Authorship and Date
The text of Proverbs attributes most of the book to Solomon himself (1:1; 10:1; 25:1), but some parts to anonymous sages (“the wise,” 22:17; 24:23) or the two otherwise-unknown Gentiles Agur (30:1-14) and King Lemuel (31:1-9). Certain scribes working for Hezekiah gain credit for compiling chs. 25-29 (25:1).
In modern critical scholarship, Solomonic authorship of Proverbs is usually dismissed, for a variety of stated reasons, at the heart of which is a general skepticism about the historicity ofSolomon and his reign, due to the rise of biblical minimalism. Since scholars are hesitant to say anything definite about the biography of Solomon, they are likewise reluctant to accept his authorship of any documents.
The usual stated reasons for disputing Solomonic authorship, such as supposed (1) lateness of language or literary form, (2) absence of literacy in 10th-cent. BC Israel, (3) prevalence of pseudepigraphical attributions of authorship in wisdom literature, or (4) lateness of the concept of the personification of wisdom, have been exploded by Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen and others largely through an extensive comparison of Proverbs with the Egyptian wisdom literature from the second and first millennia BC. Kitchen argues that the basic literary form of Proverbs shows elements typical of both second- and first-millenia wisdom compositions, which would suggest it is a transitional form between the two, appropriate to the Solomonic reign, which straddled the millennia (10th cent. BC).
Solomonic authorship cannot be proven, too be sure, but neither are any of the arguments against it compelling. There is no great reason to doubt the Solomonic origin of the two collections attributed directly to him (10:1–22:16; chs. 25-29). It is not entirely clear that Prov. 1:1 is claiming Solomonic authorship for the Prologue—it may just indicate the predominant authorship of the book as a whole, for which a different author wrote the introductory chapters 1-9. There is no reason to doubt the attributions to Agur and Lemuel, since there is no discernible motivation for attributing compositions to these otherwise-unknown Gentiles unless there was, in fact, an historical connection to them. The collection of numerical proverbs (30:15-33) and the Song of the Noble Woman (31:10-31) are anonymous.
Solomon reigned in the tenth century BC (900’s), during a period in which international trade made Israel and its capital Jerusalem a cosmopolitan society. The influence of Egyptian thought (esp. between 22:17–24:22 and Amenemope) and the contributions of easterners (Agur, Lemuel) makes sense during this time period:
Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt ... And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kgs 4:30,34)
The superscription of Prov. 25:1 indicates further editorial work done on the book during the reign of Hezekiah. Although we do not know when the book reached its final form, the reign of Hezekiah is an attractive option, since the early part of his reign seemed to witness an economic and cultural renaissance of Judean society and a spirit of optimism about the future, at least until the Assyrian campaign devastated the land. Features of Proverbs would fit this period: it exhibits an optimistic tone, seems to assume a righteous king is reigning, and reflects nothing yet of the trauma of the exile.
The Application of Proverbs to the Christian Life
Proverbs are observations on life and exhortations to practice the natural virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice) and the natural law. Most hold true even in the situation of the New Covenant and in contemporary culture. They often take the form of general rules or principles that, all things being equal, do describe “how things are.” For example:
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. (10:4)
This holds true as a general principle; but there are lazy persons who inherit wealth or come to it by chance. Likewise, in many parts of the world there are hard-working poor who are kept in poverty by injustice, oppression, or an undeveloped economic system. Nonetheless, all things being equal, diligence brings a better result than poverty.
Proverbs need to be accepted as general principles to which there are exceptions, but not as absolute diving promises on par with, for example, Jesus’ affirmation, “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:26).
The Place of Proverbs, and the Wisdom Literature Generally, with Biblical Theology
Proverbs and other wisdom books pose a problem for biblical theologians, because the covenant-historical perspective that dominates the theology of the law, prophets, and historical books seems absent. In Proverbs, for example, almost nothing is said about covenant, law, salvation history, Sinai, the cult, etc. For this reason some biblical theologians have despaired of integrating the wisdom literature with the rest of the Old Testament, and simply concede that it presents an alternative theology to the other books.
Such a radical disjunction between the wisdom and other books is not necessary. The key to understanding the role of the wisdom literature, and Proverbs in particular, is the attribution of authorship to Solomon. Solomon anchors the wisdom literature to the covenant history of Israel, linking it to the Davidic covenant as the form of instruction suitable for his empire. Just as Moses provided Israel with the Law, which was particular, nationalistic, and cultic, appropriate to their role as a separate and priestly people; so Solomon later provided his international empire (1 Kgs 4:21,34) with Wisdom, which was universal, international, and “secular” (properly understood). Although Proverbs firmly insists that reverence for the LORD, the God of Israel, is the foundation for accumulating wisdom, nonetheless the proverbs themselves are largely observations and exhortations of the natural law with regard to daily living. One need not be an Israelite, nor reside close enough to the Temple to make regular pilgrimages, in order to put the exhortations of Proverbs into practice. When, through Christ the Son of David, the empire of David and Solomon was restored and transformed as the Church, the universality of the wisdom literature would prove useful for moral catechesis within the Church.
The Covenantal Nature of Wisdom
The word covenant (Heb. berith) occurs only once in Proverbs, and with reference to a marital covenant (2:17), not to one of the great covenants of salvation history. Nonetheless, Proverbs does have important covenantal themes.
First, there is theological significance to the fact that the reader is addressed throughout the Prologue as “son.” Solomon is the presumed speaker (1:1); therefore, in his address of the reader as “son,” he invites the reader into a covenant relationship with himself. “Son” is a covenant category, and Solomon himself enjoyed divine sonship by virtue of his being heir of the Davidic covenant (1 Sam 7:14; Ps 89:26-27). Solomon offers to extend that blessing to us, his readers. If we accept his invitation to sonship, through him we will indirectly experience the blessings of divine filiation. So, in Proverbs, every reader is invited into the blessings of the Davidic covenant by entering in to a relationship with David’s heir Solomon through the embrace of the gift of divine wisdom which Solomon himself received from God and offers in turn to us. This model of becoming a “son of the Son,” or a “son in the Son,” is analogous to the reality of the New Covenant, in which we enter into relationship with Christ through the embrace of the Gospel and his Spirit, which he himself received from the Father. The Christian reader, therefore, can hear through the voice of Solomon the voice of Solomon’s greater Son (Matt 12:42).
Second, the covenantal significance of the nuptial presentation of Lady Wisdom needs to be unpacked. We have already noted in the Overview how strong the nuptial theme is in the Prologue and Epilogue. The sacred author frequently uses spousal language to describe Lady Wisdom:
3:13 Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding, 14 for the gain from it is better than gain from silver and its profit better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.
4:13 Keep hold of instruction, do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.
7:4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call insight your intimate friend; 5 to preserve you from the loose woman, from the adventuress with her smooth words.
On the other hand, descriptions of wisdom are applied to the ideal wife in the Epilogue, as seen above. So there is a fluidity in Proverbs between the image of Wife and the image of Wisdom: the two are mutually illuminative.
In this way, the young man or “son” who is the ideal reader of the book is exhorted on two levels. On a natural level, he is encouraged to remain faithful to the “wife of his youth,” or, if not yet married, to seek a wise woman as the ideal partner rather than one who is merely alluring. On a theological level, Wisdom herself is presented to the young man as the ideal spouse; therefore a young man might be justified in foregoing natural marriage altogether in order to give himself fully to the pursuit of divine Wisdom.
In both cases, the “son” who is the reader is exhorted to enter into, or embrace more fully, a covenant relationship; the covenant with his wife, and a covenantal relationship with divine Wisdom. In fact, all readers of the book are implicitly encouraged to enter into a spousal relationship with the Wisdom of the LORD.
In a Christian reading of Proverbs, this invitation to a spousal embrace of Wisdom is fulfilled in the nuptial embrace of Christ, the Incarnate Wisdom of God, through the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, which is the Eucharistic banquet.
However, strong motifs also link Lady Wisdom to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. “Spirit” (Heb. ruach) is feminine in Hebrew, and the Spirit of God is presented under a feminine, or specifically maternal, aspect in several places in the Old Testament. Lady Wisdom is virtually identified with God’s Spirit in later wisdom literature (Wis 7:25). Thus, the call to the nuptial embrace of Wisdom can also be understood as a call to commit oneself to the Holy Spirit, who also comes to us through the Sacraments.
We should not be surprised that Lady Wisdom may serve as a type both of the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity, for their missions are closely united. The Second Person is “the Christ,” meaning “the Anointed One,” and that with which he is anointed is none other than the Third Person, the Holy Spirit. Thus,
The notion of anointing suggests . . . that there is no distance between the Son and the Spirit. Indeed, just as between the surface of the body and the anointing with oil neither reason nor sensation recognizes any intermediary, so the contact of the Son with the Spirit is immediate, so that anyone who would make contact with the Son by faith must first encounter the oil by contact. In fact there is no part that is not covered by the Holy Spirit. That is why the confession of the Son's Lordship is made in the Holy Spirit by those who receive him, the Spirit coming from all sides to those who approach the Son in faith. (Catechism of the Catholic Church §690, quoting St. Gregory of Nyssa)
Finding Christ in the Book of Proverbs
We have already mentioned that Lady Wisdom typifies Christ, who is God’s Wisdom incarnate: “Christ [is] the power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). This is especially the case with Prov. 8, the hymn of Wisdom the companion of God in creation, which was universally accepted among the Fathers as a description of the Second Person and the background for various New Testament images of Christ, such as the prologue of the Gospel of John.
Christ is typified in Proverbs in other ways. The voice of the author, who addresses us as his “sons,” is presented to us as Solomon the Son of David. Yet Christ is the better Son of David; “something greater than Solomon is here” (Lk 11:31). The Christian can hear his voice as the one that addresses us in Proverbs.
Christ is also the ideal wise man, whose description is built up bit by bit as the Book progresses. About him it is most truly said:
Bloodthirsty men hate one who is blameless,
And the wicked seek his life. (29:10)
To his passion one can apply these words:
Blows that wound cleanse away evil;
Strokes make clean the innermost parts. (20:30)
The following may be applied to his kingdom:
If a king judges the poor with equity
His throne will be established forever. (29:14)
He is the king described by Lemuel’s mother, who did not give his strength to wine or women (Prov. 31:3-5) but gave “strong drink” to those who were “perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress” (31:6) i.e. the Eucharistic wine, which we may “drink and forget” our “poverty, and remember [our] misery no more” (31:7), because our sins are forgiven.