Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Wisdom is a choice. You choose which path you take in life, whether it be obedience leading to life, or temptation leading to sin.
Hold on to instruction; don’t let go. Guard it, for it is your life. Proverbs 4:13
This article began as a supplement to the Sunday School lesson on June 28 - Proverbs 4:11-27, "All people have a choice to make: follow God or reject Him". In other words, I'm not trying to replace the study guide; I'm trying to add to it. Below, I am going to embrace how Lifeway made this a lesson about following Jesus, but before we get into that, I want to establish that words like "sin" and "righteousness" do not appear in the text. As I've said since we started this book, Proverbs is about a practical kind of wisdom that all people all over the world can and should employ, regardless of their religious beliefs. As a general rule for all humanity: it is better to be wise than foolish. Let's not miss the practical and immediate application of what Solomon is saying in a rush to get to the most important choice of all (Jesus). The intended meaning is still quite valuable: don't be violent, don't be corrupt, etc.
Getting Started: Potential Icebreaker
Wisdom from Your Grandfather
To get into a frame of mind ready to learn this passage, we might try this topic. There are two ways you think about it. (1) Wisdom you remember learning directly from your grandfather. Or (2) wisdom your dad said he learned from your grandfather. There might be a difference! Here are some grandpa quotes I found on the internet:
“A grandfather is someone with silver in his hair and gold in his heart.”
“Every parent knows that children look at their grandparents as a source of wisdom and security.” —David Jeremiah
“My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.” —Indira Gandhi
“His heritage to his children wasn’t words or possessions, but an unspoken treasure, the treasure of his example as a man and father.” —Will Rogers Jr.
“My grandfather always said that living is like licking honey off a thorn.” —Louis Adamic
"Just as knowledge is derived from information, wisdom begins with knowledge, grows with experience, and is empowered by discernment." Joseph Marshall III
"To a small child, the perfect granddad is unafraid of big dogs and fierce storms but absolutely terrified of the word "boo"." Robert Brault
When you Google things like "wisdom from grandpa" you mainly get sweet memories about grandpa (which is still great and inspirational). When you Google "life lessons from grandpa" you get things like this:
“Happiness is not found, it’s created.”
“If you are going to do something, do it right.”
“Always to do the right thing, work hard and do your best.”
“You do what is right, no matter what, but don’t take yourself too seriously.”
“Always laugh and have fun in everything you do.”
“No knowledge is ever wasted.”
“Actions speak louder than words.”
“Think before you talk.”
“It is terrible to be broke. Nobody spent your money, but you.”
“Obedience and respect eliminates laziness and scolding.”
“Be attentive…when someone talks to you…look them straight in the eye.”
Now, that sounds familiar. I can certainly hear my grandpa saying those things. The more digging I did online, the more I heard proverbs like those--basic life lessons of etiquette and morality. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if most of the proverbs you can find online are versions of something the author learned from someone's grandpa!
There's another way you can approach this: did your dad ever talk to you about what he learned from his dad? Certainly, most of the lessons we pass on are things we learned--it's a given. But every once in a while, dad busts out a "this is what I learned from your grandfather". Do you have any such stories? I've done that to my kids a few times, but rarely. Why? What's the value in playing the "your grandfather" card? For me, at least, it is two things: credibility and emotion. Grandkids often have a unique relationship with a grandparent -- invoking a grandparent stirs all kinds of emotions, and if you can say "your grandpa told me" then it becomes that much more important.
At the beginning of chapter 4, Solomon said, "When I was a boy in my father's house . . . he taught me and said . . ." In other words, he played the grandpa card. I think that's a big deal -- he's pulling out all the stops to highlight the importance of these words. "It's not just me saying these things; it's your grandpa."
[Speculative aside. If Solomon did indeed write these words, and many think he did, think about that. Who was Solomon's dad? What were the conditions of Solomon's childhood? Solomon was born when David was about 53. David had a number of wives and concubines and sons and daughters before he did what he did to Bathsheba. By the time Solomon turned 12, his older brother has raped his sister and been killed by another brother who then expelled his father and forcibly claimed the throne which David had said would go to Solomon. Oh dear! And yet, Solomon was still able to write what he wrote here. I wonder if enough time had passed for Solomon to gloss over the great errors in David's later years to focus on the things that made him "a man after God's own heart" (like we have to do with David today). Or if Solomon was able to see the important lessons he learned even in the midst of so much chaos. I wonder if David ever had a talk with Solomon like "you see where the decisions I've made have led me -- don't make the mistakes I did". If so, wouldn't that be powerful? Wouldn't that be a plausible starting point for Solomon's better choices at the beginning of his reign?]
Where We Are in Proverbs
Still in the intro. Still covering basic themes in long-form poetry. Get wisdom at any cost and value it above everything else.
Part 1: The Path to Take (Proverbs 4:11-13)
11 I am teaching you the way of wisdom; I am guiding you on straight paths. 12 When you walk, your steps will not be hindered; when you run, you will not stumble. 13 Hold on to instruction; don’t let go. Guard it, for it is your life.
The main point is that there is a right path to take in life, the one les by wisdom.
Just to be safe, let me reiterate that we have to read poetry differently than prose. Poetry is filled with images and figures of speech. "Path" and "step" and "stumble" are not literal but figurative. Here is a great video on how to approach poetry in the Bible:
The Bible Project also put out this amazing 5-minute overview of how to approach Solomon's writings. They take the approach that we can learn from Solomon's successes and failures. (They also make this great explanation that "the fear of the Lord" is simply choosing to live by God's wisdom instead of your own. I like that.)
With that in mind, isn't the "path" image great? Think about paths or trails you have literally walked on. Weren't some much easier to walk on than others?
[Aside on trail ratings. If you hike, you are familiar with the trail rating system: easy, moderate, and difficult. Depending on your group, this might be an effective illustration to use. Here's an "easy" description (I'll let you research the rest if you're interested): "Easy trails are usually mostly flat with very little elevation change. There are no steep hills or inclines with even footing and very little loose gravel, large rocks or roots that may cause unstable footing. Easy hikes/walks should try to stay under 3 miles to keep them accessible to all fitness/experience levels." Of course, some ratings are even more technical than that. The point is that not all paths are created equal, and a good hiker is prepared for the nature of the trail. Shouldn't that be a motto for life?]
Using that image, what is Solomon saying about wisdom? What is wisdom if you think of your life as a path? These come to mind to me: (1) wisdom is the description that helps you choose the path you are capable of finishing; (2) wisdom is the rail on the path that keeps you from falling off the edge; (3) wisdom is the rope or chain you can use to pull yourself along the path. What else can you think of to understand the role of wisdom?
Other ways you could go to make this image even more real. Have you ever gotten lost while hiking? If you follow an official trail, they have markers (usually a patch of paint on the trees along the path) to keep you on the path. On one trail, I stopped seeing those markers. What had happened was me following a game trail instead of the people trail. But because I was looking for the markers, I was able to double-back before I got in trouble. Wisdom is kind of like those markers.
Or how about this: have you ever gone on a hike you were improperly prepared for? Or perhaps you did not do the research on the trail and were completely ill-prepared? Rangers have lots of stories of people with sunburns or blisters or dehydration so severe that it required an escort or even airlift. Wisdom--in this case proper preparation--literally could save a life if it is heeded.
One last idea: my Serendipity Bible includes this clever question: "In your pursuit of biblical wisdom these days, would you say that you are: (a) lonely trailblazer; (b) crazy off-road driver; (c) sleepless over-the-road driver; (d) teenage hot-rodder; (e) demolition derby buff; (f) chugging along in your compact car; (g) touring the USA in your Chevrolet; (h) strictly thumbing and bumming?" I love Serendipity discussion questions because they adhere to the "how to write a good discussion question" rules I include in another article: keeps attention, leads to truth discoveries, focuses discussion on a theme, encourages responses, and provides practical application. We need to be intentional and careful and relentless in our search for biblical wisdom.
So, does that mean that Solomon is telling us to take the straight path? As we will see below, that's not necessarily the case. Rather, Solomon is telling us to listen to him, and he will guide us onto a straight path. There's a difference. If we choose the path on our own, we are liable to choose the easy-looking path that leads to destruction. And did not David say in Psalm 23 that God leads him on a path through the valley of the shadow of death? I bet it was a straight path! The path we should take is the path of wisdom, the path that our wise teachers has instructed us to take. (Namely, the path with Jesus.) It might not be easy, and it might not be short, but it will be right.
Part 2: The Path to Avoid (Proverbs 4:14-19)
14 Keep off the path of the wicked; don’t proceed on the way of evil ones. 15 Avoid it; don’t travel on it. Turn away from it, and pass it by. 16 For they can’t sleep unless they have done what is evil; they are robbed of sleep unless they make someone stumble. 17 They eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence. 18 The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, shining brighter and brighter until midday. 19 But the way of the wicked is like the darkest gloom; they don’t know what makes them stumble.
The main point is that we are to avoid every path that might lead us into temptation.
