The Wonderful Characters of Proverbs
The Bible is the finest example of the best storytelling the world has ever known. Whether it is the simplicity of parables told so uneducated peasants can understand them, to the darkened depths of David’s moral depravity in murdering Uriah in order to keep Bathsheba for himself.
As has been said, the most learned professor in the world will ever exhaust its riches or plumb all its depths. It’s shallow enough for a child to paddle in, and deep enough to challenge the biggest elephant.
Possibly the most timeless and enriching books in the whole collection that believers of all religions — even atheists — respect and enjoy, is the Proverbs of Solomon. Allegedly written by the wisest man in the world at that time for the benefit of the male children from his 600+ wives, it provides an incredibly colourful series of characters describing moral stereotypes that never change through human history. The entire work is designed to instruct and correct a young man to live wisely.
It is a simple book dealing with cause and effect: how things really are, and the consequences of the choices we make.
Wisdom is a Beautiful Woman
The first person Solomon introduces us to is a beautiful heroine: lady Wisdom herself, personified as a gloriously elegant queen in flowing robes, who — strikingly — calls out from the town square and the city gates like a lover, to those who would court her; a beautiful goddess looking to seduce those who want her, and enticing them with her qualities and benefits.
But crucially, lady Wisdom is no pushover — she is there to rebuke the unwise. She also warns those who do not embrace her that they condemn themselves to death, even the kings that rule and the princes that govern.
All Children Are Born Foolish
The first observation common to all Proverbs is that it pulls no punches about the nefarious state of human nature, but does not condemn for the astute understanding that the normal, natural of a little person is not to have acquired any wisdom — and is, hence, foolish.
If life is a process of growth, then we must have a starting point, and an upward axis to move across. It’s therefore unreasonable to expect a child with no experience with which to gain wisdom, as having any. And even more foolish to condemn or resent them for it.
However, even a cursory read indicates that the idea of parenting in Proverbs is, to say at least, seemingly harsh. The answer is to drive it out by disciplining the child to accept loving rebuke, and therefore to learn to discipline him/herself.
“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.”
He even goes so far to say that those who don’t discipline, don’t love at all, because it will lead their child to their death:
“Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
“Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death.”
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.”
The lack of it has a rather horrifying effect:
“The rod of correction gives wisdom, But a child left to himself causes shame to his mother.”
Notice that Solomon does not use the term as a synonym for “punishment”, and the hyperbole is not to be taken literally. The metaphor of a rod is an emotive term used to indicate the harshness required, and not an instruction to physically beat a child.
Solomon intrinsically assumes that he is providing guidance to the Wise — not the abusive, manipulative, or any of the character types he says to avoid, that might end up being parents. His assumption is that they are averse to correction themselves, so would not be reading in the first place.
In legalistic definition, discipline — the end — is obedience to rules or a code of behaviour. The means to correct violations to a required code of behaviour is punishment. No punishment is due for obedience.
What is being said, in essence, is that a child’s inherent foolishness must be driven by the process of extrinsically requiring them to obey rules and a code of behaviour, rather than doing as they wish without consequence. Punishment is a supporting corrective devicefor disobedience that should be given impartially, equally and fairly in proportion to the offence, and the equivalent consequences for it in adult life.
The discipline of Proverbs is in training a child to adhere to a structure of good character/behaviour, and not in a) requiring them to mindlessly obey an authority figure, or b) conditioning through pain/suffering.
The outline is clear: children have to be given a structure of cause of effect, actuated by behaviour and consequences. Actively explain and outline to a child the code of behaviour they are required to adhere to in their training for adulthood, and enforce it justly, consistently, and lovingly with unflinching harshness if they violate it. The harshness drives out their innate foolishness, helps them to accept rebuke/correction, and by default, acquire wisdom.
Simplicity: The Intermediate Stage
Solomon writes that children who have not been properly disciplined by loving parents, or those who are not yet fully matured, walk into early adulthood in a “limbo” state: a character he calls the Simple. They are not Fools (even though we are all born foolish), but they lack judgment.Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from your mistakes.
It is a stage in a person’s growth typified by gullibility and naiveté, but they must not stay there, as you cannot stay an adolescent. It is at this point where a person must make the choice — time cannot remedy it — to become wise, or ignore the calling, and devolve into a Fool.
- Not prudent.
- Lack judgment.
- Fall into traps.
- Chase fantasies.
- Inherit folly.
- Deride their neighbour.
- Believe anything.
- Preyed on by folly.
- Strike hard on a pledge.
- See danger and keep going.
- Easily seduced by adulteresses.
- Sleep and slumber.
- Don’t tend property.
- Put up security and surety for loans.
