The father could have simply told his son to pursue wisdom and reject folly. But instead—understanding his audience—he presents wisdom and folly as two women setting the table for an intimate dinner date (Prov 9). This rhetorical device of personification helps the writer communicate truth in a different way.
As you read through Proverbs, consider how personification reveals truth. Here is your guide:
1) What’s the Purpose?
Personification is the attribution of human traits to an impersonal concept, such as a virtue or vice. A writer may use personification to embellish a topic, explain a complex topic or persuade an audience. By giving life to wisdom and folly, the father in Proverbs presents two paths before his son, motivating him to choose life rather than calamity.
2) Pithy or Profound?
Often, we’re so familiar with personifications that we might not even notice them. In Proverbs 3:19, the author says, “With Wisdom, God founded the earth.” The figure of speech is so faint that we might even debate whether it is a personification—if not for the surrounding context (8:25–31). Other personifications, however, are so developed they seem to leap out at us. In Proverbs 9, Wisdom beckons those who pass by, while Folly pours forth seductive words in an attempt to lure them to her sensual soiree. Determining whether the author created a pithy reference comparable to an everyday idiom or a complex picture helps us interpret the passage correctly.
3) The Image Evoked
Personification is an extended metaphor. Metaphors speak “about one thing in terms which are seen to be suggestive of another.” 1 So when we come across personification, we should identify attributes of people. For instance, the maidens who are commissioned by Wisdom in Proverbs 9:3 may be the writer’s way of suggesting an even more provocative picture. These women who go out and invite young men to wine and dine with Wisdom elicit the image of sexual recruiters in the cult of Astarte, the Canaanite goddess of love. The comparison makes the differences all the more striking because Wisdom’s recruiters invite the young men to study rather than party. 2
4) Comparing Texts
By comparing examples of personification in Proverbs, other biblical books and ancient Near Eastern literature, we can gain new insights into the text.
In Proverbs 9:5, Wisdom kindly welcomes people: “Come and eat my meat, come and drink my wine.” But in Proverbs 1:22–28, hell hath no fury like Woman Wisdom scorned. She lashes out at those who rejected her, laughing aloud as they fall headlong into destruction. This comparison helps us see that Wisdom is gloriously complex—those who embrace her words will dine at her table, but those who reject her have fixed their own destruction.
In the New Testament, Jesus draws upon the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs when He says, “Wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35). By identifying Himself with Wisdom, does Jesus take on the attributes given to her in Proverbs? If so, rather than a virtue of God in Proverbs, Wisdom is the second person of the Godhead. Jesus is the Wisdom of God—with Him at creation. In listening to the words of Wisdom, we listen to the words of the Lord.
Biblical authors—particularly those who wrote Wisdom literature—often borrowed ideas and concepts from their neighbors. Comparing these works can tell us about the author’s intent. Maat, the Egyptian concept of wisdom, has striking similarities with Wisdom in Proverbs. However, Maat is personified as a goddess and never says a word in Egyptian literature. 3 In contrast to Maat and over against Folly, Wisdom has a lot to say (Prov 1–9). The writer of Proverbs wants his son to listen to Wisdom. It would be wise for us to do so as well.
There are scores of personifications in the Bible. Equipped with these steps, we are ready to interpret them in Proverbs and the rest of Scripture. We just need to pause rather than pass them by.
Pick up the resources you need for your study of Proverbs. Go to Logos.com/Proverbs
Biblical references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
1. Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (London: Clarendon Press, 1985), 15.↩
2. William McKane, Proverbs (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970), 360. See also Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 71.↩
3. Tremper Longman III, “Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings, Eds. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 914. ↩