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 launching into our study of the book of Proverbs, and I believe this will be helpful to you in terms of providing practical guidance and instruction in a number of very important areas. Proverbs is a practical component of Scripture, and it is a part of the wisdom literature found in the Old Testament—along with Job, some of the wisdom psalms, and Ecclesiastes—and it occupies a central place in that literature. It is designed to give us a sense of purpose and an understanding of practical holiness; a practical application of wisdom and skills in life.
There is a universal and comprehensive sense to the maxims and precepts in this book. The proverbs talk to everyone; they are universal and generalized statements that tell about life. Even though individual cases differ, the principles are still broadly true and broadly correct. It has been said that a proverb is a short sentence based upon long experience.
There is a universal and comprehensive sense to the maxims and precepts in this book.
When we look at Proverbs, we are going to realize that it is divided into two major areas. I believe it was Robert Benchley who said, “There are two kinds of people in the world—those who constantly divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who do not.” As we look at the proverbs, we are going to see that they are constantly dividing into two kinds of people: those who follow the wisdom of this world, and those who follow the wisdom that God provides for them. In other words, those who order their ways under eternal principles, and those who do not. These are the categories of the wise and the foolish.
We will see that wisdom isn’t so much a matter of intellectual perception; it is really more about moral acumen, moral discernment, and moral skills. We will see that it has a lot to do with the notion of depending upon God versus autonomous living.
Learn and Live
It has also been said that “. . . a wise man learns from the mistakes of others; nobody lives long enough to make them all himself.” Consequently, we must learn from the wisdom of other people. The problem, of course, is that it is often easier to be wise for others than it is to be wise for ourselves. We are long in giving advice to other people and short in gaining insight for ourselves. It is interesting how we are foolish when it comes to our own situations and how we look back on our mistakes, discovering how dumb we really were.
A poem by Sara Teasdale I came across puts it this way:
When I have ceased to break my wings
Against the faultiness of things,
And learned that compromises wait
Behind each hardly opened gate,
When I have looked Life in the eyes,
Grown calm and very coldly wise,
Life will have given me the Truth,
And taken in exchange—my youth.
So, it does take time to gain perspective, and this is summed up in that old Pennsylvania Dutch proverb: “We grow too soon old and too late smart.” Somehow there is the notion that youth is wasted on the young. The idea behind that is that when we have our virility and our power and all of our potential, it doesn’t seem that we use it as well as we know we could have used it—if we could only go back and take what we now know and apply it to the years gone by. Wouldn’t that be great? Of course, the reality is that you could never do that because it took all those years to acquire what you have; it takes time—a lifetime—to gain real skill in the art of living life.
It takes time—a lifetime—to gain real skill in the art of living life.
The proverbs are designed to give us some preventive as well as corrective medicine; they are designed to prevent foolish things by helping us live and learn—but also to learn and live. They really encourage us not simply to live and learn; they tell us it is also wise to be people who learn in advance as much as we can. That is why the book of Proverbs has been given to us—to give us instructions on how to gain skill and, by standing on the shoulders of giants, to gain some practical insight on how we ought to order our path.
This was something much more common in Old Testament times than it is today. Today it is far less common for us to focus on the idea of acquiring wisdom because we live in an age where we are more interested in data—where data produces information and then that information overcomes knowledge. Today when you go for a university education, you don’t see many courses on wisdom. In fact, if anything, a university education is now designed to equip us for the folly of autonomy—the idea that we can order our own pathways, doing pretty much whatever we like to do.
A Perspective of Maturity
In my view, one of the things we will gain from this book is the perspective of maturity, a maturity that involves the ability to anticipate the things that are ahead rather than just have a short-term view. For example, one component of driving skills is how far ahead of the hood of the car a driver actually drives. By merely looking at the car in front of you, you won’t be as potentially skillful as if you look beyond that car in front of you and anticipate what he has to see and do. Some drivers, seeing a light turn red, will speed up, only to have the privilege of stopping that much sooner. Perhaps how good a driver you are can be measured by how long your brakes last. If you are prudent, you will look ahead and discern patterns, enabling you to avoid things in advance.
