Like many other ancient societies, the Israelites had their wise men, their sages, whose wisdom was sought and revered. The pursuit of wisdom became an important part of their thought and culture. Proverbs is among the first organized collection of this wisdom literature. Authorship of this book has typically been attributed to Solomon. Indeed, the opening line states, "The Proverbs of Solomon son of David, King of Israel," and the line is repeated twice more. This, no doubt, stems from the fact that Solomon was thought to be the penultimate wise man, and attaching his name to a document gave it an air of authority. And there is no doubt that he probably was involved in collecting, sponsoring, or even writing some of these verses.
But most scholars agree that Proverbs is best thought of as a compilation of many authors. In Proverbs 25:1, it states that Hezekiah's men collected Solomon's proverbs and added to them. (Hezekiah was king from 716-687BCE.) There are ascriptions to Lemuel and Agur, names that are totally unknown to us apart from Proverbs. And twice, there is reference to "the sayings of the wise." Scholars have also noted distinctions between the sections, suggesting different authors, different origins, and different times. For now, we will agree that, in general, wisdom was associated with Solomon; much like the psalms were attributed to David, and the law was derived from Moses. We have already determined that all those works had a long tradition, which might have included original material, but they have all been reworked down through the centuries.
Proverbs, as we know it, is a collection of sayings, riddles, instructions, and poems. The content is much like that of the Decalogue, but it lacks the covenantal component. Proverbs explores how to get along in the world as a believer in God. It involves practical advice, generally for the younger person. Several themes are evident: fear of the Lord, productive action, self-control, attitude towards family and neighbor, and prudent speech. Scholars have determined two main thoughts running through the majority of these verses. One is that this is the work of sages, who composed these verses for instruction related to the royal court; the other is that these were mostly oral sayings arising out of the lives of ordinary people. These are not mutually exclusive categories, for a lot of education was simply derived from parents teaching their children. And the final collectors were the scribes of the royal court.
Essentially, then, both these viewpoints are played out among its pages. And, of course, there is some tension between observations from life and appeals to the traditional viewpoint. The authors give voice to the way things really are as well as to the way they would like them to be. In that sense, some of the proverbs are timeless and are applicable to today's world. We, too, experience some tension regarding how things are and how we wish them to be. And we also have English sayings that help us navigate some of those issues. (Like father, like son; a stitch in time saves nine.) The biblical proverbs, however, are not just short, succinct statements, but are beautifully constructed and poetic. Consider: "Like apples of gold set in silver filigree is a word spoken in season." (25:11) This would be harder to memorize, but would certainly provoke a greater effect.
One modern concern involving Proverbs entails gender issues. A cursory reading reveals language not very favorable towards women. Most of the sayings are addressed to "sons." When the word is plural, it can refer to both sons and daughters, but there is a plethora of the word "son," singular and masculine. Not to mention the number of times Proverbs speaks about nagging or contentious wives (without any corresponding mention that husbands sometimes do the same). In Proverbs 1-9, both Wisdom (8:4-36) and Temptation (7:6-23) are personified as females, and try to entice the unsuspecting (male). Yet, the sayings of Lemuel in Proverbs 31:1-9 are attributed to words that his mother taught him. Many of these paradoxical portraits stem from the fact that most of the social, political, and economic power was in the hands of men. It should not surprise anyone, then, that Proverbs, by and large, would represent the male's point of view. That, again, represents tension between the way things are and the way they (the male authors) wished them to be.
Despite these shortcomings, Proverbs itself states its mission: "The Proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel, by which men will come to wisdom and instruction and will understand words that bring understanding, and by which they will gain a well-instructed intelligence, righteousness, justice, and probity. The simple will be endowed with shrewdness and the young with knowledge and prudence. If the wise man listens, he will increase his learning, and the man of understanding will acquire skill to understand proverbs and parables, the sayings of wise men and their riddles." (1:1-7) It would be hard to say it better than that.
