The Hebrew language is extremely concise. For example, the Hebrew in Proverbs 6:4 is only 4 words long. ESV translates it, “Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.” That’s 16 words in English, 4 in Hebrew! This is not abnormal, since the language is so dense.
This becomes part of the problem (and the fun) when translating the book of Proverbs. By definition, proverbs are typically concise and memorable. The longer a phrase is, the more difficult it is to memorize. Proverbs 4:7 introduces an interested translational issue.
If we were to translate the Hebrew word-for-word (with each Hebrew word being separated by a forward slash), it would look something like this:
Beginning / wisdom / buy / wisdom / and in all your buying / buy / understanding.
Clearly there is some wordplay with the Hebrew word qanah, “to buy.” The verse uses the root three times in the span of seven words.
The start of the sentence has proven the most difficult to translate. Because of the elliptical nature of Hebrew poetry and the condensed nature of the Hebrew language, there are a few translational options. The two most probable are:
1) The beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom. This translation treats “beginning” and “wisdom” as a genitive-construct phrase – “the beginning of wisdom.” The translations that choose this option include NASB, ESV and NIV.
2) Wisdom is the first thing: so seek wisdom. The Hebrew word rēsheet / “beginning” can also mean “first/chief/principal” thing. This translation takes “wisdom” as the subject and “beginning” as an absolute/predicate. The translations that choose this option include KJV and NET.
In a case like this, where the Hebrew provides two legitimate options to choose from, the context of the passage will end up deciding which way to go. The choice here is certainly tricky, but I personally lean towards the first of the two options. The verse seems to play on Proverbs 1:7 – “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (ESV). There, the sense of rēsheet is most likely “beginning,” not “principal/chief thing” (cf. 9:10). Thus, if there is a legitimate wordplay here back with Pr 1:7, then Option #1 would be the most likely candidate. But dogmatic determination is both unnecessary and impossible in this case.
Throughout Proverbs, translational problems like this will arise. They can be both fun and frustrating. The concise nature of the proverb gives opportunity for the interpreter to wrestle with the probable meaning of the verse. But another point of a proverb is to get the student to think. Perhaps some of the ambiguity present in many of these verses forces us to slow down and consider the options, discerning with other Scripture which “path” is the correct one to take.