Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Proverbs 3
Proverbs offers two principles: Live wisely, and you will live a long, full, healthy life. Be loyal and faithful (to God and neighbors), and you will be highly regarded.
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
This article began as a supplement to the Sunday School lesson that was built around the idea that "God provides direction to those who place their trust in Him". Proverbs 3:1-12. That's great, and you can read their approach in their study guide. As always, I want to offer a slightly different perspective so as to supplement the information you already have.
You might remember from last week that of three kinds of wisdom--
The wisdom related to wielding a skill (that anyone can acquire through application and practice)
The wisdom of understanding people (that anyone can learn from an elder)
The wisdom that answers life's greatest questions (that only comes from God)
the book of Proverbs fits into the second category. The book contains wisdom that anyone in the world could learn and apply and thus live well. Yes, it ultimately comes from God, but really we should look at it as a wise father compiling everything he knows in the hopes that his son will lead a good, responsible, productive life. Sure, it's helpful for Christians, but the beauty of the book is that it's also helpful for non-Christians, male, female, young, old, you name it--Proverbs offers direction that can be applied to any fulfilling life.
But here's the key to understanding Proverbs: the father/author is not pointing to himself; he's pointing to God. After everything he has learned and experienced, all of the wisdom he has accumulated, he knows that it is worthless apart from humble submission to God.
This passage includes some of the most quotable (and quoted) verses in all the Bible. Let's put them in our heads and learn what they mean this week.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
We've all gotten lost. Let's get that out of the way. Have any of us gotten lost while using a GPS? At FBC, I can think of at least two people for whom the GPS won't get you to their house. Let them give you instructions, on the other hand, and getting to their home is no trouble. Why is that?
At the end of the day, a GPS system is just a machine that's only as helpful as the information it has been given. The person who lives there knows the routes, the hazards, and the landmarks. Both can make mistakes; I'll ride with the person who lives there.
And that's the thing about Proverbs: the author is only kind of pointing to himself as the person with the answers! He's just a man. God--the only true source of wisdom--must inspire and illuminate our understanding of what these proverbs mean. "A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like lame legs that hang limp" (26:7).
A Quick Background of Our Passage in Proverbs
Proverbs does not have the structure of a book like we may be used to; the proverbs don't follow a narrative or topical outline. Rather, they are grouped by genre and author.
Part 1: "Instructions" (long poems; chapters 1-9)
Part 2: "Sayings" (couplets; chapters 10-29)
Part 3: "Admonitions" (imperatives; chapters 22-24)
Part 4: Epilogue of numerical and alphabetical poetry
The pithy sayings that many people think of with respect to Proverbs are in Part 2. They are further grouped by whether they were written by Solomon, or an older group called "The Wise".
The first several lessons of our quarter come from Part 1, which is filled with longer poems that are mostly directed to children and contain both imperatives and motives. We can think of this section as a kind of introduction or prologue because it introduces all of the main themes:
Wisdom is the source of morality (chapter 2)
Wisdom leads to well-being (chapter 3)
Choose the right path (chapter 4)
Avoid adultery (chapters 5-7)
Listen to wisdom (chapters 8-9)
(Yes, because wisdom is personified as a woman, there are some double meanings in the warnings against adultery, but we will get to them in the weeks ahead.)
So--this lesson from chapter 3 is firmly in the introduction. The author (or potentially editor if Solomon didn't write this part of the book) offers four primary admonitions that will be found throughout the rest of the book. The lesson is structured around them.
Part 1: Remember - Proverbs 3:1-4
1 My son, don’t forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commands; for they will bring you many days, a full life, and well-being. 2 Never let loyalty and faithfulness leave you. 3 Tie them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Then you will find favor and high regard with God and people.
First, ask yourself this question: why do we have so many laws in our country? Are there laws you would prefer we not have? If so, what would the consequences be if that law went away?
