Discovering Proverbs

Proverbs stands out as the primary collection of wisdom literature in the Bible. To be sure, all Scripture provides wisdom, but by “wisdom” here we refer to a specific kind of Hebrew poetry called “wisdom literature.” This form of literature usually employed a poetic form and provided helpful, profound observations and instructions for navigating through life in a skillful and successful way.

Wisdom has been described as “the art of steering” (Zimmerli, 149). It is all about learning how to live well. “Wisdom in the OT is about how to negotiate life successfully in God’s good but fallen world” (Bartholomew, 8).

Historical Background

This book begins by acknowledging the (or an) author of the book: “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel” (Prov 1:1). Solomon preceded David as the second king of the Davidic dynasty (970-930 BC). He was a man whom God had gifted with exceptional wisdom (1 Kings 3:4-14; 4:29-34). According to 1 Kings 4:32, “He spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were one thousand and five.”

Though Solomon undoubtedly provided many if not most of the material for this book (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1), other people also contributed, including:

  • Agur (Prov 30:1)
  • Lemuel (Prov 31:1)

Though we know little about the identity of these two people, research indicates they are likely two sages from the East who provided wise sayings that Solomon and others valued as godly wisdom. Proverbs 22:17 seems to attribute the wisdom that follows to other unnamed wise sages (Prov 22:17-24:22). Knowing this background info portrays Proverbs as a collection of international, God-given wisdom, both Jewish and foreign.

Furthermore, the numerous wise statements within this book seem to come from and/or apply to a variety of settings, ranging from royal wisdom for ruling a nation well as a king to rural wisdom for managing fields well as a farmer.

Structure and Style of the Book

This book is arranged into two primary sections:

  • Discourses on Wisdom (Prov 1-9)
  • Collections of Wise Sayings (Prov 10-31)

Discourses on Wisdom (Prov 1-9)

This section presents wisdom as a collection of extended, lengthier discourses, most of which portray a father sharing wisdom with his son. Some of these discourses, though, are portrayed as coming from a woman named “Wisdom” (Prov 1:20-33; 8:1-36; 9:1-6) or another woman named “Folly” (Prov 9:13-18), both speaking esp. to young men in general. These discourses usually begin with an exhortation that highlights the focus or central lesson being conveyed, followed by some extended explanation, then wrapped up with a conclusion, often presenting the consequences doing or disregarding what the discourse teaches.

Collections of Wise Sayings (Prov 10-31)

For the most part, the approx. 375 wise sayings cataloged in this section do seem to be recorded in a somewhat random, unpredictable manner. Though some do appear to be grouped together in small subsections, the placement of these smaller groups is also random. This randomized presentation is not unsurprising, though, since other collections of ancient, nonbiblical Eastern wisdom literature follow a similar approach. This approach is effective in that it causes each individual proverb (or couplet/triplet) to stand on its own, deserving of individual focus and meditation.

Stylistic Considerations

From a stylistic standpoint, Proverbs is written in the form of Hebrew poetry. Since we discussed this format in our introduction to Psalms, we won’t rehearse it in detail here. By way of review, however, we should recall that Hebrew poetry is written in pairs of lines following a form called “parallelism”. If two lines, we call this pair a “couplet,” if three lines, a “triplet,” etc. We should study and meditate on each couplet (or groups of couplets if tightly related) with reference to each other, not as single lines alone, because one line helps us better understand the other either by: (a) saying something similar, (b) saying something opposite, or (c) saying something additional.

Unlike much of Scripture, Proverbs focuses little on what we might call the “religious” or “spiritual” aspects of life, focusing instead on the more ordinary, practical aspects of life. Aiken observes that Proverbs focuses on: “people as plain, ordinary individuals who live in the world, and with the wisdom and folly of their attitudes and actions in the common things of life.” Key themes throughout Proverbs include: laziness/work, immorality/integrity, dishonesty/honesty, financial stewardship, family relationships, business relationships, friendship, speech, and more.

This practical life focus, however, does not ignore the necessity of a real, spiritual relationship with God. Proverbs emphasizes our need for the reverential fear of Yahweh as God (Prov 1:7) and to trust in him wholeheartedly in “all our ways” (Prov 3:5-7). Through statements like these and others, Proverbs clearly acknowledges that all wisdom comes from God and is effective because a sovereign, all-wise God has not only ordained for the principles of life to function as they do but personally and providentially intervenes to that end (see Prov 5:21; 15:3; 16:9; 19:21; 21:2, 31). The Scriptures just cited in parenthesis are only a sampling of the many references to God/Yahweh sprinkled throughout this book. One commentator, Robert Bell, categorizes God’s involvement in the world as portrayed throughout Proverbs into these six observations:

  • God made everything.
  • God observes everything.
  • God evaluates everything.
  • God controls everything.
  • God blesses and curses.
  • God gives wisdom.

