Collected practical wisdom for everyday guidance
By Solomon and other gifted sages
Every culture has its wisdom. Ancient Egypt’s scribe Amenemope collected and passed on wisdom sayings over a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.
The 30 chapters in the Instruction of Amenemope told Egyptians to be humble and contented with few material things instead of seeking gain through aggressive actions.
Colonial America had some of its wisdom collected and printed by Benjamin Franklin each year in Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732–58). Franklin wrote under the pseudonym “Poor” Richard Saunders and gave us memorable proverbs, such as “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Ancient Israel also recorded words of wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, a tradition linked with King Solomon as a composer of some sayings and a compiler of the book itself (1 Kings 4:29–34).
Advice For Daily Living
Proverbs is a book of practical wisdom. For the sages of Israel, wisdom is the ability to live life well and make good decisions. This is a gift from God; it is not something you can gain on your own.
You cannot earn wisdom in the school of hard knocks or on the streets or by education or age. Wisdom begins with knowing who God is and then responding to Him in worship and adoration (Proverbs 1:7).
The Books of Ecclesiastes and Job offer a different kind of wisdom that results from contemplating questions, such as “Why do good people suffer?” and “What is the meaning of life?” Proverbs is less philosophical and more practical; it offers advice for daily living.
The Book of Proverbs expands the theme introduced in the Book of Deuteronomy: obedience to God’s instruction brings prosperity; disobedience brings adversity.
The sages adopted this idea and expressed it in terms of wisdom and foolishness. Wisdom is following God’s instruction and doing what is right. Foolishness is rejecting God’s teaching and doing what is wrong.
Rather than allowing us to decide for ourselves, God decides what is right and wrong; and out of grace, He has revealed it to His people in Scripture.
Certain things are to be avoided—lazy lifestyles, violent men, seductive women, dishonest gain, alcohol abuse—because they lead to trouble. Other things are to be pursued—hard work, good friends, a strong wife, discipline, good conversation—because they lead to life.
One of the most unforgettable aspects of this book is how wisdom is personified. Lady Wisdom, as she is called, exists before creation and works alongside God as He fashions the hills and sets the limits of the sea (Proverbs 8:22–31).
Lady Wisdom now stands in the streets, calling to the young and naive and inviting them to take the path that leads to true life. In many ways, Lady Wisdom stands in contrast to the seductive woman who wants nothing less than to entice and destroy young men.
A strategic translation decision has been made to respect the historical situation of this book. In its original context, Proverbs is practical wisdom passed down from parents (especially fathers, see chapters 1–9) to young men who are preparing to enter a life of adult responsibilities: family, business, community leadership, and so on.
Because of this relational aspect, we have retained masculine references when appropriate and have used more inclusive language when that was the intention of the original author.
It is our greatest hope that God will use this work to remind fathers of the profound place they have in nurturing, instructing, and guiding the next generation.
Each generation faces strong peer pressure to follow the world’s ways, especially during adolescence. That pressure can twist an innocent young man inside out until he is nearly unrecognizable to those close to him.
Once gang mentality takes over, that young man could easily find himself in unexpected and troublesome situations. Wisdom calls, and her voice is clear: Remember your parents’ instruction. Avoid violence and violent people. If you don’t, violence will find you.
God knows well what He is doing. He has established rewards for living wisely: A happy, long life. A good reputation. Guidance when you need it most. Health. Success. Even, dare we say, fatherly discipline. These are just a few of the benefits accompanying God’s wisdom.
It’s perfectly natural to envy those who are successful. It’s even natural to want to imitate them. But what about those who’ve gotten ahead by doing the wrong thing?
Sometimes it seems crime does pay, the good do die young, and the wicked do have more fun. But it only appears this way; it is not reality. In reality the success of wrongdoers is short-lived.
God is against them, and their house is built on the sand. Even if it seems to be a grand house, it will soon come crashing down.
Fathers have a crucial role in instructing their sons. It’s easy and natural to teach children about some things: how to take care of a car, how to hit a ball, or how to mow the lawn.
But what about deeper things, the kinds of things that make life worth living? These are much harder. They must not be left for someone else to do.
Paul wrote, “And, fathers, do not drive your children mad, but nurture them in the discipline and teaching that come from the Lord” ( Ephesians 6:4 ). Instructing children in the ways of God is crucial work.
People are easily seduced, especially men. Everyone is vulnerable to sexual sin at some point or another, and history is strewn with the wreckage that results when the path of adultery is followed: bitterness, death, instability, loss, ruin. Time and again, these are the consequences of violating God’s instruction.
Wisdom recognizes the beauty of sexual intimacy. After all, God designed us as sexual beings. But for physical intimacy to retain the beauty of its design, it must be shared wisely. It is meant to be shared with someone who is your own.
In marriage two become one ( Genesis 2:24 ), so they belong together and belong to each other. In that safe place of belonging, one finds fulfillment. So a husband or a wife must partake only of the partner’s body and love. To seek intimacy elsewhere is foolish.
Laziness is not just a bad habit; it’s a threat — a clear and present danger. Since the beginning, God has made us in His image to create and tend His good creation. In other words, God has made us to work.
It is in our spiritual DNA. We must do it in order to be who God made us and to fight off the threats of poverty and want. God has also created the Sabbath as a space for us to rest, of course, just as He rested on the seventh day.
People are forgetful, so we must be reminded constantly of Wisdom and her ways. We don’t always need to hear something new; often we just need to be reminded of what is true.
In these proverbs wisdom is found when one not only knows what is right, but acts on that knowledge. Foolishness, on the other hand, means a lack of understanding and wrongdoing.
