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Discourse 4. Addressed To ‘Sons’. Wisdom And Understanding Are To Be Sought And Cherished, For They Produce Spiritual Beauty, and Lead Those Who Respond Unto The Perfect Day (Proverbs 4:1-19 ).
In chapters 1-3 we discerned a threefold pattern on which the discourses were based. This pattern commenced with an exhortation to hear and ended with a contrast between the fates of the upright and the wicked, and contained three parts. We might look for the same here. However, from this point on we have more of a problem in determining the content of each discourse as the pattern is not so clear. Thus some here see Proverbs 4:1-9 as a separate discourse in itself. However one clue might be found in the opening words in Proverbs 4:1; Proverbs 4:10 where we have the opening injunction to ‘hear’ (with ‘attend to’ following as a parallel). This is in contrast with Proverbs 4:20 and Proverbs 5:1 where we have the opening words ‘attend to --’ (with ‘incline your ear’ following as a parallel). This suggests that the dividing line between discourses comes at Proverbs 4:19, something which might then be seen as confirmed by the fact that Proverbs 4:17-19 gives us a contrast between the fate of the wicked and the fate of the righteous, paralleling final contrasts in previous discourses (Proverbs 1:32-33; Proverbs 2:21-22 and Proverbs 3:33-35). If this be accepted then this present discourse may be seen as Proverbs 4:1-19. Again it may be seen as dividing into three subsections, namely:
1) A general appeal to ‘sons’ (Proverbs 4:1-2).
2) An autobiographical reminiscence of what his father taught him as ‘a son’ (Proverbs 4:3-9).
3) A call to ‘my son’ to follow the paths of uprightness with its advantages rather than the path of the wicked in its darkness (Proverbs 4:10-19).
This discourse, therefore, follows the pattern of the previous three discourses, commencing with an appeal to hear his words (Proverbs 4:1-2; compare Proverbs 1:8-9; Proverbs 2:1-11; Proverbs 3:1-10), followed by an autobiographical reminiscence of how his father taught him and appealed to him in the same way (Proverbs 4:3-9), followed by the call to follow the paths of uprightness rather than the path of the wicked.
A General Appeal To ‘Sons’ (Proverbs 4:1-2 ).
The change from ‘my son’ to ‘sons’, which occurs only here as an opening address, may well have taken place because of Solomon’s reference in Proverbs 4:3 to himself as ‘the son of his father’ and ‘the only son of his mother’. He may well have wanted to avoid any implication that he was in general addressing his own son. It does, of course bring out that elsewhere ‘my son’ is to be seen as a composite term addressing a number of people. But that ‘sons’ can be seen as an equivalent to ‘my son’ comes out in its use elsewhere (Proverbs 7:24; Proverbs 8:32). It has been suggested that ‘sons’ is intended to indicate a line of descent (he will soon be speaking of his own descent) so that his wisdom is not to stop with ‘my son’, but to pass through the generations.
‘Hear, sons, the disciplinary instruction of a father,
And attend to know understanding,
For I give you good doctrine (teaching),
Do not forsake my law (torah).’
He calls as a ‘father’ on those whom he addresses as ‘sons’. As king he had a paternal relationship towards his subjects, and as wisdom teacher a paternal relationship towards his students. He will then compare this with his own relationship to his father David (that he is speaking biologically here comes out in his reference to his mother).
He calls on them to ‘hear’ his disciplinary instruction, and ‘attend’ to know understanding. This discourse may therefore originally have been given orally before being collected together in the Book of Proverbs, although not necessarily so because a writer can call on his readers to ‘hear him’. Certainly there are indications elsewhere that the instruction was in ‘book’ form (e.g. Proverbs 3:21, ‘do not let them depart from your eyes’). If we take these lines chiastically his desire was for them to understand his good teaching and respond to the disciplinary instruction of their father by not forgetting his torah.
