A Study in Wisdom
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Proverbs 1:1-9 –
Introduction to the Book of Proverbs,
by Scott Sperling
1The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
3for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
4for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
5let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
6for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
7The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
8Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
9They are a garland to grace your head
and a chain to adorn your neck.
The writer of the Book of Proverbs introduces the book himself: “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (vs. 1). These are the “proverbs” of “Solomon”. “A ‘proverb’ is a pithy sentence, concisely expressing some well-established truth susceptible of various illustrations and applications” [Fausset]. Solomon himself tells us the purpose of the proverbs: “…for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young – let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance” (vss. 2-5).
This book has value because it deals with ordinary life, with situations that crop up in our day-to-day existence. “The Book of Proverbs gives us the application of that wisdom which created the heavens and the earth, to the details of life in this world of confusion and evil. God deigns to apply His wisdom to the circumstances of our practical life, and to show us, with His own intelligence, the consequences of all the ways in which man may walk.” [Darby]. The Bible not only teaches of the heavenly realm, but also teaches practical living. It not only enriches the spirit, but also imparts instruction in living as a person in this fallen world. The Bible as a whole is the one-stop manual for living on earth. “Those who read David’s psalms, especially those towards the latter end, would be tempted to think that religion is all rapture and consists in nothing but the ecstasies and transports of devotion; and doubtless there is a time for them, and if there be a heaven upon earth it is in them: but, while we are on earth, we cannot be wholly taken up with them. We have a life to live in the flesh, must have a conversation in the world, and into that we must now be taught to carry our religion” [Henry].
In Solomon’s book of proverbs, there is a wide-range of advice, for a wide cross-section of the populace. This book has something for everyone. “All ranks and classes have their word in season. The sovereign on the throne is instructed as from God. The principles of national prosperity or decay are laid open. The rich are warned of their besetting temptations. The poor are cheered in their worldly humiliation. Wise rules are given for self-government. [The book] bridles the injurious tongue, corrects the wanton eye, and ties the unjust hand in chains. It prevents sloth; chastises all absurd desires; teaches prudence; raises man’s courage; and represents temperance and chastity after such a fashion, that we cannot but have them in veneration. To come to important matters so often mismanaged – the blessing or curse of the marriage ordinance is vividly portrayed. Sound principles of family order and discipline are inculcated. Domestic economy is displayed in its adorning consistency. Nay – even the minute courtesies of daily life are regulated. Self-denying consideration of others, and liberal distribution are enforced. All this diversified instruction is based upon the principles of true godliness. Thus if the Psalms bring the glow upon the heart, the Proverbs make the face to shine” [Bridges, Intro.]
The actual word translated “proverb” is maschal, which comes from the word meaning “comparison” in Hebrew [Fausset]. And as we will see, most of the proverbs in this book involve a comparison of one sort or another, using the Hebrew poetical feature of parallelism. Parallelism in Hebrew writing is somewhat similar to metaphors and similes in English, but is more wide-ranging. Parallelism may involve a statement, and then another statement that is a metaphor of the first; it may involve two statements which are opposites, thus reinforcing each other; it may involve statements that build on each other; it may involve statements that build up to an overarching concluding statement; etc. In all cases, one part of the proverb comments on another part, in a parallel fashion, thus giving guidance to the true meaning of the whole proverb. The point is that the parallel statements are synergetic, so that the meaning of the multiple statements imparts an idea that is greater than the individual statements by themselves. The parallel statements may, at first glance, be referring to unrelated subjects, but on further inspection and meditation, the relationship is discerned, and the teaching conveyed.
