2. The Two Ways (Proverbs 1:7-33)
Two dangers are predominant in the first nine chapters of Proverbs: the perversity and violence of wicked men, and the wiles of seductive women. Both of these are found in the second chapter:
To deliver you from the way of evil, From the man who speaks perverse things;
From those who leave the paths of uprightness, To walk in the way of darkness;
Who delight in doing evil, And rejoice in the perversity of evil;
Whose paths are crooked, And who are devious in their ways;
To deliver you from the strange woman, From the adulteress who flatters with her words;
That leaves the companion of her youth, And forgets the covenant of her God;
For her house sinks down to death, And her tracks lead to the dead;
None who go to her return again, Nor do they reach the paths of life (Prov. 2:12-19).
In this message we will deal with the first danger--that of perverse men. In our next lesson, we will study the two women: Madam Folly and Dame Wisdom.
At first glance it seems incredible that a father would find it necessary to warn his son about the solicitations of violent men to join them in their life of crime. Several factors, however, incline me to take this danger much more seriously than I might otherwise do. Let me begin with some of the reasons why such a lifestyle would be appealing to a youth.
A Natural Inclination
First, children, while sometimes sweet and innocent, have a natural inclination toward cruelty. When I finished my first year of seminary, we returned to our home state of Washington to spend the summer there. The grade school principal contacted me and asked me to finish out the year for a mature woman who had been a fine teacher for many years. For some reason she began to lose her control of the class. This fourth grade class sensed her weakening and instead of coming to her rescue, set out to totally devastate her. They were successful. There was a fair measure of cruelty in their actions. Children, as we know, can be especially cruel to other children too.
Violence is Attractive
Second, violence has an attraction for young people, even those who have been raised in a warm and loving home. A little while ago I read an article on the family of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. It described the life of the Nelson family during the years the program was on television, as well as the life of David and Ricky since. The thing that caught my eye was that Rick joined a group of “hoods.” The writer said this of Rick’s new associations: “Most of his fellow hoods, Ricky later explained, ended up in jail and went into bigger things--like armed robbery.”12
Violence is a Way of Life
Third, violence is a way of life for Americans. The media is saturated with violence. A recent study revealed that violence on television has increased 33% in the past year (1981-1982). The incidence of violence on the American television screen is four times greater than that of two Canadian networks.13 The television heroes are men of violence. The toys our children play with are often implements of violence or war. Perhaps even the electronic games may be considered violent in nature.
All of this should bring us to an awareness of the appeal of violence in our culture. Yet this violence, according to the Book of Proverbs, is a part of the evil way which we are to avoid. Let us carefully consider this danger as we approach our study.
A Father’s Instruction
Verses 8-19 are addressed to a son who is young and inexperienced and who is, as yet, relatively innocent. Wisdom speaks through the parents of the lad, his mother and father (v. 8). I understand the young man to have reached his teen years, the point at which he is facing adulthood and has to make decisions on his own. At this point in life he is inclined to look more to his peers than to his parents for guidance and direction. He will normally begin to question the values taught by his parents. The father urges his son not to forsake what he has been taught and to avoid the evil way advocated by at least some of his peers.
The intention of the father’s words recorded here is preparative and preventative. The child has not yet been approached by evil men, but that may soon come. In the words of a contemporary proverb, “a stitch in time saves nine.” I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “It’s easier to stay out than to get out.” This father is attempting to spare his son the heartache of choosing the wrong way by following the wrong friends and forming unwise associations.”
A Father’s Appeal
Verses 8-10 contain the appeal of this wise father in the most general terms. Both mother and father have faithfully taught this lad, and that instruction should not be carelessly set aside as the boy begins to experience a greater measure of independence and outside influence. Positively stated, adherence to parental teaching will beautify and enhance any child (assuming, of course, that the parental instruction has been godly).
Sweet and innocent as children may often be, there is natural inclination toward foolishness and rebellion in the heart of every child (cf. 22:15). Consequently the parents’ words are not what a child himself is inclined to think. Parents of teenagers will probably agree with me that parental teaching and standards of conduct are thought to be a “pain in the neck,” not an ornamental and beautifying chain about the neck (v. 9).
