Universal extent of proverbs.

Sententious sayings or proverbs are common to all peoples and undoubtedly antedate written language. Not only the OT and NT, but many other ancient literatures, e.g., Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek, contain proverbs. From the Icelanders to the Chinese, and from the ancient Hebrews to the modern Russians, proverbs have been part of everyday language.

Varieties of proverbs.

Two main classes of proverbs are folk and literary proverbs. In the former, some succinct saying (the origin of which has been long forgotten) impressed itself so forcibly upon the common consciousness that it entered ordinary usage as the anonymous voice of the people. In the latter, which are sometimes called “gnomes,” a writer or speaker distilled into a maxim a keen observation or statement of truth in an esp. memorable way. Within these two classes, proverbs are of various kinds. Some are deliberately perplexing and stimulate thought by their riddlelike quality. Others are essentially condensed parables, whereas still others (extra-Biblical) may be called anti-proverbs, or lying proverbs, in that they distort the truth. Others have a satiric or ironic twist.

Didactic function of proverbs.

That proverbs have a didactic function is undeniable. Among primitive peoples, they help transmit the wisdom of the years and are thus a source of practical, moral, and political guidance. The influence of proverbs in highly civilized cultures is by no means negligible. They exert a quiet and often unrecognized influence upon standards of life; and, in the hands of skilled writers or speakers, are an effective means of driving ideas home. Indeed, proverbs continue to be a living force even in the most sophisticated societies.

Proverbs in the Bible.

In Scripture, proverbs have an important place; both folk and literary proverbs are found in it. The ancient Heb. mind, being essentially intuitive rather than formally logical, had an affinity for the proverbial. The basic Heb. word for “proverb,” מָשָׁל, H5442, is used also for “parable.” Inherent in the term is the characteristic element of the proverb—viz., its being essentially a similitude; a proverb is often a brief parable, which is capable of expansion. The other Heb. word for “proverb,” חִידָה, H2648, (“riddle,” or “dark saying”) points to the characteristic of the proverb to arouse the hearer’s or reader’s curiosity and help him sharpen his wits. Many of the OT proverbs, particularly those in the Book of Proverbs, follow the parallelism distinctive of Heb. poetry.

Proverbs occur throughout most of the Bible. Except for those compiled in the Book of Proverbs, the number of instances in the OT and NT where sententious sayings are explicitly identified as proverbial is not large. Nonetheless, the occurrence of genuinely proverbial material, not specifically identified, is considerable. Although there are ancient collections of proverbs outside the Bible and antedating the OT (e.g., the Egyp. compilation, “Precepts of Ptah-hotep,” c. 2500 b.c.), the OT Book of Proverbs stands above them all. (See Book of Proverbs.)

OT “labeled” proverbs.

Illustrative of the occasional OT proverb (מָשָׁל, H5442) labeled as such is 1 Samuel 10:11, 12:

And when all who knew him before saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, “What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?”....Therefore it became a proverb, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

(The passage is significant as showing how a saying became a proverb.) Another example of a “labeled” proverb occurs in David’s address to Saul after sparing his life in En-gedi, when he explicitly quoted a proverb: “As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness’; but my hand shall not be against you” (1 Sam 24:13). One of the best known OT proverbs is Ezekiel 18:1, 2:

The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” (Cf. Jer 31:29, 30.)

OT “action” proverbs.

To the young men in Timnah Samson propounded this חִידָה, H2648: “‘Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.’ And they could not in three days tell what the riddle was” (cf. Judg 14:12-14). Samson drew the “riddle” out of his own experience of finding a honeycomb in the carcass of a lion he had slain. The immediate relation of this riddle to life exemplifies the distinguishing element of what might be called the “action” proverb. Some dramatic action or awful calamity or sin can make a man or even a nation “a proverb,” or “a taunt, and a curse” (cf. Jer 24:9). Thus an individual or a whole people might become a proverb personified. Deuteronomy 28:15f., 37 is a classic example of the “action” proverb applied to a nation:

But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field....and you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword, among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away.

An individual illustration of the “action” proverb concerns Saul (1 Sam 19:24): “And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel, and lay naked all that day and all that night. Hence it is said, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’” Psalm 69:10, 11 is another example of this kind of proverb: “When I humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach. When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword [proverb] to them.”

The NT: Jesus’ use of proverbs.

Apostolic use of proverbs.

