A Roadmap to Wisdom (Sermon)
This summer, many of us will be taking a vacation. When you plan a vacation, you have to make two very important decisions. The first decision is your destination. Where are you headed? The second decision is your route. How will you get there? When I was a kid and we went on vacation, my dad would always have his atlas handy. It was a book filled with maps of every state in the United States. The roadmaps helped him figure out the best way to reach his destination.
In the book of Proverbs, the destination is wisdom. This morning, I want to spend some time examining how we get there. Proverbs is a roadmap to wisdom. If we’ll examine it closely and follow its instructions, we’ll reach our destination together.
As we kick off this series on Proverbs, I want to spend time this morning helping us learn the lay of the land. This sermon will be a little bit different than normal. We’ll focus on the first 7 verses, but really we’ll survey the overall structure and message of Proverbs. Certain sections of the sermon this morning might lean a little more academic than normal, but I think the better we understand how to interpret the book, the more useful we’ll find this study to be. Let’s start in chapter 1, verse 1. The first thing we learn is the author.
(Proverbs 1:1 ESV) The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
Solomon was the third king of Israel. The first king was Saul. Due to his disobedience, Saul and his offspring died, and God gave the throne to David. David was a great king, who enlarged the kingdom and brought peace to the land. When he died, his son Solomon became king.
Early in Solomon’s reign, God appeared to him in a dream and promised Solomon He would give him anything he asked for. Solomon could have asked for great strength or great riches, but instead he asked for wisdom to discern between good and evil. God responded:
Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. (1 Kings 3:12 ESV)
Immediately after God made this promise, two women came before Solomon. The one woman accused the other woman of stealing her baby. Solomon listened to their argument, then said, “Let’s cut the baby in half and give each of you half.” The real mother quickly asked Solomon to give her baby to the other woman instead of killing him. Solomon knew the baby was hers and so he had the officials return the child to his rightful mother. Here’s the conclusion of the account.
And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice. (1 Kings 3:28 ESV)
Solomon’s wisdom became legendary, and his fame spread throughout much of the known world. Listen to how he’s described in 1 Kings 4.
And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:29-34 ESV)
Solomon was known for his wisdom, speaking 3,000 proverbs and over a thousand songs. Many of those were recorded in this book. But Solomon is not the only author of Proverbs.
(Proverbs 30:1a ESV) The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle.
(Proverbs 31:1 ESV) The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
We don’t know who either of these men is. Many speculate that Lemuel is actually Solomon. We just don’t know. What we do know is that the wisdom that lead to the writing of Proverbs came from God, and all of the wisdom recorded in Proverbs is divinely inspired. Repeatedly in the account of Solomon’s wisdom, we’re reminded that God provided the wisdom. Even though Solomon composed proverbs, he was not the source of wisdom. God is. That becomes very clear as we study the book of Proverbs.
If we were to outline the book of Proverbs, we could divide it into six major sections.
The first section is chapters 1-9 and focuses on the importance of wisdom.
From there, the next section is the longest. Beginning with chapter 10 and going partway through chapter 22, we find a collection of individual proverbs. Though people have attempted to categorize and organize them, there does not seem to be a specific structure. I believe it’s intentional. If Proverbs is intended to provide wisdom for real life, the apparent randomness mirrors real life. I don’t know about you, but my life is not neatly categorized. I need wisdom for different situations at random times. One moment I’m tempted to get angry and the next moment I’m trying to figure out how to answer a fool. Life isn’t neatly categorized, and neither is our need for wisdom.
Chapter 22-24 is made up of slightly longer sections of Proverbs, usually made up of 2-3 related verses. From there, we find four chapters called Proverbs of Solomon, before the book ends with the Dark Sayings of Agur (ch. 30), and the King and His Wife in chapter 31.
Proverbs is a type of writing known as Wisdom Literature. It is one of five books in the Old Testament known as Wisdom. The other four books are Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.
Proverbs is also poetry and being poetry it uses a lot of poetic devices. Think back to your high school literature classes and words like alliteration, assonance, simile, metaphor, irony and personification. These rhetorical devices are used throughout the book, so you have to read Proverbs with that in mind. You’ve got to look for it and think carefully about the point the author is trying to make. Reading and interpreting poetry takes more work and more imagination than other types of literature.
Proverbs is primarily written in couplets—that’s two lines of verse that form a single unit. The word proverb actually means “comparison.” Most of the couplets form some type of comparison.
