This is the “promise” that the book of Proverbs holds out for us. Proverbs are not promises – proverbs are pithy sayings that condense general principles for wise and fruitful living. But in directing us to wise living it does hold out a happy prospect. Notice it again (Prov.1:1-4): 1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: 2 To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, 3 to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; 4 to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.
Editor’s note: This is part one in a brief series on the book of Proverbs that Fred Zaspel will be writing in the coming weeks. In this series, he will be noting an overview, certain themes, and specific texts in the book of Proverbs.
1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
2 To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight,
3 to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youthB
5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, 6 to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Some general observations about life and living in our society
I have long found this pair of observations about contemporary society curiously ironic. On the one hand our society offers more helps than any in human history. We have institutions, services, consultants, counselors, and Dr. Ruths of all kinds who unscrew the tops of our heads and probe our inner self, diagnose problems, offer solutions, and provide direction for success, happiness, and fulfillment in life. We have more “helps” available today than society has ever before seen.
And yet on the other hand – and here is where it seems ironic – our society has more need for these kinds of helps than any in history. And despite the abundance of helps available the need keeps growing! We have a remarkable inability to find contentment or fulfillment, and we have a remarkable ability to mess up our lives – drugs, self-esteem, discontent, broken families, and what not. And we seem to have more trouble than ever just coping with life generally. It doesn’t take a prophet’s insight to recognize that our society seems increasingly adept at ruining itself – from the individual level to the family to the societal level, we’re falling apart at the seams.
Simply put, we just don’t seem to have the wisdom to live life successfully.
Old Testament “Wisdom Literature” and the Biblical Concept of “Wisdom”
So let’s talk about this word “wisdom.” You’ll notice that it is the very purpose of the book of Proverbs to give wisdom:
1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: 2 To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight.
The word “wisdom” in the Old Testament simply means “skill” B the word is translated either way. You find the word, for example, describing the “skilled” craftsmen – Bezalel and Oholiab – who constructed the Old Testament tabernacle and its various ornate furnishings.
More generally, wisdom has to do with the skill of living successfully. As Richard Belcher describes it, “wisdom” entails understanding God’s world, understanding the way life works, understanding different situations in life so that you are able to make the right decisions to avoid certain bad consequences and to do things that are faithful to God and bring God’s blessing.
In short, it is the skill of living successfully under God, getting the most out of life, avoiding its problems and heartaches. As Proverbs 3 will show us, wise living is living in such a way as to find favor with God and men. It is living in a way that pleases God and that brings personal fulfillment and joy. Again, wisdom is the skill of living successfully under God. The idea is living in such a way that we realize and experience God’s blessing and favor. The notion of “happiness” is involved, but the idea is bigger than that. Wise living results in blessing, favor with God and men (Prov.3), and fulfillment.
A significant portion of the Old Testament Scriptures is given to teach us wisdom in this sense. The “Wisdom Literature” proper is primarily Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, but many of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon are considered “Wisdom” also. It comes as no surprise that Scripture is given in large part to teach us how to teach us how to live wisely.