Characters in the Proverbs

If you are following along with The Crossing’s Bible Reading Plan, then you have been working through the first few chapters of Proverbs over the last couple weeks. I have been doing the reading in my new ESV study Bible (available at the bookstore and highly recommended by Dave Cover). Whenever I start a new book in the reading plan I also read the introduction to it in the ESV. This has been fascinating for me and has heightened the level of my reading in every book of the Bible so far.

I have read Proverbs before, but after reading the introduction in the ESV Study Bible it has been a completely new experience. One of the insights offered in the intro that I would specifically like to highlight is an understanding of the main characters in Proverbs.

We don’t tend to think of Proverbs as a character driven story. It is not like the history books of the Old Testament recording Israel’s mistakes and successes, or like the gospels following Jesus’ life and death.

Instead, it seems to be a collection of wise sayings cut and pasted together by the author. In one sense, this is very true. However the way the sayings are collected and hung together is through the use of certain characters that continually show up throughout the book.

Understanding the character types in Proverbs is integral to understanding what the author intends to teach us. Likewise, understanding the main characters has helped me see exactly where I fit into the story that Proverbs is telling.

3 Main character types stand out:

The Wise
The ESV intro states that the character who is wise in Proverbs “embraces God’s covenant and learns the skill of living out the covenant in everyday situations.” To put it simply, the wise character shows “skill in the art of Godly living.” This is the person who continues to work hard at applying the grace of God, the story of the Gospel to everyday situations. He is not perfect at it, but over months and years he sees more and more how the promises of God apply to every square inch of his life.

Proverbs 9:9
Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser;
Teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.

The Fool
On the other hand, “The fool is the person steadily apposed to God’s covenant.” He is the one who rejects the forgiveness offered by God, who can be dangerous in his influence, who grieves his parents.

Proverbs 14:9
Fools mock at the guilt offering,
but the upright enjoy acceptance.

The Simple
The character described as the simple in Proverbs is the one not firmly committed to wisdom or foolishness (or anything for that matter). He is easily misled. He easily falls into believing the majority opinion of the crowd. He can be religious when surrounded by religious people, he can be sinful when surrounded by sinners, he can be lazy when surrounded by slackers, etc. He is not actively apposed to God, but he really doesn’t care that much either. The simple is not as far gone as the fool, but he tends to be the guy who when in the presence of wise teaching remains unaffected. It whistles right through his head.

Proverbs 14:15
The simple believes everything,
but the prudent gives thought to his step.

These three main characters are, of course, caricatures – an oversimplified version of a person to highlight the authors point. In reality, we see all 3 of these characters in ourselves at different times in our life.

There are moments when we are actively living out of the grace God has offered us, when we make decisions based on His will for our life, when we are even surprising ourselves at how skillful we are living a Godly life. Then there are times when we are so hard-hearted and so insensitive to God and so apathetic about our faith that it almost feels like we are giving up. We are both wise and foolish – sometimes in the same day or hour.

However, my guess is that if you are anything like me, the character you identify with the most is the simple man. That is the authors intent.

The simple man, sometimes also called the youth, is who the book of Proverbs is written to. It is a father’s appeal to his son to choose wisdom over folly. There are 2 paths (the wise and the foolish), 2 women (Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly), 2 fates that we can pursue. The book of Proverbs is an extended appeal to the simple – to you and me – to sincerely and passionately pursue wisdom – to fight to know God, to rest in His grace, to develop the skill of living a Godly life.

So, as we continue to read through the Proverbs with this framework, pay attention to the characters that continually show up throughout the book. What happens to the wise man, the fool, the simple? How are they described? What do they do? What kinds of things do they love? What do they pursue?

Asking these kinds of questions is the way Proverbs was intended to be read. It is a character driven story, a story intended to draw us into itself and speak wisdom into our lives.

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