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Introduction to the Book of Proverbs

Roger Hahn

The books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are often called Wisdom Literature by biblical scholars. These books plus certain psalms (called wisdom psalms) share a common perspective and poetic form. In the Roman Catholic Old Testament the books of the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Sirach are also part of the Wisdom Literature (see Canons of the Hebrew Bible). Other Jewish writings from the Intertestamental Period (450 BC to the birth of Jesus) have similar interests and are considered part of a wisdom tradition or wisdom school of thought.

Old Testament theologians usually identify three major approaches to spirituality in the Old Testament. The prophets brought a direct word from God that often conflicted with the institutional form of worship. The priests ordered the services of the temple and administered the sacrificial system. As part of the larger Levitical family they corresponded to what we now call the professional clergy. The third way of relating to God was through wisdom. This approach dealt more with the matters of everyday life and how to survive and be successful in the business of living. The key person was the sage or wise man or wise woman. These were lay leaders whose insight and perspective were valued resources for people in need of counsel and direction (see The Character of Wisdom).

This three-fold way of relating to God is reflected in Jeremiah 18:18 where the parenthetical remark is made, "for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet." Second Samuel 14:2-20 describes David’s search for counsel from a wise woman. Second Samuel 16:15-17:14 describes the process by which counsel from different wise men was evaluated and used by Absalom. References to the wise as a group of spiritual leaders in Israel can be found in various places within the Wisdom Literature itself.

The fact that prophets, priests, and sages represented three different and sometimes even conflicting ways to relate to God should be helpful to us. The prophets, priests, and sages seemed to communicate most successfully to different types of personalities. God seemed to understand that different kinds of people would respond to him in different ways, needing different structures. The way of wisdom provided a very common sense, down-to-earth way of understanding one’s spiritual life. Wisdom literature especially communicates with people who need only a few, well-chosen words. People trained in the prophetic model of revelation from God are often frustrated with the spiritual insights of the wise. The sages seem too down-to-earth and practical to be spiritual. From the priestly perspective the wise men and women did not seem to be organized and structured enough to be effective. But God provided different ways of knowing himself for different kinds of people and did not try to force everyone into the same model of spirituality.

People today may respond to the wisdom literature differently according to their personality and training. Wisdom Literature often frustrates people who love the heavy-duty theology of Isaiah or Paul. Some of them even call the Wisdom material secular because it deals so much with life on earth. Other people who have been frustrated by theological intricacies often love Proverbs and other wisdom sayings. They like the simple, bottom line summaries of what pleases God. Regardless of our personality type and the way we individually might respond to the Wisdom literature, we can rejoice that God has included it in the great variety of kinds of Scripture to meet the needs of different people.

The Background of Wisdom Literature

Two important streams of influence have shaped the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Because wisdom material is down-to-earth and everyday much of it springs from the observations of insightful people. They observe life and summarize it in short and to-the-point observations. Their observations are repeated and become sayings that are passed along by word of mouth. This is sometimes called folk wisdom. There is evidence of a vast amount of oral folk wisdom that was available in the various nations of the ancient Near East.

However, the wisdom material we know about moved from the oral form to written form. Somebody (actually many people) collected the wisdom sayings, organized them, and wrote them down for us to read. In the nations of the ancient Near East the people who could research, organize, and write such material were usually part of the king’s court. Hired to provide records and administrative resources these wise people also collected proverbs and wise sayings and put them in the written form we know today. This is often called court wisdom.

Folk wisdom and court wisdom do not need to be considered rivals or in opposition to each other. Generally speaking they represent two different stages in the development of wisdom sayings. (Court wisdom can also produce its own observations and then organize and write them down.) The patterns of folk and court wisdom can be found in the history of several nations in the Near East. Babylonian and Egyptian wisdom literature has been found to reflect concerns and even sayings similar to the Old Testament wisdom material. Comparison has often suggested some kind of relationship between the wisdom literature of the Bible and that of Egypt. The Bible itself provides the information for a likely explanation.

