Updated: Dec 14, 2020
The dominant theme of Proverbs is our choice between obeying God (fear / wisdom) and giving into temptation (sin / wickedness). We choose.
This was created as a supplement our introduction to the book of Proverbs.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Proverbs 1:7
Let's Study Proverbs!
Every book of the Bible is excellent to study, but I think that people enjoy studying Proverbs because it's so "easy". The sayings are short and memorable, you don't have to know a lot of background stuff to understand them, and you can just read a few and move on with your life. But if we slow down and really study this book, we will find that it is so much more than pithy quotes. The heart of God's view of society is found here (presented in a culture that is very foreign to us today). The answers to some of the most important questions we have as citizens and neighbors is found here - guidelines that can help us live rightly, regardless of what your neighbor believes about Jesus.
Getting Warmed Up
What is Wisdom? Let's start with the basic question. Proverbs is about "wisdom", right? So, what is wisdom? I think of wisdom as how to apply knowledge. In other words, a wise person knows what knowledge means. Think of all the different kinds of "wise people" you know. They're not always "smarter", right? It's not necessarily that they "know" more, right? But what they do know, they really understand at a profound level. We should all love to be around wise people.
What are different kinds of wisdom? I generally think of three main areas. First, there's the wisdom of knowing what to do with a skill. For me, the easiest way to explain this is to watch basketball players. As players get older, some of them are able to continue to play at a high level even though they can't run as fast or jump as high as the younger players. Why is that? Because they've learned exactly what to do with the skills they have; they "out-think" their opponents. Eventually, they'll get to a point where that's not enough, but my point is that you can have two basketball players with similar skill sets, but one is a significantly better player than the other. That's wisdom. In the business world, we can apply it to highly valued consultants. They might not have all of the up-to-date knowledge of a recent graduate, but when there's a problem, I know who I am calling. Why? Because the consultant (supposedly) has the wisdom of years of accrued application of knowledge, and they can solve the problem that most people can't. (That's why they set their own rates.)
That sort of wisdom can be developed over time. When you exercise a skill enough times, you begin to learn how it can best be used. In other words, it doesn't require special training or divine intervention. Any person who is willing to pay attention to the world around them and continue to apply themselves to their craft can develop this kind of wisdom.
A second kind of wisdom is related to people--understanding the world around you. We all have someone that we go to when we're having inter-personal problems. They seem to know the right thing to say and the right way to say it. That's wisdom. To certain extent, it can be learned. That's what the book of Proverbs is for--how to treat people, how to talk to people, how to behave. Most schools require students to have lessons in ethics and etiquette and civics. That's basically attempting to teach this kind of wisdom. Apply yourself to it and you can absolutely become more wise with respect to people.
But we all know that some people are wiser in this regard than others. There is a spiritual side to people that cannot be learned through rote. That's why we might consider non-Christian religious leaders like clerics and gurus and rabbis as wise about people, and even agree with their advice on dealing with people. They are making their pronouncements based on a lifetime of observations, as well as studying books that are themselves based on lifetimes of observations, all of which acknowledge the critical truth that people are more than biological processes. That will make a guru wise-er than, say, an atheist. But it won't necessarily make them right - that requires one more level of wisdom.
A third kind of wisdom is about life--"what is the meaning of life?". These are the deep questions about suffering, heaven and hell, good and evil, etc. This kind of wisdom is what anchors all other kinds of wisdom. And this kind of wisdom cannot be learned--not through all of the observation and study in the world. This kind of wisdom must come from God. If you think of the first kind of wisdom above as "what" (as in what to do and when) and the second kind of wisdom as "how" (how to live, how to treat people), then this third kind of wisdom is the "why". Why do those skills work the way they do? Why do we treat people that way? Why is life the way it is? A lifetime of observations will tell you what and how, but observation alone can never tell you why. Only God, the Author of life, can tell us why. And He has told us all that we need to know in the Bible.
The book of Proverbs is filled with the second kind of wisdom. It's not so interested in answering "why". Other parts of the Bible are (like the book of Job). That's why it's okay if skeptics point out how similar these Proverbs are to other ancient, wisdom books. It's focused on a type of wisdom that is not "secret".
Let's Learn about Proverbs
I'll be honest--you're going to learn more about this book faster by watching the Bible Project videos. Let me just point out a few things. First, even though they're called "of Solomon", that doesn't mean he wrote them all. Clearly, he compiled some of them that he had grown up hearing (some may have been thousands of years old), and clearly he did not write the book in its current form. But he definitely wrote many. At some point, we are going to have to address an elephant in the room (if Solomon was so wise, how could he have 1,000 wives and concubines??). But that's for a later lesson.
I believe these two videos are incredibly valuable for getting a good perspective of what's going on in this book.
