Proverbs was not written in paragraph form with continuity of thought from verse to verse. That means that most verses must be understood as they stand. We do not always have the benefit of context to help in questionable interpretations. About a dozen or more main themes recur throughout the book, including diligence, honesty, control of the tongue, moral courage, righteousness, mercy, truthfulness, and others.
The Significance of the Title
The Hebrew word for Proverbs (mishlai) is derived from the root word mishal, which means “to rule.” If this is the case, then the Proverbs are given to us as general rules whereby one controls every aspect of his life. Others have also suggested that the word is masal, which means “a comparison,” and highlights the style of the book which either compares or contrasts one half of the distich (a strophic unit of two lines) with the other.
While not claiming inspiration, there does appear to be the overruling hand of God in the arrangement of the Old Testament. Its division into 5-12-5-5-12 is most interesting. Right in the middle, in the heart of the Old Testament, is a collection of five books. These have become known as the wisdom books or poetic books of the Bible.
At least four different compilers are involved in the book we call Proverbs. Solomon appends his name to the head of chapter 1, “The Proverbs of Solomon.” But he again uses the same introduction to chapter 10. When we arrive at 22:17, we are introduced to “the sayings of the wise,” which span the verses to the end of chapter 24. Chapter 25 is introduced with the words, “These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.” In Proverbs 30 we find the name of Agur, and in chapter 31, “the words of king Lemuel … that his mother taught him.”
The Proverbs divides into at least seven sections. There is a heading at the beginning of each to carefully mark these.
- The Preface (1:1-7)
- The Wisdom of Solomon (1:8-9:18)
- The Words of Solomon (10:1-22:16)
- The Wise and their Sayings (22:17-24:34)
- The Writing of the Men of Hezekiah (25:1-29:27)
- The Weighty Observations of Agur (30:1-33)
- The Worth of the Virtuous Woman and Words of Lemuel (31:1-31)
Proverbs begins with a father giving instruction to a son and closes with a mother giving instructions to a son about the kind of woman he should seek for a spouse.
Proverbs by their very nature are brief and pointed, pithy and memorable. They are not meant to be exhaustive, covering every possible set of circumstances, but generalizations of truth and not truth without exception. This does not mean that they are not inspiration. These are nuggets of wisdom gained from the observation of the normal and general events of life. Proverbs are meant to describe how things normally work, not how they must.
A comparison may be helpful here. Think of some modern-day proverbs. “A watched pot never boils.” No one would argue the significance of this proverb, but who would dare defend that a watched pot NEVER boils? It is not meant as a statement of absolute truth, but a generalization of experience which carries with it a much deeper lesson. Most of the time the proverbs carry a meaning, not only consistent with the literal interpretation but also underlining a principle of greater importance.
The proverbs are written in distich or what becomes versed (a short verse) or couplet. The distich is made up of two lines. These two lines can have one of several different relationships to each other. There can be synonymous parallelism in which the second line restates the first line in such a way that it reinforces and strengthens the message. Most of these begin with the word “and.” Consider Proverbs 17:17…
A friend loveth at all times,
And a brother is born for adversity.
Another form of parallelism is called synthetic parallelism in which the second half of the verse builds or adds to the first part of the statement. Look at Proverbs 20:18…
Every purpose is established by counsel:
And with good advice make war.
Finally, there is what is termed antithetical parallelism in which the second part of the distich is a contrast to the first. These frequently begin with the word “but.” Look at Proverbs 16:2…
All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes;
But the Lord weigheth the spirits.
Proverbs and the Epistle of James
Anyone reading the epistle is immediately struck with the similarity in both style and content.
Proverbs is also used in the New Testament elsewhere. On at least eight occasions, proverbs are employed to stress or underline a truth in the epistles. These proverbs are quoted – 1:16; 3:11-12; 3:34 (twice); 10:12; 11:31; 25:21-22; 26:11. They are cited in Romans, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 2 Peter and James.
The imagery of Proverbs serves a valuable purpose. Just think of the many animals mentioned. Lessons are drawn from lizards, ravens, sparrows and swallows, bears, lions, goats, horses, dogs, swine, oxen, ants, leeches, badgers and donkeys. Who has ever improved upon the imagery of Proverbs 11:22?
As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout,
So is a fair woman which is without discretion.
The Selectivity of the Book
Solomon spoke about 3,000 proverbs (1Ki 4:32), yet there are only about 300 in the first group of chapters. Then we have the sayings of the wise in chapters 22-24. Finally, in chapters 25 through 29, the men of Hezekiah’s day copied out and added another 130. So obviously the Spirit of God used great selectivity in the proverbs chosen.
The Subjects Dealt With
Solomon’s writings underline themes of significance for day-to-day living. He writes of friendship and its implementation. Speech, control of the tongue, and temper are frequent subjects for his pen. Family living, embracing both parent and child, and husband-wife relationships are seen frequently. Honesty and diligence, piety and purity, humility and truth-telling recur in virtually every chapter. Above all, the value of wisdom is the chief lesson of the book. Its availability and its advisability are the recurring themes. In its light we learn the value of discipline and advice to grow in wisdom.
The Sketches of Characters Employed
One of the most profitable and enjoyable ways of studying Proverbs is to look at the character sketches which are given throughout. What follows are only a few of the many character studies which reveal Solomon’s keen insight, guided by the Spirit of God, into human nature. A rich understanding of human psychology is available here for the seeker.
- The Senseless Man or the Fool
- The Density of His Mind (12:15; 15:5; 26:12)
- The Decision-Making Process (17:10,16,24)
- The Damage He Causes (10:23; 14:9; 18:6-7; 20:3)
- The Danger of His Mouth (10:18; 18:7; 19:1; 29:11)
- The Deafness of His Ears (17:16; 26:3,11)
- The Simple Man
- What He Lacks (1:4; 7:7; 14:15; 22:3; 27:12)
- What He Loves (1:22)
- What He Listens To
- Attractiveness of Wisdom (8:5; 9:4)
- Attack by Folly (9:13-18)
- What He Loses
- Current Loss (14:18)
- Eternal Loss (1:32)
- What He Learns (19:25; 21:11)
- His Locations
- The Strange Woman
- Fair Speech (7:21)
- Flattering Words (7:5)
- Flirtatious Ways (6:25ff.)
- Flames of Passion
- False Expectations (7:13-21)
- The Son
- Heeding Peer Pressure (1:10)
- His Habits (3:1)
- His Home (10:1)
- Harvest (10:5)
- Hearing (13:1)
- Hurtful (17:25)
- His Heart (23:26)
- The Sluggard or Slothful Man
- Mentioned perhaps 22x in Proverbs
- The Field of the Sluggard (24:30-34)
- The Food of the Slothful (12:27; 19:24; 20:4)
- The Frustration of the Slothful (13:4; 21:25)
- The Folly of the Sluggard (20:4)
- The Focus for the Sluggard (6:6-11)
- The Future of the Sluggard (12:24; 24:30-34)
- The Scorner
- And Correction (9:7-8)
- And His Conduct (21:24; 22;10; 29:8)
- And His Company (24:9)
- And His Condemnation (3:34)
- The Savior
- Architect (8:22-36)
- The Just One (4:18)
- The Surety (11:15)
- Friend (18:24)
- Strong Tower (18:10)
- King (30:27,31)
- Host (9:1-6)
No overview would be complete if it did not mention the frequent mentions of “the fear of the Lord” (14 times).
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.