The assumption underlying the appeal of the father in this chapter is that wisdom is largely conveyed to a child through his parents. But at this point in the life of a young man, that assumption is often challenged. Have you ever had the distinct impression from your teenage child that it is you who are naive, while the child is sophisticated and worldly-wise? Parents are never so backward or ill-informed as during the teen years of their children. Our children roll their eyes and merely tolerate the ideas and ideals as an anachronism from the days following the Flood. The father urges his son not to allow this youthful and erroneous mentality to control his thinking.
What Evil Men Offer
Verses 11-14 move from the general to the specific. In verse 10 the child was urged to reject the enticement of the wicked. Now the father forewarns his son in a much more specific way by supplying him with the substance of the appeal. The words “Come with us . . . ” in verses llff. are spoken by the father, but they are the essence of the appeals which will shortly face the young lad who must cope with peer pressures. This wise father knows what his son will soon face and his words are prophetic.
The godly parent can learn from the instruction of this father. Our inclination is to say something like this to our children, “Now, Johnny, when I was a boy . . . ” To our children that is mere history, and it seems to have little relationship to their lives. Our children cannot fathom the fact that “nothing is new under the sun.” To them, we are the product of another dispensation, and our experiences in the past have no direct connection with them. This wise parent does not speak of the past, but of the future. When sinners approach this son, as the father knew they would, they will show the lad how right his father was. Many of us who are parents have not come to appreciate the value of knowing the temptations our children are facing and of preparing them to meet them before they come alone. Usually we procrastinate and face problems only after they have reached crisis proportions. We can learn from the wisdom of this father.
Let us look more carefully at what it is that evil men offer our children and which they find so appealing.
(1) Group Acceptance and Identity
The first enticement is that of group acceptance and identity. In the teen years children establish their self-esteem more in the way their peers view them than by what their parents think of them. The result is a tremendous sensitivity toward what their peers think, and a strong inclination to be accepted by their own age group. Peer pressure is never stronger. The sinners who entice the young man, I believe, are those whom the child wants to impress, and are probably near his age group or a little older. Within the group there is acceptance, significance, and security--all of which the youngster craves.
Have you ever noticed that people will do things as a part of a group that they would not consider doing as individuals? Mass demonstrations and riots are examples of how group pressure can be used to promote what is evil. That is not to say that all group involvement is bad, for group pressure can work for the good as well as evil. In Hebrews we read,
And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Heb. 10:24-25).
The evil is not in group involvement, but in involvement with the wrong kind of group, with those who entice us to join them in doing evil.
(2) Promise of Material Gain
The second enticement of sinners is the promise of material gain:
“We shall find all kinds of precious wealth, We shall fill our houses with spoil; Throw in your lot with us, We shall all have one purse” (1:13-14).
Prosperity is never considered evil in Proverbs, unless it has been gained by sinful means (10:2; 13:11; 19:22; 28:6). Godliness and wisdom are often followed by prosperity (3:9-10,16). But the gain which is offered by the wicked is the result of violence. It is not by diligence and hard work that the wicked become prosperous, but by robbery (1:11-12). Individual effort is down played, and the comfort and prosperity is to be found in a communistic work ethic (1:14).
(3) Excitement and Sense of Power
The third enticement is the excitement and sense of power and exhilaration inherent in crime. Young people get tired of being told that they are to be seen and not heard. They want to be important and able to wield power over others. A life of crime is one quick way of obtaining a sense of power. Looking at a teenager from the wrong side of a 45-caliber revolver appears to give him great respect. A life of crime offers youngsters a chance to experience the chills and thrills they love. The dangers involved only enhance the appeal. After all, why do so many young Americans (and older ones too) pursue hobbies and sports which endanger life and limb?
A Father’s Final Appeal
In verses 15-19 the father makes a final appeal, based upon the enticement he has just described. Verse 15 pleads with the son to avoid this evil way. Verses 16-19 give two reasons to avoid all such offers. In verse 16 we find the first reason-because the money and the excitement of this kind of life are at the expense of others. These are violent men, who are not only hasten to shed blood, but are prone to do so. I know many of you will find this hard to believe, but the three months I spent teaching in a state prison convinced me that there are some who would stab you for the sheer enjoyment of watching you bleed to death. Such men must be avoided.
