
they help them think things through.
5 And even those already wise,
they help their knowledge grow;
For those who are intelligent,
they guide in what to know.
6 To those who understand in part,
they usefully explain –
The words and riddles of the wise,
and knowledge they contain.
7 To reverence and fear the Lord
will start to make one wise;
But fools detest intelligence,
instruction they despise.
8 O hear, my child, your father’s words
and what he teaches you;
And everything your mother says –
take heed and don’t eschew.
9 For all their words are like a crown,
a garland for your head,
A necklace of the highest grade,
that’s spun from silver thread.
10 My child, if wicked people call,
enticing you to sin;
Do not capitulate to them,
beware and don’t give in.
11 For they may say, “Come join with us,
let’s find someone to kill –
O let’s attack the innocent,
just simply for the thrill.”
12 “Alive and whole we’ll swallow them,
like those dropped in a grave;
We’ll overwhelm and bury them,
entombed within a cave.”
13 “And we shall plunder all they have –
their precious goods and gold;
With these we’ll fill our houses up
to more than they can hold.”
14 “So join now our conspiracy
to capture all this loot;
And all the riches taken in,
we’ll share without dispute.”
15 O no, my child, do not give in,
don’t ever walk their way;
Don’t set your foot upon their path,
or do the things they say.
16 For evil is their way of life,
it’s there they fix their eyes;
They always act upon their hate,
ensuring someone dies.
17 It’s said that birds have eyes to see
wherever nets are spread;
They know enough to stay away,
or they will wind up dead.
18 But wicked people do not see,
the nets that they extend,
Will be a trap for them alone,
which kills them in the end.
19 O surely this will come to pass
to all who live by strife;
For those who lust for unjust gain
will sacrifice their life.
20 O hear, O hear, now Wisdom’s call,
she’s crying everywhere –
In markets, ways and thoroughfares,
and in the public square.
21 She cries within the city gates,
where many she can reach;
Above the noise of bustling streets,
she makes this fervent speech:
22 “How long will you be simpletons,
like those who play the fool?
How long will you hate what is wise,
and all things ridicule?”
23 “If you repent at my rebuke,
your present ways foreswear;
I’ll pour my spirit out to you,
and all I know, will share.”
24 “But many times I’ve called to you,
so you would understand;
Yet you did not attend to me
when I stretched out my hand.”
25 “My counsel you have heeded not,
my words you’ve not believed;
My reprimand you have ignored,
it’s import not received.”
26 “And so whenever trouble comes,
and tragedy is near;
I’ll laugh at your calamity,
and mock you in your fear.”
27 “When terror strikes you like a storm –
a fierce and driving rain;
You’ll find it leaves you in distress,
in agony and pain.”
28 “And though you call to hear my voice,
you’ll not perceive a sound;
And though with diligence you search,
there’s nowhere I’ll be found.”
29 “For all of this was caused by you,
since knowledge you ignored;
You hated learning what is true,
and did not fear the Lord.”
30 “You did not seek to learn from me,
or do what I advised;
My counsel you did not obey,
my discipline despised.”
31 “And thus, you’ll eat what you have grown –
the fruit of your own way;
You’ll doubtless get what you deserve,
as one who’s gone astray.”
32 “For wayward people surely die
when wisdom they reject;
And fools that show complacency,
soon find their lives are wrecked.”
33 “But everyone who hears my voice
will surely live in peace;
They’ll dwell secure and be at ease,
and all their fears shall cease.”