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Introduction to the Book of Proverbs

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Author

The Hebrew title of the book is "The Proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel" (1:1). From an early date, the proverbs were associated with King Solomon. Another section of the book is introduced as “The Proverbs of Solomon” (10:1), and one section as “other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of Hezekiah copied" (25:1).

King Solomon was the daughter of David and Bathsheba. He was born shortly after the child conceived in David's adultery with Bathsheba had died (1 Sam 12:24). Solomon was also known as Jedidah, meaning "Beloved of the Lord". At the height of his greatness, Solomon became the very embodiment of wisdom. In later years he was looked back upon as the "ideal" wise man, even though his reign ended very badly. Jesus referred to himself being something greater than Solomon (Mt 12:42), and to Solomon’s glory (Mt 6:29).

Solomon loved the Lord (1 Kg 3:3), and prayed for an understanding heart to discern between good and evil (3:9,12). His wisdom was given by God (4:29), and was accompanied by deep humility (3:7). He used wisdom in the administration of justice (3:16-28) and diplomacy (5:12). His wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people in the east and of Egypt and was famous in all nations (4:30, 10:1-13). He composed three thousand proverbs and a thousand and five songs (1 Kg 4:32). These include the Song of Solomon and Psalms 72 and 127. He successfully answered when tested with hard questions by the Queen of Sheba (10:1-3), and understood and spoke about the trees, both big and small, as well as the beasts, reptiles and fish (4:33) (cf. Prov 6:6-8, 30:24-31). Men came from all peoples and kings of the earth to hear his wisdom (4:34).>

Other authors are also named in the headings of the different sections of the book. Two sections are introduced as “the sayings of the wise” (22:17, 24:23). These wise men were probably people similar to those mentioned in 1 Kg 4:31, - Ethan the Ezrahite and Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol, who probably lived before Solomon.

One section is introduced as proverbs of Solomon copied by officials of King Hezekiah (25:1). During his religious reforms, King Hezekiah restored the Davidic order in the temple, with the worship instruments and Psalms by David and Asaph (2 Chr 29:25-30). There was probably a revived interest in the wisdom of Solomon at the same time.

One section contains the words of Agur son of Jakeh (30:1). The identity of Agur is completely unknown. Some translations indicate that he came from Massa (footnote in NIV), the name of one of the sons of Ishmael (Gen 25:14-16), otherwise the heading should be translated “An oracle”, as in the NRSV. The last section are the words of King Lemuel, taught by his mother (31:1). Again, the identity of Lemuel and his mother who taught him are unknown. The name “Lemuel” means “belonging to God”, so it may be a symbolic name. One suggestion is that Lemuel is a different name for Solomon. If this is true, then the words in chapter 31 may have been taught him by his mother, Bathsheba, who would then become the wife of noble character.

Date of Proverbs

Solomon became king in 961 BC, and died in 931 BC, by which time he had forsaken the Lord. A date of 950 BC for his proverbs would be sensible. Some proverbs may be from the wisdom and would be dated before Solomon became king. Hezekiah was king from 715 to 687 BC, when other proverbs were added. The book probably came to its final form soon after the return from exile in 537 BC. Ezra is suggested to have played some part in the editing.

Literary Style - What is a proverb?

The purpose of the book is to state truth in a succinct way which can easily be remembered. A proverb is a simple illustration which exposes fundamental realities of life. They are practical, easily memorised and based on real-life experiences. A proverb is short and compact, giving a salty or pithy observation of the issues of life. They are suggestive rather than explicit, designed to make the reader think. Proverbs are inevitably generalisations, stating what is generally true, rather than what is always true. They should not be regarded as promises. There are exceptions to proverbial sayings, those who live by God's standards will prosper in the world, but not always, Job and Jesus are outstanding exceptions to this.

