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.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 1:1-7 ESV
Proverbs is a friendly book for expositors since the first seven verses provide a blatant thesis along with the book’s purpose and goals. Verse 1 informs us of the book’s primary author, verses 2-6 describe the goals and immense benefit that can be gained from seeking the wisdom found within this book’s words, and verse 7 is the heart of Proverbs. True wisdom can only be found by first fearing the LORD. Anything else is foolishness.
OF THE AUTHOR & BACKGROUND // VERSE 1
Solomon is described as the main writer of the book of Proverbs. See the background notes for more information about Solomon and the composition of the Proverbs.
THE GOALS OF PROVERBS // VERSES 2-4
These three verses describe a fourfold goal of the book. First, Proverbs aims to help us know wisdom and instruction. Because these terms are used throughout the book, it is important for us to define them now. Wisdom is essentially “the skill of living. It is a practical knowledge that helps one know how to act and how to speak in different situations. Wisdom entails the ability to avoid problems, and the skill to handle them when they present themselves (Longman, 14-15).” The skill of living is a fitting description of wisdom because elsewhere it is used to denote godly craftsmanship. In Exodus 28:3 for example, God claims to have filled certain men with “the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments”. God’s wisdom gave them the skill to craft holy clothing for the priests of Israel. Like a craftsman, living a godly life requires training, study, and rigorous practice, and like a blacksmith learning to shape metal, we must diligently seek God’s wisdom for how to navigate life’s twists and turns.
But we are supposed to know both wisdom and instruction. What is instruction then? Instruction could also be translated as discipline or correction. It is often used to describe the father’s responsibility toward his children, which is a predominate motif used throughout these first nine chapters.
Proverbs 4:1 | Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight.
Proverbs 12:1 | Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.
Proverbs 15:32 | Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.
There’s plenty more, but I will stop there for now. The message of Proverbs is clear that wisdom cannot be gained without proper instruction. It is a skill that must be taught, and often this comes in the form of reproof and correction, not through mere accumulation of knowledge. In fact, intelligence and wisdom are two different things entirely. Someone might lack intelligence but be full of wisdom, likewise there are many genius-level fools in the world.
And make no mistake, we are foolish by default, so we need to be corrected toward wisdom. Humility, therefore, is a requirement for pursuing wisdom. In order to heed instruction, we must understand our own deficit of wisdom, and then we will love the discipline of the LORD.
Second, Proverbs aims to help us understand words of insight. Understanding means to perceive, consider, or discern something. It is the comprehension of a truth and the good judgment that flows from that understanding. The Bible, and Proverbs particularly, calls us to be deep thinkers. The Psalms also urge us repeatedly to meditate upon God’s Word because when we soak ourselves in the Bible, we gain an understanding of it. The proverbs themselves are words of understanding, insightful thoughts regarding how to live a godly life. Men like Solomon wrote these words by thinking deeply about God, His creation, and how we relate to them both. We also need to dive deep to truly understand their insights. With countless forms of trivial entertainment striving to keep us preoccupied, we need the timeless insights of Proverbs more than ever.
Third, Proverbs helps us receive instruction in wise dealings. This goal is all about behavior. Although we are encouraged to think deeply upon these words, God intends, through this book, to change how we live our lives, not just how we think. Wise dealings might also be translated as wise behaviors, and we are given three qualifying terms: righteousness, justice, and equity. Righteousness means following the straight path, acting without evil intent or faults. Justice means being righteous in our judgments. Equity means being free from bias or favoritism that might pervert justice. Each of these are closely related moral terms that urge us to be godly. God is righteous, just, and equitable. We are to follow His pattern. A true understanding of Proverbs will lead to godly behavior. If it does not, then we have not truly received its instruction in wise dealings. We must lay ahold of its truths and live them.
Fourth, Proverbs gives prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth. Longman describes the simple as follows:
The simple (peti) are neither wise nor foolish. They are, in a sense, unformed. They can do stupid things, to be sure, and later in the book (e.g., Prov 1:22) will sometimes be grouped with the fool (kesil) or mocker (lason). But the difference between the simpleminded and the fool or the mocker may be summed up in one word: teachability. Fools “despise wisdom and discipline” (Prov 1:7), but the simpleminded will listen. A modern word that describes the simpleminded in this context is “immature.” The purpose of the book of Proverbs toward this group is to develop them as people along the right path. (19)
In a sense, we all must approach Proverbs as being simpleminded and immature, seeking what its wisdom promises: prudence, knowledge, and discretion. Prudence means craftiness or shrewdness, which are typically thought of as negative concepts. In fact, the serpent’s craftiness in Genesis 3:1 is a form of this word. Even though it can be negative, here it refers to having a wise understanding of the world. Knowledge means to have awareness by either fact or experience, and discretion typically implies the formation of and follow though of wise planning. The importance of knowledge is seen in Hosea 4:6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest for me.” Prudence is also essential because it gives us the ability to outsmart the temptations to sin around us. 1 Corinthians 10:13 speaks of God always providing a means of escaping temptation, and discretion enables us to find those ways of escape. Prudence, knowledge, and discretion are all needed elements for living wisely, but we cannot grasp them without the humility of realizing our own lack.
