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“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, and judgment, and equity; To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.”
– Proverbs 1:1-6
Similes are rhetorical devices used in written or spoken communications to aid in understanding or for humorous effect. We have numerous literary examples and one of the tells of a great writer is their command of metaphor and simile. Louisa May Alcott used a simile in her novel, Little Women, “…she tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” Some might call that a word picture but it immediately puts the scene in our mind. We have had the experience of having an itch or something stuck to our back that was just beyond our grasp. So we connect readily with her meaning.
P. G. Wodehouse was a British humorist author whose use of metaphor in writing is a study in itself. He made masterful use of metaphor and simile and most often to comedic effect. For instance, he wrote, “Some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant—better left unstirred.” Such use of simile helps us understand more quickly. Good similes are also memorable helping us retain what we’ve understood.
Proverbs makes such use of simile. It is instructive and memorable. Consider these examples:
“As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion.”
– Proverbs 11:22
“As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”
– Proverbs 26:11
“He goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks; Till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life.”
– Proverbs 7:22-23
So a proverb is a wise saying typically in a poetic form. By poetic I don’t mean it rhymes, although sometimes they do, I mean that proverbs are put in a deliberate structure. Think of common sayings we’ve all heard our grandmothers say since we were little: the early bird gets the worm; a penny saved is a penny earned; and early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. These types of sayings usually contain provincial wisdom and are generally good advice, but the proverbs in the book of Proverbs are vastly different because they are divine wisdom from God and not good advice.
William Arnot described the Proverbs as heavenly laws for life on earth. The Proverbs are technically the application of God’s law to the individual in life. They are delivered in concise form that makes them memorable and also distills wisdom down to make it accessible. This is readily apparent when we realize it takes many more words to explain the meaning of the proverb than the proverb itself uses. Proverbs typically have many layers of meaning and proverbs are meant to be meditated on throughout life so that they grow richer over time as we mature and grow in understanding. Our understanding will deepen as we grow older and wiser.
The keynote of difference between Proverbs and homely advice is struck in verse 7. Here the wisdom of God is pitted against the foolishness of the world (1 Corinthians 1:20-21). The world wants wisdom and always has. The world searches for wisdom and welcomes it from any source, except the wisdom of God, which proves their folly (Proverbs 14:1).
The Divine wisdom and authority of the Proverbs is confirmed by different New Testament writers. Paul (Romans 12:20), the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 12:5-6), and Peter (2 Peter 2:22) cited Proverbs 25:21-22, 3:11-12, and 26:11 respectively with all authority. Jesus also testified to the wisdom of Solomon (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31). So, clearly, the Proverbs are set apart from homely sayings and old adages that might provide good advice. The Proverbs are actually the application of God’s law to the life of the individual and carry the same weight.
Authorship and Structure
Solomon is the author of most of the proverbs in this book. He spoke some three thousand proverbs in his lifetime (1 Kings 4:32). The book of Proverbs contains a little over nine hundred proverbs, which is less than one-third of all Solomon spoke. So it does not contain all the proverbs he spoke, but it does contain many.
Solomon was uniquely gifted to write proverbs. I am not discounting verbal, plenary inspiration, but we know the Spirit worked through the human authors such that their gifts and personalities are seen in their writings. When we compare the writings of the different authors, we do see different styles that were personal to the authors. Just as God asked Moses who had made his mouth, the Spirit gives gifts to men as it pleases Him—suiting one to one kind of work and another to another kind of work. Solomon was gifted with great wisdom (1 Kings 3:5-14, 28; 4:29), which is demonstrated in the realms of science, nature, philosophy, construction, etc. He also had a keen insight into men. He could read men and discern character and motives. Discerning the character of men is part of the wisdom imparted through the Proverbs.
The book is a collection of proverbs spoken at different times. It divides into five different sections. Chapters 1 through 9 are the proverbs of Solomon. Chapters 10 through 24 are general proverbs by Solomon. Chapters 25 through 29 are proverbs copied by King Hezekiah’s men. Chapter 30 is the words of Agur, and chapter 31 is the words of Lemuel, whom some think to be Solomon but that is not conclusive.
The book of Proverbs belongs to the group of poetic or wisdom books—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. If we consider these books in their canonical order, they form an outline of the Christian life.
- Job speaks of repentance or of death to self
- Psalms speaks of the newness of life and worship
- Proverbs gives wise and gracious laws for our life on the earth
- Ecclesiastes reveals the vanity of all things of the earth in terms of satisfying the soul
- Song of Solomon illustrates ultimate satisfaction in Christ alone
Message and Purpose
The aim of this book is stated in the beginning of it: “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding: To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; To give subtilty to the simple; to the young man knowledge and discretion” (Proverbs 1:2-4). So the book aims to instruct, correct, warn and teach wisdom.
The fear of the Lord is acknowledged as the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7) and that fear tempers all the instruction given in the book. Vital life instruction is given in several different areas:
- Children are taught to honor and obey their parents
- Parents are taught to love, train, and discipline their children
- The influences of a good wife and a good mother are dwelt on at length
- These are often contrasted the negative influence of a bad wife, mother, or generally evil woman
- Various warnings against sin
- The influence of bad companions
- Impurity and intemperance
- Contentions, strife, quarrels, and anger
- Loose tongues
- Deceitful business dealings
- Taking bribes
Proverbs also gives instruction concerning personal habits or character traits—both good and bad. There are instructions and warnings concerning idleness, sloth, pride, and greed for riches. They also give teaching concerning controlling anger, controlling the tongue, and liberal generosity to the poor.
God in Proverbs
Theology in Proverbs is quite advanced considering its time and place in Scripture. God is presented as a personal God who relates to men and loves and hates. He is presented as the holy and righteous judge who judges the wicked, hates unrighteousness, loves the righteous, and demands justice among people. He is also depicted as the sovereign, powerful, and wise Creator of all things.
Jesus Christ, the Son, is also in the Proverbs. He is most obviously depicted as wisdom personified. Compare several references in Proverbs with relevant references elsewhere in Scripture.
- Proverbs 8:23, 27 with John 1:1-3
- Proverbs 8:30 with Hebrews 1:2
- Proverbs 8:22 with Colossians 1:7
- Proverbs 8:30 with Luke 3:22 and John 17:24
- Proverbs 8:14 with 1 Corinthians 1:30
- Proverbs 2:4 with Colossians 2:3
- Proverbs 8:5 with Luke 10:21
- Proverbs 8:35 with John 6:47
- Proverbs 8:20 with Psalm 23:3
Understanding Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God leads us to the important understanding that to reject wisdom is ultimately to reject Christ. That sets Proverbs apart from good advice books. Rejecting the wisdom of Proverbs is to your own damnation. This also should cause us to treat Proverbs with vastly more seriousness than most in the world do. Even in our so-called Christian bookstores you will find many books that touch on Proverbs to give us good advice on business, marriage, or friendships that do not take this book seriously as a word of life or death. Proverbs itself continually teaches that wisdom is the way of life and folly is the way of death and we are going one of only two ways in this life.
Proverbs is a unique book in Scripture. Ecclesiastes comes close and even has a few proverbs in it, but still differs. The value of Proverbs though is not in its novelty. The great value of Proverbs is in the eternal wisdom and truth it teaches. Proverbs is an extremely practical book, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy book to understand. We are commanded in it to search diligently for its wisdom and also assured of the blessing and great reward that comes from finding and following it (Proverbs 1:9; 3:8, 10, 22; 4:9).