Proverbs - Be Wise with Wisdom
The purpose of these meditations is to make the reader enthusiastic for the book of Proverbs, that is, for wisdom which is the knowledge of the art of living contained in these proverbs.
Proverbs start with an elaborate introduction: the first nine chapters. These chapters form a demanding set of warm-up exercise for apprentices in the study of wisdom. The meditations which will appear on the pages of Clarion for the next while will deal more or less with these chapters.
More than once it will become clear that the Bible contains much more wisdom than is found in Proverbs. In particular this will be the case when we study a few main themes in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. After all, Proverbs may be a climax, but it is certainly not the endpoint in our journey through the land of Biblical wisdom.
Remembering Proverbs 1:4-5, these meditations are written for young and old, and are intended for personal Bible study as well as for use by study societies. Perhaps they also may be useful in more advanced stages in the work of evangelism.
Under the heading From Scripture, various Bible passages will be mentioned that have been dealt with or quoted in the preceding section, or can function as additional study material. This arrangement has been chosen to make the text as easily readable as possible. What is wisdom?
A First Exploration
Wisdom – A Desirable Matter
You have a problem and you do not know what to do about it. Or you have an important choice to make and somehow you must reach a decision. What should you do? How do you know what is right?
What a great good it is in such circumstances to be able to go to someone for advice, to go to a wise man who can help you map out your problem properly and find a thoughtful answer. What support can be given by a wise woman who can show you within what framework and on what grounds you can make your choice. Such help allows you to breathe again, to find again some room around you. You seem to have regained control and now you see through things. You are not being lived but you live yourself, consciously. You know what you are doing.
It is a great pleasure to have contact with wise people. Such contact always enriches you. Those people have insight; they see through things; they do not let themselves be deceived easily. Such people make you jealous; you would wish to be like them.
That is indeed possible because you can learn to be wise! Wisdom can be practised; you can grow in it, although we will not all achieve the same level or depth. Variations will remain.
However, one thing ought to be abundantly clear: wisdom is not something that is quite exceptional, a commodity which you can find only in people who have a talent for it. Wisdom is not a matter of genes or character.
Wisdom is meant for all; it is the common good of all Christians because they live according to the Bible, according to the holy Scriptures which instruct, reprove, correct, and educate. These Scriptures change a man into the man of God, into the person who knows where he comes from, why he exists, and what is important in this world. Everyone who listens to God’s revelation begins to walk along the road of wisdom.
Every Christian who knows after Whom he has been named, knows that his LORD has been made our Wisdom. Considering this, you can only conclude that much philosophy – perhaps very clever indeed – is nothing but secularized wisdom; it is not true, genuine wisdom.
2 Timothy 3:14-17, Ephesians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 1:30
Wisdom – Some Aspects
Although wisdom can be learned, it is not just another subject, another form of knowledge; it is not merely a matter of scholarship. A scholar is supposed to be knowledgeable about his own discipline. He might have many diplomas, and he might even be honoured publicly for his work. Yet such a learned individual could well be a fool; he or she may make mistakes and get into a lot of trouble; such a person could well be insensitive to people and situations.
Now consider someone who understands life, who is able to judge people and things. Compare the scholar I mentioned above with someone who is really able, every day, to listen to the Word of God and who absorbs and internalizes the Sunday sermon. Think of someone who uses his or her life’s experience in a positive, fruitful manner.
An illustration to clarify this. Consider a family, sitting around the dinner table. The father reads from the Bible the story of the arrest of the Lord Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. A discussion results from the words of Jesus ... all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Does this text not forbid all war? Does it not command us to be pacifists?
The children argue about these things but fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion, till the father joins the discussion. He simply reads the text out loud once more, but strongly emphasizes the word take with word and gesture. Unlawful use of the sword is condemned, but there is also a lawful use of the sword by the government in the service of God. The father explains that difference by emphasizing one word and making just a simple gesture.
Everyone uses the same Bible, studies the same text, and reads the same words. Some really see what it says there, others do not see it (yet). That is wisdom: knowledge and insight; being able to discern what is important.
Bezalel and Oholiab were wise men. The Bible tells us that these men were filled with the Spirit of God, with ability, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with craftsmanship. That was their wisdom; they knew what to do with gold and silver, with wood and linen. The holy tabernacle of God was built and decorated with taste and skill, with the wisdom of these craftsmen. Also in this context wisdom means insight and discernment, knowing what to do with the material you are working with, knowing what to do with the realities with which you are dealing.
One more Scriptural illustration. When we see God’s greatness in creation and nature, we will say with the psalmist, O LORD, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all...
You will realize that Psalm 104 is no study in ecology; it is a song in praise of God who made the world in such a beautiful and harmonious way. Creation is multicoloured in its variety, yet it forms a marvellous unity. Truly, the creation is a glorious illustration of God’s wisdom. He has given each creature its own character and shape, and He has given each its own place and task in serving its Creator.
