Proverbs: When and Where?

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Pr. 1:7 (NIV)

In this final post of my journalistic series on Proverbs, we will look at the questions of when and where Proverbs took place. Just as with any other literary work, when we read the Bible, the setting (time and place) helps to give us context.

The setting of Proverbs can be gleaned from Pr. 1:1 and passages in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles about King Solomon. Proverbs was written during Solomon’s reign (970 to 930 BC) in Israel during a time when the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) were still united.

During his time as king, Solomon brought lavishness to the kingdom. He made silver, gold and cedar plentiful (2 Chr 1:15), he had thousands of horses and chariots (2 Chr 9:25), he built a magnificent temple for the Lord and palace for himself (2 Chr 8:1), and he assigned thousands of people to be craftsmen and servants in Israel (2 Chr 2:17-18). In general, most people probably worked as farmers, artisans, or servants.

Why is setting important to us when it comes to studying the book of Proverbs? Knowing what was happening in Israel during Solomon’s lifetime can help us understand the references he made in his proverbs. For example:

Pr. 21:9: “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” The Archaeological Study Bible explains that houses had flat roofs, and that they could accommodate a small room like the reference mentioned in 2 Ki 4:10. Living on the roof would not be as uncomfortable as we would think it with our modern-day slanted roofs that would leave us out in the elements.

Pr. 11:22: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.” In ancient times, it was common for women (and men) to wear gold rings in their noses and/or ears. Ge 24:47 and Eze 16:12 refer to the commonplace wearing of gold rings. This helps us understand that women wore gold rings for adornment, and when they acted unbecomingly they were compared to a pig trying to dress up with jewelry. It was their righteous behavior, and not their outward adornment, that made them pleasing to God.

Pr. 11:1: “The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight.” Buying and selling during Biblical times was done using scales and weights, and this verse refers to the dishonest business practice of merchants using heavier weights when buying merchandise (to make the seller’s goods appear lighter) and lighter weights when selling (to make their own goods appear heavier). Knowing the background of this verse helps us understand it since we don’t usually carry around a bag of weights when we shop today.

Knowing and understanding context is important and can give us a clearer picture of what Solomon meant in his colorful proverbs. But more importantly, we want to apply the idea of setting to our own walk with God. Consider the setting of your life. During the “good” times, is it easier or harder to discern wisdom when you are faced with a problem? When you are “down and out,” how easy is it to see a solution?

Whatever our circumstances (or setting), when we are closest to God, studying His word and praying to him daily, we are able to see wisdom more clearly. At the time Solomon wrote Proverbs, his circumstances were good. In fact, they were amazing. He had wealth and honor, in addition to wisdom (1 Kings 3:10-13). But, when he wrote the more sober and questioning Ecclesiastes at the end of his life, after he had worshipped other gods, his perspective was not the same. Knowing that helps us to appreciate Ecclesiastes just as we do Proverbs.

So, the lesson we can take away with us is that every time and place (or setting) is made for us to walk in fellowship with God. So let us “fear the Lord” no matter when or where we are in our lives.

What Are Proverbs?

“Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser.
    Let those with understanding receive guidance
 by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables,
    the words of the wise and their riddles.”

Proverbs 1:5-6 (NLT)

The first six verses of Proverbs are much like the opening paragraph of a newspaper article – they answer the important questions of who, what and why we need Proverbs. So far, we’ve looked at who and why. It seems obvious that we would already know what proverbs are, but how would you answer that question?

Based on Pr. 1:6, proverbs and parables are words and riddles told by wise people. From the very start, Solomon tells us that proverbs are sayings to help us live wise, disciplined and righteous lives that will please God and help us live in harmony with others. We know proverbs are wise words. Verse 6 adds the idea of “parables” (or, depending on your translation, “figure,” “enigma,” or “interpretation”) to these sayings. The Hebrew translation for this idea is melitsah (H4426), meaning interpretation, satire or a mocking poem.

Satire is defined as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” When I think of satire, the image of the Proverbs 26 sluggard comes to mind. He’s hinged to his bed and too lazy to bring his hand to his mouth to eat. This is exaggeration at its best, but still sobering because the idea that laziness and paralyzing fear might keep us from doing useful things hits close to home for some of us.

Riddles also play a part in Proverbs. The last half of Chapter 30 includes numerical proverbs which read like riddles. Read verses 15-31, and see if you can figure out why these situations were grouped together.

The majority of Proverbs is comprised of short, wise sayings of Solomon. While they impart wisdom, they are not guarantees, or promises. Instead, they provide keen observations that illustrate likely outcomes. For example, Proverbs 22:6 tells us “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Experience shows us that this is not always the case. Loving parents who have taught their children the word of God and shown them Jesus’ love, still have sons and daughters who stray from the path of righteousness and live rebellious lives. Even so, this should not discourage parents from still “training their children” in God’s word because without God’s word, there is less of a chance of their child staying on the right path. It is wise to train our children in how they should go but it is not a guarantee that they will follow God if we do.

Proverbs are words of wisdom given to us in the form of short sayings (often only two lines), satirical situations, and riddles. They provide us with observations on how to live our lives prudently. Proverbs is poetry, each verse providing an amazing word picture of what it looks like to live foolishly or wisely.



Why Study Proverbs? Part 3

“These proverbs will give insight to the simple, knowledge and discernment to the young.

Proverbs 1:4 (NLT)

As all the kids in our area head back to school this week, we think of them going for the purpose of attaining knowledge over the course of the next school year. As adults, we can consider life as our school, where we have the opportunity to gain wisdom every day and use the Bible as our textbook.

According to Proverbs 1:4, Solomon’s wise sayings provide knowledge and discernment to both the “simple” and the “young.” This implies that these wise proverbs are passed down from wiser people to those seeking knowledge and from those who are older to those who are younger. The word “simple” used in this verse comes from the Hebrew word pthiy (Strong’s H6612), which means simple or open-minded, which means that those who are willing to hear and accept Proverbs are candidates for gaining wisdom. On the flipside, however, this idea of a simple person could mean somebody who was so open-minded that he did not have proper discernment and was willing to blindly accept anything that came his way.

Over the past two weeks, we have looked at the purposes for studying Proverbs and how we apply its wisdom to our lives. Proverbs teaches us the skill of wisdom and the value of discipline, it gives us access to God’s perfect understanding, and it teaches us what is right, just and fair. Proverbs 1:4 finishes the “why” of Proverbs by adding one more purpose: discernment.

The Hebrew translation for discernment is mezimmah (Strong’s H4209), meaning purpose, discretion, and device. We usually think of discernment as having perception or the ability to judge well. But, in spiritual terms, discernment is the ability to decide between truth and error or between what is morally right or wrong. Proverbs 1:3 reminds us that these wise sayings show us those things which are right, just and fair. Proverbs is a good guidebook for teaching us discernment to help us do these things in our daily living.

So, what aspects of living are addressed in Proverbs? Faithfulness in marriage, speech, anger, honesty, humility, time management, discipline, justice, and generosity are some of the book’s most prevalent themes. Solomon spoke Proverbs in a creative, poetic, colorful, and descriptive way, making them much more fun to read than any self-help manual. This makes it easier to remember different proverbs because they provide word pictures.

One of my favorite verses in Proverbs is 25:11: “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” When I think about my own speech, I can test it by considering whether my words have made someone’s day or ruined it. Uplifting words are a beautiful gift, and I want to strive to give this type of gift on a daily basis.

I enjoy hearing which verses in Proverbs mean the most to each of you. Do you have a favorite proverb? Share it in the comments section. And, if you have worked through the Solomon Says study, leave a message telling what it meant to you.

“A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” Proverbs 11:25




Why Study Proverbs? Part 2

“Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives, to help them do what is right, just, and fair.”

Proverbs 1:3 (NLT)

Continuing on with why we should study Proverbs, Solomon tells us in Proverbs 1:3 that the proverbs teach us to live well because they show us what is right, just and fair. In our current culture, I find it interesting that the ideas of rightness, fairness and justice are not absolutes, but rather opinions to be expressed, sometimes quite loudly, concerning an issue. A quick glance at the evening news or any Internet news site reveals this. Every group wants its rights acknowledged, but always on their own terms and not based on an absolute law.

God has given us this absolute law, his word, for determining what is right, just, and fair, and as Christians we can trust his word to give us the correct definitions of these terms. They are our plumb line. In the English Standard Version of Proverbs 1:3, these three terms are listed as righteousness, justice, and equity. The meanings of the Hebrew words used for these terms give us insight into how the book of Proverbs reflects biblical principles and how we can effectively apply these principles to our own lives.

Righteousness. The Hebrew word for righteousness in this verse is tsedeq (Strong’s H6664) and it means being right in a moral or legal sense. Any time we act using God’s wisdom, we are in a right relationship with him. Proverbs 8:20 tells us that wisdom “walks in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice.” Wisdom and righteousness are found together, so when we use wisdom, we can experience righteousness. This may seem like it’s only an Old Testament principle because as New Testament Christians we know that Jesus took on our sin to make us righteous before God and only he can declare us righteous. However, when God’s Holy Spirit dwells in us, it is easier to follow the wisdom of Proverbs, and our behavior will reflect the righteousness, or right standing, we have in Christ.

Justice. Mishpat (Strong’s H4941) is the Hebrew translation for justice, and relates to the idea of judgment, or issuing a formal sentence or decree. Several proverbs address this subject and they tell us that we are to leave justice in the hands of God (Proverbs 20:22, and 24:12) rather than take it upon ourselves. On the flipside of this, we are sometimes called to confront others, but when we do so, it should only be for the purpose of restoring them to God and not to pass judgment upon them. Applying this principle correctly keeps us in a just place, where God is pleased with us.

Equity. Evenness, uprightness and straightness are the meanings of umesarim (Strong’s H4339), the Hebrew word for equity. Our modern-day idea of fairness is equivalent to the implied meaning of evenness, but more importantly, umesarim carries with it the idea of straightness. Something that is straight has no angle or curves to it, and it makes an excellent point of reference to determine if another object is straight. 4,000 years ago, the Egyptians invented the plumb line to help them build the pyramids and other structures. Having the ability to determine a perfect vertical line allowed them to construct these precise, long-lasting marvels. When we line up our own actions with the straight line of God’s biblical wisdom, we know we are creating righteous moments that have eternal value.

When we follow God, we can be assured that we will always be doing what is right, just and fair, even if it goes against popular opinion. God honors those who rely on him, who are not ashamed of him, and who seek and live his wisdom.