"To Know Wisdom and Instruction" (Proverbs 1:1-7)
Just what is wisdom? The book of Proverbs was written so that others would know it (1:2). "Descriptions of wisdom take different shape in different Old Testament contexts. In some, wisdom is knowledge related to a technical skill—for example, Bezalel's skill in crafting artistic designs with silver and gold, stone, and wood (Ex. 31:3). In other contexts, wisdom refers more to general knowledge learned from experience, especially from observation of the creation—for example, the lowly ant models diligence and foresight (Prov. 6:6-8). In general, we can say that wisdom involves knowing what to do in a given situation; skill in crafts or skill in living well both require that a person has learned how to 'do the right thing'" (Paul Koptak, The NIV Application Commentary: Proverbs, 2003, introduction to Proverbs, pp. 38-39).
Wisdom in the book of Proverbs generally signifies moral discernment between righteousness and evil as well as skill in the proper conduct of the business of life. Wisdom implies the correct application of knowledge and understanding. The New Open Bible states in its introduction to the book: "The words 'wisdom' and 'instruction' in 1:2 complement each other because wisdom (hokhmah) means 'skill' and instruction (musar [the noun form of yasar]) means 'discipline' [or 'correction']. No skill is perfected without discipline.... Proverbs deals with the most fundamental skill of all: practical righteousness before God in every area of life."
There are other frequently occurring Hebrew terms we should note up front:
bin – understanding (intellectual ability to discern truth and error)
da’at – knowledge (possession of factual information)
skal – wise perception and dealing (being insightful or successful)
mezimma – discretion (discernment to differentiate the right way to proceed)
‘orma – prudence (ability to reason through situations)
leqakh – learning (the root means to grasp or acquire, here mentally)
tachbulah – counsel (the root means to steer a ship, thus guidance to direct one's life)
peti – simple (uninformed, immature, aimless, naïve, gullible)
kesil – fool (evil but also an individual who rejects obvious truth and despises wise words)
lason – scorner (individual who seeks to make trouble for others)
The book of Proverbs is all about navigating between right and wrong choices. "Proverbs, if nothing else, zeroes in on the choices we face, and in recommending one way over another, it describes the kind of persons we can become and ought to be.... The proverbs do not give directions for what to do in every situation; instead, they present the qualities of character that guide us in the many decisions we will face in life" (NIV Application Commentary, introduction to Proverbs, p. 46).
The book is particularly geared to young people so they may learn from the experiences of others recorded here—but valuable and useful for everyone. "According to the prologue (1:1-7), Proverbs was written to give 'prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young' (1:4), and to make the wise even wiser (1:5). The frequent references to 'my son(s)' (1:8, 10; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1) emphasize instructing the young and guiding them in a way of life that yields rewarding ends" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, introduction to Proverbs). "In the final analysis," notes commentator Longman, "the book of Proverbs is for everyone—but with one notable exception. The fool is excluded. Perhaps it would be better to say that fools exclude themselves.... The final verse of the prologue [i.e., of the opening purpose statement] (Prov 1:7) gives what has been called the motto of the book: 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.'... By definition, fools cannot participate in wisdom because they reject God" (p. 20).
The same commentator further explains that the metaphoric imagery presented in the lengthy introduction of the book necessitates that a young man be the one addressed: "In summary, Proverbs 1–9 teaches that there are two paths: one that is right and leads to life, and one that is wrong and leads to death. The son is walking the path of life, and the father and Wisdom are warning him of the dangers he will encounter as well as the encouragement he will find.... Traps, snares, stumbling, enemies on the dark side; God on the side of life. But the most important people encountered along the way—and this explains why we need to understand that the addressee is a man—are two women: Woman Wisdom and the dark figure of Woman Folly" (p. 27).
