Proverbs Overview: Wisdom for Living

Introduction

1. Name

The title is “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel” (Prov. 1:1). Although there were other contributors to the book it is named after Solomon, its principal contributor

“Proverb” is the translation of a Hebrew word mashal (Prov. 1:6) which comes from a root meaning “to represent, be like.” The noun, therefore, could be translated “likeness” which helps us to understand the nature of many of the Proverbs. A proverb teaches a truth by the use of comparisons. Young has described it as “a brief, pithy saying which expresses wisdom.”[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: Tyndale Press, 1953), 311. [/footnote] A parallel word in v6 is melitsah which may be translated “figure.” “It indicates a cutting word that can penetrate by the starkness of its presentation.”[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 265.[/footnote]

2. Purpose

To provide a resource for teaching wisdom to young people, primarily for the royal family and secondarily for all other families in Israel.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 968.[/footnote]

3. Theme

Practical skill for godly living.

4. Key verse

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov.1:7).

5. Key truths

• God is the source of all wisdom, and he has revealed wisdom for humans to learn.
• Human wisdom can be gained only in the context of reverence for God.
• Young people need instruction from older and wiser fathers and mothers.
• The leaders of God’s people especially must be schooled in the ways of wisdom.[footnote]Ibid., 968.[/footnote]

 

I. Author(s)

1. Critical View

Based upon the usual presupposition of the evolutionary development of the Hebrew religion, critical scholars attempt to deny Solominic authorship of most, if not all, of the book. They attribute Prov. 1-9 to just before the exile (350 years after Solomon). Some regard Prov. 10-22 as the original nucleus which Solomon may have written a part of. Prov. 1-9 were written just before the exile. Prov. 22-29 were post-exilic and Prov. 30-31 much later. Other critical scholars modify this view and see the completion as no later than the reign of Hezekiah with the foreign tone of Prov. 30-31 being explained by foreign origin.

2. Evangelical View

a. Although later inter-testamental books were ascribed to Solomon in order to bolster their credibility, this does not make it impossible for Solomon to have been the real compiler of the book of Proverbs. There is no evidence of such false attribution occurring in pre-exilic Israel.

b. How did Solomon get his “wise” and “proverbial” reputation if he composed few, if any, proverbs and wise sayings? There are numerous Old Testament references to Solomon’s unsurpassed wisdom (1 Kings 3:5-14; 1 Kings 4:29-34; 1 Kings 5:7,12; 1 Kings 10:1-9; 1 Kings 10:23-24; 1 Kings 11:41; 2 Chron. 1:7-12; 2 Chron. 9:1-8; 2 Chron. 9:22-23) which would be consistent with the writing of many wise sayings.

c. The critical thesis is based upon the pure monotheism of Proverbs which the critics allege did not occur till much later in the “religious evolution of Israel. This ignores the vast textual evidence of Israel being monotheistic from patriarchal times.

d. The lack of distinctive national traits, which the critics explain by a nation scattered by exile and captivity, is part of the genius and beauty of wisdom literature which deals with individuals and general observations of Near Eastern peoples.

e. The critics allege that the social customs of Proverbs could really only fit the post-exilic urban centers of Judah. However, no proof has been supplied to rule out a single custom or vice from city-life in Solomon’s time.

f. The critics assume that the identification of knowledge with virtue and ignorance with wickedness is an indication of late Greek philosophical influences (c. 350 BC). However, this confuses the distinction between Greek sophia and Hebrew hokma. Greek sophia was speculative, abstract and conceptual, whereas Hebrew hokma was concerned with applying the revealed principles of God’s word to the dilemmas and duties of daily life. Hebrew thought does not equate ignorance with wickedness. It acknowledges that very clever and educated people may be wicked. The ignorance it is concerned with is spiritual and not intellectual.

g. 1 Kings 4:30 shows that there were wise men even before Solomon’s time.

h. According to W E Albright, the metric style of Proverbs often agrees entirely with that of the Ugaritic epics in early Canaanite literature (Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East, 1955, p. 4). He also argues that the poetic forms common to Proverbs and the Ugaritic literature are totally absent from the Aramaic wisdom literature of the seventh century BC.