Part 1: Starting Point - Proverbs 1:7
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.
I don't think we would be wrong to call Proverbs an intended textbook for Israelite boys--"do these things and you will make Israel better" (remember that formal education was reserved for the boys of wealthy families). Information would trickle out to the rest of the boys (and girls) through informal education in the home. We must not overlook the fact that the pinnacle of the "Proverbs person" is the so-called "Proverbs 31 Woman"--the mom and wife who held the home together. She learned her wisdom in the "school of hard knocks".
Like any good textbook, it begins with foundations. Do you remember the first things you learned in different school subject? I think I remember that the first chapter of my calculus textbook was "What is a number". You can't get more fundamental than that! The foundation for any helpful wisdom is "the fear of the Lord". If you've been in Sunday School for more than a few years, you've talked about what this means . . . a lot. "Fear" is that awe of God that leads to humble submission. If that understanding is rooted deep inside of us, we have a much better change of gaining wisdom.
Why is that?
Simple--true wisdom is not from us. Or at least, wisdom that humans come up with is often flawed (read 1 Cor. 1). If we have a sober appreciation of our limits, we have a much better chance of not becoming a fool. In the Hebrew sense, a "fool" is someone with a perverse morality. It's not about how smart or dumb someone is; it's about the impact they will have on human society. We want our leaders to be wise, not foolish. We want to be wise, not foolish. And that comes with submitting ourselves to God.
Part 2: Path of Obedience - Proverbs 1:8-9
Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction, and don’t reject your mother’s teaching, for they will be a garland of favor on your head and pendants around your neck.
It should make sense that the book focuses on teaching younger people (again, particularly boys because they were the ones given access to positions of societal leadership). Educators today understand that if you wait until after a child turns 13 to teach ethics, you're too late.
Solomon presupposes that a child's parents are conscientious Israelites who have the best interest of the child at heart at all times. That's a necessary presupposition. For our purposes, it reminds us that most of this kind of wisdom learning takes place in the home. (Was Solomon speaking to his literal male offspring? Not necessarily; it was very common for an older man to call a boy "son".)
Take some time to think about what you learned from your parents and teachers. What effect have they had on your life that you can feel to this day? The good lessons I've learned that have stuck with me are absolutely like an ornament that I carry with me. I can't see myself without seeing them, which is Solomon's point. Lord willing, the ornaments that you carry with you make you look "better" the the rest of the world and don't drag you down.
Part 3: Resist Sin - Proverbs 1:10-14
My son, if sinners entice you, don’t be persuaded. If they say—“Come with us! Let’s set an ambush and kill someone. Let’s attack some innocent person just for fun! Let’s swallow them alive, like Sheol, whole, like those who go down to the Pit. We’ll find all kinds of valuable property and fill our houses with plunder. Throw in your lot with us, and we’ll all share the loot”—
When we remember that wisdom is primarily about making our world better, not knowledge or personal gain, the idea that resisting temptation is fundamental to wisdom only makes sense. A wise person (1) is aware of peer pressure, (2) does not ignore "red flags", (3) cares about others, and (4) is not obsessed with material gain.
A big part of Solomon's point is that every young person has many competing voices in their lives. Their father or mother is not the only influence. Eventually, a young person has to be able to resist a bad influence without dad's help.
One of the commentaries I read reminded us that if we are to share the gospel with lost people, we have to have relationships with lost people. We cannot avoid or shut out all of the people who need Jesus just because we're afraid of the influence they might have over us. Rather, we are to be strong in our faith--built on the foundation of fearing God more than a person--so that we can safely and appropriately relate to all of the non-Christians in our lives.
Part 4: Sin's Results - Proverbs 1:15-19
my son, don’t travel that road with them or set foot on their path, because their feet run toward evil and they hurry to shed blood. It is useless to spread a net where any bird can see it, but they set an ambush to kill themselves; they attack their own lives. Such are the paths of all who make profit dishonestly; it takes the lives of those who receive it.
Here's the thing about godly wisdom: anybody in the world could follow it to good results, regardless of their personal beliefs. Why? Because God has made people this way; however distorted it might be, we all have a sense of justice (some might call it our conscience). Therefore, if you live honestly, it will go well for you. If you live dishonestly, it will eventually find you out. How many books and movies are based on this truth! As we learned when we studied Romans, the world tries to call it "karma". We're better off understanding it as human nature. And besides, divine justice will always give the proper verdict in God's time, whether this life or the next.
You don't have to be a Christian (or even religious) to know that it is best to teach a young man to stay away from violence and crime. That's why we put Proverbs in that second category of wisdom--it true for humans.
If we can understand the purpose and foundation of this book, we've done our job and I know that we will have a great time studying Proverbs together.