Proverbs occur elsewhere in the NT, although not so frequently as in the gospels. Paul’s reference to heaping coals of fire (Rom 12:20) is certainly proverbial (cf. Prov 25:21, 22), as is 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company ruins good morals,” an aphorism of the Gr. poet Menander. Such words of the apostle, “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor 14:8 KJV), and “To the pure all things are pure,” (Titus 1:15a) have become proverbial. His dual quotation of Epimenides of Crete and Aratus of Cilicia in his sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:28) may represent the use of poetical statements so familiar as to be proverbial. The same might be said of his quotation of the line of Epimenides in Titus 1:12.

As might be expected, the Epistle of James, in which one of Jesus’ brothers writes in a manner as that of the Sermon on the Mount, contains words of proverbial nature. Among these are such expressions as “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22) and “faith without works is dead” (2:20 KJV).

Peter’s word, “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8) is one of the most familiar Biblical proverbs, and in 2 Peter 2:22, he concludes his scathing denunciation of false teachers by referring to two maxims, the first being from Proverbs 26:11, although the source of the second is unknown. It is significant that Peter introduces this reference by calling it “the true proverb.”

Distortion of proverbs.

Sometimes long usage changes a proverb from its original meaning, not always to its improvement. Proverbs drawn from Scripture are not exempt from this distortion. Habakkuk 2:2 KJV, “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it,” is so often turned into “that he that runs may read” as almost to elevate the misquotation to proverbial status. Paul’s statement (1 Tim 6:10 KJV), “The love of money is the root of all evil,” has been shortened to “Money is the root of all evil,” thereby radically altering the meaning. And Jesus’ words in John 8:32 KJV, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” are applied proverbially to truth in general—philosophical, scientific, historical, etc.—whereas the context (cf. v. 36, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed”) shows that His reference was to Himself as the truth (cf. John 14:6). Biblical proverbs, therefore, are not to be used carelessly, but they should be verified in their original context.


D. Erasmus, Adagiorum Chiliades Quatuor (1520; English tr. DeWitt T. Starnes, 1956); W. C. Trench, Lessons in Proverbs (1853); G. B. Levi, Gnomic Literature in the Bible and Apocrypha (1910); J. B. Whiting, “The Origin of the Proverb,” Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, vol. 13, 47-80; A. Taylor, “An Introductory Bibliography for the Study of Proverbs,” Modern Philology, vol. 30, 195-210; A. Taylor, The Proverb and an Index to the Proverb (1962); S. G. Champion, Racial Proverbs: The Eleven Religions and Their Proverbial Lore, cf. especially xxxviii-xciv (1963); M. M. Phillips, The ‘Adages’ of Erasmus, A Study with Translations cf. esp., “IV, Christianity in the Adages” (1964), 25-34.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(mashal, chidhah; parabole (Lu 4:23), paroimia (Joh 16:25,29)):


1. The Primitive Sense

2. The Communal Origin

3. Animus of Proverbs


1. Discovery of Literary Value

2. The Differentiation


1. From Detachment to Continuity

2. The Conception of Wisdom

3. In Later Times

By this term mainly, but sometimes by the term "parable" (e.g. Nu 23:7,18; 24:3,15; Job 27:1; 29:1), is translated the Hebrew word (mashal), which designates the formal unit or vehicle of didactic discourse. The mashal was an enunciation of truth, self-evident and self-illustrative, in some pointed or concentrated form adapted to arrest attention, awaken responsive thought, and remain fixed in memory. Its scope was broader than that of our word "proverb," taking in subject matter as well as form. The mashal broadened indeed in the course of its history, until it became the characteristic idiom of Hebrew philosophy, as distinguished from the dialectic method of the Greeks. The Hebrew mind was not inductive but intuitive; it saw and asserted; and the word mashal is the generic term for the form in which its assertion was embodied.

I. Folk Meaning and Use.

1. The Primitive Sense:

The mashal, nearly in our sense of proverb, traces back to the heart and life of the common folk; it is a native form reflecting in a peculiarly intimate way the distinctive genius of the Hebrew people. As to the primitive sense of the word, it is usually traced to a root meaning "likeness," or "comparison," as if the first sense of it were of the principle of analogy underlying it; but this derivation is a guess. The word is just as likely to be connected with the verb mashal, "to rule" or "master"; so by a natural secondary meaning to denote that statement which gives the decisive or final verdict, says the master word. The idea of how the thing is said, or by what phrasing, would be a later differentiation, coming in with literary refinement.