The Old Testament reveals a strong connection between Solomon and Wisdom Literature. Solomon has often been considered the author of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon although close analysis of those books suggests otherwise. Also, the deutero-canonical book of the Wisdom of Solomon found in Roman Catholic Old Testaments is ascribed to Solomon although the evidence shows that it much later.

First Kings 3:5-28 and 4:29-34 emphasize Solomon’s wisdom and 1 Kings 4:32 attributes 3000 proverbs and 1005 songs to Solomon. The structural outline of the book of Proverbs shows that Solomon not only wrote proverbs but also inspired others to write and collect proverbs. First Kings 4:1-28, the passage between the two descriptions of Solomon’s wisdom, deals with his administration. Root words and patterns suggest that Solomon imported scribes and administrators from Egypt to help him set up and administrate the great kingdom that he had been given. Since such administrative assistants in Egypt would have been involved in the court wisdom process there, it is likely that they are the ones who began collecting proverbs. Thus Solomon appointed the people who would do the secretarial and organization work that lies behind the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. From a Hebrew perspective that made those books, the books of Solomon.

The Concerns of Wisdom Literature

The Old Testament uses the word "wisdom" to refer to any educated discipline or skillful performance. The word was used in Isaiah 10:13 for successful military leadership. The Hebrew word appears in Exodus 35:26 to describe skill in turning goat’s hair into cloth. Exodus 28:3 then uses the word for the skill required to tailor cloth into clothing, while Exodus 31:1-5 uses it several times for metalworking and carpentry skills. The Hebrew word for wisdom is used in Psalm 107:27 apparently to refer to navigational skill. The context speaks of stormy seas and the second line of verse 27 literally states, "all their wisdom was swallowed up." Modern translations translate, "they were at their wits’ end." Deuteronomy 34:9 describes Joshua as full of the spirit of wisdom which appears to mean that he possessed the skills, gifts, and knowledge to become the political leader of Israel.

Beyond the skills and training of specialized people, the Old Testament speaks of wisdom as skill in life. In this sense the wisdom tradition and the wise men and women were the ancient ancestors of modern social and natural scientists. They observed behavior patterns and tried to describe predictable results. Whether the marriage relationship, parenting skills, work habits, or interpersonal relationship patterns, the wisdom literature comments on which habits will produce which results. Thus concepts that modern psychologists, sociologists, and economists are "discovering" via the scientific method may well appear in simple form in the proverbs. The wise were people who paid attention to how life works and they expressed their observations in proverb form.

The earliest form of Hebrew natural science was conducted in the wisdom tradition. The Song of Solomon is full of observations of nature. Though sexual love is the central theme of the Song, numerous comparisons and illustrations are drawn from nature. The author had obviously spent many hours studying both plant and animal life. Proverbs 30 has several numerical proverbs built around the predictable patterns of animal life. Whether ants, locusts, or lions the wise author has noticed the patterns that God through nature has built into the various animals. The argument of Job 37-41 can only be framed and understood by a person who has spent hours contemplating the mysteries of nature.

At some stage in Israel’s history the sages moved beyond observations about life to observations about wisdom itself. The most noticeable example of this is the personification of Wisdom. In Proverbs 1-9 Wisdom is portrayed several times as an attractive woman whose charms should be welcomed. The Lady Wisdom is contrasted to the dangerous prostitute as a safe companion. Proverbs 8:22-31 also personifies Wisdom as a companion of God at the time of creation. This personification of wisdom, especially associated with God in creation, is developed further in the apocryphal books of the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Sirach.

Most New Testament scholars believe that early Christians drew from the language of Proverbs 8, Wisdom of Solomon, and Wisdom of Sirach to describe the role of Christ as a pre-existent partner in creation. This "Wisdom Christology" as it is called can be found in John 1:1-4 and Colossians 1:15-18. This should not be understood as a prophecy of Christ - after all the personified Wisdom of Proverbs and the apocryphal books is feminine. However, the personified Wisdom does show God at work. Even in the Old Testament wisdom tradition he prepared concepts and phrases that would help the earliest Jewish Christians express the deity of Christ.