With this outlook in mind, it is clear that though Proverbs focuses on day-to-day, practical wisdom, such wisdom only makes sense and plays out as it does because of God’s sovereign, constant, and universal involvement. And true wisdom begins by fostering a close, trusting relationship with him.
When we study biblical proverbs, it is important that we understand the nature of what a proverb is telling us. Donald Campbell describes this helpfully:

The proverbs or maxims are general truths based on broad experience and observation. These are guidelines which are normally true in general. They are guidelines, not guarantees; precepts, not promises.

In other words, though the ethical, moral, and theological truths which Proverbs teaches are always true (God is always trustworthy, sin is always sin, etc.) the appearances or outcomes in this present daily life may not always appear or play out as Proverbs portrays. A murderer may not always get caught, a promiscuous person may not always experience heart-wrenching tragedy, hard-working people do not always get rich, and good parenting does not always produce godly children. This is the nature of biblical wisdom literature. It states principles as general observations and warnings for skillful living, but no one statement says everything there is to say about the topic or accounts for all possible exceptions or variations on that theme.

Knowing this is helpful in at least two ways. First, this awareness guards a person from reaching wrong conclusions about ungodly people who prosper. When an ungodly person prospers and succeeds in life and a godly person suffers, such a scenario does not undermine the truthfulness of God’s Word as given in Proverbs. We should not conclude, for instance, that it is therefore okay to make ungodly choices or useless to make godly ones. This is – in fact – the purpose of Job, to correct the conclusion that Job’s suffering was evidence of some terrible, hidden sin (as concluded by his “friends”) or that his suffering proved that it was useless to live a righteous life (as Job’s wife suggested, “Curse God and die!”).

Second, this awareness guards a person from undue discouragement and excessive introspection. Such discouragement and introspection can occur, for instance, when a God-fearing person practices what a proverb teaches but experiences an unexpected result. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6), for instance. Does this proverb guarantee or promise that godly children will result from godly parenting? It does not. It teaches instead that godly parenting tends to produce godly children; by implication, it also teaches that ungodly parenting tends to produce ungodly children, so ungodly parenting is always an unwise approach. So, recognizing the difference between godly, proverbial wisdom and a straightforward promise or guarantee is incredibly helpful from a personal and pastoral standpoint.

Key Characters

When you read Proverbs, you will encounter the following prominent characters:

  • The wise: a person who fears God over self and others, trusting him wholeheartedly by dutifully applying the teachings of biblical, godly wisdom to the choices he or she makes in day-to-day life.
  • The fool: a person who knowingly, willfully disregards God and either ignores or rejects biblical, godly wisdom, choosing to make selfish, ungodly choices instead.
  • The simple: a person who is generally uninformed and uncommitted to either wise or foolish living, and who is therefore easily influenced or misled by foolish people and in a precarious position personally and spiritually.
  • Lady Wisdom: a personification of God’s wisdom, which is also portrayed by the idealistic woman of Proverbs 31.
  • Lady Folly: a personification of ungodly living, which is also portrayed by the promiscuous “strange woman” throughout the book.

These latter two women are presented throughout Proverbs as two polar opposite choices and give wisdom a more personal, relationship quality than mere intellectual skill or decision-making strategy would imply. Both characters are presented as being publicly available to all, not hidden in a mysterious, secretive place for exclusive people.

Personal Takeaways

As we read and study Proverbs, here are some personal takeaways to consider though there are certainly many more.

View all of your choices in life in connection to your relationship with God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” (Prov 1:7). Since this is true, we should not study Proverbs merely for “tips and tricks” for a successful life. We should study this book to learn how to please the Lord and humbly submit to him, recognizing that he sees, evaluates, and governs all things in our lives.

Submit to God’s wisdom when it differs from your own inclinations and desires. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding…” (Prov 3:5-8). Biblical wisdom is not always convenient, easy to apply, enjoyable, or popular – and it often conflicts with what we want to do, or what others are doing or want us to do. Even so, we are wise to follow biblical wisdom regardless of how we feel about it.

Read and meditate upon Proverbs frequently. And teach this wisdom to the children and young people in your life. Since this book is arranged into thirty-one chapters, it’s easy to read one chapter a day for any given month. Frequent exposure to this book will increase your ability to live in a skillful and successful way, especially if you have trusted in Christ as your God and Savior. So many difficulties in life can be avoided if the wisdom of Proverbs is applied.

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