Editing and additions by Dennis Bratcher
Proverbs 3 and 4 continue the treatment of the concept first presented in chapter 1, that there are rewards that will come to those who pursue wisdom. The literary form that is used throughout these chapters is called an instruction. Twelve such instructions appear in the first nine chapters of Proverbs. The first two instructions were in Proverbs 1 and 2 respectively. Proverbs 3 and 4 contain four such instructions, although the exact verses that belong in each instruction can be debated. The address "my son" is characteristic of the beginning of an instruction. However, the closing expressions of motivation, such the assurance of good results from following the instruction (for example, 1:32-33), suggest different verses than the typical opening address. We will use the closing motivation statements as the indications of what verses belong to which instructions. With such structural indicators, the third instruction is found in Proverbs 3:1-12, the fourth consists of Proverbs 3:13-24, the fifth is in Proverbs 3:25-35, the sixth is in Proverbs 4:1-9, and the seventh instruction appears in Proverbs 4:10-27.
The Third Instruction - Proverbs 3:1-12
The third instruction consists of six couplets of two verses each. Each couplet has either a command (positive) or prohibition (negative) followed by a statement of motivation. The flow of thought moves from general teaching in verses 1-4 to specific teaching in verses 5-12.
The opening couplet begins with the typical address, "my son." The first line calls the reader not to forget the father’s teaching. The Hebrew word that most modern versions translate as "teaching" is torah. The KJV and New KJV follow the traditional rendering of "law" but it is important to remember that the word does not refer to what we call "rules and regulations." Torah spoke of guidance and direction. It was considered a good thing, designed to help life work better. So the first appeal to the reader is "do not forget" that instructive guidance comes from a father. The word "forget" was often used in the Old Testament in exhortations not to forget what God had done (for example, Pss. 105-106). Frequently Deuteronomy called on readers to remember God’s covenant faithfulness. The appropriate human response was to not forget to keep our end of the covenant relationship.
The second line of verse 1 provides the positive counterpart to the first line. The command to "keep my commandments" also has covenant connotations. The word translated "keep" or "guard" comes from the Hebrew word often used to mean "keep with fidelity." It was often used in the context of keeping the covenant or the law of God.
The influence of the language of Deuteronomy continues with the word "commands" or "commandments." The Hebrew word is mitzvah. The Jewish ceremony of the "Bar Mitzvah" is the ritual at which a young man becomes a "Son of the Commandment." Here, the proverb calls for the reader faithfully to keep the commandments of the father-author.
Another important echo of Deuteronomy is that these commandments are to be kept in the reader’s heart. Deuteronomy 6:6 follows the great commandment to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength, with the words, "These words which I have commanded to you today shall be on your heart." Hebrew people understood the heart to be the center of decision and the will. (The Cupids and heart as seat of emotion come from Roman and Greek mythologies.) Faithfulness to the commandments – whether of parents or of God – does not arise from our feelings. Fidelity comes from a decision to obey regardless of one’s feelings. Such decisive commitments are the only way to maintain both ordered structure in life and freedom from the confusion of jumbled, contradictory feelings.
Verse 2 also echoes the promises of Deuteronomy (see Deuteronomy 4:40 for one of many examples). Faithful keeping of the father’s teaching will lead to length of days and years of life. The parallel thought in the second line of verse 2 is that peace will be added to the one who does not forget his father’s teaching. Though the NIV translates the word as "prosperity" the Hebrew word is shalom. This word meant the total well being of a person who lived life the way God designed it to be lived (NASV: abundant welfare). At this point it is important to remember the principle that proverbs are general statements not binding guarantees. Often people who obey the commandments of God and parents live longer and better than those who constantly rebel. However, all of us have also known people who faithfully obeyed the teachings of Scripture and home who died tragically young deaths and suffered immense pain.
Verse 3 brings together two of the great words of the Old Testament. The first line is worded as a prohibition, "Do not let love and faithfulness forsake you," but the concept is powerfully positive. The two words, hesed and 'emet, have been translated in a variety of ways. Alden (p.37) writes of hesed, "If we gave the word a long definition it would be ‘faithfulness to covenant promise,’ but if we choose one word for it it could be one of these: faithfulness, loyalty, love, lovingkindness, mercy, or fidelity." He then states that 'emet, "is like our word 'amen,' implying such attributes as reliability, accuracy, dependability, truth, and faithfulness."
