Introduction to the Book of Proverbs


Proverbs 1:1-7

This evening we are reading the first seven verses as an introduction to the book. The Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel. The interesting thing about that introduction is that the proverbs of Solomon make up only part of the book. We read later other proverbs collected from the time of Hezekiah and there are wisdom sayings collected from other wise men, “Sayings of the Wise,” we will find near the end of the book. But a good chunk of the proverbs in the major central section are the proverbs of Solomon which begin at 10:1.

Turn over to chapter 30, keep your Bible open there and we will soon look at a few verses from chapter 30.

I was astounded to discover, searching through my files, that I have never preached a series, even a short series of sermons on the book of Proverbs. I have taught some Sunday School classes on the book and delivered a lecture or two on biblical wisdom, but never a series of sermons delivered in the church. It is high time that I remedied that omission for Proverbs is a book that every Christian ought to know well. You are supposed to have memorized a good bit of material from Proverbs and carry it with you wherever you go! Christians ought to love this book for the immensely practical help it offers to those who want to navigate this world without running around on its shoals or being dashed upon its hidden reefs. Proverbs contains the practical life training that pious Israelite families were to inculcate in their children before they became adults. But, as I said, adults never get beyond the sound teaching and helpful counsel of this wonderful book. We are to refresh ourselves in its teaching over and over again.

But before I begin to introduce the book, strange to say, in our present ecclesiastical environment in the evangelical world of North America in the early years of twenty-first century, it is necessary to justify such a series of sermons. Why? Because Proverbs is not the gospel, or so it is likely to be said nowadays. And a gospel-centered church, in the nature of the case, does not concentrate on things that are not the gospel. It is harder to turn some parts of the Bible into a gospel sermon – as a gospel sermon is understood by such people, a proclamation of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. And Proverbs is one of those parts, concentrating as it does on the practicalities of life, how we ought to behave, how we ought to make decisions, what we ought to do and not do in the thousand and one circumstances of life. I never thought in all my life I would reach the point where I would tire of such words as “gospel” and “grace.” But nowadays these mighty words have been co-opted by a party in the church and used as shorthand for a spiritual outlook quite different from that of either historic Christianity or historic Reformed Christianity. In such hands these mighty terms are no longer theological but ideological. They don’t summarize the teaching of Holy Scripture as these words used to do so much as they serve a program of propaganda. I am sure these folk are very well meaning and they intend to be loyal to the Lord. I have no doubt about that. These terms – gospel and grace – are, to be sure, even in the circles where they have become buzzwords, often employed in a vague and undefined way. Those who use them, in my experience, hardly know what they mean by them, but there is no doubt that they represent a mood, a mindset a set of prejudices really and that mindset needs to be exposed for what it is. If you receive, as I have, an advertisement for a “grace-based diet plan” that doesn’t require you to count calories or weigh yourself, it should not be difficult for you to see that word “grace” has come to mean something other than the unmerited favor of God toward sinners, the mighty love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that has recovered the unworthy from sin and death. It means now some generalized divine good will or leniency that overlooks faults and is concerned primarily that we feel good about ourselves. Grace in such usage has little time for biblical wisdom – the way to live rightly and well – and biblical wisdom is what Proverbs is all about. Proverbs will expose our foolishness and reproach our gullibility and our indolence and, so we are told, grace does not do that.

If you asked the advocates of “grace-based” or “gospel-based” teaching, preaching, and living, if they meant that certain parts of the Bible should never be preached, they would, of course, deny that they mean any such thing. But the fact is, in these circles certain parts of the Bible are never preached. If you asked them if “grace” and “gospel” meant that when the Bible addresses us with respect to what we need to do and how we ought to handle ourselves in this situation or that, we should pay no attention but concern ourselves only with what Christ has done for us, they would again deny that such is their meaning. But in these circles there is precious little if any talk about what we must do, no matter that the Bible is always talking about that, and any sermon that does not make a central emphasis of what Christ has done for us – whether or not that is the theme of the text being preached – is scorned as moralizing and dismissed as a sermon that fails to grasp and understand the gospel. If you were to ask if because of their being “grace-centered” or “gospel-centered” they no longer believe in certain doctrines of the Reformed faith, they would hotly deny the implication. But in their circles certain doctrines may as well be denied because they are never so much as mentioned, much less pointedly taught or preached. Whether it is the goodness of the law of God, or the judgment of believers according to their works, or the need for Christians to obey the commandments of God lest they be rejected on the great day, subjects that were once staples of the Christian and Reformed pulpit have, wittingly or unwittingly, been consigned to oblivion in churches that ought to know better.

I want all of you to know that popular as this jargon has become and as thoroughly enamored of it as some people are nowadays, even some in our own circles, as deeply fixed as the prejudice has become that to speak of our obedience is contrary to the gospel or undermines the Bible’s message of free grace, this viewpoint does not represent the theology or the preaching of the early church, of the Reformation, of mainstream Protestant Christianity, of the English Puritans, or of the American Presbyterians until very recently. It has surfaced from time to time in the history of the Christian pulpit, but over time again and again has always been regarded, finally, as an aberration, a mistake. And the reason for that is that in generations past people were listening more carefully to the Bible and were determined to believe everything it taught and to live in subjection to everything it required, however unwelcome certain of its doctrines or laws might be to the heart and the conscience. The truth is the truth and God knows best! And God has put wisdom in his Bible in books such as Proverbs and the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. There is much of it in the four Gospels and in Paul and James. There is in the Bible a great deal of very practical instruction for life. Your understanding of the Christian life and what it means to live it is not complete, it will not be at all complete, if this part of the Bible’s teaching is not embraced and absorbed.

It is, I am sad to say, not only for ideological reasons – the fear of moralism and legalism and the like – that Proverbs is hardly ever preached in churches today. With but one Sunday service a faithful gospel minister is less likely to devote himself to this book as he might if he had, as I do, the opportunity to preach on Sunday evening as well.

Now, to be sure, Proverbs can easily be brought into the service of God’s grace and the gospel, as can any part of the Word of God, but, be that as it may, you will not find in Proverbs the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no mention in the book – not one – of the Lord’s great works of redemption, no mention of Israel’s election or of God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel, no mention of the exodus or the giving of the Law at Sinai, no mention of the sacrifices of atonement, or of the coming Messiah. Frankly, there is comparatively little in this large book about God apart from the need to fear and obey him, though in a few places, two as far as I have counted, we are also called upon to trust him (e.g. 3:5; 22:19). To be sure, the Lord’s personal and covenantal name, Yahweh, is used throughout the book and it is, of course, entirely proper to assume the entire theological structure of Israel’s faith lies beneath the instruction in wisdom that Proverbs was written to convey. In the book God is confessed as the world’s creator and the maker of every human being, the judge of all men, the sovereign who rules over history, the one who answers his children’s prayers, and the holy and merciful God. To fear the Lord, whatever else it means, certainly means to submit to his revealed will, and so it certainly should be understood that God’s covenant and the Law of Moses are the foundation upon which a life of wisdom is to be built. [Waltke, NICOT, i, 65]

Still, it is well known that we find in Proverbs some sayings that can also be found in the wisdom literature of other ancient Near Eastern nations. Surely it is striking that we are taught to do in Proverbs what Egyptian parents were teaching their children to do. It would be the equivalent of finding Ben Franklin’s wise sayings in Proverbs: “A penny saved is a penny earned” or “Early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Let me give you some examples.

Here is Prov. 23:4-5:

“Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”

But here is an Egyptian proverb from the collection of Amenemope which dates from approximately the same time as the collections of proverbs in our book of the Bible.

“Do not strain to seek excess when your possessions are secure. If riches are brought to you by robbery, they will not stay the night in your possession. When the day dawns they are no longer in your house…. They make themselves wings like geese and fly to heaven.” [9:14-10:5]

Apparently riches caused the same problems in Egypt that they did in Israel. Which is, after all, just what we should expect.

