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1. Introduction to Proverbs


The Book of Proverbs is a delight to ponder, yet it is extremely difficult to preach. You may very well wonder why, in the light of this, I would choose to make Proverbs the topic of study for a number of weeks. The purpose of this message, in part, is to answer that question. I want to suggest some of the contributions the Book of Proverbs can make to your spiritual life. In addition to answering the question, “Why study Proverbs?,” I also want to lay the groundwork for our study by looking at the unique literary form of the Book of Proverbs. Allow me to briefly describe some of the ways we can benefit from a study of Proverbs.

1. PROVERBS IS A BOOK THAT IS CONCERNED WITH THE DEVELOPMENT AND ASSESSMENT OF GODLY CHARACTER. I have just finished a series on the book of 1 Corinthians. In my study of chapter 13 of that epistle I was deeply impressed with the importance of godly character (namely, love). If I understand that passage correctly, character is more important that charisma. The Bible also teaches that a man is measured more by his character than by his creed (cf. I Tim. 3). A godly man is not merely one who professes to believe certain truths, but one who practices them (James 2:14-26). No book in all the Bible is more devoted to the development of godly character than Proverbs. And there is no greater need in the Christian community today than for the kind of character Proverbs extols.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered a commencement address to the graduating class of Harvard University in June 1978. This man, an exile from Russia, did not dwell on the evils of Communism, but rather drew attention to the failures of the West, failures which may signal the demise of the greatest democracy history has ever known. While I would recommend that you read the entire speech, I believe the substance of his message could be summarized by this statement: America is slowly destroying itself by its neglect of godly wisdom and Christian character. Proverbs promises both to those who will diligently seek them (cf. Prov. 1:1-6; 2:lff).1

Every Christian needs to become a student of character. Let me mention just a few of the reasons why we need to discern character. First, the highest goal of the Christian is to become like Christ (Rom. 8:29 Eph. 4:13). While there are other dimensions of Christlikeness, the most essential is that we be like Him in character. The study of character in Proverbs should instruct the Christian regarding personal and practical holiness. Second, we need to be able to discern the character of others. This is especially important in biblical counseling. In Proverbs we are told, “Answer a fool as his folly deserves, Lest he be wise in his own eyes” (26:5).

If we are to counsel others, we must be able to discern their character because a wise man is counseled differently than a fool. Parents need to be able to recognize the character traits of their children if they are to train up their children “according to their way” (22:6).2 A child who has disobeyed because he did not listen carefully to instructions should be disciplined differently from a child who understood directions perfectly, but willfully did what he wanted.

The ability to discern the character of others is essential if we are to give heed to the teaching of Proverbs about our friends and associations. Those who are wicked and violent should be avoided (1:8-19). Those who are dishonest should not be our partners (29:24). Tale-bearers are not good friends (17:9). True friends are faithful (17:17), yet they won’t fail to rebuke you when it is necessary (27:5-6).

Especially important is one’s choice of a life’s mate. There is no more important qualification for marriage than the evidence of godly character. Thus is the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31:10-31 described. An unloved woman will only bring grief to the one she marries (30:23), while a nagging wife is no better (21:9,19). If we are not to associate with a person who cannot control his temper (22:24-25), certainly we should not marry him either. Many battered wives could say “Amen” to this wisdom.

2. PROVERBS DOES AWAY WITH THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR.3 Fallen man will always seek to establish a dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, between religious ceremony and practical righteousness. The Old Testament prophets frequently addressed this misconception by warning Israel that religious ritual had no value when divorced from righteous living, such as caring for the poor and oppressed (cf. Isa. 1:10-17; Jer. 20-29). Jesus, likewise, addressed this kind of dualism (cf. Matt. 23:23-24). Later, James had a similar word on this subject (cf. James 1:21-27).

The Book of Proverbs will not allow Christians to linger in the land of the theoretical. We love to keep Christianity on an abstract level, rather than on an applicational one. Our greatest failing as Christians is not that we know too little (while this is often regrettably true), but that we fail to do what we know we should. The emphasis of Proverbs is both on the acquisition of wisdom and the application of it. Seldom do we find ourselves “in church” in this book, but rather in the home, on the job, and dealing with the mundane matters of daily living.

Proverbs forces the reader to translate principles into practice. Often, it was the prophets who proclaimed the principles which Proverbs specifically related to life. For example, Amos wrote: “But let justice roll down like waters, And righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Proverbs instructs us in more specific terms: “Diverse weights and diverse measures, are both alike abominations to the Lord” (Prov. 20:10). The Book of Proverbs commands the butcher to be righteous by taking his thumb off the scales.

