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.
The first nine chapters of Proverbs contain ten introductory sermons designed to prepare and equip the listener for receiving wisdom, and the proverbs themselves begin in earnest in chapter 10. The only way we can cover the rest of the book properly is not to look at it sequentially—in sections—because the material is very dispersive, but to look at the material topic by topic.
In this session we will focus on the character of the wise, which is the most fundamental of them all. What does the character of the wise person look like?
Seven Characteristics of the Wise
Character is a key component of wisdom. As we think about the wise person’s character, I want us to keep in mind that this material is convicting—we really do not know anybody that fulfills all of these images of what a wise person is like. The material points beyond ourselves to our need to be transformed on an ongoing basis by Christ Himself through the power of the Spirit who is within us. We cannot live this kind of life on our own. In fact, this kind of material goes beyond the Law itself; it actually transcends the Law and permeates the subtle details of life.
As we consider the issue of character, education without the development of character is pretty worthless. The fascinating thing is that we can often get education without a clue as to what character is like. This reminds me of the true account of a court case between Columbia University and a student.1 The university sued the student for not paying his tuition in full. His counterclaim was that he did not owe them money, but that they owed him money in damages because part of the purpose statement for a four-year undergraduate degree was that the university would cultivate wisdom and character. But after he graduated, the student said he didn’t gain any wisdom or character.
The student didn’t do very well in his case, but it illustrates the point that it is very easy to be educated without a clue as to what our character ought to be like. You must have a heart for the subject. Tuition would be a waste of money if the student has no heart to learn. This is a theme we discover in Proverbs 17:16: “Why is there a price in the hand of a fool to buy wisdom, when he has no sense?”2 Although the NASB translation has “sense,” the word can be taken to mean “heart.” The fool doesn’t have a heart for the subject. He has no capacity for appreciation; he has a price in his hand, but he wouldn’t be able to appreciate wisdom even if he heard it.
Let’s now take a look at several aspects of wise character.
Characteristic #1: Humility
The first issue of character has to do with humility. A wise person is humble, not proud. This component alone seems to underscore all the others. What do we see in the first Beatitude? “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Among other things, poverty of spirit relates to humility; it relates to grasping our spiritual poverty and our utter dependence upon God. In other words, we must recognize our spiritual bankruptcy before God before we are really ready to receive His grace. If we think we have something to offer to God apart from His grace, we are making a serious mistake. Even our best works are displeasing to Him if they are not done in His power. Our good deeds can be tainted by the problem of our selfishness and our desire for recognition. Thus, this idea of humility is essential.
We must recognize our spiritual bankruptcy before God before we are really ready to receive His grace. . . . Even our best works are displeasing to Him if they are not done in His power.
We see in Matthew 5:3 a person who trusts and fears God. When we think about one who trusts and fears God, we think of a person who submits his life to God’s revealed standards; a person who stands in awe of God. He does not trust his own intellect; rather he submits his life to the Lord of Holy Scripture. This is a person who has a stance of faith, a real commitment before God. He comes to God with a sense of desperate need and true dependence. All of these characterizations, then, represent the heart of the first nine chapters of Proverbs; the first nine chapters were designed to cultivate this mindset of wisdom.
Let’s look at just a few verses along these lines:
- Proverbs 28:14: “How blessed is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.”
- Proverbs 28:26: “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered.”
- Proverbs 22:4 we also see: “The reward of humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, honor and life.”
To have humility and fear, then, is to live in awe before God, acknowledging His moral and spiritual laws that govern the universe. Those who do not stand in awe of Him harden their hearts and cannot receive God’s revelation. They delude themselves, convinced that what they are doing is all right.
It is amazing how we can convince ourselves that our actions are right—even when they are not so. I frequently run into people who have made serious blunders in their lives without ever seriously seeking the counsel of people they respect spiritually. If we are not careful, we discover that what really excites us in our own plans—our own flesh—turns out not to be what is best. It is almost as if we do not want to hear the counsel of some people because we know what they will say—and we don’t want to hear contrarian counsel. But what happens in the long run is that we say, “If I had only listened.” It is a matter of gaining a proper perspective.
