The Pursuit of Wisdom: Proverbs 2
Editor’s note: This is part five in a brief series on the book of Proverbs that Fred Zaspel is writing (see part one, two, three, and four). In this series, he will be noting an overview, certain themes, and specific texts in the book of Proverbs.
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. 6 For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; 7 he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, 8 guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints. 9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; 10 for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; 11 discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, 12 delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech, 13 who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, 14 who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil, 15 men whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways. 16 So you will be delivered from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, 17 who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God; 18 for her house sinks down to death, and her paths to the departed; 19 none who go to her come back, nor do they regain the paths of life. 20 So you will walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous. 21 For the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it, 22 but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.
I have emphasized it in each of our studies together so far, and you will hear it again and again throughout Proverbs. Especially here in these opening admonitions of chapters 1-9 the father drills his son over and again with the reminder of the connection between wisdom and righteousness. To do what is right is to be wise; it is in your own best interests. There is a moral order in the universe, put there by the Creator himself, and if you live accordingly you both honor him and enjoy his favor. It is in your own best interests to pursue righteousness – it is the wise thing to do. To be righteous is to be wise, and to be wise is to be righteous. Proverbs reminds us over and again – we must get that into our minds.
To pursue sin, on the other hand – well, that’s just foolish and self-destructive.
At the beginning of the father’s first lecture he stressed this value of wisdom but only in broad terms. Pursuing wisdom will be “a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (1:8). Living according to wisdom will pay off – it will distinguish you, make you prosper, and you will be happy for it. It will be like a victor’s crown and a wealthy man’s attire.
That is the idea driving this next lecture here in chapter 2. In verses 1-5 he exhorts his son to pursue wisdom with everything he has. And then in verses 6-22 he explains why wisdom is worthy of such vigorous pursuit.
I have mentioned that these lectures all tend to begin in the same way: 1) a call to the son to pay attention, and 2) some kind of motivational clause – “this instruction is valuable; it will pay off!” In this case (chapter 2) that motivational clause runs through the chapter. It’s his whole theme – how wisdom pays off. He will take up this theme at length again in the middle section of his next lecture (chapter 3).
The Pursuit of Wisdom
This second admonition (chapter 2) differs in perspective from the first (chapter 1): in the earlier lecture wisdom was pleading, trying to be heard; now the exhortation is to the son to give every diligence to seek wisdom. Notice the “if .. if … if … then” structure of verses 1-5.
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
So first off, he admonishes his son concerning his own responsibility toward wisdom. “You will gain wisdom and understand the fear of the Lord, but only as you pursue it diligently.” And notice just how wisdom is to be pursued – notice how he piles up the expressions:
1 My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
He is calling for his son to give his earnest attention, to devote himself to wisdom.
- Verse 1: “Receive my words” – that is, don’t let this go in one ear and out the other. This instruction is good for you, and you must accept it and make it yours – internalize it and own it.
- “Treasure up my commandments with you” goes a bit deeper. “Don’t just hear what I’m telling you. And don’t just memorize it. Treasure it – recognize its value. This is for your own good, and you must get that! I’m telling you how to live and how to get the most out of life and how avoid mistakes that you will regret – when I teach you, understand this is like treasure!
- Verse 2: “Make your ear attentive.” This has to do with his attitude and disposition with regard to the instruction. When you hear this instruction, listen up. Value it, and take it in.
- “Incline your heart to understanding.” Make whatever adjustments needed on the inside so that you are not indifferent. Don’t just take this for granted. From your heart, with all your affections, give yourself to know wisdom.
- Verse 3: “Call out” for it and “raise your voice” for it. It’s the imagery of someone looking for a lost pet or a lost loved one – “Wisdom, please come and teach me!” He’s directing not only his son’s ears and attention but his heart. It’s just like a young child to hear and not hear, to hear it and forget. So he implores his son, “Don’t be passive in this: call out for wisdom; pursue it with your whole heart.” He’s pressing the value of wisdom and urging his son to recognize that value and to pursue it accordingly.
