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.

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