As we begin our study of Proverbs today, I return to Lawrence Boadt and his book Reading the Old Testament because he has this excellent introduction to this bit of wisdom literature….
Solomon’s reputation for wisdom was so great that Israel considered him the founder of their wisdom tradition. On the basis of 1 Kings 4:29-34…he was believed to have been the author of the Book of Proverbs as well as The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. Even the latest book of the Old Testament, The Wisdom of Solomon, is attributed to him. One charming legend in the Talmud guessed that Solomon had written the Song of Songs in his lusty youth, Proverbs in his mature middle age, and the skeptical Ecclesiastes as an old man.
The Book of Proverbs contains a great number of sayings whose message is as old as the civilization of the Sumerians in 3000 B.C., and there is no reason why many of these could not have been collected under Solomon’s command and formed into a book. But the present book also has many later additions. One group of proverbs in chapters 25-29 are attributed to Solomon but were not written down until two centuries later in the time of King Hezekiah of Judah. Other small collections are labeled from other wise teachers and kings. Altogether, there are seven sections in the book:
1. Chapters 1-9, labeled “The Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David.”
2. Chapters 10-22, labeled “Proverbs of Solomon.”
3. Chapters 22:17-24:22, labeled “The Sayings of the Wise.”
4. Chapter 24:23-34, labeled “Also the Sayings of the Wise.”
5. Chapters 25-29, labeled “More Proverbs of Solomon, Copied by the Men of Hezekiah, King of Judah.”
6. Chapter 30, labeled “The Sayings of Agur, Son of Jakeh: An Oracle.”
7. Chapter 31, labeled “The Sayings of King Lemuel: An Oracle.”
The identity of Agur and Lemuel cannot be known, but the third section seems to be an adaptation of the Egyptian collection of Amenemopet, noted above. All the sections are primarily collections of individual proverbs with no absolutely clear order that governs their arrangement, except within the first section, Proverbs 1-9. This is a larger, planned whole with a mixture of short proverbs and long instructions. It forms a prologue to the rest of Proverbs and an explanation of wisdom as a way of life. Proverbs 1:7 declares the basic theme: at the heart of all wisdom stands fear of the Lord. And the author repeats it again at the end in Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This fear of the Lord is true reverence and worship, and suggests obedience to the law of Yahweh as the way to find wisdom. At the same time, the author or authors of Proverbs 1-9 have borrowed many early themes known from Canaanite religion, such as the woman, Dame Folly, who seduces the young searcher after wisdom, in order to illustrate their points, but the overall view is that of the post-exilic period stress on law and wisdom as one. Thus this prologue was probably added to many earlier collections only at the final stage of development of the book.
The older proverbs found in the remaining chapters can be divided between pragmatic, secular, often materialistic advice, and the specifically religious reflections on the role of Yahweh as God of Israel. This is to be expected since the wisdom teachers were eager to include the wisdom of all peoples within the vision of Israel’s faith. The overall purpose of learning proverbs is to master life. And the way to life is praised endlessly: “The mouth of the just is a fountain of life” (Prv 10:11), and “He who takes correction has a path to life” (Prv 10:17). Other topics that dominate the proverbs are (1) the relationship of parents and children, especially in terms of respect for parents and discipline in education, (2) the contrast between the just and the wicked in their behavior, (3) the value of good friends and a loving wife, (4) the civic virtues of honesty, generosity, justice, and integrity, (5) personal mastery of passions and self-control, especially in sexual matters, (6) proper use of speech, including knowing when not to speak, (7) stewardship over wealth, prudence and hard work in planning for the future, (8) manners and proper behavior before superiors, and (9) the value of wisdom over foolish or careless behavior. These can be summed up in the words of a short maxim in Proverbs 13:20, “Walk with wise men and you will become wise, but the friends of fools will come to a bad end.”
The nature of the proverb combines two somewhat opposed truths: it is evident to everyone as really so, but it is also ambiguous, and not always true in the same way in every case. Thus we can say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and “Out of sight, out of mind,” and mean both because different aspects of our experiences are brought out by each. So, too, Proverbs was not a boring book to our ancestors, but a treasure of practical wisdom which invited reflective thought and new discoveries of its meaning, especially in light of Yahweh’s revelation of his word. It revealed the order of the world God had created and God’s ultimate power over it: “Man plans his ways in his mind, but God controls his steps” (Prv 16:9).
On one occasion when I left my parents’ home, perhaps to return to seminary right before I got married, my father printed out Proverbs 3:1-6 for me. He had just been reading it in his Bible on computer that morning. I later had it framed and it hung in my office for years. Then when my eldest son went off to college, I gave it to him. In doing this, my father and I were, consciously or unconsciously, following a very long tradition of parents passing wisdom on to their children, just as David did for Solomon, and Solomon did for his children. Now we have this wisdom collected in one of the books of the library that is the Bible for us all to benefit.