The book of Proverbs starts with a contrast: the way of wisdom vs. the way of folly. The book itself builds around this contrast, even as they address a variety of other themes. This wisdom, however, begins at the relational level before it manifests at the ethical level. Wisdom is acquired through relationship.
One can rightly categorize the dominant theme of the whole book of Proverbs as “wisdom.” Across every theme we find the contrast of wisdom and foolishness. So, when addressing anger the proverbs tell us that short-tempered men are “stupid,” but the wise are patient (14:17, 29-30). When dealing with addictions, the proverbs tell us that drunkenness makes a man “unwise” (20:1), but a wise man knows to avoid association with those who are prone to addictive indulgences (23:20-21). Likewise, the lazy person is contrasted with the wise person who learns from the ant, and who works hard to gather (see 6:6-11; 10:4-5). The contrast of foolishness and wisdom is a major lens through which many subjects are evaluated in the book of Proverbs. Furthermore, the book itself is part of what is known as t the “Wisdom Literature” of the Old Testament, and in the opening chapter we see that the purpose of the book is to give wisdom and instruction. We read:
To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth (1:2-4)
The proverbs are designed to serve as instructive and to encourage the pursuit of wisdom. Yet, even in this opening chapter that pursuit is tied first to one’s relationship with Yahweh, and from that connected at the level of ethical living.
We tend to think about wisdom usually in terms of behavioral conduct. The fool is one who does foolish things, the wise is one who behaves with intelligence and common sense. So, the sluggard is a fool who will reap what he sows. The wise man, however, prepares for the winter by planting in summer and harvesting in fall. Solomon, who authors the first section of the book of Proverbs, informs us differently. Wisdom begins at the relational level. He writes:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (v. 7)
Here is where wisdom starts, it’s “beginning.” One’s relationship to God determines whether one will be wise or foolish. Some are inclined to draw a strong distinction between “knowledge” and “wisdom” throughout the book. The fact that the author uses the words interchangeably here, however, should discourage us from making too hard a distinction. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of “knowledge” in the first part of the verse, but conversely fools “despise wisdom”. The author does not necessarily intend a strong distinction, so we should be careful not to impose one on the text.
The book carries forward this same theme of a relational origin for wisdom. If 1:7 is the most famous statement, there are still others that demonstrate the principle. In chapter 2 we see that the pursuit of wisdom naturally leads to the discovery of the “fear of the Lord”:
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God. (2:4-5)
The author further clarifies that wisdom comes from God. He is the true source:
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding (v. 6)
In chapter three there is a contrast between confidence in our own wisdom, and those who rely on the Lord for true insight and understanding:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. (3:5-7)
Chapter 9 echoes chapter one on wisdom’s origin and the foundational principle of one’s relationship to God:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (9:10)
Overall, the proverbs paint a picture that tells us that there is no wisdom apart from the Lord (21:30). Conversely, a foolish man does continues to “rage against the Lord,” even when his folly has created problems (19:3). Wisdom begins at the relational level before it moves to the ethical. How you relate to God, in submission and worship, determines whether you will be wise.
The expression “fear of the Lord” is key to acquiring wisdom. What does it meant to “fear” God? The Rabbinic tradition notes two types of “fear” of the Lord: (1) awe and respect, and (2) fear of retribution. For the Christian there is to be nothing of the second type of fear. For in Christ there is “no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1), and His “perfect love drives out fear” because “fear has to do with judgment” (1 John 4:18-19). The first type of “fear,” however, should be descriptive of believers. It is consistent with our worship, as the Psalmist makes clear:
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Ps. 2:10-11)
Wise rulers know to serve the Lord and to rejoice in Him. They know to “kiss the Son,” submit joyfully to Him. They know to “take refuge in Him.” Fear here is not simply about avoiding His anger and retribution. It is deeper than that. Fear here is about rejoicing and finding refuge in God. Fear is related to worship, to awe and amazement (Ps. 89:5-7; 119:120). Wisdom, then, comes to us as we grow in our worship of God.
The fact that “wisdom” is personified throughout the book further supports this notion of relational before ethical. Wisdom is personified as a woman who invites and beckons us to follow after her (1:20-21; 4:4-8). She is the kind of woman you want to pursue. Unlike the woman of folly, who also calls out to us (9:13-18). There is a relational dynamic explored in the pursuit of wisdom or folly. They are friend and foe, respectively, wise woman or temptress. We must choose whom we will make our mate, with whom we will be in meaningful relationship. Relationship comes prior to ethics in Biblical wisdom. Who you align yourself with will determine how you live.
The Bible makes this relational dynamic even more pronounced and significant when it connect God himself to the personified wisdom. In some places that personification of wisdom is connected to the Spirit (Isa. 11:2; Luke 11:49). But the most astounding connection is when the New Testament authors speak of Christ as the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24; 30). Christ is wisdom, and the wise are those in relationship with Him.
Wise people demonstrate their wisdom through ethical living. Much of the book of Proverbs explores that aspect of wise living. Yet, the foundational principle of wisdom is that relationship proceeds ethics. When we are in a right relationship to God, the source of all wisdom, then we can live wisely. Relationship precedes ethics.