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A Study by Scott Sperling
Proverbs 3:1-12 – Imperatives and Benefits
1 My son, do not forget my teaching,
2 for they will prolong your life many years
3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
4 Then you will win favor and a good name
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
6 in all your ways submit to him,
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
8 This will bring health to your body
9 Honor the Lord with your wealth,
10 then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
11 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
12 because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
This section begins: “My son, do not forget my teaching…” (vs. 1). This signals that this is a continuation of the teachings in chapter 2, which began, “My son, if you accept my words…” In fact, chapters 1 through 9 of the book of Proverbs can be seen as one long discourse about Wisdom, as alternately delivered by a father to his son, and by Wisdom herself personified.
In the previous chapter, the emphasis was on how wisdom leads one to moral stability in life, and protects one from evil influences. In this section, there is an emphasis on quality-of-life benefits that having wisdom and living wisely brings.
This section also connects a trust and devotion to God with living wisely. To have wisdom and to live wisely is to live godly. In verses 5 through 12, we learn that true wisdom is anchored in knowing, trusting, and devoting oneself to God. “Devotion to God and devotion to Wisdom are inseparable. For the scholar, who may be tempted to seek knowledge without having first submitted to God, this means that the search will be futile and the wisdom gained will be distorted if one has not first oriented oneself to the Creator in faith, humility, and obedience” [Garrett, 63].
This section (vss. 1 through 12) consists of imperatives for living wisely, followed by benefits that will likely result from keeping the imperative. So the author gives “motivation for following the imperatives by naming the positive consequences that will flow from obedience” [Longman, 112].
The section begins with one such imperative/benefit pair: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity” (vss. 1-2). Before we speak of the specific details of the text, we need to touch on the concept of reward and punishment as laid out in the book of Proverbs. A simple, direct reading of these verses would imply, if extrapolated, that all godly people have long lives, filled with “peace and prosperity.” And yet, we know by experience, and knowledge of history, that this is not the case. Many godly people live a relatively short and difficult life on earth. This, of course, was well-known by the author Solomon (he speaks of this in the book of Ecclesiastes). And so, we must view the benefits given for following a stated imperative, not as guaranteed rewards, but rather as likely results, all other things being equal. There are times when God chooses, for His purposes to test and try his godly people. At these times, God chooses to override the stated rewards given in these simple proverbs for a greater good or purpose. We need to keep this in mind, as we read the entire book of Proverbs. Life, most times, cannot be simplified to an “if A, then B” formula, but rather, in general, we are likely to reap the benefits stated, as God best sees fit. It is in the nature of the proverb not to give absolute guarantees or promises, “but rather to indicate the best route toward reward—all things being equal” [Longman, 74].
So again, Solomon begins this section: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity” (vss. 1-2). Again, as throughout most of chapters 1 through 9, Solomon addresses his teachings to “my son”, speaking as a loving father to his child. And as we read, we may consider Solomon to be our spiritual father, speaking God’s truth to us.
As stated, verses 1 through 12 consist of imperative/benefit pairs. The imperative here is “do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart.” “Three things may be considered as implied in this verse—remembrance, attachment, and obedience” [Wardlaw, 75]. “He had before instructed us to seek and search after wisdom, and set out before us its invaluable blessings. Now he calls us to bring it into practical exercise—Forget not my law” [Bridges, 21]. “We must never forget this law, but make it familiar to our memories, that we may have a guide ready to direct us in every situation in which we may be placed” [Lawson, 44].
The benefit to be derived from knowing wise teaching, and incorporating the commands into one’s being is that “they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity.” It is a God-given instinct for us to desire a long life. The benefit here goes beyond that, for it is “many years”, along with “peace and prosperity.” “Endless years without peace are a curse… The enjambment and peace and prosperity qualifies this life as having every sufficiency and good fortune, free from hostility and lack, and so filled with inner contentment, delight, joy, and pleasure as a gift from God” [Waltke].