- Verse 4: “Seek” it and “search” for it like you would for silver and hidden treasure. Again, he’s stressing the incomparable value of wisdom. “Adjust your priorities and your appetites; pursue wisdom above all else. Atop the list of all your interests, the pursuit of wisdom must be first. It is most important, and it is basic to all the rest. Your first pursuit must not be amusements. Your first pursuit must not be money, or fame, or good looks, or sex. Your first pursuit must be wisdom. Wisdom is more valuable than all of these.”
And ( v.5) if you seek wisdom like this, you will find it: “then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.” Don’t think that a wise and rewarding life will just happen. You cannot be passive in this. If you give yourself to this pursuit, then you will know how to live in a way that is both honoring to God and personally rewarding.
If there is anything that good parents wants for their children it is this – that from their hearts they pursue wisdom, that they see its value and pursue it above all else. That is what this father is pressing for his son.
The Source of Wisdom
Now, in order to seek wisdom diligently we have to know where we can find it. Just where is this wisdom for life found? If we didn’t already know, verses 6-8 specify:
6 For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; 7 he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, 8 guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints.
That is, God the Creator is the source of wisdom – of course! Who else could tell us reliably about ourselves and how to live in this world? God who made us, who established the moral order of the world, to whom we are accountable – it is from him we learn how to live without regret. And so you must make every effort and give every diligence to hearing it and learning it.
Notice in verses 1-5 all the repeated exhortations regarding seeking wisdom:
- “Receive my words.”
- “Treasure up my commands with you.”
- “Make your ear attentive.”
- “Incline your heart to understanding.”
- “Call out” and “raise your voice” for wisdom.
- “Seek it,” and “Search for it!”
This is not just exhortation to read and study your Bible but instruction on how to read your Bible and how to listen when it is read and taught. “Read and listen to the Scriptures eagerly, expectantly, diligently, with devotion, with a heart wide open to take it all in. Memorize it. Meditate on it. Understand it. Go at it recognizing that your life depends on it! Without it you will make a mess of your life. But with wisdom in your heart you may live confidently.”
Doubtless, the sage here is referring to God’s instruction in the Torah, the law of Moses, and perhaps through the other Prophets also. But few if any of the average Israelites had their own copy of the Scriptures. They may have had this or that passage written down for them, but that would be about it. And so the father here is likely referring to the preacher – the office of Sage, the Teachers of Wisdom in ancient Israel who interpreted God’s Word and made application for the people. You may recall that last time we saw a reference to this preacher-sage in Jeremiah 18:18. Perhaps he is referring to the priests also who taught. Eventually there was the synagogue where they would learn from the elders. But again, the point is that God is the one who gives wisdom, and so you must be very careful to learn it and go hear it.
This is why in Protestant tradition the pulpit was placed at the center of the front of the auditorium, not off to the side. In Roman Catholic tradition it was the sacraments that were central – the table and the baptism font. But the Reformers insisted that it must be the pulpit because at the center of our attention and at the center of our corporate worship – what takes up the bulk of our time – is hearing and learning the Word of God. Not the ordinances, not our singing to God, but our hearing from God is the highest expression of our worship. And if we are thinking rightly, this will be our central concern.
The early church historian Eusebius reports that the Emperor Constantine (early fourth century) “stood whole hours” to hear the preaching of the Word. Eusebius said that when it was requested that that the emperor sit, he replied that he would not sit because (Eusebius reports) “he thought it wicked to give negligent ears” when the truth being handled was spoken by God. The point is that God is the one who gives wisdom, and so you must be very careful to learn it and go hear it. Click To Tweet
That’s the kind of thinking the father here is trying to instill in his son. “Recognize what a treasure the Word of God is and give your heart to hearing it.”
That’s a wise father. And it’s wise, thoughtful instruction. The most important instruction he can give his son. “Give every diligence to hear the Word of God.”
Another of the great church reformations of the 16th century was the return of the Scriptures to the common tongue and the restoration of preaching in the common tongue. The priests’ Latin recitations did nothing for anyone. There was a great concern to bring the Word of God to the people. On one occasion when Martin Luther heard of parishioners complaining about their pastors’ preaching, he quipped that they ought to be grateful that they have such access to God’s Word.
