Bible Commentary: Proverbs 1:1-7 Part 1

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Proverbs 1:1-7 Part 1

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Introduction to Proverbs

Second, following Psalms, in the Hebrew arrangement of the Writings section of the Old Testament is the premier example of wisdom literature in Scripture--the book of Proverbs. The Hebrew Title of the book, based on the first verse, is Mishle Shelomoh, "Proverbs of Solomon." The Greek title used in the Septuagint is a translation of this: Paroimiai Salomontos. As we will consider further, the Greek word here is also the word for "parables." The Latin title, Liber Proverbiorum, brings us closer to the English title we use today. The early rabbinical writings called Proverbs Sepher Hokhmah, "Book of Wisdom," after its principal subject.

Just what is a proverb? In modern parlance the word denotes a memorable short saying summarizing a time-tested truth—also known as an aphorism, adage, maxim, epigram or byword. One commentator explains: “Proverbs are pithy statements that summarize in a few choice words practical truths relating to some aspect of everyday life. The Spanish novelist Cervantes defined a proverb as ‘a short sentence based on long experience.’ From a literary point of view, that isn’t a bad definition. Some people think that our English word proverb comes from the Latin proverbium, which means ‘a set of words put forth,’ or, ‘a saying supporting a point.’ Or, it may come from the Latin pro (‘instead of,’ ‘on behalf of’) and verba (‘words’); that is, a short statement that takes the place of many words. The proverb ‘Short reckonings make long friendships’ comes across with more power than a lecture on forgiving your friends” (Warren Wiersbe, Be Skillful: An Old Testament Study—Proverbs: Tapping God’s Guidebook to Fulfillment, 2004, p. 14).

Yet we should take care here to note that the Hebrew word translated “proverb,” mashal (for which mishle is the plural), is considerably broader than this. It corresponds to our idea of a proverb, a popular short saying, in some passages (see 1 Samuel 10:12; 1 Samuel 24:13). Yet it can also refer to a prophetic discourse (see Numbers 23:7, Numbers 23:18), a taunt (see Isaiah 14:4; Micah 2:4; Habakkuk 2:6), a parable or allegory (see Ezekiel 17:2; Ezekiel 20:49; Ezekiel 24:3-5), or the longer discourse sections in Job (see Job 27:1; Job 29:1). The basic meaning of the Hebrew word mashal is “comparison,” “similarity” or “parallel.” Many of the short sayings in the book of Proverbs are comparisons or contrasts (see Proverbs 11:22; Proverbs 25:25; Proverbs 26:6-9). Sometimes these are presented with the word “better” (see Proverbs 15:16-17; Proverbs 16:19, Proverbs 16:32; Proverbs 17:1; Proverbs 19:1). But we should recognize that, unlike the latter part of the book, chapters 1–9 consist not mainly of short sayings but of lengthier discourses. Nevertheless, rather powerful metaphoric imagery is employed in these opening chapters— with wisdom and folly personified as two very different women. Such metaphoric discourses could perhaps fall within the meaning of the Hebrew term mashal. It may be that the general idea is illustrative sayings—which would include all of the above. Yet in the book of Proverbs, the meaning may more specifically refer to the compact sayings—as the section heading in Proverbs 10:1 (following the introductory chapters 1–9) seems to commence the proverbs of Solomon without an “also” as in Proverbs 25:1 (though some argue that this is because chapters 1-9 were a later addition, which seems unlikely).

As wisdom literature, the proverbs here have a didactic or instructive purpose (see Proverbs 1:1-7)—these being “the words of the wise” (Proverbs 1:6). Indeed, there were three classes of teachers in ancient Israel. Note Jeremiah 18:18: “Then they said, ‘Come and let us devise plans against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet.’” Also Ezekiel 7:26: “Then they will seek a vision from a prophet; but the law will perish from the priest, and counsel from the elders.” Besides the priests who taught the people God’s law and the prophets who communicated special messages from God, the people also learned from the “wise” or “elders” who gave them counsel on applying God’s principles and navigating their way through life. The seal of divine approval on such wisdom was its harmony with God’s laws and prophetic scriptures. Of course, in the case of the book of Proverbs, there is no question as to its divine warrant since it is now clearly part of the Bible, God’s Word. Yet even when compiled, the wisdom of its human author was known to have come from God.

 In 1 Kings 3, we read how King Solomon received his great wisdom. When chosen to succeed his father David as king, Solomon humbly asked God to grant him wisdom so that he might be a good king in governing God’s people Israel: “Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?”  (verse 9). God was very pleased with Solomon’s humble and serving attitude. Notice His response: “Behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you” (verse 12). Later in 1 Kings 4 we read: “And God gave Solomon wisdom and exceedingly great understanding and largeness of heart like the sand on the seashore. Thus Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the men of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men…and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were one thousand and five…. And men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (verses 29-34).

The fact that Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs does not mean that all originated with him. No doubt many were his creations. But others he collected, perhaps even from surrounding cultures, and some he edited and compiled into this written set. As we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Because the Preacher [most likely Solomon] was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yes, he pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find acceptable words; and what was written was upright—words of truth” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10). Some think Solomon’s plunge into uncontrolled polygamy and later idolatry disqualifies him from having written the book of Proverbs. But clearly God inspired his great wisdom and what he wrote—despite Solomon’s eventual choices to ignore what he knew to be right. Indeed, considering the other biblical testimony here, who better than Solomon to have put together the premier wisdom text?

