Editor’s Note: This post is an introduction to the book of Proverbs by CSU’s Executive Vice-President Dr. Michael Bryant. In Dr. Bryant’s next post, he will give principles for interpreting the book of Proverbs.
The Book of Proverbs has long been valued as a writing that provides great wisdom. Below I provide a short discussion of key background matters related to the book, followed by principles for responsible interpretation.
Proverbs as Wisdom Literature
Along with Job and Ecclesiastes, the Book of Proverbs falls under the category of Wisdom Literature. Wisdom literature is a type of writing (genre) that: 1) explores matters related to “wisdom” (as defined by Scripture) and 2) often takes the form of poetry.
Definition of Wisdom
Wisdom literature, of course, is linked to the concept of “wisdom,” which may be defined as follows:
- “Wisdom is the ability to make godly choices in life. [One] achieve[s] this goal by applying God’s truth to [his/her] life.”
- “[Wisdom is] “skill in living life in both its vertical (our relationship with God) and horizontal (our relationship with others) dimensions. Being wise means to know how relationships work and how to live accordingly . . .”
Further Explanation of Wisdom (as presented in Scripture’s Wisdom Literature)
What wisdom is not: intellect, encyclopedic understanding or knowledge.
What wisdom is/entails: special care to keep God’s standards, knowing how to live one’s life, applying God’s truth to personal existence, making wise choices that are informed by God’s Word and relational skills.
The Wisdom Literature of Scripture suggests that some people are wiser than others. In addition, if one is to be wise he must devote himself to gaining wisdom (e.g., Prov 1:1-6; 2:1-7).
“Fear of the Lord” and “Fool”
A common theme in Wisdom Literature is the fear of the Lord (i.e., proper reverence and respect for God). See, e.g., Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Psalm 111:10.
A concept in the Wisdom Literature that complements the notion of the “fear of the Lord” is “fool.” In the Old Testament, the term “fool” refers to one who is “morally deficient” (so TNIV, note C for Proverbs 1:7). A fool “is a person who lives life according to selfish, indulgent whims and who acknowledges no higher authority than [himself].”
Authorship of the Book of Proverbs
This is a complex issue. Why? The Book of Proverbs includes references that suggest various authors composed the writing.
Primary author: Solomon, the king of Israel, who reigned from approx. 970-930 BC (most of the proverbs may be attributed to him). See Proverbs 1:1.
Other individuals who wrote proverbs in this book:
Agur son of Jekah Proverbs 30:1
Lemuel Proverbs 31:1 (31:1-9)
Unnamed wise people (“sayings of the wise”) Prov 22:17
Point: Solomon authored most of the proverbs, but one should understand that other writers contributed to this writing as well. God inspired Solomon to write some of the proverbs. Other writers were also were inspired of God.
The basic purpose of the Book of Proverbs is to impart wisdom to those who do not have it, especially the young (see the prologue, Prov 1:1-7, for its purposes). To be sure, the writing expresses a desire that the next generation be instructed in wisdom (note the term “son” and “sons,” e. g, Prov 1:8, 10, 15; 2:1; 3:1, 11, 21; 4:1; 5:1; 6:1).
In Jewish culture, Proverbs was employed as a textbook to train young people to be wise that they might learn how to be a godly, responsible adult. This same practice carried over into Christianity during the period of the early church. The sayings of Proverbs were used in catechisms to train young people in wisdom and godliness.
The writing makes abundantly clear that wisdom is more valuable than wealth (gold, silver, jewels), which suggests that the young must heed and obey the teachings of their elders.
Benefits of Following Wisdom
All throughout Proverbs, the many benefits of wisdom are noted. Among other things, wisdom results in wealth, safety, peace, long life and righteousness (but this statement must be qualified).
General Observations about the Book of Proverbs
— Biblical proverbs usually take the form of an observation, a word of advice, a word of caution or a warning.
Prov 11:13, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.”
Prov 12:24, “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor.”
— The proverbs relate to many different areas of life: speech, anger, right conduct, work, friendship, death, and marriage, among other topics.
— The proverbs often make a contrast between the path of wisdom and the path of folly. Moreover, the reader must choose between these two paths.
Examples of Path of Wisdom
- Acceptance of godly discipline (Prov 3:11-12; 9:8-9)
- Discretion/control in regard to speech (Prov 15:1)
Examples of Path of Folly
- Violent crime (Prov 1:10-19; 4:14-19)
- Laziness (Prov 6:7-11)
Proverbs throughout Scripture
The Book of Proverbs is not the only biblical writing that contains what we understand as a “proverb.”
