The following introductory remarks on the book of Proverbs are from volume 3 of my Interpretive Guide to the Bible, which was recently updated. This book is available here.
Although the entire Bible is a book of wisdom, Proverbs is the one book of the Bible whose central subject is wisdom. “A variety of terms, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, discretion, subtlety, are indeed employed, to set forth under different aspects the nature of the instruction to be given; but the one comprehensive word which includes them all is Wisdom” (T. T. Perowne, The Proverbs: With Introduction and Notes [Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges; Cambridge: Cambridge, 1899], 9). The Hebrew word חָכְמָה (wisdom) has been defined in various ways by Christian commentators, but is not expressly defined in Scripture, except by the numerous parallel concepts which it encompasses, and by the things which characterize it. Wisdom encompasses many concepts and many applications to specific situations, which makes learning it a lifelong process; it involves one’s total way of thinking and worldview.
For Solomon, wisdom is inseparably linked to the practice of true religion and the worship of the living God. The stated theme of the book in the prologue is that the fear of Yahweh (i.e., the belief in and proper devotion to God) is the starting point of the quest for wisdom, and the condition which necessarily accompanies its acquisition (1:7). This same principle is reaffirmed in the exhortation to the son to obtain wisdom (2:5-6), in the final call of wisdom at the end of the address to the son (9:10), and at the end of the book’s capstone, as a summary of the worthy woman’s character (31:30). Solomon makes no apology for linking his religion so explicitly to his practical instruction, and in fact asserts that any attempt to describe wise principles apart from deep personal piety toward the living God would be the height of folly. Religious themes are profuse throughout the Proverbs. Solomon exhorts his hearers to weave true religion into the fabric of everyday life in order to be wise, righteous, and blessed. The name יהוה (Yahweh) occurs some eighty-seven times in the book, including multiple instances in most chapters. Yahweh must be the central reality in the wise man’s worldview. Many of the proverbs simply mention Yahweh’s relation to man, with the assumption that the reader knows Yahweh and believes His Word. An entire paragraph in the address to the son exhorts him to serve and honor Yahweh (3:1-12), as do many individual proverbs. The proof of wisdom’s worth is Yahweh’s use of wisdom from before time began to bring the world into being (8:22-31). In the capstone of the book, the great sage Agur opens his speech with a statement of his commitment to fidelity to God and His Word (30:1b-9). While it would not be possible to mention Yahweh explicitly in every single proverb, fear of God is specifically stated to be the key to wisdom, and various aspects of God’s relationship to man are spoken of frequently throughout the book. Solomon’s absolute refusal to acknowledge the possibility of wisdom apart from fidelity to the one true God sets his wisdom apart from all other so-called “wisdom” of the ancient world. It also explains why the wise men of this world do not regard Solomon’s writings as special, or even as worth reading—in spite of the fact that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived (so 1 Kgs 3:12; 4:31; 10:23; 2 Chr 1:12). Since one cannot understand wisdom without an accurate knowledge of God and of His Word and a personal relationship with Him, the unsaved cannot recognize Solomon’s wisdom for what it is.
The “wisdom literature” of ancient pagan cultures, by contrast, is really not wise. Much of it is self-serving, telling you how to get what you want in life; it is superstitious; it is polytheistic; it often attributes the bad things in life to demons; it calls on the influence of magic; and it is involved with cultic sensuality. Likewise, the intellectualism of the twenty-first century world is not true wisdom, for it is clear that the more the world develops technology the more it uses this technology to push back the limits of depravity, so that man is now in the process of destroying himself through his own devices. The world is more broken, unstable, and confused than ever before, and yet it continues to insist that one must separate his personal religious devotion from his studies in order to obtain objective truth—a philosophy which the book of Proverbs asserts is guaranteed to produce folly.
Much of Solomon’s wisdom was developed simply by careful reflection on things which he saw and experienced (cf. Prov 16:23; 24:30-34). One who thoughtfully analyzes everything that happens and learns from it will become wise over time, even with limited experiences, for it is possible, through keen observation, to garner momentous lessons from seemingly insignificant experiences. When Solomon saw the most ordinary things in life, he pondered them deeply, and they became metaphors and object lessons: “This is like that” (cf. Prov 11:22; 17:12; 19:13; 21:9, 19; 25:19; 26:17, etc.). Solomon did not have to see everything to learn about everything, nor did he need to read handbooks and manuals. When he saw ants in his courtyard, he learned a profound lesson about hard work, and a walk past an overgrown vineyard produced the same effect.
In Solomon’s case, one would suppose that his life experiences must have been very limited, and far removed from the hard realities of human existence. He was born and raised in a king’s palace, and simply inherited an empire that had been won for him by his father. Throughout his long and peaceful reign, he possessed more wealth and power than anyone else on earth. Yet his writings are firmly connected to reality, and are imbued with a strong sense of the hardships and injustices of life. If it were not for the biographical information recorded about the author, the reader of Proverbs might think the book was composed by a poor man who had suffered much in life. The vastness of Solomon’s understanding of life apparently grew out of his rather limited window on the world as prince and king. He was able to lean from every experience, and to extrapolate much concerning the ways of people and the nature of life. Solomon’s example proves that one ultimately does not have to experience or read everything to be wise, but only to reflect on the things he does see and experience. That said, broad and varied experiences are usually eye-openers, and wise men tend to be experience-gatherers.
