Introduction to Proverbs

INTRODUCTION TO

PROVERBS

What is a proverb? A secular proverb seeks to state a general (not absolute) truth, such as “a fool and his money are soon parted.” It is typically pithy, that is, it is brief but rich in meaning: “No pain, no gain.” A proverb is practical; it gives advice that is useful in the real world: “A stitch in time saves nine.” It should be applied; the reader should consider what changes he should make in his own life in light of the proverb: “Charity begins at home.” A proverb is derived from astute observations about how life usually works; the creator of a proverb shows himself very knowledgeable and perceptive, able to see what is generally true and to draw conclusions from it: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

In addition to all this, the proverbs in the book of Proverbs are also divinely inspired. Since they come from God, we know they are true and we can be certain they are beneficial: “The one who understands a matter finds success, and the one who trusts in the Lord will be happy” (16:20). Biblical proverbs not only offer practical advice for this life but also guide the reader to eternal life: “For the prudent the path of life leads upward, so that he may avoid going down to Sheol” (15:24).

“Wisdom calls out in the street; she makes her voice heard in the public squares. She cries out above the commotion; she speaks at the entrance of the city gates:  ‘How long, inexperienced ones, will you love ignorance?’”

“Wisdom calls out in the street; she makes her voice heard in the public squares. She cries out above the commotion; she speaks at the entrance of the city gates: ‘How long, inexperienced ones, will you love ignorance?’” (1:20-22)

CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING

AUTHOR: Solomon is credited with the proverbs in chaps. 1-29 of the book of Proverbs (1:1; 10:1). There is biblical evidence that Solomon was wise and a collector of wise sayings (1Kg 3:5-14; 4:29-34; 5:7,12; 10:2-3,23-24; 11:41). Chapters 1-24 may have been written down during his reign, 970-931 BC. The proverbs in chaps. 25-29 were Solomon’s proverbs collected by King Hezekiah, who reigned 716-687 BC (25:1). The last two chapters are credited to Agur and Lemuel (30:1; 31:1), about whom nothing else is known. An editor was inspired to collect the proverbs of Solomon, Agur, and Lemuel into the book we now have.

BACKGROUND: The reign of Solomon represented the peak of prosperity for the nation of Israel. The period saw the greatest extent of Israel’s territory, and there was peace and international trade (1Kg 4:20-25; 10:21-29). It is likely Solomon knew about the ancient tradition of wisdom in Egypt (1Kg 3:1), but through inspiration and God’s gift he composed even better sayings (1Kg 3:12; 10:6-7,23). Solomon addressed his teaching to his son or sons, but these inspired wise sayings are applicable to all people. The book of Proverbs, like the rest of the Bible, contains stories, teaching, and examples. People should make appropriate application of these truths to their own situations (1Co 10:11).

MESSAGE AND PURPOSE

Because these proverbs are in the Bible, they do not just entertain; they exhort, encourage, and offer hope. Solomon called readers, especially youth, to pursue wisdom rather than foolishness. He encouraged the inexperienced to become wise rather than mockers, to be teachable rather than incorrigible, to live rather than to die. He predicted that people who pursued wisdom would generally find success and happiness in this life, but he promised that they would absolutely find joy and blessing in eternity.

There is a close connection between God and wisdom. For example, both call for obedience and morality and both promise success and eternal life. They are connected because wisdom presupposes the fear of God; because God is the source of this inspired, godly advice; and because God himself guarantees the blessings that wisdom promises. The benefits of wisdom and of God are the same. What wisdom promises is what God grants (4:4-8).

CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE

The Law and the Prophets teach how to live in spiritual community. Wisdom teaches how to live practically and courteously with one another. The book of Job addresses one main idea: the sovereignty of God with regard to suffering. Ecclesiastes contemplates the meaning of this ephemeral life. Solomon’s Song demonstrates romantic love. Proverbs covers the rest of wisdom’s topics, from how to conduct business astutely yet fairly, to how to live happily within marriage.