3. PROVERBS OFFERS TO TEACH US TO BE WISE. Wisdom is repeatedly personified as a woman crying out to mankind in the marketplace, offering to instruct all so that they may obtain wisdom (cf. 1:20ff.; 8:lff.). Within our generation there has been a virtual explosion of knowledge. Much of this has come in the form of technological advances. While knowledge is increasing rapidly, wisdom is seemingly more and more rare.

The implications of this trend are frightening. We now have the capability of reaching the moon and splitting the atom. Yet without wisdom men will too often utilize knowledge for the purpose of accomplishing evil, rather than doing good. Let me give you an illustration. Through a procedure known as amniocentesis, medical science has made it possible to determine the sex of a fetus while yet in the womb. By withdrawing a small amount of amniotic fluid from the womb of an expectant mother, a doctor cannot only detect the presence of over 70 genetic diseases, but also the sex of the unborn infant. I read of one couple who asked the doctor to perform such a procedure and informed them that their baby was normal. Learning that the sex of their healthy unborn child was not what they desired, they insisted on an abortion, for this reason alone. The technology (knowledge) was not wrong, but it was misused due to a lack of wisdom and character. Proverbs is more interested in making men wise than in making them smart.

Biblical wisdom has several facets. While we will devote much of our attention to these facets in future studies, let me summarize the primary characteristics of the wisdom which Proverbs offers. Wisdom has an intellectual dimension. Wisdom is a keenness of mind which enables us to assimilate and appraise information and to formulate a plan of action. Scott says, “The primary meaning of Hokmah is ‘superior mental ability or special skill’. . . ”4 It is important to differentiate between wisdom and intelligence, however. Many who are intellectually brilliant are biblically “fools.” Those whose I.Q. fails to rise above average are not, by this fact alone, excluded from the possibility of being biblically wise. In the first chapter of Proverbs wisdom is described as the ability to know (v. 2), to learn (vv. 2-4) and to understand (v. 6).

Wisdom is also described as the ability to discern (Prov. 1:2; cf. v. 4, “discretion,” which is from the same root). Wisdom has a moral, as well as a mental, dimension. Wisdom discerns truth from error, good from evil, best from good. Wisdom results in righteousness, justice, and equity (1:3). Since wisdom begins with the “fear of the Lord” (1:7), knowing good and doing it results from knowing God (cf. 22:17-21).

Wisdom is also a practical skillfulness, the ability to do things well. Bezalel, whose task was to design and create the stone and metal for the tabernacle, was “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (Ex. 35:31) to enable him to accomplish this task. Likewise Oholiab, was skillful at engraving and designing embroidery (Ex. 35:34-35). In Psalm 107:27 the special skills of seamanship seem to be referred to by this same term (Hokmah). Thus wisdom is not just a mental ability or a moral sensitivity, but a practical ability to accomplish a variety of tasks.

Wisdom is also personified in Proverbs. In chapter 7 wisdom is likened to a woman who calls forth to men to fear the Lord, hate evil, and diligently seek her. This is in contrast, I believe, to the adulteress of chapter 7, who by her flattery and seductive ways, seeks to lure the simple to do evil. In chapter 8 wisdom is again personified as being with God at the creation of the world (vv. 22-31). I believe it is safe to say that this implies that ultimately wisdom is the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we cannot possess wisdom without first bowing before Him as Savior and Lord.

4. PROVERBS TEACHES US THAT WHAT IS GOOD IS ALSO WHAT IS RIGHT. In his book, Situation Ethics, Joseph Fletcher refers to an incident in the book, The Rainmaker, by M. Richard Nash. The Rainmaker comes to bring rain to desperate farmers, whose crops and herds are dying. While staying at a particular ranch, the Rainmaker met the proverbial farmer’s daughter. This woman was lonely and desperate, and doubted her femininity. Feeling sorry for her, the Rainmaker made love to her, to reassure her. When her brother discovered what had happened to her, he drew his pistol and was about to shoot the Rainmaker. Her father, however, whom Fletcher referred to as a “wise old rancher,” grabbed the pistol from the brother with the rebuke, “Noah, you’re so full of what’s right you can’t see what’s good.”5

Situationalists would have us distinguish between what is right and what is good. Many Freudian psychiatrists would go so far as to say that what is good (i.e., Christian morality and biblical standards) is really evil, something to be overcome, a kind of Victorian hang-over. The underlying premise on which the Book of Proverbs is based is that what is right is also what is good. While there is no guarantee that doing the right thing will always produce a fairy-tale happy ending, doing what is right is always advocated as the best course of action. There is no mere pragmatism in Proverbs.