Teaching in this way is effective. “By similitudes, drawn from the visible parts of nature, a truth in the understanding is, as it were, reflected by the imagination. We are enabled to see something like color and shape in a notion, and to discover a scheme of thoughts traced out upon matter.” [J. Addison, cited in Bridges, Intro.]. “The peculiar charm and power of the proverbs are due to a combination of many elements… Often there is something to startle at first; and yet, on closer inspection, that which seemed paradox, turns out to be only intenser truth… Much matter is pressed into little room, that it may keep, and carry. Wisdom, in this portable form, acts an important part in human life.” [Arnot, chap. II]. The parallelism not only provides an effective way to teach a truth, it also, in that form, makes it easier to remember the teaching; thus we take to heart the teaching; it becomes part of our being.
The author of this, as is told us in verse 1, is primarily “Solomon son of David, king of Israel”. I say “primarily” because chapters 30 and 31 are attributed to others (Agur and Lemuel, of whom we know very little). We know Solomon well from his exploits documented elsewhere in the Bible (see I Kings, chapters 2 through 11). He demonstrated his wisdom as he ruled as “king of Israel”. Solomon valued wisdom greatly. Early in his reign, the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream (I Kings 3:5ff). God told Solomon he could ask for whatever he wanted God to give him. Solomon answered: “So, give Your servant a discerning heart to govern Your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” (I Kings 3:9). God was greatly pleased with Solomon’s request, and so answered that He would make Solomon the wisest of all: “I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be” (I Kings 3:12). And certainly, the fact that Solomon asked for wisdom in the first place, demonstrated that he already possessed a good deal of it.
God was true to His promise. Solomon became known throughout the world for his wisdom (see I Kings 3:28; 4:34). We are told that Solomon spoke three-thousand proverbs (I Kings 4:32), out of which were chosen some for inclusion here in this book. “Now here we find what good use [Solomon] made of the wisdom God gave him; he not only governed himself and his kingdom with it, but he gave rules of wisdom to others also, and transmitted them to posterity. Thus must we trade with the talents with which we are entrusted, according as they are” [Henry].
Late in his life, Solomon, sadly and ironically, turned away from the wisdom that he taught. He fell, by the influence of his foreign wives, into idolatry and worship of false gods (see I Kings 11). By this, we can take warning: even the most wise can fall, ignoring teaching that he himself gave. But let us not think any worse of Solomon’s inspired teaching, just because Solomon the man was weak and stumbled. His teaching was inspired by the Holy Spirit, who guided his hand. All men of God have weaknesses, but this does not mean that their teaching should be ignored (otherwise, there would be no teachers of the word of God, for all have sinned). “Let us all learn not to think the worse of good instructions though we have them from those who do not themselves altogether live up to them” [Henry].
As we mentioned, in verses 2 through 6, Solomon summarizes the purpose and value of this book: “…for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young – let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.” First, “for gaining wisdom and instruction.” We are all born without a shred of wisdom, and so we all need, at some point, “instruction”. The first instruction we receive is from our parents, and so, godly moral instruction from parents is crucial to development of a child, because the child is essentially a blank slate, to begin with.
These proverbs will provide “words of insight”, “instruction in prudent behavior”, and instruction in “doing what is right and just and fair” (vss. 2-3). The phrase “for understanding words of insight” denotes the knowledge needed to understand wise instruction. “Instruction in prudent behavior” is teaching on how to live wisely, day-to-day; how to make prudent decisions that improve one’s life. Instruction in “doing what is right and just and fair”, of course, denotes moral instruction; how to live a righteous, moral life, and treat others in a godly manner. So, we expect to get a wide range of advice in this book.
Solomon next summarizes the target audiences for his instruction in wisdom: the “simple”, the “young”, and even the “wise”, and “discerning” (vss. 4-5). The “simple” denotes those who are easily influenced, in a good or bad way; thus they are ripe for being led astray, and so, can benefit all the more from solid instruction. Though simplicity may seem a not-so-desirable state, to be “simple” is much better than being smug and already deceived into errant knowledge, or a bad philosophy. The “young”, of course, are also ripe for learning. “Youth is the learning age, it catches at instructions, receives impressions, and retains what is then received; it is therefore of great consequence that the mind be then seasoned well, nor can it receive a better tincture than from Solomon’s proverbs” [Henry].
