There are several things that we should note about the book of Proverbs before we begin to interpret particular verses of the book. We will begin by looking at the place of Proverbs in its canonical context — that is, as a book of Scripture and particularly as a book in the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Next, we will continue by observing the seven-part structure of the book of Proverbs in order to divide the book into more manageable parts (as the book itself does). Then we will explore what we mean by the genre of the book — what exactly is a proverb anyway? We have to know what a proverb is before we can know how to read one. This naturally leads us into the character of the book as wisdom literature more generally. And we will finish with some thoughts about historical typology and Proverbs. In other words, how does this book point us to Jesus and His church?
Proverbs in the Canon
In the Hebrew Bible the first collection of writings among the Writings (the third part of the canon) is Psalms, Job, and Proverbs. These three books have their own distinctive accents in the Hebrew Bible.
Proverbs also notably ends with the poem about the worthy woman, Ruth is called the worthy woman (Ruth 3:11), and Song of Songs shows us a third example of the worthy woman.
Thus the Writings are appropriately in this order: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs. This also puts Proverbs in the middle of two books with Gentile heroes (Job and Ruth) and two song books (Psalms and Song of Songs). Proverbs serves as a bridge or hinge between collections in the Writings (Psalms-Proverbs and Ruth-Esther).
Proverbs itself may be moving from Israelite to universal wisdom. Agur and Lemuel are unknown to historians, but it is possible that one or both are meant to be thought of as Gentiles. This same transition can be seen in other Writings. In Genesis, God started with an international outlook and then focused down on the nation of Israel. In the Writings, the focus begins to move from the nation of Israel back out internationally again. Once one gets to the New Testament this is exactly what we see the gospel doing — going from the Jewish people to the ends of the earth.
Like the Book of Psalms, the Proverbs were likely added over time. There are proverbs that are repeated during the book with slight variations.
The Collections of Proverbs
Proverbs is a total of seven collections:
The first is the longest: Prov 1:1-9:18. It is ”The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.”
The second collection is Prov 10:1-22:16. These are titled: ”The proverbs of Solomon.”
The third collection is Prov 22:17-24:22. This one does not have a subtitle. The third collection is known as the Thirty Sayings of the Wise.
The fourth collection is Prov 24:23-34. These are subtitled: ”These also are sayings of the wise.”
The fifth collection is Prov 25:1-29:27 and subtitled: ”These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied.”
The sixth collection is Prov 30:1-33. These have the subtitle: ”The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle.”
The seventh collection is Prov 31:1-31 (though some would argue the acrostic about the worthy wife is separate and without subtitle). The subtitle for the chapter is: ”The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.” See Waltke for these collection divisions.
Proverbs: A Genre
What is a proverb? This is a question that is not easy to answer. Certainly you might think you know one when you read one. But then again, much of the first part of the book might surprise you then. Most likely the word indicates teaching by metaphor or comparison, the word is often translated into Greek with the word we transliterate as parable.
We can further subdivide the kinds of texts we find in Proverbs into wisdom speeches and ‘proverbs.’ Longman notes a typical example of the latter would be, ”A slack hand makes poverty; a determined hand makes rich” (Prov 10:4). He says that this one is an observation, others overtly give advice or serve other functions.
Longman also says, ”Another feature of a proverb is that it does not teach a universally valid truth. On the contrary, proverbs are true only if stated at the right time and in the right circumstances. A number of proverbs make this explicit.” An example he gives is Prov 15:23 about saying the right thing at the right time. The classic example of why Longman and Enns and others argue this is Prov 26:4-5.
The previous observation fits with what we have seen in Job – it is only wisdom if said in the right context.
The Wisdom of Proverbs
It is important to note that Proverbs is wisdom literature. Everything that I have said about wisdom literature in the Psalms and Job applies to this book:
If you follow the advice of wisdom you will have good success (recall Psalm 1, though you may have to wait for the latter days like Job). Wisdom often speaks of two ways – the way of wisdom and the way of folly. Wisdom often appeals to Torah study or creation. The idea of Proverbs as wisdom is that they are to help us live into harmony with the divine pattern of creation-order. Pocket New Testaments often put Proverbs in the back because the book is wisdom literature helpful for us to get in synch with the creation-order – the way we were designed by God to live.
It is not insignificant that the Proverbs are associated with Solomon. Solomon was internationally known for wisdom. It is also important that he is known as the ”son of David.” Thus Solomon points us to Christ. Christ is our wisdom, and far surpasses Solomon in that regard. Also important to realize is that now we have the Spirit of wisdom in our hearts.
Yet these observations do not mean that we throw away the wisdom of Proverbs. They are the word of God and the Spirit in our hearts will help us to apply them. Moreover, they continue to point us to Jesus. Of course, most people ignore these things and treat the book as self-help instruction.
It is worth noting that many of these proverbs are found in very similar forms in other ANE wisdom literature. This does not surprise us any more than people using them today as self-help instructions. Wisdom is built into the very creation-order and by studying nature the unbeliever may often stumble onto how we are designed to live.
One of the most important observations about Proverbs is that the consequence does not always follow. We have seen this with Job (Ecclesiastes makes similar points). The lazy person might well get rich, as Longman notes, or the hard working person might be poor.
The Typology of Proverbs
Another important feature of Proverbs is how it is the advice of a father for his son. More specifically, it is the advice of a king for his son the prince. The last part is the words of a mother for her son, King Lemuel. This is an observation that we must keep in mind as we are reading them.
So this is meant to train the ideal king, which we know there never was an ideal king in Israel, except Jesus Himself.
The Worthy Woman/Wife
If we are meant to see the poem about the worthy woman/wife as the eighth collection that would be fitting. Remember the number eight is significant in wisdom literature. But maybe not since we have no indication of a 3+1+3+1 pattern to these collections. The other reason to only see seven collections is to associate the book with the theme of the creation-order.
In any case, perhaps we are to understand Proverbs as advice for the ideal king and the worthy woman is the ideal bride for the king. Ruth and the woman in Song of Songs are also ideal brides worthy of marrying a king.
Thus the prince is a type for Christ and the worthy woman/wife is a type for the church, the bride of Christ.
(I offer this suggestion about the worthy woman/wife as a type of the church not to endorse returning to allegorical interpretation of Scripture but as a way to understand the typology of Proverbs in light of the whole of God’s word. Thus when we are looking at individual verses we will not be looking for Jesus in every verse, but we can understand the whole book as pointing us to Jesus.)