Proverbs offers theoretical and practical teaching about life, in two main forms. Chs. 1–9 are mostly encouragement to a moral life (see e.g. 1:8–19). These sermons are in verse, but poetic form matters less than getting the message across, and much of the verse is doggerel. The chapters have two main emphases, on applying oneself to the teaching of the wise and on avoiding adulterous relations with women. The two themes are related: sexual unfaithfulness is the supreme folly.
With ch. 10 the atmosphere changes. The form becomes mostly one-verse sayings, linked in one way or another, but each saying complete in itself. The themes broaden out and are quite varied. Among the recurrent topics, as well as wisdom and sexual relationships, are the nature of righteousness, the use of words, relationships in the community, work, wealth and kingship (17:1–5 is a good example).
The last third of the book (22:17–31:31) comprises five further collections of material, mixed in content and also mixed in form. These bring together many more one-verse sayings, some longer units, and one final poem of twenty-two verses.
Both sermons and sayings show the usual features of poetry in the Prophets or other books—indeed they tend to be more regular than poetry elsewhere in the OT. Generally, each verse comprises a unit of thought if not an actual sentence, and consists of two half-lines which complement, complete or contrast with each other. Often their meaning is interwoven and interdependent. Thus 10:1 implies that a wise son is a joy to both father and mother, a foolish son a grief to both. Commonly the balancing half-lines each have only three words, and thus three stresses; Hebrew frequently compounds words but the English reader can often perceive which are the important words in each line around which the little words cluster, and thus see where the three stresses are. 1:2–4 is an example of all these features.
The material in Proverbs may reflect three social backgrounds: the life of the family, the court college and the theological school. First, the teachers often speak as father and mother to the hearers as their children. While this way of speaking may be partly metaphorical, behind it is the implication that the home is the natural place for teaching and learning about life, wisdom and the way of righteousness (cf. 22:6). The first likely background of the material in Proverbs is the life of the family and the clan.
Secondly, in other Middle Eastern cultures wisdom teaching was collected under royal patronage, as resources for the training of the nobility for their work at court. The content of Proverbs does not point mainly in this direction; it relates to the life of people in general. But the references to Solomon and other kings in the headings to the collections, as well as the references to kingship and national affairs in some sayings, suggest that the court college where people were trained for the king’s service may have been one context in which the material was used and collected.
Thirdly, the material at times reflects an interest in theological questions such as creation and revelation (see 3:19–20; 8:22–31; 30:2–6) as well as in more down-to-earth questions about practical life. The background of this material may have been discussions in schools where theologians or interpreters of the Scriptures or scribes were trained, the ‘houses of instruction’ to which Sirach invites people who wish to understand the ways of God (Ecclus. 51:23).
We know little regarding the authorship or actual date of the material in Proverbs. The oldest material is found among that which could naturally be used in family life as we saw above. This may have originated long before Solomon’s day and before Israel existed in Palestine, though it would carry on developing and accumulating as family life continued. Teaching suggesting the life of the court presumably belongs in the centuries from David to the exile. (On Solomon’s relationship to it, see the commentary on 1:1 below.) The more theologically reflective material may come from the Second Temple period; it provides the final literary background (chs. 1–9 and 30–31) for our reading of the bulk of the book with its mainly down-to-earth concerns.
Proverbs takes an experiential, almost scientific approach to life. It looks at life itself in order to discuss directly how to see life (big questions about its meaning and down-to-earth questions about our understanding of topics such as friendship, marriage and the family) and how to live life on the basis of that understanding. It understands wisdom as thinking and living in accordance with how things actually are. Folly is a way of thinking and living that ignores how things actually are.
Attempting to formulate and collect wisdom teaching assumes that we are not limited to learning from our own experience; we also learn from that of others. From their own and from other people’s experience Israel’s wise teachers offer us insights which may help us to make sense of experience we have had, and may help us to do the wise thing in the future.
Theologically considered, Proverbs starts from God’s general revelation, available to people because they are made in God’s image and live in God’s world. Precisely because it knows that God is real, that people are made in God’s image and that they live in God’s world, it also assumes that morality and faith are part of life itself as people experience it.
Christians are continually allowing themselves to be influenced by human wisdom and experience. Proverbs encourages that. It also offers us some guidance on how and how not to go about it. It assumes that the real world includes matters of faith and moral conviction, and sets our experience in the narrow sense against the background of these; it puts learning, religion and morals together. It would insist that principles of education, counselling and business, for instance, are formed in conjunction with religious and moral considerations, not independently of them. It thus says both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’, or a ‘yes but’, to what we learn from the world.
F. D. Kidner, Proverbs, TOTC (IVP, 1964).
K. L. Aitken, Proverbs, DSB (St Andrew Press/Westminster/John Knox Press, 1986).
D. A. Hubbard, Proverbs, CC (Word, 1989).
W. McKane, Proverbs, OTL (SCM, 1970).
C. V. Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (JSOT Press, 1985).
OT Old Testament
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
DSB Daily Study Bible
CC The Communicator’s Commentary
OTL Old Testament Library
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Pr 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.