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By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
The Book of ‘Proverbs’ or ‘Sayings’ (mashal) covers a much wider range of saying than that encompassed in our term proverbs, although including such proverbs within it, for the word mashal includes the idea of many different ways of expressing wisdom and knowledge, both figuratively and literally, including proverbs, pithy sayings, longer dissertations and illustrations from nature. Thus the first nine chapters of the book are not a collection of what we might call proverbs (which commence in chapter 10), but are a dissertation on true wisdom, which, in the writer’s case, is closely related to ‘the fear of God (YHWH)’, and on what it means to walk with God.
To him wisdom is found, not by those who ‘hate knowledge (i.e. hate the knowledge of God - 2.5) and do not choose the fear of YHWH’ (1.29), but on the contrary, it is found in knowing God and being in loving and obedient awe of Him. For it is the reverent fear of YHWH which is the beginning of wisdom (9.10; compare 1.7), whilst it is the knowledge of God which is true knowledge (2.5). So to the writer the basis of all true wisdom and knowledge is found in knowing God and His ways.
That is why men should ‘trust in YHWH with all their hearts and not lean on their own understanding, knowing Him in all their ways so that He might direct their paths’ (3.5-6). Wisdom in Proverbs, as much as in prophecy, is seen as very much God-based. This is what makes Proverbs so different from the Wisdom teaching found among other nations. Solomon has obsereved it, taken it, selected from it, reworked it, and added to it, based on the idea of knowing God and His ways and the fear of YHWH, something which to him lies at the very root of wisdom.
That is why these chapters explain the source of wisdom as being in eternity past, as being in existence therefore before all else, from the very beginning of God’s ways (8.22-23). Wisdom is not general wisdom or humanistic wisdom, it is God’s wisdom, and God-revealed wisdom (2.6), already present at creation. But while in Proverbs it is personified, it does not represent a person, because it is also ‘understanding’, ‘knowledge’, ‘disicplinary instruction’, ‘shrewdness’, and the like. It sums up God’s wisdom. At the same time the chapters give practical examples of how those who have this wisdom will behave, in contrast with the foolish and naive (unwise, simple, gullible). It is those who follow his teaching and his wisdom who are the truly wise. So to the writer God is at the root of all true wisdom, and his purpose is therefore to make men wise in God’s ways. And in order to demonstrate this he calls on a number of sources.
It is noteworthy that Wisdom is portrayed as a ‘she’, and is in contrast to another woman named Folly (9.13). Wisdom is thus seen as feminine (all women will approve). This may have arisen because Wisdom was seen as God’s counter to the allurements of the ‘strange women’ which form such a prominent part of the first nine chapters (2.16-20; 5.3-14; 6.24-25; 7.5-27; 9.13-18), with the idea that Wisdom too has an allure of her own. Or it may have been in order to prevent her from being deified. For Israel had a horror of the idea of a goddess, and did not even have a word for goddess. Those were the corrupt inventions of other nations.
So whilst we can learn much from Wisdom about the One Who is the Word (John 1.1-14), God has made clear by this distinction that we must not equate the two. The personification of wisdom does not make it a person. Indeed personifications of this kind are common in the Old Testament, see for example 2.11; 13.6, 21; Job 25.2; Psalm 43.3; 45.4; 57.3; 85.10; 96.6; Isaiah 51.9. They are also common in other wisdom literature. Perspnification was a regular way of vividly expressing truth. It is true that our Lord Jesus Christ has been made unto us wisdom from God (1 Corinthians 1.30), but that is by His being made unto us righteousness, sanctification and redemption, thereby revealing God’s wisdom in the way in which He saves men. In contrast wisdom in Proverbs (often paralleled with Understanding and the like) is God’s wisdom, revealed in creation and conveyed to men, and in the light of which men should walk.
As such the book is regularly cited or referred to (often from LXX) in the New Testament. Compare for example Romans 12.16 with 3.7; Romans 12.20 with 25.21-22; Hebrews 12.5-6 with 3.11-12; James 4.6 with 3.24; James 4.13-14 with 27.1; 1 Peter 4.8 with 10.12; 1 Peter 4.18 with 11.31; 1 Peter 5.5 with 3.24; 2 Peter 2.22 with 26.11. It is precisely because it is God’s wisdom that it so often appears to equate to God Himself, especially as seen in our Lord Jesus Christ, but the two must always be distinguished. In Proverbs Wisdom is not truly personal. It is an extension of God.
Indeed, as Solomon makes clear, his concentration is not on some unique person called ‘Wisdom’, but on wisdom, knowledge, understanding, discernment, shrewdness, and disciplinary instruction. And in Israel this is closely involved with the fear of YHWH and the true knowledge of Him and His ways.
The Background To Wisdom Literature.
Wisdom literature (teaching by pithy sayings, and figurative speech and proverbs) stretches back into the far past being witnessed to in both Egypt (e.g. the teaching of Ptahhotep - c 2450 BC; and others) and in Mesopotamia (e.g. Sumerian proverbs - early 2nd millennium BC; and others), and thus long before the time of Moses. Both Joseph and Moses would have been familiar with it in Egypt, and Joseph’s special God-given wisdom was in mind when Joseph was described as ‘a father to Pharaoh’ (Genesis 45.8). He was seen as a ‘wise man’ (Genesis 41.38). But that does not mean that he was ‘a wisdom teacher’, for Pharaoh recognised in him special qualities that arose from his relationship with God. He was a ‘wise man’ because he was a man ‘in whom the Spirit of God is’ (Genesis 42.38). Thus ‘wisdom’ was not seen as restricted to a particular approach.
Material found in chapters 8-9 of Proverbs regarding Wisdom can to some extent be paralleled in Ugaritic literature (c.14th century BC), demonstrating that it need not be seen as ‘late’, whilst the source or background material (whether written or oral) behind the (Egyptian) Teaching of Amenemope (c. 1200 BC), in other words the wisdom teaching in the milieu in which he wrote, seems to have been known to, and used, by the author of Proverbs in 22.17-24.22, although undoubtedly considerably reworked (see below). Thus there was a firm background of wisdom teaching throughout the Ancient Near East long before the time of Solomon. But Solomon reputedly brought it up to new heights (1 Kings 4.30-34), and certainly imbued it with a deep spirituality. He did not copy it. He drew from it and transformed it.
Comparison of the Teaching of Amenemope with Proverbs.
Much is made by some of the similarity between some of the teaching in Proverbs and the teaching of Amenemope, an Egyptian wisdom teacher (especially in 22.17-24.22), a similarity regularly ensured by the way the text is translated by some scholars and by convenient amendments. So it might be fitting at this point to note some of the parallel ideas found in Proverbs and the teaching of Amenemope, and the similarity and differences. It will soon be apparent that while both certainly reflect the wisdom milieu of the Ancient Near East, in each case they interpret it in order to suit their own aims and beliefs. In our view they are clearly not directly borrowing the one from the other. This is not to deny that Solomon knew, and had a record of, the teaching of Amenemope, as he no doubt had records of other wisdom teachers. He may well have read it and striking truths may well have stayed in his mind. This must be seen as very probable. Solomon had close contacts with Egypt and had a great interest in wisdom teaching. It is rather arguing that, however much Solomon and ‘the wise’ were influenced by what they read, what they wrote was finally the substance of their own inspired thinking and not just mere copying. Let us briefly consider some examples:
The language of both is reminiscent of those days. It was how men wrote. But we should note that in the case of Amenemope we have a parallel (line one with line two) followed by an antithesis (lines three and four), whilst in the case of Proverbs we have two parallels (line one with line two, then line three with line four). In the former case the stress is simply on hearing what is being said, whilst in the latter case there is a stress on the source, that is on the fact that the words are ‘the words of the wise’ and are to result in the hearer’s trust being in YHWH (compare 1.6-7 where ‘the words of the wise’ are immediately linked with ‘the fear of YHWH’), and on the fact that they come from the basic ‘knowledge’ of the writer (‘my knowledge’), a knowledge which is the knowledge of God (2.5). His words have divine revelation and response to God in view (compare 2.5-6). In the case of Amenemope a warning is given as to the general danger of rejection of the words, whilst in the case of Proverbs there is no such warning. Instead there is an exhortation to retain what they have received, in order that they may be able to teach it to others, and might learn to trust in YHWH. Thus the similarities are in general overall thought, rather than in the detail, whilst the emphasis is very different.
This is reinforced by the fact that we have similar words in other parts of Proverbs, consider for example Proverbs 4.20:
This too could have been argued to be a parallel to Amenemope, but is far more likely to have been based on a the general approach of wisdom teaching current at the time. Compare also Proverbs 2.1-4; 3.1-2; 4.1-2, 10, 20-21; 5.1-2; 7.1-3; Psalm 78.1. Words like these were clearly a regular introduction to wisdom sayings.
Indeed, in The Teaching of Amennakht, we find a similar idea:
This reminds us that similarity of subject matter must not necessarily be seen as indicating direct borrowing.
It will be noted immediately that the first is a general admonition against robbery of the poor and oppression of the disabled, whilst the second specifically has in mind the cases where the courts of justice are used in order to gain advantage over the poor and afflicted (these courts met ‘at the gate’), and adds the fact that YHWH will Himself intervene on their behalf and take vengeance on those who misuse them. Thus what is common to both is just a general concern for the poor and weak, which is in fact found in a number of wisdom texts.
Again it will be noticed that the emphasis of Amenemope is on happiness in contrast with sorrow, a very human aim, the purpose being of bringing pleasure to oneself, whilst in the book of Proverbs the emphasis is on righteousness in contrast with injustice, a very moral aim, the purpose of which is to be pleasing God Who is the Judge of all.
Once again Amenemope’s are simple injunctions not to misuse measuring equipment, whereas Proverbs makes clear that a righteous God is involved. It is He Who does not approve of differing weights (weights which claim to measure the same amount but do not) and of false scales. Indeed they are an abomination to Him. Note also how Amenemope refers to the vendor ‘leaning on the scales’, something absent in Proverbs, where the scales are themselves false scales, and of him ‘damaging the fractions of the measure’. With him, but not with Solomon, the emphasis is on the direct activity of the vendor, acting in a dishonest way. Thus whilst dealing with the same concept, both writers do it in a very different way. (It should in fact be noted that Amenemope’s words include a number of statements about weights and measures, and are not limited to this).
In this regard we might note the words of Deuteronomy 25.13-15a;
Thus if comparisons are made Proverbs 20.23 should more likely be seen as an abbreviated version of these words in Deuteronomy.
It is claimed that the last two lines in each must be seen as one copying from the other. But Amenemope is speaking of ‘stolen riches’ whilst Solomon is speaking of ‘riches’ as a whole, and whilst there is otherwise certainly a general similarity of thought, once given the idea of riches flying off (which is found in other literature), the coincidence is not unlikely. Birds do fly towards heaven. And in fact this idea of riches being like a bird is not limited to Amenemope and Proverbs. For a Sumerian proverb says:
It will be noted that it is Proverbs and the Sumerian proverb which are more parallel, emphasising the transitory nature of riches fairly earned, whereas Amenemope is speaking about stolen riches which are uncertain. There is thus a very different emphasis in Amenemope, and this speaks against direct borrowing. At the most the writer in Proverbs, possibly unconsciously, draws on a phrase which has become fixed in his mind, altering it to suit his purpose. Furthermore the idea of something ‘taking wings’ and being lost is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. Thus we find:
It is not only riches which fly away like a bird, it is things both good and bad. Thus flying away like a bird is a common general idea. And clearly they fly towards heaven.
Once again we note the similarities and the differences. In the one case the reference is to ‘a scribe’, the other to ‘a man’, in the one case he is experienced in his office, in the other he is skilled in his work. In the one case the emphasis is on what he is worthy of, to stand before kings, in the other case the emphasis is on his aim, to stand before kings rather than obscure men (the verb used for ‘to stand’ means to stand ready for action). Thus whilst we can see a similar general pattern, it is different enough in each case to exclude the idea of direct borrowing. We see both conforming to the general ideas of Wisdom literature, but with Proverbs putting a greater emphasis on what is right, and good, and approved of (or otherwise) by God.
This last example reminds us that Wisdom teaching especially developed under the aegis of great kings, who would constantly consult their ‘wise men’ (Exodus 7.11; Isaiah 19.11-12; Daniel 2.2 with 12; Esther 1.13), something exemplified in the courts of David and Solomon (1 Chronicles 27.32-34). Indeed Solomon himself, having a great deal of leisure, was seen as a superlative exponent of wisdom teaching (1 Kings 4.30-31). And he clearly had a knowledge of the wisdom teaching of other nations. Israel thus shared a common heritage of wisdom teaching, and the prophets honoured, or criticised, both the wise men of Israel and the wise men of other nations (1 Kings 4.30-31; Isaiah 19.11-12; 47.10; Jeremiah 49.7; Ezekiel 28.3 ff.; Daniel 1.4, 20; Obadiah 1.8; Zechariah 9.2; Job 2.11 ff.), whilst acknowledging their status. One major difference, however, as exemplified in the Book of Proverbs, was that much wisdom material in Israel was specifically moral and was connected with the fear of YHWH. Indeed it was intended to make men ‘trust in YHWH with all their hearts’ (3.5; compare 22.19), whereas other wisdom literature tended to be marred by its association with an amoral polytheism. That is not to exclude the moral element, which all men of conscience would have in mind (morality has been in the world since Adam), but it is not as emphatic outside Israel. Biblical wisdom had a deeper moral basis rooted in the will of YHWH.
Wisdom In Israel.
An indication of wisdom teaching as present in Israel can be found in the sophisticated parable of Jotham, son of Gideon, in Judges 9.7-15, for such parables are a feature of wisdom teaching and his exquisite parable must surely indicate that he had had some training in the use of them. Furthermore we know of a town in the time of David which was famed from of old for containing a number of wise people (2 Samuel 20.18), and which at that time contained a wise woman spoken of as ‘a mother in Israel’ (2 Samuel 20.16, 19). Compare how Deborah the prophetess had also earlier been called ‘a mother in Israel’ (Judges 5.7), seemingly a designation for a ‘wise woman’, a woman who was looked up to as a guide in the way of YHWH. Thus it would appear that throughout Israel’s history there were those who were accepted as ‘wise men’ and ‘wise women’, (although not as ‘wisdom teachers’) and who were looked to for counsel. Ahithophel appears to have been such a one (2 Samuel 16.23), and presumably Hushai also (2 Samuel 15.34), whilst, as we have seen, by the time of David such wise men were officially seen at court (1 Chronicles 27.32-34). But they did not necessarily give orthodox wisdom teaching. On the other hand, the rise of Solomon as a wisdom teacher is best explained by the fact that he learned under orthodox Wisdom teachers.
For whilst Solomon was given special wisdom by God (1 Kings 4.29) the way in which he expressed it appears to indicate training in ‘wisdom’, for he made use of the tools of wisdom teaching, such as proverbs, pithy sayings and lessons from nature (1 Kings 4.32-33), and was acknowledged as a greater wisdom teacher than those in Egypt and Edom/Arabia (1 Kings 4.30-31, which suggests a fairly wide knowledge of that teaching), so much so that wisdom teachers flocked to hear him (1 Kings 4.34). It is not surprising therefore that we find some of his wisdom recorded in the Book of Proverbs. Indeed it would have been remarkable if some of his teaching had not survived. And it is noteworthy that it is actually stated that some of this was recounted by the wise men in the time of Hezekiah as being the wisdom of Solomon which had come down to them (25.1), either orally or in writing or both.
There would thus appear to have been a considerable amount of ‘Solomonic teaching’ which was passed on from one generation to another. (It is an interesting question as to why some who accept that the Teaching of Amenemope was written by someone called Amenemope, can in the next breath deny that what is said to have been written by Solomon, was in fact his work). This reference to ‘the men of Hezekiah’ demonstrates that the earliest date at which the book as a whole could have been completed is late on in the reign of Hezekiah (early 7th century BC), and it may well be that their activity resulted in a book which, incorporating earlier written material by Solomon (possibly 1-24), formed the nucleus of the Book of Proverbs, as the book itself claims. We have, on the other hand, no means of dating ‘the wise men’ (22.17; 24.23); ‘King Lemuel’ (31.1), and ‘Agur the son of Jakeh’ (30.1), some of whose works may have been added later. But the whole was probably completed by the 5th century BC, if not before.
Much is often made of the Aramaisms found in the book, but had the Ugaritic literature been passed down through the centuries scholars would undoubtedly have dated it late on the grounds of its Aramaisms. Outside Scripture, and apart from Ugarit, we have comparatively little evidence of Hebrew/Canaanite writings around that time so that there is no real way of judging how much Aramaic might have affected it. But what we can say is that the time of Solomon was a time when the nations converged on Jerusalem, when Jerusalem was full of foreign elements, when diplomatic correspondence was widespread, and exactly the time when Aramaisms may well have become popular. In consequence any criticism on that basis is purely arbitrary. Indeed, were it not for Ugarit, which demonstrates that Aramaisms came in much earlier, we could have used them as an argument for Solomonic authorship.
References To YHWH Or ‘Your Maker’.
It should be noted that, whatever may have been true of wisdom elsewhere, the wisdom in Proverbs is firmly rooted in YHWH. His name is introduced in every chapter apart from 4, 7 (in the Prologue); 13 (in the proverbs of Solomon), 26, 27 (in the further proverbs of Solomon). The purpose of Proverbs is thus the inculcation of the knowledge of God (2.5) and it is His ways which lie at the root of the whole book. Indeed, the aim of the book is to enable men to walk in the fear of YHWH (1.7; 2.5; 3.7; 8.13; 9.10; 10.27; 14.26, 27; 15.16, 33; 16.6; 19.23; 22.4; 23.17), which is parallel to the knowledge of God (2.5; 9.10). It is therefore far from being mere humanistic wisdom.
Wisdom as found in Proverbs is given by YHWH (2.6) and YHWH is specifically concerned with its practise (3.32-33; 5.21; 11.1; 12.22; 15.9, 26; 16.2, 5). In love He chastens and corrects men to this end (3.11-12). Thus in order to please YHWH it is necessary to abide by His wisdom as revealed in the book, a wisdom which lies at the root of the Universe (3.19; 8.22). Indeed, we observe wisdom, especially as it relates to the poor, precisely because He is ‘our Maker’ (14.31; 17.5; 22.2), the Maker of all both rich and poor, and the poor are therefore of great concern to Him. And this wisdom is found by ‘trusting in YHWH with all our hearts, and not leaning to our own understanding’ (3.5). The reader is thus to see the teaching in Proverbs as directly from YHWH, and to follow it for that reason. Those who follow His wisdom ‘know Him in all their ways’, and are thus directed by Him into the right paths (see 3.5-6). In other words Proverbs is to be seen as revealing to men the very heart of God, and its teaching is not just to be observed as a moral exercise, but precisely because it is the teaching of YHWH. It is to be an expression of personal faith.
The Contrast Between Life And Death In Proverbs.
A major theme in Proverbs is the contrast between life and death (11.19). Life is for the wise (13.14; 16.22). Death is for the unwise. Sometimes ‘life’ and ‘death’ simply mean being alive, or dying, in the way in which most people think of it. But in other cases it clearly means more than that. Thus those who walk in the way of righteousness, and are clearly therefore already alive, will ‘find life’ (8.35). Whilst those who walk in the ways of darkness will enter Sheol, the grave world (5.5; 7.27; 9.18; 15.24; 23.14), and Sheol is paralleled with death as being the fate of the unwise (5.5; 7.27). It is quite clear from this last that there is a kind of ‘death’ which is reserved only for the unwise (compare 12.28).
In contrast for those who walk in the way of righteousness there is life (12.28). Indeed, they walk in the paths of life (2.19; 6.23; 10.17). Seen from this viewpoint life includes ‘long life and length of days’ (3.2; 4.10; 9.11), and ‘spiritual life’ (3.18, 22; 4.22-23; 8.35; 10.16; 11.30; 19.23; 21.21; 22.4), that is, a quality of life which is superior to that of others.
