Hear, my son, and accept my words,
that the years of your life may be many.
I have taught you the way of wisdom;
I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
When you walk, your step will not be hampered,
and if you run, you will not stumble.
Keep hold of instruction; do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life.
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evil.
Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;
they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.
For they eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence.
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know over what they stumble.
Proverbs 4:10-19 ESV
Everyone in life is walking down one of two paths: the path of wisdom or the path of folly (or foolishness). The path of wisdom leads to life and being blessed by God, while the path of folly leads to sin and death. Within these verses of Proverbs, Solomon will present for us again the two roads set before us. Although we can continue to discuss the benefits of wisdom, ultimately we must choose to begin obeying God, to begin walking down His path.
THE PATH OF WISDOM // VERSES 10-13
Once more, Solomon opens with the word hear. This urges us to have our ears open, ready to hear the words of the LORD, but he also goes further by telling us to accept his words. Of course, as has been the common pattern, Solomon immediately follows this command with a promised blessing: the years of your life will be many.
The call to accept Solomon’s words is not fully understood without verse 11. There we find the author declaring that he has taught the way of wisdom and has led us in the paths of uprightness. As previously stated, the way/path motif is common throughout the Proverbs. It boils all of life down to two categories: walking down the path of wisdom or the path of foolishness. Jesus adopts this metaphor, adding the idea of a narrow gate and a broad gate. Thus, the idea of the path of wisdom is not new, but Solomon’s usage of the past tense certainly is.
Why does Solomon use the past tense in verse 11? I think this is Solomon emphasizing that much of Proverbs is repetition. Even in chapter four of nine in our study, the information presented in these verses is not new. He has already told us of our desperate need for wisdom, and now he simply continues to reiterate that truth using different words. Too often, we long to make God’s Word more complex in order to stall our obedience. True, there are infinite complexities in the Bible, but it’s message is utterly simple: God loves us, so we must love God and love others. We can throw 10,000 but’s at God’s Word, but ultimately we must walk in obedience with what we understand. Mark Twain (not a Christian) gives a wonderful thought on this: “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Because the main message has already been delivered, Solomon is now calling us to obey. The instructions have been given, so the emphasis is now upon action. He wants us to accept his words by obeying them, by living them. We must cling to wisdom and guard her because she is life to us. Verse 12 describes that kind of life. It is a life free from hampering and stumbling. We will discuss stumbling later, so let us view hampering for the moment. Hampering means to restrict, restrain, or confine; therefore, when we walk wisely, our steps will not be restricted.
Wait a minute. We’ve all read the Ten Commandments, and Leviticus is almost entirely filled with laws to obey. The Bible is filled with commandments and laws and is even commonly referred to as God’s Law. But commandments and laws do not make us feel unrestricted. How then can God tell us to follow His ways so we will not be hampered? God’s laws and regulations are not meant to confine us but protect us. A father is not evil for banning his child from playing in the street, and the child is not hampered but guarded. These are how God’s laws and commands function for us.
Take the fourth of the Ten Commandments into consideration. Why did God demand that Israel keep a Sabbath day of rest by consecrating that day to Him? It was for their benefit. Jesus said that “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God commanded them to rest one day in seven because they needed it. He then told them to keep it holy, to give that day to Him, because He knew that they could only find true rest in Him (Matthew 11:28).
We think God’s commands hinder us because we want to sin instead, but God knows that sin leads to death. Sin always promises freedom and happiness, but it leads to slavery, sorrow, and death. God demands that we submit to Him in everything, but He graciously gives us freedom, joy, and life when we do. Freedom cannot be found in sin. Nevertheless, we continue to believe that lie time and time again.
THE PATH OF FOLLY // VERSES 14-17
These four verses present the converse image of previous four. In fact, many verses in the two sections are almost direct opposites of one another. For instance, verse 11 finds its converse in verse 14. Verses 16-17 are the other side of verse 12. And verses 13 and 15 both have the same rapid urgency to their respective commands. After describing the life that is found by following the path of wisdom, we now view the death that comes from choosing the path of folly.
