Proverbs: Why This Book Matters

Whoever is simple, let him turn in here! —Proverbs 9:4, 16

Everyone is on a path. Everyone is going somewhere. When we feel stuck, even when we feel trapped, the truth is, we’re still in motion. Life is a journey, and the end of it all is not just a place but also a condition. We are becoming the end of our journey, and every moment takes us closer there.

God cares about that. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The Bible is the voice of God inviting us into his eternal life. During the Old Testament era God standardized his speaking to us in three ways. The priests taught his law, the prophets declared his word, and the sages or wise men gave his counsel (Jeremiah 18:18). Both the commands of the law and the thunderings of the prophets spread out before us the gigantic truths of God, the metanarrative that makes sense of everything. But we need more. We live day by day in a world where “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.” So God gave us more than the law and the prophets. He also gave wise counsel. For example, Proverbs 27:14 in the NLT says, “A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning will be taken as a curse!” We don’t find that in the Ten Commandments or in Isaiah. But it’s worth knowing that a well-intentioned but ill-timed greeting can backfire. God cares about our understanding of the massive truths of our existence. But God also cares about the nuances that make such a difference in our experience every day. Even if we do seek the holiness of the law, and we do, even if we are inspired by the visions of the prophets, and we are, we can still make a mess of our lives, our families, our churches, our workplaces, our communities. We need help down at the level where there are no hard and fast rules but only subtle choices between more or less wise courses of action. Through the book of Proverbs God teaches us how to step around the social land mines, walk confidently toward eternal life, and bring others with us.

It’s the practicality of this book that some people underestimate. This book is very practical, but it is not simplistic or moralistic. What God is going after through the book of Proverbs is change deep in our hearts. It sinks in as we mull over it slowly and thoughtfully. We need multiple exposures over time. This book is not a quick fix. It is ancient wisdom from long human experience endorsed by God himself. If we’ll pay attention, God will graciously make us into profound, beautiful people.

The book of Proverbs is a gospel book. It is good news for bad people. It is about grace for sinners. It is about hope for failures. It is about wisdom for idiots. This book is Jesus coming to us as our counselor, as our life coach, as our sage. The Lord Jesus Christ is a genius, and he freely offers us, even us, his wisdom. Do you remember how he concluded his Sermon on the Mount? He defined the gospel as a call to wisdom: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. . . . And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matthew 7:24, 26). Jesus is our priest and our prophet, but in the book of Proverbs we encounter Jesus our mentor. Do you see him that way? You can have him that way – the universe’s greatest expert on you. He alone is qualified to have that kind of say in your life. Let’s not patronize Jesus Christ as a nice, incompetent man who gives us warm religious fuzzies while we turn to the “experts” for the challenges of real life. Jesus Christ is the shrewdest man who ever lived. No one ever out-thought him. No one ever surprised him or cornered him in debate. He was always out ahead of everyone. Jesus Christ is a superior thinker for all times, all cultures, all seasons of life. The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be anointed with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, so that he would not judge by what his eyes see or decide disputes by what his ears hear (Isaiah 11:2-3). In other words, our Messiah is not fooled by appearances or swayed by hearsay, like other leaders, even brilliant leaders. No one will ever pull the wool over his eyes. The Bible says that Jesus has eyes like a flame of fire, seeing through everything (Revelation 1:14). And God has given this super-smart expert to us. The gospel says that Jesus is wisdom from God (1 Corinthians 1:30). It’s why he surprises us. When he taught in his hometown synagogue, his neighbors were astonished and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom?” (Matthew 13:54). Solomon had been the wisest man in history. But when the Pharisees tested Jesus, he reminded them that the Queen of Sheba came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, she was so eager to learn. And Jesus said to them, “Behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). They didn’t have to travel any distance. Wisdom incarnate was standing right there. But they were too sure of themselves to listen.

Let’s not miss what we have here. Biblical wisdom is more than what you find in a fortune cookie. It is more than an optional add-on for people who want to upgrade their lives from, say, four to seven on a scale of one to ten. This wisdom is life and death: “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Proverbs 13:14). What if we have many advantages but not wisdom? If we have love but not wisdom, we will harm people with the best of intentions. If we have courage but not wisdom, we will blunder boldly. If we have truth but not wisdom, we will make the gospel ugly to our city. If we have technology but not wisdom, we will use the best communications ever invented in history to broadcast stupidity. If we have revival but not wisdom, we’ll use the power of God to go into reverse gear. Jonathan Edwards wrote during the First Great Awakening, “When the devil finds he can keep men quiet and [complacent] no longer, then he drives them to excesses and extravagances. He holds them back as long as he can; but when he can do it no longer, then he will push them on and, if possible, run them upon their heads.” But wisdom spreads the gospel with no embarrassing regrets.

