Proverbs 1) Spiritual Wisdom

Spiritual Wisdom

Text: Proverbs 1:1-7

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I thought the best way to introduce our new series on proverbs is to share some proverbs. If you're too open minded, your brains will fall out. Age is a very high price to pay for maturity. Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, if he gets angry, he'll be a mile away - and barefoot. Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a mechanic. A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory. A closed mouth gathers no feet. Eat well, stay fit, die anyway. No husband has ever been shot while doing the dishes. I can tell some of you are still trying to work some of those out.

The thing about proverbs is that you need to think about them. Proverbs are a way to teach wisdom, which is why I’m calling this series ‘Wisdom for Living.’ If you want to know how to be a good parent, than this is where you go. If you want to be wise in how you speak you need to read Proverbs. If you want to develop good relationships you can find out how in the book of Proverbs. If you want to develop a good work ethic this is where you’ll find it. If you want to know how to control your emotions, or how to think about the future, you’ll find that stuff in Proverbs. We’re going to be looking at all those things in the coming weeks, but the big question we’re going to be dealing with today is: are proverbs just secular wisdom, or are they about living in relationship with God? Because if you just pick a random verse you may wonder if it has anything at all to do with God. For example, ‘19 Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife. (Prov 21:19)’ There are plenty of non-Christians who wouldn’t argue with that one. Or another example, ‘11 As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly. (Prov 26:11)’ I’m not even sure if I want to unpack that one. And what about, ‘6 Give beer to those who are perishing… (Prov 31:6a)’ That puts a whole new spin on outreach initiatives doesn’t it? The big question as we begin this series on proverbs is how do we understand proverbs? This morning I want to do a bit of an introduction to the book of proverbs, we’re going to look at who wrote it, what a proverb is, and why it was written? And primarily I want you to see that at its very heart Proverbs is all about how you get spiritual wisdom.

 

1) Who Wrote Proverbs?

So let’s start with the question: who wrote proverbs? You’d think that would be obvious, after all the book starts, ‘1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel. (Prov 1:1)’ But the truth is that while Solomon is the main contributor he’s not the only contributor. We’re not sure who wrote the first 9 chapters, and it may have been Solomon. But chapters 10-22 and 25-29 are definitely attributed to Solomon (Prov 10:1; 25:1). Chapters 22-24 are described as ‘the Sayings of the Wise.’ Chapter 30 is attributed to King Agur, and the fist part of chapter 31 to King Lemuel. It’s interesting that in chapter 25 we’re told, ‘1 These are more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah. (Prov 25:1)’ The book of proverbs is actually a collection, or an anthology of proverbs from different sources, some of them may even have been borrowed or adapted from pagan sources. But even if Solomon didn’t write the whole book most likely he wrote the bulk of it, and more than that, he was instrumental in developing the whole genre of wisdom literature. The Bible says, ‘29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 34 Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kgs 4:29-32,34)’ Given all that, it’s only fitting that the Book of Proverbs starts with a reference to Solomon.

 

2) What is a Proverb?

But what exactly is a proverb? Well the interesting thing is that the book of proverbs doesn’t technically start with proverbs, but with discourses, or speeches. The first 9 chapters are actually extended discussions on a number of different topics, about 17 in all. But the rest of Proverbs is filled with what we would traditionally call proverbs. In Hebrew the word is māšāl (lv;m;), which basically means ‘to be like.’ Proverbs are comparisons, or teaching by using metaphors. The Greek version of the Old Testament calls them parables, which are stories that use metaphors to teach spiritual truths. So that’s what the word means, but what exactly are they?

a) Proverbs are short, pithy statements

Well firstly proverbs are short pithy statements. They state an insight, or make an observation, or offer advice in the form of an admonition, or prohibition, basically how you should or shouldn’t live. But whatever their purpose, they are brief and to the point. They are a form of poetry that uses compressed language to communicate big ideas. Most poetry takes a simple idea and communicates that idea in a variety of ways using a variety of metaphors, but proverbs do the opposite, they take complex ideas and communicate it in as few words as possible. So, short pithy statements.

b) Proverbs are not universal truths, but generalisations

Secondly, it’s important to understand that proverbs do not teach universal truths. A classic example are the two proverbs in chapter 26:4-5: ‘4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Prov 26:4-5)’ Some rabbis actually argued that because these two verses seem to contradict each other they couldn’t be God’s word, because God doesn’t contradict himself. But the point of these two verses is that how you deal with a fool depends on the circumstances, it depends on the person you’re dealing with. Sometimes answering a fool is to get sucked into their foolishness. Other times you have to answer them. The point is that there is a time and place where these proverbs are true, they are situational. A contemporary example are the two proverbs, ‘too many cooks spoil the broth,’ and if you want to cook without interference that’s definitely true. But also ‘many hands make light work,’ which is also true, especially when it comes to washing the dishes. If used in the right context they are true, but you can’t make proverbs fit every context.

In fact, there are actually proverbs about people who abuse proverbs. For example, ‘9 Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. (Prov 26:9)’ It’s helpful to see proverbs as generalisations, generally these things are true. A classic example of the abuse of Proverbs is the health, wealth and prosperity doctrine. Take the following proverb for example, ‘9 Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; 10 then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. (Prov 3:9-10)’ If you say this is a universal truth then if you faithfully tithe, God will make you incredibly rich. But that’s not what it’s meant to teach. Rather it teaches that honouring God with your wealth is the right thing to do, and God will often bless those who honour him. It’s a generalisation, because God doesn’t always bless people who honour him by making them wealthy. In fact, many of the people who honoured God with their lives died dirt poor, Jesus is a classic example. The point of many of these proverbs is to use rewards as incentives to certain types of behaviour.

But in saying all that some proverbs do express universal truths. For example, ‘1 The Lord abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight. (Prov 11:1)’ When proverbs reveal something about God’s character they are expressing a universal truth. God delights in honesty and hates dishonesty, that’s always true. But most proverbs are generalisations, not universal truths.

c) Proverbs are poetry

Thirdly, proverbs are a form of poetry. As poetry they use a number of different poetic devices. I’ll just outline four common types.

i) Parallelism

The most common device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism, which you find all through the Psalms as well as the book of Proverbs. Parallelism is where the second phrase echoes the first phrase. Just take our text this morning. Verse 2 says, ‘2 for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight. (Prov 1:2)’ That’s why in your Bible the second line is always indented. The second phrase mirrors the first phrase. But the point isn’t that they are both saying the same thing, but rather that the second phrase expands, or clarifies the first phrase. You attain wisdom, by understanding words of insight. Verse 3, 4, 5, and 6 all follow the same pattern.

ii) Antithetical Parallelism

In verse 7 we find something called antithetical parallelism, where the second phrase looks at the same truth from the opposite perspective. Verse 7 says, ‘7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Prov 1:7)’ In Antithetical proverbs the second line is opposite to the first phrase. They are extremely popular because the book of Proverbs compares two ways of living, that of wisdom and that of folly. If one way of doing life is wise, it often follows that its opposite is foolish. If wisdom comes from fearing God, than to not fear God is foolish, it is to reject wisdom.

iii) Comparisons

A third type of parallelism are simple comparisons. These proverbs contain the words better than. For example, ‘16 Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. (Prob 15:16)’ It’s not as if there’s anything wrong with wealth, in fact, we just saw that wealth can be a sign of God’s blessing, but the point is that to fear the Lord is much better than wealth, in fact in comparison you’re better off being poor and saved, than rich and not saved.

iv) Imagery

A fourth poetic device common in the book of Proverbs is the use of imagery. Poetry uses images to create a mental picture in people’s minds, or to create an emotional response. Imagery helps us identify with what the poet is talking about, they are like illustrations. For example, ‘24 Pleasant words are a honeycomb… (Prov 16:24)’ Just like everyone likes honey, so everyone likes being complimented. And a few verses later we read, ‘27 …[a scoundrel’s] speech is like a scorching fire. (Prov 16:27b)’ Just like fire does untold damage so too does evil speech.

