The Book of Proverbs contains the essence of Israel's wisdom. It provides a godly worldview and offers insight for living. Proverbs 1:7
provides the perspective for understanding all the proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” “Fear of the Lord” is biblical shorthand for an entire life in love, worship, and obedience to God.
Date and Composition Though the title of Proverbs (Proverbs 1:1
) seems to ascribe the entire book to Solomon, closer inspection reveals that the book is composed of parts and that it was formed over a period of several hundred years. It is difficult to know precisely the role Solomon and his court may have had in starting the process which culminated in the Book of Proverbs. This process may be compared to the way psalms of Davidic authorship eventually led to the Book of Psalms. In Israel, wisdom was considered Solomonic almost by definition (see articles on Song of Solomon , and Ecclesiastes, as well as the apochryphal work, Wisdom of Solomon). Thus the titles in Proverbs 1:1
and Proverbs 4:5-9
are not strictly statements of authorship in the modern sense.
That Proverbs is a collection of collections which grew over time is best seen from its variety of content and from its titles. These titles introduce the book's major subcollections, and are found in Proverbs 1:1
; Proverbs 10:1
; Proverbs 22:17
(“words of the wise”); Proverbs 24:23
; Proverbs 1:20-22
; Proverbs 30:1
; Psalm 19:1-2
. For dating, Proverbs 25:1
places the copying or editing of Proverbs 25-29 in the court of Hezekiah, thus about 700 B.C., some 250 years after Solomon. The process of compilation probably extended into the postexilic period.
Because wisdom writings have almost no historical references, they are very difficult to date. Most scholars place Proverbs 10-29 sometime in the period of kings. Proverbs 1-9 are in a different genre (see below) from the Solomonic sayings of chapters Proverbs 10:1-22
:16 , and their date is disputed. Some say it may be as early as Solomon. Others say it is postexilic, that Proverbs 1-9 were added to 10–29 to give later readers a context from which to understand the short sayings in the latter chapters. The date of Proverbs 30-31 is also uncertain. One scholar has argued there is a play on the Greek word for wisdom ( sophia ) in Proverbs 31:27
. This would date Proverbs 31:1
after the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.
Literary Character and Forms The Book of Proverbs uses a variety of wisdom forms or genres. The Hebrew word for proverb (mashal ), found in the book's title, can refer to a variety of literary forms beside the proverb: prophetic “discourse” (Numbers 23:7
:18 ), “allegory” (Ezekiel 17:2
; Ezekiel 24:3
), “taunt song” (Micah 2:4
). Different sections of the book specialize in characteristic forms. Long wisdom poems, which scholars call “Instructions” after their Egyptian counterpart, dominate Proverbs 1:8-9
:18 . These usually begin with a direct address to “son/children” and contain imperatives or prohibitions, motive clauses (reasons for actions), and sometimes narrative development (Proverbs 7:6-23
). The setting of these instructions may be a school for young aristocrats. This section also contains public speeches by personified Wisdom (Proverbs 1:20-33
; Proverbs 8:1-36
; Proverbs 9:1-6
“Sayings” which express wise insights about reality are the primary forms in Proverbs 10:1-22
:16 and Proverbs 25:1-29
:27 . Sayings are characterized by extreme brevity. In Hebrew they usually have two lines with only six to eight words, in contrast to their much longer English translations. These sayings may simply “tell it like it is,” and let readers draw their own conclusions (Proverbs 11:24
; Proverbs 17:27-28
; Proverbs 18:16
). They can also make clear value judgments (Proverbs 10:17
; Proverbs 14:31
; Proverbs 15:33
; Proverbs 19:17
). Mostly “antithetical sayings” which contrast opposites appear in Proverbs 10:1-15
:33 , but mixed in are a few “better—than” sayings (“Better is a dinner with herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it,” Proverbs 15:17
; compare Proverbs 15:16
) which are also scattered in other sections (Proverbs 16:8
:19 ; Proverbs 17:1
; Proverbs 19:1
; Proverbs 21:9
; Proverbs 25:24
; Proverbs 27:5
:10 ; Proverbs 28:6
). The section Proverbs 25:1-27
is especially rich in comparative proverbs which set two things beside one another for comparison: “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” ( Proverbs 25:25
; compare Proverbs 25:12-13
:14 ,Proverbs 25:14,25
:26 ,Proverbs 25:26,25
:28 ; Proverbs 26:1-3
:6-11 ,Proverbs 26:6-11,26
:14 ,Proverbs 26:14,26
:20 among others). Such sayings also occur elsewhere, “Like a gold ring in a swine's snout is a beautiful woman without discretion” ( Proverbs 11:22
“Admonitions” characterize Proverbs 22:17-24
:22 . Borrowing from Egyptian wisdom marks this section. These short wisdom forms contain imperatives or prohibitions, usually followed by a motive clause which gives a reason or two for doing that which is being urged: “Do not remove an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless; for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you” (Proverbs 23:10-11
). Admonitions are a shorter relative of the instruction.