Or compare this proverb in 23:10-11:

“Do not remove an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless, for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you”

with this from Amenemope:

                        “Do not remove the boundary stone on the boundaries of cultivated land,
nor throw down the boundary of the widow.” [7:12]

There are a number of examples like that.

But two things should be noted in this respect. First, insofar as God is the creator of every human being and every person has been made in his image, insofar as the knowledge of God has been given to everyone however he or she may labor to suppress that knowledge, and insofar as the law of God has been written on every human heart, it is hardly surprising that we should find truth in non-Christian minds and unbelieving cultures. Only the atheist has to believe that all religious thought is entirely false. The Christian is free to accept that there is some truth wherever one looks. Second, it is important to note that even the world’s wisdom in Proverbs is given a particularly Israelite cast. Solomon happily confesses that he included in his collection the sayings of other wise men, but he did so, he reminds his readers in 22:19: “that your trust may be in the Lord.” The wisdom of Proverbs is based upon and anchored in Israel’s knowledge of the Lord her God, of his salvation, faithfulness, and love. There are, for example, parallels between Israel’s hymns, such as we find them in the Psalms, and a number of Israel’s laws as we find them in the Law of Moses with the hymns and laws of other ancient Near Eastern peoples, the laws of Hammurabi for example. But the theological context is completely different and that gives to the hymns and the laws and the proverbs a very distinct cast, anchored as it is in the knowledge of the God who made a covenant with his people, brought them into fellowship with himself, called them to live a holy life because he himself is holy, and promised them his Spirit to enable them to do it.

Still, what we have in the book of Proverbs is practical instruction for life. And we all need that. It should be obvious to any observer of American life in our time that as a society we are in great need of what the Bible calls wisdom. We are not only allowing but encouraging our young people to grow up to be fools about many things in life. We need wisdom. And Christians need it as surely as anyone else. But what precisely is wisdom? What does the Bible mean by this term? “Knowledge” and “wisdom” are used synonymously in Proverbs, as in the opening thesis statement in 1:7, but the distinctive Hebrew term, ordinarily translated “wisdom” in the Hebrew Bible is חכמה . Hokmah is perhaps best translated as skill or expertise. That is, it is not an intellectual trait, as if one can measure “wisdom” by SAT scores or GPA. Very smart people can have little wisdom and we’ve perhaps encountered folk of that type. Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, was a very smart person but he had very little wisdom. He couldn’t make a marriage work to save his life. An intellectual type can be very unwise and non-intellectual people can be very wise. Someone may have a great deal of knowledge and very little wisdom.

A good way of getting at the idea of wisdom as it is used in the Bible is to notice its use in other contexts. In Prov. 30:24, for example, we read this:

“Four things on earth are small but they are exceedingly wise…”

We go on to read of the ant, the rock badger, the locust, and the lizard. Each in its own way makes a great success of its life. They are not powerful creatures, have few defenses, and yet there is no deficit in the world’s ant population that I am aware of. As someone has observed, ants are the busiest creatures in the world but they still find time to attend every picnic. The Bible calls the skill with which they navigate their environment “wisdom.” They have an expertise that makes them successful at what they do and protects them from predators. That is hokmah. The world calls it instinct. Christians shouldn’t use that term because the Bible has a much better, truer word for what God has given animals and that word is “wisdom.” And if we used that term about ants, rock badgers and locusts, we would be more inclined to remember its application to us.

