A Study in Wisdom
To contact us:
Proverbs 2:1-22 –
and the Rewards of Doing So,
by Scott Sperling
1 My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
2 turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding—
3 indeed, if you call out for insight
4 and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
5 Then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge
7 He holds success in store for the upright,
he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
8 for he guards the course of the just
and protects the way of his faithful ones.
9 Then you will understand
what is right and just and fair—every good path.
10 For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.
11 Discretion will protect you,
12 Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men,
13 who have left the straight paths
14 who delight in doing wrong
15 whose paths are crooked
16 Wisdom will save you also
from the adulterous woman,
from the wayward woman with her seductive words,
17 who has left the partner of her youth
18 Surely her house leads down to death
19 None who go to her return
20 Thus you will walk in the ways of the good
21 For the upright will live in the land,
22 but the wicked will be cut off from the land,
This chapter of Proverbs consists of a single, unified poem about attaining wisdom, and the benefits of doing so. “In this chapter, we are taught both how to get wisdom and how to use it when we have it, that we may neither seek it, nor receive it, in vain” [Henry, 798].
In the original Hebrew, the entire chapter is a single, somewhat complicated sentence. The first four verses express conditional “if”s—“if you accept…”, “if you call out…”, “if you look for it…” This is followed in verse 5, through the rest of the poem, with the results of carrying out these conditions, with the “then”s which correspond to the conditional “if”s. So, we have conditions, then results, all concerning an age-old, nearly universal endeavor: seeking true wisdom.
Solomon begins: “My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding…” (vss. 1-2). Solomon addresses the poem to “My son”. Possibly Solomon is writing literally to his son, but even so, he is also addressing us all generally, with an emphasis on addressing those who are young and who are developing their morals and philosophies.
The exhortations that Solomon gives in these verses have an increasing intensity: first, “accept”; then, “store up”; then, “turn your ear”; then, “apply your heart”. The first step is to merely “accept” his words of wisdom. As we read the Proverbs in this book, and also more generally, the Bible itself, we are often somewhat skeptical about what we read, asking ourselves, “Does this really apply to me?” Solomon here tells us that our first inclination should be one of “acceptance” of the words written in the Bible. “The children of Wisdom ‘accept’ her words. They do not shut their ears against them. They do not slight them. They do not hastily and thoughtlessly disregard them. They give them what they are entitled to, a serious and deliberate attention. They listen, they remember, they meditate, they examine, they accept, they lay up for use.—The words of divine wisdom are now in the Bible. There the voice of Wisdom, and of God, addresses you. In reading the Bible, you should consider yourselves as listening to God. And it is a blessed privilege to have this Word in your possession,—to have God addressing you in it” [Wardlaw, 53]. “We must be convinced that the words of God are the fountain and standard of wisdom and understanding, and that we need not desire to be wiser than they will make us” [Henry, 799].
First, “accept my words”, and then, “store up my commands within you.” To “store up” suggests that the reader considers the words valuable, worthy of meditation and deeper understanding. We can “store up” God’s word in a passive manner, by reading it so much that His word naturally becomes part of us. We can also actively “store up” God’s word by devoting ourselves to the memorization of it. Many people memorize certain favorite verses in the Bible, and this is well and good. I recommend also that you devote yourself to memorize entire chapters, even entire books of the Bible. I can personally testify that the memorization of an entire book of the Bible will give you an understanding of that book, far beyond what you get from merely reading it. I have, at various times in my life, had the books of Ecclesiastes, Ephesians, Hebrews, I John, various Psalms, etc., stored up. Currently as I write this, I have in “stored up” in my head and heart, Romans 1 through 9, and the entire books of Philippians, Galatians and I Peter. Let me testify: the work I have put in to memorize these books has been well worth it. “It is not enough for us to attend the public ordinances of God, and to read a chapter or two of the Bible at home every day, but we are required to receive the words of wisdom, to keep them in our hearts, and to apply our souls to them… When we give due attention to the word of truth, it will dwell in our minds, dispelling ignorance and error, and communicating that light which is necessary to direct the whole of our conduct; in our memories, affording a constant supply for spiritual meditation, ready for use on every emergency; in our wills, to guide their choice and inclination; in our affections, to direct their motions, to curb their extravagance, and to inflame their ardour towards spiritual objects; and in our consciences, to preserve alive the impressions of the divine law, and to direct them in judging of the spiritual state of the soul.” [Lawson, 28].
