Exploring Proverbs, Volume One
The John Phillips Commentary Series
Exploring Proverbs, Volume One
An Expository Commentary
©1995 by John Phillips. Database © 2009 Wordsearch Corp.
I thought this book would be impossible to write. How could anyone come up with a comprehensive, reasonably accurate, alliterated outline for the book of Proverbs? But in spite of all its eddies, bays, and backwaters, I found that the great river of Proverbs has a discernible flow. I explored its main streams and tributaries for nearly a year and discovered that they could be navigated and named.
The results of my study are the summary outline appearing at the front of both volumes and the expanded outlines interspersed throughout the commentary. These outlines will be an invaluable resource for preachers and Bible teachers and will help average readers see the book of Proverbs as a whole. Within the structure of these outlines is a detailed analysis of every chapter, every verse, and every line.
So many commentaries on Proverbs are boring. Often commentators resort to technicalities or state the obvious. I wanted my book to be interesting so I set the goal of illustrating each proverb. I have drawn illustrations from science, nature, fiction, history, personal experience, and above all the Bible. My publisher has been particularly understanding. Instead of cutting and deleting these illustrations, he has let them stand practically as submitted. As a result this book is almost a handbook of illustrations. (Nobody has to tell the average preacher the value of illustrations or how hard it is to find effective ones!)
Here then is the wisdom of Solomon—outlined, analyzed, illustrated, and available in an understandable and readable form. So come explore with me the proverbs of a king who in his day had the reputation of being the wisest man in the world. He lived a long time ago but his proverbs are remarkably up-to-date.
The outline is expanded throughout the body of the text.
Part One: Moral Issues (1:10-9:18)
Section 1: The Way of Wickedness (1:10-19)
Section 2: The Way of Wisdom (1:20-9:18)
Part Two: Miscellaneous Issues (10:1-19:5)
Section 1: The Lot of the Godly and the Ungodly Contrasted (10:1-15:33)
Section 2: The Life of the Godly and the Ungodly Compared (16:1-19:5)
Part Three: Monarchial Issues (19:6-29:27)
Section 1: Proverbs of Solomon—Edited by Himself (19:6-24:34)
Section 2: Proverbs of Solomon—Edited by Hezekiah (25:1-29:27)
We can imagine how the world learned of Solomon's wisdom: When ships from his merchant navy sailed down the Red Sea to trade for gold, silver, ivory, almug trees, peacocks, and apes, the Hebrew sailors put into ports and sang the Psalms of David as they filled their water pots. They praised the Lord for His goodness. In Sheba the queen—or some of her servants—heard these sailors sing. The words of the songs spoke of a living God and struck a chord in the queen's empty, hungry, thirsty heart. She made inquiries and was told of a king named Solomon reigning far to the north in a land called Israel. The more she heard about him, the more she longed to see him. Perhaps he could answer her questions.
She decided to go to Jerusalem. She would go armed with spices and gold and precious stones—and questions. So her camels were loaded and her escort prepared. She traveled all the way up the long reaches of the Nile, across the sands of Sinai, and up into the hill country of Judah.
When the queen of Sheba arrived in Israel, she was overwhelmed! She saw the temple. She saw Solomon's palace. She saw his servants. She sat at his table. She learned the songs of Zion. She listened to the wise man's proverbs. She discussed affairs of state, her anxieties about treaties of war and peace, her perplexities about royal family affairs, and her religious longings. Then she asked her questions. Question after question. "What mean ye by this service?" "What is the use of that implement?" "What lies behind the veil?" "Is there a deeper, richer meaning behind all these sacrifices?"
Solomon told the queen all that her heart wanted to know until at last even her fund of questions was exhausted and she thought about going home. There remained no more spirit in her. She wished she could stay and sit at Solomon's feet forever. But back she went, and we can be sure that she took the writings of Moses and Samuel and David and Solomon with her in her camel bags.
Sitting high and lifted up on her camel, the queen pored over Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the temple:
Moreover concerning a stranger, that is not of thy people Israel, but cometh out of a far country for thy name's sake; (For they shall hear of thy great name, and of thy strong hand, and of thy stretched out arm;) when he shall come and pray toward this house; Hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and do according to all that the stranger calleth to thee for: that all people of the earth may know thy name, to fear thee, as do thy people Israel; and that they may know that this house, which I have builded, is called by thy name (1 Kings 8:41-43).
The startled camel driver pricked up his ears as a loud amen sounded out across the desert sands.
The queen of Sheba was not the only one who came to Israel. People and princes came from near and far to hear the wisdom of Solomon and they went away to spread his fame.
Many of Solomon's astute sayings were distilled into proverbs. Generally each was completed in the form of a distich—a verse of two lines. His wise sayings were collected, other treasures of divinely inspired wisdom were added to the collection, and the whole was eventually published in the book we call Proverbs. Many of the sayings in the book were composed by Solomon himself. Others were drilled into him by David and Nathan when they were grooming the young prince for the throne (1:6-9:18; 19:20-24:34; 27:1-29:27).
The proverbs Solomon learned at school emphasized moral purity. They were accompanied with direst warnings against "the strange woman." Sadly, Solomon chose to ignore this advice. It did not take him long to make tragic shipwreck of his life by cultivating an appetite for women. Many of the women in his harem were foreign; he married some of them out of political expediency to cement peace pacts with neighboring kingdoms. This policy was foolish because in the end political compromise led to religious compromise. Solomon paid clearly for not heeding the warnings. In the end his inattention to these proverbs cost him his kingdom.
Solomon had a fool for a son. But then what could Solomon expect when in one of the most hallowed and important areas of life he himself played the fool? Poor Rehoboam! He had an Ammonitess for a mother (1 Kings 14:21, 31—note how the significant statement is recorded twice) and a fool for a father. Many of the proverbs regarding fools and folly were doubtless coined or collected by Solomon in the hope of getting some sense into Rehoboam's head. Some hope! Solomon could instruct his son and heir in these wise maxims ad infinitum, but instruction would do no good. All Rehoboam could see was his father's example.
If we would avoid playing the fool, we must not only explore the book of Proverbs but also follow its advice.
The book of Proverbs begins with an introduction in which Solomon stated his purposes for collecting these pithy sayings and his general observations on the basic principles of life. The introduction serves as a summary of the whole book.
The introduction tells us that this book contains "the Proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel." However, not all of the proverbs were necessarily coined by Solomon. Many years after Solomon's death Hezekiah asked his scribes to compile Solomon's proverbs, and these compilers apparently added the sayings of other wise men to the collection. Still, by and large, the primary human author of the book of Proverbs was Solomon.
From his earliest days Solomon could observe the living example of Israel's greatest and godliest king. King David, Solomon's father, was a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22) in spite of his sad fall into adultery, deceit, and murder. By the time Solomon was born, David had thoroughly repented of those terrible sins. He had turned the episode to good account by adding his penitential Psalms to the Hebrew hymnbook.
Solomon could also observe his mother Bathsheba. She was a wise woman who had learned life's bitter lessons the hard way. His tutor, benefactor, and friend was the wise prophet Nathan. No doubt he encouraged Solomon to memorize all the early books of the Bible. Thus Solomon was greatly blessed in both his parents and in his early education. God also blessed him with a keen intellect, a teachable spirit, an eager curiosity about life, a catholicity of interests, and a disposition toward spiritual things.
We can imagine the long hours Solomon spent with David. How the boy reveled in the heroic stories of David's youth! How eagerly he listened to his father's counsel. Solomon knew all we know about David—and more. We have to rely on the Hebrew histories and hymnbook for our knowledge, but Solomon could talk to people such as Joab and Abishai. Solomon could cross-question his father.
Solomon knew David in his mature years after he had recovered from the domestic and political disasters that had overtaken him earlier. Solomon knew David when he was holding in trust enormous stockpiles of money and materials for the temple project. Solomon was to fall heir to both the treasures and the trust.
If we are to appreciate all the moral, social, physical, political, religious, and spiritual advantages Solomon had, we must painstakingly read the books of Samuel and Chronicles and the Psalms of David—all with young Solomon in mind. Much history lies behind the words, "the Proverbs of Solomon the son of David."
The Hebrew word translated "Proverbs," mishlai, is derived from the root word māshāl, which means "to rule" as in Genesis 1:18 and 3:16. Mishlai therefore are words and sayings that are supposed to rule and govern life. The book of Proverbs then is not simply a collection of bits of human wisdom. It contains God's rules.
All countries have proverbs, the distilled wisdom of cultures and races. "Look before you leap," "A stitch in time saves nine," "A penny saved is a penny earned," "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" are examples of English proverbs. A Zulu proverb says, "He who walks into a thunderstorm must put up with the hailstones." Scandinavians say, "Mix gray locks and golden and spoil two heads" and "Love makes an old man blind." These are sage human sayings, but the proverbs of the Bible are far more than that. They embody the philosophy of Heaven for the benefit of people living on earth.
When I first joined the staff of the Moody Bible Institute Correspondence School, I was put in charge of course development. Part of my job description was to write testing instruments for the courses published by the school. The task seemed easy enough. I thought I would simply have to read the course material and write exam questions, but I soon discovered that writing meaningful objective-type questions is a sophisticated and complex operation. Before I could start to write the questions, I had to state the goals and objectives the school wanted each student to achieve as a result of completing the course. I also had to state how these objectives could be achieved and how the exams would measure the achievement of these goals.
My objectives in writing an exam had to be clearly stated. For example, the goals of a test could be as follows:
This whole process of formulating objectives and stating them in a particular form was new to me, although of course it is a common technique in modern education and business management. Solomon apparently grasped the technique centuries ago, for he stated his objectives in writing the book of Proverbs with unmistakable clarity:
Solomon's first objective was to make it possible for us "to know wisdom and instruction." The book of Proverbs contains six different Hebrew words for "wisdom." The word used here is chokmah, which occurs frequently in the Old Testament. The other five Hebrew words for "wisdom" used in the book of Proverbs are bīnāh, lēb, ʿārmāh, sākāl, and sekel. Bīnāh ("discernment, discrimination") is rendered "understanding" twelve times, "wisdom" once (23:4), and "knowledge" once (2:3). Lēb ("heart") is translated "wisdom" four times (10:21; 11:12; 15:21; 19:8). ʿĀrmāh ("shrewdness") is translated "wisdom" only once (8:5). Elsewhere it is rendered "subtilty." It is also rendered "prudence" (8:12). Sākāl ("prudence, common sense") is translated "wisdom" only once (1:3). Sekel is "insight." It is also translated "wisdom" (12:8; 23:9) and "understanding" (3:4; 13:15; 16:22). For example Exodus says that the people who were endowed with the necessary skill to make Aaron's high priestly garments and the craftsmanship to build the tabernacle possessed this kind of wisdom (Exodus 28:3; 35:31). Chokmah refers to a person's ability to make the right choices at the opportune times. In the Septuagint chokmah's Greek equivalents are sophos ("clever, skillful, experienced"), phronimos ("sensible, thoughtful, prudent, wise"), and sunetos ("intelligent, sagacious, wise").
The word translated "instruction" in Proverbs 1:2 means "admonition" or "discipline" and is sometimes translated "chastisement." There can be little recognition of truth without discipline. Only a disciplined mind can see the pros and cons of an issue and be willing to learn by correction.
In order to receive truth we need to be willing to acknowledge it when it is presented to us. Solomon wanted us to be able "to perceive the words of understanding" (1:2). The word translated "understanding" is bīnāh, which is usually translated "discernment." Many people cannot see the truth when it is staring them in the face—often because the truth is unpalatable and they do not want to see it. Our English proverb reminds us, "There are none so blind as those who will not see." The soul-winner often encounters this kind of self-imposed blindness when he tries to encourage people to see their need for Christ.
Some people are blind to glaring and outrageous doctrinal errors. Even other unsaved people can see through their beliefs and ridicule them. Deluded victims of the cults are totally blind. They cannot "perceive the words of understanding" because Satan has blinded their minds (2 Corinthians 4:4). For instance those who have been deceived by Christian Science accept the outrageous teaching of Mary Baker Eddy that pain is an error of mortal mind. Mark Twain saw through that belief and told us so in one of his humorous essays.
This last summer, when I was on my way back to Vienna from the Appetite Cure in the mountains, I fell over a cliff in the twilight and broke some arms and legs and one thing or another, and by good luck was found by some peasants who had lost an ass, and they carried me to the nearest habitation, which was one of those large, low, thatch-roofed farmhouses, with apartments in the garret for the family, and a cunning little porch under the deep gable decorated with boxes of bright-colored flowers and cats; on the ground-floor a large and light sitting-room, separated from the milch-cattle apartment by a partition; and in the front yard rose stately and fine the wealth and pride of the house, the manure-pile. That sentence is Germanic, and shows that I am acquiring that sort of mastery of the art and spirit of the language which enables a man to travel all day in one sentence without changing cars.
There was a village a mile away, and a horse-doctor lived there, but there was no surgeon. It seemed a bad outlook; mine was distinctly a surgery case. Then it was remembered that a lady from Boston was summering in that village, and she was a Christian Science doctor and could cure anything. So she was sent for. It was night by this time, and she could not conveniently come, but sent word that it was no matter, there was no hurry, she would give me "absent treatment" now, and come in the morning; meantime she begged me to make myself tranquil and comfortable and remember that there was nothing the matter with me. I thought there must be some mistake.
"Did you tell her I walked off a cliff seventy-five feet high?"
"And struck a boulder at the bottom and bounced?"
"And struck another one and bounced again?"
"And struck another one and bounced yet again?"
"And broke the boulders?"
"That accounts for it; she is thinking of the boulders. Why didn't you tell her I got hurt, too?"
"I did. I told her what you told me to tell her: that you were now but an incoherent series of compound fractures extending from your scalp-lock to your heels, and that the comminuted projections caused you to look like a hat-rack."
"And it was after this that she wished me to remember that there was nothing the matter with me?"
"Those were her words."
"I do not understand it. I believe she has not diagnosed the case with sufficient care. Did she look like a person who was theorizing, or did she look like one who has fallen off precipices herself and brings to the aid of abstract science the confirmations of personal experience?"...
It was a night of anguish, of course—at least, I supposed it was, for it had all the symptoms of it—but it passed at last, and the Christian Scientist came, and I was glad. She was middle-aged, and large and bony, and erect, and had an austere face and a resolute jaw and a Roman beak and was a widow in the third degree, and her name was Fuller. I was eager to get to business and find relief, but she was distressingly deliberate. She unpinned and unhooked and uncoupled her upholsteries one by one, abolished the wrinkles with a flirt of her hand, and hung the articles up; peeled off her gloves and disposed of them, got a book out of her hand-bag, then drew a chair to the bedside, descended into it without hurry, and I hung out my tongue. She said, with pity but without passion:
"Return it to its receptacle. We deal with the mind only, not with its dumb servants."
I could not offer my pulse, because the connection was broken; but she detected the apology before I could word it, and indicated by a negative tilt of her head that the pulse was another dumb servant that she had no use for. Then I thought I would tell her my symptoms and how I felt, so that she would understand the case; but that was another inconsequence, she did not need to know those things; moreover, my remark about how I felt was an abuse of language, a misapplication of terms.
"One does not feel," she explained, "there is no such thing as feeling: therefore, to speak of a nonexistent thing as existent is a contradiction. Matter has no existence; nothing exists but mind; the mind cannot feel pain, it can only imagine it."
"But if it hurts, just the same—"
"It doesn't. A thing which is unreal cannot exercise the functions of reality. Pain is unreal; hence, pain cannot hurt."
In making a sweeping gesture to indicate the act of shooting the illusion of pain out of the mind, she raked her hand on a pin in her dress, said "Ouch!" and went tranquilly on with her talk. "You should never allow yourself to speak of how you feel, nor permit others to ask you how you are feeling; you should never concede that you are ill, nor permit others to talk about disease or pain or death or similar non-existences in your presence. Such talk only encourages the mind to continue its empty imaginings." Just at that point the Stubenmädchen trod on the cat's tail, and the cat let fly a frenzy of cat profanity. I asked, with caution:
"Is a cat's opinion about pain valuable?"
"A cat has no opinion; opinions proceed from mind only; the lower animals, being eternally perishable, have not been granted mind; without mind, opinion is impossible."
"She merely imagined she felt a pain—the cat?"
"She cannot imagine a pain, for imagining is an effect of mind; without mind, there is no imagination. A cat has no imagination."
"Then she had a real pain?"
"I have already told you there is no such thing as real pain."...
She broke in with an irritated—"Peace! The cat feels nothing, the Christian feels nothing. Your empty and foolish imaginings are profanation and blasphemy, and can do you an injury. It is wiser and better and holier to recognize and confess that there is no such thing as disease or pain or death."
"I am full of imaginary tortures," I said, "but I do not think I could be any more uncomfortable if they were real ones. What must I do to get rid of them?"
"There is no occasion to get rid of them, since they do not exist. They are illusions propagated by matter, and matter has no existence; there is no such thing as matter."
"It sounds right and clear, but yet it seems in a degree elusive; it seems to slip through, just when you think you are getting a grip on it."
"Well, for instance: if there is no such thing as matter, how can matter propagate things?"
In her compassion she almost smiled. She would have smiled if there were any such thing as a smile.
"It is quite simple," she said; "the fundamental propositions of Christian Science explain it, and they are summarized in the four following self-evident propositions. 1. God is All in all. 2. God is good. Good is Mind. 3. God, Spirit, being all, nothing is matter. 4. Life, God, omnipotent Good, deny death, evil, sin, disease. There—now you see."
It seemed nebulous; it did not seem to say anything about the difficulty in hand—how nonexistent matter can propagate illusions. I said, with some hesitancy:
"Does—does it explain?"
"Doesn't it? Even if read backward it will do it."
With a budding hope, I asked her to do it backward.
"Very well. Disease sin evil death deny Good omnipotent God life matter is nothing all being Spirit God Mind is Good good is God all in All is God. There—do you understand now.?"
Well of course the words of the Christian Science doctor explained nothing, but countless thousands of deluded people imagine Mary Baker Eddy's propositions are true. These "blind" people reject the truth of God and believe the words of a dead woman. They do not "perceive the words of understanding."
When we do perceive the truth, we must also be willing to accommodate it. Solomon told us we must be willing "to receive the instruction of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:3). People have a great capacity for blocking out unpalatable facts.
The man at the pool of Bethesda, for instance, faced a humanly hopeless situation: he had a long-term incapacitating illness. He had been abandoned at the pool and had suffered thirty-eight years. His only hope for healing was pinned on getting into the pool first when the waters were agitated. He could not get into the pool by himself and he had no friends to help him. He hoped against hope for a double miracle—the miracle of getting into the pool first and the miracle of being healed by the seething water. There he stayed, blocking out of his mind the utter hopelessness of his case, until Jesus worked a real miracle for him.
The sick man was eager indeed, we must note, to accommodate the truth of Christ—but not before he tried to block out Christ's glorious question with irrelevant comments about the pool and his own paralysis. The Lord did not ask whether he believed the stories about the pool. Jesus simply asked, "Wilt thou be made whole?" (John 5:6)
Solomon had words for those who are simple. He wanted "to give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion" (Proverbs 1:4). The Hebrew word translated "subtilty" here and the Hebrew word arum come from the same root. Arum is the word used to describe the serpent in Genesis 3:1: "Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made." (Ezekiel 28:12 tells us how "wise" Satan was before his fall and Ezekiel 28:17 tells us how that wisdom was corrupted.) Arum is translated "crafty" in Job 5:12; 15:5. God does not want to make us crafty, but He does want us to be equipped to deal with those who are.
The word translated "simple" means "artless, guileless, unsuspecting." Some people are so gullible that they believe everything they are told. They are easy prey for the con man. Solomon wanted us to be prepared to meet such deceivers. Eve in her guileless innocence was no match for the old serpent who appeared before her in disguise; he was persuasive but full of malice and malignity. His mind, created for the universe, was narrowed by sin to a diabolical cunning. However Eve had one weapon the devil feared. Eve had the Word of God, which would have rendered her invincible, had she relied on it. All she needed to say in response to each temptation was "Thus saith the Lord." Solomon wanted to put this same almighty Word into the hands of the simple. A mastery of the book of Proverbs will go far toward equipping even the most guileless for life's treacheries.
Solomon also had words for those who are sophisticated: "A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels" (Proverbs 1:5). Apollos is the classic New Testament example of such a man (Acts 18:24-28). Although he was well-versed in Scripture and a gifted orator, he was still teachable. When he first came to Corinth he only knew about John's baptism and was ignorant of the believer's baptism based on the Lord's ordinance, so he was quite willing to allow Priscilla and Aquila to explain truth to him in an area where he was deficient. Apollos allowed this godly couple to teach him the way of God more perfectly.
Often successful preachers are not very teachable. When challenged on a point, they sometimes dig in their heels and defend their beliefs, right or wrong. A wise man will never be too sophisticated to learn, even from someone who has not had all his educational, social, or natural advantages.
Solomon had one more objective for those who are willing to heed his advice: "To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings." The literature of the world contains much human wisdom and it is not all irrelevant. The wise man will seek out what others have learned. He will study it and put it to the test, discriminating between the good, the bad, and the mediocre.
The word translated "interpretation" in Proverbs 1:6 can also be rendered "satire." To interpret is to get the point of what is being said in an obscure saying. Solomon was well-versed in interpretation and the queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with the express purpose of testing his skill. She arrived armed with "hard questions" (hard implies abstruse and difficult) and went away awed and amazed at Solomon's ability to elucidate all her perplexities (1 Kings 10:1-7).
In Solomon's day the oriental people loved riddles. There was for instance the famous riddle of the sphinx. When anyone passed by, the sphinx asked him, "What has one voice, and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" According to mythology the sphinx ate any traveler who could not give the correct answer. In a Greek legend Oedipus passed that way and gave the correct answer: "Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks upright in the prime of life, and uses a staff in old age." The sphinx was so enraged by his answer that she threw herself to her death from the rock on which she lived outside the city of Thebes. Hopefully the riddles propounded to Solomon were of a more serious nature.
Having shared his purposes for writing the book of Proverbs, Solomon stated the first and most fundamental principle for obtaining wisdom: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction." The word translated "fear" simply means "reverence." It occurs fourteen times in Proverbs. Unless the Lord is enthroned in the human heart, there can be no real knowledge of His truth.
All the world's religions bear witness to the abysmal inability of the mind and heart of unregenerate man to arrive at a knowledge of divine truth. The militant violence of Islam, the crass idolatry and foul immoralities of Hinduism, and the endless quest of Buddhism are evidences of this inability.
According to Buddhism, how a person lives determines how he will return to earth in his reincarnation. If he has a good karma, he will enjoy an improved lot in the next life. If not, he may come back as a member of a lower caste or even as a cow, a cockroach, or a caterpillar. Everything depends on one's own good works. And the great ever-mastering hope is to have one's life merged and lost in "the Good Unspeakable, the eternal bliss that lies in the last Nothingness"! As one astute observer commented, "A cheerful faith, truly, to dwell through aeons in monotonous misery in order that consciousness may be swallowed up at last in some void and formless abstraction called 'the Utter Peace.'"
All striving after true knowledge, wisdom, and instruction must begin with the Lord and the Book He has given. Herein lies "the beginning." Those who set aside God's Biblical revelation cannot hope to arrive at a knowledge of His truth. The Bible is His great signpost alongside the highway of life. "This is the way, walk ye in it," God says (Isaiah 30:21). Any atheist, religious philosopher, secular humanist, educator, politician, or scientist who disregards this signpost will never arrive at the desired haven. His logic is based on a wrong premise so he will ultimately arrive at a wrong or incomplete conclusion. The arguments of Job's friends illustrate this faulty logic.
"Fools despise wisdom and instruction." Three Hebrew words are translated "fools" in Proverbs. The one used in Proverbs 1:7 is ʾĕvil. Occurring nineteen times in Proverbs, this word refers to the person who has a lax or careless habit of mind or body. It is the height of human folly to ignore the Bible and then to hope for wisdom.
After World War I, the war to end all wars, the League of Nations was founded as a forum for settling international disputes. As a symbol of their hope for a war-free world, the members built the Palace of Peace in the Hague. Each participating nation made a contribution to the palace. England gave the stained glass windows, Germany donated the iron gates, Italy gave the marble, and Japan sent the tapestries. The United States gave busts of the world's statesmen.
The palace housed a great library of approximately seventy-five thousand books in some sixty languages, all devoted to the themes of progress, prosperity, and peace. And what was the result? World War II swept away all the vain hopes of the nations. When I was in Amsterdam some years ago I could not even find the Palace of Peace listed on the itinerary of any tour.
Only one book really deals with peace and that book is the Bible. A dozen pages from this Book are worth more than all the thousands of volumes in the Palace of Peace. There can be no peace for the world so long as it ignores the Prince of Peace. Apart from Him the world will remain adrift on a wild and stormy sea, without compass, chart, or rudder as it faces the rocks and shoals ahead.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction." Man seems incapable of learning from his mistakes. As one cynic said, "All we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history."
In Proverbs 1:8 Solomon gave the command: "My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother." Probably the father and mother mentioned here are David and Bathsheba. No young man ever had better instructors in the good and right way to live than young Solomon. But he was not alone in having godly parental models.
What an impact Abraham had on Isaac! God Himself bore testimony to Abraham's diligence and success as a father: "I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord" (Genesis 18:19). God made this statement before Isaac was even born. God had observed the firm hand Abraham kept on willful and headstrong Ishmael (Genesis 16:12; 17:25). For instance, although he was a natural-born rebel, thirteen-year-old Ishmael did not dare refuse the painful rite of circumcision even though by eastern standards he was already a young man.
What a hold Jochebed had over the young Moses! (See Exodus 2:7-10; 6:20.) We do not know how long the princess of Egypt left Moses in the care of his mother; we do know, however, that by the time Moses went to live with Pharaoh's daughter, his mother's instruction and influence were paramount. Not all the professors of Egypt nor all the famed "wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22) could destroy the foundation Jochebed had laid in the youngster's heart.
God always upholds parental authority. It is the earliest authority a child knows. Happy is the child who submits to it. Doubly happy is the child who has a godly hand at the helm of his life.
Explaining the motivation behind the instructions given by parents, Solomon stated the cause: "For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck" (Proverbs 1:9). An obedient child is a joy to behold. The one who learns early in life to bow to parental authority will learn to respect all authority. Eventually the one who has been raised to respect authority will be entrusted with authority.
The reference in Proverbs 1:9 to the neck is interesting. The submissive neck, the neck that bows to authority, is set in contrast to the stiff neck, the symbol of pride and rebellion.
Solomon's own son Rehoboam did not learn to be submissive. He had scarcely seated himself on the throne when the northern tribes sent a delegation asking for an end to the tyrannies started during Solomon's reign. In return they promised loyalty to the throne of David. Believing his authority was being called into question, Rehoboam ignored the advice of elder statesmen who had served his father and who unanimously told him to accede to the demands of the people. Instead he listened to his young companions who urged upon him "the divine right of kings." So this foolish young man tried to browbeat the delegation and threatened their tribes with vengeance. As a result he lost half his kingdom (1 Kings 12:1-19).
Solomon would have turned over in his grave. Or would he? Doubtless in the bitterness of his heart he knew only too well what a fool Rehoboam was. Solomon probably could have foretold some such folly. The stiff-necked Rehoboam sported a royal diadem, but he won no garlands for his brow. The chain of high office was his, but he did not wear chains of honor around his neck.
The book of Proverbs can be divided into three main parts. The first part deals with moral issues (1:10-9:18), the second part deals with miscellaneous issues (10:1-19:5), and the third part deals with monarchial issues (19:6-29:27).
The proverbs in Part One appear to have been taught to Solomon by his instructors. They are couched in the second person (thou, thy, thee, thine). If Solomon had stored these proverbs in his heart instead of in his head, he would have gone down in history as the greatest of all kings.
We can divide Part One into two sections: the way of wickedness (1:10-19)and the way of wisdom (1:20-9:18). Wisdom is personified as a woman and wickedness is incarnated in the immoral woman.
Section 1: The Way of Wickedness (1:10-19)
"My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. If they say, Come with us..." There it is, a bold and unblushing invitation to sin. Solomon was warned at the very outset to be wary of any invitation to wrongdoing.
The word translated "sinners" here is one of the mildest Hebrew words for "sin." Derived from chātāʾ, which means "to miss the mark, to stumble, to fall," it refers to coming short morally. The condition envisioned is not necessarily willful (though it certainly is in this context). The word refers to our thoughts, words, and deeds, not to our inbred condition of essential sinfulness.
The sinner and the world say, "Come"! They beckon us down the broad road that leads to destruction. They extend the invitation to everyone, for the ungodly like fellowship in their chosen path. And they do not beckon in vain. Thanks to our fallen human nature, we have a strong bent toward sin.
In contrast to the sinner and the world, the Spirit and the bride stand at life's crossroads with the invitation to follow a different route. They also say, "Come"! (Revelation 22:17)
Sooner or later each individual must choose which invitation to accept. Happy is the young person who has been taught to say a determined no to that first invitation to accept a drink of alcohol, to smoke a cigarette, to try some marijuana, or to indulge in illicit sex. The invitation may be sincere, generous, and enticing, but the answer must always be the same: "No thanks!" One thing leads to another. It's better to choose a lonely path through life than one that ends up in what Solomon's tutor called "all evil" (Proverbs 5:14).
The classic Biblical example of a young man who refused the invitation to sin is Joseph. He had been totally abandoned, sold into slavery by his callous and jealous brothers, and banished to a foreign land. By sheer force of personality and ability he had achieved some kind of status in Egypt in the house of his master Potiphar when the enticement came. How powerful it was! He was a lonely slave. His visions had not come true. His father was far away and doubtless thought him dead. The moral climate of Egypt was utterly worldly and carnal. Immorality was rampant. An offer of love and passion was his for the taking and the cost of refusal was high. Nevertheless Joseph said an emphatic no to the invitation and wisely couched his refusal in spiritual terms. The temptress had no reply to an argument based on the holiness of God. Joseph's decision was the watershed, the "great divide" of his life (Genesis 39:1-41:46).
Solomon swiftly unmasked the true nature of sin. The invitation to join the gang is followed by an incitement to violence. The sinners make no attempt to disguise the nature of their proposition. Those who respond to their invitation are quickly drawn in all the way.
First comes the murder proposition: "Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause: Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit" (Proverbs 1:11-12). Note the threefold "Let us." It is an echo from the past. We heard it in Genesis 11:3-4 where the policy and lifestyle of Nimrod led to the building of the tower of Babel.
Who would have thought when opening the book of Proverbs that full-grown sin would leap so aggressively and untameably from the first page? We would have expected Solomon to lead up gradually to this climax—to show sin manifesting itself in a childhood lie or tantrum, then a theft perhaps, then some act of immorality, then an angry blow, and then and only then a coldblooded premeditated murder.
But sin does not need any incubation period. It needs no process of evolution. It leaps full-grown into our experience as it leaped full-grown into the world. The very first person ever born on this planet murdered his own younger brother and then threw his insolence into the face of God Himself. Thus Solomon, before he wrote a dozen verses, grappled with the problem of full-grown sin.
Sin knows nothing of moderation. Society imposes restraints but sin pays little heed. None of us can know where sin will end. From its first page Proverbs warns that those who cast in their lot with bad companions are striking a devil's bargain.
People in the law-abiding segment of society find it hard to believe that propositions to enter a life of violence and crime really abound, but they do. Millions have been drawn into syndicated crime, racketeering, the drug trade, pornography, loan sharking, and murder.
Others have become involved with gangs. Not infrequently initiation into a gang cannot take place until the candidate has offered convincing proof that he has committed an act of violence. Some gangs even demand that initiates commit murder before they can be accepted as members. The world's big cities are plagued with gangs. Some 350 gangs with a combined membership running into the tens of thousands are known to exist in Los Angeles alone. Offering a life of excitement and crime, gangs can be highly attractive to young people being reared in slums. Gangs offer a means to dissipate boredom, a "family" (something thousands have never had), status, money, sex, and power—at a price. Often youngsters become involved out of fear or peer pressure. Whatever the reason, they are drawn by gangs into a life of violence.
In addition to the invitation to a life of violence, sinners offer the money proposition: "We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil" (Proverbs 1:13). People who enjoy relative security and affluence find it difficult to imagine the glittering allure of an offer of swift and easy wealth.
In our own day this proverb can readily focus our attention on the underworld of drugs. In a May 1988 cover story Time magazine highlighted the case of "Frog," who was arrested in Los Angeles for teaching the tricks of his trade. Frog boasted of his ability to make two hundred dollars a week selling crack; he made no secret of his membership in an ultraviolent street gang; he bragged about renting a souped-up sports car on weekends, though he had not yet mastered the trick of driving with a stick shift. At his height of four feet ten inches he had trouble seeing over the dashboard, for Frog was only thirteen years of age. His eager apprentices were aged ten and eleven. In Frog's world nine- and ten-year-olds could make one hundred dollars a day just tipping off drug dealers when police were in the area. In New York City an aggressive teenage drug pusher can make up to three thousand dollars a day. One dealer who started selling marijuana and cocaine when he was fourteen years old estimates he made two hundred thousand dollars a year—until he himself became an addict.
Proverbs 1:13 does not point to a make-believe world. It points to a real, hard, cruel world—the only world some unfortunate people have ever known.
Proverbs 1:14 highlights another feature of gangsterism: "Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse." Today we would say, "Share and share alike." It is an invitation to exploitation.
In one of his stories Sir Henry Rider Haggard recounted how his fictional hero Allan Quatermain became entangled in a get-rich-quick scheme involving a gold mine. His partner was to provide the experience and Allan was to provide the capital. His partner turned out to be a scoundrel, and Allan lost his money and nearly lost his good name. Quatermain said, "Before it was all over he had the capital and I had the experience."
Proverbs warns against the common purse. Human nature being what it is, there will always be a victim. The early church experimented with the concept of the common purse. Their motives were the highest and their goals were the purest, but the experiment simply did not work (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-5:10; 6:1-3; Romans 15:25-27). If the concept was subject to abuse even among the redeemed, how much less can we expect from a common purse in society at large! The philosophy of communism (now demonstrated to be the basic cause for the former Soviet Union's economic woes) is based on the idea of a common purse: "To each according to his need; from each according to his ability" is the essence of the communist creed. Or as a cynic summed up the way the theory worked out in practice, "What's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine."
Notice the reference to thy foot: "My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path" (Proverbs 1:15). Perhaps Solomon had been rereading the Hebrew hymnbook and the exhortation with which that collection of poems begins was fresh in his mind: "Blessed [happy, happy] is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful" (Psalm 1:1).
The Lord Jesus vividly reminds us that two paths run through life: "Enter ye in at the strait [narrow] gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait [narrow] is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
Two "ways" run through history. The way of Cain runs via the judgment of the flood, past the tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues, by way of the murder of Christ, to the lake of fire. It is the way of the world, the flesh, and the devil. It has its roll call of colorful characters, consummate villains, and giant intellects. Its sidewalks are lined with establishments offering power, pleasure, prosperity, promotion, and even piety. Its grand capital is Babylon; its most popular resort is Vanity Fair; its final destination is Hell.
The other way is the way of Abel, Seth, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ. It runs by Gethsemane, Gabbatha, and Golgotha to glory. Those fleeing the City of Destruction look for the Celestial City and go home by the way of the cross. This way has a roll call of giants (Hebrews 11). Its steep slopes are not wanting in attractions: at the place of prayer, the table of the Lord, and the daily quiet time, the Lord of that way draws especially near to His own. Its grand capital is the new Jerusalem; its most popular resorts are the local church and the house of the "Interpreter"; its end is an eternity of bliss.
