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The Book of Proverbs is one of the books classified as the poetry of Scripture. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon all belong in the same package because they are written as Hebrew poetry.
Solomon is the writer of three of these books of poetry: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Proverbs is the book on wisdom. Ecclesiastes is the book on folly. Song of Solomon is the book on love. Love is the happy medium between wisdom and folly. Solomon was an expert on all three subjects! The Word of God says about him: “And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five” (1 Kings 4:32). We have only one of his songs out of 1,005 that he wrote. And, actually, we have very few of his proverbs. “And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom” (1 Kings 4:33–34).
In the Book of Proverbs we read the wisdom of Solomon. A proverb is a saying that conveys a specific truth in a pointed and pithy way. Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long experience. A proverb is a truth that is couched in a form that is easy to remember, a philosophy based on experience, and a rule for conduct. A proverb has been called a sententious sentence, a maxim, an old saying, an old saw, a bromide, an epigram.
The key verse is found in the first chapter: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).
The Orient and the ancient East are the homes of proverbs. Probably Solomon gathered many of them from other sources. He was the editor of them all and the author of some. This means that we have an inspired record of proverbs that are either Solomon’s or from other sources, but God has put His stamp upon them, as we shall see.
Dr. Thirtle and other scholars noted that there is a change of pronoun in the book from the second person to the third person. The conclusion of these scholars was that the proverbs which used the second person were taught to Solomon by his teachers, and the proverbs using the third person were composed by Solomon himself.
There is a difference between the Book of Proverbs and proverbs in other writings. The Greeks were great at making proverbs, especially the gnostic poets. I majored in Greek in college, and I took a course that was patterned after the Oxford plan, in that I would read a great deal of Greek and then report to my professor every Monday morning. I read the entire New Testament in Greek while I was in college and then, when I got to seminary, we went over it again. The writings of the gnostic poets were among the writings that I had to read in Greek. They are very clever in the Greek language because so many of them are a play upon Greek words.
There are some characteristics and features of the Book of Proverbs that I think we should note:
1. Proverbs bears no unscientific statement or inaccurate observation. For example, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). This is a remarkable statement because it was about 2,700 years later that Harvey found that the blood circulates and that the heart is the pump. In contrast, in an apocryphal book called the Epistle of Barnabas, mention is made of the mythical pheonix, a bird that consumes itself by fire and rises in resurrection. Such a fable does not appear in the Book of Proverbs nor anywhere else in the Bible. It is strange that this is an ancient book containing hundreds of proverbs and not one of them is unscientific today. That in itself ought to alert any thinking person to the fact that the Book of Proverbs is God–inspired.
2. Proverbs is a book on a high moral plane. You simply will not find in its pages the immoral sayings which occur in other writings. Justin Martyr said that Socrates was a Christian before Christ—which, of course, would be an impossibility. And his admirers say that he portrays a high conception of morals. However, Socrates also gave instructions to harlots on how to conduct themselves! The best that can be said of him is that he was amoral.
3. The Proverbs do not contradict themselves, while man’s proverbs are often in opposition to each other. For example: “Look before you leap” contrasted with “He who hesitates is lost.” “A man gets no more than he pays for” contrasted with “The best things in life are free.” “Leave well enough alone” has over against it, “Progress never stands still.” “A rolling stone gathers no moss” versus “A setting hen does not get fat.” The proverbs of man contradict each other because men’s ideas differ. But there is no contradiction in the Book of Proverbs because it is inspired by God.
While the Book of Proverbs seems to be a collection of sayings without any particular regard for orderly arrangement, some of us believe that it tells a story, which we will notice as we go along. It is a picture of a young man starting out in life. He gets his first lesson in Proverbs 1:7, which is the key to the book.
The advice that is given in the Book of Proverbs transcends all dispensations. Whether one lives in Old Testament or New Testament times, old Jerusalem or new Jerusalem, its truths are still true. It is a good book for anyone.
Someone may raise this objection: “There is nothing in it about the gospel.” Just wait a minute, it is there. The One in this book whose wisdom it is, is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
The book is not a hodgepodge of unrelated statements, nor is it a discourse of cabbages and kings. It is a book that makes sense, and it does have an arrangement and an organization. Solomon has something to say about his own teaching: “And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs” (Eccl. 12:9).
Here is something that will make the Book of Proverbs a thrilling experience for you: There is in Proverbs a thumbnail sketch of every character in the Bible. I am going to suggest a few of them; you will enjoy finding others. Also I think you will find there is a proverb that will fit all your friends and acquaintances—but perhaps you had better not mention to them the proverb that fits some of them! There is a proverb that will fit every one of us, and we can have a good time going through this book.
Dr. A. C. Gaebelein has written this helpful analysis of the literary structure of Proverbs.
The literary form of these Proverbs is mostly in the form of couplets. The two clauses of the couplet are generally related to each other by what has been termed parallelism, according to Hebrew poetry. (Hebrew poetry does not have rhyme or meter as our poetry does. Hebrew poetry consists of parallelism of ideas.) Three kinds of parallelism have been pointed out:
1. Synonymous Parallelism. Here the second clause restates what is given in the first clause. (It expresses the same thought in a different way.)
“Judgments are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the back of fools” (Prov. 19:29).
2. Antithetic (Contrast) Parallelism. Here a truth, which is stated in the first clause, is made stronger in the second clause by contrats with an opposite truth.
“The light of the righteous rejoiceth, but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out” (Prov. 13:9).
(You can see that the second statement is stating the same truth but from the opposite point of view by way of contrast.)
3. Synthetic Parallelism. The second clause develops the thought of the first.
“The terror of a king is as the roaring of a lion; He that provoketh him to anger sinneth against his own life” (Prov. 20:2).
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 20: Proverbs. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)