Introduction to Proverbs

The Structure of the Book

As R. Dillard and T. Longman (p. 236) point out, the Book of Proverbs is an anthology. That is to say, it is a collection of selected literary pieces written by different authors at different times. The book does not claim in its entirety to be the work of Solomon (note, for instance, 30:1 and 31:1.)

The overarching structure of the book and its general outline are as follows: (1) the Title of the book (1:1) and a Prologue stating its purpose (1:2-6.) There then follows (2) a Mashal (or, proverb) setting forth the main theme of the entire book (1:7.) This theme, standing both at the very beginning of the book as well as at the very end (31:30), is re-iterated (9:10; 15:33) and expounded throughout the book. Next comes (3) a series of Mashal Odes or Discourses (1:8-9:18)—didactic poems of the mashal type (for more on the mashal literary style, see below.) Many scholars believe that these discourse were not the work of Solomon himself, but were written by the individual who composed the title and prologue and who compiled the collection of Solomonic proverbs that commences at 10:1. However, in light of the fact that Solomon composed 1005 songs (no doubt mashal-type odes) as well as 3000 proverbs (1 Kgs. 4:32), there is no reason to suppose that these discourses are not of Solomonic origin.

Following the mashal odes we come to (4) the First Collection of Solomonic Proverbs (10:1-22:16.) These are the succinct, two-line mashals for which the book is famous and by which it is so often identified. Again, according to 1 Kings 4:32, Solomon is credited with composing 3000 such proverbs (375 of them are contained in this first collection.) If the composing of proverbs constituted a court activity or constructive pastime in the Solomonic era, it may be that the three thousand proverbs attributed to the king were actually the product of the court as a whole, in which Solomon himself no doubt took a leading role (R. K. Harrison, p. 1014) as he initiated discussions and interacted with his able court counselors.

After the first collection of Solomonic proverbs there is attached (5) an Appendix consisting of “The Words of the Wise” (22:17-24:22.) The “wise” were no doubt the counselors who served an important function as advisers to the kings (1 Kgs. 12:6; 1 Kgs. 4:31.) It appears that the “first edition” of the Book of Proverbs ended at this point. Note how 24:21 once again, in conclusion as it were, re-iterates the theme with which the book began.

Now there appears (6) another Prologue (24:23-34) introducing the reader to (7) a Second Collection of Solomonic Proverbs (25:1-29:27.) We are informed that this second collection was compiled by the scribes who served in the court of king Hezekiah (25:1.) Following this second collection, the book is rounded off by means of two appendices. The first (8) consists of “The Words of Agur” (30:1-33) and the second (9) consists of “The Words of King Lemuel … which his mother taught him” (31:1-31.) This second appendix itself is composed of two parts: wise counsel for the ruler (verses 2-9) and the acrostic poem (each verse beginning with a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet) about the worthy woman (verses 10-31.) Scholars are in agreement that neither Agur nor Lemuel were of Israelite origin. The Hebrew word massa, occurring in 30:1 and 31:1, has sometimes been translated “oracle.” But as it occurs in direct association with the phrase, “son of Jakeh” (in 30:1 and with “King Lemuel” in 31:1), it is more likely a descriptive noun meaning, “Agur the son of Jakeh, of Massa.” An Ishmaelite people by this name lived in northern Arabia (Gen. 25:13-15), some of whom appear to have retained the biblical faith of Israel (C.H. Bullock, p. 164) and maintained some sort of spiritual intercourse with the sons of their common forefather Abraham.

These nine parts constitute the whole of the Book of Proverbs. In all likelihood parts 1-5 formed the “first edition” of the book. Then, at a later date, parts 6-9 were formulated into a second volume. It was either at that time, or more likely at a still later date, that the “first edition” and the “second volume” were combined to form our present day canonical Book of Proverbs. We will return to this subject of the actual compilation of the book in a moment, but first we must briefly discuss the basic literary structure found in the book, the mashal, or proverb.

The general opinion is that mashal is derived from the Hebrew verb meaning, “to represent,” “to be like.” Thus, a mashal or proverb, would be a statement that seeks to reveal the true nature of a thing by comparing it in some way to something else (C.H. Bullock, p. 149.)

The basic form of mashal poetry is the two-line proverb known as the distich (pronounced “dis-tik.”) In the Book of Proverbs there are found five different types of distich. There is the (1) synonymous distich in which the second line repeats the thought of the first in a somewhat altered form in order to express the thought as clearly and exhaustively as possible. An example of synonymous distich is Proverbs 16:18,

Pride goes before destruction,
And a haughty spirit before a fall.