In contemporary vernacular, these are arguably the “Basic Bitch” and “Basic Bro” of our culture, who lack any form of sophistication, and tend to follow others and believe what they are told. They are also frequently the target of con-artists, the evil, and specifically, targeted aggressively by the adulteress.
Correction: the Litmus Test
According to Solomon, there is only one major thing that differentiates the Wise from the Fool: how they receive instruction and correction.
“So don’t bother correcting mockers; they will only hate you. Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be wiser still.” (Proverbs 9)
The measure of a person’s level of personal wisdom is by observing their response to rebuke.
The Fool responds to someone’s correction with a spectacular fail, even if the Mocker tends to deliberately avoid it:
- Hates them for it.
- Despises wisdom.
- Believes themselves right in their own eyes.
- Reacts defensively with scorn and outrage.
- Will not listen.
- Will use deceit to draw them into their argument.
- Leads others astray with them.
Whereas the Wise:
- Loves them more for their rebuke.
- Absorbs the wisdom deeper into themselves, and becomes even wiser.
- Lives among the Wise.
There Are Only 3 Ways a Person Goes
Proverbs implicitly tells us that we must make a choice between wisdom and folly, but there are three states we exist in:
As children, we are born foolish, and discipline drives it out of us. As we enter adolescence and young adulthood, we are then Simple. During our simplicity, we must consciously make a choice as to whether we will grow by valuing and chasing the rebuke of lady Wisdom, or refusing to learn. The best case scenario for those who do not choose to be wise is that they remain Simple, with all it entails.
The more common result is that our Folly and Simplicity turns malevolent, devolving and reducing us into more malicious folly: turning us into an incurable Fool, someone Evil, an Adulteress, a Sluggard, a Miser, a Mocker, a Gossip, a Glutton, or a Drunkard.
At this point, society divides: the Simple lose their lives to Fools, and the Wise are smart enough to avoid and separate from them. In adult life, Solomon rightly defines the two sides: fools and their company, and the Wise. We must choose a side, or have it chosen for us by our own behaviour.
Lady Wisdom is someone we must choose to actively chase, by conscientious study, and loving those who lovingly rebuke us.
Types of People To Avoid At All Costs
Solomon’s keen observation is that if we walk with fools, we will become a fool. And conversely, if we walk with the wise, we will become wise. We must guard our hearts and minds, and choose the right friends because their influence is powerful. Bad company ruins good morals.
Specifically, he details a list of characters that are evil in their nature, and to be avoided at all costs because of how harmful they are.
To put in the brilliant contemporary words of George Carlin:
“Kids have to warned that there’s bullshit coming down the road. That’s the biggest thing you can do for a kid — tell them what life in this country is about: It’s about a whole lot of bullshit that needs to be detected and avoided.”
To be called the court jester was much more of an insult than it is today. Being labelled a “fool” was an extremely serious denigration that marked you out as hopelessly stupid. In many ways, Proverbs has more about the Fool than any other character because it is the opposite of what is being aimed for, and often drifts into humour at their expense.
And we all know people like this. What’s interesting is how aggressivethe Fool is in their stupidity, and how infectious it can be.
- Denies God exists.
- Lack knowledge.
- Blurt out arrogance, anger, and folly.
- Bring trouble onto themselves.
- Feed on trash.
- Delight in folly.
- Think themselves wise.
- Endlessly repeats folly.
- Quick to quarrel.
- Thinks without speaking.
- Cannot be changed or helped.
- Despises wisdom.
- Can’t deliver messages.
- Rages/scoffs in court.
- Die from their own lack of judgment.
- Spread folly.
- Despises their mother.
- Ruins their father.
- Outraged/dangerous if interrupted.
Fools are unrighteous, unwise, unrealistic, undisciplined, unreliable, unteachable, unpleasant, unliked, and undesirable. And as all children are born foolish, it’s the ultimate end of those who don’t grow up. The worst kind is the Mocker.
A Fool is inseparable from his stupidity — a rebuke is better received by the wise than 100 blows by a fool, who eats his own vomit time and time again.
Some people just plainly have a deeply evil nature, regardless of whether it is coerced and exacerbated through nurture. Unrepentantly evil, lacking any remorse, they take pleasure in the pain they cause others. Nowadays, we’d call these 1 in 25 people, psychopaths. Or serious organised criminal gangs like Cosa Nostra.
Solomon’s starkest warning comes before anything else in the entire work — even before introducing lady Wisdom herself: to resist the invitations of sinful men:
“My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, “Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for innocent blood, let’s ambush some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; cast lots with us; we will all share the loot” — my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into evil, they are swift to shed blood. How useless to spread a net where every bird can see it! These men lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush only themselves! Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it.”
- Delights in doing wrong.
- Perverse words.
- Entices others.
- Rejoices in evil.
- Cannot sleep until they cause another to fall.
- No idea why they stumble.