Proverbs is strikingly similar in structure and content to comparable Wisdom Literature from Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant that dates from before the time of Solomon. For example, Egyptian wisdom instruction exists in two types. One type includes a title and maxims (cf. Prov. 24:23-35); the other includes a long title (Prov. 1:1), preamble/prologue (Prov. 1:2 – Prov. 9:18), short title (Prov. 10:1) and maxims (Prov. 10:2 – Prov. 22:16). These similarities suggest a date for Proverbs during Israel’s monarchy. The greatest similarities in form and content exist between Proverbs 22:16 – Proverbs 24:22 and the Egyptian Wisdom of Amenemope, which is roughly contemporary with the time of Solomon.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 968.[/footnote]

i. There is now wide agreement that the presence of alleged Aramaisms does not establish a late post-exilic date and does not rule out much earlier dating.

j. The literary differences may be more to do with subject matter or style than chronology.

Stylistic features also favor acceptance of Solomon as the author of Prov. 1-24 and of the proverbs in Prov. 25-29. Binary (two-line) parallelism is clearly attested both in Wisdom Literature and in other genres from the third millennium BC. to well into the first millennium BC. After 500 BC, the popularity of binary parallelism began to wane in wisdom texts, both in Egyptian and in Aramaic literature.[footnote]Ibid., 968.[/footnote]

3. Multiple human authors

Though there were many human authors of the Proverbs, there was ultimately only one Divine author behind them all. There is an explicit claim to divine inspiration in Prov. 22:20-21 and implicit claims in Prov. 30-31 which claim to be an “oracle,” a prophetic utterance communicated by God. This contradicts the view of many critical scholars who simply see the book as a collection of sayings which are of no more significance than the sayings of other wise men in the ancient Near East. Those of this view see only the best of human experience and expression. However, even the wise men of the ancient Near East believed that ultimately wisdom belongs only to the “gods” and they only could give it to whom they wished. At the very beginning of Proverbs is the public recognition that the beginning of wisdom rests upon the fear of God.

Let us return though to the question of multiple human authors.

Like the Book of Psalms, the Book of Proverbs is a collection of collections. It contains proverbs and wisdom sayings from different authors and sources compiled in a library of wisdom teachings on how to “fear the Lord and shun evil” (Prov. 3:7). Over time, these statements were collected and related to each other. The result is a collection of timeless truths or basic values proven by previous generations.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 314.[/footnote]

We shall consider the various human contributors God used to compile this collection.

a. Solomon

As we have already noted, Solomon’s name appears in the title of the book. In addition two sections are explicitly attributed to him (Prov. 10:1 – Prov. 22:16 and Prov. 25:1 – Prov. 29:27). Many conservative scholars are happy to ascribe all the “anonymous” material to Solomon also. Critics, of course, would deny any Solomonic authorship, claiming that other writers used Solomon’s name as a “literary convention.” However, we know that Solomon wrote over 3,000 Proverbs and, therefore, to find 800 verses of them in the book is not difficult to understand or believe. Solomon’s peaceful reign was most conducive to literary activity and wisdom writing.

b. Hezekiah’s scribes

The “men of Hezekiah” contributed to Proverbs (Prov. 25:1). Jewish tradition was that Hezekiah and his men (royal scribes) wrote the Proverbs, but this probably involves no more than the idea that they edited the last edition of Solomon’s collection. Four Solomonic proverbs are duplicated in the “Hezekiah” collection and five others appear with minor modifications. This minimal duplication would indicate that Hezekiah’s scribes were well aware of Solomon’s collection when they wrote theirs.

c. Sayings of the wise

Proverbs 22:17 – Prov. 24:34 are attributed to “the wise” (Prov. 22:17; Prov. 24:23). Some of these proverbs are very similar to those found in The Wisdom of Amenemope, a document of teachings on civil service by an Egyptian. The date for this document is the subject of heated debate and suggestions have ranged from 1200 BC to 600 BC. The dating question is important for it influences our view as to which document was dependent upon the other.

