Introduction to the Book of Proverbs, Part 2


Proverbs 1:8-19

Last time, three Lord’s Day evenings ago, we began our introduction to the Book of Proverbs by pointing out several things.

  1. Proverbs belongs to the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, a part of biblical revelation dealing with the “how to” of godly living: practical counsel that equips a believing man or woman to live a fruitful godly life in a world that is no friend of godliness. Despite the prejudice of some to the contrary, it is not moralism – i.e. an undo concentration on behavior – to concentrate on the “how to” of biblical living. It is only to be true to the Bible which has not only in the wisdom literature but in many other places a great deal of practical counsel to give us regarding right living. These are matters too fine, as one author has it, to be caught in the mesh of the law of God and counsel too fine and too detailed simply to be deduced from the gospel without the explicit teaching of the Bible.
  2. Biblical wisdom is best understood as the skill of living. The idea is illustrated in the Bible by comparing it to the innate talent of creatures such as ants, locusts, and lizards, which, though weak in themselves and when compared to their predators, have been given wisdom by their creator that enables them to navigate the dangers of their environment and make a success of life. The nature of biblical wisdom is also illustrated by the use of the term to describe the ability of an artist or craftsman who can bring a mental idea beautifully to life in paint, wood, fabric or stone. The Bible doesn’t but we might just as well use the word to describe the gifts of a great musician or composer and nowadays perhaps of a particularly fine filmmaker. Wisdom in human life is the skill of bringing the mental idea of godliness and righteousness beautifully to life in our thought, speech, and behavior. One scholar put it this way: “In the literature of Scripture, wisdom is, broadly speaking, the knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting oneself into it.” [Plantinga, Not the Way…, 115] Given the fact that Proverbs, as the opening chapters testify, was intended for the instruction of Israel’s youth, the 19th century French poet and writer Alfred de Vigny’s question and answer is spot on: “What is a great life? It is a thought conceived in the fervent mind of youth and executed with the solid force of manhood.” [Cited in W.J. Stalker, The Preacher and his Models, 89] Well that is what Proverbs is all about. The clear idea of the way and habit of the godly life in a form that can be taught to children, but which is intended to be executed in one’s adult life. In Proverbs it is not “live and learn,” but “learn and live.” [Bruce Waltke]
  3. The fact that some of the how-to teaching of Proverbs can be found, in some cases almost verbatim, in the wisdom teaching of other peoples, unbelieving peoples, is only to be expected, given that all men have the law of God written on their hearts and have been made in the image of the same God. Jesus Christ looked like any other man. Our Christian faith teaches some things that are taught in other faiths. We know that and every Christian observes that wise unbelievers know that certain things are necessary for right living as we do and, alas, in some cases seem to know that better than some Christians that we know. Though, to be sure as we said, this instruction, however like in some respects it is to the wisdom teaching of the Egyptians and the Samarians, is given a completely different foundation and completely different theological context in the biblical book.
  4. Though there are other forms of writing in the book than what we think of as proverbs per se, the book contains a great many of those typical proverbs, hence its name. Proverbs in our usage are short, pithy, observations, admonitions, warnings, prohibitions, or encouragements  drawn from the experience of life. The Hebrew word translated “proverb” in 1:1 (למ ) can certainly mean a brief, terse sentence containing an illustration from life. [BDB]. But the Proverbs are of many different kinds. The Hebrew term is flexible. It is used in the Bible to refer to sayings, didactic poems, wisdom psalms, and parables. We remember, for example, that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom, he is in fact according to the Bible “wisdom incarnate,” and his preferred form of למ was not the short, pithy observation but the parable, the little story by which he taught a lesson.  [Longman, 99] The proverbs are different not only in form but in kind. Some proverbs are descriptive, that is they teach us what the world is like, not what it ought to be but what it actually is. Others are prescriptive, that is they teach us what we ought to do or say; how we ought to live. Some proverbs are generalities; they say what is often or usually true, but not necessarily true without exception. Others are statements of universal truth, are true always and everywhere. Wisdom knows the difference and understands that there is what Jack Collins calls a “situational applicability” to various general truths. [Syllabus: Psalms and Wisdom Literature, 72-73] In his syllabus on Proverbs from which he teaches at Covenant Theological Seminary he uses the example of your children screaming indoors and you parents wishing to equip them with a shock collar so that every time they scream a shock will be administered until he or she learns not to scream. “Don’t scream,” you tell them. However there are times when a scream is entirely appropriate: if they are in danger, or when in fun you jump out from behind the door to scare them. Different circumstances require different responses. That is situational applicability and you find that regularly in Proverbs. Further, some proverbs apply to certain people more than others, and so on. In sum, the proverbs contained in the biblical book are of all kinds.
  5. This wisdom is vital to the Christian life. Many true believers lack it and in some tragic ways make shipwreck of their lives or the lives of their children as a result. We are not talking about simply the difference between better and best; we are talking about matters that are of the very greatest importance and bear mightily on the salvation of others, especially our children, upon our witness and influence as Christians in the world, and upon the happiness and fruitfulness of our own lives. I deal with un-wisdom in Christian living all the time and see the great and unhappy effects of that un-wisdom. As I said last time, it is a painful reality of divine providence that there are unbelievers who are wiser in the ways of biblical wisdom than some Christians. This should not be but, alas, it is. Wisdom is where the rubber meets the road and every Christian, no matter his or her maturity, needs more of it.

