An Introduction to Proverbs (1)

Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington.


The book of Proverbs is unique among all the different books of holy Scripture. Like Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations it is poetry, but its content is completely unlike that of any of the other poetical books. It is usually grouped with Ecclesiastes as a one of the wisdom writings, but other than sharing an author, is not much like that book either. It resembles Paul’s New Testament epistles in that it begins with an intensely doctrinal section and concludes with a practical section, but it is a book that clearly belongs in the Old Testament. Yet, like the books of the New Testament, it focuses on Christ, not as one to come, but as one personally present and speaking. In the Old Testament, only the Psalms compare to it in that respect, but it is unlike the Psalms in almost every other way. It is a unique and wonderful book.

The English and Hebrew names of the book do not really do justice to its content. It is described in chapter 1:1 as “the proverbs of Solomon the son of David, King of Israel,” and both the Hebrew and English names come from that verse, “Proverbs” in Hebrew and “The Proverbs” in English, but that does not tell us all we need to know about the book. Proverbs are wise sayings, but the book is not just a collection of wise and pithy sayings. Perhaps “Wisdom” would be a better title, but it would be hard to find a title that did justice also to the book’s prophetic character.

Our purpose in the following articles is not to give a verse by verse explanation of Proverbs, but to give an introduction to the book, focusing on chapters 1-9. These nine chapters are the doctrinal foundation of Proverbs and make the book much more than a collection of wise sayings. The wise sayings or proverbs for which the book is best known are found to some extent in chapters 1-9 but especially in chapters 10-31. Those proverbs are a practical application of the doctrines found in the first nine chapters. The practical and wise sayings for which Proverbs is best known ought not, therefore, be studied except in the light of the doctrines taught in the first nine chapters.

The Poetry

When we think of Proverbs we do not ordinarily think of poetry, but the book is poetry as well as wisdom. Every proverb is a poetic statement, and the book can be thought of as a kind of long poem or collection of poems.

The nature of Hebrew poetry, however, is very different from the kind of poetry to which we are accustomed. There is no rhyme or meter to Hebrew poetry. Its characteristic is something called parallelism. All Hebrew poetry, including Job, Psalms, and Lamentations, as well as portions of the prophetic books, are in this form.

Parallelism makes similar statements that complement and explain each other. This makes it very easy to turn Hebrew poetry into proverbs, so that the parallel statements not only explain each other, but are pithy and wise sayings. The parallelism can be very brief, as in chapters 10-22, where almost every verse is an individual proverb made up of only two parallel statements. But the parallelism can also be longer, as in Prov. 26:24-26, where there are six parallel statements that explain each other in three verses.

There are three different kinds of parallelism, usually described as synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic. In synonymous parallelism the statements say the same thing but in different ways. In antithetic parallelism they say the opposite thing, and in that way explain each other. In synthetic parallelism the statements add to and complete each other, one statement giving part of the truth and the other the rest of it. These different kinds of parallelism can be mixed together in different proverbs, however. The proverb just mentioned, chapter 26:24-26, is a good example. The first statement, “He that hateth dissembleth with his lips,” and the second, “and layeth up deceit within him,” are synonymous. They say almost the same thing. The third statement, “When he speaketh fair, believe him not,” and the fourth, “for there are seven abominations in his heart,” are synthetic. They add to and develop the thought of the first two statements. The fifth statement, “Whose hatred is covered by deceit,” and the sixth, “his wickedness shall be shewed before the whole congregation,” are an example of antithetic parallelism. They say the opposite of each other.

Along with the ordinary proverbs found in the book, there are six proverbs that are very different and can be described as numerical proverbs (Prov. 6:16-19, 30:15-17, 30:18-20, 30:21-23, 30:24-28, and Prov. 30:29-31). These begin with a parallel statement of number such as, “there be three things . . . yea four . . .” and conclude with a parallel list of the things being numbered. These are unique to the book and are notable for using examples from nature. Most of them are found in the section of Proverbs ascribed to Agur the son of Jakeh. Two of the most striking are found in Proverbs 30:24-31.

Both in the numerical proverbs and in the all the rest the parallelism is both a teaching tool and a memory aid. That is the case also in the Psalms, in Job, and in Lamentations, though for different reasons. The Psalms are important for memorization because they are church’s book of praise. Lamentations is in this form because it speaks of Zion’s woes, something that may never be forgotten, that even God does not forget. Proverbs is in the form of parallel poetry because it is so full of the practical wisdom that must be kept in mind in order to live life in the service of God.