Wisdom is the grace of Christ beautifying our daily lives. Paul said that God has lavished his grace upon us in all wisdom and insight (Ephesians 1:7-8). God’s grace is smart grace. The Bible says that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). The wise way to live is not always obvious or intuitive. It’s hidden. Here’s where it’s hidden: “We preach Christ crucified, . . . the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

There are two kinds of wisdom competing for our trust. The Bible calls them “the wisdom from above” and “the wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15, 17). Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter when Peter urged him not to go to the cross? Peter was saying, “Look, boss, there’s another way to go about this. Crosses are not a formula for success.” But Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! . . . For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:21-23). How did Peter earn that rebuke? Not by setting his mind on the things of Satan but just on the things of man – natural, understandable things like survival. Peter was being wise with the wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. Our natural wisdom puffs up our pride and makes losing unthinkable. But J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy reminds us that our golden rings of power only make us weird. The key to life is not getting more of them but throwing them into the fires of Mount Doom. That humility is “the wisdom from above.”

Ah! God is other than we think, his ways are far above,
Far beyond reason’s height and reached only by childlike love.
Then learn to scorn the praise of men, and learn to lose with God,
For Jesus won the world through shame and beckons thee his road.

That is the wisdom of the cross, freeing us from the distortions of our pride and opening up the way to resurrection and new life. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, C. S. Lewis says the path of wisdom leads through a valley: “‘And what is this valley called?’ ‘We call it now simply Wisdom’s Valley; but the oldest maps mark it as the Valley of Humiliation.’”

There’s an irony here. The wisdom of Proverbs started out for the training of leaders in ancient Israel. It was written by kings and others in the royal court for young men in their teens and twenties whose future was bright with nobility. But we rise to that greatness and leadership and influence God’s way, through the cross, through humility. The old poem says,

When God wants to drill a man
And thrill a man
And skill a man
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part

When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!

How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him
And with mighty blows converts him 
Into shapes and forms of clay 
Which only God can understand

How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes
How He uses whom He chooses
And with mighty power infuses him
With every act induces him
To try His splendor out –
God knows what He’s about.

Wisdom is the gospel reshaping us for royalty, as God places us on his anvil and we stay there until his work is done.

Here’s how the book of Proverbs is designed. It’s an anthology, that is, a collection of writings from several authors. Solomon is listed as the author, because he contributed the most and because he’s the famous one. But after the title in 1:1 – “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” – then the purpose of the book is stated in 1:2-6. That’s where we find out what God will accomplish in us through this book. Then the theme or motto of the book is famously stated in 1:7 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The rest of chapters 1-9 is a series of poems selling wisdom to us, motivating us to get into the book. Chapters 1-9 make the case as to why we should care. Then look at 10:1, where we read, “The proverbs of Solomon.” This is where the proverbs as such begin. Chapters 1-9 are all introductory, and I can preach through chapters 1-9 because they are connected discourses, sort of like psalms. But when the proverbs themselves begin in chapter 10, the style changes. Instead of lengthy, unified sections, each verse is its own tiny unit. So after chapters 1-9 I’ll be preaching subject studies by bringing together various proverbs that address wisdom-issues in our lives, for example, how to use money, how to be a family, how to become a leader, and so forth. All the proverbs from 10:1-22:16 come from Solomon himself. Now please turn to Proverbs 22:17 where we read, “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise.” Proverbs 22:17-24:22 is the next collection within the anthology. This section is known as The Thirty Sayings of the Wise. Then in Proverbs 24:23, the next collection begins: “These also are sayings of the wise,” and that brief section runs through verse 34. Then in 25:1-29:27 we have more proverbs of Solomon. You see how it begins: “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied.” The last two collections in the book are “The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle” (30:1-33), and “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him” (31:1-31). So there are seven major sections in the book of Proverbs – the introduction in chapters 1-9, followed by six collections of proverbs by Solomon and other geniuses.

