In the ancient world, as in the world today, the wisdom of experience was often summarized in short easily-remembered sayings known as proverbs. The biblical book of proverbs is largely a collection of Hebrew proverbs, mostly from Solomon (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1). It also contains lectures on the benefits of wisdom (Chapters 1-9) along with material from non-Hebrew sources (Prov 30:1; 31:1). (Concerning wisdom literature in general see introductory notes to the book of Job.)
Wisdom for living
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.
Although the proverbs and other teachings collected in the book are largely Israelite in origin, they contain similarities to the wisdom teaching of neighbouring countries. The Bible acknowledges that non- Israelite peoples also had wisdom (1 Kings 4:30; Jer 49:7; 50:35; Acts 7:22), and the Israelites and their neighbours found helpful instruction in each other’s proverbs. At times wise people from various countries visited each other to test each other’s knowledge and increase their own (1 Kings 4:31-34; 10:1).
However, the Israelites were careful not to take from their neighbours any teaching that reflected ideas of idolatry, immorality or self-seeking. The basis of Israelite wisdom was the fear of God (Prov 1:7). Israelite proverbs differed from other proverbs in that they were created or selected by people who knew God’s law and wished to apply it to everyday life. Therefore, although the wisdom taught in the book of Proverbs is practical, it is not worldly. It is a wisdom that comes from God. Worldly wisdom may easily encourage selfish ambition regardless of the interests of others. Godly wisdom encourages practical righteousness that puts God’s values first. It is based on an understanding of God’s righteousness (cf.
Writers and editors
Despite the variety of material collected in Proverbs, the book is not disjointed. Its date of composition is uncertain, but Solomon was the main author and much of the collection may have been made during his reign.
The first section of the book consists mainly of a lengthy talk from a teacher to a pupil (or from a father to a son) on the importance of choosing wisdom and avoiding folly. This basic instruction prepares the reader for Solomon’s collection of 375 miscellaneous proverbs (his own and others) that follows (Prov 10:1). Solomon wrote and collected a total of three thousand proverbs (1 Kings 4:32), and no doubt his proverbs in this book were selected from that collection.
After this there are two collections of miscellaneous teachings of other Israelite wise men (Prov 22:17). A further collection of 128 of Solomon’s proverbs was added about two hundred years later, probably at the time of Hezekiah’s reformation (Prov 25:1; cf. 2 Chron 29:1-31:21). The book closes with three shorter sections. The first records the wisdom of Agur, who was probably a non-Israelite (Prov 30:1). The second comes from the wisdom of King Lemuel, another non-Israelite (Prov 31:1). The third is an anonymous poem in praise of the perfect wife (Prov 31:10).
In some sections of the book, the original editors have brought together proverbs that concern the same subject. In general, however, teaching on any one subject is scattered throughout the book. Among the topics that most frequently occur are wisdom, folly, laziness, speech, friendship, family, life and death.
Style of the book
Most of the book of Proverbs is written in poetry. (Concerning Hebrew poetry see background notes to Psalms.) The poetry in Proverbs consists largely of two-line units, where the two lines present an
obvious parallelism. They may express the same idea in different words (Prov 16:16), support one central idea with an application (Prov 16:21), develop a basic statement by showing its outcome (Prov 3:6), or emphasize opposite truths by placing two statements in contrast (Prov 11:5).
We should not read Proverbs as if it were prose, nor should we read it as if it were a novel. This means we should probably not read the book straight through all at once. The units of instruction are short and straightforward, designed to make readers stop and think. The wisdom teachers, by presenting their teaching in a poetic form, encourage their readers to memorize it, so they can put it into practice in the various circumstances they meet.