2. The Communal Origin:

The earliest cited proverb (1Sa 10:12, repeated with varied occasion, 1Sa 19:24) seems to have risen spontaneously from the people’s observation. That Saul, the son of Kish, whose very different temperament everybody knew, should be susceptible to the wild ecstasy of strolling prophets was an astonishing thing, as it were a discovery in psychology; "Therefore it became a proverb, Is Saul also among the prophets?" A few years later David, explaining his clemency in sparing the life of the king who has become his deadly foe, quotes from a folk fund of proverbs: 1Sa 24:13, "As saith the proverb of the ancients, Out of the wicked cometh forth wickedness; but my hand shall not be upon thee." The prophet Ezekiel quotes a proverb which evidently embodies a popular belief: "The days are prolonged, and every vision faileth"; which he corrects to, "The days are at hand, and the fulfillment of every vision" (Eze 12:22,23). Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah (Eze 18:2; Jer 31:29) quote the same current proverb, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge," in order to announce that the time has come for its discontinuance. These last two examples are very instructive. They show how the body of the people put the inwardness of their history into proverb form, as it were a portable lesson for the times; they show also how the prophets availed themselves of these floating sayings to point their own message. Ezekiel seems indeed to recognize the facility with which a situation may bring forth a proverb: Eze 16:44, "Every one that useth proverbs shall use this proverb against thee (literally every one that mashals shall mashal against thee), saying, As is the mother, so is her daughter."

3. Animus of Proverbs:

One element of the proverb, which a wide-awake people like the Hebrews would soon discover, was its adaptability for personal portrayal or satire, like a home thrust. Hence, the popular use of the name mashal came to connote its animus, generally of sarcasm or scorn. The taunting verse raised against Heshbon, Nu 21:27-30, is attributed to them "that speak in proverbs" (meshalim); and Isaiah’s taunt in his burden of Babylon (Isa 14:4-20) is composed in the proverb measure: "Thou shalt take up this parable (mashal, the King James Version "proverb") against the king of Babylon." Answering to this prevailing animus of proverbs was a corresponding susceptibility to their sting and rankle; they were the kind of utterance that most surely found the national and individual self-consciousness. To be a proverb--to be in everybody’s mouth as a subject of laughter, or as a synonym for some awful atrocity--was about the most dreadful thing that could befall them. To be "a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse" (Jer 24:9) was all one. That this should be the nation’s fate was held as a threat over them by lawgiver and prophet (De 28:37; 1Ki 9:7); and in adversities of experience, both individual and collective, the thing that was most keenly felt was to have become a byword (mashal) (Ps 44:14; 69:11).

II. Literary Development of the Proverb.

1. Discovery of Literary Value:

The rank of proverb was by no means attributed to every popular saying, however the people might set store by it. If its application was merely local (e.g. 2Sa 20:18; Ge 22:14) or temporary (note how Jeremiah and Ezekiel announce popular sayings as obsolete), it remained in its place and time. About the proverb, on the other hand, there was the sense of a value universal and permanent, fitting it for literary immortality. Nor was the proverb itself a run-wild thing, at the shaping of the crowd; from the beginning it was in the hands of "those who speak in meshalim," whose business it was to put it into skillful wording. The popular proverb, however, and the literary proverb were and continued two different things. There came a time, in the literary development of Israel, when the value of the mashal as a vehicle of instruction came to be recognized; from which time a systematic cultivation of this type of discourse began. That time, as seems most probable, was the reign of King Solomon, when in a special degree the people awoke to the life and industry and intercourse and wealth of the world around them. The king himself was `large hearted’ (1Ki 4:29), versatile, with literary tastes; "spake three thousand proverbs; and his songs were a thousand and five"; and his whole generation, both in Israel and surrounding nations, was engaged in a vigorous movement of thought and "wisdom" (see the whole passage, 1Ki 4:29-34). For the unit and vehicle of this new thought the old native form of the mashal or proverb was chosen; it became the recognized medium of popular education and counsel, especially of the young; and the mashal itself was molded to the classic form, condensed, pointed, aphoristic, which we see best exemplified in the Book of Proverbs 10-22:16--probably the earliest collection of this kind of literature. In this body of proverbs we see also that instead of retaining the unbalanced single assertion of the popular proverb, as it appears in 1Sa 10:12; 24:13, these composers of literary proverbs borrowed the poetic parallelism, or couplet, which in two lines sets two statements over against each other by antithesis or repetition, and cultivated this to its most condensed and epigrammatic construction. Thus the mashal took to itself a literary self-consciousness and became a work of art.

