The Hebrew word proverb comes from a verb that means “to represent” or “to be like.” Thus, the proverbs in Proverbs often employ comparisons or contrasts in order to make their point. Contrast is especially a marked feature of Proverbs (called contrasting or antithetical parallelism), which is why the two lines of many verses are connected with “but.”
The book of Proverbs is not monolithic but is composed of six sections.
A brief preface (1:1-7) explains the purpose of the entire book and emphasizes that the fear of the Lord is necessary to the acquisition of any true knowledge (v. 7). The fear of the Lord is a central theme in Proverbs (1:7; 2:5; 9:10; 10:27; 14:26-27; 15:16, 33; 16:6; 19:23; 22:4).
Throughout the book, Proverbs classifies people’s attitude towards the wisdom of fearing God as essentially threefold: the simple, the wise, and the fool.
Promoting the Path of Wisdom (1:8-9:18)
The next nine chapters (1:8-9:18) extol wisdom with the goal of convincing the reader to make wisdom a chief pursuit in his or her life. If the simple will heed these chapters, they have a chance of becoming wise. What emerges in these chapters is that walking in the path of wisdom is a protection, a shield from the evil that can so easily destroy you.
These nine chapters are also full of words for way, path, or road. Underline every such word you come to as you read these chapters. I count 52 occurrences. How many do you come up with? Proverbs 9 sets forth clearly the two ways, each with a woman beckoning the traveler. The traveler must choose between Lady Wisdom or Lady Folly. Which will be your choice?
Miscellany of Individual Proverbs (10:1-22:16)
The core chapters of Proverbs set forth what the path of wisdom and the path of folly look like in everyday life and contain the short, pithy, true-to-life maxims for which Proverbs is primarily known. Proverbs 10:1-22:16 contain 375 proverbs, all one verse in length. Even in these chapters we see the word way or path repeated. There is a way to life and a way to death, as different from each other as Cain from Abel. The way you think is right may actually be the way to death. You cannot “follow your heart”; you must follow the pathway Proverbs maps out as wisdom.
Every aspect of life is impacted by which pathway you choose: your speech, perspective toward work, choice of companions, business ethics, spending practices, behavior toward kings, treatment of the poor, discipline of children, and response to insults.
Wisdom is the skill of choosing what pleases God in all of these areas and more, and the consequences for making the wrong choices are severe (14:12).
Words of the Wise (22:17-24:34)
The next section of Proverbs is two collections of wise sayings, probably compiled and edited by Solomon (22:17-24:34), that break out of the one-verse proverb pattern of Proverbs 10:1-22:16. Multi-verse clusters of wisdom are sprinkled throughout these chapters, such as what to expect when you eat a stingy person’s food (23:6-8) and the folly of pursuing wine (23:29-35).
Hezekiah’s Collection of Solomon’s Proverbs (chs. 25-29)
Proverbs 25-29 is another collection of Solomon’s proverbs, brought together in Hezekiah’s day. (Remember that Solomon composed and/or amassed some 3,000 proverbs.) Chapters 25 and 26 repeatedly use picturesque similes that require meditation to catch the point being conveyed. Chapters 27-29 return to the one-verse proverb format typical of Proverbs’ earlier chapters.
Agur’s and Lemuel’s Wisdom (chs. 30-31)
Two appendices (chs. 30-31) close the book, each written by an unknown figure. My assumption is that Solomon recognized the merits of their respective wisdom and chose, under inspiration, to include it with his other proverbs. Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic—the virtuous woman from A to Z.
So . . . are you wise?
Test yourself as you read through Proverbs. Where you see a weakness in a certain area of your life, do a topical study of all that Proverbs says on that topic. And Proverbs discusses just about every topic related to our daily lives as humans on planet earth. (A study Bible I have charts over 100 topics in Proverbs.)
Let Proverbs challenge you, not discourage you. One key difference between the righteous and the wicked is not that the former never falls but that he gets back up again when he does (24:16). After all, wisdom is a skill, and a skill improves with experience, knowledge, effort, and a teachable spirit. The willingness to be corrected (in order to improve) is a sign of a wise person. Teach a wise man and he acquires knowledge (21:11).
Proverbs will make you wiser if you will heed its maxims.
Review & Application:
About the Author
Timothy W. Berrey is the author of Planning Your Life God's Way and From Eden to Patmos: An Overview of Biblical History. He is the director of Graduate Studies at Bob Jones Memorial Bible College in Metro Manila, where he has lived with his wife Laura and six children since 2005.