When we read these verses, we might have in our mind an image of a hardened criminal. "They can't sleep unless they have been violent." To an extent, that's true -- Solomon has created a kind of caricature of a wicked person. But it's intended to be instructive.
Start with this: think of a show or a book where a person gets started on the wrong path and then they turn into a hardened criminal. Three that come immediately to my mind are Breaking Bad (which is entirely based on the idea that a law-abiding citizen can turn into a criminal with just a push), Shawshank Redemption (in which the main character didn't become a criminal until after going to prison), and Star Wars (which is founded on the transition from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader). There are plenty more; think of one that might better connect with your group. It's the idea "there but by the grace of God go I". With a good dose of humility, we can all realize ourselves as capable of great sin if put in the wrong circumstances.
It is very simple: stay off of the path of wickedness.
Here's where I want to follow Lifeway in spiritualizing the verses. Here are two very instructive lessons from Jesus. First, from Luke 18:
A ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor your father and mother.” “I have kept all these from my youth,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he told him, “You still lack one thing: Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
And then from Matthew 5:
“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment." "You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Jesus makes two important points for us to remember when reading these verses in Proverbs. First, if we compare ourselves against this person Solomon is talking about and think we're probably okay, that leads to self-righteousness -- the idea that I'm not as bad as that other guy therefore I must be good. Self-righteousness is itself a sin! For us as Christians, the question we should be asking ourselves about this passage is not "do I drink the wine of violence?" (I should hope not!) but "am I on a path toward righteousness?". It's a very different question that doesn't let us off the hook so easily. Second, we have to know that sin against God is more than adultery and murder. It gets into our hearts, our motives, our desires. The moment we start thinking that we're okay is the moment we should realize that we are in fact not okay.
Here's something very clever about Solomon's choice of image: in order to get to the end of a path, you have to take the path. As we will see in the final section, we have a choice not to the take the path. Look at it this way: wisdom is a choice; sin is also a choice. You don't oops your way into an affair any more than Walter White accidentally became a drug lord. You don't oops your way into lying on your timecard or your taxes. Even the person who says "I didn't plan on stealing that [whatever]; it was just there" has to admit that they had not been guarding their hearts from ill intention or temptation. Here's a common way of thinking about sin:
Temptation triggers desire.
Desire stirs the yearning for gratification.
Failure to consider the end and to discipline oneself prompt the sinful act.
The sinful act brings forth death.
There are all sorts of outs on this path to wickedness. First, we can avoid temptation ("flee from it" as Paul says). Don't put ourselves in a place where we can be tempted. Second, we can choose not to act on temptation. Martin Luther said, "It is not necessarily your choice if birds fly over your head; it is your choice to let them nest in your hair." Third, we can interrupt ourselves in the act of whatever sin. We are not powerless in this (but more on that below).
That's why we need to take seriously Jesus' call to repent. All of the wicked ways of the Israelites were being stored up against them as wrath. If they did not stop doing them, God would judge them eternally. Wickedness in this passage (committed against people) is even more directed against God who created them in His image. That's why we are correct in thinking of wickedness as sin in a New Testament sense. Repent means both turning away from your sin and also turning toward God. In other words, it's not only stopping to walk on the path of wickedness, but also running toward and walking on the path of wisdom. In fact, I think the "two paths" image really helps explain why it's not enough for us to stop committing whatever sin. Think about it: if you stop walking further down the path of wickedness, you're still on the path of wickedness! You have to leave that path.
The day/night image here also makes a lot more sense when you're in a hiking frame of mind. Have you ever been on a night hike? Have you ever been on a night hike without a source of light? If you can't see what's in front of your feet, you might be in significant danger, at the least of serious injury. Want to test that? Blindfold a volunteer from your class and have them walk around your room (slowly and with somebody nearby to help). Not being able to see changes everything, makes everything more dangerous. The path of the wicked is in the dark--they cannot see all of the dangers that await them. The path of the righteous is in the light--if there are dangers, they can be seen and avoided.
Apply that idea to real life. Is it true? Why or why not?
[Back-up Illustration: Addiction. If for some reason you have people in your group who insist that such behavior is reserved only for hardened, militant sinners, and no Christian could ever behave that way, bring up the word "addiction". There are two sets of choices every person has to make. The first one, which I will expand on below, is the choice to take the "narrow road" to salvation in Jesus as opposed to the "wide road" to destruction. Once you have made that choice, That road leads you to salvation. But the second one is what Solomon talks about in our passage: the choice every moment to take either the wise path or the wicked path. If we make one wrong choice, it could spiral us into disaster. Every one of us has some sort of weakness (again, see below), and if we step on the path to that sin, that could easily lead to addiction. If you know anyone who is addicted to nicotine, or alcohol, or any other kind of drug, you know how insidious that addiction is and how difficult it is to break. It may never lead you to "drink the wine of violence", but it could still destroy you, and by extension the people you love. So, yes, Christians need to take this seriously.]
