Wisdom, as related to human beings, may simply be defined as the life quality that enables one to make good choices in the complicated circumstances of life in order to walk a good path. For the follower of Jesus, wisdom is the art of godly living.
Every culture knows that there is a way to live that is rightly called foolishness. There really is a way to waste your life and fizzle your days away filled with folly. We are always seeking wisdom from others yet many times we go all over the place looking to figure out how life works.
Bookstores are jammed full with self-help books offering wisdom to the seeker. Movies and literature are filled with wise characters (Yoda and Gandalf the gray being some of my favorites). There is never a shortage of gurus being paraded out on the Oprah Winfrey show. Usually they are western dudes dabbling in eastern philosophy who write books and get paid.
Ironically, we are people who are surrounded by impressive knowledge but seem to be profoundly lacking in wisdom. Our culture seems to have a deficit of wisdom as we tend to float like empty ballasts upon a sea of nothingness. I offer MTV’s Jersey Shore as humble proof. Seriously, how many times can a chic fall in love and give everything she has to some idiot during the course of a summer?
We may know how to split the atom, make machines talk, decode the genome and scan the electrical activities of our brains but we remain unsure about how to make life work. In our search for meaning and happiness we simply lack the wisdom we truly need.
On Gaining Wisdom
Wisdom is something that grows in us progressively as we walk with God in his world. It is no coincidence that the ancients saw the elderly as a source of wisdom; they have lived more life with God and have learned from him through teaching and experience. Proverbs 20:29 teaches us that the glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair. It is not always the case that old age = wisdom, but there is a general principle here that we can learn and deepen in wisdom over time. The tragic story of King Rehoboam ignoring the wisdom of the elderly for the counsel of some punk young men is a classic example of this principle. You can read this in 1 Kings 12 in the Old Testament.
There is a bit of a paradox with wisdom. It is the thing we need most when we are young, but being young we do not have it. This confronts people, particularly younger folk, with some difficult choices. Will I learn from the wisdom God has given to others? Or will I remain an idiot? In our pride we can choose the latter, but if we are willing to humble ourselves, there are several ways that we can grow in wisdom.
Study and listening to God’s Word
God has revealed himself through his Word that we can study, read, listen, meditate upon and obey. Over time we gain the ability to discern good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14) by the constant practice of the teaching of God. Learning and following over time results in becoming wise. Will we come to the Word for wisdom?
Heeding the words of the Wise
Proverbs 11:14 reads, where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. Further Proverbs 24:6 teaches us that in an abundance of counselors there is victory. Of course, the counselors must actually be wise, but the point is that we can learn from others if we listen. In fact the book of Proverbs begins by with these words: 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. Our parents, pastors and our community of faith have wise counsel for us...but we don’t always listen. My favorite is to combine the first two – to hear the words of the wise, in the Scriptures. This essay will roll into that discussion in a minute.
Learning the Hard Way
The final way we learn is the hard way. This is where we do foolish stuff and we reap the reality. We all have been here have we not? God is kind and will discipline us to help us walk in wisdom. Yet as I tell my kids, you can learn just by listening to me—but like Bill Cosby once said, some children simply cannot get by without a good beating. 
In this paper we aim to do the following. First, we hope to provide a very short introduction to the wisdom literature of the Bible in general and the book of Proverbs in particular. In doing so we’ll encourage one another to become wise by heading and hearing the wisdom of the wise in Scripture.
The Wisdom Literature of the Bible
There are many genres of literature (or kinds of writing) in the Holy Scriptures. There are histories, narratives, poems, law codes, songs, letters, writings about the end of history, parables, covenants and prophesies about events declaring God’s judgments and actions throughout history. There is also a unique body of writings properly called wisdom literature. The canonical books of Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Proverbs, some of the Psalms, the writings of James and portions of the teachings of Jesus are rightly seen as writings offering wisdom for God’s people.
Outside of the book of Proverbs, many of these treasures can be greatly unknown to many in the church, yet they offer great counsel to the human race living in a world cursed due to sin and death. Job teaches us about life as suffering in relationship with God. Ecclesiastes offers a philosophical reflection on meaning, happiness and the transient nature of life. Song of Songs teaches us about life as covenantal love. These themes are profoundly important and speak loudly with alacrity millennia after these works were inspired and written down. 
