Book Study: Proverbs

Proverbs - For Attaining Wisdom and Discipline

In Ethiopia there is a popular proverb that translates something like this: “Slowly, slowly, the egg grows legs, and then suddenly one day it walks away.” This is a proverb about patience. It teaches that often things take time to develop. Often, while it looks like nothing at all is happening, the truth is that things are moving forward, but this progress is out of sight. The egg doesn’t appear to be doing anything. But if we wait patiently, one day, all of a sudden, the egg cracks open and the chick walks off. Ethiopians will cite this proverb when trying to encourage someone to be patient. The Ethiopians love proverbs, and they have lots of them.


Proverbs are embedded into North American culture as well. “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” These are some of our favorites. How many other folksy proverbs can you think of? Which are your favorites? If you are from another culture, can you think of proverbs in your culture? Almost every culture and language of the world uses short, pithy proverbial statements to try to pass on commonsense wisdom from generation to generation.


What Is the Setting for Proverbs?

Headings in the book of Proverbs indicate that the book is composed of four major collections, each with different authors or editors (collectors). Thus Proverbs 1–24 is attributed to Solomon; Proverbs 25–29 are additional proverbs of Solomon that are copied by King Hezekiah’s scribes (probably collected and edited by them as well); Proverbs 30 is attributed to a man named Agur, unknown to us elsewhere, but perhaps a scribe; and Proverbs 31 is attributed to an unknown king named Lemuel (who learned this material from his mother).


Wisdom in the ancient world can be defined as rational guidelines for right living. No doubt peasants and farmers in the ancient world had folksy proverbs, similar to ours today. Yet even before the time of Solomon, across the ancient Near East there were kings, scribes, priests, and other educated individuals who were involved in the formal intellectual pursuit of practical wisdom. In extolling Solomon’s great wisdom, 1 Kings 4:30 mentions the wisdom of the “East” (i.e., Mesopotamia) as well as the wisdom of Egypt. First Kings 4:29–34 implies that Solomon was familiar with the wisdom from these areas. He probably studied the wisdom literature from Mesopotamia and from Egypt. First Kings 4:32 says that Solomon “spoke” three thousand proverbs. The text is not clear about whether he composed these or just knew them and was able to recite them. Probably Solomon collected proverbs, both from within Israel and from the rest of the ancient Near East. He probably also created some of his own. Under the inspiration of God, during the reign of Solomon (971–931 BC) and later during the reign of Hezekiah (716–687 BC), a large number of these were collected, edited, and included in the Bible as Proverbs 1–29.


Throughout this process there was probably a constant interaction and mixing of folksy, homespun proverbial wisdom from the farms of Israel and intellectual, philosophical reflection from educated scholars (including Solomon) in the courts of Jerusalem.


What Is at the Heart of Proverbs?

The purpose of the book of Proverbs is expressed clearly in the opening verses: “for attaining wisdom and discipline [,] . . . doing what is right and just and fair” (1:2–3), and for teaching both the simple or young as well as the wise and discerning (1:4–5). The book of Proverbs is tied theologically to the rest of the Old Testament by 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” thus underpinning the search for wise living to obedience before God.


Proverbs at its core is about building character. It provides guidelines for right and wise character development. It stresses that character produces behavior and that behavior produces serious consequences.


As mentioned above in our introduction to the Wisdom Books (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs), Proverbs presents the norms of life—things that are generally and normally true, things that one should build their character around. For example, Proverbs teaches that by working hard, one will prosper and do well. This is normally true, and a hard-work ethic is certainly a foundational virtue that will help one to live wisely. But this is not universally true; neither is it an unqualified promise from God. There are exceptions to this in life, as Job aptly illustrates. There are modern exceptions as well. For example, in the mid-1980s there was a terrible drought and famine in Ethiopia. Thousands of godly Christian farmers were affected by the drought and devastated by the famine. These people were not lazy; they were hardworking, as hardworking as any in the world. Hard work was still a good character virtue for them to embrace, but the consequences of that proverbial truth did not apply to them due to their unique situation. It is normally true, not universally true.


So Proverbs presents the norms of life, and the other books (Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) focus on the exceptions. All the Wisdom Books need to be taken together to balance one another. Proverbs without Job can lead to incorrect practical theology, as Job’s three friends illustrate. Part of becoming truly and biblically wise is learning how to apply the various proverbial teachings in the book of Proverbs to the differing contexts of life.


Because the maxims in Proverbs are normally true, most of the time we can apply the majority of them to our lives quite easily. The book of Proverbs deals with the most basic aspects of life: family, neighbors, work, speech, society, and so on. Out of this day-to-day “living in the real world” context, several central themes emerge from Proverbs: wisdom versus folly; improper aspects of speech (anger, gossip, etc.); spouses and families (including sexual immorality); laziness versus hard work; proper attitudes toward the poor; and the righteous versus the wicked.


One of the ways that Proverbs teaches wisdom is through its portrayal of four basic character types. First there is the simple (or naive). This person is not too smart and doesn’t want to be. Second is the fool. He is not smart either, but thinks he is and has convinced the simple/naive one that he is. Third is the scoffer or mocker. He is actually very smart (in human terms), but he does not fear the Lord, thus his intelligence does not translate into true wisdom, and he becomes a bitter skeptic. The fourth character type portrayed in Proverbs is the wise, who is smart and discerning, but who also fears the Lord. The central teaching in Proverbs is the exhortation to us to strive to become like the wise, and not like the simple, the fool, or the scoffer.


A brief structural outline of Proverbs is as follows:

-       The Proverbs of Solomon (1:1–24:34) 

a.   Introduction (1:1–7)

b.   A father’s wisdom for the young and gullible (1:8–9:18)

c.    Short proverbs (10:1–22:16)

d.   Sayings of the wise (22:17–24:34)

-       The Proverbs of Solomon Collected by Hezekiah’s Scribes (25:1–29:27)

-       The Sayings of Agur and Lemuel (30:1–31:31)


What Makes Proverbs Interesting and Unique?

a.   Proverbs gives us help about how to deal with issues in our daily lives, relating to family, friends, and work.

b.   Many of the individual proverbs can be applied fairly easily.

c.    Proverbs warns against sexual immorality.

d.   There are many proverbs that address speech problems (gossip, honesty, anger).

e.   Numerous proverbs speak of the importance of friends.

f.     Proverbs gives lots of advice about how to raise children.

g.   Proverbs opens with a focus on fathers and sons, and closes with a focus on a mother and wives.


What Is the Message of Proverbs?

The Proverbs of Solomon (1:1–24:34)

Introduction (1:1–7)

The opening verse associates the following proverbs with Solomon and then states the purpose of the book. Two goals are mentioned here. The first goal is attaining wisdom and understanding. The second goal is a result of the first and involves how one lives—doing what is right and just and fair (1:2–6). Proverbs 1:7 then reminds the reader that true knowledge cannot be obtained without a proper relationship with God.


A father’s wisdom for the young and gullible (1:8–9:18)

The book of Proverbs does not start off with the typical short, pithy, two-lined proverbs, but rather with several long admonitions from a father to his son, interrupted twice as the voice of personified wisdom chimes in. The son stands on the verge of adulthood with two very different paths before him. On the one hand, he hears the voice of wisdom from his father. On the other hand, he feels the strong temptation of sexual immorality as well as peer pressure to run with a rowdy, less-than-virtuous gang who entices him to pursue easy money that doesn’t require hard work. The two worldviews before him are wisdom versus folly, resulting in either life or death. Thus in Proverbs 1:8–19 the father encourages the son to reject the gang and the lure of easy money acquired through violence. The personified voice of wisdom interrupts in 1:20–33, rebuking the naive (or simple) and the fool because they refuse to listen to her. In 2:1–22 the father speaks again, telling the son that true wisdom will protect him from wicked men (2:11–15) and wicked women (i.e., the adulteress; 2:16–19). Yet true wisdom can never be lived out without faith and trust in the Lord.


Thus 3:1–35 directs the young man to God. Proverbs 3:5–6 summarizes the advice: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” In 4:1–27 the father exhorts, almost pleads, with the son to learn from him and to embrace wisdom. Proverbs 5 tells the young man to stay faithful to his wife and to avoid adultery at all costs. In Proverbs 6 the father advises his son to work hard (6:1–11), watch out for scoundrels (6:12–19), and understand the severe consequences that result from adulterous affairs (6:20–35). Proverbs 7 continues to warn against the temptation of adultery, vividly describing how a simple/naive young man succumbed to this temptation, going in to the seductive adulteress “like an ox going to the slaughter” (7:22). In contrast to the seductive woman patrolling the streets and looking for gullible, naive young men (7:1–27), in Proverbs 8 it is wisdom who calls out to young men in the streets. Listening to the adulteress leads to death (7:27), while listening to wisdom leads to life and favor with the Lord (8:35). Proverbs 9 continues a similar analogy of contrasting women, this time between “lady wisdom” and “lady folly.” Once again the son is informed that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” resulting in life (9:10–11), while “lady folly” leads those who are simple/naive (i.e., without wisdom) to death (9:18).


Short proverbs (10:1–22:16)

This section contains 375 short, two-line proverbs. These proverbs are seemingly unrelated to one another; that is, there is little clear, discernable structural organization in each chapter. Proverbs 15:33 (“the fear of the Lord teaches a man wisdom”), however, does appear to break this section into two basic units (10:1–15:33; 16:1–22:16), and there are some commonalities that unite each unit.


The first unit (10:1–15:33) is dominated by “antithetical” proverbs, where the second line of the proverb gives an opposite and contrasting reality from that stated in the first line. For example, in Proverbs 15:1 the first line reads, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” The second line is the opposite, contrasting reality: “but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The second unit (16:1–22:16) contains two-line proverbs as well, but it contains a high concentration of synonymous or “complementary” type proverbs in which the second line echoes or adds to the first. For example, in Proverbs 19:17 the first line states, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.” The second line is not antithetical, but complementary (in this case consequential): “and he [the Lord] will reward him for what he has done.” Two slight differences in the two units are that Proverbs 16:1–22:16 has a higher concentration of proverbs dealing with the king, and also has more proverbs that mention the Lord.


Yet there are numerous common themes that resurface repeatedly throughout both subunits of Proverbs 10:1–22:16. The most frequent theme is the contrast between the wise man and the fool. Closely related to this is the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. Other important themes include laziness versus hard work; the family (children, parents, wives); controlling the tongue (how one speaks); poverty and wealth; pride and humility; and anger. Thus this section gives wise advice across a wide gamut of practical living.


Sayings of the wise (22:17–24:34)

Interestingly much of the material in this section is very similar to an ancient Egyptian wisdom book titled The Teachings of Amenemope. This book predates Solomon, so apparently as Solomon gathered wisdom books from all over the known world, this was one of the books that he acquired and incorporated into his collection. One of the main topics of this collection is teaching young men how to interact with the wealthy (probably in the royal court) without being sucked into the vain pursuit of wealth.


The Proverbs of Solomon Collected by

Hezekiah’s Scribes (25:1–29:27)

This section is similar to Proverbs 10–22, and contains many of the same themes: the wise man and wisdom versus the fool and folly; righteousness versus wickedness; laziness versus hard work; and how to control one’s speech. This unit also has numerous proverbs that speak of God, and proverbs dealing with the king. Especially prevalent in this section are proverbs that deal with the poor, especially in regard to the legal system.


The Sayings of Agur and Lemuel (30:1–31:31)

We do not know anything about the wise man Agur and King Lemuel outside of the references to them here in Proverbs 30–31. They are probably from the same country, but they are probably not Israelites, for neither name is a Hebrew name.


Agur’s proverbs are different in structure from most of those in the rest of Proverbs. His collection is characterized by the literary structure of mentioning “three things” and then “four,” followed by a list of four things that illustrate his point.


Proverbs 31, “the sayings of King Lemuel,” is actually attributed to the king’s mother. Thus just as the book of Proverbs opens with advice from a father to his son, it closes with the advice of a mother to her son (31:1–9), followed by the description of a wife of noble character (31:10–31). Lemuel’s mother tells him to watch out for women and hard drinking. Instead, she exhorts, focus on helping the poor (31:1–9).


It is rather significant that Proverbs ends with a lengthy description of a “wife/woman of noble character.” The book of Proverbs is filled with good advice about wise living, much of it aimed at young men. The ending seems to say that one of the wisest things a young man can do is to marry an outstanding woman like the one described in Proverbs 31:10–31. Likewise, the character of the woman described in this passage also provides a strong model for young women to aspire to.


There are several interesting aspects of this closing section, in addition to its fascinating content. First of all, Proverbs 31:10–31 is an “acrostic,” similar to the alphabetic psalms we encounter in the book of Psalms. In Hebrew, each line in Proverbs 31:10–31 begins with the next consecutive letter of the alphabet. Thus verse 10 begins with aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and verse 31 begins with tav, the final letter in the alphabet. This is kind of like saying, “Here is the ideal wife, described from A to Z.”


Another interesting aspect of ending Proverbs with this “woman of noble character” is that in the Hebrew canon, the book of Ruth follows immediately after Proverbs. In Proverbs 31:10 the question is raised, “A wife of noble character, who can find?” In Hebrew, the same word is used both for “wife” and for “woman.” In Ruth 3:11 Boaz tells Ruth that everyone knows she is a “woman of noble character.” The phrases “wife of noble character” (Prov. 31:10) and “woman of noble character” (Ruth 3:11) are identical. The link between these two identical phrases probably provides the rationale for placing Ruth immediately after Proverbs, as found in the Hebrew canon. Proverbs 31:10 asks who can find a woman of noble character, and then, in the very next book, such a woman appears: Ruth!


So What? Applying Proverbs to Our Lives Today

The book of Proverbs is filled with teaching that is applicable and relevant to us today. Proverbs teaches us not to be boastful or proud. We learn here, as throughout the Bible, that God just does not like prideful people, and that we should strive to be humble and concerned about others. This is part of wise living.


Proverbs also has a lot to say about our attitude toward the poor. Proverbs 17:5 implies that if we ridicule or make fun of the poor, we ridicule and make fun of God, for he created them.


We also learn in Proverbs that if we are wise, we will be calm, even-tempered, and slow to anger. We will speak soothing words that calm crisis situations. We will also be listeners, cautious about spouting off our own opinions and always ready to learn more wisdom from others.


Our Favorite Verse in Proverbs

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (17:17)