An Introduction to Proverbs
Never at times in history have we known so much, and yet been certain of so little.
Buckminster Fuller is credited for defining the “Knowledge Doubling Curve.” According to Fuller, up until 1900, knowledge doubled every 100 years. Following the end of WWII, knowledge was said to double every 25 years. Now it is said that that knowledge doubles as “slow” as every 12-13 months and fast as every 12 hours.
Alvin Toffler in his famous book published in 1970 called Future Shock wrote, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
We live in a time with unlimited knowledge and limited wisdom. The pace of life, rate of change, presence of hostility, and the uncertainty of our future can be confusing and overwhelming. We do not suffer from an absence of knowledge, but rather a lack of wisdom. We are in a time where we need timeless wisdom.
God has given us a resource of timeless wisdom to navigate our uncertain world called Proverbs.
The book of Proverbs is a collection of the ancient wisdom of Israel.
The word “wisdom” in Proverbs actually means “skill.” It does not refer to theoretical concepts, but it refers to applied knowledge. This word was used to describe tradesmen like garment makers, goldsmith and sailors. God does not give us wisdom simply so that we can know more, but that we can live better. Proverbs is about how to live wisely in God’s world.
John Walton writes that the purpose of Proverbs was to compile the wisdom of Ancient Israel that was based on the fear of the Lord. The purpose was to promote a safe, healthy, and functioning family and society with the Lord at the center.
Wisdom is based on an understanding that the world belongs to God. Wisdom belongs to God, and we belong to God. Wisdom is the understanding that everything must be seen in the light of God’s character, creation, and sovereignty.
Unlike most other Biblical books, Proverbs is not a book that is written in a chronological or thematic order. It appears to be a collection of proverbial sayings in random order. Michael For notes that principles are sometimes collected together in a few consecutive verses that create a thematic cluster. Other times they are scattered throughout the majority of the book. Recurring themes throughout the book include wealth, marriage, sex, raising children, making wise decisions, communication, justice and navigating conflict.
Although the collection of wise expressions that can appear somewhat haphazardly. However, scholars note the following structure:
- In Praise of Wisdom 1:1-9:18
- The Proverbs of Solomon 10:1-22:16
- The Sayings of Wise Men 22:17-24:22
- Further Sayings of Wise Men 24:23-34
- More Proverbs of Solomon (Compiled by Hezekiah’s Men) 25:1-29:27
- The Words of Agur 30:1-33
- Words of King Lemuel 31:1-9
- The Wife of Noble Character 31:10-31
Kathleen Nielson writes that other wisdom books, such as Job, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastics, are unified, literary symphonies. However, “Proverbs is more like a piano lesson, covering scales and basic chords-the stuff that mess up all the music-although it regularly breaks out into songs of various styles.” (Nielson, Proverbs for You, 9-10)
- Proverbs are not promises, guarantees, or commands. Proverbs are generalizations. They are usually true and thus can be embraced as values. For example, Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” For the most part, children will become who the parents train them to be. They will usually embrace the faith, attitude, actions, and culture that was modeled by their parents. However, there are exceptions to the rules. Sometimes parents can do a great job, and the child may choose a divergent path. Other times, children may be raised in a completely dysfunctional environment and turn out well. Proverbs describe the rule, not the exception.
- Proverbs can seem contradictory. That is because all circumstances require wisdom, but they do not require the same wisdom. Consider 26:4-5: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” There are times that a fool needs to be corrected and there are other times when a fool simply needs to be ignored. Both statements are equally true, depending on the setting.
How to get the most out of studying Proverbs:
- Watch this short overview video created by the Bible Project to become oriented to the book.
- Read one chapter of Proverbs per day corresponding with the day of the month. (On the first, read Proverbs 1. On the second, read Proverbs 2, etc.)
- Ask reflective questions as you read: Tim and Kathy Keller suggest the following questions after reading each portion:
- “Where in your life or the life of someone else have you seen this observation illustrated?”
- “How can you put this observation into practice-in thought, attitude, word or deed?”
- Study it with a friend. Proverbs was not written to one individual, but to a community. Wisdom is learned best in, and belongs to, the community.
- Use a good commentary as you read the scripture. Eric Lane and Bruce Waltke are among those who have written great commentaries on Proverbs.
Look at wisdom in the light of Christ.
Proverbs, like every other book in scripture, points to our need of Jesus and His redemptive work. Keller writes, “Therefore, like every other part of the Bible, Proverbs will give up its fullest and richest meaning only when it is read in the light of the person and work of Jesus. Jesus dazzled his listeners with his wisdom (Luke 2:40, 47; Mark 6:2). He claimed to be the new Solomon with the ultimate wisdom (Luke 11:31). The personified Wisdom that created the world (Proverbs 8:22-31) is finally revealed to be Jesus, the Word of God, with whom God created the world (John 1:1-4). Paul calls Jesus the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30), the one in whom all God’s wisdom is hidden (Colossians 2:3).” Christ not only points us toward wisdom, all wisdom points us to Christ.