Introduction from the NIV Study Bible | Go to Proverbs
Although the book begins with a title ascribing the proverbs to Solomon, it is clear from later chapters that he was not the only author of the book. Pr 22:17 refers to the “sayings of the wise,” and 24:23 mentions additional “sayings of the wise.” The presence of an introduction in 22:17–21 further indicates that these sections stem from a circle of wise men, not from Solomon himself. Ch. 30 is attributed to Agur son of Jakeh and 31:1–9 to King Lemuel, neither of whom is mentioned elsewhere. Lemuel’s sayings contain several Aramaic spellings that may point to a non-Israelite background.
Most of the book, however, is closely linked with Solomon. The headings in 10:1 and 25:1 again include his name, though 25:1 states that these proverbs were “copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah.” This indicates that a group of wise men or scribes compiled these proverbs as editors and added chs. 25–29 to the earlier collections. Solomon’s ability to produce proverbs is specified in 1Ki 4:32, where 3,000 proverbs are attributed to him. Coupled with statements about his unparalleled wisdom (1Ki 4:29–31,34), it is quite likely that he was the source of most of Proverbs. The book contains a short prologue (1:1–7) and a longer epilogue (31:10–31), which may have been added to the other materials. It is possible that the discourses in the large opening section (1:8—9:18) were the work of a compiler or editor, but the similarities of ch. 6 in this section with other chapters (compare 6:1 with 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 27:13; compare 6:14,19 with 10:12; 15:18; 16:28; 28:25; 29:22; compare 6:19 with 14:5,25; 19:5) fit a Solomonic origin equally well. The emphasis on the “fear of the Lord” (1:7) throughout the book ties the various segments together.
If Solomon is granted a prominent role in the book, most of Proverbs would stem from the tenth century b.c. during the time of Israel’s united kingdom. The peace and prosperity that characterized that era accord well with the development of reflective wisdom and the production of literary works. Moreover, several interpreters have noted that the 30 sayings of the wise in 22:17—24:22 (especially the first ten) contain similarities to the 30 sections of the Egyptian “Wisdom of Amenemope,” an instructional piece that is roughly contemporary with the time of Solomon (see chart, p. xxii). Likewise, the personification of wisdom so prominent inchs. 1–9 (see 1:20 and note; 3:15–18; 8:1–36; 9:1–12) can be compared with the personification of abstract ideas in both Mesopotamian and Egyptian writings of the second millennium b.c.
The role of Hezekiah’s men (see 25:1) indicates that important sections of Proverbs were compiled and edited from 715 to 686 b.c. This was a time of spiritual renewal led by the king, who also showed great interest in the writings of David and Asaph (see 2Ch 29:30). Perhaps it was also at this time that the sayings of Agur (ch. 30) and Lemuel (31:1–9) and the other “sayings of the wise” (22:17—24:22; 24:23–34) were added to the Solomonic collections, though it is possible that the task of compilation was not completed until after the reign of Hezekiah.
The Nature of a Proverb
The proverbs contained in this book are not to be interpreted as prophecies or their statements about effects and results as promises. For instance, 10:27 says that the years of the wicked are cut short, while the righteous live long and prosperous lives (see3:2 and note). The righteous have abundant food (10:3), but the wicked will go hungry (13:25). While such statements are generally true, there are enough exceptions to indicate that sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper (see note on 3:2). Normally the righteous and wicked “receive their due on earth” (11:31), but at other times reward and punishment lie beyond the grave.
The Hebrew word translated “proverb” is also translated ”oracle” (Nu 23:7,18), “taunt” (Isa 14:4) and “parable” (Eze 17:2), so its meaning is considerably broader than the English term. This may help explain the presence of the longer discourse sections in chs. 1–9. Most proverbs are short, compact statements that express truths about human behavior. Often there is repetition of a word or sound that aids memorization. In 30:33, e.g., the same Hebrew verb is translated “churning,” “twisting” and “stirring up.”