On the other hand all knew that many unwise also had long lives and length of days. Thus even having ‘long life and length of days’ must here be suggesting not just living, but having an extra quality of life (as 3.17-18 makes clear). However, they were well aware that all men in the end die and go into the grave. Thus what is threatened to the unwise must mean more than just that. ‘Death and Sheol’ for the unwise indicate their permanent situation, a situation that the wise are clearly seen as avoiding (otherwise why the warning?). It would therefore be untrue to suggest that Proverbs sees us all as ending up in the same way in the end.
And there are verses which specifically indicate that it will be otherwise when interpreted in the light of these facts. Thus, ‘riches do not profit in the day of wrath but righteousness delivers from death’ (11.4). Theoretically this could indicate that when wrath came on Israel through natural disasters or invasion the righteous would escape physical death. But it would be so obvious to all from experience that this was patently untrue that we must question whether the verse could mean that if it is to have any meaning. It goes along with the verses above which see the unwise as suffering ‘death and Sheol’ in a way that the righteous will avoid.
Consider again, ‘the law of the wise is a wellspring of life, to depart from the snares of death’ (13.14; compare 10.2), and ‘the fear of YHWH is a wellspring of life, to depart from the snares of death’ (14.27). In both cases partaking of the wellspring of life, either through the instruction of the wise or through the fear of YHWH, will result in departing from ‘the snares of death’. Furthermore, ‘when the whirlwind passes the wicked is no more, but the righteous is an everlasting foundation’ (he is never ‘no more’) (10.25). He ‘has hope in his death’ (14.32). And even more emphatically, ‘to the wise the way of life goes upward, that he may depart from Sheol beneath’ (15.24). This is a clear statement that Sheol as a permanent place of existence will be escaped by the wise, because he goes upward from Sheol beneath.
Thus if words are to have any meaning Proverbs is indicating that what lies ahead for the wise in both life and in death is qualitatively different from what lies ahead for the unwise.
That being so we must consider these verses in terms of other teaching found elsewhere in the Old Testament, namely in Psalms of David. There also we find a similar idea. ‘For you will not leave my life to Sheol, nor will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy, and at your right hand are pleasures for evermore’ (Psalm 16.10-11). If it did not in some way indicate conscious life beyond death this would be very misleading. The Psalmist says again in 17.15, ‘as for me I will behold your face in righteousness, I will be satisfied when I awake in your likeness’ (Psalm 17.15). It is true that we cannot read these as giving a full blown picture of a future life as indicated in the New Testament (and suggested in Isaiah 25.8; 26.19 with 26.14; Daniel 12.2-3). But we must surely see in them an assurance that for those who were truly His, death was not to be the end of existence. In some way they would continue to enjoy ‘life’ in His presence. And we may see this as confirmed by the words of Ecclesiastes 12.7, ‘and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God Who gave it’.
Taken individually all these verses could be interpreted differently if we worked on the basis of the wording alone. But taken as a whole in the light of their context they clearly indicate for the wise a hope for a future ‘life’ in the presence of God. It is the only idea that makes sense of the promises and warnings in Proverbs when taken together.
Brief Outline Of The Book.
The book divides easily into sections:
This pattern of a main heading and introduction commencing a prologue, followed by one or more subsidiary sections headed by minor subtitles is a feature of much early wisdom teaching. Thus 1.1-24.34 can be seen as following the regular pattern of ancient wisdom literature, with the headings (main heading followed by subheadings) confirming its unity rather than militating against it. This confirms that they are to be seen as a unity. Furthermore the regular use of parallel couplets point to an early date. for they were prevalent in the wisdom literature of 3rd and 2nd millenniums BC, and not so much in that of the 1st millennium BC. These factors, along with the main heading and the genuine reputation that Solomon had for wisdom (1 Kings 4.29-34), which however taken indicate extensive activity, point to Solomonic authorship of that material.
Introduction To The Prologue (1.1-7).
The book commences with an introduction which explains its purpose in some depth. Its aim is to pass on ‘the sayings of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel’ so as to give understanding and wisdom with regard to moral living (‘receiving instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity’) in order that those who would might increase in understanding and obtain ‘wise counsels’. Rather than being unusual, the recording of wisdom ‘sayings’ by a king has good precedent (e.g. Khety I; the father of Merikare; Amenemhat I; Shuruppak) and there is thus no good reason for denying to Solomon the authorship of 1.1-24.34.
1.1 ‘The sayings of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel.’
This is now the heading for the whole book, the contents being described by reference to the main contributor, with the final contributions by Agur and Lemuel being added later (or possibly even appended by Solomon himself). The book thus itself makes quite clear that a small proportion of its contents are not the product of Solomon. These words may, however, originally have been the heading for an earlier compilation, which was then added to (e.g. 1.1-24.34, to which was added 25.1 onwards), or one which was transferred, along with what followed it, from a work where the contents were indeed all recognised as being the work of Solomon.
It should be noted that here there is no reference to the name of the person being addressed (the one who is later called ‘my son’). Analogous ancient Near Easter wisdom literature, typically at this point name the ‘son’ to whom the wisdom is addressed, its aim being to prepare him for succession to the office of the writer and indicate his subsequent suitability for the position. But the words of Solomon are addressed to all in Israel who will heed his words. He is speaking on behalf of God to ‘God’s son’, i.e. Israel (Exodus 4.22). They are a revelation of God’s wisdom to Israel (2.5-6).
Others, however, argue that this verse is simply the heading for chapters 1-9 in view of the fact that what are seen as similar headings are found later (10.1 - ‘the sayings of Solomon’; 24.23 - ‘these also are of the wise’; 25.1 - ‘these also are the sayings of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, copied out’; 30.1 - ‘the words of Agur the son of Jakeh, an oracle’; 31.1 - ‘the words of King Lemuel, an oracle, which his mother taught him’). To some extent therefore it remains an open question. But in fact the fuller heading in 1.1 reads like a main heading, whilst the more abbreviated 10.1 and 24.23 read as subsidiary headings, and as this is precisely the phenomenon which occurs in wisdom literature elsewhere, it would seem probable that we are to see the work as originally one unit, at least as far as 24.34. Either way it would be underlining the idea that chapters 1-9 are indeed the work of Solomon, and in the light of the findings at Ugarit, which are used by some scholars to illuminate the meaning of Proverbs, there are no good grounds for denying it. And this suggestion that it is genuinely the work of Solomon is backed up by the number of proverbs which deal with court matters.
Note how the aim is that men may ‘know wisdom and instruction’ (verse 2a), whilst it is ‘the foolish’ who ‘despise wisdom and instruction’ (verse 7). And this has in mind YHWH because it is ‘the fear of YHWH which is the beginning of knowledge’. The aim is that men may ‘discern the words of understanding’ (verse 2b), and they do this by ‘understanding the words of the wise’ (verse 6). It is that men might ‘receive instruction in wise dealing’ (verse 3) -- thus ‘increasing in learning -- and attaining to sound counsels’ (verse 5). The chiastic pattern will be noted. It may be presented as follows:
We now learn the purpose of the book. It is intended to be a guide and an enlightener in the pursuit of righteous living and godliness, (for the ‘wisdom’ and ‘instruction’ relate to God’s ways - 2.5-6), giving discernment and instruction in wise behaviour, behaviour which is in accordance with righteousness, justice and equity. In view of 1.7 it could be described as a book on how to ‘live in the light of the fear of God’.
The idea of wisdom in Proverbs is not of philosophical understanding, but of practical understanding based on the fear of God. The wise man heeds ‘instruction accompanied by chastening’ (musar), (or ‘disciplinary instruction’) both from God (3.11-12) and from godly men (in those days primarily his parents - 1.8) and does what is right. He has skill and expertise in God’s ways because he has listened to the outward instruction of God’s word (torah - 1.8b) and the inner voice of God (2.6; compare 3.11-12). He is thus a man of discernment, ‘discerning the words of understanding’ (1.2b). He obtains true knowledge and becomes discreet in his ways (1.2b, 4). And in Israel this knowledge results in ‘wise dealing, and in righteousness, justice and equity’ (1.3). It is unquestionably moral and God-pleasing.
Note how the references to ‘wisdom’ and ‘understanding’ are taken up in verse 5 with reference to ‘the wise man’ and ‘the man of understanding’, and again in verse 7 where they are connected with ‘the fear of YHWH’, whilst 2.5-6 bring home to us that this wisdom is given by God, and that it is from His mouth that knowledge and understanding comes. What is being taught is not general wisdom, but divine wisdom from the mouth of YHWH.
Its content is addressed:
It has thus a lesson for all who are facing life and are willing to respond to God’s ways. And it will do this through proverbs and figures designed to arouse interest and understanding, and by bringing home the words of the wise and making clear the meaning of their ‘mysterious sayings’ (compare Judges 14.12; I Kings 10.1).
And at the root of all this is the fear of YHWH. These purposes in verses 2-6 will be achieved in those who ‘fear YHWH’, for in that is the beginning (or prime element) of knowledge. In other words true and worthwhile knowledge about life has its roots in ‘fearing YHWH’ (responding to Him as a loving, but authoritative, figure) and in ‘knowing God’ (1.29; 2.5, 6; 9.10). The emphasis is thus on a ‘spiritual’ life, one lived in conscious dependence on Him. Such a man wants to walk with God. The one who ‘fears YHWH’ (that is, who pays reverent regard to Him and to His requirements in the same way as a man should ‘fear’ his father and his mother - Leviticus 19.3) will be the one who will take heed because he wants to do what is right in His sight. He walks in a personal relationship with God. He departs from evil (3.7; 8.13).
In contrast are the foolish who do not fear YHWH (compare Psalm 14.1) and who therefore despise such wisdom and instruction. They live their lives mainly heedless, through deliberate choice, of God and His ways. Thus to Solomon ‘wisdom’ is not just a collection of teaching about living, it is rooted in a personal relationship with, and a reverent obedience towards, YHWH, the covenant God.
This idea of the reverent fear of YHWH does not only occur here. It underlies the first nine chapters (see 1.29; 2.5; 8.13; 9.10), and continues on up to chapter 23 (see 10.27; 14.26, 27; 15.16, 33; 16.6; 19.23; 22.4; 23.17). Thus the idea of the fear of YHWH underlies chapters 1-24. It is this that gives full significance to what is being said. It demonstrates that the teaching reveals the mind of God. It will also be noted that reference to it brings together the words of Solomon and ‘the words of the wise’ (22.17-24.34), as indeed 1.6 emphasises. And it makes them more than just a collection of improving sayings. They have all rather become a guide to living the spiritual life.
Proverbs makes clear that the fear of YHWH (looking for him to exercise the discipline of a father - 3.12; Leviticus 19.3; Psalm 103.13) is a course that men must choose, and that it will be neglected by those who hate true knowledge, spiritual knowledge (1.29), for the fear of YHWH and the knowledge of God are in parallel (2.5; 9.10). Those who do fear God will walk in accordance with His instruction (Jeremiah 44.10). They look to Him to be the directer of their paths (3.6). So it is men’s response to YHWH which makes clear the direction in which their lives are pointed. This parallels the idea of those who walk in the narrow way as spoken of by Jesus, rather than the broad way (Matthew 7.13-14). Those who gain true wisdom and understanding will understand the fear of YHWH, and find the true knowledge of God (2.5). Consequently it leads to a spiritual grasp of the truth. The one who thus finds the fear of YHWH will hate evil (8.13), and will grow in true spiritual wisdom and understanding (9.10). The book thus claims to be an inculcator of divine knowledge, rather than just earthly knowledge. It is speaking to the true heart and giving spiritual discernment. In this it is different from much other wisdom literature.
Prologue To The Book (1.8-9.18).
It was common throughout the 3rd to the 1st millenniums BC for collections of wisdom saying to have a prologue preparing for the ‘sayings’ that would follow. Those sayings would then be introduced by a subheading. Proverbs thus follows the usual precedent in having such a prologue in 1.8-9.18, followed by general sayings in 10.1 ff headed by a subheading (10.1). It was also common for such a prologue to be addressed to ‘my son’, or similar, with constant references being made to ‘my son’ throughout the prologue. And this is interestingly a feature of Proverbs 1-9, where it occurs fifteen times. One difference, however, lies in the fact that the ‘son’ was usually named in other wisdom literature, something which does not occur in Proverbs. Indeed, in Proverbs ‘my son’ is sometimes replaced by ‘sons’ (4.1; 5.7; 7.24; 8.32). It is addressed to whoever will hear and respond.
The Prologue consists of ten discourses, and divides into two. It commences with five discourses, each of which follows a similar pattern, an opening appeal followed by two further subsections, and closing with a contrast between the righteous and the unrighteous, the wise and the foolish. We can compare how there are five ‘books’ to the Torah, and five books of Psalms. Five is the covenant number. Each of the subsections is in the form of a chiasmus.
From chapter 6 onwards the pattern changes. Initially we find a description of three types, whom we could describe as the naive, the foolish, the wicked (6.1-19), and this is followed by 6.20-9.18 which are centred on the contrast between the seductive power of the strange woman, and the uplifting power of woman wisdom, all continually urging the young man to turn from the enticements of the world and choose wisdom.
The prologue may be analysed as follows;
The Five Discourses.
1). Discourse 1. Addressed To ‘My Son’. Those Who Seek To Walk In The Fear Of YHWH Will Listen To The Instruction Of Godly Authority, And Will Avoid The Enticements Of Sinners Motivated By Greed. Wisdom Is Then Depicted As Crying Out To Be Heard, Longing For Response, Promising Inculcation Of Her Own Spirit, And Warning Of The Consequences Of Refusal (1.8-33).
2). Discourse 2. Addressed To ‘My Son’. The Source Of True Wisdom Is YHWH, And Those Who Truly Seek Wisdom Will Find YHWH Himself, And He Will Then Reveal His Wisdom To Them. This Wisdom That God Gives Them Will Then Deliver Them From All Who Are Evil, Both From Men Who Have Abandoned The Right Way, And From The Enticements Of Immoral Women (2.1-22).
3). Discourse 3. Addressed To ‘My Son’. The Young Man Is To Trust In YHWH, To Fear YHWH And To Honour YHWH, And In View Of Their Great Value Is To Find YHWH’s Wisdom And Obtain Understanding Which Will Be His Protection And Will Through YHWH’s Chastening Activity Restore Him To Man’s First Estate. In View Of Them He Is To Observe A Series Of Practical Requirements Which Will Result In Blessing For The Wise (3.1-35).
4). Discourse 4. Addressed to ‘Sons’. Wisdom And Understanding Are To Be Sought And Cherished, For They Produce Spiritual Beauty, and Lead Those Who Respond Unto The Perfect Day (4.1-19).
5). Discourse 5. Addressed To ‘My Son’ (and later ‘Sons’). He Is To Avoid The Enticements Of The Strange Woman Whose Ways Lead To Death, And Rather Be Faithful To His True Wife (4.20-5.23).
A Description Of Three Contrasting Failures.
6). Discourse 6. The Naive, The Fool And The Scorner Illustrated. The First Addressed To ‘My Son’ Is A Call To Avoid Acting As A Surety For Others, The Second Addressed To ‘You Sluggard’, Is A Call To Shake Off Laziness, And The Third, Unaddressed, Concerns A Worthless Person And A Troublemaker (6.1-19).
A Contrast Between The Strange Seductive Woman And The Pure Woman Wisdom.
Discourse 7. Addressed To ‘My Son’. He Is Urged To Observe The Commandment And The Torah Of Father And Mother, Avoiding The Enticement Of The Adulterous Woman, And Being Aware Of The Wrath Of The Deceived Husband (6.20-35).
Discourse 8. Addressed To ‘My Son’. After Appealing To Him To Observe His Words Solomon Vividly Describes The Wiles Of A Prostitute And Warns ‘Sons’ Against Her (7.1-27).
Discourse 9. The Call of Ms Wisdom As The One Who Seeks Response, Gives Men True Instruction, Ensures Good Government, Enriches Men Physically and Spiritually, Was Present With God During Creation, And Blesses Men And Brings Them Into Life So That They Find God’s Favour (8.1-36).
Discourse 10. The Appeal Of Woman Wisdom Contrasted With The Allure Of Woman Folly (9.1-18).
Discourse 1. Addressed To ‘My Son’. Those Who Seek To Walk In The Fear Of YHWH Will Listen To The Instruction Of Godly Authority, And Will Avoid The Enticements Of Sinners Motivated By Greed. Wisdom Is Then Depicted As Crying Out To Be Heard, Longing For Response, Promising Inculcation Of Her Own Spirit, And Warning Of The Consequences Of Refusal (1.8-33).
Addressed to ‘my son’ (especially the young men of his kingdom) this discourse divides up into three parts and ends with a contrast between the fate of ‘the naive/fools’ and those ‘who hear’. The three parts may be seen as follows:
In what follows we have a description of the old age battle between lawful authority and those who would encourage us to unlawfulness. The stress is on the fact that we are to look to the one and reject the other, however attractive the latter might appear. In Israel that lawful authority lay in the hands of the father of the family, then of the father of the wider family, then of the father of the clan, then of the father of the tribe, depending on what was at issue. Thus the father of the family was the first in the line of authority. And as such he was to be listened to, and was expected to exercise discipline. The family was to ‘fear him’ (Leviticus 19.3), that is respond to him in respectful obedience. The New Testament requires the same attitude of Christians towards reasonable judges (Romans 13.1-7; 1 Peter 2.13-14).
It will be noted that the book assumes a monogamous marriage. The assumption is that both father and mother will take a genuine interest in their children, and will be concerned to guide and lead them. Furthermore, responding to their guidance and instruction will not be an arduous duty. It will rather be like the wearing of floral crowns and floral chains at a feast. It will decorate their lives and make glad their hearts, proclaiming to others their joyful obedience to God (these would be what they naturally thought of when thinking in terms of ‘crowns’ and ‘necklaces’). Or less likely, based on Egyptian parallels, the thought may be of a crown of victory, and a necklace of protection, with guidance and instruction being depicted as the means of victory and security in life.
In contrast those who listen to the enticements of tempters will discover that it results in their ‘losing their lives’, either in loss of enjoyment and value, or, at the extreme, in losing life itself. We can compare in this regard how Jesus often spoke of true life, and warned that ‘he who would save his life (by not walking in the fear of YHWH with all its consequences), will lose it’ (Mark 8.35). What they cling on to will in the end turn to ashes. Jesus pointed out that it is He Who brings us life which is ‘life indeed’, in contrast with those who respond to evildoers and are diverted from following Him (John 10.10). In Solomon’s eyes that life was experienced through ‘fearing God’ and knowing Him and His ways. Such people are reborn of the Spirit (1.23; Psalm 51.10; 143.10).
Each dissertation that accompanies an appeal in chapters 1 to 3 is divided into three parts. Each commences with ‘my son’ and an appeal to listen and take heed accompanied by an argument as to why they should do so (1.8-9; 2.1-11; 3.1-10). This is followed by an exhortation or warning (1.10-19; 2.12-15; 3.11-20), and then by a further section (1.21-35; 2.16-22; 3.21-35), each of which ends with a contrast between the upright and the wicked or their equivalents (1.32-33; 2.21-22; 3.33-35). Furthermore, in each of chapters 1 and 2 we have three voices seen as speaking to men. In chapter 1 they are 1) the voices of the parents, 2) the voices of the sinners, 3) the voice of the woman Wisdom. In chapter 2 they are 1) the voice of Solomon, 2) the voice of evil men, 3) the voice of the seductive ‘strange woman’ There may be an intended contrast in chapter 1 and 2, following the parallel warnings against evil men (1.10-19; 2.12-15) between the good woman Wisdom who advises men honestly and leads men into truth (1.21-35), and the ‘strange/foreign woman’ who entices men deceitfully and leads men into sin (2.16-22).
