Proverbs

What Is the Background of Proverbs?

Time: 20 Minutes

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The Background of Proverbs

1

Author and Date

Proverbs itself mentions Solomon (reigned c. 971–931 BC) as author or collector of its contents (Proverbs 1:1; 10:1), including the proverbs copied by Hezekiah’s men (Proverbs 25:1). There are also two batches of sayings from a group called “the wise” (Proverbs 22:17–24:22; 24:23–34), and “oracles” from Agur (Proverbs 30:1–33) and Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1–9). No author is named for the song in praise of the excellent wife that ends the book (Proverbs 31:10–31). Although Proverbs was begun in the time of Solomon, it probably was not in its present form until the time of Hezekiah (reigned c. 715–686 BC).

2

Theme

The goal of the book is stated right at the beginning (Proverbs 1:1–7): to describe what wisdom is and to help God’s people become wise. Wisdom is founded in the “fear of the Lord,” and it enables believers to express their faith in the practical details of everyday life.

3

Audience

The book is addressed to a young man. The situations he will face while he is young receive much attention. These situations supply concrete examples from which all readers can apply lessons to their own lives. Anyone who is wise and who pays attention will benefit (Proverbs 1:5) from this instruction.

4

Reading Proverbs

The reader of Proverbs must seek to understand the various types of people the book describes. The most obvious characters in the book are the wise, the fool, and the simple. Proverbs urges its readers to be wise, which means embracing God’s covenant and living out the covenant in everyday situations (compare Proverbs 2:2; 10:1). The fool is the person who constantly opposes God’s covenant (Proverbs 1:7b). The simple is the person who is not firmly committed, either to wisdom or to folly; he is easily misled (Proverbs 14:15).

The first nine chapters of Proverbs are “wisdom poems” that urge the reader to pursue wisdom. The main section of Proverbs— the concise, memorable statements of two or three lines—begins in Proverbs 10:1. Proverbs often seem to be mere observations about life, but their deeper meanings will reveal themselves if the following questions are kept in mind:

(1) What virtue does this proverb commend?
(2) What vice does it disapprove of?
(3) What value does it affirm?

5

Key Themes

Proverbs offers wisdom on a wide array of topics from daily life: diligence and laziness (Proverbs 6:6–11); friendship (Proverbs 3:27–28; 18:24); speech (Proverbs 10:19–21); marriage (Proverbs 18:22; 19:14); child rearing (Proverbs 22:6); domestic peace (Proverbs 15:17; 17:1); work (Proverbs 11:1); getting along and good manners (Proverbs 23:1–2; 25:16–17; 26:17–19; 27:14); eternity (Proverbs 14:32; 23:17–18); and much more. It shows that “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (Proverbs 1 Timothy 4:8).

1. God’s will is intensely practical, applying to every aspect of life. A proper relation to God involves trying hard to understand his truth, and then embracing and obeying that truth.

2. A life lived by God’s will is a happy life (Proverbs 3:21–26).

3. A life lived by God’s will is a useful life (Proverbs 3:27–28; 12:18, 25).

4. A life lived by God’s will does not just happen. One must seek after it (Proverbs 9:1–6).

6

Outline

I. Title, Goal, and Motto (1:1–7)
II. A Father’s Invitation to Wisdom (1:8–9:18)
III. Proverbs of Solomon (10:1–22:16)
IV. The Thirty Sayings of “the Wise” (22:17–24:22)
V. Further Sayings of “the Wise” (24:23–34)
VI. Hezekiah’s Collection of Solomonic Proverbs (25:1–29:27)
VII. The Sayings of Agur (30:1–33)
VIII. The Sayings of King Lemuel (31:1–9)
IX. An Alphabet of Womanly Excellence (31:10–31)

The Global Message of Proverbs

1

Proverbs: Wisdom for the World

The book of Proverbs is not simply a collection of “wise sayings” for life. It is heaven-sent help for stumbling sinners all over the world from every walk of life who are willing to listen to something other than their own fallen instincts. The “fool” in Proverbs is not someone who lacks intellectual capacity but one who stubbornly lives out of his own fallen intuitions, resisting instruction and correction. Likewise, the wise person in Proverbs is not someone who is intellectually superior but someone who humbly places himself beneath the authority of God. Such wisdom is for all God’s people everywhere.

