Introduction to Proverbs
The book of Proverbs has traditionally been ascribed to wise king Solomon, who “spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five” (I Kings 4:32). Even though the first verse of Proverbs claims Solomon’s authorship for the book, it is probable that he collected many of them from various sources (note Ecclesiastes 12:9). The last two chapters were apparently written by two men named Agur and Lemuel, respectively (Proverbs 30:1; 31:1). Whether Solomon wrote most of them, however, or collected most of them, their present form is rightly attributed to Solomon (note also Proverbs 10:1; 25:1), with the present form of the book possibly organized by the servants of King Hezekiah (25:1). There is also a possibility that certain sections were written by a school of savants known as “the wise” (Proverbs 22:17; 24:23).
The book has been organized in several distinct sections. The first seven verses constitute an introductory statement of purpose, involving the impartation of eleven aspects of God’s mind to the learner (wisdom, instruction, understanding, justice, judgment, equity, subtlety, knowledge, discretion, learning, and wise counsels). Following this is a section—from 1:8 through 9:18 (Proverbs 1:8; 1:10; 1:15; 2:1; 3:1; 3:11; 3:21; 4:1; 4:10; 4:20; 5:1; 5:7; 6:1; 6:20; 7:1; 7:24; 8:32)—containing seventeen lessons, each beginning with “my son” or “ye children.” Prominent in these lessons, and throughout most of the book, is the contrast between two symbolic women, Wisdom and Folly, or the Virtuous Woman and the Strange (or Foreign) Woman.
The collection of 375 proverbs from Proverbs 10:1 through Proverbs 22:16 has no specific theme or continuity. Each proverb is an independent pithy saying, with no relation to context, often consisting of a couplet, of either supporting or contrasting assertions.
The sections written, or collected, by “the wise” (Proverbs 22:17–24:22 and 24:23-34) also consist of wise sayings on many subjects, but in most cases continuity is retained through several verses.
Another set of isolated, independent proverbs appears in Proverbs 25–29, under the heading of “proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out” (Proverbs 25:1). Hezekiah was king of Judah about three hundred years after Solomon; thus the book of Proverbs did not assume its final form until long after Solomon’s day.
Finally there are the last two chapters, identified with Agur and Lemuel, respectively. Neither of these two men is otherwise identified, though there have been many speculations. Proverbs 30 is a striking chapter with many quotable verses. The testimony of Lemuel in Proverbs 31 includes the famous acrostic poem (Proverbs 31:10-31) on the “virtuous woman.”
The many sayings of Proverbs, seemingly so disjointed, all contribute to the full, rich life of a true redeemed follower of God. Each one well deserves thoughtful study and careful meditation, and all together show that God is directly concerned with every detail of our lives.
1:1 proverbs. The word “proverb” (Hebrew mashal) is also frequently translated “parable.” Its basic meaning is “pithy maxim,” also suggesting special insight and authority.
1:1 of Solomon. The sense here may be “proverbs for Solomon”—that is, prepared specifically for him, perhaps by his father David. This contrasts with Proverbs 10:1—“proverbs of Solomon”—that is, proverbs either written or collected by him.
1:2 wisdom. The great theme of Proverbs is to know the true “wisdom.” The word itself occurs more in Proverbs than in any other book of the Bible. The same is true of the words “instruction” and “understanding” (Proverbs 1:2), “knowledge” and “discretion” (Proverbs 1:4), “learning” and “wise counsels” (Proverbs 1:5).
1:3 the instruction of wisdom. Seven mental attributes are mentioned in Proverbs 1:3-5. The Biblical meaning of these can be summarized roughly as follows:
(1) “Knowledge” (synonymous with “science”): awareness of facts.
(2) “Understanding:” comprehension of meaning and inter-relationships of facts.
(3) “Instruction” (same as “correction”): reception of knowledge and understanding.
(4) “Discretion” (i.e., “thought”): ingenuity in planning use of facts.
(5) “Learning:” absorption and retention of facts and their use.
(6) “Wisdom:” character; ability to use one’s knowledge and understanding effectively in one’s own life and in dealing with others.
(7) “Wise counsels:” ability to convey wisdom to others; good advice.
1:6 interpretation. This is not the usual word for “interpretation.” It is used elsewhere only in Habakkuk 2:6, where it is translated “taunting,” or “satirical.” This suggests that Proverbs may have sharp, sometimes sarcastic, implications in order to make a point more effectively. Proverbs may even take the form of “dark sayings”—that is, “conundrums.”
1:7 beginning of knowledge. Not the end, or totality, of knowledge, but the beginning, without which other data are meaningless or even perverse. The fear of the Lord is also the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Note also Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10.
1:8 My son. In the first nine chapters of Proverbs there are seventeen specific “lessons” (Proverbs 1:8; 1:10; 1:15; 2:1; 3:1; 3:11; 3:21; 4:1; 4:10; 4:20; 5:1; 5:7; 6:1; 6:20; 7:1; 7:24; 8:32) each beginning with either “my son,” or “hear ye children,” always emphasizing the importance of heeding the words of the teachings.
1:12 down into the pit. The “pit” is actually sheol, often translated “hell.”
1:20 she. “Wisdom” is frequently personified in the Proverbs as a wise and virtuous kinswoman, in contrast to the foolish and ungodly strange woman, or foreign woman (e.g., Proverbs 2:16).
1:23 my Spirit. Compare Joel 2:28, cited in Acts 2:17 as referring to God the Holy Spirit. Thus, “Wisdom” in Proverbs, though personified initially as a wise mother in Israel, is also clearly speaking of, and as, God Himself (Proverbs 8).
1:26 laugh at your calamity. Whether “kings of the earth” (Psalm 2:2, 4) or “simple ones” (Proverbs 1:22), those who rebel against Him or just scoff at Him and His words, will eventually encounter God’s own derisive laughter as He faces them in judgment. Note also Psalm 37:12-13.