A Treasury of Wisdom – Proverbs 1:1-7
By: Northern Seminary
Through my ministry years I was often asked to conduct a funeral service for relatives or friends of church members. My answer was always ‘yes,’ for it’s a privilege to be of help during times of deep family sorrow. But often there was the problem that I had never met the person who had died.
In that situation, what do you say about the deceased at the funeral? I’d always speak about God’s comfort and the promise of eternal life for all who trusted in Christ. But I still needed to say something specific about the life of the person the family had gathered to remember. So, as best I could, I’d meet in advance with the closest family or friends, ask questions about what their loved one had done and the kind of influence that person had on their lives. Then at the funeral, along with the great truths of the gospel, I’d talk about how their loved one had made the world a better place and made a lasting difference for others. In other words, I’d highlight ways in which that person’s life had really mattered.
The Book of Proverbs has a goal of helping readers live a life that matters, a life that makes a difference, a life that ensures their time on this earth counts for something important.
There is nothing in this book that rejects learning. Intellectual growth is wonderful. But Proverbs teaches that intellect is not enough. Many of the kings of Israel were among the best educated of their day, but they made very bad choices. Down through the ages, some of the most learned of philosophers or political thinkers have had dangerous or destructive ideas. Why? Because their intellect was not matched with wisdom. And that is what the Book of Proverbs focuses on: making good judgments; knowing whose voice to heed; choosing the best of friends; running from temptation; choosing love and faithfulness and fear of the Lord. And much more.
This book has the recipe for a full and significant life. Chapter one lays out many of the fundamental principles, and we begin with Proverbs 1:1-7.
1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2 for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
3 for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
4 for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
5 let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
6 for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
The word “proverbs” is used right at the start. And there are many sayings in the book which fit with our modern English term ‘proverb.’ But the Hebrew sense is broader, and it’s best to think of what follows as ‘wise teaching’ or ‘recipes for life’ rather than simple proverbs.
Verses 2 to 6 are one long sentence describing the purpose of the book, and verse 7 sums up the key principle, the central idea that underpins everything in the book.
Verse 2 says ‘Gain knowledge.’
Solomon talks about “gaining wisdom and instruction” and therefore “understanding words of insight.”
Along with my friend David, I listened to a senior and respected churchman give a very scholarly talk at a conference. The man was impressively erudite. You could sense great profundity in every word. But at the end David turned to me and said: “That was wonderful. But what did he say?” And I had no idea. The speaker was unquestionably someone of great learning. Perhaps he should have made more allowances for his audience that day – he could have come down a bit. But we needed to come up a bit too, perhaps to have studied harder, read a bit more, and then we’d have gained from his knowledge.
Verse 2 teaches that the proverbs in this book will help the reader come up a big bit, that they’ll gain wisdom which will mean they understand words of insight.
Verse 3 says ‘Live rightly.’
The verse talks about receiving instruction so behavior will be “prudent,” in order that the learner does “what is right and just and fair.”
Learning from these proverbs isn’t about being amused by clever sayings, nor is it to satisfy intellectual curiosity, nor centered on developing better philosophies about life. The learning is so someone day by day will live the way they should. It’s about understanding how a person who fears God can act morally. It’s about how to live a life that’s pleasing to the Lord.
For example, when verse 3 speaks about learning to do what is “right” it uses a word that also occurs in Deuteronomy 25:13-15, which is an instruction about doing right and not cheating people with false weights and measures. What some did back then was assess a seller’s goods with light weights when they were buying, and measure their own goods with heavy weights when they were selling. So they paid less than they should to buy things, and charged more than they should when they sold things. Clearly that was not doing right. Those who traded a few centuries ago in Scotland on Edinburgh’s High Street, part of the Royal Mile, hadn’t read either Deuteronomy or Proverbs for they also cheated people with false weights. Well, they did until the city authorities issued a decree that anyone guilty of using false weights would be nailed to a beam of wood by their ears. It was a form of ear piercing which proved an effective deterrent to cheating.
God would have his people be honest and straightforward, acting rightly in all their dealings with people.
Verse 4 says ‘Grow out of childish naivety.’
These proverbs will give “prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young.”
The word translated “simple” carries the sense of naïve, gullible, easily led astray. I’ve known people who could have been convinced that the Atlantic had suddenly drained away because of a hole in the ocean floor, or that a herd descended from the dinosaurs had emerged from the depths of the Amazon jungle and were eating five hundred tribespeople a day. There are people who will believe almost anything.