 

All of that from last time. Tonight I want to complete the introduction to the book. This is important because we will understand and appreciate the individual sections of teaching, whether a discourse or a particular proverb or set of proverbs grouped around a particular theme much better if we have a clear sense of the book as a whole.

To that end I want to read this evening 1:7-19, the paragraph that follows the introduction we read last time. We read v. 7 last time but will read it again with some comment tonight.

Text Comment

v.7       It is highly interesting and important that the fear of the Lord has no counterpart in pagan wisdom of the period. We have here the proof of the point we made last time that, however similar certain proverbs may be to those in Egyptian and other ANE collections, the religious principle is completely different. And that is often the case in our life. We do some of the same things unbelievers think they should do but we do them with a different power, for a different reason and with different expectations.

            It is also important to observe, here at the outset, the fact that according to Proverbs (and the rest of the Bible for that matter) the commitment of the heart determines the thinking and ultimately the way of life. We will consider this point in detail next time but for now take note of the fact that v. 7 is virtually making the same point as that at 4:23: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” The Lord Jesus would say the same thing: “out of the heart flow the issues of life.” The heart, the seat of our convictions and attitudes, our loves and longings, is what steers the ship of our lives.

            In the Bible “fear of the Lord” means unconditional reverence for and surrender to the Lord in the covenant. It is a basic attitude of willing submission in the heart based on the nature of the living God himself and the covenant he has made with us and the salvation that he has given to us in his grace. This is why in Proverbs and in the rest of the Bible men are always divided into but two classes: scoundrels and saints, the wise and the foolish; because there are only two possible heart commitments, though in conduct there may be varying degrees. [Waltke, Regent College Class on Proverbs] But this fear of the Lord is not mystical, it is never simply a feeling. It has content. That content is the law of God and his revealed covenant, including the wisdom instruction that we are given in Job, Proverbs, some of the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. Warm thoughts of God are not the fear of the Lord; nor is a craven fear when one of us fears the judgment of God because of something that we have done. The fear of the Lord is reverence demonstrated in obedience.

