Proverbs is one of the most popular books of the Bible, perhaps because most of the book is comprised of bite-sized nuggets of practical wisdom. In the age of Twitter and text messages, many of us love getting our daily information intake in small bites of 140 characters or less. When it comes to capturing people’s attention, it appears less really is more!
Turns out not much has changed in the nearly 3,000 years since King Solomon penned his first proverb. After all, in Hebrew, most of the proverbs in the biblical book are only around seven words long!
Their brevity isn’t the only reason the Proverbs have had such staying power. There’s also their subject: wisdom — something we all could probably use a little more of (some of us more than others!).
I’ve often turned to Proverbs during seasons when I needed help making decisions — whether day-to-day or major life choices — and I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard. At other times I’ve felt the Holy Spirit lead me to Proverbs to remind myself of the importance of self-discipline and respect for others. Proverbs also has a lot to say about speech ethics; it reminds us to use our words to enhance and enrich lives rather than tear people down.
So, if you’re in need of some wisdom, this ancient book has a lot of valuable things to say to you. Over the next few posts, I’m going to give a bit of an orientation to Proverbs, and also take a look at some key themes in the book that are especially relevant in our day.
Fast Facts About the Book
- It had its origins in the reign of King Solomon, the son of David, who ruled over Israel from around 970-931 B.C.E. Solomon was famous for his immense, God-given wisdom, and is credited with writing thousands of proverbs (1 Kings 4:29-32) and with generally being the fountainhead of Israel’s learning and wisdom traditions.
- Not all of the book’s proverbs were written by Solomon. One chapter is attributed to an “Agur, son of Jakeh” (Proverbs 30) and another to “King Lemuel” (Proverbs 31) — people otherwise unknown to us aside from what’s been recorded here in Proverbs. There is also a section called “the words of the wise,” that may possibly have been collected or adapted from sources outside of Israel (22:17-24:34). In other words, we can think of Proverbs as an inspired anthology of ancient wisdom.
- The first nine chapters go together and are meant to be read as a unit. They function somewhat like an extended introduction to the anthology that follows, and serve as a meditation on the nature and value of godly wisdom, as well as the dangers of foolish, ungodly living. Poetically cast in the form of a father passing on his life’s lessons to his son, this section reminds us that we live in a moral universe, and as such we should strive for God’s wisdom and demonstrate moral integrity if we wish to experience successful and fulfilling lives.
Fast Facts About Proverbs Themselves
- Pretty much every culture has their own proverbs. Consider some English ones: “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth.” “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” “Waste not, want not.” “The early bird gets the worm.”
- Proverbs are brief. They’re designed to be easy to remember and repeat. A well-crafted proverb will easily get stuck in your head. But even though they’re usually short and pithy, a good proverb — like the biblical ones — will have a lot of truth packed into them. It’s like beef jerky for the mind — a small piece, but it takes a while to chew and savor all the flavor. You have to meditate on a good proverb.
- Proverbs give advice. They teach us something about how the world works and how we should act in certain situations. They’re very practical – which is why it’s good to study Proverbs often.
- Proverbs express beliefs. This aspect is especially important in the biblical book of Proverbs, because the Bible’s proverbs are written to teach us how our beliefs about God and the world He’s made should shape our everyday behaviors (we’ll talk more about that in the next post).
- Proverbs are generally true. They are not absolutes! Proverbs are general rules, and as such they can have exceptions. That’s especially important with such verses as Proverbs 10:3 — “The Lord will not let the righteous go hungry, but he denies the wicked what they crave,” or 22:6 — “Train a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Proverbs like these are observations about the way things usually work, intended to motivate us to choose a wise course of action. Just remember: A proverb is not a promise.
Why Study Proverbs?
The first verses of the book tell us why. Consider Proverbs 1:1-6 (NLT) (the book’s own introduction to itself):
“These are the proverbs of Solomon, David’s son, king of Israel.
Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline,
to help them understand the insights of the wise.
Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives,
to help them do what is right, just, and fair.
These proverbs will give insight to the simple,
knowledge and discernment to the young.
Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser.
Let those with understanding receive guidance
by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables,
the words of the wise and their riddles.”
So what are the purposes of proverbs, according to these verses?
First, they teach us wisdom and discipline. They are tools God uses to provide us with moral instruction so that we can live lives that please him.
Second, they help us understand the insights of the wise. In other words, they help us learn how to receive good advice and accept correction.
Third, they teach us how to live disciplined and successful lives. They also teach us what “success” really is, as opposed to what the world thinks it is.
And last, they help us do what is “right, just, and fair.” This is one aspect of the Proverbs that many people overlook. They’re not just so we can feel smarter; they actually are meant to lead us to pursue righteousness and justice in our lives. Consider Solomon’s own experience, from 1 Kings 3:3-14. Especially important is verse 9, where Solomon gives his reason why he wanted wisdom: namely, so he could make wise and just decisions as a leader.
Hopefully this whets your appetite for the wisdom Proverbs has to offer! We’ll talk more about what wisdom is — and how we can get it — in the next post.
See you down the path.