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Preaching on Proverbs

An overview of the historical background and theology of Proverbs to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on Proverbs
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Historical Background

Proverbs serves as a formal collection of wisdom in the Hebrew Bible. In tracing the historical composition of this book, we can see the beautiful evolution of Hebrew wisdom. The book begins with what seems to be a historical note: “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Prov. 1:1). Solomon, the third and final king of the united nation of Israel (ca. 962-922 BC), was given the gift of wisdom from God, given because Solomon had asked for it rather than wealth or political prestige (1 Kings 3:1-15). As a result, Solomon was known far and wide for his wisdom and entertained guests from throughout the Ancient Near East as they sought his counsel (1 Kings 4:29-34). It seems that Solomon (or, more likely, his court scribes) collected his teachings for posterity.

And while Solomon is considered to be the author (or, again, the source of material) of Proverbs, he is not the only one who had an influence in the compilation of this collection. We find near the end of the book that Hezekiah (ca. 715-687 BC), the twelfth king of Judah after Solomon, oversaw an editorial process that compiled chapters 25-29 (Prov. 25:1). It is possible that this could have been part of his sweeping religious and political reformation program that sought to return the worship of God to its central place in Israelite life (2 Kings 18:1-8).

Then something truly amazing happens in the final two chapters, something relatively unheard of in the Ancient Near East—a final editor includes non-Israelite material into this collection! Proverbs 30 includes an “oracle” from someone named Agur (Prov. 30:1-9), a final collection of maxims known as the “numerical sayings” (Prov. 30:10-33), the “oracle” from King Lemuel’s mother (Prov. 31:1-9), and the poem about the noble woman (Prov. 31:10-31). Add to this that Proverbs 22:17-23:11, which is part of a larger sub-unit known as “the words of the wise” (Prov. 22:17a), bears a striking resemblance to the Egyptian collection The Instructions of Amenemope (ca. 1300-1075 BC) and we see clearly that Israel’s understanding of wisdom was both truly porous and truly fluid.

The question, however, is when does Proverbs finally come into the form with which we are familiar. The concern, and controversy, is whether there was the establishment of institutions of learning in ancient Israel—institutions that focused specifically on providing philosophical or moral education rooted in the study of sacred texts.

On one hand, if one is going to have a school, then one must have some form of curriculum. This could account for the development of the material that went into Proverbs and also for the numerous connections to the throne throughout its pages (i.e., 16:12, 20:28, 21:1 and 29:14). An example of such an institution could be seen in the divine command for the king to “have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests” (Deut. 17:18). Additionally, the most common way of reading the didactic content in Proverbs 1-9 is that of a teacher instructing a student.

On the other hand, the presence of this literature does not necessarily indicate that schools existed in ancient Israel. To return to the way of reading Proverbs 1-9, it could just as easily be read as a father teaching his son. Additionally, to return to Deuteronomy, the She’ma locates religious instruction to begin and continue in the home (6:4-9). In the end, all we can say for sure is that wisdom literature—and the teaching of this literature—was integral to Israel.

Although it would be unwise to assign any specific date of composition to Proverbs, in the end, one could—could, mind you—justify a composition date of sometime in the fourth century BC. The final form was likely developed by a new crop of reinstated priests who doubled as scribes. Like the Book of Job, the Book of Proverbs is completely devoid of any kind of historical context or even a marker of time. This theory seems to support Richard Clifford’s argument that Proverbs articulates the evolution of Israel’s textual witness. Additional support for this date comes from the language present in Proverbs, which is written more in Aramaic than Hebrew. Aramaic becomes the primary language of the Jewish people moving forward out of Babylonian exile and into Palestinian resettlement, as described in Ezra and Nehemiah. This theory supports Ellen Davis’ paradigm of the “rise” and “collapse” of Israel’s kings serving as a lens for reading Proverbs, beginning with Solomon’s wisdom and ending with non-Israelite wisdom yet finding faith on each page.

Literary Background

To fully understand the literary nature of Proverbs, especially as an example of Hebrew Wisdom Literature, we must approach the topic inductively, starting with the general literary nature of Wisdom Literature and working our way down to the rhetorical devices used in the actual compilation that we know of as Proverbs.

First, there is the scope of the literature contained within the Wisdom Literature. On one hand, there is what might be referred to as “higher,” “theoretical,” or “cognitive” wisdom. Here we see the intellectual scope of wisdom, a pursuit that emphasizes on the question of “why.” This scope focuses on those grand questions that have perplexed humanity for centuries, such as why is evil present in a good world. This scope is best presented in Job and Ecclesiastes.

