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Wisdom and Folly: Proverbs 1:1-9

Editor’s note: This is part three in a brief series on the book of Proverbs that Fred Zaspel is writing (see part one and two). In this series, he will be noting an overview, certain themes, and specific texts in the book of Proverbs.


Proverbs 1:1-9

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 – 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. 8 Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, 9 for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.

I’ve often thought that it’s interesting to see the way God has made society function by giving so many individuals their respective skills. To one he gives skill in engineering, to another skill in music, to another skill in wood-working, to another skill in farming or some aspect of food production, to another skill in crafts and design, to another skill in language; to one he gives skill in a given trade, and to another he gives skill in some science or some other technical field. And all these various skills come together to make society productive for the good of all. It’s really a strikingly wonderful gift of God.

But there is one skill that is basic to all these, a skill without which these other skills just could not come together in such a fruitful way, and that is just the skill of living. For society to function, and for each individual to function in a satisfying way, we have to know how to live, how to relate to others, how to fulfill responsibilities, how to avoid mistakes and decisions that bring us harm, how to live in a way that brings satisfaction and joy to ourselves and to others.

We don’t talk in these terms often, but it is just the skill of living. Some people very obviously have this skill – they get along well with others, they are good at their job, and they seem to have it all together. There are also people who don’t seem to have this skill at all; in fact, some lack this skill so severely that they are frankly a drag on society. They just can’t seem to avoid making a mess of their lives and hurting everyone they touch. They are not productive to society, they hurt their families, and they don’t do anyone any good.

Years ago when my parents were touring England they visited an old cemetery and saw a rather famous tombstone of someone who evidently was just such a person. The epitaph read,

Here lies a man who did no good,

And had he lived, he never would.

So where he’s gone or how he fares

No one knows, and no one cares.

In the terminology of Proverbs, that’s “the fool.”

Over against the fool in Proverbs is “the wise.” The wise are those who are just skillful in living. They don’t act on thoughtless impulse but are able to make mature, informed decisions in life, and they are able to avoid choices that result in ruin and unhappiness. They are personally content, they enjoy good family relations, and they are a fruitful part of society.

That is just the skill of living – “wisdom” Proverbs calls it. And the biblical writers connect wisdom, the skill of living, to the deepest of considerations that shape life in the most important ways. In Proverbs, wisdom is the skill of living successfully under God. If God is, and if he has created us, and if he has built into this world a moral order, and if he has revealed himself to us, and if we are accountable to him, then only a fool would attempt to live apart from his instruction. To ignore God’s instruction would be both morally wrong and personally destructive – “foolish” in every sense of the term. But to listen to God’s instruction and follow it – that is “wisdom” in every sense.

In fact there is a still more sobering consideration that makes wise living very serious business. Not often prominent in Proverbs but always at least lurking in the background is the recognition of the afterlife. Proverbs 12:28 tells us that the righteous-wise enjoy life – not just clinical life but a quality of life that is not interrupted by death. On the other hand the fool will ruin his life and possibly bring himself premature death, but then things get worse. Proverbs 11:7 warns that “there is no hope for the wicked in death.” In chapter 9 the father warns his son against “the woman Folly.” She is seductive and alluring, but for all the temporal pleasures the fling may promise, those who follow her just don’t understand “that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” “Sheol” is overwhelmingly in the Old Testament the realm of the wicked dead, and the warning is clear. To listen to God’s instruction and follow it – that is “wisdom” in every sense. Click To Tweet

Once again, to reject revealed wisdom of God is to be foolish in every sense of the term. It is dishonoring to God, and it is self-destructive, inevitably bringing ruin in this life and climactically in the next. As someone has put it, the fool eats on earth what he will digest in hell.

And so we are back to the connection between wisdom and righteousness. To be righteous is to be wise, and to be wise is to be righteous. In the same way Proverbs connects folly and sin: to be wicked is foolish, self-destructive. Living rightly under God is in your own best interests – for here and for hereafter. Only a fool would reject God’s instruction for living.

And so isn’t ironic that the world will often mock and make fun of the righteous. “You follow that old book, and for what?” And even while their own lives are a mess and society falls apart all around them they remain cocksure in their confidence. “Fools” is the appropriate term.