Really, it should not surprise us to discover that the Bible uses the word wisdom when it refers to insight and discernment as well as to knowledge and understanding of materials and the world we live in. When we speak of these things we are dealing with what God thought of and made. No wonder that the Bible speaks of wisdom as very practical insights in the things of every day life.
When we are young, we must learn how to live. We can learn that from the Word of Him who made all things. Proverbs is dedicated in particular to the teaching of the scriptural art of living. Indeed, christian living is an art, a craft that requires intensive training and much practice before we ever achieve mastery.
Matthew 26:52, Romans 13:4, Exodus 35:30 - 36:2, Psalm 104:24
From the Confessions Belgic Confession Art. 12
Wisdom in Proverbs
Wisdom is an often discussed topic in the Bible. Tracing the various facets of wisdom with the help of a good concordance is a nice way to study the Bible. Certain Bible passages and Bible books are in particular dedicated to wisdom: a number of psalms are counted as part of the traditional wisdom literature, and we think of the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and, of course, Proverbs.
The opening verses of Proverbs leave no doubt about its purpose: this book wants to teach wisdom, discipline, understanding, and discretion. Wisdom here refers to practical wisdom for every day life. Life does not just happen; you need to learn the art of living. That is why the Bible includes a whole book dedicated to this art, full of advice and warning, recommendations and principles, and all that with reference to every day matters. Leaf through this book and you will meet men and women, children and grandchildren. You will visit homes, living rooms, kitchens, and even bedrooms. Proverbs deals with eating and drinking, with trade and the economy. It speaks of meetings and discussions, of kings and beggars. You will read about criminality and the justice system, about sexuality, about laziness and quarrels. Of course, Proverbs describes these things often in the vivid colours of life in those Eastern countries, yet without any hesitation we are able to recognize these scenes and identify with them. We are also men and women, children and grandchildren; we have houses, and we sleep in beds. We work and quarrel, eat and drink as well.
We need to find our way through life, too, consciously and in a responsible manner. And that does not just happen by and of itself; you need much wisdom to find your way. In short, wisdom means knowing how to live.
Proverbs 1:1-6, Psalms 49, 78, 119
Wisdom – For Whom?
Although it is clear that Proverbs has been written for everyone, we can say more about its intended audience. The book itself mentions first the youth,
...that prudence may be given to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth...
Perhaps it seems rather nasty to describe young people as being simple, but translate this word with inexperienced and the intention will be clear. The parallel construction of the text indicates that the word simple (inexperienced) refers to the youth. Proverbs, therefore, is a book for the youth.
And that is obvious. Young people need to learn much, especially about the art of living. The very fact that they are younger puts them behind those who have been around longer and have therefore gained much more experience and know-how.
When you are young you often have a big mouth but a small heart; you may sound brash, yet inside you feel insecure. Peacefulness and balance need to grow as yet, depth and breadth are yet to come. Proverbs is written in the first place for the young people – what care of the heavenly Father for the youth of His church is shown in this book! Study it then to your advantage. The God of heaven and earth approaches you with the training school in wisdom. You do not need to pay any tuition fees, nor do you need to travel far for it. It is delivered right at your home, in your own Bible which always should be within reach.
What about the older people? Are they merely self-satisfied spectators? No, not at all. Proverbs has something to say to them as well.
...the wise man also may hear and increase in learning and the man of understanding acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.
Older people must read along with the younger ones. They may be farther along on the road of wisdom, but they are never too old to learn. Those who think themselves fully qualified experts with nothing more to learn, are certainly not wise!
Proverbs challenges the wise to try their skills on its proverbs, on the words and riddles of Solomon and of a number of other wise men whose words are included in this book.
Indeed, Proverbs is a book for the whole church, a Book concerned with wisdom that saves.
Proverbs 1:4-6, Ecclesiastes 12:9-11
The Beginning of Wisdom
All wisdom starts somewhere; it has a root. Proverbs does not leave us guessing what that root is. No, we will not be able to reach out to God and fully understand the depths of His wisdom; much remains hidden for us. But let us be bound and led by what God Himself gives us: His revelation. That is our source of wisdom. It begins with the fear of the Lord – that can become such a familiar phrase that we no longer experience its force and urgency. The word fear can also refer to feelings of fright, for instance being afraid of animals and being scared of things. That’s not what we must think of in this context. The Lord does not want to terrify us.
Fear which develops in a negative manner results in fright and dread, perhaps even terror. But when it develops in a positive manner it may result in respect and dependence.