These powerful words were most often used to describe God’s faithful love and loyalty to the covenant even when Israel violated it. When used on a human level the words most often spoke of the loyalty and kindness that Israelites were to extend to one another and especially to those less fortunate than themselves. While it is possible that verse 3 has God’s faithful love toward us in mind, it is more likely that the verse calls for human fidelity. The point, however, is that in calling for these attributes in our relationships with each other and especially with those less fortunate, the proverb calls for us to be like God. The command to have love and faithfulness anticipates the teaching of Paul to become imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1).
The second and third lines of verse 3 call for the reader to bind such love and faithfulness around your neck and to write them on the heart. This language again echoes the instructions of Deuteronomy 6:6-8 which commanded the law to be written on the heart and bound to the forehead. Latter Judaism interpreted the commandments of Deuteronomy 6 very literally and created phylacteries, little boxes fastened to the forehead with tiny Torah scrolls inside.
It is interesting that so many parallels to Deuteronomy appear in these verses. Yet the author refrains from the "Thou shalt…" form of command. This is Wisdom literature, not a Law Code and the author is willing to place these observations in proverb form and to wait for them to penetrate into our hearts.
Verses 5-6 are one of the most well-known couplets in the book of Proverbs. All your heart and all your ways show the totality of commitment that is required. Most of the spiritual problems we face are the result of partial commitments. Trust in the Lord is partially defined by in all your ways acknowledge Him. However, the Hebrew word "trust" (Heb: betach) speaks of the sense of well-being and security that comes from relationship with God. It is interesting that when the Proverbs were first translated from Hebrew to Greek this word was never translated by the Greek word meaning "believe" or have faith." Rather, it was always translated by the word "hope."
The proverb does not call us to faith as an act of the mind or will, but to trust as an act of the heart, as an expression of hope that is not dependant on physical circumstances or human logic. Place your confidence in the Lord. Derive your sense of security and well-being from the Lord. We often "trust" in a variety of other sources instead of God. Most of those rivals end up being a form of self-trust. Isaiah 36:6 likens trust in anyone or anything other the Lord as leaning on a broken stick. It not only lets us down, but also pierces our hand. This is well illustrated by the prohibition of verses 5-6, "Do not lean on your own understanding." Otherwise you will suffer a major letdown.
The promise of verses 5-6 is that God will make your paths straight. This is a figure of speech from the preparations made for the entrance of royalty. Every obstacle was removed so the visiting king could proceed directly to his destination. Isaiah 40:3-4 describes the process of creating a straight and smooth path to welcome the coming king. This proverb turns the figure around and promises that God will make our path straight and smooth. Within the culture of the Bible, this line states that God will treat us as royalty.
The first line of verse 7 prohibits being wise in our own eyes. This is a corollary of the proverb that the fear of the Lord is the fountain source of wisdom. Being wise in one’s own eyes claims wisdom as a natural attribute rather than acknowledging it as God’s gift. Such arrogance cannot succeed in the Biblical perspective although a person may seem to get away with it for awhile.
The positive statement of the command comes in the second line of verse 7, which commands fear of the Lord and to turn away from evil. Seek a right evaluation of who God is and who you are, turn from evil and good will result.
The promise phrases of verse 8 are expressed in parallel lines. The Hebrew text literally speaks of "healed navels" and "moist bones." Such figures of speech spoke of natural and healthy development in Hebrew culture. Verses 7 and 8 point out a truth that has only recently been "discovered" by "modern" medicine. There is a connection between physical health and spiritual or emotional health. A proper understanding of how God views us and others in the universe will go a long way toward helping us find both physical health and mental health.
Verses 9 and 10 extend the principle of verses 7 and 8 to the issue of generosity. Generosity toward God will be reciprocated with generosity from God. Both Jesus (Luke 6:38) and Paul (2 Corinthians 9:6) echo this teaching. The expectation of both Old and New Testaments is that we should be as generous to others as God has been to us.
Verses 11-12 provide a counter balance against misinterpreting the promises of verse 1-10. It is easy to read these promises and be sure that God has committed himself to pouring out every possible blessing on us if we will be obedient. Verses 11-12 remind us that blessing is not the only proof of God’s love. Discipline and reproof are also signs of God’s loving affirmation in our lives. The difficult times of our lives may be the source of more blessing than the good times if we are ready to learn (wisdom) from the painful as well as the pleasant circumstances of life. The author to the Hebrews understood this concept well, as the quotation in Hebrews 12:5-6 shows.
