Scholars have debated what mashal, the Hebrew word rendered ‘proverb’ in the Old Testament means. Observation tells us that a proverb is a pithy maxim, often of a metaphorical nature, to express a simile. This understanding would agree with what many believe the word ‘proverb’ literally means, ‘to be like’, thus prompting the reader to consider an association of things. Proverbs, then, is a collection of succinct common-sense sayings, which, by comparison or contrast, convey a practical certainty that should be heeded. The book of Proverbs provides a lengthy contrast of wisdom and foolishness. Such practical wisdom should preserve the younger generation from repeating the mistakes of their parents, 1. 5.
Biblical wisdom is not knowledge alone, nor philosophical speculation about our existence; it is learning and experiencing principles of a God-honouring life. While six different Hebrew words are translated ‘wisdom’ in Proverbs, the first to appear, and the most common word in the book, is chokmah, which means ‘to have skill’. Just as sailors, singers and craftsmen have expertise in their related professions, a believer is to be competent in godly living. Knowledge can be memorized, but wisdom is dynamic; it must think through what is known in order to render the most profitable response. Wisdom skilfully applied will guide righteous, honest, pure, and orderly behaviour.
Proverbs is a treasure-tome of godly wisdom addressing a vast number of timeless topics. Where the books of the law decreed righteous statutes to be obeyed, Proverbs goes further, to direct proper attitudes and discretion in daily living. Moral conduct is explicitly declared to us in God’s word; however, discerning between wise and foolish, helpful and harmful, and profitable and worthless behaviour is more difficult because of its practical implications. This is especially true in questionable areas of conduct – thankfully, Proverbs provides meaningful guidance and stern warnings for such facets of daily living.
Proverbs is different from any other book in our Bible, in that it is neither historical, nor prophetic, nor law, nor a narrative, nor ritualistic in nature. While it certainly belongs with the other books of wisdom, it is clearly distinct from them in format and purpose. We do not need to read far into Proverbs to understand the purpose of the book, the writer tells us in the opening verses. Notice the author’s fourfold intention for his book:
‘To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, Justice, judgment, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion’, Prov. 1. 2-4 NKJV.
Proverbs is God’s textbook for teaching His people: to have wise and disciplined behaviour, to learn proper reasoning skills, to understand moral ethics, and to impart prudence, so they would not be gullible, but exercise wisdom in all matters. While learning wise and discreet behaviour is profitable for readers of any age, the focus of Proverbs is to instil these virtuous qualities into the younger generation, 1. 4. In fact, Solomon invokes ‘my son’ terminology some fifteen times in the first seven chapters to address his own children or possibly young pupils. After chapter 7 the phrases ‘wise son’ or ‘foolish son’ are repeatedly used to convey the same tenor. To this end, Proverbs provides a character sketch of a spiritually mature person that has God’s approval – both young and old should aspire to it.
Because individual proverbs contain easy to understand sayings and are couched in a concise poetic format, memorization was encouraged, and retention enhanced. Frequent word-pictures throughout the book also assist us with understanding a particular proverb’s meaning and application. This ensures that all of God’s people will find Proverbs a valuable source of guidance in all of life’s affairs. It is noteworthy that the authors do not address the Jewish nation per se, but rather individuals who must make right choices daily. Thus, Solomon’s appeal is to ‘a wise man [someone who] will hear, and will increase learning’, 1. 5. We cannot force others to change their ways or correct their bad habits, but with God’s help each believer can become more Christ-like by yielding to God’s word.
The overall purpose of Proverbs is to teach God’s people godly character and wise conduct, so that they can avoid the pitfalls of sin and of foolish behaviour. If wisdom is learned, if prudence is gained, if godly character is shaped, and if divine counsel is heeded, believers will be able to live ‘skilfully’ before the Lord. As further explained later, the ‘fool’ in Proverbs is not a mentally challenged person, but someone who rejects divine knowledge and wisdom: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding’, 9. 10. ‘The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God”’, Ps. 14. 1. A person who has no time nor respect for God is a fool, because he is morally and spiritually bankrupt and does not know it. Accordingly, in Proverbs, foolishness is closely linked with death, which normally speaks of the entire realm that conflicts with life, more than merely a single event that ends physical existence. May God’s people learn wisdom and avoid the deadly foolishness that Solomon warns us about in Proverbs.