Moving on from this, Solomon tells us to be “turning your ear to wisdom.” This suggests a full attention, rather than a passing notice. “We attend to our friends or neighbors when they are informing us of some new thing; we count it a piece of good manners to listen, when nothing is to be heard but dullness and insipidity: shall we not, then, attend to Him that made the ear, when he condescends to speak to us, and to disclose truths of eternal moment?” [Lawson, 29]. And beyond this, we are told to be “applying your heart to understanding.” Hearing is fine and good, but yet worthless unless what we hear is applied to our hearts and lives.
Solomon continues: “…indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding…” (vs. 3). To “call out” and “cry aloud” suggest earnest, even desperate, seeking. “We must cry after knowledge, as one that is ready to perish for hunger begs hard for bread. Faint desires will not prevail; we must be importunate, as those that know the worth of knowledge and our own want of it” [Henry, 799]. “Men may be offended with the fervor of an earnest soul—God never” [Arnot]. To “call out” and “cry aloud” also imply that prayer is to be involved. We are to “call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding” to God. To fully understand the word of God and wisdom of God, prayer must be employed. “There may be attention and earnestness; yet not one spiritual impression upon the conscience, not one ray of Divine light in the soul. Earthly wisdom is gained by study; heavenly wisdom by prayer. Study may form a Biblical scholar; prayer puts the heart under a heavenly tutorage, and therefore forms the wise and spiritual Christian. The word first comes into the ears, then it enters into the heart… But prayer must not stand in the stead of diligence. Let it rather give life and energy to it” [Bridges, 14]. “‘Cry aloud’, as resolved to give God no rest till thou hast it” [Trapp, 5].
Beyond the earnestness of “crying aloud” for wisdom, we are to value it: “…and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure,…” (vs. 4). The reader surely knows the value that we humans attach to silver, gold and riches, and with what diligence we seek those things. Oh that we would be as diligent in seeking the truth and wisdom of God! “The miner’s indefatigable pains; his invincible resolution; his untiring perseverance; seeking, yea, searching for hid treasures,— such must be our searching into the sacred storehouse” [Bridges, 14-15]. “We draw out the very bowels of the earth, that we may get the gem that we desire. Shall we not do as much for this pearl of price, the knowledge of God and his will, of ourselves, and our duties?... What man, finding a rich mine of gold or silver, is content with the first ore that offers itself to his view, and doth not dig deeper and deeper till he become owner of the whole treasure?” [Trapp, 5].
The mid-to-late 19th century was a time of various gold and silver rushes. William Arnot, a contemporary to those events, speaks of the widespread search for hidden treasure: “Multitudes of young and old, from every occupation, and every rank, have left their homes, and traversed stormy seas, and desert continents, to the place where the treasure lies. Not a few have perished on the way; others sink under privations on the spot. The scorching sun by day, and the chill dews at night; labouring all day among water, and sleeping under the imperfect shelter of a tent; the danger of attack by uncivilized natives on the one hand, and by desperately wicked Europeans on the other, all these, and a countless multitude more, are unable to deter from the enterprise, or drive off those who are already engaged. To these regions men flock in thousands, and tens of thousands” [Arnot, 70]. In seeking the wisdom of God, this is the desire and perseverance that we should show. “We everyday see with what anxious diligence men seek for silver. They fatigue their bodies, and waste their spirits; they destroy their health, and expose their lives; they even wound their consciences, and expose themselves to shameful deaths and everlasting misery, that they may load themselves with shining clay. Shall the professed disciples of the great Teacher set less value upon knowledge, than other men set upon silver?... It is therefore highly reasonable, that we diligently and carefully use all those means which God hath appointed for this end; that we hear sermons with earnest attention; that we read and search the word of God, and make it the subject of our frequent meditation; that we make use of edifying conversation; that we go to the wise, who have the law of God in their hearts, whose mouths speaks wisdom, and tongues talk of judgment. To the use of such means of improvement as these, we must add prayer for the divine blessing, to render them effectual to our instruction and salvation” [Lawson, 30]. “Divine knowledge is an unexhaustible mine of precious ore” [Wardlaw].