This is certainly an issue right now in our COVID-19 world. Some Americans are really not happy with what they see as government meddling by over-regulation. But on the other side of the issue, with the impact of the violent protests over George Floyd and others, we worry about what might happen if there's not enough government oversite. It's an age-old question that goes back to our founding fathers (shout out to Hamilton).
Obviously, this graphic has to be taken with a grain of salt, but my point is that some very different perspectives balanced one another extremely well in the building of our country. And the quotes mentioned explain quite clearly why we have so many laws. Yes, it would be nice to expect the people in our country to use their freedoms for the good of their communities and an eye on the future. But many don't. As a result, we codify those behaviors that should be viewed as what is best for the country as a whole.
Is that bad?
Restricting a company's ability to pollute their region for the well-being of the people who live nearby. Forcing a company to disclose potentially harmful information about the products they want to sell. Expecting a company to pay taxes so that infrastructure can be maintained. Frankly, those things are good and should be expected. (The debate kicks into gear when we talk about where each line should be drawn, and that's a different debate.)
That's essentially all the author (let's call him Solomon for the time being) is saying. When we follow the rules--assuming that those rules are there for our benefit and the good of our community--everybody wins. Think about the rules you've given your own kids (or that your parents once gave you).
Over the course of this quarter, we're going to get into matters that are personal as well as some sayings that you might not like. That's when we have to remember this purpose.
There are two parts to these verses:
If you follow these rules, you will live a long, full, healthy life.
If you focus on loyalty and faithfulness, you will be highly regarded.
Are those two statements absolutely true? Of course not. But are they generally true? Of course. This is similar to us telling our kids, "Work hard in school and you'll get a good job." Can we actually promise that? No. But is it still accurate as a general rule? Yes. Technically, you can walk down the middle of the highway and emerge unscathed while someone else gets hit by a car on a sidewalk. But we're still going to tell our kids to walk on the sidewalk.
I Googled "fit4life logo" and got a lot more than these. None of these groups promise that they will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. But they offer principles that, if you follow them, will make you healthy-er. It's just like the diet based on Daniel (The Daniel Plan); Daniel followed it and was observably healthier than the people in the court who ate rich foods and were lazy. As you read through Proverbs, you'll notice plenty of examples of these!
And then loyalty and faithfulness. "Loyalty" is actually the Hebrew word chesed, which is often translated "lovingkindness". It's the highest form of love in the Old Testament--a covenant faithfulness that is steadfastly committed regardless of the circumstances. "Faithfulness" is a word regularly applied to God--a moral consistency. Does anyone need convincing that those two characteristics would go a long way toward building your good reputation among other people?
Part 2: Trust - Proverbs 3:5-8
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways know him, and he will make your paths straight. 7 Don’t be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil. 8 This will be healing for your body and strengthening for your bones.
I really don't think these verses need much explanation (just memorize them). On this side of Jesus, we now know that the ultimate form of trust is trusting Him (and Him alone) with our eternal salvation. One can learn from these proverbs and not be a Christian, but for one to really be transformed by the wisdom contained therein, one must be a Christian.
What are the ways we exercise this principle is our daily life?
A student trusts the teacher's plans a goals.
An athlete trusts the coach's gameplan and techniques.
An employee trusts the boss's strategy and goals.
A citizen trusts the government's laws and regulations.
And so on. Obviously, when we read that, we immediately think of all the times that we knew better than the teacher or coach or boss or lawmaker. But for the most part, I listened to and learned from my teachers. I understand the purpose and value of a law. When I go to my doctor, I don't second-guess every observation he makes; I trust his vastly superior training and expertise. And that's what it comes down to--the teacher has learned the material and studied how to teach it. Should I not trust that preparation and experience? When I worked with college students, I offered this regular piece of advice: "Whether or not you like or agree with your professor, your job in this course is to learn what he/she has to say and why. Then, after you have successfully completed the course, you can choose to do whatever you want with what you learned. Who knows but you might decide that the professor was right!"