(i) The Priority of The Wisdom of Amenemope

If Amenemope wrote first and Solomon or other Hebrew wise men copied them, then it could be argued that these Proverbs show how much “natural revelation” there is and that God inspired the inclusion of them in the book.

Nobody has the franchise on truth but God. If one culture has come by means of natural revelation to share certain basic ideas and ethical principles with the biblical faith (Rom.1:18–20), we are free to recognize that without diminishing the value of and need for special revelation. The necessity for the latter lies in the fact that natural revelation is indistinct in its content; in Romans Paul may have been delineating its limits as the recognition of “His eternal power and divine nature.” That is, natural revelation can offer evidence for the existence of God but cannot fill in the details of His personal nature and redemptive work. Faith in Israel’s God was viewed in ancient times to underlie and validate all that was good, for no other gods existed. Therefore, to stake a claim upon a piece of literature from a pagan culture and adapt it for the only true faith was not incompatible with the universal perspective of ancient Israelite wisdom.[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

The idea of Israelite borrowing is especially not surprising of proverbs, which after all, are based on life-experiences and observations about the universe. Ancient Israelites recognized and respected the value and truthfulness of some of the Egyptian observations about life, though they condemned all forms of polytheism. So the borrowing here was not rigid, but creative. The author of this section felt free to adapt the material for Israel’s unique worship of Yahweh. It should also be remembered that proverbs, though based on human experiences, are not merely humankind’s observations about the world. The instructions are also part of God’s revelation to Israel and to modern believers. This section’s dependence on an Egyptian set of proverbs does not undermine the role of God’s inspiration in the composition of the Book of Proverbs.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 319.[/footnote]

(ii) The Priority of Hebrew Wisdom

Those who argue for the priority of Hebrew wisdom argue that “the wise” referred to in Prov. 22:17 and Prov. 24:23 are the Hebrew wise men of 1 Kings 4:31 and that Egyptian wisdom traditions borrowed from Hebrew literature. This would be supported by the scriptural teaching that Solomon’s wisdom was superior to that of the east and of Egypt (1 Kings 4:30). It is more likely that an Egyptian scribe working in Solomon’s court recorded the proverbs rather than that Solomon depended on inferior Egyptian wisdom. There are proportionately far more Semitisms in Amenemope’s Egyptian text than in any other Egyptian work on morality; at least nineteen of these Semitisms are indisputable and sixteen more are highly probable.

It must further be noted that in Amenemope there is present a polytheism which would have been repulsive to the strict monotheism of Israel. How would the author of Proverbs, who must have been a man of high character, have been attracted to such a source?[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: Tyndale Press, 1953), 304.[/footnote]

d. Agur

We know little about Agur apart from the fact that he was the son of Jakeh (Prov. 30:1). Some have made the unlikely suggestion that Agur is a symbolic name for Solomon. The word massa in Prov. 30:1 may be translated “oracle” or “Massaite.” An Ishmaelite people of this name lived in Northern Arabia (Gen. 25:13-14). The common Hebrew religious roots are evident (Prov. 30:9).

e. The leech (Prov. 30:15)

The rabbis took this term to be the proper name of another wise man, Alkuah. The difference between this section and that before and after may support this view.

f. Lemuel (Prov. 31:1-9)

The sayings of King Lemuel (Prov.31:1-9) came to us via his mother and address the way kings should behave. The material seems to be foreign, perhaps Arabian. However that has not stopped some claiming that Lemuel is a symbolic name for Solomon. There has been some debate over whether Prov. 31:10-31 is from Lemuel or not. It would suit the context of a mother’s instruction to her son.

g. Anonymous

There are a few anonymous sections which may be reasonably attributed to Solomon.