The Author

There can be no doubt that Solomon is the principal writer of the book, since he is named in Prov. 1:1. Whether there are other secondary writers is a matter of dispute. Also named in Proverbs are Agur the son of Jakeh (Prov. 30:1) and Lemuel the King (Prov. 31:1, 4). It is likely that Lemuel, because he is identified as a king, was indeed Solomon, and the name a symbolic name for him. It is possible that Agur too is another name for Solomon, but it may also be that Agur, which means “gatherer,” was not a writer but a compiler of the book. Solomon is the principal human writer, but it is not impossible that material from others was added, since the book was not put together until many years after Solomon died. In the end, though, it makes little difference, since the book is part of the inspired and infallible Word of God. The Holy Spirit is the author of it all.

The book itself tells us that it was not actually written in the days of Solomon, at least not all of it, but in the days of Hezekiah. Proverbs 25:1 says, “These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.” Whether that refers to what follows or to what precedes or to the whole book is not clear, but at least part of the book was put together about 300 years after Solomon, around 700 B.C. Solomon is the author of the book, therefore, only as the one who spoke many of the proverbs contained in the book. He is not the one who wrote them down, though many of the proverbs may have been written down and preserved while he was still alive.

The Arrangement and Content

I Kings 4:32 tell us that Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs. We have only a selection of his wisdom in the book of Proverbs, therefore. Depending on how one counts, and recognizing the fact that many proverbs are longer than just one verse, there are somewhere between 500 and 600 proverbs recorded in the book. These are interspersed with discourses and exhortations (the main content of chapters 1-9), a story (Prov. 24:30-34), a confession (Prov. 30:1-6), a prayer (Prov. 30:7-9), and the description of a virtuous woman, which is found in the last chapter (chapter 31).

The book falls into two main parts, chapters 1-9, composed of a series of speeches by two different persons, and chapters 10-31, which are composed mainly of individual proverbs. In the first part we find the doctrinal teaching of Proverbs, and in the second part the practical application of the doctrine, though there is also application in chapters 1-9. In these two main parts, Proverbs further divides itself into six different sections: (1) an introduction to the book: Proverbs 1:1-7; (2) a father’s speeches to his son in which wisdom and foolishness are characterized as two women: Proverbs 2:1-7:27; (3) wisdom’s speeches: Proverbs 1:8-33, 8:1-9:18; (4) wisdom set forth in proverbs: chapters 10-29; (5) the wisdom of Agur: chapter 30; and (6) the wisdom of Lemuel: chapter 31 (including the description of the virtuous woman).

The first section, chapters 1-9, therefore, is all speeches, a father’s exhortations to his son, and the three speeches of wisdom. These are in the form of a conversation between a father and his son, who is identified as Wisdom. The father’s exhortations are eleven: Prov. 1:7-19, and, after wisdom’s first speech, the other ten in Prov. 2:1-22, 3:1-10, 3:11-20, 3:21-35, 4:1-9, 4:10-27, 5:1-23, 6:1-19, 6:20-35, and Prov. 7:1-27. Wisdom’s first speech is found in Prov. 1:20-33 following the father’s first speech, and then, after ten more exhortations by the father, two more speeches in Prov. 8:1-36 and Prov. 9:1-18. In these discourses and exhortations, wisdom is portrayed as speaking in response to his father’s advice and good counsel, and these three speeches or discourses are the heart of the book of Proverbs.

The Theme

The message of the book can be described in one word, “wisdom.” Wisdom as a necessary virtue and gift of God can be described as the spiritual ability to use and do everything in the service of God and for the glory of God, and certainly Proverbs teaches wisdom in that sense. But to describe wisdom only in terms of its practice does not explain what wisdom really is. In proverbs, wisdom is not only something but someone. It is not only a spiritual gift, but a person, Christ himself.

Chapter 8 especially shows us that wisdom is not only being compared to a person, but is a person, one who was with God from eternity (Prov. 8:22-31), God’s only begotten Son. Just as He is the living Word of God (John 1:1, 2), so He is also the living Wisdom of God. He is “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:24). It is He whom we hear speaking in chapters 1-9.

This makes the teaching of Proverbs more than mere moralizing.¹ Because wisdom is Christ and Christ is wisdom, Proverbs is the gospel, and in Proverbs the call of the gospel is clearly sounded. Proverbs reminds us that to have wisdom one must have Christ, and that without Him a person remains forever a fool who will perish in his folly. Wisdom is necessary to deliver us from hell, and wisdom is possible only in the person and work of the Son of God.

Proverbs does not speak explicitly of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, but that lies behind the identification of wisdom and Christ. It is in the cross, as Paul points out in I Corinthians 1:23, 24, that the wisdom of God is revealed and that Christ becomes the revelation of God’s wisdom. The cross demonstrates for all time that God is able, by a wisdom that transcends the thinking of this world, to make fools wise and to do all that is necessary to teach them true wisdom.

¹ Moralizing is a very common form of legalism in which people are told to be good, without being shown in Christ’s saving work the only possibility of being or doing good. It is the law without the gospel and has never converted a single soul or made anyone holy.