The idea behind ‘disciplinary instruction’ is that it is instruction enforced, if necessary, by chastisement. This was seen as part of a father’s responsibility (as it was also revealed as YHWH’s gracious responsibility - Proverbs 3:11). But the main emphasis is on instruction and understanding. And what was to be understood was Solomon’s sound teaching and his ‘torah’, which was not to be forsaken. This was, of course, the ‘torah’ urged on him by his father when, at the commencement of his reign David urged on him to ‘keep the charge of YHWH your God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments and his judgments and his testimonies, according to what was written in the Torah of Moses’ (1 Kings 2:3) something which Solomon had made his own. It had thus become ‘my torah’.
Prologue To The Book (Proverbs 1:8 to Proverbs 9:18 ).
It was common throughout the 3rd to the 1st millenniums BC for collections of wisdom saying to have a prologue preparing for the ‘sayings’ that would follow. Those sayings would then be introduced by a subheading. Proverbs thus follows the usual precedent in having such a prologue in Proverbs 1:8 to Proverbs 9:18, followed by general sayings in Proverbs 10:1 ff headed by a subheading (Proverbs 10:1). It was also common for such a prologue to be addressed to ‘my son’, or similar, with constant references being made to ‘my son’ throughout the prologue. And this is interestingly a feature of Proverbs 1-9, where it occurs fifteen times. One difference, however, lies in the fact that the ‘son’ was usually named in other wisdom literature, something which does not occur in Proverbs. Indeed, in Proverbs ‘my son’ is sometimes replaced by ‘sons’ (Proverbs 4:1; Proverbs 5:7; Proverbs 7:24; Proverbs 8:32). It is addressed to whoever will hear and respond.
The Prologue consists of ten discourses, and divides into two. It commences with five discourses, each of which follows a similar pattern, an opening appeal followed by two further subsections, and closing with a contrast between the righteous and the unrighteous, the wise and the foolish. We can compare how there are five ‘books’ to the Torah, and five books of Psalms. Five is the covenant number. Each of the subsections is in the form of a chiasmus.
From chapter 6 onwards the pattern changes. Initially we find a description of three types, whom we could describe as the naive, the foolish, the wicked (Proverbs 6:1-19), and this is followed by Proverbs 6:20 to Proverbs 9:18 which are centred on the contrast between the seductive power of the strange woman, and the uplifting power of woman wisdom, all continually urging the young man to turn from the enticements of the world and choose wisdom.
The prologue may be analysed as follows;
The Five Discourses.
1). Discourse 1. Addressed To ‘My Son’. Those Who Seek To Walk In The Fear Of YHWH Will Listen To The Instruction Of Godly Authority, And Will Avoid The Enticements Of Sinners Motivated By Greed. Wisdom Is Then Depicted As Crying Out To Be Heard, Longing For Response, Promising Inculcation Of Her Own Spirit, And Warning Of The Consequences Of Refusal (Proverbs 1:8-33).
2). Discourse 2. Addressed To ‘My Son’. The Source Of True Wisdom Is YHWH, And Those Who Truly Seek Wisdom Will Find YHWH Himself, And He Will Then Reveal His Wisdom To Them. This Wisdom That God Gives Them Will Then Deliver Them From All Who Are Evil, Both From Men Who Have Abandoned The Right Way, And From The Enticements Of Immoral Women (Proverbs 2:1-22).
3). Discourse 3. Addressed To ‘My Son’. The Young Man Is To Trust In YHWH, To Fear YHWH And To Honour YHWH, And In View Of Their Great Value Is To Find YHWH’s Wisdom And Obtain Understanding Which Will Be His Protection And Will Through YHWH’s Chastening Activity Restore Him To Man’s First Estate. In View Of Them He Is To Observe A Series Of Practical Requirements Which Will Result In Blessing For The Wise (Proverbs 3:1-35).
4). Discourse 4. Addressed to ‘Sons’. Wisdom And Understanding Are To Be Sought And Cherished, For They Produce Spiritual Beauty, and Lead Those Who Respond Unto The Perfect Day (Proverbs 4:1-19).
5). Discourse 5. Addressed To ‘My Son’ (and later ‘Sons’). He Is To Avoid The Enticements Of The Strange Woman Whose Ways Lead To Death, And Rather Be Faithful To His True Wife (Proverbs 4:20 to Proverbs 5:23).
A Description Of Three Contrasting Failures.
6). Discourse 6. The Naive, The Fool And The Scorner Illustrated. The First Addressed To ‘My Son’ Is A Call To Avoid Acting As A Surety For Others, The Second Addressed To ‘You Sluggard’, Is A Call To Shake Off Laziness, And The Third, Unaddressed, Concerns A Worthless Person And A Troublemaker (Proverbs 6:1-19).
A Contrast Between The Strange Seductive Woman And The Pure Woman Wisdom.
Discourse 7. Addressed To ‘My Son’. He Is Urged To Observe The Commandment And The Torah Of Father And Mother, Avoiding The Enticement Of The Adulterous Woman, And Being Aware Of The Wrath Of The Deceived Husband (Proverbs 6:20-35).
Discourse 8. Addressed To ‘My Son’. After Appealing To Him To Observe His Words Solomon Vividly Describes The Wiles Of A Prostitute And Warns ‘Sons’ Against Her (Proverbs 7:1-27).
Discourse 9. The Call of Ms Wisdom As The One Who Seeks Response, Gives Men True Instruction, Ensures Good Government, Enriches Men Physically and Spiritually, Was Present With God During Creation, And Blesses Men And Brings Them Into Life So That They Find God’s Favour (Proverbs 8:1-36).
Discourse 10. The Appeal Of Woman Wisdom Contrasted With The Allure Of Woman Folly (Proverbs 9:1-18).
An Autobiographical Reminiscence Of What His Father Had Taught Him As ‘A Son’ (Proverbs 4:3-9 ).
Solomon now stresses that his wisdom has partly come down to him from his father. This greatly added to its value as it was thereby revealed to be traditional, and to have come from the great David. There can be little doubt that among David’s advisers were wisdom teachers, who had no doubt played their part in the education of Solomon. This would partly explain Solomon’s great interest and expertise in wisdom teaching, especially as it was enhanced by the gift of wisdom that he received from God (1 Kings 4:29-34). For he transformed wisdom teaching into an instrument of YHWH.
The reference, however, by Solomon to his mother is interesting. One reason for it was no doubt to stress that in that verse he was speaking biologically about his blood father. Furthermore in his early years he no doubt received his torah from his mother (Proverbs 1:8). But it is also very possible that the mention of the Queen was in order to illustrate his reference to Ms Wisdom in what follows. She too was a queen, to be loved, exalted and embraced (Proverbs 4:6; Proverbs 4:8), and bestowing a wreath and a crown on those who obtained her (Proverbs 4:9).
The subsection may thus be seen chiastically:
A For I was a son to my father, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother (Proverbs 4:3)
B And he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart retain my words, keep my commandments, and live” (Proverbs 4:4).
C “Obtain wisdom, obtain understanding, forget not, nor decline from the words of my mouth” (Proverbs 4:5).
D Forsake her not, and she will preserve you (Proverbs 4:6 a)
D Love her, and she will guard you (Proverbs 4:6 b).
C Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore obtain wisdom, yes, with all your obtaining, obtain understanding’ (Proverbs 4:7).
B Exalt her, and she will promote you, she will bring you to honour, when you embrace her (Proverbs 4:8).
A She will give to your head a chaplet of grace, a crown of beauty will she deliver to you (Proverbs 4:9).
In A special reference is made to Solomon’s mother, who was made queen and who out of her love ensured the passing on of the crown to Solomon, and in the parallel e have Queen Wisdom passing on the crown to her ‘sons’. In B honouring and keeping his words and commandments will ensure life, and in the parallel exalting and embracing wisdom will ensure promotion and honour. In C the stress is on obtaining wisdom and understanding, and the same is true in the parallel. Centrally in D if wisdom is not forsaken she will preserve you, and in the parallel if she is loved she will guard you.
For I was a son to my father,
Tender and the only one in the sight of my mother.
And he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart retain my words,
Keep my commandments, and live.” ’
The reference to his mother confirms that Solomon is speaking of David his natural father, and he likens his readers’ relationship to himself with that of his relationship to his father. They are to listen to his teaching as he listened to that of his father. He stresses that their heart should retain his words, and that they should keep his commandments and ‘live’. Elsewhere, however, it is made clear that the words and commandments that give life are found in the Torah (Leviticus 18:5; Deuteronomy 4:1; Deuteronomy 5:33; Deuteronomy 8:1; Deuteronomy 8:3; Deuteronomy 16:20; Deuteronomy 30:6; Deuteronomy 30:16; Deuteronomy 30:19). The thought is of abundant living in fellowship with YHWH.
The tender way in which Solomon speaks of his mother has special significance with reference to the tender way in which he later speaks of Ms Wisdom. It was because of her tenderness towards him (and David’s love for her) that he received his crown (1 Kings 1:17-21) in accordance with God’s intention (1 Chronicles 22:9). These words may well therefore have been preparing for what is said about Wisdom in subsequent verses.
“Obtain wisdom, obtain understanding,
Do not forget, or turn aside from the words of my mouth,
Do not forsake, and she will preserve you.
Love her, and she will keep you.”
The word for ‘obtain’ means basically to buy. The idea is of being willing to sacrifice much in order to obtain God-provided and God-based wisdom (Proverbs 2:6; Proverbs 3:19-20) and understanding. The repetition of ‘obtain’ stresses the urgency of it. The thought may even be of the willingness to ‘pay a dowry’ in order to obtain her, because she is treasured so much. Note that wisdom and understanding are seen as one (‘she’), and that they are obtained from the words of his mouth. He sees himself as teaching the wisdom that comes from God, as passing on what God has spoken (compare Proverbs 2:6).
The issue is so important that he uses three verbs as warnings against neglecting wisdom and understanding, ‘do not forget -- do not turn aside -- do not forsake’. It is a reminder that some negligently forget God’s wisdom, some deliberately turn aside from it, and some intentionally forsake it because its demands are too great, or it has become a nuisance. Rather they are to love her and cherish her as a man loves and cherishes his wife. For they are promised that thereby they will be preserved and guarded. Like a beloved wife Wisdom is to be loved, and not forsaken, and then she will watch over her family.
‘Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore obtain wisdom,
Yes, with all your obtaining (or ‘all that you possess’), obtain understanding,’
Exalt (or ‘cherish’) her, and she will promote you,
She will bring you to honour, when you embrace her,
She will give to your head a wreath of gracious beauty,
A crown of splendour will she deliver to you.’
The first line is strictly ‘beginning of wisdom obtain wisdom’ or ‘wisdom foremost, obtain wisdom’. It may therefore mean that we reveal the beginning of wisdom in ourselves by seeking to obtain wisdom, or that because wisdom is foremost we should obtain it. This may mean that the way in which we first show that we have wisdom is by obtaining wisdom, or that once we have truly received wisdom we will seek more of her, or that we should obtain wisdom because of its pre-eminence. Whichever way we take it, and the writer may have intended a double meaning, it underlines the importance of wisdom as something that we should make an effort to obtain. Indeed, God’s wisdom is to be seen as so important that we should be willing to give all that we possess in order that we might obtain it.
Wisdom, therefore, is to be ‘held in high honour’ and ‘embraced’. Once again it may indicate that we are to see her as a highly prized wife. If we treat her properly she will promote our interests, exalt us and bring us honour. The illustration that follows suggest that this is in a spiritual sense. Our spiritual lives will prosper. (But some consider that it does refer to physical exaltation to high position). Indeed, she will crown us with a wreath of spiritual, God-given beauty, a crown of splendour. The adjectives are stressing splendour and beauty. She will have enhanced our lives and made them spiritually beautiful. We can compare this with Proverbs 1:9. It is far more likely that we should see floral wreaths and crowns as in mind, as things of beauty, rather than looking to Egyptian religion and obtaining our ideas from there. Those who do so, see them as symbols of power and protection. But Proverbs always stresses their beauty.
God’s Wisdom Teaches Men The Way In Which They Should Go, A Way In Which They Will Not Stumble And Which Leads To Life, They Are Thus To Avoid The Way Of The Wicked In Which Men Stumble And Where Death Is Prevalent (Proverbs 4:10-19 ).
He has stressed in subsection 2 that his father had taught him the great value of wisdom, (which was connected to his words and commandments), as something that should be loved and cherished like a beloved wife, and which would crown him with spiritual beauty. Now he calls on ‘his son’ to hear his sayings, which will lead him in the right paths so that he will not stumble, and so that he will find life. He must therefore avoid the path of the wicked, for such can find no rest until they themselves cause other men to stumble and suffer violence. Thus their way is a way of darkness, stumbling and death, both for others and for themselves. And this in contrast to the path of the righteous which grows ever brighter as time passes until it reaches its climax in the perfect day.
Note the continual emphasis on the two ways (compare Proverbs 2:13; Proverbs 2:18-19), which are emphasised throughout. On the one hand is the way of wisdom, the paths of uprightness, the path of the righteous (what Jesus called ‘the narrow way’), and on the other is the path of the wicked, the way of evil men, the way of the wicked (what Jesus called ‘the broad way’). The one leads to life, and light, and is secure, the other leads to violence and darkness, and is insecure.
This subsection is in the form of a chiasmus:
A Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings, and the years of your life will be many, I have taught you in the way of wisdom, I have led you in paths of uprightness (Proverbs 4:10-11).
B When you go, your steps will not be hampered or ‘distressed’), and if you run, you will not stumble, take fast hold of instruction, let her not go, keep her, for she is your life (Proverbs 4:12-13).
C Do not enter into the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evil men (Proverbs 4:14).
C Avoid it, do not pass by it, turn from it, and pass on (Proverbs 4:15).
B For they do not sleep unless they do evil, and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to stumble, for they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence (Proverbs 4:16-17).
A But the path of the righteous is as the dawning light, which shines more and more unto the perfect day, the way of the wicked is as darkness, they do not know at what they stumble (Proverbs 4:18-19).
Note that in A the years of his life will be many and he will be led in the paths of uprightness, and in the parallel he is in the path of the righteous, and this will shine more and more unto the perfect day, In B he will run and will not stumble, and wisdom will give him life, and in the parallel the wicked are unhappy unless they make men stumble, and they drink the wine of violence (take away men’s lives - Proverbs 1:10-12). Centrally in C is stressed the need to avoid the way of sinful men.
‘Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings,
And the years of your life will be many.
I have taught you in the way of wisdom,
I have led you in paths of uprightness.
In the same way as he has retained his father’s words, and kept his commandments in order to find life (Proverbs 4:4) Solomon now calls on ‘his son’ (those who hang on his words) to do the same with his sayings, for they teach them the way of wisdom, and lead them in the paths of uprightness. They are a source of God’s wisdom, passed on from one generation to another. And as a consequence they will enjoy long lives (compare Proverbs 3:2; Proverbs 10:27). In New Testament terms they will have eternal life.
Consonant with the theme of the subsection he speaks of this as walking in ‘the way of (God’s) wisdom’ and ‘the paths of uprightness’. This is to be their goal and their lifestyle. By determining our goals and choosing our lifestyle each of us chooses the way in which we will go. It is worth noting that ‘paths’ have been formed by many treading that way before us. We are not alone. We follow in the train of those who have gone before (consider Hebrews 11:0).
‘When you go, your steps will not be hampered,
And if you run, you will not stumble,
Take fast hold of disciplinary instruction, let her not go,
Keep her, for she is your life.’
And those who walk in this way of wisdom and uprightness will find that their steps are free and unhampered, and that even when they run they will not trip up or stumble. (It is, of course, when we stray from that way that we stumble). And the way to walk in that way is by taking fast hold of His disciplinary instruction and not letting it go. We are to treasure both God’s instruction and his necessary discipline (Proverbs 3:11-12), and keep hold of them, for they offer life, that is, a wholesome and abundant life, life with God. For this promise of life see also Proverbs 3:22; Proverbs 4:22; Proverbs 8:35; Proverbs 2:19; Proverbs 3:18; Proverbs 5:6; Proverbs 6:23
Do not enter into the path of the wicked,
And do not walk in the way of evil men,
Avoid it, do not pass by it,
Turn from it, and pass on.’
In contrast what they must avoid doing is entering into the paths of the ‘wicked’, the unrighteous, those who come short of uprightness. Nor must they walk in the way of ‘evil men’, those who do not treat God’s covenant seriously, who come short of true goodness. Notice his emphasis on this. They must avoid that way, they must not pass along it, they must turn from it, they must pass on (to the upright way). The constant urging is necessary because of the seductive nature of sin.
‘For they do not sleep unless they do evil,
And their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall,
For they eat the bread of wickedness,
And drink the wine of violence.’
This is, of course, exaggeration. It is underlining how intensely people love sin. They cannot even sleep until they have sinned, and they are restless until they have dragged others down with them. Whilst not literally true the points are poignant. They love their sin, and there is that in them which loves causing others, especially the upright, to sin. For wickedness (coming short of righteousness) is their daily bread which they avidly consume. And they follow it up by drinking the wine of ‘violence’ (which includes violating truth). They are unrestrained in what they do. And in many cases it leads to literal violence. Sin is food and drink to them. They have chosen the broad way (Matthew 7:13-14).
‘But the path of the righteous is as the dawning light,
Which shines more and more unto the perfect day,
The way of the wicked is as darkness,
They do not know at what they stumble.’
The discourse ends with the regular contrast between the upright and the sinful (compare Proverbs 1:32-33; Proverbs 2:21-22; Proverbs 3:33-35). On the one hand is the path of the righteous, which commences as a dawning light, and continues to grow brighter and brighter until it reaches the ultimate. The idea is of a perfect day, which dawns with the rising of the sun and grows brighter and brighter until it reaches its zenith in the glory of the midday sun. The idea may be of a growing in righteousness, but more probably it indicates a growing in the light of God’s wisdom, for ‘the commandment is a lamp and the torah is light’ (Proverbs 6:23). More and more of God’s wisdom brings more and more light. But this would clearly be seen as accompanied by such a growth in righteousness (otherwise they would not be growing in wisdom). Thus the picture is of a life blossoming as a consequence of responding to God’s wisdom until it attains ultimate knowledge of God. To put it in another way, as on their journey they grow closer and closer to the light of God, knowing Him more and more as time goes by, His light will also shine forth in their lives. And this will go on until they attain the ultimate light, the presence of God Himself. For He is the One Who is light and in Whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).
In those days the time of light was the time during which men could truly live as a consequence of the light that God had given them (the sun). This was in stark contrast with the time of darkness in which they were left to struggle on as best they could, at the best enjoying the dim light of a full moon (the world’s wisdom). Thus for them light was the time in which they ‘lived’. And Solomon has taken over this idea as pointing to a life lived in the light of God’s wisdom. They walk in the light of God’s commandment and torah, for His word is a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (Psalms 119:105). And as they grow in wisdom so the light grows brighter. Furthermore, as we consider the idea of reaching the perfect day, when the knowledge of God and His wisdom is complete, and His light shines at its brightest, we cannot doubt that Solomon’s words here were pointing to the hope of a glorious life beyond the grave. David himself had spoken of the path of life as leading to His presence resulting in fulness of joy and everlasting enjoyment (Psalms 16:11), and had declared that at that time, we will behold His face in righteousness, and awake in His likeness (Psalms 17:15). So whilst the idea of eternal life with God had not been theologically worked out at this stage, it was clearly instinctive in the hearts of true believers.
