Overview of Proverbs
Text: Proverbs 1:1
The Book of Proverbs is a collection of writings, mostly written by Solomon, but not entirely written by him.
- Proverbs 1:1-9:18 is the first set written by Solomon.
- Proverbs 10:1-22:16 is the second set written by Solomon.
- But Proverbs 22:17-24:34 are called the words of the wise. It could be Solomon from the collection he mentioned in Ecclesiastes 12:9, or it might possibly be an unnamed prophet.
- Proverbs 25:1-29:37 are a collection of Solomon’s proverbs which were collected in the days of Hezekiah, long after Solomon died.
- Proverbs 30 are the writings of the prophet Agur.
- Proverbs 31 was written by a non-Israelite king name Lemuel who acted as scribe to his prophetess mother who is unnamed.
Depending on how you read Proverbs 30:1, Agur, the son of Jakeh, is called an oracle, giving an oracle, or it is saying he is a descendant of Massa (Genesis 25:14; I Chronicles 1:30) who was a founder of one of the Arab tribes. In Hebrew, the work massa means a burden and is often used in prophecy to indicate sayings of doom. Proverbs 30:1 and Proverbs 31:1 are the only two places where this word is translated as “oracle.” It was done because neither Proverbs 30 or 31 are condemnations. However, this makes the possibility that the country of Massa is being indicated more likely.
If the country is the proper translation, then Proverbs 31:1 is saying that Lemuel is a king of Massa. Since Lemuel’s name means “belonging to God” in Hebrew, it is generally believed that Lemuel’s mother was likely an Israelite; thus explaining how he ended up with a Hebrew name.
We know that there were prophets in other countries. Israel did not have an exclusive lock on communications with God. Job was from Uz (Job 1:1) the region where the nation of Edom later arose (Lamentations 4:21). Balaam was from Pethor in upper Mesopotamia (Numbers 22:5). That there were prophets found in Massa would not be unusual.
Of course, ultimately, the true author of Proverbs, like the rest of the Scriptures is the Holy Spirit (II Peter 1:19-21).
The Name of the Book
The book gets its name from the first two words in the Hebrew text: mishie shelomoh, which means Proverbs of Solomon. In the Latin translation of the Old Testament, it was shortened to the name “Proverbs,” which means “for words,” and that how it become the English name for the book.
A proverb refers to statements that contain few words but contain a wealth of meaning. The book mostly contains a collection of proverbs, though there are other forms of writings in Proverbs as well.
Proverbs is a part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
- Job teaches us how to suffer.
- Psalms teaches us how to pray.
- Proverbs teaches us how to act.
- Ecclesiastes teaches us how to enjoy life
- Song of Solomon teaches us how to love.
The Book of Proverbs focuses on the practical issues in life. It is primarily directed toward young men, but it isn’t exclusively for them. Everyone can learn wisdom from this book. But since young men are the primary audience, we find the style of the book well suited for its audience. Young men tend to have short attention spans, so we find the book is a series of short topics which can be put down and taken up at any time. Yet, the statements are deeper than they first appear, so it gives the reader something to think about and puzzle over, even when the book isn’t opened in front of them.
No topic is dwelt on for long, rather it rapidly changes topics, so a young man doesn’t get bored and drift off. But even in the change of topics, there is a purpose and pattern. You will notice that the same idea or close to the same idea is repeated several times in the book. Yet, if you look closely, you will realize that the repeats are not always exactly the same. Because they are presented in a different context, the series of ideas cause you to connect ideas that you would not normally think of as being related. Fascinatingly, each time you read Proverbs different statements captures your notice. I’m constantly finding myself seeing a truth being presented that I didn’t notice before, but that is because my life, the context that I bring to Proverbs when I read it, is different so new connections are being made. This is why Solomon said, “A wise man will hear and increase learning” (Proverbs 1:5).
Even with the rapid change of topics, you can tell that Solomon realizes that his audience will have a tendency to daydream. Frequently there are admonitions to pay attention, such as, “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother” (Proverbs 1:8). These statements always precede a particularly important point that Solomon doesn’t want you to miss. Think of it as the teacher rapping on his desk or shaking the drowsing student – “Wake up! Pay attention! You really don’t want to miss what I’m about to say.”