Let us note again, the increasing earnestness in the exhortations in verses 1 through 4: first, “accepting” and “storing up”; then “turning one’s ear” and “applying to the heart”; then, “calling out” and “crying aloud”; finally, “looking for as for silver” and “searching as for hidden treasure.” “The search for Divine wisdom must be maintained with increasing earnestness. The verses before us describe a progressive intensity of spiritual effort—receiving, hiding the commandment, inclining the ear, applying the heart, crying after, lifting up the voice, seeking, searching as for hid treasure… It is, moreover, the characteristic of Divine truth that a little knowledge of it kindles the thirst for deeper draughts. Thus we are led on to the most energetic search” [Pulpit Comm., 43].
So, we have enumerated the “if”s of seeking wisdom, now we come to the resolutions and payoffs of doing so, the “then”s of the conditional: “…then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (vs. 5). Knowing wisdom and living wisely are intimately intertwined with our relationship to God. The first benefit of earnestly seeking wisdom is to “understand the fear of the Lord.” “Fear” and reverence for the Lord is essential to living wisely. “Fearing” the Lord will keep us from temptation, delivering us from all kinds of trouble, and direct our steps to the paths of righteousness.
The next benefit of earnestly seeking wisdom is to “find the knowledge of God.” In Hebrew, the phrase “knowledge of God” denotes more than just book-learning about God. Such “knowledge” goes beyond mere intellectual understanding. “Quite differently, the Hebraic expression for ‘knowledge of God,’ points to a reality which at once includes and transcends intellectual disquisition. It designates the involvement of man’s total personality in the presence of Yahweh through the prophetic word, the cultic celebration, and the psychological mode of communion in faith” [Terrien, in Waltke, 323].
Solomon continues: “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (vs. 6). Here in these first chapters of Proverbs, we find a bit of a paradoxical circularity in the seeking and finding of wisdom: wisdom shouts in the street to be heard (1:20ff), the pupil must cry aloud (v. 3); if the pupil seeks wisdom, then he will understand the fear of the Lord (v. 5), yet the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (1:5-6); he will find the knowledge of God (v. 5), yet the Lord gives wisdom (v. 6). “This is the circular paradox: Seek wisdom, find God; seek God, find wisdom” [Longman]. “The two ideas of ‘the fear of the Lord’ and ‘the knowledge of God’ act reciprocally on each other. Just as without reverence of God there can be no knowledge of him in its true sense, so the knowledge of God will increase and deepen the feeling of reverence” [Pulpit Comm., 35]. “The chapter is an extended appeal by the father to his son to acquire wisdom. This appeal has a paradox at its center: Wisdom is something the son must strive vigorously to achieve, but it is a gift from God. Murphy states it thus: ‘One must strive for the goal, but also realize that wisdom remains a divine gift. Ultimately we have a picture of the acquisition of wisdom by means of human industry and divine aid and generosity’” [Longman, 126].
Note the directness with which we receive wisdom and knowledge from God: “…from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (vs. 6). This is a testament of the direct, divine inspiration of the Bible. The Bible does not consist of human reasoning and philosophy concerning what God may or may not say or do. On the contrary, the Bible writers were divinely and directly inspired by God to write their words, as if those words came “from his mouth.”
Solomon next speaks of the practical improvements that God gives to one’s life, which are a result of seeking godly wisdom: “He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones” (vs. 7-8). “The way of the saints is indeed fraught with danger; beset with temptation; yet it is safe—kept and preserved by Almighty power, even on the very edge of the enemy’s ground” [Bridges, 16]. “As the son stores up and treasures wisdom to know piety and ethics, so also God stores up as a hidden treasure the protection inherent in that knowledge” [Waltke, 325].