Or take another illustration. In Exodus 31:3 we read of Bezalel, the man appointed to oversee the craftsmanship of the tabernacle, the manufacture of all those things that required craftsmanship and artistry to create, the articles in metal, bronze, silver and gold, the fine fabrics that were worked into the walls of the tabernacle, the carved pieces of wood and the like. We read that the Lord had filled Bezalel with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence… That word “ability” in the ESV is our word hokmah. A real artist, unlike most of us in the room, can see in his mind’s eye what he wants to make and then make it with his hands and his tools; he can bring his mental image to life in wood or stone or metal. I cannot because I don’t have that skill. I am not a sculptor or a painter. But an artist has that skill, that ability to translate the idea into the beautiful finished creation. At one time Michelangelo’s David or his Pieta was nothing but a large block of marble. But the great sculptor could see what it was he wanted to create and then with his tools, hands, and knowledge he was able to turn that block of marble into those absolutely perfect sculptures. Well, that’s wisdom. Now translate the idea to your life. By the law of God and the example of the Lord Jesus Christ and the narrative of godliness that we have in the Word of God you can see a godly life. You know what its like. You know what a genuinely godly person would be and would do and if you have wisdom you have the wherewithal to bring that life into being in flesh and blood even in this world full of spiritual pitfalls, temptations and obstacles at every turn. That is wisdom: the skill, the expertise, the mastery of the craft of living. The godly can see from the law of God what a holy life is. Wisdom is the skill that brings such a life into being.

This wisdom is not disconnected from, but it is something other than theology. I suppose most of us know people, I certainly do, who firmly believe in the Lord Jesus, have embraced his gospel from their hearts, but have made a kind of shipwreck of their lives because of a lack of wisdom. I was talking several weeks back in my office with a couple from Seattle not known to any of you, not known to me until I met them at my office. They have two precious little girls but the man and woman haven’t been living together for six months. Both of them are committed Christians. How did they get themselves in this mess? Not for a failure to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ but a failure to live wisely. And there are many such people in the church today. This wisdom was not instilled in them when they were young. Sometimes you wonder, “Why do unbelievers fare so much better in life than some Christians that you know?” It is because even an unbelieving parent can instill a significant measure of wisdom in his or her children when a Christian parent may fail to do so. And so they grow up without learning it, without putting it into practice, without experiencing the difference that it makes. They have not devoted themselves to learning it and putting it into practice. They are suckers for every temptation, easily influenced by the wrong sort of people, undisciplined and clueless about how to live a faithful, fruitful life. But they do believe in Jesus. They really do. If only they were also wise!

I remember some years ago having a conversation with a young woman who had been caught using drugs and had been expelled from her school. She didn’t seem to want to be a drug user, but, as she explained it to me, “everyone was always offering her a joint.” I told her what I suppose she already knew, that I was much older than she, but that no one once in my entire life had offered me a joint. How could it be that she was always being offered drugs and never was? She had the wrong set of friends and she was putting herself into harm’s way on purpose day after day. What did she expect? The recognition that bad company corrupts morals, the acceptance of the fact that the best way to avoid falling prey to temptation is to avoid the occasions of it: that is what the Bible means by wisdom, the expertise and skill to live a righteous life in an unrighteous world full of every kind of pitfall. This is not the law of God. You will not find this lesson in the law of Moses. These are finer points that “escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets, and yet are decisive in [life].” [Kidner, 13]. The foil of the wise person in Proverbs is the fool, who is not dumb in the intellectual sense, but is gullible, easily led, irresponsible, lazy and inexperienced (or better, does not learn from his experience). He or she is the person who talks too much, who is always putting off what ought to be done, the young person who is aimless and concentrating on nothing but his or her own entertainment, the one who cannot manage his business, his time, or his affairs and is a dupe for every dumb idea that comes flitting into his mind. I suspect most of us would say, “I know people like that,” and probably all of us need to say, “That is I too much of the time.”

The law of God gives you a picture of a godly, righteous, other-centered, God-honoring life. Law and wisdom relate to one another precisely because they both have to do with our living and are both instruction in right living. The wise person can see the life that the law describes in his or her mind’s eye and, like a sculptor, can bring it into existence with the tools of knowledge and observation and discipline that he learned from his parents who learned it from the Bible. For as we read in 2:6: “the Lord gives wisdom.” It is something that one must learn from the Word of God and pray for. James says, “If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives freely and without reproach.” The fool can get it, but only if he will and only if he will search for it where it may be found. He usually doesn’t and his life and his relationships continue to be a mess, a failure in the ways that matter because he never connects the dots, never accepts responsibility for the messes he makes and never gains the savvy to do better.