- Flee without pursuers.
- Plot evil.
- Deceitful heart.
- Their name rots.
- Their income brings punishment.
- Their deeds/sin ensnare them.
- Stir dissension.
- Detest the upright.
- Hate men of integrity.
- Does not understand justice.
- Years cut short.
- Earns deceptive wages.
- Gives deceitful advice.
- Kindest acts are cruel.
- Brings shame and disgrace.
- Despises the Lord.
- Listens to evil lips.
- Craves evil.
- Refuses to do what is right.
- Bold front.
- No future hope.
- Disguise with their words.
- Destined for ruin.
There’s no messing about here. They have no hope, they’re revolting, and they’re destined to die young.
Easily one of the most lurid descriptions of anyone at all in the bible, the Adulteress could also be called “the psycho” or the man-eating “black widow”. Like a spider, she lurks, and lays a trap to catch the Simple character passing by, using her eyes and seductive words/promises to hide her viciousness. She is a “deep pit”.
“She seizes him and kisses him, and with bold face she says to him, “I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you. I have spread my couch with coverings, colored linens from Egyptian linen; I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey; he took a bag of money with him; at full moon he will come home.” (Proverbs 7)
- Loud and defiant. Defiant.
- Lies in wait with crafty intent.
- A wayward wife.
- Lurks in every corner.
- Dressed like a prostitute.
- Feet never at home.
- Captivates with her eyes.
- Preys on your very life.
- Creates lust in your heart.
- Seduces with persuasive/charming words — her mouth is a deep pit.
- Makes idealistic claims and promises.
- Takes hold and kisses, forwardly.
- Seduces by offering dreams and promises.
- Thoughtless about life.
- Unaware her paths are crooked.
- Like a narrow well — her lips drip honey.
- Has many victims.
- End is bitter/sharp.
- Quarrelsome like constant oil dripping.
- House/paths/steps lead to death.
Solomon’s lesson is: learn to recognise this type of person, and avoid them at all costs, because her house leads to death itself.
The funniest mocking in the whole Bible is reserved for the lazy. The criticism is not for people on a sleepy day, but those who are habitually dismissive of hard work or any kind of effort. They even go so far to make absurd excuses: “A sluggard says,“There’s a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!”
“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest — and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.” (Proverbs 6)
- Lies around sleeping, turning like a door hinge.
- Wiser than everyone else in their own eyes.
- Makes ridiculous excuses.
- A permanent house-guest.
- Destined for poverty.
- Lazy from sleep.
- Way is blocked with thorns.
- Does not plow in season — empty harvest.
- Too lazy to bring their own hand to their own mouth.
The net effect of laziness is a blocked future that is literally stolen by poverty.
Office politics would be a lot more enjoyable without the predictable character who has nothing good to say, and takes such pleasure in the titillating dissemination of other peoples’ business. But gossip isn’t harmless, even though it looks and feels like the tastiest meal: it’s destructive to dignity, relationships, and trust.
“Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.” (Proverbs 26)
- Words are choice morsels.
- Quarrels die without them.
- Talks a lot.
- Betrays confidence.
- Separates close friends.
The solution to discord and strife amongst communities is to expel the gossips, which causes the problem to simply vanish.
Scrooge in all his glory. The greedy, selfish and plainly miserable type who wants to hoard everything to himself, without any empathy or sympathy for others. This character is juxtaposed against the generous “cheerful giver” type who reaps a much greater harvest, almost unintentionally.
“Do not eat the food of a stingy person, do not crave his delicacies; for he is like someone calculating the cost in his mind. “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you; you will vomit up the little bit you have eaten, and will have wasted your pleasant words.” (Proverbs 23)
- Eager to get rich.
- Destined to be poor.
- Heart not with you in celebration.
- Waste of compliments.
- Preoccupied with cost.
- Brings trouble to the family.
Also known as the Mocker, this type of Fool looks down on others and bitterly pours contempt, ridicule,and derision on them, taking pleasure in their misfortune. This could describe any comedian in the lexicon, but rather refers to the chronically negative critic who can never find good in anything — the type who would find a reason to insult you even if you’d written them a cheque for a million dollars.
“The proud and arrogant person — “Mocker” is his name — behaves with insolent fury. When a mocker is punished, the simple gain wisdom; by paying attention to the wise they get knowledge.”
- Cause strife, insults, and quarrels.
- Stir up a city.
- Resent correction and hate those who rebuke them.
- Will not consult others.
- Never finds wisdom.
- Insults correctors.
- Drinks wine.
Attempt to correct a scoffer, and they will hate you for it. Like the gossip, getting rid of them makes strife disappear.
Gluttony is more than simple greed: it is wilfully indulging yourself in more than you need to the point of waste, like throwing away food that could nourish the needy.
