Jay Adams has noted that people are created to need counsel. The only issue is whose we will listen to. Since our federal head, Adam, listened to Satan’s counsel in the Garden instead of God’s, and sinned by believing and obeying it, we have inherited not only a cursed world but a fallen disposition that repudiates the will, Word, and ways of God. But the regenerate soul has an irresistible attraction to these things, because the believer has been given the life of God. These things, along with an enduring attachment to the people of God, are a divinely-appointed means to the growth and perseverance of the believer in the faith. Because we have the remnants of our flesh, we will always find it difficult to listen to God’s wisdom revealed in the Word, but it is the only way to stay on the pathway to Heaven and experience the fullness of His blessing in this life. In a new year, it is always good to begin by being reminded of our need to exercise responsibility and persevere in our loyalty to and pursuit of the wisdom and understanding God provides in the Scripture. This week’s message was a sobering and encouraging challenge to do just that.
A. The Two Women (vv. 1-6, 13-18)
Hebrew poetry is based on rhythm and parallelism, and the symmetry and balance of this chapter is likely an aid to memorization and understanding as much as it is a display of rhetorical art. Old Testament poetic passages thrive on parallelism and contrasts, and Proverbs 9 is no exception. The beginning and end of the chapter contrast with two feminine images: Lady Wisdom, in verses 1-6, and Dame Folly, in verses 13-18. Both have homes, and both extend invitations into them to the naïve and passers-by. Lady Wisdom appeals to her listeners from a place of authority, and offers both nourishment and order within the walls of her home. She implores them to come to her, that they might eat of her food and be sustained on the journey of verse 6 (implying her home and table are not permanent residences, but an opportunity to be refreshed for the more important journey of persevering in the way of understanding). Dame Folly, too, calls to her listeners, including those “who are making their paths straight” (v. 15). “Straightness” in Proverbs implies a morally-structured life, a life that assumes the revealed Word of God is the plumbline and that one’s beliefs and practices are in conformity to, not deviating from, that standard. Here, Folly attempts to veer the growing Old Testament saint off the pathway of covenant fidelity and fruitfulness into the destruction that comes from leaning to their own understanding (Prov. 3:5) and going their own way (Isaiah 53:6). She entices them through immorality (v. 17), and her guests are those who die because of their embracing of her counsel (v. 18). Like wisdom, folly makes herself universally available, calling to all who are in hearing range. Also, she sits near where wisdom does (vv. 3, 14, the high places), but without the divinely-given authority to sit equally with words. Folly is often in the same place wisdom is, and speaks with equal earnestness and force. But for those who heed wisdom’s call and build their lives around the revealed ways to live and believe in God’s world, John Kitchen’s words on verses 1-2 are worth quoting in full “[They] picture the rich nourishment of soul and life that wisdom offers freely to all who will seek her and live by her. It is a royal treat to live a life of wisdom. The supply of practical, daily help will never run dry. A life of wisdom leads to a life rich in God’s blessing.” Might we all embrace the divine mercy of authoritative wisdom, and know His fruitfulness and overflowing blessing thereby!
B. The Two Tests (vv. 7-8, 11-12)
Two couplets, structured in first in synonymous (repetition of the same thought) and then antithetical (Line A contrasts sharply with Line B) parallelism, bracket off verses 7-12 from the two female portraits at the beginning and end of the chapter. Verses 7-8 comprise a kind of pretest: How do you respond to correction? This indicates the set of your heart. Verses 11-12 comprise a posttest, that of self-interest. Legitimate self-interest is indeed a factor in our continuance in the way of God’s wisdom, and whether we want the benefits wisdom gives—and are willing to achieve them in wisdom’s way—is a further litmus test of the heart. The first test is self-explanatory. The way of wisdom frequently involves correction (as Kitchen notes), because we possess many remnants of our fleshliness—untold vast storehouses of unbelief and carnality. Wisdom has just concluded with a call to forsake folly and live (v. 6). Those who follow her must prepare to accept correction, and must also be willing to accept the slanderous and hurtful wrath of those they attempt to lovingly correct. The test of the set of one’s heart—whether or not it is fully tied to its own authority and pride, or if it is surrendering those things to more fully live under the lordship of God—is revealed in whether we respond like the scoffer or the wise man. For those who have accepted wisdom’s way and are committed to persevering therein all the way to heaven (there is no other pathway, for God saves us onto a narrow way), there are rich benefits, but they only come to the wise. Do we want them enough to make the sacrifices of self, carnality, and folly that Lady Wisdom asks? Here, she offers length of days; elsewhere, she has detailed what we will enjoy in that long life if we lay hold of her (3:13-18, 22-26, 33; 4:6-9, 18, 22; 8:10-21). It is in our best interest to live according to God’s wisdom. Verse 12 closes with a weighty note of personal responsibility, one Paul seems to echo in Galatians 6:4. No one can make the choice for us, and no one can be blamed for us making the wrong one. Whether we listen to wisdom or folly is, ultimately, our responsibility. And we will have to account for it before God in the final day.
