Wise counsel has proven beneficial throughout time, and one of the most widespread forms of literature throughout the ancient world involved the transmission of the sayings of the wise. Israel thought highly of the wisdom God gave to Solomon, and many of his sayings are preserved in the book of Proverbs.
The book of Proverbs is the twentieth book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible, they are part of the Ketuvim or “Writings.” Most of the proverbs are attributed to King Solomon (ca. 950 BCE; 1 Kings 4:32, Proverbs 1:1, 10:1, 25:1, Ecclesiastes 12:9); Proverbs 30:1-33 are attributed to an otherwise unknown Agur son of Jakeh, and Proverbs 31:1-31 are attributed to an also otherwise unknown King Lemuel based upon his mother’s instruction. The book of Proverbs as we have it was compiled from the time of Solomon until no earlier than the days of Hezekiah (ca. 700 BCE; cf. Proverbs 25:1), and perhaps into the exilic and post-exilic period (ca. 550-450 BCE). The book of Proverbs is the collection of wisdom themes and sayings from Solomon designed to provide instruction to the wise and discerning and correction to the ignorant and foolish.
The book of Proverbs features three main sections: thematic wisdom instruction from Solomon (Proverbs 1:1-9:18), wisdom sayings from Solomon (Proverbs 10:1-29:27), and thematic wisdom and wisdom sayings from Agur and Lemuel (Proverbs 30:1-31:31).
The book of Proverbs begins with more extended and thematic discussions of wisdom by Solomon for his son, a common way of communicating wisdom instruction in the ancient Near Eastern world. He began by emphasizing the importance of fearing God and listening to wisdom (Proverbs 1:1-4:27). He emphasizes the value of wisdom in all sorts of situations, yet speaks primarily in terms of the wisdom in avoiding committing adultery (Proverbs 5:1-7:27). Solomon speaks of Wisdom personified in Proverbs 8:1-9:18, explaining her prominence, value, and exhortations.
The bulk of the book of Proverbs record Solomon’s wisdom sayings, most often a memorable couplet providing some form of moral exhortation (Proverbs 10:1-29:27). Solomon followed the conventions of Hebrew poetry and spoke in two parallel lines: line B often emphasizes or contrasts with line A. Occasionally line A provides a metaphor or a simile which is explained in line B. The collection is not organized by theme; individual sets of couplets may or may not have any contextual relationship with each other. Nevertheless, various themes can be discerned in the couplets, including contrasts between the wise and the foolish, their behaviors, and the consequences they experience; contrasts between righteousness and wickedness, goodness and evil; contrasts between wealth and poverty, hard work and laziness, and their consequences; acceptance or rejection of wisdom and instruction; the mouth; the LORD; the promotion of justice; the merit of giving; benefits and challenges of women; the benefits and instruction of children; the heart; the conduct of and before a king; and other matters.
The book of Proverbs concludes with the wisdom of Agur and Lemuel (Proverbs 30:1-31:31). They speak of the incomparable wisdom of God, the ways of the world, how a king should rule, and the idealized portrait of the worthy woman.
The book of Proverbs remains a treasure trove of counsel, insight, instruction, and wisdom. Through proverbs Solomon accurately explains how the world works and provides us with an opportunity to hear words of wisdom so that we may not make the same mistakes and endure many of the difficult experiences of our ancestors. Nevertheless, we must be careful how we interpret and apply some of the proverbs, especially regarding wealth and poverty, cognizant of the differences between the way the world works and the way the Kingdom of God in Christ is supposed to work (Matthew 20:25-28). Let us heed the wisdom of the ancients, willing to accept instruction and reproof from the messages of the proverbs, and live godly lives in the Kingdom of Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry