Philippe R. Sterling
Proverbs is a set of collections of maxims designed to give the diligent God fearer instruction in the skill of living a practical, righteous and productive life in reliance on God.
The Book of Proverbs is a set of collections of maxims from Solomon and various sages who taught wisdom to Israel. Statements within the text identify the collections. Solomon would have written his proverbs before his death in 931 B.C. Scribes in King Hezekiah’s day transcribed the proverbs of Solomon found in chapters 25 to 29 around 700 B.C. Perhaps the final arrangement of the book as a whole is their work under the direction of Isaiah and King Hezekiah. King Lemuel of chapter 31 might be a pseudonym for King Hezekiah.
The proverbs have particular forms and function. The forms are that of pithy statements and scenarios that make use of various literary devices. The function is that of instruction on how to live prudently and well in public and private life in the fear of God.
Proverbial maxims are broad guidelines not guarantees. They are observations, not inviolable absolutes. They are general truths, not iron-clad promises. A proverb is not a promise but a principle for skillful living in the fear of God.
Literary Structure and Content
I. Title, Purpose, and Theme (1:1-7)
The first seven verses prepare us for reading the book as a whole. We find stated in them the primary author (v. 1), theme (v. 2), purpose (vv. 3 – 5), and spiritual foundation (v. 7) of the proverbs. Solomon is the first author and collector. The theme is wisdom and folly. The purpose is to attain a prudent life. The structure involves collections of the words of the wise. The foundation is the fear of God (1:7; see also 9:10 and 15:33).
Study and application of the book of Proverbs will give moral discipline to your life, supply mental discernment to your thinking, furnish righteous guidelines to your social dealings, develop discretion in your affairs, enlarge your learning and improve your keenness of mind. If an apple a day can keep the doctor away then a proverb a day can keep folly at bay.
II. Twelve Lessons on Wisdom and Folly and Invitations of Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly (1:8—9:18)
A father presents twelve lessons that contrast wisdom and folly, wickedness and righteousness (1:8 – 7:27). The first and tenth lessons are from a father and mother (1:8; 6:20). Personified wisdom also speaks (1:20-33). Each lesson begins with an address to a “son” or “sons” to hear and heed instruction. Two main topics are money and sex, chastity and honesty. Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly make final invitations to rival banquets (8—9).
A. Twelve Lessons on Wisdom and Folly
Lesson 1 (1:8-33) – Reject temptation and receive wisdom.
· A Father’s Instruction and a Mother’s Teaching (8-19) –Sinners Entice
· Shout of Lady Wisdom (20-33) – Wisdom Warns
Lesson 2 (2:1-22) – Pursuit of wisdom brings security.
Lesson 3 (3:1-10) – Pursuit of wisdom brings life and health.
Lesson 4 (3:11-35) – Pursuit of wisdom brings blessing and honor.
Lesson 5 (4:1-9) – Acquire wisdom!
Lesson 6 (4:10-19) – Choose your friends wisely.
Lesson 7 (4:20-27) – Watch your motives and actions.
Lesson 8 (5:1-23) – Avoid adultery and enjoy your wife.
Lesson 9 (6:1-19) – Avoid co-signing, laziness, duplicity, and the things God hates.
Lesson 10 (6:20-35) – Avoid the adulteress.
Lesson 11 (7:1-23) – Flee the enticement of the adulteress.
· A Father’s Warning against the Adulteress (1-5)
· The Enticement of the Adulteress (6-23)
Lesson 12 (7:24-27) – Avoid the adulteress for her house is the way to death.
B. Invitations of Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly (8—9)
Ø Call of Lady Wisdom (8:1-36)
Ø Invitation of Lady Wisdom to Her House and Banquet of Life (9:1-12)
Ø Invitation of Dame Folly to Her House of Death (9:13-18)
III. Collections of Proverbs
A. Proverbs of Solomon I (10:1—22:16)
The first half of the collection contrast wisdom and folly primarily with the use of antithetic couplets. Wisdom involves diligence in work, prudent use of money, proper use of the tongue, proper attitudes, with folly being the opposite. The second half of the collection primarily uses synthetic couplets in which the second line completes or builds upon the first to continue the themes. There are a number of couplets that focus on the king and his court (15:35; 16:10-15; 20:28; 21:1).
B. Words of the Wise I – Thirty Sayings (22:17—24:22)
1. Apply your Mind (22:17-21) – Apply Your Heart (23:12)
2. Thirty Sayings (22:22 – 24:22)
The thirty sayings in this collection have from two to several lines each and cover a broad range of topics. They give warning and/or advice and a reason for each.
Saying 1 – Don’t rob the poor (22:22-23).
Saying 2 – Don’t associate with a hot-tempered person (22:24-25).
Saying 3 – Don’t co-sign for debts (22:25-26).
Saying 4 – Don’t move the ancient boundary – take from the poor (22:27).
Saying 5 – Become skilled in your work (22:28).
Saying 6 – Don’t be a glutton before your superior (23:1-3).
Saying 7 – Don’t be materialistic (23:4-5).
Saying 8 – Don’t eat with selfish people (23:6-8).
Saying 9 – Don’t talk to fools (23:9).
Saying 10 – Don’t move the ancient boundary (23:10-12).
Saying 11 – Don’t withhold child-discipline (23:13-14).
Saying 12 – Be wise (23:15-16).
Saying 13 – Don’t envy sinners but fear God (23:17-18).