The words of Agur (Proverbs 30:1
) specializes in numerical sayings (Proverbs 30:15-31
). The epilogue of the book (Proverbs 31:10-31
) presents an alphabetic poem on wisdom embodied in the “valiant woman.” This brief sketch of wisdom forms presents only the basic types. Even within the types here presented, a great deal of subtle variation occurs.
Themes and Worldview In spite of being a collection of collections, Proverbs displays a unified, richly complex worldview. Proverbs 1-9 introduces this worldview and lays out its main themes. The short sayings of Proverbs 10-31 are to be understood in light of the first nine chapters.
The beginning and end of wisdom is to fear God and avoid evil (Proverbs 25:6-7
9 ; Proverbs 8:13
; Proverbs 9:10
; Proverbs 15:33
). The world is a battleground between wisdom and folly, righteousness and wickedness, good and evil. This conflict is personified in Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 1:20-33
; Proverbs 10:1
; Proverbs 8:1
; Proverbs 9:1-6
) and Harlot Folly (Proverbs 5:1-6
; Proverbs 6:24-35
; Proverbs 7:1
; Proverbs 9:13-18
). Both “women” offer love and invite simple young men (like those in the royal school) to their homes to sample their wares. Wisdom's invitation is to life (Proverbs 8:34-36
); the seduction of Folly leads to death (Proverbs 5:4-6
; Proverbs 7:22-27
; Proverbs 9:18
Mysteriously, Lady Wisdom speaks in public places, offering wisdom to everyone who will listen (Proverbs 25:1
; Proverbs 8:1-5
; Proverbs 9:3
). Wisdom does not hide, but stands there for all who seek her. Some scholars consider Wisdom to be an attribute of God, especially shown in creation (Proverbs 3:19-20
; Proverbs 8:22-31
). More accurately stated, however, Wisdom is “the self-revelation of creation.” That is, God has placed in creation a wise order which speaks to humankind of good and evil, urging humans toward good and away from evil. This is not just the “voice of experience,” but God's general revelation which speaks to all people with authority. The world is not silent, but speaks of the Creator and His will (Proverbs 31:1
; Psalm 97:6
; Psalm 145:10
; Psalm 148:1
; Job 12:7-9
; Acts 14:15-17
; Romans 1:18-23
; Romans 2:14-15
This perspective eliminates any split between faith and reason, between sacred and secular. The person who knows God also knows that every inch of life is created by God and belongs to Him. Experiences of God come only from experiences in God's world. Experiences in the world point the person of faith to God.
Thus, the wise person “fears God” and also lives in harmony with God's order for creation. The sluggard must learn from the ant because the ant's work is in tune with the order of the seasons (Proverbs 6:6-11
; compare Proverbs 10:5
Thinking Proverbially The short proverbs in Proverbs 10-29 cover a wealth of topics from wives ( Proverbs 11:22
; Proverbs 18:22
; Proverbs 25:24
) to friends (Proverbs 14:20
; Proverbs 17:17-18
; Proverbs 18:17
; Proverbs 27:6
), strong drink (Proverbs 23:29-35
; Proverbs 31:4-7
), wealth and poverty, justice and injustice, table manners and social status (Proverbs 23:1-8
; compare 1618105011_65 ; Luke 14:7-11
One cannot just use any proverb on any topic, for proverbs can be misused: “Like a lame man's legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (Proverbs 26:7
; compare Proverbs 26:9
). Proverbs are designed to make one wise, but they require wisdom to be used correctly. Proverbs are true, but their truth is realized only when they are fitly applied in the right situation. Job's friends misapplied proverbs about the wicked to righteous Job. Many things have more than one side to them, and the wise person will know which is which. Wives can be a gift from the Lord ( Proverbs 18:22
), but sometimes singleness seems better (Proverbs 21:9
:19 ). Silence can be a sign of wisdom (Proverbs 17:27
) or a cover-up (Proverbs 17:28
). A “friend” (Hebrew, rea' ) can be trusted (Proverbs 17:17
), but not always (Proverbs 17:18
; “neighbor” = rea' )!
