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Theology in Proverbs

August 1995

What is wisdom?

The book of Proverbs tells us straight away that it was written that we might attain wisdom (1:2) and knowledge (1:4). But what is wisdom? How does it differ from knowledge? The answer to these questions will certainly motivate us to study the book.

Wisdom in Proverbs

Wisdom in this book denotes our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual state when we know truth and act upon it. By truth we mean reality as known and established by God. This book sets forth truths about how we ought to live, and when we wholeheartedly accept it, God’s Spirit enables us to live it.

Wisdom entails the other virtues listed in the statement about the book’s purpose (1:2-5): ‘discipline’, ‘prudence’, ‘doing what is right, just and fair’, ‘learning’ and ‘guidance’. In 8: 12-14 other virtues are said to ‘dwell with wisdom’ (that is,they are inseparable from it): ‘discretion’, ‘counsel’, ‘sound judgement’ and ‘power’ (that is, ‘heroic strength’). This book can put counselors out of business.

Wisdom includes knowledge of the Holy One himself (see: 9: 10; 30:3) and pertains primarily to matters of piety towards God, and ethics (that is, right behaviour) towards human beings.

Wisdom outside of Proverbs

Outside of Proverbs ‘wisdom’ may denote professional expertise, a knowing and acting with reference to technical matters: the skill of an artisan (Exodus 28:3; 31 :6; 35:25-26,30-35; 36: 1; 1 Kings 7:14), of a sailor (Psalm 107:27), or of a judicious administrator and ruler (Deuteronomy 1:15; 1 Kings 3:4-14; Isaiah 11:15). Solomon displayed this kind of wisdom in his encyclopedic knowledge and literary skill (1 Kings 4:2934;5:9-14)and in his ability to answer difficult questions (1 Kings 10:2-3).

Whatever education and skill you have, the Bible would call that ‘wisdom’.

Gaining the wisdom of Proverbs

Wisdom is a spiritual gift (Exodus 31:3; 35:31; 1 Kings 3:4-14; Isaiah 11:2). It cannot be bought with money (Proverbs 17:16). According to the book’s preamble God graciously gives his people religious and ethical wisdom through this book. It is acquired by a single-minded decision to accept it in humility (3:5-8) and to value it above everything else (4:7; cf. 3: 13-18; 8: 10-11).

Wisdom and revelation

Though Solomon and other sages find their inspiration in their observation of creation and social behaviour (cf. 24: 30-34), their wisdom in the final analysis does not rest upon experience but upon revelation and inspiration (2:6; 30:5-6). Contrary to the famous dictum of the German theologian Gerhard von Rad that wisdom is ‘practical knowledge of the laws of life and of the world, based on experience’, unaided human reason cannot discern what God is doing (Ecclesiastes 8: 17), even as Pharaoh’s advisors could not discern the Lord’s plan (Isaiah 19:11-12). Sometimes God’s truth is contrary to what fallen human beings think to be right (Proverbs 3:7; 14:12; 16:25). Israel learned by experience during the rule of the Judges that doing what was right in their own eyes could be fatal (Judges 19-21).

No sharp distinction should be made between general revelation and special revelation. The book of Proverbs shares many similarities with other wisdom writings in Egypt and Mesopotamia at the time of Solomon. This is so because God chose to certify his truths revealed in general revelation in his special revelation to us.

The book commands faith in the Lord who upholds the book’s teachings (see: 3:5; 22: 17). The promises and threats of this book are only as good as the Lord who upholds them. Our faith is not in the proverbs but in the Lord who revealed them and upholds them. If we put our trust in Jesus Christ, we will also trust the book that he regarded as Holy Scripture. If we accept this book, we will trust Jesus Christ who alone perfectly fulfilled for us its demand for faith and righteousness.

One final question. If Solomon was so wise, why did he die such a fool? He answers our question himself: ‘Cease listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge’ (Proverbs 19:27). The wisdom of Solomon’s youth did not guarantee him wisdom in old age. Our wisdom today does not insure our wisdom tomorrow. We must constantly listen to the Lord’s wisdom revealed in the book of Proverbs.

Dr Bruce Waltke was recently installed as the Marshall Sheppard chair of biblical studies at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.