In the Old Testament, proverbs may be found in such writings as Psalms (e.g., Ps 49:16-20), Isaiah (e.g., Isa 5:21), Jeremiah (e.g., Jer 23:28b; 31:29) and Ecclesiastes (e.g., Eccl 4:6, 13; 5:10-12; 7:1-12; 9:11-12, 17-18; 10:1-2, 6, 8-9; 11:4). Proverbs may also be found in Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Gospels (e.g., Matt 6:21, 22, 34; 7:12; 11: 30; 26:52c; Mark 3:24; Luke 16:10) and the epistles (e.g., Gal 6:7; Jas 3:6).
Definition of Proverb
How should one define the term “proverb”? The following definitions are helpful.
- “ . . . a concise, memorable statement of truth” learned over extended human experience.”
- “ . . . a brief statement of universally accepted truth formulated in such a way as to be memorable.”
Types of Proverbs
One can classify the proverbs into different categories that aid in understanding. Our classification of various proverbs below is somewhat subjective (i.e., a matter of one’s opinion). I say this because the Book of Proverbs does not come with a classification guide. Nevertheless, the following categories seek to show the differences between the various proverbs and aid in interpretation.
Most common type of proverb. This type of proverb is found in Proverbs 10-15. It makes a stark contrast, usually between one character trait and another or between one type of human conduct and another type of human conduct.
To interpret antithetical proverbs correctly, one must identify the two contrasting character traits or two contrasting types of human conduct.
Prov 15:18 (hot temper vs. patience, slowness to anger) Proverb commends patience to a hot temper. The former trait leads to strife and discord.
Prov 12:25 (anxious heart vs. calm word) The proverb commends a calm word as the soothing antidote for an anxious heart.
See also Proverbs 11:1-31 and notice the use of the term “but,” which serves to contrast two types of living.
The term “synonymous” means similar. Thus with synonymous proverbs, what is written in the second (or third) line is similar or the same as that which is written in the first line. (E.g., Prov 23:24; 24:17)
With synonymous proverbs, then, the second (or sometimes third) line essentially repeats the first line.
It is helpful to know this feature of proverbs (repetition) as it keeps one from over interpreting them. This same feature is found in the Psalms. For instance, in Psalm 13:1, lines one and two communicate the basic same idea: David feels that God does not answer his prayers. One would be guilty of over interpreting Psalm 13:1 if he argued that there was a great deal of difference between the two phrases, “forget me forever” and “hide your face from me” (ESV). The two phrases are used to communicate a similar idea.
Proverbs of Comparison
Some proverbs articulate their point by making a comparison. More specifically, proverbs of comparison praise certain character traits or actions while drawing a contrast with an opposite trait/action.
E.g., Prov 15:17 (love in the home versus hate); 16:8, 16, 19; 17:1; 21:9
As mentioned already, one should recognize that our classifications of the biblical proverbs are somewhat subjective. At times one could assign a single proverb to more than one category listed above.
 Proverbs presents proverbial wisdom, which “concentrates mostly on practical attitudes and behavior in everyday life. In general one can say that Proverbs teaches ‘old-fashioned basic values.’” (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 231) Ecclesiastes and Job present what is called speculative wisdom. So-called speculative wisdom wrestles with the great issues of life (e.g., suffering, death).
 While the Book of Proverbs falls within the larger category of Wisdom Literature one may find many other types of literature in Proverbs, such as: extended discourses or speeches (e.g., Prov 1-9), beatitudes (e.g., Prov 8:32, 34), riddles (e.g., Prov 1:6), questions (e.g., Prov 20:9), rhetorical questions (e.g., Prov 30:4), and poetry (e.g., Prov 31:10-31).
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 225.
 Howard, quoted by Guthrie, Read the Bible for Life, 125.
 Fee and Stewart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed., 226. The term “infidel” is an appropriate synonym (Ibid). See Psalm 14:1 and 53:1.
 In regard to Solomon’s wisdom, 1 Kings 4:29-34 suggests that Solomon was an exceedingly wise man. Moreover, the Old Testament suggests that as king Solomon would have been familiar with the teaching found in the Law of Moses (Deut 17:17-20 teaches that the Hebrew king was to study God’s law carefully; 1 Kgs 2:3 refers to David’s command to Solomon prior to his death to keep the Lord’s commands), though of course he did not always follow it perfectly. Still, his words in Proverbs show a mind knowledgeable of godly wisdom.
 Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard, An Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, 387.
 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 247.
 See Köstenberger and Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, 297.