Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes – daily meditations on Solomon’s three Bible books
The first thing I would like to say is that this section covering the Book of Proverbs, as well as the following section, on the Book of Ecclesiastes, follows a similar pattern to that adopted for the previous section on the Song of Songs, and there are common things worth saying that more or less apply to each of these. But Song of Songs got in first – fifty years earlier in fact. I neither wish to be repetitive, nor do I propose to radically edit what I previously wrote in order to provide a slick generic section covering all three books. I therefore beg the reader’s indulgence for my taking this approach, which is more about building on what went on previously, cutting to the chase and preparing needed ground work for what is by far the major part of what is being written about for each of the three books – thirty-one daily meditations, one for each day of the month. One more thing, when it comes to providing daily reflections on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, I will apply one item of wisdom learned and use the third person.
Regarding authorship, we are left in no doubt, because right at the outset we read: “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel” (1:1). While not disputing whether or not Solomon wrote Proverbs, it is a nevertheless more complex than that. Some, maybe most, of the proverbs were known before Solomon and Solomon merely did an editing job to make these available to those who would read them later. Some proverbs are referred to as the sayings of the wise (22-24). Not known, but it would be interesting to know how many of “three thousand proverbs” 1 Kings 4:32 Solomon wrote ended up in the Book of Proverbs. Later, sometime in the reign of King Hezekiah (715 to 686), others did further editing, perhaps removing some of the inevitable repetition in order to make what we have before us all the more readable. Some of the proverbs were known in the ancient world and originated by those outside of Israel, e.g. Egypt, including followers of gods, other than YHWH. It is perhaps a good example of common grace, and wisdom coming from unlikely sources. We know of two named persons who contributed: Agur and Lemuel.
We also read from the outset the purpose of writing: “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. 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” (1:2-6). To complete the prologue, it is worth mentioning a statement that is central to the whole book, in that it introduces two themes repeatedly referred to: wisdom is better than folly and the fear of the Lord: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). As for the way the book pans out, few would disagree much with the following headings (based on what my NIV Study Bible sets out):
- Prologue: Purpose and Theme (1:1–7)
- The Superiority of the Way of Wisdom (1:8–9:18)
- Appeals and Warnings Confronting Youth (1:8–33)
- Commendation of Wisdom (chs. 2–4)
- Warnings against Folly (chs. 5–7)
- Appeals Addressed to Youth (chs. 8–9)
- The Main Collection of Solomon’s Proverbs (10:1–22:16)
- The Thirty Sayings of the Wise (22:17–24:22)
- Additional Sayings of the Wise (24:23–34)
- Hezekiah’s Collection of Solomon’s Proverbs (chs. 25–29)
- The Sayings of Agur (ch. 30)
- The Sayings of King Lemuel (31:1–9)
- Epilogue: The Ideal Wife (31:10–31)
A lot of the Book of Proverbs is pretty down to earth and, as one friend said, “downright obvious”. It covers all sorts of subjects, often very practical and down to earth, and is good sound common-sense advice to help us on our way. It can be seen as advice parents (both father and mother) would want their sons to heed. Proverbs was directed at men rather than women, because men were looked on as taking the lead, including in the family, although what is advised applies to us all, even three thousand years later with all the differences we now see. Interestingly, sayings from the Proverbs are not just often quoted in the NT but many find themselves being referred to in everyday life. My own experience as a preacher and hearer of many sermons is unlike Song of Songs, Proverbs do not usually feature in the main text but is often referred to. Not only that, but in real life application also, including what people write on social media.
When I wrote on the Song of Songs, it was a no brainer to dedicate this to my wife. Similarly, I would want to dedicate this section to my son, Matthew. I hope and pray he follows the wisdom set out in Proverbs, but as Solomon found out with his son, Rehoboam, there is no guarantee that it will be so, as each new generation needs to make up their mind whether they follow the way of wisdom or the way of foolishness. With this in mind, I would want to include the next generation, who because of a decline in the culture and turning away from God, are less likely to be told about the Way of Wisdom, and in a small way these thoughts on the Book of Proverbs is my contribution to redressing the balance.
Coming up with thirty-one daily meditations on Proverbs is both a convenient and an inconvenient undertaking. It is convenient because, at least for seven months of the year, there are thirty-one days in the month and it readily lends itself to covering a chapter for each day, and may well encourage some readers to read through the thirty-one chapters, in Proverbs, one for each day in that month. It is inconvenient because many chapters contain miscellaneous nuggets of gold on a vast array of subjects and, if the idea is to provide a concise thought for the day that covers the whole chapter, it is well-nigh impossible to do justice to everything because of the vast range of subjects begging to be covered.
