|The Proverbs of Solomon|
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Go to Bible: Proverbs 1
“The proverbs of Solomon.” Proverbs 1:1 serves as the title for the collection of Proverbs spanning from 1:1-9:17. It is not to be misunderstood as if it was functioning as the heading for the entire book of Proverbs (and thus ascribing authorship of all the proverbs to King Solomon). Other sections are attributed to other authors, such as “the wise” (Prov. 22:17; 24:23), Agur (Prov. 30:1), and the mother of King Lemuel (Prov. 31:1).
No one is completely sure when the proverbs in Proverbs were finished being collected and then put in the order in which they appear in our modern Bibles. When the Septuagint was written, which started around 250 BC and took a number of years, some of the proverbs in it are not in the same order as the order we find in the Hebrew Bible. The way the proverbs appear in Proverbs, it is possible, but not certain, that they were put in some basic form of chronological order. In any case, the proverbs written by Solomon or his scribes (Solomon reigned c. 980-940 BC) were put first (Prov. 1:1-9:16). Then came proverbs spoken by Solomon that other scribes wrote down (Prov. 10:1-22:16).
After those proverbs came the “words of the wise” (Prov. 22:17-24:22 and Prov. 24:23-34). Although these proverbs may have been spoken by wise people who lived after Solomon, there are scholars who believe that “the words of the wise” are proverbs that were spoken before Solomon lived that Solomon collected and had written down. That may be true, because the next section, Proverbs 25:1-29:27 were proverbs spoken by Solomon that the men of King Hezekiah wrote down (Prov. 25:1), and Hezekiah reigned about 725-700 BC.
Then Proverbs records the proverbs of Agur son of Jakeh, a person we know nothing about (Prov. 30:1-33). The last chapter of Proverbs, Proverbs 31, was written by “King Lemuel,” who was not a king of Israel or Judah; in fact, there is no known king by that name. Many scholars believe Lemuel may have been a wise foreign king who believed in Yahweh. His name means “Devoted to God,” and he certainly believed in Yahweh (cp. Prov. 31:30). Although many scholars dispute his existence or say his name is likely fictional, there is no evidence for that except that neither Lemuel or his kingdom appear in history; but millions of people and places have not been preserved in the secular historical records, and Lemuel would simply be one of them.
If Lemuel is a foreign king converted to Judaism (cp. Dan. 4:37), and especially if he lived after the time of Hezekiah, that speaks volumes about God’s desire to bring every human to salvation. During the time that Hezekiah was king of Judah and Isaiah was prophesying, God divorced the nation of Israel and sent her away into Exile (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8), and He said He would bring light to the Gentiles, the “nations” (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). If Lemuel was a Gentile believer in Yahweh whose wisdom appears in the Word of God, then he certainly was an early harbinger of that prophecy coming true.
Proverbs is one of the books that shows us that God transcends human limitations. Just as He chose four different people from different backgrounds to write the Four Gospels, so He chose different people from different backgrounds and different times to write Proverbs, but Proverbs becomes part of the Word of God, which is indeed, “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). We can trust its guidance in our quest for wisdom.(top)
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“youth.” The Hebrew word translated “youth,” is naar (#05288 נַעַר), and it specifically refers to a boy or young male, and thus it can refer to a boy, youth, or young male servant, disciple, or slave. Due to the culture of the time, most of Proverbs was specifically addressed to males, with an underlying assumption that the knowledge would be important and applicable to women also. One thing that makes that clear is that the teaching of Lady Wisdom and the mothers in Proverbs is important (cp. Prov. 1:8 and 6:20), and those women had to be taught to become wise themselves, so it was not just males that were taught even if that was the primary emphasis in the culture of the time.
