This week, we’re looking at how to read the book of Proverbs – learning skills to be able to read it for ourselves, just like in the old proverb: give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and you can sell him a ton of accessories. Or something like that. I’ll get it by the end of the week.
Yesterday, we looked at what proverbs were (genre expectations) and the basics of Hebrew poetry. Today, we start with the first of three key themes that help us understand the book of Proverbs.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
The main theme of Proverbs is a phrase found many times in the book; for example:1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge
9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom
14:27 The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life
This isn’t saying “be terrified of God” – although it is appropriate to be in awe of the creator of the universe. Rather, it’s saying: set out to live your life in awareness of the fact that you’ll have to give an account to God for what you’ve done with it.
Wisdom – which the book of Proverbs claims to teach – must come from fear of God. It’s not intelligence, or IQ. You can be really smart, but according to Proverbs, still not be wise. Wisdom is the ability to know the God-honouring path, and to actually choose to follow it.
It’s a bit more like what psychologists call “EQ” or “emotional intelligence.” The psychologist who coined the term – Daniel Goleman – found that there was at most a 20% correlation between IQ and happiness/success. But there was a far greater correlation between what he called “emotional intelligence” and a person’s sense of wellbeing and happiness. This is how he defines it: the ability to motivate yourself and persist in face of frustration, to control your impulses and delay gratification, to regulate your moods and keeping distress from swamping the ability to think.
This is strikingly similar to the biblical idea of wisdom – the ability to make godly choices that will be beneficial in the long run, and not just take the “easy option.”
Proverbs often uses the comparison between the wise person and the foolish person. Again, this is not about intelligence. It’s a contrast between the wise man who lives life God’s way (which pays off in the end) and the fool who chooses to ignore it (and reaps the ultimate consequences).
10:23 A fool finds pleasure in evil conduct, but a man of understanding delights in wisdom. 14:16 A wise man fears the LORD and shuns evil, but a fool is hotheaded and reckless.
For us, then, if we want to become wise, we must first of all fear God, or all of our learning is worthless. Fundamentally, this means factoring God into the equation as creator – all our learning, from whatever source (the Bible, a science textbook, or advice from a mate), is arranged in light of the fact that God made the world, along with us, and has the right to demand an account for our actions. Practically, this means not just understanding what to do, but a commitment to actually doing it.
So as we read Proverbs (or any part of Scripture, for that matter), we do so with the active intent of following its advice. If we read it merely for intellectual stimulation, it will get us nowhere. Biblical wisdom is just as much about doing as it is about understanding.
Spend some time now reading Proverbs 2 and 3. But do so with the intent of putting into practice what it says. Read it with “the fear of the Lord” uppermost in mind.
One more thing…
Sometimes, Proverbs can seem a little contradictory. For example:Prov 26:4 Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you yourself will be just like them.
Fair enough. Don’t answer a fool. Good advice. Except in the very next verse:Pr 26:5 Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
Wha? Which is it we should do? Do we answer them, or do we not? At first glance it might just mean that if a fool asks you a question, you’re sunk either way. So if you see a fool coming, just put your fingers in your ears and yell “lalalalala” to avoid having to interact with them at all…
But if we delve further into biblical wisdom, we realise that it’s deeper than that. What the book of Proverbs is saying is: there’s a time for each. Sometimes it’s appropriate to answer. Sometimes it’s not. And the wise person will know the difference. The wise person understands when to do something, and when not to. They understand the right season. But we’ll deal with that particular wisdom theme later in the year, when we look at Ecclesiastes.