The Forms of Wisdom Literature

Almost all the Wisdom Literature is written in the style of Hebrew poetry. The book of Proverbs is completely in poetic form and most of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are also. Traditional English poetry is characterized by rhythm and the rhyming of final words of lines. Translation of rhymed poetry into another language is almost impossible. However, Hebrew poetry was not built on rhyming words but on parallel ideas. The technical term is parallelism (see Parallelism in Hebrew Writing). Hebrew poetry is constructed of two lines with some pre-designed relationship between each line. The most common form is called synonymous parallelism. In this form the second line repeats the idea of the first line, but uses different words. Proverbs 5:3 provides a good example:

The lips of a loose woman drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil.

There are many variations on the basic synonymous parallelism pattern. Often the second line will repeat the basic idea of the first line but amplify in some new direction. An example can be found in Proverbs 4:1:

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction
and be attentive, that you may gain insight.

Sometimes the second line provides the logical consequence of the first line as happens in Proverbs 26:4:

Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.

Another very common form of parallelism contrasts the first and second lines. This is called antithetic parallelism. The second line frequently begins with the word but as the example of Proverbs 10:1 shows:

A wise child makes a glad father,
but a foolish child is a mother’s grief.

Such contrasting ideas can also be presented by use of words with opposite meaning without using the disjunctive "but" to begin the second line.

The variations and combinations of these basic forms of parallelism offer the opportunity for fascinating analysis in the Wisdom Literature. We are able to see dedicated thinkers offering their creative ways of constructing parallelism to the Lord and to the community of faith.

Hebrew poetry also frequently shows patterns of rhythm. The rhythmic meter cannot be translated into English. However, the poetic genius of parallelism can be translated into any language. That is one of the special blessings of Hebrew poetry. Since parallelism of ideas is the basic feature it can be translated into any language when rhyming words cannot be.

The speakers and writers of the Wisdom material also use several other specific literary forms. Many proverbs are constructed in the "better than" format. Proverbs 15:17 is a typical example:

Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is
than a fatted ox and hatred with it.

Many proverbs are constructed with the words "like" or "as" to show comparison. Proverbs 11:22 is a biting example:

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout
is a beautiful woman without good sense.

The Wisdom writers also used acrostics and alphabetic constructions, although translators usually have no way of showing such Hebrew artistry. Commands, prohibitions, and instructive speeches are also illustrative of the literary creativity of the Wisdom Literature. Since such craftsmanship with words is found almost continuously throughout the poetic books, but infrequently in the Old Testament narratives, it cannot be explained simply by claiming inspiration. (Why did God only inspire one set of books to be so poetic?) What we see is the loving, devoted creativity of the sages offering God and Israel the best literary work they can produce. The content of wisdom writers is important and profound but the literary forms represent a special love for God that works patiently with words and ideas until the most beautiful and effective way of expressing the content is achieved. The wisdom writers worshipped God with their minds!

The Structure of Proverbs

The book of Proverbs takes its title from the first word in the Hebrew text which is usually translated as "proverbs." That word, mashal, is a general Hebrew term for any kind of verbal comparison. It would describe the parable Nathan used to confront David in 2 Samuel 12:1-7. Similes, allegories, wisecracks, sermons, one-liners, proverbs, maxims, announcements, and even doctrinal revelations could be described as mashalim (plural in Hebrew for mashal). Most of the mashal in the book of Proverbs are two-line sayings in the form of one of the parallelisms mentioned above. Often three- and four-line sayings are put together with some combination of parallelisms. These two- to four-line sayings tend to be independent of each other. That is, they can be taken out of the context and they can stand alone as an observation about life. (This is the way most people use the proverbs of Proverbs.) However, longer speeches, exhortations, and poems can be found in the book of Proverbs.

The book of Proverbs is a collection of collections of proverbs. Individual proverbs are units of from one to three verbs. The book is obviously a collection of individual proverbs. However, by both structure and headings it is clear that several collections of proverbs were made and that either all or parts of those collections were combined to produce the book we have. The book itself states that several authors contributed. Solomon (10:1), Agur (30:1), and Lemuel (31:1) are specifically named. Twice (22:17 and 24:23) the wise (or wise men) are named as the source of some of the proverbs.