The Fourth Instruction - Proverbs 3:13-24
The fourth instruction is more difficult to define structurally. The clues that confirm that it is an instruction form are the "my son" in verse 21 and the combination of prohibition, commands, and motivation statements in verses 22-24. There are three major sections in this instruction: verses 13-18 form a hymn in praise of wisdom, verses 19-20 describe the role of Wisdom in the creation of the world, and verses 21-24 contain the characteristic elements of an instruction.
Verses 13-18 are tied together by a literary device called inclusion. This is the repetition of a word at the beginning and the end of a section. In this case the word "blessed" (NIV) or "happy" (KJV and NRSV). Some versions obscure this technique by translating the word as "blessed" once and "happy" once. However, the Hebrew word is the same in both verse 13 and verse 18.
The word "blessed" or "happy" comes from the Hebrew word ashre, which functions as a congratulation. Some scholars suggest a translation like, "O the bliss of. . ." or "O how fortunate is. . ." This word is never used when God is specifically mentioned as the source of the blessing. Ashre spoke of what we might even call good luck. The possibility of envy lies in the background of the word. Verse 13 then could be paraphrased, "O how lucky is the person who finds wisdom." The point is not that wisdom is acquired through the luck of gambling, but that anybody would be slightly envious of one who has acquired wisdom for that person is fortunate indeed.
Verses 14 and 15 describe wisdom as more valuable than gold, silver, or precious jewels. Verse 16 promises long life along the line of verse 2 and the patterns in Deuteronomy. Verse 17 speaks of peace (shalom) and pleasantness as the products of wisdom. Verse 18 compares wisdom to a tree of life. This is a common figure of speech for wisdom. Trees were valued in the desert lands of the Middle East. They provided comfort, ease from the heat and pressure of survival, and were markers of water, the source of life.
Verses 19-20 mention the role of wisdom in creation. This concept appears in Psalm 104:24 and 147:5 and in the deuterocanonical books of Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Sirach). Its primary development in the Old Testament appears in Proverbs 8:22-31 and it will be discussed at more length in that context (see Lesson 5).
In this context there appears to be two basic reasons for the mention of wisdom’s role in creation. First, since chapter 1 wisdom has been extolled as being of great value and capable of conferring tremendous benefits. In the ancient Near East (as well as much of the modern Asian world) age or antiquity was highly valued. Part of what verses 19-20 do is to increase the credentials of wisdom by pointing out that wisdom goes all the way back to day one of creation. Nothing is older than wisdom, therefore nothing is worthy of more honor than wisdom.
Second, verse 20 specifically associates wisdom with water. Water was so valuable in Palestine that this is another way of highlighting wisdom’s importance. With the comparison of wisdom to the tree of life in verse 18, the mention of wisdom and water was a natural development of thought. This also serves to associate wisdom with the creation narratives in the Old Testament. In many of these narratives, God is described as Creator against the background of Near Eastern religious culture that had made water a creative deity (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament and Speaking the Language of Canaan).
The high praise given wisdom in verses 13-20 sets the stage for the author to appeal again in verse 21 not to let wisdom slip away. Gaining wisdom is not enough; a person must also give attention to keeping wisdom. Proverbs 1:5 had indicated that wisdom was for all ages of people and that even the wise could (and should) increase in wisdom. Wisdom will provide life, adornment, and security. Wisdom is more than a good luck charm; it is like a flashlight or guardrail. It keeps a person from stumbling and provides a safer path on which to walk life’s journey.
The Fifth Instruction - Proverbs 3:25-35
The transition from the fourth instruction to the fifth is not clear and some scholars see verses 25-35 as part of the fourth instruction. The reason that we are identifying it as a separate section is that verse 25 begins a series of prohibitions. Verses 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31 all begin with the words, "Do not. . ." A motivation statement accompanies each prohibition.
Verses 25-26 pick up the concept of security from the final verses of the fourth instruction. There is no need to fear the sudden terrors or the storms of the wicked. The Lord will be your confidence and will keep us from being entrapped.
The "do not. . ." prohibitions in verses 27-31 all deal with interpersonal relationships. The main thrust of these commands is to be as generous and positive in relationships with others as possible. Avoiding or postponing the opportunity to bring good to another always diminishes us more than it does the other. People who create unnecessary arguments end up as losers regardless of the outcome of the argument. Most of the advice in these verses is the logical consequence of regarding others as people of value because they have been created in the image of God. If we love the other as ourselves these admonitions will be fulfilled.
Verses 32-35 provide motivation statements for following the prohibitions given in verses 27-31. The motivation statements can be summed to say that God rewards people according to their behavior. The wicked will receive the cursing of God while blessing will come upon the righteous. Since Old Testament Israelites believed that a word was effective and accomplished what it said, blessings and curses were more powerful than mere sounds. That was especially true of God’s words; they actually put into effect the good or ill that was spoken. James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 both quote Proverbs 3:34. God opposes the arrogant but provides special grace to the humble. Arrogance is especially disgusting to God because it is the attitude that most clearly expresses the human pride that motivates us to reject God’s will and way to follow our own plans.
The Sixth Instruction - Proverbs 4:1-9
Of all the instructions in Proverbs 1:8-9:18 this sixth one in Proverbs 4:1-9 most thoroughly reflects the background of a family. The father-son relationship is amplified in several ways. Instead of the customary address to "my son," verse 1 begins with an appeal in the plural, "Hear, sons…" The use of the plural may be stylistic variation or it could be a way of including both sons and daughters. Hebrew did not have a gender-neutral term like children and so it used the plural masculine form (sons) for both plural sons and the combination of sons and daughters.
The appeal uses the traditional language that we have seen in Proverbs. The opening line calls for the children to hear/obey the instruction (musar) of their father. They are to pay attention to understand his discernment (binah). The father promises "good teaching" (NRSV: good precepts) in the first line of verse 2. The word for "teaching" here (leqah) includes the ideas of persuasiveness of a teacher and the grasping or perception on the part of the learner. The second line of the verse warns against abandoning the father’s torah (instruction or guidance; NRSV "teaching").
Verses 3-4 contain an important point. The father confesses that his teaching is not his own; he had received it from his father. Here Hebrew understanding is significantly different from Western academic culture. Our society honors the inventors and pioneers of new knowledge. Ph.D. degrees are only given after a person has researched an area or with a method never before explored. The unique, the new, and the different knowledge is valued and (thus) rewarded in our society. In the Biblical world the value was placed on passing on old knowledge. That which was tried and proven to be true was the only wisdom considered worthwhile. Thus the highest responsibility for each generation was not "to do it my way" as Frank Sinatra sang, but accurately and fully to pass on to the next generation all that they had received. Whether it is intellectual or spiritual knowledge, if two successive generations fail to pass on their heritage that society will enter a "dark ages" period.
It is possible that all of verses 4b-9 are part of the summation of the "grandfather’s" wisdom. These verses are admonitions to seek and to value wisdom with motivation statements telling why wisdom is so valuable.
Verse 6 introduces two new concepts. One is the exhortation to "love" wisdom. This is the first time in Proverbs that the word "love" has been used. It is, in fact, the appropriate response to the Lady Wisdom who seeks out those who would be attracted to her. Flowing out of the idea of love and Wisdom is the second important concept in this verse. The relationship with wisdom is reciprocal. If you seek wisdom and love her, she will watch over (keep, guard) you.
The Seventh Instruction - Proverbs 4:10-27
Scholars also disagree about the best way to understand the structure of Proverbs 4:10-27. Some treat it as a single instruction form while others see two discourses, verses 10-19 and verses 20-27.
Verse 10 begins with, "Listen, my son…" Again the Hebrew word for "listen" is shema that includes both the concepts of hearing and obeying. The command to "accept" the words of the father sounds more passive in English than it does in Hebrew. The idea is more active and almost aggressive than "accept," and would be better translated with terms like "take," or "grasp," or even "snatch." The son-reader must seize wisdom and cling to it.
Verses 11 and 12 describe wisdom in terms of a path or way on which the son-reader must walk. This is also characteristic of the wisdom tradition to view life as a journey. Wisdom removes obstacles, straightens the path, and, in general, makes the journey easier. Foolishness, on the other hand, creates obstacles, multiplies detours, and, in general, makes the journey both more dangerous and more difficult. Wisdom is thus both the right path to travel and the right decisions along that path of life.
Verses 14-19 convey a message similar to that found in Proverbs 1:8-19 on the enticement of sinners. These verses are (an early) part of a long Jewish tradition dealing with the "two ways" of life. Psalm 1 contrasts the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:13-14 on the "broad gate" and the "easy road" in contrast to the "narrow gate" and the "hard road" is also part of the Jewish Two Ways pattern.
The primary emphasis of verses 14-19 is on the bad consequences of the path of the wicked. Nervous insecurity symbolized by sleeplessness, stumbling over nothing, the bread of wickedness, and the wine of violence are part of the path of the wicked. Bread and wine were the staples of Palestinian diet. A meal was not a meal without bread and wine. Verse 17 is pointing out that wickedness and violence can become an expected part of one’s life. One can acquire an appetite for sin so that evil seems normal and goodness seems strange.
In contrast, verse 18 declares that "the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day." The light of dawn was the end of the dark of night. In an age when there were no electric lights, no flashlights, and not even candles as we know them, there was little to push back the terror of night. But the dawn dispelled the darkness and a life of righteousness brings the same sense of relief, joy, safety, and renewal. That is not to say that the way of righteousness is all light and no darkness. If that were true, it could not become brighter and brighter through time. But as a general rule the result of righteousness is an ever-increasing sense of light, joy, peace, and at ease-ness.
Verses 20-27 show amazing similarity to verses 10-19. Both address "my son," both call for allegiance to the father’s words, both promise long life, and both use the language of path or way to describe life. One of the interesting differences is the way "path" operates differently in the two sections. Verses 14-19 describe the paths of wickedness and righteousness in terms of the consequences of the choices one makes. There are no commands in verses 16-19. However, verses 25-27 deal with life as a path, but every verse is worded as a command or prohibition. Part of Wisdom’s wisdom is the knowledge that different people need different ways of being taught.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through his word. Ask the Holy Spirit to make the word come alive to you for that day.
First Day: Read the notes on Proverbs 3:1-4:27. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two pieces of new information that seemed important to you in this lesson. Why were these facts important to you?
2. Select one or two insights that spoke to you spiritually. Describe the potential for spiritual growth that you see in these insights.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to make the path of righteousness the dawning of a new day in your life. Ask him to let it become brighter and brighter for you through this year of study.
Second Day: Read Proverbs 5:1-23. Now focus your attention on Proverbs 5:1-6.
1. Summarize the teaching of verses 1-2 in your own words. Why do you think the author mentioned "lips" in verse 2? What is the relationship between wisdom and what a person says?
2. What is the basic point of verses 3-6? What consequences of involvement with a "loose woman" does the text describe? Have you ever seen such consequences in the life of someone you knew?
3. Read 2 Samuel 11-12:23. How would the message you draw from this story compare with the message found in Proverbs 5:3-6? Which way of communicating the message do you find most persuasive? Why?
Third Day: Read Proverbs 5:1-23. Now focus in on Proverbs 5:7-14.
1. What further consequences do verses 8-14 describe for a person involved with a "loose woman?"
2. Based on what you know about this chapter and the teaching of Scripture in general, write a brief statement of why a person should remain faithful to his or her marriage covenant.
3. Old Testament prophets often condemned idolatry and sin as adultery against God. Hosea 2 and 4 provide powerful examples. Re-read Proverbs 5:8-14 and jot down the consequences that will come to those who commit spiritual unfaithfulness to God.
Fourth Day: Read Proverbs 5:1-23. Focus in on Proverbs 5:15-23.
1. What is the meaning of verses 15-17? How does verse 18 help you understand them? What special insights come from comparing the marriage and sexual relationship with water?
2. Does verse 21 sound a positive, joyful note for you or a frightening message of judgment? Why? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having the eyes of the Lord on your life?
3. According to verses 22-23 what is it that ensnares a sinner? Do you feel trapped by any of your sins (either present sins or consequences of past sins)? Write a brief prayer asking God for the discipline that can set you free.
Fifth Day: Read Proverbs 6:1-35. Now focus in on Proverbs 6:1-19.
1. Summarize the instructions of verses 1-5 in your own words. What are the key principles for living that are found in these verses?
2. What are the principles for life found in verses 6-11? What characteristics of the ant were helpful to the author in developing these principles? Can you think of any other examples that would teach the same truths?
3. What do the seven abominations to the Lord listed in verses 17-19 have in common with each other? How would you state a positive principle that would summarize the point of verses 16-19?
Sixth Day: Read Proverbs 6:1-35. Now turn your attention to Proverbs 6:20-35.
1. What do you think the author means by verse 21? What things can you do to bind the teachings of wisdom to your heart?
2. Why does the author of these verses think that adultery with a neighbor’s wife is worse than sleeping with a prostitute? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you always maintain sexual purity and asking Him to show you ways that you can help turn the tide of sexual promiscuity and frivolity that is so common in our time.