I think it a mark of greatness to admit our mistakes and our sins, and to deal with them and repent of them; but the best time to turn away from both our errors and our sins is before we commit them. This is what Proverbs is designed to do; to help us think though in advance so we will have some kind of principle or discernment—a set of convictions—that will help us along. These convictions, then, can shape the struggles we are going to have in our faith. If you don’t have convictions that have been thought through in advance, then it is very possible that your struggles will be moving targets. We are all going to find ourselves tempted in various ways, whether it has to do with money, sex, or power. But, if we can anticipate certain areas and certain issues; if we can decide in advance where we must draw the line, it would be helpful to all of us to gain some of that perspective.
The best time to turn away from both our errors and our sins is before we commit them.
Malcolm Muggeridge put it this way: “Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us; and the art of life is to get the message.” I think that everything that happens to you can be an opportunity for you to gain some perspective. The “art” is to catch the message. Some people can have thirty years of experience that they have simply repeated thirty times over. In other words, it is thirty years of experience, but it is the same year thirty times over—they just keep doing the same dumb things over and over again. Experience is valuable, but only when you apply it and gain certain insight from it. When we evaluate our experience and try to understand what has been going on, gaining some insight from it, only then is it valuable. We learn far more from our mistakes and failures than we do from our successes—the school of failure can actually be a powerful tool to move us in the direction of wisdom if we evaluate those mistakes. Repeating them over and over again is the true problem.
Someone once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Somehow, they think that this time it will turn out differently. It is very unlikely, then, that those people would follow the principles afforded us in Proverbs.
Here is a book which, if followed, can enhance your relationships substantially. It can also provide you greater skill in how to apply your money. Here are a few more of the areas I made note of: instruction on wisdom and folly; the righteous and the wicked; the tongue—it is a very practical book on your speech. Proverbs also deals with pride and humility as well as justice and vengeance; it also talks about the family and relationships within the household; it talks about laziness and work—and some of the most humorous ones relate to the sluggard. Poverty and wealth are addressed, as are friends and neighbors, along with love and lust, and anger and strife. As well, Proverbs covers issues like masters and servants; employee-employer relationships; and matters of life and death.
Because the book of Proverbs touches on every facet of human relationships, its principles can be very relevant to our experiences, because people really have not changed much. The principles are timeless, transcending time as well as cultures; they are just as relevant today as when they were written approximately three thousand years ago.
The Hebrew Proverbs
I want only to introduce the major themes of the book and illuminate its historical background. Just the word “proverb” is fascinating. The Hebrew word—mashal—means “a comparison,” or “to be similar or parallel.” A lot of the proverbs we will see, then, are comparisons; they are similitudes—“this is like that.” For example, you might have a construction like this: “The righteous is delivered from trouble, but the wicked takes his place” (Proverbs 11:8).1 Or, “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous will be delivered” (11:9). Those are called antithetical parallels, where you have first one theme and then the opposite theme.
Some proverbs are antithetical in their parallelism, but other proverbs are synonymous—that is to say, you will have one line with the next line embellishing that first line, as we see in Proverbs 16:11. “A just balance and scales belong to the Lord; all the weights of the bag are His concern.” In Proverbs 16:13, “Righteous lips are the delight of kings, and he who speaks right is loved.” Then in 16:17, “The highway of the upright is to depart from evil; he who watches his way preserves his life.” All of these are synonymous parallels: one line followed by a parallel embellishing line.
Bear in mind as well that Hebrew poetry rhymes ideas; it does not rhyme sounds. Therefore, the rhymes can be an idea and its opposite, or an idea and a similar idea. Hebrew poetry is very subtle, then, because of the way it rhymes.
We should also note that the word “proverb” comes from pro and verba, which translates as “for” and “words.” A proverb actually compresses a lot of words into just a few words. The modern proverb “Love conquerors all” is a fine example of this, as is “A stitch in time saves nine.” The latter proverb uses an image of sewing, but it is being applied to a universal principle that goes way beyond actual sewing. It tells us that if we anticipate something right now—and deal with something that is starting to be problematic right now—we will save a lot of pain and anguish later on. We all know what this is like with our own cars; if we don’t handle the problem now, we might have nine times the problem at a later date. Another modern proverb might be: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” This is a homely illustration of something, or somebody, that does not get bogged down because it is in motion.