Lady Wisdom has built a house, prepared a feast, and now invites the young, the simple, and the naive to come to her party. She wants her house full of guests and spilling over with life, yet hers is not the only invitation. There is competition in the streets.
Another woman vies for the attention of the young and impressionable. She, too, wants her house full, but of deceit and seduction; and when it is, death and misery join the revelry.
Wisdom addresses a broad audience.
First, there are the wise who already know and worship the one True God, who do what is right in God’s eyes, and who experience the resulting benefits. They need only to be reminded about God’s ways.
Second, there are the mockers and fools who reject God’s teaching and consistently do what is wrong in spite of its consequences. They need to be confronted and called to change their ways.
Finally, there are the naive who straddle the fence, one day going this way, another day going that way. Wisdom extends herself to reach them, to point clearly toward the decision they have to make.
Solomon’s proverbs were originally short, pithy, easily remembered sayings brought together around certain themes. They started as oral traditions and were eventually written in a Hebrew poetic form known as parallelism.
Chapters 10–15 are dominated by antithetical parallelism, meaning a statement is made in line 1 and then contrasted in line 2. Chapters 16–22 contain both synonymous and synthetic parallelism.
In synonymous parallelism, the ideas in line 1 are repeated in line 2 using different words. In synthetic parallelism, later lines serve to expand, define, and elaborate the first lines.
Perhaps the ancients knew the power of words better than we do. Words can conceal, reveal, destroy, and encourage. Words are extremely powerful, so Wisdom urges us to use a few carefully chosen words and to pick our conversations equally well.
Business may well be the most common human activity, so God cares deeply about how we conduct our business. Many proverbs address honesty in all forms of business — buying, selling, negotiating, transacting, and working.
All of these depend on trust. Deceit in business causes many people to suffer. In fact, world economies and all our livelihoods depend in large measure on truthfulness, honesty, and fair dealings in the market.
Generosity places God’s gifts and blessings into circulation. The principle is simply stated: by giving we receive. This may seem counter intuitive, but it is how God’s economy works.
As Jesus said, “Don’t hold back — give freely, and you’ll have plenty poured back into your lap — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, brimming over. You’ll receive in the same measure you give” ( Luke 6:38 ).
A person in a positive relationship with God stands in a right relationship with His creation.
How we treat animals may mirror our souls — not just the pets in our home, but the pets in our neighborhood and the animals in our food supply.
One who is truly right with God considers the needs of His creatures.
The wrong kind of passion can be a dangerous thing. Too often people are ruled by strong emotions, thoughts that cannot be checked, and actions that cannot be controlled.
If that’s the case, then you are putting your life and well-being in jeopardy. Peace of mind, tranquility of soul, and serenity of heart become the recipe for a long, happy life.
It is ironic that we may have more to fear from the proud and powerful than from the poor and needy. Those who have want more, and so they take it. Oh, maybe they won’t pick your pocket or break into your home. Their ways are more subtle and more effective.
As James, Jesus’ brother, wrote, “Isn’t it the rich who step on you while climbing the ladder of success? And isn’t it the rich who take advantage of you and drag you into court?” (James 2:6b).
James isn’t describing all the rich, of course, but many have made their fortunes off the backs of others. God is the One who can protect the poor, the One who can reduce the grand houses of the haughty to splinters.
We do not like or want to believe it, but there are limits to what humans can accomplish. Whatever wisdom and knowledge we think we possess is nothing compared to God’s.
Whatever plans we make will come to nothing unless they line up with God’s plans and purposes for us.
The abuse of alcohol is as ancient as the first batch of Egyptian beer or the first sip of Noah’s wine (Genesis 9:20–21). Its wide availability today has made for binge drinking on college campuses, underage drinking by young teens, drunk driving on city streets, and alcoholic rants and abuse in the home.
The sage offers a tragic description of a young man who goes from drink to drink and cannot get his bearings in life. Too many people lose so much life in an alcoholic stupor.
Our world is all too familiar with violence and its victims. It’s easy to look the other way, pretend we didn’t see it, hope it goes away, or live in denial. Perhaps we are numbed to real violence because we are so entertained by the onslaught of it in modern media.
But the violence in our homes, across our cities, and throughout the world is very real. Every day someone is beaten, captured, raped, enslaved, shot, robbed, stabbed, or run over.
Wisdom calls us to step into those places and help those marching off to their deaths. God knows what we know. He knows what is in our hearts.
Acts of kindness, especially when we know they are undeserved, awaken a slumbering conscience, stimulate sorrow, and perhaps even effect a change. They are the best ways to turn an enemy into a friend.
The answer to all these questions, of course, is “no one but God.” Agur, like Job, understands the limits of human strength and knowledge. Unlike many, he freely confesses his need and takes refuge in the one True God.
Wealth and poverty have something in common. Both situations can lead us to forget God.
If we are rich, then it is easy to think it was our skill, our strength, and our hard work that got us there. We forget it was God who gave us the time and talent to succeed.
If we are poor, then it is easy to steal and then make excuses for what we did. We forget that God said, “You are not to take what is not yours” (Exodus 20:15). When God’s people violate His teaching, God is the one who gets a black eye.
King Lemuel’s mother warns him of the dangers of women and wine. In different ways, both have brought down great leaders. Both are certainly distractions to a king’s true work — defending the poor.
Marrying the right person is one of the most important decisions most people ever make, so they must choose wisely and carefully.
The Book of Proverbs ends with a tribute to a wise choice in a wife. She is strong, independent, capable, and cares for her husband, her family, and the poor. She runs the whole household.
In ancient Israel, this would mean a large extended family — including servants with all of their activities — and the family business. Her husband would sing her praises publicly before the community leaders. Those who know her would admire her for her skills, her industry, and her character.