In the book of Ecclesiastes, the royal preacher graphically related the story of his weary search for happiness “under the sun.” Its disappointing result led to the oft-repeated lament, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” He then directed those who would escape the devious paths he had chosen in life to consider the collection of proverbs that he had “sought out and set in order.”
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil (Ecclesiastes 12:8-14).
These last seven verses of Ecclesiastes form a fitting introduction to the book of Proverbs even though it precedes Ecclesiastes in our Bibles. These verses give the divine reason for the collection of wise sayings. God would save all who heed the wisdom that is recorded there from the heartbreaking experiences and aimless wanderings of the man who was chosen to write them.
There are two ways of learning the emptiness of the world and the true character of sin. The most common way is to tread the thorny path oneself and thereby taste fully the bitterness of departure from God. The more desirous way is to accept His Word regarding the character of sin. This enables the obedient disciple to say, “Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer” (Psalm 17:4).
The bitter disappointments, the skeptical darkness, and the weary heart of Solomon, a result of trusting his own wisdom, are strongly delineated in the record of the tempests of his soul. This confusion need never be the portion of the child of God who orders his steps in the truth.
Human collections of wisdom and instruction are only the thoughts of men like ourselves. However, as in all Scripture, in the wisdom literature of the Bible we read the very breathings of the Spirit of God. The high and lofty One who spoke worlds into being, who redeemed fallen man, and who will eventually bring in a new heaven and a new earth stooped in grace to give instruction for the very details of His creatures’ lives. This amazing grace is cause for worship and admiration forever.
All that I do takes on new importance as I realize that the God who created me and redeemed me does not consider it beneath His notice to instruct me concerning my behavior in the family, in society, and in my methods of business. All are under His eye, and if I act in accordance with the book of Proverbs, I will “behave myself wisely, in a perfect way,” in every relationship of life.
To some the practical commonplaces of Solomon’s wisdom may seem a far cry from the heavenly truths of Paul’s Epistles. But to the balanced Christian the teachings and warnings of Proverbs will have their place alongside the precious truths of Ephesians.
The “ribbon of blue” on the border of the pious Israelite’s garment represented the heavenly character of the believer’s habits. The book of Proverbs is such an azure ribbon when the light of the New Testament revelation shines upon it, illustrating the behavior suited to the one who is dead, buried, and risen with Christ. True, these glorious doctrines of salvation will not be found stated in the Old Testament; they belong to the special unfolding of truth revealed through the apostle Paul. But as “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,” so the newly created soul will most appreciate the instruction of this wonderfully practical book of the Old Testament. Like all other Scripture, it has been “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have arrived.”
The book of Proverbs did not attain its present structure until the days of Hezekiah—that is, though the entire book is God-breathed, it did not exist in the form of one book until that date (Proverbs 25:1). The main divisions would seem to be as follows:
Chapter 1-9: Wisdom and folly contrasted.
Chapter 10-24: A collection of proverbs written by Solomon and set in order by himself.
Chapter 25-29: “Also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.”
Chapter 30: The sayings of an otherwise unknown sage named Agur the son of Jakeh.
Chapter 31: Instruction given to king Lemuel by his mother.
This is the arrangement of the book we will now study. As a part of “all Scripture,” we may rest assured we will find it “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness,” helping to perfect the man of God unto all good works.