(24) The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge – Proverbs 1:7

After the Psalms, which reflect David’s character, there are three books which are mainly ascribed to his son Solomon. He was renowned for his wisdom and these three books are wisdom books, full of wise advice. Proverbs is a collection of writings and wise sayings that contain practical advice for everyday life. It starts with some essays about wisdom and life’s dangers and then the bulk of the book is a collection of two line proverbs that contain nuggets of truth. (English proverbs tend to be two lines of pithy wisdom while in Hebrew the meaning of the word translated ‘proverb’ is broader and includes longer descriptions of wisdom.)

Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of an old man reflecting on his life and finding that life lived without God is meaningless. The third book is Song of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon, and is a song about sexual love which contains wisdom’s view of love.

Proverbs opens by stating that the book was written to help people attain wisdom, discipline and understanding. It is for the simple, the young, the wise and the discerning and people at all levels of maturity can add to their wisdom and learn more about doing what is right, just and fair. The introduction concludes with a clear statement about where wisdom comes from – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7) – indicating that having a right attitude to God and his laws is the fundamental first step for those who wish to be wise. ‘Fear’ does not mean terror in this context, but a sense of awe for who God is and his role in creating us and setting laws for us to follow. (Similar statements appear in Job 28:28 and Psalm 111:10 providing a link between the wisdom books.)

Many of the Proverbs contain vivid word pictures that make them stick in the mind, e.g. “Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own” (Proverbs 26:17). There are also some memorable characters. ‘The fool’ is mentioned over seventy times in the book and is defined not as someone who lacks intellect but as someone who despises wisdom. The classic definition of the fool is in the Psalms where David writes, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalms 14:1) and in Proverbs the danger of associating with fools who both speak and act in ways that damage themselves and others is spelt out in vivid word pictures.

Other characters include both male, such as the sluggard (a lazy person who suffers the consequences of spending too long in bed – see Proverbs 6:9, 26:14) and the drunk, and female, including the adulteress and the nagging wife. Proverbs certainly does not see all women in this way, and the book ends with a poem in praise of “a wife of noble character” (Proverbs 31:10-31), an industrious lady who manages her household with great intelligence, combining the traditionally female role of providing food and clothes for her family with independent business acumen more usually associated with men as she carries out the purchase of land for planting a vineyard. Any man who finds such a wife will be very fortunate indeed.

It is interesting to see the practical approach that Proverbs takes with regard to wrongdoing. The Law made it very clear what was right and what was wrong. As an example, the seventh commandment said “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) and stipulated punishments for those who broke it. But the trouble is that we have a tendency to want to sin. So what do we do if we feel attracted to someone? The Law may not be enough to prevent us crossing the line. Proverbs takes a different approach by describing the attractions of adultery, along with the consequences. The writer asks, “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned?” (Proverbs 6:27). There is no law against scooping fire into your lap but it is clearly an unwise act. Similarly, even if there is no law against adultery, a sober assessment of the impact on people’s lives will tell is that it is very unwise.

Billy Graham advises reading the 31 chapters of Proverbs every month, taking the chapter for the day of the month. When I remember to do this I always learn something useful for the day from its practical words of wisdom for everyday life.

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