There is, perhaps, no greater illustration of our modern fascination with individual accomplishment and personal achievement than for one to witness my approach to do-it-yourself furniture. The flat pack gets unpacked, the parts are sorted, and the instructions are ignored. 'I can do this, no sweat', I tell myself.
But after some befuddled inspection of the parts, and a few failed attempts at joining those parts together, I inevitably reach for the diagram. The diagram tells me whether this fits that and how. It shows me where to start, where all the pieces fit in relation to one another, and how the bookcase, bed or cupboard fit looks in its entirety.
Just as important as looking at that diagram is for a Bible reader to understand the structure of the book of the Bible they’re reading. The structure highlights the big ideas, the logical connections, and, especially in a book like Proverbs, the place of each verse within the larger context. Understanding how a verse or section fits within the wider flow of a book is like discovering where that screw fits in relation to the entire piece of furniture. It only makes sense in light of the whole.
In my last post, I shared 3 tips for reading Proverbs. But to help that reading we also need to understand the structure of Proverbs and see what’s happening in each section.
The Structure of Proverbs
Each section of Proverbs is introduced by the naming of the author of that section.
I. Introduction and Purpose (1:1-7)
This section introduces the first major section of Proverbs (1:1-9:18) and helps the reader understand the source of the Proverbs and why they are being published: to know wisdom and instruction.
II. A Father’s Wise Instruction to His Son (1:8-9:18)
A discrete unit within the book, this section evokes the image of a father instructing a son in wise formation, or, as Daniel Estes writes, ‘intellectual and ethical maturity.’ This section seeks to imbibe a worldview, values and goals that one who is wise, and who fears the LORD, should possess. A key statement, ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,' from 1:7, and ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,’ from 9:10, frame the section.
III. Proverbs of Solomon (10:1-22:16)
This is the section that is most typically Proverbial. Solomon shares short reflections on life specifically designed to be remembered. Proverbs 10-15 focuses mainly on contrast (this happens to these people, but this to these people) and a pattern of acts and consequences. Chapter 16 through to 29 highlights exceptions to these observations.
IV. The Thirty Sayings of ‘the Wise’ (22:17-24:22)
This includes four part sentences that are to be kept ready on your lips for the purpose of trusting in the LORD (22:17-19).
V. More Sayings of ‘the Wise’ (24:23-24:34)
VI. Hezekiah’s Copies of some Proverbs of Solomon (25:1-29:27)
This section is similar to the proverbs previously published under Solomon’s own hand. Now, Hezekiah presents some of the proverbs that he copied (25:1).
The ESV Study Bible writes: 'Hezekiah is credited with reviving Judah’s religious traditions (2 Kings 18:3-7). A new, expanded edition of Solomonic proverbs was apparently part of that revival'.
VII. The Words of Agur (30:1-33)
In an obviously different style, Agur, whose identity remains unknown, presents his own wisdom. It is possible Agur was in the hearing of some of Solomon’s wisdom and presented them here.
VIII. The Words of King Lemuel’s Mother (31:1-31)
This section, again penned under an identity that remains unknown, instructs a king in the ways of wise leadership, and in finding an excellent wife. While Proverbs began with a father instructing a son, it concludes with a mother instructing a son.
Daniel J. Estes. Hear, My Son: Teaching and Learning in Proverbs 1-9 (New Studies in Biblical Theology 4; Leicester, UK: Apollos, 1997).
Ernest C. Lucas. Exploring the Old Testament (Vol 3: The Psalms and Wisdom Literature; London, UK: SPCK, 2003).
Duane A. Garrett & Kenneth Laing Harris, Proverbs Study Notes in ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008)