Part 3: The Choice to Make (Proverbs 4:20-27)
20 My son, pay attention to my words; listen closely to my sayings. 21 Don’t lose sight of them; keep them within your heart. 22 For they are life to those who find them, and health to one’s whole body. 23 Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life. 24 Don’t let your mouth speak dishonestly, and don’t let your lips talk deviously. 25 Let your eyes look forward; fix your gaze straight ahead. 26 Carefully consider the path for your feet, and all your ways will be established. 27 Don’t turn to the right or to the left; keep your feet away from evil.
The main point: we can choose which path we take in life.
What I appreciate about the choices Lifeway made in putting together these lessons is they properly kept the larger passages intact. Solomon isn't just informing his sons of the dangers of the path of wickedness. He is calling on them to make a decision. A choice. Don't just learn about this; choose to do something about it.
Solomon uses the body as a motif for some very practical applications to what he has said. I think it wise to go through each one of these and draw up a simple rule for each part of the body mentioned here. I'm thinking something like this:
My heart -- who I am -- I need to be careful who I let influence me
My mouth -- what I say -- I need to be truthful
My eyes -- what I see -- I need to stay away from temptation
My feet -- how I live -- I need to stay close to Jesus
And then, you would think of one area of your life with respect to each of those where you might be struggling and write a clear rule for yourself that could act as a wise barrier keeping your from danger. Now, because we are connecting these verses with the New Testament concepts of sin and repentance, we can look at our choice like this:
According to this diagram, where does our choice lie? In how we respond to our evil desire. Do we yield to it (choose the path of wickedness)? Or do we resist it (choose the path of wisdom)? What I like about that diagram is that it reinforces the idea that we always have a choice; we do not have to commit the sin; the sin we commit is our choice. What I don't like about the diagram is the word "evil". We don't always know that our desire is evil. Sometimes, Satan's primary work is in convincing us that our desire is not evil! Even good desires can become sin if not held in check by God's wisdom.
When I say that we do not have to commit the sin, I mean that. Paul said very clearly, "No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to bear it." (1 Cor 10:13) Google "how to resist temptation" and you will find a whole lot of websites with ideas on this. They come back to the same general principles: submit to God, pray, think about Jesus, avoid sources of temptation, memorize the Bible, actively resist your desires. It's not rocket science. It's basic self-control, one of the fruits of the Spirit.
What are specific sins you're having trouble with right now? How might Solomon's image (heart, mouth, eyes, feet) help you construct a plan for resisting whatever that temptation is? Be specific!
But most importantly, recognize the spiritual side to this topic. Solomon gives practical words of advice that anyone in the world can follow. What might be the problem with sharing these words with a non-Christian and leaving it at that? They might get the wrong idea. Either they might think that overcoming sin is merely a matter of will-power. In many ways it is! But you are likely to end up like the Pharisee: self-righteous, which is itself a sin. Or they might get focused on specific temptations, like the rich young ruler, and think they are okay because they have not committed those sins. All the while, they are sinning in their heart--something Jesus explained is just as serious as sinning in deed. If we want to overcome sin in its true sense, the only way is by the Holy Spirit. And if we want to be forgiven of the consequences of sin, the only way is by the blood of Jesus. Does that distinction make sense?
We can follow Solomon's directives and stop committing certain sins, but that alone won't make us right with God. And what a tragedy it would be to attempt a life of self-righteousness only to come to end and prove Jesus right when He said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’
Yes, choosing the path of righteousness is critical and necessary. But it means nothing eternally apart from a saving relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
[Closing aside: the wise path vs. the narrow path. I've mentioned this before and I want to mention this again. There is a contrast between Solomon's image and Jesus' image. To Solomon, the wise path is easy and safe, but the wicked path is dangerous and dark. To Jesus, the narrow and avoided path is the one that leads to righteousness, but the wide and easy path is the one that leads to death. That's because Solomon is talking about living day-to-day, while Jesus is talking about entering into heaven. As in Pilgrim's Progress, the fun and flashy road is the one filled with sin and destruction; we must avoid that road. But when we are on the road to righteousness with Jesus, He offers us His yoke, which is easy and light. Living day-to-day with Jesus is hard, but He makes it wonderful. Life with Jesus is so much better than life with sin. We will eventually get into some Proverbs that sound like that!]