The proverbs themselves indicate that the full collection of Solomon’s wisdom wasn’t even compiled until a few hundred years after his death. Proverbs 25:1 says, “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, transcribed.”
Authorship of Proverbs
Solomon lived in the 10th century while Hezekiah’s compilation didn’t appear until between the 8th and 6th centuries. Some of what we read was added by these men of Hezekiah much later, which also brings up a little known idea about wisdom literature. Most of what we see is compiled rather than authored.
So what about other contributors? Let’s deal with a king named Lemuel first.
“The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him:” – Proverbs 31:1
Although this is attributed to Lemuel I hope you notice the actual source—the Bible itself tells us that the words of the great 31st chapter of Proverbs are actually those of Lemuel’s mother. Here we have one of the rare occurrences where the words we’re reading are in fact the words of a wise, godly, trusted woman. Similar examples include Miriam and Mary, as well as the implied instruction of people like Pricilla in correcting Apollos, or Phoebe in helping the Romans, or Lois and Eunice in molding Timothy.Proverbs 31 is one of the rare occurrences where the inspired words we’re reading are in fact the words of a wise, godly, trusted woman. Similar examples include Miriam and Mary. Click To Tweet
These women brought truths to live by, they spoke inspired words from God. This is imperative to remember when we have discussions about men and women and their roles in God’s world. We can argue all we want about peoples opinions but we can’t argue with the text of scripture.
So Solomon was a large contributor, the men of Hezekiah were compilers. Likewise Lemuel was a compiler because his mother was actually the author or at least the source. Add to all of this we have contributors such as Agur and the sages or “the wise.”
“The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, the oracle.” – Proverbs 30:1a
“Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise, And apply your mind to my knowledge;” – Proverbs 22:17 NASB
Take note here that the writer’s knowledge (first person) is the result of “the words of the wise” (plural). Again ancient wisdom was primarily a compilation.
“These also are sayings of the wise. To show partiality in judgment is not good.” – Proverbs 24:23 NASB
All of this leads to challenging truths concerning ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) literature. Although we know that Solomon’s wisdom is of divine origin (1 Kings 3:1-15), it’s set within the context of all ANE wisdom. The Queen of Sheba visited to hear Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 10:1-13) and there was a clear contrast between Solomon and the Egyptian world.
“Now God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment and breadth of mind, like the sand that is on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the sons of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men, than Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was known in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke also of animals and birds and creeping things and fish. Men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.” – 1 Kings 4:29-34 NASB
Notice that Solomon’s wisdom was simply greater than that of Egypt and the sons of the east. To acknowledge that there was sound wisdom from these sources is clearly Biblical. In other words the Egyptians—and other cultures—had wise things to say and wise things to live by. But Solomon’s wisdom was greater. This understanding is vital for what I want to show you next.
Proverbs & Ancient Near East Literature
What we learn from ancient writings often unsettles people. Let me give you a few examples. In Aramaic literature there was a man named Ahiqar and he wrote one of the earliest “international books of world literature.” Notice that Solomon’s wisdom included more than what we traditionally view as wisdom. It also included knowledge of horticulture and zoology among other things. This is all a part of what the ANE called wisdom—which is why Ahiqar’s book is referred to as “world literature” and not just world wisdom. We seem to think of wisdom differently today.
Anyway, Ahiqar’s book was penned in approximately the 7th century BC.
See if this wisdom sounds familiar:
“Spare not your son from the rod; otherwise, can you save him from wickedness?” – Ahiqar: Saying 3
“Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol.” – Proverbs 23:13-14 NASB
In the case of Ahiqar it’s most likely that Solomon influenced Ahiqar. I point this out to stress that wisdom is primarily a compilation. But now let’s look at someone who came before Solomon. A few hundred years before!)—a man by the name of Amenemope.
“Guard yourself from robbing the poor, from being violent to the weak.” – Amenemope 4.4-5
This is about three hundred years before Solomon which also means this proceeds David too. Now look at what Solomon says in Proverbs 22:22:
“Do not rob the poor because he is poor, Or crush the afflicted at the gate;” – Proverbs 22:22 NASB
These are very similar. Why would some heathen culture (not associated with the God of the Jewish people) even care about the poor? Why would they consider this to be wisdom? Let’s look at another example, this one is really similar.
“As for the scribe who is experienced in his office, he will find himself worthy to be a courtier.” – Amenemope 22.16-17
A courtier is simply one who abides in the court of the king with those of high rank. Again a few hundred years later look at what Solomon says,
“Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men.” – Proverbs 22:29 NASB
The list could go on and on and with regard to all manner of issues—drunkenness, greed or covetousness, unjust weights and measures, etc. The point of all of this is that we observe in the historical texts an international context to wisdom. Once realized, it is not as much of a shock to see just how much of Israelite wisdom is shared with Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Aramaic texts.In historical Ancient Near East literature, we observe an international context to wisdom. #Proverbs Click To Tweet
And even though we have good reason to think that the Israelite sages knew and learned from the wisdom of the broader ancient Near East, the Isrealites would have likely concluded that these ancient near easterners had stumbled across the truth as they observed the rhythms of how God’s world truly worked.
This is where we see God’s gracious nature to all men. Just as he causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on all, he has also given wisdom to all kinds of people since the beginning of time. Adam wasn’t a Jew and God gave him wisdom. Noah, Job, for that matter Abraham himself who becomes the fountainhead of Judaism were all given wisdom.Just as God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on all, he has also given wisdom to all kinds of people since the beginning of time. #Proverbs Click To Tweet
God gave standards and wisdom to the Amalakites and the Ammorites although they were “not His people.” How do we know this to be true? Because they were judged for sinning against God. This was well before the law was given, but there was available wisdom which they knew and were held accountable to. Again this is the graciousness of God to all mankind. Scripture says even the sky declares the wonders of God. Why? So that all men are able to see the truth and be without excuse.
All of this helps me speak to how we interact with the wisdom of the world, including pop-psychology. In Colossians the Apostle Paul warns the people not to be taken captive by human philosophy.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” – Colossians 2:8 NASB
Paul is establishing a contrast between wisdom and philosophy that is according to the principles of the world rather than the principles of God. He is not warning that any thought that comes from a human being is to be avoided. The test is whether or not it is governed by the principles of the world rather than those of Christ. Paul would be throwing out the “source” of even Solomon’s wisdom if we read this the wrong way.
There are so many things, including what we just read from Amenemope that were written down by a human being but were clearly in accordance with Godly principles. So here’s something to remember—people are going to give advice but we are responsible for discerning its true origin. Are we hearing the principles of this world or the principles of Christ? How do we discern like this? We grow in wisdom.
Let’s revisit something from our opening text. The purpose of the proverbs are,
“To know wisdom and instruction, To discern the sayings of understanding… To understand a proverb and a figure, The words of the wise and their riddles.” – Proverbs 1:2, 6 NASB
The purpose of the proverbs, the purpose of wisdom is not to discount what the world says. It is to discern or understand what is of God and therefore truly wise. This is again what Solomon did with the wisdom of the ANE.
Church, we are to gain wisdom so that we can be trained to see true wisdom all around. We are to use proverbs as the true measure by which to prove the accuracy of any wisdom we use to build our lives on. How are you using Proverbs to add wisdom to your faith? Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.