Proverbs 16:2 tells us that, “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives.” We rationalize any number of things, but God focuses on the deeper motives and intentions of the heart.
In Proverbs, we see that pride becomes the center—the focal point—of our sin as we try to walk independently of God. But we are nothing and have nothing apart from His grace. He is the One who fills us, defines us, and gives us true dignity. At the point we think we have any of these things apart from Christ in us, we are making serious mistakes. This is a picture, then, of allowing Him to really show us who and whose we are (1 Corinthians 4:7).
We are nothing and have nothing apart from [God’s] grace. He is the One who fills us, defines us, and gives us true dignity.
In 21:4 we read: “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, is sin.” What the wicked cultivate is sin; there is a presumption involved here, and 13:10 shows us that “Through insolence comes nothing but strife, but wisdom is with those who receive counsel.” So, if you are always wanting to be better than other people and wanting to have the upper hand, it produces a quarrelsome spirit, divisive relationships, and is not healthy. Proud people attempt to maintain an ego position concerning others, and they are always protecting their own vested interests. They are afraid of being caught or found out and seen as they really are.
Pride produces duplicity; and when I think about pride, I think about 1 Peter 5:6–7. What we there applies to our lives at all times. At the end of verse 5 we see: “for God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Then verses 6–7 tells us, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” Instead of having to posture for your position in life, you can cast your anxieties upon Him and walk in dependence upon Him—and He will take care of your position.
Scripture always tells us that before honor comes humility. Humility always precedes honor. Our temptation is to get honor first, but when we do that, we later become humbled by the circumstances. In any event, pride is extraordinarily dangerous, and it moves us away from true character as Scripture would define it. But we see that the man of Proverbs is willing to confess sin. That is to say, instead of covering up, he opens up.
In Proverbs 28:13 we see that “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.” So, if we are intractable, and insist we are right even when we are wrong, if we try to cover up, in the long run it will be injurious to our soul. The wisdom of this verse is telling us that we should be willing to acknowledge our mistakes. David is a great illustration of this in Psalm 51, which he gave as a public declaration and confession of his sin regarding Bathsheba. That sin was actually a cluster of sins because not only did it involve stealing her, but it involved the murder of Uriah the Hittite—her husband—since he had to literally set Uriah up to face death in the heat of battle. The point is that David tells us that there is no human basis for his forgiveness; if it were just a matter of sacrifice, he would offer it. Instead, David tells us that a contrite and humble heart is what God requires. He knows he must now appeal to God’s mercy, loyal love, and grace. So, David was truly saved, not by works of any kind, but by grace through faith—as all people are when they come into a relationship with God. The Law, of course, was never designed to save us; the Law only reveals the problem—and shows us that we cannot solve that problem ourselves.
The first characteristic of the wise person, then, is a measure of humility. The problem, of course, is that humility is a notoriously elusive thing: As soon as you are aware of your humility it is probably going to depart; it is like being humble and proud of it. Our humility literally cries out for recognition. As soon as it is recognized, then you have lost it. It is a quality like righteousness and wisdom; as soon as you think you are wise in your own eyes, it is probably gone. So, you have to be very cautious on this matter.
Characteristic #2: Loyalty
The second quality of a wise man’s character is a manifest loyalty. This is a person who is trustworthy and not treacherous. He is loyal in relationships and loyal to God. He remains true to God’s moral and righteous standards—there is a real commitment here.
Looking at Proverbs 23:26, we see: “Give me your heart, my son, and let your eyes delight in my ways.” If you wanted to reduce the spiritual life to just one statement, that would be close to it in terms of practice. By giving God your heart and delighting in His ways, all the other things will find their proper place. But we keep on pulling back and giving Him only a half heart because we are afraid that if we give Him everything, He may take advantage of us. This is a strange idea: if we really trust God, and surrender everything to Him, then we are afraid that He might take advantage of us. We would never put it that way, but our emotions seek to protect us, and since we have been burned in so many relationships, we think God is that way too—and that is a deficient way of thinking.
