In ancient times as in the present, people gain wisdom from experience and condense that wisdom into short sayings called proverbs.
The biblical book of Proverbs is largely a collection of miscellaneous Hebrew proverbs, most of them from Solomon (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1). It also contains lectures for youth (Chapters 1-9) and wisdom teaching borrowed from neighbouring countries (Prov 30:1; 31:1). (See also WISDOM LITERATURE.)
Characteristics of the book
Living is a very practical matter, and sound common sense is necessary if a person is to handle life’s everyday affairs satisfactorily. The wisdom teachers of Israel and neighbouring countries visited each other and exchanged such wisdom (1 Kings 4:30-34; 10:1; cf. Acts 7:22). But the Israelites were careful not to take from their neighbours any teaching that was coloured by foreign ideas of idolatry, immorality or self-seeking. The basis of the Israelite wisdom was the fear of God (Prov 1:7). Because of this, the wisdom taught in the biblical book of Proverbs is not worldly wisdom, but godly wisdom. Worldly wisdom can encourage selfish ambition regardless of the needs of others; godly wisdom will encourage a life of practical righteousness based on the law of God. Israelite proverbs are therefore useful for all God’s people, even though they may live in different countries and eras. The proverbs are concerned with all sorts of subjects, small and great. Some deal with apparently minor matters such as talking too much or having bad table manners. Others deal with wider social issues such as contributing to the good of society or making far-reaching political decisions. Among the topics that most frequently occur in Proverbs are wisdom, folly, laziness, family life, speech, friendship, life and death. Most of the book of Proverbs is written in simple two-line units of poetry. The characteristic parallelism of Hebrew poetry makes the two-line units easy to remember (see POETRY). Usually the second line either repeats the truth of the first line (Prov 16:16) or expresses its opposite (Prov 11:5). Sometimes the second line develops or applies the first (Prov 3:6). This easily remembered poetic form encourages people to memorize the teaching, so that it will readily come to mind when needed. In reading Proverbs, it is better to stop and think about each unit of instruction than to read the book straight through as if it were a letter or narrative.
Outline of contents
The opening section of Proverbs is a lengthy talk from a ‘father’ to a ‘son’ (meaning, most likely, from a teacher to a pupil) on the importance of choosing wisdom and avoiding folly. The teacher gives the basis of his instruction (1:1-7), emphasizing that wisdom is of use to people only if they heed it (1:8- 33). Wisdom brings its own reward (2:1-22) and enables people to have lives that are useful for God and beneficial to themselves (3:1-4:27). In particular, it helps them overcome temptation to sexual immorality and other evils (5:1-7:27). Wisdom is eternal and is available to all people (8:1-9:18). This basic instruction in the value of wisdom prepares the reader for the first major collection of proverbs. Of about 3,000 proverbs that Solomon wrote or collected (1 Kings 4:32), 375 are collected here. In places proverbs concerned with the same subject have been grouped together, but in general, teaching on any one subject is scattered throughout the section (10:1-22:16). Two shorter sections collect together sayings from various other wise men. The sayings here are longer than those of Solomon and often cover several verses (22:17-24:22 and 24:23-34). After this is a further collection of Solomon’s proverbs. This collection was added more than two hundred years after the time of Solomon, at the time of Hezekiah’s reforms (25:1; cf. 2 Chron 29:1-31:21). It consists of 128 proverbs (25:1-29:27). The book concludes with three shorter sections. The first of these comes from the wisdom of Agur, a non-Israelite (30:1-33). The second comes from the wisdom of King Lemuel, another non-Israelite (31:1- 9). The final section is an anonymous poem in praise of the perfect wife (31:10-31).