Another thing that justifies the use of more gender neutral terms rather than simply retaining words like “boy” with a specific male gender is how the New Testament writers cite passages out of Proverbs with a view to it being applicable to both male and females (e.g., Prov. 24:12 in Rom. 2:6; Prov. 1:16 in Rom. 3:15; Prov. 25:21-22 in Rom. 12:20; Prov. 3:11-12 in Heb. 12:5-6; Prov. 3:34 in both James 4:6 and 1 Pet. 5:5; Prov. 10:12 in 1 Pet. 4:18; Prov. 11:31 in 1 Pet. 4:18; and Prov. 26:11 in 2 Pet. 2:22). In other words, while the collection of Proverbs was primarily intended for a male audience (but see esp. Prov. 31:10-31), we have followed the example of the New Testament authors in widening the application of the verses to include both males and females by using gender neutral terms like “youth” rather than “boy” when it fits the greater context and scope of Scripture and does not unduly twist the meaning of the verse. The REV also often translates words that in Hebrew more specifically refer to males in a neutral fashion as “people,” “ones,” etc., see commentary on Prov. 2:12, “the one.”(top)
“wise person.” Those who claim to be wise must continue to seek after wisdom through active listening and acquisition of guidance. There is no graduation from the growth process among the wise; learning and growth continue from birth to death. We have translated the Hebrew adjective chakam, wise, (#02450) as “wise person” to indicate that it is singular.(top)
“obscure expression.” The Hebrew word is melitsah (#04426 מְלִיצָה), and it has a very large semantic range, making it very hard to translate as one English word or phrase. Translations include: “obscure expression” (CJB; REV); “obscure saying” (NJB); “enigma” (NKJ); “parable” (HCSB); “allegory” (Darby); “saying” (ESV); “clever saying” (GWN); “figure” (ERV; NASB); “satire” (Rotherham); and “secret” (BBE). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament defines the word as “figure, enigma” and “satire, mocking poem,” and the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon defines the word in the same way. The HALOT Hebrew-English Lexicon has “allusive expression” referring to an allusion of some type (not to be confused with “illusive” expression).
When we read Proverbs, we are struck with how accurately Proverbs 1:6 describes the Book of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs has proverbs (wise sayings to be used in ruling life); obscure expressions that include enigmas, satire, mocking poems, and figures; words of wisdom that are simple and straightforward but profound; and “riddles” (see commentary below on “riddles”).
The question has been asked, “Why would God write like that? If God wants us to know something, why not just say it?” That opinion seems to echo the request of the religious Jews when they spoke to Jesus, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” But Jesus never did tell them “plainly” until his trial (Matt. 26:63-64). Jesus followed the pattern his Father, God, had set. God does not want to be just an “information dispenser.” He wants to be a Father and to have a deep and wondrous relationship with His followers.
God’s obscure expressions, riddles, satires, and figures accomplish a few different things. For one thing, they separate out those people who are not interested in the things of God if they have to work for them. Also, they cause those who are interested in knowing God to go to Him in prayer, study, and reflection to find His deeper wisdom and understanding, and to get to know Him better. Also, the multifaceted way that God reveals His wisdom shows some of the wonderful depths of God and how we cannot “put God in a box.” There are times we are not exactly sure what God means; we have an idea, but not a certainty. That makes some people uncomfortable, but that is not always a bad thing. There is a lot about God we don’t know, and we should never be completely comfortable with God. He is loving and good, but He is also God, and we should always have an attitude of awe and wonder, and if Proverbs is right, a tinge of fear, or at least caution, in His presence. Furthermore, many of the proverbs have more than one meaning. Often the Hebrew words can mean more than one thing, so the proverb can have more than one meaning.
The Book of Proverbs does indeed contain “figures,” “obscure sayings,” “enigmas” “riddles,” and “satire.” Proverbs is full of similes, metaphors, and allegory. For example, some people’s words are “like” the piercing of a sword (Prov. 12:18). Also, “Wisdom” and “Folly” are personified and allegorized throughout Proverbs, being portrayed as two women who vie for the attention of the people. Some of the proverbs are “obscure sayings” such as Proverbs 1:31 that fools will be “satisfied” from their own plans. Some are satire, such as Proverbs 19:27, which is meant to be taken the opposite from what is said. Some are riddles, such as Proverbs 26:4-5, two proverbs that seem to give the opposite advice. There is great wisdom in Proverbs, but it is not all on the surface. But as we get to know and understand Proverbs, we better know and understand God.
