Proverbs: A Christian View
Editor’s note: This is part one in a brief series on the book of Proverbs that Fred Zaspel will be writing in the coming weeks. In this series, he will be noting an overview, certain themes, and specific texts in the book of Proverbs.
1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
2 To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight,
3 to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youthB
5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, 6 to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Some general observations about life and living in our society
I have long found this pair of observations about contemporary society curiously ironic. On the one hand our society offers more helps than any in human history. We have institutions, services, consultants, counselors, and Dr. Ruths of all kinds who unscrew the tops of our heads and probe our inner self, diagnose problems, offer solutions, and provide direction for success, happiness, and fulfillment in life. We have more “helps” available today than society has ever before seen.
And yet on the other hand – and here is where it seems ironic – our society has more need for these kinds of helps than any in history. And despite the abundance of helps available the need keeps growing! We have a remarkable inability to find contentment or fulfillment, and we have a remarkable ability to mess up our lives – drugs, self-esteem, discontent, broken families, and what not. And we seem to have more trouble than ever just coping with life generally. It doesn’t take a prophet’s insight to recognize that our society seems increasingly adept at ruining itself – from the individual level to the family to the societal level, we’re falling apart at the seams.
Simply put, we just don’t seem to have the wisdom to live life successfully.
Old Testament “Wisdom Literature” and the Biblical Concept of “Wisdom”
So let’s talk about this word “wisdom.” You’ll notice that it is the very purpose of the book of Proverbs to give wisdom:
1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: 2 To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight.
The word “wisdom” in the Old Testament simply means “skill” B the word is translated either way. You find the word, for example, describing the “skilled” craftsmen – Bezalel and Oholiab – who constructed the Old Testament tabernacle and its various ornate furnishings.
More generally, wisdom has to do with the skill of living successfully. As Richard Belcher describes it, “wisdom” entails understanding God’s world, understanding the way life works, understanding different situations in life so that you are able to make the right decisions to avoid certain bad consequences and to do things that are faithful to God and bring God’s blessing.
In short, it is the skill of living successfully under God, getting the most out of life, avoiding its problems and heartaches. As Proverbs 3 will show us, wise living is living in such a way as to find favor with God and men. It is living in a way that pleases God and that brings personal fulfillment and joy. Again, wisdom is the skill of living successfully under God. The idea is living in such a way that we realize and experience God’s blessing and favor. The notion of “happiness” is involved, but the idea is bigger than that. Wise living results in blessing, favor with God and men (Prov.3), and fulfillment.
A significant portion of the Old Testament Scriptures is given to teach us wisdom in this sense. The “Wisdom Literature” proper is primarily Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, but many of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon are considered “Wisdom” also. It comes as no surprise that Scripture is given in large part to teach us how to teach us how to live wisely.
I always like to point out in this connection that the Bible’s Wisdom Literature offers us something unique. We like to say “Live and learn,” and by that we mean that we can learn from experience – usually it means that we learn from our mistakes. That of course is well and good, and it is certainly true to life. But what Scripture’s Wisdom Literature offers us is just the opposite: it doesn’t say, “Live and learn”; it says to us, “Come – learn, and live!” It offers us up front the wisdom needed to live life successfully – to avoid mistakes that displease God and that bring us sadness. “Come – learn, and live! Avoid those mistakes and learn to live well.”
And of course this is the Bible’s claim throughout – that because it comes to us from God it is able and sufficient to teach us, reprove us, correct us, train us for righteousness, and equip us fully “for every good work” (2Tim.3:16-17). And it does this as part of the gospel promise to transform us and make us to be all we are called to be.
The “Promise” of the Book of Proverbs
This is the “promise” that the book of Proverbs holds out for us. Proverbs are not promises – proverbs are pithy sayings that condense general principles for wise and fruitful living. But in directing us to wise living it does hold out a happy prospect. Notice it again (Prov.1:1-4):
1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: 2 To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, 3 to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; 4 to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.
That’s the prospect. Its stated purpose is to equip us for life – and as we will see it offers us wisdom for every dimension of life – how best to think, how best to talk, how to have a happy home, what is friendship, principles of work and finance, and so on – wisdom for all of life. As it has been observed, “If you want a devotional life that pleases God, read the Psalms; if you want a life that is successful and that pleases God, read Proverbs.”
What is a “Proverb”?
So then what is a “proverb”? As I mentioned, a proverb is a pithy saying that condenses general principles for wise living. “Proverbs” are not unique to the Bible – we have proverbs in our day also. “A stitch in time saves nine” is one. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” These little sayings are “distilled wisdom,” “compressed experience.”
Our proverbs tend to be one-liners, but Hebrew proverbs usually consist of two lines: Some examples:
Prov.10:4 “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.”
Prov.10:19 “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
Prov. 13:20 “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”
The biblical proverbs address all the dimensions of life and offer wisdom to navigate successfully. Some proverbs are especially sharp and to the point, and they hit the mark immediately; the message just bursts over you before you are able even to raise a defense!
Prov.13:3 “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
Prov.18:13 “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
Prov.21:9 “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife” (cf. 25:24).
Some are vividly picturesque:
Prov.15:17 “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.”
Some of the proverbs even make their point with a touch of humor:
Prov.11:22 “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.”
Just imagine a gold ring in a pig’s nose – what a waste! So also is beautiful woman who lacks discretion.