On the other hand, there is what might be referred to as “lower,” “practical” or “affective” wisdom. Here were see the operational scope of wisdom, a pursuit that emphasizes the question of “how.” This scope focuses on those normative questions that have been answered for centuries but in a variety of ways, such as how to do we conduct ourselves honestly in business. This scope is best presented in Proverbs and, to some degree, the Song of Songs.

Next, there is the genre of the literature contained within the Wisdom Literature. Again, there is some commonality amongst the various materials, although there are differences on how the genre is used. To begin, there is little to no interest in Israel’s history. This material, of which Proverbs serves as a good model, seems both frozen in time yet always in progress. While there are markers as to the origination of the material (i.e., the editorial comments in 1:1, 10:1, 25:1), this compilation could have just as easily originated from any Ancient Near Eastern culture. Additionally, the time markers indicate a possible evolution of wisdom sayings over time, culminating in the non-Hebrew material included in the final chapters which could connect with Israel’s diaspora movement.

Then, there is a heavy didactic tone to the Wisdom Literature, Proverbs especially. There is a classroom feel to the book, as pupils file in before their expectant instructor. The challenge to “hear … and do not reject” (1:8, cf., 2:1-5, 3:1-2, 4:1-2) is scattered throughout as the instructor toils to prepare the class for the perilous world laying just outside the walls of the classroom.

Lastly, there is a shared vocabulary present in the Wisdom Literature, anchored around the word hokmah (“wisdom”) and buttressed by a host of words related to the fool (ewil). The intention, it seems, is to emphasize the singular nature of the wise, who is dedicated to God, and the disparate nature of the fool (cf., James 1:8).

Thirdly, there are the variety of rhetorical devices used in the Wisdom Literature, of which Proverbs utilizes the most. Although the book is entitled “Proverbs,” it is more than a collection of short, pithy sayings. Of the four major rhetorical devices implemented throughout the Wisdom Literature, three dominate Proverbs (biography being the one not on display).

The first rhetorical device of note is the proverb (masal, which means “to rule” or “to compare”). Both definitions work in Proverbs as chapters 1-9 seek to compare the wise against the foolish while chapters 10-29 seek to formulate a paradigm for discerning whether one is living the “good life.”

The second rhetorical device is the instruction saying, also known as a wisdom poem. The intention here is expand on the maxim nature of the proverb and present a paradigm for understanding wisdom. These bookend the book of Proverbs (chapters 1-9 and 30-31).

The final rhetorical device is the riddle (1:6). Although not in traditional riddle form (i.e., Samson’s riddle in Judges 14:14), there is a construction here that differs from either the proverb or poem. In Proverbs, riddles function more like analogies, such as, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (25:11). There is clearly an analogy, however, the riddle is in discerning the meaning.

Sermon Series

The Beginning of Wisdom: A Survey of Proverbs

This series was designed with either a campus ministry or church plant that focuses on secular persons in mind. The intention is to provide a survey of the Book of Proverbs, perhaps in a larger “through the Bible” series. The goal of the series is not to promote Biblical literacy but to foster conversations between Christians and non-Christians around ethical and moral topics that often divide rather than unify.

Series Big Idea: The study of God’s Word gives life meaning and direction.

Text: Proverbs 1:1-7
  • Title: The Beginning of Wisdom
  • Big Idea: God’s Word provides meaning.
Text: Proverbs 1:8-9:18
  • Title: Do Not Reject This Teaching
  • Big Idea: God’s Word provides direction.
Text: Proverbs 10:1-22:16
  • Title: Wise and Foolish
  • Big Idea: God’s Word provides instruction.
Text: Proverbs 22:17-29:27
  • Title: Incline, Hear, Apply
  • Big Idea: God’s Word provides accountability.
Text: Proverbs 30:1-31:31
  • Title: Who is the LORD?
  • Big Idea: God’s Word provides inclusion.
Back to School: Developing Wisdom by Studying the Divine Curriculum

This series was actually designed with more of a teaching context in mind, such as an adult Bible class or small group setting. The intention is to provide a thematic study of Proverbs, to help readers see the interconnectedness of these texts, primarily the “sentence literature” of Proverbs 10:1-22:16, that can often be missed in simply reading it straight through. The goal here is biblical literacy and moral formation, as the intention is to see how Proverbs works as a theological curriculum. It is my belief that Proverbs is the only book in the canon that lends itself to topical preaching or teaching. However, even here, the texts should guide the development process.

Series Big Idea: Seeking godly wisdom leads to the real “good life.”

Theme: Fear the LORD
  • Texts: Proverbs 1:7, 2:1-6, 6:16-19, 16:1-7, 22:17-19
  • Exegetical Idea: Appropriate relationship with God leads to wisdom.
  • Big Idea: God provides the direction we need.
Theme: Character
  • Texts: Proverbs 14:1-9, 15:2-7, 26:1-12
  • Exegetical Idea: Seek the path of wisdom rather than the path of folly.
  • Big Idea: Fools do not become fools overnight.
Theme: Justice and Mercy
  • Texts: Proverbs 1:1-3, 1:20-33, 3:3-4, 21:10-15, 22:22-23
  • Exegetical Idea: Justice is sought out by the wise.
  • Big Idea: Seek justice and mercy in the community around you.
Theme: Speech
  • Texts: Proverbs 2:9-12, 7:18-21, 11:9-13, 18:6-8, 25:11-15
  • Exegetical Idea: How one speaks reflects the path being followed in the heart.
  • Big Idea: Words can heal wounds or start wars.
Theme: Money
  • Texts: Proverbs 1:13-19, 3:27-28, 6:6-11, 13:22-23, 23:10-11
  • Exegetical Idea: How one gives reflects the path being followed in the heart.
  • Big Idea: The wise is always content while the fool is always broke.
Theme: Leadership
  • Texts: Proverbs 15:22-23, 16:9-14, 27:23-27
  • Exegetical Idea: How one leads reflects the path being followed in the heart.
  • Big Idea: Wise leaders will lead in peace while foolish leaders will lead to destruction.
Theme: Relationships
  • Texts: Proverbs 3:3-4, 3:27-30, 12:5-6, 14:20-21, 26:18-19
  • Exegetical Idea: The company one keeps reflects the path being followed in the heart.
  • Big Idea: Wise friends bring guidance while foolish friends bring distraction.
Theme: Family
  • Texts: Proverbs 2:16-19, 3:11-18, 4:3-9, 6:23-35, 22:6
  • Exegetical Idea: The path towards wisdom begins at home.
  • Big Idea: Teach your children by living wisely.


The quest for wisdom has been at the heart of human civilization from the very beginning. Rightly understood, this leads to a deeply meaningful and purposeful relationship with God (Prov. 1:7). Wrongly understood, this leads to an existential grasping for straws as we try to equalize God, such as we see when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in Eden (Gen. 3:1-7). In fact, the concept of wisdom has been a central element of virtually every human civilization.

For example, Egypt, while likely not the first culture to record its wisdom for posterity, thrived on wisdom following the development of their hieroglyph language and the institution of academic guilds and training schools. Some lines from The Instruction of Kagemni (ca. 2200 BC) may even sound a bit familiar: “The respectful man prospers / Praised is the modest one / The tent is open to the silent / The seat of the quiet is spacious” (ll. 1-4).

Wisdom is now more understood, especially in Western circles, as “wit,” tracing its roots back to Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac (first published in 1732) and continued through oft-recited quotes from Mark Twain or Yogi Berra. However, wisdom remains correctly understood as an amalgamation of generally true maxims that provides a philosophical framework for understanding how the world operates. This includes both ethical and vocational components, as well as spiritual. This is not to say that the maxim—the way the truth of the wisdom is communicated—cannot change, for it can. Wisdom, rightly understood, is a universal thread that bonds humanity together.

As with the ancient Egyptians, the Israelites thrived on wisdom, although their collections are not as voluminous as many of their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors. However, their collections are similar to those of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures—narratives, maxims, and poetry. The grand majority of this material is found in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, a collection known as the Ketuvim (or “Writings”). Proverbs is included in this section. The purpose of the Writings section—which includes Job, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations, as well as Daniel and Chronicles—was to document Israel’s evolution into a diaspora or migratory people, a people who rebuilt their world through the study of Scripture and the practice of ritual rather than the construction of buildings and the establishment of institutions. This section, of which Proverbs is a part, was compiled by individuals who were rebuilding their world amidst and following great tragedy and crisis. They are coming out of exile and looking back over their history, seeking answers to the questions of how they got where they are and how do they move on from generations of unfaithfulness.

Theological Themes

As can be expected from a collection of material, that on the surface looks very disconnected and is yet quite connected under the surface, there are a number of theological themes that could be discussed. However, in the interest of clarity, the following will be noted:

Wisdom and Discernment

Proverbs presents life as an endless series of choices that answer the same question—which road will we choose to walk along? This is the focus of chapters 1-9, where the pupil is introduced to the enticing Lady Wisdom and her equally seductive sister Lady Folly. Their bedchambers symbolize a path of life, with Lady Wisdom leading to life eternal and Lady Folly leading to an agonizing death. Discerning which path to choose is crucial. The wise instinctively follows the way of Lady Wisdom, taking up permanent residence in her bedchambers and enjoying life eternal (9:1-12). The New Testament carries on this theme in the teaching of Jesus (“I am the way, the truth and the life,” John 14:6), the missional practice of the early Christians (“the Way,” Acts 9:2, 19:9), and the formation of early theology (“new and living way,” Heb. 10:20).

Wisdom and Culture (and Creation)

Proverbs adheres to the belief that everything that was created by God is “good” (Gen. 1:31) and functions as it was intended. As such, the wise person seeks out learning opportunities. As evidenced in the passages from extra-Hebrew sources, such as the sayings of Agur (30:1-9) and King Lemuel (31:1-9), the wise can excavate wisdom from many sources. However, this is not pure inclusivism. The wise, as mentioned above, has attuned a discerning spirit that aides in filtering the divine truth from the worldly wisdom readily evident in her cultural context.

Wisdom and Ethics

Although ethics and piety have been wedged apart in modern times, there is a deep and necessary connection in Proverbs. The wise person is kind (19:17), generous (11:25), and honest (12:17). Clifford outlines three ingredients for wisdom—sapiential (way of knowing reality), ethical (way of conducting oneself; justice), and religious (way of relating to the divine; piety). For example, the opening passage of the “sentence literature” (10:1-22:16) begins with words that combine all three of these thoughts together (10:1-3).

Wisdom and God

Ultimately, the wise person will seek out a relationship with God and trusting God with his or her life (3:5-8). As the prologue suggests, wisdom comes from God and those who seek out wisdom will discover God’s presence as they are “learning about wisdom and instruction” (1:2). While moderns may see this as “pie in the sky” naiveté or an assumption of “secular” thinking, the teacher could not be clearer: relationship with God is the way of wisdom while rejecting God is the way of folly (1:7, 9:10).

At first, it may be difficult to see some of these themes as theological. Yet it should be remembered that, while not components of systematic theology, these themes are certainly components of spiritual—or practical—theology. And that is where Proverbs most comfortably resides, in the world of practical theology. Not specifically the pastoral work of theology, those activities related to preaching, evangelizing and caregiving, but “real world” theology. These are common concerns that each of us feel, whether we are clergy, laity, or something in between.

My Encounter with Proverbs

I was sitting in the third-floor classroom of my seminary in Austin, Texas. It was my first semester in a strange, new city. One of the lights in the classroom had gone out, so the room was darker than usual. There was a mysterious vibe to the entire building that evening as the handful of my classmates gathered around our professor for the evening lecture from Proverbs (the class was a survey of the Wisdom Literature).

That evening’s lecture topic was moral formation in Proverbs, which would cover topics such as character and leadership. At one point in the evening, the professor looked up and said, “Remember this well: So goes the kind, so goes the country.” It was around the time of the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, although I do not remember any particular event that triggered the comment. Only that we were talking about passages that dealt with the king and how the country was to be wisely governed.

And, yet, the proverb stuck with me as my love for the Hebrew Wisdom Literature has grown over the past couple of decades. At first, the influence was only felt in my leadership style, as I adopted a more differentiated style of leadership, which is summed up in the line from Rudyard Kipling: “Keep your head about you when everyone else is losing his.” This also manifested itself in the development of a series of leadership maxims that I subconsciously began to formalize, such as “Not everything is a crisis” (Rob’s Rule #2), “Regrets are failures that you have not learned from yet” (Rob’s Rule #11) and “Leave it better than you found it” (Rob’s Rule #15). There is also this one, of which I applaud myself for being extremely clever: “When all else fails, think like Yogi Berra” (Rob’s Rule #8). As of this writing, there are 41 rules.

However, there is much more to this for me than trite “bumper sticker theology.” As mentioned above, Israel collected their wisdom as they did in order to provide a guide for understanding the world around them. As such, my “rules” serve as a collection of experiences that help me understand how the world works. This has also manifested into my understanding of theology, which is decidedly more logical and philosophical, and my practice of rhetoric with its tenants of logos, ethos and pathos. As I mentioned above, what comes from the mouth reflects the path chosen in the heart and mind.

Which brings me to my most recent encounter with Proverbs and its quest for the “good life” and the formation of character. I was in Florida when it happened. I had just taken a FaceTime call from a student who had some first-week questions about our preaching course. After the call, I checked Twitter to see what was going on in the world while my family and I were on vacation. I could not believe the news that I was seeing—insurrectionists had stormed the US Capitol building! It was so surreal that I found myself stuck in the moment. That week, my preaching class was reading James Earl Massey’s modern classic Stewards of the Story, where Massey argues that preachers are simply stewards of the gospel and will be judged on their practice of ethics and rhetoric in the task of preaching. Without being too specific, one of students commented in her post that “I guess what we say and how we act really do matter.” As I read her words, my professor’s words rang in my mind. Words matter (Rob’s Rule #36).


Dave Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, College Press NIV Commentary (

Joplin: College Press Publishing Co., 2002).

Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster

John Knox Press, 1999).

Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

Rob O’Lynn teaches preaching at Kentucky Christian University, Johnson University, and Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a minister in Ashland, Kentucky.

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