Character Studies in the Book of Proverbs
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
The Old Testament commences with seventeen books of history – Genesis to Esther, and closes with seventeen books of prophecy – Isaiah to Malachi. In between are five books – Job to Song of Solomon – which, although they contain both history and prophecy, could perhaps best be described as books of experience.
The central book of these five is the book of Proverbs. The central verse of the book is chapter 16 verse 17, which really sums up its teaching and its value as a practical guide for the people of God in all ages. ‘The highway of the upright is to depart from evil: he that keepeth his way preserveth his soul’. We are reminded here that our journey through life requires constant watchfulness, self-control and discipline. Only then will we make any real spiritual progress. This is the underlying theme of the book of Proverbs.
It has been suggested that this book complements the book of Psalms as being the practical outworking of devotional principles taught and learned there. The word hidden in the heart, Ps. 119. 11, becomes the word spoken in season, Prov. 15. 23. The way learned in the sanctuary, Ps. 25. 4, enables the walk in safety, Prov. 3. 23.
Perhaps we need first to ask a few basic questions:
- What is a proverb?
- Who wrote the book?
- What are its lessons?
What then is a proverb? Jim Newheiser, in his book Opening up Proverbs, suggests that a proverb is easier to recognize than it is to define. In simple practical terms, it is a brief, but weighty saying that provides a statement by which one can judge one’s life or actions.
The Hebrew word for ‘proverb’ suggests a comparison, a contrast or a parable. We could say that a proverb is a condensed parable, while a parable is an expanded proverb.
So, who wrote the book? Although much has been written regarding the author, there is, of course, no doubt that all is divinely inspired. Chapter 1 verse 1, and chapter 10 verse 1, assure us that Solomon, the son of David, the man endued with God-given wisdom was responsible for speaking and writing many of the proverbs found in these thirty-one chapters. Chapter 25 verse 1 attributes the recording of some of Solomon’s proverbs to the men of Hezekiah’s day; no doubt these were some of the 3000 referred to in 1 Kings chapter 4 verse 32.
Chapter 30 presents the words of Agur the son of Jakeh, and, in chapter 31, King Lemuel records words ‘that his mother taught him’, and wise words they are indeed. We have no other reference to these individuals; some writers suggest that their names also may be pseudonyms for Solomon. Suffice it to say that whoever was used by the Spirit of God to place these writings on record, they have a clear voice to us today. Down-to-earth practical truth. Sound common sense, both challenging and inspiring. True wisdom from above that we ignore at our peril.
I recall reading on one occasion that maybe Solomon drew upon the experiences of his father, David, in portraying some of the characters we meet throughout the book, e.g.:
- Jonathan – the friend who sticketh closer than a brother, 18. 24;
- Joab – the violent man who entices his neighbour, 16. 29;
- Absalom – the evil man seeking only rebellion, 17. 11;
- Hushai – the friend at all times, 17. 17;
- Shimei – the ungodly man, who digs up evil, 16. 27;
- Barzillai – The hoary head, found in the way of righteousness, 16. 31.
If we then seek to discover the lessons from the book, the first seven verses of chapter 1 form an introduction, and provide a summary for what follows in the rest of the book. You would not need to read far into Proverbs to discover that the major theme of the book is wisdom. In verses 2 to 4, the stated aim is clearly seen: ‘To know wisdom . . . to receive instruction . . . to give knowledge and discretion’. In verses 5 and 6, the anticipated response is set out: ‘A wise man will hear’, he will understand the wise counsels, and attain unto them or make them his own.
There are a number of ways in which the wise man presents his instruction. Many of the verses contain a parallel thought or injunction. On occasion, the second clause serves to emphasize or add to the first, e.g., 4. 11; 9. 10, and many more. The conjunction ‘and’ identifies most of this type. In other proverbs the teaching is by way of contrast, and the conjunction is in most cases ‘but’; for example, see most of the verses in chapter 10.
How then can we achieve the high moral standards expected of us? How can we be preserved from taking the character of the fool, or the simple, or even manifesting the features of the wicked? Verse 7 has the answer! It is the key that unlocks the whole book, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’; this is a true appreciation of the character and greatness of the God of heaven, and of His intrinsic holiness and righteousness. The awesome majesty and purity of His being should always be our starting point in seeking to understand His word and His ways with men.
In chapter 9 verse 10 we are taken a step further. Here we learn that, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. Wisdom is not synonymous with intelligence, education, knowledge or I.Q. level, yet, on occasion, needs some or all of these. Wisdom is the right application of knowledge in every sphere of life, based upon a fear, a reverential awe, of the Lord, and on a knowledge of His word. We recall that ancient monarchs like Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar had their wise men, but it required a Joseph and a Daniel to apply the needed wisdom. We are not surprised, then, when our leaders and politicians make decisions and frame legislation that is patently foolish and unwise. They have no fear of God, and know nothing of His word!
It is possible to have a vast store of knowledge. To be acclaimed for academic achievement, and yet be unwise in our use of that knowledge. On the other hand, we may feel limited and inferior with regard to our intellect and understanding, yet show much wisdom in what we do and say as guided by the Spirit of God.
A conscious awareness and fear of God is alien to the modern unregenerate man. ‘God is not in all [any of] his thoughts’, Ps. 10. 4.
From chapter 1 verse 8 to the end of chapter 7, Solomon records instructions, precepts, and warnings, directed to one whom he calls ‘my son’. The expression is used fifteen times in this section, which furnishes ‘sons’ of all ages with an invaluable guide to life. It is of interest to note that although Solomon ‘had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines’, 1 Kgs. 11. 3, and though he reigned for forty years, we only read of one son born to him. Mention is made in passing of the daughters of Solomon, 1 Kgs. 4. 11, 15, but Rehoboam appears to be his only son. If that is so, then, sadly, the wise counsel of Solomon was utterly disregarded when Rehoboam stepped into his father’s shoes. We read that having consulted with the older men who were contemporary with his father, he forsook their advice before he turned to the younger men that had grown up with him and accepted their foolish counsel. The result was a divided kingdom and enduring strife.
Throughout the book we are introduced to a number of interesting and instructive characters. They are nameless, known only by their behaviour in a variety of circumstances. As such they are representative and are placed on record for our learning. The purpose of these few articles is to draw some practical lessons from a number of these characters as the Lord enables.
The wise man and the fool are both clearly seen. The righteous man is held up as an example, but the untruthful man also has lessons for us. The sluggard drags his feet across our pathway, and the talebearer goes about his pernicious work. It should not be necessary, we trust, to spend too much time in the company of the drunkard (!), or the man of quick temper, but we need to examine our own hearts as we read through Proverbs. A number of women are found in the book, mostly of dubious character. The final chapter closes, however, with a lovely picture of the virtuous woman, a shining example to all.