Study Guide

Proverbs Introduction

Proverbs Introduction

Like the teachings of an ancient Israelite Yoda, The Book of Proverbs is all about wisdom.

The book's editors and compilers took wisdom wherever they could find it: the oracles of Agur and Lemuel at the end of Proverbs may very well be non-Israelite in origin, and the "thirty sayings" in the middle part of Proverbs are related to an Egyptian wisdom collection ("The Instructions of Amenemopet"). Combine that with proverbs classically attributed to King Solomon, and you have a delicious Near-Eastern fusion meal, slathered in wisdom gravy. (Mmm, gravy.)

Proverbs is a little like Confucius's Analects, which had a profound influence on the ethical, social, and moral teachings of China. Confucius doesn't spend much time getting deep into metaphysics and theological disputes—he just wants to know how to live in accordance with "the Will of Heaven," how to be a good person, while also managing to live a productive life in the world.

Proverbs has the same set of concerns. It takes the existence of God for granted and has interesting poetic statements to make about the role of Wisdom in the world. Yet overwhelmingly, the advice it offers is extremely practical: it's concerned with the details of everyday life, with work and family. Like the writer Jack Miles observed, Proverbs deals with the struggles of character formation and prudence—in a way that the Torah doesn't, exactly (source).

The Dating Game

It's really hard to determine when the book was actually written or compiled because it takes so much material from so many sources from different time periods. One section claims to have been compiled by officials in King Hezekiah's court—so if they truly date from his reign, that would put that section at roughly the 8th century CE… though its sayings could've come down from earlier centuries. Then the final compilation of the book would've likely been a few centuries after Hezekiah's reign, give or take a century or two.

As with all things Bible, you never can tell.

What is Proverbs About and Why Should I Care?

"Wu"… with a Little "Tang" Thrown In

If you've ever wondered if it's okay to gorge yourself on honey until you throw up, Proverbs is the book for you. (Psst—Proverbs says the answer is: "It is not.")

But, um, even if you haven't wondered about that particular quandary, Proverbs still probably has something to say to you. It answers the same questions that people ask when they consult self-help books or when they (used to) write in to "Dear Abby": "How should I live?" Proverbs is basically an ancient self-help manual—yet it has plenty of advice that still holds up today. For example: "Soft words calm another's anger" and again, "Don't eat honey until you puke" (to paraphrase).

To quote the RZA, explaining the name of The Wu Tang Clan: "'Wu' stands for 'Wisdom of the Universe' […] but there's a little 'tang' thrown in." That's actually a pretty good definition of The Book of Proverbs—though, we suppose it's debatable exactly how much 'tang' it has.

(Well, we think it has 'tang'—more than you would probably expect, anyway. Also, we're painfully aware that quoting the RZA in this "Why Should I Care?" could make us seem like Jason Schwartzman in "Yo Teach!" from Funny People. But we reject that contention. Vigorously.)

Wise Elders

Proverbs isn't just a collection of crotchety sayings, like "Be sure to get your daily recommended amount of fiber" (though there's, admittedly, a small element of that kind of advice). To some degree, it does represent the advice of senior citizens to young people (there's an ancient Egyptian story about an elderly man who got revenge on his nephew for trying to assassinate him by reciting proverbs to the nephew until the nephew exploded and died—presumably out of boredom) (source). More than that, though, Proverbs aims to free you, by giving you the tools and craft you need to navigate life in the world. "Free your mind, the rest will follow"—that's a proverb (just, er, not one from Proverbs).

Despite the stodgy reputation of some Biblical Wisdom Literature, its goal is to teach people the rules so that they can eventually thoroughly embody and forget them. Proverbs imagines Wisdom (or any wise person) as "rejoicing in the habitable part of the earth" or "playing all over the earth." Although it seems like a lot of advice and precepts at first, on a deeper level it's about giving people a method of targeting their energy to work in a way that helps them enjoy life. Like it says: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick / But a fulfilled desire is a tree of life."

That's some "Wu" for you, but we hope you'll agree that it's also got quite a bit of "Tang," too.

Proverbs Resources

Websites

The Bible Gateway
This excellent resource provides almost every translation of the Bible you could possibly desire.

The Brick Testament
This site began as an artist's project to depict the Bible in Lego form—wild stuff. Proverbs isn't covered to a particularly great degree, but it is mentioned.

My Jewish Learning
This presents a pretty succinct overview of Proverbs from a contemporary Jewish viewpoint.

Historical Documents

Instructions of Amenemopet
Check it out: This ancient Egyptian collection of proverbs and wisdom had a big influence on the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The authors even, apparently, used some of its sayings.

Matthew Henry's Commentary on Proverbs
Henry authored one of the classic, main-line Protestant Bible commentaries. This is his take on Proverbs.

Video

"Making a Way Out of No Way"
Scholar Wolfgang Mieder discusses the way that Martin Luther King Jr. used proverbs (but not just the Biblical kind) in his civil rights speeches.

Audio

Book of Proverbs by Michael Torke
Listen up. This contemporary American composer set Proverbs in a classical music setting in this work for chorus and orchestra.

Images

Disney Animal Kingdom's Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is found throughout the Bible—including in Proverbs, where it's a metaphor for any good, life-saving attributes or for Wisdom itself. Here's Disney World's visual representation.

The Dutch Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Okay, so technically this doesn't have that much to do with Biblical proverbs—but hey: it's an old painting and it deals with proverbs—even if we're talking about the Dutch rather than the Hebrew variety.

King Solomon, Medieval Russian Icon
This Russian icon depicts the king in a fairly wise-looking mode.

Wisdom and Truth Assist History in Writing by Jacob de Wit
Wisdom and Truth are both female—as Wisdom is in Proverbs—as they aid History in recording the deeds of human beings.

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