Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is an anthology ofIsrael’s wisdom tradition. After a prose introduction that pits “Lady Wisdom” against “Lady Folly” (chapters 1-9), chapters 10-31 list the proverbs themselves. The book concludes with a word of praise to the “virtuous woman.” By noticing editorial comments throughout the book, one can see that Proverbs is an edited collection of various proverbs from a variety of life settings. For example, 1:1 introduces the book, 10:1 announces “the proverbs of Solomon” 22:17, “the words of the wise” (see also 24:23), 25:1: other proverbs of Solomon copied by the officials of Hezekiah (king ofJudah), 30:1, “the words of Agur son of Jakeh, of Massa,” and 31:1 “the words of Lemuel, king of Massa.” Scholars are in general agreement that the book was not edited together like this until sometime after the exile.

Proverbs are ancient ways of teaching wisdom to the young, a tradition that Israel received from surrounding nations, especially Egypt. Few scholars question Solomon’s role in driving forward Israel’s wisdom tradition, though the book of Proverbs is much more than a book of Solomon’s wisdom specifically. All in all, the book of Proverbs seems to be a book aimed at teaching young men, especially those of the ruling class, to learn wisdom as they enter adulthood. The study of Israel’s wisdom tradition, these proverbs, is the way to do that. And this takes training, for proverbs are not meant to be easy to understand. They have deep meaning—like parables and puzzles (1:6). Training comes from one’s parents, as we see in the refrain “listen my son,” and also from Israel’s leaders. But most of all, wisdom is truly only gained when one begins with the fear of the Lord, a “fear” that means a reverent submission to God, rather than finding one’s own way through life.

The opening of the book, chapters 1-9, illustrates the difference between living a life of wisdom and the life of foolishness (or folly). These chapters are an extended metaphor pitting wisdom against foolishness and portraying both as women. The question to the young male readers is which woman they will follow: the one who is enticing and promises a good time, or the one who promises to lead you to intimacy with God. The concrete example of “Lady Folly” used to drive the point home to these young men is an adulteress: she typifies foolishness, estrangement from God. The virtuous woman we meet in chapter 31 typifies what “Lady Wisdom” is like.

There are basically two types of proverbs. Some express general truths about everyday experience, and others have a more overt religious dimension (although this distinction is not hard and fast). Unlike laws, proverbs are not commands but more observations of “what works” in life and how God tends to bless the righteous and punish the wicked.

As you read Proverbs, you will notice two factors at work, and these factors tell us about the kind of book Proverbs is. First, different views are express on the same subject. For example, wealth can either be a sure sign of God’s blessing or source of great pride. Or, look at 26:4-5, where we are told to answer a fool or to not answer a fool. Which choice you make depends on the situation you are in. Proverbs, in other words, is not an owner’s manual that tells you concretely what to do in each and every life situation. Rather, Proverbs is a book of wisdom that itself requires wisdom to understand (see 1:5-6). You will also note that there is no rhyme or reason for the arrangement of the proverbs. The book moves quickly from one topic to another, than back to a topic you saw earlier. These two factors are important for understanding the book as a whole. Life is diverse and different situations call for different actions; and life does not hit you in an organized way. Life just happens—so be ready for whatever comes.

– Peter Enns