We deal with a larger chunk of text this week following our in-depth analysis last week of v.7. Today we’re examining vv.8-19 of Proverbs 1.
“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck. My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, ‘Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us ambush the innocent without reason; like Sheol let us swallow them alive, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we shall find all precious goods, we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse’ – my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths, for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood. For in vain is a net spread in the sight of any bird, but these men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives. Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”
This passage begins with a simple, but meaningful exhortation – “Hear.” This is no accident; the very first word following the thematic declaration of 1:7 is an encouragement to take a posture of learning and instruction. The Hebrew for “hear” is “shema,” which is also found in the all-important declaration of Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The term is used quite frequently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, but its appearance in such a significant prayer of Moses undoubtedly causes the ears of the hearers of Proverbs to be attuned to its message in a greater way. Wisdom is only gained through resolving to listen and to understand, not in attempting to speak up and make our own voices heard over others. Those who resolve to hear will indeed grow in their understanding.
Also of significance in v.1 is the fact that the entirety of this book’s instruction on wisdom begins with revisiting the wisdom of our parents. Where does our wisdom and understanding begin? It starts at home with the instruction we receive from those who raise us. The book assumes, of course, that the instruction provided is beneficent and not given by an abusive parent. Most parents likely fall within the category of those whose wise counsel is genuinely offered in love, and thus their instruction is a blessing to their children.
The proverbs begin with a fairly simple bit of wisdom, essentially a rundown of a common theme in parenting: bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor 15:33). Many of us have likely had a time in which we felt the pull of the “bad” crowd, and some have spent quite some time following in their footsteps. The warning here is against giving in to that particular pull and moving instead toward the paths of life in which we will walk if we heed the wisdom of our parents.
The specific enticement of vv.11-14 is essentially the OT equivalent of joining the ranks of a gang. Many who have found themselves drawn into this particular temptation report that their reason for doing so was that the gang gave them a sense of familial belonging and purpose. Again, although this may not be overly surprising to those of us who were never drawn into this particular type of temptation, the reason for our resistance to joining the ranks of groups like these is due to the wisdom imparted to us by our parents and the love they showed to us. This proverb can therefore serve a dual purpose: 1) to warn the potentially straying child to walk in the ways of wisdom rather than giving in to the troublesome paths of violence and plunder, and 2) to encourage parents to impart this most basic wisdom to their children so that they will avoid evil in the day of temptation. Many a parent has wondered to themselves whether their instruction held any significance at the end of the day, but proverbs like this one remind parents of the importance of the work they do.
The folly of the transgressor is demonstrated by their love for evil ways. Verses 17-18 are meant to contrast the basic sense which should be present in us against the problematic and self-harming ways of the fool. “In vain is a net spread in the sight of any bird” is to say, any winged creature can see a net from far away and has the good sense to avoid it. No bird flies directly into a trap. But when fools set traps, they ultimately do so against themselves. They may succeed in the near-term, but they draw themselves deeper into doom in terms of the judgment they bring upon themselves before God. Thus the conclusion, “Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.” Although it may seem appealing here and now, the fool’s lifestyle leads to ruin and emptiness.
I actually began the writing process with the application this week, as this particular section of the book lends itself very well to some of the more practical encounters of life. Each of us likely has some moment where we realized that our parents were (dare I say it!) right. Somehow we never believed it as teens, but the day arrives at some point where we finally understand that they actually did know far more than that for which we gave them credit. I think of all the times I’ve heard someone echo, “Mom always used to say…” or “Dad often told me…” as they fondly recount some pearl of wisdom bestowed upon them by their parents. Age is often what brings us to the point where we embrace our parents’ teachings enough that we see them in the way the author sees them – garlands for the head and pendants for the neck. In other words, the teachings of our parents not only shape us into the people we are, but when appropriately embraced, these teachings become something in which we can take great pride. As Forrest Gump reminded us, “Momma always said…!” As Forrest quoted his mother in a similar manner, we must recognize that the instructions of our parents are there for the purpose of keeping us safe in a world which seeks our end. We therefore see the contrast between the foolish and the wisdom which is offered to us by those who genuinely love us.
There is, of course, great appeal to the path which is offered by the world. It promises wealth, fame, and everything our hearts may desire. Yet consider the lives of those who have achieved what the world promised as a fulfilling end goal. How many seem happy? How many celebrities’ lives have been lost over the years due to drug use, suicide, and other methods of self-harm due to the overwhelming emptiness they have felt? How is it that humanity never seems to learn that the path promoted by the world is one which leaves us longing and hopeless?
Wisdom calls us down a different path, and it is one which has been reliably followed by giants of the faith for generations. It calls for faithfulness and promises hope and peace to those who walk in it, and these can be promised because Christ Jesus is the source of the life found on this path.
As our parents desire that which is best for us, so our Father in heaven desires the best for us in even greater measure. He has instructed us every step of the way by His Word, and we have the chance to choose His ways every day. We know the paths of folly; let us choose the paths of wisdom.