Chapter 1

Introductory Remarks

We probably need to say this, because the modern notion of what constitutes "wise" and "foolish" is somewhat different from what Solomon (and God) had in mind 3000 years ago. We think of a "fool" as a person who runs out into the street without looking, but religion is a matter of personal choice, sort of like politics or where you decide to spend your vacation.

God made us all different, and expressing those differences in different ways is part of being who God made us, but not when we go against God Himself. God is God, and we are not God. Henley's famous poem, Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
is every bit as foolish -- nay, rather even more so -- as running across a busy street without wait for a gap in the traffic.

The wise person in Proverbs knows Who God is, and that God has the right to tell us what to do and not do. That's God, not necessarily all the people who claim to speak for God. Pastor Mark pretty much gets it right, but I've been in churches where the pastor didn't read his Bible very carfully, sometimes by viewing Scriptures through his own human-tradition lens [see Mark 7:9]. I'm not there any more. Pastor Mark preaches what's there. But not everybody who claims to speak for God even knows Who God is.

Wise vs foolish in Proverbs (and pretty much everywhere in Scripture, like Psa.14) means: "Are you on God's side, or against Him?" There is no middle ground, no indifference, no such thing as agnosticism = no opinion (see also Mark 9:40, where Jesus himself said "Whoever is not against us is for us.")

Anyway, here we go, in a book of poetry about what God cares about. I'm not much into poetry -- not even the Goode Olde Stuffe that actually made sense -- I'm more into "say what you mean, then get on with life," but here we are and we will work through this together.

Prologue: Purpose and Theme (v.1-7)

1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
This is the book title, and it is not poetry. It's just a title. It tells us who is responsible for (most of) the whole book. Many people are named Solomon, especially Jews today, but this particular guy was the son of David and also King of Israel. Only one guy in all of history fits that description. [read v.2-4]
2 for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight;
3 for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair;
4 for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young--
Do you see the poetic form here? Each verse says its idea twice. Verse 2, the basic idea is somewhere in the middle between "attaining wisdom and discipline" and "understanding words of insight" or maybe all of that. Notice the Wisdom here is not just head knowledge, it includes also self-discipline (good behavior).

Verse 3 in the NIV, the focus seems to be on the doing part of Wisdom, other translations may come out different (the Hebrew words are not as strong as the NIV's English) [read other versions]. I think the NIV got it right, but it's the nature of poetry -- with so many words, with two different ways of saying the same basic idea -- that the exact meaning is kind of mushy. God knows what He meant, and sometimes He tells us Christians by His Spirit within us, and sometimes He just lets us puzzle and ponder. He can do that. I think it was the English poet Robert Browning wrote some obscure poem, and when asked to explain it, famously said,

Well, Miss Barrett, when that passage was written only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it.
God is God, He gets to do that kind of thing.

Verse 4 shifts to the when and to whom this Wisdom can and should come. We are not born smart, it grows on us, mostly by paying attention to wise people, mostly to Solomon, but also in our own time. Sometimes by making stupid mistakes and realizing that was a dumb idea, and then choosing not to do that again. I like learning from Other People's Mistakes better. It should start when we are young... [read v.5-6]

5 let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance--
6 for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.
...And continue all our life. You never reach the end of growing wise, as he tells us in verse 5.

Do you understand everything in this Book? If so, you are smarter than I am, and I've been reading it carefully for more than 70 years. God doles out His Wisdom in bits and pieces, when we are ready to receive it. [read v.7]

7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Here's the beginning: The Fear of God. When God sends an angel to some person in the Bible, what is the first thing that angel says? "Fear not!" Why is that? They are terrified. They should be! The fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom [Ps.111:10]. It says it's "the beginning of knowledge" here in this verse in Proverbs, but the Hebrew poetic form equates that with "wisdom and discipline."

Speaking of which, the poetic form here says the same thing by way of contrast. Wisdom starts with the fear of the LORD, but the opposite side, the fools, they don't want any part of it. There are only two sides, you can define the one side positively, or else negatively by describing what it is not, because there are only two sides.

Warning Against Enticement (v.8-19)

Here begins the first of 19 times that Solomon addresses his remarks specifically to "my son" (four of them plural "my sons") in the first eight chapters, then none at all until near the end of chapter 19 (there are eight more from there to the end of Proverbs).

