The Book of Proverbs is the oldest wisdom book in the Bible. King Solomon is traditionally named as the author however, the book has a very long and complex history. Within the book are several collections of works which date from various periods of Jewish history. The book likely received its final editing during the post exilic period ( late sixth century to mid fourth century BCE). “The Proverbs of Solomon” are probably the oldest portion of the book, with chapters 1-9 probably being the newest.
Wisdom literature was common in many ancient Near East literature. There are some parallels with Mesopotamian and Egyptian wisdom literature but Proverbs has its own distinctive perspective that is consistent with Torah and the Prophets. The Book of Proverbs was to provide instruction and insight with both practical and moral content.
“Wisdom” as used in Proverbs is not referring to intelligence or education. Wisdom is found in the “fear of the Lord” and the right relationship with God that is its result. “Foolishness” is the opposite of wisdom, not ignorance but an attitude that denies the importance of relationship with God.
The outline shows the collections that make up the Book of Proverbs.
The main form of the book are proverbs which are short sayings, some from the folk tradition and some from a later literary tradition. The proverbs are meant to be memorable and imaginative in order to be easily recalled. There will be a relationship between the parts of a proverb, typically parallelism. The second parallel lime may restate the idea of the first line by agreeing, disagreeing or expanding on it.Look for parallel words, father/mother, wise/foolish, etc. Some proverbs have the form of “better than” or “not good”.
There are also numerical proverbs which are a list with an explanations. The number may be at the beginning or the end of the proverb. Two, three and seven are especially common. There are also numerical sayings that have the form x and x+1.
In addition to proverbs the book also contains commands, either admonitions or prohibitions. There are also “instructions” which are longer statements. Often these are addressed to a son and has a teaching tone.
Sometime proverbs are juxtaposed which have contradictory messages.
The Book of Proverbs also contains wisdom poems. These are long unified pieces. They may also contain sayings, admonitions, prohibitions and so on. Wisdom is personified as a woman, an unusual and unexpected feature considering the patriarchal nature of the culture of the time.
The last poem in the Book of Proverbs is an acrostic poem, using the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Outline of Proverbs ( after Fontaine)
1:1-9:18 wisdom poems and instructions
10:1-22:16 “The Proverbs of Solomon”
22:17-24:22 “The Words of the Wise”
25:1-29:27 “Further ‘Proverbs of Solomon’ Copied by the Men of Hezekiah, King of Judah”
30:1-14 “The Words of Agur, Son of Jakeh”
30:15-33 mostly numerical sayings
31:1-9 “The Words of Lemuel, King of Massa, Which His Mother Taught Him”
31:10-31 acrostic poem on the Strong (Wise) Woman
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of the Book of Proverbs
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Dell, Katharine, “Proverbs” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version.Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Fontaine, Carole R. “Proverbs” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Van Leeuwen, Raymond C “Proverbs”,in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 5, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996.