Proverbs is full of riddles. When the father warns his son about evil, foolish men who will set traps for innocent people, he employs one: “These men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives” (Prov 1:18). 1 Why would evil men plot their own demise? Using two steps, a handbook and commentaries, we can understand what the author is trying to convey.
1) Establish the Genre and General Context
Understanding the genre and context of Proverbs 1:8–19 can help us decipher the father’s riddle. This passage is the first in a series of nine longer poems in Proverbs in which the father gives wise advice to his son. Here, he encourages the young man to avoid entanglements with gangs or exploitative “get-rich-quick” schemes.
Proverbs 1:8–19 is considered Wisdom poetry. By consulting the Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, we find that Hebrew poetry often makes use of literary devices like double entendre. A double entendre is a sentence or phrase with a double meaning. The ambiguity of meanings often creates a sense of satire that exposes folly. Wisdom poetry also uses hyperbole—or gross exaggeration—to make an important point.
2) Examine the Immediate Context of the Poem
Proverbs are best interpreted when they are read in order. Now that we understand the genre and general context, we can move on to study the immediate context of the riddle. In this poem, the father warns his son “not [to] walk in the way” with these evil men. In Proverbs 1:16, the sinful nature and intent of the foolish men is fully revealed: “For their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.” But why do they “lie in wait for their own blood” and “set an ambush for their own lives” (1:18)? The father is showing that involvement with evil men will put the son in danger of a bloody death. The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1–15 (NICOT) explains that this double entendre is reinforced by the potential double meaning of the Hebrew word for evil (ra’ah, רע). Throughout the Old Testament, ra’ah can mean “trouble,” “harm” or “disaster.”
The immediate context of this poem is filled with double entendres that emphasize the father’s warnings about death. Using Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (NAC), we find that the double entendre in Proverbs 1:12 drives this point home. The author uses hyperbole when the evil men liken themselves to death: “Like Sheol let us swallow them alive, and whole,” they say. But the double entendre that follows, “like those who go down to the pit,” could refer either to the innocent victims or to the foolish, evil plotters.
Why This Matters
This literary device provide an ironic twist to the poem. The fools are doubly foolish because they don’t realize their disastrous fate. By joining their company, the son would choose a foolish life—and his own bloody fate. But the father also provides an alternative to joining in with these endeavors—wisdom. Like birds, wise people who see a trap being set will not fall into it, acknowledging that such schemes inevitably turn back on the plotters (1:17).
Need help understanding Hebrew poetry? Pick up Adele Berlin’s Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism. Go to Logos.com/BerlinParallelism
1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).↩