C. Issues of the Heart (vv. 9-10)
If verses 1-6 describe the high and holy call of Lady Wisdom, verses 13-18 the enticement of Dame Folly, verses 7-8 the pretest and verses 11-12 the posttest, then the heart of this chapter is the ultimate test of the reader’s heart. Verses 9-10 describe the character (v. 9) and the life-theme (v. 10) of the truly wise believer. Verse 9 argues that the truly wise person, because of the set of their heart, cannot help but increase in wisdom and understanding. Their heart has become attuned to these things; they have trained themselves by God’s grace to submit, not run from correction and instruction. So they embrace them. They adopt the dictates of wisdom. They shape their lives around them and live out what God has taught them. It is interesting to note that it is the “righteous man” who increases learning. The idea here is not merely acquisition of knowledge—for blatant unbelievers can do this—but it is the learning of the things of God, and of God’s world with His Lordship as the starting point. In short, it is the kind of knowledge that comports with and increases practical righteousness. That righteousness and wisdom are parallel should not be missed, either. Wisdom and righteousness go together. One is not as righteous as he could be if he is a fool, and wisdom heeded is not some sterile or mathematical thing but results in a vital, flesh-and-blood, practical, lived-out righteousness—a life in conformity with the revealed holy standard of God. The truly wise man takes what he learns from God about the Word and the world and uses it is such a way that his life is more like God would have him be. He grows in (in this dispensation) “the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
Verse 10 argues that the starting point, square 1, of the wisdom journey is the fear of Yahweh. Yahweh, of course, is the one true God, the Creator, the One who has revealed Himself in the inerrant Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-Man. An attitude of humble deference to this God, of knowing who He is and who I am in light of that, of setting my heart to seek out and trust His counsel and Word, of conversely being skeptical of my own thinking and perceptions, of knowing I am in desperate need of all the grace God can ever give and have no hope if my own to understand or please Him, of being willing to exchange what I believe for what God knows to be true—that is the fear of Yahweh. It is a humble, reverential, familial deference to the authority of the Person and word of God. It is yielding to His already-exalted place, and acknowledging my broken, sinful, and needy place before His awesome majesty and purity. Practically, then, it means starting with this fear in my understanding of the Word, the world, and myself, as well as others. It means I do not rely on my own thinking but defer instead to the Word of God, for my thinking cannot be trusted. This attitude will start one off on the wise path. This attitude paves the way—but if this is not had, no progress can be had.
Knowledge of God is parallel to the fear of Him, and “knowledge” carries the combined idea of both knowledge of facts and propositions, and experiential knowledge of a Person. Both must be had and continued in for fear of the Lord to be truly known. “Understanding” is a frequent word in Proverbs, and carries the idea of a penetrating insight into the true nature of things, with the added ability to discern between right and wrong, good and bad. True knowledge and fear of God leads to a wise, persistent, divinely-given insight into the character of everything we see, and helps us determine what God thinks is good or bad (and thus what is worthy of pursuit or avoidance).
Here is the call, the test, and the path God offers to each person. May 2016 be the year of multiplied growth in these things, that God might be more fully imaged, enjoyed, and glorified!
(Nota Bene: I am thoroughly indebted to John Kitchen’s Mentor commentary on Proverbs and Dan Phillips’ book God’s Wisdom in Proverbs for many of the insights I have shared. I cannot recommend these volumes enough for those who wish to better understand God’s wisdom and how to attain it.)