Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator


Book Overview - Proverbs

by Joseph Exell



The title of the book

“The Proverbs of Solomon.” There is no necessity, from this title, for considering the collection, in the precise state in which we now have it, as the work of Solomon. The proverbs which the book contains were all his; but the selection and arrangement of them appear, from the very statements of the book itself, to have been made by different hands. In Proverbs 25:1 we read, “These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.” “The men of Hezekiah” were, without question, “holy men of God,” prophets, appointed by that eminently pious prince to the execution of the good work. (Ralph Wardlaw, D.D.)

The Book of Proverbs is not to be regarded simply as a collection of wise sayings, genial sentiments, prudent guesses, or affectionate exhortations. The book may be viewed, on the contrary, as representing the very science of practical philosophy. Proverbs are condensed philosophies. Sometimes proverbs are condensed histories. Wise men who speak even about “earthly things” are often obliged to have recourse to “dark sayings.” Some truths can only be hinted at; some reforms can only be outlined, and then can only be shown as if in twilight; there are dark things in life for which names can be found only by a kind of spiritual genius; there are also possible reforms or re-arrangements of life which even the proposers hardly realise in all their scope and uses--hence even reformers and spiritual teachers of every kind have often expressed themselves darkly, suggestively, tentatively, so much so that their hesitation has been misunderstood and mocked by fluent ignorance and superficial ability. (Joseph Parker, D.D.)

A proverb, strictly speaking, is a short moral sentence, which means something further than what the words literally imply. Most of Solomon’s proverbs are rather to be called maxims or sentences. The characteristic feature of this kind of writing is brevity, much thought in a small compass; as in a seed is contained the whole power of vegetation which is to produce the tree. And the obscurity attendant on “these words of the wise, and their dark sayings,” is not altogether without its uses. It whets the understanding, excites an appetite for knowledge, and keeps alive the attention by the labour of the investigation, giving an increased pleasure to the discovery of truth, by having called forth our efforts to attain it. (B. E. Nicholls, M.A.)

These proverbs of Solomon are a collection of wise and moral sayings, usually plain and concise; they are also of the poetical kind, and fall into metre, and therefore were the more easily learned and remembered by those in whose language they were written. They have not that air of smartness, and vivacity, and wit which modem writers have usually affected in their maxims and sentences; but they have what is better--truth and solid good sense. (J. Jortin, D.D.)

The word which forms the present title of the book calls for special notice. The Greek περοιμία, the Latin proverbium, express only the fact that the saying so described is current among men, a “by-word,” differing in its origin, it may be, from other words, at first out o! the way, afterwards common and familiar, The Hebrew word for proverb (mashal) has a much more definite significance. Its root-meaning is that of comparison, the putting this and that together, noting likeness in things unlike. It answers, i.e., to the Greek παραβολὴ rather than παριομία. The primary idea of a Hebrew proverb, traceable throughout the book, in spite of the wider range of meaning which the word subsequently acquired, is that of comparison and similitude. The words of Proverbs 26:7, “The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of fools,” which speak of the mashal in this sense, are also the best illustration of its meaning. That it was applied also to moral apothegms of varying length, pointed and pithy in their form though there might be no similitude, is evident enough throughout the book. Elsewhere it is used with a partial extension of its meaning in another direction. Discourses in which there is more or less of a poetic character, even though there be no formal comparison, and no didactic result, are described as “parables.” (Dean Plumptre.)

I shall not very much observe any reference which these proverbs have the one to the other, because I conceive them to be as a heap of corn, wherein every grain is weighty, but they have little connection the one with the other. But this let me note of them, that these proverbs, far surpassing others, do not only contain an inward pith of excellency in the proverbial sense of them, but even in the husk and outward letter do deliver precious things and of great use unto us. (Michael Jermin.)

The authorship of the book

The Jewish tradition ascribed the Proverbs, or Sayings of the Wise, to Solomon, just as it ascribed the Psalms, or inspired lyrics of the poets, to King David, and we may add, just as it ascribed all the gradual accretions and developments of the law to Moses. But even a very uncritical reader will observe that the Book of Proverbs as we have it is not the work of a single hand; and a critical inquiry into the language and style of the several parts, and also into the social and political conditions which are implied by them, has led scholars to the conclusion that, at the most, a certain number of Solomon’s wise sayings are included in the collection, but that he did not in any sense compose the book. (R. F. Horton, D.D.)

It is not necessary to suppose that Solomon is the author of all the proverbs in this book. He may have been the collector or editor, as well as the originator. Let us regard the proverbs as a moral note-book, or practical guide to life; it will then be doubly interesting to look into a guide drawn up by no less an authority than “Solomon the son of David king of Israel” It should be keenly interesting to us to know what such a man has brought back from the fields of experience, and what he has set down with the sanction of his own name. Solomon had swept the whole circle of social experience. (Joseph Parker, D.D.)

