Character Studies in the Book of Proverbs - Part 2: The Wise Man and His Companions
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
Wisdom is a fathomless ocean, an eternal fountain which has its source in God alone, 8. 22, 23. It was divine wisdom that brought creation into being, 3. 19. The same wisdom orders and maintains it, 8. 28, 29.
It is a clear evidence of the love and grace of God that He has made available to man the abundant fruits and blessings of His wisdom, 9. 1-6. Furthermore, an invitation is extended to those in need of guidance, 9. 4, and all is unstintingly given, cp. Jas. 1. 5.
The world has its own standards by which wisdom is assessed, but even at its best and most noble it is still ‘the wisdom of this world’, 1 Cor. 2. 6. When the Lord Jesus was here, the men of his own country placed the measuring line upon Him, the carpenter’s son, and asked in astonishment, ‘Whence hath this man this wisdom and these mighty works?’ Matt. 13. 54. The Jews in similar vein and with furrowed brow said, ‘How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?’ John 7. 15. The application of their own wisdom only left question marks hanging in the air. The reality was that before them stood the one ‘in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’, Col. 2. 3. The one who embodied and lived out those ‘seven pillars of wisdom’ which James speaks of as belonging to ‘the wisdom that is from above’, Jas. 3. 17; lovely features seen in all their perfection in the person of the Lord Jesus.
Wisdom is, of course, the prevailing subject in the book of Proverbs. Mention is made at least once in every chapter.
The wise man is seen as the epitome of all that is good, honest and upright. He is sometimes introduced to us alongside his complementary companion, the man of understanding, 1. 5, to add weight and clarity to the instruction given. Then from chapter 12, we are joined by the third character to make up this ‘three-fold cord’, the prudent man. Together they represent a formidable body of teaching, instruction, sound advice and common sense. We do well to linger for a while in their presence.
There are few greater privileges granted to a young believer than to be able to spend time in the company of godly older saints as they discuss the scriptures, just to be there and to listen to their conversation. To discover that wisdom, understanding and prudence do not come as a result of ‘much learning’ in ‘many books’, but are only achieved and developed in a lifetime of experience!
We notice that these three companions each have their own particular strength of personality.
If we consider first of all the man who is deemed to be wise, he is one who is intelligent, well taught, experienced, a man of good judgement and skilful in the application of his knowledge. We would expect to receive from him a whole range of instruction and teaching which would quickly fill up our notebooks! Yet, at our first introduction, 1. 5, he is sitting quietly alongside his friend, not speaking at all, but listening. He has learned that great wisdom is often expressed in silence. In Ecclesiastes chapter 3 verse 7, we read that there is ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’. It is the wise man who can recognize each appropriate time, 29. 11; take time to examine the occasions when the Lord Jesus was silent, they are very instructive.
As we become more familiar with the wise man we discover that he is as keen to receive instruction which will be of value to himself, rather than to be constantly instructing others; 8. 33; 9. 9; 10. 8; 12. 15; 21. 11; etc. He does not seek a place of prominence. In fact, he would rather take his place in the company than be always on the platform. In contrast to this we will later consider another character, very familiar to us. He doesn’t often listen, he has an opinion on everything and everybody and he is not reticent in making it known. He is considered a fool; 10. 8, 18; 12. 15; 14. 16; 29. 11.
When the voice of wisdom is eventually heard in public, 1. 20, we hear not the condescending tone of an intellectual superior, nor yet the formal presentation of a lecturer. What we hear is the passionate appeal as from the tender heart of a woman, pleading with the hearers to turn from their folly and heed the sound advice before it is too late, 1. 21-25. It is worth noting that, throughout the book, ‘wisdom’ is invariably in the feminine gender! Can we, however, fail to hear the gracious tones of the Lord Jesus as He spoke to those around Him, or the words of His servants to saint and sinner in succeeding generations? And, of course, ‘he that winneth souls is wise’, 11. 30.
As we trace the steps of the wise man we notice that he will never use his knowledge and understanding as a cloak of complacency. He is aware of the constant dangers along the pathway, 14. 16. He avoids those things that will dull his senses and affect his walk, 20. 1. In so doing he makes himself stronger, 24. 5, and able to launch an offensive against the strongholds of man’s wisdom, that intellectual superiority in which they trust, 21. 22.
Perhaps today if we were not so content with just a little knowledge, just a superficial grasp of the word of God, if maybe we followed more closely the example and instruction of the wise man, then our lives would show more of the character of the Saviour, our witness would be more effective and assemblies would be encouraged and built up!
The wise man is one to whom we can turn time and again to receive instruction. Equally helpful is his close friend, the man of understanding. The strength of this man is his ability to discern; to apply spiritual wisdom to any circumstance and distinguish the correct path. When King Solomon was given opportunity to make request from God, he asked for, ‘an understanding heart . . . that I may discern between good and bad’, 1 Kgs. 3. 9.
In the first five chapters of Proverbs, the character of this man is being formed. It is a process that involves diligence and application. It involves his will, 1. 5; his heart, 2. 2; his speech, 2. 6; his emotions, 3. 13 and his hearing, 4. 1. Chapter 4 gives clear instruction for the pathway that he must tread through life, and in chapter 5 his wisdom and understanding are put to the test with decisions to be made in a moral sphere. In chapter 6 he calls to mind those things he has been taught, 6. 20-31, and with sound discernment he makes a clear statement in verses 32 and 33 which assures us that the temptation to sin in chapter 5 was overcome.
Throughout the remaining chapters he is seen as a mature man, able to show discernment and good judgement in a number of circumstances. Refusing to enter into hasty judgement against another, 11. 12; exercising self-control, 14. 29; showing integrity, 15. 21. In chapter 20 verse 5, he is sitting alongside another, patiently extracting a confession from the heart. Little wonder that we see him exhibiting statesman-like qualities before the book closes, 28. 2.
Another individual closely associated with the wise man is the prudent man. His name gives the key to understanding his character. The word translated ‘prudent’ has the thought of skilfulness, even cunning or craftiness applied in a good sense, as the context dictates. This man is nobody’s fool. He is adept at grasping the important details of a situation and acts accordingly, 22. 3; 27. 12. He will avoid confrontation, even when suffering insults, 12. 16, RSV. He is a man who can be trusted not to betray a confidence, 12. 23. How much damage has been done by those who cannot ‘conceal knowledge’? When, however, the prudent man is made aware of things, he knows the best way to deal with them and will act in a responsible manner, 13. 16.
We see an example of this in chapter 14 verse 15. The prudent man is listening carefully as some information is imparted. Alongside him is another man. He sits with mouth wide open, taking everything in before rushing off and igniting that most efficient of media, ‘the assembly grapevine’. The prudent man meanwhile will wait. He will weigh up what he has heard, and only then, with due consideration, will he decide if it would be beneficial to act further. He ‘looketh well to his going’; he gives careful thought to his actions.
There are many further lessons which the interested reader can learn from these excellent men of wisdom. May we take them to heart and live them out day by day.