A Father’s Explanation
Verses 17-19 explain the second reason why a life of violent crime is evil--it destroys the villain as well as the victim. While the evil man may be willing to destroy others, he should be warned that he also destroys himself.
Indeed, it is useless to spread the net In the eyes of any bird; But they lie in wait for their own blood; They ambush their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; It takes away the life of its possessors (1:17-19).
Bible students have found these verses especially difficult to interpret. There are two explanations which are most frequently offered, and it is the second to which I am inclined. The first view is that birds are smarter than most crooks. The bird, we are told, is smart enough to avoid any trap that it sees being set. Although grain is set out, the bird will not touch it, for it knows that there is a trap and that it will be caught. Criminals are not even as smart as birds because they follow a life of crime, unaware that they are bringing about their own destruction.14
The thrust of the second explanation is that such criminals have no more sense than birds, who, having watched the trap being set, allow their appetite for grain to overrule all sense of danger, to their own destruction. Birds watch the net being spread and sprinkled with grain. But sooner or later their eyes behold only the grain and seeking to satisfy their appetites, they descend on the grain, destroying themselves in the process. So it is with those wicked men who choose to live a life of violent crime. They, like unreasoning animals, allow their appetites to reign. Such men are worse than birds. Men have minds and are capable of discerning danger. Men also have parents, who have warned of such evil. Men also are less to be pitied because they lay the trap for themselves by their violence, while birds are the victims of a trap not of their own making. Like Haman, who built a gallows on which to hang Mordecai, yet died on it himself (cf. Esther 7), those who choose to live by the sword, will die by it (cf. Matt. 26:52).15
A noticeable change occurs when we come to verses 20-33. In the previous verses wisdom was spoken by a father to a young, impressionable boy. In verses 20ff. wisdom is personified as a woman. She is not speaking to the innocent, but to the guilty. The father urged his son to avoid the evil way; wisdom now speaks to those who have chosen to follow the evil way. The first discourse is preventative; the second is prescriptive. The point is that there are both young fools and old fools. The wisdom of Proverbs is for fools of all ages. While there is no wide-eyed optimism that many will forsake their evil ways and turn to wisdom, the offer is nevertheless made to all.
Verses 20 and 21 introduce us to wisdom personified as a woman and to the place where wisdom is proclaimed. In a nation where righteousness is encouraged and sin is restricted, wicked men cannot entice others to follow them as openly. But while evil men are forced to entice secretly, wisdom calls out to all men from the public places, where the masses are found. The gates of the city (v. 21) are the place where the elders sit and judicial matters are settled (cf. Ruth 4:lff.).
The inference of these verses is clear. We can learn a great deal by considering the source of the “wisdom” which is offered. Wisdom, we know from the previous verses, was to be found in parental counsel and instruction. Here, wisdom is to be gained from the elders of the city, from men who are recognized for their maturity and godliness. The evil men of verses 10-14 will hardly be found in the city gates, for such ilk lurk in the dark alleys and come out at night. Their “wisdom” is not proclaimed publicly, but whispered in private.
If the “son” of verses 8ff. is young and innocent, those addressed in verses 22 and 23 are not so. Ignorance and innocence are not their problem, but willful rejection of the way of wisdom. “How long, 0 naive ones,” wisdom cries, “will you love simplicity? And scoffers delight themselves in scoffing, And fools hate knowledge?” (v. 22). Those who are simple love it and those who are scoffers take pleasure in it. It is not that knowledge was unavailable, but that it was unacceptable--they hate it (v. 22).
Wisdom’s words are appropriately those of correction. “Turn to my reproof,” she admonishes (v. 23). Wisdom calls upon guilty sinners to repent. The only way for sinners to obtain wisdom is for them to turn from their wicked ways, renounce their folly, and walk in the way of righteousness.
Wisdom is Not Natural
Wisdom does not come naturally, but folly does. Consequently wisdom requires a supernatural source (I Cor. 2:6-16). Wisdom therefore offers to pour forth her spirit on those who will flee from folly and turn to her (v. 23). The “spirit” which wisdom offers men is, I believe, the Holy Spirit, who enlightens our minds and illuminates the Scriptures, resulting in an understanding of divine wisdom (cf. Eph.1:17; Col.1:9). It is my personal conviction that Christians see too little of Christ and of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. I find it difficult not to see this text as a reference to the Holy Spirit.16 There is good reason for wisdom’s solemn warning.