 

II. Date(s)

It is clear that the proverbs were composed by various people from various backgrounds at various times. While Solomon was responsible for most of the proverbs and the majority of the compiling and editing, the book probably came to its final form during Hezekiah’s reign (Prov. 25:1). This was the view of Jewish tradition.

In terms of writing, all the material seems to date from the period of Solomon if not from his pen. A date of about 950 BC would not be far off. The book may have assumed its present form in the reign of Hezekiah about 700 BC.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

 

III. Historical Analysis

The little historical analysis relevant to this book has been mentioned above. Why should there be so little historical information? We refer back to Lecture 15: Poetic Books Overview.

Since wisdom literature was addressed to the individual rather than to corporate society, national interests fell into the background. In this respect the literature is quite different from the Law and the Prophets. Because of this aspect of wisdom, history was not one of the foci of the canonical wisdom writers, although we should not assume that they had no interest in history. Their concern for the past was more philosophical than historical—how does one view the past? They had little concern for writing about historical events. Thus, while the corporate concern of wisdom was in no way primary, it was nevertheless served by pointing the individual in the direction of the good life, which in the long run contributed to the good society.[footnote]Ibid., Electronic Edition. [/footnote]

 

IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative Outlines

J E Smith Dillard/Longman Murray

Parental instruction to a son
(Prov. 1-9)

Shorter sayings
(Prov. 10-30)

Parental instruction to a son
(Prov. 31)

Preamble
(Prov. 1:1-7)

Extended Discourses on Wisdom (Prov. 1:8 – Prov. 9:18)

Solomonic Proverbs
(Prov. 10:1 – Prov.  22:16; Prov. 25:1 – Prov. 29:27)

Savings of the Wise
(Prov. 22:17 – Prov. 24:34)

Sayings of Agur
(Prov. 30)

Sayings of King Lemuel
(Prov. 31:1-9)

Poem to the Virtuous Woman (Prov. 1:10-31)

Preparation for Wisdom
(Prov.1:1-7)

Principles of Wisdom
(Prov.1:8 – Prov. 9:18)

Practice of Wisdom
(Prov. 10:1 – Prov. 31:31)

 

2. Original Audience/Message

a. Original Audience

Some have suggested that the original audience was young men in the royal court who were preparing to take positions of leadership in the Israelite monarchy. However, as noted below, the book may very well be presenting a choice between loyalty to Yahweh or Baal. If so, it would suit most of the generations of Israel from the establishment of Solomon’s kingdom onwards. It would certainly suit the time of Hezekiah the religious reformer, in whose reign the compiling and editing of the book was completed

b. Original Message

Assuming the audience was Israel the message was: “Choose the wise way of loyalty to Yahweh and flee the folly of following Baal.”

3. Form of the Proverbs

Most proverbs are made up of two lines, in which the second line builds upon the first in different ways. These different forms are summarized below.

a. Identity (synonymous parallelism): repetition in different words

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall (Prov. 16:18).

b. Contrast (antithetical parallelism): with an opposite point of view

The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet (Prov. 27:7)

c. Amplification (synthetic parallelism): extends or expands the first line

He that hideth hatred with lying lips, and he that uttereth a slander, is a fool. (Prov. 10:18)

d. Similarity: illustration of a truth from nature/experience

As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country. (Prov. 25:25)

e. Priority/Valuation

A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold (Prov. 22:1).

f. Absurdity

Wherefore is there a price in the hand of a fool to get wisdom, seeing he hath no heart to it? (Prov. 17:16)

g. Consequences

The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing. (Prov. 10:4)

h. Better than

Open rebuke is better than secret love (Prov. 27:5)

 

V. Thematic Analysis

1. General rules and exceptions

Proverbs teaches general rules for living and instructs us on the way things usually ought to be. Their brevity is their strength and their “weakness.” The strength of brevity is the ease of understanding and remembering. The weakness of brevity is that there is no room for exceptions to the general rules. Proverbs, therefore, should not be absolutised. They are general observations but not cast-iron guarantees. They do not fully explain a matter but give pointed expression to it.

Learning life is like learning a language. One first must master the basic rules and patterns; the exceptions come later. So it is in Proverbs. The first subgrouping of sayings (Prov. 10–15) focuses on the way things ought to be. In this section the neat antithesis between righteous and wicked is predominant. The proverb gives expression to realities that are usually true. Their brevity makes impossible the expression of qualifications or exceptions to the rules. This first group of proverbs teaches that blessings flow from godly living, that prosperity is a result of hard work, wisdom, and divine blessing. The proverbs following Prov. 15 recognize that things do not always work out this way. The “better…than” format of several of the proverbs indicates that the righteous are not always prosperous (Prov. 16:8; Prov. 28:6 ), that the world is not always “either…or” nor “black…white.” Shades of gray sometimes exist in the real world. The sequence of these collections is significant. Young people must first master the basic rules of life. They will learn soon enough that life also has its painful absurdities, injustices and irrational catastrophes.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

This helps us to explain the apparently self-contradictory proverbs in Prov. 26:4 and Prov. 26:5.

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him (Prov. 26:4).

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit (Prov. 26:5).

Only the wise person knows which general rule to apply in each situation. At times one rule fits and at other times another.

Far from providing absolute guidelines for every circumstance, proverbs require that we master a repertoire of sayings from which we can choose wisely, fittingly…. What is the upshot of all this? To use proverbs wisely, whether from the Bible or the sayings of contemporary America, one must have a proverb repertoire adequate to handle the complexities of life. If you know only, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and not also, “It’s never too late to learn,” you might commit a faux pas by using the wrong proverb! Goethe said of languages, “He who knows one, knows none” The maxim applies even more forcefully to Proverbs. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents sayings that on one level or another present conflicting advice (cf. Matt. 7:1 and Matt. 7:6, which require the reader to make judgments; cf. also Matt. 6:1 and Matt. 5:14-16). Rather than forcing us to erase or “harmonize” the ambiguities and “contradictions,” biblical wisdom invites us to ponder the nuances and complexities of life; it invites us to become wise.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 265-266.[/footnote]

2. Four areas of instruction

a. Wisdom (hokma)

This refers to knowledge of what God requires of man in the practical realm. It includes prudence and skill in our daily business and relationships. It helps people to understand themselves and their world and involves consistent application of principles to real-life situations.

b. Instruction (musar)

Chastisement, correction, education and moral training

c. Understanding (binah)

The root of this word is ben meaning “between” and so implies an ability to distinguish between one thing and another. It teaches us to discern between good and bad, true and false, the temporary and the permanent, the valuable and the worthless, the good and the better

Proverbs is preoccupied with certain fundamental antagonisms and antinomies: obedience vs. rebellion, industry vs. laziness, prudence vs. presumption, and so on. These are presented in such a way as to put a clear-cut choice before the reader. Thus Solomon states his case so brilliantly that he leaves no room for compromise, vacillation or indecision.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

We find conflicts regarding choices between good and evil and wisdom and folly. The presence of so much conflict makes moral choice the unifying action. Faced with competing values and lifestyles, the “son” (and, by extension, the reader) is repeatedly urged to choose one and reject the other.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 264.[/footnote]

d. Sound or efficient wisdom (tusiyya)

This views wisdom as an authentic insight into spiritual truth. In a sense it is describing “spiritual intuition.”

3. Three results of instruction

Proverbs stresses three results of following wisdom teaching:

a. Righteousness (tsedeq): doing what is in accordance with God’s will

b. Judgment (mishpat): coming to correct decisions about human actions

c. Uprightness (mesharim): integrity between thought and action

Wisdom, then might be summed up as “obedience to the law of God.” This is confirmed by Deuteronomy 4:6-8 which refers to God’s law as Israel’s wisdom. Proverbs is a most practical and detailed application of the law of God to a particular people at a particular time.

Patrick Fairbairn said:

The Book of Proverb’s…leading characteristic, as a writing, stand[s] in the skill and discrimination with which it draws moral distinctions…It proceeds throughout on the profound conviction that there are such distinctions – a right and a wrong unalterably fixed by the law of God.

More recently Kaiser has echoed this emphasis:

Wisdom is merely an expansion of law, only placed in more aphoristic, short, epigrammatic statements…these same wisdom books have as their fountainhead the Mosaic Law.[footnote]Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament, 178-179.[/footnote]

5. The fear of God

The first section of the book is framed by “the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 1:7 and Prov. 9:10; see also Prov. 15:33; Prov. 22:4; Prov. 23:17), a phrase which describes the heart of Old Testament religion (Deut 6:5; Josh. 24:14).

The fear of God describes that reverential attitude or holy fear which man, when his heart is right, feels towards God. This is not servile fear, but filial fear, fear of offending the heavenly Father. It is hatred of evil and warm embracement of all that is holy and noble. One who would advance in knowledge must first be imbued with a reverence for the Lord. Faith here is seen as the foundation of reason, not its antagonist. It is faith that enables reason to connect with reality. Faith is the “beginning,” the starting point of an exciting journey, the details of which will be elaborated in the rest of this book.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

The name for God here is Jehovah, God’s covenant name which expresses personal relationship. This excludes the possibility of viewing Proverbs in a moralistic fashion The place given to fear of the LORD teaches that relationship must precede ethics and conversion must precede practice throughout the book. The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). The word for “beginning” means “what comes first in a sequence.” Once the “vertical” relationship is right, then the “horizontal” follows. Once our relationship with God is right then the wise man realizes that he has obligations concerning his other relationships with his wife, children, neighbors, friends, employers.

6. Wisdom

The book describes, expresses and personifies wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33; Prov. 3:13-20; Prov. 8:1-36; Prov. 9:1-18). She is an evangelist (Prov. 1:20-33; Prov. 8:1-21), a tree of life (Prov. 3:18), a way (Prov. 4:10-19), a craftsman (Prov. 8:22-31), and a lady (Prov. 9:1-18).

The purpose of personification in this instance is to help us understand God by abstracting one of His attributes and endowing it with personality and consciousness. The author wants to teach that wisdom is a divine attribute that is eternally related to Him, understood only in relation to Him, and is an extension of His dynamic Being to mankind. The method of personification is the means by which the practical perspective of wisdom is connected to God. It is the closest thing wisdom has to the prophetic formula “Thus says the Lord..” By means of personified wisdom, the knowledge of God’s nature is delivered to and integrated with the everyday life of men and women.[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Many proverbs present a contrast between wisdom and folly, which is also personified in the early parts of the book (Prov. 2:16-19; Prov. 5; Prov. 6:20-35; Prov. 7). Although both wisdom and folly are personified physically, and each has a message regarding adultery, the adultery referred to may also be a symbol of spiritual adultery – idolatry. If so, what is being presented is a choice between not just intellectual wisdom and folly, or moral wisdom and folly, but spiritual wisdom or folly.

