It is a mark of Divine inspiration that the book of Proverbs contains timeless counsels for the people of God in every age. None of its Wisdom is ever outdated. The basic flaws in human nature continue to afflict every generation and the need to develop godly Wisdom is as urgent for us as it was for those living in the days of Solomon. Surely there is nothing new under the sun.

Listening, speaking, thinking, walking and acting are all carefully analysed by God in each proverb. We are told exactly what God rejoices in and what He hates. We are sometimes admonished, sometimes encouraged, but we are always instructed. Similes, parables, contrasting sequences, graphic illustrations skilfully wend their way through this remarkable tapestry of life demonstrating one fundamental lesson—“the fear of Yahweh is the beginning [the principal part] of Wisdom” (1:7).

This is the key which elevates the proverbs from seemingly simple homilies to issues which impact on eternal destinies. Belief in God and an awareness of His presence are the foundations upon which we can understand the proverbs on a spiritual level with a view to our ultimate well-being.

For example, Proverbs 13:18 states—“Poverty and shame shall be to him that refuseth instruction: but he that regardeth reproof shall be honoured”. We can understand this on a number of levels. The first is in the sphere of every day life. If we refuse to listen to advice we will never prosper, but if we learn from our mistakes we will be respected. A man or woman who fears Yahweh, however, can appreciate a higher or spiritual dimension. If they take heed to instruction and reproof from the Word of God they will be honoured with immortality. The opposite of this is ultimate shame and rejection.

How wonderful then is this book. It tells us how to tackle life from both a natural and eternal perspective. The way we speak, for instance, has a double effect. It affects people we deal with in everyday life and determines the response we will receive from them. But for the spiritually mature person it also affects their spiritual walk and the ultimate reward at the day of reckoning, as it is written, “death and life are in the power of tongue; and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (18:21).

Only fools despise Wisdom and instruction (1:7). The wise, on the other hand, will hear and increase learning (1:5). Which category do we fall into? We may not openly say that we despise God’s Wisdom, but do we relegate contemplation and study of the Word of God to a very low priority instead? It is not easy to grasp the deeper meaning of each proverb, but it is our very great honour to search out the significance (25:2).

The book of Proverbs displays a remarkable level of perception in relation to the weakness of human nature. It warns us about sloth, pride, evil speaking, tale-bearing, whispering and ill-gotten wealth. It informs us about how deep personal offences can hurt our brethren (18:19). It uses examples from nature to induce us to change our habits. It constantly depicts two different ways of responding to the challenges of everyday life. We end up knowing that we are either wise or foolish, humble or proud, rich in faith or poor in faith, diligent or slothful, and so on. There is never any middle ground.

The Proverbs encourage us to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. There is little place for the theoretical philosopher. In fact, Hebrew as a language tends to employ concrete terms rather than abstract notions and this is even truer in relation to the way God expresses His mind in the Proverbs. After reading them we all know where we stand.

Some language is extremely uncompromising. “As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion” (11:22). “Lying lips are an abomination to Yahweh” (12:22). “Only by pride cometh contention” (13:10). “Whoso despiseth the Word shall be destroyed” (13:13). There is no mistaking the forthrightness of this kind of terminology. We cannot ever say that we didn’t understand what God was saying.

It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, a ruler or a commoner, Wisdom knows no social boundaries. It doesn’t matter whether you are a genius or just an ordinary person, Wisdom is learnt and can be achieved. It is not put there by birth, it is placed there by the influence of the mind upon the words of God. It is not something elusive or illusionary. Wisdom can be attained by anyone who is prepared to listen to the Word of God.

The Purpose of the Book of Proverbs

Solomon spoke about 3000 proverbs and this book contains about 800 of them. They have been carefully selected and placed together to tell a story.

They were written for the following reasons:

1:2—to know Wisdom and instruction (Heb: discipline, chastening, correction)

to perceive the words of understanding

1:3—to receive the instruction of Wisdom, justice, judgment and equity

1:4—to give subtlety to the simple

(to give) young men knowledge and discretion

1:6—to understand a proverb, the interpretation,

the words of the wise and their dark sayings.

