How to Become Wise

A sermon on Proverbs 1:1-7 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 9/4/2005

Imagine that you are at home with your family. Your brother starts yelling at you, accusing you of doing something you didn’t do. How do you react?

Imagine you’re seeing a doctor about pain you’ve had in your back. He asks you how long you’ve had it. You know if you tell him that the pain pre-dates the beginning of your health insurance coverage, you’ll have to pay out of pocket for all your treatment. Do you tell the truth, or do you lie?

Imagine you’re using the internet. An ad pops up picturing a scantily clad woman, promising much more if you click on it. What do you do?

These are the sorts of decisions we make every day.

The book of Proverbs gives us the right answer to these questions and many more:

15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

24:28: Do not deceive with your lips.

23:26-28My son, give me your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways, 27 for a prostitute is a deep pit and a wayward wife is a narrow well. 28 Like a bandit she lies in wait, and multiplies the unfaithful among men. (emphasis added)

Today we begin a series of sermons on Proverbs. This is a marvelous book – yet, like Revelation, it is not popular with preachers. Indeed, I think I’ve only heard three sermons on Proverbs in my life: Why are sermons from Proverbs so rare?

There are four primary criticisms of this book:

First: I’m sorry to say some don’t preach on Proverbs because the book is convicting. Proverbs has many pointed sayings about the common errors of our ways. Preaching on such sayings makes congregations feel uncomfortable. Indeed, some of us are feeling uncomfortable just on account of those three selections I just read!

Second, some say most of this book is just a haphazard arrangement of verses, with no overarching structure. Thus they would say it is impossible to preach on Proverbs verse by verse, for the topic is continually changing. For this reason, even preachers who generally preach expositionally often choose to preach topically through Proverbs. Chuck Swindoll is an example. His series includes some expository sermons on the first part of the book, but then he has a sermon on the tongue, another on the heart, and another on being an employee, drawing on verses scattered throughout the book.

Third, some criticize this book as containing rules that are generalized from experience, which may or may not hold in any particular case. One often cited verse is 22:6:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Taken on its own, this seems to be good advice that generally holds – but we all know well-trained children who departed from the way they were taught. So preachers ask, “Do I really want to preach on good advice that doesn’t always hold?”

Finally, some criticize Proverbs as consisting primarily of secular advice, gleaned from experience, which is not really God-centered. Examples include the first verses I cited today. What is particularly Christian about a gentle answer turning away wrath, or advice not to lie, or not to mess with lust? Many good, ethical people across the centuries would agree with those statements.

So given these objections, why preach on this book? Let’s consider the objections in turn.

Is Proverbs convicting? Good! All Scripture is convicting if preached rightly:

All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness 2 Timothy 3:16

Reproof and correction don’t feel good initially. But we need them desperately! If Proverbs is especially convicting, it is thereby especially helpful.

Let’s consider the second and third objections together. As Hebrew scholars have learned more and more about Hebrew literary style, they have discerned more and more structure in Proverbs (as well as in other books in the Old Testament). Proverbs is not at all haphazard. On the contrary, it is very carefully arranged throughout.

This helps us deal with the “general rules” criticism. Proverbs is not meant to be read one verse at a time. If we misread the book in this way, many verses look to be overstated. But just like the rest of Scripture, when analyzing any particular verse, we need to look at the context, at the verses that surround it, as well as the thematic verses that set the stage for the rest of the book. When we do that, we find that those Proverbs that look to be overstated are clarified and tempered by others. No Proverb is intended to stand alone; the entire book is a composition of intimately related verses.

This is most obvious in Proverbs 26:4-5:

 4 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Taken individually, these verses contradict each other. One tells us to answer fools, the other tells us not to. In this case, the compiler of the book placed them right next to each other to make the very point that he is not stating a general rule in either case. The point is this: Sometimes it is necessary to answer fools to keep them from thinking themselves wise. Sometimes it is necessary not to answer fools, to guard yourself. The wise man distinguishes one case from another.

So realize: A proverb is a short, pithy statement that makes a point, but does not summarize or capture all truth. The book of Proverbs does not consist of general rules that usually hold, but rather, like all Scripture, it consists of carefully arranged statements that together communicate truth. These statements must be used to interpret each other.

The final objection is that Proverbs contains advice that is basically secular, generalizations drawn from man’s experience. It is true that the words “God” and “Lord” appear less frequently in this book than in most other books of the Bible; yet these words do appear more than three times per chapter on average.

But we don’t gauge God-centeredness by the frequency of the use of the word “God”. Instead, let’s ask: What is the interpretive key for this book? Most of you remember in our study of Revelation that chapter 1 verse 3 was the key.

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

This verse, this promise was our guide. We looked carefully for lessons to heed throughout the book, and then understood the surrounding verses in light of those lessons. In this way, we were able to identify the main points of the book.

Proverbs too has an interpretive key:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7

The entire book is about wisdom and knowledge. And all of wisdom, all of knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord. Without the fear of the Lord, there is no wisdom or knowledge in the way the words are used here. That is about as God-centered as you can get.

So the entire book of Proverbs builds on this verse. The entire book is a unity built on this one foundation: the fear of the Lord.

Therefore, I am excited to begin our study of this book. Through this book, God will get in our faces and confront us with the compromises we make with the world. For in essence, Proverbs answers the question, “How do you live a life devoted to God?” Note that we use the word “How” in two different senses. If I ask my son Thomas, “How did your football game go?”, I expect him to give me a description. If, instead, our exchange student Siddharth sees the family playing the card game “President” and asks, “How do you play the game?”, he is expecting us to give him instruction and advice about the game.

The book of Proverbs contains a description of the life devoted to God, as well as instruction and advice for how to life such a life. We earlier sang a hymn based on Psalm 86:11, “Teach me Thy way!” Proverbs teaches us God’s way.

Thus Proverbs deals with the nitty-gritty of life, showing us how to implement practically Romans 13:13-14:

13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

When we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we see through His eyes, we see with His wisdom. We respond with His love. Proverbs helps us do just that.  

Structure and Author

Let’s consider briefly the overarching structure of the book. Today’s text, 1:1-7, serves as an introduction to the book, including the interpretive key, verse 7. Chapter one verse 8 through the end of chapter nine is the prologue, which serves to provide context for the rest of the book. This section consists of longer discourses, most by a father addressed to his son or by personified Wisdom crying out to mankind.

Proverbs 10:1-22:16 and chapters 25 to 29 are said to be by Solomon. These sections contain many apparently one-verse sayings; as we noted, the structure here is harder to discern, but I hope to be able to show you that the structure is nevertheless present and important for interpretation.

Proverbs 22:17 to the end of chapter 24 contain the “sayings of the wise”, anonymous sayings, many in somewhat longer sections with more apparent structure.

The last two chapters are by Agur and the mother of Lemuel. Although we are given their names, we know nothing more about these men than we know about the anonymous wise men whose sayings are collected in chapters 22 to 24. Likewise, the prologue is anonymous.

There has been some controversy concerning whether or not Solomon is the author of the long sections of the book attributed to him. Yet 1:1 is clear:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.

Then chapter 10 begins, “The proverbs of Solomon.” And 25:1 states:

These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied.

These attributions do not imply that Solomon necessarily was the original author of all of the verses in these sections. He may have collected, compiled, and edited many from other sources. Furthermore, it is clear that the book was finally compiled long after Solomon died; Hezekiah lived more than 200 years after Solomon. But 1 Kings 4:32 says Solomon spoke 3000 proverbs – and there are many fewer than that in this book! So there is no reason to doubt the clear biblical claim that Solomon is the source for those sections of the book attributed to him.

Let’s turn now to today’s text. We’ll look at this under two headings: Wisdom and Understanding (verses 2-6), and The Fear of the Lord (verse 7).

Wisdom and Understanding

Verses 2-6 tell us why Solomon wrote his proverbs, and why the compiler arranged this book. Verse 2 serves as a summary of the next four verses:

To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight

Verses 3-5 then elaborate on knowing wisdom and instruction, while verse 6 picks up again on our understanding.

The book of Proverbs teaches wisdom. What is wisdom in Proverbs?

What is wisdom? Wisdom is seeing who God is, seeing how He rules the world, and responding accordingly. “How He rules the world” includes scientific facts and lessons we learn from experience. But in order to have wisdom you must see the big picture. You must see God, you must see His handiwork, and respond.

Proverbs 1:2 says the book was compiled “to get wisdom and instruction.” What is instruction?

The Hebrew word has a broader meaning than our English word “instruction”, and is closely related to wisdom. For us, “instruction” connotes a lecturer standing in front of a class. But the Hebrew word includes also the idea of discipline or correction. Indeed, the NIV translates this word as “discipline” in this verse. The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament captures these two ideas by defining this word as “correction which results in education.”

So verse 2 tells us that Proverbs was written so that we might get wisdom and instruction – that is, so that we might get wisdom in part through correction, discipline, and rebuke.

Verse 3 elaborates on what wisdom is:

To accept instruction in prudent behavior, to do what is right, and just, and fair

Note that accepting correction and rebuke is vital. Only in this way can we become like Christ, living moral lives, doing what is right, and just, and fair.

And we all need such correction! No one is so wise he doesn’t need instruction. We see this in verses 4 and 5:

to give to the gullible shrewdness, to the young, knowledge and discretion - 5 Let the wise hear and add to their learning, and let the insightful acquire guidance

Verse 4 begins with those who obviously need to learn: the gullible, the young. Who is gullible? Does anyone here want to be called gullible?” For us, the word “gullible” has negative connotations. “Gullible” almost means “stupid”. But in Proverbs this is not so. The gullible person is distinct from the fool. “Gullible” here means “easily swayed”. The gullible person is almost a blank slate. With a wise person’s teaching and instruction, the gullible person can become wise. But if he falls under the sway of an evil or foolish person, if he is ensnared in temptation, he will become a fool.

So Proverbs is written to give the gullible shrewdness, to help them to resist temptations and so to become wise.

The second group mentioned in verse 4 is the young. The young are gullible – they need direction, they need challenges, they need instruction and discipline. They too need the book of Proverbs. Indeed, much of the prologue is addressed directly to the young, as a father gives advice to his son.

But this book is not only written to the young and gullible. As verse 5 tells us, the process of becoming wise never ends. We can always use more guidance. For God’s wisdom is limitless. We can always learn more; we can always become more like Christ. Everyone needs such instruction; everyone can become wiser than he is at present.

So that is wisdom: Seeing who God is, seeing how He rules the world, and responding accordingly. The young must be taught. All of us need to see Him better.

Verse 6 returns to the topic of understanding, telling us that proverbs, parables, and the sayings of this book are key to gaining wisdom. We must “understand” them. That is, we must discern what they mean by listening carefully and paying close attention to them. As Jesus says in the gospels and in Revelation, “he who has ears, he must hear.”         Just so here. We can listen to instruction, we can read advice, and never take it to heart, never understand it. In that case, we will never be wise. We must apply ourselves to understand.

But this is not easy! Proverbs are called “riddles” and “parables” in this verse. Thus, their meaning is not obvious. To discern the meaning, we must study the verse and study the context. We must pay close attention.

But this verse is both an exhortation and a promise. “Study hard – for the result it worth the effort! These are words of life!“

Fear of the Lord

Finally, and most importantly, look at verse 7. This verse sums up the purpose and serves as the interpretive key for the entire book.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Look at the second half of the verse first. A fool is a person who was gullible, but did not listen to instruction. The gullible doesn’t know wisdom, and needs to learn. The fool has rejected wisdom, has rejected instruction, has rejected correction. Indeed, as the verse tells us, the fool despises wisdom.

Thus the fool exalts himself. He thinks, “Hey, I know how to take care of myself. No one’s going to pull one over on me! I’ll watch out for number 1!”

This is in stark contrast to the wise. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” True knowledge, true wisdom, comes from understanding who God is and responding.

Who is God?

This last week along the gulf coast, we saw a bit of who God is. Hurricane Katrina exhibited just a tiny fraction of His power, just a flick of his little finger.

Who is God? We should look at these overwhelming pictures of the devastation of the hurricane and respond, “What a mighty God!”We should say with the Psalmist:

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.  Psalm 130:3-4

The fear of the Lord! All true wisdom begins here. Knowing God’s might. Knowing His justice. Knowing His holiness. And knowing your insignificance, your utter lack of power, your utter lack of holiness.

Charles Bridges defined the fear of the Lord as:

that affectionate reverence, by which the child of God bends himself humbly and carefully to his Father’s law. His wrath is so bitter, and his love so sweet; that hence springs an earnest desire to please him, and – because of the danger of coming short from his own weakness and temptations – a holy watchfulness and fear “that he might not sin against him.”

Note the phrase “bends himself humbly and carefully to his Father’s law.” Humility is fundamental to the fear of the Lord. The fool says, “I’m so smart I don’t need advice. I don’t need correction. I can run my own life, thank you.” The wise person says, “God is great. I am small. Whatever I have learned of Him, I have so much more to learn! I am unworthy of Him. Lord, teach me your way!”

So this humble fear of the Lord is at the very heart of Proverbs.

This leads to a question: Many people don’t fear the Lord, they don’t believe in Jesus, yet they follow much of the advice in this book. They watch their tongue, they seek counsel, they discipline their children, they listen to their parents, they avoid sexual temptation, they tell the truth, they keep their tempers, they are diligent in their work. How can the fear of the Lord be the beginning of knowledge if these people seem to have knowledge yet don’t fear Him?

Think of it this way. That morally upright unbeliever is like someone who owns a new car. And he loves his car. He takes excellent care of it. He washes it twice a week, waxes it every Saturday, changes the oil every six months, and even lubricates the door hinges. The car looks wonderful in his driveway. But he never drives it! He misses the whole point of having a car.

Just so with those who follow instructions in Proverbs, but do not have the fear of the Lord. They are missing the big picture! They are missing the whole point!

The goal is to make us holy to the Lord. The goal is to make us Christlike.

Wisdom is not behavior. Wisdom involves behavior, but remember our definition: Wisdom is seeing who God is, seeing how He rules the world, and responding accordingly. So two people might do the same outward actions – in our analogy, they both might shine their cars – but if one is not seeing who God is, he is missing the whole point. He is missing the big picture.

Some people make the same mistake when reading the New Testament. Consider Colossians 3:5, 8-9:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . .  8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another.

So imagine that you avoid all those evils, all those sins. Is that how you become Christlike? No! You’re missing the big picture! You’re ignoring the opening verse!

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (emphasis added)

The command to “put to death sexual immorality, impurity,” etc, presupposes that you are raised with Christ. This is not a general command, “Get your act together! Live a moral life!” To interpret it that way misses the whole point.

This section of Colossians concludes:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17

This is the big picture: Glorifying God! Living to magnify Him! Living in the fear of the Lord!

Life and wisdom involve behavior. But the big picture consists of seeing God, responding to Him, glorifying Him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.


How are you doing in this regard?

As we go through this book, again and again you will face correction. Again and again the Word will show you how far you fall short of true wisdom. How will you respond?

The wise man is humble. The wise man loves correction. The fool despises instruction.

We Americans especially need humbling. We need the fear of the Lord. Let me quote Charles Bridges once again:

We look into this Book, and, as by the aid of the microscope, we see the minuteness of our Christian obligations; that there is not a temper, a look, a word, a movement, the most important action of the day, the smallest relative duty, in which we do not either deface or adorn the image of our Lord, and the profession of his name. Surely if the book conduced to no other end, it tends to humble even the most consistent servant of God, in the consciousness of countless failures. . . . The whole Book is a mirror for us all.

So prepare to be humbled. Feed on this book. Read each week’s sermon passage ahead of time. Meditate on it.

This is a book about practical godliness. It speaks to every part of our lives

Do you want wisdom? You need to see God! You need to see how He rules the world! And you need to respond appropriately.

My friends, those of us who live this side of the cross must look to Jesus for wisdom. He is the embodiment of God’s wisdom! He saw God most clearly; He responded perfectly.

Do you see Him as all-glorious, all righteous? Today – that is the first step towards wisdom.

Proverbs shows us the extent of God’s demands on our lives. But it should not lead to despair. Let this book humble you. Acknowledge how far you have to go to be a sage, to be wise. But then turn to Christ for righteousness! Believe in Him, trust in Him, in all your ways acknowledge Him - and you will belong to Him. Then He will transform you into the wise, godly man described in Proverbs.

That’s the goal: Not to modify behavior, but to become a man or woman who lives to the glory of God. May these words dwell in you richly, so that you might so live.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 9/4/05. Bruce Waltke’s The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Eerdmans, 2004) was exceptionally helpful throughout. Apart from this commentary, I would have taken a completely different approach to preaching this series. For the reasons to believe that verses in Proverbs are not arranged in a haphazard fashion, see pages 9ff. The Charles Bridges quotes are from Proverbs (Banner of Truth, 1968; first published, 1846), p. 3-4 and p. xii.

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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