By giving God your heart and delighting in His ways, all the other things will find their proper place.
The reason we are holding back is either we believe that God doesn’t know what is best for us, or that He is not committed to what is best for us. And when we pull back, we don’t give Him our heart and we don’t delight in His ways. But His ways are not our ways and this, of course, is why it is so tough for us to trust Him. His understanding is as high as the heavens are above the earth, and His ways transcend our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). We think, therefore, that we cannot trust Him because His ways are so contrary to our inclinations and our desires. But He is ultimately looking at the long term for our highest good. We look only at the short term, but God is looking way beyond that, and He is anticipating the consequences. Remember this truth: God judges according to consequences, while you and I can only judge according to appearances—and there is a tremendous difference. He knows the consequences; you and I can only guess. Our loyalty will grow as we trust Him in advance and measure our ways according to His ways and measure our passion only in ways that He declares to be important.
In 16:3, we read, “Commit your works to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” This means that if you want your plans to be truly established, then they have to be God’s plans, and not yours. You have to commit your work to Him and let Him handle the outcome, allowing Him to rule the intentions of your heart.
Characteristic #3: Teachability
In addition to humility and loyalty, a third quality is teachability. You must, therefore, not be intractable, but teachable. To be intractable means that you will not change, no matter how much evidence is placed before you. It becomes a sort of pride issue. Only when you have the quality of humility is it possible for you to have the quality of teachability; without that humility, you will not be teachable. If you think that you know it all, you cannot gain insights into the spiritual and moral realm—you have stopped learning.
Now let’s look at Proverbs 10:8, where we see an illustration of this: “The wise of heart will receive commands, but a babbling fool will be ruined.” Then Proverbs 10:17 tells us, “He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who ignores reproof goes astray.” Reproof means “rebuke,” and of course, no one likes that; but if someone loves us, they may need to do that. Unfortunately, when we get rebuked it is usually by our enemies. However, it is always better to be rebuked by a friend: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (27:6). I would rather have someone care enough for me to tell me I am doing something wrong than to have someone merely flatter me, giving me only what I want to hear. In the long run, I will profit by the insights I could not see. Frankly, we don’t just have blind spots, we have whole blind areas in our lives that we cannot see, but others can see; it is obvious to them, but we are the last to know it. The Word reveals those spots, and God uses people in our lives to reveal those areas. But if we don’t listen to them and are not willing to receive their counsel, then we will continue on in our folly.
In 12:1 we see: “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” Again, we must love discipline. We don’t love reproof itself, but we should love what it does and what it can accomplish. Now, we aren’t talking about spiritual masochism here; rather, we should come to love the insight we will gain—insight we might not have received any other way unless someone cared for us enough to reveal them to us.
In 12:15 we also see this: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel.” Calling on my own experience, I know that when I have not sought out proper counsel, a painful process ensues. All of us—at one time or another—have been convinced we were right and did not want to listen to what others had to say, only to learn that we were not right and deceived ourselves once again.
There is a whole list of proverbs on this subject. In 10:14, for example, we read: “Wise men store up knowledge, but with the mouth of the foolish, ruin is at hand.”
Characteristic #4: Righteousness
A fourth quality—besides loyalty, teachability, and humility—is righteousness. Righteous people pursue the righteousness of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30). Let me give examples of what I mean by righteousness.
In Proverbs 13:5, it says, “A righteous man hates falsehood.” The idea of hating falsehood is the idea of hating that which is dissembled, that which does not resemble the real truth. The righteous have is a desire to know what real truth is.
Proverbs 15:27 also relates to this: “He who profits illicitly troubles his own house, but he who hates bribes will live.” In other words, we can all be tempted by various bribes; these bribes don’t always have to be financial—they can be appeals to pride—and we can gain illicitly by moving in directions that in the long run can become self-destructive.
I also think of Proverbs 12:17: “He who speaks truth tells what is right, but a false witness, deceit.” We should ask ourselves this question: “Is what I am doing or saying right, or am I just trying to rationalize my actions or words?” There are also qualities of kindness that are involved; qualities of being trustworthy—a person who has integrity, a person who manifests honesty. All of these virtues are what is meant by righteousness.
Characteristic #5: Godly Speech
A fifth characteristic of a righteous person is that he or she speaks what is acceptable, what is godly. There is a quality of self-control involved in his or her temperament. This is a person who does not become rash, as we see in Proverbs 17:27: “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Our speech, in terms of content and emotion, involves a manner of self-control—and that is a part of the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, there is a quality of discipline and a quality of restraint involved here.
So, this person is not rash; rather, this person is tranquil, as we see in 14:30: “A tranquil heart is life to the body, but passion is rottenness to the bones.” If you act according to your emotions only, real pain may be involved because you are not thinking clearly. If we make decisions solely on our feelings—not taking into account sound judgment—then danger lurks; better to have a cool head and a warm heart. Our emotions, then, must be brought under the dominion of true thoughts.
If we make decisions solely on our feelings—not taking into account sound judgment—then danger lurks; better to have a cool head and a warm heart.
This wise person is also slow to anger, as we see in Proverbs 14:29. “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly.” This is the idea of not being hasty.
In 19:2 we also see: “Also it is not good for a person to be without knowledge, and he who hurries his footsteps errs.” Proverbs 19:19 is also noteworthy, because there are times when hot-tempered people need to learn the consequences of their temper: “A man of great anger will bear the penalty, for if you rescue him, you will only have to do it again.” What this is telling us is that perhaps it is not always best to rescue that person; it may be that the only way they can learn to cool down is through experiencing the consequences.
Characteristic #6: Forgiveness
A sixth quality of the wise man is that he is forgiving and not vindictive. There is a quality of self-control here that goes hand-in-hand with a forgiving spirit. Proverbs 19:11 says, “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.” Self-control relates not only to passion, but also to a willingness to be forgiving rather that to seek revenge. It is a highly esteemed person who, because of compassion and sympathy, manifests the quality of forgiveness rather than seeking revenge.
Turning to 10:13 we see, “On the lips of the discerning, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks understanding.”
In 10:12 we also see: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.” This should remind us of James 5:20, which says, “he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Hatred serves only to stir up strife, but love covers up the transgressions themselves. Don’t expose the blemishes of others, but keep them from public view. You can talk to them individually, but it is not to be done publicly. The worst thing we can do is to talk about people behind their back without speaking to them first about the issue. This is a violation of Matthew 18:15. But we all find it much easier to give people cheap shots behind their backs; it takes more courage to talk to someone face-to-face. However, the Scriptures counsel us to have that kind of integrity—to deal honestly, but privately, with each situation. Therefore, in Proverbs 17:9 we see: “He who conceals a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.” It is a matter, then, not of gossip, but of seeking love. Again, we all stumble in this regard and make mistakes. It is critical for us to seek forgiveness when we make mistakes—and to forgive others when they do the same.
It is critical for us to seek forgiveness when we make mistakes—and to forgive others when they do the same.
In Proverbs 20:22, we read, “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and He will save you.” Instead of seeking your own revenge, allow God to take care of it. He is the moral governor of the universe and He is the One who redresses wrongs. We have to leave it in His hands.
Proverbs 24:29 tells us that, “Do not say, ‘Thus shall I do to him as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work.’” Now, it is demonic for us to return good with evil; it is, however, human for us to return good with good—or evil with evil. But it is divine for us to return evil with good. And only with Jesus working in us and through us can we return evil with good.