“riddles.” The Hebrew is chiydah (#02420 חִידָה), and means a riddle, an enigmatic saying, an obscure saying. In today’s vernacular, a “dark saying” is a dismal, gloomy, saying with a foreboding or somehow threatening message. That is not the case with this Hebrew word. There are no “dark” overtones. It is a riddle, an obscure saying. This verse is a huge key to understanding Proverbs. There is a movement in Christianity today, evidenced by the “dynamic equivalent” translations on the market that make the Bible “easy” to read and easy to understand. The problem with that is that the underlying languages were not easy to understand even to the people who spoke those languages. Many of the Proverbs are “obscure,” or “enigmatic,” or just plain riddles. God is asking for our time and energy to figure out what these verses mean and how to apply them.(top)
“the fear of Yahweh.” The Hebrew word “fear” in Proverbs 1:7 is the feminine noun yirah (#03374 יִרְאָה), and it has a wide semantic range. Its meanings range from “terror, fear, being afraid” (Gen. 26:7; Exod. 2:14; Judg. 6:27); to “respect, reverence; sometimes mixed with a sense of awe” (Lev. 19:3; Deut. 10:12; Josh. 4:14; Job 1:1. The masculine noun gives more the sense of awe in 1 Kings 3:28). Sometimes all the meanings exist in one context, because it is possible to be afraid of something and reverence it and hold it in awe at the same time.
Although it is common today to Christians to think that “fear God” only means “respect God,” or “hold God in awe,” that is not correct, and it is not being honest with the text or the cultural context and social history of the phrase. Historically people did “fear God” in the sense that they were genuinely afraid of Him. Although He bestowed blessings, He also was a God of judgment. In fact, the reason that “respect God” was biblically phrased as “fear God,” or “the fear of God” was that respect for God was rooted in the fear of God: if you did not respect God, you had good reason to fear Him. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
Throughout the Bible we see evidence of why people were afraid of God. For example, in Genesis there was Noah’s Flood that wiped out all the evil people on earth; and also God’s fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin (Gen. 18:20-19:25). In Exodus we see the plagues that came upon Egypt, some of which also affected the Israelites in Egypt. In Leviticus we see that when Aaron’s sons offered unlawful fire before Yahweh, fire came out of their censers and burned them to death (Lev. 10:1-3). God also had His tent (the “Tabernacle”) put behind curtains that were five cubits high (about 7.5 feet based on an 18 inch cubit; Exod. 27:18) so that people could not see over them, and in this way He was kept separate from all Israelites who were not Levites or priests. Any unauthorized person who came to God’s sanctuary was to be put to death (Num. 3:5-10, 38).
Although in New Testament times we do not often see disobedience to God bring harsh and immediate consequences, there are still consequences. Furthermore, those consequences can be very serious. God does not threaten us, instead He lovingly and honestly warns us the way a concerned parent warns a child. For example, He tells us that the unsaved will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. He does not want for that to happen, but He honors our choice to live and die, as He always has: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed” (Deut. 30:19). It is our choice to obey and be blessed or disobey and receive consequences.
Examples of disobedience bringing consequences exist throughout the Bible. God was not to be trifled with. Disobedience was dangerous. We should also keep in mind that in the biblical culture, the fact that God was dangerous was not something unusual. Pagan gods were dangerous too. But whereas God was righteous and dangerous to the disobedient, pagan gods were capricious and cruel and dangerous to everyone (which makes sense because they were actually demons).
A problem we have today with the word “fear” is that it is seldom understood because it is not often used in the context of healthy fear of a righteous judge. Often we “fear” things that can hurt us unexpectedly or in unexpected ways, such as cancer. Or we fear things that are always dangerous and unpredictable, such as sharks. Or we fear what we don’t really understand or don’t want, like death. But God is different than those things. He is not unpredictable. In fact, quite the opposite. He is very predictable and cannot lie. God will not hurt us unexpectedly, and if we don’t know much about Him that is only because we have not really taken the time to learn about Him. He says, “For my people are fools, they do not know me (Jer. 4:22; cp. Jer. 9:3). A reason to fear God is that He is the Most High God and He will punish evil and disobedience, just as He has said over and over. But because God is righteous and is predictable and does not lie, we don’t have to have an unhealthy fear of Him or of Judgment Day. It is not hard to love and obey God. As Jesus said, his yoke is gentle and his burden light.
The Bible, especially the New Testament, reveals the character of God and shows that He is loving and worthy of our love. However, the Bible also reveals that God is righteous and just, and the disobedient and rebellious will receive consequences for their ungodly behavior, and it is wise to be afraid of those consequences and hence “fear God.”
“fools.” The Hebrew word for “fool” is eviyl (#0191 אֱוִיל). It is a very significant word within Proverbs, and seventy percent of all its occurrences in the Hebrew Bible can be found there. A fool is not so much someone who lacks raw intelligence as one who possesses deep-seated foolish attitudes, as this verse makes clear. A fool thinks wisdom and knowledge are not important, in fact they hold them in contempt and sometimes even despise them.
“show contempt for.” The Hebrew word is buz (#0936 בּוּז pronounced booze), and it means “to despise, to have contempt for, to count as insignificant. All those meanings are important and applicable in this context. There are some fools who actually “hate” knowledge, but most fools just have contempt for it or think it is insignificant. [For more on “despise,” see commentary on Prov. 23:22, “despise”].(top)
“instruction.” The Hebrew word is torah (#08451 תֹּרָה torah or תּוֹרָה towrah). Traditionally, torah is translated “law,” but that translation is easily misunderstood by giving the wrong impression because torah means much more than just “law,” in the sense of legal codes to obey. On a basic level, it means guidance or instruction, but it also has meanings that include doctrine, custom, theory, etc. We see this clearly in “the Torah,” which was the name the Jews gave to the first five books of the Bible, the five “Books of Moses”—Genesis through Deuteronomy.
“The Torah” is much more than regulations (“law”); it is a whole set of examples, historical records, moral and legal regulations, customs, and the acts of God, which people are to then use as the basis of their society and to develop sound thinking. The Torah gave guidance, and even some specific regulations to obey and use as examples in their lives. A person who studies the Torah learns how to think like God thinks, and gains wisdom and insight, learns how to deal with life in order to be godly, learns the importance of godly families, and learns the basics of how to live in and govern a godly society. Actually, torah does not even mean “law,” even though it gets translated that way in the majority of English Bibles. It is well known that at age 13 a proper Jewish boy goes through a ceremony called “Bar-mitzvah,” and becomes a “son of the law.” That is because “bar” means “son” and mitzvah (#04687 מִצְוָה) means “law” or “commandment.” So, if we were going to pick an English word that was somewhat close to torah, a better choice than “law” would be “instruction.”
So, in many places in the Bible, translating torah as “law” is far too limited in scope, and although “teaching” or “instruction” is a better translation, in order to properly understand the Bible, the wise Christian should learn what torah means so he can better understand and appreciate what God is saying. Torah is at the very heart of the Old Covenant, and the New Covenant is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.(top)
“wreath…necklace.” Note the striking poetry and metaphor that depicts God’s instruction and Torah as ornaments to be visibly and unashamedly worn. We are not to be ashamed of the Good News and God’s truth. Although we walk with wisdom, we are always to be glad about God’s favor and the privilege of being ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).(top)
“My son.” This section of Proverbs begins the warning for readers to avoid associating with what might be appropriately labeled as ‘gangs’ and other bad company (cp. 1 Cor 15:33). Believers should not be so naïve as to assume that they can hang around with godless sinners and not be affected by them or be tempted to live according to their ways. It is a very fine line to be able to associate with sinners and bring the Good News to them while staying separate from the way they think and act. “Come out from the midst of them, and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Cor. 6:17).(top)
“come with us.” This phrase is more powerful in Proverbs than we normally take it, due to the culture of the time and the vocabulary of traveling on a road or path as an idiom for a way of life. The sinners were not inviting the young man to go with them on a one-time crime spree; they were inviting him into a sinful and criminal way of life—one that would end in disaster here on earth and annihilation in the next life. The father understood that, so he says, “do not walk on the road with them,” meaning “do not get involved with that lifestyle” (Prov. 1:15).
