Proverbs is, for me, undoubtedly one of the most difficult books in the entire Bible. Â And this is the case for several reasons. Â First, there are difficult exegetical issues, particularly regarding Woman Wisdom and Lady Folly. Â In addition, there are some difficult cultural barriers to climb in order to properly interpret some of the wisdom sayings themselves. Â Third, what at least appears to be a rather discombobulated collection of sayings makes gaining comprehensive insight on any one issue a bit of a challenge. Â Finally, good commentaries on Proverbs are very difficult to find (although not nonexistent… see below), making finding the answers to some of these questions pretty tough.
But I’ve spent the last year or so teaching Proverbs to the junior high and high school students at Sylvania Church, and wanted to pass along some findings that I pray will help you as you approach this beautiful and deeply beneficial, yet difficult book.
What Is A Proverb?
As you may have picked up on from the introduction, the wordÂ proverb literally means “wisdom saying.”
Are Proverbs Promises?
In short, “No.” Â A proverb, or wisdom saying, even according to secular definitions, is a statement that is generally, not always, true. Â As such, most Proverbs have an implied “More often than not…” or “Generally speaking…” attached to them.
And Christians need to be careful here.
I have friends who legitimately trained up their children in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6), and, despite the general wisdom of the Proverb, are going through the painful experience of watching one of their two children “depart from it” now that he is older. Â To make matters worse, they’ve had Christian brothers and sisters say, in essence, “If you had trained up your child in the way he should go, you wouldn’t be in this situation.” Â Of course, such a comment warrants the response, “If you had equipped Â yourself to understand the nature of a proverb, you wouldn’t have needlessly discouraged your all ready hurting brother.”
What Is Wisdom?
Solomon opens the book of Proverbs by letting the cat out of the bag regarding the purpose of the book. Â In no uncertain terms, he says that his purpose is simple: to give wisdom (Prov. 1:1-7).Â But, â€œWhat is wisdom?â€Â God said to Job:
â€œâ€˜Behold, the fear of the Lord,Â that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understandingâ€™â€ (Job 28:28).
Consider also the following understandings of wisdom:
â€œWisdom is seeing who God is (i.e. holy, completely other, awe-inspiring), knowing what God desires (i.e. the contents of Scripture), and responding accordingly.â€
â€œWisdom is the skill of livingâ€ (Tremper Longman).1
Who Wrote Proverbs?
Contrary to what has become popular belief, Solomon is an author, not the author, of Proverbs.Â Writing with him is a group of people, called â€œthe wise,â€ two guys named Agur and Lemuel (great options for those having the “What will I name my child?” conversation), and an unidentified author who wrote Proverbs 31.
To Whom Was Proverbs Written?
â€œMy sonâ€ is frequently addressed in Proverbs.Â No matter whether you think the â€œsonâ€ is a physical descendant or a spiritual descendent, as Timothy was to Paul, a key to understanding Proverbs is realizing that it is a book of wisdom written from an older, wiser father to a younger, maturing son, a means of giving wisdom that accords with Titus 2:1-8.
That said, it is unnecessary to assume Proverbs has no application for women. Â The first 9 chapters of Proverbs, for example, are written in letter form from Solomon to his “son,” which seems to have been an actual person rather a general term referencing all men, so that the gender distinction is reflective of the gender of an actual person. Â This means that Solomon’s use of the word “son,” for example, was likely not to exclude anyone, whether women or even other men in cases where “son” is used in singular form, but simply the natural result of addressing a particular young man and/or group of young men. Â This argument is also supported by the fact that most of the wisdom in Proverbs is not only, or even mainly, useful for men, but for everyone, male and female.
So, while no one is exempt from needing Proverbs, Proverbs was written to a younger, maturing generation, likely teenage years and possibly into the twenties, from an older, wiser generation.
To What Aspect Of Salvation Does Proverbs Most Relate?
Sanctification, or spiritual growth.Â Proverbs does not tell us how to earn salvation; rather, it describes the life of the person who all ready has salvation. Â This, of course, is consistent with the rest of Scripture, which makes clear the following two truths:
1) Salvation is through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone (Rom. 4:1-5, Galatians… all of it).
2) Those who are saved live increasingly loving, obedient lives by the power of Spirit (Phil. 2:12-13, 1 John… all of it).
These are absolutely essential distinctions to keep in mind when reading Proverbs, since there is incredible danger is misunderstanding the role of works in salvation (Gal. 2:21, 3:10-14).
Where Is God In Proverbs?
If youâ€™ve ever read Proverbs, youâ€™ll notice something excluded from the book that is included in almost every other book in the Old Testament: a mention of redemptive history.Â Virtually every book in the Old Testament makes mention of the patriarchs (i.e., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.), the exodus (i.e., Godâ€™s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian captivity), the kings (i.e., David, Solomon, etc.), etc.Â At least at first glance, Proverbs looks like a book of largely secular wisdom.Â But I want you to see that Proverbs has very much to do with God, that it is not at all a collection of godless sayings:
1) Wisdom Is Rooted In The Fear of God.
â€œâ€˜Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understandingâ€™â€ (Job 28:28).
â€œThe fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instructionâ€ (Prov. 1:7).
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight (Prov. 9:10).
2) Wisdom Comes From God.
â€œFor the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understandingâ€ (Prov. 2:6).
God is not only the reason to seek wisdom, but also the fountain from which wisdom flows.
3) Wisdom Is God.
Proverbs 8:30 tells us that Wisdom is amon [aw-mone], a Greek word meaning â€œmaster workmanâ€ or â€œarchitectâ€ (Prov. 8:30, NLT).Â Why is this significant?Â Because wisdom was the â€œmaster workmanâ€ or â€œarchitectâ€ who was active in creation.Â And twice in Paulâ€™s writings he reveals to us that Wisdom has a name: Jesus Christ.Â So, wisdom is not just from God; wisdom is God in the sense that Jesus Christ is the very embodiment of wisdom.Â Paul asserts in 1 Cor. 1:24 that Jesus is â€œthe power of God and the wisdom of Godâ€ and again in 1 Cor. 1:30 that Jesus Christ â€œbecame to us wisdom from God.â€
How Should Proverbs Be Studied?
Proverbs 1-9 and 31 should be studiedÂ expositionally, although there are other isolated passages in Proverbs that are best studied expositionally (i.e., portions of Proverbs 30, etc.). Â On the other hand, Proverbs 10-30 are best studied topically, and you can find a very good topical breakdown of Proverbs with supporting passages by clicking here.
- How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman
- Baker Commentary on the Old Testament, Wisdom and Psalms: Proverbs by Tremper Longman.
- Crossway Classic Commentaries: Proverbs by Charles Bridges
I hope this serves as a helpful introduction to Proverbs, giving you a lens through which to read and understand this beautiful and, at times, very difficult, yet deeply rewarding book that God inspired for the benefit of His people.
Questions or comments? Â Let’s talk below.
- Tremper Longman, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament, Wisdom and Psalms: Proverbs. [↩]