This proto-canonical book of the Old Testament, attributed to Solomon, is the oldest collection of inspired texts in the corpus of wisdom literature. The book takes its name from the Hebrew word masal, which means a provocative saying, a popular saying, or a maxim which arrests the listener’s attention. In the early stages, these sayings were short in form; later on they tended to take the form of a parable or allegory or a reasoned discourse. Being short and pithy, it was easier for people to remember them, and this meant that they were very useful in oral teaching; in fact parents used them for teaching their children (1:8; 4:1; 31:1).
As to the date of composition, it should be borne in mind that the maxims in the second collection (see below) were already part of a long tradition when the men of Hezekiah collected them around 700 B.C. This part therefore can be dated well before the exile, as can the central part of the book (chap. 10-29). What is unclear is when chapters 30-31 were collected. Certainly chapters 1-9, which form a kind of introduction to the whole book, must be much later, perhaps around the fifth century B.C. It was in this last period, after the exile, that the book was given its final form.
The nucleus of this book consists of two collections of proverbs attributed, in the main, to Solomon (chap. 10-22 and 25-29), of whom the Bible says “he uttered three thousand proverbs, and his songs were a thousand and five” (1 Kings. 4:32) and who was considered to be the wisest man in Israel. The book seems to be a collection of maxims or proverbs put together in a particular order. Scholars usually distinguish different parts, along these lines:
The first part (chap. 1-9) gives the purpose of the book and summarizes it by pointing out that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It exhorts people to follow wisdom, which means avoiding bad company, foolishness, hasty marriage, indolence, and other vices. The “wisdom” referred to really has to do with the practical and moral sense necessary for directing one’s life toward the will of God and thereby being happy in this life. Often important.aspects of this wisdom are described by key words such as discipline, insight, instruction, prudence, vigilance, and righteousness.
In the second part (10-22:16) we find the first collection of the proverbs of Solomon, including aphorisms about life and morality. In chapters 10-15 the verses are in antithetical form and from chapter 16 forward in the form of parallelisms. An example of this is where it speaks of the righteous man (10:16) who works hard and makes good use of his earnings. He knows that his work is the route to true life, whereas the aim of the man who rejects God is to indulge himself-he will never be happy because the more materialistic he becomes the further he goes away from God, who is the origin of all happiness.
The third part (chap. 22:1724:22) is a collection of “sayings of the wise men,” consisting of various counsels on duties to one’s neighbor and on temperance with emphasis throughout on prudence.
The fourth part (24:23-34) is an appendix with more “sayings of the wise men.” This develops the same argument and stresses the malice of idleness.
The fifth part (25-29) contains the second collection of proverbs of Solomon, taken down by the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah. It runs on the same lines, content-wise, as the first collection (10-22) and in almost the same form, literally, although the sayings contain more comparisons and antitheses.
The sixth part (30: 1-33) is the sayings of Agur, which describe the wisdom of God and man’s mediocrity. Although this is wisdom writing, it is not couched in proverbs; it begins with a monologue, which is at first a confession and then a prayer; it continues with a proverb in the proper sense of the term and concludes with a kind of lamentation (11-14) followed by five numerical proverbs and a proverbial saying.
The seventh part (31:1-9) is an exhortation to princes. These words of Lemuel, “which his mother taught him” (v. 1), contain three recommendations of a mother to her son.
The eighth part (31: 10-31) praises the virtues of a good wife, painting a picture of the ideal woman, who is lacking nothing in terms of perfection and integrity. This part is different in style from the rest of the book, but it provides it with a fine epilogue. It is a poem which describes a wife’s beauty as consisting primarily in the virtues which should adorn her-humility, strength, family feeling, moral probity, and trust in God. With these qualities and God’s grace she can face the future with optimism, knowing that God will watch over her and hers because she is so good. Obviously if mothers are faithful to their obligations society is going to have a good base.
It is important to remember that wisdom literature did not originate in Israel, as indeed can be deduced from the fact that this book contains virtually no reference to salvation history.
The book is a sort of manual aimed at teaching people to live in accordance with the moral law, divine and human, and become good, honest people, as a first step toward holiness of life. The righteous man is the truly wise man, who knows exactly what life is about because he is gifted with practical common sense, which enables him to form sound judgments about all.aspects of life. It studies wisdom and foolishness, riches and poverty, love and hate, work and idleness; it explores in depth the relationships between God and man, children and parents, king and subjects, husband and wife, master and servant, friend and enemy.
These proverbs also get across a series of moral values, recommending fear of God, love of one’s neighbor, charity, truthfulness, temperance, prudent speech, suffering in silence while being aware of God’s friendly providence. A person who has these virtues has wisdom. Thus, the wisdom revealed in this book has to do with practical education for living. At the base of this lies fear of the Lord, the beginning of wisdom, the essence of wisdom (1 :7).
The book does go somewhat further than earlier wisdom writings; for example, it stresses the use of freedom, for a person can resist and even reject wisdom (1:24-25). It also asserts that wise men possess all the virtues, whereas foolish men pile one vice on another-the former follow the way leading to life, the latter to death and ruin-but it makes it plain that it is not just personal effort that brings the wise man to the goal of happiness: “The blessing of the Lord makes rich” (10-22).
The wisdom of Proverbs is not simply a speculative idea; it is highly practical. But the book goes further than this. It presents wisdom as a person, a person who possesses the word of God and awaits people at the city gates and in the streets (1:20-21), inviting all to attend his banquet in a well-appointed room (9:1-11), implying that what he has to offer is the only thing worth having.
It also shows this wisdom revealed by God to have been present with God for all eternity; it had a part in the creation of the world; it is wisdom who joyfully takes the initiative in seeking men’s company (8:22-31). Training oneself to receive wisdom is a matter of life and death for men (8:32-36).
It must have been difficult to g.asp the full meaning of the book, but with hindsight we can recognize in it the presence of the Logos, the Word, of John. The Fathers of the Church see the mystery of wisdom as outlined in this book as a clear reference to the mystery of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.