Solomon’s name appears at the beginning of three sections of the book of Proverbs: in Proverbs 1:1 at the beginning of chapters 1–9; in Proverbs 10:1 at the beginning of 10:1–22:16; and in Proverbs 25:1 at the beginning of chapters 25–29. Let’s note the parts of the book in order of arrangement:

1. Proverbs 1:1-7 Title and Purpose Statement
2. Proverbs 1:8–9:18 Prologue (father’s exhortative discourses, wisdom personified)
3. Proverbs 10:1–22:16 Proverbs of Solomon (Major Collection)
4. Proverbs 22:17–24:22 Words of the Wise
 5. Proverbs 24:23-34 Further Words of the Wise
 6. Proverbs 25:1–29:27 Further Proverbs of Solomon (Hezekiah’s Collection)
7. Proverbs 30:1-33 Words of Agur
 8. Proverbs 31:1-9 Words of King Lemuel From His Mother
9. Proverbs 31:10-31 Epilogue (Virtuous Wife)

(Sometimes section 1 above is referred to as a prologue and section 2 is called an introduction. Others reverse these designations. And still others apply both terms to both sections together. It is true that both are really part of the same section, so that sections 1 and 2 could be assigned the same number. Also, sections 8 and 9 are often grouped together, given that 9, the book’s epilogue, has no separate attribution. This would yield a total of seven sections, corresponding to the distinct attribution at the beginning of each. Still, the authorship of the epilogue is uncertain.)

Many argue that the attribution to Solomon in Proverbs 1:1 concerns the whole work rather than specifically chapters 1–9. This seems likely, since, as mentioned earlier, Proverbs 10:1 does not have the word “also” like Proverbs 25:1 does. However, that could be because Proverbs 10:1 begins the section of compact proverbial sayings in contrast to the preceding longer discourses. As further noted earlier, some claim that chapters 1–9 constitute a later addition to the book of Proverbs written by someone other than Solomon. Yet the attribution to Solomon in 1:1 would then seem rather odd—not applying to any material for nine chapters. Thus, even though the title in Proverbs 1:1 probably refers to the book as a whole, the absence of any other attribution at the beginning of chapters 1–9 most reasonably implies that Solomon is the one behind this lengthy prologue or introduction.

Out of the large number of proverbs Solomon spoke, he selected for the book of Proverbs’ core collection bearing his name (10:1–22:16) the comparatively small number of 375 (one proverb per verse/line). Interestingly, this number corresponds to the numerical value of Solomon’s name. His name in Hebrew, Shelomoh, is written with four Hebrew consonants, each of which corresponds to a number: shin (300) + lamed (30) + mem (40) + he (5) = 375. 

A later collection of Solomonic proverbs (Proverbs 25–29) was added by “the men of Hezekiah king of Judah” (Proverbs 25:1). Hezekiah, a righteous king, directed this work—perhaps with the guidance of the prophets who were contemporary with him, Isaiah and Micah. We are not told where these were copied from, but it may have been from a book mentioned in 1 Kings 11:41: “Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, all that he did, and his wisdom, are they not written in the book of the acts of Solomon?” Some contend that the number of proverbs in this section (which is not always one per verse) likewise corresponds to the numerical value of Hezekiah’s name. His name is variously spelled, but in Proverbs 25:1 the form is Hzqyh: heth (8) + zayin (7) + qoph (100) + yod (10) + he (5) = 130. The exact number of proverbs in this section is not clear, as some may be conjoined, but this number is perhaps possible. It is certainly close. Some contend that Hezekiah’s name, as in other passages, should be counted with a preceding yod (valued at 10), yielding a total of 140—and they argue that there are 140 verse lines in this collection that should be counted instead of literary units or sayings.

We do not know when the other collections in the book were included—these being the two from the “wise” (Proverbs 22:17–24:22; Proverbs 24:23-34) and that of Agur (Proverbs 30:1-33) and of Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1-9), of which, as noted above, the epilogue about the virtuous wife (Proverbs 31:10-31) may or may not be part. Since none of these sections include a note about scribal copying like the Hezekiah collection, it may be that these others were all part of Solomon’s original compilation. As for Agur and Lemuel, we do not know who they are. Some consider these names to be pseudonyms for Solomon, but this is not provable and seems unlikely given the other clear attributions. We will further consider this matter later.

Other numerical factors may have guided the final editorial work on the book. As commentator Patrick Skehan notes: “The title in Proverbs 1:1 alleges ‘Proverbs of Solomon (375), son of David (d = 4 + w = 6 + d = 4, or 14 in all), king of Israel.’ Now since Ysr’l has the numerical value (y = 10 + s = 300 + r = 200 + ’ = 1 + l = 30) 541, the names in Proverbs 1:1 have a value of 375 + 14 + 541, or 930, the number of lines in the book” (Studies in Israelite Poetry and Wisdom, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly—Monograph Series I, 1971, p. 44). The same commentator argues that the book is constructed as the “house of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:1), arranged in a numeric pattern corresponding to the temple of Solomon. “Skehan’s theory is intriguing, but most scholars remain unconvinced of its validity. Its very complexity and the peculiar way some passages are combined give the theory a contrived look” (New American Commentary, introduction to Proverbs, p. 48). Time and space limitations prevent further examination of this idea here.