The Book of Proverbs

I. Title

The English title of the book is simply the translation of the Hebrew title, Mishle Shlomo -- Proverbs of Solomon.

II. The Form of the Proverbs

A. What is a Proverb?

Lord Russell defined a proverb as "the wisdom of many, the wit of one" This points out three of the major features of a proverb:

1. They have an arresting and individually inspired form (the wit of one).
2. They have a wide appeal and endorsement (of many).
3. Their content comments itself to the hearer as true (wisdom).

Three additional common features of proverbs are:

1. They are usually short.
2. They are easy to remember.
3. They are most frequently transmitted orally.

Sometimes uniqueness of form is missing, but the content has sufficient appeal to win a wide audience:

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

Though the proverb has little in its form to insure survival, its wide applicability insures its remembrance.

On the other hand, form may preserve a proverb whose content is not otherwise capable of sustaining it:

"He who laughs last laughs best."

The statement would not long be remembered if it were not for its assonance and alliteration.

Finally, there are proverbs that have both universal applicability and a compelling form:

"Look before you leap."

It warns of the importance of caution, and displays alliteration.

B. The Form of the Proverb

The single parallel couplet is basic to the structure of the entire book and fundamental to the artistic type of Hebrew proverb. Even the more expanded essay form as characteristic of the earlier chapters, is made up of parallel couplet "building blocks." Some of the characteristics that will show up in Proverbs are the following:

1. Antithetic Parallelism

Proverbs 12:7
"Wicked men are overthrown and are no more,
but the house of the righteous stands firm.
Proverbs 12:23
A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself,
but the heart of fools blurts out folly.

2. Synonymous Parallelism

Proverb 17:4
A wicked man listens to evil lips;
a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue.

3. Completion Parallelism

Proverbs 16:4
Yahweh works out everything for his own ends --
even the wicked for a day of disaster.

4. Comparative Parallelism

a. The first of the comparatives is a form of couplet in which two synonymously parallel parts of the first stich stand in comparative parallelism with the climactic second stich.

Proverbs 10:26
As vinegar to the teeth
and smoke to the eyes
so is a sluggard to those who send him.
Proverbs 25:26
Like a muddied spring
or a polluted well
is a righteous man who gives way to the wicked.
Proverbs 26:2
Like a fluttering sparrow
or a darting swallow,
an undeserved curse does not come to rest.

b. A second variation of the comparative type of parallelism is the pattern "A is better than B":

Proverbs 12:9
Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant
than to pretend to be somebody and have no food.
Proverbs 17:12
Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs
than a fool in his folly.

5. Numerical

Proverbs 30:21-23
Under three things the earth trembles,
under four it cannot bear up:
a servant who becomes king,
a fool who is full of food,
an unloved woman who is married,
and a maidservant who displaces her mistress.

6. Second Person (sometimes negative, sometimes positive)

Proverbs 22:22-23
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court
for Yahweh will take up their case
and will plunder those who plunder them.
Proverbs 14:7
Stay away from a foolish man,
for you will not find knowledge on his lips.

7. Extended Use of Metaphor and Simile

Proverbs 12:4
A powerful wife is her husband's crown,
but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones.
Proverbs 15:4
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life,
but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.
Proverbs 20:1
Wine is a mocker
and beer a brawler;
whoever is lead astray by them is not wise.

8. Assonance and Alliteration

Proverbs 10:9a
holek batom yelek batah
The man of integrity walks securely.
Proverbs 13:20
holek 'et hakamim vehkam
vro'eh ksilim yero'a
He who walks with the wise grows wise,
but a companion of fools suffers harm.
Proverbs 15:27a
'oker beto bosea' basa'
A greedy man brings trouble to his family.

9. End rhyme

Proverbs 11:2a
vayavo' qalon
When pride comes,
then comes disgrace.

As a result of using assonance, alliteration, and rhyme -- things that cannot be translated -- proverbs, more than most parts of the Bible, can lose a lot in translation. One of the most interesting things about a proverb is not just what it says, but also how it sounds.

III. The Function of the Proverbs

The primary function of the book of Proverbs is to instruct youth. The recurrent phrase "my son" (which is typical of all Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature) points to this purpose. Throughout the book of Proverbs, the "advice to youth" motif is loud and clear. Youth is warned against the adulteress, to hold his tongue, to pay diligent attention to wisdom's teachings, to deal honestly with his fellow human beings, and to avoid association with the wicked.

IV. Author

There are approximately 375 proverbs written down in Proverbs 10:1-22:16. 1 Kings 4:32 indicates that Solomon spoke over three thousand proverbs. Therefore, it is obvious that not all of his proverbs have been preserved.

Few scholars today believe that Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs. An interesting and typical statement presenting this view was made by John Mark Thompson in his book, The Form and Function of Proverbs in Ancient Israel, pp. 83-84:

It goes without saying that no one would argue seriously today in favor of the Solomonic authorship of the entire book of Proverbs. Some, however, would affirm the possible presence of his kingly wit in 10:1-22:16, specifically labeled as his work and generally believed to be the earliest collection in the book. Certainly such a possibility exists; but with the extreme difficulty of dating the proverb, and with Solomon's glorification as Israel's wise man par excellence, all conclusions regarding his authorship of anything in the book appear to be highly subjective.

Problems with Thompson's statement:

1. The first problem is with his assumption that the passages in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles describing Solomon's wisdom are simply exaggerated legends. This is a highly subjective decision based on the idea that the Bible is not necessarily true or accurate in what it records. It seems beyond him to believe that Solomon might be recognized as wise because he produced wise works, like the book of Proverbs.

