Wisdom in Proverbs

Wisdom is truly better than gold, so why don’t we want it as much?

By Mark D. Harris

If there is one concept which is associated with the book of Proverbs, it is wisdom. In fact Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon fall into a genre of the Bible known as the Wisdom literature. Other ancient civilizations such as Egypt also had “wisdom literature”, which generally included sayings from teachers considered wise in their cultures. Hebrew wisdom literature is contrasted with Greek wisdom literature in that the focus of the Greeks was a stronger family or society while the focus of the Hebrews was to obey God.

Our first task is to define wisdom. Dictionary.com defines wisdom as “knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.” The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology describes wisdom using Biblical terms. In the Old Testament wisdom (חָכְמָה chokmah) connotes human skills (building – Exodus 28:3, warfare – Isaiah 10:3, or ruling – Deuteronomy 34:9) or human insight (Ecclesiastes 1:13). As such, the misuse of such wisdom is condemned (2 Samuel 20:22, Isaiah 29:14).

The same Hebrew term is used for wisdom in a positive and even divine sense. Since all things come from God, including skills and insight, the difference between “human” wisdom and “divine” wisdom is the morality behind the wisdom. Even as God provides wisdom, He also provides the moral understanding and courage to use the wisdom. Thus “divine wisdom” refers to skills and insight animated in the righteousness of God and by the Spirit of God, and “human wisdom” refers to skills and insight without such moral direction. “Divine wisdom” is typically what the writer of Proverbs refers to as wisdom. A wise man, therefore, is a man exercising skills and insight in accordance with the will and power of the Lord. He keeps God’s commandments, follows God’s priorities, and ultimately fears the Lord (Proverbs 1:7).

In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a virtuous woman (Proverbs 3:13-18, 4:5-13) in contrast with an adulteress (Proverbs 5:3-11). In the New Testament, wisdom (σοφία sophia) is described as an attribute of God (Luke 11:49) and the “wisdom of God” is further revealed to be the person of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:24). As in the Old Testament wisdom is sometimes seen negatively, as when Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their earthly and foolish “wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:19-20).

Wisdom is something that God gives to men. First, they need to restore their relationship with Him by following Jesus Christ. This changes them from spiritual death to spiritual life and allows them to commune with God; to come into His presence. Second, they need to devote themselves to the lifelong project of becoming more like Him. Third, a man who wants the wisdom of God must ask God for His wisdom (James 1:5-8). The man who does this will receive great wisdom and strong support from the Lord (2 Chronicles 16:9).

Proverbs 1:7 is the key verse in the book

What is the fear of the Lord?

Fear (יִרְאָה yir’ah) is literally terror (Jonah 1:10), dread (Deuteronomy 1:29), awe (1 Kings 3:28), and reverence (Leviticus 19:3) of the Lord. He is the Holy Other, so far beyond our comprehension that the bravest man can only tremble in trepidation. Throughout history, men who have encountered God have fallen on their face before Him (Genesis 17:3, Daniel 10:9-10, Revelation 1:17).

To understand fear in the Biblical sense, we must understand all of the ways in which it is used and base our interpretation on the sum of those ways. We can think of terror as abject fear of imminent disaster.
Such fear is offensive to modern Christians, probably because in our reckless pride we have no idea who He is (Jude 1:9-10). We cannot sugar-coat the truth; weak and evil men, and we are all weak and evil, are terrified before the Righteous and Holy God. Even men who know and love the Lord fall down in awe before Him. Therefore fear of God in the Biblical sense must include a sense of terror.

Dread is fear mixed with guilt. Have you ever owed someone a lot of money which you couldn’t repay? If so, you probably dreaded being around them. Have you ever been living in intentional, persistent sin? If so, you probably dreaded coming to church.

Our ancestors knew what it meant to fear the Lord, both in terms of terror and dread. Jonathan Edwards preached in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.

Abraham Lincoln wrote in the National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer (1863):

And, in so much as we know that, by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

These men understood the terrible wrath of an angry God, and begged His mercy as a result. Christians today will have no knowledge and no power without also understanding it, and fearing the Lord. True fear of the Lord results in obedience to Him. As John Wesley wrote:

“Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergyman or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon the earth.”

As Jesus taught, we are not to fear man, but to fear God alone (Matthew 10:28).

Awe is experiencing the mighty person of God. While terror and dread are negative, awe is positive. Each of us at some point in our Christian walk has a few “mountaintop experiences” in which we get a glimpse of the magnificence of God. The Lord wants us to have far more moments to experience His love and beauty, but we as Christians don’t allow ourselves to do this, being too busy with other things. How can we enjoy God and live a powerful Christian life without experiencing His awesome presence regularly?

