Biblical wisdom literature describes two approaches to life. The way of wisdom is the path followed by those who fear God, submit to his will, and are responsive to his instruction. It is the way of humility (Pr 11:2) and the way of blessing (Ps 1; Pr 3:1-2).
On the other hand, the way of folly is the path of those who resist God and his teaching. Fools, the people who pursue this path, behave as though God does not exist (Ps 14:1) and trust in themselves (Pr 12:15; 28:26). The two ways are contrasted in Proverbs 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
Folly entered the world when Adam and Eve followed their own understanding and chose to ignore a clear directive from God (Ge 2:16-17; 3:1-6). We, their descendants, have been fools as well (Ro 3:23; 5:12). “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray” the apostle Paul observes in Titus 3:3.
Since folly ultimately leads to judgment and death (Ps 1:5-6; Ro 6:23), God provides loving correction to steer us toward wisdom (Pr 3:11-12).
Sin and folly can exert such a powerful hold over us, corrective discipline may need to be forceful. The book of Proverbs speaks frequently of such correction with a rod in order to make this point. “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools,” we read in Proverbs 26:3.
By comparing the results of different courses of action, the book of Proverbs provides a helpful guide to prosperous and successful living. However, it is much more than a kind of ancient business manual. Proverbs is an integral part of the Bible’s discussion of the problem of human folly and its ultimate solution.
Proverbs is rooted in the context of God’s covenant with David and his descendants (2 Sa 7:12-16). The sayings in the book were compiled by David’s son Solomon (Pr 1:1) to guide his children in the way of wisdom (Pr 1:8-9). A king who ruled wisely promoted Israel’s mission to be a light to the nations (1 Ki 4:29-34; 10:1-9), and so the royal court of Judah preserved Solomon’s wise sayings (Pr 25:1).
Sadly, even Solomon was prone to folly (1 Ki 11), and Israel and its kings were subject to the rod of punishment to which the proverbs often refer. Such developments were anticipated in the Davidic covenant. Of a royal son God had said, “When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men” (2 Sa 7:14). Israel’s punishment included the division of the kingdom into northern and southern branches, with eventual military defeat and foreign exile for both branches.
If even Solomon could lapse into folly, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The book of Proverbs suggests that we need to internalize the way of wisdom, to have it “written on the tablet of our hearts” (Pr 3:3; 7:3). It also promises assistance for this task. Those who are guided by God’s instruction can receive the spirit of wisdom (Pr 1:23). The biblical prophets build on this theme, picturing a transformation of the human heart that accompanies a renewed covenant with God (Jer 31:31-34; Eze 36:26-27).
Near the end of Proverbs, Agur the sage reflects on the limitations of human knowledge and points to God the Creator as the source of all wisdom (Pr 30:1-4). “Who has ascended to heaven and come down?” he asks. “What is his name, and what is his son's name?” Agur’s questions suggest that there is a son of God who has the wisdom that we lack.
The prophets add more details to the hints in Proverbs.
Isaiah predicts the coming of a Davidic king who will possess “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Isa 11:2). This king will rule in righteousness (11:4; 32:1) and will deal with human folly (32:5). Proverbs 29:14 states that the throne of such a king “will be established forever,” as promised in the Davidic covenant (2 Sa 7:16).
The Gospels present Jesus of Nazareth as both this son of David (Mt 1:1) and son of God (Mt 3:17), as well as an authoritative teacher of wisdom. Jesus taught principles from the book of Proverbs. An excellent example of this is Luke 14:7-11 where he presents Proverbs 25:6-7 in parable form. As in Proverbs, he contrasted wise and foolish behavior (Mt 25:1-13). Moreover, he characterized the wise as those who heeded his instruction (Mt 7:24-27), equating his teaching with divine wisdom.
Some Gospel passages even suggest that Jesus is the embodiment of wisdom. He was involved in the creation of the universe and brings light to the world (Jn 1:1-14), much like wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-35. Those who take on his easy yoke will find rest (Mt 11:28-30), like those who take on the yoke of wisdom in Sirach 51:23-27.(1)
The stubborn nature of human folly is evident in the fact that many refused to recognize the wisdom of Jesus. He was beaten and mocked, like the fool in the book of Proverbs, on the way to a cruel and humiliating death (Mt 27:26-31). This all occurred according to God’s wise plan. Jesus endured the beating and humiliation for our sake, becoming a fool in our place and taking the punishment due to foolish humanity for its rebellion against God.(2)
The season of Passover (Crucifixion and Resurrection) and Pentecost (Spirit outpouring) is upon us.
Knowing we are reconciled to God through Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, may we see with new eyes and walk with renewed vigor in the way of wisdom. And through the Spirit of wisdom, may we ever behold in the Gospel “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Co 1:24).
(1) The Wisdom of Ben Sirach was written by Jesus ben Sirach, a Jewish sage of the second century B.C.
(2) See David H. Wenkel, Jesus' Crucifixion Beatings and the Book of Proverbs, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
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