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Home > Dictionaries > Holman Bible Dictionary > PROVERBS, BOOK OF

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Proverbs, Book of
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Proverbs, Book of

The Book of Proverbs contains the essence of Israel's wisdom. It provides a godly worldview and offers insight for living. Proverbs 1:7 provides the perspective for understanding all the proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” “Fear of the Lord” is biblical shorthand for an entire life in love, worship, and obedience to God.

Date and Composition Though the title of Proverbs (Proverbs 1:1) seems to ascribe the entire book to Solomon, closer inspection reveals that the book is composed of parts and that it was formed over a period of several hundred years. It is difficult to know precisely the role Solomon and his court may have had in starting the process which culminated in the Book of Proverbs. This process may be compared to the way psalms of Davidic authorship eventually led to the Book of Psalms. In Israel, wisdom was considered Solomonic almost by definition (see articles on Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes, as well as the apochryphal work, Wisdom of Solomon). Thus the titles in Proverbs 1:1 and Proverbs 10:1 are not strictly statements of authorship in the modern sense.

That Proverbs is a collection of collections which grew over time is best seen from its variety of content and from its titles. These titles introduce the book's major subcollections, and are found in Proverbs 1:1; Proverbs 10:1; Proverbs 22:17 (“words of the wise”); Proverbs 24:23; Proverbs 25:1; Proverbs 30:1; Proverbs 31:1. For dating, Proverbs 25:1 places the copying or editing of Proverbs 25-29 in the court of Hezekiah, thus about 700 B.C., some 250 years after Solomon. The process of compilation probably extended into the postexilic period.

Because wisdom writings have almost no historical references, they are very difficult to date. Most scholars place Proverbs 10-29 sometime in the period of kings. Proverbs 1-9 are in a different genre (see below) from the Solomonic sayings of chapters Proverbs 10:1-22:16, and their date is disputed. Some say it may be as early as Solomon. Others say it is postexilic, that Proverbs 1-9 were added to 10–29 to give later readers a context from which to understand the short sayings in the latter chapters. The date of Proverbs 30-31 is also uncertain. One scholar has argued there is a play on the Greek word for wisdom (sophia) in Proverbs 31:27. This would date Proverbs 31:1 after the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.

Literary Character and Forms The Book of Proverbs uses a variety of wisdom forms or genres. The Hebrew word for proverb (mashal), found in the book's title, can refer to a variety of literary forms beside the proverb: prophetic “discourse” (Numbers 23:7,Numbers 23:18), “allegory” (Ezekiel 17:2; Ezekiel 24:3), “taunt song” (Micah 2:4). Different sections of the book specialize in characteristic forms. Long wisdom poems, which scholars call “Instructions” after their Egyptian counterpart, dominate Proverbs 1:8-9:18. These usually begin with a direct address to “son/children” and contain imperatives or prohibitions, motive clauses (reasons for actions), and sometimes narrative development (Proverbs 7:6-23). The setting of these instructions may be a school for young aristocrats. This section also contains public speeches by personified Wisdom (Proverbs 1:20-33; Proverbs 8:1-36; Proverbs 9:1-6).

“Sayings” which express wise insights about reality are the primary forms in Proverbs 10:1-22:16 and Proverbs 25:1-29:27. Sayings are characterized by extreme brevity. In Hebrew they usually have two lines with only six to eight words, in contrast to their much longer English translations. These sayings may simply “tell it like it is,” and let readers draw their own conclusions (Proverbs 11:24; Proverbs 17:27-28; Proverbs 18:16). They can also make clear value judgments (Proverbs 10:17; Proverbs 14:31; Proverbs 15:33; Proverbs 19:17). Mostly “antithetical sayings” which contrast opposites appear in Proverbs 10:1-15:33, but mixed in are a few “better—than” sayings (“Better is a dinner with herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it,” Proverbs 15:17; compare Proverbs 15:16) which are also scattered in other sections (Proverbs 16:8,Proverbs 16:19; Proverbs 17:1; Proverbs 19:1; Proverbs 21:9; Proverbs 25:24; Proverbs 27:5,Proverbs 27:10; Proverbs 28:6). The section Proverbs 25:1-27 is especially rich in comparative proverbs which set two things beside one another for comparison: “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Proverbs 25:25; compare Proverbs 25:12-13,Proverbs 25:14,Proverbs 25:26,Proverbs 25:28; Proverbs 26:1-3,Proverbs 26:6-11,Proverbs 26:14,Proverbs 26:20 among others). Such sayings also occur elsewhere, “Like a gold ring in a swine's snout is a beautiful woman without discretion” (Proverbs 11:22).

