Proverbs: An Overview

The book of Proverbs is one of the 'Wisdom' books of the Old Testament, along with Job and Ecclesiastes. It tells us of several authors who contributed to it, three of whom are named as Solomon, Lemuel and Agur, and there's also mention of 'Wise Men' who wrote some of the rest of it (22.17–24.34).

The date when Proverbs took on its final form is not really known. Some of its content might be very ancient, dating back to the days of Solomon or even longer ago as traditional sayings were preserved and repeated. Other sayings might be more recent. In 25.1 it says some of Solomon's sayings were 'copied by men at the court of King Hezekiah in Judah', in around 700 BC, which implies they were still being collected and edited then; the collection may have been growing for a good while after that.

Proverbs is a book full of wise words and pithy sayings. It repays dipping into and reading a few verses at a time. It's designed to help the people of God navigate the real world, drawing on the accumulated experience of people who've lived through hard times and have reflected deeply on the best way of becoming sensible, productive and righteous people.

Its advice is very practical. It talks about justice, for instance in condemning traders who use dishonest weights (11.1). It talks about sexual morality – and as it was written for a patriarchal society and addressed to 'sons', it's particularly severe on women (e.g. chapter 7). This means modern-day preachers have to be careful how they use it – we're very aware today that men and women can equally be tempters and tempted. Sometimes it's very funny. Sometimes it is deeply insightful about human nature and human relationships, for instance when it says that 'Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit' (15.4, GNB). Running through it is the idea that we are to align our lives with God's will and God's character, and if we do, things will go well for us.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs have a different character from the rest. They are less 'bitty', and more like worked-out blocks of teaching. They come to a climax in a beautiful hymn to Wisdom in chapter 8, which sets out the context of the whole book. Our daily lives, the practical decisions about right and wrong, good and bad that we make day by day, reflect God's eternal design for us and our world.

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