Some times the two lines are two ways of saying the same thing—two parallel thoughts. For instance: (Proverbs 19:5 ESV) A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will not escape.
Other times there’s a progression from the first line to the second line. The second line will explain or clarify the first line. (Proverbs 14:7 ESV) Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge.
Often the second line will show the flip side of the first line. The first line might talk about the danger of being foolish, and the second line will talk about the safety of being wise. It’s the same truth from the opposite perspective. (Proverbs 15:9 ESV) The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.
The key to interpreting Proverbs is to remember that they’re intended to be simple. They’re not usually riddles with a really obscure meaning. They’re written to be understood. But just because they’re simple, doesn’t mean they’re not deep. Think of a proverb like the key to a treasure chest. The key is simple. It’s not hard to use. You can easily hand it someone else, and they can use it. But when you actually do use it, it unlocks great treasure. Proverbs are simple truths which unlock profound meaning.
Now that we’ve considered the structure of Proverbs and how to interpret a proverbs in general, let’s look at the introduction to the book of Proverbs, and from there we can determine the purpose of the book.
(Proverbs 1:2-6 ESV) To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.
The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to convince you to seek wisdom and show you where to find it. Simply, its purpose is to make the reader wise. It challenges you to commit your life to gaining wisdom. And what is wisdom? It’s skill for godly living. It’s learning how to navigate the world God made in the way God intended.
The first few verses of Proverbs show us the value of wisdom. By showing us the value, the author is whetting our appetite for wisdom. He wants us to love and long for wisdom, so he shows us why wisdom is valuable.
It’s similar to what a father does when he wants his son to love the same team he loves. He takes his son to a game. He buys him a hat. He gives him some trading cards. He whets his son’s appetite for his team. He hopes his son sees the value of becoming a fan. Now, wisdom is far more valuable than a sport’s team, but the same principle is in play here. The father wants the son to see the value of wisdom so he will spend his life pursuing it. He gives his son two reasons wisdom is valuable.
Wisdom impacts all of life
There’s no area of your life that would not benefit from wisdom. Wisdom affects you intellectually, relationally, and morally. Let’s consider each of these three areas.
First, wisdom affects you intellectually. It informs how you think and how you understand life. Verse 2 tells us wisdom helps us “understand words of insight.” A person can share something insightful with you, but it only helps you if you can understand it.
I recently watched the first couple episodes of the classic sitcom Home Improvement with my oldest son, Jack. In each episode, Tim “The Toolman” Taylor gets into some sort of problem of his own making. He wanders out to the backyard, where his neighbor, Wilson, dispenses advice—words of insight. The problem is Tim rarely understands Wilson’s insight, so he applies it in a somewhat humorous and misguided manner. Wisdom aids in understanding—it helps us think clearly.
In verse 4, wisdom is said to give knowledge to the youth, and in verse 5, wisdom helps the wise increase in learning. Wisdom affects us intellectually. Without wisdom we’ll lack the knowledge and insight to increase our understanding of God and His world.
One of the things I want for my boys is for them to learn to think well. Many people are governed by their emotions, making decisions on the basis of how they feel. Truth comes first through our minds. We need to think clearly, and lead our emotions down the path of truth. It takes wisdom to think clearly and to comprehend the truth.
All around us are people who don’t know how to think clearly. Watch the news or look at Facebook, and you’ll see the lack of clear and cogent thinking. People no longer think about issues. Instead they give in to a mob mentality. What’s popular must be right. Very little, if any thought, is given to what’s true. Evidence is not weighed. All dissent is silenced. The mind is shut-off and the herd rules the day.
As Christians, we understand the importance of the mind. We understand the necessity of clear thinking. God delivered His truth in a book. We need to be able to read, interpret, and understand it. We need to develop the ability to evaluate arguments and weigh competing claims. God’s wisdom affects our thinking. It shapes us intellectually.
The author of Hebrews defines maturity in a very interesting way.
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14 ESV)
The mature (the wise) are those who have trained their powers of discernment so they can distinguish good from evil. Maturity means we’ve exercised our minds to understand what’s right and true. Maturity means wisdom has shaped our thinking about the world and how we’re to engage it as Christians. We don’t need lazy Christian thinkers, who have to be spoon-fed or are still on the bottle. Pursue wisdom because wisdom will teach you think clearly.