And some proverbs, as I hope to show as this series continues, require time and careful thinking before the punch-line really settles in. In fact it’s not always best simply to read through chapter at a time but to take a given proverb and think it through. As a rule, greatest profit from the proverbs will come if you take your time with them – read carefully, think on it, memorize it, think of specific life-applications … take time to consider the proverbs prayerfully. Proverbs are compressed wisdom teaching us how to live successfully before God. Click To Tweet
Proverbs are compressed wisdom teaching us how to live successfully before God. Some hit us up short, sometimes with a kind of shock value. Some use vivid pictures, metaphors, and illustrations. And some almost seem to defy explanation. But all are intended to make us think – think about life. And they are intended by that to teach us so that we may live well. “Come – learn, and live!”
Overview of Proverbs
In broad overview, here’s the structure of the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs 1:1 stands as a kind of title to the book:
Proverbs 1:1-7 constitutes a “prologue” to the book. Here we are told the purpose of the book, it’s goals and what it has to offer.
Proverbs chapters 1-9 contains a series of lectures that the wise sage gives his son. These lectures are given to exhort the son concerning the value and pursuit of wisdom, often with specific areas of application, and they are generally marked off by the introductory call, “My son, listen!” (or similar):
1:8 “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching,”
2:1 “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you ….”
3:1 “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments.”
4:1 “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight.”
4:10 “Hear, my son, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many.”
4:20 “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings.”
5:1 “My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding.”
6:1 “My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger”
6:20 “My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.”
7:1 “My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you.”
I should mention at least by the way that these lectures serve as a wonderful model for parental instruction that parents would do well to consider thoughtfully!
Then in chapter 9 we have a kind of epilogue to the lectures. Finally, Proverbs 10:1 begins the “proverbs” proper, which are given to reinforce the exhortations of chapters 1-9.
Proverbs 10:1-22:16 gives us a series of miscellaneous proverbs of Solomon.
Proverbs 22:17-24:22 gives us more “sayings of wise men” (not Solomon).
Proverbs 24:23-34 gives us more “words of wise men.”
Proverbs chapters 25-29 gives us more miscellaneous proverbs of Solomon, these collected by Hezekiah’s men.
Proverbs 30 gives us the sayings of Agar.
Proverbs 31:1-9 gives us the sayings of Kin Lemuel (Solomon?)
Proverbs 31:10-31 gives us an acrostic poem on “the virtuous woman.”
Through all of this God offers us wisdom for living.
All this has been a “big picture” kind of introduction, but I should make two further observations before I wrap it up.
First, we should be very careful to highlight the nature of “wisdom” and “folly” in relation to “right” and “wrong” in the book of Proverbs. You’ll notice in Proverbs that the descriptive terms “the wise” and “the righteous” are used rather interchangeably. To be wise is to be righteous. To be righteous is to be wise. It is enormously important to recognize that following this divinely-given wisdom is both right and wise – it is both right and good for you. To be righteous is to be wise, and to be wise is to be righteous. To reject wisdom is “folly” because it is both wrong and bad for you. To pursue wisdom is to pursue what is right and what is in your own best interests – God will be pleased, and you will be happier for it. To reject wisdom displeases God and will only bring unpleasant consequences for you. These ideas – that wisdom is both right and in your own best interest – are so bound together in Proverbs that it is difficult to separate them at all. The wisdom Proverbs offers is designed to result in a life that is blessed.
The gospel promises both justification and sanctification – both acceptance before God and transformation of life. It is this latter concern – transformation of life – that Proverbs primarily addresses. “Come – learn, and live,” it offers us. And as you listen and heed the call of wisdom, you will find that you are better off for it. We can be the fool and reject the call to wisdom, but as we do so we will incur God’s disfavor, and we will mess up our lives in the meantime. Or we can heed the call of wisdom, and as we do God will be honored, and we will have a life that is meaningful. All this directs us to the Lord Jesus Christ who is himself Wisdom incarnate. Click To Tweet
Our study the book of Proverbs ought to be guided by this happy prospect – here we may learn to please God and men and have a life that is rewarding. This is real wisdom.
Finally, we just must view all this in “whole Bible” perspective. In the Bible’s biggest picture, all this directs us to the Lord Jesus Christ who is himself Wisdom incarnate. There has actually been a lot of scholarly discussion on the subject of “Wisdom Christology,” how Jesus fulfills this Old Testament theme of wisdom, and how the Old Testament figure – “lady wisdom” or “Sophia,” as it is often referred to point to Jesus. A measure of this discussion has been a bit skewed, but the New Testament writers very obviously do pick up the theme.
We have some more subtle connections where Jesus positions himself as the sage, the teacher of wisdom – like “wisdom” in Proverbs calling us to learn from him. But we also have more obvious connections, perhaps most famously the in Colossians where Paul makes the connection several times over. In Colossians 2:3, for example, he tells us that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The idea has to do with the all-sufficiency of Christ – if we have him we have everything we need, and no human philosophy can ever exceed it or improve on it.
And then in 1 Corinthians 1 Paul gives a sustained contrast between the wisdom of God, which is crystalized in the gospel of Christ crucified, and the wisdom of the world. The world in all its flaunted wisdom calls the wisdom of God “foolishness,” and yet in fact it is by this “foolish wisdom” we are brought to know God. It is only by Christ crucified for sin in our place we can be saved and restored. There is no other way but through Christ crucified, even if the world calls it foolish. And so we are finally driven to see that the “foolishness of God” proves wiser than the wisdom of men.
The bottom line of all this is that we cannot know God or have genuine wisdom or skill for living except as we are rightly related to Jesus Christ.
In the book of Proverbs we hear the sustained call of wisdom: “Come – learn, and live!” What that finally means (and this shouldn’t surprise us) is that we must come to Christ, learn from him, come through him to know God, and by his transforming power live to his honor and to our own fulfillment. It is in Jesus that wisdom is found.