I know some Christians who think of Proverbs as a sanctified version of How to Win Friends and Influence People. I think they are wrong. While it is true that Proverbs teaches us how to be happy and prosperous, this is not the primary aim of the book. More than anything we are encouraged by Proverbs to be godly and righteous in our conduct. Those who pursue happiness as their goal in life will not find it, but those who seek holiness will find happiness as a pleasant by-product. Proverbs never promises that everyone who works hard will get rich or that honesty always is more profitable than crime. As a rule, this is the case, but there are many exceptions. If I live life wisely, I will not suffer the consequences of folly. If I stay within the speed limit, I will not suffer by paying speeding tickets. If I don’t rob others, I won’t have to worry about going to jail for robbery. But Proverbs hints at what other Scriptures tell us clearly--the righteous will sometimes suffer because they are righteous (cf. II Tim. 3:12).

5. PROVERBS HELPS US TO LOOK AT LIFE REALISTICALLY. In Proverbs ignorance is not bliss and naivet is more a vice than a virtue. While simplicity is not necessarily sin, it can easily lead to it. Our Lord instructed His disciples to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” (Matt. 10:16). Unlike Satan, who invited Eve to attain a “higher” knowledge of good and evil by disobeying God and experiencing sin (Gen. 3:5), Proverbs would instruct us about evil so that we might not fall into temptation (cf. Prov. 7:6ff).

God does not want Christians to look at the world through rose colored glasses. We are to see men as they are, and sin for what it is. Consequently, Proverbs describes life as it is, not necessarily as it should be. While it is wrong to attempt to pervert justice with a bribe (17:23; 29:4), in the world it is often a bribe that gets things accomplished (17:8). Those who have had military experience know this as the “whiskey and cigarette system.” While riches cannot provide a man with real security (11:4,28), some may think so (18:11). Money appears to gain friends (19:4, 6), but only for as long as it lasts (19:7). We can live wisely and righteously only as we view life as it really is. Proverbs is a book of reality.

6. PROVERBS IS AS CONCERNED WITH THE PROCESS OF RIGHT THINKING AS WITH THE PRODUCT OF IT. Christianity is a faith which is based on propositional revelation. While it is important to study the Bible to know what to think, it is just as vital that Christians learn how to think. Most of the Bible was written to convey propositional revelation. Proverbs also has many important truths (propositions, statements, cf. 16:4), but it also seeks to develop a mature process of thinking. The terms employed in Proverbs 1:1-6 inform the reader at the start that it is not a sequence of truths which is being transmitted, but the ability to discern and apply truth.

7. THE METHOD OF TEACHING EMPLOYED IN PROVERBS IS MOST LIKE THE INSTRUCTIONAL METHOD OF OUR LORD. While the vast majority of sound Biblical exposition found today is done chapter by chapter and verse by verse, this was not the case with either our Lord or the apostles. If we were to use one word to describe the teaching method most characteristic of our Lord, I believe that it would have to be parables6 (cf. Matt. 13:lff., Mark 4:lff.). Parables were used to conceal the truth from those on the outside, those who had already rejected Jesus as the Messiah (cf. Mark 3:22-30; 4:10ff.), as well as to provoke the disciples of our Lord to thought and inquiry (cf. Mark 4:10-11). In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Greek word parabole was consistently used to translate the Hebrew word mashal (proverb).7

8. PROVERBS IS A KEY BOOK FOR OBTAINING DIVINE GUIDANCE. One would not immediately expect to read the Book of Proverbs in order to learn the will of God, but this is one of the purposes of the book stated in Proverbs 1:5: “A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel.”

The expression “wise counsel” is derived from the Hebrew root meaning “rope.” This “rope” was connected to the rudder of a ship, thereby being the means of determining its course. By obtaining wisdom which Proverbs offers to teach us, we are enabled to make right decisions which will set a godly course for our life.

These are some of the benefits which the student of Proverbs can expect to gain. If all Scripture is profitable (II Tim. 3:16), Proverbs is especially so. Let us therefore begin our study of this book with eager expectation. James encourages us to pray for wisdom (James 1:5); Proverbs urges us to seek it by diligent study. Let us pray as we study this book, seeking the wisdom which comes only from God.

Proverbs as Literature

Proverbs were not a Hebrew invention. The use of proverbs was common in ancient civilizations. Documents which archaeologists have discovered from the Ancient Near East record Egyptian, Akkadian, and Babylonian proverbs, some of which are remarkably similar to those in the Book of Proverbs.8 Proverbs are also common today. I remember reading a proverb by Mark Twain years ago, which I have not been able to forget. Any school board members please forgive me; it is the only one of his proverbs I can recall:

First God made idiots.
That was for practice.
Then He made school boards.

The Hebrew term rendered “Proverb” (mashal) means “to be like.” The verb form of this word is used, in Psalm 143:7, to refer to a comparison. In the Old Testament this Hebrew word is used for a broad range of literary forms. It can refer to a popular, pithy, saying (Ezek. 18:2f.; cf. Jer. 31:29), a truth gained from personal experience and of general application (I Sam. 24:13), a medium of moral instruction (as in Proverbs 10:26, also Matt. 13:lff., “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .”), a riddle or allegory (Ezek. 17:2), or a short didactic essay or sermonette (Prov. 1:10-19; 31:10-31).9 Because of the broad use of the term “proverbs,” it is probably best, as Crenshaw suggests, to think of proverbs generally as “sayings.”10

Several features are common to most of the proverbs we will be studying. The first is brevity. Most of the proverbs are only two lines long:

The righteous is a guide to his neighbor,
But the way of the wicked leads them astray (Prov. 12:26).

As a preacher, it makes me very uncomfortable to point out that the book of Proverbs demonstrates the art of the unsaid. Most of us think that great ideas need many words to convey. If a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a proverb.

Brevity is one of the marks of wisdom. It is the fool who wants to speak his whole mind, while the wise never tells all that he knows:

A prudent man conceals knowledge, But the heart of fools proclaims folly (Prov. 12:23).

The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things (15:28).

A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind (18:2).

The wise are marked by an economy of words, while the fool blurts out everything that is on his mind. Proverbs demonstrates this economy of words.

Second, the few words which are spoken are well chosen. McKane comments,

The wise man is the master of compressed, polished, epigrammatic utterance; he gathers his thoughts into memorable forms of expression. The function of the Proverb is to illumine, and not to present a barrier to intelligibility.11

Often there is a note of humor involved, such as when the sluggard convinces himself that he cannot go outside to work because “there is a lion in the road” (26:13). Then too, some descriptions are so graphic they are almost impossible to forget. The beautiful woman without discretion is likened to a pig with a gold ring in its nose (11:22). This skillfullness in portraying truth is consistent with the wisdom of Proverbs. An idea worth communicating is worth communicating clearly and forcefully:

The wise in heart will be called discerning, And sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.
The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, And adds persuasiveness to his lips (Prov. 16:21,23).

Those who would convey wisdom by means of a proverb must make their message “short and sweet.”

There is also an element of the enigmatic in Proverbs. Some Bible students have been perplexed by the apparent contradiction in these two Proverbs:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, Lest he be wise in his own eyes (Prov. 26:4-5).

It is not by accident that these two Proverbs are found side by side. The apparent contradiction is by design. It compels the reader to ponder the matter much more seriously than he otherwise would. This element of enigma and mystery is the stimulus for the student to go the extra mile in his study.

To me Proverbs is to other forms of literature what radio is to television. Television supplies us with both verbal and visual data, but it does all the work for US. We become passive in the process of watching TV. Reading Proverbs is like listening to “The Shadow” on old time radio. We are not given all the data, but what is given heightens our interest and our imagination. We are intellectually active as we read, intent on understanding what is being said. That is a part of the genius of the proverb.

The proverb is a form of Hebrew poetry and is different from what most of us are accustomed to reading as poetry today. While our poetry frequently is organized according to the similarity of sounds, Hebrew poetry is based upon the similarity of thoughts arranged in parallel statements. Several types of parallelism are common in Proverbs. It will greatly enhance our study of Proverbs if we understand the major kinds of Hebrew parallelism.

Antithetical parallelism is the contrasting of two ideas. The second line is often introduced by the word “but,” which contrasts the idea of the first line with that in the second:

The fear of the Lord prolongs life, But the years of the wicked will be shortened (Prov. 10:27).

A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, But a just weight is His delight (Prov. 11:1).

Synonymous parallelism restates the idea of the first line in a different way. Continuation, not contrast, is the purpose of the second line:

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, And do not forsake your mother’s teaching (Prov. 1:8).

Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise, And apply your mind to my knowledge (Prov. 22:17).