In Scripture God regularly promises light to His people. In Psalms 43:3 the Psalmist cries out for God’s light to lead him and bring him into the presence of God. In Job 29:3 Job declares, ‘by His light I walked through darkness’. In Isaiah 9:2 the people who sat in darkness saw a great light, a light which dawned on them, the light of the coming King. In Isaiah 42:16 God’s promise to His people was that He would make darkness light before them (as He had with the flaming fire by night at the Exodus), and the crooked places straight, with the guarantee that He would not forsake them. And most importantly of all Jesus Himself declared that He had come as a light into the world to lead us out of darkness into the light of life (John 8:12).
In contrast is the way of the wicked. This is a way of darkness so that they cannot see where they are going (Deuteronomy 28:29), so much so that when they trip up and stumble they do not know what has caused them to trip up because they ‘walk in the ways of darkness’ (see Proverbs 2:13 and compare especially John 8:12; John 12:35; John 12:46). Sinful man, without God’s wisdom, will blame his problems and his mortality on many things, but he will never blame it on his sin. That recognition is a consequence of God’s light. Thus he is puzzled by suffering, not recognising that he has, along with all mankind, brought it on himself. And he is puzzled when life goes wrong and he stumbles and falls. And this is because he walks in darkness, and cannot see the connection between sin and suffering. After all, he reasons, as he rebels against God, I am not such a great sinner. Like the woman Folly, he knows nothing about what really matters (Proverbs 9:13).
A General Appeal To Hear His Words And Sayings, And Instructions With Regard To His Heart, Mouth, Eyes And Feet (Proverbs 4:20-27 ).
Solomon urges those who hear him and read his words to take them to heart and keep them there because they offer life and health. They are therefore to watch over their hearts (and minds and wills), to put away careless or false words, to look straight ahead without deviation, and to watch where they put their feet on the path of life. They are not to turn to either right or left but are to ensure that they keep their foot from evil. They are not to be like the ‘strange woman’, the adulterous woman or prostitute, who ‘does not watch the path of life’ (Proverbs 5:6).
It will be noted how many parts of the body are mentioned in these verses: ear, eyes, heart, flesh, heart, mouth, eyes, eyelids, feet, hand, foot. The whole body is to be involved in responding to wisdom. The subsection may be seen chiastically as follows:
A My son, attend to my words, incline (bend) your ear to my sayings (Proverbs 4:20).
B Do not let them depart from your eyes (Proverbs 4:21 a)
C Keep them in the midst of your heart (Proverbs 4:21 b).
D For they are life to those who find them (Proverbs 4:22 a)
D And health to all their flesh (Proverbs 4:22 b).
C Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23).
B Put away from you a wayward mouth, and perverse lips put far from you, let your eyes look right on, and let your eyelids look straight before you (Proverbs 4:24-25).
A Make level the path of your feet, and let all your ways be established, do not turn (bend) to the right hand or to the left, remove your foot from evil (Proverbs 4:26-27).
‘My son, attend to my words,
Incline (bend) your ear to my sayings,
Do not let them depart from your eyes,
Keep them in the midst of your heart.’
In Proverbs 1:8 he called on them to hear disciplinary instruction and torah, in Proverbs 2:1 to hear his words and commandments, in Proverbs 3:1 not to forget his torah but to keep his commandments, in Proverbs 4:1 to hear the disciplinary instruction of a father and to attend, in Proverbs 4:10 to receive his sayings. Now he calls on them to attend to his words, and listen carefully to his sayings. They must read them constantly (let them not depart from their eyes) and keep them in the centre of their hearts, minds and wills. In ancient Israel the ‘heart’ was the centre of mind, will and emotions. They must read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Note the assumption that the sayings can be ‘seen’ which suggests that they are in writing.
For they are life to those who find them,
And health to all their flesh.
And this was to be so because to those who truly discern them they offer the secret of wholesome living. They offer life and health. The life offered is spiritual life, life lived with God. Health is especially important here because in the next subsection the warning is against going in to loose women who would very likely have transmittable diseases. Thus those who listen to his words will avoid unpleasant diseases, and will have a healthy lifestyle. They will not be those whose ‘flesh and body are consumed’ (Proverbs 5:11). It will be noted that in the chiasmus this verse is the central thought of the subsection.
