The Book of Proverbs is an anthology of collections of sayings and instructions. The individual sayings and instructions are old, but collecting them together and adding an introduction (Chapters 1-9) is something that happened, most likely, in the early period after the return to Palestine from the Babylonian Exile (late 6th century BCE). The primary purpose of the book is to teach wisdom, not only to the young and inexperienced (1:2–4) but also to the advanced (1:5–6). Wisdom in the ancient Near East was not theoretical knowledge but rather practical expertise. Tradesmen using their skills were wise; Artists, too. Leaders, Judges and Kings who contributed to peace and prosperity in the land were wise. One could be wise in daily life, too, in knowing how to live successfully and without trouble in God’s universe. Ultimately wisdom, or “sound guidance” (1:5), aims at the formation of character.
All cultures in the ancient Near East had a wisdom tradition – including Israel. What was common to them all was that Wisdom was a characteristic of the gods (or in the case of Israel, God). In the Jewish tradition, Wisdom was available for the asking and available in a variety of sources: kings, scribes, heads of families. While all traditions urge readers to perform wise acts, The Book of Proverbs urges them to seek wisdom itself and portrays wisdom as a woman herself seeking human beings as disciples and companions.
The good folks at The Bible Project have a wonderful introduction to the Book of Proverbs that you can watch here.
Adding on the the video summary, Chapters 1–9 introduce the book, drawing attention to wisdom itself and its inherent value rather than exhorting particular wise actions. The collections following chap. 9 consist largely of independent, two-line sayings, yielding their often indirect or paradoxical meaning only to readers willing to ponder them. To reflect on the sayings is perhaps what chaps. 1–9 mean by living with Wisdom and dwelling in her house.
The Book of Proverbs can make an important contribution to us today.
- First, it places the pursuit of wisdom over the performance of individual wise acts. To seek wisdom above all things is a fundamental option and a way of life.
- Second, it portrays the quest as filled with obstacles. There are men and women who offer a substitute for the real thing; discernment is required.
- Third, the book teaches that acquiring wisdom is both a human task and a divine gift. One can make oneself ready to receive by discipline, but one must wait until it is granted.
- Fourth, wisdom is in the world but it is not obvious to people entirely caught up with daily activities. The instructions and the aphorisms of the book can free the mind to see new things.
Christians will see in personified Wisdom aspects of Jesus Christ, who hold that He is divine wisdom sent to give human beings true and full life. The New Testament saw Jesus as a wisdom teacher and employed the tradition of personified Wisdom of chaps. 2 and 8 to express his incarnation. The Letter of James is an instruction resembling those in Proverbs. Wisdom traditions influenced the Gospels of Matthew and Luke through a common source (see, e.g., Mt 11:25–27 and Lk 10:21–22, which seem to derive their father-son language, at least in part, from the parental language of Proverbs). The Gospel of John regards Jesus as incarnate Wisdom descended from on high to offer human beings life and truth and make disciples of them, a view largely reflected in the introductory chapters of Proverbs
Yet there is a universal dimension to Proverbs, for in its attention to human experience it creates a link to all people of good will.