Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Tradition assigns authorship of three biblical books to Solomon.
The rabbis said that he wrote the Song of Solomon as an amorous youth, Proverbs as a middle-aged man, and Ecclesiastes as a (disillusioned) old man. While the superscription to the book of Proverbs (1:1) reflects that tradition, the book contains several collections of sayings (see 22:17; 30:1; 31:1). Some could very well go back to the time of Solomon, but it is impossible to ascertain authorship or dates of composition with any certainty.
Nevertheless, the book of Proverbs is the preeminent book of “Wisdom” in the Old Testament, and so is understandably associated with Solomon, the epitome of wisdom (see 1 Kings 4:29-34). The book is part of the Wisdom literature of the Bible, along with Job, Ecclesiastes, and (in the Apocrypha) Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon.
Wisdom literature seeks to teach its readers/hearers “wisdom;” that is, how to live well. This wisdom is handed down from parents to children (1:8) and is based not on revelation but on experience and observation. Nevertheless, it is grounded in a right relationship with God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7; 9:10; 15:33).
The task of Wisdom literature, including Proverbs, is character formation. It seeks to train up young people in the way they should go (22:6). It upholds the virtues of honesty, hard work, self-control, and respect for those in authority, among other things. And it addresses issues of everyday life: economics, friends, family, work, sex, politics, etc. In the words of Ellen Davis, “The proverbs are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour forth from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”1 Since that description encompasses most of those gathered in worship on a Sunday morning, it is appropriate to pay some attention to these “spiritual guides” in one’s preaching.
The proverbs assigned for this Sunday’s reading are a sample of the hundreds of such sayings in the book of Proverbs (found primarily in chapters 10-30). It is good that there are only six verses assigned, as these short sayings are meant to be understood individually. They do not, in general, build upon one another, though they may be grouped according to common words or common themes. If one tries to read many of them at once, the task quickly becomes tedious, and the various proverbs become muddled together in one’s memory. The proverbs are, instead, short poems that are best pondered one by one.
Let us consider the proverbs for this day, then, individually.
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold (22:1).
The Hebrew says, in the second line, “good favor,” meaning a good reputation or high esteem. This is not celebrity or fame, with which our culture is so obsessed. It is not based on physical beauty or other ephemeral qualities. It cannot be “spun” by a good public relations person. A good name, a good reputation, is something earned over many years. It implies integrity, honesty, and responsibility. It cannot be bought. Indeed, it is worth more than all the riches in the world.
The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all (22:2).
The Hebrew literally says, “The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the maker of them all.” The NRSV translation, though, captures the sense of the proverb. (See similar statements in Proverbs 29:13 and Job 31:15.) Depending on one’s social position, this proverb inspires either humility or hope. We are not what we have. Our worth is not based on our bank account. We are, at the most basic level, creatures, fashioned alike by God, the creator of all. When we by chance “meet together”–the janitor and the CEO, the homeless man and the lawyer walking by, the hotel maid and the well-to-do vacationer–we can, if we have eyes to see, recognize in each other the face of our brother or sister.
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail (22:8).
The proverb uses an agricultural image familiar to its original hearers. You reap what you sow. The one who sows injustice or iniquity will (eventually) receive a harvest of trouble. The one who sows foolishness will be caught in his folly. And the power of “his anger” (the Hebrew says) will just fizzle out. There are ample public examples, from Wall Street to Washington to Hollywood, to show that this proverb is as true now as it was in ancient Israel. It should serve as comfort to the afflicted, and as a warning to all.
Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor (22:9).
In contrast to the subject of the previous proverb, the person described here is generous, giving of what he or she has to the poor, and being blessed in return. Though no agricultural imagery is used here, one might talk about these two proverbs together; for in this proverb, too, you reap what you sow. In this case, however, the planting and the reaping involve things like generosity, blessing, and bread; things that make for life, for both giver and recipient.
Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them (22:22-23).
The specific words used in these verses imply a court setting. The gate was the center of legal and business activity in a town. In this case, God is both prosecuting attorney and judge. And the crime is robbing the poor “because they are poor.” The poor are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, both in ancient times and today. Think of the prevalence of predatory “payday lenders” in certain urban neighborhoods, charging exorbitant interest rates because their customers have nowhere else to turn. Robbing the poor “because they are poor” may seem to be an easy thing to do, but the proverb warns of the consequences: the LORD will take the life of those who prey on the life of the vulnerable.
These are just a few thoughts on the proverbs assigned for this week. The preacher, of course, can choose to reflect on others, as his or her context warrants. Whatever the preacher chooses to reflect on, he or she will be drawing on the accumulated wisdom of generations of faithful women and men who have sought to live lives of integrity, lives of “wisdom.” Their voices can continue to teach us today.
1Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), p. 12.