Proverbs Week 1: What is Wisdom?
Proverbs contains material derived mainly from King Solomon, the son of King David, but also includes materials from other sources such as Agur son of Jakeh (Chapter 30) and King Lemuel (Chapter 31). It may have also been compiled by others, incorporating Solomon's material. It's important to take a look at 1 Kings 3:4-15, 4:29-34 which speak directly about Solomon's wisdom. In particular, notice that Solomon's desire from wisdom is commended by God and that wisdom is a gift from him.
Proverbs is probably designed as a book of instruction for boys, hence the many references to avoiding adultery and the personification of wisdom and folly as women. It's goal is to teach young Israelite men wisdom. So we need to immediately ask: what is wisdom?
Discussion question: What is wisdom? Is it merely intellect or intelligence? Is it merely moral goodness?
v1-7. In one sense, wisdom seems to be exactly what the world thinks: knowledge, insight, scientific understanding (see 1 Kings 4:33). Also, many of Solomon's proverbs in 10-29 strike us as being full of natural common sense. We might expect this, since God has created man in his image. One of man's attributes is reason and understanding. In this sense, there is an agreement between natural wisdom and godly wisdom: "understanding words of insight" v2, "understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise" v6.
On the other hand, godly wisdom is the antithesis of natural wisdom in its root. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning (or foundation or essense) of knowledge" v7. From Harvard's original mission statement: "Let every student be plainly instructed and consider well that the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus, which is eternal life. And therefore to lay Christ at the bottom as the only foundation of all sound learning and knowledge." Godly wisdom is not just sophisitication, it involves moral behavior (v. 3-4). Godly wisdom is living daily life with God as our foundation.
The interesting thing is that Proverbs teaches that it is wise to live an upright, moral life. And doesn't this make sense? If we know that God will bless and reward those who fear him and judge and punish those who hate and ignore him, isn't it common sense to obey him? Shouldn't our natural self-love move us to fear and love God? "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" - Mark 8:36. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." - Matthew 6:19-20. Even more, since God is the author of life, doesn't it stand to reason that his commands lead to human flourishing? The fact that we don't think that way, that we oppose wisdom to happiness shows that in our hearts, we all still believe the serpent's lie.
What if we do love God and are His people? In fact, that is precisely the audience that Proverbs is addressing: the covenant community of God. Proverbs assumes that its hearers will understand that they have been saved by God and called to be his people. But then don't we already possess wisdom? In one sense yes. "It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption." 1 Cor. 1:30. The answer is that salvation does not immediately lead to maturity. "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good." - 1 Pe 2:2-3 God intended us to not only be good but to be wise. As we grow in Christ, we grow in wisdom. Does this process end? Not in this life (see v. 5).
Discussion question: Why is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom (v. 7, Psalm 111:10, Job 28:28)?
So what is wisdom? I'm still not exactly sure. Perhaps a working definition of wisdom is: the quality of a mind and life in touch with reality. This reality includes the realms of nature and human interaction. But it fundamentally includes the reality of God.
v8. Echo of the 5th commandment. Note that both parents are seen as teachers of the child.
v9. Why is the child exhorted to listen? Out of reverence? Our of fear of punishment? No! Because wisdom is a "garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck". Wisdom is beautiful and desirable!
v11. "Come along with us" - Bridges comments that temptation start small
v11-14. The wicked break the 6th and 8th commandments. And possibly the 1st. Look at their language "swallow them alive, like the grave and whole". They are glorying in their power over others rather than glorying in God.
v14. "Throw in your lot with us" - how does a wise man answer? Psalm 1:1 "Blessed is he who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked"
v17-18. The logic seems to be: birds are smart enough to flee from danger, but the wicked aren't! They aren't merely bad, they are also fools. Don't they know that "they waylay only themselves"? Wickedness leads unavoidably to death (see v. 19). "but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." - James 1:14-15
v20-21. "calls...raises...cries out" - Wisdom is boldly and actively seeking students.
"street...public squares... noisy streets" - she is not sitting in the temple! She has come to seek those she is calling.
And who is she calling? The wise and righteous? No! the "simple ones", the "mockers" and the "fools".
Discussion question: How does wisdom call aloud? Where? Through what means, especially at the time when proverbs was written?
v24-26, 29. Sinners reject not a distant harsh God, but a merciful, seeking God. Folly here is not simple lack of intelligence, it is a refusal to acknowledge God.
v26-27. May strike us as harsh, but note how retributive the punishment is. At the mockers, wisdom will "laugh" and "mock". Those who scorned wisdom will be scorned. It is also interesting how passive the language of judgement is here. "when calamity overtakes you... when disaster sweeps over you". It doesn't say, as God does sometimes say through the prophets, "I will send calamity to overtake you". Rather, the emphasis here is on how natural and inevitable the judgement is. Compare "they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their wicked schemes" v31 and "the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will desroy them" v32. The natural outcome of wickedness is destruction; destruction doesn't have to be added on artificially.
v33. In contrast, a life of wisdom leads to safety and security.
Discussion question: Proverbs tends to portray the worlds as an orderly place. How do we deal with the fact that wickedness does not always seem to lead to death and wisdom to life?
If we look superficially at the life of the wicked, we might be tempted to feel fairly good about ourselves. We aren't killing and robbing people. We believe in God and try to please him. But if we look deeper, we would see that we too are fools in our hearts. Do we keep God's law or, like the Psalmist should we cry "Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands" - Psalm 119:5-6. "You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?" - Rom 2:23. We do not live according to God's reality, as if he were the central truth in our life. We are simple, wayward, and foolish.
But let's look again at wisdom personified in v. 20-21. In light of the New Testament, who is this who calls out after those stumbling towards death? It is the "Son of Man [who] came to seek and to save what was lost" - Luke 19:10. It is the one who says "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and LEARN from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Matthew 11:28-29. It is "Christ [who is] the power of God and the wisdom of God" - 1 Cor. 1:23 "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." - 1 Cor. 1:25