The following is an adapted transcript from one of Ken’s teaching series on the book of Proverbs. He also walks through this transcript in his latest Wisdom series.
We are going to launch into the book of Proverbs proper, having had an overview of the book in part 1. We are going to begin by breaking the first nine chapters into two sections because these chapters are so extraordinarily important. In this session, we will look at chapters 1–4, and then in the next part we will dig into chapters 5–9.
These nine chapters provide ten sermonic exhortations—invocations as if from a father to a son, invitations to pursue wisdom. These ten various invitations provide not only the benefits of pursuing wisdom, but also, by contrast, the downside of neglecting wisdom—of rejecting wisdom’s offer. What we will see are chapters and verses designed to prepare the people to receive wisdom, much like Deuteronomy was designed to prepare the people to enter the Promised Land. Before you get to the legal material in Deuteronomy, the first portion focuses on the preparation of the people, both morally and spiritually. Moses encourages the Israelites to receive what they are about to hear and to apply it to new generations.
Watch Ken teach on the purpose of Deuteronomy here.
The Importance of Instruction
In the book of Proverbs, we see a generation being instructed to learn and live, and not merely to live and learn. They are being told to develop character, and then they are given the reasons why. They are being told to develop a heart for the subject so that when they begin hearing the proverbs in chapter 10, they can hear that wisdom with a proper perspective. After all, what is the use in teaching proverbs to a person who lacks a heart to receive them? If you do not have a heart for the subject, then it is a hopeless task.
You will hear many of the expressions in Proverbs again and again because they need to be heard again and again. Repetition is a very important pedagogical device: If you do not repeat yourself, people generally aren’t going to get the message the first time around. This is true in almost all relationships, and there are certain things that must be heard many times before you get the idea.
This is very true for the gospel itself—hearing about Jesus and what He offers. Especially for a person who has never heard it before, the gospel sounds very much like a foreign language. It must be heard over and over, and often from several people, before some even get a clue as to what is going on, because it goes against the natural bent of our minds. Normally we think we earn everything ourselves—we get into heaven the hard way, we earn it. Actually, we don’t earn it. If anything in Scripture is clear, this is it: We don’t earn or merit salvation; the law was not revealed to save anyone, but to make us realize the need for faith in the Lord. And then having put our faith and hope in Him, that brings about the justification and the change.
Proverbs deals with the many aspects of living that are too fine to get caught in the net of the Law—aspects of living that are too small to be hit by the broadsides of the prophets. These are details of life that are more refined; and it is really in the small details of living that the decisive elements of our character are going to be developed and exposed. Proverbs is a book that looks at, and pays attention to, the little details of life. That is why it is a very practical and often convicting book—because it is so penetrating and so piercing.
Proverbs 1: The Purpose of the Proverbs
Let’s begin our journey through the first four chapters. The book starts off by describing the authorship. Although we do know that Solomon did not author all of them, all are considered to be Solomonic. In Proverbs 1:1 we see: “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel.” We know, of course, that Solomon was a man whose knowledge was encyclopedic; his quest for wisdom made him a person who knew more than anyone else. He possessed understanding and discernment, and his wisdom was so legendary that people would come from hundreds of miles away to hear him speak. He would often give lengthy discourses on birds, animals, and life itself.
But sadly, this wisest of men became foolish in his old age, since he did not follow his own wisdom. It is one thing to have wisdom in terms of knowledge, but it is another thing to apply it. That application of knowledge needs to be done in dependence upon the power of God.
Proverbs 1:2–6: Developing Moral and Mental Skill
In verses 2–6 we have the purpose of the book itself. Proverbs—mashal in Hebrew—are simple illustrations that expose fundamental realities about life. The word also relates to similitudes, or comparisons; they are simple, pithy, and catchy; they can also be easily memorized, and they can be understood and then applied. In short, they are sayings that serve us well.
Looking at this in more detail, we see in 1:2 that the purpose of this book is “To know wisdom and instruction, to discern the sayings of understanding . . .” This little statement gives us the idea that wisdom is equivalent to moral acumen. Then “. . . to discern the sayings of understanding” has to do with a mental ability. The moral component is developed in verses 3–5, then the mental component in verse 6.
We saw in part 1 that wisdom means “to have a skill”; and you develop a skill by developing discipline. The word “instruction” in verse 2 really speaks to the development of that discipline. So, we are really talking about creating the skill of living life and establishing the disciplines necessary to attain that skill.
We need desperately to develop skill—not just in specific tasks, but the most important skill of living each area of your life under the dominion of the living God. This is why, of course, we will see in verse 7 the motto of the entire book: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”1 This involves ordering your life in such a way that the product is one of beauty—because the one who develops a skill creates something of beauty. The process of developing that skill—becoming disciplined—is not an easy exercise to go through, but it is the only way you will get to the point where you have the ability to accomplish something that lasts and is truly beautiful.
We need desperately to develop skill—not just in specific tasks, but the most important skill of living each area of your life under the dominion of the living God.
The metaphor here is that just as a craftsman may take raw material, shaping it and making something beautiful come out of it, so also your life is just like that raw material. You come into this world unformed—sort of “formless and void” (see Genesis 1:1)—and you need to be shaped and developed. And as you submit to the tutelage of the Word and develop skill in this area, then that precious raw material gets shaped and ordered and developed until something comes out that is lovely.
In this case, the discipline is attaining skill in the art of living life itself—with each area manifesting Christ-like qualities of character. Whenever I see the word “wisdom” it is easy to think about Christ. In any case, we also saw last time that wisdom is seen and personified as a woman who was with Yahweh even before the foundation of the world—and it is through this wisdom that He created and shaped the world itself.
Verses 3–4, then, look at this moral acumen from the student’s viewpoint. It says, “To receive instruction in wise behavior, righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the naïve, to the youth knowledge and discretion.” It is significant to note that the key word in verse 3 is “receive,” and in verse 4 it is “give.” One refers to the student and the other refers to the teacher. The teacher is going to impart prudence, knowledge, and discretion to the one who is naïve.
We see in verse 5 that a wise man will also profit from this, as he will “hear and increase in learning . . . acquire wise counsel.” You can come back to this material again and again and drink deeply from this well. The idea of “wise counsel” refers to learning the ropes of life, having insight into the character of other people, and ordering your life and developing correct convictions. For example, what practices do you follow in ordering your business affairs? In what ways do you work with your customers and clients? Answering those questions suggests a need for convictions. Proverbs is a book that makes us think through many of those contingencies in advance.
Proverbs 1:7: The Key and Creed of Proverbs
The key verse to me, the whole basic creed of the book itself, is found in verse 7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” That little verse describes the rest of the book.
The word “Lord” used here is the most personal name for God—Yahweh—and it is the name used of a covenant keeper. Bear in mind as well that in all the world’s religions, Yahweh is the only God who makes covenants with His people. You will not find a divine covenant maker in any other religion or ideology. He is seen as personal, and although transcendent, He is intimate and makes covenants and keeps those covenants. He can be trusted to keep His word even though we are often untrustworthy. We see Him, therefore, as a covenant keeper and One who is ethical and a personal being, even though He is awesome in His transcendence.
The fear of Yahweh—“the fear of the Lord”—creates two images for us: a sense of awe for His majesty and having the mindset of a subject before one’s king. In the first sense, we are standing in awe of the Lord of righteousness, the Lord of all creation. One way to cultivate that awe and to get a proper perspective of yourself is to lay flat under the stars for about thirty minutes. That is a great antidote to arrogance. When you realize you are looking down on those stars, and not just up at them, you realize you are floating on this little island we call Earth. This is a way of giving us perspective, especially because the One who knows all those stars by name and orders their paths is intimately acquainted with our ways as well—and we can trust Him.
The One who knows all those stars by name and orders their paths is intimately acquainted with our ways as well—and we can trust Him.
The second element of having a fear of the Lord is to have the mindset of a subject before one’s king. This is the idea, more potent in biblical times, of how would you behave if you were before a great king; it is the idea of one who would realize that his or her life was totally in the king’s hands. God fashioned us in the womb and is the sovereign One to whom we are utterly dependent.
In Proverbs 1:7, the word “beginning” can also be used to mean “foundation.” If I wanted to summarize the first part of this verse in my own words, here is how I would put it: A sense of reverential awe for God’s majesty, and a sense of radical dependence upon Him, is the foundation upon which the skill of living life under His dominion is built.
For more on the fear of the Lord, read Ken’s article “Delighting in the Fear of the Lord.”
Verse 7 goes on to say, “Fools despise wisdom and instruction,” because all the rest of the proverbs are going to be constantly comparing the two ways of wisdom and folly.
Proverbs 1:8–33: Two Invitations
I want you to notice that verse 7a is developed in verses 8–19, and verse 7b is developed in verses 20–33. In other words, first we see what the fear of the Lord is like in the life of the wise person. Then we realize there are two invitations and two refusals, but the same moral lesson is seen in both.
Proverbs 1:8–19: The Invitation of Folly
The first invitation is the invitation of folly—and the refusal of that folly by the wise. The second is the invitation of wisdom to fools who reject the offer. In both cases the moral is the same, but the consequences are inevitable. You cannot escape the consequences; at the end of the day God is not going to be mocked. He is a moral being and He has created a moral universe. In spite of all the absurdities of our culture—of the way that people seem to get away with evil, and how the righteous are often unjustly accused—God says that at the end of the day all will stand before Him and He will bring all those things to light. God, then, is sovereign and just and holy—and that is just as fundamental to His character as His compassion and mercy and grace.
God, then, is sovereign and just and holy—and that is just as fundamental to His character as His compassion and mercy and grace.
As we look at verses 8–19, we see an invitation to people who are seeking God’s way as well as the temptations of folly. The first of these exhortations is found in verse 8. Both parents are equally seen: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” The text assumes the child would receive wisdom from both parents, receiving different components from each parent.
The text continues, “Indeed, they are a graceful wreath to your head, and ornaments about your neck” (v. 9). This is the picture of a matrix of love, not harshness, where a person is treasured and seen to be unique. This context of instruction is not only through words, but also through setting an example—formal sessions and informal sessions. Many of us missed out on a lot of this—true instruction on the paths of wisdom that was passed on to your parents by their grandparents. Somehow the chain has been misplaced or broken along the way. But the wonderful thing is that we can break the curse and start again right where we are.
In verses 10–15 we see: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.” Then,
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood, let us ambush the innocent without cause; let us swallow them alive like Sheol, even whole, as those who go down to the pit; we will find all kinds of precious wealth, we will fill our houses with spoil; throw in your lot with us, we shall all have one purse,” My son do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path.
It is not a likely outcome for the sinners to share one purse. Those who trust people who have a criminal mindset won’t be carried very far. Treachery is involved, and there is a real lack of respect for life and property; there is a focus on the wrong value system.
The father addresses this, as Paul does later, by saying that “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). If you hang around these people for a while, they will make an imprint and have an impact on you. Companions of fools soon suffer injury—that is just the reality of it. If we want to be prudent, it is wise for us to hang around, instead, with people who have wisdom.
Companions of fools soon suffer injury—that is just the reality of it.
Does this mean that you spend no time with people who do not know the Lord? No, of course not; Jesus was called a “friend of sinners” (cf. Matthew 11:16–19). What that means is that you can be in the world but not of the world. Jesus had enough wisdom, knowledge of God, and dependence upon God to kept Him moving in the right direction, even though He would mix with people who were not be honoring God at all. As a result, He had a powerful impact; some people followed Him and bowed the knee before Him and acknowledged His lordship, while others persecuted Him and rejected Him. People could no longer be neutral after being with Jesus; either they were drawn to Him or they were driven away by His words; either they accepted Him, or they rejected Him.
By the way, this is the reaction you can expect as well the more you follow Christ. You may be a person who fulfills the seventh beatitude—being a peacemaker—but the eighth beatitude may also come around—persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:9–10).
Continuing in chapter 1, we see in verses 17–18 that, “Indeed, it is useless to spread the baited net in the sight of any bird; but they lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush their own lives.” Who would try to walk right up to a bird and then try to drop a net on it? You have to prepare and be much more subtle than that. Yet these people are setting traps and nets for themselves. If they are thinking at all, they know that, ultimately, they will be entrapped and ensnared. But it is the idea that “I got away with this much, I think I can get away with even more next time.”
We see the moral to this in verse 19: “So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; it takes away the life of its possessors.” You may indeed gain, but the gain will only be temporary; it will suck your very life away from you.
Proverbs 1:20–33: The Invitation of Wisdom
From that admonition we move to the next section, which amplifies verse 7b, “fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Verse 20 tells us, “Wisdom shouts in the street, she lifts her voice in the square.” This is in contrast to the criminal elements in society who do it quietly, coming up privately. But wisdom goes right into the marketplace and “lifts her voice in the square.” She would go to the city gates where deals are made, contracts are executed, and discussions occur. That is symbolic, for wisdom cries out to people in all the ways they go. Her voice is very clear, crying out to all manner of people: “At the entrance of the gates in the city she utters her sayings: ‘How long, O naïve ones, will you love being simple-minded? And scoffers delight themselves in scoffing and fools hate knowledge?’” (vv. 21b–22).
In this passage, we see a gallery of fools. There are four kinds of fools in Proverbs:
- One is the Hebrew word pathim, which speaks of the “naïve ones.” These are the ones who are not committed to anything; they drift, they wander, and they are open to any suggestion. We all were like this in our youth—and some of us continue to be like this. Where is the crowd going? Who should I follow? These are people who have not developed any convictions.
- The next stage—downward from naïve—are the kesilim, or the fools. These people are dull and insensitive to wisdom. Here I don’t mean intellectually dull, but they are getting dimmer and dimmer when it comes to wisdom. They are dull to the spiritual realities of life.
- The third step downward are the evilim, who hate wisdom and love folly. This kind of fool is found in 1:7: “Fools despise wisdom and instruction”; whereas, in our text, wisdom cries out to the naïve ones.
- Then our text takes us to the fourth category, and these are the litsim, the “scoffers.” These are people full of arrogance and pride, people who are cynical and who despise those who are committed to the Word and rule of God.
In this gallery of fools, then, people don’t stay where they are. You can only be naïve for so long. You either continue to decline, or something will pull you out of that decline and you begin to move in the direction of wisdom. Some people will stop at the level of mere folly, while others for various reasons continue on down that path.
But notice that wisdom offers herself to all four kinds of fools. The key words are in verse 23: “Turn to my reproof . . .” “Turn” can be taken as “repent.” In other words, turn away from the arrogance of your ways and “I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you” (v. 23). But then notice their choices: “Because I called, and you refused, I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention; and you neglected all my counsel . . .” (v. 24–25). In verse 29 we see: “they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord.” It was a choice they could have made, but they rejected it. Continuing, “They would not accept my counsel, they spurned all my reproof” (v. 30). Then we see the moral: “So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way and be satiated with their own devices” (v. 31).
Proverbs 2: The Study of the Word
Let’s now move on to chapter 2. The first two verses give us the second exhortation: “My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you, make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding. . . .” What we are seeing is the progression of exposing yourself to the Word and to memorizing it. “Treasure my commandments within you” would be to memorize them. “Make your ear attentive to them” and “incline your heart” round out that process of progression. Then in verse 3 we see, “if you cry for discernment.” This shows us that the first part is more passive, while the second part is active: “Lift your voice for understanding . . . seek her as silver and search for her” (2:3b–4). So, there is a time of study involved.
Do you read the Bible? Do you memorize any of the Bible? And do you study it and pray consistently? My view is that if you are not doing these things, it will be very difficult for you to order your ways in wisdom. My biggest trouble is in the area of memorization. I constantly find myself slipping in that area. Remember, however, that the hard part in memorizing something is reviewing it over and over. That takes discipline, but it always rewards the person who does it.
Moving on in our text, we see, “Then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God” (v. 5). In other words, if you do these things, if you pay the price, this will be the end result, “For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (v. 6). He is the One who “is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice” (vv. 7–8) He will guide your path in His light.
Frankly, I am becoming more and more afraid of trying to make my own decisions because I just do not know what is best. It is almost like trying to drive at night with your headlights pointing straight down, and you can see only two feet in front of you. But God knows the future and can order your path, giving you road signs along the way—“there is a curve ahead, prepare yourself for it.”
Proverbs 2:9–22: An Ethical Perception
In verses 9 and following we are given ethical perception. We are living in a world that is denying absolutes more and more, and it is more important than ever that we “discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (vv. 9–10). I think the more we develop in this area, the more we will actually derive pleasure from living. This is not teaching us to be killjoys. Rather, it is encouraging us to develop a heart for it, realizing there is an incredible payoff—not just in the future in heaven, but right now.
The more we develop in this area [of wisdom], the more we will actually derive pleasure from living.
To follow this book now will cause you a great deal of enjoyment and pleasure, but it will also help you to avoid a great deal of pain. I can promise you that all your financial mistakes—virtually all of them—can be avoided if you study this book. Your relational mistakes are also violations of the principles of this book. Frankly, wouldn’t it be good if you were able to order your course so that your relationships were enhanced and more sensible? This is what is promised here.
Returning to our text, we see that verses 12–15 talk about the evil man, while verses 16–22 talk about the fallen woman. In both cases we see a seduction taking place. In both cases we see conmen and manipulators who have ideas for us that really are not what is best for us. We see “the adulteress who flatters with her words” (v. 16), and the imagery here is of one who does not keep covenants. The idea is to maintain a covenant relationship with another person and to build on that relationship. In short, a covenant relationship moves us away from treachery.
Proverbs 3: Trusting in God Entirely, Exclusively, and Exhaustively
Chapter 3, the third exhortation, is one of my favorite chapters. It begins, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you” (3:1–2). This refers to the quality of life—the quality of life you will gain over your “length of days.”