The key here is that we are trusting in THE LORD, not ourselves. That immediately puts aside any biases or fears we may have brought with us from teachers or coaches or bosses who didn't have the right answers. The Lord always has the truth. We are to trust Him, not ourselves. This has two big consequences:
We submit to the truth in God's Word, even when we don't like it
We don't think more of ourselves (knowledge or ability) than we should
So, make this personal. What are examples of things you learned in a sermon, a Sunday School lesson, or your own personal Bible study that ran contrary to the way you thought? Maybe this was about a belief. (Right now, it is extremely unpopular to say that the only right way to experience sex is between one man and one woman in a marriage relationship.) Maybe this was about an attitude. (The Bible telling us "submit to the governing authorities" is also pretty unpopular among certain circles.) Maybe this was about a doctrine. (I learned as an adult that baptism is a response to salvation. That changed what I thought about a lot of things.) What are specific examples of ways that your learning of the Bible changed the way you behaved or thought?
Then, as a follow up, ask yourself how that change has affected your life. Solomon says here that when we submit to the Lord, He makes our path straight. Has that been your experience? Now--let me say the hardest thing I will in this article. We don't always get the Bible right. Our pastors don't always get the Bible right. Sometimes, our interpretation or application of the Bible is incorrect. (Don't be shocked by that. If we have a whole bunch of denominations all saying things that are mutually exclusive, somebody is obviously incorrect!) This is a continuous experience. We must continuously trust in the Lord. We must continuously submit to Him and know Him. And over time, He will continue to straighten out our path.
That takes humility. "Wisdom" is only useful if we have the humility to accept (1) that we need it, and (2) that we trust the person sharing it with us. The submission I described above of the student or athlete or employee or citizen, sometimes that's a heart issue. Some athletes are so convinced of their own superiority that they won't listen to the coach, no matter how right the coach might be. When we have the humility to acknowledge that we don't always have the answers, that we don't always see the whole picture, and that we don't always have the discipline, were much more ready to accept God's wisdom and plan.
But as you're thinking about that, don't miss this reminder of the application/meaning of wisdom: turning away from evil. That's going to be a consistent theme in Proverbs: the wise vs. the foolish. The wise man conducts himself uprightly, morally, ethically. The fool is evil, wicked, dull. The wise man will end his days well in the sight of God. The fool will suffer the due punishment for his wickedness.
There is a lot of similarity with the "two roads" illustration that Jesus uses in the Gospels and that has dominated Christian art and literature in the centuries since, highlighted by The Pilgrim's Progress (and imitated not as well in latter years)...
But understand the difference between the "two ways" in Proverbs and the "two ways" in the Gospels. The Gospels are talking about salvation. The narrow, hard way is the one that leads to eternal life. The broad, easy way is the one that leads to destruction. But in Proverbs, that's not necessarily the case. Yes, in the other wisdom books the observation is made that the wicked man has an easy and prosperous life, but for Solomon the point is that if you follow what is otherwise considered the "hard road" of righteousness and upright living, your life can be good--filled with love and laughter and prosperity and respect.
Those two perspectives are not contradictory! Every committed Christian I know would say that following Jesus has led to the most fulfilling life. We also live in a prosperous country where Christianity is (for now) tolerated. That all works together. Does that explanation make sense?
Part 3: Honor - Proverbs 3:9-10
9 Honor the Lord with your possessions and with the first produce of your entire harvest; 10 then your barns will be completely filled, and your vats will overflow with new wine.
Here's another very well-known verse. It comes up every sermon on tithing, right? (If not this, then Malachi 3:10 - "Bring the full tenth into the storehouse so that there may be food in my house. Test me in this way. See if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing for you without measure." I'm not going to add a whole lot here because it follows the same themes as the previous part. Live to honor the Lord, and your life will be fulfilled. Here: give to honor the Lord, and your life will be fulfilled. But don't give just anything--give your best. I don't know much about farming, but apparently the quality of your crops diminishes over time. The first of the crop to be ripe for harvest is the best of that entire crop. Well, that's what we give to God (not the leftovers). When that happens, you will end up with more food and drink than you would know what to do with.