Likewise, the Zondervan NIV Study Bible points out: "In the initial cycle of instruction (1:8–9:18) the writer urges the young man to choose the way of wisdom (that leads to life) and shun the ways of folly (that, however tempting they may be, lead to death). The author chooses two prime exemplifications of folly to give concreteness to his exhortations: (1) to get ahead in the world by exploiting (even oppressing) others rather than by diligent and honest labor; and (2) to find sexual pleasure outside the bonds and responsibilities of marriage. Temptation to the one comes from the young man's male peers (1:10-19); temptation to the other comes from the adulterous woman (ch. 5; 6:20-35; ch. 7). Together, these two temptations illustrate the pervasiveness and power of the allurements to folly that the young man will face in life and must be prepared to resist....The second especially functions here as illustrative and emblematic of the appeal of Lady Folly" (introduction to Proverbs). Understanding the figurative parallels here, it is clear that women can profit from the instruction given in this introduction as well.
The opening discourses are "strikingly organized. Beginning (1:8-33) and ending (chs. 8–9) with direct enticements and appeals, the main body of the discourses is made up of two nicely balanced sections, one devoted to the commendation of wisdom (chs. 2–4) and the other to warnings against folly (chs. 5–7)" (ibid.). Expositor's notes that "this section runs in cycles: the purpose of Proverbs is to give wisdom (2:1–4:27), but folly may prevent one from seeking it (5:1–6:19); there are advantages to finding wisdom (6:20–9:12), but folly may prevent this too (9:13-18)" (introduction to Proverbs).
Following the introduction, chapter 10 commences the concentration of short sentence proverbs forming the main collections of the book—there being only few such aphorisms scattered throughout the introductory discourses (the first being 1:7, as we've seen). When we reach chapter 10 in our reading, we will note the various forms of these proverbs.
There is a clear relation, we should observe, between Proverbs and the law of God—as Proverbs affirms the wisdom of keeping God's law and the folly of breaking or ignoring it. This sometimes comes in the form of direct commands in the proverbs, these being a form of instruction. For example, Deuteronomy says, "You shall not remove your neighbor's landmark" (19:14) and "cursed is the one who moves his neighbor's landmark" (27:17). Likewise, Proverbs says, "Do not remove the ancient landmark" (22:28; 23:10). At other times the relationship is more illustrative. The Fifth Commandment says, "Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16). Proverbs states, "A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother" (10:1). The Eighth Commandment says, "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19). Proverbs states, "Ill-gotten treasures are of no value; but righteousness delivers from death" (10:2, NIV). Of course, the desired conduct is still clear. Such is the nature of wisdom literature.
The NIV Application Commentary says: "One might go a little farther and say that experience and observation together persuade the wise of the truth of torah [God's law or teaching]. It is torah tested in the crucible of experience, and one can draw from that crucible examples of how wisdom works in real life. Examples of wisdom in Proverbs, but also in Job, Ecclesiastes, a number of the psalms, and perhaps even the Song of Songs, join together to say: See, this way of life works—sometimes in ways we did not expect (see Job and Ecclesiastes)—and one need not be afraid to bring the teaching of torah to experience to be tested by it. In wisdom literature the rule of God described in the torah takes on personal suffering (Job), the contradictions of life (Ecclesiastes), and the presence of evil in this world (Proverbs) and affirms that God's instructions can be trusted. Experience ultimately will not contradict them" (pp. 39-41).
The mechanics of these principles leading to positive or negative outcomes may involve God's direct intervention or simply follow a natural course. The New American Commentary points out: "Regarding the relationship between wisdom and the Torah, one must compare first of all the teaching of Proverbs on retribution with that found in Deuteronomy. Both strongly emphasize the concepts of retribution and reward. In both, just or right activity produces life and peace, whereas evil deeds end in self-destruction. On the other hand, in Deuteronomy the rewards or retributions come directly from the hand of God as he deals with his people according to the terms of the covenant. Proverbs, however, views the respective benefits and sorrows of good and evil not so much as direct acts of God as the natural and almost automatic results of certain actions" (pp. 25-26).
