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The Way of Wisdom: Proverbs 1:1-33 (Thomas Schreiner)


We need wisdom to live our lives. This is true in everyday life. Michael Novak writes that in 1795 the life expectancy in France was 27 years for women and 23 years for men. In those days most of the world did not know that unclean water spread disease. Famines that wiped out whole populations were rampant. We haven’t conquered the world, and we won’t conquer the world, but human beings have grown in medical wisdom since those days. We understand the importance of clean water and good hygiene. Our medical advances in the US have increased life expectancy to 78 years today.

Scripture teaches that spiritual wisdom is even more important than secular wisdom, and such wisdom is found in Proverbs.  The book of Proverbs is practical and challenging. It is practical because it deals with everyday life. It is challenging because individual proverbs may be misunderstood and hence they may be applied wrongly to our lives. Furthermore, the book of Proverbs is challenging because its admonitions must not be isolated from the gospel and the rest of what the scriptures teach.

The structure and purpose of Proverbs

Let me say a quick word at the outset about how Proverbs is structured. Chapters 1-9 contain discourses where a father gives advice and exhortations to his son. Proverbs 10:1-22:16 consists of short and pithy proverbs of Solomon. Proverbs 22:17-24:22 introduces thirty sayings of the wise. Chapters 25-29 relay further proverbs of Solomon copied by Hezekiah’s scribes. Chapter 30 contains the the words of Agur. Proverbs 31:1-9 contain the proverbs of King Lemuel. And Proverbs 31:10-31 concludes the book with a tribute to a noble wife.

Proverbs instructs us on how to live wisely. One author says, “No one would be able to live even for a single day without incurring appreciable harm if he could not be guided by wide practical experience.” Derek Kidner writes that Proverbs addresses

the details [of life] . . . small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets, and yet decisive in personal dealings. Proverbs moves in this realm, asking what a person is like to live with, or to employ; how he manages his affairs, his time, and himself. This good lady, for instance – does she talk too much? That cheerful soul – is he bearable in the early morning? And this friend who is always dropping in – here is some advice for him . . . and for that rather aimless lad . . .

And Bruce Waltke says, “The possession of wisdom enables humans to cope with life.” In other words, Proverbs takes the general principles of life and applies them to specific situations.

For example, we learn from Proverbs that those who are in a hurry are often foolish. That speaks to me because I am too often in a hurry. I remember when I was in high school, and I was in a hurry to get to lunch after working all morning, and so I jumped off a trailer while our tractor was motoring down the street in fourth gear. It never occurred to me that I would get hurt. How out of touch with reality I was to jump off a trailer into the street! Fortunately, I just crashed to the street and only hurt my elbow. I should have applied the popular proverb: Look before you leap.

Proverbs are tricky things, both in the Bible and everyday life, for one needs wisdom to apply proverbs to everyday life. In other words, to understand proverbs you also need to understand life. And to understand life you need to understand God. John Calvin rightly said,

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without . . . turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves.” 

We can’t understand ourselves, says Calvin, without understanding God. But it is also true that we can’t understand God without understanding ourselves. We learn from this that we don’t really understand individual proverbs without knowing God. But at the same time, we don’t really know God if we can’t apply the knowledge of him to situations in everyday life.

How proverbs work

I mentioned earlier the proverb that says “look before you leap,” but we also have another proverb which says, “He who hesitates is lost.” Which proverb is true? The answer is that they are both true. Sometimes we should look before we leap, and sometimes we must leap without pausing or hesitating. Which proverb applies depends upon the situation. And it takes wisdom to know which one applies.

Isn’t that true in business? In some situations you need to act fast to make the right deal, but in others you need to look before you leap. When we first started going to seminary, we found an apartment for $120 a month. The landlady told us to think it over, but I immediately said, “We will take it” since it was a nice apartment and an amazing price. It would have been unwise to give someone else a chance to snatch it up.

When we read proverbs in the Bible, we must understand both God and life to apply proverbs rightly and wisely. For instance, we read in Proverbs 26:4, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” But the very next verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Obviously, these two verses seem to contradict one another. First, we are told not to answer a fool according to his folly, and then we are told to answer a fool according to his folly. But there is no contradiction here, for the writer knew what he was doing in putting these two verses right next to each other! He wanted us to see the tension. He wanted us to understand that we need wisdom to apply what the author says here. The more experience and wisdom you have in life, the more you will be able to sense how you should respond to a fool. On the one hand, v. 4 teaches us not to get drawn into an argument with a fool, for you may become as emotional and out of control as a fool in the middle of a dispute. Have you ever done that in the midst of an argument? I have.