Note also the reference to their feet: "For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood" (Proverbs 1:16). The Hebrew word translated "evil" here means "wicked, injurious." The Hebrew word comes from a root meaning "the breaking up of all that is good or desirable, the act of doing injury to others." The corresponding Greek words point to moral depravity, corruption, and lewdness. Truly the steep and slippery path of evil leads downward to all kinds of vice and violence. So depraved is unregenerate human nature that it much prefers this path to the path the Savior trod.
Twice in the book of Genesis God responded to sin with a holocaust. Once He answered human wickedness with a flood; once He answered it with fire.
In the days of Noah society became completely pornographic. "Every imagination of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). The world was "filled with violence" (6:11). Men's feet ran to evil and made haste to shed blood. The world plunged into anarchy, war, crime, and all kinds of brutal behavior.
In the days of Lot society became completely perverted and accepted the vile lifestyle of Sodom without question. Lot, who ventured to protest a common display of Sodomite lust, was almost killed by the mob that resented his words. Again men's feet ran to evil and made haste to shed blood.
The days of Noah and Lot have returned. The earth is again filled with violence. Pornography is a multibillion-dollar business. Perversion is mildly regarded as an alternate lifestyle. Proverbs warns us to beware of the companionship of those who are involved in this violence, pornography, and perversion. God desires His people to raise their voices in protest against the sins of this age, which is ripening fast for judgment.
Notice the illustration Solomon used: "Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird" (Proverbs 1:17). There are two ways of looking at this proverb. Some people understand it to mean that spreading the net is not a vain procedure because although birds see the net being spread, they will still fly into it. One translator rendered this verse, "It is in vain that birds behold the net spread for them." The Septuagint supports this rendering: "For not unreasonably is the net spread before birds." According to this interpretation, the proverb warns those tempted to follow others into a life of sin that the net has been spread for their destruction. In other words they are fools if, disregarding the warning, they continue on in that way.
Other people understand the proverb to mean that spreading the net is useless because birds see the snare and fly away. According to this interpretation, the proverb warns those who are tempted that they will be all the more culpable if in spite of the warning they continue on their lawless way. Even birds have more sense; when they see the net spread, they flee.
Whichever way the illustration is interpreted, it is intended to warn the unwary of the peril of the path to which they are about to be lured.
Wild birds are notoriously wary. However they can often be conditioned to relax their caution. To shoot wild ducks, for instance, men build blinds and make realistic decoys and use craftily designed calls to lure the birds within range of hidden guns. The wild turkey is harder to shoot. Unlike its barnyard cousin, it is sage, canny, and elusive. It can run, fly, and swim if necessary. It is adroit on the wing and has been clocked traveling at fifty-five miles per hour for at least a mile. Some wildlife biologists think that hunting the wild turkey only increases the sharpness of the survivors.
Next Solomon made an observation: "They lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives" (Proverbs 1:18). Sin is self-destructive. Those who set traps for others often fall into traps themselves.
No worse monster ever lived than Herod the Great, whose favorite wife was the Hasmonean princess Mariamne. On the merest suspicion he had her put to death, only to be haunted ever after by her memory. Josephus wrote that Herod would wander around the palace calling for his wife and ordering his servants to bring her to him. Then he saw a harlot who looked very much like the beautiful Mariamne. He took the woman against all the warnings of common sense and contracted afoul venereal disease. It was just retribution. Ulcers, gangrene, and worms ate his living flesh. The stench of his decaying body was so great that it nauseated the unfortunates whose duty it was to attend him. His death was appropriate to his life of crime.
Men do not always reap the consequences of their deeds in this life, but history records enough cases to assure us that the proverb is true. Full reckoning sometimes has to await the judgment of the great white throne. We can be sure however that when the retribution comes, it will be fitting.
Finally Solomon provided an application: "So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof" (Proverbs 1:19). In the rush to become rich many people abandon moral principles, honesty, and integrity. They build fortunes on products such as alcohol, which enslaves millions and brings misery into countless homes. They push weak people against the wall. They engage in dishonest and unscrupulous business practices, yet they are lauded by their fellow men for being successful. They are given recognition by the state, rewarded with honorary doctorates, and presented with the keys to great cities. But God remains unimpressed.
One of the great financial fortunes in America was amassed by a man who was the son of a Bay State politician and grandson of an Irish immigrant. This man became a bank president at twenty-five and a millionaire at thirty. He was a shipbuilder, a movie czar, and the manager of an investment banking corporation. He mastered the technique of stock-exchange manipulation. His businesses made him rich enough to retire in his early forties with enough capital to fund a million-dollar trust for each of his children. He became the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, in which capacity he outlawed the speculative practices that had made him a multimillionaire. Nobody will ever know how many people were ruined as a result of this man's determination to be rich. Still he was honored by his country with appointments as chairman of the United States Maritime Commission and as ambassador to a major world power.
Yet a hand of retribution seems to have been at work behind the scenes. A series of misfortunes struck his family. Death after death, disaster after disaster, as well as scandal after scandal dogged the foo