Addressed To ‘My Son’. Those Who Seek To Walk In The Fear Of YHWH Will Listen To The Instruction Of Godly Authority (1.8-9).
Here in chapter 1 the appeal is a fairly short one, but the writer may well have had in mind that he had already given a detailed analysis of wisdom and understanding in verses 2-7. It does, however, lay down the important principle that the chief source of wisdom to the family is the father and the mother.
‘My son.’ This was a regular way in which wisdom teachers addressed their students, and we have examples of this expression in wisdom literature from elsewhere, although often in that literature it was addressed to an individual who was being prepared to take over responsibilities. They saw their students as to some extent their children in wisdom and knowledge.
‘My son’ occurs as follows:
Sometimes he uses the address ‘sons’ (e.g. 4.1; 5.7), thus making clear that ‘my son’ is composite. He is not referring to Rehoboam, or to his hundreds of other sons (he had three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines), for if Rehoboam had offered himself as a surety he was hardly likely to be financially embarrassed (6.1-5), and those words were clearly addressed to a theoretical case.
With regard to the use of ‘my son’ and ‘sons’ we can compare how Deborah and the wise woman were seen as ‘mothers in Israel’ (Judges 5.7; 2 Samuel 20.19), those who guided people in God’s ways. But this did address did not prevent Solomon from recognising that the prime instructors and disciplinarians of the people were their own fathers and mothers (1.8; 6.20). In Israel the spiritual education of the children was very much their father’s responsibility, and, under his authority, their mother’s. See Exodus 12.26-27; 13.8; Deuteronomy 6.20-25; 11.19; 32.7; etc. These were their guides to true and godly living in accordance with the Torah (Law/Instruction), and in accordance with revealed wisdom. The passing on of Wisdom teaching for Israel lay firmly in the hands of the parents, and included the Torah.
The importance given to the teaching of father and mother comes out again in 6.20 where Solomon tells his ‘son’ to ‘keep the commandment of your father, and do not forsake the law (torah) of your mother’, and in 10.1 where, ‘a wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother’. This last is important in stressing that the father and mother were acting in their son’s best interests, and thus found delight in his obedience (see also 3.12). This was all one with the commandment to ‘honour your father and your mother’, indicating walking before them in respectful obedience, as required by the covenant (Exodus 20.12; Deuteronomy 5.16). And this was because to their children they were to be the prime figures of authority.
But that this authority was not expected to be exercised in a heavy-handed way comes out in the vivid picture used, that their instruction and law would be like a floral crown gracing the head, and a floral chain around their necks, symbols of joy and celebration, as well as of honour (these would be the crowns and necklaces best known to the common people). The word for ‘crown’ or ‘wreath’ is found elsewhere only in 4.9, where it parallels a crown of glory (or ‘splendour’). The word for necklace is used elsewhere of decorative necklaces (Judges 8.26 - a camel’s necklace; Song of Solomon 4.9 - a maiden’s necklace). They were to be signs of honour, and of a loving, responsive and joyous relationship. This was the ideal.
Others, however, see the crown and necklace as indicating victory and protection based on possible Egyptian parallels. Then the thought is that victory and security in life will be achieved by following the disciplinary instruction and teaching of their fathers and mothers (in other words, seen ideally, by following godly authority).
Note that it is the father who ‘instructs/disciplines’ (compare 3.12) whilst the mother teaches ‘the law (Torah)’. He was the overall head responsible for instruction and discipline, she was a guide to God’s torah. Thus it was the father of the household who had prime responsibility for instruction and discipline, and was, if necessary, expected to exercise discipline in the way which was customary at the time, through the use of the rod (13.24; 22.15; 23.13). But it is noteworthy that one citation from Solomon himself (13.24) stresses that this is to be done in fatherly love. It was not to be vindictive. Today we do not beat our children with rods, but the use of rods for punishment was customary at that time over a much wider sphere, and was thus seen as the right way of going about things. Life was harder then, time was limited and child psychology was unknown. Discipline had to be swift, effective and seen to be exerted. Nevertheless the lesson is that it is still necessary for us to exercise some form of genuine discipline on our children if we really love them, even if we think we have better ways of going about it. The basic principle is ‘exercise proper discipline over your children’, but expressed in terms of that day, it is not that the rod is the only way of achieving it.
The Compelling Need To Avoid The Enticements Of Sinners Motivated By Greed (1.10-19).
Solomon now vividly portrays the dangers of greed and violence, two things which often go together. The one who responds to God’s wisdom will avoid such enticements. The ideas are presented in chiastic fashion:
In A sinners seek to entice, and in the parallel it is greed that entices. In B they lie in wait for blood, and lurk secretly for the innocent, and in the parallel they lie in wait for their own blood, and lurk secretly for their own live. In C they want to bring men to death, and in the parallel they make haste to shed blood. In D they seek ill-gotten gain, and in the parallel their feet run to do evil. Centrally in E they call on the young man to follow them and in the parallel wisdom tells him not to walk in their paths.
Others besides their fathers and mothers will seek to ‘guide’ them. And to them they are not to give consent. For in contrast to the instruction and discipline of father and mother, will be the influence of some of their contemporaries more their own age, who will seek to lead them astray. These will entice them by seeking to arouse their greed, and by offering close companionship. They are described as ‘sinners’, that is people who have wrong intent, and ‘miss the mark’ and turn men in the wrong path.
Peer pressure and gang cultures were just as prevalent in those days as they are in some quarters today, and we must remember that a ‘gang’ (peer group) today might equally be a group of sophisticated people united in a common bond. They can equally get up to, and inculcate, mischief. Thus there is the warning against mixing with and ganging up with the wrong people. There will always be those who seek to ‘entice us’ and lead us astray from God’s instruction, and encourage us to be dishonest, and even violent, and they are to be avoided.
The people described here were the kind of people who would encourage violence with the aim of dishonest gain, lying in wait for innocent people in order to rob them. The intensity of their evil is brought out by the vividness of the description. They delighted in sending people into Sheol and ‘the pit’. Sheol was the shadowy underworld of the grave to which the dead went, the great unknown, the place of darkness and forgetfulness (see Psalm 6.5; Isaiah 14.9-15; Ezekiel 32.21, 27). ‘The pit’ was another way of describing it. They were places which were empty of life. They were thus by their actions robbing people of their futures as well as of their goods.
Their aim was dishonest gain, and the motive was greed. They wanted to ‘fill their houses with spoil’. They wanted to possess possessions. But an equally special appeal lay in the comradeship arising from all sharing in the one pot, of all being one together. By heeding the ‘advice’ of their peers they would be ‘accepted’ among their contemporaries. ‘You shall cast your lot among us.’ Each would participate in the excitement of the division of the spoils by lot. ‘We will all have one purse’. They would be all one in purpose, and in the sharing of the spoils. All this would make them feel that they were ‘independent’ of parental control and that they ‘belonged’ in the group. But they would in practise simply have replaced the godly authority of their parents, who were concerned for their good, with the ungodly authority of the group whose only concern was dishonest gain. The principle equally applies of course to any attempt to gain from others by underhand means, and any gathering together which leads to wrongdoing. Today men and women simply do it in a more sophisticated way. It is equally possible to destroy a man by ruining his reputation, or holding him up to ridicule.
‘Let us lay wait for blood.’ Note the emphasis on blood in the passage. ‘They scurry to shed blood’ (verse 16). They ‘lay wait for their own blood’ (verse 18). They were bloodthirsty days, and Solomon is using an extreme example to get over his point. Violent death was a common experience in days when men went about armed and there were no police. It is significant that in the prologue it is violence and illicit sex that are the two major sins inveighed against. Times have not changed.
As a surrogate father he pleads with ‘his son’ not to ‘walk in the way with them’, in other words not to ‘walk in the counsel of the ungodly’ (Psalm 1.1). Rather he is to refrain from following in their path. He is to resist their enticements. And that is because their feet run to do evil. Thus we are to beware of allowing our contemporaries to lead us into what comes short of the best. In mind here is an extreme example. They are so eager to shed blood that they scurry along in order to do so. Others may be eager for lesser sins, as the book will go on to show, but their ways are still to be avoided.
The writer then points out the folly of all this. He ‘considers their end’ (Psalm 73.17). For, he says, what they are doing will in the end rebound on themselves. They are in essence setting a trap for themselves. They ‘lay in wait for blood’ (verse 11), but do not realise that they are in essence ‘lying in wait for their own blood’. They ‘lurk secretly for the innocent’ (verse 11) but do not thereby realise that they are lurking secretly for their own lives. They fail to recognise that inevitably their actions will bring evil consequences for themselves.
The point behind the illustration is that, very foolishly, they are by their actions setting a trap for themselves, or throwing a net over themselves, in full view of themselves. (Inscriptions picturing hunters creeping up on birds in order to cast a net over them have been discovered in Egypt). They may be hidden from others in their hiding place, but they are not hidden from themselves. They are fully aware of what they are doing. How foolish therefore they are, for only the foolish person lays a snare or casts a net in full view, so that it is obvious, with the consequence that he does it in vain. A sensible person, when seeking to ensnare birds, does not make his net or his presence obvious. He disguises both so that the bird will not know they are there. (Indeed, that is why these people wait for their victims in ambush. They do it so that they will not be discerned). But what they foolishly do not realise is that they are in fact laying an ambush which will finally trap themselves, and one thing that is sure is that they cannot hide from themselves. They are setting what will finally trap them in full view of their own eyes. Thus they are being doubly foolish. They are doing wrong and they are behaving as no sensible person would do. And the end of their behaviour can only be their own loss when in some way or other they are brought to account. They are by their actions in fact ‘lying in wait for their own blood’.
And why do they behave in this way? It is because they are greedy to obtain wealth though wrong methods. Their hearts are full of covetousness and greed. They will do anything for money. As Paul would later point out, ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Timothy 6.10).
But such an attitude can only in the end take away their lives (as they themselves have taken away the lives of others). It takes away their lives daily as it results in a spiritually impoverished life and a destruction of their finer feelings. And it will destroy them in the end because they will be brought into judgment. Thus unknown to them greed will take away their lives from them, even though outwardly they may appear to prosper from it. We can compare the Psalmist’s words concerning such people, ‘then I considered their latter end’ (Psalm 73.17). We all need to consider, not only what we do, but also its final end.
Wisdom Is Depicted As Crying Out To Be Heard, Longing For Response, Promising Inculcation Of Her Own Spirit, And Warning Of The Consequences Of Refusal (1.20-33).
We have here the first of the wisdom passages, where Wisdom herself speaks, crying out to be heard and warning of the consequences of refusal. But Wisdom is essentially God’s Wisdom. Consider especially 3.19-20; 8.22-31. Thus when Wisdom speaks, God speaks.
The passage conveys its ideals chiastically:
Note the chiastic arrangement, A paralleling A, B paralleling B, and so on. Central to the chiasmus is that Wisdom will mock the so-called wisdom of those who will undoubtedly suffer calamities and experience their fear, because of their refusal to heed her. For this fear and these calamities (note the reversal) will come like a storm and a whirlwind. It is quite clear elsewhere that these calamities are seen as coming from the hand of YHWH (3.25-26, 33; 10.3; 12.2; 15.3), a constant message of the Old Testament.
Wisdom Is Depicted As Crying Out In Longing That People Will Respond To Her Words And Gain From What She Offers (1.20-23).
Wisdom is now personified as a woman crying out to people to respond to her words. She is in direct contrast to the woman who cries out to young men seeking to lead them astray (2.1-19; 7.8-27) whose name is Folly (9.13-18). See also 5.3-11; 6.24-35. Thus God’s Wisdom is to be the palliative to immoral yearnings. The one who listens to His wisdom will not be led astray.
It is quite clear from what follows that Wisdom is speaking on behalf of God. To the writer she is not only wisdom, she is God’s wisdom (2.6). This will especially come out in chapter 8. Thus she not only reproves, but also conveys her own spirit to those who will listen. But to those who refuse to listen she can only offer judgment, and mock them because they are suffering the consequences of their refusal. However, then it will be too late to call upon wisdom. She will not hear. And because they have refused to choose the fear of YHWH, and rejected His wisdom, they will suffer the consequences. In contrast those who have responded to God’s wisdom and have chosen the ‘fear of YHWH’, will live in quiet without fear of evil coming on them. Wisdom and the will of YHWH go hand in hand. There is nothing secular about this wisdom.
Wisdom, in other words, to the writer, God’s word to men which men should respond to in the fear of YHWH, is now personified. She cries out to the ordinary man in the street, she utters her voice to the ordinary man in the public squares, and she even makes herself known to those who sit in judgment in the gateway of the city, in the chief place of hubbub and discussion, where people meet to talk. The whole city hears her words. The gateway included the open space leading through the gate, and the rooms to each side used for storage, record keeping and the meeting together of principle men of the city (see Ruth 4.1-3).
We note here that in Solomon’s view wisdom was for all. His words were not just intended for a small group of academics, or for an individual. They were intended to be heard by the masses.
She calls on the unresponsive to become responsive, and in the process divides them into three groups, the naive, the scoffers and the fools. Note the intensity of response which is involved. They ‘love’ naivety. They ‘delight in’ (‘covet’) scoffing. They ‘hate’ knowledge. These factors possess and rule their lives. These contrast with ‘love’ for God (Deuteronomy 6.5) or for His instruction (Psalm 119.27), ‘delight in’ His word (Psalm 19.10), and ‘hating’ sin (Psalm 97.10). Men must choose one or the other.
The naive, or ‘simple ones’, are those who go on heedless of God’s words, ignoring wisdom, not because they are antagonistic, but simply because they are drifting through life and following their own way. They ‘love’ their naivete. They cling on to it fervently. It frees them from responsibility. But they are easily led astray (7.7; 9.16).
The scorners (compare Psalm 1.1) are those who openly mock God’s wisdom. They prefer their own wisdom. They feel themselves superior. And so they take great delight in their mockery, and in rejecting His Wisdom. They ‘covet’ their scoffing.
The fools behave like those who are mad. They know God’s wisdom, but deliberately go against it for their own benefit. They ‘say in their hearts, there is no God’ (Psalm 14.1), and behave as though there is not, not because they do not believe in Him, but because they find it more convenient to ignore Him. They ‘hate’ the truth for they know that if they heed God’s wisdom they will be unable to do what they want to do. Their businesses or their personal lives will be affected. They are not stupid. They are often highly intelligent. But their response to God is superficial, thus demonstrating what fools they are
So God’s wisdom, the way of the fear of YHWH (verse 29), calls on all men and women for their response, and pleads with them to turn from their present ways at her reproof.
And she points out that what she offers is worth having. She will ‘pour out’ her spirit on them, like the heavy rains of winter which will produce fruitfulness, working in their hearts a true appreciation of her, and giving them the motivation to follow her. She will imbue them with her own ‘spirit’ and make her words known to them. Thus her words are living and active. Her spirit will activate their spirits. This is none other than God Himself active in men’s lives through His wisdom. In other words her hope is that they will cry out, ‘create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51.10), and ‘teach me to do your will, for you are my God, your Spirit is good, lead me in the land of uprightness’ (Psalm 143.10).
And she will make known her words to them, giving them understanding and a true knowledge of God, and making it known within them (2.5). This makes clear that she is God’s wisdom, for in the end, as the writer tells us, it is YHWH Who gives this wisdom, knowledge and understanding (2.6).
But If They Refuse To Respond To Wisdom’s Voice And Fail To Choose The Fear Of YHWH Then One Day, When They Suffer The Consequences Of Their Refusal As They Surely Will, Wisdom Will Mock At Them, And When They Call Will No Longer Hear Them. It Will Be Too Late For Repentance And They Will Continue To Suffer The Consequences Of Their Rejection. But Those Who Do Respond Will Live In Quietness And Peace Without Fear (1.24-33).
Wisdom now draws their attention to the alternative. If they will not listen to her then disaster will come upon them, and then they will learn too late the laughable nature of their own human wisdom. Note the assumption that in each city there are large numbers who refuse to respond to wisdom. Solomon was well aware of the hardness of men’s heart
It is possible, in line with other places in Scripture, that there is here a sudden introduction of the voice of God Himself. It is in fact quite common in the Old Testament to find God suddenly speaking without the writer giving any indication of the fact. It is something which can only be discerned by the content of the words. And that could certainly be true here. But taking the passage as a whole it would still appear to be Wisdom who is speaking. However, in this case the question is not too important, for if it is Wisdom speaking, as it almost certainly is, the writer constantly makes clear that, like the word of God to the prophets, it is the Wisdom of God speaking to men (2.5-6). Thus she is to be seen as speaking on behalf of God Himself. For in the end it is God Himself Who calls to men and stretches out His hands to them through His Wisdom. And the point here is that they have refused to hear the voice of God and submit to the fear of YHWH (verse 29).
Note again the intensity of feeling. Through His wisdom God has ‘called’, He has ‘stretched out His hand’, He has given ‘counsel’, He has ‘reproved’. He has done all that He could. But they have ‘refused’, they have ‘disregarded’, they have ‘set at naught’, they would ‘have none of it’. So through His words of wisdom God has called for man’s response, but men have refused to hear; He has stretched out His hand, but they have disregarded it. Indeed they have set His words of wisdom at naught, and have refused to take note of their reproof. The implication is that they are thus found guilty before Him. They have not come to His wisdom in the fear of YHWH. There is a reminder here that we too should take note of His words of wisdom, if we too would avoid His judgment. The proof that we fear God will be found in our response to His Wisdom (and His word).
When the day of calamity (a day of trembling) comes, and when the things that they fear most come upon them, (as come they will, just as inevitably as storms and whirlwinds come), Wisdom will laugh at their folly in following their own wisdom. She will mock the folly of their ideas. In other words, wisdom will show up their stupidity. The emphasis is not on her mocking them in their situation, but on her mocking the folly which has brought them to their situation. They had been wise in their own eyes, and now their wisdom has come to nought. It has proved futile. Their wisdom has turned out to be laughable. The point is that basically they had mocked wisdom, and thus wisdom now mocks them. The aim of the words is in order to bring out the laughable folly of those who do not receive the wisdom that comes from God.
Note the interesting contrast between the ‘pouring out’ of her ‘spirit’ (verse 23) like the fruitful rains, and their ‘fear’ coming like a fierce storm and whirlwind of calamity. If we refuse the first we will experience the second. Note also the small chiasmus in the parallels, ‘Calamity - fear - fear - calamity’, typical of Hebrew poetry. Wisdom emphasises the greatness of the calamity and fear that is coming. Here fear indicates ‘what you fear’. What they fear will come like a storm, something which is inevitable and fiercely destructive. Their calamity (cause of trembling) will come on them like a whirlwind, which arises suddenly and causes distress and chaos. And as a result distress and anguish will inescapably come upon them. It is the inevitable consequence of their refusal to respond to the wisdom of God. Whoever is seen as speaking, whether Wisdom or God Himself, the idea is consonant with other Scriptures that what men sow they will reap, that all our actions lead to consequences. The principle is rooted in Scripture.
Then when men and women find themselves caught up in disaster and calamity, they will be brought up short and begin to seek the wisdom that comes from God. They will be desperately looking for any solution. They will thus call on Wisdom, seeking answers to their dilemma. But she will not answer, for they have turned from the way of wisdom. How true to history this is. And how much in line with the teaching of the prophets. When disaster strikes men and women do begin to seek God and His wisdom. But they do it with blinded minds and hardened hearts. It is all superficial. He is the last resort. And once the disaster passes God’s wisdom is once more put aside. As Jesus pointed out, the seed sown on rocky ground, which appears to have taken root, will merely grow superficially, and will soon die away when circumstances alter (Mark 4.16-17).