These proverbs, ironically, are also for the “wise” and “discerning”, those whom we may think need no instruction. But the truly “wise” know that there is always room to “add to their learning” (vs. 5). Learning does not stop. Increasing wisdom, and improving moral behavior entails a lifelong process of improvement. And certainly, as we move through various stages of life, we need instruction to navigate the changing issues and problems we encounter. So, in summary, this book is for everyone. “Here is not only milk for babes, but strong meat for strong men. This book will not only make the foolish and bad wise and good, but the wise and good wiser and better” [Henry].
As we grow in wisdom, through these proverbs, we will understand life more and more, even “understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise” (vs. 6). Increased wisdom facilitates yet further learning and understanding. Through deeper study of the Bible, we understand things that were previously “riddles” to us. The Bible is a well of instruction with no bottom: there are always new layers of insight, and depths of spiritual knowledge to dig deeper into.
The word translated “riddles” here, was translated “dark sayings” in the KJV. These are sayings that are, at first glance, opaque in their darkness. Many proverbs are like this: obscure at first. “The obscurity attendant on ‘these words of the wise, and their dark sayings’ (vs. 6), is not altogether without its uses. It whets the understanding, excites an appetite for knowledge, and keeps alive the attention by the labor of the investigation, giving an increased pleasure to the discovery of truth, by having called forth our efforts to attain it” [Nicholls, chap. II]. “The dark sayings of fools and triflers are not worth a thought; but the ‘dark sayings of the wise’ are worthy to be studied till we obtain a complete knowledge of their meaning; for they are dark at first hearing only, on account of the sublimity of their views, and the force of their manner of expression, which contains much useful instruction in small compass” [Lawson].
To begin the recitation of the actual proverbs, Solomon starts with what I would call the proverb of all proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (vs. 7). This proverb defines the basis of all true wisdom to be “the fear of the Lord”. It is “the beginning of knowledge”, the foundation of all true knowledge, a prerequisite to acquiring wisdom. If you do not have a fear of the Lord, there’s no point in reading further in the book of Proverbs. “Of all things that are to be known, this is most evident, that God is to be feared, to be reverenced, served, and worshipped; this is so the beginning of knowledge that those know nothing who do not know this” [Henry]. David agreed with Solomon: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow His precepts have good understanding. To Him belongs eternal praise” (David, in Ps. 111:10). Job tells us that this assertion comes from God Himself: “And [God] said to the human race, ‘The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding’” (Job 28:28). In a way, Solomon avers that the fear of God is also the end of all knowledge, in his conclusion to the book of Ecclesiastes: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14).
But what exactly is the “fear of the Lord”? The phrase “fear of the Lord”, as used in the Bible, does involve our concept of “fear” or “terror”, to some extent (especially in that we should fear the consequences of disobeying God), but also denotes the utmost respect for, and faith in, God and His works. “‘The fear of the Lord’ is an expression of frequent occurrence throughout the Scriptures. It has various shades of meaning, marked by the circumstances in which it is found; but in the main it implies a right state of heart toward God, as opposed to the alienation of an unconverted man. Though the word is ‘fear’, it does not exclude a filial confidence, and a conscious peace. There may be such love as shall cast all the torment out of the fear, and yet leave full bodied, in a human heart, the reverential awe which creatures owe to the Highest One… What God is inspires awe; what God has done for His people commands affection… The whole of this complicated and reciprocal relation is often indicated in Scripture by the brief expression, ‘The fear of God’” [Arnot, chap. III].
