Introduction to Proverbs
What is the difference between being smart and being wise? Wisdom goes beyond knowledge. It is more than a catalog of facts. It is a masterful understanding of life, a practical art of living, and an expertise in good decision-making. Proverbs challenges us to gain knowledge, to apply that knowledge to our lives, and to share the wisdom we gain with others.
Where can we turn to gain wisdom? The book asserts that wisdom goes beyond knowledge yet must begin with knowledge of the proverbs. “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight” (Proverbs 1:1-2, NIV). (The NRSV translation “learning about wisdom and instruction” misses the essentially experiential nature of the Hebrew da’at and its root, yada, which the NIV “gaining wisdom and instruction” rightly captures.) To produce wisdom, knowledge must be mixed with the fear of the Lord. “Fear” (Hebrew yare) of the Lord is often used in the Old Testament as a synonym for “living in response to God.”The book of Proverbs declares that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). Knowledge without commitment to the Lord is as useless as cement without water to make mortar. Paradoxically, accepting the proverbs by faith into the heart produces the fear of the Lord. “My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you . . . then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:1, 5).
True wisdom for the Christian involves the whole revelation of God, especially as known in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It starts with insight into who the Lord is, what he has done, and what he desires for us and for the world we live in. As we grow in our understanding of the Lord, we learn how to cooperate with him as he sustains and redeems the world. This often makes us more fruitful, in ways that benefit ourselves and in ways that help others. It causes us to revere the Lord in the midst of our daily life and work. “The fear of the Lord is life indeed; filled with it one rests secure and suffers no harm” (Prov. 19:23).
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In Proverbs, gaining wisdom also makes us good and vice versa. We have not truly gained wisdom until we have applied it in our lives. “The wise are cautious and turn away from evil” (Prov. 14:16). “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom” (Prov. 10:31). Proverbs anticipates Jesus’ admonition, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Wisdom comes from the Lord. “I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness,” the Lord declares (Prov. 4:11). In Proverbs, the mental and the moral come together, and wisdom reflects the truth that a good God is still in charge.
The book of Proverbs also warns those who neglect to grow in wisdom. Wisdom, personified throughout the book as a woman, speaks. “Whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:35-36). Wisdom brings greater, fuller life. Lack of wisdom diminishes life and ultimately leads to death.
The book of Proverbs further tells us that the wisdom we gain is not just for ourselves, but also to share with others, “to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young” (Prov. 1:4). Proverbs 9:9 commends us to “give instruction to the wise” and to “teach the righteous.” Proverbs 26:4-5 advises the reader about sharing wisdom with a fool. We share wisdom not only by teaching, but also by wise living, imparting wisdom to those who see us and follow our example. The opposite is also true. If we live foolishly, others may be tempted into the same foolishness, and we harm not only ourselves but them. Often, progress in our life’s work makes us increasingly visible, and the effects of our wisdom or foolishness influence more and more people. Over time this may have the most profound consequences, for “the teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, so that one may avoid the snares of death” (Prov. 13:14).
On the inseparable connection between wisdom and knowledge, see Bruce K. Waltke, Proverbs 1—15 (Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 76-87.
Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), entry 907.
For an explanation of the feminine personification, see Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 83.