What the naïve, inexperienced, simple, and foolish people don’t realize is that sin is not just an event, it becomes a lifestyle with tentacles that reach into every part of one’s life. Once someone gets involved in sin, the tendency is to go deeper and deeper into it, and it is extremely difficult to extract oneself from a sinful lifestyle. The best plan is the father’s plan—don’t get into it in the first place. The next best plan is that if you are caught up in sin, do what it takes to get out. There may be painful consequences here on earth, but they will be nothing compared to the eternal consequences you face after Judgment Day if you continue in sin. And always keep in mind that God wants people to repent and walk with him, and many people have humbled themselves, repented and changed their lifestyle only to find that God gave them great grace and supported them in ways they could not have imagined while they were afraid and caught in sin.(top)
“Sheol.” In this verse, the Hebrew word Sheol is transliterated directly into English. Sheol is most accurately, “the state of being dead.” Although sometimes the “grave” is an acceptable translation of Sheol, the Hebrew has a specific word for the physical grave, qeber (#06913קֶבֶר). The fact that Sheol has no accurate English equivalent word, we chose to transliterate Sheol so the English reader could see when it was used.
Versions that translate Sheol as “hell” or “Hades” make a big mistake because in Hell and Hades, dead people are said to be alive and suffering, while the Bible makes it clear that people in Sheol are dead in every way. When a person dies, they enter Sheol, the state of death, and all of the dead go to Sheol when they die (cp. Gen. 3:19; Ps. 90:3; Ecc. 3:20).
Here in Proverbs 1:12, Sheol is personified as having a mouth with which it “swallows” its victims into the earth (cp. Num. 16:30-34; 26:10; Deut. 11:6). [For more information on Sheol, and the Greek word hadēs that was used by the Septuagint translators as the Greek translation of Sheol, see commentary on Rev. 20:13, “the grave.” For more on the fact that when a person dies he is dead in every way and form, including his “soul” and “spirit,” see Appendix 4, “The Dead Are Dead”].(top)
“valuable things.” It is foolish and stupid to acquire wealth by means of sinful and immoral activities, even if those activities are “legal” in the eyes of human law. Any riches gained by immoral activity will actually count against people on the Day of Judgment. The wise can find true wealth by seeking after Lady Wisdom, with whom are riches and wealth (Prov. 8:18). If despite a person’s hard work and wisdom he does not gain earthly riches, he should not be overly concerned. The possession of wealth does not make one “blessed” by Yahweh, for He is more concerned with the motives of the heart than any physical wealth. Jesus taught, “Take care, and be on guard against every form of greediness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things that he possesses” (Luke 12:15).(top)
“share the loot.” The Hebrew is “have one purse,” but that does not make it clear they will share what they take, which is the intention of the Hebrew text.(top)
“walk on the road.” The Hebrew has both a literal and idiomatic meaning. The word “walk” and the metaphor of a road was widely used idiomatically for living life. When the father admonishes the son not to “walk on the road with them,” he means it literally, and he also means do not get caught up in their lifestyle.(top)
“feet.” Feet are used to run and to take people from one location to another. Here, the sinners use their feet to run to do evil. Jesus may have had this verse in mind when he said that if your hand or foot cause you to stumble, cut them off and throw them away (Matt. 18:8; Mark 9:45). No doubt many of the people in his audience would have known this section of Proverbs very well.(top)
“the net is spread.” This refers to a custom, and a way of capturing birds to eat. One way was that a net was spread on the ground, covered over or disguised in some way, and some kind of feed or grain was scattered on top. When the birds came to eat, the net was yanked and the birds were caught. A similar way was that two rectangular nets were spread out and concealed, and bait was placed between them, and when the birds came to the bait they were pulled up on either side of the birds who were caught when the birds tried to fly away. But you could not spread the net out while the birds were watching, or they would not be tricked and caught. Some commentators have suggested that the verse contains an ellipsis, “in vain is the net spread [with bait] in the sight of any bird.” While that is possible, it is not necessary. Another idea is that the verb we translate as “spread” should be “lift up,” with the idea that it is in vain to lift up the net before the birds are settled, eating and distracted. In any case, the point is that if the birds see the net, you will not be able to catch them.