So, do you want to be wise? Then carefully observe ordinary life and deeply ponder it, rather than living by event and instinct like everyone else. Of course, gaining wisdom is a lifelong process, and the one who properly seeks wisdom will become wiser and more mature as he grows older.
The proverbs express timeless, universal truth, and are as relevant today in America as they were in ancient Israel. They do not so much argue for truth as present it and allow it to commend itself to the man who has a heart of wisdom. The proverbs are practical truths, about the nuts and bolts of how to live life, and yet are philosophical at the same time.
Some of the proverbs are not prescriptive (Do this!), but observational (This is the way things are—cf. 10:15; 21:9; 27:8, 14). The intent of the observational (descriptive) proverbs is to move the reader to act in light of the observations noted, or just to improve the reader’s understanding of life. Many of the insights and observations are seemingly obvious ones, yet very often, if we do not read or hear the obvious, we do not think about it on our own, and ultimately we do not apply common sense in our daily decisions. A man who studies the Proverbs is likely to have the right sayings come to mind at critical moments as he goes about his daily business.
Many of the proverbs are statements of general regularities and not hard-and-fast rules, though some are. However, this is no different than commands and observations in the rest of Scripture. When Peter says, “Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet 2:13), it is understood that this is a generally applicable rule. It would be unnecessarily pedantic for Peter to write, “Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, except if the king tells you to worship an idol, in which case you have an obligation to obey God rather than man.” Common sense is needed when interpreting the Bible. There is no need to make the simple complex by introducing theories about genre, or by claiming that the exceptions negate the literal meaning of the text.
Proverbs is frequently quoted by the NT writers, “who considered it as a treasure of revealed morality, whence Christians were to derive their rules of conduct” (Thomas Hartwell Horne, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures [9th ed.; London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1846], 4:119). Thus, the whole of this book is applicable to believers today; it was not just for the dispensation of the Law. Proverbs does contain a theme of temporal reward for right living—if you live wisely, you will be blessed, whereas if you live foolishly, you will suffer for it—but so does the NT (cf. 1 Pet 3:10-17). There were exceptions both then and now (cf. Ps 73), but in the end it is better for the righteous (cf. Eccl 8:12-13).
Proverbs is a vital book to understand, because without wisdom it is impossible to live a life that is pleasing to God or that is successful in the true sense of that term. Proverbs is a book that fathers ought to teach their sons from an early age to start them down the right path in life (cf. 4:1-9). It is a book that pastors should teach their congregations, and it is a book that laymen should study on their own. It is a book that ought to be a focus of academic study by Christian scholars who write to a specifically Christian audience with the aim of edifying the church (as opposed to those who write to a general academic audience, with an aim to participate in the mainstream academic discussion that is dominated by critical scholars). It is vital for the man of God to master the art of living. He must understand and apply common sense; he must learn how to handle the practical, ordinary issues of life. Many ministers and laymen alike have been ruined through a lack of practical wisdom.
It is ironic that the three books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, which preserve the greatest words of wisdom from the wisest man who ever lived—words which were also inspired by God’s Holy Spirit—are not recognized by secular scholars as being special in any way. They think that the wisdom of these books is mostly borrowed from or similar to the wisdom of the surrounding pagan cultures, and that Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs were compiled or edited by Hebrew scribes long after the time of Solomon—whose very existence most deny. Even many conservative evangelical scholars and pastors deny the basic message of Ecclesiastes, despite its special place as the summary statement and culmination of all of Solomon’s thought. The men who have the reputation for being the wisest in this age cannot recognize true wisdom when it is waved before their eyes, because it is a wisdom from above which is not understood by the natural man, nor apprehended by culturally-conditioned ways of thinking (cf. 1 Cor 2). The Queen of Sheba came from the ends of the earth to hear this wisdom, whereas modern man, who has free access to it, has no appreciation for it. It is not unlikely, based on Matthew 12:42 and Luke 11:31, that the Queen of Sheba will stand up in the final day of judgment and condemn those who have brushed aside Solomon’s wisdom.
Churches today have a huge number of programs for helping people with their marriages, with their finances, with addictions, and with any other problems they may be facing in life. Yet no church that I know of has a program to encourage its people to pursue wisdom. There are no “wisdom retreats,” “wisdom seminars,” or “wisdom fellowships.” Pastors do not passionately call their congregations to make the search for wisdom the great priority of their lives, nor do they preach sermon series in which they work desperately to convince their people that wisdom is the most precious thing in life, the foremost thing they should be directing their time and energy to pursuing. Youth pastors do not challenge teenage boys to embark on the quest for wisdom. Yet it is a direct result of the depreciation of wisdom that there are so many other problems in the church, and that all of the programs that have been developed by the church have failed to mitigate these problems. If people understood the value of wisdom, they would give all that they had for it, yet wisdom is for the most part wholly neglected. People pursue money, relationships, and status instead. In fact, many of the church’s popular programs are essentially designed to make life manageable while continuing to live by event and instinct, without embarking on a great quest for wisdom. It is our prayer that the church will make its priorities the priorities of this book of Proverbs.