Note the parallels between verse 24 and verses 29-30:
Here wisdom is clearly equated with ‘the fear of YHWH’.
So Wisdom (in Proverbs God’s wisdom) is here warning that she is not so easily to be found by those who have once rejected her. And why is she not found? Because men hate true knowledge, the knowledge of God (2.5), and they do not choose to fear Him. They want the benefit without the true response. They do not want God’s counsel. They do not want His reproof. They want Him to show them an easy way out so that they can then get back to sinning.
The warning is that if we close our minds to God’s wisdom now there will come a time when that wisdom is no longer easily accessible. We will seek it and will not be able to find it, because our hearts will have become hardened. If we do not submit to the fear of God whilst God is speaking to us, and while our hearts are open, (‘now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation’), we will not find it so easy to submit to it once He has stopped speaking so clearly and once our hearts have built up their barriers against Him.
And the result for them of all this is that they will reap the consequences that they deserve. They will eat the fruit that results from their choices. They will be satiated with the consequences of their chosen manner of life. Both ideas, ‘eat the fruit’ and ‘be satiated with’ indicate full participation. They will experience what is coming to the full. And that fruit, and those consequences, will, for the naive and for the fool, be death and destruction. They will be slain. They will be destroyed. The naive, who carry on turning away from, and are heedless of, God’s wisdom, and the fools who deliberately with careless ease blind their eye to it, will both inevitably come to final judgment. And instead of finding life they will find death. For, as Paul reminds us, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23). That is also the recurrent message of Proverbs.
In contrast, those who heed God’s wisdom will dwell in peace and security. They will live peaceful and quiet lives without fear of evil. They will not bring upon themselves the ‘fear’ (verses 26-27) which is the consequence of rejecting God’s wisdom. Here we find the regular Old Testament principle that the good will prosper and enjoy a good life, whilst the sinful will face the consequences of their sin. Whilst it was not always literally true, it was making clear that the way to the ‘good life’ was through righteousness and fearing God. In Jesus’ terms, whatever outwardly happens to them, they will still find abundant life (John 10.10). Indeed even when the world seems to be collapsing around them, they will have peace, for their trust will be in God. It is the way of the transgressor which is hard.
Discourse 2. The Source Of True Wisdom Is YHWH, And Those Who Truly Seek Wisdom Will Find YHWH Himself, And He Will Then Reveal His Wisdom To Them. And This Wisdom That God Gives Them Will Deliver Them From All Who Are Evil (2.1-21).
We now learn that those who receive Solomon’s words and seek for true wisdom, will come to the place where they understand the fear of YHWH and find the knowledge of God. For it is God Who gives such wisdom, and it is He Who, whilst showing the upright (His holy ones) the way to walk, will also act as a shield on their behalf. And this He partly does through the impartation of His wisdom. Thus he makes clear that we are to see in the teaching which follows the words of a Father (the One Who is to be ‘feared’, 2.5 compare 3.12) Who is giving guidance to His children, although the idea of fatherhood as regards God is implicit rather than explicit.
So there are three stages by which truth comes to the young man. Firstly it comes from God Himself (2.6-9). Secondly it is communicated through Solomon as father of the nation under God (1.1). And thirdly it is communicated through a man’s own godly father and mother (1.8). This last is, of course, the ideal. But sadly not all parents give good teaching to their children. Nevertheless, overriding this chain is the fact that God Himself also communicates with the young man (2.6-11). Neither Solomon nor parents would prevail were it not for the voice of God in the heart.
We should note that in this passage there are three conflicting voices which call to the young man, 1) the voice of his mentor urging him in the upright path, 2) the voice of the one who speaks perverse things who seeks to led him astray (verse 12), and 3) the voice of the foreign woman who flatters with her word and seeks to ruin him sexually (verse 16), and we might add a fourth, the voice of Him from Whose mouth comes knowledge and understanding (verse 6). In a clamorous world it is important to heed the voice of God’s wisdom.
A feature of this chapter is the emphasis on two ways in which a man can walk, one the way of life and righteousness (verses 7-8, 9b, 19, 20), and the other the way of sin, darkness and death (verses 12, 13, 15, 18). A major emphasis in Solomon’s teaching is the need to walk in the right way.
Solomon Calls On His ‘Son’ To Receive His Words With A View To Attaining A True Knowledge Of God Which Will Cause Him To Reverence Him (2.1-5).
The first voice that speaks to the young man is the voice of his mentor, which echoes the voice of God (verse 6). He calls on him to apply his heart and mind to understanding the fear of YHWH and finding the knowledge of God. And this he will do by seeking earnestly after wisdom and understanding, partly as divulged by his mentor.
This can be seen as presented chiastically:
In A the young man is to receive his words and lay up his commandments and in the parallel he will through them understand the fear of YHWH and find the knowledge of God. In B effort is required in achieving this (‘incline -- apply’), and in the parallel the same is true (‘seek’). Centrally in C he is to cry out and call for discernment and understanding. (BCB can also, of course, be seen as progressive).
Once again we have the introductory, ‘my son’, typical of a wisdom teacher. Fatherly advice is being given. And it is being given in words, words which he shortly explains are from the mouth of God (verse 6, note the for/because’ which relates verse 6 to what has gone before). Note here that the purpose in seeking wisdom is to be in order to understand the fear of YHWH, and in order to find the knowledge of God, and that great effort must be exerted to that end. In Israel all wisdom had as its end the awareness and knowledge of God. That is where Israel’s wisdom teaching differed from much other wisdom teaching. And as a surrogate father speaking to his son Solomon calls on him to receive his words, and lay up his commandments ‘with him’. They are to be his constant companion and guide, with a view to his inclining his ear towards wisdom, and applying his heart to understanding.
Thus he is to receive, learn, and meditate upon them. He is to ‘cry after’ understanding and discernment because he is so eager for it, seeing it as the equivalent of silver and as a hidden treasure which must be desperately sought for. The reference to silver and to hidden treasures (men would often bury gold in the ground for safety, only to be unable to retrieve it later), indicates the aims of everyday men and women to whom such goals were achievable. Solomon is bearing in mind the limits of their ambitions. He is bearing in mind what most men seek. But from Solomon’s point of view, ‘silver was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon’ (1 Kings 10.21).
However, the point is clear. Man’s greed must not be for wealth, but for God. Note the progression of thought. The young man is to ‘incline his ear and apply his heart/mind’ to wisdom and understanding; then he is to ‘cry after’ discernment and understanding (as Wisdom cried after him - 1.20-21), and finally he is to ‘seek’ and ‘search for’ wisdom and understanding as men seek silver and search for buried treasure. This verse may well have been in Jesus’ mind when He taught the parable of the buried treasure (Matthew 13.44).
Note also the contrast with the greedy and violent men in 1.13 who sought ‘all precious substance’ and to ‘fill their houses with spoil’. There they wanted ill-gotten gain and would do anything to obtain it. But here the search is to be for the precious substance of truth. The seeker after truth is to have the same eagerness for truth as the sinner has for wealth, but in his case it is to be an eagerness to obtain the discernment and understanding which will enable him to understand the fear of YHWH and to find the knowledge of God. His longing is to be that he might be a true servant of God.
It is important to note the final goals, which are so very different from other wisdom literature. Paradoxically the aim is to understand God’s awesomeness and hiddenness and holiness (the fear of YHWH), whilst at the same time coming to know Him as He is (the knowledge of God), not theoretically through theology, but practically through experience of God. Whilst He is far off, He is to be seen as ever near. As Solomon would say elsewhere, ‘even the Heaven of Heavens could not contain Him’ (1 Kings 8.27). And yet now he confirms that He reveals Himself to those who seek Him. This is the wonder of our God.
Solomon Stresses That The Source Of True Wisdom Is God, And That He Gives It To His Own, In Order to Maintain True Righteousness, And Enable Them To Appreciate It And Walk In It (2.6-11).
In verses 1-5 the concentration has been on earnestly seeking after God through gaining wisdom and understanding. Now the concentration is on God’s activity as He imparts that wisdom, and on His word (what comes from His mouth) which gives that knowledge and understanding. And what He achieves by this is the storing within the upright (those who fear Him, that is, who truly believe in Him and submit to Him) sound wisdom, so as to guard the paths of justice and preserve the way of those who are set apart to Him. Were He not to do so moral chaos would take over and His people would be left floundering. And the reason why that has not happened is because God has safeguarded it. Truth must ever be guarded, and here we learn that it is God Who watches over it.
The passage can be presented chiastically:
Note in A the emphasis on wisdom, knowledge and understanding repeated in the parallel. In B He lays up sound wisdom for the upright, and in the parallel that sound wisdom is described. Centrally in C YHWH guards His people’s way.
What then is the source of true wisdom and knowledge of life? The answer is that it is found in YHWH their God. It is YHWH Who gives wisdom, and He mainly does so through His words. For it is ‘from His mouth’ that wisdom and understanding come. We note from this that Solomon does not see himself as simply passing on ‘wisdom teaching’. He sees himself as having sifted it and brought it into line with God’s word, and as having only accepted what he sees as ‘words from God’. Humanly speaking in this lay his genius. But he recognises that what he has to teach has been entrusted to him by God, and that it is God Himself Who, through him and others, is storing up sound wisdom for the upright. By this God is acting as a shield to protect His truth, on behalf of those who walk in integrity. The shield is the small shield carried by the infantry to ward off arrows and missiles. God as the shield of the righteous wards off falsehood and evil ideas.
That this is the meaning of ‘He is a shield’ here comes out by comparison with the parallel. He is a shield by storing up sound wisdom. Elsewhere He is, of course, also a shield Who protects His people directly (e.g. Genesis 15.1; Deuteronomy 33.29; Psalm 3.3; 18.2 etc.), but that is not the thought here. Here He is a shield in protecting truth on their behalf, and protecting truth within them. And this is confirmed by the fact that He ‘guards the paths of justice’, and ‘preserves the way of His loyal ones’ (those who are loyal to covenant love), so that they will ‘understand righteousness and justice, and equity, yes, and every good path.’ He ensures the means of sound understanding of His ways. We can compare with this Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3.16, ‘all Scripture, being God-breathed, is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness’. Solomon sees his teaching concerning wisdom as being the same.
Thus Solomon sees himself as very much a part of God’s activity in preserving the truth about Him and His ways, a truth now revealed in the Book of Proverbs. He is not passing on some good ideas propounded by men, some generally accepted ‘wisdom teaching’, but truth as it has come from the mouth of God, which he himself has, under God’s hand, sifted out, partly with the help of that body of wisdom teaching.
‘The paths of justice’ are explained in terms of ‘righteousness, justice and equity’, words which indicate obedience to the Torah (righteousness), true justice for all (justice), and fair-minded judgments (equity). Note how the reference to ‘righteousness, judgment and equity’ parallels ‘righteousness, judgment and equity’ in 1.3b. Here then is a fulfilment of Solomon’s aims, but whilst Solomon’s words may inculcate them as in 1.3b, in the end such ideas are taught to us by God.
Solomon intends his teaching to have a real and significant impact in men’s lives. Wisdom (the spirit of wisdom - 1.23) will enter their hearts, their inner beings. Knowledge (the knowledge of God’s ways) will be pleasant in their inward lives. They will bring about genuine spiritual experience. They will have a new heart and right spirit created in them (Psalm 51.10). God will put His instruction within their inward parts and in their hearts will He write it (Jeremiah 31.33; compare Ezekiel 36.27). To use Jesus’ words such people will be born from above (John 6.3). James spoke of being ‘begotten again by the word of truth’ (James 1.18). Peter spoke of being ‘begotten again -- through the word of God (1 Peter 1.23). For note in context that it is YHWH’s wisdom which will enter the young man’s heart, and the knowledge of God that will be pleasant to his soul (verses 5-6). No wonder then that it will be so effective. God-given wisdom is not general wisdom. It is wisdom about God and His ways revealed by God. Solomon certainly has in mind his own teaching, but as a teaching that has been formed on the anvil of God. And it is this truth that will enter into the heart of the one who truly seeks God (verses 2-6), and will be pleasantly refreshing to his soul. He will receive the poured out ‘spirit’ of God’s Wisdom (1.23). And the consequence is that the one who receives it will be watched over by Discretion, and preserved by Understanding. Truth will be his preserver, delivering him from false steps. Note the personification of ‘discretion’ and ‘understanding’, which can be seen as like twin sheep dogs preserving the flock. It is thus not only wisdom that is personified. Discretion and understanding are also personified. And it is because he has received the wisdom and knowledge of God that he will be guarded by discretion and understanding. He will thus be discreet and understanding when he faces up to the temptations of life which are now to be described, a discretion and understanding communicated to him by God.
Deliverance From Sinful Men (2.12-15).
The giving of wisdom, knowledge and understanding will deliver the young man from the way of evil. This is necessary for the second voice that speaks to the young man is that of ungodly men. In consequence the great need of the godly man is to be delivered from those who would lead him in wrong paths. This is important because the world is full of people who seek to lead astray those who are seeking to truly follow God. At first the descriptions might appear to be describing people who are obviously particularly evil, but that is to misinterpret them. The greatest danger comes from those who might outwardly appear to be respectable, but who nevertheless are pleased when they can corrupt a godly person. They can be very persuasive, and even appear good and rational, but their wisdom is not that of God but of the world. And the way of deliverance is to hold tightly to God’s revealed wisdom which will be a shield to his mind and heart, to know God, and to understand the fear of God. ‘How shall a young man make his way clean? By taking heed to it according to Your word’ (Psalm 119.9).
Note the chiastic pattern of ideas:
Here then it is made clear that the ways of sinfulness are the ways of darkness. Men who walk in sinfulness, walk in darkness and do not know the way in which they are going. They have left the straight path, and follow crooked ways. Thus the purpose of the wisdom that comes from God is to deliver men from coming short of goodness. It is to ‘deliver them from evil’ (Matthew 6.13), to deliver them from darkness. Men and women are constantly prone to allow their standards to slip, or even to allow them to disappear altogether, and they are constantly hampered by men who ‘speak perverse things’, whether religious or secular. The New Testament is full of examples of this. But the point is that constant attention to God’s wisdom, as revealed in His words, will prevent this happening.
‘To deliver you from the way of evil.’ Evil is the opposite of good. It is that which is harmful rather than being helpful. In a sense it is the lack of good. Thus the evil man is not necessarily someone who seeks to cause great harm. He is rather someone who acts selfishly and thoughtlessly and without regard for good, and the good of others. And he seeks to justify himself in his own eyes by bringing others down with him. Thus he ‘hates’ the godly man and has no greater delight than to trip him up. He wants to make others as selfish as himself. By this means he comforts himself. And his way can seem very attractive. Note that the deliverance is from ‘the way of evil’. This fits in with the overall emphasis in the chapter on the two ways, the way of good and the way of evil.
‘From the men who speak perverse things.’ The young man is also to be delivered from the men who have chosen the way of evil. That is, in context, from those who speak contrary to God’s wisdom. They distort the truth and seek to make wrongdoing and selfishness palatable. They try to tone down God’s requirements. They misrepresent God’s ways. In many cases they even seek to cast doubt on God’s truth, sometimes subtly, sometimes more openly. They ‘delight in the perverseness of evil’. As James points out, ‘the tongue can no man tame, it is a restless evil full of deadly poison’ (James 3.8), and not more so than when what it says seems sweetly reasonable, but takes men and women away from God’s truth.
‘Who forsake the paths of uprightness.’ Often such men have once had high standards. But they have allowed those standards to slip. They have forsaken the paths of uprightness. They can now do what once they would never have thought of doing. They have forsaken the way of the wisdom of God, and replaced it with the wisdom of the world. Their consciences have become dulled, and by their lives they encourage others to do the same.
‘To walk in the ways of darkness.’ Such people walk in the ways of darkness. They have turned away from the light of God’s word (Psalm 119.105). They stumble on trusting in worldly wisdom. They do not allow God to illuminate their darkness (2 Samuel 22.29). They ‘grope in the dark without light’ (Job 12.25). They have toned down God’s word, turning away from its light. They walk contrary to God’s wisdom. They reject the light. As Ecclesiastes 2.13-14 puts it, ‘Then I saw that wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, and the fool walks in darkness.’ It is those who walk in God’s wisdom who are truly wise and can therefore see. But those who turn their back on that wisdom walk in the ways of darkness. Their minds are full of the world’s wisdom which is not illuminated by God (compare 1 Corinthians 2.20-25). That is why, when Jesus came as the light of the world, He promised that those who followed Him would not walk in darkness. They would have the light of life (John 8.12).
‘Who rejoice to do evil, and delight in the perverseness of evil.’ Such people delight in what they see as their own wisdom. They find it amusing, and rather daring, that they fall short of God’s requirements as revealed in His wisdom and His word. They consider His standards too high. And rather than being ashamed of their failure and weakness, they enjoy what they see as their freedom from God’s shackles. They delight in it. They laugh at what they see as allowable wrongdoing, dismissing it as rather amusing. They delight in the perverseness of evil.
‘Who are crooked in their ways, and wayward in their paths.’ Instead of keeping to the straight path of God’s wisdom, they walk a crooked way, which leads them into byways which come short of God’s requirements (compare Isaiah 59.8). They deviate from truth, both morally and intellectually. They water down God’s word, and deviate from its standards. They no longer listen to God when He says, ‘this is the way, walk in it’. They allow their consciences to become atrophied.
Deliverance From The Temptations Of Women (2.16-20).
Solomon was very conscious of the fact that one of a man’s greatest dangers in walking in the way of wisdom was the allurement and attraction of women. It is a subject that he brings up a number of times in the prologue in some detail (see also 5.1-23; 6.24-35; 7.6-27; 9.13-18). And it was an attraction that would bring about his own downfall (1 Kings 11.1-8). Indeed he was clearly aware of his own weakness. In a day when women were more closely guarded, and allowed little freedom in meeting with men, the great dangers for a young man lay in prostitutes and loose women who sought openly to attract men, or lonely and sexually experienced wives who would seek to take advantage of young men whom they fancied. Solomon deals with both.
For the young man in the Western world today the dangers are far greater, for he lives in a world where there is more freedom in sexual matters, where women dress themselves in a manner that will cause men the maximum temptation, and where incitements to succumb abound, both in real life and on the internet. For modern man Solomon’s words must be seen in that light. (It is, of course, equally true that in the same way men can allure women, and cause them to fall in a similar way. But that is not a matter that Solomon deals with, for in his day women were not allowed the same freedom as men, and were more protected from their wiles).
On the other hand we must not overlook the contrast between the godly woman Wisdom who calls to men with the truth (1.22-33), and the ‘strange (and therefore foreign) woman who comes with her own deceptive appeal, bringing flattering words. It may well be a warning against ‘foreign wisdom’ of the wrong kind. Indeed this deliberate contrast is brought out in chapter 9 where woman Wisdom is contrasted with woman Folly.
Note how these verses parallel verses 12-15, which were spoken of being delivered from those who encouraged evil:
‘To deliver you from the way of evil (verse 12) ---- to deliver you from the foreign woman (verse 16).’
‘From the man who speaks perverse things (verse 12) -- from the stranger who flatters with her word (verse 16).’
‘Who forsake the paths of uprightness (verse 13) --- who forsakes the friend of her youth (verse 17).’
‘To walk in the ways of darkness, --- who are crooked in their ways, and perverse in their paths (verses 13, 15) --- ‘her paths (incline) unto the dead, -- nor do they attain to the paths of life, that you may walk in the way of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous (verses 19-20).’
There is thus a deliberate repeated pattern. As we have observed, the young man is faced with conflicting voices. First we had the voice of his mentor urging him in the upright path. Then the voice of the one who speaks perverse things. Now we have the voice of the foreign woman who flatters with her word. And he is faced with conflicting choices. On the one hand ‘the way of evil -- the ways of darkness --crooked ways -- perverse paths -- paths to the dead’ and on the other ‘the paths of uprightness -- the paths of life -- the way of good men -- the paths of the righteous.’ In a clamorous world it is important which voice we heed, and which way we choose. The importance of our choices comes out in the warnings given.