The following divisions reflect the separate sections that the book of Proverbs itself identifies. Each section represents a collection of proverbs and the book took final form when these collections were collected.

Title and Introduction 1:1-7
Instructions and Speeches 1:8-9:18
Proverbs of Solomon 10:1-22:16
Words of Wise Men 22:17-24:22
More Words of Wise Men 24:23-34
More Proverbs of Solomon Collected by Hezekiah’s Men 25:1-29:27
Word of Agur 30:1-33
Words of King Lemuel 31:1-9
Acrostic Poem on the Ideal Wife 31:10-31

It is impossible to date the final form of the book of Proverbs with any certainty. The sections that go back to Solomon would come from the period 960-920 BC. Proverbs 25:1 describes one collection as being made by the men of King Hezekiah. We have no way of knowing whether they wrote down proverbs that had been passed along orally or if they edited a larger written collection of proverbs to distill our the ones that appear now in the book. In either case that portion of the book would come from the period near 700 BC. We have no idea of who Agur and King Lemuel were and thus no idea of the date of the composition of those sections.

The first seven verses provide the book title and an introduction stating the purposes. The first large section consists of Proverbs 1:8-9:18 which contains twelve speeches often called "instructions." These speeches follow a pattern that was common in the ancient Near East. They frequently use the second person (you) in a command (imperative) form. These verbs are common: give heed, trust, honor, avoid, put away, give, go, and listen. An instruction is usually addressed to a student or student who is called "my son" or "sons." These speeches are composed of combinations of proverbs but form longer units of thought designed to teach a single lesson.

The twelve instructions prepare for the second major section, the proverbs of Solomon found in 10:1-22:16. Most of the material in this section consists of two-line proverbs. These proverbs may be connected by a key word but there is no development of thought in a logical progression. Though these proverbs jump from subject to subject, each provides a specific example of the truth already presented in 1:8-9:18.

The next two sections of Proverbs are brief: The Words of Wise Men in 22:17-24:22 and More Words of Wise Men in 24:23-34. Here the format is different from either of the two preceding sections. Individual verses are shaped into two- to four-line proverbs but there is subject development without the use of the instruction-speech format. The most intriguing thing about the Words of the Wise Men is that the teaching here appears to be almost copied from an Egyptian wisdom writing known as the Teaching of Amenemope. Some have felt compelled to argue that Amenemope borrowed from the book of Proverbs. However, both the literary logic and archaeological evidence makes it clear that the Bible writer borrowed and edited the material of Amenemope.

Proverbs 25-29, the next major section, returns to the style of 10:1-22:16. Individual proverbs with little or no logical connections compose all but 27:23-27. There is special emphasis on creation and the animal world in chapters 25-27. Chapters 28-29 emphasize social and legal problems. The poor and correct behavior for a king is the main subjects.

The final three sections are brief. The Words of Agur use numerical sayings and riddles in chapter 30. The Words of King Lemuel are a series of commands and prohibitions dealing with women, drinking, and justice. The final part of chapter 31 is an anonymous acrostic poem on the virtuous woman.

The Interpretation of Proverbs

Part of the appeal of proverbs is that they are down-to-earth and practical. However, that does not mean that they are easy to interpret. In fact, because Proverbs is so true-to-life it is possible to find contradictions. Proverbs 26:4 commands the reader not to answer a fool according to his folly, while the very next verse commands to answer the fool according to his folly. The second lines in both verses make sense of both commands understood separately. However, the contradiction remains. Thus the following suggestions for interpretation will help prevent the student from getting bogged down in the wrong details of the proverbs.

First, the proverbs are general observations about life; they are not designed as legal guarantees from God. Proverbs 15:20 states that a wise son makes a glad father but that a foolish man despises his mother. This is true as a general rule, but it is easy to find wise children who still do not satisfy their parents and often foolish children will like their parents very much – sometimes too much. Proverbs 15:25 states that the Lord will tear down the proud person’s house. It is true that pride often leads to downfall, but there are some notable exceptions. To claim the proverbs as promises that God guarantees in every case will ultimately lead to spiritual frustration.

