The name of this book of wisdom, Mishlei, is translated to English as “Proverbs,” but that is perhaps too limited a designation. The Hebrew word mashal, from which the name Mishlei is derived, is more akin to an extended metaphor than a pithy saying.
Proverbs contains the collected wisdom of King Solomon, the wisest king to sit on the throne in Israel. In I Kings 3, the Bible relates how this son of King David achieved such greatness. God appeared to Solomon in a dream and offered him whatever his heart desired. Young King Solomon asked only for the wisdom to guide God’s people in righteousness. So pleased was the Lord with Solomon’s request that He also granted him great wealth and success.
Proverbs calls the fear of God the beginning of wisdom (1:7), noting that recognition of His hand in the world is the source of all understanding. It admonishes the wise to seek out similar companions and avoid the fool and temptress, promising reward for the hard working and dedicated, and suffering for the lazy and wicked.
On the surface, the lessons of Proverbs seem very straightforward, but in his own introduction to the book, King Solomon promises great secrets lie behind his words. The metaphors in the text can be understood both literally and figuratively, and can be projected onto a number of different situations.
Throughout the text, wisdom is portrayed as a righteous woman, while temptation is personified by the harlot. King Solomon tells the reader that God founded creation itself on wisdom, making order out of the chaos. That wisdom has been understood to be God’s Torah, and following its precepts will earn the faithful His reward.
Later chapters of Proverbs cite Agur son of Jakeh and King Lemuel as sources for the parables contained within. Jewish tradition considers both to be nicknames for King Solomon, as Agur means “compiler” and Lemuel means “for God”.
The final chapter of the book, chapter 31, includes the beautiful passage “A Woman of Valor.” This poem, like everything else in Proverbs, can be understood literally to describe the ideal woman, but in Jewish tradition it has been explained as referring to the matriarch Sarah, the Torah or even the Sabbath. In fact, it is customary in many Jewish homes to sing this poem on Friday night around the Shabbat Table, while welcoming the Sabbath Queen. According to Rabbi David Altschuler, Solomon chose to end his book of wisdom with a praise of the Woman of Valor in tribute to his mother, Bathsheba, from whom he learned much of the wisdom contained within.