Introduction
Together with Job and Ecclesiastes, the book of Proverbs is one of the three major Wisdom books in the Hebrew Bible. All three are part of the third section of the Hebrew Bible—the Writings—but the Greek Septuagint Bible relocated them in its ordering between the Historical books and the Prophets, and the Latin Vulgate Bible and the KJV did the same. These Wisdom books are each entirely or largely written in the form of Hebrew poetry, in which the most distinctive feature is “poetic parallelism.” Proverbs has many examples of artful parallelism, in which the poet “rhymes” thoughts rather than sounds, as in, “Pride goeth before destruction, / and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16.18). Wisdom literature represents the accumulated teachings of the Israelite sages over many years, much of it from the instruction in the schools where future scribes and scholars were trained. The royal court had great need for skilled scribes and learned sages and thus the need for schools where such could be trained. Wisdom literature is also typically open to learning from international sources, and this is why there are parallels or echoes in these books of Egyptian and Mesopotamian Wisdom literature.
That the students for whom this material was originally compiled were almost surely exclusively male is evident in the frequent addressing of its counsel to “my son” (2.1; 3.1; 5.1; etc.). Both Wisdom, and her opposite, Folly, are depicted as women in Proverbs. The one is “more precious than rubies” and “a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her” (3.15,18); the other, sometimes depicted as a harlot, “is loud and stubborn; her feet abide not in her house…. Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death” (7.11,27). The book's first chapters contain several beautiful panegyrics to Woman Wisdom (1.20—2.5; 4.13-18; 8.1-36) and the book ends with very concrete advice about the qualities a young man should look for in a wife (31.1-31), these being the lessons imparted to King Lemuel by his own wise mother. The original intentions of the compiler of these proverbs aside, most of the teachings in Proverbs speak equally well to young women and young men, and to people of all ages.
Proverbs is a huge collection of maxims and adages, mostly brief and pithy, and aiming to communicate both practical knowledge and spiritual wisdom to readers. A very common theme is the crucial importance of gaining wisdom and shunning foolishness, because it is only through the gaining of wisdom that one is able to view the world rightly and to discern how to live in it according to such important values as humility, righteousness, justice, and equity. Constructing and phrasing a proverb was considered a most artful skill. The idea was to express practical guidance profoundly with few words, as in, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, / lest thou also be like unto him” (26.4). On the whole, this collection of proverbs offers a range of moral advice to help people build sound character, standards of upright and honest behavior, and even to learn good manners. Commonly featured virtues include: humility, self-control, patience, trust in God, care for the poor, loyalty to friends, and honesty in word and deed. Wisdom is shown to be a gift of God, which will be a helpful guide in life for everything from practical matters to serving God.
Outline
Wisdom, Advice and Instruction (1.1—9.18)
Many of Solomon's Wise Sayings (10.1—22.16)
Wise Sayings from Other Sages (22.17—24.34)
Proverbs of Solomon Copied in the Court of King Hezekiah (25.1—29.27)
The Wise Sayings of Agur and of Lemuel's Mother (30.1—31.31)
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