The book of Proverbs is a treasure trove of practical wisdom inspired by God. It gives us keys to a better life. Here is background to help you study Proverbs.
How many of the following expressions have you heard before?
- It takes one to know one.
- A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.
- Think before you speak.
- Don’t wear out your welcome.
- You can’t take it with you.
- It takes two to tango.
Do you know where these aphorisms, maxims, truisms and proverbs originally came from? You might be very surprised to discover that these, and many more like them, may have been inspired by the sayings in the book of Proverbs in the Holy Bible.
The Bible is timeless in its message and can be used today in the 21st century as a guide for our lives. The Bible is relevant in every age and can be trusted for the truths it proclaims. The book of Proverbs certainly illustrates this point very well.
Who wrote the book of Proverbs?
Nearly all biblical scholars recognize King Solomon as the one who wrote and compiled most of the 915 verses contained in the 31 chapters of this book.
The book starts by identifying its main author: “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1:1). Several other passages identify sections composed by Solomon as well (see 10:1 and 25:1).
These sections preserved for us were selected from many more proverbs that Solomon compiled. His biblical proverbs include perhaps 800 verses, while the Bible tells us Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs (1 Kings 4:32).
Other authors mentioned in the book are Agur the son of Jakeh (Proverbs 30:1) and King Lemuel (31:1). Two sections seem to just be attributed to “the wise” (22:17 and 24:23). Little is known about any of these other authors.
The English title “Proverbs” is a translation from the Hebrew Mishlë. “The term for ‘proverb’ is masal, which comes from a root idea meaning ‘parallel’ or ‘similar,’ and hence signifies ‘a description by ways of comparison’” (Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974, p. 465).
The book of Proverbs, along with the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, is part of the Writings section of the Old Testament that has been referred to as wisdom literature.
What is the purpose of the book of Proverbs?
The book of Proverbs teaches practical wisdom for all people at every stage of life.
Each proverb is a short statement that uses everyday, familiar illustrations to teach moral, ethical or spiritual principles.“It is wisdom distilled into short, sharp phrases, dramatic contrasts, and unforgettable scenes from life. It sets out what is right and what is wrong (not just a slick formula for success), because ‘wisdom’ in Proverbs is based on reverence for God and obedience to his laws. The ‘fear of the Lord’ is the essence of all true human wisdom. This is the starting-point. Proverbs applies the principles of God’s teaching to the whole of life, to relationships, home, work, justice, decisions, attitudes, reactions, everything man does and says, even thinks. God has taught what is best for man. Experience proves it” (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 354).
Each proverb is a short statement that uses everyday, familiar illustrations to teach moral, ethical or spiritual principles. These principles apply to all human beings, male and female, young and old, in every age and circumstance. The wisdom recorded in this book is true of human beings in general and is universal in its appeal.
Every aspect of human relationships is covered:
- Leaders of nations.
- Husbands and wives, family and children.
- Employers and employees.
- Lenders and borrowers.
- Teachers and students.
- The rich and the poor.
The real appeal of this remarkable book is that it contains practical wisdom, understanding and knowledge that people can understand easily, at least on the surface. These principles are not vague or abstruse theories that only a few people are able to grasp. They are statements of common sense that have been observed and verified by people over the course of centuries.
The first few statements of the book make this point very clear: “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: to know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion” (Proverbs 1:1-4).
Proverbs, a book of poetic wisdom
Notice what the Jewish Commentary by A. Cohen says about the words wisdom and instruction in these verses: “Hebrew chocmah, a key-word of the Book and the basis of the whole structure of its teaching. It has been defined as ‘the knowledge of God’ (Maimonides). Not sagacity, abstract learning or philosophical speculation is intended, but an understanding of the principles which control and direct human living at its highest and best. Combined with the next term, instruction, it corresponds to ethics or moral philosophy” (Proverbs, p. 1).
The book is written in the general style of Hebrew poetry, using the literary form of parallelism, meaning simply a comparison, likeness or similarity. These comparisons generally take the form of couplets in poetical form.
For example, “As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the lazy man to those who send him” (Proverbs 10:26).
Modern sayings parallel the Proverbs
See if you recognize these proverbs and how we express these truths today:
- “The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil” (Proverbs 15:28). (Think before you speak.)