The reader is thus confronted with a decision. Both women are calling him to come to them to dine, to share intimacy, and unpacking the metaphor, to worship them. Will it be Wisdom or Folly? Will it be Yahweh or Baal? Thus now we clearly see the alternative before us as we walk along the path of Proverbs that is really the path of life. We may embrace either Yahweh or another god. Which will it be? This was indeed the situation that confronted the ancient Israelite. He or she had a choice – Yahweh worship or Baalism. Many tried to synthesize the two, but the prophets sternly pointed out that compromise was equivalent to apostasy (1 Kings 18:21). It was either Yahweh alone or nothing. So the practical situation for the Israelites was exactly that of Proverbs 9. They had a choice of two alternatives. Proverbs 1-9, with its climax in the last chapter, powerfully sets out that choice…. In this light, the alternative between wisdom and folly is more than “how to get along and advance in the world.” It is a matter of life and death. Proverbs 3:18, after all, tells us that those who embrace wisdom embrace life. Moreover, the horrible truth about Dame Folly is that she is a murderess. She invites people in for a fine dinner, but they never come out; “her guests are in the depths of the grave” (Prov.9:18).[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 244.[/footnote]

The last chapter of Proverbs (Prov. 31) presents wisdom as the ideal wife.

Remarkable similarities between the portrait of the wife and various descriptions of wisdom indicate that the poem in chapter 31 is the book’s final, masterful portrait of Wisdom. She was presented last in chapter 9 as a young marriageable woman, seeking one who would accept the gifts of life that she offers. Now that time of courtship is over. In chapter 31, Wisdom is the faithful wife and mistress of the household, fully settled. Wisdom is thus presented throughout, not as a mysterious, lofty ideal for the initiated, but as a practical, faithful, lifelong companion for those who would choose her way. Her origins are with God (Prov.8:22-30), and her teaching wins blessings from God (Prov. 8:35). But her home is in this world.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 269.[/footnote]

7. Family setting

Typical of the proverbs in the ancient Near East, many proverbs seem to have arisen in the context of the home. The term “son” occurs in forty-four verses in the book, “father” in fifteen, and “mother” in eleven. Husband and wife must live in fidelity to one another. Both parents are directed to share in the training of the children and nurturing them in faith. There are nine chapters of speeches addressed to “my son” by a mother or a father.

This is parenesis, threshold wisdom, designed to prepare and guide the young as they step into the adult world with its problems and possibilities.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 259.[/footnote]

Sins which attack the order of the home are straightforwardly exposed. Individual duties in the family are stressed and the healthy family is made the foundation of an ideal society.

Extrapolating from the wisdom of Proverbs one would conclude that the divine plan calls for a society in which people work hard, observe each other’s rights, respect each other, and treat the less fortunate kindly. It is a society in which people are friendly, enjoy the pleasures of moderation, and love their families and homes. It is a society in which people are sincere, modest, self-controlled, temperate, reliable, chaste, willing to listen and learn. Those who live in this ideal society are forgiving, considerate, discreet, kind to animals, sweet-tempered, liberal, yet prudent. They keep an eye to their own welfare.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

8. Topical Study

There is considerable difficulty in finding a structure in Proverbs. It has been called “a helter-skelter,” “a multi-string necklace of mismatched gems and beads,” For this reason perhaps the best way to study Proverbs is to follow a particular topic through the book, noting textual references and gathering them together under the one heading.[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 476.[/footnote]