Once again the passage may be seen chiastically:
In A he is to be delivered from the ‘strange woman’ who forgets the covenant of her God, and in the parallel he is rather to walk in the way of the good man, and keep the paths of the righteous (those who observe the covenant). In B her house sinks to death, and her paths to the dead, in the parallel none who go to her return again, nor attain to the paths of life. The ‘strange woman’ is the one who is outside his normal sphere of life. She opens up a new world, and a very dangerous one. She is the opposite of woman Wisdom.
Another purpose of God’s wisdom is to deliver the one who is conversant with God’s wisdom, and who walks in the fear of God, from the openly expressed attractions of seductive women. Such a man will not dally with those who seek to sexually allure. He will heed the warnings of God. In the modern day that will involve keeping away from places where such allurements may be offered, and learning to flee from whatever arouses youthful desires (2 Timothy 2.22). Avoidance is better than cure.
In those days the greatest danger came from those women who made themselves available to men, and were skilled in the art of allurement. They were ‘strange’ in that they were outside the young man’s normal sphere of life. They were often foreign women (see Ruth 2.10) who, being separated from their husbands, were either lonely, or had to seek to live somehow. That the problem was widespread in many countries over many centuries comes out in the Egyptian Instruction of Ani, who declares, ‘Be on your guard against a woman from abroad, -- a deep water whose windings you know not, a woman who is far away from her husband’ (ANET Pritchard p.420). The Torah forbade an Israelite woman to be a prostitute (Deuteronomy 23.17), but unquestionably some were. There is no specific sanction against such, except for the laws on adultery, whilst other older women who were lonely might well have sought sexual consolation.
‘The foreigner who flatters with her words (who causes her words to be smooth).’ In the words of 5.3, ‘her mouth is smoother than oil’. Compare Psalm 5.9d; 55.21. She knows how to be persuasive and make sin seem delectable.
‘She forsakes the friend of her youth’, that is, her natural husband. And she ‘forgets the covenant of her God’. Thus she betrays both man and God, as is so often the case when men break God’s covenant, for God is concerned about man’s behaviour towards man, as well as towards Himself. This last phrase is especially significant in that it establishes God’s wisdom firmly in the covenant. The idea in mind may be the marriage covenant (Malachi 2.14). But there is no suggestion that she is married. It is therefore more likely, in view of the personal nature of it (‘her God’), that it has in mind the covenant to which Israel subscribed, and included therefore the command not to commit adultery (Exodus 20.14). It is that which is an essential part of God’s covenant. Thus the writer’s assumption is that those who follow wisdom will observe God’s covenant. Whilst the covenant is rarely specifically mentioned in Proverbs, it clearly lies at the back of much of the teaching concerning wisdom in Israel, and is almost certainly in mind in 6.23, ‘the commandment is a lamp and the Torah is a light’, where both commandment and torah are words regularly used of covenant requirements, e.g. Exodus 24.12; Deuteronomy 30.10’; Joshua 22.5; 1 Kings 2.3; etc.
The one who follows the way of adultery, and succumbs to the temptations offered by women, will find that it quickly leads to the grave. Such a woman’s house sinks men into death, and her paths lead them on the way to the place of the dead, filled with corpses (rephaim). Once having succumbed it is unlikely that he will return to the good way, or begin to walk the paths of life. Thus the clear message is that sin leads to death, whilst the way of the good man (the man whose heart is set on God) leads to life. In mind is not only physical death but the death of the spirit within. There may also be in mind here sexually transmitted diseases which actually caused death. To associate with such women was to court disease. But the overall idea is that such behaviour takes a man away from the Lord of life. Such people are dead while they live.
And what they lose are the paths of life. They no longer walk in the way of life. They will no longer enjoy wholesome life. They will know nothing of the joy of the Lord, or of the rejoicing of a truly good life (compare John 10.10). Whilst they may appear to be gaining for a time in lustful pleasure, in the end they will lose all that is good. Their consciences will become atrophied. In contrast are those who walk in the way of good men, and observe the paths of the righteous, that is, those who walk in the covenant.
‘That you may walk in the way of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous.’ ‘That’ refers back to ‘to deliver you’. He will be delivered ‘with the consequence that’ he will walk in the way of good and righteous men.
Note the two contrasting groups of ideas, such people ‘sink down into death’, are ‘led into the land of the dead’, and ‘do not return again’. In other words they take the way of hopelessness. And what they miss by this is ‘attaining the paths of life’, ‘walking in the way of good men’, and ‘keeping the paths of the righteous’, all ways which lead to God and to a wholesome and God-fearing life. Note especially that this is strictly linked to moral living. It is not just a wholesome life, it is a righteous life. In this it goes beyond much wisdom teaching. This idea of the two paths is expanded on in 4.10-27, and a parallel thought is found in 5.5-6 where ‘her feet go down to death, her steps take hold on Sheol (the world of the dead), so that she does not find the level path of life’.
The Contrast Between What Happens To The Upright, And What Happens To The Wicked (2.21-22).
Each of the first three chapters of Proverbs, together with 4.1-19, ends with a contrast between what happens to the upright, and what happens to those who are not. In 1.32-33 the contrast is between the simple/naive and the fools, as against those who hear and respond to wisdom. Here the contrast is between the wicked and the treacherous as against those who are upright and morally mature. In 3.33-35 the contrast is between the wicked and the righteous, the scorners and the lowly (humbly accepting), the fools and the wise. In 4.18-19 the contrast is between those whose lives reveal light, in contrast with the wicked whose lives reveal only darkness. Thus the simple/naive and fools reveal themselves as wicked and treacherous and in darkness, whilst the wise reveal themselves as upright and morally mature and in the light.
The word eretz can mean either earth or land. In view of the references to death and the grave consuming the wicked (e.g. 2.18) it probably here means ‘earth’ as a generality, or alternatively ‘the land’ as representing what was their world (the land of the living, or the land as given to them by YHWH). The idea of ‘expulsion from the land’ was not in mind here. The expulsion was by death. Thus the upright and the morally mature will live long and satisfying lives on the earth (compare 3.2, 16). The wicked and the treacherous will be cut off from the land of the living and rooted out of it. This is the constant message of Proverbs.
‘The upright (straight)’ are those who walk in the straight path. They walk in accordance with God’s instruction. In direct contrast are the ‘wicked’, i.e. the non-upright, those who deviate from the straight path. The latter are defined elsewhere in terms of violence (10.6; 12.6; 24.15), greed (1-.3; 21.10), deceit (12.5) and perverse speech (10.32; 11.11; 15.28; 19.28). Not all the wicked have all these faults. Wickedness is any deviation from the straight path. Wickedness is thus revealed in us all. But the wicked in Scripture are those who continue in that path, Some are violent, some are greedy, some are deceitful and some use perverse speech, but all come under the general term of ‘wicked, non-upright’. The perfect (those who are true) contrast with the treacherous. The ‘perfect’ walk in God’s ways and seek to do His will, the treacherous choose crooked paths, and rebel against His will.
Discourse 3. The Young Man Is To Trust In YHWH, To Fear YHWH And To Honour YHWH, And In View Of Their Great Value Is To Find YHWH’s Wisdom And Obtain Understanding Which Will Be His Protection And Through YHWH’s Chastening Activity Will Restore Him To Man’s First Estate. In View Of Them He Is To Observe A Series Of Practical Requirements Which Will Result In Blessing For The Wise (3.1-35).
The passage divides into three sections, each headed by an address to ‘my son’. These sections are:
As already mentioned it may be significant that 1.8-33; 2.1-22 and 3.1-35 all divide up into three parts (1.8-9, 10-19, 20-33; 2.1-11, 12-15, 16-22; 3.1-10, 11-20, 21-35), and all end in a final contrast between the wise and the fool (or equivalent). The pattern, however, does not continue.
Once again the passage commences with a detailed exhortation (verses 1-4; compare 1.8-9; 2.1-5; 4.1-4; etc.), as in other wisdom literature (see introduction). But the aim now is not just to teach, but to exhort. In contrast with chapter 2, where the emphasis was on finding wisdom and understanding, something which could only be given by God, and would deliver from evil men and women, Solomon now presses home the response which should come from receiving his words. And because he is dealing with practical response he adds the proviso for ‘kindness and truth’ which are a necessity to their proper fulfilment. These too are to be sought with urgency and dedication.
In other words to Solomon it was not enough simply to heed his instruction and commandments, it must be done with the right motive and attitude, it must be done in love and truth. Thus the response to wisdom and understanding, which he sees here in terms of ‘instruction’ (torah) and ‘commandments’, is not to be hardnosed and judgmental, but is rather to be fulfilled lovingly and honestly. The word for ‘kindness’ is chesed which regularly indicates ‘covenant love’, a love which springs from a willingness to fulfil the Covenant. For as that Covenant said, they must love their neighbour, and any strangers who lived among them, as themselves (Leviticus 19.18, 34). The man who follows true wisdom is therefore to be gentle and kind, something which the teaching of Jesus underlines and amplifies.
The fact that Solomon is not just thinking of humanistic wisdom comes out very strongly here. They are to trust in YHWH (verse 5), to fear YHWH (verse 7), to honour YHWH (verse 9), and not to despise YHWH’s chastening (verse 11), for true wisdom has its source in YHWH (verses 19-20). The young man is to trust in the wisdom that comes from YHWH, and not in his own understanding. If he truly ‘knows YHWH’ (not, be it noted, knows wisdom) in all his ways, his path will be directed by Him. God will be personally involved. They are not just to trust in their own humanistic wisdom, having a general sense of what is right, but are to fear YHWH, and as a consequence depart from all evil. And they are to honour YHWH by expressing their gratitude in offering to Him the firstfruits and tithes. Solomon’s wisdom was rooted in the activity of YHWH. This was something that other wisdom literature could not offer.
Introductory Exhortation Followed By The Requirement To Trust In YHWH, To Fear YHWH And To Honour YHWH (3.1-10).
Solomon here speaks of wisdom and understanding in terms of ‘my torah -- my commandments’. It is observance of these that will ensure longevity and wellbeing. In view of the Scriptural precedents for these words (Exodus 24.12; Deuteronomy 30.10’; Joshua 22.5; 1 Kings 2.3; etc.) it is clear that Solomon see his wisdom as complementary to the Torah and therefore to YHWH’s covenant with Israel. It was that Torah which stressed the need for love for God and one’s neighbour (Deuteronomy 6.5; Leviticus 19.18), a stress that Solomon brings out here. His ‘son’ must ensure that observance of YHWH’s instruction is accompanied by covenant love and truth, for thereby he will find favour with both God and men. This is then followed by the injunctions to ‘trust in YHWH -- fear YHWH -- and honour YHWH’, for it is in association with YHWH that wisdom can be obtained and carried out in practise.
These first ten verses form a chiasmus:
Note that in A the actions called for will result in longevity and wellbeing, whilst the actions in the parallel will result in prosperity and plenty. In B the actions will produce spiritual wellbeing, as will the actions in the parallel. Central in C is the requirement to trust wholly in YHWH and to know Him in daily life.
Solomon calls on ‘my son’ to observe his instruction (torah) and commandments from ‘the heart’. The observance is to be inward, not just outward. A wholehearted obedience is called for.
The Hebrew words for ‘law’ and ‘commandments’ are so closely associated with YHWH’s covenant with Israel that that covenant could hardly not have been in Solomon’s mind. Indeed that it was so comes out in verse 9. But here they are expressed in terms of Solomon’s wisdom teaching. Solomon sees himself as re-presenting the Torah. He can thus speak of ‘my instruction’ and ‘my commandments’ (compare 1.7 ‘the torah of your mother’). The teaching of the Torah has become personalised. Solomon is re-expressing it (as Moses did in Deuteronomy).
We can compare in this regard how the covenant is assumed in verse 9, has been mentioned in 2.17, and is almost certainly in mind in 6.23 where we read that ‘the commandment is a lamp and the Torah is a light’. Both commandment and torah are words regularly used of covenant requirements, e.g. Exodus 24.12; Deuteronomy 30.10’; Joshua 22.5; 1 Kings 2.3; etc. Thus Solomon is here expressing his wisdom in terms of covenant obedience.
And the consequence of obedience to his instruction will be ‘length of days and years of life, and wellbeing’ (compare 3.16; 9.11). In 10.27 the same is the consequence of the fear of YHWH. Thus Solomon’s teaching and the fear of YHWH are equated. They are to obey his teaching because they fear YHWH. In Exodus 20.12 (compare Ephesians 6.3) a similar prolonging of day was promised to those who honoured father and mother, in other words responded to their authority and instruction (1.7). In Deuteronomy 4.40; 5.33; 6.2; 11.8-9 such prolonging of days was promised to those who kept the statutes and commandments of YHWH and walked in His ways. Solomon thus also equated his teaching with the Torah.
‘And peace (wellbeing, prosperity).’ He will not only live long, but his life will prosper and be one of peace and security.
Along with obedience the young man is to hold firmly to ‘lovingkindness and truth’. He is to be compassionate (having chesed - covenant love) and honourable, without deceit. Indeed he is to bind compassion and truth about his neck, as ancient man bound his signet around his neck (Genesis 38.18), so that they are revealed as his means of identification. And he is to write them on the tablet of his heart (compare Deuteronomy 11.18; Jeremiah 31.31), so that they are permanent and living and an intrinsic part of him. These are to be the two virtues which mark him off as God’s man. In 16.6 they are brought into close connection with the fear of YHWH. They are in complete contrast with the violence and deceit and false love of the ungodly (1.11-15; 2.12-20). We can compare here the words of James in James 3.13-18.
And the consequence of doing this will be that he will be viewed with favour and appreciation by both God and man. He will be seen as a man of good repute whose heart is right. ‘In the eyes of’ may indicate that what they think of him shines forth from their eyes. Compare 15.30. The unexpected use of ‘God’ rather than YHWH may indicate that the words ‘God and man’ echoed a recognised general saying.
A Threefold Charge - Trust In, Fear And Honour YHWH.
In true New Testament fashion Solomon now brings out that the emphasis is not to be simply on the young man observing Solomon’s commandments, but on his doing so because of his own personal response to God. It is this which differentiates a living faith from a dead legalism. The emphasis is on the fact that he is to ‘trust in’, ‘fear’ and ‘honour’ YHWH, revealing this by walking in the ways of His revealed wisdom. This is central to Solomon’s wisdom teaching, in total contrast to the wisdom teaching of other nations. Wisdom is to be followed because it is YHWH’s wisdom. It is YHWH Who is to be heeded and obeyed.
We have here the three aspects of the godly life. It commences with personal response to, and trust in God. This leads on to ‘fearing God’ and obeying Him on the one hand, and honouring and worshipping Him on the other.
The young man is firstly to ‘trust in YHWH with all his heart’, and this will result in him having YHWH’s understanding (for he is not to rely on his own). The word for trust means ‘lean wholly on’ (compare Psalm 22.10). YHWH is to be his full support and his sole source of understanding. His whole confidence is to be in Him. And he is to do so with all his inner self (his ‘heart’). This does, of course, include leaning on His revealed wisdom, but it is that wisdom as revealed to him by God Himself (2.6-8). YHWH and His wisdom are inextricably combined. He is not only to know wisdom, he is to know YHWH, and the word ‘know’ is a word of personal relationship (see Galatians 4.9). It is because he knows YHWH that he appreciates YHWH’s true wisdom. In contrast he is not to lean on/rely on his own wisdom and understanding. For God’s ways are not man’s ways (Romans 11.33). However, if he walks in a personal relationship with YHWH (knows Him), it is YHWH who will guide him and direct his paths in the right way (literally ‘make straight your path’), largely through His wisdom and His word.
Solomon secondly calls on the young man to ‘fear YHWH’, something which will make him wise (rather than relying on his own wisdom). Note how ‘fearing YHWH’ is contrasted with being worldly-wise. To fear YHWH results in having God’s wisdom and following it. It indicates submission to God and His wisdom and instruction, but with the emphasis not on wisdom but on YHWH. And the consequence of this will be that he will depart from all that comes short of good. For fearing God and following evil at the same time is simply not possible. In contrast are those who are wise in their own eyes. They follow their own ways. These have been depicted in 1.11-14; 2.12-15. They are also depicted in 1 Corinthians 1.20-2.5. They walk in wayward paths. They are inappreciative of God’s wisdom, and therefore of His truth.
However, if the young man does ‘fear YHWH’, responding to Him in loving obedience, (as a man fears his parents and responds to them - Leviticus 19.3), it will strengthen him within. The navel and the bones have in mind the inner man. To ancient man the navel was the means of entry of life. The bones were the inward part of the body representing the inner man (15.30; 16.24; Psalm 34.19-20; 35.10). The marrow was what made the bones strong. So this is not promising health of body, although that may follow, but health of heart and mind, a healthy inward life.
Solomon thirdly calls on the young man to honour YHWH, to treat Him as of value. And in those days nothing revealed this more genuinely than a grateful and cheerful offering of men’s substance to Him in sacrifices and offerings, which included the willing offerings of the firstfruits (see 2 Corinthians 8.6-7). As with Abel the quality of the sacrifice was dependent on the attitude of heart of the sacrificer (he willingly gave of what he first received and of the fat portions. He did not grudge what he gave to God). Solomon is not here proposing a bargain with God, as if he were saying, ‘if we do this, He will do that’. He is rather calling on the young man to offer to God gladly and freely from his substance because his heart is right with God. But inevitably, because of what God is, it will result in full barns and overflowing vats of wine. For God is no man’s debtor.
The store-places would be pits and silos in the ground, or small rooms and sheds or larger storehouses above ground. The vats would be the lower pit of the wine-press in which the wine was collected, after it had first been trodden in the upper pit, and had flowed down a conduit into the lower pit. Such would be the quantity of grapes that the pit would overflow.
In these words we have a clear reference to offerings as stipulated in the Torah. Having God’s wisdom will result in obedience to the requirements of the Torah. Solomon’s wisdom did not replace the Torah, it supported it.
YHWH As Chastening Father And Wise Creator Inculcates Wisdom And Understanding As A Tree Of Life To Those Whom He Loves (3.11-20).
The reference to ‘my son’ in verse 11 (although in the Hebrew text not at the beginning of the sentence) points to the opening of a new subsection in the passage (as does the fact that it follows the chiasmus in verses 1-10). Here YHWH is seen as acting to ensure the reception of His wisdom by those whom He loves. And He does it by means of discipline, by ‘the chastening instruction of wisdom’ (1.3). The man whom He loves will be subject to His rod. Solomon recognises the waywardness of even a good man’s heart, and realises that wisdom and understanding must partially be obtained as a consequence of stern discipline. Nevertheless this must be borne patiently because of the value of such wisdom and understanding, indeed because wisdom actually lies at the very root of creation. Note how the subsection commences with YHWH’s fatherly activity as He fashions those whom He loves, and ends with His creative, and even violent, activity by which He fashioned the world which He saw as ‘very good’. YHWH’s activity in saving and creating forms an inclusio. This reminds us again that it is YHWH’s wisdom and understanding that is being inculcated.
