Sefer Mishlei – the Book of Proverbs – is the second book in the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Tanach.
The original Masoretic title for the first 25 chapters of Sefer Mishlei was Mishlei Shlomo and this title was also used in the Alexandrian and Sinaitic Greek transcripts. In later usage though, the title was changed to Mishlei and applied to the entire Sefer.1 Sefer Mishlei was authored by Solomon and was later transcribed into its current form by Hezekiah and his students. Sefer Mishlei is referred to as part of the Chokmah – or “Wisdom” – literature of the Tanach along with several other books including: Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Psalms.
Throughout Sefer Mislei a wise person is contrasted with a fool. A fool, according to Sefer Mislei is one who is lacking morality and a lack in interest toward correction. Wisdom is seen as something worth attaining. Wisdom begins, according to Sefer Mishlei, with the fear of God. Wisdom is expressed in Sefer Mishlei through relationships. Prominent among these are the father-son and mother-son connection. In addition, wisdom is portrayed as a female figure who speaks to young men.
Sefer Mishlei can be divided into two broad sections.
1. Discourses on the conduct of life (Chapters 1-9)
2. Principles of life (Chapters 10-31)
Discourses on the Conduct of Life (Chapters 1-9)
Chapter 1: Introduction to Solomon’s purpose behind these proverbs. The admonishment to let God and your parents be your guides. The enticements of the wicked are a trap and if one ignored God’s messages retribution will come to you.
Chapter 2: You will be granted wisdom by God only if you treasure wisdom. The Torah saves one from temptation and the wicked and in the end only the just will prevail.
Chapter 3: Cleave to Torah for success only comes through trust in God. Seek discipline and the wisdom of Torah for Torah and wisdom are guarantors of a good life. Be kind and thoughtful and avoid scoffing, violence, and strife.
Chapter 4: Appreciate the value of wisdom and know that Torah guarantees a meaningful life. Wicked people are worse than one imagines. Righteousness is light and wickedness is darkness. Safeguard that which matters most and carefully consider your deeds.
Chapter 5: Beware of enticement for it comes at a prohibitive price and you will regret your errors. Remain loyal to your wife and Torah. Remember that the wicked ones will be trapped by their own sins.
Chapter 6: Avoid commitments that are beyond your abilities and learn to be industrious like an ant. Dishonest people will receive their undoing. God hates those who cause strife. Seek ways to keep the mizvot. Remember that passion is a consuming fire. Adultery is worse – and more unforgivable – than theft.
Chapter 7: Do not let advice slip away from you. A naïve youth is enticed and temptations and ensnared in them – rushing to his own doom.
Chapter 8: Wisdom is superior to all earthly riches and she invites all to learn from her. Torah is the source of success and precedes everything. Be wise by following Torah and its teachings.
Chapter 9: The wise woman prepares and desires to share with others. Avoid the wicked and cultivate the righteous. Fear of God is the road to blessings. The temptress is alluring but she is baited with death.
Principles of life (Chapters 10-31)
Chapter 10: The wise son is a joy to his father but a foolish son brings grief to his mother. The righteous will be blessed but the wicked will see their end. The man with knowledge of Torah has protection but the unlearned in Torah will be brought to ruin. The blessing of God enriches and the fear of God prolongs life.
Chapter 11: False scales are an abomination but proper weights are pleasing to God. When the wicked man dies his descendant’s expectations are dashed but the righteous man is extricated from adversity. One who lacks sense is one who humiliates his fellow man but the man of discernment remains silent. True charity brings life but evil pursuits bring death. A benevolent person flourishes but he who withholds will be cursed.
Chapter 12: A person who loves moral instruction loves knowledge but he who rejects correction remains a boor. The intention of the righteous person is justice but the designs of the wicked are deception. The way of a fool is right in his own eyes but the wise listen to advice. A cunning person conceals his knowledge but a foolish person cries out emptiness.
Chapter 13: A wise son heeds his father’s moral instruction but the fool refuses to hear rebuke. The light of the righteous rejoices but the light of the wicked is extinguished. The teachings of the wise lead people to turn away from deadly snares. One who associates with the wise will become wise but he who associates with the fool will be crushed.
Chapter 14: A woman’s wisdom builds up her house but a foolish woman destroys her home with her own hands. A trustworthy witness does not lie while someone who lies is a false witness. The enticing and smooth path of the wicked ones leads to death. Evil men grovel before good men. The fear of God comes with the promise of God being a refuge for His children.
Chapter 15: The gentle response stills anger while distressing words stir up anger. Harsh discipline is in store for one who abandons the path. It is better to have little and fear God then have wealth from theft. Plans are foiled due to a lack of counsel while plans made with numerous advisors will be realized. God is distant from the wicked but close to the righteous.