Proverbs is written in poetic style, but Hebrew poetry is not like English poetry. We rhyme ending sounds and strive for rhythms. Hebrew poetry rhymes ideas if you would allow to say it this way. Knowing the various poetic styles helps you pull out deeper ideas.
An idea is expressed twice in different words. The use of varying words helps define ideas that some might not understand by showing a relationship between two thoughts. It also conveys a more precise thought since words in a language carry a range of implied meanings. Giving two ideas helps the reader to narrow down the meaning.
Wisdom shouts in the street,
She lifts her voice in the square;
At the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
At the entrance of the gates in the city she utters her sayings
The parallels make us realize that Wisdom is trying hard to get people’s attention by the variety of ways Solomon says she is attempting to make herself heard. We also see that she isn’t found hidden away in a school. She is everywhere in town where she cannot be missed.
Instead of the same idea being compared, the opposite ideas are contrasted. This is probably the most often used style in Proverbs. We are invited to examine two things to see how they are different.
The curse of the LORD is on the house of the wicked,
But He blesses the home of the just.
Notice that a mixture of poetic styles can be used together. “Lord” and “He,” along with “house” and “home,” are synonymous comparisons while the highlighted words are antithetic contrasts. Thus the same God treats two groups of people in similar situations differently based upon how those people behave. But there is even more subtly. The wicked have a place to live (a house), but the just have a home where they are connected to the other people who dwell there.
In a synthetic relationship, one idea leads to another or is derived from the prior. It can be cause and effect, an explanation, or a condition followed by a consequence.
They would not accept my counsel,
They spurned all my reproof.
So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way
And be satiated with their own devices.
The first and second pairs of lines are both synonymous comparisons, but the first pair of lines is the cause that leads to the effect expressed in the second pair of lines.
A progressive is simply a list of ideas in no particular order.
These six things the LORD hates,
Yes, seven are an abomination to Him:
A proud look,
A lying tongue,
Hands that shed innocent blood,
A heart that devises wicked plans,
Feet that are swift in running to evil,
A false witness who speaks lies,
And one who sows discord among brethren.
The “six ... seven” set up the progression and tells us how many items are in the list. It isn’t just a list of sins. We also have a list of six body parts (look (face or eyes), tongue, hands, heart, feet, mouth) and seven actions (look, lying, shed, devises, running, speaking, and sowing).
A climatic is a list with a conclusion. Often the order is important as it is building toward the conclusion.
A worthless person,
a wicked man,
Is the one
Who walks with a perverse mouth,
Who winks with his eyes,
Who signals with his feet,
Who points with his fingers;
Who with perversity in his heart continually devises evil,
Who spreads strife.
Therefore his calamity will come suddenly;
Instantly he will be broken
And there will be no healing.
Sometimes there will be a repetition of a word or phrase that acts as bullet points in a progression or a climatic. Here we have a synonymous comparison of an evil person, followed by a list of behaviors. This person has a perverse mouth, winks, signals, points, devises evil, and spreads strife. We start with twisted words by one person and build up to hostility between people. Again there is also a list of body parts: mouth, eyes, feet, fingers, heart, and by implication hands.
The list is followed by the consequence of his action – sudden disaster, which is further emphasized by pointing out that the consequences cannot be undone.
A comparison between two sets of things where the relationship between the first set helps you understand the relationship in the second set. It is usually in the form of “A is to B as C is to D.”
Doing wickedness is like sport to a fool,
And so is wisdom to a man of understanding.
We might not realize that many foolish people think that doing evil is a game that is fun to play. But then learning and applying wisdom is fun to a man who is able to reason.
An introverted list is a nested series of ideas in the form of A B C C B A, where each letter represents a similar idea. Sometimes the nesting is obvious with the terms being almost a repeat in their complementary section.
An introverted series with the main point being a single idea in the center. It gains its name from the Greek letter chi (Χ).
- Turn to my reproof,
- Behold, I will pour out my spirit on you;
- I will make my words known to you.
- Because I called and you refused,
- I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention;
- And you neglected all my counsel
- And did not want my reproof
- What topics about life do you think a young man would need to hear about?