Solomon continues: “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man” (vss. 3-4). These verses can be seen as parallel to verses 1 and 2. In 1 and 2, you are to “not forget” and “keep my commands in your heart.” Here you are to ensure that love and faithfulness “never leave you, bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” A more intense remembrance is exhorted here. “It is not enough that we merely remember as we might the laws of the twelve tables, or any other code, in which we feel no farther interest than that which arises from historical curiosity. We must feel our interest in them, as commandments binding on ourselves. They must have more than even the approbation of the conscience; they must have the concurrent affections of the heart, as the commandments of One to whom the love and devotion of our whole souls is supremely due” [Wardlaw, 76]. “To inscribe something on a tablet ensures its clarity and permanence (e.g., Exod. 34:1, 28; Deut. 10:1-5; Isa. 30:8; Hab. 2:2). To write on the heart is to make an indelible mark on the center of one’s being, to etch the instruction onto the innermost parts of oneself… With parental teachings encircling the youth’s neck and incised on his heart, there is no dissonance between the external appearances and internal commitments—a consistency of character that is honored by God and humanity” [Yoder, 68].
Specifically here, it is “love and faithfulness,” also translated mercy and truth, which are to never leave us. These are two words which God himself uses to describe himself, as he did to Moses: “Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’” (Ex. 34:5-6). God is also described with these traits many other places in the Bible (see Ps. 86:15; Ps. 108:4; Ps 115:1; Ps. 117:2; Ps. 138:2). So, to be truly in the image of God, we must also have these traits. They indicate “the highest normal standard of moral perfection” [Pulpit Comm., 54, from Zöckler]. “Mercy and truth are the glorious perfections of God; always in combined exercise for his people’s good. While we rest upon them for salvation, let us copy them in our profession” [Bridges, 22]. “Where this mercy or love is exhibited in man it finds expression in (1) mutual outward help; (2) forgiveness of offences; (3) sympathy of feeling, which leads to interchange of thought, and so to the development of the spiritual life… Truth [or faithfulness] is that absolute integrity of character, both in word and deed, which secures the unhesitating confidence of all” [Pulpit Comm., 54].
The benefit of exhibiting these traits is that you “will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man” (vs. 4). In the “sight of God,” because these are traits God himself prides himself in having. In the “sight of man,” because we all desire to be shown love and mercy, and to be dealt with in truth and faithfulness.
The next imperative concerns our day-to-day dependence on God: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (vss. 5-6). There are three parts to the imperative: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” “lean not on your own understanding,” and “in all your ways submit to him.” Appropriately, given their emphasis on being entirely dependent on God, these are the first of a handful of exhortations, in verses 5 through 12, which relate to man’s relationship with God.
The first part of the imperative, “trust in the Lord with all your heart,” exhorts us to have a complete reliance and dependence on God. The words “trust in the Lord” really sum up the duty and attitude of God’s people. These words can be the answer to many conundrums we face, and the salve for any anxiety that troubles us: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” “Such confidence or trust, with its corresponding idea of the renunciation of reliance on self, is, as Zöckler truly remarks, a ‘fundamental principle of all religion’” [Pulpit Comm., 55].
These words, by specifying “with all your heart,” again, exhort a full and complete reliance on God. “God complains as much of a divided allegiance as of none. In cleaving to Christ the effort to reserve a little spoils all” [Trapp, in Zöckler, 68]. “This dependence on God is to be exercised with all our hearts, our judgments being persuaded that God is the only and the all-sufficient object of confidence, and our souls resting with full satisfaction in his power and faithfulness” [Lawson, 47].
The remaining parts of the exhortation emphasize and clarify that our “trust in the Lord” is to be complete. Solomon tells us “lean not on your own understanding.” “An entire commitment entails an exclusive commitment” [Waltke]. God is not to be one of a list of things that we put our confidence in. He is to be the only entity in which we have full trust. Given this, we must realize that we cannot depend unequivocally on our “own understanding.” “To divide our confidence between God and the creature, is to lean with one hand upon a rock, and with the other hand upon a broken reed” [Lawson, 47]. Though certainly, our understanding of the world is a valuable tool in helping us to navigate life. “The admonition does not mean that we are not to use our own understanding, i.e. form plans with discretion, and employ legitimate means in the pursuit of our ends; but that, when we use it, we are to depend upon God and his directing and overruling providence” [Pulpit Comm., 55]. “One is a fool to rely on his thimble of knowledge before [the Lord’s] vast ocean or on his own understanding, which is often governed by irrational urges that he cannot control” [Waltke].