There are two main divisions in Proverbs - chapters 1-9 and 10-31. The first part is more like a treatise on wisdom, while the latter is a collection of discrete (short) sayings. Those two main categories are generally subdivided into eight smaller sections. They are: 1:1-9:18 - The proverbs of Solomon; 10:1-22:16 - More proverbs of Solomon; 22:17-24:22 - Words of the Wise; 24:23-34 - Also sayings of the Wise; 25:1-29:27 - Men of Hezekiah; 30:1-33 - Words of Agur; 31:1-9 - Words of Lemuel; and 31:10-31 - A Poem on the Good Wife. These divisions are determined by the titles that mark off each section.
1:1-9:18 - The Proverbs of Solomon
- The Title - Proverbs of Solomon
- Prologue Gives reason for the work
- First instruction of a father to his son re: ways of wisdom
- Shun evil companions; avoid violence
- Lady Wisdom speaks, invites all to come to her
- The fool's reject Lady Wisdom - tantamount to rejecting God
- A wisdom poem
- Wisdom needs to be sought
- The protection of Wisdom Will keep one safe from the way of evil, from the loose woman Enables one to walk in the way of good men
- Do not forget the teachings Obey the words; reap the benefits
- Trust in the Lord In both prosperity and adversity
- Wisdom Hymn Happy is the man who finds Wisdom and does not let it go
- Wisdom gives advice on being a good neighbor
- Wisdom at home Pay close attention to teachings
- Two choices Life is a road Can choose way of righteous or way of wicked
- Beware of the Seductress She is persuasive and dangerous Unclear whether prostitute, adulteress, or foreign woman is meant
- Remember your wife Best antidote against adultery: stay in love with your wife Keep romance in your marriage
- Miscellaneous proverbs
- Do not underwrite someone else's debt
- A parable based on the ant, addressed to the sluggard
- Beware of troublemakers, scoundrels
- Six things the Lord hates
- Warning against adultery Foolish behavior has extreme consequences
- Beware the Adulteress
- Vivid description of Temptress Poem filled with imagery of terrible fate awaiting fool Warning against falling for her ways
- Contrast between Wisdom and Folly
- Wisdom calls out her voice
- Appeals for all to listen
- Wisdom sings her own praises
- Wisdom is an attribute of God Pre-existed the creation of the world
- Wisdom addresses "her sons" Exhorts them to "listen"
- Personification of Wisdom and Folly
10:1-22:16 - More Proverbs of Solomon (A Collection of Wise Sayings)
What follows are a series of two-line sayings that are mostly unrelated and complete in themselves. Each one could stand on its own merits. With very few exceptions, they are written in antithetic parallelism, wherein the second line contrasts the first. They cover a wide range of conduct. Some of these seem totally unreligious to us, but given the unity of the book, they are still presented as the wise words that Lady Wisdom imparts. (Hence the importance of reading chapters 1-9 first.)
Though efforts to discern units within this collection have not been too successful, scholars are unwilling to conclude that these are merely haphazard sayings. Sometimes the same topic will be addressed for several verses. Sometimes the placement of a saying enhances the meaning within a larger group. Chapters 10-12 seem to place considerable emphasis on just/wicked sayings. Chapters 13-15 emphasize wise/foolish terminology. 15:33-16:11 have a preponderance of Yahweh sayings, while 16:10-15 focus on the king. Beyond this, there is simply no agreement as to subunits within the collection. Chapters 17-22 seem to be a hodgepodge of sayings, one right after another, ending with a series of proverbs on rich/poor.
22:17-24:22 - Words of the Wise (Thirty Wise Sayings)
Scholars have determined that this entire section bears a relationship to an Egyptian document known as the Teachings of Amenemope (ca 1100BCE). They both claim to have thirty sayings (though some manipulation is required in order to achieve that). What is not clear is whether the Hebrew document was influenced by the Egyptian, or vice versa. These proverbs are quite distinct from those previously discussed in that they are all longer, appear in couplets, and are addressed to young men of the upper class. Instead of antithetical parallelism, these are written as admonitions, usually accompanied by the reason for it.
