The book of Proverbs “touches the shared concerns of all who are given the gift of life and struggle with how to live it” (C. Hassel Bullock, p. 19, Zuck).
You don’t get the impression that Proverbs is an explicitly religious book. Derek Kidner suggested that it is a book that, “seldom takes you to church.” There are a lot of Monday morning themes in Proverbs. Unlike other Old Testament books, the subjects of covenant, law, and prophecy are not very prominent.
The book of Proverbs wants to meet you in the street. It wants to go to work with you, attend class with you, go on vacation with you, and sit with you at the dinner table. Proverbs wants to meet you at home, at the social gathering, in the board room, the court room, and the halls of government. Proverbs is interested in the kind of friends you choose, the kind of advice you receive, and the way you handle finances.
Proverbs reaches into your thought life, surveys your attitudes, and challenges your emotions. Proverbs is significantly interested in your speech — the kinds of words you use, how you use them and to whom you speak.
“there are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets, and yet decisive in personal dealings. Proverbs moves in this realm, asking what a person is like to live with or employ; how he manages his affairs, his time and himself. This good lady, for instance — does she talk too much? That cheerful soul — is he bearable in the early morning? And this friend who is always dropping in — here is some advice for him . . . and for that rather aimless lad . . . Its function in Scripture is to put godliness into working clothes; to name business and society as spheres in which we are to acquit ourselves with credit to our Lord, and in which we are to look for His training” (Derek Kidner, p. 13, T.O.T.C., Proverbs).
The Proverbs are saying, “Life involves many little choices and the little things matter. Make your choices carefully and understand that there are foolish ways to avoid and wise ways to follow.” The main distinction between the two ways is this: “A wise man will hear and increase in learning” (Proverbs 1:5) whereas “Fools despise wisdom and discipline.”(Proverbs 1:7)
According to the opening verses, Proverbs is written to help (v. 4) the naive, and the youth. These are people who lack the knowledge and experience for making wise decision. Proverbs is also written for (v. 5) “a wise man” to hear and increase in learning. Through Proverbs a “man of understanding” will acquire wise counsel. The NIV translates it as an exhortation – “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance — for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.” (vv. 5,6)
The only person who will not benefit from Proverbs is the fool. The fool must be distinguished from the naive and the young: Proverbs holds little hope out for the fool. “Fools make a mock at sin” (Proverbs 14:9); “Fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7).
Yet Proverbs are written to protect the naive and young from becoming fools. Proverbs 22:15 reminds us that when we’re young, we begin our earthly existence with a serious deficit: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child;” The rest of the proverb says, “the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” Words alone are not adequate for dislodging the foolishness from a child’s heart. But our hope is that the child will hear, listen, and attend to wise counsel and become wise.
In chapters 1-9, the concern of protecting youth from becoming fools is prominent. The chapters are presented as a father instructing his son: “My son . . ” (see: Proverbs 1:10; 2:1; 3:1; 4:10; 5:1). In several places the plural “sons” or “children” is used, which has led some to consider the setting for Proverbs to be a school where the wise man instructs his disciples.
The goal of these chapters is to guide young people toward the best course of action in a variety of circumstances. The book of Proverbs is well aware of the competing voices calling for the naive and young: the father and mother’s voice (1:8); the voice of sinners (1:10); the voice of wisdom (1:20); and the voice of folly, typified in the adulterous woman. These voices of evil compete with wisdom (5 – 9).
The Father or wise teacher stands with the voice of wisdom pleading with the son or disciple to avoid folly and choose wisdom. This pleading is put in the context of the Father’s own upbringing,
“Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding. I give you sound learning, so do not forsake my teaching. When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender, and an only child of my mother, he taught me and said, ‘Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding” (Pr. 4:1-7).
Life is filled with competing voices and dangerous influences. Proverbs 13:20 warns that, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Wisdom is essential for steering clear of wrong influences. “Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse, who leave the straight paths to walk in dark ways, who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil, whose paths are crooked and who are devious in their ways” (Proverbs 2:12-15).
The pursuit of wisdom sums up the entire purpose of Proverbs.
“The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young — let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance — for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:1-7).
When people receive instruction from this book they will grow in their ability to “understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.” According to Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”
The controlling factor in wisdom, or, as one called it, “the foremost and essential element” of wisdom is “the fear of the Lord.” Although Proverbs is not an explicitly religious book, as Kidner wrote, “God is no afterthought here.” As much as the book of Proverbs advocates common sense, it also cautions against leaning on your own understanding, and exalts faith in God in all your ways (3:5-6).
Although Proverbs emphasizes the importance of planning and seeking wise counsel, it acknowledges that the final “yes” or “no” belongs with the sovereign Lord (see, Proverbs 16:9; 19:21). Proverbs advocates learning by listening and observing but Proverbs 20:12 reminds us that, “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made both of them.” God’s viewpoint is what we need.