31 Chapters, 915 verses, 15,043 words.
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 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. 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 the statements about his unparalleled wisdom (1Ki 4:29-31), 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 this section with other chapters (compare 6:1 with 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 27:13; 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 scholars have noted that the 30 sayings of the wise in 22:17-24:22 contain similarities to the 30 sections of the Egyptian "Wisdom of Amenemope," an instructional piece that is roughly contemporary with the time of Solomon. Likewise, the personification of wisdom so prominent in chs. 1-9 (see 1:20 and note; 3:15-18; 8:1-36) 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 Jews sometimes speak of the OT as the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Included within the third division are Psalms and wisdom materials such as Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. These wisdom books are associated with a class of people called "wise men" or "sages" who are listed with priests and prophets as an important force in Israelite society (Jer 18:18). Wise men were called on to give advice to kings and to instruct the young. Whereas the priests and prophets dealt more with the religious side of life, wise men were concerned about practical and philosophical matters. Some of their writings, like Proverbs, were optimistic, as they showed the young how to behave in order to live prosperous and happy lives. Other materials, such as Job and Ecclesiastes, were more pessimistic as they wrestled with difficult philosophical and theological questions such as the problem of evil and the prosperity of the wicked (see also Ps 37; 73). Both viewpoints--the optimistic and the pessimistic--are also found in the literature of other nations in the ancient Near East.
Because of the nature of Proverbs, we must not interpret it as prophecy or its statements about certain 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 (see 3:2 and note). The righteous have abundant food (10:3), but the wicked will go hungry (13:25). While such verses are generally true, there are enough exceptions to indicate that sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. 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 "taunt" (Isa 14:4), "oracle" (Nu 23:7, 18) 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 some 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 largest 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: "but 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; 20:16 with 27:13) or parts of proverbs may serve a poetic purpose. A slight variation allows the writer or writers to use the same image to make a related point (as in 17:3; 27:21) or to substitute a word to achieve greater clarity or a different emphasis (cf. 19:1; 28:6). In 26:4-5 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, 11). This is the nature of wisdom literature as it seeks to drive home truth and to turn sinners from their wicked ways.
Purpose and Teaching
According to the prologue, Proverbs was written to give "prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young" (1:4), and to make wise men wiser (1:5). The frequent references to "my son" (1:8, 10; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1) emphasize instructing the young and guiding them into a happy and prosperous life. Acquiring wisdom and knowing how to avoid the pitfalls of folly will lead to health and success. Although Proverbs is a practical book dealing with the art of living, it bases wisdom solidly on the fear of the Lord (1:7). Throughout the book this reverence for God is set forth as the path to life and security (cf. 3:5; 9:10; 22:4). People must trust in the Lord (3:5) and not in themselves (28:26). The references to the "tree of life" (3:18; 11:30; 13:12) recall the joyful bliss of the Garden of Eden and figuratively say that the one who finds wisdom will be greatly blessed.
In chs. 1-9 the writer contrasts the way of wisdom with the path of violence (1:11-18) and immorality (2:16-18). The adulteress with her seductive words tries to lure a young man to her house and ultimately to death (cf. ch. 5; 6:24-35; 7; 9:13-18). Sexual immorality is thus an example of and a symbol for the antithesis of wisdom (cf. 22:14; 23:27; 30:20).
At the same time, Proverbs condemns the quarrelsome wife and her unbearable ways (19:13; 21:9, 19). The home is supposed to be a place of love, not dissension (cf. 15:17; 17:1). Quarrelsome, quick-tempered men are also denounced (cf. 14:29; 26:21), and gossiping is viewed as a source of great trouble (11:13; 18:8; 26:22). If anyone is able to control his tongue, he is a man of knowledge (cf. 10:19; 17:27). At the same time, the tongue must be used to instruct one's children (cf. 1:8; 22:6; 31:26), and discipline is necessary for their well-being (see 13:24 and note).
Proverbs strongly encourages diligence and hard work (see 10:4 and note; 31:17-19) and holds the sluggard up to contempt for his laziness (see 6:6 and note). A son "who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son" (10:5), and those who love sleep are sure to grow poor (cf. 20:13). Generally, wealth is connected to righteousness (cf. 3:16) and poverty to wickedness (cf. 22:16), but some verses link riches with the wicked (15:16; 28:6). Honesty and justice are praised repeatedly, and it is expected that a king will defend the rights of the poor and needy (cf. 31:5). Those who are kind to the needy will be richly blessed (see 14:21 and note), but there are several warnings against putting up security for a neighbor (6:1).
The proud and the arrogant are sure to be destroyed (cf. 11:2; 16:18), especially the mocker with his "overweening pride" (see 21:24 and note on 1:22). Drunkards are depicted as the epitome of the fool (cf. 20:1), and their woes and miseries are described in graphic terms in 23:29-35.
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. Twice God is called the Maker of the poor (14:31; 17:5). He also directs the steps of a man (cf. 16:9; 20:24), and his eyes observe all his actions (cf. 5:21; 15:3). God is sovereign over the kings of the earth (21:1), and all history moves forward under his control (see notes on 16:4, 33).
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 were personified wisdom speaks (1:20; 8:1, 22; 9:1), each discourse begins with "my son" or "my sons." These units are similar to the discourses found in Job and Ecclesiastes, which also contain speeches given in poetic form.
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; 6:20-25; 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 a king, 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) 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 23:29-35 especially). These sections function as an appendix to 10:1-22:16 and contain some similar proverbs (compare 24:6 with 11:14; 24:16 with 11:5). Even stronger are the links with chs. 1-9 (compare 23:27 with 2:16; 24:33-34 with 6:10-11).
The last two chapters serve as an appendix to chs. 25-29. The words of Agur are dominated by the numerical proverb (30:15, 18, 21, 24, 29) and include a close parallel to Ps 18:30 in 30:5 (also compare 30:6 with Dt 4:2). After the nine verses attributed to King Lemuel (31:1-9), Proverbs concludes with an epilogue, an impressive acrostic poem honoring the wife of noble character. 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 wife of noble character 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 of noble character). 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.