Bible: The Old Testament

Proverbs

Overview

Proverbs is the chief volume in the biblical collection of wisdom literature, which also includes Ecclesiastes, Job, and portions of Psalms. The purpose of wisdom literature in the Bible is to teach rather than to relate a narrative. Proverbs contains thirty-one chapters, each comprised of twenty to thirty-five wise sayings that are each two poetic lines long. Most of the book is attributed to King Solomon; but, as the book itself indicates, the written teachings in their current form were probably collected no earlier than the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah in the late eighth and early seventh centuries b.c. Other sections of the text are attributed to additional, more obscure authors. However, it is safe to say that Proverbs represents the written record of an oral tradition of wise sayings with uncertain origins.

A proverb is a short, pithy saying that usually draws a comparison between two forms of behavior in order to impart moral or religious wisdom to its receiver. Some of the wise sayings in Proverbs also take the form of enigmatic or cryptic utterances that the receiver must interpret to understand the meaning. Biblical proverbs are religious, but they focus on concrete human experiences rather than divine revelation. Nevertheless, their judgments always entail a timeless quality, like the moral of a myth or a folktale. The biblical notion of wisdom implies acquiring skill or ability in the areas of justice and moral goodness—like a craftsmen learning a craft. In fact, Proverbs frequently instructs the listener to “get” or “buy” wisdom (4:5 and 23:23). The sayings in Proverbs are often addressed to young people, who are in the process of becoming wise. It is likely that the Book of Proverbs formed part of the education for Hebrew youth after the Israelite exile and return to the promised land.

Structure

The Book of Proverbs is divided into four main sections, with three additional sections, or appendices, included at the end. The first third of Proverbs is an extended lecture spoken by the personified voice of “Wisdom.” This section is the most conversational, narrative, and thematic portion of the book. Wisdom speaks in the first person and refers to the reader as “my child,” instructing the reader on various topics for wise living. The voice of Wisdom assumes different forms. On the one hand, Wisdom refers to itself in feminine terms, using the pronouns “she” and “her.” Wisdom describes itself as a woman standing on the city streets, crying out her warnings to the people. However, Wisdom also identifies itself with God. Pursuing Wisdom, it says, is the same thing as obeying God, and Wisdom claims to have been God’s partner in creating the world.

The next three sections of Proverbs contain the proverbs of Solomon and the sayings of the wise. The list of Solomon’s proverbs is made up of two lengthy sections, and the proverbs are very loosely organized by theme. The speaker usually assumes the voice and authority of a king. Many of the proverbs follow the formula of antithetical parallelism, a convention in which the proverb is stated in two poetic lines, and one line describes a type of good or wise behavior while the other describes its evil or foolish opposite. The “sayings of the wise” make up one small section and are less rhetorical, issuing more direct commands and advice to the reader.

The final three sections in Proverbs include the brief oracles of Agur and King Lemuel and a closing lesson on how to select a good wife. Agur and Lemuel’s historical existence is unknown, but their cryptic sayings continue the demand for wisdom and the themes of temperance and justice that are common to the rest of Proverbs. The final passage praises all the traits of the good and “capable” wife (31:10). She is industrious, independent, strong, generous to the poor, and, most importantly, she “fears,” or obeys, God (31:30). Proverbs closes by calling for her family and the community to praise her.

Themes

Proverbs is largely concerned with the inevitability of God’s justice and the importance of prudence and moderation. Solomon’s proverbs maintain that wicked deeds will invariably lead to divine retribution and punishment during a person’s earthly life. People who slander others will have their tongues cut off, those who are lazy will have failing crops, and undue pride will lead to an individual’s downfall. One way to enjoy the favorable hand of God’s justice is to practice moderation and prudence. According to the proverbs, the moderate person avoids the excesses of the foolish, including excessive drinking, eating, sleeping, gossiping, and rage. A consistent way to demonstrate wise behavior is by choosing words shrewdly and carefully. The proverbs also praise those who prepare in advance, particularly those who build their homes in preparation for later circumstances. The most important sign of wisdom and prudence, however, is obedience and reverence to one’s parents.