“Listen, my son, and be wise, and set your heart on the right path: Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat,
for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.”
- Stirs up dissension
Gluttons have the same fate as alcoholics: trouble all around them, and outright poverty from their habits.
There really aren’t many other descriptions of alcoholism’s long-term destructive effects that can rival Solomon’s. Even in ancient times, alcohol abuse was a horrific problem that plagued ordinary people and robbed them of their lives. Proverbs’ descriptions are the textbook narrative for the household that harbours an alcoholic in the family, even going so far to make mention of the infamous Hair of the Dog DTs the next morning.
“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights, and your mind will imagine confusing things. You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt! They beat me, but I don’t feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink?”
- Needless bruises.
- Victimhood and self-pity.
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Not wise.
- Destined to be poor.
- Clothed in drowsiness.
- Doesn’t feel pain.
- Needs another drink in the morning.
- Confused mind.
- Lingers and gazes over drink.
Wine is a mocker, and beer a brawler. The outcome of alcoholism is clear: confusion, strife, and poverty.
The Ideal Wife To Marry
In a culture beset by norms that levelled women as third-class citizens below animals, and impoverished widows who lost their lives due to their dependence on men, Proverbs is infamous for its extraordinarily beautiful description of the perfect wife. Infamous more than in part, in its praise, delight, and plain-spoken respect for the dignity of womanhood, in contravention of any other religious text.
Solomon writes to his hundreds of sons in order to answer that same question every one wanted: “who should i marry?”
Firstly, he stresses the importance and value of a wife as a blessing from God himself, and the most powerful wealth a man can have:
“A good woman is hard to find, and worth far more than diamonds.”
“A wife with strength of character is the crown of her husband, but the wife who disgraces him is like decay in his bones.”
Then, he lays clear what the consequences are for being “unevenly yoked” to the wrong one:
“It is better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.”
“A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious wife are alike.”
“It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.”
There is no mixing words: find a good wife, and you’ve found a crown worth more than diamonds. Pick the wrong one, and your life is going to be miserable.
So that leads us to the profile of the kind of woman who is worth more than diamonds, and it’s pertinent that it is idealistic — almost verging on implausible. Solomon’s idea of a wife is the most romantic, respectful, and admirable human portraits anyone — male or female — could live up to.
- Husband has total confidence in her.
- Hard worker up before daylight.
- Always brings good, never bad.
- Smart investor, great businesswoman and manufacturer.
- Provides for household and manages it.
- Well dressed.
- Able to laugh.
- Strong and dignified.
- Instructs wisely.
- Physically athletic.
- Children and family love and admire her.
- Fears the Lord.
She’s a well-dressed, hard-working investor and businesswoman who is admired by the household she provides for. And interestingly, the one quality that apparently underpins all the rest is the general level of activity, or “active-ness” they all require, and illustrate.
Nowhere does it say, or even imply, a wife should stay at home, or simply attend to domestic duties.
But What About The Noble Husband?
In Solomon’s time — indeed, up to as close as fifty years ago — only a wife would be “chosen”, and without inheritance, would also rely on her husband’s income for survival. Men were the architecture of society as a whole, and as such, Proverbs is written for the king’s sons; implicit in the book is that is written for a male student.
Accordingly, it would be foolish to assume “sexism” in the literature, when you consider the entire book is a treatise on what it takes to be upright as a person — as man. In opposition to the partial chapter describing a virtuous woman, the whole book describes what a wife should look for in a husband.
Solomon calls the paragon, and ultimate outcome, of chasing lady Wisdom as one of the Wise, a very specific set of names: the righteous, the noble, the upright, the prudent, the diligent. It’s the greatest shopping list of all.
- Fears the Lord.
- Fears the Lord.
- Shuns evil.
- Guards his speech.
- Honors God with his wealth.
- Sound judgment.
- Cautious in friendship.
- Guided by integrity.
- Stores provisions.
- Avoids fools, adulteresses and drunkards.
- Stays awake to work.
- Doesn’t love sleep.
- Stores up commands and keeps them.
- Guards his heart.
- Holds his tongue.
- Stores up knowledge.
- Delights in wisdom.
- Keeps secrets.
- Cares for animals.
- Cares about injustice of the poor.
- Works his land.
- Listens to advice, rebuke, and correction.
- Overlooks an insult.
- Promotes peace.
- Gathers money little by little.
- Kind to the needy.
- Hates bribes.
- Loves own soul.
- Restrains from drinking.
- Loves justice.
- Saves, not spends.
- Gives thought to his ways.
- Takes refuge from danger.
- Guards his soul.
- Stays away from fools and doesn’t speak to them.
- Disciplines his children.
- Looks after his master.
- Pays careful attention to resources.
- Confesses sins.