Note that there are five verbs here all having to do with learning and receiving. Why is it so important to know? Because each of the nouns used (Wisdom, instruction, understanding, justice and so on) are all qualities which God exercises. So to know these principles is to know how God does things and views things. It allows us to discern between good and evil; which was the essence of Solomon’s request to God in 1 Kings 3:9.

Note also that 1:6 says that the book of Proverbs contains its own interpretation. It introduces us to a style of teaching that provokes thought and enquiry. It encourages us to contemplate symbols and expressions that in turn yield spiritual thoughts and ideals.

How is Wisdom attained? First you must believe and fear God (1: 7—the word “beginning” means chief part, the first and controlling principle). Second you must seek it with all your heart (2:1–9). God then gives it! (cp Jas 1:5—where we learn that God gives Wisdom liberally to those who ask).

Proverbs is like visiting the marketplace or the concourse (1:20,21); the Hebrew word means “the place of noise”. The market place of life is full of all sorts of different kinds of people going about their lives and behaving in different ways. And it’s as though God peers into everyone’s heart and unveils how they think and what they are like, what is wise and what is foolish, what will lead to life and what will end up in death and despair. Wisdom is personified in the early chapters as a woman screaming above the everyday din of life and trying to attract our attention. She is highly perceptive as she wanders through the concourse observing all the different types of people she meets.

The Simple

In chapter 1:22,23 she comes across the first of three. Over there standing with his hands behind his back staring into space is the simple.

He is the kind of person who is easily led, the gullible, the silly one. Mentally, he is naive (“the simple believes everything, but the prudent looks where he is going”—14:15). He is a person who is on the edge of going one way or the other. Hence in 14:18 we learn that he will inherit folly if he doesn’t change. For this person to do nothing is to regress; to remain easily led is to invite trouble; to remain empty is to leave yourself exposed.

This is the point of 7:7 where he is seen at his most typical: aimless, inexperienced, drifting into temptation—indeed almost courting it. A person in such a state will not go far before he meets a temptress. He is half looking for trouble and he will almost certainly find it.

We need to fill our minds with good things. It is very tempting to drift through life with no aim, no goals. If we stay still we are not moving forward. In the Proverbs, the simple are constantly invited to fill the void and gain understanding (8:5, 9:4,16).

The Sluggard

Her gaze passes to a tree and lo and behold under the shade ‘snoozing’ in the heat of the day is the sluggard.

The sluggard in Proverbs is a figure of tragicomedy, with his sheer animal laziness (he is more than anchored to his bed: he is hinged to it, 26:14), his preposterous excuses (“there is a lion outside!” 26:13, 22:13) and his final helplessness.

Look at his life! He will not begin things. When we ask him (6:9,10) “How long… ?” “When… ?”, we are being too definite for him. He doesn’t know. All he knows is his delicious drowsiness; all he asks is a little respite: “a little… a little… a little…”. He does not commit himself to a refusal, but deceives himself by the smallness of his surrenders. So, by inches and minutes, his opportunity slips away.

He will not finish things. The rare effort of beginning has been too much; the impulse dies. So his quarry goes bad on him (12:27) and his meal goes cold on him (26:15).

He will not face things. He comes to believe his own excuses (perhaps there is a lion out there, 22:17) and to rationalise his laziness; for he is “wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason” (26:16). Because he makes a habit of the soft choice (he “will not plow by reason of the cold”, 20:4) his character suffers as much as his business, so that he is implied in 15:19 to be fundamentally dishonest.

Consequently he is restless (13:4, 21:25–26) with unsatisfied desire; helpless in face of the tangle of his affairs, which are like a “hedge of thorns” (15:19); and useless—expensively (18: 9) and exasperatingly so (10:26)—to any who must employ him.

Are we like this? Never starting, never finishing jobs given to us, refusing to face up to our responsibilities. We have the Word of life in our hands: are we too lazy to bring it to our mouth!

The Fool

Just by the wall at the edge of the market, Wisdom’s eyes seek out the third person she was looking out for. Look at him closely. He is a man who is continually speaking and rarely listening. We can hear his laughter rise above the market noise and when we inquire after him we find that he is none other than the Biblical fool.

Fools, explains Wisdom, despise Wisdom and instruction (1:7). They lie and deceive (10:18). They think it is funny to be mischievous (10:23). They are constantly immersed in pride (14:3), laughter; they mock at sin (14:9) until in the end they become unteachable (27:22).

Stay away from his influence, Wisdom warns those who are prepared to listen.

The Wicked

To the left of this man stands a darkened doorway and in its shadow stand two men bowed in deep conversation. One of them is looking around furtively, hoping not to be seen. He’s putting his hand in his cloak and passing some gold coins to the other man. He’s walking off now and roughly pushing his way through the crowd. Who is this man? He is none other than “the wicked”.

His habits are to be avoided at all costs. He perverts the course of justice through bribes (17: 23). He is violent (10:6), speaking frowardly (10: 32—Heb ‘perversity’). He works deceit (11:18) and you can hear him speak murderous words (12:6). He is cruel (12:10) with little or no compassion (29: 7). Yet he is religious (15:8)! Wisdom hastens by this man with not so much as a single good word to offer about his qualities.

The Wise Man

As Wisdom glances around the market she spies over in the background just by the gates someone speaking with authority and decisiveness. He has just given a decision on behalf of the poor and some people are even applauding him. What kind of man is he?

He is the exact opposite of the wicked. He is termed the wise. This is the class that we want to be associated with. Look at what Wisdom has to say about this man. He

  • hears and increases in learning (1:5)
  • is not wise in his own eyes (3:7)
  • loves those who rebuke him (9:8)
  • becomes wiser with more instruction (9:9)
  • is wise in his heart and receives the commandments (10:8), hearkening unto counsel (12:15)
  • lays up knowledge (10:14)
  • wins souls (11:30)
  • has a healing tongue (12:18)
  • is first a wise son who listens to his father’s instruction (13:1)
  • imparts wisdom to others (13:20), dispersing knowledge (15:7)
  • fears and departs from evil (14:16)
  • pacifies and turns away wrath (16:14, 29:8)
  • sets his heart to seek and obtain knowledge (18:15)
  • has oil in his house (21:20, basis of the parable of five wise virgins)
  • is strong because of his knowledge (24:5)
  • will inherit glory (3:35)

This is the wisdom that we ought to seek. This wisdom comes from above (Jas 3:17,18). These are the kind of qualities Wisdom urges us to emulate.

The Wise and Foolish Woman

As Wisdom continues surveying the place of concourse she sees in the foreground two women carefully choosing a metre of fine linen. One is loud and stubborn, the other is quiet and thoughtful. The first becomes angry and shakes her fist. She is contentious, always brawling. The second speaks kind words and radiates an inner beauty.

Beyond this scene she notes a third woman over there in the darkened street, all decked up in alluring clothes, drawing attention to herself and seeking to seduce the unwary.

The book of Proverbs has many lessons for sisters as well. The great example Wisdom asks our sisters to manifest is that which can be seen in the wise and virtuous woman. This sister is a gracious woman (11:16—the Hebrew word means “merciful”). She is a crown to her husband (12:4) because she is supportive and caring. When she labours she builds her house, careful not to destroy those who have been committed to her care (14:1). She is virtuous and she fears God (31:10–30). She does not use harsh and critical words (31:26). Instead she is the epitome of kindness and gentleness. To her, godliness is so important.

God sees us all as we go about our lives. He is aware of our speech, our mannerisms, our way of life and our thoughts. Sometimes we manifest bits and pieces of all of the characters depicted in the book of Proverbs. In the end though we will be either wise or foolish, righteous or wicked.

Let us seize the opportunity to learn the wisdom that is derived from God through His Word. Its foundation is fearing God and eschewing evil.

Who is a wise man, asks James? It is one who “shews out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom’ (Jas 3:13). Let us listen to Wisdom’s voice in the place of concourse and let us take hold of the practical values she offers us all. “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her; and happy is everyone that retaineth her” (Prov 3:18).