The Hebrew notion of "Son" is not just progeny, the Son follows in his father's footsteps. He is not greater than his father, but he is carrying on what the father started. You can see that very clearly in the puzzle Jesus put to the Pharisees in [Mt.22:43-45, Mk.12:35-37, Lk.20:41-44] [read it]. They all knew that the Messiah would be the "Son of David" -- everybody knew that, even the Syro-Phonecian woman who didn't live in Israel and wasn't even Jewish, she also addressed Jesus as "Son of David" [Mt.15:22] -- the puzzle is that David, in a very Messianic Psalm, called the coming Messiah "Lord" as if he would be greater than himself -- and indeed he was! Jesus can be the "Son of God" (carrying on the work of God the Father), but how could the Messiah (Jesus or anybody else) be "Son of David"?

We must be careful not to inject modern ideas into the Scriptural text. Here, especially in America, we have the notion that kids are smarter and more capable than their parents. It probably flows from the Darwinist theology that time + chance + natural causes inexorably makes things better over the centuries and the millennia. Even if it were true, the 20-odd years of one generation would be an insignificant improvement. The Bible is very much of the opposite view: Maturity is better. Unfortunately the word that meant maturity or completion in 1611 (along with some 4000 other words) changed meaning in the last 400 years. "Perfect" now means "without flaw", but the Greek word 'telieos' it translates means "complete" or "mature" (there is a different Greek word 'amemptos' that means 'flawless" or modern English "perfect"). So Matt.5:48 is Jesus not setting us the impossible task of being "flawless as God," but rather "Grow up!" In 1Cor.13:10 the Apostle is not discussing the flawlessness of the future Scripture (as some people claim, except the gender in Greek is wrong for that), but the whole context is again "Grow up! Mature adults don't need to be squabbling over minor stuff like this."

So the "son" Solomon has in mind here is a younger, immature person, but who is coming along in his father's path.

Solomon is addressing his fatherly advice to "my son" (or "my sons") which presupposes that these are people who follow in the wisdom of Solomon as Sons, not just born from one of his many wives or concubines, but true believers in the Wisdom of this book. Rehoboam was not that kind of son, but we Christians can be, and by God's Grace and with God's help, we are! This book is written to us! So pay attention when he says "my son," he's talking to you and me. There are three of them in the next twelve verses... [read v.8-9]

8 Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching.
9 They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.
The Hebrew poetry of verse 8 tells us that the instruction is not just Solomon as (male) Father, but both parents, they are both more mature than the kids, and better able to guide their kids in Truth and Wisdom -- but only to the extent that they also have been instructed in the wisdom of their own parents, and of Solomon.

The Jews who translated verse 9 into Greek two centuries before Christ, they saw this decoration on top of your head as like the laurel wreath (think: "gold medal") that an athlete gets for winning, which is an entirely appropriate expectation for staying with Solomon's teaching, the way you might stay with a marathon until you win. The King James translators (and my NIV like them) saw the Hebrew doublet as more binding, so they used a word like "decoration." It's a little weak: this Hebrew word occurs only twice in the Bible, here and in chapter 4, and the root Hebrew word means "glue" which is consistent with the context in chapter 4, where this is no mere decoration you can take off like a tiara, but is rather sticky. We will look closer at chapter 4 in a few weeks. [read v.10-14]

10 My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them.
11 If they say, "Come along with us; let's lie in wait for someone's blood, let's waylay some harmless soul;
12 let's swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
13 we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder;
14 throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse" --
OK, time for you to think a little. Verse 10 is "poetic license," where the rule gets bent a little. Where's the second half of this doublet? The second half of verse 11 is clearly in doublet form, maybe we should read verse 10 with the first half of verse 11 as the doublet? What do you think? The verse numbers were not so much inspired by God as what some Rabbi decided in the late Middle ages, more than two thousand years after Solomon wrote it. Most Hebrew Bibles today have the verse numbers out in the margin, so it takes some effort to know where it's divided.

All five verses in this group have a single theme; what is it? [read v.15-19]

15 My son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths;
16 for their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood.
17 How useless to spread a net in full view of all the birds!
18 These men lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves!
19 Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it.
These five verses are what is called "chiasm" = the shape of the Greek letter chi (pronounced in English "kh-eye" like the first syllable of "kayak", but "khee" in Greek). The first line, the first verse in this group (about going on a path) is parallel to the last line (the end of that path), and the second verse (sin and blood) parallels the next-last line (blood and going astray = sin). And the middle verse stands all on its own, it's not even poetic. There's a lot of chiastic structure in the Bible, often in Jesus' teaching -- for example Matt.7:6 (see if you can find the chiasm) -- sometimes in a single verse, where it does not always come through in translation. Many of the doublets in Psalms are chiastic, like Psalm 1:2,
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
  and on his law he meditates day and night.
In the first half, the delight comes before the Law, and the second half the meditation (=delight) comes after the Law, in reverse order. Not all chiasms are translatable into English, because we depend on word order to tell us who is doing what, whereas Greek and (to a lesser degree) Hebrew the form of the words tells you that, so they can re-arrange the words for poetic reasons and not mess up the meaning.

OK, now that we have admired the poetic form, how does the message of these verses relate to the previous five? Do you think the extra effort Solomon spent on the structure might point us to the importance of the message?

Warning Against Rejecting Wisdom (v.20-33)

The last fourteen verses of the first chapter are no longer Solomon speaking as a wise father, but Wisdom herself personified. The Hebrew (and Greek, but this is originally Hebrew) word "wisdom" is feminine. In English gender is ontological, that is we assign masculinity or femininity based on actual sex organs, or which organs the function of this word better resembles, and make it neuter ("it") if there is no clear fit. Most other languages do that for people and some animals, but otherwise the gender of a word is rather arbitrary, and they use pronouns to match the form of the word, not any underlying sexuality. For example, a little girl in German is neuter (think: "it"); French and Spanish and Hebrew have no neuter, so they assign masculine or feminine gender. When you turn a verb into an abstract noun in Hebrew, it is generally female, but the same verb can be turned into a concrete object or person, and then it's masculine (even when referring to female persons). Wisdom is an abstract noun, the result of being wise, so this is a woman. The translators have preserved that -- perhaps because the Greek abstract noun 'sophia' is also feminine. The feminists who whine about "patriarchial" should observe that their complaint is often just wrong. Wisdom is a virtue, and if the Greeks were really being as patriarchical as the critics claim, they would have figured out how to make the abstraction masculine. Feminism is a modern idea, totally foreign to Scripture.

Anyway, the first two verses of this section introduce Wisdom as a person, and the remaining twelve are what she says out in public. [read v.20-21]

20 Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares;
21 at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech:
Did you notice a chiasm here? Some translations (like my NIV, following the Greek LXX) the first doublet, both halves have the subject and verb first, followed by where that happens. The second doublet, the location is first in both halves, followed by subject and verb. It's a doublet of doublets. The King James Bible (like the Hebrew) the distinction is not so pronounced. What about your translation? Two verses start Wisdom's invitation: [read v.22-23]
22 "How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?
23 If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you.
But the people out in the streets and the squares and the gateways, they aren't listening. This does not come without consequence:  [read v.24-27]
24 But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand,
25 since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke,
26 I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you--
27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you.
Did you hear the sermon last week? Tyler promoted honor and respect, even when the Bad Guys don't deserve it. And it's in the Scriptures he gave us. Wisdom, the lady in this chapter, didn't hear that sermon. In one of the Psalms God Himself "will laugh them to scorn; the LORD will have [the wicked] in derision." God (and Wisdom) can do that, but we should not, we don't know enough to know if it's justified. But even in the New Testament, the souls of the martyrs cry out for Justice from under the altar. Justice is a moral absolute, it can be delayed (because Mercy is also a moral absolute) but it cannot be denied. You don't want to be Those Guys on Judgment Day. [read v.28-33]
28 "Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me.
29 Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord,
30 since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke,
31 they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
32 For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them;
33 but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm."
With very few exceptions, the Imprecatory Psalms, the Psalms that call down God's Righteous Justice on the wicked people, they all end on a positive note. So here also.

I often thank God that I live in a country with a 500-year tradition of the people reading the Bible in their own language, where even if it's not preached from the pulpits -- Pastor Mark does preach the text, but many pastors (even in this country) preach their own traditions -- we have Bibles in our own language and we can read and obey what we read, and thousands and millions of people did obey, and verse 33 does apply. When the people as a whole follow God's Wisdom, everybody lives in safety, without fear of harm. No iron bars on all the windows of every house here in Grants Pass. No churches and houses being firebombed. A little (and it's getting worse) but the USA is still way ahead of whoever is in second place, and more people want in than out. Still.

Tom Pittman
2022 July 7