On this note we should realize that Proverbs does not support the misguided theology held by Job's friends in the book of Job—the idea that physical blessings in life are proof of righteousness and suffering is proof of sinfulness. It may seem that way from numerous short sayings—or even that the sayings are contradictory, since some show the righteous living well and some show the sinful living well for the time being. The same commentary properly notes: "Proverbs does not support the often alleged maxim that the Israelites believed that the rich are righteous and favored by God but the poor are sinners and under his punishment. This assessment is a poor caricature of biblical wisdom. The problem here is not with the Bible but with our failure to grasp the hermeneutics [interpretive methods] of wisdom literature. By its very nature and purpose, wisdom emphasizes the general truth over some specific cases and, being a work of instruction, frames its teachings in short, pithy statements without excessive qualification. It is not that the wisdom writers did not know that life was complex and full of exceptions, but dwelling on those cases would have distracted attention from their didactic [i.e., teaching] purposes. It is general truth that those who fear God and live with diligence and integrity will have lives that are prosperous and peaceful but that those who are lazy and untrustworthy ultimately destroy themselves. And general truths are the stock in trade of Proverbs" (p. 57).
Commentator Wiersbe further notes: "Hebrew proverbs are generalized statements of what is usually true in life, and they must not be treated like promises. 'A friend loves at all times' (Prov. 17:17, NKJV), but sometimes even the most devoted friends may have disagreements [or fail to have proper care for one another]. 'A soft answer turns away wrath' (15:1, NKJV) in most instances, but our Lord's lamblike gentleness didn't deliver Him from shame and suffering. The assurance of life for the obedient is given often (3:2, 22; 4:10, 22; 8:35; 9:11; 10:27; 12:28; 13:14; 14:27; 19:23; 21:21; 22:4) and generally speaking, this is true. Obedient believers will care for their bodies and minds and avoid substances and practices that destroy, but some godly saints have died very young while more than one godless rebel has had a long life....'The righteous man is rescued from trouble, and it comes on the wicked instead' (11:8, NIV) certainly happened to Mordecai (Es. 7) and Daniel (Dan. 6), but...Christian martyrs testify to the fact that the statement isn't an absolute in this life. In fact, in Psalm 73, Asaph concludes that the wicked get the upper hand in this world, but the godly have their reward in eternity. The Book of Proverbs has little to say about the life to come; it focuses on this present life and gives guidelines for making wise decisions that help to produce a satisfying life" (p. 22). Of course, the promises of eternity for the righteous are to be understood in a scriptural context and are to be kept in mind as a given while reading the proverbs.
The NIV Application Commentary cautions: "We may need to unlearn the idea that Proverbs is a book of principles that allow us to predict or even control how life will turn out, a collection of promises that we can cash in like coupons....Solomon and the sages who followed him never claimed that their observations were promises that God was duty-bound to fulfill. They understood that the wicked sometimes prosper for a time and that the righteous often suffer, but they also knew that God does not stop being God when circumstances seem to point the other way. Instead, these writings show us how life in this God-created universe works so we can work with it and not against it" (p. 43).
On this point, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books comments: "It is inappropriate to treat the proverbs of this book as promises. They are theological and pragmatic principles.... If, of course, other genres of Holy Scripture set forth that truth [expressed in a particular proverb] as a promise, then it is appropriate to view the proverb in that manner, while acknowledging that the promissory element does not originate with proverbs. That is not their purpose" (Hassel Bullock, 1988, p. 162).
Moreover, we should realize that particular proverbs are sometimes situation-sensitive and not always universally applicable. This explains how we can have proverbs that seem directly contradictory. Perhaps the best illustration of this is Proverbs 26:4-5, where we are told: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." So do we answer a fool or not? Wisdom is discerning that it depends on the situation. We will see more on these particular verses in a moment. But the same can be said of more modern English proverbs. Consider "Many hands make light work" versus "Too many cooks spoil the broth." Which maxim is true? They both are—but each fits a different situation. Or "Look before you leap" versus "He who hesitates is lost." We find the same principle at work here. Sometimes people need to be more cautious, but in other situations they could be too cautious. Wisdom, we should realize, is not only knowing such principles, but knowing when a particular principle is applicable.
