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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Proverbs

- Proverbs

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

TITLE

The title of this book in the Hebrew Bible is "The Proverbs of Solomon, the Son of David, King in Israel" (cf. Pro_1:1). The Greek Septuagint called this book "Proverbs of Solomon." The Latin Vulgate named it "The Book of Proverbs." Translators of English Bibles place Proverbs among the poetic books (Psalms-Song of Solomon), whereas in the Hebrew Bible it is found among the "Writings," the third and final major section.

There is some debate about whether Pro_1:1 is the title of the whole book or just the title of the first major section (chs. 1-9). The first view has in its favor the fact that the Hebrew Bible took the verse as the title of the book. According to this view the references to Solomon in Pro_1:1 are an indication that he was the primary author of the proverbs in the book. [Note: See Derek Kidner, The Proverbs, p. 22.] The second view is that Pro_1:1 simply introduces the first major section of the book. [Note: See Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 328, who believed that 22:17 also contains a heading.] The support for this view is that some succeeding sections begin with a similar caption (cf. Pro_10:1; Pro_24:23; Pro_25:1; Pro_30:1; Pro_31:1). However, chapters 1-9 do not contain "proverbs" as such, but longer wisdom speeches. In either case, the book got its title from the proverbs it contains. The whole book is a book of proverbs, so the title is appropriate.

WRITER

Proverbs claims to be a compendium of the wise sayings of several different individuals. Only Proverbs and Psalms in the Old Testament claim composite authorship for themselves. Solomon originated some of the proverbs (Pro_10:1 to Pro_22:16 and chs. 25-29 definitely, and probably chs. 1-9 as well). [Note: See Andrew E. Steinmann, "Proverbs 1-9 as a Solomonic Composition," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43:4 (December 2000):659-74.] Unnamed wise men (sages) wrote other parts (Pro_22:17 to Pro_24:34 definitely, and possibly chs. 1-9). Hezekiah’s men copied some of Solomon’s proverbs and added them to this collection (chs. 25-29). Agur and King Lemuel produced chapters 30 and 31 respectively. We do not know who the sages were who wrote Pro_22:17 to Pro_24:34, nor do we know the names of the men whom King Hezekiah instructed to compile some of Solomon’s sayings. Agur and Lemuel are unknown to us also, though Lemuel seems to have been a non-Israelite monarch. [Note: See my comments on 31:1.]

Some of the proverbs appear to have been copied from, or at least influenced by, earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian books of wisdom. [Note: See Allen P. Ross, "Proverbs," in Psalms-Song of Songs, vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 883-86.]

". . . whatever the Spirit of God inspired the ancient writers to include became a part of the Word of the Lord. Such inclusions then took on a new and greater meaning when they formed part of Scripture; in a word, they became authoritative and binding, part of the communication of the divine will." [Note: Ibid., pp. 885-86.]

DATE

Solomon reigned from 971 to 931 B.C. and Hezekiah from 715 to 686 B.C. [Note: Edwin R. Thiele, A Chronology of the Hebrew Kings, pp, 75, 78.] We do not know when the sages, Agur, or Lemuel lived. The earliest the Book of Proverbs could have been in its final form was in Hezekiah’s day, but it may have reached this stage later than that. We have no way to tell. The contents of the book could have been in existence in Solomon’s lifetime, though not assembled into the collection we know as the Book of Proverbs.

GENRE AND DISTINCTIVE CHARACTERISTICS

Proverbs are a distinctive genre (type of literature). The Hebrew word translated "proverb" (masal) essentially means a comparison. However, through usage it came to mean any profound pronouncement, including: maxims, observations, sermons (e.g., ch. 5), even wisecracks (cf. Eze_18:2), and revelations from God (cf. Psa_49:4). [Note: For word studies of masal, see Allen H. Godbey, "The Hebrew Masal," American Journal of Semitic Languages 39:2 (January 1923):89-108; and A. S. Herbert, "The ’Parable’ (Masal) in the Old Testament," Scottish Journal of Theology 7 (1954):180-96.] Etymologically, the English word means "in place of (i.e., for) words." A proverb is usually a succinct statement that stands in place of a long explanation and expresses a truth about reality.

"In its basic form, the proverb is an ancient saying that takes wisdom and endows it with youthful vigor. In a few, piquant phrases the proverb capsulizes a practical idea or truth in such a way as to lift the common-place to a new level of mental consciousness. It reweaves the threadbare idea and shows the ordinary to be quite extraordinary.

"Fundamental to the proverbial form [genre] is the fact that it bears a truth that has been tested by time." [Note: C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old Testament, pp. 155, 156.]

"To read straight through a few chapters of Proverbs is like trying to have a conversation with someone who always replies with a one-liner." [Note: John J. Collins, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, p. 13. For more information on introductory matters, including title, text and versions, structure, ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, authorship, forms of proverbs, theology, and bibliography, see Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, pp. 1-170.]

"The Book of Proverbs has always been regarded as containing the concentrated deposit of ancient Israelite morality." [Note: Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p. 74.]

In addition to proverbs of various lengths, this book also contains narrative material. Most scholars recognize that Proverbs is a book of poetry and didactic wisdom literature.

"We’re living in the ’information age,’ but we certainly aren’t living in the ’age of wisdom.’ Many people who are wizards with their computers seem to be amateurs when it comes to making a success out of their lives. Computers can store data and obey signals, but they can’t give us the ability to use that knowledge wisely. What’s needed today is wisdom.

"The Book of Proverbs is about godly wisdom, how to get it and how to use it. It’s about priorities and principles, not get-rich-quick schemes or success formulas. It tells you, not how to make a living, but how to be skillful in the lost art of making a life." [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Skillful, p. 7.]