Proverbs are also worded to be poetic and memorable, not to be philosophical statements. Proverbs were spoken before they were written. Even when they were written most people did not own a written copy. Thus proverbs were constructed to be spoken with a punch and to be easily remembered. Figures of speech, vivid comparisons, alliterations, and other rhetorical devices are freely used in the proverbs. To correctly understand proverbs one must use imagination to enter the world created by the figures of speech. Trying to draw theoretical statements or philosophical logic from the proverbs misses the point. This means that proverbs need to be "translated" from the words of the imagery to the meaning of the imagery to similar meaning in our cultural context. For example, Proverbs 25:24, "It is better to live in a corner on the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife," was written in a culture where houses had flat roofs that were used for storage. We might say, "It is more peaceful to live in the garage (or doghouse) than inside with a griping companion." The point is not for husbands or wives to go to the roof to escape their spouse. Rather, the point if to be the right kind of spouse so we don’t drive our loved one away.

Finally, Proverbs must be read as a collection. No single proverb can express all the truth about any given subject. Wisdom comes from a balance of truth. In fact, knowing only one side of a matter is folly, which the proverbs consistently warn against. When Proverbs is read as a whole, beautiful principles begin to emerge. These provide guidelines that can save us from a lot of trouble. However, even taken together and conscientiously followed they do not guarantee a life without difficulties. Part of wisdom is knowing how to live in the midst of difficult circumstances.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through his word. Ask the Holy Spirit to make the word come alive to you for that day.

First Day: Read the notes of Introduction to Proverbs. Look up the Scripture references that were given.

1. What were the most significant new insights you received? How have they raised your interest in studying Proverbs?

2. List some areas of your life that you want God to help you with from your study of Proverbs this year.

3. Write a prayer asking the Lord to use this study of Proverbs to help you live a life that will be more pleasing to him and will provide a better testimony to those whom you meet.

Second Day: Read Proverbs 1:1-19. Now focus in on Proverbs 1:1-9.

1. What purposes are listed in the opening verses for the book of Proverbs? Which of these purposes is most important for you personally? Why?

2. State the meaning of Proverbs 1:7 in your own words. Besides knowledge, what else ought to be the product of fearing God in your life?

3. What is compared with parental instruction in verses 8-9? What is the point of the comparison? What examples from real life have you seen that illustrate this truth?

Third Day: Read Proverbs 1:1-33. Focus in on Proverbs 1:8-19.

1. What enticements and false promises are expressed by sinners in the focus verses? Is this similar or different from the temptations of your life? In what way? How does this picture of sin compare with Genesis 3:1-19.

2. What reasons do the focus verses give for avoiding temptation? Are these reasons valid? Why? Does such reasoning help a person avoid temptation? Why?

3. What is the most powerful temptation in your life? What would you lose by yielding to it? What would you gain by yielding to it? How does verse 19 apply to your life?

Fourth Day: Read Proverbs 1:20-2:8. Now focus in on Proverbs 1:20-33.

1. n verses 20-33, Wisdom is personified as a woman making a speech. List the main points of her speech?

2. What are the consequences of refusing to seek Wisdom according to these verses? How do these consequences compare with those described in Romans 1:18-33?

3. What consequences come from accepting Wisdom? What example(s) from real life can you give that illustrate the good consequences of seeking Wisdom?

Fifth Day: Read Proverbs 2:1-22. Focus in on Proverbs 2:1-11.

1. What conditions (indicated by the word "if") are necessary to find understanding? Which of these conditions is most difficult for you to meet?

2. What promises from God are given in Proverbs 2:1-11? Which is most important to you? Why?

3. How do justice and righteousness fit into the message of these verses? Why do you think God is so interested in justice?

Sixth Day: Read Proverbs 2:1-22. Now focus in on Proverbs 2:12-22.

1. What does wisdom save a person from according to Proverbs 2:12-22? What personal application could you make from this teaching?

2. What conclusion(s) is (are) reached in verses 20-22? What application of this conclusion can you make to your own life?

3. Write a prayer asking God to guide you in living by the understanding he has given you through these verses.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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