Proverbs belongs to the so-called wisdom literature of the Old Testament and cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of this literary genre. In some measure wisdom is found amongst all nations of the world, but in Israel and in the Old Testament it has a very special connotation. Here (as in the rest of the Near East) it is not the result of discursive thinking, or philosophical speculation in the Western sense, but has as its noëtic source immediate intuition based on experience in life. It can be easily explained why wisdom is of this type amongst nations of the Near East. They lived subjectively nearer to the heart and objectively nearer to (unsophisticated) life.

In the Old Testament wisdom has a threefold content according to the viewpoint from which it is seen. In the first place it has to do with the way in which man executes his professional work. It enables statesmen to govern correctly; it teaches the ordinary laborer dexterity and skill (cf. Exod. 28:3; 31:6; 35:10). Wisdom also brings strength (Prov. 24:5, 6). In addition it means common sense, level-headedness, and brightness (in German: Klugheit). Of course, every human being is born with certain talents, but wisdom enables him to use these talents with greater effect.

In the second place wisdom has an ethical content. It is closely related to uprightness and honesty. It teaches right conduct toward one’s fellowmen.

Thirdly, wisdom is of a religious nature in which the above two-named aspects merge. Wisdom teaches right conduct toward God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). The word translated “beginning” in the Revised Standard Version and in the Berkeley Version can also be translated “chief part” or “choice part” (cf. The Interpreter’s Bible on the above named text). This implies that without the fear of the Lord, who has given his revelation in Scripture, no true wisdom can be attained.


Together with prophet and priest the wise men formed the spiritual leaders of Israel (cf. Prov. 1:6). They did not command the same respect as prophet and priest, but must nevertheless have had great influence, especially amongst young people.

It is possible that these wise men were in some way connected with the “scribes” who were in the service of the state. Scribes are mentioned several times in the Old Testament as being in government service (cf. 2 Sam. 8:17; 20:25; 1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 19:2; 22:3–7; Jer. 8:8–9; 36:20, 21). Of great importance is Isaiah 29:14 where it is clear that the wise men must have existed as a class long before the middle of the eighth century B.C. and Jeremiah 18:18 where the “counsel from the wise” evidently has the same status as “the law” of the priest and the “word” of the prophet (cf. Interpreter’s Bible, IV, p. 769).

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The wise man could give his instruction publicly (preferably at the town gate, the meeting-place of the people) or privately to those who came to him. Job 29:7–25 gives us a very clear picture of the significance of a wise man.


Wherever we find wisdom of this type in the Old Testament (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and some Psalms), we can expect to see some connections with the wisdom of the Near East in general; but in the main we must be prepared to find something unique, as is the case with the whole Old Testament. The Bible presents the wisdom of God, through the medium of wise men of flesh and blood. The inspired wise men of the Bible not only studied nature and experience, but saw everything in the light of “the fear of Yahwe.” And what this fear of Yahwe is was clearly taught by law and prophets, in so far as they antedated or were contemporary with the wise men. In the Bible, therefore, we finally have the wisdom which has its source in Jesus Christ who is the Wisdom of God as against the foolishness of the world. Naturally the Old Testament can state this only implicitly, not explicitly.

We may safely assume that the wise men were fully acquainted with the religious literature of their nation, and therefore it is not surprising to find all of the Ten Commandments reflected in Proverbs.

The Old Testament itself refers to wise men who were citizens of other states. In 1 Kings 4:30, 31 it is said of Solomon that he was wiser than all other men, than Ethan, the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. Even Job and his friends were not of Israelite extraction but were citizens of Uz (wherever this country may have been situated). Many commentators are of the opinion that Agur and Lemuel, mentioned in Proverbs 30 and 31, were also foreigners.

It is clear, therefore, that the wise men of Israel were familiar with the wisdom of surrounding nations.

Excavations have in recent times brought to light a wealth of wisdom literature from the Babylonians, Egyptians, Canaanites, and so forth. In many cases there seems to be a very close connection between these wisdom books of pagan origin and the Old Testament. On the whole, however, one can safely say that the relation lies more on the formal side. It is quite evident that God uses the existing literary media to bring about his revelation. Thus, a close scrutiny leads to the conclusion that the similarity is greatest on the level of technical skill, less on the level of ethical maxims; and as regards the religious there is a wide gulf which is the case with the whole of the Old Testament.

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In two cases there is a very close similarity, namely in that of the Egyptian proverbs of Amenemope and the original Assyrian proverbs of Achiqar. Many scholars are inclined to assume that the relevant proverbs of the Bible were borrowed from these sources. There is no consensus as yet, but we may state at the outset that there is no objection in assuming that wisdom from originally pagan sources was used (as in the case probably of Prov. 30 and 31) but purified by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that we may be sure the teaching is in harmony with the rest of Scripture. In so many cases God has taken up in his revelation what was also practiced by pagans (e.g., offerings, feasts, circumcision, and so forth) but always filling the vessels with new content.


In the Ancient Near East wisdom was presented in the form of riddle and fable. Very few instances of these two types are found in the Old Testament (cf. Judges 14:14; 9:7–21; 2 Kings 14:9). The two fables that are mentioned are found in the mouth of persons who cannot be considered as vehicles of revelation. Riddles are mentioned in Proverbs 1:6 (RV: enigmas) and in Psalm 49:4.

The most common form in which wisdom is presented in Proverbs is that of the mãshãl. There is no unanimity yet as to the exact meaning of this word. Many scholars are of the opinion that the root meaning is—to be like, from which the meaning likeness, comparison, can be derived. The difficulty is that the element of comparison is found only in a few instances in the book of Proverbs (cf. 10:26), so that one must assume that the connotation of the word was expanded in the course of time.

In the Old Testament the word mãshãl has a variety of meanings, starting from the ordinary proverbial saying in common life (cf. 1 Sam. 10:12; Ezek. 12:22–23). It can also stand for a parable or an allegory (e.g. Ezek. 17:2–10; 20:49; 24:3), a prophetic oracle (Num. 23:7, 18); Mic. 2:4), or an object of derision (cf. Deut. 28:37). In Proverbs the term means a religious and ethical aphorism with artificial form. A mãshãl may consist of one, two, or more lines. This leads to greater units, called mãshãl-chains, as those concerning the sluggard (Prov. 6:6 f.) The expanded mãshãl may even assume the form of a hymn (cf. Prov. 8:22–31) and of a great drama like the book of Job. Peculiarly interesting is the mãshãl in which a play with numbers is recognized, a form which is common to the Ancient Near East (e.g. Prov. 6:16 f.; 30:15 f.). The number is not used to designate an exact enumeration, but to express a climax.

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Following the titles in the Hebrew text, the following system can be detected:

I. 1:1–9:18: Introductory collection.

II. 10:1–22:16: First Solomonic collection.

III. 22:17–24:22: First appendix.

IV. 24:23–34: Second appendix.

V. 25–29: Second Solomonic collection.

VI. 30:1–14: Third appendix.

VII. 30:15–33: Fourth appendix.

VIII. 31:1–9: Fifth appendix.

IX. 31:10–31: Sixth appendix.

At least two collections are professedly Solomonic, namely II and V, followed by the appendices which are products of other “wise men.” In 1:1 we also find the superscription “Proverbs of Solomon” which most commentators regard as the title of the whole book (if taken as a categorical concept)—the greater part of the book deriving from Solomon. It may be that the superscription only refers to collection I, in which case also this collection is of Solomonic origin. Because, however, this collection is the most advanced so far as the history of revelation is concerned, the present writer is inclined to regard it as an introductory discourse by the final editor who also wrote under inspiration.


There is no reason whatever to doubt the Solomonic origin of II and V. This gives a safe terminus a quo, namely, the tenth century B.C. According to 25:1 the collection of these proverbs of Solomon took place during the reign of Hezekiah, which brings us to the eighth century. The date of origin of the appendices may be a little later, but there is no reason why the whole could not have been completed before the exile of Judah (586 B.C.).


An enlightening commentary is that of Oesterley, The Book of Proverbs, London, 1929 (moderately critical). Very useful is the New Bible Commentary, London, 1954. For those who can read German, the exposition of Lamparter in Die Botschaft des Alten Testaments will be of great help.

To obtain insight into the position of modern criticism in connection with wisdom literature, the article by Professor Baumgartner on the wisdom literature in Rowley, The Old Testament and Modern Study will prove to be very useful.


Teologiese Skool

Potchefstroom, South Africa

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