Proverbs – Introduction

The Bible – Old Testament



The first word of this book, MISHLE, has provided the title by which it is generally designated in Jewish and Christian circles. The name «Proverbs,» while not an exact equivalent of MISHLE, describes the main contents satisfactorily, even though it is hardly an adequate designation for such parts as ⇒ Proverb 1:1-⇒ 9:18 or ⇒ Proverb 31:10-31. Among some early Christian writers the book was also known by the name of «Wisdom,» and in the Roman Missal it was referred to as a «Book of Wisdom.»

The Book of Proverbs is an anthology of didactic poetry forming part of the sapiential literature of the Old Testament. Its primary purpose, indicated in the first sentence (⇒ Proverb 1:2, 3), is to teach wisdom. It is thus directed particularly to the young and inexperienced (⇒ Proverb 1:4); but also to those who desire advanced training in wisdom (⇒ Proverb 1:5, 6). The wisdom which the book teaches, covers a wide field of human and divine activity, ranging from matters purely secular to most lofty moral and religious truths, such as God’s omniscience (⇒ Proverb 5:21; ⇒ 15:3-11), power (⇒ Proverb 19:21; ⇒ 21:30), providence (⇒ Proverb 20:1-24), goodness (⇒ Proverb 15:29), and the joy and strength resulting from abandonment to him (⇒ Proverb 3:5; ⇒ 16:20; ⇒ 18:10). The teaching of the entire book is placed on a firm religious foundation by the principle that «the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge» (⇒ Proverb 1:7; cf ⇒ Proverb 9:10).

To Solomon are explicitly ascribed parts II and V of the book; he is the patron of Hebrew wisdom. Of Agur (part VI) and Lemuel (part VIII), nothing further is known. Parts III and IV are attributed to «the wise.» The remaining parts are anonymous.

The manner of compilation is conjectural. Parts II and V may have circulated first as independent collections, compiled before the fall of Jerusalem, as the references to Solomon (⇒ Proverb 10:1) and Hezekiah (⇒ Proverb 25:1) suggest. Parts III, IV and VII would seem to belong together as a third collection of a similar kind. The author of the first nine chapters, a religious sage familiar with the earlier sacred books, was the editor of the whole as we have it, probably in the early part of the fifth century B.C.

Christ and the Apostles often expressly quoted the Proverbs (⇒ John 7:38; ⇒ Romans 12:20; ⇒ James 4:6) or repeated their teaching; compare ⇒ Luke 10:14, and ⇒ Proverb 25:7; ⇒ 1 Peter 4:8; ⇒ James 5:20 and ⇒ Proverb 10:12. The book has an important place in the Latin and Greek liturgies.

On the basis of titles, subject matter, and poetic structure the Book of Proverbs may be divided as follows:

I.  Introduction: The Value of Wisdom (⇒ Proverb 1:1-⇒ 9:18)

II.  First Collection of the Proverbs of Solomon (⇒ Proverb 10:1-⇒ 22:16)

III.  Sayings of the Wise (⇒ Proverb 22:17-⇒ 24:22)

IV.  Other Sayings of the Wise (⇒ Proverb 24:23-34)

V.  Second Collection of the Proverbs of Solomon (⇒ Proverb 25:1-⇒ 29:27)

VI.  The Words of Agur (⇒ Proverb 30:1-6)

VII.  Numerical Proverbs (⇒ Proverb 30:7-33)

VIII.  The Words of Lemuel (⇒ Proverb 31:1-9)

IX.  The Ideal Wife (⇒ Proverb 31:10-31)