Lucas, Ernest C. Proverbs. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 421 pp. Pb; $28.   Link to Eerdmans

Commentaries on Proverbs are often difficult write because proverbs are, by nature, easy enough to understand yet difficult to interpret. Proverbs in general are fairly easy to understand: we all know enough sluggards and fools to get the gist of most of the sayings in Proverbs. But there are several hermeneutical problems unique to the book of Proverbs since the genre is so distinct from Law or Prophets. To talk about the application of any given proverb seems to open up a broad discussion and some proverbs seem to contradict others. What is more, the collection in the canonical book of Proverbs developed over as many as 500 years, from Solomon to the post-exilic world. Ernest Lucas’s new commentary in the Two Horizons series provides a solid foundation for understanding Wisdom literature in general as well as a good commentary on the book of Proverbs.

Lucas ProverbsThe 44-page introduction begins by defining both wisdom and a proverb before examining the structure of the book. Lucas sees seven sections in Proverbs based on the headings provided by the final editor of the book. More challenging is the structure within these broad sections. He divides chapters 1-9 into ten lessons with several speeches and warnings from Wisdom interspersed.

Since it is almost impossible to suggest any structure in the other subsections of the book, Lucas attempts to identify “proverbial clusters” using criteria similar to Waltke and Heim. He compares his results for chapters 10-11 to these scholars and finds agreement in general, but diversity in specifics. It is almost better, in my view, to treat each proverb in chapters 10:1-22:16 and 25:1-29:27 as separate units. For example, he identifies Prov 19:4-10 as a cluster dealing with “Wealth and Poverty” (136). While verse 4 specifically mentions wealth, verse 6 mentions a generous man, verse 7 mentions a poor man, and verse 10 mentions luxury, verses 5 and 10 concern a false witness and verse 8 does not appear to concern itself with wealth or poverty, but discovering “the good.” What is more, verse 3 (associated with another cluster) refers to folly bringing a person to ruin, which could refer to poverty (financial ruin), especially since Lucas suggested the fool in verse 2 is a rich man. Verse 12 concerns the wrath and favor of a king, and verse 14 specifically mentions “house and wealth.” In fairness, Lucas does describe 19:4-10 as “loosely related proverbs,” but in my view Proverbs 19 is so diverse in topics it defies clustering.  In fact, some of the clusters Lucas identifies are only a single verse.

The 149-page body of the commentary is divided by chapter and cluster. Lucas first suggests a title for a cluster, for example, “11:2-8 True and False Security” or “17:10-16 Danger, Beware!” Within each cluster treats each verse briefly, usually commenting on rare vocabulary by comparing modern translations and suggesting an alternative translation if necessary. Hebrew appears occasionally and is always transliterated so readers without Hebrew will be able to use the commentary with no problem. Occasional footnotes refer to other major commentaries on Proverbs. As with virtually every commentary on Proverbs, exegetical detail is reserved for particularly problematic verses. Often the meaning of the proverb is sufficiently clear in translation that Lucas only needs a sentence or two of comment.

The most valuable feature of this commentary is the 162 page section entitled “Theological Horizons of Proverbs.” Lucas divides this half of the book into ten sections, almost all are chapter-length excurses on elements of Proverbs. Each topic is richly illustrated with individual proverbs collected from the book and references back to the commentary where necessary. These theological reflections could be read before (or instead) of the commentary, especially for those interested in teaching or preaching on topics in Proverbs.

Lucas first deals with perhaps the most difficult problem for Proverbs, does Proverbs really promise a successful life if one “lives out” the life described in the book?  Is there a straight-forward relationship between “acts and consequences” in Proverbs? If the answer is a dogmatic yes, then there are both theological and pastoral problems. For example, Prov 22:6 states that children “trained up” properly will not depart from that training when they are older. Since everyone has experienced a child who does in fact depart from their training, either the proverb is wrong, or we are misusing the proverb. Lucas challenges an oft-repeated axiom that Hebrew wisdom literature teaches “successful living.” That two of the three books considered wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible disagree with this assertion (Job and Ecclesiastes), there is enough evidence to challenge, or at least modify the view that living out a proverbs lifestyle will result in success. After surveying several studies of the “Acts-Consequence Nexus” as well as a large number of proverbs similar to Prov 22:6, he concludes Proverbs was intended as a rule of thumb for teaching life skills. Proverbs provides models rooted in Yahweh’s character and purposes (218).