Solomon now tells his adherents to guard their hearts, to abjure a wayward mouth and false lips, to concentrate their eyes on what is true, and to watch which path they place their feet on.
Keep your heart with all diligence,
For out of it are the issues of life.’
The Israelite saw the heart as the centre of a man’s being. It was the seat of the mind, will and emotions. It was also the repository of knowledge, especially about God. Thus the thought was to keep a guard on such by obtaining God’s wisdom and living it out. For their response to the issues of life (basically all that they did) would depend on the state that their heart was in, and what knowledge and wisdom it contained. If their hearts were set on God’s wisdom, then all would be well. But if they followed man’s wisdom it could only lead to tragedy. Their hearts were therefore to be guarded ‘with all diligence’. A careful watch must be kept over them.
‘Put away from you a wayward mouth,
And perverse lips put far from you,
And part of this guarding involved putting away what was false. It is tempting to see this as an injunction to ‘his son’ to guard his words, (as most commentators do), but the main emphasis in the subsection is on receiving and responding to teaching, not on proclaiming it. It is more probable then that this is a warning not to listen to the false words of others. Solomon is saying, ‘pay heed to my words (Proverbs 4:20; Proverbs 5:7), and do not listen to false words’. Thus ‘his son’ is to ‘push away’ the wayward mouth and ‘put far from him’ perverse lips. In other words he is not to listen to those who say things which are wayward and perverse, who inculcate false wisdom. Indeed, the mouth and lips of those who are wayward and perverse are to be ‘put away’ and ‘put far from him’, because he is ‘guarding’ his heart, and letting his eyes look right on, and we should note that the mouth and lips are not said to be ‘his’, and that uniquely they were not mentioned previously in the subsection (as heart and eye were). Nor if they were his words do they fit well into the chiasmus. It fits far better with the context for this to be seen as indicating the necessity for not listening to false wisdom, rather than as referring to him speaking in such a way, for the context is about receiving and responding to teaching not proclaiming it. And this connects better with the following verse where the eyes could have been caused to deviate by listening to false words. By putting away and avoiding false advice it will be easier to look straight forward. Furthermore this ties in better with what follows later, where he is called on to avoid the strange woman whose lips ‘drop honey’, and whose mouth ‘is smoother than oil’.
Nevertheless it is undoubtedly true that Scripture does teach us to keep a watch on our mouths, and that that is how most commentators see it, and taken in this way this would be seen as an injunction to honesty and truth in all that we say. In the words of Proverbs 5:2 our ‘lips must keep knowledge’. It is a salutary lesson. But in our view it is not what Solomon is saying here.
Let your eyes look right on,
And let your eyelids look straight before you.’
In Proverbs 4:20 Solomon’s words were not to depart from his eyes. Now, therefore, he is advised to ensure that his eyes and eyelids look straight on, following his words of wisdom. They are not to wander to other paths (Proverbs 4:27), or listen to wayward and perverse words (Proverbs 4:24), but are to concentrate on the pathway of God’s wisdom and knowledge (compare Proverbs 17:24 where ‘wisdom is before the face of him who has understanding, but the eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth’). This reminds us of the importance of having ‘the single eye’ fixed on truth, which will cause our whole bodies to be filled with light (Matthew 6:22). It is because men’s eyes wander so easily that they fall into sin.
‘Take heed to the path of your feet,
And let all your ways be established,
Do not turn to the right hand or to the left,
Remove your foot from evil.’
And in looking straight on he is to carefully watch the path that he treads on. He is to ensure that his way is established, walking in the straight path. He is not to turn to the right hand or to the left. He is to walk straight on, thereby removing his foot from evil (compare Proverbs 5:8, ‘remove our foot far from her’. Note the point that the way in which the eye is fixed will be the way in which he walks. What we look at will affect what we do.
This is in direct contrast with the strange woman in Proverbs 5:6 who ‘does not watch the path of life’ but wanders aimlessly in her own ways.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Proverbs 4". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27