The first nine chapters of Proverbs belong together as a single collection. These chapters function as an extended introduction to the collections of proverbs in the rest of the book. The main literary structure in Proverbs 1-9 is called an instruction, which is a block of teaching material usually addressed to "My son." As many as twelve such instructions have been identified in Proverbs 1:8-9:18. Several speeches by Wisdom also appear in these introductory chapters.
The relationship of Proverbs 1:1-7 to the rest of chapters 1-9 is debated by scholars. Some see these verses as introductory to chapters 1-9. Others argue that 1:1-7 should be understood as an introduction to the whole book of Proverbs. The two points of view do not have to be diametrically opposed. If 1:1-7 was written as an introduction to chapters 1-9 and chapters 1-9 were written as an introduction to the final collection of Proverbs, then there is little difference in the two positions. This lesson will treat the first seven verses as an introduction to the whole book of Proverbs.
The first instruction comprises Proverbs 1:8-19. The two main points consist of advice to follow the teaching of one’s parents and a warning against being enticed by sinners. This instruction is followed by a speech from Wisdom in Proverbs 1:20-33. Wisdom is personified to speak as if she (Wisdom is a feminine form in Hebrew) were a prophet or even God. Proverbs 2 consists of the second instruction in the opening chapters of the book. This passage is highly structured in the Hebrew text to provide an alphabetic pattern.
Title and Introduction - Proverbs 1:1-7
Although Proverbs 1:1-7 functions as an introduction to the book of Proverbs, there are three distinct parts of this introduction. Verse 1 serves as the title for the book. Verses 2-6 provide a purpose statement. Verse 7 then gives the motto or theme of Proverbs.
Verse 1 functions as the title for the book of Proverbs. The practice of a separate title page belongs to the period of history when writing was done in book form, after the time of Christ. The earliest copies of the Old Testament books suggest that the first line (or verse) was designed to be the title of the book. For many years people have read that title and assumed that Solomon was the author of all of Proverbs. As we have seen, the headings in Proverbs 22:17, 24:23, 25:1, 30:1; and 31:1 show that Solomon was not the author or collector of much of this book. The heading in Proverbs 10:1 introduces the following chapters as containing proverbs of Solomon. That ascription suggests that Proverbs 1-9 were written and collected by someone other than Solomon. Verse 1 could be just as well translated, "Solomonic proverbs." As the founder of the Wisdom tradition in Israel it was appropriate to honor Solomon by describing proverbs as his kind of literature.
Verses 2-6 set forth the purpose of the book and the benefits that will come from heeding the instructions contained within it. These verses are almost like the opening address that a teacher or principal might give to new students in the wisdom schools. Though the author of this first section of Proverbs is especially addressing young people he knows that his advice is also valid for people of any age. Verse 5 invites those whose learning and lives have already given them wisdom to continue the pursuit for great understanding.
In an almost rapid-fire succession the author lays out reasons to study this book, reasons to ponder the proverbs, reasons to walk in wisdom. The reasons overlap and intertwine. The reason can be simply expressed: to become wise or wiser. Part of the purpose of these phrases is to create the impression of a turning chandelier with light dancing and reflecting off a series of flitting surfaces. The glittering splendor is the goal, not analysis of each piece of glass. Likewise, the overall impression of these verses is more important than careful analysis of the meaning of the individual words and phrases. Aitken (p. 9) wisely notes that wisdom in this passage is like love in a song. It loses its poetic power if the pieces are placed under the microscope. However, the specific words and constructions are important.
Verses 2-4 and 6a all begin in the Hebrew text with an infinitive construction designed to show purpose. The repeated construction found in "to know" in verse 2a (NRSV: for learning), "to discern" in verse 2b (NRSV: for understanding), "to receive instruction" in verse 3a (NRSV: for gaining instruction), "to give prudence" in verse 4a (NRSV: to teach shrewdness), and "to understand" in verse 6a, shows how important this purpose was. The first object of this search is "wisdom" in verse 2.
The second word (musar in Hebrew) mentioned in translated "instruction" in the NASB, NRSV, and KJV and "discipline" in the NIV. It focuses on the method by which wisdom is attained. It carries the meanings of training, correction, and self-control. The sages knew that experience was a valuable teacher, but many people failed to learn the lessons of experience. Unless experience is combined with the counsel of those who are older and wiser a person may misinterpret experience.
