The Book of Proverbs has a universal appeal because of the diverse topics it covers. It provides the knowledge of living a moral life before God and how to treat others just to name a few. Knowledge itself has little value unless it is understood and then used wisely. Before studying this book of wisdom, there are several things we should understand beforehand that will help us get the most out of this timeless book.
BACKGROUND OF PROVERBS
The Book of Proverbs is primarily ascribed to Solomon (Prov. 1:1).
Proverbs 1:1 The
proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of
However, he is not the only writer. Consider the following outline of Proverbs:
Our outline shows that the majority of Proverbs was written by Solomon. When Solomon took over as King, God told him he could ask for whatever he wanted (1 Kgs. 3:5). Solomon asked for understanding (9), which pleased God (10). God said:
1 Kings 3:11 …Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked long life for yourself, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice, 12 "behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you.
Solomon became famous for the great wisdom God blessed him with:
1 Kings 4:29 And God
gave Solomon wisdom and exceedingly great understanding, and largeness of heart
like the sand on the seashore. 30
Thus Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the men of the East and all
the wisdom of
The Book of Proverbs only contains a small portion of the 3000 proverbs Solomon spoke (1 Kgs. 4:32-34).
32 He spoke three thousand proverbs,
and his songs were one thousand and five.
33 Also he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree of
Notice a few definitions of a proverb:
“A trite maxim; a similitude; a parable” (Dictionary.com.
“proverb, parable… proverbial saying, aphorism… byword… similitude… poem … sentences of ethical wisdom, ethical maxims” (Thayer).
Mr. Hailey describes it this way:
“Is a short, Pithy, Axiomatic Saying, the life of which is Antithesis or Comparison. They are wholly Unconnected. Designed primarily for the Young: a form of Teaching: repetition of Practical Thoughts in a form that would stick in the mind” (Halley, Henry H. Halley’s Bible Handbook p. 269 Zondervan Publishing House).
Since the proverbs are written in Hebrew poetry, which does not rhyme, we need to understand that it is written to draw a parallelism of thought. The main three parallelism styles used are:
1. Synonymous parallelism: the thoughts of both lines express the same thought with different words. An example would be:
Proverbs 9:10 "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
2. Antithetic parallelism: the basic thought of the first line is made clearer by a contrasting thought in the second line. An example would be:
Proverbs 11:13 A talebearer reveals secrets, But he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter.
3. Synthetic parallelism: The second line explains or adds something to the first line. An example would be:
Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.
Many times the proverbs will use humorous images to make its point such as:
Proverbs 19:24 A lazy man buries his hand in the bowl, And will not so much as bring it to his mouth again.
This causes one to imagine a man actually being so lazy and void of energy that he will not even lift his hand to his mouth. Using exaggerated examples like these make the sayings more memorable. Jesus used exaggerations like this to make His point such as:
Matthew 7:3 "And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?
Matthew 19:24 "And
again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the
Speaking of making things more memorable, another style used in Hebrew poetry is to make an acrostic pattern using the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in which each line or stanza begins with the next successive letter. This style is used to describe the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31.
When it comes to interpreting and understanding the proverbs, we need consider several guidelines:
1. One of the most important things to remember is that many of these proverbs are general truths. For example:
Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.
This proverb is not saying that every child raised in the right way will not depart from the truth, but most of the time this is true. Even the book of Proverbs recognizes the free will of a child and his ability to depart from the truth (Prov. 19:27).
Proverbs 19:27 Cease listening to instruction, my son, And you will stray from the words of knowledge.
So, keep in mind that some of the proverbs speak of general truths that will apply most of the time, but not all the time. However, there are also absolute statements such as
Proverbs 30:5 Every word of God is pure;
2. We must consider the history and the culture during the time of Solomon to have deeper appreciation of the text. For example, when it talks about the gates of the city, it has little meaning to us, but during ancient times the city gates were a place for trade and were used a public forum, which helps us gain great insight to passages like:
Proverbs 31:23 Her husband is known in the gates, When he sits among the elders of the land.
4. Do not build a theology from Proverbs alone. Instead, examine what the Bible says as a whole. As David wrote:
ESV Psalm 119:160 The sum of your word is truth.
5. Many of the proverbs are designed to be memorable so many exaggerations are used that were not intended to be taken literally such as:
Proverbs 10:25 When the whirlwind passes by, the wicked is no more, But the righteous has an everlasting foundation.
When we come across such proverbs, we should look for the general truth that is being taught just like we do when studying parables.
6. Many of the proverbs will give great general advice, but due to their brevity, they do not offer many details of how to follow the advice such as:
Proverbs 16:3 Commit your works to the LORD, And your thoughts will be established.
The theme of Proverbs is wisdom. As we read through the proverbs, we will discover that wisdom in contrasted with foolishness many times. The righteous - who are obedient to God - are portrayed as the wise, and the unrighteous - who are disobedient, self-centered, and wicked – are portrayed as the foolish.
The purpose of Proverbs is found in Proverbs 1:2-7.
1:2 To know wisdom and instruction, To perceive the words of understanding, 3 To receive the instruction of wisdom, Justice, judgment, and equity;
These proverbs will help us to learn all about wisdom so we can recognize its benefits and make it part of our life. They will cause us to know instruction, which includes discipline, chastening, and correction. Our goal is not just to know wisdom, but to understand the words of wisdom. One could memorize in all the Proverbs and quote them on demand, but if they are not understood they will not make one wise.
Before we can ever hope to gain wisdom from the proverbs, we must first be willing to receive them into our hearts and contemplate what they say. There is much for us to learn, and we should never stop learning.
1:4To give prudence to the simple, To the young man knowledge and discretion --
Understanding the proverbs can help sharpen the wit of the gullible so they will not be so easily fooled. Also, when a young man - who is still immature in wisdom - will heed the words of the wise, he will increase his knowledge and be better at making wiser choices.
1:5 A wise man will hear and increase learning, And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel,
One of the wisest men of all wants us to understand that no matter how wise we think we become, there is always room to learn more. A wise man will never think to highly of himself and will seek the wisdom of others. The moment we become to wise in our own eyes is the moment that we start becoming void of understanding.
1:6 To understand a proverb and an enigma, The words of the wise and their riddles.
The synonymous parallelism teaches us that the proverbs are designed to help us understand them and their overall meaning. Sometimes the words of the wise seem like a riddle or an enigma, but if we take the time listen and mediate on what is being said, great pearls of wisdom will be found. Jesus spoke in parables that many did not understand (Mt. 13:10-15). It was not because these wise saying of His could not be understood, it was because many would not take the time to think the parables through so they could be enlightened. The proverbs challenge us to think and continue to dig deeper as we examine them from all sides.
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction.
This verse points out the starting point of what will make the purpose of proverbs be achieved. We must fear the Lord, which means we are to show reference to Him knowing that He is our creator and that all wisdom comes from Him. Without Him, we would know nothing and we would be nothing. To fear the Lord will motivate us to want to learn as much as we can about Him and what He wants from us. As the contrasting line of verse 7 teaches, those who do not fear God are fools because they despise wisdom and instruction.
In conclusion, we have learned that book of Proverbs is written in Hebrew poetry much of which came from Solomon. Though part of the Old Testament, this great book has much to offer to the Christian today because it teaches many great lessons on pursuing a righteous life and continually seeking to become wiser by learning as much as we can from the sayings of the wise and from the Bible in general. As with any book in the Bible, we can gain greater insight of understanding it by knowing who it was written to and why, when it was written, and by understand the style it written in. With all this mind, we begin to examine more of this excellent book and it pearls of wisdom next week.