Solomon continues enumerating the results of seeking wisdom, the “then”s to the corresponding “if”s above: “Then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path” (vs. 9). A fruit of gaining wisdom is to understand how to deal fairly with others. So many people look to get an edge, to gain an advantage over their neighbor. We as God’s people should seek to be “right and just and fair.” To be so, is to walk “every good path.” A traveler, going to an unknown place, seeks “every good path” – efficient paths, safe paths, paths without difficulties. Such a path, as we travel through life, entails being “right and just and fair” to those with whom we have dealings.
Solomon continues with the results of seeking wisdom: “For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (vs. 10). Once wisdom “enters our hearts”, it becomes an integral part of our being. Wisdom then becomes second-nature to us. We then naturally choose the wise path, when faced with decisions. This leads to contentment in life, for “knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.”
In leading us to “every good path”, wisdom naturally helps us avoid the bad paths: “Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you” (vs. 11). This entails physical protection, and just as importantly, spiritual protection – protections from the ravages of sin. In the next two sections, Solomon specifically elaborates on spiritual protection.
“Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse, who have left the straight paths to walk in dark ways, who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil, whose paths are crooked and who are devious in their ways” (vss. 12-15). “Solomon here proceeds to show, that true religion—the wisdom of which he celebrates the excellence and recommends the cultivation—not only has a positively, but also a negatively beneficial influence; inasmuch as, while it conducts in every ‘good path,’ it at the same time is a preservative from paths that are evil” [Wardlaw, 64].
In this section, the tempter is represented as “wicked men.” These men were, at one time, instructed in the paths of righteousness, but have “left the straight paths to walk in the dark ways.” “The ways of sin are ways of darkness, uncomfortable and unsafe; what fools are those that leave the plain, pleasant, lightsome paths of uprightness, to walk in those ways!” [Henry, 801]. The protection that wisdom provides is crucial, for we are fallen, and as fallen human beings, our sinful nature draws us to the “dark ways.” “We need an antidote to temptation. It is not enough to trust to our own spiritual health to throw off the poison. We are already diseased with sin, and have a predisposition to yield to temptation in the corruption of our own hearts” [Pulpit Comm., 44].
If wisdom has entered our hearts, then we will delight in “what is right and just and fair”, unlike the “wicked men” who “delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil” (vs. 14). “To take pleasure in sin is a characteristic of fallen humanity; to delight in seeing others sinning is altogether devilish” [Arnot, 74].
In the next section, the tempter is personified as the adulterous woman: “Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God. Surely her house leads down to death and her paths to the spirits of the dead. None who go to her return or attain the paths of life” (vss. 16-19). Whereas the “wicked men” sought to draw the young man into a life of corruption and deceit, the “adulterous woman” preys on the lusts of the young man, and seeks to draw him into adultery and (thus symbolically) idolatry (adultery is representative in the Bible of turning to other gods, away from the true and living God).
To a young man, the draw of the “adulterous woman” is powerful, for she uses “seductive words.” She herself was drawn into such a life, for she left her husband, “the partner of her youth,” and violated her wedding vows, “the covenant she made before God.” Succumbing leads to a vortex from which few can recover: “Surely her house leads down to death and her paths to the spirits of the dead. None who go to her return or attain the paths of life” (vss. 18-19).
The archetype in the Bible for one who resisted the “seductive words” of the “adulterous woman”, is Joseph, who fled from the seductions of Potiphar’s wife (see Gen. 39:6ff). Those who are similarly seduced, need to follow Joseph’s example, and actively flee. Seduction is so easy a trap to be ensnared. It’s a gravity that draws from afar. So then, flee while still at a distance, where its pull is still weak.