Just as the path of wisdom leads to life, the way of folly (or wickedness) leads to death, particularly let us observe verses 16-17. First, we are told that they cannot sleep without doing wrong or causing others to sin. Then we are find that wickedness is their bread and violence is their wine. Both of these verses emphasize the domination of sin upon the fool’s life. For them, sin is as normal as sleep and food. They see nothing wrong with their rebellion against God and gladly encourage others to join them.
This normalcy of sin usually results from taking the good gifts of God and making them into our gods. We take objects or actions that God created for us to enjoy Him and make them into the ultimate good of our lives. We revolve our lives around the gift rather than the Giver. This is true even of ourselves. God made us as His image-bearers; therefore, our very life is a gift from God. Yet when we commit idolatry whenever we live for our glory and pleasure instead of for God’s glory and pleasure. And ultimately, there is no quicker way to devalue something than by using it to usurp God’s throne.
We will soon spend multiple weeks on the topic, so let us preemptively consider the idea of sex. As the culture continues to promote sex as an inherent good, sex continues to lose its sanctity and worth. Why is this? Only God can truly be everything. Everything else fails. Therefore, when we make sex everything, it simultaneously becomes nothing. It cannot stand under the weight of our expectations because we hand it a burden that it was not meant to hold. Likewise, when my happiness becomes everything to me, it also becomes nothing. If my happiness is my ultimate goal in life, I have no means of processing chronic illness, horrific accidents, and deaths. Only God is big enough to be everything. Only He is able to bear the burden of being the singular focus of our lives.
TWO PATHS // VERSES 18-19
These verses present the final contrast between life’s two paths. There is no neutrality. Every person on this planet is either described by verse 18 or 19. Verse 19 picks up verses 14-17 discussion of the foolish path. It is first described as deep darkness. Biblically, darkness often carries with it the connotation of ignorance. In the light, we see and know things for what they are, but in darkness, we are left to wander on our own. Of course, living in darkness means that they will stumble over things they can’t see. This completes a very interesting progression of the word stumble in this text. First, we saw in the first section that the wise will not stumble (v. 12). Then we saw that the wicked cannot sleep without causing others to stumble (v. 16). Now we find that the wicked stumble around in the dark. What a glorious truth for God’s people! One day every account will be settled.
C. S. Lewis paints a vivid picture of this principle in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle. The main characters find a group of dwarves sitting to themselves in field, and when questioned, they realize that they dwarves’ minds are shrouded in darkness so that they cannot see the gorgeous field that surrounds them. Eventually, one character asks Aslan (aka Jesus) to help the dwarves, and he responds by setting a feast of food before dwarves. But the blinded creatures eat the whole meal complaining about the food tasting like it came from a horse trough and suspecting each other of hiding better tasting food. Aslan states that they cannot be helped because they refuse to be helped. This is ultimately what sin does. It blinds us to all that is really good and lovely in the world. For example, when we understand that God created the combination of taste buds and flavors, we are able to more fully appreciate the simple joys of food and drink. We enjoy them then as an expression of our Father’s love for us. Instead of viewing sex as a biological need (as many secularists today do), we view as God-given pleasure to be enjoyed in the safety and security of the marriage covenant.
But not so for the righteous! They are like the light of dawn, getting brighter and brighter. Dawn is a wonderful metaphor because God does turn night to day with the flick of a switch. The sun rises slowly, first filling the horizon with light and then invading the rest of the sky. Such is the life of God’s people. When we first believe the gospel and are justified before God, light enters, but it is only just bursting across the horizon. And we know that one day we will be completely free from sin and with God in glorification, just as the full day continues to arrive. But in between those two truths, the sun continues to gradually fill the earth with light. This is the concept of sanctification, the process by which we die to our sinful selves and conform each day to the holiness of God.
We should allow this truth to encourage us. We are not yet glorified, so we are still deeply sinful. But we are also justified, so we know that sin no longer holds authority or power over us. Thus, each day we must simply continue to grow in the LORD. Some days that progress might seem incremental, but we leave our growth and fruit to God. We just continue, however slowly, down the path of wisdom, knowing that God alone will keep our feet from stumbling.