Thus this subsection commences with the idea of YHWH, as Father of those whom He loves, fashioning and shaping those who are truly His by chastening and reproof, in order to inculcate into them wisdom and understanding. The great value of that wisdom and understanding is then described in terms of longevity, security, pleasantness, prosperity and mention of the tree of life, all reminiscent of Eden (note how Eden similarly springs to mind in the prophets - Isaiah 51.3; Ezekiel 36.35; Joel 2.3), and the subsection ends with the reminder that this wisdom is rooted in creation. The One Who initially founded, fashioned and shaped the world by wisdom, (and gave man the tree of life), is now through chastening and reproof, and through wisdom and understanding which are as a tree of life, fashioning those whom He loves in a new work of creation. Thus God’s chastening and reproof of those whom He loves is set against the background of creation and the fall
The subsection may be analysed chiastically as follows:
In A YHWH, acting (in wisdom and understanding) like a father, will discipline his son in order to fashion and shape him, inculcating wisdom and understanding into the one whom He loves, undoubtedly seeking to restore him to what he once was, (it is a tree of life to him) and in the parallel this can be compared with the importance of God’s wisdom and understanding as Creator in the fashioning and shaping of the world. His wisdom in shaping the world thus still goes on in the chastening of His people. We should in fact note here that the idea of YHWH’s fatherhood and creatorship go hand in hand in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 32.6; Isaiah 45.9-12; Malachi 2.10; Luke 3.38; Ephesians 3.14-15). Having created He acts as Father to His creation. In B the man who finds wisdom and understanding is happy, and in the parallel everyone who retains wisdom/understanding is happy. Central in C is the incomparable worth of God’s wisdom/understanding.
We may see from this subsection Solomon’s way of thinking. God having created the universe by wisdom, had seen man lose access to the tree of life because he thrust aside God’s wisdom and replaced it with the serpent’s wisdom (his ‘subtlety’, a word used of the shrewd/prudent, and therefore wise, man in 12.16, 23; 13.16; 14.8, 15, 18; 22.3). Now He is at work to restore man to his former state, using reproof and discipline in order to turn man back to His wisdom which is as a tree of life, a wisdom which fundamentally lies at the root of, and shaped and fashioned, creation, and is now shaping and fashioning His new creation (compare Ephesians 2.10).
The young man is not to reject or despise the chastening of YHWH, nor to grow weary when he is constantly reproved. For he must remember that he is being shaped and fashioned by a loving YHWH, in the same way as a loving father who is proud of his son, shapes and fashions him.
In Malachi 2.10 we see that Israel closely connected God’s fatherhood with His position as creator and a similar connection occurs here (compare verses 19-20). Nevertheless Israel also saw God’s fatherhood as evidence that God had chosen some from among many to be special to Him. Thus the idea of YHWH as the Father of His true people is emphasised in Exodus 4.22 where He declares, ‘Israel is My son, my firstborn’, and this was confirmed by Moses in Deuteronomy 14.1, ‘you are the children of YHWH your God’. In other words the son of YHWH is one chosen by Him. But here in Proverbs the son is not all Israel, but the responsive remnant of Israel, those who take heed to the wisdom that comes from God and respond to His chastening. And each of them (‘my son’) is called on not to despise the chastening of YHWH, or be wearied by His reproof. They are to see that the chastening and reproving by God of His people is a necessary part of their progression. Indeed just as a loving father who delights in his son, chastens him, such chastening is evidence of YHWH’s love for those who are His true people. Israel had experienced such chastening in the wilderness days (Deuteronomy 8.3-5; 11.2), and during the period of the Judges, and it comes in many forms, including reproof (19.25; Psalm 141.5), being subjected to others (5.9-13; 2 Samuel 7.14), persecution (Hebrews 12.3-11 where this passage is cited; compare Romans 8.28-39) sickness and even death (1 Corinthians 11.30-32).
Whilst YHWH is not here called Father, the implication of His fatherly love is clear, and we have here the clear beginnings of the idea that not all Israel were YHWH’s beloved children. Thus YHWH is seen as fashioning and shaping those who are His own, having set His love upon them. And the thing that distinguishes them is their responsiveness to His wisdom, that wisdom that God initially revealed at creation when He fashioned and shaped the world (verses 3.19-20), and now brings to bear in restoring those on whom He sets His love. Indeed that wisdom is as a restorative tree of life (verse 18), restoring man to what he lost through the fall. Through it He has now set out to fashion and shape those whom He loves, restoring them to abundant life.
It is now made clear that the fashioning and shaping of His beloved sons is in order to inculcate in them wisdom and understanding. He Who by wisdom created and fashioned the world, is now recreating and refashioning those who are His by imparting to them wisdom and understanding (2.5-6). For in the final analysis men find wisdom and obtain understanding because YHWH Himself gives it to them (2.6).
And happy is the man who ‘finds’ (the word implies not by accident, but by searching out) such wisdom, and obtains such understanding for it is better than gaining silver, and more profitable than fine gold. (Note how the ‘it’ refers to both wisdom and understanding seen as one). We may see an expansion of this idea in Psalm 1 where the man is happy who deeply studies YHWH’s instruction and thereby rejects sin, and in Matthew 5.3-10 where Jesus Himself taught the happiness of those who obtained God’s favour and received from Him true wisdom and understanding.
Note that whilst that wisdom was given by God, and is in fact an important aspect of His creative work, it still has to be sought and found. Nevertheless man cannot find it solely by his own efforts. He can only find it because it has been given by God in words that come from God (2.6).
The value of such spiritual wisdom and understanding is now revealed. It is more precious even than ‘rubies’ (the word signifies some red material of value (Lamentations 4.7), possibly red coral as found in the Red Sea. The same word is found in 8.11; 20.15; 31.10; Job 28.18 as indicating something precious). Indeed nothing that a man can desire is comparable in value to wisdom and understanding, for they offer on the one hand a long life (compare 3.2; 10.27), and on the other prosperity and honour. Here are the gifts which men desire above all others, to live long, to enjoy prosperity and to be held in high esteem. And they are all granted to the truly wise through their response to the wisdom of God. This was something that Solomon knew from his own experience, for because he sought from God wisdom above all else, he was promised both prosperity and length of days (1 Kings 3.9-14).
The fact that length of days is held in the right hand may indicate the importance being laid on this, for what are prosperity and fame without length of days? And indeed the phrase may well be intended to include the idea of physical wellbeing, indicating length of days in good health, for otherwise they would simply be a burden.
‘In her left hand are riches and honour.’ This is not a promise that those who become wise will become financially rich. Certainly it includes a certain level of material prosperity (compare 10.4), but the main idea is of richness of life which goes along with that prosperity. It is the blessing of YHWH that makes rich (10.22; compare 13.8). We can compare here 8.18 which speaks of ‘durable riches and righteousness’.
That all this was generally true in Solomon’s day we can be confident. It was a time of peace and prosperity, with no major wars, and conditions which allowed truly good men to live long and benefit from their wise living. We are similarly reminded of how in the eighteenth century John Wesley bemoaned the fact that godly living so enabled many of his Methodists to prosper materially, that it put them in danger of a diminution of their spiritual enthusiasm. Solomon, of course, overlooked the fact that his own extravagance, and his building schemes with their forced levies, often prevented this from being true for all.
The New Testament recognises the same principle, although seeing it in terms of eternal life and spiritual prosperity. Jesus Himself made clear that those who obtained true wisdom and understanding by responding to Him would be blessed in this life and finally enjoy eternal life (Matthew 19.29).
It may be that the reference to ‘fine gold’ and rubies (or ‘red coral’) had in mind the ‘good gold’, bdellium and onyx stone found in connection with the ‘garden of Eden’ (Genesis 2.12) in the same way as the tree of life which is shortly mentioned. Solomon in his splendour would necessarily expand on their magnificence. He may well not have thought much of bdellium and onyx stone. There is an Edenic quality about the promises given, length of day, riches and honour, pleasantness, peace, tree of life.
The happiness of the one who obtains wisdom from God is now again emphasised, and the benefits of obtaining such wisdom continue to be described. In contrast with the ways of the unwise (2.12-15, 18-20), her ways are ways of pleasantness and peace. For the wise will not only experience spiritual blessing, but they will also avoid unnecessary discord, and will in general as a consequence of their good lives be in favour with the authorities (Romans 13.3-4;1 Peter 2.13-17) and with their neighbours. The New Testament takes up the idea and emphasises that true believers in Christ will enjoy lives of pleasantness and peace, receiving ‘life more abundant’ (John 10.10), ‘the peace which passes all understanding’ (Philippians 4.7) and ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’ (1 Peter 1.8).
Indeed God’s wisdom is ‘a tree of life to those who lay hold on her’. The idea behind this phrase (which is followed by a mention of creation) may well be of a figurative restoration from the fall. Adam exchanged God’s wisdom (‘you shall not eat of the tree of knowing good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you will certainly die’) for the serpent’s subtlety/prudence (‘you shall not certainly die’). Thereby he lost access to the tree of life (Genesis 2.9; 3.22, 24) and became a dying man. Now by turning back to God’s wisdom those who are his receive a new impetus for righteous living, and enter into God’s promise that ‘those who do these things will live in them’ (Leviticus 18.5; Deuteronomy 4.1; 8.1), clearly in contrast to those who do not do them and who will therefore die, first spiritually and then physically. It is noteworthy that constant contact with the tree of life was seemingly necessary (Genesis 3.22), and of course the same applies to the wisdom that comes from God. The same figure is found in 11.30; 13.12;15.4 supporting the case for the unity of 1.1-24.34, but in those cases it does not directly have in mind wisdom
It is probable (see introduction) that Solomon saw in this reference to the tree of life a promise of a future life, that is, ‘eternal life’, although not in any thought out sense. If he did not then we see a greater fulfilment of it promised in the New Testament where those who receive Jesus Christ, God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1.30), thereby receive eternal life, pictured in Revelation 2.7; 22.2 in terms of the tree of life. But the Davidic Psalms do undoubtedly offer a glimpse of such a future hope (e.g. Psalm 16.10-11; 17.15) and it may well therefore have been an intrinsic part of Solomon’s thinking. And this especially so in the light of representations of the tree of life or its equivalent, the plant of life, in the mythology of nations round about, which offered immortality.
The vastness of the value of YHWH’s wisdom and understanding is now brought out by associating it with the founding and shaping of creation. YHWH’s wisdom is seen as intrinsic within His creating work. And by that wisdom YHWH founded the earth, and by that understanding He established the Heavens. And by it, as revealed in His knowledge, He broke up the depths and caused the skies to drop down dew, thus watering the earth for man’s benefit. Thus having created He fashioned. We may well see in the ‘breaking up of the depths’ and the ‘dropping down of the dew’ symbols of YHWH’s chastening work in breaking up man’s sinfulness through chastening (verses 11-12), and His provision of wisdom in watering men’s lives. This latter idea has already been found in 1.23 (the pouring down of wisdom’s spirit).
The breaking up of the depths is not referring to the separating of the water from the water (Genesis 1.7), for it parallels the pouring of the dew from Heaven. Thus it refers to the waters below being caused to water the earth in accordance with Genesis 2.6, just as the dew is the water from above. This is confirmed in Genesis 7.11 where ‘all the fountains of the great deep were broken up and the windows of heaven were opened’ refers to the waters below (the sea) and the waters above (the clouds.
Responding To God’s Wisdom And Understanding Will Result In Life, Peace And Security But Must Result In Positive Behaviour Towards Others, For YHWH Will Bless The Righteous, Lowly And Wise Whilst He Will Curse The Wicked, The Scoffers And The Foolish (3.21-35).
The first subsection of 3.1-35 stressed the importance of trusting, fearing and honouring YHWH. In this is understanding and wisdom. The second subsection emphasised the value of wisdom as an important part of YHWH’s activity of restoring man to his first estate. This final subsection of the passage now emphasises the positive moral behaviour which is to spring from wisdom and understanding, with its consequence being blessing from God.
The subsection is constructed on a chiastic pattern, centred on four ethical instructions concerning positive behaviour, as follows:
Note that A gives reasons why wisdom is to be followed, and centres around ‘grace’. It makes positive promises of life, grace, security and sweetness of sleep to those who follow wisdom, whilst the parallel also gives reasons why wisdom is to be followed and centres around ‘grace. It makes positive promises of blessing, grace and glory to ‘the wise’. B speaks of an emotion to be avoided (fear), and of desolation by the wicked, whilst the parallel also speaks of an emotion to be avoided (envy) and of men of violence. Centrally C gives two general injunctions to positive behaviour, and is centred around the idea of the ‘neighbour, whilst the parallel also gives two injunctions to positive behaviour, and is again centred around the idea of the neighbour.
‘My son.’ This is the usual indicator of a new section or subsection. Here it introduces the third subsection of this chapter. Solomon sees those on whom he is calling as his ‘sons’.
His son is not to allow ‘them’ (the wisdom and understanding which YHWH used in creation - verses 19-20) to depart ‘from his eyes’. This would appear to indicate a written record which the young man can see. He is to read it constantly (compare Psalm 1.2; 2 Timothy 2.15). And in doing so he is to ‘keep’ (keep in mind and carry into practise) wisdom and discretion, especially as it has been revealed by Solomon. Wisdom and understanding in the things of YHWH will result in discretion (compare 2.11), that is in knowing how to behave wisely and acceptably, something which will shortly be amplified.
And these will be ‘life to his inner self’ and ‘grace to his neck’. Through receiving God’s wisdom, as revealed by God Himself, he will be inwardly renewed by God (compare Psalm 1.2-4; 51.10; 119.50b, 93; James 1.18; 1 Peter 1.23), and there will be ‘grace (spiritual beauty) to his neck’, that is, he will display spiritual beauty as a necklace (compare 1.9; 3.3), in other words he will be made spiritually beautiful by YHWH in the eyes of God and men (he will have lovingkindness and truth bound about his neck - 3.3). God will so work in them that they will appear spiritually beautiful. In 3.24 this spiritual beauty given by YHWH will be ‘given to the lowly’ (those who are in contrast to scorners), that is to those who humbly respond to God’s wisdom. They will be made spiritually beautiful.
The consequence of receiving and responding to the wisdom that has been imparted by God is that he will walk securely and will not stumble. He will avoid things that may trip him up. He will not find the going rough. And he will sleep with confidence in his heart. He knows the way in which he should go and intends to go, and leaves all his worries with the God of wisdom. As a result when he lies down, he will sleep sweetly. Such sleep come to those whose trust is in God (Psalm 3.5; 4.8). In Isaiah’s words, ‘in quietness and in confidence will be your strength’ (Isaiah 30.15).
That having confidence in the wisdom and understanding revealed by God does not guarantee that life will be smooth is emphasised here. For that wisdom and understanding should enable its recipient not to be afraid even when outwardly things go wrong. Thus the young man who receives that wisdom should not be afraid of sudden fearful events. This brings out that it is not only the rejecters of God’s wisdom who will be faced with sudden fears (1.26). Nor should he be afraid of the desolation of the wicked, including the devastations of invading armies, and violent activity by evil men. Such things will come on all men, but his confidence is to be in YHWH, for YHWH will be his surety, and will preserve him through it. In verse 23 the promise was that his foot would not stumble as he walked through life, now the promise is that his foot will be preserved from harm. Note that his confidence is not to be in wisdom, it is to be in YHWH. True wisdom results in a personal confidence in God.
‘For YHWH will be your confidence.’ Their full cause for confidence will be that YHWH is with them. A possible translation is ‘YHWH will be at your loin’, in other words will be with them to support them through it. (The Targum translates ‘YHWH will be your help’). But the underlying idea is the same.
A Series Of Four Commands.
These four commands emphasise positive behaviour towards others. Those who respond to God’s wisdom are expected to live it out before men. They form a small chiasmus within a chiasmus, ‘those to whom it is due -- your neighbour -- your neighbour -- a man in general’. The first two commands refer to a failure to do good (‘to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin’ - James 4.17), the second to positive wrongdoing. The opening words of the two couplets confirm this, ‘do not withhold good -- do not devise evil’. To fail to do good is as wrong in God’s sight as to positively do evil.
The principle here is that to be put in a position to do good to people puts us under a responsibility to do that good. The good may be physical, such as food and drink, or it may indicate positive behaviour, such as rendering physical or mental assistance. ‘Those to whom it is due’ is probably the equivalent of ‘your neighbour’, but takes into account that there are those who do not deserve assistance, the layabout, the lazy and the professional beggar. Or the idea may be that we should not delay in repaying our debts or fulfilling our obligations when we are in a position to do so. The point is that we have a responsibility for those among whom we live. But we are only under such an obligation if we have the wherewithal to do it. We are not called on to put ourselves in need (2 Corinthians 8.12; Galatians 6.10).
Above all we must not procrastinate. When we have the means to do good, delay is sinful. To put it off until tomorrow is wrong. ‘Do not say --.’ It is easy to use words to give an impression of being willing to help. This may save our reputation in men’s eyes, but it is totally unacceptable to God. Delay may indicate unwillingness, or simply laziness, or being too busy, but all are wrong (compare James 2.15-16).
The idea of a failure to do good is now followed by the idea of doing positive evil. Evil is the opposite of good. To do evil is to do what is not good. Any planning to do what is not good to a ‘neighbour’ (those among whom one lives) is forbidden. Your neighbour ‘dwells securely by you.’ He is not anticipating trouble, and is to be allowed to live in peace (compare Leviticus 19.13). Note the assumption that the neighbour is neighbourly. (In the parallel he has not done you any evil). It might be seen differently if that neighbour is also ‘devising evil’ against you. This therefore comes short of Jesus command to ‘do good to those who hate you’ (Matthew 5.44, western texts).
The word used for ‘devise’ technically means to plough, and therefore to prepare the ground, and thus to plan or devise..
The command is then particularised into ‘do not bring an accusation against --’, thus having in mind the misuse of the judicial bodies in order to obtain our own way, or even the spreading of rumours to someone else’s harm. Justice can be sought, but it must be justice. Truth can be told, but it must be truth. No accusation should be brought without good reason. It does not, of course, apply if he really has done evil against you, if he has harmed you in some genuine way.
The Young Man Is Not To Envy Those Who Use Wrong Methods To Get Their Own Way.
3.31-32 ‘Do not envy the man of violence,
A man may be ‘violent, unjust, selfishly forceful’, by being over-forceful in order to obtain his own way or by being unjust, as well as by being physically violent. It is used of using wrong methods in order to get one’s own way. There are those who will use any method to get their way. And they often prosper. The word translated violent is used by Sara in Genesis 16.5 of the ‘wrong’ that she had done to Abraham by giving him her handmaid as a slave wife. She was confessing to using wrong methods for the carrying on of the Abrahamic line. It is used of witnesses when describing them as ‘false’ (Exodus 23.1; Deuteronomy 19.16), those who do violence to the truth. But the man who follows the wisdom of God will not follow in such ways. Such people are not to be envied (compare 1.10-19). We are not to wish that we could be like that. We are not to choose their ways. For they are an abomination to YHWH.
The contrast is then made between the ‘perverse (crooked) man’ the man who is like the one described above, who uses devious methods, or one who strays from the right way (2.11-15), and the ‘upright’ man, the man whose ways are straight. The former is an abomination to YHWH, the latter is His close friend. It is this strong language that then leads on to the strong language in the next verse.
YHWH’s Dealings With Both The Righteous And The Wicked (31.33-25).
As regularly in the first four chapters (1.32-33; 2.21-22; 4.18-19) the section ends with a contrast between YHWH’s dealings with the righteous/ lowly/wise and the wicked/scoffers/fools, although the language here is stronger, referring to cursing and blessing in good Deuteronomic fashion. This stresses the fact that God divides mankind into two, one section being those who hear and respond to His word and wisdom, the other referring to those who neglect (the naive), ignore (the fools) or are scornful of (the mockers) His word and wisdom (compare 1.22).