            But wisdom is not simply obedience, and this, I think, is the important point as we launch away into the book. It is obedience. In fact, it is easy to show that the ten commandments, especially 5-10, are all present and accounted for in the proverbs. There are proverbs about honoring your parents, about murder, adultery, and theft, about honest speech, and about covetousness. But there is more here in Proverbs than simply obedience to God’s commandments. Obedience to those commandments we may regard as the rock-bottom requirement of faith in God and Christ, but the Bible looks for more than that. It is looking for character, for virtue, for a particular way of life down to the details. You cannot find in the law the many faceted teaching regarding a believer’s speech, or his gentleness as exemplified in his treatment of animals, or his caution, or his commitment to hard work that you find in Proverbs. Nor is obedience quite the same thing as “sanctified common sense” which Jack Collins says is what Proverbs seeks to instill in us. [Syllabus: Psalms and Wisdom Literature, 69) This is character and is more than obedience such as the law defines. [Longman, 81] There is a very real sense, by the way, in which the Letter of James in the NT, which identifies itself at the beginning as being about wisdom, is the “Proverbs of the New Testament” because it deals directly with the issue of character and virtue in a similar way. [Collins, 70] This is character, virtue more subtle than simply obedience to the commandments of God’s law. It includes that obedience but it goes beyond it.

v.8       We come now to the first discourse of the book. You will quickly notice that the opening chapters are cast in the form of an exhortation by a wise and godly father to his son. He speaks in praise of wisdom and urges his son to get it at all costs for a variety of reasons. Notice quickly, for example, the opening words of chapters 2 through 7: “My son…” or “Listen my sons…” followed by some exhortation to lay hold of this wisdom and live according to it. This is, of course, itself wisdom, an example of how children are to be raised in believing homes, with an affectionate father and mother constantly impressing upon the hearts and minds of their children the lessons of godliness and the practice of skillful living.

            The teaching very clearly has been universalized in the biblical book. No particular son is named, as in Egyptian wisdom literature. This is to be every Israelite father and every Israelite mother and every Israelite family. [Waltke, 186] What is more, the NT makes it clear that Proverbs is also instruction for every Christian. Proverbs is cited or alluded to some 100 times in the New Testament (cf. Loci Citati Vel Allegati in Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece). For example, the author of Hebrews understands the father’s admonition to his son – “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline” (3:11-12) – as being addressed to the entire Christian church (Heb. 12:5-6).

v.10     Already we have descended to particulars. Wisdom has much to do with one’s choice of friends and one’s handling of what today would be called “peer pressure.” The choice of one’s friends will always prove to be one of the most consequential choices anyone ever makes and one that bears mightily on how one comes to live his or her life. As C.S. Lewis beautifully put this same principle in positive form: “The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are.” [Selected Literary Essays, 99]

v.11     It is unlikely that the peer group would describe their intentions in this way – “let us ambush the innocent without reason” – but the Father is forcing his son to reckon with what actually is being meant and intended by what is being said and done; forcing his sons attention through the outer veneer into the living reality beneath. He wants his son to realize that temptations that seem so beguiling and attractive at the moment lead to such ugly and awful things. So he forces him to reckon with the brutality, injustice and callousness of what these people are intending to do. And isn’t that right and isn’t the need to do so true to life? It changes altogether the nature of a temptation in our minds to see through it to its real end and its real result. For example, it changes the nature of a the temptation of a prostitute for a young man to be forced to face the fact that the poor girl is doing what she does because she has to; she hates her life but she thinks she has no choice; that she hates you because you are the reason for her misery; that you would never want your own sister to be forced into such a degrading way of life; that this girl probably goes home to weep over what has become of her life. No pimp wants a john to think such thoughts, but a father is absolutely right to lay the axe to the root of this temptation by forcing his son to reckon with what is really happening here and what  you are really contributing to and how you are really abusing another human being. In this case he tells his son, “If you want to go with the crowd, at least be man enough to face what it is they actually do and what those things mean for others, the hurt and the harm that they cause. This crowd is all about itself and is selfish and thoughtless of others.”

v.14     The father is very clearly not simply telling his son: “do this because I told you to do it.” He has experience of the world. He understands the pull of the peer group, its seductive power. He has felt it himself and knows how to explain it to his son. He also knows what the group will offer or promise. Their motivation is greed.  But, as he will say in. vv. 16ff, he also knows what they actually deliver; something very different than what was promised.