Synethetic Parallelism expands upon what has been stated in the first line. While synonymous parallelism repeats what has been said in the first line, synthetic takes the thought of the first line farther--it develops the first thought:

He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered (Prov. 21:13).

Numerical Proverbs use numbers to structure:

Under three things the earth quakes, And under four, it cannot bear up:
Under a slave when he becomes king, And a fool when he is satisfied with food,
Under an unloved woman when she gets a husband, And a maidservant when she supplants her mistress (Prov. 30:21-23).

Proverbs are a form of poetry. We will benefit greatly from studying Proverbs as we better understand the nature of Hebrew poetry and the various forms of parallelism which are employed here.

Lessons from the Life of Solomon

While Solomon did not write all of the Proverbs (cf. 30:1; 31:1), the majority are attributed to him (cf. I Kings 4:32; Prov. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1). It is tragic to observe that in spite of all that Solomon wrote concerning women (cf. 5:lff.; 6:24ff.; 7:lff.; 8:lff.), they were the cause of his downfall.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women along the daughter of Pharoah: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord has said to the sons of Israel, “You shall not associate with them, neither shall they associate with you, for they will surely turn your heart away after their gods.” Solomon held fast to these in Love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away. For it came about when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been (I Kings 11:1-4).

This was not the only instance of Solomon’s failure to heed his own counsel. After all the Proverbs he wrote on child-rearing (cf. 1:8ff.; 4:1-4; 10:1; 13:24; 22:6,15) he failed to raise a son who was wise. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, refused to listen to the counsel of the older and wiser advisors of his father, and, as a result the kingdom was divided (I Kings 12:1-15).

From the failure of Solomon I believe we should learn two lessons. First, we should expect to be put to the test in those areas where we seem to be strongest. As I have observed life for a few years I find that those men who have the most to say about raising children (especially those whose children are not yet grown) will likely be tested in this area. Those who speak about submission to authority, will probably be tested in their willingness to submit to the authority of others. Those who proclaim the doctrine of the sovereignty of God will frequently be placed in circumstances where their faith in God’s sovereignty is put to the test.

Our greatest strengths can become our ruin. The gifted Bible teacher may begin to listen to the praise of others and begin to feel infallible and authoritarian. He may begin to proclaim his insights rather than God’s instructions. The one who is gifted of God to be able to give may begin to do so in such a way as to get the glory for himself. David had a heart for God all the time that Saul sought to kill him, but once David was comfortably enthroned, he became complacent. The man who single-handedly took on Goliath now was so cocky he felt it unnecessary to even go out and fight with his troops. As a result, David fell into sin with another man’s wife (II Sam. ll:lff.). Let us beware of our strengths (cf. I Cor. 10:12).

The second lesson we should learn from Solomon is that knowing the right thing to do is not enough. Wisdom is, first and foremost, a relationship with God. Wisdom is not just the knowledge of certain truths, but the obedient practice of them. I fear that Solomon deceived himself into thinking that he could “beat the system” because he knew so much about women. His knowledge may have inclined him to believe that he could sin and keep it under control. In the final analysis, though, the problem was not in Solomon’s head, but in his heart.

Then he taught me and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; Keep my commandments and live.” Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life (Prov. 4:4,23).

How is your heart, my friend? Have you come to submit your life, your eternal destiny, to the Lord Jesus Christ? He died for your sins, and He offers you His righteousness, which alone will enable you to enter into God’s heaven. Wisdom begins here, with the fear of the Lord (cf. Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33). You will never be wise until you come to know Him “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

1 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart, St. Croix Review, October, 1978, pp. 9-22.

2 There are various interpretations of this verse. For a more detailed description, see Lesson 14 in this series.

3 I am indebted to Edgar Jones for this insight into the relationship between Proverbs and the Old Testament Prophets. Jones also writes, “Proverbs brings the passion and the vision of the prophets to the humdrum immediate concerns of everyday life. The writers of Proverbs rarely sound a trumpet note but they presuppose that it has been heard.” Edgar Jones, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), p. 47.

4 R. B. Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament (New York: Macmillan Company, 1981), p. 6.

5 As quoted by Franz Ridenour, The Other Side of Morality (Glendale, CA: Regal Books), P. 39.

6 “It has been estimated that roughly one third of the recorded teaching of Jesus consists of parables and parabolic statements.” C. H. Peisker, “Parable, Allegory, Proverb.” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), II. P. 743.

7 Ibid., P. 744.

8 Cf. Jones, Pp. 32ff.

9 Ibid., pp. 23-25.

10 James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), P. 67.

11 William McKane, Proverbs (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 267.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines

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