But v. 5 says: don’t think that means you should never answer a fool. The substance and content of what a fool says must be answered. You should explain to a fool, in other words, just why he is a fool, showing him why his worldview is mistaken. Calmly explain to a fool why he is wrong. It is also clear that individual proverbs don’t necessarily capture the whole truth. When Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up your child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” that is not a promise which admits of no exceptions. Not all children who are trained in the right way follow the good path. Some fall away from what is right and true and good. We learn there are exceptions to what this proverb says from other proverbs and other scriptures. We go wrong if we make proverbs iron clad statements that apply to every situation.

On the other hand, don’t miss the encouragement in the proverb. I have often heard this proverb taught where the emphasis is on the exception, which is just the opposite of what we should get from this proverb! We should parent with optimism and hope. In most cases, children raised rightly will follow the Lord.

Wisdom for the simple

In the space we have left, let’s look at a few themes in chapter 1. First, we see in vv. 1-6 that proverbs give us wisdom for living. The author makes this clear over and over. We will gain, according to v. 2, “wisdom and instruction,” and v. 3 says we will “receive instruction in wise dealing and in righteousness.” Those who are “simple,” according to v. 4, i.e., those who are inexperienced in life, will gain “knowledge and discretion.” Charles Bridges says, “It is especially the young who are directed to use this book,” for “their minds are at the mercy of the opinions of the world all around them.” How easy it is for those who are young and immature to soak in the worldview of those who surround us. You can become like a sponge absorbing the worldview of others. But God wants you to be lighthouse which directs others to the truth.

But Proverbs isn’t only for the young and immature. V. 5 tells us that even those who are wise will “increase in learning” through what is written here. I take it that we never outgrow our need to learn from Proverbs. As life continues, we continue to grow in wisdom. Learning doesn’t end at 30 or 40, but continues our entire life.

There is a symbiotic relationship between proverbs and the experience of life. The more we understand life, the more we understand the proverbs. The more we understand proverbs, the more we understand life.

The fear of the Lord

But this brings us to the second truth. We also see in v. 7 that understanding proverbs is not simply a matter of getting common sense wisdom. Proverbs is not a secular book about how to make one’s way in the world.

Proverbs is a God-centered book. We read in v. 7 that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Indeed, the fear of the Lord plays a central role in the entire book.

The fear of the Lord means that he is supreme in one’s life, that all of life is ordered by one’s relationship with him. The fear of the Lord means that we do everything out of awe and reverence for him. The fear of the Lord means that we are God-centered, Christ-saturated, and Spirit-filled.

When he says that the fear of the Lord is the “beginning” of knowledge, he doesn’t mean that we leave the fear of the Lord behind after a while, as if we just need to fear the Lord at the beginning of our Christian lives. Instead the fear of the Lord is the cornerstone and foundation for wisdom.

The importance of the fear of the Lord is evident from the structure of chapters 1-9 which consists of discourses from father to son. Solomon mentions the “fear of the Lord” to open the discourses in chapter 1, and the theme appears again in 9:10, showing that the fear of the Lord functions as the framework for the discourses that introduce the book.  Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Yes, Proverbs is interested in the practical knowledge needed for everyday life, but wisdom is more than this, though it is never less than this. Those who claim to have wisdom but don’t know God aren’t truly wise.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? If you don’t know your Creator, if you don’t know who made you, then you aren’t truly wise. We can think of an illustration here. If you can program a computer, you have a lot of wisdom that is very useful. But imagine a person who knows how to program a computer, but doesn’t know how to use a computer in everyday life. In other words, he can program the computer, but he doesn’t know how to use it to do word processing or watch videos or to use excel. Knowing how to program a computer isn’t much use if you can’t benefit from a computer in everyday life. In the same way, those who are “practical” and “wise” about everyday life, aren’t really wise if they don’t know their Creator. Indeed, the first principle of wisdom, the very root of wisdom is knowing God. Those who don’t know God, no matter how smart they are, are fools.

Isn’t it fascinating that Solomon tells us right after we read about fearing God that the wise person listens to his father’s instruction and his mother’s teaching? The fundamental way you express your fear of God when you are young is by listening to and obeying the teaching and instructions of your parents. What does God want you to do as children? He wants you to humbly accept the teaching of your mom and dad. He wants you to learn from them and follow what they say. We are told here that their teaching will protect you from evil. Solomon assumes here that parents are teaching their children the ways of the Lord. Such parents don’t think to themselves: how can I wreck my child’s life? No, they give instructions because they want you as children to be happy and to live full and complete lives.

We also have some wisdom for parents here. Wise parents teach and instruct their children. They don’t yell at their children. They don’t lose their tempers and hector and threaten their children. They instruct and teach their children with love and firm discipline. And such instruction is not just the father’s job. It is the job of the father and mother together.