Proverbs was written to avoid all that. It’s goal is to impart wisdom for our own good. It’s a kind of user manual for life. It’s very purpose is to impart wisdom for living successfully under God.

The Vocabulary of Wisdom

Notice the vocabulary of wisdom again in verses 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.

Note the expression in verse 2: “To know wisdom.” To “know wisdom” may seem a rather odd expression, but the Old Testament uses this kind of language to describe a given skill. For example, in Genesis 25:27 we read (in the Hebrew) that Esau “knew” hunting, and so most English translations render it something like he was a “skillful hunter” – he “knew” hunting. And Isaiah 29:11 refers to people who “know books,” by which he means “one who can read.” We talk this way too. We might say, “that guy really knows woodworking” – by which we mean to say he is skillful in working with wood. Or we might say “that guy knows auto-mechanics” – by which we mean he is not just a knowledgeable but also a skilled mechanic. Or, if you are not convinced that the guy in the dentist’s office “knows teeth,” you won’t let him anywhere near your mouth. So here, to “know wisdom” is to be skillful in living successfully under God. One who “knows wisdom” is one who recognizes God’s world and how it works, has given careful consideration to God’s revealed will, and so he knows how avoid mistakes and how to avoid self-destruction.

And here the wise father is concerned in love to teach his son wisdom so that he will not grow up to become a fool (v. 7b). He wants him “to know wisdom.”

He also wants him to “know instruction.” The word “instruction” has some connotations in Proverbs that we might note also. It’s a word that has a broad range of significance very often relating to the entire process of child training: teaching, reproof, and discipline (both verbal and physical) – all this is part of a child’s “instruction.” Paul uses this (Greek) word in Ephesians 6:4 where he commands fathers to bring up their children in the “nurture / training” of the Lord – the ESV translates it the “discipline” of the Lord. So the father here says he is writing this book so that his son will be well-learned and disciplined – we might even say in our terminology “self-disciplined,” one who has imbibed the teaching, thoughtfully reflected on it in relation to his own life, and by it has acquired the skill necessary to live well. He does not act or react rashly or by impulse but thoughtfully and in keeping with the principles of living that God has given. He is self-controlled. As Proverbs 29:11 puts it, “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.”

The Dimensions of Wisdom

Now there are two primary dimensions to wisdom that he emphasizes here. Notice again the synonyms for wisdom in verses 3-6: wise dealings, prudence, knowledge, discretion, guidance, understanding. This terminology speaks not only of being wise generally, practical know-how, but specifically of the ability to grasp, shrewdness in tactical planning, careful thought, penetrating insight, a mind that sees ahead and makes well-considered choices.

All this means that there are both moral or behavioral and intellectual dimensions to wisdom. Verse 2a highlights the behavioral or moral: “To know wisdom and instruction” – to be skillful in living according to God’s direction. He elaborates on this dimension of wisdom in verse 3 in terms of “righteousness, justice, and equity” – behavior in relation to God and others. The NIV I think is helpful in its rendering: “for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair.” The focus of verse 2a is obviously on right behavior – doing what is right.

Verse 2b on the other hand highlights a more intellectual sense: “to understand / discern words of insight.” Verses 5-6 pick up on this more intellectual side of things: “Let the wise hear & increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, 6 to understand a proverb & a saying, the words of the wise & their riddles.” These words echo not only those of verse 2b but also King Solomon’s famous prayer in 1Kings 3:9. When God offered Solomon whatever he wanted, Solomon responded, “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people to discern between good & evil.” The idea is that of sharpening the senses, enabling us to understand these wise sayings and discern their significance. This is the sense of some of the wisdom vocabulary in verses 2-4 – it has to do with the ability to grasp, shrewdness, careful thought, penetrating insight, a mind that sees ahead and makes choices accordingly, and so on.

All this reflects a concern for approaching life thoughtfully.

Now of course the sense here is more than just intellectual – “understanding” a proverb entails understanding it in order to apply it to life situations. And being “discerning” is not for its own sake but for making evaluations and right choices for life. But for all that, thinking is required. And the father here wants to develop in his son the ability to be discerning, to distinguish between right and wrong, to understand what is good, better, and best, to know what wisdom dictates for all of life’s many choices – to grasp the proverbs in their full significance. And we just have to notice that this is not a purely “practical” exercise. There is an intellectual dimension that is essential. We must learn to think, to discipline our mind so that we grasp wisdom’s instruction and become discerning.