It has been said that the sum total of human information currently doubles approximately every year and a half. In view of this, T. S. Eliot’s questions are more apropos today than when he wrote them:

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" [Note: T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, p. 147.]

OUTLINE

I.    Collection 1: Discourses on wisdom chs. 1-9

A.    Introduction to the book Pro_1:1-7

1.    The title of the book Pro_1:1

2.    The purpose of the book Pro_1:2-6

3.    The thesis of the book Pro_1:7

B.    Instruction for young people Pro_1:8 to Pro_8:36

1.    Warning against consorting with sinners Pro_1:8-19

2.    Wisdom’s appeal Pro_1:20-33

Wisdom as a treasure ch. 2

Divine promises and human obligations Pro_3:1-12

The value of wisdom Pro_3:13-19

6.    Teaching the love of wisdom Pro_4:1-9

7.    The two paths Pro_4:10-19

8.    The importance of persistence Pro_4:20-27

9.    Warnings against unfaithfulness in marriage ch. 5

Other dangerous temptations Pro_6:1-19

The guilt of adultery Pro_6:20-35

The lure of adultery ch. 7

The function of wisdom ch. 8

C.    Wisdom and folly contrasted ch. 9

Wisdom’s feast Pro_9:1-6

The open or closed mind Pro_9:7-12

Folly’s feast Pro_9:13-18

II.    Collection 2: Solomon’s couplets expressing wisdom Pro_10:1 to Pro_22:16

A.    The marks of wise living chs. 10-15

1.    Things that produce profit Pro_10:1-14

2.    Things of true value Pro_10:15-32

3.    Wise living in various contexts Pro_11:1-15

4.    Wise investments Pro_11:16-31

5.    The value of righteousness Pro_12:1-12

6.    Avoiding trouble Pro_12:13-28

7.    Fruits of wise living ch. 13

8.    Further advice for wise living chs. 14-15

B.    How to please God Pro_16:1 to Pro_22:16

1.    Trusting God ch. 16

2.    Peacemakers and troublemakers ch. 17

3.    Friendship and folly ch. 18

4.    Further advice for pleasing God Pro_19:1 to Pro_22:16

III.    Collection 3: Thirty sayings of the wise Pro_22:17 to Pro_24:22

Introduction to the 30 sayings Pro_22:17-21

The 30 sayings Pro_22:22 to Pro_24:22

IV.    Collection 4: Six more sayings of the wise Pro_24:23-34

V.    Collection 5: Solomon’s maxims expressing wisdom chs. 25-29

A.    Introduction of the later Solomonic collection Pro_25:1

B.    Instructive analogies Pro_25:2 to Pro_27:22

1.    Wise and foolish conduct Pro_25:2-28

2.    Fools and folly ch. 26

3.    Virtues and vices Pro_27:1-22

C.    A discourse on prudence Pro_27:23-27

D.    Instructive contrasts chs. 28-29

VI.    Collection 6: The wisdom of Agur ch. 30

A.    The introduction of Agur Pro_30:1

B.    Wisdom about God Pro_30:2-9

C.    Wisdom about life Pro_30:10-33

VII.    Collection 7: The wisdom of Lemuel ch. 31

A.    The introduction of Lemuel Pro_31:1

B.    The wise king Pro_31:2-9

C.    The wise woman Pro_31:10-31

Conclusion

The quality of wisdom that Proverbs presents is much more than the ability to apply knowledge to various situations in life effectively. It also involves submission to the way of God that is the order of life God has revealed as best for men and women. It is possible for people to think correctly and to speak and act wisely with no direct knowledge of divine revelation. However, people of this type possess only limited wisdom.

The wise person is one who takes God into account. He realizes his own limitations and his need for divine guidance. He listens to and applies what God has revealed to his own life. The foolish person believes he does not need God’s help. He closes his ears and his mind to God’s revelation. He goes his own way. The wise person becomes a success eventually, while the fool suffers destruction.

Proverbs begins with appeals to listen and submit to God’s revealed wisdom (chs. 1-9). Then the writers cite particular cases of wise and foolish behavior to help us live wisely (chs. 10-31).

The Book of Proverbs deserves more exposition by preachers and Bible teachers than it gets.

"With the exception of Leviticus, it is doubtful that any biblical book is viewed with less enthusiasm by the preacher." [Note: Collins, p. 1. Cf. Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, p. 53.]

One writer suggested these hermeneutical and homiletical guidelines for interpreting and proclaiming Proverbs. [Note: Greg W. Parsons, "Guidelines of Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs," Bibliotheca Sacra 150:598 (April-June 1993):151-70. See also Bruce K. Waltke, "Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of Proverbs," Bibliotheca Sacra 165:657 (January-March 2008):3-12; 165:658 (April-June 2008):131-44; 165:659 (July-September 2008):259-67; 165:660 (October-December 2008):387-96.]

Hermeneutical guidelines

1.    Interpret individual passages in light of the overall structure, purpose, and "motto" of the Book of Proverbs.

 

2.    Recognize the various literary forms and devices (the "building blocks" of the individual passages or proverbs) as clues to the context.

 

3.    Beware of the erroneous assumption that proverbs are unconditional promises.

 

4.    Realize that some proverbs are unconditionally true.

 

5.    Interpret the Book of Proverbs in light of the historical-cultural context of extrabiblical wisdom literature.

Homiletical Guidelines

1.    In seeking to apply a proverb, be sure to validate the application through the context of the Bible.

 

2.    Utilize the characteristics and nature of proverbial wisdom as a foundation for graphic communication of timeless principles.

 

3.    Explore the creative use of proverbial characters.

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