In the longest section of the book (10:1—22:16) most of the proverbs are two lines long, and those in chs. 10–15 almost always express a contrast. Sometimes the writer simply makes a general observation, such as “a bribe is a charm to the one who gives it” (17:8; cf. 14:20), but usually he evaluates conduct: “he who hates bribes will live” (15:27). Many proverbs, in fact, describe the consequences of a particular action or character trait: “A wise son brings joy to his father” (10:1). Since the proverbs were written primarily for instruction, often they are given in the form of commands: “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor” (20:13). Even where the imperative form is not used, the desired action is quite clear (see 14:5).
A common feature of the proverbs is the use of figurative language: “Like cold water to a weary soul / is good news from a distant land” (25:25). In ch. 25 alone there are 11 verses that begin with “like” or “as.” These similes make the proverbs more vivid and powerful. Occasionally the simile is used in a humorous or sarcastic way: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout / is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (11:22; cf. 26:9), or, “As a door turns on its hinges, / so a sluggard turns on his bed” (26:14). Equally effective is the use of metaphors: “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life” (13:14), and “the tongue that brings healing is a tree of life” (15:4). According to 16:24, “pleasant words are a honeycomb.” The figure of sowing and reaping is used in both a positive and a negative way (cf. 11:18; 22:8).
In order to develop a proper set of values, a number of proverbs use direct comparisons: “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless / than a rich man whose ways are perverse” (28:6). This “better . . . than” pattern can be seen also in 15:16–17; 16:19,32;17:1,12; a modified form occurs in 22:1. Another pattern found in the book is the so-called numerical proverb. Used for the first time in 6:16 (see note there), this type of saying normally has the number three in the first line and four in the second (cf. 30:15,18,21,29).
The repetition of entire proverbs (compare 6:10–11 with 24:33–34; 14:12 with 16:25; 18:8 with 26:22; 20:16 with 27:13; 21:19 with25:24) or parts of proverbs may serve a poetic purpose. A slight variation allows the writer(s) to use the same image to make a related point (as in 17:3; 27:21) or to substitute a word or two to achieve greater clarity or a different emphasis (cf. 19:1; 28:6). In26:4–5 the same line is repeated in a seemingly contradictory way, but this was designed to make two different points (see notes there).
At times the book of Proverbs is very direct and earthy (cf. 6:6; 21:9; 25:16; 26:3). This is the nature of wisdom literature as it seeks pedagogically effective ways to illumine life situations and to guide the unwise (or not yet wise) into wise choices concerning how to shape their lives as members of the human community that lives under the scrutiny and the providential rule and care of the Creator (see essay, p. 970).
Purpose and Teaching
According to the prologue (1:1–7), Proverbs was written to give “prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young” (1:4), and to make the wise even wiser (1:5). The frequent references to “my son(s)” (1:8,10; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1) emphasize instructing the young and guiding them in a way of life that yields rewarding ends. Acquiring wisdom and knowing how to avoid the pitfalls of folly lead to personal well-being, happy family relationships, fruitful labors and good standing in the community (see outline, p. 1279). Although Proverbs is a practical book dealing with the art of living, it bases its practical wisdom solidly on the fear of the Lord (1:7; see Ps 34:8–14 and note). Throughout the book reverence for God and reliance on him are set forth as the path to life, prosperity and security (cf. 3:5–10; 9:10–12; 14:26–27; 16:3,6–7; 18:10; 19:23; 20:22; 22:4; 28:25; 29:25). Such godly wisdom is a virtual “tree of life” (3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4) that yields the happy life that God fashioned the creation to produce.
