The Wisdom of Proverbs
By Don Ruhl
Where does the world go for advice? Where do you go for advice? How many people, including yourself, think of going to the Book of Proverbs? Instead people will pay good money to get worldly advice or to pay for medications to deal with their problems. “In 1992, the Associated Press evaluated 4000 self-help books. They concluded that the oldest and best of the how-tos of happiness are in the oldest self-help book—the Bible” (The Bible and Its Influence, page 144).
What Is a Proverb?
It is a short pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice. First Kings 4 reveals that Solomon wrote 3,000 proverbs. Would you not like to know all those other ones not revealed in the Bible? Not even a third of those made it into the Book of Proverbs, although we have more of his wisdom in the Books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. “Thus Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the men of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men—than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were one thousand and five” (1Ki 4.30–32).
The Poetry of the Book of Proverbs
You will often see parallelism in the Book of Proverbs, especially inverted parallelism, because one of the purposes of this Book shows the contrast between the wise and the foolish, and the righteous and the wicked. Therefore, you will often see something like this:
The wise man [does or is something],
But the fool [is the opposite].
Many of the second lines begin with “but” or “and.” In chapters 10–16, “but” dominates the appearances in second lines.
Another form of poetry is the list with one more item listed.
For three things the earth is perturbed,
Yes, for four it cannot bear up:
For a servant when he reigns,
A fool when he is filled with food,
A hateful woman when she is married,
And a maidservant who succeeds her mistress.
Amos also used this method heavily.
The Book of Proverbs also uses the short story to embed truth in our minds.
For at the window of my house
I looked through my lattice,
And saw among the simple,
I perceived among the youths,
A young man devoid of understanding,
Passing along the street near her corner…
Wisdom and the Fear of the Lord
If you go to a bookstore, you will see self-help books and religion in separate sections, treating one as secular and the other as sacred, but the Bible does not make such distinctions. There is no help apart from the Lord. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15.5).
O my soul, you have said to the LORD,
“You are my Lord,
My goodness is nothing apart from You.”
Note carefully how the Book of Proverbs begins. Notice for what purpose Solomon said the Proverbs were collected, and then the first truth that he states about gaining wisdom,
The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
To perceive the words of understanding,
To receive the instruction of wisdom,
Justice, judgment, and equity;
To give prudence to the simple,
To the young man knowledge and discretion—
A wise man will hear and increase learning,
And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel,
To understand a proverb and an enigma,
The words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
But fools despise wisdom and instruction.
To drive this point home, Solomon personified wisdom, starting at verse 20. If we reject wisdom, listen to what wisdom will do and why,
“Then they will call on me, but I will not answer;
They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
And did not choose the fear of the LORD…
(Pro 1.28, 29)
Collections in the Book of Proverbs
1.1–9.18 – The Proverbs of Solomon in long form
10.1–24.34 – The Proverbs of Solomon in short form
25.1–29.27 – The Proverbs of Solomon collected by the men of Hezekiah
30.1–33 – The Proverbs of Agur
31.1–31 – The Proverbs of King Lemuel and his mother