It’s good to be open to new ideas, but it’s not good to accept crackpot ideas which have no foundation. Aliens really didn’t visit earth and leave all kinds of monuments and artifacts behind which later gave rise to religious beliefs. Believing that is being gullible.
Proverbs encourages people to grow up – to find “knowledge and discretion” – whether they are young in years or young in their thinking. Culpable immaturity has no merit, and the teaching in these proverbs will lift people’s thinking to a higher and more godly level.
Verse 5 says ‘Learn always.’
There’s an old proverb that ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ That’s not true about canines and not true about people. “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance,” says this verse.
Those who have become wise can still “add to their learning.” Another old saying I learned as a child was “You can’t get a quart into a pint pot.” I was being taught that there are limits to what you can fit into a small space. It’s easy to assume that’s true about learning, as if the brain is full and can take no more, or our minds have aged and aren’t fit to take in any more. There is no truth to either of these ideas. People can still learn and grow in wisdom.
As a pastor I often heard someone say: “I’m too old or too set in my ways to change now.” That was never true. It was an excuse, born out of laziness or unwillingness. Those who want to be more useful in God’s service, or to rid their lives of bad old habits and live in a more godly way can certainly still learn. No one has an escape from the truth contained in the Book of Proverbs!
Verse 6 says ‘Understand the ambiguities of this world.’
The discerning can get understanding for the “proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.”
From ancient times people have used riddles or puzzles to make people think and search for meaning. Samson did that with young men who had gathered to celebrate his marriage, setting them a riddle about a lion and honey (Judges 14: 12-18). Jesus, of course, often used parables in his teaching. The meaning was not immediately clear which made the disciples think hard about the meaning, and sometimes ask for explanations.
But perhaps this verse 6 isn’t referring to deliberate mysteries but instead to the ambiguities thrown up by life in this world. Who has not prayed: “Lord, why did this happen?” or “What does this mean?” And probably in the deepest and darkest of things we will never find answers in this world. Truly, God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
But Proverbs promises that those who seek after God, who learn of God’s love and his purposes, will have a greater understanding than most. There is a higher level of wisdom into God’s ways for those who follow his precepts as laid out in these proverbs.
In a healthy, strong relationship forged over many years – such as the best of marriages – a remarkable understanding of what the other person wants gradually develops. An issue arises, and each knows how the other reacts. “How?” someone asks. “How did you know what your husband (or wife) was thinking?” The answer may be because they’ve shared many similar experiences in the past, and each has learned how the other feels. Or the answer may be the smallest frown or gentlest smile which only the other person would see and then know how their spouse thinks and feels. The best of relationships lead to the deepest understanding of each other.
The best of relationships with God lead to the deepest understanding of God’s thoughts, God’s will, and God’s wisdom.
Verse 7 says ‘Fear God as the foundation for everything.’
The verse reads: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
God is the source of wisdom. The New Testament teaches: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
Therefore, to seek God, to lay down everything about our lives before God, to honor God and to determine to do nothing but God’s will, that is the foundation for everything for this life and the next. It is the master key that opens every important door to salvation, to happiness, to fulfilment and to giving God his rightful place over our lives. That holy awe and deep wonder is “the fear of the Lord” and that is “the beginning of knowledge.”
Fools don’t do that. It’s not that they couldn’t, it’s that they won’t. The problem doesn’t lie in their intelligence but their willingness. The wisdom and instruction they despise is anything that differs from their own will. They’re like the person who avoids their doctor because they’ll be told again to lose weight or stop smoking, and they don’t want to hear that advice. At one level they know the advice is true, and life would be better if they followed it. But at the level of their selfish will, they don’t want to change, so instead of arguing with their wise physician they avoid making or keeping their appointment with the doctor.
Proverbs wasn’t written for those who have no wish to find God’s way. These are instructions for those who want to know God and live a life that pleases him. This book isn’t a collection of clever sayings; it’s a treasury of wisdom for how to have the most satisfying and most productive life possible, with God at the center, and with glory just over the horizon.
 Yes, most dinosaurs were vegetarian, but the gullible don’t know that.
 One quart = four cups.
 The opening lines of a famous hymn from 1773 by William Cowper.
 James 1:5