This wisdom or skill or expertise is, in this book, presented in large part in proverbs. Or, at least, most of the book is proverbs. There are discourses too, as we shall see, and they teach wisdom also, but they serve, as it were, to introduce the proverbs themselves, which begin in 10:1. Everyone knows or at least has an idea of what a proverb is: a short, pithy, observation or admonition or warning or prohibition or encouragement. [Tremper Longman, Proverbs, 21] A proverb is a sage maxim, the sort of knowledge that comes from long experience and careful observation of human life. [Kidner, TOCTC, 58] As we would put it nowadays, the semantic range of the Hebrew term translated “proverb” is quite wide. A proverb can be any number of kinds of statements. Someone has said that many of the proverbs convey the sort of experience one gains from failure, reflecting on how it was that the cow got out of the barn door, but even that experience teaches us many different sorts of things all of which are part of this wisdom. We will see that proverbs come in all shapes and sizes and are of various kinds, quite different from one another. For example, we read in 10:15:

“The rich man’s wealth is his strong city;
the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”

That proverb is descriptive not prescriptive. We are certainly not being told to trust in wealth but we are being taught how rich people think and why they value money the way they do; they get their security from it. That is part of wisdom too: a grasp of how the world works, why temptations are as powerful as they are, and what keeps people bound to foolishness. Such a proverb is very different then from the one found a few verses later in 10:19:

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

That proverb is prescriptive; it is sound counsel and advice for living. It is more than an observation of life, it describes how experts in life behave.

Some proverbs are generalities. That is they are, as we say, proverbially true. They are not always true; there are exceptions, but they are usually true. That is an important part of wisdom as well, to realize the existence of exceptions without failing to grasp the fact that things are usually found to be a certain way. For example, take 16:7:

“When a man’s ways please to the Lord,
he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”

How many times have we found this true? Godly men and women who, in the nature of the case, because they are followers of Jesus Christ and their characters have been shaped by his love and grace, are kind, sympathetic, honest, and interested in others tend to be liked even by people who have no sympathy with their religious views. A Christian ought to be everyone’s friend and he or she will have many friends who are not Christians. But it is a generality. If it were universally true that a godly man has only friends and no enemies there would be no martyrs. The Lord Jesus Christ was a perfect man and lived with perfect wisdom and perfect love and they put him to death!

That there are generalities in life that must be embraced without denying that the opposite can sometimes be true is part of biblical wisdom. To appreciate the distinction is, indeed, an important ingredient in true wisdom. Consider, for example, these pairs of proverbs that are not only both true but could easily seem to be the contradiction of one another.

  1. Out of sight, out of mind/Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
  2. Better to be safe than sorry/nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  3. The squeaky wheel gets the grease/silence is golden.
  4. Many hands make light work/too many cooks spoil the broth.
  5. The more the merrier/two’s company, three’s a crowd.
  6. The pen is mightier than the sword/actions speak louder than words.
  7. Do unto others as you would that they do to you/nice guys finish last.

 

The fact is, in one way or another all of those statements are true and such is life that the wise man or woman must accept the truth of all of them and accommodate each to the particular circumstances of life. Some proverbs are true only in certain times and with respect to certain circumstances. Take, for example, 15:23:

“To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!”

Ordinarily we would understand a man’s blessing his neighbor as an example of a word in season, a good word. Ordinarily we would expect that your speaking a kind and complimentary word to somebody else would be very definitely an example of an apt word or a good word, a word in season. There is not nearly enough of that kind of praise and appreciation and compliment being spoken in the world. And that is true, is it not? But it all depends on the time and place. As we read in 27:14:

“Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.”

Even nice things spoken at the wrong time can cause offense.

Or take another example of the same thing. You will not be wise regarding money, according to Proverbs, unless you understand at one and the same time the danger of easy money, the temptations that money poses, as well as the value of money and the importance both of earning it and being a careful steward of it. Life is full of such tensions an the wise man or woman knows that and thinks and acts accordingly. Money is good and bad, a blessing and a curse; it all depends doesn’t it? Wisdom accepts that and understands it and lives accordingly.