2. Based on his assumption that wisdom has merely been attributed to Solomon, he then assumes that the proverbs attributed to Solomon are so attributed because of the legend.

3. Therefore, he concludes, that since the legend of Solomon's wisdom is not true, the book of Proverbs cannot be Solomon's.

The objective fact is that the book of Proverbs claims for itself Solomonic authorship. To believe otherwise is a subjective judgment that the book is lying about who wrote it, based on the presupposition that the Bible is not the word of God, that it is not inerrant, and therefore may have such lies in it.

Obviously, of course, not everything in the Book of Proverbs was written by Solomon, since some sections explicitly name another author. Only Proverbs 1:1-24:22 was written by Solomon.

Proverbs 24:23-34 are attributed to "the Wise".

Proverbs 25:1-29:27 are Solomon's, but they were collected and recorded by "Hezekiah's men".

Proverbs 30:1-33 was written by Agur, who is otherwise unknown in scripture.

Proverbs 31:1-31 was written by Lemuel, also unknown elsewhere in scripture.

V. An Outline of Proverbs

I. Solomon's Book of Proverbs

A. Prologue 1:1-7
B. Exhortations to Wisdom 1:8-9:18
1. Warnings Against Following Sinners 1:8-19
2. Wisdom Personified 1:20-33
3. What Happens When Wisdom is Followed 2:1-4:27
4. What Happens When Folly is Followed 4:1-7:27
5. Wisdom Calls 8:1-9:12
6. Folly Calls 9:13-18
C. The Proverbs of Solomon 10:1-22:16
D. Epilogue 22:17-24:22

II. Proverbs, the Sequel

A. More sayings of the wise (Appendix 1) 22:23-34
B. Proverbs of Solomon copied by Hezekiah's Men (Appendix 2) 25:1-29:27
C. The Sayings of Agur (Appendix 3) 30:1-33
D. The Sayings of King Lemuel (Appendix 4) 31:1-31

VI. NOTE on Proverbs 30:1-3

Proverbs 30:1 has been a problematical verse for all commentators and translators, both ancient and modern. The Septuagint handles chapter thirty in a most peculiar way: Proverbs 30:1-14 is inserted at Proverbs 24:22 and Proverbs 30:15-33 is inserted after Proverbs 24:34. Proverbs 30:1 is then rendered in Greek as "These things says the man to those who trust in God and I cease." Notice that this makes little sense, indicating that the translators of the Septuagint (c. 250 BC) did not understand what to do with this verse, either.

Because of the difficulty of trying to handle this verse, it has been the object of much speculative emendation, although all the Hebrew manuscripts are agreed on the present form of the text. Conservatives, generally, therefore, have translated this verse as a series of names, although recognizing that this is not wholly satisfactory.

The NIV in a footnote gives the least offensive of the possible emendations, since no changes in the consonants are necessary to achieve this reading:

Masoretic Text:

le'iytiy'el le'iytiy'el we'ukal


la'yitiy 'el la'yitiy 'el we'ekel

I-am-weary God, I-am-weary God and-I-am-exhausted

The major argument against this emendation, besides the fact that there is no manuscript evidence for it, is the question: why would a scribe mess up a clearly understandable sentence and turn it into something which is not comprehensible?

I think the text is best left the way it is, and we should concentrate our struggles on understanding what is there, rather than on what we think should be there.

The name "Ithiel" occurs one other place in the Bible: Nehemiah 11:7. As with all other Hebrew names, it has a clear meaning, which a native speaker of Hebrew would recognize: "God is with me." The letter "l" which precedes the name "Ithiel" in Proverbs 30:1 has generally been interpreted as the preposition "l", which means "to" or "for"; hence, the standard translation.

However, I think it is better to take this name as the contraction of "lo' 'Ithiel" to "le'ithiel." "Lo" is the Hebrew word for "no" and hence this then would mean "God is not with me".

The word "Ucal" is not a name at all, and it is never used in the Bible as a name. It is simply the first person singular of yakol in the imperfect aspect. There is nothing unusual about it. The word in the same form appears in Esther 8:6, for instance.

So what do we have here in Proverbs 30:1-3? A play on names. I think this passage should be translated as follows:

1) Words of Agur, son of Yaqeh
The oracle which the young man uttered:
"God is not with me;
God is not with me, but I will prevail --
though I am more beast than man,
though I lack the discernment of a man,
though I have not learned wisdom,
and though I do not have knowledge of holiness."

VII. NOTES on Proverbs 31

Notice the chaiastic structure (chaiastic comes from the Greek letter chai, which looks like an x) of this chapter:

A Do not give your strength to women (3a)

B Avoid the way that destroys kings (3b)
B' The way that destroys kings (4-9)

A' The woman of strength (10-13)

It should also be noted that this chapter follows the basic Semitic structuring principle of "expansion of topic" -- that is, a short introductory statement is followed by a full exposition of the topics mentioned in that introductory statement.

Recall the similar structure in Proverbs 1:10-19:

A My son, if sinners entice you (1:10a)

B do not go (1:10b)

A' How sinners entice (11-14)
B' Do not go with them (15-19).

Questions on Proverbs

1. Discuss the composition and authorship of the book of Proverbs.

2. What purpose is served by the book of Proverbs -- that is, why were the proverbs written?

3. What is the value of wisdom?

4. Does the book of Proverbs make a clear distinction between wisdom and knowledge?

5. Is anti-intellectualism or a fear of knowledge and education a valid choice for a Christian?

6. What does Proverbs 31 suggest about the role of women?

7. What is the source of wisdom?

8. What does it mean to "fear" God?

9. Define a "fool".

10. What are some things that wisdom will protect an individual from?