Skill in the Art of Living
Proverbs, as I have said, are short sentences that really have a solid foundation behind them. The key word in all of this is “wisdom.” Transliterated, the word is hokhmah, and it is a word that means “skill.” In Proverbs, the greatest skill of all is skill in the art of living life under the wisdom of God. To me this is a very important idea—skill in living. It is much more than shrewdness or intelligence. Instead, it relates to a moral and practical righteousness; to order our ways in a pattern that makes sense, bringing into it a spiritual component as well. Thus, we have the broad idea here of thinking through our lives, gaining some kind of skill or discipline.
In Proverbs, the greatest skill of all is skill in the art of living life under the wisdom of God.
If we take a look at the very beginning of the book, we immediately see in 1:2: “To know wisdom and instruction . . .” These are two of the major themes we will see. Proverbs, by the way, is one of the few books of the Bible that gives us a purpose statement—we have the purpose of the book right from the beginning. In 1:2–6 we have, “To know wisdom and instruction, to discern the sayings of understanding, to receive instruction in wise behavior, righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the naïve, to the youth knowledge and discretion, a wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.”
Then we have perhaps the key verse in the whole book—1:7—where we read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” This is an antithetical statement, as it says that the fear of God is the foundation, the beginning, of knowledge and contrasts that with despising wisdom. The fear of God is to have a sense of His holiness and His righteousness; a sense of awe before His majesty; and a sense of ordering our ways to be compatible to His will. This is the foundation upon which skill in the art of living life under His dominion can be made.
You can build upon that foundation of ordering life, taking each component of your life—whether it is money, your spouse, other significant people, work, or your children—and ordering those components under what we see revealed as God’s blueprint for living life. For example, for many of us, the mistakes we have made financially have basically been violations of this book—I know that is true for me.
I would encourage you to read this book often, and one practical way of doing that is to read one chapter according to each day of the month. There are 31 chapters, which makes it easy in a 31-day month. I don’t mean for you to do it every month, but if you tried doing it every other month it would prove very valuable to you; it would provide a wonderful insight.
Gaining God’s Perspective
One of the books I have written is titled Handbook to Wisdom. It is part of a devotional trilogy including Handbook to Prayer and Handbook to Renewal. I encourage people to use Handbook to Prayer in the mornings in order to prepare their minds at the beginning of the day. Handbook to Renewal is designed to use at night before you go to bed—renewing your mind for five minutes before going to sleep. The third book is pretty unique as well: Handbook to Wisdom is a tool designed to be used right smack in the middle of the day—for five minutes—just one page per day. It is not a devotional tool; it is designed to give you a shot of wisdom either before or after lunch. I have found that right in the middle of the day is when I can really use an injection of an eternal perspective because it easy to have lost your ball in the tall grass by the middle of the day, so to speak. The book has some wisdom Scripture as well as some relevant insights on that same page.
My point to this is that we all need to gain perspective, and to me one of the keys to gaining wisdom is gaining God’s perspective on things—the eternal and divine perspective—rather than limiting ourselves to what we can see at the end of our nose; it is wise for us to look beyond. Also, part of God’s perspective is to move us toward a long-term vision rather than merely a short-term assessment of things. Scripture always invites us to look down the road, to discern where those paths may lead.
The first nine chapters of Proverbs, for example, contain a series of exhortations to encourage the listener to gain a self-need for this wisdom. So, before we even see the proverbs themselves, this book already illustrates its own wisdom, because what is the good of giving us wisdom if we don’t perceive the need for it? We will not even hit the proverbs proper until 10:1. These nine chapters are designed to prepare us for the wisdom that will follow.
The Structure of Proverbs
I want to briefly talk about the structure of this book and look at how it is outlined. First of all, it begins with both the purpose and theme, and we looked at that in the first six verses of chapter one. Proverbs wants you to have moral discernment, but also a sense of mental clarity to help you think clearly. One of my desires in ministry is to help people think things through and gain a real anticipation of events. Don’t react, but act; and act intelligently. Think things through: what are the implications of this decision?
It is interesting that in this little phrase that is used here, “To know wisdom and instruction. . .,” right away there is that word wisdom, or hokhmah, which means skill. Then we see the word “instruction,” and the Hebrew word there is musar, which actually means “discipline.” So, the verse is saying to “give you skill and the discipline to develop that skill.” How do you develop any skill? It requires a measure of discipline. You don’t gain any skill without practice. We will be seeing, then, a variety of examples of how discipline is important.
In addition, I will be developing the theme of how precious we are in God’s sight. However, we are like raw material when we are born; raw and unshaped material. The material itself is precious and valuable, but it needs to be ordered and structured into a pattern. For example, when it describes how in Old Testament times Bezalel and Oholiab constructed the tabernacle and all of its furniture, it says they were filled with the “Spirit of God in wisdom” (Exodus 31:3). They could take raw material—flax or gold—and they could shape it into something that was beautiful. They took the raw gold and crafted it into the beautiful lampstands. Gold itself was already lovely, but they were able to do something with it and shape it into something that was really exquisite. They could take flax, turn it into linen, and then dye it and embroider it—resulting in the hangings found in the tabernacle. The point is that they were able to take the raw material and use it.
By analogy, you and I are like that raw material. You and I need to be shaped and ordered and disciplined; brought under the tutelage and the discipline of the Word itself. That takes some pain and some direction and some ordering—to take our lives and to allow God to shape it into something that at the end of the day is truly beautiful. I believe it is God’s intention—in part—to shape us into something that is pleasing to Him. And it requires a lot of refining and a lot of pain to shape us into His image.
You and I need to be shaped and ordered and disciplined; brought under the tutelage and the discipline of the Word itself.
This theme is something practical; it is not just knowledge, but it is knowledge that is applied in the experiences of the rough and tumble of daily life.
The Collections of Proverbs
After the prologue we see the image of the exhortations of a father to a son. These exhortations are Solomonic, and I will describe that in a moment. We actually see that in these verses we have ten little sermons—each beginning with the phrase, “My son . . .”
The first one is found in 1:8: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction . . .” Then in 2:1 we have, “My son, if you will receive my words . . .” In 3:1 we also see, “My son, do not forget my teaching . . .” There are ten of these little sermonic pieces of instruction that are given to equip him. It is a father’s efforts to persuade his son to pursue the path of wisdom—so he would achieve success as God would define it, and not merely as the world would define it. Each of these maxims is designed to really create a taste for the subject of wisdom and to have a desire to achieve that wisdom.
We are going to see in these chapters that wisdom rejects the invitation of crime and foolishness but rewards those who seek her on every level. I use the word “her” because wisdom is clearly personified as a woman in Proverbs. She is seen as one to be pursued—even above gold and silver. The discipline of wisdom provides tremendous freedom; it provides a sense of security and safety; and it protects you from illicit sensuality and the consequences thereof. As well, it protects you from foolishness and foolish practices—and from laziness. Wisdom is to be preferred to folly because it has divine origin and because it gives tremendous benefits.
By contrast we are also going to be seeing quite a bit about the fool. In fact, we are going to see a gallery of fools. There are four words used to describe the fool, and they provide a portrait of the different levels of folly.
In the next major section, chapters 10–24, we will see the major writings of Solomon. In fact, verse one of chapter 10 tells us that these are just that: “The proverbs of Solomon.” In this collection we have some 375 proverbs. Chapters 10–15 actually use one distinct parallelism—antithetical parallelism. In each proverb the first line or sentence is followed by a sentence that is the exact opposite. The word, “but” is used extensively, as in “this is true, but. . . .” Somewhat in contrast, chapters 16–22:15 are almost all synonymous parallelisms. Following that we will see a collection of what we can call “words of the wise.” For example, look at 22:17 and you will see: “Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise,” and this is followed by thirty or so injunctions. Then the next section of “words to the wise” picks up in 24:23: “These also are sayings of the wise.”
Beginning in chapter 25, we discover a different collection. This second collection starts off with, “These also are proverbs of Solomon,” but these are proverbs “which the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, transcribed.” We know that Solomon died in 931 BC, but this group of proverbs was collected by king Hezekiah, and he lived about 230 years later—around 700 BC. So, around 900 to 700 BC would be the primary range of this particular collection of wisdom literature.
As one of the godly kings, Hezekiah’s desire was to help his subjects benefit spiritually by assembling this collection and helping them become wise. One of the finest things we can do for children is to disciple them in wisdom and help them grow—nurturing the next generation along their way. And one of the great tragedies of our culture is that we have done something that the world has never known before: we have reached the point where we have successfully separated the elderly from the young. This is the first time in human history this been done. While there are, fortunately, some exceptions, children, as a general rule, have little or no contact with the elderly. It used to be that the elderly would be esteemed because of their greater wisdom—and children would profit from that. I look back on my own life and realize how profitable it was for me to be under the tutelage of my grandmother especially. I think it is a tragedy that we no longer have the nurturing of those contacts; and both the elderly and the young are losers in that context. In the culture of Israel, the elders were in positions of esteem and would communicate continuously to the generation that was coming along behind them.
One of the finest things we can do for children is to disciple them in wisdom and help them grow—nurturing the next generation along their way.
The second collection of Solomonic proverbs is found in chapter 25–29. Here the themes of the first collection are developed further.
Then, in chapter 30, we have a series of numerical proverbs. For example, we see in verse seven, “Two things I asked of You,” and we go on to see “three things that will not be satisfied,” and “four that will not say, enough” (v. 15). All of these proverbs were collected by Agur, the son of Jakeh. We do not who this was—this is the only time his name appears in the Old Testament.
If you look at chapter 31:1, we have the same problem: “The words of King Lemuel . . .” We know absolutely nothing about him as well. But he provides insightful words on leadership, followed by one of the richest parts of Proverbs, which is a marvelous description of the worthy woman, or “the capable wife.” She is a good wife and a good mother, and she orders her life with wisdom. This is a woman who is prepared for living and possesses great intelligence. Taken all together, this reveals a very high and very noble view of women. It seems to me this chapter is not simply about one woman; it is about the stages of life that we go through.
Taken as whole, then, this book has a marvelous unity around the theme of wisdom. The first section is the commendation of wisdom—that is its purpose. Then the next body of work is the counsel of wisdom. Finally, we see the comparisons of wisdom.
The Historical Setting of Proverbs
Historically, Proverbs deals with a time in history when there was a school of wisdom; today this has virtually vanished. In Israel the priests imparted the law and the prophets communicated the divine word, but there was another group called the “sages.” The sage, or the elder, was a person who simply gave counsel to the people, providing them with practical instruction.
When we get to the book of Ecclesiastes, we are going to be seeing more of this. A preacher—the Hebrew word is koheleth—is one who speaks to an assembly. In Ecclesiastes 12:9 we see, “In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs.” All the proverbs were not his own and, in fact, in those days people would go around swapping them. At any rate, people would actually seek out these people of wisdom.
If you turn to 1 Kings 4:29–34 you see this illustrated most clearly in the life of Solomon himself:
Now God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment and breadth of mind, like the sand that is on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the sons of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men, than Ethan the Ezrahite, Herman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was known in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke also of animals and birds and creeping things and fish. Men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.
People of that time heard about him and would travel vast distances to sit under the tutelage of this great sage.
Studying the Book of Proverbs
As you study the book of Proverbs, keep in mind that it can be very helpful to read Proverbs in different translations—some bring different nuances and understandings. The proverbs we will be reviewing have been defined as “simple illustrations that expose a fundamental reality about life.” That is probably the best definition of a proverb I have come across. I also see them as very pithy and insightful. They are practical and not theoretical; they are based on genuine, real-life experience; and they are designed to be used in the mainstream of life—they are general statements and illustrations of timeless truths, which allow for exceptions to the rule, but do not condone them.
In the next part I want to focus on the purpose and theme of Proverbs and look at these exhortations. What is the benefit to us in looking at these sayings that speak so eloquently to the idea of cultivating a taste for wisdom? As we do this and arrive at chapter 10, from there the best way to proceed is to go over them theme by theme. We will see that most of them are single maxims—not clusters—and not topically arranged. If we took them randomly, for example, we’d see in 13:4–5 that, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the soul of the diligent is made fat. A righteous man hates falsehood, but a wicked man acts disgustingly and shamefully.” Now, those two proverbs I just read do not have anything to do with each other, so the only way to focus on the main body of Proverbs is to pull them out theme by theme, and that will be our approach.