It is this contextual understanding of various proverbs that gives us the famous juxtaposition of opposites in 26:4-5:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

That juxtaposition had some rabbi’s in Jesus’ day wondering if Proverbs actually belonged in the Bible at all. It seemed like a logical contradiction to them. Well, which is it? Are we supposed to answer the fool or not answer the fool? It all depends on the circumstances. The knowledge that it does and how to apply such counsel to one’s circumstances is “wisdom.” Without that kind of discernment even proverbs are worthless. As we read in 26:7:

“Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.”

Then again, everyone’s situation in life is not the same. In 23:1 we read:

“When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite.”

That is a piece of wisdom primarily relevant to someone who served at court or, at least, found himself often in the presence of the king or other great men. On the other hand, 10:5 conveys a very different impression of rural, peasant life:

“He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame.”

There is wisdom, in other words, for everyone and in some respects it is different given one’s station in life. [cf. Longman, 28]

We will conclude our introduction of the book here this evening and continue the introduction next time. There is more to say before we can descend to the proverbs themselves and begin to examine wisdom with respect to the wide variety of life issues that are raised in Proverbs. But as we conclude let me underscore the importance of biblical wisdom and so our need for what Proverbs is intended to teach us.

I have seen so much woe in the life of Christian people through the years. Sometimes it has nothing to do with their behavior; they are suffering trials that have been visited upon them by their heavenly Father for reasons that must remain a mystery. In other cases the woe is the punishment for moral failures on their part. Such would be an unwed mother’s pregnancy or a young gal or guy’s STD. But in many other cases real believers, men and women who rejoice in their forgiveness in Christ and desire to live for him have been undone by what the Bible does not scruple to call foolishness, ineptitude in life, gullibility or naivety, laziness, or spiritual inexperience that should have been overcome long before this. And life becomes miserable because in their ineptitude they made a mess of it. Don’t say this doesn’t happen; you know very well it happens all the time; the foolish choice of a spouse, of a job or the like. Otherwise good men and women who cannot manage their money, who cannot manage their time, who cannot seem to get anything done, who cannot keep friends because they are so clueless as to what friendship requires. We never read in the Law of Moses, “Be on time,” but a lack of punctuality can be very damaging to relationships to employment to the confidence others have in a person and in other ways. Or consider our speech. I sometimes have been simply aghast to learn what some Christians have said to other Christians. I have thought "how could a person be so clueless as to utter those words to that person?" Doesn’t he or she have any sense at all? What such a person lacks is wisdom.

I look at young parents sometimes and shake my head because they are so sure they are raising their children properly and anyone with two eyes can see that their children defy them all the time and get away with it most of the time. They seem incapable of imposing their will upon their children and the kids are growing up without discipline and so without clear moral structure in themselves. I’ve known Christians through the years that are wonderful in some aspects of their character, but they can’t keep two cents in their pocket, are never on time paying their bills, and would be bankrupt without the repeated help of others.

There are other Christians, of whose faith in Christ I have no doubt, who can’t keep a job. They get jobs; they just can’t keep them. They don’t show up on time, they don’t do what they are told by their supervisors, the turn their instructions into an argument, they make careless mistakes for want of attention and intention, and then can’t believe that they have been let go once again.

What is wanting? It is not belief in the gospel or the love of Christ, though we could surely say that more of that is always needed and would be helpful. The Bible’s own answer to that question is that what is wanting is wisdom, hokmah, the skill, the expertise in living a good, responsible, holy, faithful, successful, fruitful, happy life. And it is terribly sad when the Egyptian is more skillful at life than the Christian which is true more often than you might think. What is wanting is the mastery of one’s circumstances that is biblical wisdom. We ought to crave this wisdom, to search for it until we have found it; we ought to practice it until it becomes second nature which is precisely what Proverbs teaches us to do! It is more precious than gold!