What are some phrases or ‘proverbs’ that you grew up hearing?
- “El que nada debe, nada teme.” (He who owes nothing, fears nothing)
- “Measure twice, cut once.”
- “Tryers try and doers do.”
- “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Introduction to Proverbs
We are reading through the Bible together, trying to learn how God and His Story shapes our everyday life. This month we are reading through the Wisdom literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. And I was taught that, when you read a book, you should always find the author’s purpose statement and/or thesis statement. Most books in the Bible don’t give us that but Proverbs—like Luke or Acts—does.
Read Proverbs 1:1-7:
The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
So what is the purpose of the book of Proverbs? The purpose of Proverbs is to teach us to be wise.
And Proverbs is divided into two parts: (1-9) speeches from a father to his son and (10-31) are what we usually think of when we talk about Proverbs: a series of observations, admonitions, and prohibitions – the “words of the wise and their riddles.”
3 ‘Levels’ of Wisdom
1. Practical Level
Proverbs presents three ‘levels’ of wisdom. The first is the Practical level, which reveals and directs our Choices (What we do with our Thoughts, Emotions, Actions). We read this in Proverbs 1:4 – “to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—"
Discretion is the ability to make choices that keep you out of trouble or knowing how to deal with trouble when you are already in it. A lot of this is what many of us would call emotional intelligence: to see and be aware of what is going on around us/outside of us. Proverbs covers a lot of practical issues: communication, relationships, aging, business, emotions, vices, marriage…the list goes on.
2. Ethical Level
The second level of wisdom is the Ethical level, which reveals and directs our Affections and Desires. It says it in Proverbs 1:5 “to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity;”
In 2014, Volkswagen publicly announced that they wanted to be the world’s largest automaker. To do that, they new they would have to grow in certain niches, one of which was clean diesel. They wanted to be able to advertise that their cars to have lower emissions than the others. And they did. Successfully. But their diesel cars were emitting 40 times the allowed level (U.S.) of nitrogen oxides. And, as we now know, instead of fixing the problem in the cars, they deliberately falsified emissions tests by installing a software in the cars that made them appear to test better than they actually did. And that helped get them to the number one car company in the world. Sort of.
Proverbs would say that the folks at Volkswagen are not wise people – and not because they got caught. To be a wise person in Proverbs is to be a righteous person. Doing what is right, just and fair. Proverbs is not just about good living but being a good person. If you achieve success at the expense of others, you are not a wise person.
The trap we tend to fall into is to stop at the first or sometimes the second level of Wisdom. We are often content with the idea of good living and being a good person.
Fear of the Lord
But the third and deepest level of wisdom, the foundation to Wisdom, is what we read in the last part of the introduction to Proverbs (1:7), probably the most famous phrase in Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
To really understand what Solomon means by “the Fear of the Lord” and the deepest level of wisdom, we need to open up two dinner invitations:
Woman Wisdom: 9:1-6
Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has prepared her meal; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
To him who lacks sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
Woman Folly: 9:13-18
The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who lacks sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol (Hades).
This guy, Photo Temper Longman, an OT scholar who’s focus is on the wisdom literature, points out that the location of the woman’s houses reveals something about who these women are. Insert Photo/Graphic In Jerusalem and the ancient near east, only one house can be built on the highest point: the temple. This is the place these two women are claiming and, in so doing, they are claiming to be God. So Proverbs is telling us that Women Wisdom is God and Woman Folly is a false god.
Therefore, according to Proverbs, the Fear of the Lord is recognizing that God and God alone has His house on the highest point, that He is King over the universe, the world, our cities, our neighborhoods, our families, and us. Fear of the Lord is not acknowledging that God exists or being afraid of Him – the demons do that much. The Fear of the Lord is recognizing what is most real: God and His Story.
3. Theological Level
The third level—the Theological level—of Wisdom reveals and directs our Allegiance. And this is what Proverbs sets up for us in chapters 1-9. If the deepest level of Wisdom reveals and directs who we give our Allegiance to, who we place at the highest point of our lives, our church family, our city, etc., then as you read practical directives like Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go;” there is something about that has to do with you as parents living into God’s Story. Or an ethical directive like Proverbs 14:31 “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,” can’t be read just as “here’s how to be a good person” but here is something about being good that has something to do with us giving our Allegiance to God instead of a false deity.
Wisdom: The Imaginative Skill
Wisdom is the skill of living into God’s story – for us that means living into God’s story in a broken world where other stories seem more real. In fact, the Hebrew word for wisdom: Hochma. Same word used in Exodus 31:1-11 when God describes the skill He has given Bezellel for shaping things into great beauty. Wisdom is the skill to see what is happening in me and others, discern the desires and affections that are at work behind what we see, and then begin to cultivate the Goodness and Wholeness of God’s Kingdom in the hear and now.
”Wisdom is knowing how to look at the world — bring your hand, your mind, your heart to the enterprise — and then create something that was not there fully before but now is. That artistic, imaginative, physical, creative work is the very nature of what it means to be wise.” – Dan Allender
But Wisdom is not a skill you can master, like learning to type. I have a neighbor who is a Master Gardener but he will tell you, he hasn’t mastered gardening.
Even the book of Proverbs—who’s self-declared goal is to teach us to be wise—isn’t set up to show us how to master wisdom.
- Proverbs 26:4 “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”
- Proverbs 26:5 “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
We tend to look at Proverbs and Wisdom like a set of architectural blueprints when in reality it is more like an Impressionist painting.
Wisdom is an artistic, imaginative skill that we are constantly developing.
How Do We Grow in Wisdom?
Wisdom comes from God, even James in his book tells us that if we lack wisdom to ask God for it. The Bible tells us that Solomon asked God for wisdom and God gave it to Him. But most of the time it doesn’t just come from God like a super power that we suddenly get by standing too close to a nuclear reactor. And, if you take Solomon’s example, even if it did happen to us that way, there is no assurance we would keep using it well.
Proverbs 3:19 says that “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;” so Wisdom is built into everything in Creation, including you and I. So if wisdom, the artistic, creative skill of living into God’s Kingdom, God’s Story, is embedded in us and all of Creation—trees, rivers, music, match, etc.—what two areas do you think wisdom is revealed and developed?
In our everyday relationships and work.
Here is our homework for this week.
Ask yourself: “Where do I need wisdom? Where do I struggle to Fear the Lord and cultivate Goodness and Wholeness?”
Because Proverbs argues that we need to develop the skill of wisdom because it is how we come to live in what is most real—God and His Kingdom—in our everyday roles and relationships. Jesus—who has gone before us—is our guarantee. He is who we listen to, He is who we look for, He is who we hope in. It is in Christ by His Holy Spirit that we grow in Wisdom and Fear of the Lord.