The book of Proverbs begins with a letter from a wise father to his son (ch.1-9), and this letter is followed by tons of practical instruction (ch.10-31). It takes some courage to read it, because it exposes all the ways we need wisdom, guidance, and dare we say it—discipline.
You may be thinking—Why do I need discipline? Because you and I are fools. Ouch! That’s not a joke, and it might sting a little. But God’s Word tells us that every one of us lacks true wisdom. In fact, Proverbs opens by calling those who think they are wise to also listen and increase in their learning (Proverbs 1:5).
Discipline, or correction, is not a bad thing. Rather, it’s proof of God’s love (Proverbs 3:11-12). If God didn’t discipline us, we would be killed by our own foolishness, by wandering into thought patterns and actions we think are right, but which actually lead to death (Proverbs 1:23; 16:25). Our own foolishness would destroy us if we were left to ourselves. God wants to instruct us because he cares for us. Without God’s loving discipline, we are on the road to death.
Through Proverbs, God intends to train his people to be wise.
Through Proverbs, God intends to train his people to be wise. Wisdom is the skill or craft of living well in God’s world. Living well means living a life that reflects God’s character. Wisdom is the right perspective on the world that only God can give.
Like sons and daughters being trained by their parents to live responsibly, God addresses his children, so that they
Know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity . . . Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. (Proverbs 1:2-6 ESV)
Through Proverbs, God instructs us to receive his counsel like a child receives the instruction of a loving father: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Fearing the Lord means relying on God as the source of wisdom, acknowledging him as our authority, and delighting in his instruction. To fear the Lord is to respect him as a child respects and loves his father.
While we read Proverbs, it’s important to remember that the proverbs in the book aren’t promises—they’re principles. They are guidelines to life—not guarantees. For instance, “A man of crooked heart does not discover good, and one with a dishonest tongue falls into calamity” (Proverbs 17:20), seems to indicate that evil men will not prosper in this world. But there are plenty of examples in Scripture where we do see the wicked prospering (Psalm 73, for example).
Similarly, we find confusing statements: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5). So, do we answer the fool or not? It depends. We can only know based on the situation—but that requires wisdom.
Verses like these help us to see that wisdom includes discernment and the ability to know when to apply sound judgment. Wisdom isn’t knowledge, in other words. It’s the ability to live rightly based on what we have learned from and about God. These somewhat befuddling proverbs help us understand the message of the book of Proverbs: We do not have the ability to apply the wisdom God gives without God’s help. God gives us counsel but also reminds us that in order to apply his counsel, we need to increasingly know, love, listen to, and seek him, the Counselor.
In Matthew 18, Jesus says that if we will follow him, we must become like children (Matthew 18:2-4). Those who trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins have been brought into fellowship with God and have become his children. As God’s children, we fear the Lord and trust in him for wisdom and insight. Proverbs is an invitation to all God’s children: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction” (Proverbs 1:8).