Introduction to the Book of the Proverbs
Table of Contents
- General Info
- Brief Survey
- Key Verses
- Author, Date and Recipients
- Historical Background & Timeline
- Themes, Purpose & Theology
- Interpretation Hints and Challenges
Almost all people to some extent, and the wise in particular, appreciate the value of receiving good advice. These can come in various forms, such as encouragement, suggestions, instructions, warnings and more. In our modern time, we often hear the statement that “there’s an app for that”. Undoubtedly, the best source for wise advise is the Bible Book of Proverbs, which helps us to successfully and skillfully navigate our often complicated lives, even when we are constantly confronted with the various challenges of life. Since basic human nature doesn’t change over time, this wise instruction is just as applicable today as when they were written approximately 3000 years ago. The ultimate source of this wisdom (God) also has not changed, so all we need to do the acquire wisdom is to ask in faith (Jas 1:5-7).
The Book of Proverbs is one of the few books outside of the Pentateuch (five books of Moses) that is named for one of the first words or phrase of their canonical text. The first verse reads “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel”. Thus, the Hebrew title of the book is Mishle Shelomoh (“Parables of Solomon”). The English title of the book is derived from the Latin Liber Proverbiorum, or “Book of Proverbs,” or just Hebrew title of the book is Mishle Shelomoh (“Parables of Solomon”). The English title of the book is derived from the Latin Liber Proverbiorum, (“Proverbs)”.
In our modern Christian Bible canons, Proverbs is the third book in the Books of Poetry section (following Job and the Psalms, and preceding Ecclesiastes, and Songs). This section follows the Books of the Law (Genesis – Deuteronomy) and Historical Books (Joshua – Esther), and precedes the Books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi). In the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs and the four other poetic books are located in the third and last section known as the Writings (or Hagiographa), along with Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
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At first glance, the Book of Proverbs appears to be a somewhat random collection of individual proverbs by Solomon, along with contributions by others that was likely compiled by Solomon. Upon closer inspection we can identify a certain structure within the book (see also the “Author and Date” and “Outline” sections below).
The book begins with a prologue (1:1-7) that contains the title and purpose for the writings. Solomon then launches into nine discourses, the first in the second part of chapter 1, then discourses 2-9 residing in corresponding chapters 2-9. In Discourse 1, the Teacher (father) warns the young man (his son) not to ignore or abandon the teachings of his parents when sinners entice him. Discourse 2 teaches that wisdom offers protection from clever scheming men and adulterous women. Discourse 3 teaches that we must rely on wisdom from God rather than human wisdom if we are to successfully navigate life. Discourse 4 finds the father urging his son to get wisdom above all else, whatever the cost. Discourse 5 contains warning against adultery. Sexuality in and of itself is not a bad thing when used properly. Unfortunately, many sins involve something God gave us for good, but we decide to use it in a God forbidden way.
Discourse 6 gives financial advice, with a warning to avoid devious men and shameless women, and gives a list of seven things that the Lord hates. Discourse 7 gives a warning to avoid an adulteress. Note that this book was originally written for young men, but there a many applications for young women as well. In this particular instance, young females should be wary and avoid a male adulterer. In Discourse 8, we find Wisdom personified (but not a personal deity - see “Interpretation Hints and Challenges” below). Wisdom is portrayed as more valuable than silver or gold (8:10-11). Finally in discourse 9, we find lady Wisdom contrasted with the woman Folly.
The next section (chapters 10-24), also attributed to Solomon, contains various sayings on many subjects, but are often grouped by a broad topic. Chapter 10 contains sayings related to the connection of hard work with financial security. Chapter 11 contrasts the ultimate destiny of the righteous and the wicked. Chapter 12 offers wise advise on dealing with others. Chapters 13 and 14 relays important lessons on life’s realities. Chapter 15 contrasts how the wise and the fool deal with everyday problems and relationships. Chapter 16 deals with God’s sovereignty and human government. Chapters 17-19 deals with relationships among family and among friends. Chapters 20-22:16 deals primarily with wrong choices such as drunkenness, shady business practices, punishment for the wicked, family matters etc.