Wealth can be a sign of God's blessing (Proverbs 3:9-10
), but some saints suffer (Proverbs 3:11-12
). Wealth can result from wickedness (Proverbs 13:23
; Proverbs 17:23
; Proverbs 28:11
; compare Proverbs 26:12
). It is better to be poor and godly: “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice” (Proverbs 16:8
; compare Proverbs 15:16-17
Morrish Bible Dictionary
- Proverbs, Book of
In this book God has furnished, through the wisest of men, principles and precepts for the guidance and security of the believer in passing through the temptations to which he is exposed in an evil world. The admonitions speak in terms of affectionate warning 'as to sons:' Hebrews 12:5
. Under symbolic terms, such as 'the evil man' and 'the strange woman,' the great forms of evil in the world, violent self-will, and corrupting folly, are laid bare in their course and end. Wisdom is shown as the alone guard against one or the other. Wisdom is presented, not as a faculty residing in man, but as an object to be diligently sought after and acquired. It is often personified, and is spoken of as lifting up her voice. In Proverbs 8 , under the idea of wisdom, we have doubtless Christ presented as the resource that was with God from 'the beginning of His way,' so that God could independently of man establish and bring into effect His thoughts of grace for men.
In detail the book refers to the world, showing what things are to be sought and what to be avoided, and evinces that in the government of God a man reaps according to what he sows, irrespective of the spiritual blessings of God in grace beyond and above this world. It maintains integrity in the earthly relationships of this life, which cannot be violated with impunity. The instruction rises altogether above mere human prudence and sagacity, for "the fear of the Lord is the beginning
of knowledge." We have in it the wisdom of God for the daily path of human life.
The book divides itself into two parts: the first nine chapters give general principles, and Proverbs 10 onwards are the proverbs themselves. This latter portion divides itself into three parts: Proverbs 10 : to Proverbs 24 , the proverbs of Solomon; Proverbs 25 to Proverbs 29 , also the proverbs of Solomon, which were gathered by "the men of Hezekiah king of Judah." Proverbs 30 gives the words of Agur; and Proverbs 31 the words of king Lemuel.
The Proverbs is a book of poetry. The proverbs vary in style: some are antithetical couplets, one being the opposite of the other, as "a wise son maketh a glad father; but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother." Others are synthetical, the second sentence enforcing the first, as "The Lord hath made all things for himself, yea, even the wicked for the day of evil." See POETRY.
In Proverbs 1 the purport of the proverbs is pointed out: it is that instruction in wisdom, justice, judgement, and equity might be received: the fear of the Lord is the starting point. Satan would of course oppose this, so warnings are at once given to avoid the enticings of sinners. Wisdom cries aloud and in the streets: her instructions are for all. Retribution is for such as refuse her call.
Proverbs 2 gives the results of following in the path of wisdom, whereasthe wicked will be rooted out.
Proverbs 3 shows that it is the fear of God, and subjection to Hisword, that is the only true path in an evil world.
Proverbs 4 enforces the study of wisdom: it will surely bringinto blessing. Evil must be avoided and be kept at a distance. The heart, the eye, and the feet must be watched.
Proverbs 5 warns a man against leaving the wife of his youth (the lawful connection) for the strange woman, which leads to utter demoralisation.
Proverbs 6 enjoins one not to be surety for another. Wisdom is not slothful, violent, nor deceitful. There are seven things which are an abomination to the Lord. The strange woman is again pointed out to be avoided as fire : there is no ransom for adultery.
Proverbs 7 again shows the traps laid by the strange woman, which alas, are often too successful. Her house is the way to hell (Sheol).
Proverbs 8 proclaims that wisdom calls, and invites all to listen: it is valuable for all — kings, princes, rulers, judges. With wisdom are linked durable riches and righteousness: her fruit is better than gold. All God's works in creation were carried out in wisdom. This introduces Christ as the wisdom of God , from Proverbs 8:22
. He was there before the work of creation was begun. His delights were with the sons of men (Proverbs 8:31
), with which agrees the song of the heavenly host at the birth of the Lord Jesus: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward man." Luke 2:14
. Wisdom says, "Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life."
Proverbs 9 . Wisdom is established: she has her house, her food, her bread, and her wine. Her maidens are sent forth with loving invitations to enter. Again the world has its counter attractions by the strange woman; but the dead are there, and her guests in the depths of Sheol.
Thus far are the general principles on which wisdom acts: in Proverbs 10 to the end are the proverbs themselves. They enter into details of dangers and how they are to be avoided, and show the path that wisdom leads into, and in which there is safety.
Proverbs 30 has a heading, "The words of Agur, the son of Jakeh, even the prophecy: the man spake unto Ithiel, even unto Ithiel and Ucal." As these names are not known, it has been supposed that they are symbolical, and that Agur refers to Solomon. Whether this is so or not does not in any way affect the value of the proverbs in the chapter. There are six sets of four things:
Four generations that are evil. (Proverbs 30:11-14
Four things that are insatiable. (Proverbs 30:15,16
Four things that are inscrutable. (Proverbs 30:18,19
Four things that are intolerable. (Proverbs 30:21-23
Four things that are weak, yet wise. (Proverbs 30:24-28
Four things that are very stately. (Proverbs 30:29-31
Proverbs 32 . Here are "the words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him." Who king Lemuel was is not known: this has caused some to suppose that Solomon is again alluded to. The first nine verses speak of the character of a king according to wisdom. The principal things are that his strength should not be given unto women, nor to strong drink, and that his mouth should be opened for those ready to perish, the poor, and the needy. The rest of the chapter is devoted to the description of a virtuous woman. She fills her house with good things, and brings prosperity to the household and honour to her husband. The king and the virtuous woman may in some respects be typical of Christ and the church.
Christians should study the Book of Proverbs, for (even when properly occupied with heavenly things, and the interests of Christ on earth) they are apt to overlook the need of wisdom from heaven to pass through this evil world, and to manage their affairs on earth in the fear of God.
Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
- Proverbs, Book of
PROVERBS, BOOK OF . The second book among the ‘Writings’ is the most characteristic example of the Wisdom literature in the OT. 1 . We may adopt the division of the book made by the headings in the Hebrew text as follows:
I. Proverbs 1:1-33
; Proverbs 2:1-22
; Proverbs 3:1-35
; Proverbs 4:1-27
; Proverbs 5:1-23
; Proverbs 6:1-35
; Proverbs 7:1-27
; Proverbs 8:1-36
; Proverbs 9:1-18
, The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel (heading for more than this section). See below.
II. Proverbs 10:1
to Proverbs 22:16
, The proverbs of Solomon.
III. Proverbs 22:17
to Proverbs 24:22
, … the words of the wise ( Proverbs 22:17-21
forms an introductory poem).
IV. Proverbs 24:23-34
, These also are the sayings of the wise.
V. Proverbs 25:1-28
; Proverbs 26:1-28
; Proverbs 27:1-27
; Proverbs 28:1-28
; Proverbs 29:1-27
, These also are the proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah copied out.
VI. Proverbs 30:1-33
, The words of Agur, etc.
VII. Proverbs 31:1-9
, The words of king Lemuel, etc.
VIII. Proverbs 31:10
to Proverbs 31:31
, Without heading, but clearly distinct from VII.
Sections I., II., and III. form the body of the book; sections IV. and V. are additions to the earlier portion, and VI., VII., and VIII. are still later additions.