Commentator Longman puts it well: "Proverbs are not magical words that if memorized and applied in a mechanical way automatically lead to success and happiness. Consider Proverbs 26:7 and 9: 'A proverb in the mouth of a fool is as useless as a paralyzed leg....A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thornbush brandished by a drunk.' These two proverbs say it takes a wise person to activate the teaching of a proverb correctly. A wise person is one who is sensitive to the right time and place. The fool applies a proverb heedless of its fitness for the situation. The two quoted proverbs are pointed in their imagery. A paralyzed leg does not help the person walk, so a proverb does not help a fool act wisely. According to the second saying, a fool's use of a proverb may be worse than ineffective, it may even be dangerous. Using a thornbush as a weapon would hurt the wielder as well as the one being struck. So a proverb must be applied at the right time and in the right situation. The wise person is one who can do this effectively" (p. 50).
He further adds: "Wisdom, then, is not a matter of memorizing proverbs and applying them mechanically and absolutely. Wisdom is knowing the right time and the right circumstances to apply the right principle to the right person. Returning to the 'contradictory' proverbs about whether or not to answer a fool (Prov 26:4-5), we see now that the wise person must, to put it baldly, know what kind of fool he or she is dealing with. Is this a fool who will not learn and will simply sap time and energy from the wise person? If so, then don't bother answering. However, if this is a fool who can learn, and our not answering will lead to worse problems, then by all means, answer. In a word, proverbs are principles that are generally true, not immutable laws. Bearing this in mind makes a world of difference when reading the proverbs. Someone reading Proverbs 23:13-14 [about not failing to beat a child with a rod for correction]...and having a mechanical view of the application of the proverbs, may well end up with a dangerous view of parenting....But this is not a law. It is a general principle that encourages those who are reluctant to use a form of discipline by telling them that it is permissible and even helpful for delivering a child from behavior that may result in premature death" (pp. 56-57). As with the former situation, it is important to discern what action the circumstance calls for.
The book of Proverbs, as with all of Scripture, is vital to living the Christian life. It is quoted nine times in the New Testament: Romans 3:15; 12:16, 20 (Proverbs 1:16; 3:7; 25:21-22); Hebrews 12:5-6 (Proverbs 3:11-12); James 4:6, 13-14 (Proverbs 3:34; 27:1); 1 Peter 2:17; 4:8, 18 (Proverbs 24:21; 10:12; 11:31); 2 Peter 2:22 (Proverbs 26:11). Indeed, the book points to the ultimate wisdom that is found in Christ. Jesus was the preeminent wisdom teacher. He taught with parables—and the Greek word parabole was, as noted earlier, used to translate the Hebrew mashal (the word translated "proverb" in English). In Luke 11:31 He spoke of the wisdom of Solomon and declared Himself greater than Solomon. But more than that, Jesus is the very embodiment of wisdom—"in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3). And this was for our benefit: "But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and justification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30; compare verses 22-24). It is through Christ that we are made truly wise. Of course, that wisdom is reflected in Proverbs, as it is in all Scripture.
Finally, this wonderful trove of wisdom provides God's people with a crucial guide to navigating the various situations of life. As the Soncino Commentary's introduction to Proverbs notes: "The comprehensiveness of outlook is indeed remarkable. No phase of human relationship seems to be overlooked. The king on his throne, the tradesman in his store and the farmer in the field, husband and wife and child, all receive wholesome instruction and exhortation. Advice is tendered on the treatment of friends, the poor, the rearing of children, the snares which lurk in the path of youth, the perils of overconfidence and self-commitment by standing surety for others. These and other contingencies provide occasion for shrewd counsel, based upon the central doctrine that wisdom is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her, and happy is every one that holdeth her fast (.18)." Let us all strive with Christ's help to do just that.