The well-known “Prayer for His Son” by General Douglas MacArthur includes these words: “Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, brave enough to face himself when he is afraid . . . Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenges. Let him learn to stand in the storm; let him learn compassion for those who fall.”
The opening chapters of the book of Proverbs are framed as a parent’s advice: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (v. 8). While the purpose of the book is “for attaining wisdom and discipline” (vv. 2–4), and while this journey begins with “the fear of the Lord” (v. 7), it is equally important to understand that the context in which wisdom is learned is relational, starting with the parent-child relationship.
Wisdom literature has been defined as “truth applied to everyday life in practical ways.” As we study Proverbs this month, we’ll do so in ways appropriate to the genre. For the most part this book is a collection of individual proverbs. Proverbs are brief sayings or aphorisms that can observe, compare, contrast, advise, instruct, invite, warn, evaluate, persuade, and poke fun. They often make use of figures of speech such as metaphors and similes, as well as of literary devices including imagery, personification, parallelism, sarcasm, and irony.
In ancient Near Eastern literature, the term proverb includes our meaning but is broader and can also indicate parable-like imagery and brief narratives. An example of this is found in verses 20 through 33 of today’s reading, in which personified Wisdom issues an invitation to embrace her along with a warning to shun foolishness.