Much like the book of Psalms, Proverbs is one of the most well-known of all the books of the Bible. For those of faith, it is a treasured book--a guide to right godly living. The words of wisdom contained within the book of Proverbs extend to the broader world in their impact and appeal. Many proverbs such as “Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall” or “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend” are quoted and referenced commonly in our daily lives.
But, what are proverbs? What is their purpose and why do they make up such a sizable portion of scripture? We’ll explore these questions and consider the book of Proverbs as a whole.
Generally speaking, a biblical proverb is a wise saying--a simple statement or phrase illuminating common or fundamental truths. common Proverbs exist in many cultures, passed down from generation to generation, offering guidance and advice. From Arabic proverbs such as, “He who lives in glass houses should not throw stones at people,” to Russian proverbs like, “Time makes the best healer,” these short sayings essentialize kernels of wisdom useful in everyday life.
The sayings found in the Book of Proverbs, however, are a bit more nuanced in their purpose.
There are many pithy sayings that we use, but not all of them can be considered proverbs.
The Biblical proverbs found within the Bible are also wise sayings, but more specifically, they seek to express a universal truth to teach humans how to live well in the world and how to know God. Faith in and obedience to the Lord are central to the wisdom of a Biblical Proverb.
The title of the book comes from a translation of the Hebrew word mashal, which has a wider range of meaning than merely “pithy short saying”. The Biblical proverbs span instructional advice, poetic reflection, ethical rumination, and figurative teaching. For all this variety, the through-line of the book of Proverbs is the call to dedicate oneself to God’s will and plans for one’s life.
Structure and Organization
The book of Proverbs has been referred to as a “collection of collections”, owing to its long history of composition. This is not a biblical text penned by a single author writing from start to finish; rather, it is an anthology, a carefully curated collection of thousand words of wisdom passed down through the generations.
In light of this, the book can be thought of as eight major sections:
- Proverbs 1–9: designated as "Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel"
- Proverbs 10–22:16: also listed as "Proverbs of Solomon" but focusing on a comparison between a Wise and Foolish Man
- Proverbs 22:17–24:22: "The Sayings of the Wise" which feature various moral discourses
- Proverbs 24:23–34: listed as "These Also are Sayings of the Wise"
- Proverbs 25–29: "These are Other Proverbs of Solomon that the Officials of King Hezekiah of Judah Copied"
- Proverbs 30: "The Words of Agur" which consider divine power and human ignorance
- Proverbs 31:1–9: "The Words of King Lemuel of Massa, Which his Mother Taught Him"
- Proverbs 31:10–31: an outline of the ideal wise woman
The central theme of the book of Proverbs is summed up in Proverbs 9:10--“Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment.” In other words, the more we draw close to God and live the way He calls us to live, the more we will be guided by divine wisdom.
There is so much to learn and reflect upon in the book of Proverbs. Old Proverbs offer us guidance to live better, more fruitful lives; they combine literal sense experiences with profound divine general truth. By placing our pursuit of the Lord at the center of our lives, we invite the seed of true wisdom to take root. The Wisdom books, including many Proverbs, illuminate what it means to live well.