“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
In a University Old Testament course I was challenged to write a brief personal definition of a proverb. I struggled for several days to write it to no avail. But one night I had a vivid dream, awoke, and scribbled something down on paper before going back to sleep. The next morning I read what I had scribbled during the night. Behold my dream had completed my definition of a proverb. It read, “A proverb is the concentrated common sense of countless centuries crammed into a single sentence.”
Everyone is on a path. Everyone is going somewhere. When we feel stuck, even when we feel trapped, the truth is, we are still in motion. Life is a journey, and the end of it all is not just a place but also a condition. We are becoming the end of our journey, wise or foolish, and every moment takes us closer there.
God gives us wise counsel. Some people underestimate the practicality of the Book of Proverbs. It is indeed practical, but it is not simplistic or moralistic. What God is doing through this book is change deep inside our hearts. His wisdom sinks in as we mull over these Biblical proverbs slowly and thoughtfully. We need multiple exposures over time. This book is not a quick fix. It is ancient wisdom from long human experiences endorsed by God himself. If we’ll pay close attention, God will graciously make us into profound people.
The book of Proverbs is a gospel book, because it is part of the Bible. That means the book of Proverbs is good news for bad people. It is about grace for sinners. It is about hope for failures. It is about wisdom for idiots. This book is Jesus himself coming to us as our counselor, as our sage, as our life coach. We need God’s help moment by moment, down at the level where there are no hard and fast rules to go by. What kind of woman or man should I marry? Which career path should I take? How can I endure this suffering I can’t escape? How should I spend my money? How shall I grow old gracefully? Through the book of Proverbs, God coaches us in the wisdom we need throughout the long and complicated path of our everyday lives. Do you remember how Jesus concluded his Sermon from the Mount? He defined the gospel as a call to wisdom: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. . . And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matthew 7:24, 26). Jesus is our priest and our prophet, but in the book of Proverbs we encounter Jesus as our mentor. Do you see him that way? You can have him that way – the universe’s greatest expert on you. He alone is qualified to have that kind of say in your life.
Let’s not underrate what we have here in the book of Proverbs. Biblical wisdom is more than we find in a fortune cookie. It is more than an optional add-on for people who want to upgrade their lives from, say, 4 to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. This wisdom from Christ is a matter of life and death: “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Proverbs 13:14). What if we have many advantages in our lives but not wisdom? If we have love but not wisdom, we will harm people with the best of intentions. If we have courage but not wisdom, we will blunder boldly. If we have truth but not wisdom, we will use the best communications ever invented to broadcast stupidity.
Wisdom is the grace of Christ beautifying our daily lives. Paul said that God has “lavished” his grace upon us “in all wisdom and insight” (Ephesians 1:7, 8). God’s grace is smart grace. The Bible says that in Christ are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). The wise way to live is not always obvious or intuitive or popular. It is hidden. Here’s where it is hidden: “We preach Christ crucified . . . the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:23, 24).
We must understand that there are two kinds of wisdom, and they are competing for our trust. The Bible calls them “the wisdom from above” and “the wisdom that . . . . is earthy, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15, 17). The wisdom from above is the wisdom of the cross. This wisdom frees us from the distortion of our pride and opens the way to resurrection and new life. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, C. S. Lewis says the path of wisdom leads through a valley: “And what is this valley called? We call it now simply Wisdom’s Valley; but the oldest maps mark it as the Valley of Humiliation.”
There is irony here. The wisdom of Proverbs started out historically for the training of leaders in ancient Israel. It was written by kings and others in the royal court for young men in their teens and twenties whose future was bright with nobility. But we rise to that greatness and leadership and influence not our way, not by our natural strategies, but God’s way, through the cross, through humility.
Wisdom is the gospel of Christ reshaping us for royalty, as God places us on his anvil and we trust him enough to stay there until his work is done.
Here is how the book of Proverbs is designed. It is an anthology – that is, a collection of writings from several authors. Solomon is listed as the author, because he contributed the most and because he’s the famous one. But after the title in 1:1 – “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” – then the purpose of the book is stated in 1:2-6. That’s where we find out what God will accomplish through this book. The theme or motto of the book is famously stated in 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Then the rest of chapters 1-9 is a series of poems selling wisdom to us, motivating us to get into the book and receive its teachings with an eager heart. Chapters 1-9 make the case as to why we should care. Then look at 10:1, where we read, “The Proverbs of Solomon.” This is where the proverbs as such begin. Chapters 1-9 are all introductory. They are connected discourses, rather than psalms. But when the proverbs themselves begin in Chapter 10, the style changes. Instead of lengthy, unified sections, each verse is its own unit.
All the proverbs from 10:1 – 22:16 come from Solomon. Then in Proverbs 22:17 we read, “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise.” Proverbs 22:17-22 is the next collection within the anthology. This section is known as The Thirty Sayings of the Wise. Then in Proverbs 24:23, the next collection begins: “These also are the sayings of the wise,” and that brief section runs through verse 34 of that chapter. Then in 25:1-29:27 we have more proverbs of Solomon: “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied” (25”1). The last two collections in the book are “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him” (31:1-31). So there are seven major sections in the book of Proverbs – the introduction in chapters 1-9, followed by six collections of proverbs by Solomon and other divinely inspired geniuses.
What then is at stake for you and me in the book of Proverbs? Why does this book deserve our endless fascination? T. S. Eliot spoke to our times when he asked these questions:
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
In our chaotic lives of constant stop-start-stop short-attention-span mental habits, with an endless stream of momentarily visible Twitter-feed fragments of information, we are trying to patch together some kind of elegant whole worth living. That is difficult. But the problem is not just that we are fidgety and distracted; it’s that our information, however much we have, is no basis for a life. We need Jesus to counsel us with a new (and yet ancient) wisdom that comes from him. Then we can live. That is what is at stake here – our living rather than our dying. And Christ speaks to us for our living calmly, patiently, lovingly, seriously through the book of Proverbs.
The book works when we deliberately slow down and listen and think and journal and pray. For many years Billy Graham read one chapter of the book of Proverbs every day in order each month, because there are 31 chapters in the book. We need that too."