About Biblical Wisdom and Proverbs

The concept of wisdom, especially as expressed in the Biblical book of Proverbs, is one of the most important subjects that a follower of Christ can study.  I have come to this conclusion through years of Bible study and personal application of the Proverbs to my own life.  But it turns out that I am in good company with this opinion.  Many renowned fathers of the faith, including Billy Graham, Thomas Scott, and Charles Bridges have each commended reading from the Proverbs daily.  “If the world was governed by just this one book,” Bridges once wrote, “it would be a new world of righteousness.”

proverbs02That is not to lessen the importance of any other portion of the Bible (or of any other work, for that matter).  To be sure, as Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  But the Book of Proverbs is uniquely valuable in at least the following ways.

1. Singular Focus on Wisdom

Proverbs is about only one thing: wisdom.  The primary Hebrew word for wisdom is hokmah.  It can mean the skill that craftsmen and other professionals exercised in performing their specialized tasks.  In the spiritual context, hokmah means the knowledge and experience that one exercises in following God’s laws. Other authors have defined “wisdom,” as used in Proverbs and throughout the Bible, as“devising perfect ends and the perfect means to achieve them”; “the ability to use knowledge aright;” and “the ability to make godly choices in life.” Biblical wisdom, then, essentially involves “skill in the art of godly living.” What more important topic could we study?

Moreover, Proverbs was meant to be a uniquely important tool for training believers in wisdom.  It is the ancient Hebrews’ definitive statement on the subject.  In literary terms, a “proverb” is a short, poetic statement that conveys a wise principle in a memorable way.  Proverbial writings were a preferred means of teaching wisdom in ancient Middle Eastern societies, and Israel was no exception.  King Solomon alone is known to have written over 3,000 proverbs.  The scribes who compiled the book chose several hundred proverbs written by Solomon and others to form a sort of “best of” collection of the day’s wisest teachings.

2. Equipping Children and Families

The Book of Proverbs is especially geared towards young people, and is often written in the form of instruction from a father to his children.  This is because the home is the center of education, whether we recognize it or not.  From ancient times to the present day, parents teach their children wisdom of one sort or another every day, every time we try to teach a child how to think or behave.  Even today, we often communicate these rules through modern-day proverbs, such as “look both ways before crossing the street,” “true love waits,” and “cheaters never prosper.”

The Book of Proverbs is one of the oldest and most venerable educational tools available.  The New Testament demonstrates that Israelites continue to teach from the book many centuries after it was written.  When the Proverbs are quoted in the New Testament, they are often repeated without citation, as if anyone listening would have already heard them many times.

To billions of Christians and Jews throughout the centuries, moreover, these particular proverbs are the inspired words of God himself.  Shouldn’t parents today make use of such a valuable tool?

3. Practicality Over Religion

Another feature of Proverbs that may be especially appealing to contemporary readers is its almost complete lack of religious language. This might seem like an odd thing to say about a book of the Bible, but it’s true.  This book, that has been central to the training of God’s followers for millennia, does not contain a single verse that tells us how to pray, how often to go to church, or which religious rituals to observe.  But it is has quite a bit to say about how we should think, speak, handle conflict with others, manage our money, do our jobs, and act towards our parents, kids, spouses, bosses, neighbors—even animals.

Think about that—your “skill in Godly living” is reflected more by how well you feed your dog than by whether you use wine or grape juice to take Communion, or by the number of church services you attend in a given month.  Our perceptions of what matters to God are so often exactly backwards.

This is a message that people today especially need to understand.  For too long, modern culture—especially in America—has artificially divided every aspect of life into “sacred” and “secular.”  Believers have gathered with each other in their own church buildings, spoke in their own jargon, listened to their own music, read their own books, and watched their own movies—and labeled everything else “worldly” and suspect.  Plenty of good has come out of these settings, to be sure.  But this understanding of what it means to follow God has also alienated many on the “outside” of the religious culture, and discouraged those “inside” from being honest and real with themselves and with fellow believers.

Today, however, we live in what many call a “post-Christian” society.  We can no longer assume that most of the people we meet throughout the week attend church on Sunday, or are familiar with even the most basic tenets and terminology of the faith.  Indeed, the same can be said for many of the people who do darken the doorstep at a house of worship.  Christians communicating with each other in their own jargon is an increasingly less effective method of sharing and deepening Biblical faith.

Fortunately, believers across the country and the world—led by a host of churches, authors, teachers, and artists—are tearing down the cultural walls between “sacred” and “secular.”  In the process, they are finding new meaning and purpose in everyday activities that have nothing to do with “church”; a new willingness to admit the struggles, failures, and doubts that don’t fit with the religious-culture mold; and new avenues of communication and understanding between those who have committed to following God’s path and those who are still searching for it.  These ideas have been given particular emphasis by those believers and churches who label themselves “missional,” “emerging,” or just plain “contemporary.”  But it is one of the dominant themes throughout the Christian community today.

Does this mean that church attendance, prayer, and spiritually uplifting artistic expressions are useless?  Absolutely not.  But what really matters to God is the condition of your heart—your innermost being—and whether the decisions it makes are guided by divine wisdom or self-serving pride.  That is the point that the Proverbs repeatedly drive home.  Organizations such as churches, and rituals such as prayer and Communion, exist precisely because they are useful in orienting our hearts toward God and away from ourselves.

But our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are shaped by everything that we experience—and the vast majority of each of our lives is not spent in a worship service.  For most of us, at least half (if not more) of our waking lives are spent in the workplace.  And the rest is occupied with everything else—eating, drinking, crying, sex, arguments, parties, shopping . . . all of the myriad facets of human life.  These experiences—and not the hour on Sunday that many of us spend in church—are where life really happens.  And these are the venues in which we and everyone can truly see just how much, or how little, our hearts have become like God’s.

By reminding us that everyday life and the life of faith are not two separate spheres but one unified experience of the world that God created, Proverbs reinforces the notion that not everything in life has to be religious to be godly. Instead, wisdom focuses on what the reality of God means for our everyday lives.  That is a mindset that we all need to soak in, particularly now.