Reverence asks do we revere God, holding Him as our most prized possession, our greatest good? When we love God, we revere Him. Do we want anything or value anything in this world more than our Lord?

Therefore fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of knowledge, combines terror, dread, awe and reverence. As men poor in power and great in sin standing before a God with infinite power and blazing holiness, as men of marred appearance and little love standing before a God with breathtaking beauty and endless compassion, this is the only proper response.

What is “the beginning of knowledge?”

In the minds of most people, God is a given, a fundamental truth. He exists, and everything else that such people know is built on that truth. In the minds of other people, God is a proposition that must be proven. For these people the existence of God is debatable and subject to argument and counterargument; just like any other proposition. They may argue that their position is the scientific and neutral one and that the burden of proof for the existence of God falls on anyone who believes in Him.

The fundamental flaw in this atheist or agnostic argument is that God is fundamental. The atheist (or agnostic) typically denies the existence of God but still assumes that he himself has some sort of independent existence. This assumption is necessary because the converse is self-defeating. An argument beginning with the assumption that the parties to the argument do not exist cannot go anywhere. In order to argue against the existence of God, the atheist also has to assume that he is capable of independent, objective thought. If he is not, then he is incapable of coming to an independent, objective answer about anything, must less about the existence of the Holy Other.

If God exists, however, His presence is more fundamental to the universe than the presence of man. Man is not self-existent; he has a beginning and an end. If God as described in the Bible exists, then He has no beginning and no end. Further, the universe could not exist without Him, and it probably existed a long time before the advent of man. Therefore for a man to assert that he exists while denying the existence of a more fundamental being, God, is presumptuous. It is neither logically possible nor logically impossible to prove that God exists. His existence is the fundamental fact on which all reality, and logic, rest.

Finally, to say that God does not exist presupposes that the atheist possesses all knowledge and has excluded the possibility of God on the basis of his omniscience. Since only the deranged truly believe themselves to be omniscient, the only intellectually honest views about God are to believe in Him or to not know whether or not He exists (agnostic).

The ability to know anything else stems from the ability to know God. If God exists, then He created the universe and is the Supreme Authority over it. Like any person, His character is reflected in His work, and the highest goal of man would be to know Him. If God exists, morals are absolute not because He adheres to an outside standard of virtue but because He is the standard.

If God does not exist, we must seek some other explanation for the creation of the universe, and really for the existence of anything. If He does not exist, the highest moral code is whatever a group of humans believe is the best morality for themselves at the time. If God does not exist, the time before birth and after death is unknowable, and the time in between is meaningless. Everything that every man, woman and child on earth believes can be logically reduced to the fundamental question, “Who is God?” Depending on the answer, individuals and societies get vastly different results.

What does it mean to “despise wisdom and instruction?”

Despise (בּוּז buwz) means to hold in contempt or to hold as insignificant. Esau despised his birthright (Genesis 25:34) and lost it forever. Sanballat and Tobiah despised the Jewish people (Nehemiah 4:4) and failed in their task.

The world may hate the Word of God, but too often people in the church hold the Word of God as insignificant. Insofar as this is the case, it is hard to see how they are worse than we. Muslims, Hindus and secularists may persecute Christians and burn Bibles, hoping to serve their god but in reality opposing God’s work in the world. Much worse, however, are the Christians who ignore God’s Word. Why worse? Because these people are infused with His Spirit and they are the children of the King. There is no wonder that the children of my neighbor would not heed my instruction, but there is no excuse if my children do not heed my instruction.

Augustine expanded this passage to our understanding of the Bible. How often do we interpret a passage in accordance with our desires rather than with what it actually says? How often do we ignore a section of Scripture that we do not like? Both of these are examples of despising wisdom.

We have already discussed what the word “wisdom” means, but “instruction” (מוּסָר muwcar) deserves a special note. Instruction can be translated as “correction” or “chastening”, the underlying idea being that God grants wisdom but He also disciplines or chastens His people. It may be easy to appreciate wisdom, but it is hard to appreciate correction or chastening. First, correction reminds us of our foolishness and frailty, a direct insult to our pride. Second, chastening (punishment) is painful emotionally, mentally and physically. It is easy to despise instruction, but to do so makes a man into a fool.


Proverbs epitomizes widespread and time-honored wisdom and style of the Near East. Wisdom is demonstrated when a righteous man, using his God-given talents and opportunities, accomplishes God’s purpose in His way at His time for His Kingdom. Finally, the fear of the Lord truly is the beginning of knowledge and the life that He wants us all to enjoy.

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