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The book of Proverbs

August 2015 | by Roger Ellsworth

The prodigal son made poor choices‘Now therefore, listen to me, my children, for blessed are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not disdain it. Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoever finds me finds life, and obtains favour from the Lord. But he who sins against me wrongs his own soul; all those who hate me love death’ (Proverbs 8:32-36).

We are all in the ‘life’ business, and it is challenging business indeed. The bad news is, that it is very easy to mess it up.

Many make life harder than it needs to be. They make poor choices, and poor choices lead to painful consequences. Poor choices sometimes bring life to an early end. In other cases, they can cause us to live with pain and heartache for many years.

The good news is that there are certain skills, if learned and employed, which will make life less challenging and more rewarding.

Skills for living

The book of Proverbs is particularly concerned about skills for living, and is exactly what the title suggests — a collection of proverbs or sayings. The word ‘proverb’ is a combination of two Latin words: pro and verba. The former means ‘for’, and the latter ‘words’. A proverb is, therefore, a verbal shortcut, a brief saying instead of many words. Someone called it ‘a shrewd concentration of truth’; another, ‘a short statement drawn from long experience’.

Most of the proverbs were written by King Solomon, who, we are told in 1 Kings 4:32, wrote 3000 in all. There’s no difficulty understanding what Solomon had in mind when he put this book together (writing some and including some from other authors); he was concerned about the welfare of his children. Sometimes he uses the phrase ‘my son’, individualising and personalising the proverbs (1:8; 2:1; etc.). He also uses the term ‘my children’ (4:1).

The book of Proverbs consists of three major parts: instructions (1:8 – 9:18), sayings (10:1 – 22:16; 25:1 – 29:27), and admonitions (22:17 – 24:22). The instructions consist primarily of long poems, usually beginning with the direct address ‘my son’ and containing commands or prohibitions, with reasons attached. The sayings are characterised by extreme brevity. They are straightforward insights about reality and leave readers to draw their own conclusions. The admonitions are shorter forms of instructions.

Wisdom

Proverbs, then, is a book about wisdom. What is wisdom? It isn’t just intellectual knowledge; it is, essentially, insight. It is making the right choices in life, choices that enable us to reap the good that life has to offer. It is knowing how to live. It is seeing and doing the right thing in the situations life presents. If we live wisely, we will reap the good that life has to offer.

A little boy trying to pick out a puppy, saw one wagging his tail and said, ‘I want the one with the happy ending’. Making wise choices in life enables us to be happy in the end.

It should be obvious, then, that nothing is more important than getting wisdom (4:7). To listen to sound counsel is to listen to the voice of wisdom. In the verses of Proverbs 8, wisdom herself speaks directly to us (vv. 1-4,12,32). Wisdom commands us to listen to her (8:32). The word ‘therefore’ in this verse looks back to what wisdom has already said in this chapter. On the basis of the credentials she has already established, she is drawing a conclusion.

Among other things, she says that she was present with the Lord when he created this world (vv. 22-31). On the basis of this, she is offering us her services. Imagine it — the wisdom that enabled God to create this world offers herself to us! But her offer will not help us if we refuse to listen. It’s interesting that she refers to us as her ‘children’. We should not take this as a compliment; children are, of course, limited in knowledge — and notorious for not listening! They rush ahead without thinking. They are easily deceived. They often refuse to exert the diligence that is necessary to learn. They prefer entertainment and excitement to learning.

All these traits are also found in many adults, when it comes to the matter of wisdom and the skills she offers for living. But wisdom tells us what is necessary to listen — effort (vv. 32-35).

Effort

Wisdom pictures herself as living in a house. Each day she comes out her front door and speaks to those waiting outside. Those who make to the effort to be there reap the benefit of hearing her. They get insights on how to live, and it requires effort on their part. In order to be at wisdom’s gates, one has to get up out of his bed, get dressed, make the journey to wisdom’s house and wait for her to appear.

How should we relate this to ourselves? The voice of wisdom speaks to us in the Bible. What must we do to hear it? We must read the Bible, hear it preached and taught, read good books about it, discuss it with others and try to memorise key verses. Sadly enough, many people want the life skills that the Bible offers without having to put forth the effort to get them.

Wisdom tells us the results of listening or refusing to listen (vv. 32,35,36). The result of listening is blessing, which is a favour or benefit from God (vv. 32,35). The result of not listening is calamity (v.36).

There are temporal blessings for those who heed the voice of wisdom: longer life (3:2; 9:11); peace of mind (3:2); favour with God and man (3:4; 12:2); direction (3:6); physical well-being (3:8); material well-being (3:10); happiness (3:13); and stability (12:3). But the greatest of all the blessings offered by wisdom is spiritual life here and now, and eternal life in the future.

Choices

The Bible constantly sets the ways of life and death before us. The voice of wisdom urges us to choose life, by trusting in the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who reject the voice of wisdom in the gospel ‘wrong’ their souls and ‘love death’ (v.36).

So, the message of Proverbs can be summarised like this: life constantly confronts us with choices between wisdom and folly, good and evil, truth and error; making the right choices leads to good results, while making the wrong choices leads to bad results; we have in God’s Word clear guidance on what constitutes good and evil choices; God’s Word will not benefit us unless we hear (1:8), receive (2:1) and treasure it (2:1).

The author is interim pastor of First Baptist Church, Greenfield, Tennessee. He is a conference speaker and has authored many books and articles.