The first contrast is between those who are under the curse of YHWH and those who are blessed by Him. This is strong language but makes good sense in the light of Deuteronomy 27-28. It is a reminder of the fact that God treats sin seriously. The consequences for those who are cursed are laid out in Deuteronomy 28.15-68, ideas which can be seen as reflected in 1.26-27. It brings impoverishment to men’s lives. The consequences for those who are blessed are found in Deuteronomy 28.1-14, and are reflected in 3.9-10, 16-18. It results in general wellbeing. This approach suggests that Solomon had the teaching of Deuteronomy 27-29 in mind. It is the wicked (i.e. the non-righteous who make little attempt to obey the covenant) who are cursed, in other words all who do not continue in the book of instruction (the Torah) of YHWH to do it (Deuteronomy 27.26). They are ‘wicked’ because they do not listen to the voice of God. Their continual thoughts, words and deeds are displeasing to Him. They may appear to be decent, good-living people, but their hearts are not right before God. In contrast are those who seek after and follow God’s wisdom, who ‘listen to the voice of YHWH their God’ (Deuteronomy 28.2), for these are blessed with long life, prosperity and good reputation. Note that the blessing or cursing falls on the whole household (compare Exodus 20.5). The assumption is being made that the children will follow in their father’s footsteps (20.7; 22.6). However, as the Scripture constantly makes clear, God always leaves it open for an individual to be different. An example of this is Saul’s son Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9)
God scorns the scorners, in the same way as His Wisdom did in 1.26. He mocks their folly, as the consequences that they deserve come upon them. They had been arrogant (they had not been ‘lowly’) and had scoffed at His word. Now God mocks their worldly wisdom as judgment comes upon them. In contrast are the lowly, those who humbly receive His wisdom, who are not too proud to listen to God, and pay heed to His wisdom, and to them God gives gifts of ‘grace’ (see on verse 22). He adorns them with spiritual beauty. It is a fulfilment of verse 22. For the use of this verse in the New Testament (in LXX) see James 4.6; 1 Peter 5.5.
The third couplet does not mention YHWH, but we should note that the language assumes His activity. The wise can only ‘inherit’ because there is One from Whom they inherit (in 8.21 it is from God’s wisdom). This language of inheritance from YHWH occurs regularly (Genesis 15.7 and often), and indicates God acting in undeserved favour, a favour which can however be forfeited by disobedience. Thus the wise who follow God’s wisdom (the righteous, the lowly) will inherit from YHWH ‘glory’, in contrast with ‘shame’. In Isaiah 17.3 the ‘glory of the children of Israel’ is their combined wealth and possessions. Compare Genesis 31.1 where it refers to the possessions that Jacob had received from Laban. The same idea is probably to be found here. YHWH will ensure that they prosper.
In contrast ‘shame will be the promotion (merim) of fools’. The root behind ‘promotion’ (rum) refers to lifting up’, and therefore ‘setting up’, and therefore ‘producing’ (Exodus 16.20). Fools produce shame for themselves. But some relate it to the root ‘acquire, purchase’ (mur). Fools buy shame for themselves. Either way the idea is that rather than ‘inheriting’ shame, they in some way obtain it for themselves. They bring shame on themselves, either because of their behaviour, or because they lose their possessions (their ‘glory’) which gave them status.
Discourse 4. Addressed To ‘Sons’. Wisdom And Understanding Are To Be Sought And Cherished, For They Produce Spiritual Beauty, and Lead Those Who Respond Unto The Perfect Day (4.1-19).
In chapters 1-3 we discerned a threefold pattern on which the discourses were based. This pattern commenced with an exhortation to hear and ended with a contrast between the fates of the upright and the wicked, and contained three parts. We might look for the same here. However, from this point on we have more of a problem in determining the content of each discourse as the pattern is not so clear. Thus some here see 4.1-9 as a separate discourse in itself. However one clue might be found in the opening words in 4.1 and 4. 10 where we have the opening injunction to ‘hear’ (with ‘attend to’ following as a parallel). This is in contrast with 4.20 and 5.1 where we have the opening words ‘attend to --’ (with ‘incline your ear’ following as a parallel). This suggests that the dividing line between discourses comes at 4.19, something which might then be seen as confirmed by the fact that 4.17-19 gives us a contrast between the fate of the wicked and the fate of the righteous, paralleling final contrasts in previous discourses (1.32-33; 2.21-22 and 3.33-35). If this be accepted then this present discourse may be seen as 4.1-19. Again it may be seen as dividing into three subsections, namely:
This discourse, therefore, follows the pattern of the previous three discourses, commencing with an appeal to hear his words (4.1-2; compare 1.8-9; 2.1-11; 3.1-10), followed by an autobiographical reminiscence of how his father taught him and appealed to him in the same way (4.3-9), followed by the call to follow the paths of uprightness rather than the path of the wicked.
A General Appeal To ‘Sons’ (4.1-2).
The change from ‘my son’ to ‘sons’, which occurs only here as an opening address, may well have taken place because of Solomon’s reference in verse 3 to himself as ‘the son of his father’ and ‘the only son of his mother’. He may well have wanted to avoid any implication that he was in general addressing his own son. It does, of course bring out that elsewhere ‘my son’ is to be seen as a composite term addressing a number of people. But that ‘sons’ can be seen as an equivalent to ‘my son’ comes out in its use elsewhere (7.24; 8.32). It has been suggested that ‘sons’ is intended to indicate a line of descent (he will soon be speaking of his own descent) so that his wisdom is not to stop with ‘my son’, but to pass through the generations.
He calls as a ‘father’ on those whom he addresses as ‘sons’. As king he had a paternal relationship towards his subjects, and as wisdom teacher a paternal relationship towards his students. He will then compare this with his own relationship to his father David (that he is speaking biologically here comes out in his reference to his mother).
He calls on them to ‘hear’ his disciplinary instruction, and ‘attend’ to know understanding. This discourse may therefore originally have been given orally before being collected together in the Book of Proverbs, although not necessarily so because a writer can call on his readers to ‘hear him’. Certainly there are indications elsewhere that the instruction was in ‘book’ form (e.g. 3.21, ‘do not let them depart from your eyes’). If we take these lines chiastically his desire was for them to understand his good teaching and respond to the disciplinary instruction of their father by not forgetting his torah.
The idea behind ‘disciplinary instruction’ is that it is instruction enforced, if necessary, by chastisement. This was seen as part of a father’s responsibility (as it was also revealed as YHWH’s gracious responsibility - 3.11). But the main emphasis is on instruction and understanding. And what was to be understood was Solomon’s sound teaching and his ‘torah’, which was not to be forsaken. This was, of course, the ‘torah’ urged on him by his father when, at the commencement of his reign David urged on him to ‘keep the charge of YHWH your God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments and his judgments and his testimonies, according to what was written in the Torah of Moses’ (1 Kings 2.3) something which Solomon had made his own. It had thus become ‘my torah’.
An Autobiographical Reminiscence Of What His Father Had Taught Him As ‘A Son’ (4.3-9).
Solomon now stresses that his wisdom has partly come down to him from his father. This greatly added to its value as it was thereby revealed to be traditional, and to have come from the great David. There can be little doubt that among David’s advisers were wisdom teachers, who had no doubt played their part in the education of Solomon. This would partly explain Solomon’s great interest and expertise in wisdom teaching, especially as it was enhanced by the gift of wisdom that he received from God (1 Kings 4.29-34). For he transformed wisdom teaching into an instrument of YHWH.
The reference, however, by Solomon to his mother is interesting. One reason for it was no doubt to stress that in that verse he was speaking biologically about his blood father. Furthermore in his early years he no doubt received his torah from his mother (1.8). But it is also very possible that the mention of the Queen was in order to illustrate his reference to Ms Wisdom in what follows. She too was a queen, to be loved, exalted and embraced (verse 6, 8), and bestowing a wreath and a crown on those who obtained her (verse 9).
The subsection may thus be seen chiastically:
In A special reference is made to Solomon’s mother, who was made queen and who out of her love ensured the passing on of the crown to Solomon, and in the parallel e have Queen Wisdom passing on the crown to her ‘sons’. In B honouring and keeping his words and commandments will ensure life, and in the parallel exalting and embracing wisdom will ensure promotion and honour. In C the stress is on obtaining wisdom and understanding, and the same is true in the parallel. Centrally in D if wisdom is not forsaken she will preserve you, and in the parallel if she is loved she will guard you.
The reference to his mother confirms that Solomon is speaking of David his natural father, and he likens his readers’ relationship to himself with that of his relationship to his father. They are to listen to his teaching as he listened to that of his father. He stresses that their heart should retain his words, and that they should keep his commandments and ‘live’. Elsewhere, however, it is made clear that the words and commandments that give life are found in the Torah (Leviticus 18.5; Deuteronomy 4.1; 5.33; 8.1, 3; 16.20; 30.6, 16, 19). The thought is of abundant living in fellowship with YHWH.
The tender way in which Solomon speaks of his mother has special significance with reference to the tender way in which he later speaks of Ms Wisdom. It was because of her tenderness towards him (and David’s love for her) that he received his crown (1 Kings 1.17-21) in accordance with God’s intention (1 Chronicles 22.9). These words may well therefore have been preparing for what is said about Wisdom in subsequent verses.
The word for ‘obtain’ means basically to buy. The idea is of being willing to sacrifice much in order to obtain God-provided and God-based wisdom (2.6; 3.19, 20) and understanding. The repetition of ‘obtain’ stresses the urgency of it. The thought may even be of the willingness to ‘pay a dowry’ in order to obtain her, because she is treasured so much. Note that wisdom and understanding are seen as one (‘she’), and that they are obtained from the words of his mouth. He sees himself as teaching the wisdom that comes from God, as passing on what God has spoken (compare 2.6).
The issue is so important that he uses three verbs as warnings against neglecting wisdom and understanding, ‘do not forget -- do not turn aside -- do not forsake’. It is a reminder that some negligently forget God’s wisdom, some deliberately turn aside from it, and some intentionally forsake it because its demands are too great, or it has become a nuisance. Rather they are to love her and cherish her as a man loves and cherishes his wife. For they are promised that thereby they will be preserved and guarded. Like a beloved wife Wisdom is to be loved, and not forsaken, and then she will watch over her family.
The first line is strictly ‘beginning of wisdom obtain wisdom’ or ‘wisdom foremost, obtain wisdom’. It may therefore mean that we reveal the beginning of wisdom in ourselves by seeking to obtain wisdom, or that because wisdom is foremost we should obtain it. This may mean that the way in which we first show that we have wisdom is by obtaining wisdom, or that once we have truly received wisdom we will seek more of her, or that we should obtain wisdom because of its pre-eminence. Whichever way we take it, and the writer may have intended a double meaning, it underlines the importance of wisdom as something that we should make an effort to obtain. Indeed, God’s wisdom is to be seen as so important that we should be willing to give all that we possess in order that we might obtain it.
Wisdom, therefore, is to be ‘held in high honour’ and ‘embraced’. Once again it may indicate that we are to see her as a highly prized wife. If we treat her properly she will promote our interests, exalt us and bring us honour. The illustration that follows suggest that this is in a spiritual sense. Our spiritual lives will prosper. (But some consider that it does refer to physical exaltation to high position). Indeed, she will crown us with a wreath of spiritual, God-given beauty, a crown of splendour. The adjectives are stressing splendour and beauty. She will have enhanced our lives and made them spiritually beautiful. We can compare this with 1.9. It is far more likely that we should see floral wreaths and crowns as in mind, as things of beauty, rather than looking to Egyptian religion and obtaining our ideas from there. Those who do so, see them as symbols of power and protection. But Proverbs always stresses their beauty.
God’s Wisdom Teaches Men The Way In Which They Should Go, A Way In Which They Will Not Stumble And Which Leads To Life, They Are Thus To Avoid The Way Of The Wicked In Which Men Stumble And Where Death Is Prevalent (4.10-19).
He has stressed in subsection 2 that his father had taught him the great value of wisdom, (which was connected to his words and commandments), as something that should be loved and cherished like a beloved wife, and which would crown him with spiritual beauty. Now he calls on ‘his son’ to hear his sayings, which will lead him in the right paths so that he will not stumble, and so that he will find life. He must therefore avoid the path of the wicked, for such can find no rest until they themselves cause other men to stumble and suffer violence. Thus their way is a way of darkness, stumbling and death, both for others and for themselves. And this in contrast to the path of the righteous which grows ever brighter as time passes until it reaches its climax in the perfect day.
Note the continual emphasis on the two ways (compare 2.13, 18-19), which are emphasised throughout. On the one hand is the way of wisdom, the paths of uprightness, the path of the righteous (what Jesus called ‘the narrow way’), and on the other is the path of the wicked, the way of evil men, the way of the wicked (what Jesus called ‘the broad way’). The one leads to life, and light, and is secure, the other leads to violence and darkness, and is insecure.
This subsection is in the form of a chiasmus:
Note that in A the years of his life will be many and he will be led in the paths of uprightness, and in the parallel he is in the path of the righteous, and this will shine more and more unto the perfect day, In B he will run and will not stumble, and wisdom will give him life, and in the parallel the wicked are unhappy unless they make men stumble, and they drink the wine of violence (take away men’s lives - 1.10-12). Centrally in C is stressed the need to avoid the way of sinful men.
In the same way as he has retained his father’s words, and kept his commandments in order to find life (verse 4) Solomon now calls on ‘his son’ (those who hang on his words) to do the same with his sayings, for they teach them the way of wisdom, and lead them in the paths of uprightness. They are a source of God’s wisdom, passed on from one generation to another. And as a consequence they will enjoy long lives (compare 3.2; 10.27). In New Testament terms they will have eternal life.
Consonant with the theme of the subsection he speaks of this as walking in ‘the way of (God’s) wisdom’ and ‘the paths of uprightness’. This is to be their goal and their lifestyle. By determining our goals and choosing our lifestyle each of us chooses the way in which we will go. It is worth noting that ‘paths’ have been formed by many treading that way before us. We are not alone. We follow in the train of those who have gone before (consider Hebrews 11).
And those who walk in this way of wisdom and uprightness will find that their steps are free and unhampered, and that even when they run they will not trip up or stumble. (It is, of course, when we stray from that way that we stumble). And the way to walk in that way is by taking fast hold of His disciplinary instruction and not letting it go. We are to treasure both God’s instruction and his necessary discipline (3.11-12), and keep hold of them, for they offer life, that is, a wholesome and abundant life, life with God. For this promise of life see also 3.22; 4.22; 8.35; 2.19; 3.18; 5.6; 6.23
In contrast what they must avoid doing is entering into the paths of the ‘wicked’, the unrighteous, those who come short of uprightness. Nor must they walk in the way of ‘evil men’, those who do not treat God’s covenant seriously, who come short of true goodness. Notice his emphasis on this. They must avoid that way, they must not pass along it, they must turn from it, they must pass on (to the upright way). The constant urging is necessary because of the seductive nature of sin.
This is, of course, exaggeration. It is underlining how intensely people love sin. They cannot even sleep until they have sinned, and they are restless until they have dragged others down with them. Whilst not literally true the points are poignant. They love their sin, and there is that in them which loves causing others, especially the upright, to sin. For wickedness (coming short of righteousness) is their daily bread which they avidly consume. And they follow it up by drinking the wine of ‘violence’ (which includes violating truth). They are unrestrained in what they do. And in many cases it leads to literal violence. Sin is food and drink to them. They have chosen the broad way (Matthew 7.13-14).
The discourse ends with the regular contrast between the upright and the sinful (compare 1.32-33; 2.21-22; 3. 33-35). On the one hand is the path of the righteous, which commences as a dawning light, and continues to grow brighter and brighter until it reaches the ultimate. The idea is of a perfect day, which dawns with the rising of the sun and grows brighter and brighter until it reaches its zenith in the glory of the midday sun. The idea may be of a growing in righteousness, but more probably it indicates a growing in the light of God’s wisdom, for ‘the commandment is a lamp and the torah is light’ (6.23). More and more of God’s wisdom brings more and more light. But this would clearly be seen as accompanied by such a growth in righteousness (otherwise they would not be growing in wisdom). Thus the picture is of a life blossoming as a consequence of responding to God’s wisdom until it attains ultimate knowledge of God. To put it in another way, as on their journey they grow closer and closer to the light of God, knowing Him more and more as time goes by, His light will also shine forth in their lives. And this will go on until they attain the ultimate light, the presence of God Himself. For He is the One Who is light and in Whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1.5).
In those days the time of light was the time during which men could truly live as a consequence of the light that God had given them (the sun). This was in stark contrast with the time of darkness in which they were left to struggle on as best they could, at the best enjoying the dim light of a full moon (the world’s wisdom). Thus for them light was the time in which they ‘lived’. And Solomon has taken over this idea as pointing to a life lived in the light of God’s wisdom. They walk in the light of God’s commandment and torah, for His word is a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (Psalm 119.105). And as they grow in wisdom so the light grows brighter. Furthermore, as we consider the idea of reaching the perfect day, when the knowledge of God and His wisdom is complete, and His light shines at its brightest, we cannot doubt that Solomon’s words here were pointing to the hope of a glorious life beyond the grave. David himself had spoken of the path of life as leading to His presence resulting in fulness of joy and everlasting enjoyment (Psalm 16.11), and had declared that at that time, we will behold His face in righteousness, and awake in His likeness (Psalm 17.15). So whilst the idea of eternal life with God had not been theologically worked out at this stage, it was clearly instinctive in the hearts of true believers.
In Scripture God regularly promises light to His people. In Psalm 43.3 the Psalmist cries out for God’s light to lead him and bring him into the presence of God. In Job 29.3 Job declares, ‘by His light I walked through darkness’. In Isaiah 9.2 the people who sat in darkness saw a great light, a light which dawned on them, the light of the coming King. In Isaiah 42.16 God’s promise to His people was that He would make darkness light before them (as He had with the flaming fire by night at the Exodus), and the crooked places straight, with the guarantee that He would not forsake them. And most importantly of all Jesus Himself declared that He had come as a light into the world to lead us out of darkness into the light of life (John 8.12).
In contrast is the way of the wicked. This is a way of darkness so that they cannot see where they are going (Deuteronomy 28.29), so much so that when they trip up and stumble they do not know what has caused them to trip up because they ‘walk in the ways of darkness’ (see 2.13 and compare especially John 8.12; 12.35, 46). Sinful man, without God’s wisdom, will blame his problems and his mortality on many things, but he will never blame it on his sin. That recognition is a consequence of God’s light. Thus he is puzzled by suffering, not recognising that he has, along with all mankind, brought it on himself. And he is puzzled when life goes wrong and he stumbles and falls. And this is because he walks in darkness, and cannot see the connection between sin and suffering. After all, he reasons, as he rebels against God, I am not such a great sinner. Like the woman Folly, he knows nothing about what really matters (9.13).
Discourse 5. Addressed To ‘My Son’ (and later ‘Sons’). He Is To Avoid The Enticements Of The Strange Woman Whose Ways Lead To Death, And Rather Be Faithful To His True Wife (4.20-5.23).
An indication of the unity of this passage is found in the appeals to ‘attend to my words -- attend to my wisdom’ (4.20, 5.1). At first there might appear to be three opening appeals in the passage, 4.20-27, 5.1-2, 7, but further consideration confirms that the last two are additional appeals resulting from the serious nature of the matter involved. The passage then ends in a contrast between those whose paths YHWH makes level, and those who are wicked (5.21-23). The passage may be divided up into three subsections:
As there is an epilogue it could be argued that there are four subsections, but such epilogues, where they are not a part of the third subsection (as revealed by the chiasmus), are always minimal. Presumably the writer did not see them as disturbing the pattern.
A General Appeal To Hear His Words And Sayings, And Instructions With Regard To His Heart, Mouth, Eyes And Feet (4.20-27).
Solomon urges those who hear him and read his words to take them to heart and keep them there because they offer life and health. They are therefore to watch over their hearts (and minds and wills), to put away careless or false words, to look straight ahead without deviation, and to watch where they put their feet on the path of life. They are not to turn to either right or left but are to ensure that they keep their foot from evil. They are not to be like the ‘strange woman’, the adulterous woman or prostitute, who ‘does not watch the path of life’ (5.6).