What then is at stake in all of this for you and me today? Why does the book of Proverbs deserve our endless fascination? T. S. Eliot spoke to our times when he asked these questions:

Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

In our chaotic lives of constant stop-start-stop-start short-attention-span mental habits, with an endless stream of momentarily visible Twitter-feed fragments of information, we have been reduced to one splinter factoid after another, and we’re trying to patch together some kind of elegant whole worth living. That’s difficult. But it’s not just that we’re fidgety and distracted; it’s that our information, however much we have, is no basis for a life. We need Jesus to rescue us from our information and even from our knowledge. We need Jesus to counsel us with his wisdom. Then we can live. He speaks to us calmly, patiently, lovingly, seriously through the book of Proverbs.

This book works when we deliberately slow down and listen and mull it over and journal and pray. For many years Billy Graham read one chapter of the book of Proverbs every day in order each month, because there are 31 chapters in the book. We need that. In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr helps us notice how we’re being changed and therefore how we need to change back:

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

It is time to get off our information high, pick up the Bible and go deep. But the biggest challenge is not in our surroundings. It’s internal to ourselves. We bring a precondition to our counseling sessions with Jesus.

The book of Proverbs uses a certain Hebrew word to describe us as we start out. It’s the word petî. It shows up in our English Bibles as “simple” (ESV), “naïve” (NASB), “ignorant” (JB). We don’t like being told we’re simple, naïve and ignorant. But we can put away our feeling of insult and be glad, because the Bible does not idealize us. The Bible sets the bar low, where beginners can succeed and get traction. I am reminded of my sixth grade report card from Allendale Elementary School, Pasadena, 1960-61, which I have before me now. Mrs. Karpé was my longsuffering teacher. How was I doing? Reading, C. Math, C-. Social Studies, D. Art, C. Work and Study Habits, C-. Mrs. Karpé’s written comment:

Buddy is not working up to grade level requirement. He has a tendency to procrastinate, lose his work, then panics. He has a promising “potential,” but I would like to see him exercise it, do something about it.

In response to which my dad wrote in the following space for the parent’s comments:

Buddy is going to take a far greater interest in all of his work at school. Please give us a progress report in one month. We will contact you. Thanks for your interest.

I was a petî. And the proof of it was not my age or even my performance but just that I didn’t much care. But in God’s mercy I had a teacher and a dad who did care. I’m thankful, because “No one left to himself ever arrives at wisdom.” This word petî is related to a Hebrew verb that means “to be open.” A petî keeps his options open. He is uncommitted. It gets him into trouble: “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it” (Proverbs 22:3; 27:12). Why does a petî keep doing that? Because he doesn’t want to make up his mind and commit himself: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” (Proverbs 1:22). It’s cool to stand aloof and laugh at everything. It feels superior. But it is foolish. We are not neutral, we are not blank slates, we do not have our little devilish nature sitting on one shoulder tempting us and our little angelic nature sitting on the other shoulder restraining us. We have no angel. We have only a devil of a heart telling us we’re angels. That guilty naïveté about ourselves is how we’re born. It’s why we hate correction. Theologians call it original sin. We need Jesus to save us, first and foremost, from not needing to be saved.

As we launch our study of Proverbs, let’s so humble ourselves that we’re enthusiastic about Jesus saving us. We’re born proud and defensive. It makes us negative, whiney, suspicious, unsatisfiable, squandering our opportunity in life. Then we’re reborn by grace into newness and repentance and freedom as we listen to our Wonderful Counselor who loves us better than we love ourselves. That new humility is the fear of the Lord and the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). It is a constant adjustment:

Believers may not often realize it, but even as believers we are either centered on man or centered on God. There is no alternative. Either God is the center of our universe and we have become rightly adjusted to him, or we have made ourselves the center and are attempting to make all else orbit around us and for us.

Even in the small things of everyday life, Christ can be our true center. And then we really start to live!

In Proverbs chapter 9, the elegant Lady Wisdom and the seductive Woman Folly are standing on either side of the road calling out, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” (Proverbs 9:4, 16). What happens to us, if we commit to Folly? We start down a path from being a petî to becoming hardened into a scoffer who can’t come back. “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain” (Proverbs 14:6).

What happens to us, if we commit to Wisdom? “The path of life leads upward for the wise; they leave the grave behind” (Proverbs 15:24, NLT). True wisdom is walking further with Jesus than we’ve ever gone before, further than we’ve ever dreamed of going. It is not risky. All we leave behind is the grave. But his path is marked by promise every step of the way. Here is his promise to every fool who chooses the way of the cross: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).