No one knows better than I do that preaching is not always good, and I feel it deeply when I have to go home Sunday afternoon feeling that I haven’t served the people as well as I should have. And I certainly don’t think the preacher is above criticism. But even so, I have long thought that one of the most foolish mistakes parents can make is serving up roast preacher in front of their children – criticizing the pastor or his sermon on the way home or over the dinner table. The preacher may well have failed that Sunday, but to direct the heart of your children away from the Word of God like that is just foolish. And it will show up in their lives later on.
You see this wise father directs son’s heart toward the Word of God. “Son here is treasure! Go get it – by all means, go get it. Give yourself to hearing it.”
The Value of Wisdom
Why? Because (vv. 9-11) it will give you discernment, spiritual and moral perception. Because (vv. 12-15) it will protect you from the evil man and (vv. 16-19) from the evil woman. It will shape your appetites and develop in you a taste for wisdom and a distaste for folly. It will enable you to see through the allurements of evil and shape your heart to want better. And it will protect you from foolish choices you otherwise would make.
Notice how he says this in verses 9-11:
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; 10 for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; 11 discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you.
Many of you homeschool your children. Some of you are school teachers. Every teacher and every parent knows the frustration of trying to teach your young child something when they just don’t get it. If only you could get on the inside and direct his understanding.
So also as they get older, and for all of us, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we just didn’t want sin? If only we could prefer wisdom over folly!
That’s what verse 10 is about: “wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.” The idea has to do not only with doing what is right and wise but developing a heart and a taste and an instinct for what is right and wise – a genuine preference for wisdom and a distaste for folly, seeing the foolishness of sin, seeing through whatever cheap thrills it offers for the moment, and seeing it all through to the end. What God’s Word can give is a heart for wisdom. Verse 10, when wisdom “comes into your heart” and is “pleasant to your soul,” then (v. 11) “discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you.” Nothing less than this – an appetite an instinct for wisdom and a distaste for folly – is what is required to protect you effectively from the evil man (vv. 12-15) and the evil woman (vv.16-19). Our naturally twisted “want to” must be straightened back out so that our appetites are changed, and from our hearts we want and prefer wisdom. Click To Tweet
In that sense of course this ultimately points us forward to the new covenant and its promise not only of forgiveness but heart transformation – an inner transformation that comes only by the sovereign workings of the Spirit of God indwelling each believer and conforming us to Christ. We are born in Adam with foolishness “bound in our hearts” (Prov. 22:15), and as important as the “rod of correction” and faithful parental instruction are, ultimately what is required is something on the inside. Our naturally twisted “want to” must be straightened back out so that our appetites are changed, and from our hearts we want and prefer wisdom.
And so once again we are made to see how all this points us ahead to the Lord Jesus Christ. Having taken our sin to himself he sends his Spirit to lead us in righteousness and into wisdom. That’s what it means to be “led” of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:14). Proverbs promises a successful life, a life of wisdom and without regret, but it will be realized fully only by the work of the Spirit of Christ in a heart redeemed by Christ and in one who knows the joy of forgiveness of sins and of freedom from sin.
One More Time In Brief
Verses 21-22, then, give us a summary of this second lecture:
21 For the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it, 22 but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.
There is something here of course that is reflective of the old covenant in which God promises temporal blessing to the people of Israel for obedience and judgment for disobedience. But more broadly it is also a vivid reminder of the wisdom of righteousness and the folly of sin – righteousness pays off with a blessed life, but unrighteousness is a foolishness that brings regret.
And this also points us ahead to the larger truth that it is the righteous who in the end “will inherit the earth” (Ps.37:11; Matt. 5:5). We have sin, and we cannot achieve righteousness on our own – forgiveness and righteousness and the enablement to live successfully under God all must come to us as gifts of grace in Christ. But it is nonetheless true that it is the righteous who in the end will stand with Christ and share in his inheritance.
As we have seen throughout these studies, our ultimate expression of wisdom is when we bow before the Lord Jesus Christ, wisdom incarnate, and submit to his yoke.
Ultimately, that is where this father is directing his son. “Pursue wisdom! Look to Christ! Pursue after him! Treasure him with all your heart! At all costs and above every other pursuit, seek and search after Christ. For only in him will you find a life and an eternity of satisfaction and joy. Anything else is foolish and will bring regret.”
Pursue wisdom: Pursue Christ.