Given Solomon wrote 3000 proverbs, which experts reckon around 500 are included within the Book of Proverbs, a better approach perhaps may be to write 365 (or 366) “thoughts for the day”, i.e. a whole year’s worth. By way of compromise, I have taken note of the main themes of Proverbs, such as those identified in the previous and next section, noting Solomon repeatedly returns to some of the same themes. As an approach, I have selected my texts with the view to covering the main themes and linking related texts, albeit not entirely successfully, for many nuggets will be missed and my choices will inevitably reflect my own interests. I do try, though, to cross relate each day’s text, usually one but sometimes more verses, to other texts to do with the same theme.
The first nine chapters broadly covers certain major themes, often to do with the desirability of following the way of wisdom and the undesirability of following the way of foolishness, and there is a degree of repetition as well as urgency in the warnings, as the author returns to his main theme of going after wisdom and preoccupations like not mixing with bad company or being seduced by loose women. After Chapter 9, wise sayings, often contained in a single verse, come out like bullets from a machine gun, often switching focus from one subject to another, and often these are not obviously related other than it is to do with the central wisdom theme. This will become marvellously obvious if readers take up my suggestion of reading a chapter a day followed. by a time of reflection.
What is so thrilling is the practicality of what is said by one who has lived long enough to experience life in the raw but given wisdom from on High to make some sort of sense of it whether disciplining children, the value of hard work, the art of the deal, how to treat women, being honest in business, the power of the tongue, maintaining one’s own counsel – and so much more. To cite my NIV Study Bible: these proverbs range widely across the broad spectrum of human situations, relationships and responsibilities, offering insights, warnings, instructions and counsels along with frequent motivations to heed them. In a variety of situations and relationships the reader is exhorted to honesty, integrity, diligence, kindness, generosity, readiness to forgive, truthfulness, patience, humility, cheerfulness, loyalty, temperance, self-control and the prudent consideration of consequences that flow from attitudes, choices and/or actions. Anger should be held in check, violence and quarrelsomeness shunned, gossip avoided, arrogance repudiated. Drunkenness, gluttony, envy and greed should all be renounced. The poor are not to be exploited, the courts are not to be unjustly manipulated, legitimate authorities are to be honored. Parents should care for the proper instruction and discipline of their children, and children should duly honor their parents and bring no disgrace on them. Human observation and experience have taught the wise that a certain order is in place in God’s creation. To honor it leads to known positive effects; to defy it leads only to unhappy consequences. Life should be lived in conscious awareness of the unfailing scrutiny of the Lord and in reliance on His generous providence.
Unlike with the Song of songs, where there are two quite distinct ways of interpreting the Song – a story of two lovers graphically described and a metaphor on how the divine and human can interact in love, such controversy does not apply to Proverbs. Even the unbeliever can affirm there is a lot of good stuff and readers are left in do doubt the author means what he says and says what he means. Sometime it veers on the politically incorrect and could upset a generation not used to having their sensibilities upset, or those trusting in their own righteousness, but when it comes to interpretation, we are left in no doubt.
Given Proverbs is part of the inspired Word of God, I offer the following thoughts with a degree of trepidation … Obviously Solomon’s preoccupations, implicit in his choice of words, are not necessarily my own and nor can they be given Israel 3000 years ago is not the world I live in today and my experience and perspectives on life are not the same as Solomon’s. An example from the beginning is his fixation of keeping good company and avoiding bad. This is all too real and many readers have their own examples of what happens as a result. But to go out and murder someone in order to gain materially etc. is not one of them. As for how to deal with women who we are sexually attracted to, being lured into an adulterous relationship by a woman is the least of my problems. When we come to the end and consider “the wife of noble character”, while it is all good stuff, I know of few wives who include in her duties daily organising the household servants. My point is, some licence is need in our applications.
This is particularly pertinent if we were to take the advice contained in the sayings of Solomon as a blueprint on life, especially if taking a view that if we do so then life will go well for us. The best we should say is that we should follow Proverbs and we are more likely to reap the benefits if we do, but life will not necessarily go well for us. We need to go no further than read Job and Ecclesiastes for confirmation that is the case. Sometimes, fools seem to prosper and the wise suffer, at least from a temporal as opposed to eternal perspective. There are many examples that is the case to found in the Psalms.
And Proverbs is to be read because it is so applicable. Many godly people of yesteryear have pressed the importance of daily meditation on the Psalms as we approach the challenges and often disappointments of life. The same might be said of Proverbs and I for one will admit to regretting not following Proverbs as much as I ought when deciding how to go about the business of daily living. I therefore commend the thirty-one meditations that follow, and whether readers follow my train of thought or not, they will be blessed by studying Proverbs.