The structure of the work

The book may be divided into five parts.

Part 1 is a sort of preface, extending from chapter 1-chapter 9. The teacher gives his pupil a connected series of admonitions, cautions, and encouragements to the study of wisdom.

Part 2, from chapter 10- Proverbs 22:16, comprises what may be strictly called proverbs, i.e., unconnected sentences expressed with much neatness and simplicity.

Part 3 reaches from Proverbs 22:17 -chapter 24; in it the teacher renews his connected admonitions to the study of wisdom.

Part 4 extends from chapter 24-chapter 29. It contains proverbs supposed to have been selected from some larger collection of Solomon by the men of Hezekiah. This part, like the second, consists of unconnected sentences.

Part 5 comprises the two last chapters. The first of these contains the wise observations and instructions delivered by Agur to his pupils Ithiel and Ucal; the other, the excellent lessons addressed to King Lemuel by his mother. The description of the virtuous woman Proverbs 31:10-31) is by some considered to be a separate poem. (B. E. Nicholls, M. A.)

Though the composition be of the disjointed kind, yet there is a general design running through the whole which the author keeps always in view, and that is, to instruct the people, and particularly young people, at their entrance into public and active life, to give them an early love and an earnest desire of real wisdom, and to lay down such clear rules for their behaviour as shall carry them through the world with peace and credit. (J. Jortin, D.D.)

The main body of proverbs is the collection which begins at chapter 10 and ends at Proverbs 22:16. This collection has certain distinct features which mark it off from all that precedes and from all that follows. All these proverbs are identical in form--each is expressed in a distich. (There is an apparent exception in Proverbs 19:7) The general drift of their teaching is quite uniform, the morality indicated is of no very lofty type; the motives for right conduct are mainly prudential; there is no sense of mystery or wonder, no tendency to speculation or doubt. A few scattered precepts occur which seem to touch a higher level, and to breathe a more spiritual air. But these may have been added by the author of chapters 1-9. To this collection is added an appendix (Proverbs 22:17-29; Proverbs 23:1-35; Proverbs 24:1-22), which opens with an exhortation addressed by the teacher to his pupil. The literary form of this appendix falls far behind the style of the main collection. We are evidently brought down to a later period in Israel’s melancholy history. Another brief appendix follows (Proverbs 24:23-34), in which the distich form almost entirely disappears. Chapters 25-29 contain an entirely new collection, which was made in the literary court of Hezekiah, about 250 years after the time of Solomon. In this collection there is no uniformity of structure such as distinguished the proverbs of the first collection. The book closes with three quite distinct passages, which can only be regarded as appendices. The two collections, with their several appendices, were at some favourable point in religious history, possibly in those happy days of Josiah when the Deuteronomic Law was newly promulgated to the joyful nation, brought together, and, as we should say now, edited, with an original introduction by an author who, unknown to us by name, is among the greatest and noblest of Biblical writers. The first nine chapters of the book, which form the introduction to the whole, strike a far higher note, appeal to nobler conceptions, and are couched in a much loftier style than the book itself. The writer bases his moral teaching on Divine authority rather than on the utilitarian basis which prevails in most of the proverbs. Writing in a time when the temptations to a lawless and sensual life were strong, appealing to the wealthier and more cultured youth of the nation, he proceeds in sweet and earnest discourse to woo his readers from the paths of vice into the Temple of Wisdom and Virtue. His method of contrasting the “two ways,” and exhorting men to shun the one and choose the other, constantly reminds us of the similar appeals in the Book of Deuteronomy; but the touch is more graphic and more vivid; the gifts of the poet are employed in depicting the seven-pillared House of Wisdom and the deadly ways of Folly; and in the wonderful passage which introduces Wisdom appealing to the sons of men, on the ground of the part which she plays in the creation and by the throne of God, we recognise the voice of a prophet--a prophet, too, who holds one of the highest places in the line of those who foretold the coming of our Lord. (R. F. Horton, D. D.)

With regard to the arrangement and structure of the Book of Proverbs, it may be observed that ancient interpreters divided it into five parts, like the books of Moses and the Psalms. The first part, or book, which is introductory to the rest, consists of chapters 1-9 inclusive. The second part extends from chapter 10-24 inclusive. The third part of it is composed of proverbs of Solomon copied out and added by the men of Hezekiah, and comprises chapters 25-29 The fourth part contains the words of Agur--probably a symbolical name of Solomon--and is formed of chapter 30. The last part is chapter 31, the words of King Lemuel, probably another symbolical title of Solomon himself. These five parts of the proverbs are not thrown together promiscuously, loosely, and incoherently, but they have their special characteristics and peculiar organisation. (Bp. Chris. Wordsworth.)

The ethical teaching of the book

It will, perhaps, be slighted on account of its contents, as a mere system of dry morality, by those who had rather deal in discourses of the mystic or enthusiastic kind, and admire that sort of rapturous and ecstatic devotion. But whether they will allow it or no, this book contains the main parts of pure and undefiled religion, and lays down the best of rules for the prudent conduct of life, and for obtaining the favour of God and the testimony of an approving conscience. (J. Jortin, D.D.)

The careful reader of this book will receive the instructions of that wisdom which directs men to practise justice regulated by discretion and tempered by moderation and mercy. It teaches us our duty to God and man, and leads us in every good path. Solomon could have given us lectures on astronomy and poetry, on the nature of birds and beasts, and everything that attracts the curiosity of many; but as the wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way, he is directed by the Spirit of God to give us in this book the instructions of Divine and moral wisdom, to remain for the use of men till the latest posterity. (George Lawson, D.D.)

Wisdom is the general topic of the whole book: that sound, practical judgment in affairs of life which yields good citizenship, honourable success in commercial and public affairs, virtuous and contented household life. The first nine chapters form a connected discourse, in which wisdom is personified. Not grey-eyed Pallas Athene was so majestic or so winsome. This stately figure is both queen and counsellor; her haunt is no retired tower, or nun’s cell, but the market-place, the bazaar, the court-room, the public square. Not great learning or charm of wit is her requirement, but sound behaviour in the sight of God and man. (Charles M. Southgate.)

Broadly speaking, the wisdom of the Hebrews covers the whole domain of what we should call science and philosophy. It is the consistent effort of the human mind to know, to understand, and to explain all that exists. It is, to use the modern phrase, the search for truth. But by wisdom is meant not merely the search, but also the discovery; not merely a desire to know, but also a certain body of conceptions ascertained and sufficiently formulated. While Wisdom embraces in her wide survey all things in heaven and in earth, there is one part of the vast field which makes a special demand upon human interest. The proper study of mankind is man. Very naturally the earliest subject to occupy human thought was human life, human conduct, human society. (R. F. Horton, D. D.)

The general idea of wisdom is, that it consists in the choice of the best ends, and of the best means for their attainment. This definition admits of application both in & lower and in a higher department. In the first place it may be applied to the whole conduct of human life, in all its daily intercourse and ordinary transactions, and amidst all its varied circumstances. We stand in different relations; we occupy different conditions; we are subjected to different trials; we are exposed to different temptations; our lot is characterised by different changes, difficulties, and perplexing incidents; one day, one hour, may shift our position, and require an entire alteration of our course. To accommodate our conduct to these variations--to suit to all of them the application of the great general principles and precepts of the Divine law, and to “guide our affairs with discretion” in them all--requires ”wisdom.” And for enabling us to act our part rightly, creditably, and usefully, from day to day, there is, in this book, an immense fund of admirable counsel and salutary direction. And then, secondly, the knowledge of wisdom may be taken in its higher application to interests of a superior order, to spiritual duties, to the well-being of the better part, to all that regards true religion and the salvation of the soul. Wisdom, in this book, is generally understood in this its highest application, as might indeed be expected in a book of instructions from God. We would hardly imagine a communication from Him confined to the mere prudential and successful regulation of our temporal affairs. How important soever this may be in a life of which the personal and the social enjoyment, so long as it lasts, is to so great an extent made up of little things, and dependent on their due adjustment, yet in a Divine communication to man, as an immortal creature, and occupying a position, in regard to God and his everlasting destinies, so peculiar, and so pregnant with interesting results, we cannot conceive these to be the only, or even the principal, subjects. Nor are they. They are in every way subordinate. (Ralph Wardlaw, D. D.)

Summary of contents for homiletic purposes

The Words of the Wise, or Proverbs of Experience. Treasures in the House, or Proverbs of Home-Life. Closer than a Brother, or Proverbs of Friendship. The Reward of the Diligent, or Proverbs of Industry. The Suicide of the Soul, or Proverbs of Purity. The Principal Thing, or Proverbs of Wisdom. The Struggle with the Strong, or Proverbs of Counsel. The False Balance, or Proverbs of Trade. Wine a Mocker, or Proverbs of Temperance. The Issues of Life, or Proverbs of Restraint. The Better Choice, or Proverbs of Integrity. The Shining Path, or Proverbs of Holiness. The Exaltation and Reproach of a Nation, or Proverbs of Politics. (Bp. W. S. Perry.)