Now lest you are tempted to think that this seems too academic to be useful, I’ll just remind you bluntly that some Christians seem too lazy to think. They want everything to be “practical,” and they never seem willing to think hard – “Just tell me what to do” (as though that is all divine revelation had to say). We must learn to think, to discipline our mind so that we grasp wisdom’s instruction and become discerning. Click To Tweet

Some parents approach parenting that way – actually, it seems better to say they don’t “approach” parenting at all! They don’t seem to be intentional about anything but just go along with what happens day to day. And because of a lack of thinking they make decisions that are not wise. They don’t seem to consider goals, which goals are best and most valuable, how best to prepare their kids to reach those goals, what direction and example is necessary, what habits and routines to develop, and so on. Many parents fail I think simply because of a lack of thinking. Good people perhaps but just not thoughtful in pursuing life. Questions like “What does wisdom require here at this juncture of living?” seem never to capture their attention – and it shows up in their kids.

The idea here is, “Yes, I want to give you practical, moral instruction. But I am not interested to spoon feed you only. I want you learn to think, understand wisdom so that you learn how yourself to make good choices. I want you to consider what a wise and successful life looks like and how to get there. I want you to understand the Scriptures and how to apply them to given situations so that when you are out on your own your mind and heart are well-trained and tuned to wisdom.

This is the larger goal the sage has in mind as he proceeds through the lectures to his son from 1:8 through the end of chapter 9. In these sermons he exhorts his son to pursue wisdom at all costs. And then beginning in 10:1 he will spell out specific applications of wisdom in the proverbial sayings.

The Value of Wisdom

Notice the emphasis on the value of wisdom. Each of these lectures in chapters 1-9 begins with a call to the son to listen and pay attention. Notice verse 8: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” The thought is pretty straight-forward: “Pay attention to what your mother and I teach you. Take this seriously, and don’t miss it!”

Then he inserts a kind of “motivational clause.” Look at verses 8-9 again: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.” This father wants his son to see that the life of wisdom is in his own best interests. And so he says his instruction, if heeded, will be “a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.” The “garland for your head” refers to the “wreath of vindication” that was given as a symbol of victory over enemies. The “pendant for your neck” is obviously a necklace – a sign of wealth. And both are described as “graceful” or “attractive.” This is all metaphorical, of course, but the idea is that imbibing this wisdom will pay off for you. You will prosper and be better off for following this teaching. You will distinguish yourself, and you will be happy for it.

Sometimes in Proverbs the writer takes the negative approach: “If you play the fool you will bear the consequences.” But here he takes the positive approach – he wants his son to see that following his teaching is indeed the wise and rewarding thing to do. “Listen to me: learn to live successfully! You will be glad for it.”

Concluding Thoughts

Now we’ve just barely covered the introductory portion of Proverbs, but we have seen several times over that this book holds out an attractive prospect. It offers a life without regret. And in fact it looks beyond this life to the next with the same happy prospect. There is every reason to heed this counsel, learn God’s precepts for living, and give your mind to applying those precepts discerningly in all the various aspects of life.

This is always the prospect the Bible holds out for us. Its direction for living is both honoring to God and for our own good.

The bottom line is that if we are wise we will give ourselves to hearing and obeying God – learn his Word and consider carefully how it applies to real life situations. Don’t be a fool. Be wise! “Come – learn how to live!”

And if this seems too much or too restrictive for you, recall the great invitation of the Lord Jesus Christ, wisdom incarnate: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on 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.”

Here is the one who not only taught but lived out wisdom perfectly and without any regret. And he is the one who offered that perfect life in place of sinners like you and me, the one who offered a sacrifice to God in our place that we may be rescued from our sins and the consequences of them – and so that now being freed from the enslaving grip of sin we can live unto God in wisdom, to his honor and our everlasting joy.

Fred Zaspel

Fred Zaspel (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors at Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also the executive editor of Books At a Glance and adjunct professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books including The Theology of B. B. Warfield and Warfield on the Christian Life.

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