Naomi: Why did King Solomon write everything in Proverb form? Was it not true that during that time the Temple existed and there were many great rabbis and thinkers who could have better put his thoughts into a Holy book, in a way other than a proverbial format?
Rabbi: Naomi, we must first be aware that after Moses, King Solomon was the wisest man. God miraculously granted him great wisdom at the age of 12 when he ascended the throne. His wise decrees struck the nation with awe. His decision to write one of his works in a metaphoric and expressive style deserves our analysis. All thinkers accepted his wisdom, during and after his era, and this acceptance must teach us they agreed with his decision to write in metaphor. (“Proverbs” is actually not an accurate translation if “Mishley”, which is the plural of “mashal”, a metaphor or parable.)
What is the purpose of Mishley, as opposed to teaching ideas clearly? King Solomon explains why he wrote this work:
“To know wisdom and morality; to grasp words of understanding. To give acumen to the simple, and to the youth, knowledge and design. That the wise man may hear and increases his learning, and the discerning man may acquire strategies. To understand metaphor and expressions, the words of the wise and their riddles.”(1:2-6)
How does the study of metaphor, expressions and riddles offer us greater wisdom, acumen, knowledge, and strategic thought? Naomi, if we answer this, we answer your questions. What we must do at this point is offer examples from King Solomon’s book.
In verses 1:21,22 King Solomon says that wisdom “calls out” to simpletons, “How long will you love foolishness?” Now, we know that wisdom has no audible quality. But the King personifies wisdom as if it calls out. He means to express that wisdom is readily perceived, like a crying voice. Wisdom is not hidden. He then teaches us one of its messages, “How long will you love foolishness?” Foolishness is that which does not comply with how the world operates. This means to say that a person who lives foolishly is confronted by ‘repeated’ failure, as if he is being “told” by this failure, “How long will you make this same mistake?” “How long” means this fool should have learned a lesson by now. I don’t tell a baker “How long will you fail to be careful of the hot oven!” only after burning his hand for the first time. But after three times, such a statement is justified. King Solomon teaches us that God designed the world with laws. Disobeying natural law results in our failure to attain our goals. This repeated failure is the “wisdom calling out”. The King’s teaching is that man should observe this lesson. So a metaphor of “calling” is used to highlight wisdom’s “expressive” nature. “How long…” teaches the obvious nature of laws that we should have accepted already.
“You tore all my counsel and you did not desire my rebuke”. (1:25)
Here, King Solomon sustains his metaphor, as if wisdom continues talking. Wisdom admonishes the previously warned fool. Here we have not only metaphor, but also an example of one of the numerous “parallel” verses of this great work. The King places two statements in a single verse. On the surface, they sound the same: ignoring advice and not listening to rebuke. But by comparing both halves – what the King truly intends with his parallels – we realize new distinctions.
“Tearing counsel” means that once a person is faced with a practical failure, he does not take advice from his experience. (The “counsel” is the failure.) The second half, “Not desiring rebuke” addresses not the response to failure, but the internal desire of the fool. He is not one who accepts lessons. Instead, he wishes to maintain a pristine ego, despite failure. A completely different idea. The first half addresses response to failure: the second half, a description of the fool’s attitude – his desire. The new lessons are derived only due to the King’s alignment of two seemingly similar statements. Doing so, the dim distinctions are brought into stark contrast. Similarly, if I wish to teach children different shades of gray, I will place two different color swatches before them, side-by-side. But if I separate the two color swatches by a large distance, they may not readily see the contrast. Again, if I wish to teach them which leaf has sharper ridges, a side-by-side comparison creates the starkest contrast. King Solomon does the same. And I would add that my use of these two examples of color and leaves as a metaphor, illustrates how using examples from your own experience allows you to more easily grasp a new concept of comparisons and parallels.
“Then you will call to me [wisdom] but I will not answer; you will seek me out but you will not find me”. (1:28)
After the fool’s failure, he will be devastated and will naturally attempt to improve his fate. Again, both halves appear similar: the fool is seeking help. But we see that in the first half, the fool “calls” and receives no “answer”. Here, we are taught that the fool will attempt to engage intelligence or a plan of escape, but he won’t receive an answer. As he never cultivated his intellect, he has no relation to strategic thought. He cannot receive any “answer”. Intelligent solutions scan only be realized by a being with intelligent thought. Then, he will also “seek out” wisdom, as if practical attempts will pay off. But he will not “find” any escape. Since he is devoid of analytical thought, all practical attempts will also fail. He will not find a practical solution to his problems. King Solomon’s alignment of these two statements directs us to their distinctions.
A metaphor includes objects and phenomena familiar to us. This familiarity allows one to engage his or her mind in new areas. Thus, King Solomon calls to mind those phenomena to which we relate. He then uses them to illustrate new ideas. If I attempt to explain guilt to a 9 year old, I might say guilt is like a wall. It holds me back from doing something I want to do. He may then sense this in himself and thereby, understand something new.
The contrasting of two similar objects allows us to perceive additional insights. Subtle distinctions become stark. And through these distinctions, we derive new insights.
Mishley might be viewed as a magnifying glass. It brings into focus and greater definition those phenomena. Metaphor, personification of inanimate objects and other illustrations create stark contrasts of every day phenomena, while also highlighting specific observations and their lessons. Through our comparisons of matters that only seem the same, we observe subtle distinctions. As we grow more adept at observing finer distinctions, our minds separate, define and categorize with greater precision. This accuracy offers us greater knowledge. We are thereby trained to detect greater subtleties and distinctions in the future.
Mishley is no different than the Torah, nature and all God’s creations. Each one offers us this opportunity. Studying natural design, we observe similarities and differences. We come to understand why certain creatures possess thick hair, while others require light feathers. Why some are large and others, microscopic. And Torah verses include repetitions, contrasts and other clues that force questions, leading us deeper knowledge than what we read on the surface.
All that exists is God’s creation. But His wisdom is deep and requires much thought. How can we grow in our knowledge of God? God designed all phenomena to bear His mark of immense wisdom, to prod thought and invoke questions so we might learn more. Mishley is King Solomon’s method of teaching morality and wisdom. But through a unique style of contrasting and highlighting, he sharpens our minds. Issues and matters we might know but never compared, are presented in this work. If we take the time to gain from this training of the world’s second wisest man, we can approach all other areas with cultivated skills of observation and thought, resulting in greater wisdom and insights.
As the book is large, there are many other methods, rules, truths and lessons to be studied. This article is intended only to offer some reasoning behind a few of these.