Proverbs, Figures of Speech, Words of Wisdom, and Riddles
Text: Proverbs 1:2-7
Not many books in the Bible clearly state their purpose, though each have a reason for being written. The book starts out with a list:
To know wisdom and instruction,
To discern the sayings of understanding,
To receive instruction in
To give prudence
to the naive,
to the youth knowledge and discretion,
a wise man will hear and increase in learning,
And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel,
a proverb and
the words of the wise and
The terms knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are used repeatedly throughout the book of Proverbs. Knowledge are your basic facts and truths about the world. Small children start with facts: Two apples plus two more apples gives you four apples. Facts, then are the foundation for everything else. Understanding is your ability to take separate facts and join them together to understand more truths. It is your ability to reason or think logically about the world around you. Generally understanding comes into play strongest during the teenage years. Thus, I have four apples and apples are used in making pies; therefore, I could forgo eating my apples and bake an apple pie instead. Wisdom is being able to look at a situation and know what facts and reasoning apply to solve a problem. A wise person realizes that he has four apples that could be made into a pie, allowing him to share slices with seven of his friends and giving them a reason to put aside their differences while they enjoy something in common.
“Instruction” is translating the Hebrew word musar. This word combines the ideas of discipline, warning, correction, and instruction. In other words, learning takes effort and it may involve hardship. To learn, a person must realize that he is missing something he need, which usually involves being told he is wrong and what he must do to be right. Therefore, instruction is both the positive and negative aspects of learning.
Therefore, the primary purpose of the book of Proverbs is to teach the reader both wisdom and how to learn. It will involve discovering how little you really do know and that at times you were wrong. Instead of waiting until you are old, Solomon will be showing you how to properly apply what you have learned to many different situations.
“Discernment” is the ability to see things accurately. It requires a person to pay careful attention to his environment and to consider the implications of what he observes. Thus, Solomon is also going to teach you how to pay careful attention so you don’t miss important fact and be able to see the logic behind what you observe.
In learning, the reader will be told what kinds of behavior is wise. He will also learn righteousness; that is, what actions are correct and good in the sight of God. He will also learn about justice – making correct decisions. “Equity” involves a level playing field. It is treating all people in an equal manner. But it goes beyond this to also encompass the idea of making decisions that make life easier or smoother for all people involved.
Solomon then says he will give four things to four types of people.
A naive or simple person is someone who lacks experience. Such a person can be easily seduced into going the wrong way, so to him Solomon is going to give prudence. “Prudence” is the ability to see ahead. It is seeing beyond what is immediately happening and understanding where events will lead to in the future.
To the young man, Solomon offers to give knowledge and discretion. “Discretion” is the ability to make good decisions. When offered multiple choices, the person with discretion knows which choices are right in God’s sight. Young people haven’t had the time to learn all the important facts or to always know which choices are good and which are bad.
But what Solomon is offering is just for people who are ignorant in the ways of the world. Wise people will be able to read Proverbs and become even wiser. And a person who thinks logically and clearly will gain good advice for future decisions.
How We Will be Taught
Solomon states he is going to use four styles of writing to instruct his reader.
A proverb is a short teaching that contains far more than it might appear on the surface. For example, there is an English proverb: “A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush.” This isn’t a statement about the value of birds. What it is saying is that what you currently possess is more valuable to you than a greater amount that you don’t possess. Too many people will let go of what they have in hopes of getting something greater only to learn they’ve lost everything.
A figure refers to a type of speech that taunts the hearer in the sense that it has a hidden secondary meaning that takes some thought to interpret. Puns are one form of this type of speech. “I couldn’t remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me.” Generally this form of speech uses symbols to represent something else. An example would be “Drink water from your own cistern and fresh water from your own well” (Proverbs 5:15). At first glance this is just good practical advice, but read in context it has a far deeper meaning that what it is apparently saying. You have to wait until we get to chapter 5 to find out the explanation.
Words of the wise are the most straight forward teachings. Here we learn how to apply the knowledge and reasoning that Solomon is imparting to us. This is in contrast to the riddles of the wise. “Riddles” is also translated as enigmas. My favorite translation of this word is “dark sayings.” These are statements that at first doesn’t make any sense; yet, you know they are supposed to be understandable. In the process of puzzling over the meaning you actually learn how to reason and think better, so while the statement teaches you something, the very act of trying to understand the statement teaches you something greater. An example of this is: “A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).
Where Do We Start?
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7).
In order to gain knowledge, you must first start with fear. Now there is a puzzle. What does being afraid have to do with learning facts? If a person thinks he knows everything, then there is no motivation to learn because he is confident that he knows all that he needs to know. Usually it is not until a person realizes he is in danger and that he doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to get out of that danger does a person swallow his pride and is receptive to learning. Schools provide this type of motivation with tests. “If I don’t pass this test, I’m going to flunk the course, then mom and dad will kill me!” Suddenly a fire is lit for learning. Colleges do something similar, knowing that there is a final exam which will determine my grade and knowing that if I don’t pass the I wasted the money I spent on this course, the fear of not passing makes me inclined to learn.
Solomon’s point is that until people realize that there is a final judgment by God and that each person is fully accountable to God for his own actions, there is no motivation to learn. “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man's all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Love eventually supercedes that fear. “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (I John 4:17-18). Yet, it remains that the initial start to learning is fear.
In contrast, we are introduced to a character trait that will be discussed at length in Proverbs. A fool is someone who refuses to learn. They hold wisdom and being corrected in contempt. Implied in the contrast is that a fool has no fear of God.
- How would being able to see the consequences of your actions (prudence) benefit your life?
- What advantages would you gain if you knew which choice was the right one to make?
- Why must there be negative aspects to instruction (rebukes, warnings, corrections, and hard work)? Can’t you learn without these?
- Why do you suppose some people don’t want to learn?
- Why doesn’t Solomon just come out and tell us what we need to know? Why does he bury the information in puzzling words?