Basically proverbs are short pithy statements that communicate general truths in a poetic and sometimes dramatic way. So as you read the book of Proverbs, you need to do so slowly, think about them, don’t dismiss them if they don’t apply to you, because maybe someday they will.

 

3) Why was Proverbs Written?

So the third question we need to ask is: why was Proverbs written? Let’s go back to our text and see what the book of Proverbs says about its purpose.

a) Attaining Wisdom

Firstly, it says that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to help people, that’s you and me, attain wisdom. In fact it says it over and over in different ways and with different words, but that’s the main idea. According to our text this morning the book of Proverbs was written, ‘ for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; 3 for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; 4 for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young— 5 let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance— 6 for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. (Prov 1:2-6)’ I don’t think I need to labour the point, because those 5 verses already have. The purpose of proverbs is to help you and me get wisdom and understanding and knowledge and guidance, etcetera and so forth.

b) Attaining Spiritual Wisdom

But the question is, is that all he wants, does he just want us to become wiser in the ways of the world? And the answer is no. What the book of Proverbs really wants is that we gain spiritual wisdom. Verse 7 is the climax to this passage, and it says, ‘7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Prov 1:7)’ This is such a central idea in Proverbs that it’s worth taking a few minutes to pick it apart.

i) What does it word ‘fear’ mean?

Firstly, what does that word ‘fear’ mean? Does it mean it’s wise to be terrified of God? That’s the way we use the word fear in the 21st century. In a sense it does mean that. It is wise to be terrified of God. After all, as Jesus said, ‘28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28)’ God has the power over life and death. God is the Judge of the living and the dead. As the letter to the Hebrews says, ‘28 …let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:28b-29)’ The Bible describes God as holy, and majestic, and almighty, who gives life and takes it away. To fear God is to understand our place in the universe, it is to understand that we are totally dependant on the One who not only created us, but who also sustains us, and will one day hold us accountable for every deed that we have done. To fear the Lord means worshipping him and giving him the honour and the respect that he is due. In the Bible ‘to fear the Lord’ is more about our attitude than our emotions. It’s about an attitude of reverence that permeates our whole lives, how we think as well as what we do.

ii) Who is ‘the Lord?’

Secondly, who is this ‘Lord’ that we are meant to fear? The answer is Yahweh, the God who made a covenant between himself and his people the Israelites. This term ‘the Lord’ appears 90 times in the book of Proverbs. There is a definite connection between attaining wisdom and the Lord. After all, this is the God who is above all other gods. This is the God who created the universe. This is the God who rescued Noah and his family from the flood. This is the God who made a covenant with Abraham. This is the God who rescued his people from Egypt. This is the God who met with Moses on Mt Sinai and gave the Law. There is no one else who we should fear in all the earth. This idea of ‘fearing the Lord’ is repeated 20 times throughout the book of Proverbs. For example, ‘13 To fear the Lord is to hate evil… (Prov 8:13a)’ ‘16 A wise man fears the Lord and shuns evil… (Prov 14:16a)’ ‘23 The fear of the Lord leads to life… (Prov 19:23a)’ ‘17 …always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. (Prov 23:17b)’ ‘14 Blessed is the man who always fears the Lord… (Prov 28:14a)’ Do you get the picture, it is wise to fear the Lord.

iii) What is meant by ‘beginning?’

But what does it mean when it says the fear of the Lord is the ‘beginning’ of knowledge? Basically it means that knowledge, or wisdom, begins with God. God is the source of all knowledge, and all our knowledge needs to be founded on him, and without him you cannot be wise. You can be socially smart, or technologically smart, or relationally smart, but none of that will do you any good unless you’re spiritually smart, unless your wisdom begins with God. Without God all your wisdom ends up in eternal damnation, or as Ecclesiastes says, ‘It’s meaningless, a chasing after the wind.’

iv) What is meant by ‘knowledge?’

So what does it mean when it says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of ‘knowledge?’ The word ‘knowledge’ in the Bible is essentially a relational term. To know someone is to have a relationship with them, to know them intimately. Knowledge, or wisdom, is primarily found not in knowing what is good or right, but in knowing God. And it’s not knowing about God, but having a personal and intimate relationship with him. The beginning of wisdom is to have a relationship with God. In Proverbs 3:6 we’re told, ‘6 in all your ways acknowledge him… (Prov 3:6a)’ or literally ‘in everything you do know him.’ In fact, in the previous verse we are called to ‘5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart… (Prov 3:5a)’ The point of the proverbs is not to make us self-sufficient, or independent, but to remind us of our need to rely on God and depend on him. The point of the book of Proverbs is that when we know God we know how we ought to live. We only find wisdom in a personal intimate relationship with God.

v) And what is the opposite (antithesis)?

So if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, what is its opposite, what is its antithesis? According to the rest of verse 7 ‘7 …fools despise wisdom... (Prov 1:7)’ There are only two options: you either fear the Lord, and are wise; or you don’t fear the Lord, and you are a fool. It doesn’t matter how smart you might be, in doesn’t matter if you’re the smartest person in the world, if you reject God you’re a fool. As far as the book of Proverbs is concerned only an idiot doesn’t fear the Lord. You might know all about the world, but if you don’t know the One who created it you’re in deep trouble. David Attenborough is a classic example, he’s a smart guy, he knows more about this world then most, but he doesn’t know God – he honours the world, but he doesn’t honour the one who made it.

The point of all the proverbs in the book of Proverbs is that all of life needs to be lived in relationship and acknowledgment of God. You can’t become wise, truly wise, unless you have a personal relationship with God.

c) Putting your faith in Jesus Christ

So the best piece of wisdom I can give you right now is put your faith in Jesus Christ. It’s interesting how the New Testament connects wisdom and Jesus. Even as a young boy Luke tells us that ‘40 …[Jesus] was filled with wisdom… (Lk 2:40b)’ and that ‘52 …Jesus grew in wisdom… (Lk 2:52a)’ And when Jesus grew up his favourite method of teaching was through parables, using metaphors and imagery, the language of the proverbs. And the people who heard Jesus speak said stuff like, ‘54 …Where did this man get this wisdom… (Mt 13:54b)’ At one point Jesus even says about himself, ‘42 …one greater than Solomon is here. (Mt 12:42c)’ As far as Jesus was concerned his wisdom was even greater than Solomon’s, greater than what is found in the book of Proverbs. In fact, when Jesus was challenged about associating with sinners he responded, ‘19 …wisdom is proved right by her actions. (Mt 11:19)’ His point is that if he was doing something it was inherently wise and right. The Gospels and Jesus himself seem to suggest that in Jesus we see God’s wisdom displayed, in his teaching, as well as in his actions. And what the Gospels suggest Paul makes implicit. He says, ‘24 …Christ …[is] the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:24c)’ And later he writes, ‘3 in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Col 2:3)’ If you want to find spiritual wisdom, you won’t find it anywhere else except in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If you want to be wise you need to put your faith in Jesus, because only Jesus can reconcile you with a holy and righteous God, only Jesus can rescue you from the consequences of Your sin, only Jesus can give you eternal life. Only by giving Jesus the honour and glory due his name will you find true wisdom. Of course the alternative is to be a fool and reject Jesus Christ.

 

As Jeremy and I teach through the book of Proverbs, you need to remember that proverbs are short, pithy statements, that they are generalisations and don’t always communicate universal truths, that they are poetry that use dramatic imagery. But most of all you need to remember that the wisdom contained in the book of Proverbs is meaningless without a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Don’t aim to be wise in the eyes of the world, rather be wise in God’s eyes – get spiritual wisdom. Amen.

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