We consider section II. first, because here the typical Hebrew proverb is best seen, especially if chs. 10 15 are taken by themselves as II a . These chapters consist of aphorisms in the form of couplets showing antithetic parallelism (see Poetry). The couplets are wholly detached, and little order is observable in their arrangement. In content they come nearest being popular, even if they are not so actually. In general they show a contented and cheerful view of life. The wise are mentioned, and with admiration, but not as a class or as forming a school of thought or instruction. They are the successful, upright, prosperous men, safe examples in affairs of common life. In II b the lines are still arranged in distiches, but the antithetic parallelism has largely given way to the synonymous or synthetic variety. This form gives a little more opportunity for classifying and developing the sentiment of the proverb. ‘My son’ is addressed a few times, but not regularly. Section III. again marks an advance over II a and II b . The verses Proverbs 22:17-21
are a hortatory introduction. There follows a collection of quatrains, instead of couplets. They are maxims with proverbs among them. Consecutive thought has developed. The truths stated are still the simple every-day ones, but they show meditation as well as observation. Section IV. is an appendix to the third, both coming from ‘the Wise.’ It is very defective in rhythm, and seemingly the text has suffered corruption. In the few verses three themes are treated, chiefly the sluggard. Section V. is easily subdivided. Chs. 25 27:22
contain proverbs in the form of comparisons. Chs. 28 29 are in the style of section II. Between the two a little piece ( Proverbs 27:23-27
) praises the life of a farmer. Section VI. consists of several independent discourses. The heading ( Proverbs 30:1
) separates the chapter from the preceding, but otherwise adds little to our knowledge of the origin, for it is wellnigh unintelligible, Even if it consists of proper names, as is most likely, there is no gain from knowing them and nothing more. In Proverbs 30:15
ff. are several stanzas of peculiar ‘numerical’ style: ‘there are three things that … and four … namely …’ Section VII. is a brief manual for a king or judge, though the maxims are rather rudimentary and homely. If there is a temperance lesson, it is only for the king; the advice to the poor and oppressed is very different (see Proverbs 30:6-7
). The remainder of the chapter, section VIII., is noticeable for two things: its alphabetical structure, each couplet beginning with a new letter in regular order, and the unusual subject, the capable housewife. A most delicate tribute is in the omission of any reference to her virtue, which is tacitly assumed, and not even mentioned.
There remains the important section chs. 1 9. Its position at the head of the book does not show that it was first in point of time. It is clearly a preface, or hortatory introduction. It does not so much give wise counsel of a concrete kind, as praise the wisdom illustrated in the concrete counsels of the following sections. It is studied, philosophical, flowing in style. It addresses ‘My son’ at the beginning of a new paragraph, exactly as a teacher addresses ‘My hearers’ as he begins a lecture. In one chapter at least, the eighth, the adoration of wisdom is carried to the limit, and in spite of the fine personification one feels, regretfully, far removed from the plain practical precepts of sections II. and III. In this ‘cosmogonic hymn’ wisdom is assigned a dignity in the universe hardly inferior to that of the Creator.
Among the various attempts to explain the form in which the book comes to us, perhaps the following will be found as simple as any. We may suppose that the proverbs ‘of Solomon’ in II a and II b were collected separately and then combined in II.; that ‘the words of the wise’ in III. at first stood by themselves, and were supplemented by IV.; that the two groups, II. and III. IV., were then joined together, becoming known as the proverbs ‘of Solomon’; that the collection in V. was attached; that to this book section I. was then prefixed as an introduction, which was thus stamped as the literature of the school of Wisdom. The few remaining chapters, sections VI., VII., and VIII., were added later from the mass of Wisdom literature which must have been in existence, or later came into existence.
2 . As for the date of the book, the traditional ascription of parts of it to king Solomon must, of course, be discarded. And with this rejection there disappears any reason for seeking an early date for it. The time when, all things considered, the compilation is best explained, is between b.c. 350 and 150. From the nature of the case it is impossible to fix even approximately the date of the origin of individual couplets. Many of the arguments valid against an early date of compilation are valueless so far as the single proverbs are concerned.
3 . The authors of the Wisdom literature do not claim revealed wisdom; their teachings are only practical common sense. They are humanists, basing their morality upon the universal principles underlying all human nature. From this practical interest the view broadens to the wide sweep of ch. 8. ‘Proverbs may be regarded as a manual of conduct, or, as Bruch calls it, an “anthology of gnomes.” Its observations relate to a number of forms of life, to affairs domestic, agricultural, urban (the temptations of city life), commercial, political, and military’ (Toy, Proverbs , p. x.).
O. H. Gates.