Last week we began to examine evidence of “random organization” within the Solomonic portions of Proverbs (chs 10-22a, 25-29). We saw that there is plenty of evidence of “large scale” organization – whole sections being structured by the final editor(s) of the book.
This week we’ll begin to look at some smaller scale organization, starting with a topic that I’ve written about at least once before in Proverbs: catchwords. A catchword is a word that binds together two seemingly unrelated verses. Here are a few examples of catchwords in Proverbs that demonstrate that maybe these middle verses aren’t so random after all (all verses in ESV).
10:2 Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.
10:3 The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.
The first proverb deals with treasures and deliverance and how these relate to the righteous and the wicked. The second proverb concerns the Lord’s providential oversight of both the righteous and the wicked. Not only are these two proverbs bound together by the use of the terms “wicked” and “righteous,” but in Hebrew, both verses start with the word “not.”
29:2 When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.
29:3 He who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth.
The first proverb considers the effect that the righteous and wicked have on the general population. The second proverb encourages boys to pursue wisdom, not prostitution, in order to please parents and stay wealthy. These are very different proverbs! But in Hebrew, they are both bound together by use of the word samach: “to be glad” (it is translated “rejoice” in 29:2).
The effect of binding these together by the same word in the first line is to show two very different reasons for rejoicing: on a national level, an increase of righteousness causes rejoicing. On a familial level, a son’s choice to pursue wisdom instead of adulterous women causes a father to rejoice.
Here’s one more example of a catchword binding together two or more verses:
16:1 The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.
16:2 All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit.
16:3 Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.
16:4 The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
Here is a cluster of “Yahweh Proverbs” – proverbs that use the term “the LORD/Yahweh.” Each of these four verses considers the interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s plans. Interestingly enough, catchwords don’t bind them together verse by verse (other than “Yahweh”), but the first and last verses of the unit around bound together by the catchword maaneh: translated “answer” in 16:1 and “for its purpose” in 16:4. This has the effect of tying the unit together instead of just linking individual verse to individual verse.
Surely these examples are not all by accident. Someone noticed themes in seemingly random proverbs and brought them together with purposeful organization (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) to make what we have here in the book of Proverbs. Although some of the examples shown here can only be recognized in the original Hebrew, see if you can spot a few examples of your own as you read through the book in an English translation.