Ironically, and sadly, the archetype in the Bible for one who falls into this seductive trap is the writer of these words, Solomon himself. “How striking that he should utter beforehand a warning which he afterwards himself disregarded!” [JFB, 418]. Solomon’s descent into the vortex of seduction led not only to physical lasciviousness, but also into spiritual adultery: idolatry and the worship of false gods. We are told of Solomon’s descent: “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods” (1 Kings 11:1-8). “Solomon’s words in this Divinely inspired book are an antidote to the poison of his own vicious example” [Wordsworth, in Lange’s, 56].
If Solomon fell in such a way, can we not all say, “There but for the grace of God, go I”? All the more reason to hold fast to Godly wisdom, to store it up in one’s heart, to seek it as silver, to value it as hidden treasure, to let it permeate one’s entire being. To do so, will generate rewards, far better than the fleeting rewards of the life of sin, as Solomon concludes: “Thus you will walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous. For the upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the unfaithful will be torn from it” (vss. 20-22). “The temporal rewards of piety in the Old Testament dispensation shadow forth both the millennial rewards of it here on earth in the coming age, and also the eternal rewards in the final state” [JFB, 418]. The rewards of the righteous, of those who have accepted the gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ, have been guaranteed, given to us in promises by our Lord Himself: “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3, NKJV).
Notes on the Structure of the Entire Chapter
This chapter was written as a complete, unified poem, and is a beautiful example of Hebrew poetry, in its structure and intricate parallelisms. In the original Hebrew, the entire chapter is actually one, very complex, sentence (for ease of reading, the translators have broken it up into multiple sentences in English). As in the translation, the original contains twenty-two verses (twenty-two is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, suggesting a completeness of sorts for the entire poem). Each half of the poem (verses 1 through 11, and 12 through 22) is broken up into three stanzas. In each half, the first and second stanzas consist of four verses, and the third stanza consists of three verses. Each stanza in the first half (verses 1 to 11) starts with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet aleph (excluding the prologue “my son”—the words translated “if”, “then”, and “then” begin with aleph), while each stanza in the second half (verses 12 to 22) starts with the twelfth consonant in the Hebrew alphabet lamed (the words translated “will save you” in verses 12 and 16 begins those stanzas in the original Hebrew, and start with lamed; in verse 20, the word translated “thus” begins with lamed). [Waltke, 316].
So, the first half of the poem (vss. 1 through 11) is parallel to the second half of the poem (vss. 12 through 22) by the structure of the stanza, and subtly by the beginning letter of each stanza. Within the first half and second half there are also parallelisms between stanzas. In each half, the stanza that closest to the center (stanzas 2 and 3, and stanzas 4 and 5) are parallel in content to each other. For instance, both stanza 2 (vss. 5-8) and stanza 3 (vss. 9-11) start with the words “then you will understand”, then they speak of gaining wisdom, then they speak of wisdom’s protection. Likewise, and more obvious, the content of stanza 4 (vss. 12-15) and stanza 5 (vss. 16-19) are parallel to each other. Both stanzas start with “wisdom will save you”, then say from whom (“the wicked men” / “the adulterous woman”); then say “who have left”; and then speak of the “paths” of each.
One could go on and study the additional ways that this poem speaks to us, just by its structure, and how the structure re-enforces what the words say (I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader). The beautiful structure of this poem illustrates that our study of the Bible will never be complete. God’s Word has layer upon layer of depths and meanings, far beyond what we absorb from a cursory reading. Dear reader, your study of the Bible can and should be a life-long endeavor, and such is the depth of this Book, that you will ever and always be finding new treasures.
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.
Kidner, Derek. Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008. (Originally published in 1964).
Lawson, George. Exposition of the Book of Proverbs. Edinburgh: David Brown, 1821.
Longman III, Tremper. Proverbs. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006.
Trapp, John. Exposition of the Whole Bible. Vol. 3. Originally published in c. 1660.
Waltke, Bruce K. The Book of Proverbs. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004.
Wardlaw, Ralph. Lectures on the Book of Proverbs. Edinburgh: A. Fullarton & Co., 1869. (Originally published in 1844).
All of these books, except Kidman, Longman, and Waltke, can be downloaded free of charge from: