With complete genome sequences now available for several prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms, biological researchers are charged with the task of assigning molecular and cellular functions to thousands of predicted gene products. To address this problem, the field of proteomics seeks to develop and apply methods for the global analysis of protein expression and protein function. Here we review a promising new class of proteomic strategies that utilizes synthetic chemistry to create tools and assays for the characterization of protein samples of high complexity. These approaches include the development of chemical affinity tags to measure the relative expression level and post-translational modification state of proteins in cell and tissue proteomes. Additionally, we discuss the emerging field of activity-based protein profiling, which aims to synthesize and apply small molecule probes that monitor dynamics in protein function in complex proteomes.