In verse 3 we see: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” The idea is to internalize these truths; don’t make them merely external. What I dislike about much of “religion” is the externalization that it can encourage without seeing any need for internal, unshakable attitudes. It can be quite easy for us to be engaged in religious activities without any heart change whatsoever. We can do all the right things, say all the right words, and go through the service—but unless we internalize what is taking place there, it won’t do us any good; it needs to be internalized, and then we will enjoy that community of worship. Proverbs is a book that talks about the internals and the eternals.
As we continue, we come to that famous passage: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight” (vv. 5–6). There are three ways of looking at this.
- “Trust in the Lord with all your heart”—Trust in Him entirely. This should be in a complete or holistic manner. This means you do not trust yourself and your own wisdom, but you trust Him entirely in all aspects of your life.
- “Do not lean on your own understanding”—Trust in Him exclusively.
- “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”—Trust in Him exhaustively. There is no part of your life that cannot be related to the truth of the Word.
It is easy, in our areas of expertise, to think we know better than God, but I find that the greatest paradigm for how that is wrong is in John 21:1–11 when Jesus was with the men who had just come in from fishing all night long—and they had not caught anything. He told them to cast their net on the other side. In their eyes, Jesus was meddling in their area of expertise. They thought they knew better than Him. Nevertheless, and in spite of their condescending attitude, they did what He suggested. And what did they find? Not just a few fish, but so many that it almost sunk the boat. In the end, when they saw that, they knew they were inadequate—even in an area in which they supposed themselves to be experts. This is often why God puts us in situations where we lose control—to teach us we were never really in control in the first place.
Moving on in our Proverbs text, the author says, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (v. 7). In other words, don’t take yourself so seriously; see yourself in the proper perspective.
Then we see in verse 9: “Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce.” We should honor God by giving Him the best; for when we honor Him, he will honor us. Take the risk of honoring Him first, making Him preeminent, and all the rest will take care of itself.
We then see in verses 13–14a: “How blessed is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding. For her profit is better than the profit of silver.” The world will talk about gold and precious jewels as one way of measuring wealth, but whatever glittering things the world offers, wisdom is more precious than that—more precious than anything you can attain.
Looking at verse 19, we see, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding He established the heavens.” We will see again in chapter 8 that wisdom was with God as He shaped the universe.
Then in verse 24 the author writes, “When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” Now, some of us worry quite a bit when we go to sleep; this is telling us that we are trying to run our own lives and are unwilling to trust God. That is a pretty good indicator—catch yourself when you are going to sleep and ask, “What am I anxious about?” Do that when your head hits the pillow—it might be a good diagnostic tool to determine if there is something you have not given over to Him and are trying to carry that burden yourself. Recall that Jesus said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me” (Matthew 11:29). He will carry your burden and give you rest. We will sometimes give them to Him—and then take them right back again. My point here is to let your emotions be your diagnostic tools for wrong thinking. If you are anxious about something, you are not thinking clearly. You are embracing the idea that you are in control, forgetting that God is the One in control; trust in Him entirely, exclusively, and exhaustively.
Catch yourself when you are going to sleep and ask, “What am I anxious about?” Do that when your head hits the pillow—it might be a good diagnostic tool to determine if there is something you have not given over to [God].
When we trust in God, we can submit to the wisdom of verses 25–26: “Do not be afraid of sudden fear . . . for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.”
Proverbs 4: Seeking Wisdom
Proverbs 4:1–9 is the fourth exhortation. There we see that the father is reviewing his own experience. What we actually hear now is the wisdom of the grandfather, as the father talks about when he was young and was treasured by his own father—precious in his sight—and learned about understanding. He gained from his father the same thing he is communicating to his son here: “Prize her, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her” (v. 9). What a strong image we have here: embracing this “woman” who honors you.
Verse 10 gives us the fifth exhortation: “Hear my son . . .” This takes us through verse 19, and in this case, the father is talking about how instruction is your life (v. 13).
Verse 20 begins the sixth exhortation, and we see these wonderful words in verse 23: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the spring of life.” Then we see, “Put away from you a deceitful mouth, and put devious lips far from you. Let your eyes look directly ahead and let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you” (vv. 24–25). In other words, do not look to the right or to the left, because the path of wisdom is narrow. The imagery here is that you can easily be deterred; and your journey as a pilgrim in this world can be turned away from the path leading to true joy and pleasure—as God sees it—and you can be lured toward something cheap and tawdry.