Those who have chosen the way of folly are on a path which leads to destruction. In verses 17-19 the father urged his son not to join the evil men because they were on a self-destructive course. In verses 24-32 wisdom warns men who are already on a course of destruction. There are three dominant themes in these verses.
Wickedness is a Choice
The first theme is that men are on the wicked way because they have chosen to be there:
“Because I called, and you refused; I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention; And you neglected all my counsel, And did not want my reproof” (vv. 24-25).
“Because they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the Lord. They would not accept my counsel, They spurned all my reproof” (vv. 29-30).
From verse 7 we learned that the beginning of wisdom is the moral decision to fear God and to turn from evil (cf. 3:7). Those who are here warned by wisdom are those who have willfully chosen to reject her call and to follow the way of evil.
Men do not reject wisdom for folly, they reject wisdom as folly. Few people pursue the way of evil because they know it is foolish. They do so because, in their minds, they are smarter than the rest.
The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can give a discreet answer (26:16).
When I worked in the state prison, many prisoners openly indicated that they believed I was the fool, not they. I chose to work long hours in order to make a little money. They, in a few brief minutes, could rob a bank and live high for months. The wicked men of 1:11-14 are proud of their way of life. They can get rich quick, with little effort. The innocent (v. 11) are the fools from who they will quickly separate their money.
Rejecting Wisdom Means Painful Consequences
The second theme is that the choice to reject wisdom’s call has painful consequences:
“I will even laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes, When your dread comes like a storm, And your calamity comes on like a whirlwind, When distress and anguish come on you” (1:26-27).
One may be troubled by the fact that wisdom seems cruel here, but wisdom warns men that calamity and disaster are the consequence of rejecting her. Evil men suffer only what they deserve. God’s justice requires that men not only receive what they have earned (e.g. “the wages of sin is death,” Rom. 6:23), but what they earnestly desired.
“So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way, And be satiated with their own devices. For the waywardness of the naive shall kill them, And the complacency of fools shall destroy them” (1:31-32).
A Point of No Return
The final theme is that there is a point of no return, after which repentance will be too late.
“Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they shall not find me, Because they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:28-29).
When wisdom calls out to sinners in verses 20-33, it is not an offer than can be set aside until a more convenient time. They way of evil will eventually lead to destruction. Men cannot complacently continue to walk in the way of evil, only to repent as the consequences become evident. It will then be too late. Hell will be populated with men and women filled with remorse, but not with genuine repentance. Justice demands that men face the consequences of the way they have chosen. The time for repentance is now, not later (cf. II Cor. 6:2).
The final verse contrasts the fate of the righteous with those who have chosen the way of the wicked.
“But he who listens to me shall live securely, And shall be at ease from the dread of evil” (1:33).
Those who walk in the path of wisdom will reap the reward of sins forgiven and will not need to fear the penalty of sin. The dread of evil is only for those who practice it. Wisdom delivers men from the destruction which results from sin.
Proverbs chapter 1 is like a road map in that it outlines life in terms of only two ways--the way of wisdom and the way of folly. Wisdom leads to peace and security, while the way of folly ends with death and destruction. Everyone is on one of these two paths. The way of folly is characterized by evil men who seek material gain through violence. The way of wisdom is entered by fearing God and forsaking evil.
Because our sinful nature inclines us to the path of folly, we must make a conscious decision to be on the path of wisdom. To enter the way of folly, one simply chooses to follow those who encourage him to do what comes naturally and to reject wisdom’s call. To enter the way of wisdom one must recognize his bent toward sin, reject folly, and choose to pursue wisdom in the fear of the Lord.17 All men are forced to make a decision concerning the fear of the Lord, either to fear God (1:7) or to resist Him (1:29).
While an in-depth study of “the fear of the Lord” is worthwhile, let it suffice for now to point out that wisdom is personified in Proverbs. I believe that in addition to serving as a literary device this personification of wisdom prepares us for the incarnation of wisdom in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Notice the striking comparison of wisdom in Proverbs with Jesus in the Gospel of John.