In the initial cycle of instruction (1:8—9:18) the writer urges the young man to choose the way of wisdom (that leads to life) and shun the ways of folly (that, however tempting they may be, lead to death). The author chooses two prime exemplifications of folly to give concreteness to his exhortations: (1) to get ahead in the world by exploiting (even oppressing) others rather than by diligent and honest labor, and (2) to find sexual pleasure outside the bonds and responsibilities of marriage. Temptation to the one comes from the young man’s male peers (1:10-19); temptation to the other comes from the adulterous woman (ch. 5; 6:20– 35; ch. 7). Together, these two temptations illustrate the pervasiveness and power of the allurements to folly that the young man will face in life and must be prepared to resist (see also Literary Structure below).
The major collections of proverbs that follow range widely across the broad spectrum of human situations, relationships and responsibilities offering insights, warnings, instructions and counsels along with frequent motivations to heed them. The range and variety of these defy summation. However, an illustrative section can convey the general character, moral tone and scope of the collections. In a variety of situations and relationships the reader is exhorted to honesty, integrity, diligence, kindness, generosity, readiness to forgive, truthfulness, patience, humility, cheerfulness, loyalty, temperance, self-control and the prudent consideration of consequences that flow from attitudes, choices and/or actions. Anger should be held in check, violence and quarrelsomeness shunned, gossip avoided, arrogance repudiated. Drunkenness, gluttony, envy and greed should all be renounced. The poor are not to be exploited, the courts are not to be unjustly manipulated, legitimate authorities are to be honored. Parents should care for the proper instruction and discipline of their children, and children should duly honor their parents and bring no disgrace on them. Human observation and experience have taught the wise that a certain order is in place in God’s creation. To honor it leads to known positive effects; to defy it leads only to unhappy consequences. All of life should be lived in conscious awareness of the unfailing scrutiny of the Lord of creation and in reliance on his generous providence.
Although Proverbs is more practical than theological, God’s work as Creator is especially highlighted. The role of wisdom in creation is the subject of 8:22–31 (see notes there), where wisdom as an attribute of God is personified. God is called the Maker of the poor (14:31; 17:5; 22:2). He sovereignly directs the steps of people (cf. 16:9; 20:24)—even the actions of kings (21:1)—and his eyes observe all that humans do (cf. 5:21; 15:3). All history moves forward under his control (see 16:4,33 and notes).
In summary, Proverbs provides instruction on how to live wisely and successfully in the “fear of the Lord” (1:7; 9:10) within the theocratic arrangement. The fear of the Lord includes reverence for, trust in and commitment to the Lord and his will as disclosed in his creation and as revealed in his word. Wisdom in this context, then, is basically following the benevolent King’s design for human happiness within the creation order—resulting in quality of mind (1:2) and quality of life (1:3).
The sectional headings found in the NIV text itself divide the book into well-defined units. A short prologue (stating the purpose and theme, 1:1–7) opens the book, and a longer epilogue (identifiable by its subject matter and its alphabetic form, 31:10–31) closes it. The first nine chapters contain a series of discourses that contrast the way and benefits of wisdom with the way of the fool. Except for the sections where personified wisdom speaks (1:20; 8:1; 9:1), each discourse begins with “my son” or “my sons.”
A key feature in the introductory discourses of Proverbs is the personification of both wisdom and folly as women, each of whom (by appeals and warnings on the part of Lady Wisdom, by enticements on the part of Lady Folly) seeks to persuade “simple” youths to follow her ways. These discourses are strikingly organized. Beginning (1:8–33) and ending (chs. 8–9) with direct enticements and appeals, the main body of the discourses is made up of two nicely balanced sections, one devoted to the commendation of wisdom (chs. 2–4) and the other to warnings against folly (chs. 5–7). In these discourses the young man is depicted as being enticed to folly by men who try to get ahead in the world by exploiting others (1:10–19) and by women who seek sexual pleasure outside the bond of marriage (ch. 5; 6:20–35; ch. 7). In the social structures of that day, these were the two great temptations for young men. The second especially functions here as illustrative and emblematic of the appeal of Lady Folly.
