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Tuesday, May 28th, 2024
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 1

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-33



"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge."- Proverbs 1:7

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding."- Proverbs 9:10

"To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and it was created with the faithful in the womb"- Sirach 1:14; also Psalms 111:10

THE book of Proverbs belongs to a group of works in the Hebrew literature the subject of which is Wisdom. It is probably the earliest of them all, and may be regarded as the stem, of which they are the branches. Without attempting to determine the relative ages of these compositions, the ordinary reader can see the points of contact between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and a little careful study reveals that the book of Job, though fuller, and richer in every respect, belongs to the same order. Outside the canon of Holy Scripture we possess two works which avowedly owe their suggestion and inspiration to our book, viz., "The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach," commonly called Ecclesiasticus, a genuinely Hebrew product, and "The Wisdom of Solomon," commonly called the Book of Wisdom, of much later origin, and exhibiting that fusion of Hebrew religious conceptions with Greek speculation which prevailed in the Jewish schools of Alexandria.

Now, the question at once occurs, What are we to understand by the Wisdom which gives a subject and a title to this extensive field of literature? and in what relation does it stand to the Law and the Prophets, which form the great bulk of the Old Testament Scriptures?

Broadly speaking, the Wisdom of the Hebrews covers the whole domain of what we should call Science and Philosophy. It is the consistent effort of the human mind to know, to understand, and to explain all that exists. It is, to use the modern phrase, the search for truth. The "wise men" were not, like Moses and the Prophets, inspired legislators and heralds of God’s immediate messages to mankind; but rather, like the wise men among the earlier Greeks, Thales, Solon, Anaximenes, or like the Sophists among the later Greeks, Socrates and his successors, they brought all their faculties to bear in observing the facts of the world and of life, and in seeking to interpret them, and then in the public streets or in appointed schools endeavored to communicate their knowledge to the young. Nothing was too high for their inquiry: "That which is far off, and exceeding deep; who can find it out?" {Ecclesiastes 7:24} yet they tried to discover and to explain that which is. Nothing was too lowly for their attention; wisdom "reaches from one end to another mightily, and sweetly orders all things." {RAPC Wisdom of Solomon 8:1} Their purpose finds expression in the words of Ecclesiastes, "I turned about, and my heart was set to know and to search out, and to seek wisdom and the reason of things." {Ecclesiastes 7:25}

But by Wisdom is meant not merely the search, but also the discovery; not merely a desire to know, but also a certain body of conceptions ascertained and sufficiently formulated. To the Hebrew mind it would have seemed meaningless to assert that Agnosticism was wisdom. It was saved from this paradoxical conclusion by its firmly rooted faith in God. Mystery might hang over the details, but one thing was plain: the whole universe was an intelligent plan of God; the mind might be baffled in understanding His ways, but all that existence is of His choosing and His ordering was taken as the axiom with which all thought must start. Thus there is a unity in the Hebrew Wisdom; the unity is found in the thought of the Creator; all the facts of the physical world, all the problems of human life, are referred to His mind; objective Wisdom is God’s Being, which includes in its circle everything; and subjective wisdom, wisdom in the human mind, consists in becoming acquainted with His Being and all that is contained in it, and meanwhile in constantly admitting that He is, and yielding to Him the rightful place in our thought.

But while Wisdom embraces in her wide survey all things in heaven and in earth, there is one part of the vast field which makes a special demand upon human interest. The proper study of mankind is man. Very naturally the earliest subject to occupy human thought was human life, human conduct, human society. Or, to say the same thing in the language of this book, while Wisdom was occupied with the whole creation, she specially rejoiced in the habitable earth, and her delight was with the sons of men.

Theoretically embracing all subjects of human knowledge and reflection, the Wisdom of the Hebrew literature practically touches but little on what we should now call Science, and even where attention was turned to the facts and laws of the material world, it was mainly in order to borrow similitudes or illustrations for moral and religious purposes. King Solomon "spake of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes." {1 Kings 4:33} But the Proverbs which have actually come down to us under his name refer almost exclusively to principles of conduct or observation of life, and seldom remind us of the earth, the sea, and the sky, except as the dwelling-place of men, the house covered with paintings for his delight or filled with imagery for his instruction.

But there is a further distinction to be drawn, and in attempting to make it plain we may determine the place of the Proverbs in the general scheme of the inspired writings. Human life is a sufficiently large theme; it includes not only social and political questions, but the searchings and speculations of philosophy, the truths and revelations of religion. From one point of view, therefore, wisdom may be said to embrace the Law and the Prophets, and in a beautiful passage of Ecclesiasticus the whole covenant of Jehovah with Israel is treated as an emanation of wisdom from the mouth of the Most High. Wisdom was the inspiration of those who shaped the law and built the Holy House, of those who ministered in the courts of the Temple, and of those who were moved by the Holy One to chide the faults of the people, to call them to repentance, to denounce the doom of their sin, and proclaim the glad promise of deliverance. Again, from this large point of view Wisdom could be regarded as the Divine Philosophy, the system of thought and the body of beliefs which would furnish the explanation of life, and would root all the decisions of ethics in eternal principles of truth. And this function of Wisdom is presented with singular beauty and power in the eighth chapter of our book, where, as we shall see, the mouth of Wisdom shows that her concern with men is derived from her relation with the Creator and from her comprehension of His great architectural design in the construction of the world.

Now, the wisdom which finds expression in the bulk of the Proverbs must be clearly distinguished from wisdom in this exalted sense. It is not the wisdom of the Law and the Prophets; it moves in a much lower plane. It is not the wisdom of chapter 8, a philosophy which harmonizes human life with the laws of nature by constantly connecting both with God.

The wisdom of the Proverbs differs from the wisdom of the Prophets in this, that it is derived not directly, but immediately from God. No special mind is directed to shape these sayings; they grow up in the common mind of the people, and they derive their inspiration from those general qualities which made the whole nation in the midst of which they had their birth an inspired nation, and gave to all the literature of the nation a peculiar and inimitable tone. The wisdom of the Proverbs differs, too, from the wisdom of these introductory chapters in much the same way; it is a difference which might be expressed by a familiar use of words; it is a distinction between Philosophy and Proverbial Philosophy, a distinction, let us say, between Divine Philosophy and Proverbial Philosophy.

The Proverbs are often shrewd, often edifying, sometimes almost evangelical in their sharp ethical insight; but we shall constantly be reminded that they do not come with the overbearing authority of the prophetic "Thus saith the Lord." And still more shall we be reminded how far they lag behind the standard of life and the principles of conduct which are presented to us in Christ Jesus.

What has just been said seems to be a necessary preliminary to the study of the Proverbs, and it is only by bearing it in mind that we shall be able to appreciate the difference in tone between the nine introductory chapters and the main body of the book; nor should we venture, perhaps, apart from the consideration which has been urged, to exercise our critical sense in the study of particular sayings, and to insist at all points on bringing the teaching of the wise men of old to the standard and test of Him who is Himself made unto us Wisdom.

But now to turn to our text. We must think of wisdom in the largest possible sense, as including not only ethics, but philosophy, and not only philosophy, but religion; yes, and as embracing in her vast survey the whole field of natural science, when it is said that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; we must think of knowledge in its fullest and-most liberal extent when we read that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

In this pregnant truth we may distinguish three ideas: first, fear, or, as we should probably say, reverence, is the pre-requisite of all scientific, philosophical, or religious truth; second, no real knowledge or wisdom can be attained which does not start with the recognition of God; and then, thirdly, the expression is not only "the fear of God," which might refer only to the Being that is presupposed in any intelligent explanation of phenomena but the "fear of the Lord," i.e., of Javeh, the self-existent One, who has revealed Himself in a special way to men as "I AM WHAT I AM"; and it is therefore hinted that no satisfactory philosophy of human life and history can be constructed which does not build upon the fact of revelation.

We may proceed to dwell upon these three thoughts in order.

1. Most religious people are willing to admit that "the fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death." {Proverbs 14:27} But what is not always observed is that the same attitude is necessary in the intellectual sphere. And yet the truth may be illustrated in a quarter which to some of us may be surprising. It is a notable fact that Modern Science had its origin in two deeply religious minds. Bacon and Descartes were both stirred to their investigation of physical facts by their belief in the Divine Being who was behind them. To mention only our great English thinker, Bacon’s "Novum Organum" is the most reverent of works, and no one ever realized more keenly than he that, as Coleridge used to say, "there is no chance of truth at the goal where there is not a childlike humility at the starting-point."

