This section of the book originally was composed of ten poems of instructions styled in the format of advice from a father to a son. As it stands now, both smaller additions have been made to the poems themselves, and whole blocks of materials (e.g., ch. 8) have been incorporated.
The First Instruction begins with 1:8, where a son is encouraged to adopt the values given in the home, for they will prove to be adequate guides for life. Specifically, he is warned against companions who seek to entice him into violent acts (1:10-19). Here home instruction is pitted against peer pressure. The immediate prize is wealth divided equally (vv. 13-14). The youth is encouraged to look beyond the immediate rewards to see the end results of their actions. What they plan for others will become their own destiny. Wisdom sees beyond the immediate to the final ends.
Wisdom's first soliloquy (1:20-33) begins with an invitation to learn from her (the Hebrew term for wisdom is feminine). The poem quickly turns to an indictment of the simple ones and fools who have rejected her invitation. When life turns against them and they desire to know wisdom, it will be too late. They will be left to their own fate, which was chosen through their rejection of wisdom. “They hated knowledge” (v. 29) indicates an action of rejection, not an emotion. Refusing to accept wisdom's offer is the same as not choosing to fear the Lord. The two paths that lie before a person are folly, leading to destruction, or wisdom, leading to safety and ease (vv. 32-33). Other paths are not available because the Lord did not create others.
In the Second Instruction the instructor encourages the student (“my son”) to pursue after wisdom as diligently as those who seek silver or hidden treasure (v. 4). The first result of such an endeavor is understanding the fear (reverence) of the Lord. By pursuing the principles by which God ordered creation, one gains his help in life and is assured of victory (vv. 7-8). Wisdom will also protects from two destructive influences, wicked men (vv. 12-15) and the adulteress (vv. 16-19).
The way of the wicked is marked by darkness and perversity. Their end will be their removal from the land (v. 22). The land represents the area of the blessings of God. To be removed from it is to be removed from God's presence. The phrase can also signify death.
The young man is repeatedly warned in Proverbs to avoid the adulteress. Accepting her invitation is the height of folly, which leads to death. It must be remembered that this book originated in a patriarchal society and that the instructions are directed to young men. While similar advice is not found explicitly directed to young women, it may be assumed that the culture through home instruction warned them against seductive men. The wise person found sexual fulfillment always within the bonds of marriage.
The chapter begins with an exhortation to the student, marking the beginning of the Third Instruction. This section is, however, much more theologically oriented than the previous two. The student is to keep the “teachings,” or torah, of the instructor in order to have a long, peaceable life (cf. Ex 20:12). “Love” in v. 3 is better translated “loyalty.” The highest expression of wisdom is trusting in Yahweh rather than in one's own knowledge. Religious knowledge concerning ethical behavior takes precedent over one's own insight. By following God's torah, one's moral life or paths will be straight, and physical health will be enjoyed (vv. 6-8).
The blessings of God extend even to one's material possessions (vv. 9-10). The firstfruits of a crop were given to God in recognition of his blessings (Lev 23:9-14). In a money economy one might bring cash, check, or credit card. Proper management of resources enables God to increase them. However, there is not an inflexible law of cause and effect in operation here. Vv. 11-12 speak of God's discipline, which is to be embraced rather than shunned. While blessings will come, so will times of discipline. A good father knows that both are needed in a child's life. In his sovereignty, God will bring into his children's lives that which he considers best. His children should respond by recognizing that both blessing and discipline are signs of his care.
The next section is composed of two short poems. The first (vv. 13-18) celebrates the riches of wisdom. The one who seeks after her gains a long and pleasant life. The term “tree of life” occurs three other times in Proverbs (11:30; 13:12; 15:4). Each time the phrase functions as a poetic metaphor for life itself.
The second poem (vv. 19-20) describes how God created the world according to the principles of wisdom. These verses state the basic presupposition of wisdom study; to understand the order of the world is to understand God's creative actions. This theme is amplified in ch. 8.
The last section of the chapter, the fourth discourse, begins with the words of assurance addressed to the pupil (vv. 21-26). Sound judgment and discernment will provide protection along life's journey, because in deciding to follow them he will be choosing the protection of the Lord himself. A series of ethical admonitions follow (vv. 27-32). If one can help a neighbor, he must do it immediately amd not delay. He must avoid any act of willful harm against a neighbor and not envy the success of the perverse or violent, for they are an abomination to the Lord. God will eventually give the deserved judgment, shame, and destruction to the wicked but give honor and grace to the wise (vv. 33-35).
This chapter breaks into three roughly equal divisions, each of them one of the original Ten Instructions. The first section (vv. 1-9), the Fourth Instruction, admonishes the student to seek wisdom. The instructor recalls how his father or instructor had taught him to grasp his words with his heart (mind) and not to swerve from them. The student benefited from the learning of several generations. In vv. 6-9 wisdom is personified as a bride whom the student is to love and for whom he must be willing to pay any price. The prize to be gained is a life lived with honor clinging to him like a beautiful wedding garland or crown.
The Fifth Instruction (vv. 10-19) emphasizes the doctrine of the two paths. The student is to choose the path of wisdom, which is straight and in which he will not stumble (fall into trouble) and which leads to life. He is to avoid the path of the wicked, which is beautifully described as an insatiable obsession. Evil becomes so absorbing that sleep does not come unless the wicked do harm to someone. Wickedness and violence become as important as food and drink. It is the way of deep darkness. In contrast, the path of the righteous begins like the first ray of dawn and grows into the full sunlight of a day.
The Sixth Instruction (vv. 20-27) builds upon the metaphor of the parts of the body. The instructor's words, if followed diligently, will preserve the life of the student. They will bring health to his whole body. The heart is the seat of emotions, and the function of the mind and will is attributed to the heart (v. 23). The mouth is to avoid corrupt talk, while the eyes (the attention of the student) are to remain riveted on the straight path.
The Eighth Instruction is devoted to warning the student about the dangers of the adulteress. While the theme is the same as found in 2:16-19, the material is greatly expanded. The first section (vv. 1-6) begins by exhorting the student to pay attention to wisdom so that his lips might preserve knowledge, a metaphor for being able to speak well. V. 3 makes a play on the word lips to introduce the theme, only the metaphor is changed. The lips and speech (better, “mouth”) of the adulteress are sweet and smooth, not in speaking, but in kissing. What is so pleasurable at first becomes in the end bitter as gall. Her path leads, not to life, but to death. Wisdom considers the end of an action, not just its beginning.
The second movement (vv. 7-14) focuses on the ruin one incurs by pursuing adultery. It begins by again exhorting the student to avoid the adulteress. While he thinks he will exploit her sexuality, in reality he becomes the exploited (vv. 9-11). His strength and years (better, “dignity” and “honor,” as in NEB) is poured out on one who by profession must keep her compassion under control and treat her lovers with cool cruelty. The expenses of keeping a mistress will eventually bring demands from the creditors. Too late the student will recognize the wisdom of his instructor's words and at the point of ruin and disgrace will wish he had heeded the warnings.
The third section (vv. 15-20) offers the positive advice that the student should seek sexual satisfaction exclusively with his wife. If v. 16 is taken as a rhetorical question, the images of public springs and streams refer to a man whose semen and thus offspring is given to prostitutes. If it is taken as a statement, then the images refer to numerous children borne by his wife. The wife of one's youth is one's fountain (source of children), the one with whom he should seek sexual satisfaction, the one whose love should captivate (intoxicate) him.
The chapter ends with a theological word (vv. 21-23). Ultimately Yahweh will judge each person's path (manner of living). As the guarantor of justice, he allows the wicked one's sins to run their full destructive course. Death is the result of refusing discipline.
This chapter is made up of four exhortations on ethical concerns and a larger section warning the student to beware of the temptations of the adulteress. It has no particular unifying theme but seems to be a random compilation of instructions.
The chapter begins with a warning against being a cosigner of a loan (6:1-5). One is not to enter into an agreement for a neighbor with a stranger (NIV “another”). The stranger may be a non-Israelite to whom the student has obligated himself if his neighbor, probably another Israelite, fails to perform on the note. The student is instructed to humble himself before his neighbor and earnestly plead until his neighbor releases him from the obligation, presumably by finding another cosigner. The wise do not place themselves in jeopardy by being dependent on the financial integrity of another.
In the second section (6:6-11), the sluggard is castigated for his laziness. The ant is held up as a model of industry as it stores up in time of plenty to have in time of need. By continuing to slumber through opportunities, the sluggard will surely experience poverty. The images of the bandit and armed man indicate that the need will come upon him suddenly and without compassion for his situation.
The scoundrel or villain (6:12-15) is one who for his own ends provokes antagonism among others. V. 13 lists ways in which he might surreptitiously convey signals to confederates in his evil plots. Eventually justice will be done, and the villain will reap the fruits of his deception. This is the basic theme of each of these sections. The world is created in justice, and evil and folly will eventually be destroyed.
The fourth section (6:16-19) is a numerical saying listing seven items Yahweh detests. The numerical formula (x, x+1, where x equals any number) was current in Israel (cf. 30:15-31; Am 1:3-2:6) as well as in other cultures such as Ugarit. The items are ethical in nature, with the last one, one who stirs up dissension, being identical to the previous section. The God of Israel, Yahweh, unlike many of the gods of the nations, incorporated ethical concerns as part of serving him. The worshiper was required to incorporate a high standard of moral living as part of his/her covenant obligation (Ps 15).
The final section (6:20-35) continues the theme of moral concern with the third set of warnings (2:1-22; 5:1-23) about the adulteress. This Ninth Instruction begins with an exhortation to keep the instructions that have been committed to the student, for they will preserve him from harm, especially from the immoral woman. That which is done in secret can no more be kept secret than one can carry hot coals in his clothes and not be burned. Stolen pleasures will cost one public disgrace when exposed and will earn him a constant enemy in the wronged husband. No gifts will ever erase the enmity that is created between the two. The prudent path is to avoid the adulteress and never subject oneself to the destructive results of folly.
The Tenth Instruction, consisting of the fourth warning against the adulteress, begins with an exhortation to the student to pursue wisdom. The instructor's teachings are to be closely adhered to, bound on the fingers and written on the heart. Wisdom is the faithful sister who guards the young man from the adulteress.
A descriptive poem on the seduction of a young man makes up the main section of the chapter (vv. 6-23). The instructor has observed a young man who lacks judgment (empty of mind) being seduced by a woman of crafty intent (cunning of mind). It was an unequal contest. With physical attraction, flattering words, promises of sexual delight, and assurances of safety (“My husband is not at home”), she persuaded him to follow her home. Even religion formed part of the seduction (v. 14). She who carefully observed religious requirements provided fertility as an avenue to God. Accepting the invitation, the youth was led like an animal to slaughter. The house of the adulteress is not the place of pleasure but the entrance to the chambers of death (vv. 24-27). Wisdom sees beyond the immediate gains that temptation offers to its ultimate end, which is death. Thus it is able to choose the path of life. The fool sees only the immediate and is surprised by destruction.
In contrast to the adulteress who tempts fools to the path of death, Wisdom invites them to life. She lifts her voice to the simple and foolish, calling them to learn of her, a lesson more valuable than gold and precious gems. In this poem wisdom is personified as a woman who, like the adulteress, walks abroad seeking men. Her invitation though is to life, not death. Her words are not deceptive but can be trusted as just and true. To grasp her is to grasp life.
The reason Wisdom is to be preferred is that prudence, knowledge, and discretion dwell with her, those qualities necessary for successfully mastering life. Properly understanding the universe as created by Yahweh means that one aligns oneself with the good that he has created, as opposed to evil, which is seen as a disruptive force in an otherwise well-ordered creation. To hate (v. 13) is to oppose and to refuse to associate with, not to feel antipathy. It is an action, not an emotion.
Wisdom provides the principles by which rulers govern justly (vv. 14-16). Those who love her, i.e., practice her precepts, find a wealth that surpasses gold and silver, a treasury of righteousness and justice. These principles enhance any kingdom and form the basis for building a sound economic system.
The reason why wisdom is so important is related in vv. 22-31. When Yahweh began to creat, he started with Wisdom herself as the first of creation. The metaphor must not be pushed so far as to suggest that here is given a sequential ordering of a process of creation. Wisdom is given preeminence in creation to signify that she is the principle by which all that now exists was brought into being. All that God does is wise, not because of some eternal principle of wisdom by which his deeds can be measured, but because it is his nature to act in wisdom. Those who follow wisdom thus order their lives in accordance with God himself.
The ordering of creation (vv. 27-31) follows the typical pattern of ancient Semitic thought concerning the world. All things are called forth out of the watery deep with the heavens lifted above it and the land marking its boundaries. The earth itself is set on pillars or foundations sunk into the waters. Modern humanity does not derive its cosmology from the Bible, for its understanding of the structure of the universe is different from that of ancient times. We do affirm with the writer that what exists, regardless of the theories of its order and structure, came from God and is not self-generated.
The epilogue of the chapter (vv. 32-36) contains an invitation from wisdom to seek her. There are only two options. The one who finds wisdom finds also Yahweh and life. The one who fails to find her is destroyed.
The final chapter in this section has been artfully constructed with three movements: the invitation of wisdom (vv. 1-6), the response to instruction (vv. 7-12), and the invitation of folly (vv. 13-18). The imagery of the first and last sections has been deliberately developed to draw upon religious symbolism of the fertility cults as well as to stand in direct contrast to each other. The invitations of both are directed to the simple who are invited to a meal. To participate in the banquet of wisdom is to study and learn and thus gain life. To accept the invitation of the woman Folly is to enter into the realm of the dead. This invitation, issued in blatantly sexual language, emphasizes ease and pleasure in contrast to the discipline of wisdom.
The dedication of the house of wisdom calls for a banquet. Servants of Lady Wisdom seek out the simple and those who lack wisdom to learn from her the paths of life. The banquet is rich, consisting of meat and wine mixed with honey and herbs, a pointed contrast to the simple bouquet of water and food of Lady Folly (v. 17).
Vv. 7-9 contain practical wisdom about instruction. One willing to learn will do so, but the one who has rejected learning will react adversely toward anyone who provides correction.
Vv. 10-12 add another theological dimension to the chapter by identifying wisdom with Yahweh or the Holy One. The parallelism demands that the last phrase refer to God and not angels. In vv. 11-12 Lady Wisdom again speaks about the reward she offers, a long life.
In the final section (vv. 13-18), Lady Folly is depicted as a cult prostitute seducing the simple to worship at her shrine, which is located at the acropolis or highest point in the city. In earlier passages the adulteress is a real person, but here she is a metaphor for the life lived without knowledge. To accept her invitation is to enter into the realm of the dead, sheol, or the grave.