Proverbs, An Introduction



Very few commentaries had been written on Proverbs until recently. Now, more and more scholars are studying OT Wisdom literature and significant commentaries have emerged.[1] It is by far the “most practical” books of the OT. Its sage advice, pithy style, and clear exhortations make it the favorite book of many. Most of Proverbs often have direct and immediate relevance to all readers.

Interestingly, the book is rarely preached though often studied. The reason may be due to its very strength. If it is so eminently practical and clear, what more needs to be said? There is also the difficulty of its arrangements — the verses often appear to be a series of unrelated series of exhortations and statements. This would make for difficult preaching. Remember, this is one of the books on which Calvin did not write a commentary.  Another reason is the danger of moralism. The book seems to stress how we ought to act more than what God has done for us (cf. Hubbard, 17).

The Latin Vulgate uses the title, Liber Proverbiorum. It is the translation of the Hebrew misle (a form of masal, which means “proverb”). The Greek OT (LXX) uses paroimiai which can be translated as parable or proverb. A proverb is a short, pithy observation, admonition, warning, prohibition, and wise saying.[2]


1-9, A fatherly approach: exhortations for the young.

10:1-22:16, A plain man’s approach: Solomon’s collection of sentence-sayings. Life’s regularities, oddities, dangers and delights, noted, compared and evaluated.

22:17-24:22 and 24:23-34, More fatherly teachings: two groups of wise men’s exhortations.

25-29, More sentence-sayings; gleanings from Solomon, compiled by Hezekiah’s men. [25:1, “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied.”]

30, An observer’s approach: musings on the hidden Creator and on the idiosyncrasies of his creatures. [30:1, “The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle.”]

31, A womanly approach: a mother’s home-truths (1-9); a wife’s example (10-31).


A dominant theme which runs through the book is the theme of wisdom. Wisdom is explicitly stated while her existence is always implied. Wisdom generally means “masterful understanding,” “skill,” “expertise.” Wisdom is inseparable from knowledge. “In Proverbs, hokma [wisdom] denotes mastery over experience through the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual state of knowing existentially the deed-destiny nexus — that is, to act on moral-spiritual knowledge out of its internalization (1:2; 2:1-5), thereby enabling its possessor to cope with enigma and adversity, to tear down strongholds, and thus to promote the life of an individual and/or a community (21:22; cf. 24:5; Eccl. 7:19; 9:13-16). A person could memorize the book of Proverbs and still lack wisdom if it id not affect his heart, which informs behavior.”[4]

In Proverbs, wisdom is pitted against the fatal charms of the whore and the adulteress and against folly itself. “There is presented to us the figure of Wisdom as the soul’s true bride, true counselor, true hostess, and as the very offspring of the Creator.”[5]

Wisdom, in these chapters, obviously prepares the way for Jesus Christ who is the Wisdom of God (1Cor. 1:24). Wisdom is personified as a Lady crying out (“Wisdom cries aloud in the street…” 1:20). We find wisdom is deeply rooted in God (8:22ff.), comes from God (2:6, “The Lord gives wisdom”) and is related to one’s attitude to God (9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”).

The Benefits of Wisdom

There are great benefits in having wisdom. It is the fool who overlooks or disregards this. Several verses bring this point out. Wisdom is its own reward of course but possessing her soothes the soul and satisfies the person.

2:10-12, “…for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; 11 discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, 12 delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech,:

3:7-8, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”

9:11, “For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life.”

10:23, “Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding.”

Wisdom Resides in God

In 8:22, we see Wisdom personified and perhaps a reference to Christ Himself. God possessed or acquired (ynIn”q’) wisdom from the beginning (NIV is not the best on this). “Wisdom is both older than the universe, and fundamental to it. Not a speck of matter (26b), not a trace of order (29), came into existence but by wisdom” (Kidner, Proverbs, 78)

God Himself never acted without Wisdom; He was always there in the beginning with her; He possessed her and she has always dwelt with Him.

JOB 28 asks where can wisdom be found— Job 28:23 “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.” “Man’s remarkable success as a miner shows how clever and intelligent he is; but, for all that, he has failed completely to unearth wisdom.” (Andersen on Job, in TOTC)

Wisdom Comes from God

The Lord is able to give wisdom (2:6), “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding…” The Lord wants to give wisdom (1:20ff.; 8:1-11; 9:1-6).

Unlike the solicitors of our generation who may or may not be selling something beneficial, here is one who solicits us and who benefits from this? You and I do! 9:12 says, “If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it.”

Remember, the Lord entreats us to entreat Him for wisdom. James 1:5 says,  “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”  Prov. 2:3-4 says, “and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure…” There is great danger of not heeding wisdom, the danger of not acquiring wisdom (1:23ff.)

Wisdom is connected to God

It says that the FEAR of the LORD is the beginning of WISDOM (9:10).  The word for “beginning” doesn’t just mean to start with the fear of the Lord and then graduate into something else. The word also suggests priority, its prominent position- it is first in importance and first in sequence. As one commentator said, the fear of God is both the ceiling and the foundation, namely, that it is our goal as well as our beginning. Job 28:28 says, “And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.'”

In other words, there is no wisdom without the fear of God; without that all gripping reverence for God and His ways, without that holy trembling before His infinite majesty-there simply is no wisdom.

All our ways are related to God and He can thwart all human efforts. If this fear of the Lord does not guide our steps, then we act as fools since none of our labors can stand on their own. Proverbs 16:1-4 says, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD. 2 All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. 3 Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established. 4 The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. Also, 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”) “The fear of the Lord relativizes human wisdom, because the mysterious freedom of God can subvert human plans and purposes (16:1, 9; 19:21; 21:30-31; 27:1). Without the God of Israel, the best human wisdom becomes folly, because God alone holds the world and all outcomes in God’s hands (2 Sam 16:15-17:23; 1 Cor 1:18-31)” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, 5:33)

Wisdom recognizes that all of life is related to God and therefore the pious heart orients itself to God and regulates his life in accordance with God’s ways. Faith is critical here. Though Proverbs does not explicitly state it, it nonetheless assumes it.

…it is noteworthy that Proverbs, for all its emphasis on common sense, exalts faith above sagacity (3:5, 7: ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and upon thine own understanding lean not;…Be not wise in thine own eyes…’); and for all its advocacy of prudence it refuses prudence the last word. Planning, proper as it is (‘Plans are established by counsel: by wise guidance wage war’, 20:18)—planning is subject to God’s Yes or No (19:21: ‘Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of Yahweh that will be established’); equipment guarantees nothing (21:31: ‘The horse is prepared against the day of battle: but safety is of the Lord’)… (Kidner, Proverbs, 33)

[1] Four can be listed, from the newest to the oldest: Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006); Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005); Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998); Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, The Book of Proverbs, NIB (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997).

Also worth mentioning are Derek Kidner, The Proverbs, TOTC (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964); D. A. Hubbard, Proverbs, The Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1989); Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The New American Commentary, vol. 14 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993). The standard liberal commentary is R. N. Whybray, Proverbs, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[2] I used Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 21.

[3] This is taken from Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes: An Introduction to Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove: IVP, 1985), 18.

[4] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 77.

[5] Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 22.

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