Proverbs 22:17 - 24:22 is often called “Words to the Wise” or “Sayings of the Wise”. Many scholars see an Egyptian influence in this section, which would not be unexpected since there was a fairly close relationship (trade etc) between Egypt and Israel during Solomon’s reign. The latter part of this section (23:15-24:22) reverts back to the subjects of the prologue, with the father again addressing his son. Proverbs 24:23-34 adds a few additional “Sayings of the Wise”, so this may have been an addendum to Solomon’s initial words.
The next section (chapters 25-29) were originally written by Solomon and added by men in Judah’s King Hezekiah’s court. The opening verses address the proper etiquette for appearing before the king (25:1-15). The remainder of the section (25:16 - 29:27) primarily addresses personal relationships, dealing with adversaries, relationships with family and friends, and warning against oppressing the poor.
The final section begins with the Saying of Agur (chapter 30), an unknown person who opens with a prologue contrasting man and God. A major emphasis for Agur is that only God’s words are always true and reliable. Agur covers several topics, often using poetic “lists” to convey advice. Chapter 31 then closes the book with the Sayings of King Lemuel. These are broken into two parts. The first (31:1-9) is an oracle that he was taught by his mother with a warning against wine and immoral women. In the second part that closes the book, he composes and acrostic poem in praise of a virtuous woman who fears the Lord.
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The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young— let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance— for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (1:1-7)
Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square; on top of the wall she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech: “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings. (1:23-23)
For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path. (2:6-9)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (3:5-6)
Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way... Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (4:14-15,23)
“Now then, my children, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not disregard it. Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord. But those who fail to find me harm themselves; all who hate me love death.” (8:32-36)
The proverbs of Solomon: A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother... The wise store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin. (10:1,14)
The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish. There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. (14:11-12)
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (15:1)
Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and he will establish your plans... In their hearts human beings plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps... Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. (16:3,9,18)
A person may think their own ways are right, but the LORD weighs the heart. To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. (21:2-3)
A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold... Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender. (22:1,6-7)
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you. (25:21-22)
A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools! As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them. (26:3:11-12)
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips. (27:1-2)
Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know! “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar. “Two things I ask of you, LORD; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (30:4-9)
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life... She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. (31:10-12,27-30)
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Author and Date
The first 29 chapters of Proverbs are composed of wisdom sayings written by Solomon, King of united Israel (971-931 BC) and the son of King David. Solomon is considered one of the (if not the) wisest men to ever live, because he received this wisdom directly from God (see 1Kings 3:1-15 and 2nd Chronicles 1:1-12). Indeed, God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom (1Kg 4:29-34).
Solomon both wrote and compiled what is now the first twenty-four chapters, but some believe that he was only the compiler of the “sayings of the wise” in 22:17–24:34 which may had had an earlier origin. The collection of sayings in chapters 25–29 was originally composed by Solomon (25:1), and then copied and compiled later under Judah’s King Hezekiah (~728–686 BC). Solomon likely authored his proverbs early in his kingly reign, since he later allowed his many foreign pagan wives to turn his heart away from God (1 Kg 11:1–13).
The sayings in chapter 30 are attributed to Agur son of Jakeh (31:1).
Some have suggested that Agur was a counselor in Solomon’s court, which would be
possible but not certain. There are no other mentions of Agur or Jakeh in
the Bible or in extra-biblical literature of the era. The name “Agur”
comes from a Hebrew word for “collector”, so he could have been an official who
collected and compiled the sayings, possibly from Solomon.
Chapter 31 contains the sayings of King Lemuel — an inspired utterance his mother taught him (Prv 31:1). Like with Agur and Jakeh of the previous chapter, little else is known of King Lemuel, whose name means “devoted to God”, except that his mother was also wise. Many scholars have suggested that King Lemuel was actually Solomon himself, in which case the mother who taught the sayings would have been Bathsheba, wife of David. Another theory is that King Lemuel was actually King Solomon himself, which would probably relegate Lemuel and his mother to that of fiction characters representing the consummate king and his wise mother.
The final assembly of the book likely took place during or shortly afterward the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah (~728-686 BC).
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Historical Background and Timeline
Although the Proverbs were written to be of benefit for readers of all generations, they were written during the reign of King Solomon of Israel from 971-931 BC. Chapters 25-29 were composed by Solomon but organized and copied during the reign of King Hezekiah from approximately 728-686 BC. See 1Kings chapters 1-11 and 1Chronicles 29 through 2Chronicles 9 for the biblical history of Solomon’s reign. See 2Kings 18-20 and 2Chronicles 29-32 for the biblical history of Hezekiah’s reign.
|David becomes King of Judah
|David becomes King of United Israel and Judah
|Solomon becomes King of United Israel and Judah
|Solomon writes his two Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon), and in his old age, the Book of Ecclesiastes
|Division of the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) Kingdoms
|Hezekiah King of Judah compiled a number of Proverbs written during Solomon’s reign (Proverbs 25-29)
|Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians
|The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)
|Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Population, Judean King Jehoiachin Imprisoned
|Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
|First Return of Exiled Jews to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel
|Rebuilding of the Temple Completed
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Themes, Purpose and Theology
The many themes found in Proverbs can be categorized into two major
categories, either that of wisdom or of folly. Both are intermixed and
compared throughout the book. Wisdom, which includes knowledge, understanding,
and the need for
instruction, discretion, and obedience is dependent upon the fear of the Lord and
reliance on His
Word. Folly, or foolishness is basically the opposite of wisdom.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but
fools despise wisdom and instruction (1:1). The Hebrew word
rendered fool in Proverbs (ewil), and often
elsewhere in the Old Testament (OT), denotes a person who is not merely foolish,
but morally deficient. Thus, the emphasis is not that this person is dumb,
but is deliberately rebelling against God. Thus the wisdom sayings found in Proverbs (and
much of the other wisdom writings in the Bible) are much more than just good
practical advise. They are irrevocably intertwined with a faithful
relationship with God, the true source of all wisdom.
Some of the most prominent subjects of the Proverbs are adultery, relationships with husbands and wives, children and other relatives, and with friends and neighbors. Other prominent subjects include financial dealings, congenial speech, diligence vs laziness, life and death, eternity and much more. This partial list of subjects demonstrates that God is interested and active in the practical as well as the spiritual things of our life. Of course, many practical things also have a spiritual element. The list also shows our God to be more than just a macro-manager over our lives, but also a micro-manager in the He cares about the seemingly small stuff.
Because of the number and variety of subjects covered in the Proverbs, and the fact that many subjects are often scattered thought the book of Proverbs, studying a particular subject can have its challenges. Therefore, we suggest that one might consider looking up the subject in a good concordance that will lead the reader to the various scripture references containing your chosen subject.
The purpose of Proverbs was to equip the chosen people of Israel with the wisdom to successfully navigate the challenges of everyday life. That purpose remains unchanged for all people today. The book touches upon a wide range of subjects from all categories of life from the essential to the less critical such as morality, business ethics, and many others, including both individual and corporate matters.
The teachers of ancient Israel realized that people needed wisdom if they were to handle the everyday affairs of life satisfactorily. The wisdom that is taught in Proverbs therefore covers a wide range of subjects. Some of it deals with apparently minor matters such as talking too much, bad table manners and laziness. Other parts are concerned with wider issues such as sexual morality, family responsibilities, business ethics, local community affairs and national government. Proverbs gives all believers, and especially the young, a golden opportunity to learn the lessons that their ancestors often learned the hard way, and to possibly avoid the mistakes made by previous generations.
Although Proverbs is typically and rightly viewed
as a practical manual for wise living, it also contains much teaching about God
(theology is the study of and about God and his relation to His creation,
including humans as the crown of His creation). God’s covenant name
Yahweh appears almost 90 times in the book.
His holy character is the underlying basis for how we are to relate to Him and
each other, and how we are to conduct ourselves as we do His will as we go about
our daily affairs.
Regarding theology proper, the doctrine of God as Creator is prominent in may places with Proverbs, along with the doctrine that God is also sovereign over his creation. We won’t find the direct statement that “God is holy”, but his holiness stands out as the foundation for the moral code contained throughout the book. He is also portrayed as just. The sovereign, holy and just God is also knowable because He freely chose to reveal Himself to us through His Word. In addition, He is attentive to our prayers and completely trustworthy in all things.
The wise teachers of Proverbs also speak much of man’s relationships. At the fall (Genesis 3), our three basic relationships, to God, to our self, and to each other were all damaged. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, these relationships are being repaired, but won’t be fully repaired until we get to Heaven.