Message of Proverbs

The purpose of proverbs is stated at the beginning of the book (1:2-6)
"That men may know wisdom and instruction
understand words of insight
receive instruction in wise dealing
righteousness, justice and equity
that prudence may be given to the simple
knowledge and discretion to the youth
the wise man also may hear and increase in learning
and the man of understanding acquire skill
to understand a proverb and a figure
the words of the wise and their riddles"

At the heart of all proverbs is the fear of the Lord, which is seen as foundational to everything.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (1:7)
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (9:10)
"The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom" (15:33)

There are two categories of men in Proverbs: The wise man is someone who lives in the fear of the Lord; and the fool, who is someone who orders his life as if there was no God.

The relation between Proverbs and Egyptian wisdom

Through his marriage to Pharaoh's daughter, Solomon had close links with Egypt (1 Kg 3:1). His wisdom is described as surpassing the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt (1 Kg 3:30), so Egypt was also known for its wisdom.

The Wisdom of Amenemope is a 1.7m papyrus teaching document which was very popular in Egypt. It involves a wise man speaking to his son, handing on the knowledge of life and good behaviour. This type of writing was common throughout the ancient world. The title is "Teaching how to live and guidance for well-being ...". It was composed by the official, Amenemope for his son Harmakheru, probably around 1250 BC. Many of the sayings of the wise Egyptian can be paralleled with the Book of Proverbs. All but five verses of the words of the wise (22:17 - 23:14), are closely parallelled in the wisdom of Amenemope. The wisdom of Amenemope is arranged in thirty chapters, which may parallel the thirty sayings (Prov 22:20). Here are some examples of the parallels:

Amenemope:
Give your ears, hear what is said, give your mind to interpret them, to put them in your heart is good.
Proverbs:
Bow down your ear and hear the words of the wise and apply your heart to my knowledge (Prov 22:17)

Amenemope:
Do not associate with the angry man, nor approach him for conversation .. do not leap to join such a man lest a terror carry you away
Proverbs:
Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man you shall not go, lest you learn his ways and get a snare to your soul (Prov 22:24-25)

Amenemope:
Better is poverty at the hand of god than riches in the storehouse
Proverbs:
Better is little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure, and trouble with it (Prov 15:16)

There is disagreement among scholars as to which document was written first and which influenced the other, but the wisdom of Amenemope has been dated before the time of Solomon, during the time of the judges. It is likely that Solomon was familiar with Egyptian wisdom and incorporated it into his own.

Structure of Proverbs

Introduction

Title and author: Proverbs of Solomon (1:1)
Purpose: That men may know wisdom ... (1:2-6)
Main theme: The fear of the Lord (1:7)

Division I (1:8 - 9:18)

Thirteen lessons from a father, calling his son to choose wisdom and reject folly

Division II (10:1 - 31:31)

The practical outworking of wisdom.

1. 375 proverbs of Solomon (10:1 - 22:16)
These give practical everyday, non-religious application of the choice between wisdom and folly, which was explained in division I. Most are snappy two line proverbs, which have no apparent thematic order. Nearly all are observations, less than ten are instructions
ch 10-15 Nearly all are antithetic (line 1 BUT line 2), contrasting right and wrong practice
ch 16-22 Mostly synonymous (2 lines same), giving observations of moral truth

2. The words of the wise (22:17 - 24:34)
Thirty sayings of admonition and knowledge (22:20). These mostly longer proverbs with four or more lines of instruction followed by explanation of the wisdom. They are all words of instruction, and have similarity with the Egyptian "Teaching of Amenemope"
a) Thirty proverbs of the wise (22:17 - 24:22)
b) Five more sayings of the wise (24:23-34), forming an appendix to the words of the wise, being a mixture of observation, instruction and story

3. Proverbs of Solomon copied by Hezekiah's men (25:1 - 29:27)
These are longer proverbs, many of which are about fools or other caricatures.

4. The words of Agur, son of Jakeh (ch 30), mostly longer numerical proverbs

5. The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, taught by his mother (ch 31)
A mother's warning to her son, the future king (31:2-9)

6. The wife of noble character (31:10-31).
An acrostic poem, which may be included with the words of Lemuel.

Literary techniques in Proverbs

There are a variety of different type of proverb found in the book.

