Is the Book of Proverbs an Instruction Manual for Life?

Human Cleverness vs. Wisdom

The placing of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job in close proximity in various canons is an indicator that Job and Ecclesiastes are not to be viewed as “wisdom in revolt,”1 nor as “protest wisdom.”2 Their authors are not seeking to correct or counter Proverbs, for the placing of the books side by side more likely assumes or asserts their compatibility. This reading is supported by the “epilogue” of Ecclesiastes (Eccl. 12:9–14), closing as it does with the exhortation to “fear God,” which might easily serve as a summary of the teaching of the book of Proverbs.3 Likewise, the ethic of the fear of God stressed in Proverbs is exemplified by Job himself (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3).4 Moreover, Proverbs is insistent that human cleverness cannot give certainty to decisions and their consequences, for they are always subordinate to God’s will (e.g., Prov. 16:1, 2, 9; 19:14, 21; 20:24; 21:30–31). The essential mystery of life is not denied or dispelled by Proverbs, and it is a misreading to view it as naïvely optimistic about the temporal prospects of the godly.5 Readers are warned against thinking that they are wise (Prov. 26:12; Prov. 28:11, 26) and instead are urged to trust God (Prov. 3:7). A failure to note this teaching has led many to perceive a tension in the wisdom corpus, if not an irreconcilable conflict between Job-Ecclesiastes on one side and Proverbs on the other; however, Proverbs, like the other two books, candidly warns of the limitations of human wisdom.6

Biblical Theology

Andreas J. Köstenberger, Gregory Goswell

Biblical Theology provides an essential foundation for interpreting all 66 books of the Bible, identifying the central themes of each text and discussing its place in the overall storyline of Scripture.

The three books are closer in their teaching than usually thought, and the problem has been a common misinterpretation of Proverbs. Job and Ecclesiastes are not battling a rigid retribution doctrine propounded by Proverbs, for example, in the area of wealth and poverty.7 Though Proverbs can attribute poverty to sloth (Prov. 19:15, 24) and describe wealth as a reward for fearing God (Prov. 22:4), it also urges generosity to the needy (Prov. 21:26; Prov. 28:27) and speaks of the godly who choose poverty over wrongdoing (Prov. 15:16–17; Prov. 28:6). The call of Proverbs is to rely on God rather than trust in the (supposed) orderliness of the world as a place where righteous behavior is always rewarded (Prov. 3:5; Prov. 16:3; Prov. 22:19). Actions have consequences, but the deed-outcome nexus is not inflexible, so there is the obligation to care for the poor who are destitute through no fault of their own (Prov. 21:13; Prov. 22:22; Prov. 28:27). If Proverbs is understood in this way, there is no conflict with either Job or Ecclesiastes.

The call of Proverbs is to rely on God rather than trust in the (supposed) orderliness of the world as a place where righteous behavior is always rewarded.

Correctly understood, the individual proverb presents a typical relationship between events, and as such any proverb admits exceptions and is situation-dependent. The classic example is what at first look like contradictory instructions in Proverbs 26:4–5 (“Answer not a fool according to his folly, . . . Answer a fool according to his folly, . . .”).8The proverbs are to be viewed as paradigms rather than precepts, and the book does not claim to be a manual on how to do this or that and always succeed in what one attempts.9The purpose of the proverb is to defamiliarize routine ways of seeing and to stimulate reflection and thoughtful action (Prov. 1:6: “the words of the wise and their riddles”).

Proverbs 10–31 is marked by a relative absence of systematic ordering; however, it is going too far to say that the chapters are “largely unedited,” for T. A. Hildebrandt argues that 124 verses (out of a possible 595) are bound together into “proverbial pairs” on the basis of either semantics (often a catchword), theme, or syntax.10 Proverbs 16:10–15 and Proverbs 25:2–7 are examples of topical groupings, here sets of proverbs concerned with kings. Knut Heim seeks to provide an exposition of the logic of the ordering of proverbs in what he claims are proverbial clusters (e.g., Prov. 10:1b–5),11 with adjacent proverbs understood to interact with and complement each other, and in that way the book provides a multifaceted and nuanced perspective on human life. If this mode of analysis is accepted—and it has become increasingly popular in recent commentaries on Proverbs12—it shows that the book is more subtle than often thought and does not provide simplistic or formulaic answers to the complex issues of life.


  1. Pace R. B. Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1971), who applies the term to both books.
  2. Lindsay Wilson, Job, THOTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 293.
  3. See Gerald H. Wilson, “‘The Words of the Wise’: The Intent and Significance of Qohelet 12:9–14,” JBL 103 (1984): 178–79, where he suggests that the phraseology resonates with the content of Qoheleth but is sufficiently general to connect to the broader wisdom tradition, most particularly Proverbs.
  4. Lindsay Wilson, “The Book of Job and the Fear of God,” TynBul 46 (1995): 69–73.
  5. Michael V. Fox,>A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 59–63.
  6. Cf. Richard L. Schultz, “Unity or Diversity in Wisdom Theology? A Canonical and Covenantal Perspective,” TynBul 48 (1997): 281–89.
  7. For this paragraph, we acknowledge our dependence on Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs,” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): 25–36; and Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1–9, AB 18A (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 91–92.
  8. See Fredrick Holmgren, “Barking Dogs Never Bite, Except Now and Then: Proverbs and Job,” Anglican Theological Review 61 (1979): 341–53; John J. Collins, “Proverbial Wisdom and the Yahwist Vision,” Semeia 17 (1980): 1–17.
  9. Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for the Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task (Toronto: Tuppence, 1980), 97.
  10. T. A. Hildebrandt, “Proverbial Pairs: Compositional Units in Proverbs 10–29,” JBL 107 (1988): 207–24.
  11. Knut Martin Heim, Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1– 22:16, BZAW 273 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2001), 112–13
  12. E.g., Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1–15, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 450–62, who interprets 10:1b–5 as a grouping pertaining to wealth and poverty, and 10:6–17 as a cluster united by the theme of the effects of speech on oneself and others.

This article is adapted from Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Gregory Goswell.

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