Another type of distich is the (2) antithetic distich. In this form the second line expresses the antithesis, or the opposite, of the first line. Here the truth expressed in the first line is further explained in the second by means of its opposite. An example of antithetic distich is Proverbs 11:17,

The merciful man does good to his own soul,
But he that is cruel troubles his own flesh.

A third type is the (3) synthetic distich. In this form two different though related truths are presented in the two lines of the proverb, being joined together only by a common theme. An example of synthetic distich is Proverbs 10:18,

He who conceals hatred has lying lips,
And whoever spread slander is a fool.

Yet another type of distich we encounter in Proverbs is the (4) integral distich. Here the first line is not by itself sufficient to express the thought, so the truth under consideration is completed by the addition of the second line. An example of integral distich is Proverbs 11:31,

Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth;
How much more the wicked and the sinner.

Finally, Proverbs also contains the (5) parabolic distich in which some ethical point or practical truth is explained by means of an illustration from nature or human experience. An example of parabolic distich is Proverbs 25:25,

Like cold water to a weary soul,
So is good news from a distant land.

When two lines are not sufficient for expressing the thought, the basic distich can be expanded into three lines (tristich), four lines (tetrastich), or even as many as eight lines (octastich.) In these expanded forms of distich the first two lines may introduce the subject and the rest of the lines may then present the proof or reason or consequence of the aforementioned truth. Just one example of the extended distich is the pentastich (a 5-line proverb) of Proverbs 25:6-7.

Beyond these limits (from two up to eight lines) the piece ceases to be a mashal (proverb) in the proper sense of the term; these longer pieces are classified as mashal odes, or songs. Some examples of mashal odes include the warning against drunkenness (23:29-35) and the exhortation to diligent care for one’s wealth (27:23-27.) The discourses found in chapters one through nine, as well as the song about the worthy woman (31:10-31), are examples of lengthy mashal odes (F. Delitzsch, pp. 7-12, and C.H. Bullock, pp. 159-160.)

The Composition of the Book

The first collection of Solomonic proverbs (10:1-22:16) consists exclusively of distich-type proverbs that are predominantly of the antithetic variety. The second collection (25:1-29:27) is quite different, consisting of a much greater variety of types of distichs, with the parabolic form being predominant in chapters 25-27; yet chapters 28-29 do contain a number of antithetic distichs.

F. Delitzsch points out (pp. 22-23) that if both these collections were the work of the same compiler, the difference between the two is inexplicable: If the first grouping is primarily a collection of antithetic distichs, why did the compiler not include those found in chapters 28-29 in the first collection? Delitzsch concludes that the two collections are the work of two separate compilers. The latter collection (25:1-29:27) is expressly stated to be the work of the compilers identified as “the men of Hezekiah” (25:1.) The former collection, in the opinion of Delitzsch, is the work of an unknown compiler who prefixed the collection with the mashal discourses found in chapters 1-9 and appended to the collection “The Words of the Wise” (22:17-24:22.)

When one again compares the two collections of Solomonic proverbs, another intriguing feature is noticeable, namely, the repetitions that occur in the two collections. The following proverbs are identical, or nearly so, (the first in each pair are found in the first collection, the second are found in the second collection): 21:9 and 25:24; 18:8 and 26:22; 22:3 and 27:12; 20:16 and 27:13. Then there are also a number of proverbs that are identical in meaning but expressed in different terms, these include: 22:13 and 26:13; 19:24 and 26:15; 19:1 and 28:6; 12:11 and 28:19; 22:2 and 29:13. Finally, there are those proverbs in which one line is identical, here are included: 17:3 and 27:21; 15:18 and 29:22 (F. Delitzsch, p. 25 and C.H. Bullock, p. 158.)

What conclusions might we draw from this phenomenon of repetition found within the two collections? Delitzsch deduces (pp. 26-27) that “the men of Hezekiah” knew of the first collection, were not seeking to supplement it, but sought rather to provide a second distinct collection. Why a second collection, unique from the first, although displaying some commonality with the first? The answer, “the men of Hezekiah” had in mind a different purpose for the collection they compiled. Note that the first collection begins with the proverb (10:1):

A wise son makes a glad father,
But a foolish son is the grief of his mother.

The second collection begins with this proverb (25:2):

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.

The first collection is a book for youth, to whom it is dedicated in the extended introduction (1:8-9:18.) The second collection is a book for rulers, providing them with godly counsel as to how to rightly govern their subjects. To be sure, not every proverb in each of the two collections contributes directly to the express purpose of the collection in which it is found; yet, nevertheless, from commencement to conclusion, the two compilers keep in view their stated aims. One may take note of the proverbs with which the first collection concludes (22:15-16) as well as the proverbs that form the conclusion of the second collection (29:26-27.)