2. The Differentiation:

Up to the time of this literary development a proverb was recognized simply as a proverb, with little sense of its various phases, except that there was a strong popular tendency to identify it with satire, and with less thought of the elements of its life and power. With the refinement of form, however, came a recognition of its inwardness. Under the generic term mashal, certain elements were differentiated; not, however, as we are wont to distinguish--parable, fable, apologue, allegory--these remained undifferentiated. The most fundamental distinction of classes, perhaps, is given in Pr 1:6: "To understand a proverb, and a figure, the words of the wise, and their dark sayings." Here it seems the word "proverb" (mashal) and "words of the wise," paired off with each other, are the generic terms; the other two, the differentiating terms, name respectively the two fundamental directions of the mashal, toward the clear and toward the enigmatic. Both are essential elements. The word translated "figure" (melitsah) is rather "interpretation," and seems to refer to the illuminative element of the mashal, and this was mainly analogy. Natural objects, phases of experience, contrasts were drawn into the mashal to furnish analogies for life; Solomon’s use of plants and animals in his discourses (1Ki 4:33) was not by way of natural history, but as analogies to illustrate his meshalim. The word translated "dark sayings" (chidhoth) is the word elsewhere translated "riddle" (Samson’s riddle, for instance, was a [~chidhah, Jud 14:13,14), and refers to that quality of the proverb which, by challenging the hearer’s acumen, gives it zest; it is due to an association of things so indirectly related that one must supply intermediate thoughts to resolve them. All of this of course. goes to justify the proverb as a capital vehicle for instruction and counsel; it has the elements that appeal to attention, responsive thought, and memory, while on the other hand its basis of analogy makes it illuminative.

III. As Unit of a Strain of Literature.

1. From Detachment to Continuity:

Until it reached its classic perfection of phrasing, say during the time from Solomon to Hezekiah, the formal development of the proverb was concentrative; the single utterance disposed of its whole subject, as in a capsule. But the development of the mashal form from the antithetic to the synonymous couplet gave rise to a proverb in which the explanatory member did not fully close the case; the subject craved further elucidation, and so a group of several couplets was sometimes necessary to present a case (compare e.g. about the sluggard, Pr 26:13-16). From this group of proverbs the transition was easy to a continuous passage, in which the snappy parallelism of the proverb yields to the flow of poetry; see e.g. Pr 27:23-27. This is due evidently to a more penetrative and analytic mode of thinking, which can no longer satisfy its statement of truth in a single illustration or maxim.

2. The Conception of Wisdom:

As the store of detached utterances on various phases of practical life accumulated and the task of collecting them was undertaken, it was seen that they had a common suffusion and bearing, that in fact they constituted a distinctive strain of literature. The field of this literature was broad, and recognized (see Pr 1:1-5) as promotive of many intellectual virtues; but the inclusive name under which it was gathered was Wisdom (chokhmah). Wisdom, deduced thus from a fund of maxims and analogies, became the Hebrew equivalent for philosophy. With the further history of it this article is not concerned, except to note that the mashal or proverb form held itself free to expand into a continuous and extended discourse, or to hold itself in to the couplet form. As to illustrative quality, too, its scope was liberal enough to include a fully developed parable; see for instance Eze 17:1-10, where the prophet is bidden to "put forth a riddle, and speak a parable (literally, mashal a mashal) unto the house of Israel."

3. In Later Time:

The existence of so considerable a body of proverbs is a testimony to the Hebrew genius for sententious and weighty expression, a virtue of speech which was held in special esteem. From the uses of practical wisdom the mashal form was borrowed by the later scribes and doctors of the law; we see it for instance in loose and artificial use in such books as Pirqe ’Abhoth, which gives the impression that the utterance so grandly represented in the Solomonic proverbs had become decadent. It is in another direction rather that the virtues of the mashal reach their culmination. In the phrasal felicity and illustrative lucidity of our Lord’s discourses, and not less in His parables, employed that the multitude "may see and yet not see" (Mr 4:12), we have the values of the ancient mashal in their perfection, in a literary form so true to its object that we do not think of its artistry at all.

See also GAMES, I, 6.