The Purpose of Proverbs

The Purpose of Proverbs February 12, 2018

This passage is part of the opening preamble and prologue of Proverbs (Waltke’s terms). It divides neatly into two sections: The first, verses 1-7, describe the purpose of the Proverbs as a whole, and function as an introduction to the entire book; verses 8-19 are an opening “lecture” from a father to his son.

The purpose of Proverbs is described in many different ways in these few opening verses. The Proverbs are for “knowledge,” “discernment,” and “instruction”(vv. 2-3). They produce “righteousness, justice, and equity” (v. 3), royal virtues. They offer “prudence” and “increase in learning” and “wise counsel” (vv. 5-6). Each of these ways of describing the purpose of Proverbs is important, but let me highlight a few.

First, Proverbs 1:2 describes the purpose of Proverbs as the communication of “wisdom.” The Hebrew word used here is also used in various contexts where it means “artistic skill” (Exodus 28:3; 31:3; 35:31; 1 Kings 7:14). The Exodus passages are the first uses of the word “wisdom” in the Bible. Wisdom means “skill,” in various areas and endeavors, and the uses in Exodus indicate that there is an artistic dimension to wisdom. Wisdom involves skill in doing what is fitting and in producing results that are beautiful.

A furniture maker displays wisdom in his craftsmanship; a musician displays wisdom in making music; a father displays wisdom in training and guiding his children. There is a “craft” or “art” to each of these endeavors. Overall, the Proverbs teach us how to live skillfully, and how to construct a life that is attractive, fitting, and beautiful.

Second, Proverbs 1:3 describes some of the specific goals of wisdom in terms of public and political virtues: righteousness, justice (or judgment), and fairness. Righteousness has to do with a pattern of life or a settled character that is rooted in the heart, but it also has to do with rule. Rulers – in the home, church, business, politics, wherever – need artistic skill to shape a people into something beautiful, harmonious, melodic.

In 1 Kings 3, Solomon seeks skill or wisdom to discern good and evil so that he can judge Israel. The Proverbs are a guide not only for skillful living but also for skillful ruling. Addressed by Solomon to his “son” (v. 8), they teach us how to be kings. The Proverbs communicate the wisdom needed to be true sons of the Last Adam, taking dominion over the earth and ruling those who are under our authority so that they flourish. The Proverbs train us as kings in the basic sense that they teach us how to take mastery of life, rather than merely bumble and stumble through life from one crisis to another.

Third, the opening verses give us a couple of indications about how wisdom is communicated and acquired. Notice the sequence of verbs in the opening verses: The Proverbs of Solomon are given “to know,” ”to discern,” to “receive.” Each of these describes the Proverbs from the viewpoint of the receiver of wisdom and instruction.

Verse 4 changes the perspective; it is not from the student’s perspective, but from the teacher’s. The Proverbs are given to help the young learn wisdom, and so the young should study the Proverbs diligently. But the Proverbs are also given to help the old teach wisdom, and so older men should study the Proverbs diligently as well.

Wisdom comes through teaching; we’re not supposed seek wisdom on our own, in a monastic cell or ivory tower. We gain wisdom by listening to the wise.

Verse 2 also indicates something of how this instruction takes place. The Proverbs communicate “instruction.” The root of the word is “chastise” and the word can be translated as “chastening lesson” (Waltke). A chastening lesson can take a variety of forms. Corporal discipline is one means of teaching a chastening lesson; by making folly hurt, parents guide their children away from folly and toward the path of wisdom (Proverbs 13:24; 22:15; 23:13; 29:15).

We can gain a chastening lesson also by watching and taking to heart the experiences of others; Israel was supposed to take instruction from the way the Lord dealt with rebellious Egypt (Deuteronomy 11:2), and Yahweh disciplined Israel with exile for the instruction of the nations surrounding (Ezekiel 5:15).

Chastening lessons also come providentially; we take a few steps down the road of folly, and the Lord graciously intervenes and drives us back. He is the perfect Father, who disciples His true sons. If you don’t receive discipline, then you are not a true son but a bastard (Hebrews 12:8).

Chastening lessons can have their proper effect only if we are open to the chastening. If we complain and murmur under chastening, or harden ourselves in anger, or hate it, or seek to escape its lessons, or don’t think about its lessons, then we are not going to gain wisdom from those chastening lessons. “Fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Fourth, the opening verses identify the “unwise” who need teaching and chastening. Solomon calls these the “naive,” or the “gullible.” A gullible or naive man loves his simplicity, loves skating on the surface of life, and scoffs as wisdom and instruction (1:22). A naive man is easily seduced, attracted to the promise of immediate pleasure. He doesn’t think ahead to see the consequences of his actions (7:7-23; 9:1-6). He doesn’t recognize the connection between actions and consequences. He believes everything he hears, and doesn’t think about the steps that he’s taking (14:15). He doesn’t see evil ahead, and plunges right into it (22:3; 27:12). The Proverbs are particularly designed to lead the naive out of naivete into wisdom.

Finally, 1:7 emphasizes that the foundation of all wisdom is the fear of Yahweh. If we fear Yahweh, we will listen to His word. If we fear Him, we will not resent His chastening, but receive it gratefully and submissively. Fear includes a fear of punishment, but should also include a more personal fear of causing offense or disappointment.


The next bit of chapter 1 is a lesson from a father to his son, in a “practical catechesis.” The fact that this is told by a father to son is important. Teaching should take place within an existing relationship of trust and love, and that relationship must be cultivated if teaching is going to be effective. An estranged son will not be receptive to the wisdom his father offers.

Though teaching takes place within a relationship, it is not a “democratic” or “egalitarian” relationship. A father’s teaching is backed up by authority (in contrast to the seduction of the “gang” of peers, who function without authority (v. 11). Also notice that the teaching takes the form of a fictional story; catechesis in Proverbs not about defining theological terms, but instructs the son about real-life situations, about skill in living.

In Dad’s lecture, the “gang” leaders speak openly about their intentions. They are going to “set an ambush,” and attack the innocent, and imitate devouring Sheol (vv. 10-12). Few gangs talk in these terms; Solomon is clearly exposing the true intentions behind the gang’s seduction. At the same time, Solomon does indicate the attraction of the gang, and shows why a son would be tempted to follow such a gang of thugs.

First, there is an accent on inclusion, being part of the gang, fellowship, albeit fellowship in evil. All the invitations are in the first person plural (“let us”), and the temptation ends with the promise of equal sharing of plunder (v. 14). One of the contests going on here is a contest of community: The hierarchical community of wisdom, and the egalitarian community of the gang. Keeping the son away from the gang is only half the battle; the other half is to induct him into the community of the wise.

Second, the gang offers excitement “ambushes, lying in wait, the open-ended possibility of booty. Third, the gang promises immediate gratification, instant cash. If the son joins the gang, they claim, he can get rich without working hard, waiting, saving, restraining himself. If the son is naive, this will be attractive.

Solomon warns his son about the gang in several ways. First, he points out where their road leads. They want to be like death (v. 12), but they will end up ambushing only themselves (v. 18). They want to shed blood (v. 11); they will, but ultimately it will not be the blood of the innocent but their own blood (v. 18).

They rush to “evil” in a double sense: They are in a hurry to do evil, and evil (= catastrophe) will fall on them. Solomon is a cartographer; he knows where the gang’s road leads, and he discloses this to his son. This is essential for training the naive, because a sense of direction is precisely what the naive lack.

Second, he warns his son directly to avoid even stepping on the gang’s path. A path here describes a particular habitual way of life or character, a set of specific choices, and also points to the fact that habits and choices lead to certain outcomes. The son should not adopt the habits of the gang “ including habits of dress and speech; he should not choose to be with the gang, or follow them in their choices. That way, he avoids traveling with them toward their destination.

Third, Solomon begins the whole parable by offering a positive incentive to the son to receive his teaching and to walk in his ways, to be inducted into the community of the wise. The son who follows his father’s instruction and mother’s teaching will receive a garland of victory, status, and honor, and will be protected against evil.

Solomon’s description of the garland is particularly interesting. He calls is “attractive,” or “glorious.” Waltke comments that the word “denotes the quality of something that makes it pleasing and attractive to others and so wins their favor.” Following the instruction of parents seems “uncool” to many teenagers, but Solomon says that this is exactly the path toward favor and respect. Wisdom makes young men “attractive.”

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