Proverbs 3:1-12 form a section marked off by the reference to the father-son relationship at the beginning and end (vv. 1, 12). Within this section, Solomon gives a series of six commands to his son (vv. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11), the first and the last (vv. 1, 11) being introduced by the phrase “my son.” Each of the commands is followed either by some supporting promise or by an expansion of the original command. The following chart (taken, with modifications, from Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, 239) summarizes the overall twelve-point structure, a set of commands and promises for Yahweh’s son Israel:
The next section (vv. 13-26) is a poem in praise of wisdom. It begins with a celebration of the blessings of the man who finds wisdom, here pictured as a woman (vv. 13-18), and verses 19-20 indicate that Yahweh Himself created and formed the world by wisdom. This celebration of wisdom motivates the exhortation in vv. 21-22, the father’s admonition to his son to cling to “wisdom and understanding.” The section ends with a description of the blessings that come to the man who clings to wisdom, emphasizing the security of the wise man.
This communication comes from the father to a son. This is particularly noteworthy here, since the passage begins with a reference to the human father-son relationship of Solomon and his son, and ends with the relationship between the divine Father, Yahweh, and his royal son, the prince, the embodiment of Israel (v. 12). The connection of father-son and Father-son that frames this section emphasizes that the Lord communicates His wisdom and word through authority figures like human fathers. The father can urge his son to cling to his “torah” (“teaching, instruction,” v. 1a) and “commandments” (v. 1b) because he is the agent for communicating Yahweh’s torah and commandments.
The first exhortation (vv. 1-2) is an exhortation to remembrance: “do not forget.” Throughout Scripture, memory is never merely an intellectual issue, but always an ethical issue, a matter of faithfulness to Yahweh. Over and over, Moses exhorts Israel in Deuteronomy to “remember” what Yahweh did for them in Egypt, and this “remembrance” motivates their actions in the present. Knowing that Yahweh has bared His arm for them in Egypt, they have no reason to fear entering the land to fight against the Canaanites. If recollection is a duty, forgetting is a sin. As Doug Wilson emphasizes, forgetting is not an excuse for failing to do what we should; it’s an additional sin. Not obeying the father’s commandments is a sin, and leads off the path of wisdom. But not obeying is often preceded by an original sin, the sin of forgetting.
Notice that the subject that is supposed to “not forget” and “guard” is the “heart.” As always, Solomon emphasizes that true wisdom and true obedience is not a matter of external obedience but of the heart. We might say that the commandments and teaching of the father demand not only a certain kind of behavior, but a certain kind of person. This doesn’t mean that the specific commandments are irrelevant, but they are specific and concrete ways of expressing a certain kind of character. Solomon wants his son to live in certain specific ways, but wants those specific ways of living to manifest who he is.
Solomon supports this exhortation to remember his teaching and guard his commandments with a promise of long life and peace. Solomon should know, of course. Because he sought wisdom above all things, he was promised long life and peace. Why is long life a blessing? On the surface, long life is a blessing because death is an enemy. But long life is also a blessing and promise because it enables us to finish our projects, or to see them brought to fuller completion. I am in the middle of raising a family; were I to die youngish (since it’s now impossible for me to die “young”), I would not be around to bring that task to completion. Or: Christian parents should be aiming not only to complete the task of raising their children, but should be pursuing the task of seeing faithful grandchildren. Long life enables them not only to see their grandchildren grow into faithful adulthood, but also gives them the opportunity to assist in that process. The same goes for other projects: churches, businesses, orphanages, publishing houses, choirs, etc. etc.
In verses 3-4, Solomon warns his son not to let “kindness and truth leave you.” Kindness and truth do not merely describe particular external actions, but are to be written “on the tablet of your heart” (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:3). Kindness and truth are to characterize the person, and to be expressed in actions. According to Waltke, “kindness” (Heb., hesed) “essentially means ‘help to the needy’ and has no precise English equivalent. It refers to a situation where a needy partner depends on another for deliverance, and the deliverer does so freely out of all his finer spiritual and sensitive instincts (i.e., kindness, mercy, love, and loyalty).” Kindness in this sense characterizes all Yahweh’s dealings with Israel (Psalm 17:7; 25:7-10; 31:7; 57:3; 86:5; 103:4, 8, 11, 17; 136), since He feels compassion for Israel and comes to their aid, rescuing them from sin, from enemies, from every peril. “Kindness” is linked with “truth” or “faithfulness” 21 times in the OT, and adds the notion of “reliability” (Waltke, 100).
Thus, “kindness and truth” describes someone who exercises “hesed without fail,” who is unfailingly, reliably ready to help in every need. Solomon is thus urging his son to be the kind of person who helps those who need help, the kind of king who can be relied upon to help in every crisis. While kindness and truth are specifically royal virtues in this context, they apply in every sphere. We should be kind and true in families, in work, in school, in friendships, and in every other context of life. Our children, for instance, should know that we are compassionate toward their needs, ready to help them (instead of squashing them), and that we will be there when they need us.
The results of reliable kindness is “favor and good repute in the sight of God and man” (v. 4). Proverbs 22:1 refers to the blessing of a good reputation, and emphasize that this good reputation is a reward to those who keep the commandments of Yahweh and their fathers (cf. Eccles. 7:1). Maintaining good favor with men is certainly not the highest good. We may have to suffer loss of reputation before men in order to maintain a good reputation with God, favor in His sight. But other things being equal, favor before men is seen as a good. Conversely, Solomon assumes that his son will be motivated by a desire to avoid losing favor with men.
The next two exhortations (vv. 5, 7) seem to go together as contrasting commands. Trusting in Yahweh implies that we are not to trust in our own wisdom, and not pretend to be wise in our own eyes (as v. 5b makes clear). Our own understanding is extremely limited, and often wrong. What does trusting Yahweh and not being wise in our own eyes mean in practice? In context, part of what Solomon means is that we should humble ourselves before the various guides and teachers that Yahweh places over us. Trusting Yahweh means trusting that He will guide us through our parents; trusting Yahweh means not forgetting our father’s teaching and it means guarding our father’s commandments. Trusting Yahweh does not mean distrusting everyone else, since Yahweh communicates His wisdom and teaching and commandments to us through the authority figures that He places over us. (Of course, this is never an absolute authority, and we may sometimes be called to obey God rather than men, no matter how respectable those men may be. But those are exceptional circumstances.)
Verse 5 fills out what it means to trust in Yahweh with all our heart (note again the emphasis on the heart). Trusting God means that we are to “know Him” in all our ways. As Waltke points out, knowing God is linked with having His word in our heart (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Knowing God in all our ways thus means that we “obey the specific teachings that pertain to all sorts of human behavior in full reliance on God to keep his promises coupled with them” (Waltke, 244). If we “know God” in this sense, then our paths will be straight. Disobedience causes confusion, disorientation, loss of direction. Those who don’t know God in their ways find themselves going round and round in circles, confused. But those who know God in all ways have a sense of direction; their “ways” in life are not full of potholes or traps. The promise attached to verse 7 is a promise of health, energy, liveliness, strength. There are bodily consequences to disobedience.
Verses 9-10 grow out of the exhortations of the previous section. Honoring God with wealth means giving Him His due, the firstfruits of our produce and the tithe of all our increase (Leviticus 27:30-31; Numbers 18; Deuteronomy 14:24-28; Malachi 3:10). By giving Yahweh a portion of our substance, we are acknowledging His weightiness (the word for “honor” means “weight” or “glory”). Honor must take these kinds of concrete forms; honor without honor-giving action is dishonor. But we will be willing to give Yahweh a tenth of our increase only if we trust Him and refuse to lean on our understanding. By all normal mathematical and economic calculations, a man who gives 10% of his income to God is 10% poorer. Yahweh says that the man who honors Him with His wealth is, on the contrary, far wealthier as a result: “So your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine” (v. 10). We will honor God only if we “know Him” in our ways with our wealth; true knowledge and trust in Yahweh is expressed when we honor Him with our wealth.
Verses 11-12 close out this section, moving from the human father’s instruction/teaching to the divine Father’s discipline. The closing verses are essential for understanding the prior section rightly. Without verses 11-12, it might seem that if we are hearts keep our father’s commandments we will have nothing but peace, favor, straight paths, health, and plenty. It would seem that any hardship would be a sign of unfaithfulness. But Solomon knows that this is not the case. Hardships and troubles come to all, and Solomon wants to prepare his son for them. To react to trouble rightly, it is essential to see that it is from the powerful and good hand of God, that it is discipline from Father Yahweh. Waltke cites C. S. Lewis’s comparison of God to a painter, working hard to perfect a beloved painting. When we resist the Lord’s discipline, we are essentially telling him that we are satisfied with our current level of perfection. We are asking for less love, not more. The more God loves us and delights in us, the more He works us to perfect us. Accepting Yahweh’s discipline reflects a desire to be made into a masterpiece.
Verses 13-18 follow with a description of the benefits of wisdom to the man (Heb. adam) who finds it. The biblical-theological context is Eden. The man who finds wisdom is a renewed Adam, who has been restored to access to the “tree of life” (v. 18), which is wisdom itself. He is a renewed Adam, who clings to his new Eve, Lady Wisdom, so that they are one flesh.
Throughout verses 13-18, Solomon compares wisdom to jewels and other precious materials. The assumption of the comparison is that such wealth is desirable and good in itself. This is an assumption that we find throughout the Proverbs. Wealth is dangerous precisely because it is good, and has the power to bring us other goods. A rich man’s wealth is his protection, Solomon says, and he means it: A rich man can respond to catastrophe in ways that a poor man cannot (hiring the best attorneys, physicians, architects, etc). If wealth were not a good in itself, then a comparison of wealth to wisdom would be nonsensical. Solomon’s point is not that wealth is bad or useless, but that wisdom is better. Clinging to Lady Wisdom brings benefits that silver and gold and jewels cannot: long life, honor, peace, life, happiness. The man who finds wisdom is “blessed.” This word should also be understood in its Genesis 1 context, when God blessed His creatures with the capacity to live and flourish. A blessed man, Waltke says, is one who is living optimally, as God intended Adam to live; a blessed man is fruitful, satisfied, glad, productive, a man who is subduing and ruling the earth, a man who lives with energy and daring, a man who takes a large bite out of every day the Lord gives him.
Wisdom is not only a gift of God to man, but a characteristic of God’s own life and activity. The Adam who finds wisdom and lives productively and creatively draws on the same resource of wisdom that guided Yahweh in His founding of the earth. Yahweh established the earth, split the deep, and spread out the heavens through wisdom; through wisdom He formed a wondrous cosmic house. And through wisdom the blessed man does the same: forming the creation into a place fit for human habitation, forming the earth into an ordered world.
For these reasons, Solomon urges his son to keep/guard wisdom and to make sure that they stick around (v. 21-22). If a man finds and keeps wisdom, then the Lord will keep him. His foot will be safe; his neck will be adorned. He will have no fear, because Yahweh will guard him. Guard wisdom that comes from Yahweh, and Yahweh will guard you.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.