The biblical wisdom literature is a body of unique writings in that they instruct God’s covenant people (those who have entered relationship with him through his gracious promises and work in Jesus the Messiah) in how they are to walk with him on the earth. Living in wisdom is living in godliness reflecting the nature of the kingdom of God in the course of everyday living. Many peoples, both ancient  and modern, posses a body of wisdom literature but what makes the biblical writings distinct are their relationship to YHWH, the creator God. In the wisdom literature of the Bible we have writing that is not just enormously practical for all people on the earth, but also a description for how to live in the fear of the LORD. 
Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke rightly observes that the wisdom in Scripture exhorts us away from autonomy from God (Proverbs 3:7 being wise in your own eyes) and to live in trusting relationship with God following his paths (Proverbs 3:5-6). Though we find wise teaching of great value outside of Scripture, the wisdom of the Bible is unique in that its aims are far beyond just happily getting by on the earth. It is given to us to teach us to live within a trusting relationship with God as his people.
A note on non biblical wisdom
In coming to the words of the wise and the writing of the sages, we must remember that there are various flavors of wisdom floating around. There is a worldly wisdom that exists in the people, philosophies and religions which flow around us. Many of these have much to say to us, but much of it stands in contradiction to the wisdom of God. On two occasions the book of Proverbs reminds us “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.  Additionally, the New Testament writing of James is very clear for us here:
13Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18 (ESV)
As wisdom is offered to us as we sojourn on the earth, we must be concerned to discern it through the teaching of the Scriptures. In the Bible we have a sure word that can keep us from crashing like a runaway train being led astray by all manner of human opinions. Human wisdom is helpful at times as it has been forged in the furnaces of experience, but it must sit under the throne of a higher word that speaks from a higher place. Duane A. Garrett makes a good observation that we would do well do remember as we seek to learn and grow in wisdom.
Finally, biblical wisdom stresses the limitations of human knowledge. The gulf between human perception and divine reality is never really closed. The sage is commanded to go about his task with humility and reverence for God. The learned must never forget their limitations (Proverbs 30:2–4) and that they are prone to error and conceit. Above all, they must subordinate their quest to the Word of God. For “every word of God is flawless” (Proverbs 30:5).
The Book of Proverbs
One of the most read and cherished portions of the Bible’s wisdom literature are the Hebrew Proverbs. It is a collection of sayings from various people in the ancient world mostly compiled by the ancient Israelite King Solomon who reigned from 971–931 B.C. We read in 1 Kings 4:29-34 that Solomon was a person whom God gave wisdom and understanding and that he indeed collected a quite a few proverbial sayings during his life. This passage states that his wisdom library included some 3000 proverbs and over a thousand songs. Now he couldn’t fit 1000 songs in his pocket, but he did manage to collect a plethora of wisdom in his life. Most biblical scholars segment the book into several sections based on the author of the sayings or when they were compiled. The following is commonly used:
The Value of Seeking Wisdom (Chapters 1-9)
This section focuses on persuading people of the important nature of wisdom in the life of God’s people. We also note the specific emphasis on parents teaching wisdom to the yutes  by way of proverbs. Young people are also exhorted not to be hard headed and listen to their parents. Old School. There is some debate as to whether Solomon wrote these longer exhortatory poems with most conservative scholars agreeing with the attribution in Proverbs 1:1. 
The Proverbs of Solomon (Chapters 10-22:16)
After the early work of the book persuading us with the value of wisdom, the meat of the book are the proverbs of Solomon. These are shorter sayings than the sections in chapters 1-9 and cover all manner of topics. Proverbs 22:17–24:22 contains thirty sayings that are not attributed to Solomon but rather simply coming from “the wise”
The Collected Sayings of Solomon (Chapters 25–29:27)
Proverbs 25 begins with the following phrase: These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied. Hezekiah was a king who ruled much after Solomon in 715–686 B.C. and led a renewal of Judah’s spiritual practices and faith after a wayward time. During this time of spiritual renewal additional proverbs attributed to Solomon were written down.
The Sayings of Agur, Lemuel and one Hot Momma (Chapters 30 and 31)
The final two chapters contain the words of rather obscure people. Chapter 30 is attributed to Agur son of Jakeh who is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. Whether his name is a metaphor, a pen name, or a real person is not clear or certain. 
Finally, another quite unknown sage named Lemuel, possibly an Ancient Near Eastern King is given props for chapter 31. Interestingly the words are said to have been taught to him by his Mother further reinforcing the importance of parents teaching wisdom to their kids. Some would couple the poem about the virtuous wife with the words of Lemuel, but one thing is for certain, the paradigm of feminine virtue extolled in the final words of Proverbs is a beautiful ideal. Here we find a wife, mother and business woman who generous, wise and praised by her husband and her kids.
