Although Solomon (the author of the book of Proverbs) was a King, Scripture tells us that, “Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the sons of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt . . . and his fame was known in all the surrounding nations” (I Kings 4:30). It is interesting, (as Kidner points out) that Kings does not say Solomon “by-passed” the wisdom of all the sons of the East. It says his wisdom “surpassed” theirs.
The book of Daniel provides another example of the international dimension of wise men and wisdom. When King Nebuchadnezzar overthrew Jerusalem, he gave special instruction to the chief of his officials: ordering Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, “to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility — young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well-informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” He was also ordered to “teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians” (Daniel 1:3-4).
Four young men were chosen and “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds” (Daniel 1:17), and “In every matter of wisdom and understanding he [the king] found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (Daniel 1:20). These verses demonstrate that wisdom, wise sayings and wise men were recognized on an international level.
This is probably what Proverbs 22:17 is referring to, “Incline your ear and hear the sayings of wise men.” Proverbs 24:23 breaks the flow of individual proverbs with the introduction, “These also are sayings of the wise.”
When reading other ancient wisdom literature it appears obvious that there were common themes and common sayings among the nations. But while similarities are notable, the differences relating to the biblical proverbs are significant. The most important difference is that Proverbs is explicitly theo-centric, or God-centered.
Proverbs (like most wisdom literature) is offered to make one wiser in order to live a more effective and prosperous life. Yet, according to Proverbs, the pursuit of wisdom for merely practical and earthly reasons is not sufficient.
In Proverbs “the foremost and essential element” of wisdom is to give God his proper place in your life. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7a); “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).
We should not forget that Eve chose what appeared promising “to make one wise”(Genesis 3:6), but in that choice, she denied the first principle of wisdom: the fear of the Lord.
The primary purpose of Proverbs 1-9 is to teach the importance and value of gaining wisdom and Solomon appeals to practical benefits which are in the son’s best interest. None of this, however, is separated from one’s primary relationship with God. “… and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding “ (Proverbs 2:3-6, emphasis mine).
Of the 100 proverbs that use God’s name, all but a dozen use His covenant name Yahweh. This is a book that must be placed in the context of one’s relationship with the living God. Someone suggested that Proverbs is a book dedicated to “working out what living for God means in the ordinariness of daily life.”
Concerning Proverbs 1:7, David Hubbard noted, “Although [fear] includes worship, it does not end there. It radiates out from our adoration and devotion to our everyday conduct that sees each moment as the Lord’s time, each relationship as the Lord’s opportunity, each duty as the Lord’s command, and each blessing as the Lord’s gift. It is a new way of looking at life and seeing what it is meant to be when viewed from God’s perspective.”
Other ancient non-biblical literature also advocates “fear of gods.” In the examples of other literature, however, the counsel to fear a god is “a mere counsel of prudence” — “a policy of cultivating the powers that be” for your own success. For those who wonder if Proverbs advocates the fear of God for the same reason, Kidner responded, “The answer is seen in the relation of prudential considerations to moral, throughout the book; and it is a clear answer. The moral factors always take precedence. To be sure, Proverbs is concerned to point out that what is right and what paths may travel long distances together; but it leaves us in no doubt which we are to follow when paths diverge. E.g., on the question of gifts and bribes, it will go as far as to say, without demur, ‘A man’s gift (mattan) makes room for him, and brings him before great men’ (18:16); but it will not go a step further. ‘A wicked man’, says 17:23, ‘take a bribe (so had) out of the bosom, to pervert the ways of justice’ — and it is at once clear that justice, not success, is our proper concern.” (Proverbs, TOTC).
To fear God in the biblical sense is to obey him even when such obedience does not bring earthly advancement and prosperity.
“A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare” (Proverbs 21:6). Religious devotion is also rejected if it is not joined with moral uprightness “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). The benefits in becoming a more effective or successful person should never be lifted out of the context of fearing God.
These truths must be kept in perspective when one studies Proverbs.