Proverbs reads like someone saved a bag of 1,000 fortune cookies and turned it into a book.
There’s one wise saying after another.
No character development.
No characters. Unless we count the imaginary Lady Wisdom, shouting in the streets, “Dimwits, when are you going to get some sense” (1:22).
Proverbs is perhaps one of the most quoted books of the Bible—because it’s so quotable.
“Train up a child in the way he should go,
And when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6 New King James Version).
Or, as the Casual English Bible puts it:
“Point your kids in the right direction
Then as adults, they’ll find the right trail.”
Most proverbs are written as poetry, but the genre is called wisdom literature. That genre was 1,000 years old by the time Solomon came along, the presumed writer of most of Proverbs.
And there are plenty of proverbs in the Bible that read like Solomon, or whoever else wrote them for the Bible, picked them up in their reading.
Topics in Proverbs are even more diverse: money, sex, power, loans, interest on loans, marriage, kids, women looking to cheat on their husbands, and even etiquette for dinner meetings:
“When you sit down to eat a meal with a leader,
Think about where you are.
You might as well cut your own throat
If you plan on stuffing yourself” (Proverbs 23:1-2).
Not everything in Proverbs is the God’s honest truth. Some are simply observations about life, expressed in general terms, and are not always a matter of fact. For example:
“Laziness makes you end up poor.
Hard work is what makes you rich” (10:4).
Most people probably know hard working folks who live at the poverty level in society. And many of us could likely identify by name lazy rich people who travel in style on the backs of people they exploit.
So, many Bible scholars would advise against taking all the proverbs literally. Yet we can take them seriously.
For example, parents can see the value of disciplining children. But many might also feel it’s unnecessary and unhelpful to continue the practice of spanking, which was in style 3,000 years ago.
“When you spank children
You’re saving their lives” (23:14).
Well, okay with the principle of discipline, many parents would say, but it doesn’t feel right for a big person to hit a little person to teach the little person not to do bad stuff.
Read wisdom lit wisely, some scholars would advise.
King Solomon, son of David, gets credit for writing most of the wise sayings. Students of the Bible, for a long time, said they agreed that Solomon wrote Proverbs.
They were encouraged by 1 Kings 3:6-12. There’s where God promised to answer the new king’s prayer for wisdom by making him wiser than anyone who had ever lived. And 1 Kings 4:32 says Solomon wrote 3,000 proverbs. The Book of Proverbs has less than 1,000.
Solomon starts off reigning with lots of wisdom, but he ends up worshiping idols of his too-many wives (1 Kings 11).
Some proverbs come from other sources, as the proverbs themselves report. For example, some otherwise unknown king named Lemuel reportedly wrote Proverbs 31. Actually, it sounds like his mother wrote it for him. He credits her with the insight. Some scholars would also credit her with the words, given what is said about women.
Solomon reigned 40 years, the Bible says. That could mean for a generation. But if taken literally, his reign would have been around 970-930 BC. Some proverbs may have been written before Solomon and after. Some proverbs track with ancient Egyptian sayings. And Proverbs 25:1 reports that officials of King Hezekiah, 300 years after Solomon, were working on compiling the wise sayings.
Solomon ruled most of what is now Israel and Palestinian Territories, along with parts of Jordan and Syria.
The book seems written by seasoned adults for young men without much experience in life.
One clue that the target audience is men: the writers warn young men to watch out for “that loose lady who flatters men with a polished script…Her house sits on the sinkhole of death ” (2:16, 18).
Most wise sayings would work for men and women alike. But the writers repeatedly address men in particular, and never get around to warning ladies about anything unique to their experiences in life.