Because the book of Proverbs offers instruction on how to live wisely in this world according to the covenant our covenant relationship, the theology within Proverbs could be referred to as “practical theology”.
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Interpretation Hints and Challenges
As with the other Bible books of Hebrew wisdom and poetry, the primary challenge is to understand the characteristics and intricacies of the literary genre, and to the genre of the Proverbs in particular. Proverbs should not be read as a historical narrative, or carefully reasoned prose, but read according to the rules that the author used in his writings.
In interpreting a proverb, the most important principle that we must understand is that a proverb functions as a general principles of right and wrong as they apply to life in general. The statement is true in the majority of cases, but is not an iron-clad guarantee. For example, Proverbs 22:6 states, Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. In general, a child of Christian parents has a much better chance of becoming a committed follower of Christ than those from non-Christian families, but we all know exceptions to this rule. The larger truth is that children, in most cases, tend to follow in their parents footsteps regarding spiritual matters.
In addition, a proverb, being a general principle, may contain qualifiers and/or may not apply uniformly in all cases. One of the best cases for this is in Proverbs 26. Verse 4 reads “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him”, while verse 5 reads “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes”. Many a critic have claimed that the is a contradiction and a Biblical error. Yet, when the rules of genre are correctly understood and applied, the meaning becomes clear. The author is using a feature of Hebrew poetry known a parallelism, in which multiple lines in a Hebrew poem correlate with one another in order to make a point. In this case, antithetic parallelism is used to qualify the two statements with each other. The fact that the author placed these two seemingly contrasting statements side by side indicates that they are meant to be read together. Thus, the author is saying that there are times when we should confront a fool (usually when he or she is honestly seeking the truth), and times when it would be pointless, such as if we were confronting someone with a post-modern worldview in which everyone has his or her own “truth”.
Personified Wisdom and Christ
There has been some disagreements among scholars as to the identity and meaning surrounding wisdom as a personified female in chapters 1, 2, 8 and 9. The first claim is that wisdom should be identified with Jesus Christ, since she was present with God at creation (8:22–31). Others claim she is a goddess. There are two major problems with these claims. Yet the verses indicate that she is not eternal as is Christ. Verse 23 states “I was formed” and verse 24 and 25 confirm that “I was given birth”, but Christ has always existed. Second, she is not a person, but a female personification of Wisdom who is contrasted by a separate personification of Folly in chapter 9. The main point is that God established wisdom and the priciples of right and wrong from the time of the Creation.
There have also been some debates over why Solomon chose to portray Wisdom as a woman. Many solutions have been suggested, but the most probable solution is that the Hebrew word for wisdom is chokmot, which is grammatically feminine (most English words are grammatically neutral).
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The Book of Proverbs can be divided into two major sections: the introduction and opening discourses (1:1–9:18) and the sayings of the wise (10:1–31:31). We could further divide these sections into six segments: the purpose of Proverbs (1:1–7), instructions to the youth (1:8–9:18), the proverbs of Solomon (10:1–24:34), the proverbs of Solomon copied by King Hezekiah’s men (25:1–29:27), the words of Agur (30:1–33), and the words of King Lemuel (31:1–31). See the “Brief Survey” section above for additional information regarding the structure of the book.
|1:1 - 1:7
|The Purpose of the Proverbs
|1:8 - 1:33
|The Enticement of Sin and Wisdom’s Rebuke of Sin
|2:1 - 2:23
|Value and Benefits of Wisdom
|3:1 - 3:12
|Trust in the Lord
|3:13 - 3:35
|Blessings for those who Find Wisdom
|4:1 - 4:27
|A Father’s Wise Instruction to Gain Understanding
|5:1 - 5:23
|Warnings against Adultery and Immoral Women
|6:1 - 7:27
|Warnings against Laziness and Adultery
|8:1 - 9:18
|Wisdom Calls Out
|10:1 - 22:16
|Proverbs of Solomon
|22:17 - 24:22
|Thirty Sayings of the Wise
|24:23 - 24:34
|Additional Sayings of the Wise
|25:1 - 29.27
|Additional Proverbs of Solomon Copied by the Men of King Hezekiah
|30:1 - 30:33
|Sayings of Agur
|31:1 - 31:9
|Sayings of King Lemuel
|31:10 - 31:31
|A Virtuous Wife
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