If you remember, grain offerings were a critical part of the sacrificial system. Not only was it a part of the Jewish duty, but the grain itself would then be used to feed the priests. In our money-based economy, we tend to give money to the church, so this illustration probably doesn't mean as much to us. But it would be easy to swap the illustration with the money tithe/10%. A mentor once told me that living on 90% is no harder than living on 100%, and he was certainly right. God has always met our needs (any problems we've ever had have been of our own creation).
Unfortunately, the Prosperity Gospel has decided to interpret this verse literally and absolutely. "Give to the Lord (preferably through me), and you will receive financial blessing." In fact, it is something to be manipulated--give for the purpose of gaining.
But they are wrong in saying that. Just as with the verses about health, Solomon is not making a guarantee. These are not promises. These are principles. I can testify from my experience that when I take a biblical approach to finances, I have more than I need. But that doesn't mean that I'm dripping with cash. More importantly, when I have what I need, I realize that I don't need what I thought I did. One prosperity gospel preacher bought a private jet with the donations to his ministry; how do you think that lines up with what Solomon was saying in our passage?
And besides, following the "two ways" image to its New Testament end, the real blessing of knowing God isn't fully realized until the wedding feast of the Lamb in heaven. Even our greatest blessings in this life pale in comparison with the glory that awaits us. (We talked a lot about this when going through Romans last quarter.) Perspective!
Part 4: Accept - Proverbs 3:11-12
Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son, and do not loathe his discipline; for the Lord disciplines the one he loves, just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights.
Now--follow the progression of these commands:
Remember these instructions (and they will bring you a good life)
Trust the Lord's ways (and your life will be upright)
Honor the Lord first and foremost (and you will have everything you need)
Accept the Lord's discipline (and He will keep you on the right path)
See how they all fit together? It covers all of life. What I most appreciate about these last two verses is how they "transfer leadership" to the Lord. It's not Solomon's discipline that matters--it's the Lord's. Why is that important?
Think back to either when your children first left your home, or when you first left your parent's home. What was that transition like? What sort of mistakes were made? How many phone calls home were there? Eventually children make their own decisions and stand on their own feet. Parents can't be there every moment and every choice. But God can. If we have helped our children follow the narrow and the wise road, then we don't have to worry about whether or not they will be sensitive to the Lord's guidance.
"Discipline" is a great word. Let's go back to the roles mentioned above: student/teacher; athlete/coach; employee/boss; citizen/lawmaker. We've all experienced some form of discipline in each of those settings. What did (does) it look like? How beneficial was it? What lessons did we take to heart? Have you had an experience like me in which the teachers who were the hardest on you are now your favorites? Why is that?
Every gain takes hard work and sacrifice. And it's not just on your part; it's also on the part of the person mentoring or training you. We tend to put our greatest efforts of training into the people we see the greatest promise in.
Likewise, when God puts us through the wringer of life (and please think of examples of ways God has disciplined you!), it's because He believes we will grow from it and benefit from it. Discipline is for our good. And so let me end with my Peanuts strip:
Basically, you could memorize all of these verses and do well by it. You kind of already know them. So, pick a few, memorize them exactly, and make sure you also memorize the verse number.
Finally, as an application, think about one decision you're facing right now where you have to rely on someone else's expertise. (We have quite a few such decisions right now at the church where we are trusting the opinions of people who have a lot more medical knowledge than we do.) How is that going? And then here's the twist: what's a choice you're making in which you should be relying on God but are not? God knows the best choice. God has the right perspective. And God knows what is best for you. Spend time in prayer this week and let God help you make that choice.