            The gang promises to share its spoils, but can you trust thieves to protect your share?

v.15     We are here introduced for the first time to the metaphor of “the path” as a description of one’s life. A metaphor that will appear often in the book. The two words used in v. 15 – “way” and “path” – will occur more than 60 times in the book. There are in Proverbs as always in the Bible only two possible paths, one good, one evil. Remember the Lord’s similar teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, the broad way that leads to death and is followed by so many, the narrow way that leads to life that is followed by comparatively few.

            We are well aware in our society of the pull that young men especially feel from neighborhood gangs. How successful they are in enlisting disaffected young men who need a sense of identity and need and want a purpose for their lives. We are also very well aware of the remarkable conformity we find among groups of young people with regard to their dress, their entertainment, even their speech. No one can overestimate the power of the group to provide an identity for adolescents. But the same is true for adults. We speak of “keeping up with the Jones” and, more than any of us wants to admit, our aspirations are often shaped by our expectation to have a life like that of others. But the wise remember that there are but two ways, two paths, and no matter how few walk the one that leads to life, we must make sure our feet are firmly planted upon it. You will never get to the truth of anything by counting noses.

            Young people, I hope very much that your parents will instill in you a habit of thinking clearly about your life, about the various influences that bear down upon it, and about your future and what it ought to be. Think about your friends, choose them carefully according to the influence that they are likely to have on your life. Choose the ones who are wise, who are going some place, who are good and kind and honest and hard-working. There won’t be quite as many of those. And there will be still fewer of those who revere God and honor him in their lives. With friends like those you are much, much more likely to become such a person yourself. And you have only to look around you to see that those who become such people live not only happier lives, but more important ones, more useful and helpful to others, more satisfying for the value that they are to others, more fulfilling for the rewards that the Lord bestows upon his children who live like that. And the reverse is also true. The wrong friends will drag you down. The pull of the crowd or of a particular group of kids can be very strong. We know that very well. But think! Where will I be going if I go with them?

            It is this insight that leads to the consistent emphasis in Proverbs on the importance of not even beginning down the path of the wicked. Once on it, it is very difficult to get off. Far better never to get on it at all. I have noticed again and again in dealing with people that there are many problems in life the only real solution to which is to never have gotten into it in the first place. This is the truth so memorably summed up in Alexander Pope’s famous verse:

            Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
            To be hated needs but to be seen,
            But seen too oft, too familiar with that face,
            We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

            This is why the culture of a Christian home is so vital to the formation of godliness in Christian children. Convictions established early and driven down deep into the heart will prevent a child from ever embracing the path of the wicked, no matter the natural pull that path may have.

v.16     Now the father turns to why; why it is so wrong to follow this group and to walk in their way.

v.18     Not only is the path of sinners wrong; it is stupid. [Waltke, 195] It is not the way to a happy and fruitful life. It always ends badly.

v.19     Think of Bernie Madoff! Two quotations very well sum up the verses we have read. The first is from C.S. Lewis.

            “I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not been lost less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the caucus. For, of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated. And as for lighter matters, the number who first smoked or first got drunk for a similar reason is probably very large.” [The Weight of Glory, 59] That is you did it because everybody else was doing it. You wanted to fit in. How powerful, in other words, is the pressure placed upon us by our peers!]

            And then this from Philip Massinger, the 17th century English playwright, who defined peer pressure as “The fury of the many-headed monster, the giddy multitude.”

            Massinger’s definition of the peer group of many a teenager doesn’t sound so attractive does it? “The fury of the many-headed monster, the giddy multitude.”

