Every year thousands of books published have titles with the same first two words—"How to . . ." By reading these books you can learn how to paint like the old masters, how to get a job, how to get federal grants, a divorce, free publicity, a mortgage or even a nightclub gig. You can read about how to buy a car, a house, a small business or a personal computer. You can become a balloon artist, an astrologer, an athlete, a golfer, a fashion designer, a good dancer, a pilot, a master manipulator, a mechanic or a vampire. Experts out there will make you expert at petting a cat, picking lottery numbers, losing five pounds fast, building fences or bearing children.
All these books are offering us wisdom—skill in one area or another. Books like these proliferate because we all need wisdom to live successfully. Wisdom brings success and prosperity in our work, in dealings with family and friends, and in our relationship with God. One book of the Bible—the Proverbs of Solomon—specializes in wisdom. It gives us direction and guidance that is practical, concrete, reasonable, wholesome, understandable, shrewd and fruitful. By reading it we gain skill in all areas of life.
Where Did the Book of Proverbs Come From?
The book of Proverbs begins with the notice "The Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel." This does not mean, however, that Solomon authored every word of the book. In I Kings 4:32 we learn that Solomon "spoke three thousand proverbs." Undoubtedly he composed a substantial number of these proverbs himself. First Kings 4:34 mentions that kings of surrounding nations sent delegations to hear Solomon's wisdom. On the other hand, an exchange of wisdom must have developed between Solomon and those who came to learn from him.
The book of Proverbs reflects this interchange. Approximately three hundred proverbs are labeled "Proverbs of Solomon" in Proverbs 10:1—22:16. Perhaps this section formed the nucleus of the collection. Some years later, King Hezekiah's scribes added about 130 additional Solomonic proverbs, found in Proverbs 25:1—29:27. "Sayings of the Wise" appear in Proverbs 22:17—24:22, followed by "Further Sayings of the Wise" in Proverbs 24:23-34. Then come "Sayings of Agur" in Proverbs 30, "Sayings of King Lemuel" in Proverbs 31:1-9, and the acrostic poem on the virtuous wife in Proverbs 31:10-31. Clearly, the book of Proverbs as it comes to us contains a broad collection of proverbs, from a diversity of wise men and at least one woman who is identified as King Lemuel's mother.
Comparing the book of Proverbs with other ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature sheds light on how the collection arose in the first place. In order to instruct their sons, court officials in many lands would pull together the wisdom they had acquired in a lifetime of diplomatic service. From Egypt we have at least ten such collections, including The Instruction of Ka-gem-ni and The Instruction of Prince Hor-dedef, dating from the Old Kingdom (2686-2160 B.C.), and The Instruction of Onchsheshonqy in the fourth or fifth century B.C. An Akkadian translation of a Sumerian original entitled The Instructions of Shurruppak dates from approximately 1300 B.C. Ahiquar, who served as vizier to the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon in the seventh century B.C., left the Words of Ahiqar. The Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel takes its place alongside these and other collections. Prophetic authorities added Solomon's proverbs to the canon of Scripture. A manual of instruction for the king's son became available to all of God's children.
What Will Solomon's Proverbs Do for Me?
Solomon tells us the purpose of the collection in Proverbs 1:2-6:
"For attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise."