The title of the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible is Mishle, which is derived from the verb mashal, “to rule”; hence Mishle means “short sayings that are given to govern life and conduct.” The word also has the meaning of “a resemblance”--that is, “a parable.” Many proverbs are concentrated parables. Our English word “proverbs” comes from the word proverbia used in the Latin translation.
Traditionally the authorship of the whole book is attributed to Solomon. Though the book itself does not claim this, there can be no question that he is the author of the major portion. In 1 Kings 4:32 we read that Solomon uttered “three thousand proverbs”; in these, the unique wisdom given to him was well illustrated, and many of them were included in the Mishle.
The book begins with “The Proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel.” In 10:1 we read again: ‘The proverbs of Solomon.” Then 25:1 introduces chapters 25-29 with this statement: ‘These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.” This pious king must have had a great interest in compiling and preserving certain portions of the Word of God. He evidently commissioned certain scribes to add to the previous collection other proverbs that up to that time had remained uncollected.
The last two chapters are different. In Proverbs 30 we find “the words of Agur the son of Jakeh” and in chapter 31 “the words of king Lemuel.” From these two facts, which appear in the book itself, it is clear that the composition of the entire book of Proverbs cannot be attributed to Solomon. We can conclude that only chapters 1—29 contain the proverbs of Solomon. In all probability the scribes of Hezekiah who copied out the proverbs of chapters 25—29 added the last two chapters to the collection.
The Person Addressed
One feature of this book is that numerous times a person is addressed as “My son,” and the personal pronouns such as “thou,” “thee,” and “thy” are often used. See Proverbs 1-9; 19:20-24:34; and 27-29. Who is the person addressed? Does Solomon address someone or is it Solomon himself who is addressed? J. W. Thirtle in his Old Testament Problems distinguished between proverbs written by Solomon and those that were written for him. Those that are addressed to “My son” and those in which personal pronouns are used, he claimed, were given to Solomon by wise men or teachers who taught him these sententious sayings to fit him for rulership. But this interpretation produces other difficulties: The proverbs written by Solomon would be few in comparison with the size of the book; furthermore we do not know who the wise men and teachers were who Thirtle said wrote words of wisdom for Solomon.
There is another way the sections containing the personal address and the personal pronouns might be explained. When the Lord appeared to Solomon in Gibeon, He said, “Ask what I shall give thee,” and Solomon asked for “an understanding heart to… discern between good and bad.” The king’s prayer was answered, for the Lord said, “Lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart” (1 Kings 3:5-15). Then the Lord must have spoken to him by His Spirit and given him the instructions he needed as the king over His people Israel. It is more than probable that the sections in which “My son” and the personal pronouns are used contain those heavenly instructions given to the young king by the Lord Himself in the beginning of his reign.
One cannot be dogmatic about this, but if such was the case, the difficulties disappear. There is no need to put these proverbs for Solomon into the mouths of unknown wise men. It was the Lord who spoke to Solomon as “My son,” and Solomon, guided by the Spirit of God, penned His words.
The Law of Moses
Certain of the instructions that I believe were given to Solomon by the Lord in answer to his prayer for an understanding heart, correspond to commands in the Law of Moses. These instructions, which relate to Israel’ s kings, we find in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Of special interest in this passage is the command, “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away.” Corresponding to this statement are the repeated warnings in Proverbs against the “strange woman.” The strange women against whom the Spirit of God spoke to Solomon in his youth were the women of the Gentile nations. Anticipating the sad end of this great and wise king, the Lord pictured the strange woman for him as a harlot whose ways ensnare, then end in death.
But the heavenly wisdom was not heeded. It is written, “King Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; Of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love” (1 Kings 11:1-2).
Then followed his downfall: “It came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11:4). He worshiped Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, and other idol gods. The words of wisdom the Lord gave Solomon were not heeded and his succumbing to the allurements of strange women, of which his inspired pen had warned, became a mournful fact in own history.
The Literary Style
Most of the proverbs are in the form of couplets. The two clauses of a couplet are generally related to each other by what has been termed parallelism according to Hebrew poetry. Three kind of parallelism have been pointed out:
(1) Synonymous Parallelism. Here the second clause restates what is given in the first clause.
Judgments are prepared for scorners,
and stripes for the back of fools.
(2) Antithetic Parallelism. Here a truth that is stated in the first clause is made stronger in the second clause by contrast with an opposite truth.
The light of the righteous rejoiceth:
but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out.
(3) Synthetic Parallelism. Here the second clause develops the thought of the first.
The fear of a king is as the roaring of a lion:
whoso provoketh him to anger sinneth against his own soul.
The Teachings of Proverbs
The proverbs, speaking generally, give moral teachings relating to human conduct. Since they often contrast the righteous and the wicked, many of the proverbs can be illustrated by the lives of the godly and ungodly characters described elsewhere in the Bible.
But besides this, there is much that goes deeper. Many of these short sayings can be applied to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the gospel. Proverbs 8:22-31 speaks definitely of the Son of God, our Lord, who is Wisdom. When we read Proverbs 13:7—“There is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches”—we can well think of Him who was rich and became poor for our sake, that we by His poverty might be rich (see 2 Corinthians 8:9). When we read Proverbs 18:24 (“There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother”) or Proverbs 17:17 (“A friend loveth at all times”), we can well think of our Lord, who is the friend of sinners.
In spiritual instruction and application, the book of Proverbs has an inexhaustible wealth. The Spirit of God quotes from it in the New Testament: Romans 3:15 quotes Proverbs 1:16; Hebrews 12:5-6 and Revelation 3:19 quote 3:11-12; James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 quote 3:34; Hebrews 12:13 quotes 4:26; 1 Peter 4:8 quotes 10:12; 1 Peter 4:18 quotes 11:31; Romans 12:20 quotes 25:21-22; and 2 Peter 2:22 quotes 26:11.
The book of Proverbs ought to be studied by believers as diligently as any other portion of God’s Holy Word. The prayerful searcher will soon be rewarded in finding many nuggets of divine truth.