Proverbs, more than any other book in the Bible, centers around the concept of wisdom. For many reasons, it is a wonderful book. The two greatest ones are that it is supremely approachable to a person who has never read it before and is powerfully fruitful with new wisdom even for a person who has read it 20 times.
Proverbs contain many different elements. There is a 9-chapter introduction that introduces the book as a set of lessons from a father to his son. The father introduces his son to wisdom and foolishness through the analogy of two women, Wisdom and Folly, who the son must choose between. Both are young women with sexual imagery attached: one pure and the other impure. The son, and everyone who comes of age, must choose between God’s gift of wisdom, which stands on the street corner and invites us into her home, and Folly, who whispers from dark alleyways and attempts to bring us down to death.
This introduction is followed by a long section of Proverbs that uses a dialectic structure, meaning that it uses an example followed by a counterexample or vice versa.
Here is one case:
The righteous is delivered from trouble, and the wicked walks into it instead. – Proverbs 11:8
Or as in Proverbs 11:13:
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered. – Proverbs 11:13
So, in each case, either the bad or good choice is suggested first, and then the other follows. The point of these chapters is to set good and bad examples against each other so that we can see their contrast and act in light of the wise decision. These Proverbs occupy the second section which runs from Proverbs 10 to Proverbs 29.
Finally, we have the last two sections (or conclusions): chapters 30 and 31. Determining which one is the conclusion has led to disagreement among Bible scholars. But, it is clear that chapter 30 is separate from chapters 10-29. In my opinion, the best way to think about them is to say that Proverbs 30 is the conclusion to the book and that Proverbs 31 is an appendix on wise women. If you would like a defense of the organization at the end of the book, see the end of this document (it is not necessary if you do not want to).
So, we have the extended introduction of wisdom from a father to his son (1-9), the body of Proverbs that test the concept of wisdom in a wide range of life areas (10-29), and the conclusion and appendix to the book (30-31). Hopefully, this guide will help you make sense of Proverbs. Ultimately, however, Proverbs is a book that needs to be read many times, each time gaining new insight from the book and its construction.
Defense of Chapter 30 as Conclusion and 31 as an Appendix:
Chapter 31 has often been confusing for pastors who try and tack it onto the end as a conclusion to the book. We all know that it talks about a good wife who is hard to find and the virtuous character for which she is praised by her husband and children alike. However, is a chapter about virtuous women really a suitable “conclusion” for a book to a young man coming of age, choosing between the life of godliness and the death of sin? I would say no, at least not in the traditional sense of the word “conclusion.” Thankfully, taking a peek back one chapter we see Proverbs 30 which looks very much like a traditional conclusion and can bring us great clarity. Proverbs 30 reflects on wisdom and laments that he feels he has not learned it, even after the proverbs of the book. The writer of Proverbs 30 asks for a mediator to bring wisdom down to him in a way that hauntingly sounds like Christ’s mediatorial role that will be revealed as the Wisdom of God later in the New Testament era (see 1 Corinthians 1-4). So, in chapter 30, we have a reflection on the content that came before, much like in a conclusion; but, in 31, we have a test case, if you will, about what it would mean to apply wisdom to this area of women, something that probably tormented young men then just as much as it does now. So, it can be helpful to see Proverbs 30 as reflecting back upon the content of the book and 31 as looking forward to a life lived with possible newfound wisdom.