Proverbs

The 915 verses in this collection of collections and short lessons are specifically addressed to young people and intellectuals (1:1-6), and they invite their readers on a fascinating adventure of the mind aiming to equip them for a happy and successful life.

The title of the book, really a collection of collections or short lessons (chapters 1–9, 31) and short, memorable sayings (chapters 10–30), is derived from the opening words in 1:1, “The Proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.”

The book’s invitation is expressed in terms of an intellectual feast (a grand banquet hosted by Lady Wisdom, 9:1-12) and promises a prosperous life-style characterised by happy relationships and high social status (31:10-31). Along the way, numerous practical lessons are learned, including detailed and provocative explorations of such topics as sex, money, and politics. While the aim is always practical and interested in this-worldly success, every part of the book is characterised by a self-assured religious realism, often expressed in humorous ways.

Date and authorship

A book of many parts

The book consists of seven different sub-collections: (1) a collection of Solomonic lectures interspersed with various speeches (1:1–9:18); (2) a collection of Solomonic proverbs, sometimes sub-divided into two separate parts (10:1–22:16); (3) a collection of sayings of the wise (22:17–24:22); (4) a further collection of sayings of the wise (24:23-34); (5) a further collection of Solomonic proverbs collected by courtiers during the reign of Hezekiah (25:1–29:27); (6) a collection of sayings and reflections by Agur, son of Jakeh (30:1–33); (7) the sayings of Lemuel, really a brief lecture he received from his mother (31:1-9) plus an extended poetic character portrait of an ideal wife (31:10-31).

Different named or unknown authors, anonymous material

The opening verse (1:1) at first sight seems to assign the entire book to the well-known King Solomon, son of David, who was famous for composing and collecting large numbers of proverbs, songs, and scientific treatises (1 Kings 4:32-33). Nonetheless, sub-titles to later parts of the book explicitly assign several sections to other named or unnamed authors or compilers: 22:17; 24:23; 30:1; and 31:1. The following paragraph from a major recent commentary helpfully summarises the internal evidence:

An anonymous final editor appended Collections V–VII (= 25:1–31:31) to Solomon’s Collections I–IV (= 1:1–24:34). Judging by biblical analogues, he allowed the original heading attributing the work to Solomon (1:1) to stand as the title of his final composition because Solomon is the principal author of the sayings (chapters 1–29) and the most distinguished author of his anthology . . . This final editor, the real author of the book, not of its sayings, probably lived during the Persian period (ca. 540–332 BCE) or in the Hellenistic era” (Bruce Waltke 2004, 36-37).

The named authors of the two final collections in the book, Agur son of Jakeh and King Lemuel, are otherwise unattested and we know nothing else about them than that King Lemuel is likely to be non-Israelite in origin. The socio-religious background of ancient Israel’s wisdom is international, and this has important repercussions for its reception history and modern relevance (see Reception history).

Modern doubts about Solomonic authorship

Based on external considerations, the majority of recent scholars question whether Solomon really was the author of the sections of the book assigned to him. A significant number of the proverbs under consideration appear to be “folk proverbs,” the very definition of which is that they were anonymous proverbs that had gained wide acceptance in the culture by the time they were incorporated in Proverbs. Thus it is very likely that Solomonic proverbs may have been compiled rather than authored by Solomon. Many, perhaps the majority of the sayings may have been assigned to him on the basis of his reputation as a wise king. It is equally plausible that many of the proverbs identified as Solomonic by the courtiers of Hezekiah (late 8th century BCE) were assigned to Solomon not because he was believed to be their actual author, but because they were believed to belong to the number of 3000 proverbs “spoken” by Solomon according to the traditions reflected in 1 Kings 4:32 (= 1 Kings 5:12 in Hebrew) or because they were believed to stem from Solomon’s time.

Dates for the different parts

Generally the second collection, Proverbs 10:1–22:16, is considered to be the oldest part of the book, and many concede that at least in principle these 375 verses could stem from the time of Solomon, collected, coined and/or popularised by him. On the other hand, many modern scholars doubt whether any part of the book could be as old as that.

The third and fourth collections, Proverbs 22:17–24:22 and 24:23-34, are assigned to an unknown group of “wise” people. These have generally been regarded as a particular type of intellectual based at the royal court in Jerusalem, as for example Ahitophel, the political advisor to David and Absalom (2 Kings 15–16). There is an astonishing amount of overlap and similarity between large parts of 22:17–24:22 and a popular Egyptian wisdom text, The Instruction of Amenemope, so much so that a direct knowledge of and creative dependence on the Egyptian counterpart is almost universally acknowledged. It is impossible to date this and the following smaller collection of wise sayings (24:23-34) other than to say that it could stem from any period of Israelite history. Their earlier position in the sequence of sub-collections suggests that they were added before the reign of Hezekiah.

The fifth collection, Proverbs 25:1–29:27, gives a relatively precise date for its period of compilation, namely during the reign of King Hezekiah (approx. 728–698 BCE). However, the material contained in this compilation is declared to be from the Solomonic period, whose reign date is approx. 970–931 BCE. It is likely that at least some material from later than Solomon’s time would have been included accidentally.

The last two collections in the book are almost certainly from a later period than Hezekiah’s reign, as their position at the end of the book suggests. They may be as late as near the end of the Persian period (just before 332 BCE), but it could be as early as the pre-exilic period after the reign of Hezekiah. (The period of the exile extends from the time of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonian army and the deportation of a significant part of the Judean population in 597 BCE until their return around 535 BCE.)

The dating of the first sub-collection, Proverbs 1:8–9:18, is the most controversial. Its position in the book and the title in 1:1 as well as external evidence (1 Kings 4:32-33) suggest that it originated from Solomon himself. Yet the majority of recent scholars have dated the entire section in the post-exilic period.

Interpretation

The book brings together advice and warnings. Significant issues of interpretation include the following:
Are the ethics of Proverbs purely prudential? That is to say, does the teaching of the book simply aim to tell people what to do to have a happy and successful life, or does it teach a more other-directed morality?

Why does the book appear to be uninterested in the great themes of the theology of the Old Testament? Do its authors (‘the wise’) belong to different circles from those of the Torah and Prophets?

Many sayings in the book warn that laziness may lead to poverty (e.g., 6:6-11). Does this imply that the poor are poor because they are lazy? Does the book, as some scholars assert, despise the poor? This idea does not seem to harmonise with other sayings that observe that the poor are subject to injustice from the rich (e.g., 18:23), or advise the reader to be generous to the poor (e.g., 14:21, 31; 19:17).

Reception history

The depiction of a capable woman who manages a household and estate in Proverbs 31:10-31, originally composed as an acrostic poem, has often been interpreted figuratively. Sixteenth-century reformers offered her as an example for real women and focused on her domestic role; in the Low German Bible edited by Martin Luther’s colleague Johannes Bugenhagen a marginal note describes her as a model for housewives (‘de hüssmoderen spielen’). In contrast the French poet Catherine des Roches (1542–1582) emphasised the woman’s involvement in the public domain. Christine de Pizan, a 14th-century French writer, also paraphrased this account from Proverbs 31 as an example for real women.

Further reading

Dell, Katharine J. The Book of Proverbs in Social and Theological Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Fox, Michael V. Proverbs 1-9. Anchor Bible 18A. New York: Doubleday, 2000; Proverbs 10-31. Anchor Yale Bible 18B. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Larsen, Anne R. “Legitimizing the Daughter’s Writing: Catherine Des Roches’ Proverbial Good Wife.” Sixteenth Century Journal 21 (1990): 559-74.
Martin, James D. Proverbs. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
Waltke, Bruce K. The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1–15. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004; The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 16-31. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.