The book of Proverbs is one of the most read and studied of all the books of the Bible. Its excursions on wisdom and thoughtful sayings serve as a guide to living rightly. One of the five Wisdom books of the Old Testament, Proverbs serves a dual purpose. It reveals to us truths about the character and person of God, and it offers us a view of a life lived as God intends.
Today, we turn our attention to exploring who wrote the book, considering both traditional claims to authorship and modern scholarly perspectives. We invite you to reflect on the origins of Proverbs along with us that we might gain an even greater appreciation for the wisdom it contains.
Before we begin to consider who wrote Proverbs, we offer a general overview of the book and the genre to which it belongs. The word “proverb” is used to refer to a wise saying illuminating common or fundamental truths. Biblically, proverbs more specifically seek to express a universal truth regarding how to live well in the world and how to know God. Knowing and submitting to the Creator are central to the wisdom that Proverbs teaches. Stylistically, Biblical proverbs span instructional advice, poetic reflection, ethical rumination, and figurative teaching. At the core of the book of Proverbs is the call to dedicate oneself to God’s will for one’s life.
The book of Proverbs can be thought of as eight major sections. (For more information, take a look at “What Are Proverbs?” ) These eight sections are:
- Prov. 1–9: designated as "Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel"
- Prov. 10–22:16: also listed as "Proverbs of Solomon" but focusing on a comparison between a Wise Man and Foolish Man
- Prov. 22:17–24:22: "The Sayings of the Wise" which feature various moral discourses
- Prov. 24:23–34: listed as "These Also are Sayings of the Wise"
- Prov. 25–29: "These are Other Proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah Copied"
- Prov. 30: "The Words of Agur" which consider divine power and human ignorance
- Prov. 31:1–9: "The Words of King Lemuel of Massa, Which his Mother Taught Him"
- Prov. 31:10–31: an outline of the ideal virtuous woman
With this overview in mind, we return to the question of authorship. The book of Proverbs has been referred to as a “collection of collections”, owing to its long history of composition. For this reason, it is difficult to speak of an author of Proverbs.
Traditionally, the book of Proverbs was believed to have been written by King Solomon, or at the very least, Solomon primarily. This assumption comes from a variety of factors. King Solomon was known as the wisest man who ever lived. He ruled over the kingdom of Israel after the reign of his father David. Solomon’s renowned wisdom, along with 1 Kings 4:32, which refers to him composing 3,000 proverbs in his long life have made him a prime candidate for the text's author. Additionally, section titles within the book—such as Prov. 1:1 (“These are the proverbs of Solomon, David’s son, king of Israel”)—seem to confirm that Solomon wrote at least a major portion of the sayings included in the text. Likewise, references to King Hezekiah, Agur, and King Lemuel have been interpreted as references to various other authors or contributors of Proverbs.
However, most Biblical scholars agree that we are unable to identify specific authors (including Solomon) with any certainty or accuracy. The wise sayings included in Proverbs were composed over many centuries, and there is evidence of a long period of compilation and editing. A period of time so expansive would necessarily point to the existence of multiple authors. The variety and diversity of writing styles throughout the book seem to indicate this as well.
Additionally, proverbs as a genre of wisdom literature tended to begin their lives as oral teaching and tradition, only being transcribed much later, and often without (accurate) attribution. Indeed, the third section of Proverbs shares much in common with the earlier text from Egypt, “Instruction of Amenemope”. With respect to the prologue of Prov. 1:1, most scholars agree that this was not intended as an assertion that Prov. 1-9 were written by King Solomon. Rather, they argue that this prologue was intended to refer to the book as a whole and was meant more as a reference of honor than of authorship. The legacy of Solomon’s wisdom may have led to otherwise anonymous proverbs being attributed to him by default. The phrase “Proverbs of Solomon”, may refer to proverbs contributed, commissioned, or repeated by the King. Or perhaps, it's a reference to proverbs written in the tradition of Solomon, but not directly tied to the man at all.
A New Notion of Authorship
Given all of this, the conventional understanding of “authorship” is not particularly helpful in this context. Perhaps we would do better to consider the “schools” of writing at play in the book of Proverbs. Rather than search for particular authors, we might instead consider why people were writing these excursions on wise living at this time. We might ask, under whose influence were their views and ideas of wisdom shaped? What does the structure and composition as a whole reveal about the people by and for whom this text was written?
The writings compiled in the book of Proverbs were composed throughout Israel’s history. From the nation’s highest heights to the lows and hardships of exile and captivity, the teaching of Proverbs reflects a people living out of faith and striving to fix their eyes upon God. Out of the wisdom God revealed to humanity, through Solomon and others, generation after generation sought to encourage and guide those who would come after them.
We continue to learn from the wisdom of the proverbs today. With 31 chapters—one for each day of the month—Proverbs is a favorite devotional resource for people of faith. Used in this manner, the book of Proverbs enables us to start each day meditating on wisdom.
The teachings of Proverbs have also impacted our broader culture. Many of the says included in the book, 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. The ubiquity of these phrases demonstrates the timelessness of the insights of Proverbs. The ideal vision of life described by the book’s various contributors is something we can still strive towards in our present moment.
The book of Proverbs offers us guidance to live better, more fruitful lives. Combining common sense experiences with profound divine truth, Proverbs makes God's wisdom approachable. 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 Proverbs, illuminate what it means to live well.
To learn more about the Proverbs and the rest of the Bible’s wisdom literature, take a look at the Wisdom Collection from Alabaster.