In our lesson this month we will look at several passages from the book of Proverbs, a part of the poetry section of the Old Testament. Proverbs consists of short pithy statements, simple admonitions, and some longer poems instructing us how to live a godly life, and how to cope with the day-to-day world. There will also be a few references to a short passage in the book of James.
Hebrew poetry does not rhyme like English poetry usually does. Hebrew poetry has a rhythm of thought rather than a rhythm of words. Instead of a repetition of sounds that rhyme, there is a repetition of ideas that reinforce each other. The proverbs are often stated in couplets (called “parallelisms”), in which the second line repeats the thought of the first line, or stands in contrast to the thought of the first line.
Most proverbs are one-sentence sayings. They are short sentences drawn from long experiences. They are laws of heaven for life on earth. Proverbs are simple truths, easily remembered, containing much wisdom in a few words. The book of Proverbs provides wisdom for living—with special instructions on folly, wealth, poverty, pride, humility, justice, strife, gluttony, lust, laziness, old age, and friends. The book includes instructions on consideration for the poor, on kindness toward enemies, on the choice of companions, on the use of the tongue, on how to treat neighbors, and on the training of children.
We use a variety of proverbial sayings, such as “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” or “Look before you leap,” or “A stitch in time saves nine,” or “Haste makes waste.” However, the Bible book of Proverbs is not just a collection of homey sayings, but is a series of deep spiritual insights which are inspired of God.
One of the most common mistakes made in the study of the book of Proverbs is to view the sayings as a series of ironclad promises. The statements found in Proverbs should be seen as general statements that express basic truths, but which do have exceptions. A “proverb” by definition is “a general principle.” It is not a promise that always holds true. For example, some good people do starve (Proverbs 10:3), and some who fear God are visited with harm (Proverbs 19:23). But the general truth is that the godly person who seeks to follow the Lord, fares better than the wicked person whose life eventually ends in ruin.
The focus of our lesson in this article is on the theme of wisdom. Actually, the book of Proverbs uses several terms that are somewhat interrelated. One of those terms is “knowledge”—a mere accumulation of facts. Another term is “wisdom”—which speaks of how to rightly use the facts. A third term is “understanding”—which is really a synonym for the word “wisdom.” The sum total of human knowledge in recent decades has doubled about every twenty-two months. Wisdom is the quality that helps us use knowledge for the glory of God.
The first nine chapters of Proverbs are a long “wisdom poem” which differs in structure from the short disconnected sayings that make up most of the rest of the book. Wisdom is seeing things from God’s point of view, or to put it very simply, wisdom is “godly conduct.” It begins with respect for God, and leads to living life in accord with God’s plan.
We will examine two sections in this lesson from Proverbs 3 and 4:
- 1) The high value of wisdom (Proverbs 3:13-18)
- 2) The exhortation to acquire wisdom (Proverbs 4:1-9; 14-19)
1. The High Value of Wisdom (Proverbs 3:13-18)
In the New Testament book of James we learn about two kinds of wisdom. The one is pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, and full of mercy (James 3:17). The other is earthly, sensual, and demonic (James 3:15).
The wisdom that comes from above (James 3:17) is first “pure”—which means that it is undefiled and free from self interest. True wisdom is also “peaceable,” meaning that it delights in peace and seeks to promote peace (an inner state of mind which is not quarrelsome and contentious). True wisdom is “gentle”—meaning that it is considerate, kind, and forbearing. True wisdom is “easy to be entreated”—which implies that those who possess true wisdom are approachable. They are not beyond appeal. They are open to other points of view. Heavenly wisdom is also “full of mercy,” which speaks of compassion and pity shown toward those who are miserable and needy. True wisdom is full of “good fruits”—which refers to kind actions and helpful deeds, especially toward those who are to be pitied.
Heavenly wisdom is “without partiality”—a phrase which means “unambiguous” and “straightforward.” Those who are “without partiality” are certain of what they believe and say. They don’t know everything about everything, but when they speak, they know what they are talking about. Their convictions are undivided and impartial. They are not trying to please the world and God at the same time. Those possessed with true wisdom have clear convictions and abide by them, but at the same time, they are charitable toward those who disagree. Heavenly wisdom is also “without hypocrisy”—meaning that it is sincere, genuine, and thoroughly honest. What sincere persons appear to be—that is what they are.
The evidences of false wisdom (James 3:14) are “bitter envying and strife.” There is a fierce desire to promote one’s own opinion, and a harsh and resentful attitude toward others whom God may be using in a greater manner. “Strife” conveys the thought of selfish ambition and party spirit. It describes the disposition of one who constantly struggles to forward his selfish interests.
True wisdom is given only to those who are walking in fellowship with God. The Bible says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). And, as we study the book of Proverbs, we learn that true wisdom is to be found in God’s Word. The search for wisdom is not based on human speculation. Instead, to be wise, we must explore the teachings of Scripture, and seek to learn God’s principles for upright living.
In the Bible, wisdom is not primarily an intellectual matter. It is basically a moral matter. The “wise” person is not one who knows the most about science and about literature, but the person who knows how to order his life in obedience to God’s will. Moses told the people of Israel, when they were about to enter the Promised Land, that he had taught them God’s commandments, and then he said, Therefore, be careful to observe them — “for this is your wisdom and your understanding” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
Godly wisdom thinks not only about today and tomorrow, but considers the long-range results of the decisions we make in life. In the parable Jesus told, the “wise virgins” had plenty of oil in their lamps; the foolish bridesmaids were not ready for future interruptions of their plans. Three of the saddest sayings of the Bible are found in the Matthew 25:8-12. The first saying is found in verse 8, “Our lamps are gone out.” The second saying is found in verse 10, “And the door was shut.” The third saying is found in verse 12, “I know you not.”
Worldly wisdom, by way of contrast, thinks primarily about the present, and wants immediate gratification—and makes light of preparation for the eternal future. Worldly wisdom thinks of clever ways to find pleasure in the here and now; for the most part, it ignores the future.
In Proverbs 3, the supreme value of God’s wisdom is stated clearly in some of the early verses. Wisdom promises rewards (verse 2), favor with God (verse 4), divine guidance (verse 6), health and refreshment (verse 8), material prosperity (verse 10), and deep inner satisfaction (verse 13). And then beginning at verse 13, the Bible says, “Happy is the man that finds wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.” As stated earlier, “wisdom” and “understanding” are synonyms. They are both used in the parallel statements of this poem, so that the word “wisdom” will not have to be repeated twice in the same sentence. (See also Proverbs 4:5 and Proverbs 4:7.)
Notice the words of Proverbs 3:13-18.
13. Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.
14. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.
15. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.
16. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour.
17. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
18. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.
Those persons who find wisdom and gain understanding are truly “blessed”—happy, joyful, satisfied. “Happy is the man” (verse 13) would more accurately be translated, “Blessed is the man”—because our word “happy” means “favored by circumstances,” or “pleased because good fortune has come our way.” All of us have seen bumper stickers that speak of happiness. “Happiness is a warm puppy.” “Happiness” is sixteen candles on your birthday cake. Or, in New York City, there was a bumper sticker that said, “Happiness is five green lights in a row.” Happiness depends on favorable outward circumstances.
The word “blessed,” by way of contrast, describes a condition of inner satisfaction, an untouchable joy that comes from knowing the Lord and walking with Him. Those who find godly wisdom and get understanding will be blessed with that inner joy.
Verses 14-15 say that such wisdom is much more valuable than gold and silver. Wisdom is worth more than rubies (a reddish stone that was highly prized in earlier times.)
Verse 16 says that those persons who find wisdom and get understanding will be blessed with a long and prosperous life. The term “length of days” sometimes conveys the idea of “a life worth living”—and may thus speak more of the quality of life than of how many years one may live.
Verse 17 says that following the way of wisdom will bring “pleasantness” and “all her paths are peace.” Seeking to live by wise principles leads to a full and satisfying life. The “tree of life” (verse 18) may refer to the tree of life in the eternal world (described in Revelation 22:2).
People who have embraced divine wisdom seek to be servants to others, rather than constantly pampering themselves.
A group of teenage youth decided to do something for the shut-ins of their church. They put together some baskets of fresh fruit, split up into teams of three or four, and launched out. They spent a whole evening chatting with the elderly. They looked at some old dog-eared scrapbooks; they talked and laughed and learned much from the older folks. Finally, they reported back to the church for a snack, and shared their experiences. They had not only done something that was good and decent, but they had done something that was really enjoyable to them. Our lesson says, in verse 17, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”
2. The Exhortation to Acquire Wisdom (Proverbs 4:1-9, 14-19)
Chapter 4 describes what is almost a lost art in our generation—a devout home where a father sits in the midst of his children to teach them the ways of God. Solomon (in this chapter) is telling how his father David, in the presence of his mother, Bathsheba, encouraged him to seek after wisdom when he was still young and tender in years.
The value of parental teaching has never been superseded. The home is the earliest setting for formal instruction. Today, many parents choose to delegate more and more of this responsibility to outsiders—to the schools, and to day-care centers. In my judgment, that is a tragic mistake.
Note the instruction found in Proverbs 4:1-9 and 4:14-19.
1. Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding.
2. For I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not my law.
3. For I was my father’s son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother.
4. He taught me also, and said unto me, Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments, and live.
5. Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth.
6. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee.
7. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.
8. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her.
9. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee.
14. Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men.
15. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away.
16. For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall.
17. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence.
18. But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.
19. The way of the wicked is as darkness: they know not at what they stumble.
Verses 1-2 say that parental instruction is to be prized because it is good teaching. Verses 3-4 say that such instruction in the home is valuable because it includes the wisdom of the grandparents. Solomon says to his children (verse 1) that he is going to give “good doctrine” (verse 2). It is what Solomon’s father taught him as a young child (verse 4). Those who will pay attention, and get wisdom, and love it and embrace it, will discover that wisdom will “preserve” and “keep” you throughout life (verses 5-6). In fact, if you will strive to get wisdom “the principal thing” (verse 7), you will experience “honor” (verse 8), and a beautiful “crown of glory” (verse 9). The same phrase (crown of glory) is used in Proverbs 16:31 to describe gray hair and old age. Those who follow the path of wisdom (that is, seeking to obey the Word of the Lord), will experience honor (public approval) and a crown of glory (blessing even in old age).
We want our children to learn about Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Longfellow. We are glad when they can grasp the concepts of algebra and trigonometry and calculus. But most of all, we long for our children to be well-behaved boys and girls. We are concerned about the education of their minds, but we are even more burdened for the purity of their hearts.
When Solomon said, “Let thine heart retain my words” (center of verse 4), he was saying, “Hold fast to these instructions; don’t just hear them, but translate them into action in your daily lives.” The summary later in chapter 4 (verses 18-19), compares those who walk in wisdom to the rising sun. At first there is just a moderate glow, and then finally the sun rises overhead, and the sky is blazing with glory. The wicked are likened to those who move into deep darkness, and stumble around because they can’t see where they are going.
The primary message of Proverbs 4 is to “get wisdom,” and to make a resolution never to depart from the path of understanding (verse 7). There are only two basic paths to follow in life: One is the path of wisdom; the other is the road of folly. The teaching here duplicates the message of the 1st Psalm, and the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14.
The highway to Hell is a broad road with a wide gate.
The highway to Life is a narrow road with a small gate.
Later verses in chapter 4 (verses 10-19) continue to contrast the two paths. The path of the wicked is described as a dark and treacherous way (verses 14-17, 19). The way of the righteous is a bright and clear way, which leads to a happy and fulfilling life (verse 18).
One young girl, the daughter of a wealthy man who had embraced a non-Christian religion, had to choose between a financial fortune, and Christ—when her father died. He left her $450,000 on the condition that she would give up her Christian faith. If she would not give up the Christian faith, she was to receive a mere $5. The young woman chose to remain a Christian; it cost her a fortune—but she chose to be true to Christ. Was she wise, or was she foolish?
Wisdom, as we commonly think of it, is the ability to follow a sound course of action, based on knowledge and long experience. Wisdom, as used in the Proverbs, begins with reverence and awe for God, and leads to living life in accord with God’s plan.
Some of our readers have undoubtedly grown up in a Christian home, but you have strayed from the Lord. You know that your parents are grieved by your conduct. You had better go home and plant a kiss on your mother’s cheek, and ask your parents’ forgiveness, and start life over again!
When you were a young child, you memorized some Scriptures, you sang the hymns of the church, you had convictions about sin, you took pleasure in going to God’s house, you professed to love Jesus—but somehow over the years, these things vanished. Won’t you turn your back on the way of folly, and renew your covenant with God today?