Tradition has associated the book of Proverbs with Solomon, the son of David, even though it contains materials that come from a later time. This is due to the reputation Solomon gained as Israel's “wise” king, a reputation that had spread beyond the nation's borders even while he lived (1Ki 10:1-10). Solomon's reputation was based on the program he had initiated to place the young nation of Israel in the mainstream of cultural achievement. The temple was built with the help of the king of Tyre. His court was organized along Egyptian lines. He developed his own talents in the international art of wisdom literature and thus became its patron (1Ki 4:29-34).
Proverbs cannot be definitely dated either as to the age of its material or the time of its final composition. In all probability some of the material goes back to Solomon himself (10:1). Yet it is the nature of a proverb to be passed down orally for many generations, and Solomon may have been a collector as well as an originator of them. The book states that the wisdom teachers of Hezekiah (715-687 b.c.) made additions to it (25:1), and the words of both Agur and Lemuel have been added (chs. 30, 31). Thus the book took its final form sometime between the beginning of the seventh century to possibly as late as a century and a half after the return from the Exile (538 b.c.).
Proverbs are found in practically every culture. Often one can find similar sayings in diverse areas of the world. This is because wisdom deals with life as it is lived. One observes what happens in the affairs of people and draws short, memorable word pictures about the situations. Collections of proverbs sometimes were passed from one people to another. Pr 22:17-24:22 is an adaptation of the work of an Egyptian named Amenem-Opet, who several centuries before Solomon had made a collection of sayings. This borrowing and adapting of material made wisdom literature truly an international art form.
The source of information for wisdom is life itself. Life is observed and a saying is developed to describe what is learned. Knowledge is not gained primarily through visions or supernatural revelations. This secular approach to knowledge has several ramifications for understanding the Proverbs. While each saying is true, not all can be made universally applicable. A bribe may seem like a charm that brings success and gives one access to great persons (17:8; 18:16), yet it also is the condemned device of the wicked to pervert justice (17:23). Each saying is correct but not universally applicable. One must ask under what circumstances a given saying would be appropriate.
Those who developed proverbs believed that they were observing the principles of wisdom that had been implanted in the order of the world at the time of creation. God created the world in wisdom (Pr 8). By the principles of wisdom the universe was brought into existence, and thus those principles were woven into the very framework of all creation. Through observing creation and finding out what is profitable and what is not, one discovers those same principles. In adjusting one's life in accordance with wisdom, one is getting in tune with God himself. Thus the wisdom teacher urged students to gain wisdom and insight by placing their lives in harmony with the principles God placed in the universe.
Because of this basic theological orientation, the book of Proverbs contains many sayings that a modern person would consider secular. What is religious about 13:11, “Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow”? It contains no “religious” language. To the wise man, however, the saying reflects a principle of life. How did this principle come into being? God put it there when he created the world. Thus to observe it is to place one's life in harmony with God. To learn wisdom is to learn how to succeed in life.
The three perennial questions with which wisdom worked were: How may one succeed in life (Proverbs)? What is the meaning of life (Ecclesiastes)? and Why does humanity suffer (Job)? Each of these books finds its literary counterpart in other cultures of the ancient Middle East; the questions with which they work have perplexed people of many nations through many centuries. The book of Proverbs deals with the problem of success as it relates to the various aspects of life. While it is theologically oriented in the broadest sense, it also addresses religion specifically, noting that “the fear of [or respect for] the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). Other categories of interest include business, family life, personal morals, politics, and personal discipline, among others.
Where did the proverb originate? Were there schools that trained young men (a patriarchal society rarely provided formal education for women), or was their education the exclusive obligation of the home? Undoubtedly many of the proverbs are ancient and arose in the home or village. They were probably framed by one gifted with the ability to catch in memorable oral form some insight into life. Since natural talent knows no gender boundaries even in a patriarchal society, the sources could have been both women and men. In early Israel the extended family and clan contributed to the education of the child. As the monarchy arose, a class of trained advisers was needed. Jeremiah refers to this class as an established part of his seventh-century culture (18:18).
The book of Proverbs probably owes its origin to this class of professionally trained wise men. Whereas Solomon may have started the process of collecting and editing wise sayings, they eventually were used to train young men in schools. The term father, found often in the first nine chapters, may reflect an original home setting of instruction, but the term came to refer to the headmaster of the school.