Proverbs 1:1 presents Solomon as the primary author of the book, but there are other writers as well, such as Agur and Lemuel.
Proverbs aims to teach us biblical wisdom, which is the skill of understanding and navigating the broken, sin-filled world around us by conforming ourselves to God’s pattern for creation.
Solomon, the son of David, is the primary author and/or collector of the proverbs within Proverbs, and the Bible certainly paints him as being qualified. After becoming king of Israel, 1 Kings 3:3-15 tell of God appearing to Solomon in a dream, asking what he desired. The young king asked the LORD for wisdom to lead Israel, which was a wise request itself. From then onward, Solomon became known for his great wisdom, so that people from all over the earth came to hear his words (1 Kings 4:34). With his understanding, Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs and composed 1,005 songs. Many of those proverbs are no doubt within this book.
But Proverbs is not the sole work of Solomon. The book, as we have it today, was not complete until more than two hundred years after Solomon’s death. We know this because King Hezekiah (one of Judah’s most godly kings) compiled more of Solomon’s proverbs about a dozen generations later (25:1). We know nothing about Lemuel and Agur nor of the anonymous authors of 22:17-24:22 and 24:23-34. Thus, Proverbs began to be composed with Solomon, was still being compiled in Hezekiah’s day, and might have been finished as late as the Babylonian exile. This vast time frame should remind us that God’s wisdom transcends the ages, speaking and guiding whomever has ears to hear.
The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to teach us “to know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth (1:2-4).” Proverbs aims to increase the learning of the wise and to give guidance to the one with understanding. This book wants to make us wise, to give us the skills and understanding to navigate life in a way that pleases God.
Principles for Understanding Proverbs
Proverbs can be a very difficult book to understand well, so before we begin our dive into the book, here are a few principles to keep in mind while studying Proverbs.
First, Proverbs is divided into two major halves. The first half (chapters 1-9) are an introductory course of on biblical wisdom, with Solomon writing to us readers as a father teaching his son. Although these paternal speeches form the bulk of the first nine chapters, we are also treated occasionally to speeches from Lady Wisdom. Because of this teaching pattern, it is important for us to approach these chapters as students ready to learn wisdom from experts.
Second, Proverbs are principles, not promises. Many parents can testify that Proverbs 22:6 is does not always happen. Proverbs show us how things should work within God’s creation, but they are not guaranteed. Ecclesiastes and Job show us how biblical wisdom is applied to these situations when life goes against what we expected.
Third, Proverbs cannot make us wise, only God can. Even though Proverbs is the book of biblical wisdom, they cannot make us wise themselves. We must rather pray for God to use His Word to make us wise, but without His illumination, these words will never change or impact our hearts.
Fourth, Proverbs are not lifehacks to apply immediately; they require wisdom to use properly. Too many people think of Proverbs as being full of sayings that can be grabbed without context and applied to life’s various situations. This approach fails to realize the importance of Proverbs using nine chapters to introduce the concept of wisdom before launching into the proverbs themselves. In fact, Proverbs speaks against trying to use these wise words without wisdom: “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (26:7). Or “Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (26:9).
Fifth, there are multiple types of literature within Proverbs. Verse lists four types of literature with Proverbs: proverbs, sayings, words of the wise, and riddles. Proverbs are the bulk form of literature present in the book. Most often proverbs are composed in a parallelism format, meaning they have two lines that reflect upon each other. There is plenty of debate over what exactly sayings and words of the wise refer to. Proverbs 22:17 begins a section of thirty sayings that are called the words of the wise, so maybe the two terms are generally interchangeable. Most commentators agree that riddles within Proverbs refer to texts like Proverbs 30:18-19: “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of the eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on the rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.” These are obviously not riddles as we have them in the English language; instead, they are sayings that are purposefully ambiguous and we are meant to search out their meaning.