The book of Proverbs (Proverbs 1)

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The book of Proverbs is a collection of collections, all on the subject of wisdom. There are several major compilations in the book, including “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1-24), “more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah” (Proverbs 25-29), “the sayings of Agur son of Jakeh” (Proverbs 30) and “the sayings of king Lemuel – an oracle his mother taught him” (Proverbs 31). In addition, there are several groupings that may be regarded as minor or sub-collections, including “Sayings of the Wise” (22:17-24:22) and “Further sayings of the Wise” (24:23-34). The prologue (1:1-7) and epilogue (31:10-31) may well have been added at a later time.

Solomon’s Proverbs were written between 970 and 930 B.C., while Hezekiah’s scribes compiled additional, “unpublshed” Solomonic proverbs between 729 and 686 B.C. Nothing is known of Agur and king Lemuel, so the dates of composition of their contributions are unknown.

The fact that Proverbs is an anthology – almost a scrapbook – of collections implies that it was not compiled at any one given point. Even so, it is clear that according to the Biblical text Solomon was the primary source for Proverbs (whether he is thought of as a  writer or a collector of these pithy nuggets of wisdom). 1 Kings 4:32 tells us that Solomon “spoke three thousand proverbs“.

These proverbs were written to the people of Israel to show them how wisdom can be practically applied to everyday life, but the implied reader of Proverbs is primarily the young man. Thus the book routinely addresses the reader as “my son“, and the major temptations described in the book – to join a gang and enter a life of crime or to run after the immoral woman – relate especially to the young man as he approaches adulthood.

Many modern scholars consider the notion that Solomon had anything to do with the writing of Proverbs to be implausible and that the book as entirety a product of the post-exilic era. In fact, however, there is no good reason to dismiss Solomon’s association with Proverbs. Similar compilations from ancient Near East date from Solomon’s time (tenth century B.C.) or much earlier (see Ancient Near Eastern wisdom, also under Proverbs 1). Solomon’s era was the most prosperous and sophisticated in Israelite history. If any period was likely to have produced works of wisdom literature, it was precisely this one.

It is helpful to recognize that the past statements so plentiful in Proverbs are not promises from God but general principles – similar to the reference to long life as the result of honouring one’s parents found in the ten commandments (Exodus 20:12). Try to dismiss from your mind the many exceptions that might otherwise cause you to read these assertions with a sceptical mindset. You might even want to identify cases in which an individual exemplifying a particular God-honouring trait has indeed enjoyed the blessings made more likely by his or her good judgement in a particular area of life.

Allow yourself to delight in the visual imagery and to chuckle at the humorous images that convey universal truths (e.g. “Better to live in a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife“; Proverbs 21:9). Enjoy the comparisons and contrasts, and don’t be surprised by the lack of continuity that is often evident from one saying to the next. By way of comparison, recall some of Benjamin Franklin’s proverbial maxims from the eighteenth century, such as “A penny saved is a penny earned”.

Jot down a listing of some character traits that are endorsed or warned against in this book. How well does this list fit with the conventional, godly wisdom that guides your life today?

Did you know that the 30 sayings of Proverbs 22:17-24:22 are similar to the 30 units of the Egyptian “Wisdom of Amenemope”, written prior to Solomon’s time? Did you know that Agur was likely a non-Israelite wise man like Job and his friends (30:1)? Did you know that total abstinence from alcohol was rare in the ancient world, even while the problems of addiction to drink were recognized (31:4-7)? Did you know that in Jewish tradition Proverbs 31:10-31 is recited by a husband to his wife on Sabbath evenings?


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