The Obvious Surprise

Eli T. Evans

“Don’t complain about your supper,” my grandmother used to tell me. She might have quoted Proverbs 15:17 instead: “Better is a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred.” The first is just a command; the second invites a foolish child to stop, think and remember. The lessons taught by Proverbs are straightforward: work hard, tell the truth, don’t be wicked. Above all, fear God. Yet these simple statements, while good advice, don’t sound very proverbial. That’s because a proverb tells an obvious truth in a surprising way.

Idiomatic. In order to say much in few words, proverbs take full advantage of language. Their syntax can be dense and elliptical, best understood by native speakers.


Proverbs 11:24 is fitted to Hebrew, not English. The translations below are arranged from more to less literal, none quite able to reproduce the rhythmic terseness of the original.


ישׁ מפזר ונוסף עוד וחושׁר מישׁר אך־למחסור

(yesh mepazer venosaf ‘od vechosek miyyoser ak-lemachsor.)

There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; And there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty.

There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more, and there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want.

One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.

One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.

Give freely and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything.

Biblical proverbs are rooted firmly in the soil of Hebrew poetry, which is characterized by two-line couplets that rhyme ideas rather than words. The second line of many proverbs either reiterates or reverses the first, like “Judgments are prepared for scoffers, And blows for the back of fools” (Prov 19:25, reiteration) and “The merciful man does himself good, but the cruel man does himself harm” (Prov 11:17, reversal).

Formulaic. “There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes seven which are an abomination to Him” (Prov 6:16). This formula appears several other times in Proverbs (30:15–16, 18, 21, 29), reflecting the cultural influence of the ancient Near East: “Three months has he [been sick], Even four has Kirta been ill,” reads one stone tablet from nearby Ugarit. This formula piques interest by upping the ante: If three of something is amazing, then four is even better—or worse, as the case may be.

Then there is the “Better X than Y” pattern that compares two things and makes a value judgment between them (Prov 15:16, 17; 19:1; 28:6). These proverbs often involve an ironic twist: The “better” thing is only good relative to something even worse. For example, “It is better to live in a corner of a roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Prov 21:9; 25:24). Living on the roof may be bad, but fighting with your wife is worse. Ecclesiastes uses this pattern as well (Eccl 4:6; 7:1–8).

Typical. Proverbs deals in abstract absolutes—types rather than individuals. The righteous man, the fool, the sluggard and the king are not specific people, but idealized portraits or satirical caricatures. These types express the values of the culture: Not all kings sit “on the throne of justice,” but all kings should (Prov 20:8). Not all lazy people end up poor, but they should (Prov 20:13; compare Eccl 9:11).

The literary devices of personification and anthropomorphism ascribe human qualities to non-human subjects to evoke some characteristic that epitomizes that thing. Animals are used this way throughout Proverbs: Deer are graceful, lions are noble, dogs are quarrelsome, ants are industrious and swine are filthy. “Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear Is a wicked ruler over a poor people” (Prov 28:15).

Vivid. Visual imagery evokes feelings that leave a lasting impression, and proverbs are all about creating big impact in few words. “Like a dog that returns to its vomit, Is a fool who repeats his folly” (Prov 26:11)—an illustration that’s hard to forget.

And it’s in this way that Wisdom calls, and Understanding raises her voice to be heard by the wise and ignored by the foolish—at their peril (Prov 8:1).

Biblical references are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 4 No. 4