Quick—what is more precious than jewels and more profitable than gold? That’s right, wisdom (Prov. 3:14-15; 8:11, 18-19)! Through the centuries, many Christians have turned to the book of Proverbs for wisdom. That is, essentially, what the book is about. Written at the highpoint of Israel’s history with the gift of wisdom bestowed upon her king, the book encourages the pursuit and gaining of wisdom. At all costs, “get wisdom” (Prov. 4:5, 7; 16:16). In this endeavor, we want to help you get better acquainted with Proverbs with some help from the ESV Study Bible. Here are some notes from the introduction to Proverbs.


Proverbs itself mentions Solomon (reigned c. 971–931 B.C.) as author or collector of its contents (1:1; 10:1), including the proverbs copied by Hezekiah’s men (25:1). There are also two batches of sayings from a group called “the wise” (22:17-24:22; 24:23–34), and “oracles” from Agur (30:1–33) and Lemuel (31:1–9). But no author is named for the song in praise of the excellent wife that ends the book (31:10–31).


Proverbs states its theme right at the book’s beginning (1:1–7): its goal is to describe and instill “wisdom” in God’s people, a wisdom that is founded in the “fear of the LORD” (see here for more on this topic) and that works out covenant life in the practical details of everyday situations and relationships.

Purpose, Occasion, and Background

A key term in Proverbs is of course “wisdom.” The word (Hb. khokmah) can have the nuance of “skill” (as it does in Ex. 28:3), particularly the skill of choosing the right course of action for the desired result. In the covenantal framework of Proverbs, it denotes “skill in the art of godly living.”

The opening of the book also discloses its intended audience (Prov. 1:4–5): the simple, the youth, the wise, and the one who understands. (See Character Types in Proverbs.) Questions about the book’s purpose have focused on the identity of “the youth” (1:4): is this any Israelite boy or girl, or is it specifically young men on the verge of adulthood, or is it young men who will serve the royal court?

It is easy to see that the book is addressed to all the people of Israel (and through them to all mankind). The situations faced by the youth receive much attention, probably because they supply concrete examples from which others can generalize. Additionally, the “wise” who pay attention will also benefit (1:5), so the audience is not limited to the youth. The best way to put this in light of the rest of the ancient Near East is to say that Proverbs represents the “democratization” of wisdom, the offer of it to all people.

The Christian message is God’s gracious way of restoring human life for all kinds of people, fulfilling the promises made to the patriarchs. Both situations express the same grace of God, and both have the goal of restoring the image of God in man. Further, many of the proverbs make use of wise observations of God’s world–which is the same world in which Christians live today. For all the “local” features found in the book (e.g., a society based on agriculture; Palestinian climate; Mosaic institutions), its wisdom is universally applicable. Therefore it is no surprise that NT authors readily make use of its individual proverbs (e.g., Rom. 12:20, using Prov. 25:21–22; Heb. 12:5–6, using Prov. 3:11–12) and its broader themes (e.g., James as a wisdom book), setting the pattern for Christians of all ages.

History of Salvation Summary

The history of salvation generally deals with the overarching story of God’s work in calling, preserving, and shaping a people for himself, through whom he will bring blessing to the whole world. It also takes up the unfolding of God’s revelation, especially the developing idea of who the Messiah will be and what he will do. At first glance, Proverbs has little to do with this, focused as it is on the daily life of particular members of God’s people. However, it has much in every way to offer. First, the people in Proverbs are God’s covenant people, and the kings are Davidic. Second, concern for the well-being of the people as a whole is never absent from the book (e.g., 11:14; 14:34; 29:2, 18).

Character Types in Proverbs

To read Proverbs well, one must have a good grasp of who the character types are and what function they serve in the book.

The most obvious characters in the book are the wise, the fool, and the simple. Proverbs urges its readers to be wise, that is, to embrace God’s covenant and to learn the skill of living out the covenant in everyday situations (cf. 2:2). The wise person has done that (cf. 10:1); usually Proverbs focuses on the one who has made good progress in that skill, whose example is worth following (cf. 9:8b).

The fool is the person steadily opposed to God’s covenant (cf. 1:7b). The setting of Proverbs assumes there can be fools even among God’s people. There are three Hebrew terms translated “fool” (kesil, ’ewil, nabal), with little difference among them. This kind of person resists even the offer of forgiveness found in the covenant (14:9; 15:8). These people are dangerous in their influence (13:20; 17:12) and cause grief to their parents (10:1); but they are not beyond hope (8:5).

The simple is the person who is not firmly committed, either to wisdom or to folly; he is easily misled (cf. 14:15). His trouble is that he does not apply himself to the discipline needed to gain and grow in wisdom.

These characters usually serve as idealized portraits: that is, they denote people exemplary for their virtue and wisdom or especially despicable for their evil. The literary name for this is “caricature”: portraits of people with features exaggerated for easy identification. The positive figures serve as ideals for the faithful, to guide their conduct and character formation. The negative figures are exaggerated portraits of those who do not embrace the covenant, so the faithful can recognize these traits in themselves and flee them.

Personified Wisdom and Christ

Proverbs commends pursuing “wisdom,” portraying it as a virtue. In four poems in chapters 1-9, wisdom is also personified as a noble lady whom one should pursue: 1:20–33; 3:13–20; 8:1–36; 9:1–18 (contrasted with Lady Folly). The poem of chapter 8 seems to go beyond personification to describing a personality, which has led to discussions of whether Christians should relate this description to Christ.

In the first few Christian centuries it was widely accepted that Christ was the incarnation of Wisdom in chapter 8. The Septuagint translation of 8:22 was read to mean, “the LORD created me” (see ESV footnote; the Gk. might not be that specific), and thus the Arians (who denied the deity of Christ) found here a proof that the Logos (the “Word” of John 1:1) was a creature, and not God. But Athanasius, defending the deity of Christ, took the text to refer to Christ’s incarnation, and not to his preexistence. The ESV renders the Hebrew verb qanah as “possessed,” which is a more accurate translation. The verse means that wisdom is the character of God by which he created (cf. 3:19), and therefore should not be taken as his creature; this is the wisdom he gives to those who will learn from Proverbs. In this light, neither side of those who based their discussion on the Septuagint had the correct understanding of the original Hebrew text.

It would appear, however, that Proverbs 8 played a role in the way NT authors described Christ. Paul’s “before all things” (Col. 1:17) seems to draw on Proverbs 8:23–26, with its repeated “before.” Wisdom in Proverbs 8 seems to be a personality–indeed, it seems to be what rationality would be if it were a person–by which God made the world. This is like Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made.” The NT authors further expand this idea in texts such as John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:16–17; and Hebrews 1:3, 10-12, all of which insist that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of that divine person through whom God made the world.

Literary Features

The book of Proverbs is what the title implies–a collection or anthology of individual proverbs. In addition to being teachers and authority figures, the wise men of ancient cultures were literary craftsmen–careful observers of the human condition and masters of a particular kind of discourse (the proverb).

A proverb works by making a comparison, and leaving it to the reader to work out how the proverb applies to different situations, following current cultural conventions. In English, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink” is regularly applied to human relationships rather than ranching, and the competent reader knows this.

A feature of wisdom literature is its concreteness: i.e., the principle is often given in terms of a specific circumstance or a specific person, rather than in terms of a generalization about people (plural). The false balance, contrasted with the just weight (11:1), is a particular instance of the difference between swindling and honesty in one’s work ethic and commercial dealings. A father speaks to his son, recalling his own boyhood (4:1–4), as a specific parent speaking to a particular child (rather than to one’s children or to children in general). The idea is not to exclude, say, fathers speaking to daughters (or mothers speaking to sons and daughters); rather, by reflecting on a specific instance the wise reader will perceive the application to his or her own situation (making the appropriate adaptations).

Proverbs of necessity focus on consequences, and this raises the question of whether they are “promises.” Proverbs by nature deal with general truths, and are not meant to cover every conceivable situation. Consider the English proverb, “Short cuts make long delays”; the very form of the proverb forbids adding qualifiers, whether of frequency (often, usually, four times out of five) or of conditions (except in cases where . . .); these would lessen the memorability of the sentence. The competent reader knows that the force of the proverb is not statistical, but behavioral–in the case of the English proverb cited, to urge due caution. In biblical proverbs, the consequences generally make God’s basic attitude clear, and thus commend or discourage behavior.

Proverbs often seem to be mere observations about life, but their deeper meanings will reveal themselves if the following grid is applied: (1) What virtue does this proverb commend? (2) What vice does it hold up for disapproval? (3) What value does it affirm?

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