1. Instruction

The whole Book of Proverbs is set in a family situation, of a father giving instruction to his son, or perhaps a teacher giving instruction to his students. The early chapters of the book have a number of different sections, each introduced with a call from a father to his son to listen to his teaching.
“Listen, children (my son), to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight ..." (4:1)

2. Unit Proverb

The majority of the Book of Proverbs contains short single proverbs with two lines. There are 375 of these in the section of the proverbs of Solomon (10:1 - 22:16). Most of them are statements giving observations of life.

3. Epigram

These are longer proverbs, extending the two line unit proverb to four or more lines. Most of these are found towards the end of the book, in the words of the wise (22:17 - 24:34), and the words copied by Hezekiah’s officials (ch 25 - 29).
“Do not wear yourself out to get rich,
be wise enough to desist.
When your eyes light upon it, it is gone,
for suddenly it takes wings to itself,
flying like an eagle toward heaven.”
(23:4-5)

4. Antithesis

Many proverbs consist of two lines giving contrasting statements, using antithetic parallelism.
"Wisdom is a fountain of life to him who has it,
but folly is the chastisement of fools"
(16:22)

4. Command

Some proverbs are in the form of a command with a reason or motive. The first line gives the command, and the second line gives the reason, often introduced with the word “for”.
“Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life”
(4:23)

5. “Better” statement

In these proverbs two things are contrasted, one of which is to be sought out and given greater value and the other is be rejected and avoided.
“Better to be poor and walk in integrity than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich” (28:6)

6. Comparison

In these, a metaphor, simile, or illustration from everyday life is used to bring a comparison. They are often introduced, “For as ...”. We need to look for the similarity between the illustration and the life application to get the point of the proverb.
“For as pressing milk produces curds,
and pressing the nose produces blood,
so pressing anger produces strife”
(30:33)

"A continual dripping on a rainy day
and a contentious woman are alike
to restrain her is to restrain the wind
or to grasp oil in his right hand"
(27:15-16)

7. Abomination statement

These are simple statements of what the Lord detests, or what is an abomination to the Lord, contrasted with what the Lord delights in. These show us clearly what the Lord sees as the higher priority in life, and the committed heart attitude he is looking for.
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright is his delight”
(15:8)

8. Blessing

This is a blessing from an authority figure to the reader. In the context of Proverbs, the father gives his blessing to his son. Sometimes it is translated “happy are those ...”. We need to determine what value is to be encouraged, rather than focussing on the promise.
“Those who despise their neighbours are sinners,
but happy are those who are kind to the poor”
(14:21).

9. Numerical

The words of Agur (ch 30) have several collection of numerical proverbs, which link several diverse ideas together. The numerical form would aid memorisation, and would cause the reader to wonder what linked the statements together.
“Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a girl”
(30:18-19).

10. Paradoxical

Sometimes two proverbs appear to contradict each other, giving conflicting advice. This is not a contradiction in the Bible, but showing that we cannot have a simplistic approach to life. Human existence and human relationships have great complexities and paradoxes, which these proverbs are demonstrating. In modern thinking: is it “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”, or “Absence make the heart wander”?
“Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.”
(26:4-5)

11. Collections of proverbs

Although much of the Book of Proverbs appears not to have much of a structure, there are a number of proverbs which are linked together in some way. Sometimes there are pairs of proverbs linked by a subject, or a repeated word (26:4-5). It is also possible to observe that there are strings of proverbs, which are loosely connected. These are particularly found toward the end of the book, where there are collections of proverbs about how to behave before kings (25:1-10), and a another collection about fools (26:1-12).

12. Dramatic Monologue

This is when wisdom is personified and speaks. An introduction is given to set the scene, followed by her speech (1:20-33).

13. Acrostic

The Book of Proverbs ends with the famous description of the wife of noble character (31:10-31). This is an acrostic, which each line beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This again makes it easier to memorise, but also gives a superlative description, showing the A to Z completeness of an ideal wife.

13. Popular saying

Proverbs are also found outside the Book of Proverbs in other places in the Old Testament, particularly in narratives. Sometimes they are introduced as a proverb, or the words, “therefore they say ...”


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