Musar is training in the collective experience of many generations. However, musar also reflects the goal of wisdom teaching, which is disciplined living. Many have observed that the person who would master life must first learn to master self. The importance of this discipline in living can be seen by the fact that the word appears again in verse 3. The New Testament provides an important additional insight. The concept of musar is self-control which is the final virtue in the list of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. This moral discipline that enables us to live in right relationships with others and with God cannot be produced in our own strength. Prevenient or common grace supplies some of it to everyone, but one sign of being filled with the Spirit will be the growing ability to master ourselves so we can learn from God how best to live our lives.
The second line of verse 2 reflects a play on words in Hebrew when it places a noun and a verb from the same root together (because Hebrew builds both nouns and verbs from common roots this is far easier to do in Hebrew than it is in English or most other Western languages). We could literally translate, "to understand the words of understanding." This root for "understand" is the same as the word for "between" in Hebrew. The idea is that of discerning between options. One of the marks of mature wisdom is the ability to discriminate between two good things or two bad things. Often life does not offer a choice between good and evil, but a choice between two evils and we must discern which is worst. Likewise we often must choose the better of two good possibilities. The goal of Proverbs 1:2b is what Paul prayed for the Philippians in Philippians 1:10 that they could "discern what is best."
Verse 3 restates the purpose of Proverbs in another way. It is to gain instruction (musar) in wise dealing. The NIV translation of "acquiring a disciplined and prudent life," catches the sense very well. The Hebrew word describes the ability to plan ahead and devise a course of action to achieve the desired results. It speaks of that combination of good thinking, careful planning, and skillful actions that mark effective people. This ability can be used for either good or evil purposes. In fact, Genesis 3:1 uses this very word to describe the craftiness of the serpent. Joshua 9:4 uses it of the conniving actions of the Gibeonites. Sometimes it is translated "shrewdness." It is to our detriment when we allow such an effective combination of thought and life to be used only in the service of evil. Proverbs 1:3 calls us place that calculating approach to life in the service of a life given to God. Jesus calls for the same kind of thinking and living in Matthew 10:16 when he urged his disciples to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves."
Verses 4 and 5 note that there are no limits in the age range that can learn wisdom. The young and the simple need to learn. The word "simple" here refers to an inexperienced person rather than to a lack of mental capacity. We might paraphrase the concept at "uninitiated" or "unsophisticated." Normally, such innocence goes with youth. Unfortunately, there are adults who never quite grasp the painful realities of living among sinful people. Even more unfortunate, our society is increasingly encountering children whose appropriate childhood innocence has been taken away from them by irresponsible adults. Since advancing years provide no guarantee of wisdom verse 5 points out the need for the wise and discerning people to continue to learn more.
Verse 5 ends with another significant word that is translated "guidance" in the NIV and "wise counsel" in the KJV (NRSV: skill). The Hebrew word literally speaks of steering. The wisdom that the book of Proverbs teaches is like a steering wheel. When it is properly used it will guide a person through the curves of life, around the obstacles on the way, and finally to life’s ultimate destination.
Verse 7 has been described as the motto, the theme, and the programmatic saying for the book of Proverbs. Eighteen times the "fear of the Lord" is mentioned in Proverbs. Proverbs 9:10 states that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." This is the best known of the "fear of the Lord" proverbs and it is often given as the central theological concept of the Wisdom Literature. However, each "fear of the Lord" saying is slightly different or arises in a slightly different context. We will do well to give attention to each occurrence of the sayings.
The very choice of the English word "fear" to translate the Hebrew expression shows the difficulties translators face. Words may have different meanings in different contexts (denotations), but they also have emotional baggage (connotations). At the level of meaning (denotation) the word "fear" in seventeenth century England included a meaning that fit the Hebrew word here. It spoke of a proper attitude toward those other people, for example a reverence and submission in the presence of royalty. However, now "fear" has the connotation of being frightened, which is not what the proverb is about.
The fear of the Lord speaks of a reverent and loving obedience to the Lord and his will. It speaks of a proper humility in the presence of the Lord. It does not mean groveling or acting reverent on the outside when one’s inside is defiant. It is the recognition that the Lord is God, that he made us and we are part of creation; we are not God’s equal. It is also important to note that these phrases consistently refer to the fear of the Lord, not the fear of God. The Hebrew word for Lord here is YHWH, the covenant name for Israel’s own God. It is not reverence to deity in general that is the beginning of wisdom, but right relationship to the Lord of Israel, the Father of Jesus Christ, who has entered into covenant relationship with us.
The word beginning does not refer to a first stage in wisdom or knowledge with other stages of development happening in the future. Rather, beginning speaks of the origin or source. The Hebrew word is literally "head" and it was used of what we call the "head waters" of a river to describe the source from which the river flowed. Right relationship with the Lord is not a beginning level of wisdom from which we can someday graduate. Rather, it is the source of wisdom and all wisdom and understanding will always flow from that right relationship with the Lord. The mark of wisdom as opposed to foolishness is how open we are to continually receive from the fountain of wisdom. It was this reality that led Paul to write in Colossians 2:3 that in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
The First Instruction - Proverbs 1:8-19
The first instruction demonstrates the characteristics of this form of teaching. It is addressed to "my son." The Hebrew language did not have a gender-neutral term for child. Because of the cultural importance placed on sons in ancient Near Eastern society, the term "son" was used as the collective term in addition to meaning the male child. The strong emphasis on the role of women and mothers in Proverbs shows that the wording, "my son," was not designed to leave the ladies out (NRSV: my child). Murphy’s (1990, p. 16) observation is the important point, "In the context of this book, [Proverbs] ‘my son’ (v 8) is the reader who is willing to follow the discipline of wisdom." Ultimately the instruction is addresses to us, not just to some boy in ancient Israel.
As is often the case, the Hebrew word translated "hear" on verse 8 also meant to obey. This corresponds well with the fact that the instruction to be heard is again musar. Training or discipline is not just something to be heard but a way of living to be followed. A part of the unique Hebrew way of thinking appears in verse 8. The first line, calling for obedient hearing of a father’s instruction, is paralleled in the second line by advice not to turn away from a mother’s teaching. Father and mother are placed in a parallel and equal responsibility for teaching.
The Hebrew word translated "teaching" is torah, which is usually translated Law. The point is not to follow the legal code set down by the mother. Rather, torah (Law) and musar (instruction) are parallel ideas in the Old Testament mind. The Law of the Pentateuch was understood as God’s wisdom, instruction, discipline, guidance, etc. to direct Israel in the right path.
Wisdom literature often taught by means of contrast. That method is used here in the first instruction. Verses 8-9 affirm the value of instruction and direction. Verses 10-19 describe the enticement of sinful companions. What is wisdom? It is not the attractive picture painted in verses 11-14. As happens in both reality and Hebrew stories the painful sting is reserved for the end.
Verse 10 begins with a renewed address to "my son." This intensifies the emotional investment of the writer and readers. The Hebrew verb translated entice means to be wide or open. The Hebrew conditional phrase is graphic, "If sinners open up a door of opportunity for you, don’t go in." The idea is one of being enticed by the wrong crowd. In Hebrew culture the open door was symbol of welcome and invitation. It meant that a person belonged to the group gathered within. It communicated a sense of worth.
The author then develops that sense in verses 11-14. The sinners offer the young person a sense of belonging and of worth. Theses verses communicate an environment of daring and bravado. The references to Sheol and the Pit are a claim to be as powerful as death. They challenge death and make fun of it. These verses catch the camaraderie of a group of young men involved in no good. The sense of being a part of team is part of the appeal of verse 14 and verse 13 offers the promise of financial reward.
Verse 15 repeats the advice of verse 10 to not become involved with such people and activities. Then verses 16-19 unfold the bitter consequences of throwing one’s lot in with sinners. Verses 17-18 powerfully portray the results of people who are out to destroy others. They are caught in their own ambushes and finally it is themselves that they kill. It doesn’t take many years of observation to discover the truth of these verses. But it is just those years that young people lack. Part of wisdom is learning lessons from the wise instead of demanding every credit hour from the school of hard knocks.
The Speech of Lady Wisdom - Proverbs 1:20-33
This passage is the first of several in which Wisdom is personified as a lady making an appeal to the "son" being addressed in the previous material. Since the Hebrew word for wisdom was feminine in form it was natural to make the personification to a lady rather than to a man. Part of the purpose of this figurative way of speaking of wisdom is to communicate that wisdom is attractive, that wisdom is of a single piece (or being), and that wisdom is a gift not an achievement.
The Lady Wisdom does not wait for people to pursue her, but issues her invitation. She calls out like an Old Testament prophet confronting people in their daily lives, in the market place. The squares, the corners, and the city gates were the places that people congregated to do business and talk. In our culture we might speak of the malls, the restaurants, and the stadiums as the places where people meet. There Wisdom will make her pitch.
The fact that she cries out and lifts her voice in the hubbub of daily life acknowledges that other voices also call for people’s attention. The author of this section of Proverbs was under no illusions about people and life. He understood that many people are attracted to teachings and habits of life that are harmful. That attraction is not just because people are sinful or stupid. Part of it is the fact that sin presents itself well. In fact, sin has always had better public relations than good. Wisdom would not win people’s hearts if she stayed in church in dowdy old clothes. The picture here is of Wisdom competing for people’s allegiance and attention by entering the public squares of life and by presenting herself in the most attractive way.
However, the message of wisdom is the message of the entire Bible. Verse 23 is obscured in many of the modern versions. In the Hebrew text Lady Wisdom calls on her hearers to "turn to my rebuke." That word "turn" was the regular word used by the prophets for repentance. It was a call to turn from the enticements of verses 11-14 to the words of Wisdom. And the benefits that are promised in verse 23 are impressive. Wisdom would pour out her spirit (NRSV: thoughts) on them and make her words known to them. The word "spirit" or breath, as it can be translated, refers to the very life energy of Wisdom. And "words" are powerful concepts in Biblical thought, referring not only to what was spoken but the actions that the words set in motion. Thus Wisdom promises her life-energy and her ability to make things happen to those who would turn to her.
However, verses 25-31 respond to those who refuse to turn to Wisdom. Wisdom will laugh according to verse 26. This is not heartlessness, but recognition of the terrible irony of people who are warned of their evil and its consequences and who choose to pursue that evil anyway.
The bottom line is given in verses 32-33. Refusing Wisdom will lead to ultimate destruction, but heeding her call will lead to security. The first verb of verse 33 is very appropriately "hear" (NRSV: listen), the same verb for both listening and obeying that appeared at the beginning of verse 8. The first instruction and the speech by Lady Wisdom uses different communication techniques to deliver the same basic message. Obedient hearing of instruction and wisdom will bring fulfillment and joy. Arrogant rejection of wisdom plants the seeds of its own destruction. A similar truth is expressed in Romans 1:18-33 when Paul three times states that God gave sinners up to the natural consequences of their sinfulness.
The Second Instruction - Proverbs 2:1-22
Proverbs 2 shifts back to the instruction form of writing as can be seen by the opening words, "my son." After those words the chapters is an amazing literary effort. It consists of twenty-two lines – the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. By the rules of Hebrew grammar the whole chapter is composed of a single sentence (Hebrew rarely has long sentences). There are six stanzas. The first letter of the first three stanzas is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. Those three stanzas are all constructed with an if-then message. The last three stanzas all begin with the Hebrew letter lamed, the middle letter of the alphabet. These stanzas emphasize the way wisdom saves those who follow her.
The key word in the first stanza, verses 1-4, is "if." If the son (reader) will seek wisdom the beneficial consequences described in the next stanzas will follow. The question is whether or not the hearer and reader will pay the price for wisdom. This is the counterbalance to the truth of Proverbs 1:20ff where Wisdom took the initiative to seek followers. While that is true, we must respond ourselves, and verses 1-4 raise the question of whether or not we will. The very language of these verses hints at the benefits and the price of responding. Wisdom is considered a treasure, to be sought after like people seek silver. The value of wisdom is high and so are the stakes.
The second stanza, verses 5-8, contains some of the most direct teaching about the role of God in wisdom. Verse 5 is especially important: "Then you will discern the fear of the Lord." The verb discern (NRSV: understand) comes from that Hebrew root for "between," meaning the ability to make the difficult distinctions. This verse does not tell how it happens; it just promises that those who seek wisdom and treasures it will be able to discern right relationship with the Lord.
In fact, the author cannot - dares not – tell how to get such wisdom because it is a gift from God, as verses 6-8 make clear. We seek wisdom, but it is not our seeking that produces it. God is the source of all wisdom and knowledge and he makes it available for those who are right in their relationships with him, with others, and with the world. Having made it clear that God gives wisdom, the third stanza, verses 9-11, describes our receiving of that wisdom.