CALL TO THE WISE // VERSES 5-6
After speaking to the simpleminded youth with four of the goals of the book, the wise are now addressed with a fifth goal (note: just as the simple and youth are one group, so the one who understands is the same group as the wise). But before the fifth goal is expressed in verse 6, the wise are called to listen to the words of this book that they might increase their learning and obtain guidance. Though we might be tempted to think that the wise person already has everything figured out, that is not the picture that Proverbs paints. The wise know that there is no end to wisdom and folly is always around the corner; therefore, they must constantly increase their learning and search for guidance. In fact, this teachability is a significant aspect of what makes the wise person wise, just like the ability to learn is what separates the simple from the fool. Solomon himself is a warning here for us. Though he was one of the wisest men to live, he turned his heart from the LORD during his reign to follow after the gods of his many wives. Like repentance, wisdom must be sought daily for a fresh supply.
The fifth goal is then expressed in verse 6, that we would understand proverbs, sayings, words of the wise, and riddles. These each refer to different types of writings found within the book. The most predominant, of course, are proverbs (see the background section for more information on these types of writings). The author urges us to strive for understanding these words because they are purposefully difficult to understand. They are written by wise people and are meant to be interpreted by wise people. The perfect example is Proverbs 26:4-5. These verses appear to be direct contradictions of one another (one saying to answer a fool according to his folly, while the other says not to answer a fool according to his folly). So which is true? They both are. We must have wisdom to know when to answer or not answer a fool. Proverbs is not a formula for instant wisdom.
If proverbs contain wisdom but cannot themselves provide wisdom, where then is the source of wisdom? Verse 7 has the answer.
THE FEAR OF THE LORD // VERSE 7
Although verses 2-6 explain how wisdom and knowledge are continually acquired, we now learn where they begin. The beginning and foundation of knowledge and wisdom is the fear of the LORD (Ps. 111:10; Pr. 9:10). What then is the fear of God, and why is it so important? And why does Solomon use knowledge here instead of wisdom?
Typically, when the Bible talks about the fear of the LORD, it does not mean terror or dread (at least when it comes to God’s people anyway). For instance, Adam and Eve were afraid of God after they disobeyed, but that fear came from their own disobedience and the fear of being punished. That fear is much like the fear of a ravenous tiger, a feeling of terror due to a clear and present danger to self.
But the fear of the LORD here is not such a dread; rather, we could call this a reverential fear or an awe-inspiring fear. This is more like the majestic fear of looking over the side of the Grand Canyon. It is the fear of encountering something that is infinitely more glorious than yourself. It is the fear that caused Isaiah to fall upon his face in unworthiness. This fear comes from recognizing and encountering God’s holiness, which is to say God’s otherness, His being like no one or nothing in all creation. This fear leads to wisdom and knowledge because it places us within a proper perspective. It teaches us that our days are finite, that we are not the masters of our own fate. We have a limited number of breaths in our lungs and beats in our heart.
In short, the fear of God reminds us that we are not in control and we are not God. Thus, we cannot truly fear God while living as though we are the center of the universe. The fear of God forces us to realize how fleeting we are in comparison to the Holy One (Ps. 39:4).
We also cannot fear God, while giving our lives over to petty entertainments or devilish sins. Knowing the Holy One puts an eternal perspective on our lives, causing us to want to maximize the things we do for His glory and flee from whatever opposes Him. This focus on eternity is called wisdom. Thus, wisdom can only be gained by first knowing and fearing God.
Now onto the second question: why does Solomon use knowledge here instead of wisdom? Proverbs is all about wisdom, after all, so shouldn’t he have stated that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, especially in the thesis statement of the book! Consider the fact that wisdom is often called applied knowledge, meaning that it is our ability to use knowledge in the real world. In this context, knowledge is a prerequisite to wisdom. We cannot wisely apply knowledge if we possess no knowledge to begin with. From this thought, we can, therefore, gather than Solomon is declaring that even the opening steps of wisdom are inaccessible to us without the fear of the LORD. If we do not fear God, we cannot even hope to have knowledge, let alone the even more elusive wisdom. Without knowing God, we miss the fundamental knowledge of how life works. Without fearing God, true knowledge is outside our grasp, and wisdom is even more unattainable.
The end of second half of verse 7 finally introduces us to the final main type of person we will meet in Proverbs: the fool. The fool is the exact opposite of the wise in every way. While the wise are marked by wisdom, fools revel in folly, despising wisdom and instruction. The wise are teachable, striving to learn from their errors, sins, and mistakes. The fool, on the hand, rejects instruction because he is wise in his own eyes (3:7; 12:15). He cannot gain wisdom because he does not fear the LORD. Twice the Psalms tell us that fools refuse to accept God’s existence (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). The fool rejects belief in God because he elevates himself as god. Just as humility is the defining characteristic of the wise, so pride is the true mark of a fool.