Some Help Reading Proverbs
In some ways Proverbs is a very easy book to read. In fact, believers have found it easy to read one per day due to the breaking of the book into 31 chapters. On the other hand the Proverbs require a little help to understand and appropriate, well, wisely. What follow are two sections designed to help you read proverbs. The first deals with the types of literary characters we find in the book and how understanding these help us grasp its message clearly. Second, we will wrestle with how to take the clarity of some of the Proverbs while living in a broken and fallen world. Proverbs seems to promise health, prosperity and the righteous finishing on top. Yet in other parts of Scripture we realize that we suffer, die and sometimes give up all wealth for the sake of following God. I’ll try to give a few points of help with this tension.
Some Peeps in the Proverbs
When reading Proverbs we run across several characters who personify certain human trends and actions. They do not refer to a specific person but serve as types which stand for many people. We will look at the fool, the simple, the wise, the wicked (including scoffers, and those wise in their own eyes) and the righteous. Many times these characters are contrasted with one another, for instance the wise and the fool, in order for us to see clearly the path we ought to take. The introductory article in the ESV Study Bible by Garrett and Harris describes this well:
Also, these characters usually serve as idealized portraits: that is, they denote people exemplary for their virtue and wisdom or especially despicable for their evil. The literary name for this is “caricature”: portraits of people with features exaggerated for easy identification. The positive figures serve as ideals for the faithful, to guide their conduct and character formation. The negative figures are exaggerated portraits of those who do not embrace the covenant, so the faithful can recognize these traits in themselves and flee them. 
What follows is but a brief look at how Proverbs uses these caricatures in order to help us see more clearly the path of walking with God.
Fools and Folly
The fool is someone who shows himself to be not only lacking wisdom and discretion but also morally deficient. We would call him an idiot or a moron but not simply in referring to intellectual capacity. The fool in Proverbs is an idiot in the sense of the way he chooses to live his life. Americans like to watch the fool on various reality TV shows usually to feel self-righteous and better about their own lives. The fool talks to much, does not listen, lies regularly, thinks sin is funny, hates knowledge and wisdom and pretty much will have a ruinous end. Pull up the Bible online (www.gnpcb.org/esv/) and search for the word “fool” and you will find not a few Proverbs to read. Simply put, you don’t want to be an idiot so pay attention to the fool’s way of life as you read the Proverbs.
The person who is called “simple” is one who is in a situation needing some learning about the ways of godly living. She is not as far gone as the fool and her life could change or stay simple (Proverbs 1:22, 32). The simple are called to take head and listen and choose a path of wisdom rather than the moronic idiocy of the fool. The simple are easily deceived (Proverbs 14:15) and need to stop and think about her decisions.
The Wise and Wisdom
The wise are those whom are taking the path which God sets out for us and are to be emulated. The lives of the wise are typified by hearing and learning from the ways of God (Proverbs 1:5; 8:33; 10:8; 12:15). The mouth of the wise is used for teaching, healing and preserving rather than tearing down (Proverbs 12:18; 14:3; 15:2,7). The wise avoids sexual misdeeds and adultery (Proverbs 5 and 6; 23:26-28) and stays away from drunkenness which is common deep downtown in Liquortown (Proverbs 20:1; 23:29-35).
Wisdom itself is personified in the book of Proverbs and is said to speak to us and cries out for us to listen. Many have rightly linked the personification of wisdom with the person of Jesus, the son of God. The New Testament teaches us that Christ is the wisdom of God and that in him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. The way of wisdom is found in following a way that is set out by God. The way of wisdom is following in the way of Jesus as his disciple
Joining the fool in Proverbs as a negative character is the way of the wicked. While we observe the fool’s jacked up choices in everyday life, we see that the way of the wicked is utter rejection of the covenant making God. The wicked is seen as setting his way in opposition to God and seeking to take others with him. He is sometimes called a “sinner” (Proverbs 1) but not in the sense that everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God. He is a sinner whose joy and goal in life is sinning it up and commending this as a good way to live. The wicked are said to be under God’s curse (Proverbs 3:33), living in darkness (Proverbs 4:19), live in a way that is an abomination to God (Proverbs 15:9) and will come to sudden, disastrous ruin. The message in Proverbs: you want to go to Hell? Walk in the way of the wicked and only the wrath of God remains.
There is a character in Proverbs known as righteous which shows the rich blessing of walking in covenant relationship with God. The righteous is also called upright, diligent and prudent to describe this way of life to us.  The righteous is similar to the wise person whereas here the relationship with God is central rather than every day decisions and living. It should be obvious to any reader of the Scripture that our relationship with God (righteousness) and holy, wise living in the world are always conjoined. As followers of Jesus we understand that we are made righteous by God and we live righteously in our lives by his empowering Spirit. Proverbs does not present a self-righteous person living in his own strength, but rather one dependent upon God who makes straight his paths. The path of the righteous is light, his way is understanding and knowledge, his mouth and lips bring blessing to others and he is ultimately delivered by God.
A few Miscellaneous Peeps
Finally, there are also a few special folks listed in Proverbs: The sluggard, scoffers and those who are wise in their own eyes. The scoffer loves to mock and deride God’s people and those who are wise in their own eyes are utterly deceived. The former suffers from a deep arrogance and pride (Proverbs 21:24) while the latter’s condition is almost seen as without hope (Proverbs 26:12). The sluggard is the lazy guy who loves to sleep, never finishes anything he starts pretty much fails to utilize opportunities before him.  Derek Kidner, in commenting on the sluggard, made the following observation: [the sluggard] does not commit himself to a refusal, but deceives himself by the smallness of his surrenders. So, by inches and minutes, his opportunity slips away.
Promises and Truths of Proverbs
As the Proverbs are so practical and easy to read we must be careful not to misunderstand their message. There are several principle which can help us to ascertain and properly understand the proverbs. Let me give a few examples of the problems which can arise.
- Proverbs 22:6 teaches parents to train up a child in the way he should go and even when he is old he will not depart from it. Does this mean that if you are perfect parents your kids will turn out to love and walk with God? Of course not, yet some parents claim this as a promise or guarantee. Now parents I am not taking this verse away from us; I just want us to come to it with humility. We’ll talk more about proverb vs. promise in a moment.
- Proverbs also teaches much about the nature of health and wealth and many a preacher on television will grab a proverb or two and promise all his hearers they are to be rich and never get sick! There are also verses like this one: Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist (Proverbs 23:4)
So how do we understand the Proverbs as we read so as to not be led astray by our excitement nor minimize the wonderful teaching of these verses? I pray the following might be of some help. I will use the example of wealth to illustrate each of these principles in order to help us read the proverbs with wisdom.
A few Principles for reading Proverbs
- Proverbs are dealing with observed probabilities, not absolute promises and guarantees. Dillard and Longman make a great observation for us here, “they are not divine promises [for every occasion] for the here and now, but true observations that time will bear out.” 
- Proverbs are to be read in the whole, not simply in their parts. There are many times other proverbs which balance the teaching of the first one you read. They do not nullify one another, but they give a bigger picture. Additionally, other parts of the wisdom literature and other parts of the Bible may shape how we understand a Proverb.
- Proverbs obtain in certain circumstances and life contexts. Wisdom is always exercised in real life, not simply in abstraction. So Proverbs is not playing a pithy game when it tells us “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” and then in the very next verse “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:4,5) The point here is that fools are complicated to deal with and wisdom would require balance.
- Proverbs are to be read with a long horizon of eternity – Even though some of the wise sayings dictate what usually happens with a certain course of action and behavior, they do not always obtain in the here and now. However, in light of eternity, they will prove true. In a fallen world where sin, death and injustice still have a hand in life we long for a day when the life, health, peace and prosperity talked of in Proverbs will be final and absolute. These have us long for the day when the righteous will inherit the earth in the Kingdom of Heaven.
- Proverbs are about life Coram Deo – The proverbs should not be read in a vacuum where God is not considered. I know this may seem like a ridiculous thing to say but we are a people who can love formulas and sayings more than we love God. God is sovereign and his will sometimes is mysterious. Job’s wife and friends were quoting proverbial type wisdom to him when the truth of what God was doing was quite different. We trust a Sovereign God who have made sure promises with our lives. We trust and stand on his actual promises to us in Jesus and hear and heed the wisdom in Proverbs. There is a difference between a promise of God and a wise Proverb inspired by God. One is sure and we rest in it, the other must be skillfully heard and applied.