Anger: Prov. 14:17,29; 15:18; 16:32; 19:11
Benevolence: Prov. 3:9- 10; 11:24-26; 14:21; 19:17; 22:9
Children: Prov. 13:24;17:6;19:18; 22:6,15; 23:13-14
Fear of God: Prov. 1:7; 3:7; 9:10; 10:27; 14:26-27; 15:16,33; 16:6; 19:23; 23:17; 24:21
Fools: Prov. 10:18,21,23; 12:15-16; 14:9,16; 15:2; 17:10,12,24;20:3; 23:9; 27:22; 28:26
Friendship: Prov. 17:17; 18:24; 19:4; 27:10,17
Indolence: Prov. 6:6-11; 10:4-5,26; 12:27; 13:4, 15:19, 18:9, 19:15,24; 20:4,13; 24:30-34; 26:13-16
Oppression: Prov. 14:31; 22:22; 28:16
Pride: Prov. 6:17; 11:2;13:10; 15:25;16:18-19:18:12:21:4,24; 29:23; 30:13
Strife: Prov. 3:30; 10:12; 15:18; 16:28; 17:1,14,19; 18:6,19; 20:3; 22:10; 25:8; 30:33
Tongue: Prov. 4:24; 10:11-14,17-21,31-32; 12:6,17-19,22; 13:3; 14:3; 15:1-2,4-5,7,23; 16:13,23,27
Wealth: Prov. 10:2,15; 11:4,28; 13:7,11,22; 15:6; 16:8; 18:11; 19:4; 27:24; 28:6,22
Women (evil): Prov. 2:16-19; 5:3-14,20; 6:24-35; 7:5-27; 9:13-18; 23:27-28
Women (good): Prov. 5:18-19; 11:16; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10-31
Wisdom: Prov. 1:7,20-22; 2:6-7,10-11; 3:13-18,19,21; 4:5-9; 8:1-16; 9:1-6; 12:8; 14:8; 18:4; 19:8;24:3

 

VI. New Testament Analysis

1. Wisdom

In Proverbs wisdom is personified and seen in its perfection. She is an evangelist (Prov. 1:20-33; Prov. 8:1-21), a tree of life (Prov. 3:18), a way (Prov. 4:10-19), a craftsman (Prov. 8:22-31). She is divine (Prov. 8:22-31), the source of biological and spiritual life (Prov. 8:35-36), righteous and moral (Prov. 8:8-9), and available to all who will receive her (Prov. 8:1-6, Prov. 8:32-35). This wisdom became incarnate in Christ “in whom is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3; cf. 1 Cor. 1:30). As Christ said of Himself: “A greater than Solomon is here” (Luke 11:31). Some have seen similarity between the Wisdom of Proverbs and the Logos of John’s Gospel.

The Christological movement of the New Testament, which links wisdom and the Word (logos; cf. John 1:1-18), is therefore not only understandable, but also demanded. The world is only able to understand within a framework of dependence on Yahweh’s revelation. The fear of Yahweh that put Yahweh at the center of the Israelite worldview was later expressed in the Christology of the New Testament.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002).[/footnote]

2. New Testament quotations and allusions

Proverbs New Testament
For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood (Prov. 1:16) Their feet are swift to shed blood (Rom. 3:15)
Be not wise in thine own eyes (Prov. 3:7a) Be not wise in your own conceits (Rom. 12:16)
My son, despise not the chastening of the LORD; neither be weary of his correction (Prov. 3:11) And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him (Heb. 12:5).
Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly (Prov. 3:34). But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (Jas. 4:6)
Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble (1 Pet. 5:5).
Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established (Prov. 4:26). And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed (Heb. 12:13)
Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins (Prov. 10:12) And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins (1Pet. 4:8).
Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner (Prov. 11:31) And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? (1 Pet. 4:18)
When a man’s ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him (Prov. 16:7) And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? (1 Pet. 3:13)
He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor (Prov. 22:9) Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7)
My son, fear thou the LORD and the king: and meddle not with them that are given to change (Prov. 24:21) Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (1 Pet. 2:17)
For better it is that it be said unto thee, Come up hither; than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince whom thine eyes have seen (Prov. 25:7). But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee (Luke 14:10)
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee (Prov. 25:21-22). Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head (Rom. 12:20).
As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly (Prov. 26:11). But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire (2 Pet. 2:22)
Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? who hath gathered the wind in his fists? who hath bound the waters in a garment? who hath established all the ends of the earth? what is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell? (Prov. 30:4) And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven (John 3:13).

 

VII. The Message of Proverbs

Original Message: Israel must flee the folly of spiritual adultery and choose the wise path of loyalty to Jehovah.
Present Message: The Church must flee the folly of idolatry and choose the wise path of loyalty to the Lord.