Now before we proceed, let me say just a word about the fact that the discourse we read and those that follow are cast in the form of a conversation between a father and a son. Now, to be sure, this is an idealized father. Not all fathers are this wise or this careful to instruct their children. We have here a father as a Christian father ought to be. You fathers are to find yourself mirrored in this man and in the way he speaks to his son. And if you don’t find yourself there, you need to change into the likeness of this ideal Christian father. Many children, including Christian children, have fathers who are not like this and who either never give advice to their children or advise them wrongly and badly. Children are not to listen to the counsel of fools, even if the fools happen to be their parents. There are Christian fathers who care more that their sons play football than that they grow up to be Christian men; Christian fathers who care more that their sons learn to make money than learn to love and serve the Lord. But still it is a father, not a mother; it is a son, not a daughter. Such is the Bible most of the time. Only male babies were circumcised. But that does not mean that anyone in that time supposed that only males counted or that the issues of life were not the same for female children as for male, necessary changes being made. Mothers and daughters are mentioned in the book. But more important, the entire OT bears witness to the fact that girls and women were just as obliged to live godly lives as boys and men and that the spiritual issues of life were broadly the same for the one as the other. So while the discourse is cast in terms of sons and daughters, the meaning is parents and children.

You have the same things in the NT where Christians of both sexes are referred to as brethren and we are all described as sons of God through faith in Christ. It is the generic masculine just as we have it today in the common address: “you guys.” No one at the checkout counter looks at Florence and me and says, “How are you girls doing today?” It is always, “How are you guys?” Wise Christian women will not take offense but will see the compliment that is paid to them in this biblical usage. To be a son in the Greco-Roman world was to be much more than a daughter. Your legal rights were much greater. Your opportunities also. You were given respect that girls and women were not. For the Bible to call you women sons of God in that day and age was the same thing as saying that it considered the church’s women to have all the rights and to deserve all the respect that belonged to the church’s men. And in that day and age that was an extraordinary thing to say. The fact is, though the book is dominated by the language of father and son, the final paragraph and in some respects the climax of the book is all about a virtuous, gifted, skillful, accomplished woman!

I came across this recently in the description of the Hebrews as a people among the other peoples of the ancient Near East.

“But in one respect they tapped a physical resource which most ancient peoples denied themselves: they made full use of the brains and courage of their women. How it came about that so many great peoples, until quite recently, failed to draw upon half their human capital we shall never know. But the Hebrews did not fail – just as well, since they had so little else – and the Bible is the record of their common sense.

“…the Bible, unlike any comparable record of antiquity, continually places women in the forefront of events… Hebrew, or Israelite society was patriarchal, as indeed were all societies then (and indeed now), but not exclusively so. Women were prized too for their wisdom, tenderness, passion, and at time heroic ruthlessness. [Paul Johnson, Heroes, 5] [Think of Jael and Sisera for example.]

So don’t take Proverbs out of its larger context. No religion in the world has made so much of women as Christianity because no holy book places them in so exalted a place as does the Bible. Their callings may not be the same as men in every case, but their value is the same and their role is just as essential to the kingdom of God. So you women and girls, as we study Proverbs, remember that when fathers and sons are mentioned, the Hebrews themselves fully understood that mothers and daughters were meant as well.

Now, to conclude this introduction to Proverbs, let’s look at the book as a whole. We have begun to read chapter 1 which is part of the first section of the book, a section that is comprised of the first nine chapters. In one sense these nine chapters are an introduction to the proverbs themselves that begin at chapter 10 verse 1. But in another sense they are simply more of the same wisdom that will be found in a different form in the proverbs per se. In the first nine chapters we find counsel regarding peer pressure, as we have seen, and will find advice regarding the keeping of our hearts, regarding the managing of controversy, regarding sexual temptation and marriage, regarding our speech, and so on. As we said the biblical term for proverb, למ , can refer to all manner of sayings, including discourses such as we have in the first nine chapters. All of this material in praise of wisdom, as we said, is in the form of a discourse between a father and his son. He is urging his son to grasp, to learn, to incorporate wisdom into his daily life.