Then once again, to emphasize our complete reliance on the Lord, Solomon tells us, “in all your ways submit to him.” Most translations say, “in all your ways acknowledge him.” The statement seems to imply a submission to God’s will, with the full knowledge, and acknowledgement that it is God who is directing us. Implicit in this exhortation is that we should “acknowledge” God in “all” of our ways by turning to him in prayer for guidance and direction. “We must ask his advice and beg direction from him, not only when the case is difficult, but in every case, be it ever so plain” [Henry, 803]. “Take one step at a time, every step under Divine warrant and direction (see Ezek. 8:21-23; Neh. 1:11). Ever plan for yourself in simple dependence on God. It is nothing less than self-idolatry to conceive that we can carry on even the ordinary matters of the day without his counsel. He loves to be consulted… Consider no circumstances too clear to need his direction. In all thy ways, small as well as great; in all thy concerns, personal or relative, temporal or eternal, let him be supreme… Let the will be kept in a quiet, subdued, cheerful readiness, to move, stay, retreat, turn to the right hand or to the left, at the Lord’s bidding; always remembering that is best which is least our own doing, and that a pliable spirit ever secures the needful guidance (see Ps. 32:8-9; Isa. 48:17-18, Isa. 30:21)” [Bridges, 24, 25].
The benefit from having complete reliance on God, is that “he will make your paths straight.” “The straight paths are the best, with the least obstacles. These are to be contrasted with the crooked paths, which end in death (see Prov. 9:18; cf. Prov. 2:15)” [Longman, 115]. “We are everyday to pray that our steps may be so ordered, as that we may not be led into temptation” [Lawson, 48]. God directs our paths, not like a puppeteer pulling strings, but in more subtle ways. “Having showed to God our way, we must wait on God for direction, not by a voice from heaven, or by a new inspiration, but by his Spirit enabling us to understand his word, and apply it to particular affairs, and by his providence making the way where we should walk clear before us” [Lawson, 49].
Solomon continues somewhat in the same vein: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones” (vss. 7-8). Here, Solomon points out the benefits to one’s health that following these imperatives bring, mainly “fearing the Lord.”
The first imperative here is “Do not be wise in your own eyes.” This imperative carries on from the one in verse 5, “lean not on your own understanding.” Our natural inclination is to trust primarily and solely in our own wisdom. Solomon here exhorts us to direct our attention away from ourselves, and to God; to “fear the Lord and shun evil.” “The opposite of being wise in one’s own eyes is to fear Yahweh. The fear of Yahweh puts one’s own abilities and resources in proper perspective. It also naturally leads to an aversion to evil” [Longman, 115]. “There is not a greater enemy to the power of religion, and the fear of God in the heart, than conceitedness of our own wisdom” [Henry, 804].
The benefits to doing these things concern our bodily health: “This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones” (vs. 8). Good health is such an important factor in having a worry-free, contented existence on earth. Solomon points out that “fearing the Lord” and “shunning evil” are key methods to bring about bodily health. “By observing the commands of 3:7, as by drinking a divine elixir, one will experience a mysterious quickening and nourishing of the inner and firmest part of the body” [Waltke]. “Religion has a natural tendency to impart health and vigour to the body, because it preserves a man from those distempers which proceed from unsubdued lusts, and diffuses over the mind that calm serenity and heartfelt joy, which even upon the body exercise a medicinal influence” [Lawson, 51]. “The virtues of sobriety, of temperance, and chastity, and industry, and contentment, and control of the tempers and passions, and regularity, and integrity, and kindness, — and others that are included in subjection to the law of God, have all, in various ways, a manifest tendency to such a result. They conduce, eminently, in the ordinary course of things, to the enjoyment of health and long life — to the prevention of the tear and wear of the constitution, and to general prosperity and well-being” [Wardlaw, 77]. “The prudence, temperance, and sobriety, the calmness and composure of mind, and the good government of the appetites and passions, which religion teaches, tend very much not only to the health of the soul, but to a good habit of body, which is very desirable, and without which our other enjoyments in this world are insipid” [Henry 804].
The next imperative entails proving one’s devotion to the Lord by a bit of self-sacrifice: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops” (vs. 9). “The practice of offering a portion of one’s means to God acknowledges God as the source and provider. If there is any area in which people in every age are tempted to be wise in their own eyes, it is in the fantasy that wealth is a product of their own competence and nothing more. The teaching answers such a fantasy by pointing to barns of grain and vats of grapes, agricultural products of human labor that in the end are beyond human control” [Koptak, 119]. “Earthly substance is necessary for the use of our bodies, but we are called to make a nobler use of it than the mere service of the outward man. We are to honour the Lord with it, making no use of any part of our increase, till we have set apart a reasonable proportion of it for the service of God” [Lawson, 52]. “By the practice of this duty, we show our faith in his providence and promises, our love to God, our gratitude for his goodness, and our preference of his service to that of mammon... By the neglect of this duty, we are guilty of robbing God himself of that rent which he requires from us as his tenants” [Lawson, 52]. “Is it any hardship to give a part to him from whom we have received all? Can we make a better use of our wealth, which is often a snare and a trap to men, than by serving God?” [Lawson, 52]. “We must honour him, not only with our bodies and spirits which are his, but with our estates too, for they also are his: we and all our appurtenances must be devoted to his glory… It is the surest and safest method of thriving… We mistake if we think that giving will undo us and make us poor. No, giving for God’s honor will make us rich” [Henry, 804]. And how do we “honor the Lord with our wealth”? By giving to ministries which advance the work of Jesus Christ on earth; by giving to ministries which help those less fortunate than us.
For a farmer to give away the “firstfruits of all crops,” is an act of faith that God would provide further harvest beyond the “firstfruits.” Beyond that, Solomon states that a benefit of honoring God with the firstfruits is that “your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine” (vs. 10). So the benefit is not mere survival and sustenance, which would be a gift and blessing from God in itself, but abundance “overflowing.” “It is a paradoxical truth, but if one is willing to give of one’s wealth to honor Yahweh, then such persons will find an increase of their wealth, not a diminishing of it” [Longman, 116]. “God has the sun, and winds, and rain, and creatures of every description, in his hand; and these he manages in such a manner, as that none shall be a loser by him, nor a gainer by withholding from him” [Lawson, 53].
Though good health and wealth are mentioned in the previous verses as general benefits of honoring and devoting oneself to the Lord, there are times when the child of God experiences difficulties and trials. Solomon addresses those here: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (vss. 11-12). “Abundant prosperity shall flow from honouring Jehovah, but he sometimes and not unfrequently sends affliction, and, indeed, without which this life would be incomplete” [Pulpit Comm., 58]. “The strophe presupposes that the son has not kept his obligations and the Lord has meted out punishment instead of blessings. Prosperity and adversity are the wise and necessary mixture of the saint’s condition” [Waltke]. “What will be our comfort when we are in affliction? That it is a divine correction; it is the chastening of the Lord… for we may be sure that a God of unspotted purity does us no wrong and that a God of infinite goodness means us no hurt” [Henry, 805].
We are not to “despise”, nor “resent” God’s discipline. These words are kind of two sides of the same coin. One denotes despising in the sense of not valuing their usefulness; the other denotes resenting as overly burdensome. Rather than “despising” and “resenting”, we are actually to value the discipline and rebuke of the Lord, because they are signs of his love for us, “as a father [loves] the son he delights in.” All parents understand the concept of discipline rooted in love. “It is one of the finest triumphs of faith, when, in time of affliction, a Christian gets fresh confidence in a Savior’s love” [Arnot, 97-98].
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews comments on these very verses: “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed” (Heb. 12:5-13).
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.
Garrett, Duane A. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary, v. 14). Broadman Press, 1993.
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. III. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Kidner, Derek. Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008. (Originally published in 1964).
Koptak, Paul E. The NIV Application Commentary: Proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.
Lawson, George. Exposition of the Book of Proverbs. Edinburgh: David Brown, 1821.
Longman III, Tremper. Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Wisdom and Psalms). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006 (Ebook edition 2012, 2015).
Spence, Rev. H. D. M., and Joseph S. Exell. The Pulpit Commentary: Proverbs. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., Ltd, 1891.
Trapp, John. Exposition of the Whole Bible. Vol. 3. Originally published in c. 1660.
Waltke, Bruce K. The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.
Wardlaw, Ralph. Lectures on the Book of Proverbs. Edinburgh: A. Fullarton & Co., 1869. (Originally published in 1844).
Yoder, Christine Elizabeth. Proverbs: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Zöckler, Dr. Otto. The Proverbs of Solomon (A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical, edited by John Peter Lange, D.D.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898.
Many of these books (those in public domain) can be downloaded free of charge from: