What Is the Book of Proverbs About?


The Book of Proverbs (Hebrew מִשְלֵי, Míshlê (Shlomoh) is found in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Proverbs is the 2nd book in the 3rd section, called Writings. When The Book of Proverbs was translated into different languages, its title transformed. For the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Book of Proverbs changed to “Παροιμίαι=Paroimiae” (“Proverbs”). When translated into Latin, with the Latin Vulgate, the title became “proverbia,” which is from where the English title ultimately came. The Book of Proverbs, while an anthology, is truly a compilation of collections that recount a way of life that endured for over a thousand years. The Book of Proverbs is an instance of Perennialism, an idea rooted in the belief system that since man’s existence is essentially permanent, education should focus on the ideas that have lasted throughout the centuries. The Book of Proverbs speaks to questions of morality, proper behavior, and the meaning of human existence. The motif repeated over and over is that wisdom starts with the fear of God. Wisdom, which was attained by God before anything else, is celebrated for her part in creation, and without wisdom, there would be chaos. Because people can live by following the order of creation, the primary goal of a religious life is to pursue wisdom.



When translated, “proverbs” means the Hebrew mashal, which has a broader meaning that what the English word suggests. Therefore, although half of The Book of Proverbs consists of the brief, catchy adages that the English word “proverbs” infers, the other half of The Book of Proverbs contains longer, varied, poetic pieces. Included here are the sayings referred to as the “words of the wise,” as well as powerful representations of Wisdom and Folly, and “instructions” framed as counsel from a parent or teacher to a student or parent.

The first section of the Book of Proverbs includes an opening invitation for young men to begin on their search for wisdom, as well as 10 “instructions,” and 5 poems on the personification of Woman Wisdom. Proverbs 10:1-22:16, which include 375 sayings, are broken into two segments. The first part differentiates the wise man from the fool – or the righteous man from the wicked man – and the second part focuses on wise and foolish language. In chapters 25-29, which are credited to the edits of “the men of Hezekiah,” the just are compared to the wicked and the subject of the rich and the poor is also addressed. In chapter 30, the topics of divinity, creation and the ignorance of man are presented.



While it is not possible to provide specific dates for the individual sayings in The Book of Proverbs, the expression that is traditionally employed for the title is found in chapter 1:1, Proverbs of Solomon (mishley shelomoh), which is again found at 10:1 and at 25:1, probably has more to do with identifying the material rather than representing an author.

The Book of Proverbs contains six distinct parts. The first, including chapters 1-9, was in fact likely the final section to be written, during the Hellenistic or Persian periods. Because the second section, chapters 10-22:16, includes “the proverbs of Solomon,” this could have influenced its appearance in the Hebrew anthology. A great portion of the third section is a modification of an early Egyptian composition – the Instructions of Amenemopet – and could have found its way to the author by way of a translation. The next section has a new source, starting with the saying, “these too are from the wise.” The following unit includes a superscription that indicates the sayings were likely composed in the late 8th century BCE, during the rule of Hezekiah. Lastly, chapters 30 and 31 are a pair of appendices, and vary greatly when compared to the other chapters. In the ancient Near East, the theme of wisdom was prevalent, and when The Book of Proverbs is considered in conjunction with others from Mesopotamia and Egypt, parallels concerning global wisdom are evident. In Israel, the genre of wisdom literature could have began in the houses of learning, in the family unit, or with the royals; regardless, the predominant understanding is that instruction took place throughout the towns and villages within the families.



The Book of Proverbs, when viewed with other instances of the wisdom tradition within the Bible, including Ecclesiastes and Job, provokes questions about human morality, proper behavior and the very significance of human existence. These writings continue to be important for religious adherents and secular readers, The Book of Proverbs particularly for its perspective and insight. In the Bible, the genre of wisdom relates somewhat to Greek philosophy, both of which were written during the same period. Similar to the Greeks, wisdom literature questions human nature and morality, but does not touch on the topics of metaphysics, epistemology, or other intellectual subjects found in Greek philosophy.

The Book of Proverbs was almost omitted from the Bible due to its many paradoxes. For instance, the reader is encouraged to both “answer the dolt by his folly,” and to “not answer a dolt according to his folly” in chapter 26. More extensively, the theme of the first section suggests that wisdom starts with the fear of God, yet other sections portray wisdom as an inherited human attribute. The inconsistencies are due to the Book of Proverbs being a collection of anthologies, not a single composition from a single source.

In most instances, The Book of Proverbs provides a one-dimensional perspective on life. A life that is lived in accordance with order is rewarded, while a life that disregards the rules will cause ruin. In comparison, Ecclesiastes and Job seem to conflict with the basic theme of The Book of Proverbs, as both challenge the belief in the “wise.” Also interesting is the absence of the mighty acts of the Lord – including the Covenant between Israel and God and the Exodus – from The Book of Proverbs and other works of wisdom. Compared with other biblical books, the wisdom books speak to human logic and reflection.

Back to blog