The third part of Proverbs is the Thirty Sayings of the Wise in Proverbs 22:17-24:22. One of the most striking things about these sayings is how similar they are to the Instruction of Amenemope – a piece of Egyptian wisdom literature. It too structurally was thirty sayings, with the number thirty symbolic of ”complete and perfect teaching” (so says Waltke). Nevertheless, the content of these sayings in Proverbs only follows the content in Amenemope in the first 11 sayings. The twelfth saying is an ”educational” one marking a new section within the thirty sayings. Waltke tells us that this unit ”is common to the Aramaic Ahiqar.” I am not trying to be exhaustive in explaining all of the dependence Proverbs has on these other traditions. Nor should you feel uncomfortable that it does borrow from these other traditions. These wisdom sayings are here put into the correct context, which they did not have in the wisdom of these other nations. Also, we have seen before that wisdom literature depends on the created order and sometimes unbelievers can discern this order.
The opening verses (Proverbs 22:17-21) sound like the opening of any unit in Proverbs. They also sound much like the opening and closing of Amenemope.
The structure of the opening verses is two quatrains separated by a janus (v.19). V.17-18 concern the son, v.19a the son and 19b the father, and then v.20-21 concern the father. The janus verse purposely highlights YHWH. Proverbs is borrowing but putting this wisdom in the proper context – and this is not ‘secular’ wisdom. Waltke also points out the order of the main clauses and their subordinate clauses (for, that, to) – as follows MC:SC//SC:MC//MC:SC. Thus the janus verse reverses the order of the subordinate and main clauses.
It is then in v.20 that the opening verses mention ”thirty sayings.” The opening verses serve as the first saying. The second saying then follows this section. It is part of a body consisting of Proverbs 22:22-23:11.
Waltke calls Proverbs 22:22-23:11 ”A Decalogue of Sayings About Wealth.”
The first four sayings of the decalogue tell the son that he cannot make money from injustice. The first (Proverbs 22:22-23) has to do with stealing from the poor and afflicted. The second (Prov 22:24-25) has to do with associating with angry/wrathful person. The third (Prov 22:26-27) has to do with debts. And the fourth (Prov 22:28) with property boundaries. This one is a one-liner with the reason included within – the boundaries are ancient.
Likewise, the fifth (Prov 22:29) stands out because of its structure – it is antithetical setting the first two parts against the third. It contrasts the skillful and unskillful. The next three sayings are all concerning greed. These are Proverbs 23:1-3, 4-5, and 6-8. Notice that in each there is the phrase ”do not.” The prohibitions in this decalogue have thus resumed. The ninth saying of the decalogue is Proverbs 23:9. It is the only one that does not concern wealth – but rather speech. And then the tenth saying of this decalogue says, ”Do not move an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless, for their Redeemer is strong; He will plead their cause against you” (Prov 23:10-11).
This tenth saying forms an inclusio with the first: ”Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for YHWH will plead their cause…” (Prov 22:22-23). And then the tenth saying of this decalogue also recalls the fourth one: ”Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set” (Prov 22:28). Thus there are two major sections to the decalogue – the first four, and then the next six. This is meant to remind you of the Ten Commandments — Scripture’s original decalogue — where the first four commandments are a group (relationship with God) and the last six commandments are a group (relationships with one another).
Remember that the tenth saying of the decalogue is now the eleventh saying of the thirty. Saying number twelve begins a new section of seven sayings. These have been called, ”The Obedient Son.” These sound similar to Proverbs 1:8-9:18 and the opening saying of the Thirty Sayings of the Wise (Prov 22:17-21). They are part of a larger unit. These sayings in this unit are as follows: Proverbs 23:12, 23:13-14, 15-16, 17-18, 19-21, 22-25, 26-28, 29-35, and 24:1-2.
Proverbs 23:12 is a quite typical educational or rearing proverb: ”Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge.” The next three sayings also encourage obeying the teaching of the father and mother. And this is a theme that reappears within many of these sayings. Waltke observes that the sayings follow the pattern of aging – from youth (Prov 23:13-14 to having an elderly mother (Prov 23:22). He also then notes the increasing nature of the imperatives with each one – like adding ”my son” and ”listen” and other even closer terms of endearment. Sayings 17 and 18 offer the contrast of a wise and foolish woman – a contrast we have seen earlier in Proverbs.
A major key word throughout this section is ”heart.” The rest of this section appears to have sayings that expand on the earlier ones.
And a third unit begins with Proverbs 24:3. Waltke calls this one ”Strength in Distress.” Proverbs 24:3-4 is a typical educational saying. The theme of the unit, as we would expect, is related to us in the next saying (Prov 24:5-6). Thus the educational saying is: ”By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” And the theme: ”A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might; for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.”
The next couple sayings (Prov 24:7, 8-9) add the motivation of the fool’s ineptitude. The last one is Prov 24:10-12, which brings it all to a climax. This unit was a total of five sayings.
The fourth unit of these thirty sayings gives us the last five sayings. These consist of prohibitions against joining the wicked. These five sayings are meant to be understood as balancing the last unit of five sayings. Thus in the midst of distress do not join in with the wicked in order to make yourself strong.
They open with an educational saying, ”My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off” (Prov 24:13-14).
After the educational saying the next four are double prohibitions. Each of these four have the same structure. Note the difference of the odd verses and the even verses. Two explicitly mention YHWH.
Thus the 30 sayings of the wise continue the pattern we have seen from the first two parts of Proverbs — opening with general educational sayings. They are divided by these educational sayings into four groups. The first saying is an introduction to the decalogue about wealth. The second educational saying opened a unit that had much to say about an obedient son. The third unit concerned strength in the midst of distress with five sayings. And the fourth unit concerned avoiding joining the wicked with five sayings. These sayings borrow from the wisdom literature of surrounding nations, but only when the point agrees with the rest of God’s word when it is put into the right context. Above all, remember that these observations encourage us to read the Proverbs in their immediate context as well as the surrounding context rather than as simple sayings to live by that have nothing to do with each other.