It is sometimes said that this note of reverence is wanting in the great scientific investigators of our day. So far as this is true, it is probable that their conclusions will be vitiated, and we are often impressed by the feeling that the unmannerly self-assertion and overweening self-confidence of many scientific writers augur ill for the truth of their assertions. But, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the greatest men of science in our own, as in all other ages, are distinguished by a singular simplicity, and by a reverence which communicates itself to their readers. What could be more reverent than Darwin’s way of studying the coral-insect or the earthworm? He bestowed on these humble creatures of the ocean and of the earth the most patient and loving observation. And his success in understanding and explaining them was in proportion to the respect which he showed to them. The coral-diver has no reverence for the insect; he is bent only on gain, and he consequently can tell us nothing of the coral reef and its growth. The gardener has no reverence for the worm; he cuts it ruthlessly with his spade, and flings it carelessly aside; accordingly he is not able to tell us of its lowly ministries and of the part it plays in the fertilization of the soil. It was Darwin’s reverence which proved to be the beginning of knowledge in these departments of investigation; and if it was only the reverence of the naturalist, the truth is illustrated all the better, for his knowledge of the unseen and the eternal dwindled away, just as his perception of beauty in literature and art declined, in proportion as he suffered his spirit of reverence towards these things to die.

The gates of Knowledge and Wisdom are closed, and they are opened only to the knock of Reverence. Without reverence, it is true, men may gain what is called worldly knowledge and worldly wisdom; but these are far removed from truth, and. experience often shows us how profoundly ignorant and how incurably blind pushing and successful people are, whose knowledge is all turned to delusion, and whose wisdom shifts round into folly, precisely because the great prerequisite is wanting. The seeker after real knowledge will have little about him which suggests worldly success. He is modest, self-forgetful, possibly shy; he is absorbed in a disinterested pursuit, for he has seen afar the high, white star of Truth; at it he gazes, to it he aspires. Things which only affect him personally make but little impression on him; things which affect the truth move, agitate, excite him. A bright spirit is on ahead, beckoning to him. The color mounts to his cheek, the nerves thrill, and his soul is filled with rapture, when the form seems to grow clearer and a step is gained in the pursuit. When a discovery is made he almost forgets that he is the discoverer; he will even allow the credit of it to pass over to another, for he would rather rejoice in the truth itself than allow his joy to be tinged with a personal consideration.

Yes, the modest, self-forgetful, reverent mien is the first condition winning Truth, who must be approached on bended knee, and recognized with a humble and a prostrate heart. There is no gainsaying the fact that this fear, this reverence, is "the beginning" of wisdom.

2. We pass now to an assertion bolder than the last, that there can be no true knowledge or wisdom which does not start from the recognition of God. This is one of those contentions, not uncommon in the Sacred Writings, which appear at first sight to be arbitrary dogmas, but prove on closer inquiry to be the authoritative statements of reasoned truth. We are face to face, in our day, with an avowedly atheistic philosophy. According to the’ Scriptures, an atheistic philosophy is not a philosophy at all, but only a folly: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God." We have thinkers among us who deem it their great mission to get rid of the very idea of God, as one who stands in the way of spiritual, social, and political progress. According to the Scriptures, to remove the idea of God is to destroy the key of knowledge and to make any consistent scheme of thought impossible. Here certainly is a clear and sharp issue.

Now, if this universe of which we form a part is a thought of the Divine mind, a work of the Divine hand, a scene of Divine operations, in which God is realizing, by slow degrees, a vast spiritual purpose, it is self-evident that no attempt to understand the universe can be successful which leaves this, its fundamental idea, out of account; as well might one attempt to understand a picture while refusing to recognize that the artist had any purpose to express in painting it, or indeed that there was any artist at all. So much everyone will admit.

But if the universe is not the work of a Divine mind, or the effect of a Divine will; if it is merely the working of a blind, irrational Force, which realizes no end, because it has no end to realize; if we, the feeble outcome of a long, unthinking evolution, are the first creatures that ever thought, and the only creatures who now think, in all the universe of Being; it follows that of a universe so irrational there can be no true knowledge for rational beings, and of a scheme of things so unwise there can be no philosophy or wisdom. No person who reflects can fail to recognize this, and this is the truth which is asserted in the text. It is not necessary to maintain that without admitting God we cannot have knowledge of a certain number of empirical facts; but that does not constitute a philosophy or a wisdom. It is necessary to maintain that without admitting God we cannot have any explanation of our knowledge, or any verification of it; without admitting God our knowledge can never come to any roundness or completeness such as might justify our calling it by the name of Wisdom.

Or to put the matter in a slightly different way: a thinking mind can only conceive the universe as the product of thought; if the universe is not the product of thought it can never be intelligible to a thinking mind, and can therefore never be in a true sense the object of knowledge; to deny that the universe is the product of thought is to deny the possibility of wisdom.

We find, then, that it is not a dogma, but a truth of reason, that knowledge must start with the recognition of God.

