Welcome to Wisdom Wednesday! Each week we'll take a look at a new section of the Book of Proverbs to consider what wisdom we may glean from its pages. This week we'll examine the opening verses, 1:1-6. Although some translations will include v.7 with the preceding material, there's enough to be said about it that we'll set aside an entire post for just that one verse.
The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth -
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
Although we often associate the Book of Proverbs with King Solomon, there are multiple chapters of the text which are actually collected proverbs from other sources. As the book begins, however, these initial verses are outright attributed to Solomon himself. Although it may seem silly to extend Solomon's title as "son of David, king of Israel" (as if we could forget who Solomon was), the lengthier title does help to solidify that this is not some other Solomon who wrote the words which follow. We see, for instance, one of Esau's sons in Genesis 36 listed as "Korah," but readers undoubtedly associate the name Korah with the rebellious Israelite of Moses' day (Numbers 16), who was in fact a different Korah altogether (a descendant of Levi). Unnecessary as it may seem at first glance, calling Solomon "the son of David, king of Israel" proves helpful in preventing mix-ups and keeps us from attributing this work to some other, formerly unknown writer of the same name.
Proverbs is the pinnacle of biblical wisdom literature, and as the book opens, Solomon considers the benefits of pursuing wisdom and pondering the proverbial sayings. Considering the proverbs helps us "to know wisdom and instruction" in that we allow the wisdom of those who are farther along in their understanding to shape our own, challenging our preconceptions and encouraging us to grow. When we "understand words of insight," we are then able to help others to grasp the deeper things of God. We pursue wisdom not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. Even Solomon himself sought wisdom so that he could rule Israel well and guide his people in a greater way. Although a love of wisdom is necessary, we will find it to the greatest extent when our pursuit of wisdom is an outflow of our love for God and for our neighbor.
The contents of v.3 make the focus on others in the gaining of wisdom even more evident as the author notes the need for "instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity." In each of these cases, others are the recipients of the benefits of wisdom. "Wise dealing" is of benefit both to the dealer and to the one with whom they deal, as its implication is that the dealer makes wise decisions and the one with whom they deal can also find a profitable outcome. Righteousness is of clear benefit to all, as it demonstrates that there is no wickedness or malice involved in our interactions. Justice ensures that both the just one and the one with whom they deal is treated in a way which shows no partiality or favoritism. Equity ensures fairness in our dealings. In all cases, wisdom promotes the interests of all parties involved.
Wisdom also "gives prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth" (1:4). The apostles were noted for their wisdom as they stood before the Jewish religious authorities, but it was recognized that they were not formally educated. We do not need formal education to be wise; indeed, some of the wisest people with whom I have interacted have had little or nothing in the way of formal education. This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom; where knowledge is often simply retaining facts or trivialities, wisdom is the appropriate application of our understanding to the greatest benefit of the world around us. I recall having seen a child genius many years ago who, at around 11 or 12 years of age, had already graduated from medical school and was about to begin work in the area of cancer research. As camera crews followed him around on a tour of his new workplace, the boy asked one of the more senior doctors who was showing him around, "If we've been working on this for so long, why have we not cured this by now?" It was a logical question based on the facts presented to him and the knowledge he had gained in his studies, but it was also a strong demonstration of his lack of wisdom; where a person can see the basic facts before them, they cannot comprehend some of the ramifications without the benefits of time, age, and the wisdom that these experiences bring. I have often stated that my approach to funerals changed drastically once I lost my grandfather and finally understood what it was to lose someone dear to me. I could comprehend logically before, but I knew experientially at that moment. Knowledge is profitable, but ultimately serves little purpose without wisdom and the understanding of how to apply it.
Wisdom will bring us to "hear and increase in learning," whereas folly will encourage us to believe that we know all that needs to be known. We often listen for the purpose of responding, rather than listening to comprehend or to grow. As we will see later in the proverbs, wisdom often invites criticism so that we may mature and see ourselves in ways we may not have previously recognized. Sometimes criticism hurts! The wise, however, will not avoid criticism and will embrace what they hear. They also "increase in learning" - not that they simply decide they have learned enough, but rather go on to deeper understanding in all things.
Curious phrasing in the latter half of v.5 leads to some interesting thoughts: "...and the one who understands obtain guidance." We would often associate understanding with a lack of need for additional guidance, but Solomon notes how critical additional guidance is even for the one who already has understanding. Why does the President keep a Cabinet? Why do doctors work together in teams for patient treatment? Because those who truly understand recognize the need for guidance from those outside themselves.
We live at a time in which information is always at our fingertips. With the great leaps forward brought to us by the Internet, we have reached a point at which there is much less which causes us to simply wonder.
The great benefit of near-universal access to information is (theoretically, at least) a large-scale increase in knowledge and understanding, but to what extent has there been an increase in wisdom? To what degree to people more readily apply their understanding to make better informed decisions, or to consider the ways in which their newfound knowledge may be of benefit to the world around them?
Dr. Robert Mulholland spoke of the problems created by this instantaneous access to information in his book Shaped by the Word. To Mulholland, the problem we have now encountered is that we read virtually everything informationally - strictly for the purpose of gathering the data we desire while failing to consider the deeper things of what we read. Scripture, however, is meant to be read formatively - in such a way that Eugene Peterson likened it to a dog savoring a bone, or a lion enjoying its latest meal. He draws on imagery found in Isaiah 31:4, which reads, "As a lion or a young lion growls over his prey..."
Consider what Peterson says in Eat This Book concerning the words of Isaiah:
"Growls" is the word that caught my attention and brought me that little "pop" of delight. What my dog did over his precious bone, making those low throaty rumbles of pleasure as he gnawed, enjoyed, and savored his prize, Isaiah's lion did to his prey. The nugget of my delight was noticing the Hebrew word here translated as "growl" (hagah) but usually translated as "meditate," as in the Psalm 1 phrase describing the blessed man or woman whose "delight is in the law of the Lord," on which "he meditates day and night" (v.2)... There is a certain kind of writing that invites this kind of reading, soft purrs and low growls as we taste and savor, anticipate and take in the sweet and spicy, mouth-watering and soul-energizing morsel words." (2)
I have noticed on numerous occasions that those who study Scripture in the scholarly community are often its greatest skeptics these days, but I believe the problem is that far too many dive into its pages seeking information and nothing more. Few take the time to truly savor it, to meditate upon its contents and allow the Spirit of God to transform our innermost being because of what we have absorbed from it. Too many come to Scripture seeking knowledge, whereas what it offers is far greater: wisdom.
To truly benefit deeply from Scripture, we must come to it with the humility to allow God to change us by the Spirit at work within its words. We must be open to hearing the ways in which we still need to grow. Where do we fail to show equity? Where do we lack understanding? What do we do against our brother or sister which brings enmity? To the one who seeks Christlikeness, God peels back the layers because of His Word and shows us new ways to grow in the image of the Son.
In the weeks ahead, we will need great wisdom as we dive into the words of this book and seek greater understanding of the words of the wise. May God guide our study and bring us to deeper wisdom together!