The book of Proverbs is a collection of general principles and wise sayings that were collected in Israel over a period of at least several hundred years. Many or most of these came from Solomon, who wrote 3,000 of them during his lifetime (see 1 Kings 4:32; Proverbs 1:1; 25:1). However, both Agur and Lemuel (and Lemuel’s mother) also contributed to the collection (Proverbs 30:1; 31:1).
The purpose of this collection is established in the first few verses: to teach a young man how to be wise. This is done through both positive and negative commands, positive illustrations of wisdom, negative illustrations of foolishness, and an allegory in which wisdom is personified as if she could speak for herself. The book is rich in similes and metaphors, often using various forms of parallelism to make the point. Many of these proverbs are intended to provide general principle, but they are not necessarily promises with guaranteed results.
There is no chronology and very little narrative in Proverbs. In fact, one line or proverb does not even necessarily lead into the next, so attempting to outline or find structure is difficult, although many have tried with varied success.
Chapter one sets the theme and the tone for the collection. Solomon’s name is presented in the first verse as David’s son and the reigning king of Israel at the time of writing. He opens with the purpose of the book in five “to” statements: “to learn…to discern…to receive…to impart…to discern” (Proverbs 1:2-6). The recipients of these truths and wise sayings are applicable for both “the young person” (with his inherent foolishness and naiveté) and “the wise.”
The assumption that knowledge and wisdom can be gained requires knowing the foundation and source of it. The world finds this in reason and empirical evidence, but Solomon said that “fearing the LORD is the beginning” and that it can be found in the instruction of (presumably godly) parents (Proverbs 1:7-9; 9:10).
The first word of wisdom from Solomon to his “son” is to be wary of sinners who would entice him to do wrong (Proverbs 1:10-19). The assumption is that the young man would be invited to join a gang or group of lawless people whose actions would only cause harm to others and bring trouble on themselves. Solomon likened their actions to anyone who even gained profit unjustly.
Proverbs 1:20-33 contains the first time that wisdom is personified and given a voice to speak for herself. She is pictured as a woman calling out in the street to passersby. She questions those who refuse to listen to her words, opting instead for their own foolishness. Because of their choice to reject her, she promises consequences of devastation and disaster. She warns that a time will come when people will seek wisdom but will be unable to find it because it will be removed from them, and they will have to live with the trouble that came with their foolishness. On the other hand, “the one who listens to me will live in security.”