- “Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house, lest he become weary of you and hate you” (25:17). (Don’t wear out your welcome.)
- “Where there is no wood, the fire goes out” (26:20). (It takes two to tango.)
- “The desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (21:25). (All talk and no action.)
- “Prepare your outside work, make it fit for yourself in the field; and afterward build your house” (24:27). (First things first.)
- “He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears” (26:17). (Mind your own business.)
These are just a few of the examples of literally hundreds of proverbs that we use today—many of them in the original form.
Proverbs for children and young men and women
The book of Proverbs also contains some lengthy discussions of issues that we can certainly profit from today. Proverbs for children and young men and women are often framed as instructions for “my son.”
For example, look at the instructions given to young men on the subject of discretion and morality in chapter 5 of Proverbs:
“My son, pay attention to my wisdom; lend your ear to my understanding, that you may preserve discretion, and your lips may keep knowledge. For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two edged sword. Her feet go down to death, her steps lay hold of hell. Lest you should ponder her path of life—her ways are unstable; you do not know them.
“Therefore hear me now, my children, and do not depart from the words of my mouth. Remove your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house, lest you give your honor to others, and your years to the cruel one; lest aliens be filled with your wealth; and your labors go to the house of a foreigner; and you mourn at last, when your flesh and your body are consumed” (Proverbs 5:1-11).
Here is a warning to not engage in casual sexual activity. (The biblical model is that sexual activity must only be within marriage.) The consequences of this illicit, immoral conduct are loss of respect, poverty and even diseases of the flesh and death itself. Obviously this instruction is not just for children. These are proverbs for men and women of all ages.
The apostle Paul expounded on this theme in his letter to the Corinthians. He said that the body was not made for sexual immorality and that we should flee from sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:13, 18).
Proverbs 31 woman
There is another lengthy section in Proverbs that is very instructive. It can be found in the last chapter, Proverbs 31, and it is a description of the characteristics of a virtuous woman. The description begins in verse 10 and continues to the end of the chapter.
What might not be noticed by the casual reader is that there are a total of 22 verses in this section, and each verse begins with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Verse 10 begins with the first letter, aleph; verse 11 begins with the second letter, beth; and so forth.
This section is called an acrostic and was probably meant to be memorized. This is information that God wanted people in every age to know, understand and apply.
Outline of Proverbs
Here is a brief outline of the different sections of the book of Proverbs:
- Proverbs 1:1-6: Title and purpose.
- Proverbs 1:7 to 9:18: Lessons on wisdom.
- Proverbs 10:1 to 22:16: Main body of proverbs of Solomon.
- Proverbs 22:17 to 24:22: Sayings of the wise.
- Proverbs 24:23-34: Further sayings of the wise.
- Proverbs 25 through 29: More of Solomon’s proverbs (Hezekiah’s collection).
- Proverbs 30: Words of Agur.
- Proverbs 31:1-9: Words of King Lemuel, which his mother taught him.
- Proverbs 31:10-31: The virtuous woman (acrostic poem).
Proverbs: a treasure trove of useful information
The book of Proverbs is a treasure trove of useful information that is as up to date today as when it was written around 3,000 years ago.
In conclusion, here are a few more proverbs that have the power to change people’s lives for the better even today, if we would only heed and apply their timeless wisdom.
- “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
- “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaints? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long at the wine” (23:29-30).
- “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fatted calf with hatred” (15:17).
- “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan” (29:2).
- “Cast out the scorner, and contention will leave; yes, strife and reproach will cease” (22:10).
- “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, loving favor rather than silver and gold” (22:1).
The book of Proverbs is a great gift to the world. It was written and preserved under inspiration from God. It contains practical knowledge on how we can get the most out of life, by listening to the wisdom of the One who created human life and designed our bodies. As such, it deserves our careful attention, study and application.
“She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who retain her” (3:18).
You can find commentary on many of the Proverbs in the archives of the Daily Bible Verse Blog. And you can find more about how to effectively study the Bible and practice what it teaches in the section on “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”
See also the following related articles about God’s wisdom:
- “Five Foolish Things We Do to Foul Up Our Future.”
- “The Importance of Wisdom and How to Become Wiser.”
- “How to Be Wise.”
- “Priceless Benefits of Wisdom.”
- “God’s Words of Wisdom for You.”
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.