The main collection of Solomon’s proverbs in 10:1—22:16 consists of individual couplets, many of which express a contrast. On the surface, there does not seem to be any discernible arrangement, though occasionally two or three proverbs deal with the same subject. For example, 11:24–25 deals with generosity, 16:12–15 mentions kings, and 19:4,6–7 talks about friendship. However, there is growing evidence that arrangements of larger units were deliberate. Further study of this possibility is necessary. The second Solomonic collection (chs. 25–29) continues the pattern of two-line verses, but there are also examples of proverbs with three (25:13;27:10,22,27) or four (25:4–5,21–22; 26:18–19) lines. The last five verses of ch. 27 (vv. 23–27) present a short discourse on the benefits of raising flocks and herds.
In the “thirty sayings” of the wise (22:17—24:22) and the “further sayings” of 24:23–34, there is a prevalence of two- or three-verse units and something of a return to the style of chs. 1–9 (see especially 23:29–35). These sections have been appended to the preceding and contain some proverbs similar to those included in the foregoing collections (compare 24:6 with 11:14; 24:16 with11:5). One finds even stronger links with chs. 1–9 (compare 23:27 with 2:16; 24:33–34 with 6:10–11).
At the end of the book the editor(s) has (have) attached three additional pieces, diverse in form and content: the “sayings of Agur,” the “sayings of King Lemuel” and a description of “a wife of noble character.” The first of these (ch. 30) is dominated by numerical proverbs (30:15,18,21,24,29; see note on 6:16). The second (31:1–9) is devoted exclusively to instruction for kings. The third (31:10–31), effectively an eqilogue to the whole, is an impressive acrostic poem honoring the wife of noble character (cf. Ru 3:11 and note). She demonstrates, and thus epitomizes, many of the qualities and values identified with wisdom throughout the book. In view of the fact that Proverbs is primarily addressed to young men on the threshold of mature life, this focus on the ideal wife appears surprising. But its purpose may be twofold: (1) to offer counsel on the kind of wife a young man ought to seek, and (2) in a subtle way to advise the young man (again) to marry Lady Wisdom, thus returning to the theme of chs. 1–9 (as climaxed in ch. 9; compare the description of Lady Wisdom in 9:1–2 with the virtues of the wife in 31:10–31). In any event, the concluding epitomizing of wisdom in the wife of noble character forms a literary frame with the opening discourses, where wisdom is personified as a woman.
- Prologue: Purpose and Theme (1:1–7)
- The Superiority of the Way of Wisdom (1:8—9:18)
- Appeals and Warnings Confronting Youth (1:8–33)
- Commendation of Wisdom (chs. 2–4)
- Warnings against Folly (chs. 5–7)
- Appeals Addressed to Youth (chs. 8–9)
- The Main Collection of Solomon’s Proverbs (10:1—22:16)
- The Thirty Sayings of the Wise (22:17—24:22)
- Additional Sayings of the Wise (24:23–34)
- Hezekiah’s Collection of Solomon’s Proverbs (chs. 25–29)
- The Sayings of Agur (ch. 30)
- The Sayings of King Lemuel (31:1–9)
- Epilogue: The Ideal Wife (31:10–31)
The Wise Man According to Proverbs: An Outline
- His Character
- He Is Teachable, Not Intractable
- He Is Righteous, Not Wicked
- He Is Humble, Not Proud (15:33)
- He Is Self-controlled, Not Rash
- He Is Forgiving, Not Vindictive
- His Relationships
- To the Lord
- To His Family
- To his parents
- To his wife
- To his children
- He loves them (3:12; 13:24)
- He is concerned about them (1:8-9:18)
- He trains them (22:6)
- He provides for their
- To His Friends and Neighbors
- To his friends
- To his neighbors
- His Words
- The Power of His Words
- The Character of His Words
- They are honest, not false (12:22; 16:13)
- They are few, not many (10:19)
- They are calm, not emotional
- They are apt, not untimely (15:23; 25:11)
- The Source of His Words
© Zondervan. From the Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Used with Permission.