The book of Proverbs, as the name expresses, is a collection of proverbs written by Solomon, who was especially endued with the Spirit of wisdom as the preacher-king of Israel. It is made up of three main parts plus two short appendices. The first section of the book includes the first nine chapters, and serves as an extensive introduction into the main theme of the book. Here Wisdom is presented as the one great good, which calls us away from the seductions of sin and urges us to enter her portals and feast on her bounties. (See, for example,). The second section extends from chapter ten to twenty-five under the general heading, “the Proverbs of Solomon”. Here Wisdom proceeds to instruct all those who enter her house in that true wisdom which is rooted in the fear of the Lord, over against the follies of sin. The third section consists of four chapters under the heading, “These are also proverbs of Solomon, which men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.” The instruction is continued to give knowledge to the simple and to turn fools from the folly of their sin, to the paths of life. The last two chapters containing the “Words of Agur” and the “Words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him”, conclude the instruction of Wisdom, always assuring that “blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors, for whoso findeth me findeth life and shall obtain favor from the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul; all they that hate me love death.” ( ).
The “proverb”, or Mashal, of Scripture, has a much broader connotation than our word suggests. Although it is generally a short, pithy statement, forcefully expressing some definite truth, as is chiefly the case in Proverbs, it may also appear in the form of an extended allegory, or a didactic poem, or an instructive piece of prophecy. The prophecy of Balaam is called a proverb (), as also Job’s answer to his friends ( ), likewise the taunting satire of Isaiah against the king of Babylon ( ), and some of the prophecies of Ezekiel ( ). Because of this broader significance of the word, a Mashal is sometimes called a parable, as in , which is quoted in to show that this word was fulfilled when Christ spoke to the people in parables. Thus even the parable is placed under the proverbs.
According to the root meaning of the word, the Mashal is a comparison or similitude, either expressed or implied. An example of the former, where the comparison is expressed, we find in the words: “As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honor is not seemly for a fool.” In the following passage the comparison is implied: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it and is safe.” A proverb may even appear in the form of a dark saying, or enigma, almost like a riddle, demanding of the hearer to pause and ponder on its interpretation. An example is found in the pithy statement, “the horse- leach has two daughters; give, give.” Because of this peculiar character of the proverb it readily lends itself to become a saying, an adage, or a maxim.
The significance of the book of Proverbs can only be understood if we constantly bear in mind its place in the canon of Scripture. It can never be relegated to the level of the writings of worldly sages since it is a part of the inspired Word of God. It is a definite form of divine revelation to instruct the foolish and give subtlety to the simple. Its primary Author is the Holy Spirit, Who endued Solomon with spiritual wisdom so that he could discern the things of the Spirit as a teacher in Israel, as a father giving instruction to his son. In that sense Proverbs also belongs to prophecy, as the light which shines in the darkness of this present time to lead us into the perfect day. Its interpretation is only possible in the light of all the Scriptures.
For that reason Proverbs is not a mere collection of maxims teaching outward morality and promising a mere earthly, temporal reward for obedience. It is estranged from all humanistic philosophy and worldly wisdom, for it deals only with spiritual-ethical values. The wise man is placed over against the fool, the subtle over against the simple, the prudent over against the slothful, the righteous over against the wicked. Wisdom, instruction and understanding, justice, judgment and equity, subtlety knowledge and discretion, mercy, truth and purity are mentioned in one breath with righteousness as altogether rooted in the fear of the Lord. While foolishness, simplicity, scorning, frowardness, mischief, hypocrisy, pride and fornication are all set forth as rooted in wickedness. Although seemingly the proverbs are loosely strung together, frequently without any discernable bond of connection, there is a definite unity of thought in the main theme, which teaches that the tear of the Lord is the underlying principle of wisdom, even as wickedness is the root of all folly.
“Wisdom” is the key-word throughout the entire book. But wisdom is presented as being, first of all, hypostatically divine. God is Wisdom, even as He is Truth, and Light, and Life. The Son of God, the Word, is the revelation of Wisdom even as the Son took an active part in the eternal thoughts, or counsel of God. Wisdom says: “The Lord possessed Me in the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.” (). And it was by Wisdom that God formed the earth, for: “When He prepared the heavens, I was there, when He set a compass upon the face of the depth. When He established the clouds waters should not pass His commandment, when He deep. When He gave the sea His decree, that the waters should not pass His commandment, when He appointed the foundations of the earth. Then was I by Him, as one brought up with Him, and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him; rejoicing in the habitable parts of His earth. And My delights were with the sons of men.” ( ).
True Wisdom, the wisdom of Proverbs, is from above, a gift of God. Only God by the regenerating work of the Spirit can give knowledge to the simple and wisdom to fools. Mere natural wisdom is earthy, sensual, devilish. (). For it is not rooted in the fear of the Lord. A man may be efficient and even prudent in his business, he may be a farmer who knows how to cause his fields to produce an abundance of grain and wisely builds storehouses to preserve it; but if that is the extent of his wisdom he is still the fool. He refuses to acknowledge God as God and lives in open rebellion against Him, exalting himself as god before the face of the Living One. He never realizes nor acknowledges his emptiness and depravity in the sight of God. He simply does not reckon with the true reality of things. Even though he is aware that storms and winds are sure to come, he builds his house upon the sand. Not reckoning with God, nor with His Word, nor with eternity, he staggers in wickedness toward his destruction. “The way of the wicked is darkness, they know not at what they stumble.” ( ). But over against the way of the wicked is the path of the righteous as a “shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” For the wisdom of the wise is founded in the fear of the Lord. The wise man has learned to build his house upon a rock. By grace he knows Him Whom to know is eternal life. He loves Him and acknowledges Him as God. He is aware of his own emptiness, guilt and corruption, confesses it before God, and seeks his salvation only in Him. “He seeks the pathway of life and binds the commandment upon his heart. For when he goes it leads him, when he sleeps it keeps him, when he awakens it talks with him. The commandment is a lamp, and the law is light, and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” ( ). Happy is the man that finds wisdom and gets understanding. She is life to his soul and grace to his neck. She is more precious than rubies, and all the things to be desired are not to be compared to her. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace. For even as the curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked, so He blesses the habitation of the just. Shame is the promotion of fools, but the wise shall inherit glory. ( ).
The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to instruct in the ways of wisdom. (). By pithy statements, pointed comparisons, sharp contrasts and often by dark, enigmatic expressions it forcibly demands the attention of the reader. Even as the parable, the proverb serves to enlighten those to whom it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of heaven, but for those who are without these things are spoken, that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest at any time they should be converted and their sins should be forgiven them. The proverb serves as a savor of life unto life, but also as a savor of death unto death. It does not cast its pearls before swine, nor does it rebuke the scorner, lest it get itself shame. It does not answer the fool according to his folly, but speaks words of wisdom to confound him in his foolishness. Yet it does answer the fool according to his folly, exposing and condemning him, lest he be wise in his own conceits. ( ). Even the scorner is brought face to face with the Mashal. If he refuses to hear it and to ponder on its significance, it condemns him for despising the way of life; if he seeks to escape it by applying his own fancied interpretation to it, it also condemns him by leaving him in the folly of his sin. There is no escape for anyone, except for him who receives grace to hear it, so that he takes it into his heart with a godly sorrow unto repentance. The wise man, endued with wisdom from above, will hear and increase in learning; a man of understanding will attain to wise counsels, lie takes a firm hold on instruction and will not let her go; he keeps her for site is his life. The Mashal becomes engraven in his heart, is life to his soul, and an adornment about his neck. Happy is the man who finds wisdom and gets understanding.