The book of Proverbs is a collection of collections on the subject of wisdom. There are several compilations in the book, including “the proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Pr 1– 24), “more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah” (chs. 25– 29), “the sayings of Agur son of Jakeh” (ch. 30) and “the sayings of King Lemuel— an oracle his mother taught him” (ch. 31).
Solomon’s proverbs were written between 970 and 930 BC, while Hezekiah’s scribes compiled additional, “unpublished” Solomonic proverbs between 729 and 686 BC. Nothing is known of Agur and King Lemuel, so the dates of composition of their contributions are unknown.
The goal of the wisdom in Proverbs is to develop skill in living according to the order that is embedded in God’s creation. Most proverbs state a single general truth with little attempt to note exceptions and qualifications. Such an approach effectively emphasizes the principle taught by avoiding the distraction of qualifications.
Solomon is credited with writing three collected works of wisdom – Song of Songs in his youth, Proverbs during his middle years, and Ecclesiastes during his elder years. The Book of Proverbs contains Solomon’s advice to young people who are not yet old enough to have sufficient life experience to make good decisions. This is the stated purpose of Proverbs 1, which we will study in this lesson.
Verses 2-7 inform the reader immediately why he should read the proverbs that Solomon has written. It is to obtain wisdom, but Solomon describes several kinds of wisdom here. According to Duane Garrett, in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary), these verses outline four characteristics of wisdom.
First, it is practical. ‘Wisdom’ includes the idea of ‘common sense’ and the ability to cope with daily problems and can also refer to occupational skills (Exod 28:3; Ps 107:27). Second, it is intellectual. This is implied in words like ‘understanding’ and ‘knowledge.’ Solomon’s own fascination with natural history illustrates this (1 Kgs 4:33). Third, it is moral and involves self-control. This is indicated in words like ‘right and fair’ and ‘discipline.’ Fourth, Proverbs draws the reader into the mysteries of life. This is implied in terms like ‘parables’ and ‘riddles.’ The ancients were intrigued at riddles (Judg 14:12–19), but more is involved here than casual entertainment. Biblical wisdom seeks to resolve or at least adjust to the ambiguities of life. It seeks the reality behind the appearances. Not only that, it affirms that the believer can understand mysteries that outsiders cannot and so may couch its teaching in enigma (Matt 13:10–17).
Verse 7 gives the foundation of all wisdom, the fear of the Lord. Nobody can claim to be truly wise unless they have grounded their lives in the revelation of God. Only fools reject wisdom and God.
The wisdom taught by Solomon is grounded in God, but applies to worldly living. K. T. Aitken, in Proverbs (OT Daily Study Bible Series), explains,
The truly wise man of the world will be a man of faith. Equally, of course, a foundation is for building on. So the man of faith ought also to be a man of the world. The ‘fool’ who despises wisdom can therefore either be the man of the world who has no time for God, or the man of God who has no time for the world—or as we might say, either people who are so earthly minded as to be of no heavenly use; or people who are so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use.
Solomon records his first specific exhortation to wisdom in verses 8-19. Verses 8-9 introduce a theme repeated throughout the book of Proverbs, which is that children are blessed when they heed the counsel of their parents. Parents have numerous life experiences to draw upon to make wise decisions, and children do not, thus children are advised to listen to their parents.
Verse 10-14 warn against peer pressure, in particular the pressure to join a gang who robs and kills innocent travelers. In the ancient world, like today, there was a constant enticement for young men to become members of violent gangs who would commit criminal acts to enrich themselves. The Crips and Bloods have been around for 3,000 years!
Solomon implores the young man to steer clear of these gangs. What these gang members don’t realize is that their violence is ultimately going to kill them. They are on a self-destructive path that will lead them to the grave.
Verse 17 has caused translators a lot of problems, as its meaning in the original Hebrew is unclear. We know that in the ancient world, hunters would lay nets on the ground with grain on them. Birds would land on the net to eat the grain, and the hunters would close the net around the birds, capturing them. Given these facts, Duane Garrett offers this interpretation of verse 17:
The line is best rendered, ‘In the eyes of a bird, the net is strewn [with grain] for no reason.’ In other words, the bird does not see any connection between the net and what is scattered on it; he just sees food that is free for the taking. In the process he is trapped and killed. In the same way, the gang cannot see the connection between their acts of robbery and the fate that entraps them.
Verses 20-33 personify wisdom as a woman. She calls out to anyone who will listen to her, but in particular simple ones, mockers, and fools. K. T. Aitken describes these three types of people to whom wisdom calls:
(1) The ‘simple’ is the inexperienced and gullible youth we met in 1:4. (2) The ‘scoffer’ is the person who is arrogant and self-opinionated, and always ready to debunk the views and beliefs of others. In Ps. 1:1 he takes his seat in company with the wicked and sinners. (3) The ‘fool’ (Hebrew kesil) is a downright stupid person. He mistakes his folly for wisdom and seems quite insensible to what is good, right and proper.
If these people reject the teachings of Wisdom, there are consequences. The woman Wisdom describes her reaction if she is rejected. “I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you— when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you.”
The fools who reject wisdom will inevitably get themselves into trouble and they will call on Wisdom to rescue them, but it will be too late. Wisdom will not answer and will not be found. The fool will suffer the consequences for his stupidity, possibly causing his own death.
Aitken compares Wisdom to the prophets of Israel, saying,
the accusation in these verses strikes the same note as the prophets’ indictment of Israel for spurning God: ‘they refuse to know me’ (Jer. 9:6), ‘they have not given heed to my words’ (Jer. 6:19), ‘they are not willing to listen to me’ (Ezek. 3:7, ‘[they] hate the good’ (Mic. 3:2), ‘[they] chose what I did not delight in’ (Isa. 65:12), ‘they have despised the Holy One of Israel’ (Isa. 1:4).
For Lady Wisdom, the fools’ response spelled rejection. That is often the way of God’s man or woman in the world. His spokespeople are seldom popular figures. The prophets were not, and neither was Jesus. For the fools themselves it spelled a wasted opportunity—and more!
Verse 33 offers the alternative to those who do listen. “But whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.”