Saying 14 – Don’t associate with drunkards and gluttons (23:19-21).
Saying 15 – Listen to your father and mother (24:22-23).
Saying 16 – Give joy to your parents by being wise (25:24-25).
Saying 17 – Follow the good example of a father and avoid the adulteress (23:26-28).
Saying 18 – Don’t be a drunkard (23:29-35).
Saying 19 – Don’t envy evil people (24:1-2).
Saying 20 – Build your house with wisdom (24:3-4).
Saying 21 – Be strong and powerful through wisdom and knowledge (24:5-6).
Saying 22 – Don’t be a fool ((24:7).
Saying 23 – Don’t plan to do evil (24:8-9).
Saying 24 – Be prepared to act wisely in a day of distress (24:10).
Saying 25 – Try to help those who are on a path of destruction (24:11-12).
Saying 26 – Desire wisdom as much as you desire sweets (24:13-14).
Saying 27 – Don’t rob a godly person’s house (24:15-16).
Saying 28 – Don’t be glad when an enemy stumbles and falls (24:17-18).
Saying 29 – Don’t be envious of the wicked (24:19-20).
Saying 30 – Fear God and those in authority (24:21-22).
C. Sayings of the Wise II – Five More Sayings (24:23—34)
The five sayings of this collection deal with justice and diligence.
Saying 1 – Don’t be partial in judgment and give an honest answer (24:23-25).
Saying 2 – Give an honest answer when asked (24:26).
Saying 3 – Earn before you spend (24:27).
Saying 4 – Don’t be a false witness to avenge yourself (24:28-29).
Saying 5 – Don’t be lazy (24:30-34).
D. Proverbs of Solomon II (25:1—29:27)
These proverbs of Solomon were collected and transcribed by the men of Hezekiah. The collection begins with series of couplets that relate to the king’s court (25:1-7). The collection continues with proverbs concerning court cases, fools, sluggards, talkers, pride, relationships, contrast between the wicked and the righteous.
E. Sayings of Agur (30:1-33)
This collection is interesting in form and content. It includes a prayer, several sayings and riddles, and observations about life. Agur talks about four kinds of sinners, four things that are never satisfied, four incomprehensible things, four unfair things, four small but wise animals, four strutting things.
F. Sayings of Lemuel (31:1-9)
This collection relates wise sayings of a queen mother to a king (wise mother). She serves as an analogue to Lady Wisdom in the first nine chapters.
IV. Acrostic Poem of an Excellent Wife (31:10-31)
An acrostic poem ends the collection where an idealized wife is a model of wisdom exemplifying the values taught throughout the book of Proverbs (wise wife). This ideal wife also serves as an analogue for Lady Wisdom.
One commentator (Peter Leithart) suggests that there is a dramatic structure to the book of Proverbs. The first nine chapters refer repeatedly to two women who compete for a prince’s attention and affection – Lady Wisdom (see 8:15-16) and Dame Folly. His father and mother encourage him to pursue the first and warn him about the dangers of falling for the second. The dramatic question is: Which one will he embrace as his bride? The following collections of proverbs contrast wisdom and folly with a periodic focus on the royal court (e.g., 29:4, 12, 14). The final collection of proverbs and the concluding acrostic poem concerning an excellent wife appear to give the answer to the dramatic question. King Lemuel (may be a pseudonym) summarizes the wisdom his mother taught him. In the acrostic poem that celebrates the “excellent wife”, her husband sits in the gates of the city (the place of rendering judgment). Apparently the prince now king successfully resisted the appeals and seductions of Dame Folly. Lady Wisdom is his queen.
Theological Reflection – The Fear of God
The book of Proverbs gives practical instructions to help believers follow the way of God in this world. The fear of God is the foundation for wisdom (1:7; 9:10; 15:33; 24:21).
The term “fear” denotes a bipolar tension: repulsion (shrinking back) versus attraction, terror versus trust. Terror is a sense of trembling before our holy God. Trust is the reverential adoration of God who is also revealed as our redeemer and Savior. Do you tremble before God and at the same time trust and obey Him? The fear of God involves a proper view of God’s holiness and compassion (see Exodus 20:18-21).
In The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Graham includes a conversation between Mole and Rat in which they recall their sense of “august presence”:
“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?” “Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid of Him? O, never, never? And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!” Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
In the book of Proverbs we find a personification of wisdom as Lady Wisdom (8:22-31). She says:
22 “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
23 “From everlasting I was established,
From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth.
24 “When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no springs abounding with water.
25 “Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills I was brought forth;
26 While He had not yet made the earth and the fields,
Nor the first dust of the world.
27 “When He established the heavens, I was there,
When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep,
28 When He made firm the skies above,
When the springs of the deep became fixed,
29 When He set for the sea its boundary
So that the water would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth;
30 Then I was beside Him, as a master workman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
31Rejoicing in the world, His earth,
And having my delight in the sons of men.
Isaiah predicted of the Messiah:
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And He will delight in the fear of the Lord,
And He will not judge by what His eyes see,
Nor make a decision by what His ears hear;
4 But with righteousness He will judge the poor,
And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth;
And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,
And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.
5 Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins,
And faithfulness the belt about His waist.
In Jesus we have incarnate wisdom. He is the Word made flesh (John 1:1-3, 14).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
1 Corinthians 1:30 declares that “Christ “became to us wisdom from God.” In Jesus are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).