In the next two sections of the Theological Horizons Lucas describes the “characters in Proverbs” (the wise, the fool, the righteous, and the unrighteous) and “family, friends and neighbors in Proverbs.” Here he collects evidence from the whole book to define these regularly mentioned characters in the book. Often there is some overlap, a wise person is also righteous and there is a considerable spectrum of traits which define the wise person or the foolish person. His comments on the family collect a range of data from the book which will help a pastor create a “theology of family” (for example) for teaching or preaching.

Since Proverbs is often described as “secular,” Lucas offers several observations about God in the book of Proverbs. He demonstrates this common description is not exactly the case, since there was no “sacred/secular” divide in the ancient world. He agrees with Derek Kidner: Proverbs functions to “put godliness in working clothes” (249).

Since most commentaries on Proverbs examine the personification of wisdom in Proverbs, Lucas devotes a substantial section to this issue. He surveys studies which suggest various sources for Lady Wisdom (Egyptian Ma’at, or Isis, Canaanite or Israelite goddesses, Babylonian ummanu) as well as Sinnott’s suggest Lady Wisdom is a literary creation and Camp’s view the personification was based on Israelite women. Lucas concludes the personification was suggested by the feminine gender of the Hebrew noun translated wisdom (263). Included in this section is the personification of folly as a “strange” or foreign woman as well as various other female personifications in the book. Lucas points out these personifications need not be offensive since there are male counterparts for each (271).

Lucas devotes a section of his theological observations to “spirituality of the Proverbs.”  Beginning with the fear of the Lord, he argues Proverbs intends to form character, so that a person’s religious faith is expressed through action (279). An example of this action is developed in the next section. Since wealth and poverty are key issue in Proverbs, a lengthy section studies what the book has to say about the relationship of the wise person and money. This lengthy unit collects data on rich and poor people,

The most canonical section of this theological reading of Proverbs is Lucas’s section on “wisdom and Christology.” He begins by tracing the development to personify Wisdom in later Jewish wisdom literature (Sirach, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon and Philo) before moving to the New Testament. Lucas focuses on three passages, Hebrews 1:1-4, Colossians 1:15-20 and John 1:1-18. In all three cases, the description of Jesus as the Word goes beyond anything in earlier Wisdom literature (331). Although a reader of John 1:14 may hear echoes of Sirach 24:8-12, there are clear distinctions. Lucas then surveys suggestions made by Dunn and Witherington to the effect that Jesus functioned as a sage. Finally, he traces these theological movements into the patristic era. For example, Theophilus of Antioch (d. A.D. 184), who identified the Holy Spirit with Wisdom. Although Arians used Prov 8:22 as support for the Son as a created being, Lucas points out no one in the early Christological debates attempted to understand the text from the perspective of its own horizon.

Lucas reviews suggestions that wisdom is part of Creation. The way to get the most out of life, according to Proverbs, is to “understand how the world works and understand its rhythms and patterns” (347). Since the sages rooted their social ethics in a creation theology rather than in salvation history, it was easier to share common ground with other ancient Near Eastern cultures (359). Lucas includes a fascinating application of this principle to the relationship of faith and science in the contemporary world.

Finally, he concludes this theology of Proverbs by examining “words in Proverbs and the New Testament.” He estimates about 20% of the Sayings in Proverbs 10-29 deal with the topic of speech (364). Lucas therefore creates a mini-biblical theology of speech in Proverbs and draws this material across the canon by using James 3:1-12 and Ephesians 4:17-5:20.

Conclusion. Although this is a commentary on Proverbs, the book could be used as a textbook in a college or Seminary class on Wisdom literature. More than half of the book deals with special problems associated with the Book of Proverbs. In fact, this section could have been edited as a short, stand-alone monograph on Wisdom. Although it is part of the Two Horizons series, Lucas does not employ canonical criticism or reception history quite the way other volumes in this series have. Perhaps the New Testament commentaries are more prone to these methods (see Wall and Steele on the Pastoral Epistles, for example).


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.