The second collection is said to have been compiled by “the men of Hezekiah.” But when and by whom might the first collection have been compiled? Delitzsch suggests (pp. 28-30) that the most suitable time for the origination of the first collection would be in the days of Jehoshaphat, some seventy years after the time of Solomon. Jehoshaphat was inclined to promote the worship of Jehovah and instruct the people in His holy ways (2 Chron. 17:7-9.) He was also concerned to restore a justice and righteousness to the land that was predicated upon the fear of Jehovah (2 Chron. 19:4-11.) If we accept the mashal discourses of chapters 1-9 as of Solomonic origin, we might even say that Jehoshaphat consciously endeavored to bring the nation of his day into conformity with the ideal depicted by Solomon in his mashal discourses (note, especially, those passages in the discourses in which a personified wisdom appears in the streets of the city making her appeal to the citizenry.) If, on the other hand, as some scholars hold, these opening mashal discourses were composed by the compiler of the first Solomonic collection, then they are intended to poetically describe the situation that prevailed at the time of Jehoshaphat as he introduced his reforms.

The men of Hezekiah” evidently sought to model their collection of Solomonic proverbs after the earlier collection, except in inverted order. Whereas the earlier collection concludes with “the words of the wise” (22:17:24:22), the collection compiled by “the men of Hezekiah” begins with such a section, which they introduce with the statement, “These also are words of the wise” (24:23-34.) Following their collection of Solomonic proverbs (25:1-29:27), they round off their volume with the inclusion of the two concluding mashal discourses contained in chapters 30-31. Thus, the second collection becomes the mirror image of the first. Finally, perhaps at some later date, the two collections were consolidated into what is now the canonical Book of Proverbs.

Before moving on to a consideration of the purpose of the book, it would be well to say a word about the relationship between Proverbs and the other ancient wisdom literature, especially that of Egypt. Much has been written about the relationship between the section of Proverbs labeled as “the words of the wise” (22:17-24:22) and an Egyptian work known as The Wisdom of Amenemopet. The latter was first introduced to the scholarly world by E.A.W. Budge in 1924, though it first came to light in 1888. While Budge recognized some similarities between Proverbs 22:17-24:22 and Amenemopet, it was A. Erman (1924) who first argued that there was a definite connection between the two texts. Erman believed that the Hebrew text was dependent on the Egyptian (R. Dillard and T. Longman, p. 240.)

Dillard and Longman affirm that it is hard to deny some kind of relationship between the two texts, citing the close similarity between Proverbs 22:28 and a similar couplet in Amenemopet as well as the similarity between Proverbs 23:4-5 and a corresponding passage in Amenemopet (R. Dillard and T. Longman, pp. 240-241.) Some evangelical scholars argue that the Egyptian text is in fact borrowing from the biblical text. They point out that Egyptologists differ widely as to the date of the Amenemopet text; indeed, the discoverer of the text originally dated it as late as 600 B.C. (W.A. Jones and A.F. Walls, p. 516.) They maintain that there are proportionately far more Semitisms (i.e.; Semitic words or expressions) in the Amenemopet document than in any other Egyptian work on morality. Furthermore, E.J. Young raises the question (p. 314), “Since the wisdom of Amenemope(t) is a document of advice to young men seeking civil service and is more or less connected in thought, why did the writer of Proverbs simply compose his proverbs in such an unsystematic manner? If he was so attracted to Amenemope(t) in the first place as to use it, how do we explain such use?”

Dillard and Longman (p. 241) counter these arguments by asserting that, although the date of the Amenemopet text is uncertain, the evidence leans toward one that is earlier than Solomon. They also maintain that a dominant culture (like the Egyptian) is less likely to be influenced by a sub-dominant culture (like that of Israel.)

Perhaps more of an issue has been made out of the similarities between Proverbs 22:17-24:22 and The Wisdom of Amenemopet than is warranted. It is admitted that only ten or eleven proverbs, about a third of 22:17-24:22 (E.J. Young, p. 313), correspond to portions of the Egyptian text. When those portions are compared to the corresponding sections of the Amenemopet text one finds that, although there are similarities of thought and expression, they are not so close as to definitively demand the conclusion that borrowing has occurred in either one direction or the other. For example, it is true that riches “sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (23:5) is expressing the truth concerning the transitory nature of wealth in words that are similar to “(riches) have made themselves wings like geese and are flown away to the heavens” (Amenemopet.) Yet any wise man from any culture, upon contemplating the transitory nature of wealth, would be liable to express that truth by the imagery of birds flying away. (Furthermore, it seems that the burden of proof is on those who claim there is borrowing to explain why the borrower, whoever he may have been, would have changed “eagles” to “geese” or vice versa.) The same may be said of the other example submitted by Dillard and Longman: the warning against the removal of ancient boundary markers is a universal admonition that may be expected to be expressed in similar language from one culture to another.

The Purpose of Proverbs

In order to understand the purpose of Proverbs we need to appreciate the Sitz im Leben, the life situation, in which the Hebrew wisdom literature was written. Unlike the time of the Judges, when Israel was a provincial country confined to the hills of Canaan, by the time of Solomon Israel had become a cosmopolitan nation, interacting with the societies of the world both near and far.

In the time of Solomon, Israel’s commercial ventures spanned from Tahshish (2 Chron. 9:21)—located on the coast of Spain—to Ophir (2 Chron. 8:18)—located at the southern extremity of the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, as G. Archer notes (p. 454), resulting from the central location of Israel between the cultures of Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia, North Arabia and Egypt, it was inevitable that there should be extensive cultural interplay from the earliest stages of Israel’s career as a nation. The writer of 1 Kings informs us that Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt (4:30.) How would the writer know this if not because of the interaction between the court of Solomon and the courts of the East and that of Egypt?

Lying at the crossroads of commercial and cultural interchange between Mesopotamia and Egypt, Israel was both the beneficiary and the victim of cross-cultural currents (C.H. Bullock, p. 38.) As the court of Solomon interacted with the world culture, what did they encounter? They encountered a culture whose worldview was polytheistic and secular.

The thing that sets Israelite wisdom literature apart from the rest of ancient wisdom literature is its distinctive underlying theological foundation. The Mesopotamian and Egyptian sages stressed the material advantages of heeding their counsel. By way of example, we may consider The Words of Ahikar, a celebrated collection of Mesopotamian wisdom sayings that became popular throughout the Near East. Ahikar’s wisdom is predominantly secular in tone. The Egyptian wisdom writings are similar to the work of Ahikar, being primarily concerned with making a successful life (R.K. Harrison, p. 404.)

The foundation stone of Hebrew wisdom is “the fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10.) Solomon’s overarching purpose is to set forth, in contradistinction to the so-called wisdom of the world, the wisdom that comes from God (1 Kgs. 4:29.) The essence of that wisdom is summed up in the proverb that forms the “motto” of the book, setting forth the theme of the book, namely,

The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge,
But the foolish despise wisdom and instruction. (1:7)

The Hebrew word (rosh) translated, “beginning,” has a dual meaning. There is the meaning, “starting point” or “beginning;” and with this sense of the word we are being told that the fear of Jehovah is the attitude or spirit that is necessary for one to have if he is to attain any true knowledge. The other meaning of the word is “chief part.” Here we learn that when all is said and done, the chief part, the essence, of knowledge is summed up in this one thing, namely, the fear of Jehovah. So understood, this proverb, which stands at the very outset of the entire book, is informing us that the fear of the Jehovah is the beginning and end of knowledge, indeed, it is the meaning of life. This fundamental truth expressed at the beginning of the Book of Proverbs is further expounded at the conclusion of Ecclesiastes (12:13):

This is the conclusion of the matter; all has been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

This is not to say that man is to live his life in abject fear of God; on the contrary, in the light of the fullness of Scripture, it means that life is meant to be God-centered, as opposed to being man-centered. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question and Answer #1,

What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge.” This God-given, God-centered perspective on life needed to be re-iterated in the days of Jehoshaphat. Hence, under his direction, the first volume of Solomonic mashal odes and proverbs was compiled. This truth needed to be re-stated again in the days of Hezekiah, especially in light of the secularism that had come to predominant in the Israel of that day (Isa. 2:22; 5:21.) Indeed, this God-centered orientation of life needs to be set forth before every generation of sinful mankind until God’s kingdom comes, at which time His will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.


Archer, Gleason l. Jr.; A Survey of Old Testament Introduction; Moody Press, Chicago, 1964 (Sixth Printing, 1970.)

Bullock, C. Hassell; An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books; Moody Press, Chicago, 1988.

Harrison, R.K.; “Proverbs,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.

__________; Introduction to the Old Testament; Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1969 (Fifth Printing, November 1975.)

Jones, W.A. Rees and Walls, Andrew F.; ‘The Proverbs,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Keil, C.F. & Franz Delitzsch, “Biblical Commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon,” Vol. 1, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, Reprinted, May 1970.

Longman, Tremper III & Raymond Dillard; An Introduction to the Old Testament; Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids MI, 1994.

Young, Edward J.; An Introduction to the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, Revised Edition, Fourth Printing, June 1969.