The Book of Proverbs is exactly what the name implies, a collection of short sayings gathered from different places and produced over long periods of time. In general, these sayings represent wisdom derived from practical experience. Although they contain no profound contributions to theological ideas, they constitute wholesome advice about the way a person should live in order to attain a happy and satisfactory life. Late tradition attributed the entire Book of Proverbs to King Solomon, but we may be sure that this is historically incorrect. Many of the proverbs, especially those that extol the virtues of monogamy, would have been most inappropriate coming from King Solomon, who is reported to have had many wives. Solomon may have been the author of some of the proverbs included in the book, but most of them originated from other sources. Within the book itself, there are different collections of proverbs, some of which are attributed to men who were not Hebrews, which gives added emphasis to the universal character of this work of the sages. Overall, the wisdom contained in the Book of Proverbs can be said to have been drawn from a wide range of experiences, including those of both Jews and non-Jews.
In its present form, the book is made up of different collections of proverbs. The first collection, found in Chapters 1–9, consists of a series of instructions given by a father to his son. The purpose of the instruction is that of guiding youth in doing what is "right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young." The proverbs in the second group, found in Chapters 10–22 and titled "Proverbs of Solomon," are usually written in couplet form and are quite different from the ones included in the first section. Because this collection probably constituted the original core of the book, the first nine chapters serve as an introduction to the entire collection and the remaining sections as appendices. The short sections found in Chapters 22–24 bear the titles "Sayings of the Wise" and "Further Sayings of the Wise." Chapters 25–29 begin, "These are more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah." The last two chapters of the book contain two groups of sayings called "Sayings of Agur" and "Sayings of King Lemuel." Because both Agur and Lemuel have Arabic rather than Jewish names, the inclusion of their proverbs in the final collection indicates a recognition on the part of the editors that genuine wisdom can be obtained through non-Hebraic sources. The Book of Proverbs closes with a significant poem written in praise of a worthy wife.
Throughout the entire Book of Proverbs, wisdom receives the highest praise. The following statements are typical: "Get wisdom, get understanding; . . . Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding."
In one sense, the wisdom to which reference is made is a human achievement, but wisdom is also of divine origin. It has its source in the deity even though it must be received and understood by human minds. The Book of Proverbs assumes that divine revelation is communicated to individuals through careful and correct thinking, as well as through prophetic inspiration. This conception leads to the view that the wise man lives in harmony with the divine will; the fool brings disaster upon himself. This concept of wisdom is so closely related to that of the deity that in some instances it is personified and said to be the divine agent involved in the creation of the world. However, this emphasis on wisdom is not intended to encourage original thinking; it is the wisdom received by the men of old that should be passed on from one generation to another.
The practical character of the Book of Proverbs can be seen in the instruction concerning the type of conduct that should be observed in the affairs of daily living. A wise man is described as one who looks to the future but makes plans for the present. He does not squander his time or his money on momentary pleasures; he is a hard worker who does not try to gain his livelihood by infringing on the rights of other people; he is diligent in his business and courteous to friends and neighbors, and he governs well the affairs of his own household; he is generous in his giving, but he does not lavish gifts on those who fail to put forth efforts to supply their own needs; finally, he is temperate in his habits, respectful of the rights of others, and obedient to the laws of the land.
The Book of Proverbs has sometimes been regarded as a textbook in the field of ethics. Although it avoids any theoretical discussion concerning the basis for determining what is right or wrong, it advocates a very high standard of personal conduct. The man of wisdom will abstain from idle gossip; he will not seek the company of idle men, nor will he testify falsely before the judges of the land. He will avoid loose women as he would the plague; he will not waste his time in idleness, but he will use his leisure hours to reflect on the meaning of life and the paths of conduct that he should follow. The compiler of Proverbs is well aware of life's hardships, but unlike the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes, he believes that happiness and material prosperity are distributed according to merit. The lazy man or the fool comes to want, and the distress and suffering that he experiences are exactly what he deserves. On the other hand, Yahweh rewards the wise and the prudent with the good things in life.
The proverbs express the conviction that loyalty to Yahweh is extremely important. In this respect, they fully agree with the teachings of the Hebrew prophets. They differ, however, in that they define this loyalty in terms of personal conduct rather than national policy. Although the Book of Proverbs places a great deal of emphasis on selfish motives as means of promoting good conduct, such motives, although not the highest, are better than no motives at all.