The book of Proverbs is wisdom literature that offers experiential wisdom to its hearers. Although some equate the majority of this book to common sense, it is much more than that; in reality the proverbs provide godly wisdom regarding common life. This book cannot be observed as a collection of phrases and sayings committed to portraying universal truths or promises but it is best understood as a collection of foundational and fundamental phrases that convey general truths and principles. While books such as Job and Ecclesiastes bestow non-conventional wisdom for the peculiarities of life, Proverbs is a book of conventional wisdom for everyday normality. The entirety of the wisdom literature in Scripture makes it clear that there is always an exception to the rules set forth in Proverbs.
Although the bulk of this book is generally true, Proverbs does establish at least one universal truth, which is the reality that the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (1:7; 9:10; 15:33). The book of proverbs identifies the fear of the Lord with the knowledge of Him. In other words, true wisdom is only initiated once a person acknowledges and trusts in the Sovereign Lord, apart from acknowledgement and trust in Yahweh a person is bereft of wisdom (3:5–6). This concept is certain because God is the possessor of all wisdom and He is the one who gives wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to mankind. Once the reader comprehends this truth then it becomes blatant that this book is much more than a dispensation of common sense from man.
The book assumes that wisdom can be passed from one generation to the next. In fact, this book shows the relationship between a father and son and the father is exhorting his young son to adhere and commit to wisdom’s ways rather than folly’s. Wisdom and folly are both personified in chapter 9, which gives vivid imagery of the continual struggle between the two in a young man’s mind, heart, and soul. Chapters 1–9 give credence to the notion that a person must commit to wisdom before he can grow in wisdom. If one is not committed to the Lord then surely they will lean on their own understanding and not on the wisdom from above. The benefit of following wisdom is life and favor from Yahweh (8:35) while the way of folly leads to waywardness and death (7:27).
Immediately following the instruction from a father to his son there is a collection of short sayings (10:1–22:16; 25:1–29:27). One of the ways that this compilation of proverbs teaches wisdom is through four characters. The first character is the simple one or the naïve one. This title signifies someone who is unwise and unknowledgeable and they seem to take no interest in becoming wise. The second title is the fool. This person is like the simple one in that they are both unwise, but unlike the simple one, the fool perceives himself as wise. The fool is often able to convince and persuade the simple one to believe that he has understanding. The third character is the mocker or the scoffer. This person is knowledgeable and wise but only from the world's perspective. He does not fear the Lord, therefore his wisdom has no everlasting benefit and he is angrily skeptical and vocal against Yahweh and His wise ones. The last person is the wise one. This character is wise, knowledgeable, and he fears the Lord. The overarching theme throughout Proverbs and the heart of the book encourages us to follow the ways of the wise one and to reject the ways of the simple one, fool, and scoffer.
Proverbs offers wisdom on a multitude of topics such as: pride, humility, anger, wealth, poverty, marriage, laziness, work ethic, righteousness, wickedness, and family to name a few. Among all the topics in the proverbs there are two items that are particularly discussed at length. Those items are man’s speech and sexuality. The tongue of man is seen as extremely powerful in the proverbs. Three of the seven detestable sins have a direct correlation to man’s speech (6:16–19). Words are acknowledged as powerful both positively and negatively. The words of the righteous and wise have the ability to bring healing (12:18) and bless others (10:21), while the words of the wicked and foolish have the ability to destroy neighbors (11:9) and spread discord (16:27–28). Although words are powerful, they are also recognized as futile at times (24:12). There is a clear distinction between the wise man and the fool by the way that they speak throughout the proverbs. While a wicked tongue is characterized by causing strife a righteous tongue is distinguished by honesty and sincerity.
The other subject that the book addresses thoroughly is sexuality. There is much warning against sexual promiscuity and much encouragement for monogamous marriage (chaps. 5–7; 31). Proverbs promotes awareness in regard to the subtleness of sexual sin (23:26–28), it highlights the traps of seduction and the adulteress (7:6–9), and it underlines the ease in which mankind justifies sexual sin (30:20).
The book of Proverbs puts the wise and the foolish in stark contrast against one another. The book makes it apparent that there is no true wisdom apart from the fear of God. The wise acknowledge the Lord and heed His counsel, while the foolish disregard the council of Yahweh and lean on their own understanding.