Chapter 16: Man controls his thoughts but God determines man’s words of expression. When God is pleased with a man’s ways even his enemies will make peace with him. Acquiring wisdom is better than gaining gold and acquiring understanding is preferable to gaining silver. A wise man’s heart educated his mouth and he gains knowledge. White hair is a crown of glory for righteousness leads to a long life.
Chapter 17: It is better to have dried bread with peace than a house full of meat with quarrel. Grandchildren are the crown of their elders and the glory of children is their parents. A thoroughly rebellious man invites evil. A person will always love his friends but he will express love for his brother only when misfortune occurs. A joyous heart improves one’s health but a broken spirit dries up one’s bones.
Chapter 18: He who detaches himself from God will pursue his desires and he will be exposed among the wise. A sage who neglects Torah study will become a brother to the apostates. A man’s gift eases his way.
Chapter 19: It is better to earn a modest living through honest work than to earn wealth through deceit. One who speaks falsehood will not go unpunished. A foolish son is a heartache to his father and a wife’s bickering an annoyance. A wrathful person incurs punishment. A scoffer will only change his ways when faced with calamity and the naïve will learn to change his ways by reason of the scoffer’s reaction to calamity.
Chapter 20: A little liquor may make one’s perceptiveness stimulated but do not think that a large amount of liquor makes one wise. The king who sits on his throne with a sincere interest in justice can discern the truth. The word of knowledge is a precious item. Do not mix with a person who talks idly, reveals secrets, or spreads slander. A wise king separates the wicked so they may not confer and then punishes them for their sins.
Chapter 21: The heart of a king is in God’s hand that may move the king one way or another toward the people. The thoughts of the diligent bring gain while the hurried manners bring nothing. It is better to dwell on a roof than with a quarrelsome wife or a wicked friend. One who refuses to hear the calls of the poor will also not be answered in time of need. The offerings of the wicked are an abomination, how much more when the offerings are brought with evil intentions.
Chapter 22: It is better to have a good name than wealth and a pleasing demeanor than silver and gold. Educate the youth according to his temperament so when he grows older he will not leave the path. The lazy person invents excuses to avoid working for a living. Incline your ear toward the words of the wise and concentrate on knowing God. Do not suddenly stop assisting the poor for that would be as if you are stealing from them.
Chapter 23: Beware of being enticed by those with whom you congregate. Do not toil to acquire wealth. Turn your heart toward moral instruction and your ears to the words of knowledge. When the children’s heart is wise it brings joy to the parents. Grow wise and then you may walk in the ways of your heart. Children should pay attention to their parents and follow their teachings. A person who has taken to drinking causes strife and pain for his family.
Chapter 24: Do not envy the wicked or desire to associate with them. Wisdom is like a rare gem to the fool and he does not attempt to learn from the sages. When you neglect a friend in need you will be punished in kind. Gain knowledge and wisdom for they are good. The righteous will experience hardship but God will save them. Do not associate with – nor emulate – evildoers. Be impartial when rendering judgment. First build a home, then plant a vineyard, and then take a wife. Do not be a witness against your friend without cause. Laziness leads to impoverishment.
Chapter 25: Rulers must be straightforward and avoid evildoers. Be cautious about what you speak. Be sincere but do not be a burden to others. Never betray a friend and be generous to your enemies. Do not slander. Be principled and avoid excess.
Chapter 26: Everything occurs in its proper time. Deal with foolishness through judgment. Avoid foolish people. Lazy people harm themselves. Avoid disputes. Insincere compliments hide evil intentions.
Chapter 27: Do not boast for envy is worse than wrath. Loving rebuke is a good thing. Be a loyal person. Good children gladden their parents. Excess praise and nagging are both bad but friendly competition and diligence are good. Fools refuse to learn. Tend to your business and prepare for the future.
Chapter 28: Injustice has far-reaching consequences. It is better to be naïve than perverse. Dishonest profits will be lost. Innocence, understanding, and honesty lead to success. Rulers must refrain from greed. Evildoers will pay and the righteous will gain. Greed brings destruction but generosity is rewarded. Wickedness is hated.
Chapter 29: Stubborn people do not improve. Dishonest rulers will ruin their states. Good and wise people are better for the world. Discipline leads to happiness. Torah is the best restraint. Anger and dishonesty are cancerous. Fear God and not people.
Chapter 30: Human wisdom is limited so trust on God’s word. Avoid slander. Denial of sin is incomprehensible.
Chapter 31: One should rule with dignity and justice. A woman of valor has judgment and diligence. She cares for the poor and her household. She speaks wisely and kindly. Her greatest praise is her deeds.
1Toy, Crawford. “Book of Proverbs” in Jewish Encyclopedia New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=565&letter=P&search=proverbs]