“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From everlasting I was established, From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, When there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, Before the hills I was brought forth; While He had not yet made the earth and the fields, Nor the first dust of the world. When He established the heavens, I was there, When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep” (Prov. 8:22-27).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (John 1:1-3).
For men today there are only two ways, the way of sin and death, and the way of salvation. The determining factor is our response to the person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He himself claimed to be the only way to God’s heaven when He said,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me”(John 14:6).
John the apostle wrote in the fifth chapter of his first epistle,
And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (I John 5:11-12).
There is no more important decision, my friend, than that which determines your eternal destiny. Your eternal future is determined by your response to the person of Jesus Christ. Like wisdom in Proverbs 1, our Lord says that you are a sinner, bound for eternal destruction. He has come to the earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross of Calvary for your sins in order to give you a right standing with God. Will you wisely accept His offer of salvation, or foolishly reject it? The decision is yours.
There are only two wisdoms in this world, God’s wisdom and that of sinful man. To the natural man God’s wisdom appears foolish, for in His wisdom God provided salvation for men through the death of His Son:
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Cor. 1:20-25).
Wisdom is the way to life, not just a way of life. You cannot get to heaven by any other way than the way of wisdom, the way of our Lord Jesus Christ. I urge you to trust in Him for your eternal salvation.
Having said this, it is important for me to stress to those who are true Christians that wisdom is a way of life and not just a once-in-a-lifetime decision about Jesus Christ. While we must place our faith in Christ, we must also follow Him. Jesus called men to Himself with the call, “Follow Me” (cf. Matt. 4:19;10:38). The decision to trust in Christ is also the commitment to turn from our wicked ways and to begin a whole new life by following Him.
In our desire to see men and women converted to faith in Christ we can be tempted to water down the claims of Christ. Those who come to Christ must be warned about the cost of discipleship, even as our Lord urged men to count the cost of following Him (Luke 9:57-62). When men come to Christ they are leaving behind their old way of life and entering into a whole new way--the way of wisdom.
Some Christians seem to think that the ideal life is one in which we turn to Christ as our Savior, live as we always have, and get to heaven with the best of both worlds. Let me remind you that to walk in the way of folly is to walk in the way of death and destruction. It is possible for a Christian who has been genuinely saved to depart from the way of wisdom and to walk in the way of evil men. David, for example, committed adultery and murder by taking Bathsheba and killing Uriah (II Sam.11). David did not lose his salvation, but he did learn that whoever walks in the evil way suffers the consequences of sin. The Corinthian saints also learned that willful sin could result in both sickness and death (I Cor. 5:lff.; 11:27ff.). We will never lose our salvation when we sin as Christians, but we will find that all who choose to walk in the way of folly suffer the consequences of that folly. The way of wisdom is the only way to life and peace. Let us walk in it.
14 “Go not with them, for their intention is bad; go not with them, for if the bird flees away from the net which is spread out before it, thou wilt surely be so blind as suffer thyself to be ensnared by their gross enticements.” Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company [phoiolithoprinted], 1968), It p. 66.
15 “. . . the comparison refers not the futility of laying snares in the sight of birds (who thus see the trap and avoid it), birds who, though the snare is laid in their . . . ” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, C. H. Toy, & T. Clark, 1959), p. 17.
16 The translation of the New International without good cause, in my opinion. It translates my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you but to the blindness and folly of sight, nevertheless fall into it.” the Book of Proverbs (Edinburgh: T. Version differs greatly here, but verse 23, “If you have responded to and made my thoughts known to you,” rendering the Hebrew word for spirit “heart” instead. This is bad enough, but they also render verse 23 as though wisdom has already been rejected, which the Hebrew text does not indicate until the following verse. All in all, it seems best to reject the rendering of the NIV here.
17 “Here [in Proverbs] the fear of the Lord amounts to religion as we understand it today. By fear of the Lord these sages called attention to religious devotion in the richest sense of the phrase. It meant, purely and simply, that which every human being owes the Creator. That is why the editor who wrote the motto for the first collection of Proverbs can affirm that religious devotion constitutes the beginning and fundamental principle of all knowledge. Without a vital relationship with God, no one could possibly attain sufficient wisdom to merit the adjective ‘wise.’” James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), P. 95.