A teaching compendium for postexilic Judaism, Proverbs is traditionally placed among the “Writings” and considered part of the wisdom literature. It consists in part of short sayings expressing in pithy form insights into human affairs, especially of a social and religious nature. The Hebrew word (māS̆āl) translated “proverb” can mean comparison, and many of the proverbs contain a metaphor or simile. The dates of the material within the book range over a wide period of time; while the final edition was made after the exile, probably in the fifth century BCE, much of the actual contents is earlier and some of it is even premonarchic. The oral origins are often obvious.

Most scholars recognize five separate collections in the book. The first collection (1.1–9.18), labeled “Proverbs of Solomon,” is really instruction genre, a series of essays on the nature of wisdom, the meaning of life, and the path to success. Solomon's legendary wisdom (see 1 Kings 3; 4.29–34) resulted in a number of later works being attributed to his authorship; but there is little reason to doubt the essential accuracy of the tradition (see 1 Kings 4.32–33) that he did compose proverbs, just as his father David composed songs. This collection, however, is probably the work of the final editors who placed it at the beginning of their compilation as a statement of intent, and so it probably dates to the fifth century BCE. It presents the ideal of a fully integrated human being, one who is liberally educated and morally stable. Perhaps written for a generation that had become estranged from its cultural and religious roots, it sets out to inculcate human and religious values. To do so it presents wisdom under two guises: parental instruction (aimed at reason) and a personalized Wisdom who appeals directly in her own name (aimed at the emotions). The key to a fruitful integration of the secular and the religious is “fear of the Lord,” a sense of the divine that permeates every aspect of life and impregnates the secular. These nine chapters, more theological than the rest, present a highly sophisticated worldview with a high regard for human capacity to achieve fulfillment.

The second collection (10.1–22.16), also attributed to Solomon, is simpler in style than the first and is probably preexilic. It is a gathering of heterogeneous, semi‐independent proverbs, maxims, and precepts—really a literature of the schools dealing mainly with moral life and virtue. It suggests how best to live in the world. More secular than chaps. 1–9, it inculcates control of the tongue, social awareness, and respect for the mystery of existence. In the efforts to master life one must recognize that there are limits not just of volition but to human knowledge, which is finite (16.1, 9; 19.14, 21; 21.30). Justice seems to be inspired by a concern for equity rather than religion.

The third collection (22.17–24.22), entitled “the words of the wise,” is a compilation of thirty instructions probably modeled on an Egyptian source, the Instruction of Amen‐em‐ope, probably to be dated ca. 1000 BCE. Although it has the appearance of a textbook, it warms to an intimate, parental style and may date to the same period as the editorial project itself. After a brief introduction (22.17–21) comes a series of warnings, counsels, and appeals to the reader's moral sense. Integration of the secular and religious, which was evident in chaps. 1–9, appears again. Good graces, culture, and social bearing are not alien to holiness. “Fear of the Lord” is part of education (23.12–18).

The fourth collection (24.23–34), much shorter than, although similar to, the third, bears the title “these also are sayings of the wise”; it represents an addition to the previous collection and may be by the same editor. Certainly the tone remains consistent. Social awareness is its topic. It presents the practical aspects of justice in a legal maxim (24.23b–29) and appends a portrait of one who neglects his social duties (24.30–34).

The fifth collection (25.1–29.27) has a clear attribution: “proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied,” which places the collection, if not the composition, of these proverbs in the late eighth or early seventh century BCE. It represents what might be called an editorial program, sophisticated and quite unified. Again there is a concern to integrate secular and religious wisdom. It deals with the structure of society—government administration (25.1–7a), social responsibility (27.11–14), and human conduct (28.1–22). To a greater extent than usual God is invoked as arbiter of morality, and the traditional concept of retribution loses its overtly dogmatic tone: the human act itself has its own repercussions.

Four appendices (30.1–31.31) close the book. Although containing older elements, these appear to be a later redactional effort, perhaps intended as a general conclusion. The first (30.1–9) is an essay on skepticism; the second (30.10–33) deals with the mysterious dimensions of life, the inexplicable and therefore the fascinating; the third (31.1–9) is a “manual for rulers” personalized by being put in the form of a queen mother's teaching—moral rather than administrative; and the final appendix (31.10–31) is a carefully drawn portrait of the ideal woman, which leaves us with the question, “Have we arrived at the practical expression of ‘Lady Wisdom’ presented in chaps. 1–9?”

The book is an ambitious undertaking, offering the reader “wisdom” and opening up to the willing student a world of learning. It shows how to cope with life by organizing the range of human experience so as to evolve practical rules of comportment and to develop balanced judgment, as the editorial introduction makes clear (1.2–7). On this basis of personal and inherited experience and by means of different kinds of literature—sentence, instruction, maxim, proverb—it shows “what really works” and how to achieve success in the business of living a full life. Thus, it is didactic literature in the truest sense of the term. It represents a sage, parent, or teacher, who, out of her or his treasury of experience and knowledge of the mysteries of life, speaks to a pupil in the name of natural or social values and good sense. A frequent formula is “Hear, my child” (1.8; 2.1; 3.1, 11, 21; 4.1, 10; etc.), an indication that the teaching is seldom directly imperative; the hearer reacts on the basis of personal judgment and a personal assessment of the situation. The aim is to urge the individual to think realistically about life; it does so by making the learner personally face up to the problems that besiege humanity: ignorance and poverty (9.7–12; 22.7–8), right and wrong (16.10–15), the need to adapt oneself to life in society (22.1–4), and finally, although somewhat indirectly, the need to accommodate to a mysterious divinity (16.1–19). Sometimes, indeed, contradictory proverbs are placed side by side (26.4–5) so as to provoke thought: which applies in my situation? The different kinds of literature found here share common aims: the desire to impart knowledge (1.2–7) and to form character (1.8–19), to encourage a learner to achieve maturity. Since the pupil's experience may often differ from that of the parent or teacher, it is essential to learn how to think for oneself to survive. This is suggestive, for the verbal root from which the word “proverb” derives (māšal) has the significance of “dominating something.” These proverbs are frequently artistic, and humor is not absent (25.11; 23.29–35), but the ultimate function of wisdom, and the dominant intention of the editors, was the mastery of the human environment by the acquisition of a personal standard of values and an effective “know‐how,” both of which could be derived from an appreciation of cosmic order and design.

What at first sight appears to be a collection of heterogeneous instructions, proverbs, and wise sayings in fact enjoys a certain coherence, imposed, it is true, by editorial intention, to which is due the powerful educational impact the book made on later generations. As it now stands, it represents a many‐faceted ideal of religious humanism, in which many disparate kinds of teaching contribute to one purpose—the formation of a whole person by leading a student on paths of uprightness, intelligence, and conviction to human fulfillment.

Dermot Cox, O.F.M.