It will be noted how many parts of the body are mentioned in these verses: ear, eyes, heart, flesh, heart, mouth, eyes, eyelids, feet, hand, foot. The whole body is to be involved in responding to wisdom. The subsection may be seen chiastically as follows:
In 1.8 he called on them to hear disciplinary instruction and torah, in 2.1 to hear his words and commandments, in 3.1 not to forget his torah but to keep his commandments, in 4.1 to hear the disciplinary instruction of a father and to attend, in 4.10 to receive his sayings. Now he calls on them to attend to his words, and listen carefully to his sayings. They must read them constantly (let them not depart from their eyes) and keep them in the centre of their hearts, minds and wills. In ancient Israel the ‘heart’ was the centre of mind, will and emotions. They must read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Note the assumption that the sayings can be ‘seen’ which suggests that they are in writing.
And this was to be so because to those who truly discern them they offer the secret of wholesome living. They offer life and health. The life offered is spiritual life, life lived with God. Health is especially important here because in the next subsection the warning is against going in to loose women who would very likely have transmittable diseases. Thus those who listen to his words will avoid unpleasant diseases, and will have a healthy lifestyle. They will not be those whose ‘flesh and body are consumed’ (5.11). It will be noted that in the chiasmus this verse is the central thought of the subsection.
Solomon now tells his adherents to guard their hearts, to abjure a wayward mouth and false lips, to concentrate their eyes on what is true, and to watch which path they place their feet on.
The Israelite saw the heart as the centre of a man’s being. It was the seat of the mind, will and emotions. It was also the repository of knowledge, especially about God. Thus the thought was to keep a guard on such by obtaining God’s wisdom and living it out. For their response to the issues of life (basically all that they did) would depend on the state that their heart was in, and what knowledge and wisdom it contained. If their hearts were set on God’s wisdom, then all would be well. But if they followed man’s wisdom it could only lead to tragedy. Their hearts were therefore to be guarded ‘with all diligence’. A careful watch must be kept over them.
And part of this guarding involved putting away what was false. It is tempting to see this as an injunction to ‘his son’ to guard his words, (as most commentators do), but the main emphasis in the subsection is on receiving and responding to teaching, not on proclaiming it. It is more probable then that this is a warning not to listen to the false words of others. Solomon is saying, ‘pay heed to my words (4.20; 5.7), and do not listen to false words’. Thus ‘his son’ is to ‘push away’ the wayward mouth and ‘put far from him’ perverse lips. In other words he is not to listen to those who say things which are wayward and perverse, who inculcate false wisdom. Indeed, the mouth and lips of those who are wayward and perverse are to be ‘put away’ and ‘put far from him’, because he is ‘guarding’ his heart, and letting his eyes look right on, and we should note that the mouth and lips are not said to be ‘his’, and that uniquely they were not mentioned previously in the subsection (as heart and eye were). Nor if they were his words do they fit well into the chiasmus. It fits far better with the context for this to be seen as indicating the necessity for not listening to false wisdom, rather than as referring to him speaking in such a way, for the context is about receiving and responding to teaching not proclaiming it. And this connects better with the following verse where the eyes could have been caused to deviate by listening to false words. By putting away and avoiding false advice it will be easier to look straight forward. Furthermore this ties in better with what follows later, where he is called on to avoid the strange woman whose lips ‘drop honey’, and whose mouth ‘is smoother than oil’.
Nevertheless it is undoubtedly true that Scripture does teach us to keep a watch on our mouths, and that that is how most commentators see it, and taken in this way this would be seen as an injunction to honesty and truth in all that we say. In the words of 5.2 our ‘lips must keep knowledge’. It is a salutary lesson. But in our view it is not what Solomon is saying here.
In verse 20 Solomon’s words were not to depart from his eyes. Now, therefore, he is advised to ensure that his eyes and eyelids look straight on, following his words of wisdom. They are not to wander to other paths (4.27), or listen to wayward and perverse words (4.24), but are to concentrate on the pathway of God’s wisdom and knowledge (compare 17.24 where ‘wisdom is before the face of him who has understanding, but the eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth’). This reminds us of the importance of having ‘the single eye’ fixed on truth, which will cause our whole bodies to be filled with light (Matthew 6.22). It is because men’s eyes wander so easily that they fall into sin.
And in looking straight on he is to carefully watch the path that he treads on. He is to ensure that his way is established, walking in the straight path. He is not to turn to the right hand or to the left. He is to walk straight on, thereby removing his foot from evil (compare 5.8, ‘remove our foot far from her’. Note the point that the way in which the eye is fixed will be the way in which he walks. What we look at will affect what we do.
This is in direct contrast with the strange woman in 5.6 who ‘does not watch the path of life’ but wanders aimlessly in her own ways.
The Need To Listen To Solomon’s Wisdom And Not To Be Enticed By The Words Of The Strange Woman Which Lead To Death And Slavery (5.1-14).
The constant reference to the need to avoid the enticements of the strange woman suggests that it was a major problem in the time of the writer (see 2.16-19; 5.3-14; 6.24-26; 7.5-27; 9.13-18), and this fits well with the time of Solomon, for we should note that there is no suggestion of cult prostitutes, and that that was a time when affluence abounded, and when young men who came from affluent families were not involved in other distractions such as war and famine. Thus they had to find something to do with their idle time, and what more attractive than the enticements of alluring women?
On the other hand the constant depiction of the strange woman may be in deliberate contrast to woman Wisdom, (this contrast is brought out in 9.1-6 compared with 9.13-18). The idea then being to stress that men should look to wisdom rather than to the enticement of strange women whose words lead astray. Alternately it may be that Solomon made wisdom a woman precisely in order to counteract the problem of ‘strange women’ in his time.
It is significant that in this subsection we have two exhortations to listen to Solomon’s wisdom and words (5.1-2, 7), something which normally comes at the beginning of a discourse. They are, however, important in adding urgency to his initial appeal. In the first case (addressed to ‘my son’) it contrasts Solomon’s wisdom with the honeyed words of the strange woman (5.3), and in the second (addressed to ‘sons’) it contrasts not departing from his words with the need to remove his way from her and not come near to her house (5.8).
The subsection may be seen chiastically:
Note that in A he calls on his son to incline his ear to understanding, with its consequences, and in the parallel his son is pictured as having not inclined his ear to those who instructed him, with its consequences. In B the strange woman is in the end bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword, whilst in the parallel his latter end is to be consumed. In C her ways are unstable and lead to death and the grave, whilst in the parallel her ways lead him into slavery and degradation. Centrally in D (which could be divided into two), he is to listen to Solomon’s words, and not depart from them, whilst in the parallel he is not to heed the strange woman but is to remove himself far from her, not coming near to the door of her house.
We are specifically given the reason for this call to ‘my son’ to hear in order that his lips might retain knowledge. It is because the lips of the strange woman ‘drop honey’ and her mouth is smoother than all. He thus needs God’s wisdom and understanding in order to combat it and ensure that his own lips preserve godly knowledge. Note that as he was called on to attend to Solomon’s words in 4.20, and incline his ear to his sayings, now he is called on to attend to his wisdom, and incline his ear to his understanding. (Note also how words and sayings are paralleled with wisdom and understanding). Holding on to that wisdom and understanding will make him discreet in what he does, and ensure that his own lips, unlike the woman’s, ‘retain true knowledge’ (compare Malachi 2.7). This will enable him to overcome temptation. (As someone once wisely said, ‘His word will keep me from sin, or sin will keep me from His word’).
And this hold on God’s wisdom and understanding as imparting God’s knowledge is necessary because the lips and mouth of a ‘strange woman’ drop honey drip by drip (compare 1 Samuel 14.26) and are smoother than oil (probably olive oil, a main export of Israel). They can soon persuade the unwary and the untaught, whose lips are not ‘retaining knowledge’, to walk in the way of sin. But to do so is foolish, for in the end she turns out not to be as sweet as honey but as bitter as wormwood. Wormwood is a plant which is regularly paralleled with gall in order to emphasise bitterness. It had a reputation for bitterness. Furthermore she is as sharp as a two-edged sword. The young man unconsciously awaits his death.
The woman is a ‘strange women’ because she is not a woman in his normal cycle of life. She is a stranger, and often a foreigner. She is also ‘strange’ to him because she is an adulteress or prostitute. But for that reason she is all the more enticing. Indeed the young man may well feel that he can enjoy her and then leave her behind. But the warning is given that that will not be as easy as it sounds. Sin has a habit of clinging on to those who participate in it.
5.5-6 ‘Her feet go down to death,
For the woman is treading the way to death, she is going step by step to the grave-world (Sheol). As a consequence she does not find (or ‘watch’) the level path of life. Her eyes are fixed on her own way, not realising where it leads. ‘Her ways are unstable.’ Some would translate, ‘her tracks meander aimlessly’. The point is that she has no fixed direction. She does not take the straight path. She wanders around in by-paths away from the path of life. But she does not know it. She is unaware of where her journey will end. And the assumption is that those who go into her are following the same by-paths. Thus in 2.18-19, where we have a similar picture, ‘none that go in to her return again, nor do they attain to the paths of life.’ They are treading the way of death. Here in chapter 5, however, the stated warning is that they will endure degradation and slavery, and in their latter end their flesh and body will be consumed (5.11).
Solomon is so concerned for the young men who are taking this path that he includes another exhortation to listen to, and follow, the words of his mouth. They are not to depart from them, rather they are to remove their way far from her, and not come to the door of her house. So the choice is stark. Walk in God’s ways, as proclaimed by Solomon, or walk in her ways which she has made to sound so exciting. And his appeal is for them to heed the first and reject the second.
The point is that the young man who allows himself to be enticed by foreign prostitutes will find the cost prohibitive. He will get involved in her circle of friends, and soon find himself fleeced of his possessions, losing all that he possesses, and all that he works for, to her foreign friends, who will be experts at fleecing naive young men, either by gambling with them or by encouraging them into expensive living. At the same time he will degrade himself in the eyes of a strict Israelite society who will look on his behaviour with disgust. Thus he will lose his wealth to foreigners and will lose his honour in Israel. Or instead of ‘losing honour’ the thought may be of ‘giving his splendour to others’, the thought being that he will become so degraded by sexual debauchery and drunkenness that he loses the splendour of his youth.
‘Losing his years to the cruel’ may indicate that he wastes much of his time over the years at the hands of those who delight in bringing young men down, thus using up in debauchery the years in which he could have been enriching himself. Or it could signify that he loses his years by losing his health. Of course he will not see those who fleece him as cruel to begin with. He will see them as good friends. It is only when he has lost his health and his wealth and seeks their help that he will discover how cruel they can be. They will have no time for an impoverished young man. Alternately the word translated ‘year’ may rather be translated as ‘dignity’, with the words speaking of losing dignity. But the same point is in mind. He will be dragged down into poverty and disgrace.
Note how the punishment is seen to fit the crime. What a man sows he reaps. He has gone in to a foreign woman, and thus foreigners will make full use of his strength and he will labour in the house of an alien. This may be because he has to work off his debts by labouring for her foreign friends, or has to work for foreigners in order to subsidise his lifestyle, because no Israelite will give him work. He will thus, without realising it, be becoming more and more enslaved. There may also be behind it the idea that he may become so impoverished that he is forced to become a Habiru (landless person) on a seven year ‘slave’ contract working for foreigners.
It should be noted how easily all this could have occurred in the days of Solomon. At that time Jerusalem was a place to which foreigners of all nations poured. They came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, they came for diplomatic reasons from subservient nations round about, they came from the Egyptian court (he had married a daughter of Pharaoh), and they came to serve his multiple foreign wives. Jerusalem would be full of foreigners. And with them would come high class prostitutes and their retinues. Solomon had no doubt observed wealthy young Israelites caught up in this scenario with high hopes, only to be ruined. They had provided a suitable object lesson for what he wanted to say.
And the end of such a person’s way of life can only be one of mourning and misery, with his health gone, and his flesh and body finally consumed by illness and the effects of debauchery and high living. Then he will come to his senses, but it will be too late. He will recognise what he has done, hating instruction from his parents and other authorities, and despising their reproof. And he will regret it bitterly.
‘How I have hated -- and despised.’ Most teenagers can identify to this feeling in respect of their parent’s restraints. At the best they endure them at the worst they hate them. The hatred of them suggests deep-rooted rebellion. In this case his heart was so set on enjoyment that he could not bear to have it refused to him. He had a rebellious and sinful heart and so he despised his parent’s advice and hated their guidance.
He will then have to admit that he has not obeyed the voice of his teachers (not schoolteachers, but possibly elders, those responsible for advising the people and especially the young, and also priests and Levites). He has not followed their wisdom and understanding, and he has not bent his ear to those who sought to instruct him. (This is an object lesson to the one now being called on to do so, rather than a literal description of his words). Thus he will have to admit that the assembly and congregation of Israel (his contemporaries), whether national or local, will see him as having been nearly wholly taken up with all that was evil; adultery, gambling, debauchery and riotous living. They will have no time for him except to condemn him. It is an admission that he recognises that his contemporaries have a poor view of him and will spare him no pity. He had brought it on himself. He had gone beyond the bounds. Now he must face the consequences, whether social or judicial. (There was no specific sanction against one who had gone with prostitutes. It was mainly a question of shame). It is questionable whether we are to see this as describing true repentance. Rather it is describing a remorse that arises too late as he regrets the consequences that he is now facing. If only he had done otherwise, but he had not. Like those of the Rabbis who were anti-Jesus he was in danger of having done the equivalent of having ‘blasphemed against the Holy Spirit’. He had been anti-wisdom and had continually blasphemed against God’s wisdom and by it he had become totally hardened. He was in almost total despair. Solomon wants all this to be an object lesson to the young.
Solomon Calls On His Son To Be Faithful To His True Wife, And To Obtain His Sexual Enjoyments From Her (5.15-20).
In contrast Solomon now brings home to ‘his son’ (5.20) the joys of sexual fulfilment within marriage. He wants him to recognise that in marriage he has a unique sexual partner, and one who loves him in return. Here then is to be the real source of sexual enjoyment. Thus he exhorts him to find his sexual pleasures in his own wife. He must drink from his own source of refreshment, for in that case he alone will be the one who enjoys it. She will not give her favours to another. And she too will be blessed when he rejoices in her. Let him therefore drink of her and be wholly taken up with her, rather than going to strange women and foreigners whom he will have to share with others, who will not love him, and who will themselves get no real pleasure out of him.
This is presented in the form of a brief chiasmus leaving verses 21-22 as an epilogue:
Note that in A he is to drink water out of his own cistern and from his own well, rather than wasting his water by allowing it to stream out into the streets, and in the parallel he is to drink of his own wife’s breasts and love, and not allow his sexual accomplishments to be spread among strange women and foreigners. In B he is enjoy the sexual benefits of his wife for himself alone, for they are not be shared with others, and the consequence will be that he finds his blessing in her (or his wife will be blessed) and will find his enjoyment in the one who is the wife of his youth, his own spring.
Solomon opens this subsection with a vivid illustration. ‘Drink waters out of your own cistern’ must surely be explained in terms of ‘let her breasts satisfy you at all times’ (verse 19). The cistern was a private source of water, not accessible to others without strict permission. Thus his wife and her sexual attributes are being seen as his source of sexual enjoyment, and his alone. The parallel ‘running waters out of your own well’ stresses the purity and satisfactory nature of the provision. Whereas the water from a cistern (a pit with a small opening at the top for storing water) might after a time become comparatively dirty and muddy, running water was always pure and wholesome. And note again the emphasis on ‘your own well’. The well would private and for the sole use of the householder, although it would be fed from a spring.
The change to the plural indicates the expression of a general situation and draws attention to the incongruity of people sharing their own private water supply (which was very precious in those days), and therefore of sharing the sexual favours of their wives. It is beyond comprehension. Indeed, to disperse their springs everywhere in widespread fashion or to pour springs of water into the streets would be to spread them so thinly that any enjoyment of them would be very temporary. Everyone would obtain quick enjoyment and then they would be gone. They would have no permanent container such as a cistern or a well enabling them to be retained for the future. He, of course, sees this as a suitable picture of a prostitute’s favours. A quick drink and she’s gone, for she is generally available. She is owned by no one.
Both their cisterns and their wells, and their wives’ sexual favours are to be for themselves alone. They are not to be freely available to strangers and foreigners living among them. This is, of course, the very opposite for prostitutes. (The point is not that strangers must not be allowed to drink from their cisterns and wells, once given permission, only that they are not open to being open to anyone. They are exclusive).
By his ‘bubbling spring’ being blessed, when taken with the parallel, is an exhortation to the husband to bless his ‘bubbling spring’, that is his wife or the sexual provision that she supplies him with. He is to have eyes for no other. He must rejoice in the one whom he married while still a young man. In this regard we should note that Josiah and Amon, future kings of Israel, would marry at 14, whilst Jehoiachin would marry at 16. The Egyptians saw 15 as the marriageable age for men and 12 for women. Not all, however, were married as young as this e.g. David.
The figure in verse 15 is now clearly explained. As one interested in nature (as a means of instruction) he compares the young wife to ‘a lovemaking deer’ or a ‘graceful doe’. There is an important lesson in this in that it supports the idea that sexual enjoyment in marriage is natural and good. As with certain animals, so with man. Most men in those days would have seen female deer engaged in erotic lovemaking and would know of the graceful female mountain goats (probably ibexes), and seen them also love-making. Thus he too must engage in erotic love-making with his wife, whilst also recognising her gracefulness and feminine beauty. There is a recognition of both sexual satisfaction and female gracefulness.
In a similar way ‘his son’ must look to his wife’s breasts (or nipples) for satisfaction, and regularly be sexually satiated with her offered love. It is she from whom he should obtain his sexual satisfaction, not some strange woman or foreigner, who would dispense her favours and then be gone, leaving him dissatisfied.
Epilogue. He Must Recognise That A Man’s Ways Are Open To YHWH’s Eyes, And Must Not Forfeit The Level Paths Through Folly (5.21-23).
The passage, like all previous passages, ends with an epilogue in which a contrast is made between the righteous and the wicked, although in this case the contrast is not so stark. The point is that YHWH watches over men’s ways and makes them level, but the wicked man is bound by his sins, refuses instruction, and through his own folly goes astray. There is an important lesson in this. YHWH works positively on behalf of all. It is the wicked who, by their own sins, forfeit His goodness. Once again it is in the form of a chiasmus:
In A man in general walks in the eyes of YHWH and He makes level paths for him, but in the parallel the wicked, lacking instruction and foolish, goes astray. And this is because centrally in B he is ‘taken’ and tied up by his own sins.
Man in general walks ‘before the eyes of YHWH’. In other words YHWH sees him and all that he does. And this is true for all. Furthermore He makes level all his paths. He smoothes the way for him, and removes stumblingblocks from before him. As Jesus reminded us, He makes the sun to shine, and pours out His rain, on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5.45). He has made full provision for him. All are provided for and the pathway would be smooth were it not for sin., for God is generally beneficent.
But from the cradle sin rears its ugly head (Psalm 58.3). And as a consequence man turns from His level paths, and trapped by sin, rejects instruction and goes astray. It is his own iniquities which ‘take’ the unrighteous, leading him astray. He is held by the cords of sin which prevent him taking the right way. The idea behind the cords is probably that of the animal ensnared by the hunter, although it could indicate a man taken captive and bound. Thus sin is seen as having entrapped the wicked man. Furthermore he dies for lack of disciplinary instruction, not because he has not received it, but because he has rejected it (verses 12-13). He fell into the trap because he had ignored God’s instruction through His servants. And thus in his folly he goes astray. He is no longer walking happily along the level paths.
In terms of this passage those who walk in the smooth way are those who follow wisdom and cling to their true wives, finding their satisfaction in them, whilst those who lack instruction go after prostitutes and the pleasures of sin. But here the principle is generalised and applied to all sin. It is not just immorality which traps men, it is all sin.
Forward to Proverbs 6-9
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