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How did proverbs come to be—and how were they used in olden times?

TitleHow did proverbs come to be—and how were they used in olden times?
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1973
AuthorsMeservy, Keith H.
Issue Number10
Date PublishedOctober 1973
KeywordsProverbs (Book); Wisdom Literature

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How did proverbs come to be—and how were they used in olden times?

Keith H. Meservy: Proverbs belong to a literary classification known as wisdom literature: sayings of wise men who crystallized their advice into short, pithy statements. These were usually, but not necessarily, expressed in two-line couplets, the second of which emphasized the meaning of the first by an antithetical statement (“A wise son maketh a glad father; but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother” [Prov. 10:11]); or by a complementary or parallel idea (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” [Prov. 9:10]).

The distillation of a wise idea into a succinct, well-expressed form made it easy to remember; if it were easier to remember it would be easier to pass from one generation to another. And this was the intent—to pass wisdom from the parent to the child.

“A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom and instruction. My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother: For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and [decorative] chains about thy neck.” (Prov. 1:5–9.)

At least five different collections of proverbs are contained within our book of Proverbs: three of Solomon’s (Prov. 1:1; Prov. 10:1; Prov. 25:1), one of an unknown Agur (Prov. 30:1), and one of an unknown King Lemuel (Prov. 31:1). Solomon is given credit for having spoken three thousand proverbs. (1 Kgs. 4:32; cf. Prov. 25:1.)

Form and content vary but the proverbs are for those who have ears to hear. “Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge. For it is a pleasant thing if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips. That thy trust may be in the Lord, I have made known to thee this day. …” (Prov. 22:17–19.)


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