The word proverb usually refers to a short clever saying that offers some kind of wisdom and this book has a lot of those. They are almost all in chapters 10-29… the centre section of the book.
However, there is a lot more going on in the book especially in the beginning (Chapters 1-9) and the conclusion (Chapters 30-31). The first thing we notice in the introduction is that the book is linked to King Solomon. In 1 Kings chapter 3, Solomon had asked God for wisdom to lead Israel well. God granted him this request and so Solomon became known as the wisest man in the ancient world. We are told in 1 Kings 4:29-33 that he wrote thousands of proverbs and poems and collected knowledge about plants and animals. Solomon was the fountainhead of Israel’s wisdom literature and though not all the material in this book is written by him personally he is the founding father of Israel’s wisdom tradition.
The introduction says that by reading this book, you too can gain wisdom. In the modern world wisdom is mostly another word for someone who has great knowledge. The Hebrew word חָכְמָה means much more than this. It is perhaps more accurate to suggest it as “skill” or “applied knowledge”. In Exodus 31:1-3 the same Hebrew word is used to describe the attributes of artists and craftsmen.
The purpose of the book is to help us develop practical skills and attitudes for living well in God’s world. It could be seen as an ancient “Self Improvement programme” though Anthony Robbins, Wayne Dyer and their like may provide us with useful ideas, they are pale imitation of this book which is the real deal!
The concept of the fear of the Lord is introduced to us in Proverbs. This fear is not about terror but reverence and awe. A moral mind set that recognises that I am not God and therefore I don’t get to make up my own definition of what is good and what is evil or what is right and wrong. It’s about embracing God’s definition of right and wrong, humbling ourselves before him and upholding his definition even to the point of our own inconvenience.
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job are the three books in the Bible that have come to be called “The wisdom literature”. All three of these books are addressing the same set of questions. What kind of world are we living in? and what does it look like to live well in this world? Each of these books tackles the questions of purpose and how do we do life well? In the New Testament the book of James could also be referred to as wisdom literature and Jesus also taught lessons about wisdom which are recorded in Matthew chapters 5 to 7 and Luke chapters 11 to 16.
Each of these three books takes a unique perspective and it’s important to understand all of them to get a fully Biblical perspective. You could almost imagine each of the books with a persona. Proverbs addresses the issues from a youthful perspective, Ecclesiasties from a sharp middle aged mind and Job you can almost imagine as a weathered old man.
The first 9 chapters of Proverbs give us the concept of Proverbs. What we find in these opening chapters are ten speeches from a father to a son. These speeches are instructions to listen to wisdom, cultivate the fear of the Lord and live accordingly which means a life of virtue, integrity, generosity… all of which lead to success and peace.
The father also warns his son about folly, evil and stupid decisions that will breed selfishness and pride …all leading to ruin and shame and so the son should make his pursuit of wisdom and fear of the Lord his highest goal in life. This way of thinking presents us with the moral logic of the entire book.
These speeches from the father also clue us into what wisdom literature is and how it’s different from other parts of the Bible. These books explore how to live well in God’s world but wisdom is not the same as law or prophesy. Wisdom has the accumulated insight by God’s people through the generations about how to live in a way that honours God and others.
Proverbs is not just smart but it’s smart about everything … work, relationships, sex, spirituality. There are incredible insights, things that we wouldn’t see on our own. Proverbs presents this as an incredible invisible creative force in the universe that can guide people in how they should live. You can’t see it, just as you can’t see gravity but it effects everything that we do. In Hebrew the word is חָכְמָה (chokmah). It is usually translated into English as wisdom. It is an attribute of God, that God used to create the world. It is woven into the fabric of things and how they work so that whenever people are making good, wise and right decisions they are tapping into חָכְמָה and whenever they are making bad unwise decisions they are working against חָכְמָה… or as it says in Proverbs chapter 1 “the waywardness of fools will destroy them but the one who listens to wisdom lives in security. It works like a moral law of the universe. It’s a cause and effect pattern that we cannot escape.
Within this first section, we find four poems from lady wisdom (1:20-33; 3:13-20; Chapter 8;Chapter 9). Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman. The original Hebrew is feminine noun. Wisdom is woven into the fabric of God’s universe, she runs around the earth calling out to humanity to pay attention, to seek her and making herself available to anyone who will listen to her. Proverbs gives the reader the hope that anyone can access wisdom and use it to make a meaningful, purposeful and even a beautiful life for themselves and others.
The book of Proverbs gives us one more important thing to consider. חָכְמָה is not some impersonal force, it’s an attribute of God himself and so in Hebrew thought your journey towards becoming wise has to begin with what Proverbs calls “The fear of the Lord”. It is a healthy respect for God’s definition of good and evil. True wisdom means learning those boundary lines and not crossing them. Fearing the Lord and living wisely means that we are living along the grain of the universe.
This is not simply a book with good advice but an invitation to learn God’s wisdom from previous generations.
Give us the proverbs themselves. A collection of hundreds of proverbs about all aspects of life חָכְמָה…gets applied to them to help you orient yourself on a path towards a successful life.
Proverbs by their nature are about probabilities. For example that we fear the Lord and make wise choices then most likely things will go well. The converse is also generally true.
This perhaps sounds a little too simplistic and idealistic that if I do what’s right then I will always be successful and that’s why we have to also listen to the next wisdom book Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes has wrestled with that very problem and he is going to push us further in our journey to find “the good life”.
Proverbs are not promises, they are not formulas for success. Proverbs 10:27 for example suggests that the fear of the Lord prolongs your life but the years of the wicked are cut short and Proverbs 22:6 tells us that if we train a child in the way they should go and when they are old they won’t depart from it. These are general truths but there are no guarantees, lot’s of things can and do go wrong in our broken and fallen world.
Proverbs by nature focus on the general rule but not the exceptions of which there are many. Proverbs does not address the exceptions but it is the exceptions that are the primary focus of the other wisdom books Job and Ecclesiastes. They reveal that life is too complex for simple formulas which is why we need all the wisdom books together to get the bigger picture.
The final section of the book gives us two large collections of poems. First poems from a man called Agur who begins by admitting his own folly and ignorance and his great need for God’s wisdom. Agur then discovers that divine wisdom has been given to him in the scriptures. Agur is put before us like a model reader of the book of Proverbs, as somebody who is always open to hearing God’s wisdom through the scriptures.
The final poems are connected to a man named Lemuel. He is a non Israelite King. He passes on the wisdom that was given to him by his mum. It’s guidance for being a wise and just leader. The final poem is an acrostic poem. The poem is the famously titled “The woman of noble character” It depicts a woman who lives according the wisdom of proverbs and is presented as a model of someone who takes God’s wisdom and translates it into decisions and practical living in her everyday life …at work, at home, in her family and in her community.
So the book opens with words from a father to a son about listening to lady wisdom and the book closes by offering the words of a mother to her son about a woman who lives wisely and perhaps indicating the type of woman she desires for her son to marry !