Wisdom and Style

The book of Proverbs conveys divine wisdom—practical counsel with a vertical dimension—in a style that follows the conventions of Hebrew poetry. The most common structure in Proverbs, for instance, is the couplet. The writer places two ideas side by side such that each complements the other. Take Proverbs 13:10, for example:

Through insolence comes nothing but strife,
But wisdom is with those who receive counsel.

The book of Proverbs employs at least four distinct types of couplet: contrastive, completive, corresponding, and comparative.

In a contrastive couplet, the key term is usually but. One statement contrasts with the other to show two sides of the same coin, as it were. The contrasting conjunction links the statements together, yet keeps the two ideas distinct. Each statement can stand alone but, together, their message becomes more profound.

A wise son accepts his father’s discipline,
But a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. (13:1)

Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline,
But he who regards reproof will be honored. (13:18)

He who withholds his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently. (13:24)

In completive couplets, the second statement completes the first. The first statement, while true in itself, doesn’t offer a complete picture without the second. These couplets typically feature coordinating conjunctions like and or so.

The heart knows its own bitterness,
And a stranger does not share its joy. (14:10)

Even in laughter the heart may be in pain,
And the end of joy may be grief. (14:13)

Commit your works to the LORD
And your plans will be established. (16:3)

The corresponding couplet—very common in the Psalms as well—features two lines expressing the same thought using different terms. Another name for this kind of couplet is “synonymous parallelism.” While the first statement expresses a complete idea, the second adds depth, dimension, and color. The effect is not unlike seeing the world through two eyes instead of just one. A person with one eye can observe the world, but he or she lacks depth perception. Two eyes allow us to perceive the world in 3D, which is so much better.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (9:10)

The parallelism allows us to define the terms more precisely. “Fear of the Lord” and “knowledge of the Holy One” correspond to one another. To “fear” God, then, is to “know” Him—and vice versa. Moreover, “beginning of wisdom” and “understanding” correspond. They aren’t exactly the same, but they share a common source: an intimate, in-depth relationship with God.

Finally, as the name comparative couplets suggests, the two statements invite a comparison. These feature terms like better . . . than, as . . . so, or like . . . so. For example:

Better is a little with the fear of the LORD
great treasure and turmoil with it. (15:16)

It is better to live in a corner of the roof
Than in a house shared with a contentious woman. (25:24)

Comparative sayings usually paint vivid word pictures that draw upon the reader’s own experience to describe a new truth. The structure of the couplet implies, in effect, “This new truth is much like this other truth you already accept.” Consequently, the word picture rings so true to life that the reader unconsciously nods in hearty agreement.

From Living the Proverbs by Charles R. Swindoll, copyright © 2012. Reprinted by permission of Worthy Inspired., an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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