About the Book of Proverbs
Throughout the ancient near east, rulers often commissioned sages to gather the accepted wisdom of their nation for the instruction of young people entering professions or government service in the royal court. These wise sayings, distilled from the observation of life and the realities of human experience, became the text for future generations as they reached adulthood. The book of Proverbs, however, claims King Solomon himself as its principal author (Prov. 1:1) and claims its inspiration from the Lord. “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). The book demands faith in the Lord, not in human experience.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own insight” (Prov. 3:5). “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:7). Other ancient near eastern manuals imply or assume a divine origin of the wisdom they teach, but Proverbs is emphatic in attributing wisdom solely and directly to the Lord. The central message of the book is that true wisdom is based on our relationship to God: we cannot have true wisdom apart from a living relationship with the Lord.
Thus the proverbs in this book are more than mere common sense or good advice; they teach us not only the connection between our deeds and our destiny, but also how to create a peaceful and prosperous community under the Lord, the source of true wisdom.
At the same time, these short pithy sayings we call proverbs are generalizations about life, not atomized promises. God works through them to guide our thinking, but we must be careful not to dice the collection into a grab-bag of fortune cookie inserts. No isolated proverb can be taken as expressing the whole truth; it must be nuanced by the broader context of the whole book. Only a fool would read “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, NASB) and conclude that a child is a programmed robot. The proverb teaches that parental training has its effect, but it must be nuanced by other proverbs recognizing that each person bears responsibility for his or her own conduct, such as, “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures” (Prov. 30:17). Mastering the proverbs requires weaving a garment of wisdom from the whole collection. Gaining wisdom from the Book of Proverbs takes life-long study.
This is no trivial task. Some of the proverbs are in tension with each other, though not in outright opposition. Others are stated with an ambiguity that forces the reader to reflect on a number of possible interpretations. Close attention must be paid to whom the proverb is addressed. The warning, “Do not love sleep” (Prov. 20:13) is a proverb addressed to all of God’s children (see Prov. 1:4-5) but the reassurance, “Your sleep will be sweet,” (Prov. 3:24) is addressed to those who do not let wisdom and understanding out of their sight (Prov. 3:21). The Book of Proverbs is timeless, but the application of proverbs must be timely, as the Book of Job illustrates (see Job and Work at www.theologyofwork.org). The proverbs are touchstones in the slow development of virtue and they take a long time to understand. “Let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Prov. 1:5-6).
The book of Proverbs contains seven collections. Collection 1 (Prov. 1:1-9:18) contains extended lectures to prepare the disciple’s heart for the pithy sayings in the collections that follow. Collection 2 (Prov. 10:1-22:16) are “proverbs of Solomon.” Collection 3 (Prov. 22:17-24:22) covers “the words of the wise,” that are probably adopted and adapted by Solomon,and collection 4 (Prov. 24:23-34) extends that with additional “sayings of the wise.” Collection 5 (Prov. 25:1-29:27) covers “other proverbs that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied,” combing through ancient records from Solomon's time. (Hezekiah reigned about 300 years after Solomon.) Collection 6 (Prov. 30:1-33) and collection 7 (Prov. 31:1-31) are attributed to Agur and Lemuel, respectively, about whom little else is known. The final result is a single work of sayings, advice, instructions and warnings, structured as a manual for young people beginning their working lives and people of all ages, challenging them to seek the wisdom of the Lord (Prov. 1:2-7).
Click here to go to a table of verses included in this article, with links to the sections in which they are discussed.
The proverbs most often are paired in contrasts: diligence vs. laziness, honesty vs. dishonesty, planning vs. hastily taken decisions, dealing justly vs. taking advantage of the vulnerable, seeking good advice vs. arrogance, etc. More proverbs in the book talk about our wise speech than any other subject, with the second largest number covering work and its correlate, money. Though the book divides into the seven collections referenced above, the proverbs within these collections circle back over the same topics repeatedly. For that reason, this article will discuss work-related teachings by topic rather than by moving through each collection in the order in which it appears in the book. A table of verses, with links to the places they are discussed in the article, may be found at the end of the article. This is intended to aid readers in locating where in the article a particular verse or passage is discussed, not to encourage readers to read individual verses in isolation.
A practice that many workplace Christians find helpful is to read one chapter per day, corresponding to the day of the month. (Proverbs has 31 chapters.) Many topics in Proverbs are covered by multiple proverbs, spread across the book, meaning each will be encountered on several different days each month. Repeated encounters are an aid to learning. Moreover, our receptivity to topics changes according to what’s happening in our lives. As our circumstances change over the course of the month, a topic that didn’t catch our attention on one day may become meaningful on another. Over time, we are able to draw more wisdom than if we encountered each topic only once. For example, on the 14th of a given month, you would read chapter 14, but might not notice the topic of oppression of the poor in verse 31. (“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker.”) But perhaps later in the month you will notice a street person, or see a news story about poverty, or run short of money yourself. You might then be primed to pay attention to the topic when it is raised again on the 17th (“Those who mock the poor insult their Maker,” Prov. 17:5) or the 21st (“If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard,” Prov. 21:13) or the 22nd (“Do not rob the poor because they are poor,” Prov. 22:22) or the 28th (“One who augments wealth by exorbitant interest gathers it for another who is kind to the poor,” Prov. 28:8). Moreover, the topic is framed a bit differently each time, giving an opportunity to gain deeper perspectives with each repetition.
Richard J. Clifford, S.J., “Introduction to Wisdom Literature,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 3-4. For more about government service in a Christian perspective, see Robert Banks, “The Role of the Bible in Bureaucratic Decision-Making” in Private Values and Public Policy: The Ethics of Decision-making in Government Administration (Lancer Books, 1983), 35-40.
Roland Murphy, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 22, Proverbs, (Thomas Nelson, 1998), 289.
Cf. Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, pp. 107-109.
See Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 23ff.
See Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 31-37.