Proverbs by Roland E. Murphy

Proverbs (Word Biblical Commentary) by Roland E. Murphy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998)


Roland Murphy, a Roman Catholic Priest, is an expert in Wisdom Literature having written several books on the subject including the commentary on Ecclesiastes in this same series.  This is the first and longer of his two commentaries on the book of Proverbs (the other appears in the NIBC series from Paternoster) and is much more technical in its approach and handling of the detail.  It begins, after a brief survey of introductory matters, with a new translation of the whole book which is relatively literal, adhering closely to the Hebrew text.  Proverbs is then divided according to its major sections and commented upon in the usual style of the Word series.  Nine excursuses are grouped together after the main body of the commentary and cover issues such as translating Proverbs, the fear of the Lord, Theology, and International Wisdom. 

The excursus on “Fear of the Lord” rightly brings out the key importance of this concept for the book, and its use as a marker or inclusio for chapters 1-9 and indeed for the book as a whole.  On “Retribution” Murphy attacks the simplistic view that Proverbs assumes a straightforward deeds-consequences nexus, a mechanical equation of good deeds and good results (and the opposite).  He claims that although the Bible does know something of a “every act has built-in consequences for the actor” idea, it even more frequently affirms the direct agency and causality of God in justice and retribution.  This is well observed.  The excursus on “Theology” is weakened by the insistence that the OT contains not one but several theologies, a theology of wisdom among them.  This leads Murphy to state that, “the dialogue with the environment was also a dialogue with the God who was worshiped as creator and savior.  This is the basis for a salvific faith.  Such an understanding of biblical wisdom is important for nonbiblical religions, for trillions who have never heard of the name YHWH or Christ.  It makes possible a faith response that is not explicitly related or limited to a particular mode, history, for the revelation of God” (page 272).

More could have been expected in chapter 8 on the christological reading of verses 22-31, especially in a commentary designed to help preachers as well as scholars (although the important role these verses played in the Arian controversy is mentioned briefly).  There are some excellent observations on the “ideal woman” poem in chapter 31 which help us to see it more as praise for wisdom itself and the fear of the Lord than an impossible job description for the perfect super-wife.  As is usual for the series, there is plentiful interaction with modern critical studies in German and French as well as in English, and more detailed notes on the Hebrew alongside sections of comment and explanation.

Some readers may wish that there were additional excursuses on subjects such as Proverbs in Biblical Theology, Christ and Proverbs, the use of Proverbs in Dogmatics or Pastoral ministry, or Preaching Proverbs.  For a discussion of these and other such useful subjects, the preacher, teacher, or Bible Study leader will need to look elsewhere (perhaps to Graeme Goldsworthy’s book The Tree of Life?)  D. A. Garrett’s commentary in the New American Commentary series is equally competent on the technical details and issues surrounding the exegesis and interpretation of Proverbs while retaining an evangelical perspective and applicatory goal in mind throughout.  These latter two things Murphy’s commentary cannot do and does not set out to do.  Notwithstanding these limitations then, it is a stimulating and learned book with some helpful comments on the detail and some interesting insights in the excursuses.


This review was first published in Churchman 115/1 (2001).

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