The next three stanzas (those beginning with the Hebrew letter lamed) focus on the protection and deliverance that God gives those who seek wisdom. Stanza four, verses 12-15, specifically describes deliverance from evil and evil people such as those described in Proverbs 1:10-19. The fifth stanza, verses 16-19, focuses on protection from adultery and immoral sexual relationships. This subject was a major concern of Proverbs and needs to be taught again in our culture.
Some scholars believe that "strange woman" (NRSV: loose woman) was a reference to the cultic prostitutes of Baal worship. A significant part of Baalism was the use of prostitutes understood as an act of worship (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament). Both women and sexual integrity are especially degraded when the authority of religion is placed behind immorality. Ancient Baalism is not the only incident of this. Many cult leaders twist their authority to include sexual access to whomever they wish. The end result is destructive to both the women and anyone who takes advantage of them. The popular media culture that now glamorizes casual sex and serial partnerships is trivializing people made in the image of God. It is no wonder that rape, abuse, and murder are increasing. When another person exists only for my pleasure, then there are no limits to what I can do to that person. But verse 19 speaks a clear word of devastating judgment, "No one who goes down to her comes back."
The final stanza, verses 20-22, returns to a positive affirmation of wisdom’s protecting role. The blessing is described in terms traditional to Israel, being able to live in the promised land. The point is that those who walk wisdom’s way will receive the blessings promised by God. Those who do not will miss out on those blessings. If those blessings were summed up as no more than life, land, and love, it would reveal how high are the stakes in choosing wisdom.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through his word. Ask the Holy Spirit to make the word come alive to you for that day.
First Day: Read the notes on Proverbs 1:1-2:22. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. What new insights did you receive from your reading that seemed important to you? Why were they important?
2. Select one or two truths from the lesson that have special application to our life. What changes in life do you need to make to begin to live out those truths?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to transfer the truths of Proverbs 1-2 from words on paper to the throne room of your heart and mind.
Second Day: Read Proverbs 3:1-35. Now focus in on Proverbs 3:1-12.
1. What blessings are promised in verses 1-4 to the person who learns the lessons of wisdom? How valuable are those blessings? Why? Which is most valuable to you? Why?
2. Paraphrase verses 5-6 into your own words. Are there areas of your life that still need to be turned over to God? What do you gain by postponing the decision to give those areas to God? What do you lose?
3. Proverbs 3:11-12 are quoted in Hebrews 12:5-6. Read Hebrews 12:1-17 and summarize in your words the teaching about God’s discipline found there and here in Proverbs.
Third Day: Read Proverbs 3:1-35. Focus your attention on Proverbs 3:13-24.
1. What benefits do verses 13-18 promise for those who seek wisdom? How do these benefits compare with the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:3-12?
2. Verses 19-20 speak of God’s wisdom in creation. List some truths you know about nature that illustrate God’s wisdom to you. What can nature tell you about God that you need to know?
3. How would you describe the benefits given in verses 23-24 in you own words? How important is the promise of verse 24 for you personally? Why?
Fourth Day: Read Proverbs 3:1-25. Now focus your attention on Proverbs 3:25-35.
1. What common phrase or construction ties verses 25-31 together? Do you respond better to negative commands ("Do not…") or positive commands? Why?
2. How would you apply the teaching of verses 26-30 to your relationships at your work? How would you apply them at home?
3. What consequences are promised to the foolish and disobedient in verses 32-35? What would it be worth to you to avoid those consequences?
Fifth Day: Read Proverbs 4:1-27. Focus in on proverbs 4:1-9.
1. Where did the wisdom teacher receive his instruction? Who is he teaching? What does that tell us about the way teaching should take place in the community of faith? What are the areas in which you need to improve to fulfill God’s design for teaching wisdom?
2. How urgent is the teacher in verses 1-9? What clues show his urgency? How urgent should he be? How urgent are you? Why?
3. What do you think would be effective ways that our families, our church, and our society could communicate the importance of biblical wisdom to the next generation? What are you willing to do to help accomplish this?
Sixth Day: Read Proverbs 4:1-27. Now focus your attention on Proverbs 4:10-27.
1. Summarize in your own words the contrast between the way of the wicked and the path of the righteous as both are described in verses 10-27.
2. What is the harm that comes to those who pursue evil doing? What do they miss because they have chosen darkness rather than light?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you live up to the instructions of verses 23-27. What would be different about your life if you were able to obey those instructions?