In Romans 12, Paul gives his readers very practical exhortations, particularly as it relates to the unity of the body, and we see in verses 14–16: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” That sounds like Proverbs. Romans 12:17–19 continues: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
Paul goes on to exhort, “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20; Proverbs 25:21–22; cf. 2 Kings 6:22). This means that you will shame your enemy when you do something good, when the other person meant it for evil. Finally, in Romans 12:21, Paul concludes: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” We see this perfectly manifested in the life of Christ. Frankly, I see it as impossible to fulfill any component of this unless we are walking in the Spirit and not in the flesh.
Characteristic #7: Thoughtfulness
The seventh quality—or characteristic—of the wise man is thoughtfulness. Again, these high standards go beyond the Law itself; they are not found anywhere in Torah. They also go beyond the broad exhortations of the prophets. Instead, they focus on the issues of day-to-day living and our daily relationships.
All these characteristics of the wise person reinforce one another, and several verses illuminate this. Regarding a person who acts before he thinks, we see in Proverbs 15:22 that, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.” This illustrates what we were saying earlier: If you want your plans to succeed, seek out godly counsel—even if it results in turning away from your plans. You must always seek wise counsel.
Then in Proverbs 14:14–16 we see: “The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, but a good man will be satisfied with his. The naive believes everything, but the sensible man considers his steps. A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is arrogant and careless.” Fools suppose they know better than anyone else, so they proceed with haste. But a wise man manifests a measure of caution, which is evident in Proverbs 21:5: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty.” We can also look at 27:12, which says, “A prudent man sees evil and hides himself, the naive proceed and pay the penalty.” To be prudent allows you to ponder possible blunders in advance. Whether it involves finances or marriage, I suggest you talk to people whose track records in these areas are substantive and worthy of merit. What is their secret? What have they learned? It may very well be from the school of hard knocks, but they have learned something that would be prudent for us to gain as well.
Other Qualities of the Wise
A wise person also manifests diligence, and there are many proverbs that contrast that with slothfulness.
Regarding other characteristics, in Proverbs 25:16 we see: “Have you found honey? Eat only what you need, that you not have it in excess and vomit it.” All of us want to do things to excess from time to time—or all the time for some people. The whole point is that you have to restrain yourself.
A wise person is also a companion of wise people. Proverbs 13:20 illustrates this quite well: “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” This is so obvious, but we all slip in this area from time to time. If you want to be wise, you will walk with the wise. If you want to be a fool, spend all your time with the foolish. This does not mean, however, that we should isolate ourselves from people who do not know the Lord. Jesus was a friend of sinners. What it does mean, though, is that your deep levels of companionship and fellowship should be with people who manifest wisdom and godly character. Another verse illustrating this is 14:7, where we see, “Leave the presence of a fool, or you will not discern words of knowledge.” Yet another is 17:4, which tells us, “An evildoer listens to wicked lips; a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.” This is why Paul wrote that “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). You are affected by the people with whom you spend time.
If you want to be wise, you will walk with the wise. If you want to be a fool, spend all your time with the foolish.
A wise person is also concerned for the poor. Proverbs 29:7 affirms that “The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor, the wicked does not understand such concern.” A quality of compassion is displayed here. Proverbs 12:10 affirms that “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, but even the compassion of the wicked is cruel.”
There are many other qualities as well, but this list provides us with a marvelous portrait. And when I think about it, it would be very interesting to take each of these qualities, read the Gospels, and learn how Christ fulfilled every one of them. For example, read through the Gospels with the lens of humility and see how Jesus manifested humility. The most powerful man who walked the earth could have summoned legions of angels at His bidding, but He walked in humility and other-centeredness. He was humble, and in Him we can find rest for our souls. He was not treacherous, but loyal to His disciples and to those He loved.
In Hebrews 5:7–8 we see that He learned wisdom from the things He suffered: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although he was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” He was also thoughtful and not careless. He forgave and spoke only acceptable words. These are the qualities we need to be reminded of again and again, and it is why I encourage you to read Proverbs on a regular basis.