Fearing the Lord means being filled with deep respect for Him. It means being so full of His great majesty that you know yourself to be fully dependent on Him in all things. The fear of the Lord gives meaning to your life; it shapes you because you recognize and acknowledge that your whole life and the world around you are directly and intimately related to the Lord. This does not leave any room for superficially and occasionally observing that, indeed, God does exist and the Bible has some value. No, the fear of the Lord demands appropriate respect, deep awe for Him who made Himself known to us by that rich and revealing name: the Lord.
All wisdom and knowledge starts with the fear of the Lord. It is not up to us to determine what that phrase means. Its meaning has been determined: be fully bound by God’s commandments; have pleasure in His precepts; walk in His ways.
Proverbs 1:7, Job 28, Psalm 112:1; 119:63; 128:1
(notice the parallels) Romans 11:33-34 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 2 Corinthians 5:11
Antithesis means contrast. We usually mean with this term the fundamental contrast which God Himself has placed over this world, the contrast caused by the battle between the woman and the serpent, between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, between the church and the world, between belief and unbelief.
It will be clear that this antithesis will be noticed also when we speak about wisdom. After all, we are concerned with the wisdom that saves, with the christian art of living in the way of the fear of the Lord.
Wisdom is contrasted with foolishness. There are only two roads: the road of the righteous and the road of the unrighteous, the narrow road and the broad road. That is the antithesis.
Young people, for whom these proverbs have been written in the first place, must become familiar with this antithesis. They must learn to distinguish well between these two roads. The wisdom teacher who, with the help of Proverbs, takes the youth by the hand to teach them wisdom, points out quite emphatically that there are other teachers who want to teach them about the art of living. But those teachers do this with the wrong objectives and with the wrong methods: seek your own pleasures, and do not take things so seriously. The presentation may be most convincing and tempting, but it leads to destruction, your destruction.
Proverbs 1:10-19, Psalm 1, Matthew 7:13-14
Lady Wisdom and Miss Foolishness
We continue with the theme of the antithesis. Once your attention has been drawn to it you will discover how often wisdom is contrasted with foolishness. This is especially the case in chapter 9, the last of the introductory chapters, Chapter 10 starts with the same words as Chapter 1: The Proverbs of Solomon. Therefore, chapter 10 makes a second start. The chapters 1-9 take a peculiar place within the whole book of Proverbs. It is a long introduction to wisdom, dealing with all kinds of preliminary questions: What is wisdom? For whom is wisdom meant? How can it be learned? What is the alternative? In addition, wisdom is praised and sung about. These chapters give a taste of what is in store for you and what you can do with it.
This introduction concludes with chapter 9 by pointing once more and quite clearly to the antithetical nature of true wisdom. Wisdom is represented as a lady, and over against her is placed a restless, noisy woman, Miss Foolishness. Both offer a meal; both send an invitation. Yet what a difference in quality, in presentation, in stature; a difference which is ultimately a difference between life and death. Study this chapter closely and identify the differences between these two ladies.
Wisdom – A Most Serious Business
After this short excursion to chapter 9 we return to Proverbs 1. We noted that wisdom can be represented as a person, and in chapter 1 this happens for the first time.
Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice...
When we read what this voice has to say (verses 20-33) then we are confronted by the seriousness of the covenant! Already in the third verse of chapter 1 is mention of the covenant. This verse speaks of righteousness, and that means living a life in accordance with the right which the Lord has over you and over your life. In other words, this means that you must live in accordance with the covenant which the Lord has made with you and according to which He calls you.
When wisdom warns about the destruction of those who do not listen to her, she makes abundantly clear how serious that warning is. Give heed to my reproof, take my lessons seriously, she calls. Her invitation cannot be compared to a TV spot-advertisement which competes with so many others for the attention of the viewers. She does not say, “Have a look at me also, since you are considering various courses which you might want to follow.” Instruction in wisdom is not a course for which you may or may not enroll. It is an essential and vital basic course for your life; it is indispensable. Wisdom says, if you do not come and study with me, things will go wrong. You will then choose for foolishness and for destruction.
The covenant is not a game; wisdom is not a toy. It concerns basic things in complete seriousness. He who listens well shall fare well. The seriousness of the covenant forms the backdrop for this instruction in wisdom. We have to listen because of the serious background of these words; we may listen because of God’s election. Therefore, because of the covenant, listening to wisdom can be a most joyful matter. Christians know the connection between have to and may, between the obligation and the privilege, and the joy this brings. Children already know about this: they have to go to church and they may go to church, – both!
Proverbs is also included in Christ’s statement that the Scriptures witness of Him. Christ, in whom all the proverbs have been fulfilled as well, is the truly Wise One. When Proverbs often accuses us and exposes our shortcomings, we may know that He who lived wisdom in full perfection has covered our folly. This faith in Christ will not fail to stimulate us to new obedience, to a thankful accepting and following of the wisdom taught in this book.
