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by Henry Allen Ironside
Introductory Notes By Arno C. Gaebelein
Submitted by H A Ironside on Mon, 04/14/2008 - 05:00
* Henry Allen Ironside
The title of the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible is Mishle, which is derived from the verb mashal, “to rule”; hence Mishle means “short sayings that are given to govern life and conduct.” The word also has the meaning of “a resemblance”--that is, “a parable.” Many proverbs are concentrated parables. Our English word “proverbs” comes from the word proverbia used in the Latin translation.
Traditionally the authorship of the whole book is attributed to Solomon. Though the book itself does not claim this, there can be no question that he is the author of the major portion. In 1 Kings 4:32 we read that Solomon uttered “three thousand proverbs”; in these, the unique wisdom given to him was well illustrated, and many of them were included in the Mishle.
The book begins with “The Proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel.” In 10:1 we read again: ‘The proverbs of Solomon.” Then 25:1 introduces chapters 25-29 with this statement: ‘These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.” This pious king must have had a great interest in compiling and preserving certain portions of the Word of God. He evidently commissioned certain scribes to add to the previous collection other proverbs that up to that time had remained uncollected.
The last two chapters are different. In Proverbs 30:0 we find “the words of Agur the son of Jakeh” and in chapter 31 “the words of king Lemuel.” From these two facts, which appear in the book itself, it is clear that the composition of the entire book of Proverbs cannot be attributed to Solomon. We can conclude that only chapters 1-29 contain the proverbs of Solomon. In all probability the scribes of Hezekiah who copied out the proverbs of chapters 25-29 added the last two chapters to the collection.
The Person Addressed
One feature of this book is that numerous times a person is addressed as “My son,” and the personal pronouns such as “thou,” “thee,” and “thy” are often used. See Proverbs 1-9; Proverbs 19:20-24:34; and 27-29. Who is the person addressed? Does Solomon address someone or is it Solomon himself who is addressed? J. W. Thirtle in his Old Testament Problems distinguished between proverbs written by Solomon and those that were written for him. Those that are addressed to “My son” and those in which personal pronouns are used, he claimed, were given to Solomon by wise men or teachers who taught him these sententious sayings to fit him for rulership. But this interpretation produces other difficulties: The proverbs written by Solomon would be few in comparison with the size of the book; furthermore we do not know who the wise men and teachers were who Thirtle said wrote words of wisdom for Solomon.
There is another way the sections containing the personal address and the personal pronouns might be explained. When the Lord appeared to Solomon in Gibeon, He said, “Ask what I shall give thee,” and Solomon asked for “an understanding heart to… discern between good and bad.” The king’s prayer was answered, for the Lord said, “Lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart” (1 Kings 3:5-15). Then the Lord must have spoken to him by His Spirit and given him the instructions he needed as the king over His people Israel. It is more than probable that the sections in which “My son” and the personal pronouns are used contain those heavenly instructions given to the young king by the Lord Himself in the beginning of his reign.
One cannot be dogmatic about this, but if such was the case, the difficulties disappear. There is no need to put these proverbs for Solomon into the mouths of unknown wise men. It was the Lord who spoke to Solomon as “My son,” and Solomon, guided by the Spirit of God, penned His words.
The Law of Moses
Certain of the instructions that I believe were given to Solomon by the Lord in answer to his prayer for an understanding heart, correspond to commands in the Law of Moses. These instructions, which relate to Israel’ s kings, we find in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Of special interest in this passage is the command, “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away.” Corresponding to this statement are the repeated warnings in Proverbs against the “strange woman.” The strange women against whom the Spirit of God spoke to Solomon in his youth were the women of the Gentile nations. Anticipating the sad end of this great and wise king, the Lord pictured the strange woman for him as a harlot whose ways ensnare, then end in death.
But the heavenly wisdom was not heeded. It is written, “King Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; Of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love” (1 Kings 11:1-2).
Then followed his downfall: “It came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11:4). He worshiped Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, and other idol gods. The words of wisdom the Lord gave Solomon were not heeded and his succumbing to the allurements of strange women, of which his inspired pen had warned, became a mournful fact in own history.
The Literary Style
Most of the proverbs are in the form of couplets. The two clauses of a couplet are generally related to each other by what has been termed parallelism according to Hebrew poetry. Three kind of parallelism have been pointed out:
(1) Synonymous Parallelism. Here the second clause restates what is given in the first clause.
Judgments are prepared for scorners,
and stripes for the back of fools.
(2) Antithetic Parallelism. Here a truth that is stated in the first clause is made stronger in the second clause by contrast with an opposite truth.
The light of the righteous rejoiceth:
but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out.
(3) Synthetic Parallelism. Here the second clause develops the thought of the first.
The fear of a king is as the roaring of a lion:
whoso provoketh him to anger sinneth against his own soul.
The Teachings of Proverbs
The proverbs, speaking generally, give moral teachings relating to human conduct. Since they often contrast the righteous and the wicked, many of the proverbs can be illustrated by the lives of the godly and ungodly characters described elsewhere in the Bible.
But besides this, there is much that goes deeper. Many of these short sayings can be applied to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the gospel. Proverbs 8:22-31 speaks definitely of the Son of God, our Lord, who is Wisdom. When we read Proverbs 13:7-“There is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches”-we can well think of Him who was rich and became poor for our sake, that we by His poverty might be rich (see 2 Corinthians 8:9). When we read Proverbs 18:24 (“There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother”) or Proverbs 17:17 (“A friend loveth at all times”), we can well think of our Lord, who is the friend of sinners.
In spiritual instruction and application, the book of Proverbs has an inexhaustible wealth. The Spirit of God quotes from it in the New Testament: Romans 3:15 quotes Proverbs 1:16; Hebrews 12:5-6 and Revelation 3:19 quote 3:11-12; James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 quote 3:34; Hebrews 12:13 quotes 4:26; 1 Peter 4:8 quotes 10:12; 1 Peter 4:18 quotes 11:31; Romans 12:20 quotes 25:21-22; and 2 Peter 2:22 quotes 26:11.
The book of Proverbs ought to be studied by believers as diligently as any other portion of God’s Holy Word. The prayerful searcher will soon be rewarded in finding many nuggets of divine truth.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the royal preacher graphically related the story of his weary search for happiness “under the sun.” Its disappointing result led to the oft-repeated lament, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” He then directed those who would escape the devious paths he had chosen in life to consider the collection of proverbs that he had “sought out and set in order.”
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil (Ecclesiastes 12:8-14).
These last seven verses of Ecclesiastes form a fitting introduction to the book of Proverbs even though it precedes Ecclesiastes in our Bibles. These verses give the divine reason for the collection of wise sayings. God would save all who heed the wisdom that is recorded there from the heartbreaking experiences and aimless wanderings of the man who was chosen to write them.
There are two ways of learning the emptiness of the world and the true character of sin. The most common way is to tread the thorny path oneself and thereby taste fully the bitterness of departure from God. The more desirous way is to accept His Word regarding the character of sin. This enables the obedient disciple to say, “Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer” (Psalms 17:4).
The bitter disappointments, the skeptical darkness, and the weary heart of Solomon, a result of trusting his own wisdom, are strongly delineated in the record of the tempests of his soul. This confusion need never be the portion of the child of God who orders his steps in the truth.
Human collections of wisdom and instruction are only the thoughts of men like ourselves. However, as in all Scripture, in the wisdom literature of the Bible we read the very breathings of the Spirit of God. The high and lofty One who spoke worlds into being, who redeemed fallen man, and who will eventually bring in a new heaven and a new earth stooped in grace to give instruction for the very details of His creatures’ lives. This amazing grace is cause for worship and admiration forever.
All that I do takes on new importance as I realize that the God who created me and redeemed me does not consider it beneath His notice to instruct me concerning my behavior in the family, in society, and in my methods of business. All are under His eye, and if I act in accordance with the book of Proverbs, I will “behave myself wisely, in a perfect way,” in every relationship of life.
To some the practical commonplaces of Solomon’s wisdom may seem a far cry from the heavenly truths of Paul’s Epistles. But to the balanced Christian the teachings and warnings of Proverbs will have their place alongside the precious truths of Ephesians.
The “ribbon of blue” on the border of the pious Israelite’s garment represented the heavenly character of the believer’s habits. The book of Proverbs is such an azure ribbon when the light of the New Testament revelation shines upon it, illustrating the behavior suited to the one who is dead, buried, and risen with Christ. True, these glorious doctrines of salvation will not be found stated in the Old Testament; they belong to the special unfolding of truth revealed through the apostle Paul. But as “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,” so the newly created soul will most appreciate the instruction of this wonderfully practical book of the Old Testament. Like all other Scripture, it has been “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have arrived.”
The book of Proverbs did not attain its present structure until the days of Hezekiah-that is, though the entire book is God-breathed, it did not exist in the form of one book until that date (Proverbs 25:1). The main divisions would seem to be as follows:
Chapter 1-9: Wisdom and folly contrasted.
Chapter 10-24: A collection of proverbs written by Solomon and set in order by himself.
Chapter 25-29: “Also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.”
Chapter 30: The sayings of an otherwise unknown sage named Agur the son of Jakeh.
Chapter 31: Instruction given to king Lemuel by his mother.
This is the arrangement of the book we will now study. As a part of “all Scripture,” we may rest assured we will find it “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness,” helping to perfect the man of God unto all good works.
the Sixth Week after Easter