Wisdom doesn’t pursue evil

Third, wisdom doesn’t pursue evil for short term gain. Verses 10-19 describe young people who join gangs. What a contemporary word this is for many in our culture today. Such a life sounds like it will be amazingly exciting. What a joy to steal from the rich, and to live a life where one enjoys riches. It seems exciting and daring to do what is forbidden. How thrilling to live on the edge and to transgress society’s values.

But we are told in v. 17 that people who pursue this kind of lifestyle are like birds who walk into a net spread before them. Even birds don’t do that. They aren’t that stupid. But those who pursue evil “wait for their own blood” and “ambush” “their own lives.”

Are any of you tempted to pursue evil today? Do you sense in your heart, in your attitudes, or in your actions that you are beginning to wander from God? Listen to this warning shot from the scriptures. Don’t go that way. It sounds like the pathway to joy, but it is the pathway to misery and unhappiness. You are committing spiritual suicide. You are mixing your own poison.

Wisdom is publicly accessible

Fourth, we see in chapter 1, verse 20 that wisdom is publicly accessible. It “cries aloud in the street” and “raises” its voice “in the markets” (1:20), and speaks “at the entrance of city gates” (1:21). We see from the subsequent verses that wisdom “calls” and stretches out her hands (1:24), imploring the simple to be wise.  Wisdom isn’t hidden away in a corner somewhere. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that goodness brings joy. Anybody who pays attention can learn what wisdom is. It is obvious if you open your eyes to the way the world works.

But if goodness is obvious, why don’t people choose it? The problem isn’t at root with their head but their heart. Did you see v. 22? Simple ones “love being simple.” They “delight in their scoffing.” They “hate knowledge.” Their affections turn them away from wisdom. And since they love what is evil, they can’t bear to be corrected.

No one can tell them what to do. Wisdom gives a public invitation. It says according to v. 23, “turn at my reproof.” And if you do I will pour out a spirit of wisdom on you. But fools spurn the call to be wise. As v. 24 says, “they refuse to listen.” Wisdom stretches out a hand and says, “Let me help you,” but fools say, “I don’t need any help.”  “Quit correcting me.”

I know of a non-Christian in another church who stalked out of church last Easter Sunday as the pastor was preaching the truth about God and the gospel. He fits v. 29 perfectly, for he “hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD.” He “despised all reproof” (v. 30). He was furious when the pastor said things that challenged him and his way of living. Wisdom is given to those who are humble. Wisdom doesn’t come if we think we already know everything. Wisdom doesn’t come if we aren’t teachable.

How about you? Are you teachable and humble? Can you be corrected? Or, do you despise and hate correction? If another person corrects you, do you flame up in anger? Are you stubborn and unteachable? Let’s ask God to give us humble and teachable spirits.

Rejecting wisdom leads to calamity

Fifth, we see that those who reject wisdom will face calamity. Those who reject wisdom mock God. But God always has the last laugh. Wisdom, as v. 26 says will “laugh at” the “calamity” of the wicked. It will “mock when terror strikes you.”

There are many days of calmness in life, but a day of judgment is coming, a day “when terror strikes  like a storm and calamity comes like a whirlwind. Judgment day will be surprising like September 11, 2001 in NYC. It was a beautiful and sunny fall day that was shattered by terrorists crashing planes into buildings. The day of reckoning will be like that says the author. Then fools will “eat the fruit of their own way.” Their own folly, as v. 32 says, will destroy them. Then they will regret the choices they have made, but it will be too late. It is like the father who at the end of his life says to himself, “Why didn’t I spend more time with my children? Why did I work so hard and miss out on what was most precious to me?” But this is even worse, for fools miss out on salvation.

Wisdom points us to Christ

And that brings us to our last point, how does this relate to Jesus Christ? Jesus says in the gospels that he is wiser than Solomon. A greater one than Solomon has come. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:24 that Christ is the wisdom of God. We read in Colossians 2:3 that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus Christ.

So, wisdom points to Jesus, and Jesus is greater than wisdom. Jesus like wisdom calls out to those who are simple and foolish. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-29). He promises rest to those who turn away from their sins and turn to him for life. If you turn to Christ as your Savior and Lord, you will be at peace with God. You will find rest for your soul. Jesus bore the sins of those who belong to him on the tree. As Peter says, “Christ suffered the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God.” Christ died to bring us to God.

Isn’t that thrilling? He died so we could enjoy fellowship with God. Christ died so we could know God, enjoy God, and love God. And like wisdom but in a way that is greater than wisdom he promises to pour out his Spirit on us if we come to him. He will give us his instruction if we turn to him for forgiveness and new life. Then we will not face the storm of final judgment. We will “dwell secure” when judgment comes. No “disaster” will befall us. If we know Christ and love Jesus, then we will know wisdom, for those who seek Jesus find wisdom.

Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are RomansPaul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.

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