If we were to describe the historical background of the book of Proverbs, it would be “life.” Proverbs is universal and timeless. It affirms much of what pop-pyschology denies — that it matters how you live. There are objective, foreseeable, eternal consequences to living foolishly. Yes, it does matter.
Living wisely involves skill, and skill for living is learned. Proverbs distills biblical principles into memorable phrases (e.g., on sexual immorality — “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not get burned?” Prov. 6:27). Proverbs gives the prudent listener vivid expressions to truths, which are taught throughout the Bible.
The book is encouraging because it reminds us that skillful living can be taught. It can be taught to our children, and older folks as well. The proverbs of Scripture are inspired and always, always convey truth. The material is available; teaching will result when a willing student (young, old, rich, or poor) seeks it like silver and searches for it as for hidden treasure (Prov. 2:4).
Solomon uses several terms that describe the goal of Proverbs. Consider these words as they form the introduction to this wonderful book (Prov. 1:2-7).
The result of listening and learning these inspired proverbs (i.e., learning the truths that are imbedded in them, not merely the recitation of them) is “wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:2). Wisdom means skill. The word is used in the Old Testament of the making of priestly garments, the tabernacle, metal work, of the skill of mariners, and of administrators in government. But here it means the skills necessary for successful living in the sight of God in a sinful world.
Proverbs is intended to impart “instruction,” which means training or discipline. From the Hebrew term musar this term means a moral education through discipline with restraint (note: from the root yasar, which means to chastise with blows, but figuratively with words). These words of instruction, proverbs, should be repeated so that they become ingrained (cf. Deut. 6:6-7). Fools despise such (Prov. 15:5, 32; 3:11-12).
The book of Proverbs provides the ability to “understand words of insight” or to “discern the words of understanding” (Prov. 1:2). The book gives us a moral foundation from which we can make discriminating choices. Thereby we know that different choices have different moral consequences. These factors guide us in making right decisions. How ought we to think about relationships, money, work, attitudes, and child rearing? Every day brings decisions. Moral discernment is vital.
Proverbs is given to “receive instruction in wise dealing” (Prov. 1:3). It facilitates good moral decisions. Not everything needs to be learned through negative experiences. Not only do certain proverbs make us aware of many dangers, but they also provide us with the positive counterpart. Wise dealing leads to “righteousness, justice, and equity.” When we have a moral bearing, based on God’s word, the destination is integrity. “So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man” (Prov. 3:4).
The power of Proverbs is seen in the next verse (1:4). Shrewdness is given to the naive, prudence to the simple. The sincere, humble, willing-to-listen person will be the wisest of all. The big-headed, haughty-eyed, know-it-all does not realize what a fool he is. “A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Prov. 17:10). Proverbs molds a person with the right attitudes; it prepares the mind for spiritual instruction and the heart for spiritual sensitivity.
Knowledge and discretion (1:4) are given to the youth. Even the wise can become wiser (1:5-6). God’s word educates us to have mental discernment and moral skillfulness. Mental discernment is the ability to judge specific circumstances and discriminate between right and wrong. Moral skillfulness is the strength to do what is right — the tools, the motives, the courage, and the comfort of trusting in the Lord (Prov. 3:5-6).
The church needs wiser parents, wiser children, wiser elders, wiser preachers, etc. — individuals who continue to mine the great treasures of Scripture, beginning each morning with an intense desire to respect and reverence the Lord through their choices. This is the beginning of knowledge, the first step in the right direction (Prov. 1:7). Post them on your mirror; read them over and over; study them; and memorize select passages from the book of Proverbs.