Solomon’s assertion that the fear of the Lord is the “beginning” of knowledge, sets his definition of what knowledge is in contrast to the world’s definition of what knowledge is. The world proclaims someone as “knowledgeable” if he or she has had a certain level of education and learning. For example, the world would say that any college professor is a knowledgeable person. Solomon (by the Holy Spirit) tells us that one who lacks the “fear of the Lord” cannot be defined as “knowledgeable”, no matter how much book-learning he or she has, because the “fear of the Lord” is the absolute “beginning of knowledge”. “He who pursues any description of knowledge, however good and honorable in itself, while he forgets God, is according to this book, emphatically a ‘fool’. He may be admired by men, as a very prodigy of science, or philosophy, or literature, and may be adorned with all the titles of human honor, and send down his name to future ages with a halo of the light of this world around it; but in the eye of God, he stands the object of deep and merited condemnation; and, while eulogized and extolled on earth, is pitied and deplored in heaven” [Wardlaw].
This proverb involves a parallelism, as most of the proverbs do in this book. The primary characteristic of a wise man (“fear of the Lord”) is contrasted with a primary characteristic of a fool: “…fools despise wisdom and instruction”. The word “fool” is used quite a lot in this book, and here Solomon gives us the defining characteristic of a fool: someone who “despises wisdom and instruction”. Such a person will ever and always be a fool. If you desire “wisdom” (not “despise” it), and seek out and heed “instruction”, there is hope for you to become wise, and escape fool-dom; but to perennially “despise” wise advice, as found in the book of Proverbs, and to close one’s ears to “instruction” will doom one to a life of being a “fool”.
Next, there is advice to young people about the source of most knowledge and wisdom that young people attain: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck” (vss. 8-9). The speaker in this proverb is a hypothetical parent, addressing his “son” (i.e., this is not limited advice addressed only to Solomon’s son).
For most young people, the primary source of advice and instruction is the parents. The parents, by their actions and words, have the greatest influence over the course of a person’s life. Parents naturally have the desire that their children live good lives, and so, instinctively parents will offer sound instruction, as best they can. The child’s responsibility is to “listen” to the instruction of parents, and to “not forsake” their teaching. There is also an implied responsibility here upon parents, to do all they can to offer up sound instruction and teaching. From verse 7, we learn that the cornerstone of all teaching offered up to children must be to inculcate into them a “fear of the Lord”.
The incentive for heeding the instruction and teaching of the parents is given in verse 9: “They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.” The “garland” and “chain” are bestowals of beauty and honor. Youth naturally chase after the tokens of beauty and honor, chase after the “garlands”, and gold or silver “chains” of adornment. Solomon is saying that the instruction and teaching of the parents inculcates honor and beauty into those who heed it: The honor and beauty becomes built into the person. Even the worldly understand this. Plato spoke truth when he said: “Neither gold nor precious stone so glitters as the prudent mind of a pious person” [Plato, cited in Trapp].
Note the poetic structure of verses 8 and 9. There are two sets of couplets, each of which employs parallelism internally (the second line of the couplet parallel to the first), and then the couplets themselves are parallel to each other (the entire second couplet parallel to the first couplet). In the first couplet, the “mother’s teaching” is parallel to the “father’s instruction”, emphasizing that guidance of children is the responsibility of both parents. In the second couplet, the “chain” adorning the neck, is parallel to the “garland” gracing the head, implying that there are multiple benefits of heeding the guidance of the parents: both honor and beauty.
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Arnot, William. Laws from Heaven for Life on Earth - Illustrations from the Book of Proverbs. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1873.
Bridges, Charles. An Exposition of the Book of Proverbs. New York: Robert Carter, 1847.
Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments. Vol. 3. London: William Tegg and Co., 1854. (Originally published in 1837).
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. III. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Jamieson, Robert; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins, Queen’s Printer, 1863.
Lawson, George. Exposition of the Book of Proverbs. Edinburgh: David Brown, 1821.
Trapp, John. Exposition of the Whole Bible. Vol. 3. Originally published in c. 1660.
Wardlaw, Ralph. Lectures on the Book of Proverbs. Edinburgh: A. Fullarton & Co., 1869. (Originally published in 1844).
All of these books can be downloaded free of charge from: