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The book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings or teachings to live by. Think of them as micro-parables, with the shortness of each saying being helpful for memorization. Most of them are attributed to Solomon, but someone named Agur wrote chapter 30, and a King Lemuel wrote chapter 31.

Prov. 1

The book is introduced in ch. 1 as being for those who would be wise, and it seems aimed primarily at young people. But wisdom is more than applied knowledge; it’s also applied morality, since only fools despise the counsel of God. Verse 7 is very familiar to most Christians, since the uniqueness of the Bible’s wisdom is this personal relationship with our Creator. A wise person will listen, learn, and apply the lessons.

The wise are also cautioned to be on guard against enticement for material gain, since in the end it consumes the consumer. Then wisdom itself is personified starting in verse 20, which the false teaching of Gnosticism takes as an actual being called Wisdom. They also take the Greek word for wisdom, Sophia, as her actual personal name. But true godly wisdom advises people to not be naive, which is all too common in the Christian community when it comes to false or unwise teachings, since so few actually study the Bible where God’s wisdom is found. This personified Wisdom will mock when calamity strikes those who despised it.

Prov. 2

Here the emphasis is on the value and preciousness of true wisdom from God, as opposed to the worthlessness of folly. The mention of only adulterous women in verses 16-19, as in other proverbs, is more a matter of cultural norms than God’s ideals. Many unwisely take it as that only adulterous women are despised by God, while adulterous men are admired, as has been the norm throughout history. But as Jesus stated in Mat. 19:8, God never meant for anyone to have more than one spouse, or to treat them as dispensible property. Not everything even the best of the Bible patriarchs practiced was the will of God; in fact, it was often these polygamous marriages that led to generations of suffering.

Prov. 3

Now the text turns from the wages of folly to those of wisdom, and verses 5-8 are another widely-memorized proverb. But be careful not to take verses 9-10 as an endorsement of tithing for Christians, who of course didn’t exist when these proverbs were written, and they never applied to Gentiles. Also notice that tithing was on profit or increase. The last two verses are quoted in Heb. 12:5-6, and the teaching of both passages is that if God is disciplining and training you, it’s because you’re his child. Then the text returns to extolling the virtues of wisdom, and verses 19-20 describe God’s power in setting the world on foundations, and his wisdom in making the world self-sustaining. Verse 27 begins a series of specific faults to avoid, such as not helping someone when we have the power at the time, and not slandering others. Verse 34 is quoted in James 4:6, and they both warn against being proud.

Prov. 4-5

Ch. 4 returns to the theme of valuing wisdom, and adds that such a life will bring peace to the person who acquires it. Ch. 5 returns to the theme of the adulterous woman, which again must not be twisted into the belief, even today, that women are all temptresses who need to be controlled by equally sinful men. Girls were typically not included in the education of the young, so the sayings are from the perspective of males. But again, to take this as meaning God does not value women as equal to men is a sin of its own.

Prov. 6-8

Ch. 6 is a warning against becoming ensnared in unwise business deals, against laziness, and against scamming people with deceptive practices ourselves. The seven things God hates starting in verse 16 are common in the Proverbs, so they’re probably important lessons. Notice also that verse 20 includes children listening to their mothers as well as their fathers; God clearly endorses the training and wisdom of women. One should wonder how anyone expects women to be wise if they’re never supposed to be taught. Again the adulerous woman is used as a warning starting in verse 24, but the nature of the crime is in a class of its own. Even if we sympathize with someone who steals out of desperation, they still have to pay for what they’ve done. But in the case of adultery, no amount of money can repay what was taken. This same principle is seen in 1 Cor. 6:18.

Ch. 7 continues warning against adultery, so the wise will realize how important it is to resist this particular sin. Ch. 8 returns to the personification of wisdom as what God used when creating the world, continuing into ch. 9. The familiar teaching in verses 7-9 is a way to tell whether the person you’re trying to correct is wise or foolish, by their reaction to instruction. Jesus taught this same principle in Mat. 7:6 about throwing pearls to swine. Of course, many foolish and arrogant people view themselves as teachers, and they use this passage to condemn all who reject their false teachings, but in the end it is God who will remove the masks from the ones in the wrong. Verses 9-10 repeat that all wisdom begins by fearing God, and then in verse 13 the opposite is described. If, as the Gnostics teach, Wisdom is a goddess, then so also must be Folly. But of course, these are just personifications, and since both of them are symbolized as feminine, then God is clearly not portraying women as only bad.

Prov. 10-15

Ch. 10 begins a writing pattern of couplets, pairs of statements contrasting the wise with the foolish. Ch. 11 continues this pattern, adding in verse 13 the virtue of being trustworthy and reliable, which Jesus explained also in the parable of the two sons in Mat. 21:28-30. It’s interesting that the wisdom and generosity of a woman, such as the example of Abigail in 1 Sam. 25, is contrasted with ruthless men, such as her husband Nabal.

Ch. 12 emphasizes the need to make sure our words are used to build up rather than tear down. Verse 11 means that though it’s fine to have ambition, we shouldn’t chase every great idea, especially without making sure we have a practical, reliable source of support. We all struggle with verse 16 about being slow to be offended, and in verse 27 we’re warned against quitting too soon, so those are actually related concepts.

Ch. 13 continues the theme of the foolish and wicked being their own worst enemies, and verse 8 points out that with great wealth comes great worry, whereas the poor have nothing to lose. Wealth and prestige can make us more prone to compromise. Ch. 14 once again compares wise and foolish women, which again shows that wisdom is not exclusive to males, as many have taught over the centuries. And verse 31 reminds us that opporessing the poor is an insult to God, so the wealthy need to be very careful what they do with their riches.

Ch. 15 begins with another favorite memory verse, which teaches that harsh words cause needless arguments, but gentle words make true conversation possible. People can become impatient when it seems nothing is being done, but we should never act rashly and impulsively.

Prov. 16-20

Ch. 16 seems to turn away from the couplet pattern, and the emphasis turns from us to God, and especially to how kings should rule. Verse 18 is very familiar but largely ignored: Pride and arrogance lead to a person’s downfall. The same for verse 25: We would be wise to consult God and others before choosing a path. And for verse 28: Slander and gossip will destroy even the strongest friendships.

Ch. 17 continues to advise good priorities among other familiar sayings, such as not taking or offering bribes, or putting up security for other people’s debts. Ch. 18 reminds us that we should value the input of others when making decisions, and that it’s foolish to only want to talk and never listen. Vss. 13 and 17 are very important but usually ignored: Don’t spout an opinion on something you’ve never investigated, and don’t settle on an opinion before you’ve cross-examined it many times. Too often we jump ship after the most superficial case is made for an idea, and we’re foolish to think we’ve made an improvement when in fact we’ve only gone from the fying pan to the fire. The warning about the tongue in verse 21 doesn’t mean words have magic power, as some claim today, but that careless speech can lead to real and deadly consequences.

Ch. 19 verse 2 is like 18:3; enthusiasm is fine, but get the facts before you start. Also, we need to remember that though this is wisdom literature, it still can contain a fair amount of hyperbole. So when we read that a poor person’s friends hate him, we should be careful not to jump to wild conclusions.

Ch. 20 personifies wine and strong drink to show what those substances do to people, which is to turn them into mockers, fighters, and fools. This is not to say drinking is wrong, but only allowing drink (or anything else) to consume and control us. Whoever seeks to become incapacitated is a fool. But perhaps a greater fool is seen in verse 20, since though parents are often terrible at the job, God will hold children to account if they curse their own parents. Certainly some parents are absolutely evil, but let God curse them per verse 22, and this doesn’t mean we have to forgive them if they haven’t repented.

Prov. 21-23

Ch. 21 is more about contrasts between the wise and foolish, the righteous and the wicked, and ch. 22 adds that it’s foolish to see danger coming and do nothing to prepare. We should note the balancing principle in Mat. 6 about not storing up treasures in this life and not worrying about tomorrow. These principles don’t conflict, because worry and hoarding are very different from carelessness. The wise person will discern the difference.

Verse 7 is difficult to avoid in modern times, since the entire world’s financial system is based upon debt and couldn’t exist without it. But slaves we are, though God will surely reimburse us eventually for what the financial controllers have done to the world. Verse 15 advises corporal punishment for foolish children, which some sects have twisted into justification for child abuse. Good parents will only do the minimum necessary to correct behavior that is dangerous or unwise, and wise parents never need to resort to any degree of violence. Remember that this is wisdom literature, not an excuse to be abusive.

Ch. 23 includes one of the most commonly-misapplied passages of scripture, that being verse 7. The whole thought is expressed in verses 6-8, and it means that if a stingy person gives you something, it isn’t out of generosity or friendship but to get something from you that’s worth the investment. Most take verse 7 out of that context and interpret it as that you are what you think. This is why the later addition of verses to scripture was such a bad idea. Then verses 13-14 revisit the teaching about child discipline, adding that the purpose is to rescue them from the consequences of foolishness. Then in verses 20-21 it teaches that we should carefully choose the crowd we run with. The rest of the proverb revisits the themes of staying away from people who are promiscuous or in the habit of ingesting mind-altering substances.

Prov. 24-26

Ch. 24 includes a reminder in verse 17 not to gloat when the wicked get what’s coming to them, and verses 23-25 warn against unjust judging.

Ch. 25 is mostly about speaking wisely, and not imposing ourselves too often on friends and relatives. But it begins with King Solomon advising the purging of wicked fools from the king’s court, and verses 6-7 match the advice of Luke 14:7-11 about humbling ourselves. Verse 19 advises against trusting people who aren’t trustworthy, and verse 20 rebukes the idea that what the sorrowing need is to just pretend they’re happy.

Verses 21-22 are quoted in Rom. 12:20 as meaning that we should leave vengeance to God. Putting coals on a person’s head meant to fill up a container they’d put on their head and carry home to rekindle their fire. So it was an act of kindness, because they needed a source of heat and the righteous person provided it out of human compassion, even though the other person had made themselves their enemy. Notice also verse 26, which says that a righteous person who appeases or kowtows before the wicked is like a polluted stream. Contrast that with Eph. 5:11, which says that we must expose the deeds of darkness, rather than let them run unchecked.

Ch. 26 verses 4-5 are puzzling on the surface since they appear to contradict themselves, but it’s really a matter of discernment and restraint. As a modern saying goes, Never argue with stupid people, because they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience. Rather, offer correction, and if it’s rejected, walk away. Verse 7 is exactly why scriptures are often twisted: the people reciting them rarely understand the words in context, and they invent whole belief systems on that broken foundation. Verse 12 describes the folly of arrogance, and verse 17 rebukes those who jump into other people’s arguments. Verse 19 rebukes the person who provokes others and then tries to avoid retaliation by saying it was only a joke. The remainder of the passage advises against passing gossip and flattery.

Prov. 27-29

Ch. 27 Verse 1 is quoted in James 4:13-16, and verse 2 advises against self-praise. Verses 5-6 caution against being too timid to rebuke when it’s necessary, verse 13 seems to advise against putting up security for a stranger, and verse 14 advises knocking on the door before entering the house of a friend; respect other people’s boundaries. Verse 17 is often quoted as advice on how to have a productive argument, but pointless quarreling is cautioned against as a balance in such passages as Titus 3:9.

Ch. 28 begins with the observation that wicked people are always looking over their shoulders, while the righteous have peace and confidence. Then it observes that a country with many layers of bureaucracy is a country filled with rebels. References to the law here are in the context of kingdoms and countries, so they refer to secular law. Verse 8 is about charging outrageous interest rates, not any and all interest. Scripture allows interest on loans taken out for the purpose of business investment, but not for the purpose of buying necessities. The rest of the proverb centers on the need to choose, if possible, wise rulers.

Ch. 29 teaches that those who continually resist correction will come to ruin, and in verse 13 that the choice to be either wise or foolish is our own. Verse 18 means that messages from God keep people from foolishly throwing off all restraint.

Prov. 30-31

Ch. 30 begins a separate section of Proverbs. The focus of this one is on the vast superiority of the wisdom of God to our own, and verses 7-9 are a plea for God to keep us from extreme tests.

Ch. 31 focuses on the wise ruler, who needs to stay alert and sober in order to rule justly. But verses 10 onward serve as a kind of balance to all the other Proverbs’ references to women as bad examples. Though most commentaries try desperately to shoehorn the subservient housewife into this passage, it cannot be justified. The emphasis is on the ideal woman’s character, her wisdom and strength and valor.

She is neither lazy nor dependent, running not only her household but also a business. She makes major purchases without asking for approval or needing oversight, and she gives generously to the poor from her profits. Her husband respects and honors her, even though he may be an official in the city. She has the foresight to plan for difficult times, and she has a reputation of being wise and valient. The proof of her character is seen also in the kind of children she has raised, but above all, it is her fear of God that should bring her the respect she deserves. Historically, women have typically been robbed of any credit due them in society. The man who chooses a woman based only on her physical attractiveness is indeed a fool.

We might summarize all the Proverbs with the modern one about leading a horse to water but being unable to make it drink. All the wisdom literature in the world won’t make us wise if we don’t read it and heed it.

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