Such wisdom protects and provides safety, especially in contrast to foolishness. Wisdom speaks, ...but he who listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil.
Proverbs 1:20-33, John 5:39, 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16. Compare: Matthew 11:27-30
I conclude this exploratory chapter with a short discussion of the mashal as a literary style figure. mashal is the Hebrew word for proverb, but is not limited to short proverbs of two or three lines. A Mashal may be:
a saying, an adage. For example: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
a poem which contains a message in the manner of wisdom. For example: the song of praise for the good wife; the satirical song for the King of Babel, and the song about the vineyard.
a parable. For example: the parable that Nathan told to David. This genre includes the parables of the Lord Jesus in the New Testament, who also uses the Mashal in the sermon on the mount and during other occasions, for example: Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Also 2 Peter 3:8 is a mashal, which is explained in the following verses (verse 9ff).
The Mashal in Proverbs is most often a short, tersely formulated saying, often constructed according to the principles of parallelism, in other words made up of two statements which are parallel in meaning and therefore explain each other. Often the meaning of one of the statements of the proverb becomes clear by studying its parallel statement.
This parallelism has a number of variations.
He who loves transgression loves strife; he who makes his door high seeks destruction.
A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.
Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge.
Like a gold ring in a swine’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.
The Nature of Proverbs
Finally, some comments about the nature of the mashal. Proverbs 1 explains this already in the description as a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.
a) Proverb and Figure. Proverbs speak in figures. Like a gold ring in the swine’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion. Proverbs make use of imagery, create the visual, lively, and concrete. Consider the song of the good wife. That is not a theoretical discourse. The writer does not say, “And further, the good wife must do her share in the production of cloth and clothing.” No, the author puts it rather differently, She puts her hands on the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. You can see those hands move; you see her spinning and weaving. Proverbs are those kinds of images taken from life; they often make use of comparisons with real situations. Reading proverbs is like looking at pictures. General truths and rules are taught on the basis of actual and practical situations.
b) Words and Riddles of the Wise. Proverbs can be quite puzzling; a mashal does not let itself be understood easily. Its message can be hidden quite deeply. Proverbs must be savoured; you must learn to conquer them slowly. First look at them, then walk around them for a while, studying them from all sides, and finally you will see through them. Proverbs should not be read from cover to cover in one sitting. It is better to conquer a few of the proverbs than to read many of them and to forget them immediately.
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.
Should you or should you not answer a fool according to his folly? Take your time studying these proverbs. The parallel statements show the way. The meaning of these riddles is concealed, but they often have a double bottom which you may not notice straight away. David thought he understood Nathan, but he received the parable on his own plate. That is also the case with the parables of the Lord Jesus. Those parables are not simple stories for children. The rich young man would have thought for sure that he understood the parable of the treasure in the field and the precious pearl. But when he stood before the Lord Jesus, he did not follow the message of those parables.
c) Resistance and Irritation. A puzzling mashal can challenge and even cause resistance because the proverb is an exaggeration. We might think it is formulated in a rather one-sided, oversimplified way. Proverbs 10 says, The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry. Were those seven thousand righteous people in the time of Elijah never hungry? How can Psalm 34 then say, Many are the afflictions of the righteous?
It is a characteristic of the proverbs that one side of the truth is highlighted seemingly denying that there is (can be) another side to this matter. Yet such an exaggeration is typical; it makes proverbs into proverbs: strong colours and strong language. The proverb would lose its strength and beauty if the other side of the matter and the exceptions to the rule were mentioned every time. In that case, proverbs would no longer be proverbs, they would lose their terseness and expressiveness. When you read, The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, you will recognize this statement as a proverb, without discounting it as unrealistic. Find its parallel statement, and start puzzling. Speaking in proverbs is an art which places high demands on the art of listening.
Having learned this, let us study again the song about the good wife. That song gives you the impression that this woman is perfect in everything. She is never tired or sick. In the morning she rises with a song of praise on her lips, and when she speaks she never produces senseless coffee chatter, but only genuine wisdom.
What is Proverbs 31 trying to say? Does not this chapter cause all housewives and mothers to feel guilty? It is clear, is it not, that not one woman can live up to the image portrayed in this song.
It is true, this song paints an ideal, but not with the intention to leave all women behind in a state of depression. This chapter calls for and points at a new world and a new life; it points to the restoration of all that has been broken; it points to Christ and His work of reconciliation.
Everyone who believes shares in this reconciliation and redemption, shares in the wisdom which saves.
Proverbs 1:6, Proverbs 31:10-31, Proverbs 26:4-5, Matthew 13:44-46, Matthew 19:16-22, Proverbs 10:3, 1 Kings 19:18, Psalm 34:30