“Admonitions” characterize Proverbs 22:17-24:22. Borrowing from Egyptian wisdom marks this section. These short wisdom forms contain imperatives or prohibitions, usually followed by a motive clause which gives a reason or two for doing that which is being urged: “Do not remove an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless; for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you” (Proverbs 23:10-11). Admonitions are a shorter relative of the instruction.

The words of Agur (Proverbs 30:1) specializes in numerical sayings (Proverbs 30:15-31). The epilogue of the book (Proverbs 31:10-31) presents an alphabetic poem on wisdom embodied in the “valiant woman.” This brief sketch of wisdom forms presents only the basic types. Even within the types here presented, a great deal of subtle variation occurs.

Themes and Worldview In spite of being a collection of collections, Proverbs displays a unified, richly complex worldview. Proverbs 1-9 introduces this worldview and lays out its main themes. The short sayings of Proverbs 10-31 are to be understood in light of the first nine chapters.

The beginning and end of wisdom is to fear God and avoid evil (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 8:13; Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 15:33). The world is a battleground between wisdom and folly, righteousness and wickedness, good and evil. This conflict is personified in Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 1:20-33; Proverbs 4:5-9; Proverbs 8:1; Proverbs 9:1-6) and Harlot Folly (Proverbs 5:1-6; Proverbs 6:24-35; Proverbs 7:1; Proverbs 9:13-18). Both “women” offer love and invite simple young men (like those in the royal school) to their homes to sample their wares. Wisdom's invitation is to life (Proverbs 8:34-36); the seduction of Folly leads to death (Proverbs 5:4-6; Proverbs 7:22-27; Proverbs 9:18).

Mysteriously, Lady Wisdom speaks in public places, offering wisdom to everyone who will listen (Proverbs 1:20-22; Proverbs 8:1-5; Proverbs 9:3). Wisdom does not hide, but stands there for all who seek her. Some scholars consider Wisdom to be an attribute of God, especially shown in creation (Proverbs 3:19-20; Proverbs 8:22-31). More accurately stated, however, Wisdom is “the self-revelation of creation.” That is, God has placed in creation a wise order which speaks to humankind of good and evil, urging humans toward good and away from evil. This is not just the “voice of experience,” but God's general revelation which speaks to all people with authority. The world is not silent, but speaks of the Creator and His will (Psalms 19:1-2; Psalms 97:6; Psalms 145:10; Psalms 148:1; Job 12:7-9; Acts 14:15-17; Romans 1:18-23; Romans 2:14-15).

This perspective eliminates any split between faith and reason, between sacred and secular. The person who knows God also knows that every inch of life is created by God and belongs to Him. Experiences of God come only from experiences in God's world. Experiences in the world point the person of faith to God.

Thus, the wise person “fears God” and also lives in harmony with God's order for creation. The sluggard must learn from the ant because the ant's work is in tune with the order of the seasons (Proverbs 6:6-11; compare Proverbs 10:5).

Thinking Proverbially The short proverbs in Proverbs 10-29 cover a wealth of topics from wives (Proverbs 11:22; Proverbs 18:22; Proverbs 25:24) to friends (Proverbs 14:20; Proverbs 17:17-18; Proverbs 18:17; Proverbs 27:6), strong drink (Proverbs 23:29-35; Proverbs 31:4-7), wealth and poverty, justice and injustice, table manners and social status (Proverbs 23:1-8; compare Proverbs 25:6-7; Luke 14:7-11).

One cannot just use any proverb on any topic, for proverbs can be misused: “Like a lame man's legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (Proverbs 26:7; compare Proverbs 26:9). Proverbs are designed to make one wise, but they require wisdom to be used correctly. Proverbs are true, but their truth is realized only when they are fitly applied in the right situation. Job's friends misapplied proverbs about the wicked to righteous Job. Many things have more than one side to them, and the wise person will know which is which. Wives can be a gift from the Lord (Proverbs 18:22), but sometimes singleness seems better (Proverbs 21:9,Proverbs 21:19). Silence can be a sign of wisdom (Proverbs 17:27) or a cover-up (Proverbs 17:28). A “friend” (Hebrew, rea') can be trusted (Proverbs 17:17), but not always (Proverbs 17:18; “neighbor” = rea')!

Wealth can be a sign of God's blessing (Proverbs 3:9-10), but some saints suffer (Proverbs 3:11-12). Wealth can result from wickedness (Proverbs 13:23; Proverbs 17:23; Proverbs 28:11; compare Proverbs 26:12). It is better to be poor and godly: “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice” (Proverbs 16:8; compare Proverbs 15:16-17; Proverbs 17:1; Proverbs 19:1; Proverbs 28:6). In the end God will judge: “He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13; compare Proverbs 3:27-28; Proverbs 22:16; Proverbs 24:11-12; Proverbs 10:2; Proverbs 11:4).

The problem of fittingness is most sharply put in Proverbs 26:4-5:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Such dilemmas force us to confront the limits of our wisdom (Proverbs 26:12) and to rely upon God (Proverbs 3:5-8).

Proverbs generally operate on the principle that consequences follow acts: you reap what you sow. In a fallen world, however, God's justice is sometimes delayed. The “better—than” proverbs in particular show the disorder of the present world, the “exceptions to the rule.” The righteous thus works and prays, like the psalmist, for the day when God will make all things right.


I. Proverbs Is Designed to Impart Divine Wisdom Concerning Life (Proverbs 1:1-6).

II. Wisdom's Contribution to Life Is to Be Praised (Proverbs 1:7-9:18).

A. The goal of all wisdom is that people “fearů the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7).

B. Wisdom identifies sin and calls sinners to repentance (Proverbs 1:8-33).

C. Wisdom enables the sinner to be set free and experience meaningful life (Proverbs 2:1-22).

D. Wisdom produces a sense of divine presence, joy, and peace in the believer (Proverbs 3:1-26).

E. Wisdom admonishes believers to share God's love with others (Proverbs 3:27-35).

F. Wisdom helps a father instruct his son how to obtain a meaningful life (Proverbs 4:1-27).

G. Wisdom calls for purity and honesty in all marriage relationships (Proverbs 5:1-23).

H. Wisdom admonishes the believer to work hard and spend wisely (Proverbs 6:1-19).

I. Wisdom warns against the peril of adultery (Proverbs 6:20-7:27).

J. Through divine wisdom, God offers Himself to humankind (Proverbs 8:1-36).

K. Wisdom presents us with two choices, life or death (Proverbs 9:1-18).

III. One's Response to Wisdom Brings About Earthly Consequences (Proverbs 10:1-22:16).

A. The righteous find blessings, but the wicked suffer greatly (Proverbs 10:1-32).

B. The deceitful pay a terrible price, but the honest find God's favor (Proverbs 11:1-31).

C. The righteous are open to instruction, but the wicked are not (Proverbs 12:1-28).

D. The righteous are obedient to God's will; however, the wicked rebel (Proverbs 13:1-25).

E. The foolish will be judged, but the righteous will be accepted by God (Proverbs 14:1-35).

F. The Lord watches over all humankind and judges each accordingly (Proverbs 15:1-33).

G. The Lord is the fountain of life for the faithful (Proverbs 16:1-33).

H. The foolish thrive on bribery, but the wise are honest yet merciful (Proverbs 17:1-28).

I. The foolish are haughty, but the righteous are humble (Proverbs 18:1-24).

J. The poor are to be pitied, but the wealthy are honored by God (Proverbs 19:1-29).

K. The wise work hard and treat both friend and foe with love (Proverbs 20:1-30).

L. God requires holy lives and not just holy rituals (Proverbs 21:1-31).

M. The wise discipline themselves to follow God in everything (Proverbs 22:1-16).

IV. Wisdom Provides Prudent Counsel for Both the Present and the Future (Proverbs 22:17-24).

A. Wisdom tells one when to speak and when to be silent (Proverbs 22:17-21).

B. The wise ones care for and protect the poor (Proverbs 22:22-29).

C. Wisdom warns one not to fall into the trap of another's craftiness (Proverbs 23:1-11).

D. Youth need instruction and correction to become what they should be (Proverbs 23:12-28).

E. The drunkard destroys his life and that of others (Proverbs 23:29-35).

F. Wisdom leads to a meaningful life, but wickedness leads to destruction (Proverbs 24:1-9).

G. The wise ones steadfastly trust God in both the good and bad times (Proverbs 24:10-22).

H. Wisdom promotes true justice (Proverbs 24:23-34).

V. Wisdom Constantly Reminds People of Their Past Heritage (Proverbs 25:1-29:27).

A. The king shares in the responsibility for promoting wisdom (Proverbs 25:1-14).

B. The righteous exercise self-discipline and love in all of life (Proverbs 25:15-28).

C. The foolish fail the test of life and face God's judgment (Proverbs 26:1-28).

D. Life's quest for meaning is brief and frustrating at times (Proverbs 27:1-22).

E. People should learn to live as responsible stewards (Proverbs 27:23-27).

F. God expects justice from His followers (Proverbs 28:1-28).

G. Discipline is an essential part of life (Proverbs 29:1-27).

VI. The True Source of Meaningful Existence Can Be Found Only in God (Proverbs 30:1-31:31).

A. Human beings cannot fully discover or understand God's wisdom (Proverbs 30:1-33).

B. Humans can practice righteousness and show loving-kindness (Proverbs 31:1-9).

C. The key to meaningful existence is found in one's faith relationship to God (Proverbs 31:10-31).

Raymond C. Van Leeuwen

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'PROVERBS, BOOK OF'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.


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