The content of Proverbs is difficult to classify because of the wide range of subjects addressed, often within the same chapter. C. I. Scofield suggests four main topical divisions for Proverbs:
Some, like William MacDonald, have divided Proverbs according to authorship and themes:
Irrespective of how it might be outlined, Proverbs addresses a host of beneficial topics: sound business practices, disciplined living, generosity, controlling the tongue, avoiding gossip, rearing children, moral purity, handling peer pressure, managing anger, maintaining a good marriage, self-control, greed, social relationships, picking good friends, substance abuse, grief, lying, laziness, ignorance, death, anxiety, and many more. If we want to be successful in life, from the eternal perspective, we need to read, understand, and practise the wisdom imparted in Proverbs.
According to the text and the Hebrew superscripts, Solomon, a man impressively gifted with divine wisdom, 1 Kgs. 4. 29-34, is the main author of Proverbs, Prov. 1. 1; 10. 1; 25. 1. According to 1 Kings chapter 4 verse 32 Solomon uttered some 3,000 proverbs and wrote 1,005 songs. Solomon was a prolific writer, but the Lord has determined to preserve only a small portion of Solomon’s literary works for our benefit, perhaps because he did not walk with the Lord in his autumn years.
The writers of Proverbs chapter 22 verse 17 to chapter 24 verse 34 are identified as ‘the wise’, 22. 17; 24. 23. Perhaps these men were known for their profound wisdom prior to Solomon’s time and he therefore chose to include some of their writings with his own. Many of the sayings in this section are warnings, i.e., ‘do not’ and require two to four lines to complete the thought. The proverbs contained in chapters 25-29 were written by Solomon but compiled nearly three centuries later by men of Hezekiah, 25. 1. Agur and Lemuel contributed Proverbs chapters 30 and 31 respectively; their identities are unknown. Given their names, they are not likely to be of Jewish descent; furthermore, Lemuel is referred to as a king, 31. 1, and there is no Jewish record of such a man ruling in Israel. Agur and Lemuel may have been alternative names for Solomon, but this seems unlikely. The acrostic poetry construction of Proverbs chapter 31 verses 10-31 is a distinct stylistic change from the previous nine verses, which were written by Lemuel. This suggests that an unknown author may have penned that portion of the text at a later date.
Since Solomon reigned as Israel’s king from 971 to 932 BC, his literary works would have been composed during that time. The final compilation, assuming the men of Hezekiah completed the arrangement, would have been about 700 BC. Sid Buzzell suggests that ‘Solomon wrote the Song of Songs in his early adult years, Proverbs in his middle years, and Ecclesiastes near the end of his life as he reflected on his experiences’.3 This seems reasonable, as several early chapters in Proverbs are addressed to his son of a marriageable age, and Ecclesiastes is his reflection on a full life of experiences and disappointments. Regardless of authorship or the timing of compilation, the Spirit of God has inspired and maintained a collection of priceless wisdom for humanity to benefit from – Proverbs is a book of heavenly guidance for earthly living.
Unlike Ecclesiastes, Proverbs is occupied with the wider subject of wisdom, which is centred in the fear of the Lord, not just with the nature of man as he is. It is observed that when Solomon refers to God in Proverbs, he uses ‘Jehovah’ as a rule, rather than the less personal term of ‘God’, which is rarely found in the book, and then mostly as a modifier. However, in Ecclesiastes, Solomon uses the term ‘God’ almost exclusively, until he speaks of the fear of Jehovah at the end. Jehovah supplies for His covenant people the very wisdom they require to maintain fellowship with Him; what revelation is needed is supplied. The secular axiom proclaims, ‘Ignorance is bliss’, but Proverbs declares that it is foolish to live in wilful ignorance. This highlights the wonderful benefit of studying and heeding Proverbs – joyful communion with the Lord and enjoyment of His blessing!