The proverbs per se, or at least the proverbs as we think of proverbs, begin at 10:1 and are entitled, “The Proverbs of Solomon.” The first group of them extends from 10:1-22:16. What is interesting about this is that if you take the time to count them you will find that there are 375 proverbs in this section. 375 is the numerical value of the name Solomon. If you remember, The Hebrews did not have numbers; they used letters to stand for numbers, the first ten letters of the alphabet for numbers 1-10, the eleventh for the number 20, the twelfth for 30, the nineteenth for 100, and so on. The “s” of Solomon’s name is 300, the “L” is 30, the “m” is 40, and the “h” is 5. The vowels remember were not written in early Hebrew. The numerical total of those letters is 375. That is not likely an accident though it must be admitted that the use of letters for numbers is not known for sure to have been the practice in Solomon’s time but then the book of Proverbs as we will see was not complete in Solomon’s time and may not have been complete until many centuries later. We know from other information in the Bible (in 1 Kings 4:32 we read that he “spoke 3,000 proverbs!”) that Solomon was a collector of proverbs. We have a selection here, obviously, and given that it was only a selection, the proverbs included numbered the numerical value of his name.

In 22:17 the next section begins. This is a section of “sayings” which are also proverbs in the larger sense of the Hebrew term. We are told in v. 20 that there are thirty of them, but scholars disagree about how to divide the material into 30 pieces. These sayings are more like the material in the first nine chapters than the short pithy statements in the section entitled the “Proverbs of Solomon.” We don’t know who the wise are; they are not identified though it has long been noticed that this section and the next has a particularly close relationship to ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, especially the Instruction of Amenemope.  This third section of the book runs from 22:17 to 24:22.

Then comes, in 24:23 a section entitled in the ESV “More Sayings of the Wise.” There are five. You begin to get the picture. Collections of material are being added to one another. Once again we are not told who these wise men were or where this material originated.

Then at 25:1 we have a further collection of the Proverbs of Solomon, certainly implying that the sections just before were not from Solomon. But this time we are told that this collection was made by men in the court of King Hezekiah. Now we are in the seventh century B.C. not the tenth century B.C. when King Solomon actually reigned. Perhaps the collection was part of Hezekiah’s reforming effort in Judah. From this is it obvious that the book in its present form took shape centuries after the time of Solomon himself. This section extends to the end of chapter 29. The title of the book in 1:1, “The Proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” remained the title of a book that includes the material of others besides Solomon because Solomon was the principle author of the material and, of course, the most distinguished of all the contributors to the book. [Waltke, i, 36-37]

There follows some sayings of Agur, an unidentified man in chapter 30, some sayings of one King Lemuel, of whom we have no further knowledge, in 31:1-9. Apropos our earlier remarks about women in Proverbs, it is noteworthy that what Lemuel teaches us is an oracle “that his mother taught him.” Whether Lemuel is also the author of the famous description of the excellent wife, is another question without a definite answer.

Such is the book we are about to study through a number of Lord’s Day evenings. It is a varied collection of wisdom material and now here and now there are statements bearing on a variety of practical life issues. It is not, therefore, a book to be preached through chapter by chapter and almost never has been in the history of Christendom. In almost every commentary on the book, though you have a chapter by chapter explanation offered, you also have sections organized by subject with all the various proverbs dealing with that particular subject brought to bear on the conclusions that the commentator reaches about the teaching of the book. That is what we are going to do as well. There may be some order to the various proverbs and sayings, some principle of organization of what seem on the surface to be a rather random list of statements jumping from one theme to another, but it is usually very hard to know if there is such a principle of organization and, if so, precisely what it is.

But, that there is a great deal of extraordinarily valuable material in this book is without question. And it is our treat and our privilege to consider that material, God willing in the weeks to come.