STRUCTURE

The book of Proverbs is in the wisdom genre. Wisdom books consist of the intelligent author’s observations on the world and the people in it. However, without an inspired godly perspective, the world would be depressing and hopeless, as parts of Job and Ecclesiastes show. Ultimately, biblical wisdom is informed by and founded on faith in God.

The process of observation, contemplation, and inspiration can be seen in Proverbs 24:30-34. After observing the deteriorated condition of “the field of a slacker” and “the vineyard of one lacking sense,” Solomon contemplated what he was seeing and was inspired: “I saw, and took it to heart; I looked, and received instruction” (v. 32). He either composed a new proverb or applied a familiar proverb to the situation: “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the arms to rest, and your poverty will come like a robber, your need, like a bandit” (vv. 33-34).

Proverbs is written as Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry is terse and concise; it uses a lot of imagery, and generally the second line complements or contrasts the thought of the first. Contemplating how the second line relates to the first is a profitable way to meditate on a proverb.

In chaps. 1-9 Solomon used imagery and sustained arguments to teach about the value of wisdom and the seduction of evil. In 22:17-24:34 there are “sayings” made up of several verses each, and in chaps. 30-31 there are more sayings, including numerical sayings and an alphabetic acrostic in praise of a capable wife. In the rest of the book, each proverb is generally expressed in a single verse. Some scholars argue that these individual proverbs are carefully arranged in groups and each should be interpreted in the context of its group. Other scholars view the collection as unsystematic and argue that the immediate context seldom has any bearing on interpretation.

In either case, it is important to interpret any single proverb in the context of the book of Proverbs and the Bible as a whole. For example, while 21:14 may seem to encourage bribery, the rest of the book of Proverbs is clearly against it (15:27)—as is the rest of Scripture (Ex 23:8; Ec 7:7).

OUTLINE

I.Solomon’s Exhortations and Warnings (1:1-9:18)

A.Contrast between wisdom and riches (1:1-3:20)

B.Praise of wisdom, love, and worthy conduct (3:21-4:27)

C.Warnings against lust, idleness, and deceit (5:1-7:27)

D.A portrayal of wisdom (8:1-9:18)

II.Solomon’s Proverbs (10:1-29:27)

A.Collected proverbs (10:1-22:16)

B.Thirty sayings of the wise (22:17-24:22)

C.More sayings of the wise (24:23-34)

D.Hezekiah’s collection (25:1-29:27)

III.Other Proverbs (30:1-31:31)

A.Words of Agur (30:1-33)

B.Words of Lemuel (31:1-9)

C.Praise of a capable wife (31:10-31)

3000-2200 BC

Abraham 2166-1991

The Instruction of Prince Hardjedef, Egyptian Old Kingdom 2686-2160

The Instructions Addressed to Kagemni, Egyptian 2600

The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep, Egypt’s Old Kingdom 2575-2134

Collections of proverbs found among the royal archives at Ebla 2450-2250

2200-1700 BC

Moses 1526-1406

The Royal Instruction of Khety to Merikare, Egyptian 2160

The Instruction of a Man for His Son, Egyptian Middle Kingdom 2040-1640

The Instruction of King Amenemhet I for His Son Sesostris I, Egyptian 1925

Instructions of Shuruppak, Sumerian Proverb Collection 1900-1700

1700-1200 BC

David 1050?-970

The Phoenicians develop a 22-letter alphabet that consisted of consonants only. It was read from right to left and became an important step in the development of the modern Western alphabet. This was the world’s first purely phonetic alphabet. It was based on sounds and not symbolic representations of objects. 1600

The Counsels of Wisdom, Akkadian 1500-1200

Events in Judges 1380?-1060?

1200-900 BC

Solomon 990?-931

The Instruction of Amenemope, Egypt 1186-1069

Saul anointed king 1050

David becomes king over all Israel. 1003

Solomon becomes king. 970

Proverbs 970

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