3. But now we come to an assertion which is the boldest of all, and for the present we shall have to be content to leave behind many who have readily followed us so far. That we are bound to recognize "the Lord," that is the God of Revelation, and bow down in reverence before Him, as the first condition of true wisdom, is just the truth which multitudes of men who claim to be Theists are now strenuously denying. Must we be content to leave the assertion merely as a dogma enunciated on the authority of Scripture?

Surely they, at any rate, who have made the beginning of wisdom in the fear of the Lord should be able to show that the possession which they have gained is actually wisdom, and does not rest upon an irrational dogma, incapable of proof.

We have already recognized at the outset that the Wisdom of this book is not merely an intellectual account of the reason of things, but also more specifically an explanation of the moral and spiritual life. It may be granted that so far as the Intellect alone claims satisfaction it is enough to posit the bare idea of God as the condition of all rational existence. But when men come to recognize themselves as Spiritual Beings, with conceptions of right and wrong, with strong affections, with soaring aspirations, with ideas which lay hold of Eternity, they find themselves quite incapable of being satisfied with the bare idea of God; the soul within them pants and thirsts for a living God. An intellectual love of God might satisfy purely intellectual creatures; but to meet the needs of man as he is, God must be a God that manifests His own personality, and does not leave Himself without a witness to His rational creature. A wisdom, then, that is to truly appraise and rightly guide the life of man must start with the recognition of a God whose peculiar designation is the self-existent One, and who makes Himself known to man by that name; that is, it must start with the "fear of the Lord."

How cogent this necessity is appears directly the alternative is stated. If Reason assures us of a God that made us, a First Cause of our existence and of our being what we are; if Reason also compels us to refer to Him our moral nature, our desire of holiness, and our capacity of love, what could be a greater tax on faith, and even a greater strain on the reason, than to declare that, notwithstanding, God has not revealed Himself as the Lord of our life and the God of our salvation, as the authority of righteousness or the object of our love? When the question is stated in this way it appears that apart from a veritable and trustworthy revelation there can be no wisdom which is capable of really dealing with human life, as the life of spiritual and moral creatures; for a God who does not reveal Himself would be devoid of the highest qualities of the human spirit, and the belief in a God who is inferior to man, a Creator who is less than the creature, could furnish no foundation for an intelligible system of thought.

Our text now stands before us, not as the unsupported deliverance of dogma, but as a condensed utterance of the human reason. We see that starting from the conception of Wisdom as the sum of that which is, and the sufficient explanation of all things, as including therefore not only the laws of nature, but also the laws of human life, both spiritual and moral, we can make no step towards the acquisition of wisdom without a sincere and absolute reverence, a recognition of God as the Author of the universe which we seek to understand, and as the Personal Being, the Self-existent One, who reveals Himself under that significant name "I AM," and declares His will to our waiting hearts. "To whom hath the root of wisdom been revealed? or who hath known her wise counsels? There is one wise, and greatly to be feared, the Lord sitting upon His throne." {Ecclesiastes 1:6; Ecclesiastes 1:8}

In this way is struck the keynote of the Jewish "Wisdom." it is profoundly true; it is stimulating and helpful. But it may not be out of place to remind ourselves even thus early that the idea on which we have been dwelling comes short of the higher truth which has been given us in Christ. It hardly entered into the mind of a Hebrew thinker to conceive that "fear of the Lord" might pass into full, whole-hearted, and perfect love. And yet it may be shown that this was the change effected when Christ was of God "made unto us Wisdom"; it is not that the "fear," or reverence, becomes less, but it is that the fear is swallowed up in the larger and more gracious sentiment. For us who have received Christ as our Wisdom, it has become almost a truism that we must love in order to know. We recognize that the causes of things remain hidden from us until our hearts have been kindled into an ardent love towards the First Cause, God Himself: we find that even our processes of reasoning are faulty until they are touched with the Divine tenderness, and rendered sympathetic by the infusion of a loftier passion. And it is quite in accordance with this fuller truth that both science and philosophy have made genuine progress only in Christian lands and under Christian influences. Where the touch of Christ’s hand has been most decisively felt, in Germany, in England, in America, and where consequently Wisdom has attained a nobler, a richer, a more tender significance, there, under fostering powers, which are not the less real because they are not always acknowledged, the great discoveries have been made, the great systems of thought have been framed, and the great counsels of conduct have gradually assumed substance and authority. And from a wide observation of facts we are able to say, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge"; yes, but the Wisdom of God has led us on from fear to love, and in. the Love of the Lord is found the fulfillment of that which trembled into birth through fear.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/proverbs-1.html.
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