How Proverbs Produce Wisdom

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight. Proverbs 1:1-2

The goal of Proverbs is to teach wisdom for life. The context to learn this wisdom is in a relationship with God (“fear of the Lord,” 1:7). Someone who doesn’t walk with God can still receive benefit from studying the book, but the full nutritive value will be missing. Walking with God and growing in wisdom involves trusting him with all our heart and submitting our will to his. “Lean not on your own understanding” (3:5) means that if our perspective on an issue conflicts with God’s, we forego our own.

Proverbs does not give instruction on every type of wise behavior for every conceivable situation. Rather, it emphasizes the importance of learning important principles that apply in a wide variety of situations. Although there are many specific examples of how to act and respond wisely, the greater aim is to teach the principles of wisdom so the student has a base from which to draw insight for new situations.

Individual proverbs refer to a wide range of situations, providing us with solid examples about how to behave. But, their real value is in their “performative force,” that is, their challenge for us to assess and understand the dynamics of a particular situation. This understanding becomes the mix of wisdom and insight that forms our world outlook, ethics and ability to discern the dynamics of new situations so we can respond appropriately there. (David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, 1:223).

All of us teach our children to not go into the road. Standing outside our house, we will point at the street and say, “No!” with great firmness. If our youngsters challenge us by running into or near the street, we deliver a sharp smack to the behind. Hopefully our command, “Do not go in the road,” followed by punishment if they do, will function as proverbial wisdom to our children to steer clear of the street.

Then we take our children to grandma’s house. As we are unloading items to take inside there are a few unsupervised moments when our children can follow us into the house, or they can explore the environment away from the watchful eyes of mom and dad. There is a street in front of grandma’s house. What will the children do? Did the spanking they received at home for refusing to listen and obey in regard to the road give them any insight and knowledge beyond our front yard? Will they apply the lessons learned at home to the street in front of grandma’s? If so, our words are functioning with performative force. The lessons learned are carried beyond the initial experience and are being applied in wider situations.

We can’t expect our command to not go in the road will last forever. Eventually, our children will have to cross a street. So, we teach them to “Stop, look and listen.” If some fear of the pavement and speeding cars still resides within them, they will be careful. The initial lessons learned years ago of avoiding danger by not going in the road will still guide and guard their actions, keeping them safe.

The ultimate lesson we hope our children will learn is that they stop, look, and listen not only at a highway, but in the presence of any potentially dangerous situation in life. A boy at school that is too debonair, a powdery substance that promises escape, a financial investment that cannot lose – these are all potentially dangerous highways. The speeding cars on this road are people, substances and empty promises that can crush us.

The lesson learned early on about “Don’t go in the street!” and was later expanded to “Stop, look, and listen,” applies to more than just the street in front of our house. It applies to all the roads of life. That is the nature of a proverb. Each proverb contains a gem of wisdom that can be applied to a specific situation and context. But their real value and performative force lies in their power to ingrain themselves into our psyche and influence our thinking and ethical choices on all the highways we encounter.