Salient topics include warnings against gluttony and intoxication, admonitions to not envy the wicked, how to be an obedient son, and the oft-repeated refrain to "fear the Lord."
24:23-34 - Also sayings of the Wise
This second collection of wise sayings is as mismatched as the first and is only set apart because of its heading.
- Proper behavior in the law courts
- Parable on having things in order
- Rules for giving evidence in court
- Condemnation of taking revenge
25:1-29:27 - Men of Hezekiah
There is a considerable difference between the first three and last two chapters of this section. The first three have virtually no mention of Yahweh, but they do have many similes and metaphors. Also there is a dearth of antithetical parallelism, but many admonitions. The last two chapters are the exact opposite, leading some scholars to think these were originally two separate sections. Now, however, the title delineates these five chapters as one whole. They are distinctive also, in that they are linked to a specific period of time, having been "copied" by Hezekiah's men. The editorial effort is noticeable, but the proverbs are of a similar type as 10:1-22:16.
- Discussion of the lazy man (sluggard)
- Disparate proverbs involving wicked, foolish behavior
- Some scholars see in this chapter a manual for the king - how to treat his subjects. But mostly they are again pedestrian comments, unrelated to each other.
- Proverbs of antithetic parallelism
- Mainly these involve ethical issues; just/wicked are often contrasted
- Proverbs involving a wide range of topics, including parent/child relationships
30:1-33 - Words of Agur
Nothing more is known about this man, Agur. He may not even be an Israelite - if he is historical at all. He speaks in the first person and acknowledges he knows little. One can only know what God has given to him.
- Introduction of Agur
- Admission that he knows little
- True wisdom is in knowing what you don't know
- Five questions
- Uses rhetorical questions to underscore the great divide between God and man.
- Prayer for having neither too much nor too little in life
- Collection of sayings
- Don't dishonor parents; do not be arrogant; do not eat up the poor
- Numerical sayings
- Include marvels of nature and human relationships, the effects of small things
- Admonition against foolishness and disobedience of parents
31:1-9 - Words of Lemuel
These are words of Lemuel's mother given to him, the king of Massa (thought to be an area in North Arabia, but otherwise unknown). This is the only occasion of instruction given by a mother.
- Emphasis on social responsibility Admonition to avoid women and wine
31:10-31 - Poem on the Good Wife
An acrostic poem, these verses extol the perfect, industrious woman whose husband is barely visible. This has led some to believe this was an idealized portrait of a woman who could not literally exist. Others see this as a fitting end to the book of proverbs - a masterful portrait of Wisdom. If Wisdom invited people into her home in chapter 9, then this is the description of Wisdom having settled down. If Wisdom in chapter 9 was the young woman seeking a husband, then here she is a faithful wife and an accomplished manager of her household. Together with chapter 9, this poem forms an inclusio for the entire book. Wisdom is not some ethereal ideal, but is ever practical and a faithful guide for all those who choose to follow her.
- The conclusion urging praise
This brings the book of Proverbs to a close. The sayings have pretty much covered all aspects of life. Some are in conflict with each other; some are lofty and lyrical; others are pedantic and practical. But all in all, they attempt to give advice on how to live. As part of the Wisdom corpus, they have contributed to a fuller understanding of the thought world of the Hebrew sages. Their message has oftentimes been presented in the form of contrasts. That has certainly been true within the proverbs themselves, but it is also true between this book and the one to follow. In Proverbs, the thought is practical and optimistic; in Ecclesiastes, it is more dubious and speculative. We will explore the message of Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, who also wrote about his observations and interpretations of life.
Aitken, Kenneth. "Proverbs." The Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986.
Farmer, Kathleen. "Proverbs & Ecclesiastes: Who Knows What is Good?" International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1991.
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.
Murphy, Roland. "Proverbs." Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers,1998.
Murphy, R and E. Huwiler. "Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Press, 1999.
Whybray, RN. "The Book of Proverbs." The Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge, Great Britain: University Press, 1972.