Background

In the Hebrew Bible, proverbs are called mashals. A mashal is, strictly speaking, something that gives or involves a comparison or contrast. Even when the comparison was not obvious or clear, however, all proverbs were traditionally called by this term. The result was that the word for proverbs had a wide range of meanings, including codes for behavior and revelation of otherwise hidden truths.1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

Authorship

As indicated by the heading in Proverbs 1:1, 10:1, and 25:1, Solomon is the primary author, although the words of other wise men are explicitly identified (see Prov 22:17, 24:23, 30:1, 31:1). In this sense the book is a collection of proverbs. The information given in Proverbs 25:1 concerning the work of Hezekiah’s men (approximately 700 BC) allows for some compiling and editing of the material, and it was perhaps at this time that material was added to the Solomonic collection. We have no other information provided regarding Agur and Lemuel. Some hold it likely that they were members of northern Arabian tribe of Massa (see the NIV footnotes at Prov 30:1 and 31:1) and hence descendants of one of the sons of Ishmael (see Gen 25:14, 1 Chr 1:30). Jewish tradition considers the names alternate terms for Solomon, such as might have been used by his mother Bathsheba. Some early Christian church fathers ascribed the entire book to Solomon, but that opinion was at least in part due to the absence or obscurity of headings and divisional markers in the Greek and Latin manuscripts they used.

Purpose for Writing

The purpose or emphasis of Proverbs, as stated in what is often called the Prologue (Prov 1:1-7), is to provide practical wisdom for the simple, the young, and the wise as well. A “disciplined and prudent” lifestyle is the goal, and “the fear of the Lord” remains the key. The obvious assumption throughout is that godly wisdom can be taught and passed on from one generation to another, and that this legacy for the next generation is more precious than jewels, gold, and silver.

God’s work as Creator and Preserver is the primary focus, not his work of redemption and salvation. As is true of the message of Ecclesiastes, however, the recommended lifestyle to be pursued is a God-centered one. The messianic hope and the reality of divine grace that provides forgiveness and eternal life are assumed rather than explicitly dealt with. True reverence for the Lord is a right relationship to the Lord that expresses itself in worship, humble obedience, and a wholehearted acknowledgment of covenant stipulations. Proverbs makes an excellent “school textbook,” but only as a supplement to rather than a replacement of messianic revelation.

Content

In content and format this book is Wisdom Literature. It embodies the wisdom God promised and gave to Solomon (1 Kings 3; 2 Chronicles 1). Here we have some 600 of the 3,000 “proverbs” of Solomon (see 1 Ki 4:32). The proverbs are observations and statements of principles that cover many situations of daily life. This is practical wisdom, not a philosophic abstract. This wisdom stems from a God-given understanding of mankind’s sinful nature, of the physical world, of moral absolutes, and of God’s rule and revelation, all of which have been substantiated by observation and experience.

The strong majority of the proverbs are in the poetic form called “distychs” (with periodic “tristychs”), although “mashals” can be presented in longer discourses, parables, and riddles. The poetic style predominantly used in Proverbs is sometimes called that of the “extended mashal song” in which shorter segments (e.g., distychs, tristychs) are pieced together under a heading or around a particular subject. The book also has headings to indicate format and divisions.

Many students of the New Testament have noted that the New Testament evidently uses language from the book. To observe the point made, one may compare the following citations:

  • Romans 3:15 with Proverbs 1:16
  • 1 Peter 4:8 with Proverbs 10:12
  • 1 Peter 5:5 with Proverbs 3:34
  • Hebrews 12:5 with Proverbs 3:11
  • 1 Peter 4:18 with Pr 11:31
  • 2 Peter 2:22 with Proverbs 26:11
  • James 4:6 with Proverbs 3:24

Caution

The interpretation of Wisdom Literature in general and the proverbial statements in this book specifically deserves comment and a word of caution. The NIV Self-Study Bible offers these fitting words:

“Because of the nature of Proverbs, we must not interpret it as prophecy or its statements about certain effects and results as promises. For instance, 10:27 says that the years of the wicked are cut short, while the righteous live long and prosperous lives (see 3:2 and note). The righteous have abundant food (10:3), but the wicked will go hungry (13:25). While such verses are generally true, there are enough exceptions to indicate that sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Normally the righteous and wicked ‘receive their due on earth’ (11:31), but at other times reward and punishment lie beyond the grave.”

Similarly, beware of taking proverbs as guaranteed promises. Too many Christian parents have taken Proverbs 22:6 as a divine promise rather than a general principle that will hold true in most cases. Likewise, do not assume proverbs that begin with imperatives are hard and fast commands. Proverbs 22:24, for example, is not intended to prohibit any and all befriending of people who have tempters, and Proverbs 24:27 is not a rule of action requiring absolute compliance. The general principles of taking care when choosing friends and avoiding a lifestyle of personal consumption before having a means of income, of course, remain valid.

Christ Connection

Proverbs tells us that true wisdom begins with faith and trust in God (Pr 9:10).  This faith leads us to follow God’s commands in our lives.  But we do not earn God’s love by obeying him.  We cannot earn his love because we are sinful.  The Bible tells us that Jesus is “wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).  God knows we are imperfect, so he wisely sent Jesus to live perfectly, die, and rise for us, saving us from our sins.  God is the one who shows true wisdom (1 Cor 1:18-25).  Now, we lovingly follow the wisdom given in Proverbs so we an live a life of thankfulness toward our wise God.

Notable Passages

  • Proverbs 1:1-7
  • Proverbs 3:3-4
  • Proverbs 3:11-12
  • Proverbs 4:23
  • Proverbs 5:3-6
  • Proverbs 5:21
  • Proverbs 9:10
  • Proverbs 18:22
  • Proverbs 20:9
  • Proverbs 23:17-18
  • Proverbs 25:21-22
  • Proverbs 28:13
  • Proverbs 30:5-6
  • Proverbs 31:10-31

Outline

The internal markers (headings) offer us a general outline, but leave much room for variations. Three major divisions are easily identified: the discourse material (ch. 1-9), the collections of proverbs (ch. 10-29), and the appended words of Agur and Lemuel, with a perhaps-anonymous, acrostic ode to the ideal wife (ch. 30-31). Likewise, seven or eight collections of wise sayings are usually identified as making up the book.  A fully systematic arrangement within these major sections, however, is difficult. Here is a sample, traditional outline that is quite adequate:

  1. Prologue (Prov 1:1-7)
  2. Discourse on Wisdom (Prov 1:8-9:18)
  3. Miscellaneous Proverbs of Solomon (Prov 10:1-22:16)
  4. Sayings of the Wise (Prov 22:17-24:22)
  5. More Sayings of the Wise (Prov 24:23-34)
  6. Miscellaneous Sayings of Solomon (Prov 25-29)
  7. Words of Agur (Prov 30)
  8. Words of Lemuel (Prov 31:1-9)
  9. Epilogue: The Ideal Wife (Prov 31:10-31)

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.