OK, let us apply these to an example that many a prosperity preacher might use to talk of all the money Christians should have. Proverbs 13:22 says “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the sinner's wealth is laid up for the righteous”
- If one absolutizes the latter part of this verse into a promise or a guarantee we must be required to think that whenever a wicked person dies some Christian is going to get all his money. Some actually teach this sort of schmack. In the short term, this is not true
- The book of Proverbs teaches much about wealth not simply this one verse; it might help us to know the bigger picture. Wealth is good is gained justly and in walking with God. Good stewardship will lead to the sort of blessing in the first half of this verse. Proverbs 11:7 teaches us that “when the wicked dies, his hope will perish, and the expectation of wealth perishes too.” There is nothing for the wicked after the grave, and his wealth goes to someone else.
- This entire proverb can be completely true now in certain circumstances. I know one personally.
- Ultimately all who belong to Jesus will quite literally “inherit the earth” and the wealth and riches of God will not remain with the wicked. The long term horizon validates the Proverb completely.
- The promise of God is that we have a secure, unfading, eternal inheritance in Him (1 Peter 1:3-9) that includes every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1). When the wicked continue to prosper in this age we know the final judgment of God will stand firm and clear.
I hope this simple example is helpful in thinking through the reading and living of the wisdom literature. For those desiring a bit more discussion of this matter I refer you to Mark Dever’s excellent treatment in his sermon on Proverbs in The Message of the Old Testamant: Promises Made. 
There is a divine shout out going on in the world today where wisdom is crying out for us to hear. God in his kindness has given us literature like Proverbs to shake our deaf ears. Proverbs 1:20-23 reads so clearly:
20 Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; 21at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 22“How long, O a simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? 23 If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you.
How much more longing we have for wisdom as God’s people who see and savor Jesus Christ as “the wisdom and power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) What a tremendous privilege we have to follow Jesus within who are all the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).
In proverbs wisdom is personified as shouting aloud in the streets to us? Will we listen? Wisdom was incarnate in Jesus Christ and crucified by the wisdom of the world. We will do the same day after day? Derek Kidner, the late Old Testament scholar, commented simply on the urgency to gain wisdom: What it takes is not brains or opportunity, but a decision. Do you want it? Come and get it?  Jesus was even simpler in his call to us all in relationship to wise living. Come, follow me! Even concerning Lust, Language and Liquortown.
May each of us choose his paths, as he gives grace.
Reid S. Monaghan
Bromiley, G. W. , The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans., 1988; 2002.
Crossway Bibles. The Holy Bible : English Standard Version : The Esv Study Bible. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
Dever, Mark. The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006.
Dillard, Raymond B., and Tremper Longman. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994.
Garrett, Duane A. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1993.
Kreeft, Peter. Three Philosophies of Life : Ecclesiastes-- Life as Vanity, Job-- Life as Suffering, Song of Songs-- Life as Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989.
"The Urban Dictionary."
Waltke, Bruce K., and Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology : An Exegetical, Canonical and Thematic Approach. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007.
1. This introduction is adapted from an essay I wrote during our study of Ephesians in the summer of 2009. The original essay, Wise Guys, can be read at http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/2009/8/16/wise-guys.html
2. See Bill Cosby, “The Same Thing Happens Every Night” Available online at http://www.last.fm/music/Bill+Cosby/_/Same+Thing+Happens+Every+Night — worth a few minutes to laugh.
3. A good little reflection on these themes is found in Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life : Ecclesiastes-- Life as Vanity, Job-- Life as Suffering, Song of Songs-- Life as Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989). Kreeft is a philosopher and not a theologian but still offers some helpful insights surrounding these wisdom oriented books of the Old Testament.
4.Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology : An Exegetical, Canonical and Thematic Approach, 1st ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 898-901.
5. Proverbs 1:7 is clear that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The term LORD here is God’s unique covenant name YHWH, or I AM as expressed in Exodus 3.
6. Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25
7.Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1993), 58.
8. Yutes, plural for young adults. "The two yutes in question." - My Cousin Vinny"The Urban Dictionary."
9.Waltke and Yu, 905. See also the brief authorship discussion in Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 236-237.
10. For more discussion on the identity of Agur see Proverbs, Book Of, in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Revised ed.: Wm. B. Eerdmans., 1988; 2002), s.v.
11. Introduction to Proverbs, Crossway Bibles., The Holy Bible : English Standard Version : The Esv Study Bible (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2008).
13. Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), 512-514.
14. Quoted by Mark Dever, Ibid., 513.
15. Dillard and Longman, 244.
16. Dever, 509-511.
17. Waltke and Yu, 908. Emphasis mine.