It is heaven-sent help for stumbling sinners all over the world from every walk of life who are willing to listen to something other than their own fallen instincts.

In his great mercy God has clearly shown wisdom to the world—both through the instruction of his Word and in the person of his Son. The book of Proverbs summarizes true wisdom as rooted in the “fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7). In Jesus such wisdom takes on new clarity and glory as the one who is the “wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24) and who “became to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). God’s global people are to receive such wise instruction, to base their wise living in the fear and worship of God, and to testify to a lost world about God’s saving wisdom.

2

God’s Wisdom Is Theological and Practical

In one sense wisdom is very much universal. It is difficult to find a culture or tradition without its own legacy of wise sayings. Some of these are culture-specific; others reflect the shared human experience.

Scripture’s admonition and exhortation about wisdom, however, is clear. Our faith is not to rest on man’s wisdom but is to be rooted in God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:5). The wisdom of this world is “folly with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). Ultimate wisdom is from God (1 Corinthians 1:30) and is revealed by God (1 Corinthians 2:7). True wisdom is theological and God-given. Those who lack wisdom are to “ask God” for it (James 1:5). It is the Lord who gives wisdom (Proverbs 2:6). In Proverbs 9:10 God’s people are reminded again that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (compare Proverbs 1:7). True wisdom is not the handy tips for life that get handed down from generation to generation among those who do not know God. True wisdom is divine. It is rooted in God’s own saving revelation to his people.

God’s wisdom is not only theological; it is also practical. Indeed, wisdom is practical because it is theological. Theology impacts daily life, and this is clearly seen in the instruction of Proverbs. Everyday life issues are addressed, including parental relations (Proverbs 10:1; 15:20; 19:26; 23:25), marriage (Proverbs 5:18; 12:4; 18:22; 19:13–14; 31:10), money (Proverbs 3:9; 10:4; 11:1; 15:16; 16:11), and the power and danger of words (Proverbs 4:5; 7:5; 10:19; 16:24; 17:27). These are life issues that affect people of every age and place. Proverbs provides a picture of both the blessed life grounded in the fear of the Lord and the danger-filled and foolish life of those who despise the Lord’s wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

3

God’s Wisdom Is Individual and Global

Individual Wisdom

For every person, in every place, in every time, the message of Proverbs rings true: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Wisdom from above is not mere advice or pithy sayings. Rather, the worthiest and most blessed advice flows from God, when he has his proper central place in the heart and worship of each individual created by his hand and in his image.

Global Wisdom

The message of Proverbs is also global. This is true, first, because only God’s wisdom comprehensively instructs and skillfully dissects with perfect insight the hearts of mankind from every place and for every time. God’s wisdom is global, second, in that God’s global people are called to global engagement and a global mission. The Lord is not a tribal god. The teaching of Proverbs is not tribal lore. God’s wisdom is eternal and global. And God’s people are called to be instruments, through word and deed, of teaching his wisdom to the world. Those who are wise in God represent God to the world. For example, the wise exhibit generosity to the poor and the needy (Proverbs 14:21, 31). The wise in God speak enduring and reliable wisdom to a world desperately looking for life-giving counsel. The wise in God feed even their own enemies (Proverbs 25:21).

4

Taking God’s Saving Wisdom to the World

In the book of Proverbs the Lord has equipped his people to fulfill his global and eternal purposes. God’s purpose is to reveal himself to and then through a people who will bring eternal blessing to the world, and that purpose is still unfolding around the world today (Matthew 28:18–20). In his kindness God has made known both the path of the wicked (Proverbs 4:14) and the path of righteousness (Proverbs 12:28). The one leads to destruction and the other to life (Proverbs 11:19).

When love and grace is observed by the world in the lives of God’s people and supremely in the cross of Christ, it is indeed “folly” to them (1 Corinthians 1:18, 21). But “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 25). The wise in God share the good news of the wisdom of God in the gospel of Christ with nations both near and far. Such sharing, when it lands on receptive ears, is “like cold water to a thirsty soul” (Proverbs 25:25). In grace God is opening blind eyes through the gospel to his glorious wisdom. In grace he has shown us and empowered us toward a life of God-honoring, upright living. In grace he will use us as his global ambassadors till the day we join in the angelic choir proclaiming, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 7:12).

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Crossway Publishers

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