When is your son or daughter old enough to date? Should you pay off your mortgage or increase your investments? Should you ask your church for financial help or take on that second part-time job? What is the best way to bring up that painful yet perpetual misunderstanding between you and your spouse? Should you attend a Christian or secular university? When is it time to start looking for a new job? A new church?
Christian doctrine and God’s moral laws are fundamental to a right relationship with our Lord. But much of life occurs outside the realm of blatant, binary answers. For many such matters, what is the right or best course for one worshiper of Christ may not be the right or best course for others, who live and move and have their being in different contexts.
This is not relativism; it is Christian wisdom. Such matters require not only divinely inspired rules but also divinely indwelt people. As commentator Derek Kidner says, “There are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets and yet decisive in personal dealings. Proverbs moves in this realm.”1
Week 1: Overview of Proverbs
In this installment of Knowable Word we begin a three-part series in Proverbs 1–9. In those chapters, Wisdom herself constructs a house and spreads a feast (Prov 9:1–6). We ought to take heed of each board laid, each nail driven, and each savory course presented to our nostrils. And only when our minds and hearts have taken up residence in that house’s framework of thought, will we be able to feast on Proverbs 10–31 without distorting or misusing what we find there.
The best way to begin any new book study is with an overview of the entire book. And the best way to begin such an overview is typically by reading the whole book. Over the next week, try to read all of the book of Proverbs. Four or five chapters per day should do it.
As you read, look for the explicit headings used by the book’s original compilers to mark the divisions. These headings will guide our attempt to map the book’s structure. By headings, I mean statements such as Proverbs 1:1: “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.”2 And Proverbs 10:1: “The proverbs of Solomon.” See if, in addition to those two, you can find five more such headings. Two of them are quite challenging to recognize as headings, but do your best before you move on in this study.
I would guess that Proverbs 25:1, 30:1, and 31:1 may have jumped out at you. Did you also find Proverbs 22:17–21 (“Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise”) and 24:23 (“These also are sayings of the wise”)?
So we could outline the parts of book of Proverbs as follows:
- The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel (1–9)
- The proverbs of Solomon (10:1–22:16)
- The words of the wise (22:17–24:22)
- More sayings of the wise (24:23–34)
- Proverbs of Solomon copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah (25–29)
- The words of Agur son of Jakeh (30)
- The words of King Lemuel’s mother (31)
Now look back over the styles of poetry in each section of the book. A cursory glance shows that the poems in part 1 are rather lengthy, with some filling a full chapter. The proverbs in parts 2 and 5 are almost completely made up of pithy, one-verse sayings. The words and sayings of parts 3, 4, 6, and 7 consist primarily of brief three- or four-verse stanzas (the chief exception being the longer poem on the excellent wife in 31:10–31). These differences in poetic device suggest slightly different reading strategies for each division of the book.
Our interest for this study lies with part 1, where the lengthy poems warrant careful examination of the arguments presented and unfolded. Often we think of proverbs as little more than the pithy, one-verse sayings of parts 2 and 5. But the first nine chapters will construct the ideological house within which the sayings of the rest of the book will make sense and land with greatest force.
Are you ready to watch the building of the house? Ask God now to open the windows of heaven and pour out his wisdom on you, so you can see him more clearly and receive life from him as you dive into this book over the next few weeks.
Week 2: The purposes of Proverbs
Right from the start, Solomon clarifies his exact purposes in writing. Read Proverbs 1:1–6, highlighting or writing down any purpose statements you find.
Depending on your translation, you should see a number of “to” phrases at the beginning of some of the lines of poetry.3 These are not prepositional phrases, as in “to the simple” or “to the youth” (v. 4). They are parts of infinitive verbs that signal purpose, as in “to know,” “to understand,” and “to receive.”
Take each purpose statement and try to rephrase it in your own words, in language as plain as possible. Don’t be afraid to read this six–verse stanza five times, or even ten times, to help you ponder what’s being communicated. Consider how these verses answer the question “What is the book of Proverbs for?”
As you consider the thrust of each of the five purpose statements, make sure to consider how each one is different from the others. Solomon gave us five reasons why he wrote (at least his portions of) this book. Let’s make sure to understand and distinguish all five and not mush them together into a single vague concept. Yes, this book is meant to give wisdom and to make us wise. But in what five ways will it do so?
To ensure you and I are on the same page for the rest of this study, I must be forthright about what I believe the five purpose statements are getting at. But I urge you to study the text, think about it yourself, and try writing your own rephrasings before continuing on to read mine.
The first purpose statement (v. 2a) explores the idea or concept of wisdom. This book will help us to know, conceptually, what wisdom is and what it is like.
The second purpose statement (v. 2b) aims at the embodiment of wisdom. This book will help us to know, in real life, whether a given person, statement, instruction, or conclusion is wise.
The third purpose statement (v. 3) seeks to apply wisdom. This book will help us not only to know and understand wisdom conceptually but also to put it into practice in our daily lives.
The fourth purpose statement (vv. 4–5) displays the directional nature of wisdom. This book will help us to make progress in wisdom, no matter where we start on the foolish-to-wise spectrum. Wisdom is not about attaining a particular state of maturity but about moving in the right direction—always learning and growing.
The fifth purpose statement (v. 6) shows the textual nature of wisdom. This book will help us to keep our noses in the book of Wisdom, mastering some parts that will unlock the mysteries of other parts. On a smaller scale, we could say that the more we understand Proverbs, the more proverbs we will understand. On a larger scale, we could apply this principle to all of Scripture and not merely the book of Proverbs.
To summarize, the book of Proverbs was written to help you:
- Know what wisdom is.
- Recognize wisdom when you see it.
- Do wise things.
- Keep growing.
- Remain anchored in God’s word.
Do those five purposes of Proverbs appeal to you? Ask God now to be true to his word and to change you in those ways as you continue studying this book.
Week 3: The right direction
In Proverbs 1:1–6 we saw that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to get us moving in the direction of wisdom. This direction will affect not only our thinking but also our decisions and behavior. We now ought to consider how we’ll know whether our direction is toward wisdom or not. People have many different ideas and definitions of wisdom. How will we know which direction is the right one?
Read Proverbs 1:7–9. What do these verses tell us about the right direction? And how does the Lord wish us to perceive those who move in that direction?
One of the most important statements in this book is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (v. 7). The fear of the Lord brackets both part 1 of Proverbs (1:7; 9:10) and the entire book (1:7; 31:30). As “the beginning” of knowledge (1:7) and wisdom (9:10), the fear of the Lord is a concept we must grapple with if we are to understand this book.
So what is the fear of the Lord? Resist the temptation to close your Bible, stare into the sky, and simply ponder your way into an agreeable answer. We must answer such interpretive questions from the text. And in this case, everything you need for the answer is in verse 7, if you grasp an important characteristic of Hebrew poetry: parallelism.
Parallelism means that poetic lines come in groups (usually groups of 2 or 3) that correspond to each other in some way. The most common kinds of parallelism are synonymous, where the lines say similar things, and antithetical, where the lines say contrasting things. What sort of relationship do we have between the two lines of verse 7?
Since the definition of “the fear of the Lord” is not immediately clear, consider how examining the parallelism can help. “Fools despise” is abundantly clear. This book offers wisdom and instruction, but fools will despise it. And why would they despise it? There could be many reasons: Perhaps they think they don’t need it. They don’t want it. They’re doing just fine on their own. They prefer to follow their hearts and keep to their own ways. They want to have their own way, without anyone—especially God—telling them what to do.
The antithetical parallelism suggests that “the fear of the Lord” is the opposite to such an attitude. Instead of despising wisdom and instruction, the wise fear the Lord. In other words, they love the Lord’s wisdom and instruction. They recognize their need for it. They know they don’t have all the answers. They trust God to give them something from outside themselves. They’re not afraid to say “I don’t know,” and they know where to go for true answers to life and godliness.4
Proverbs 1:2–6 prepared us to think of wisdom as a journey in the right direction. And Proverbs 1:7 now defines that direction: Toward the Lord and away from ourselves. Picture a horizontal line with “God” on one side and “Self” on the other. An arrow above the line, pointing toward the “God” side, represents wisdom, and an arrow below the line, pointing toward the “Self” side, represents folly.
As we learned from verses 4–5, it does not matter at which point you are on the line. The only thing that matters (for defining and demonstrating wisdom) is which direction you are heading. And since the fear of the Lord is knowledge’s beginning, all you must do right now is take one step in the direction of the Lord, making it easier to then take another. And another.
Those who boldly step in that direction are quite magnetizing, are they not (vv. 8–9)? God’s wisdom adorns them with beauty, making them attractive as friends, partners, co-laborers, and counselors. Have you desired to grow your influence with people in your life? How would Solomon advise you, from this text, to effectively develop such influence?
Week 4: The first obstacle to wisdom
In Proverbs 1–9, Solomon warns of two chief obstacles to wisdom. These two barriers prevent you from becoming wise because they compel you to listen to and “move toward” yourself instead of the Lord.
Read Proverbs 1:10–19, where Solomon addresses the first potential roadblock. What is his primary command? How does he seek to motivate obedience to that command?
On a first reading of this passage, it can be tempting to presume Solomon speaks of ancient gang violence (“let us lie in wait for blood,” v. 11). And while some folks may truly be tempted regularly by such behavior, many who are not might skip to the next poem, believing these verses won’t intersect with their lives.
But before moving on too quickly, consider a literary device called caricature. In visual art, a caricature distorts or exaggerates a certain feature of a person for comedic effect. In literature, caricature is a comic description of a person or group of people to make them look silly. That is what Solomon does in these verses. Perhaps you’ve never been formally invited by a gang of ruffians to waylay defenseless widows on street corners in order to swipe and evenly split their credit cards. But such a situation is almost beside the point Solomon wishes to make.
He makes the plans of “sinners” (v. 10) look silly in order to show their self-defeating nature (v. 18). But he’s really not talking about street gangs, is he? Take a close look at verse 19, underline the phrase “everyone who is greedy for unjust gain,” and stick that in your meditation-pipe and take a few puffs.
In what ways have you capitulated to your greed, despite the harm it has done to others? When do you give a cold shoulder or silent treatment to those who threaten or sabotage your earthly treasure? Have you lashed out angrily at neighbors or members of your own household who have impeded your property, damaged your belongings, or otherwise cost you money?
The first obstacle to wisdom is our desire for more stuff. It will cause us to listen more to our own hearts than to the Lord—a rather silly thing to do.
Week 5: Just do nothing, and you’ll ruin everything
In Proverbs 1:4, 5, and 7, we met the three kinds of people Solomon wishes to address: The wise, the foolish, and the simple. The wise move toward the Lord. The foolish move toward themselves. But what about the simple (or “naive” or “youth”)? What is their motion on the spectrum of wisdom?
Wisdom, personified as a schoolmistress, now speaks directly to those simple people. Read Proverbs 1:20–33. What does Wisdom want for the simple? What does she want from them? What will happen if they fail to comply?
The simple/naive are those standing at the crossroads of wisdom and folly. They are not yet moving toward either God or themselves, but they must decide which way to go. Just as a baby is not sinning to need a diaper, so there is nothing immoral or unrighteous about being simple. It is simply a matter of being inexperienced and not yet knowing any better. But by the time you reach adulthood, more is expected of you. As Derek Kidner sagely comments, “One does not stay still: a man who is emptyheaded will end up wrongheaded.”5
In what areas of your walk with God have you been complacent to remain “simple” for too long? What would Wisdom have you do? What is God waiting to pour out on you? What is the cost of not moving in the right direction?
Week 6: How to become wise
We’ve seen what the book of Proverbs is for. We know what wisdom is, and what is the right direction. We’ve been warned of the first potential roadblock on this journey, and we’ve been admonished not to sit still but to get moving. These are the first few boards being laid by Wisdom to build her house. We now conclude part 1 of this series by bringing many of the ideas together to understand what it tangibly means to walk this path of wisdom.
Read Proverbs 2:1–22. Mark the logical connector words (“if,” “then,” “for”). Solomon is crafting a careful argument, and you’ll need to pick up on the connections in order to follow it.
What is the essence of the “if” section (vv. 1–4)? What is Solomon asking us to do? And what is the difference between the “if” instruction of verses 1–2 and the “if” instruction of verses 3–4?
If readers do those actions, what is promised to them in the “then” section (v. 5)? And where have we seen these items already in Proverbs? In light of those connections, why would you want these results? Would they be worth it to you?
The rest of the chapter offers the reasons why the “if” (vv. 1–4) can, in fact, yield the “then” (v. 5). First is the positive, productive reason (vv. 6–10). Then there is the negative, protective reason (vv. 11–22)—delivering from two roadblocks (vv. 12–15, 16–19) and for an unhindered journey (vv. 20–22).
That first roadblock should already be familiar to us from 1:10–19: more stuff. The second roadblock is introduced now but will be thoroughly developed in later chapters: more pleasure.
In light of the argument in chapter two, how can you become wise? What will you believe and do as a result? What opportunities lie in front of you, even this week, to get going in the right direction on this invaluable journey?
This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
- A Heart Shaped by God’s Wisdom: Proverbs Part 2 of 3
- A Plan to Stay the Course for Life: Proverbs Part 3 of 3
- 9 Commentaries on Wisdom Literature (& Why It Matters)
- Derek Kidner, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 13.
- This study quotes the English Standard Version, but you are free to use your typical translation of choice.
- Some translations, such as the Christian Standard Bible, use “for” instead of “to” to clarify the purpose-nature of the phrases (“for learning,” “for understanding,” “for receiving,” etc.).
- This is why numerous thinkers (e.g., Dan Phillips, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, Kress, 2011) have suggested that “the fear of the Lord” is the Old Testament equivalent of “justification by faith in Christ” in the New Testament. It is all about receiving righteousness from God and not by our own works.
- Derek Kidner, Proverbs, 37.