Wisdom also affects us relationally. Wisdom impacts how you treat other people. Verse 3 tells us Proverbs was written to instruct us in “wise dealing, in righteousness, justice and equity.” Those words are relational words. Righteousness, justice and equity primarily focus on our relationships. Do we treat people with justice or do we take advantage of them? Are we dishonest or demeaning with people or are we equitable in our dealing with them?
The words “wise dealing” are used in 1 Samuel 25:3 to describe a woman named Abigail. She’s the wife of an idiot named Nabal. David, Israel’s king, was traveling and sent some men to Nabal’s house to get food and drink for his men. Nabal treated the men with disrespect and mocked David. David took some men to teach Nabal a lesson. Abigail heard about what had happened and intervened. She cooked up a tremendous feast and brought it to David. She thanked David for all he had done and carefully encouraged him to leave any retribution to the Lord. He listened and did not act rashly. Abigail acted with wisdom. She made wise choices relationally. She saw a way to protect her husband and David at the same time.
Let’s be honest. Relationships are hard. It’s hard to know what to say to people all the time. Imagine being stuck between an idiot husband and an angry king. It took great wisdom to navigate that situation. We need wisdom for our relationships. Maybe you’re in a difficult relationship right now—an angry spouse, a demanding parent, or a controlling boss. How will you respond? You have no idea. The book of Proverbs was written to help you know how to respond. “Get wisdom. Wisdom will impact your relationships.”
We see wisdom for relationships all throughout the book of Proverbs. For instance:
Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. (Proverbs 13:20 ESV)
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:5 ESV)
These verses and dozens like them show us how wisdom affects the way we interact with others. We learn how to handle a person who’s a fool. We learn the value of listening to those who are wise. Wisdom teaches us the importance of relationships and then provides guidance in those relationships.
Wisdom affects us intellectually, relationally, and morally. Wisdom affects your understanding of right and wrong. Wisdom instructs us in righteousness (verse 3), teaches us prudence (v.4), and provides guidance (v.5). We live in the midst of a society confused about right and wrong, a society that calls wrong right and condemns anyone who thinks differently, a society that fails the most basic questions of morality. It’s shocking to realize that a question as simples as: "what makes a person a male or female?” is now up for debate.
I don’t want to be trite or demeaning when I say this. If you or someone you know is struggling with issues of gender identity, we are here to help. We know it can be challenging and confusing. But the confusion comes from the foolishness around us, not from God’s design. God intentionally and graciously made men and women different, and the differences are obvious—the doctor knows from the moment you exit the womb. However, society in a quest to defy God has not only said there’s no difference, but it tells us anyone who claims there is a difference is hateful and a bigot. The lie that gender is a choice we make not a choice God made is quickly become the default viewpoint in our society. It will be indoctrinated in the rising generation. How will we and our children learn what’s right and wrong? Only by embracing God’s wisdom.
Let me give you another example: in the past week a 3-year old boy climbed into a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. To protect the boy from the gorilla that was holding it, the zoo felt they had to shoot the gorilla, killing it. Now there are many elements to the story, and we don’t need to dissect all of them. One thing that is apparent: there are many people publicly angry about the shooting of the gorilla. There are protests and petitions. What’s lost in this is the reason the zoo felt they needed to do it. They did it to protect the child.
Why is human life more valuable than animal life? If we’re descended from apes, why should the ape to be killed in order to protect the child? Isn’t he a human in an earlier stage of evolution? Where do we learn the inherent value of human life? We learn from the Bible that God made mankind in His image, and as a result an infinite gap in value stretches between a human and an animal. God’s wisdom teaches us to see the bigger moral issues at stake in a debate about a child and a gorilla. In other words, wisdom trains us in what’s right and wrong. We don’t determine what’s right and wrong based on how we feel, but based on what God says.
There is right and wrong, and we learn right and wrong by gaining wisdom. So, wisdom impacts all of life—it impacts how we think, how we relate, and how we understand right and wrong. It shapes us intellectually, relationally, and morally. There’s a second reason we need to value wisdom—a second reason to seek wisdom.
Wisdom impacts all ages
(Proverbs 1:4-5 ESV) to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth— Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance,
Those who are young and those who are simple (simple means “naïve), need wisdom. They don’t have it yet, and they need to gain it in order to live wisely when everyone around is acting like a fool. But those who are wise need more wisdom. Those who understand still need guidance. In other words, you’re never too young or too old for wisdom. You weren’t born with it, and you never get too much of it. Only a fool says, “I’m wise enough.” With that statement, he reveals his lack of wisdom.
This is why the book of Proverbs is extremely practical. No matter who you are, you need wisdom. I don’t care if you’re older than dirt or if you remember when fire was invented, you still need wisdom. Wisdom impacts all ages.
(Proverbs 1:7 ESV) The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Verse 7 provides the thesis statement for the book of Proverbs. It sums up in one sentence the message of these 31 chapters. The key to wisdom is the fear of the Lord. In fact, one cannot even start to grow wise unless they begin with fearing God. Anyone who fails to fear God is a fool and despises wisdom.
To fear God means you understand that God is God, and you’re not. He knows what He’s doing, and you don’t. You are not God, but there is a God, and He is great. He knows what’s best, and the best thing for you to do to is to listen to Him. The wisest thing you can do is to submit to Him. That’s why fools hate wisdom. They don’t want to submit to God. They don’t want to acknowledge they’re foolish.
Here’s the thing about wisdom: those who want it the least, need it the most. So, if you pursue wisdom, you’ll be swimming against the current. You’ll be running out of the store when it opens on Black Friday. Pursuing wisdom is not popular, but it’s worth it.
As we journey through Proverbs, you need to keep in mind two interpretive keys. These keys will help you better understand individual Proverbs.
Proverbs are general truths about how God’s world works
God designed His world to function a certain way, and Proverbs shows us how it is designed to function. Due to sin, it does not always function that way. If you take an individual proverb as a promise instead of an observation, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration. For instance, many parents have claimed Proverbs 22:6 as an ironclad promise.
(Proverbs 22:6 ESV) Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
It’s not a promise. It’s an observation about how God designed His world to work. Because of sin, it does not always work that way. But the wise person understands it’s designed to work that way, and so they apply themselves to the principle knowing the likely outcome is a child who will respond to that training.
Proverbs cite general observations over specific cases. The more we soak in the general observation, the greater our ability or skill in applying it to our unique situation. If you’ve ever played a musical instrument, you were taught scales. You would learn scales in different keys, and your instructor would make you play them over and over. Why? Scales aren’t beautiful. No one wants to listen to them. Because once you have mastered the scales, you can play other music more skillfully. Learning the general skills (scales) gives you the ability to skillfully play specific songs. Mastering the general truth of Proverbs gives you the ability to skillfully handle your unique situations.
Proverbs always ultimately come true
The general observations sometimes seem to fail in the short-term, but as Christians are hope is not in the short-term, but the long, long, long-term. One day, God’s world will be restored, and it will perfectly operate according to His principles of wisdom. We will never apply Proverbs correctly if we are primarily concerned with short-term results.
Proverbs are observations about how God’s world works. Since God made you, Proverbs teaches you how to align yourself with God’s created world. But notice the location of Proverbs. It is just two books away from Job. Proverbs shows us how things generally work in God’s world, but Job shows us they don’t always work that way. God designed it to work that way, but the world is broken. So, Proverbs are general observations about God’s world, and they always ultimately come true.
There’s one final point we need to consider before we wrap up. The Bible is ultimately about Jesus. He’s the hero of the story. Every story whispers His name. But nowhere is His name mentioned in the book. How does the book of Proverbs point to Jesus? In two weeks, we’re going to answer this question in detail. But let me give you two things to consider this morning.
First, the messianic setting of the book of Proverbs points us to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Proverbs (1:1) was written by the Son of David, who was incredibly wise. That information points us to the ultimate Son of David who embodied wisdom. Throughout the Old Testament, one of the defining characteristics of the coming Messiah is wisdom. He has a spirit of wisdom and acts wisely. His rule will be marked by wisdom. He perfectly embodies wisdom.
Second, as we study the book of Proverbs we come face to face with our failure and foolishness, causing our hearts to cry out for true wisdom. Jesus is the answer to our cry. He becomes our wisdom (1 Cor. 1) and covers our folly. This book should lead us to Jesus, and remind us that following Him is the only path to true wisdom.
Every young boy at some point fancies himself a treasure hunter. He creates a treasure map, complete with a bright, red X to mark the spot, and he heads off on a treasure hunt. The book of Proverbs is a real life treasure map. It tells us about a valuable treasure—more valuable than gold or silver—the treasure is wisdom. And it lays out a path, complete with a red X that guides us. The only question is whether we’ll follow the map to the treasure. Do you want wisdom? Do you believe it’s worth seeking? Will you follow the map? These are the questions that confront us as we explore Proverbs together.
This sermon was originally preached at Calvary Baptist Church in 2015.