Wisdom and knowledge seem to abound in our technological world. But Proverbs 1 would but us back on a firmer basis than most people choose. It’s important that we expect much from the book of Proverbs. After all, the whole Bible is about God’s plan to dwell with his people and how he has made that possible through Christ. So we should expect the book of Proverbs to be more than just a collection of fridge-magnet, self-help verses. The good news is that it’s much, much more!
The Proverbs of Solomon? (v1)
The opening verses are an introduction to the whole book. Read v1.
There’s no doubt about what this book is: It’s not law, historical narrative, or prophecy. It’s a book of proverbs.Israel wasn’t unique in having a book of proverbs – a number of ancient near east countries had them (with lots of similarities too). And the idea has carried on – self-help books, t-shirts, twee signs around the house – people love them. We find them comforting, even.
But when you read through this book it’s a bit of an oddity. The reason is that it’s actually a collection of collections of proverbs! And they’re not all by Solomon:
- There are 31 chapters.
- Chapters 1-9 have content about wisdom and folly – portrayed as two women calling out to a young man.
- The whole book is written as a father’s advice to his son, which explains some of the gender terms in some of the language.
- The middle part, Chapters 10-22a, is the big set of proverbs themselves.
- Then we have “30 sayings of the wise” and “more sayings” followed by “more proverbs of Solomon”.
- It ends with the sayings of Agur and King Lemuel.
It took about a thousand years to write all the Psalms (Moses to exile) and someone gathered them into the set we now have. Proverbs is similar – at some point an editor brought these collections together to form this book as it is. It’s likely that the editor then wrote v1-7 as a perfect introduction to the collection – and introduction to wisdom itself. So we dig into those verses in a moment.
First, you might wonder why an editor didn’t tidy it all up. He might have reordered them into “proverbs about money” then “proverbs about words” etc. I think the reason for that is itself untidy:
- Life is messy, so it makes sense to reflect that somehow.
- Wisdom is organic; growth is to be ‘whole’ not lopsided.
- Wisdom lives and grows; a single list makes no sense.
We’re all learning wisdom (v2-7)
Verses 2-7 give us a description of what wisdom is for and who can benefit from it. Read v2.
These verses are loaded with words that litter all wisdom literature in the Bible (e.g. Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Job). The purpose of the book of proverbs is to teach you so that you will know wisdom and discipline. Not just in your head but in your bones. For example, you know it must be awful to live through a time of war. You also know it’s awful to live through a global pandemic. One you know in your head, one in your bones. Proverbs relates to things you already know, tapping into your experience of life to teach you more things. So, as you understand the insights of others in your head and in your bones you’re more likely to absorb that wisdom and apply it in your own life.
Read v3. It’s hopefully obvious that the Proverbs aren’t there to make you look like some kind of sage. It’s not so that people will come to you and you graciously bestow some nugget of wisdom for them! These proverbs are to help you in life as you go about your life – in work, in your family, at rest. So the writer uses a broad word that the NLT brings out with two words! To live “disciplined and successful lives” – a well-ordered life lived well will often have good outcomes. And that life will deal with others in a way that is “right, just, and fair” – three of the most important words in the Old Testament.
Proverbs, Ethics, and The Law
Most importantly, we see from v3 that the Proverbs have an ethical element. They teach you how to be godly. Noticing that brings out two huge things for us to understand:
- How Proverbs and Law are related.
- How Proverbs help you to “walk in the light.”
Firstly, remember the classic example of Proverbs 26 (read Proverbs 26:4-5).
- Clearly, neither can be “law” because they seem to contradict. They’re side-by-side so that you’ll notice.
- Because there’s a time to speak to a fool and a time not to speak – wisdom first sees that there’s a difference, and then knows when to speak and when not to.
But Proverbs 1:3 makes it clear that proverbs teach you to do what is “right, just, and fair” – so there is an ethical element. Now read Exodus 20:12 (from the 10 commandments) and Proverbs 13:1.
- The law might be described as giving “legal requirements” where psalms describe “ethical ideals”.
- Laws are not negotiable, but in a sense they only set boundaries.
- Proverbs help you navigate inside the boundaries – so that you know what is right, just, and fair and your conduct is shaped, moulded, directed towards ethical ideals.
It’s a bit like the Sermon on the Mount; Jesus points out the laws as a reminder of the legal requirements. But he goes further, breathing air into the law to reveal its ethical ideals. That’s what proverbs will give you – by putting those ethics into your bones as well as your head. And that’s how Proverbs helps you “walk in the light” (as 1 John puts it) – walking in the light even as God is in the light. The law draws the line between dark and light, and wisdom steers you to do what is right, just, and fair. If you regard right living as ticking off boxes (“I’ve not broken any laws today”) then you’re missing the point of what it means to walk in the light.
Who are Proverbs for?
Now our writer helps us see who can benefit from Proverbs: First, read v4.
Who does he mean by “the simple”? It’s another classic piece of wisdom language. You need to draw a distinction between “the simple” and “the fool”. The fool is someone who denies God, who despises instruction, and who refuses God’s authority over them. The simple is someone who is unlearned, but teachable – simple in the sense that they don’t know much, but they do have a teachable spirit.
That might not be a surprise – of course Proverbs would help someone like that. So read v5-6.
The truth is, we’re all learning wisdom. Even the wise! Remember how Solomon grew in wisdom? With a listening heart and a discerning mind:
- A listening, receptive spirit – listening to others, watching the news, listening to culture – what people are saying and thinking and doing. Thinking about nature and science.
- A discerning mind, determining the good and the evil in what you see – as God defines good and evil (not as society does).
And, as you approach Proverbs with a listening, receptive spirit, you become wiser. You grow in that discernment between good and evil, where it’s not always easy to see. And you also grow as you’re better able to think and read and meditate on the wisdom of others – the riddles and complex things clever people say become easier to understand as you grow in godly wisdom.
Fear the LORD
So we reach v7 – maybe the cornerstone of the whole book. Read v7.
- Because to understand nature and science rightly you need to see God’s own fingerprints on it.
- To do good to all others from your heart you need to see them as image-bearers of God.
- Simply to have a sense of right and wrong is evidence of our moral maker.
- Society is delighted with what it is able to do, but lacks the moral foundation to determine whether it should do it.
So read v7 again. But there are even more reasons for us.
Wisdom and Knowledge
1 Corinthians 1:24 says, “to those called by God to salvation…, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Wisdom is an attribute of God. It isn’t separate from him, it flows from him to us. He can’t grow in wisdom, nor did he ever become wise. He simply is wisdom, as he is all his attributes (like love, eternity, power, knowledge etc) all the time, perfectly.
Wouldn’t you want to grasp the wisdom of God? You can: Christ, says Paul in 1 Cor 1:24, is “the wisdom of God.”
How so? In Ephesians 3:10, Paul writes “God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” That is, the salvation of God’s people into one church secured by Christ is a display of the wisdom of God – a wisdom to be displayed to the universe! His wisdom is revealed in that he has perfect knowledge of good and evil and has plotted a perfect course to bring justice and mercy. The cross of Christ is God’s display of actions that are right, just, and fair. Every sin is punished, all may be saved, and God will do good to a wicked world in love.
Growing in Christ
Which means that if you are to become like Christ, you must also grow in wisdom. Luke 2:52 tells us that the young Jesus grew “in wisdom and in stature”. Mark 6:2 quotes the Nazareth folk: “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?”
And again, Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). Because to grow in wisdom is to grow in Christ. It’s to become more like him. But it must be godly wisdom, not worldly-wise. That way you won’t be tossed and turned by the whims of society and changes in culture.
Colossians 2:2-3 nails our ultimate motivation and satisfaction in our quest for wisdom:
- 2 I want them [all believers] to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them [all believers] to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. 3 In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
What are the treasures of wisdom and knowledge? Christ himself -and to be like him, to have perfect courage and wisdom in every situation to do good.
- And these treasures are in him, and he is in you if you’re a Christian.
- To grow in wisdom is to grow in Christ, and to grow in Christ is to grow in wisdom.
- And to grow in wisdom is to do what is right, just, and fair.
- With the law of Christ as a minimum legal requirement and the wisdom of Christ as an ethical ideal, breathed out in everything you do, every conversation you have, every thought you think.
Is there a better reason to study Proverbs than growth in Christ?