The Bible is making the point that people who participate in evil by doing things like killing and robbing are more foolish than birds. The “net” and “death” that awaits them in their future should be clear to them because God speaks of it so clearly in so many places, but like foolish birds that ignore the net, they are caught in their own sin and will be destroyed in Gehenna after Judgment Day.
“bird.” The Hebrew is an idiom: “the possessor of wings.”(top)
“they set an ambush for their own souls.” It is a consistent theme through Scripture that evil people bring evil upon themselves. This can happen in many different ways, and often in multiple ways at the same time. Sometimes the righteous people in a society catch the evildoers and judge and punish them. Sometimes, because evil people associate with other evil people, they get betrayed by the people they were working or dealing with. Also, consistently evil people often become attacked by demons who afflict them physically, mentally, and spiritually. Also, always, evil people are eventually judged by God and get the righteous consequences of their evil actions.
Evil may seem to pay off in the short term, but eventually it results in horrible consequences. Many verses say that the evil deeds of evil people will eventually come upon them (cp. Ps. 7:15-16; 9:15; 10:2; 35:8; 57:6; 140:9; 141:10; Prov. 1:31; 5:22; 14:14; 26:27; 28:10; Jer. 2:19; Ezek. 11:21). [For information about evil and ungodly behavior opening a person up to demonic attacks, see commentary on Prov. 13:21].(top)
“who pursues unjust gain.” The Hebrew is an idiom and does not make sense when translated into English, which explains why there are so many different English translations. The Hebrew is more literally, “all who cuts off a cut” (B. Waltke, Proverbs) but the word “cut” used in that context refers to unjust gain, almost like we might say in English that the thieves each got a “cut” of the loot. The NET text note picks up the idea of “cut” referring to unjust gain and goes with those who “unjustly gain unjust gain.” The English Bibles try to bring the Hebrew idiom into English, some being more literal, some simply trying to find some sort of equivalent English idea: “greedy of gain” (ASV; KJV; cp. CJB); “greedy for unjust gain” (ESV); “gains by violence” (NASB); “make profit dishonestly (HCSB); “go after ill-gotten gain” (NIV); “greedy for money” (NLT).
The translations differ, but the idea is clear: if a person goes about to enrich himself or make a living off of profit that he has gained unjustly, then “it takes away the soul” of the person. This taking away of the soul, where “soul” means “life,” has both an immediate and eschatological meaning. Here in this life, the dishonest person loses his “life.” Not only does he lose the fullness and joy of living, living a life of always looking over his shoulder to make sure he is not discovered and having to harden his heart against the people he is cheating, he is subject to quick and violent death if his activities are discovered. From an everlasting perspective, the person will lose his life, burning to ashes in the Lake of Fire. This verse should serve as a severe warning to those people who are not doing well financially in life and are tempted to turn to a life of crime to supposedly be better off.(top)
“Wisdom.” We can see from the scope of Proverbs and from the context of this verse that “Wisdom” is being used figuratively—it is being portrayed as a person; a woman. Taking a concept and speaking of it as if it were a person is the figure of speech “personification,” and personification is quite common in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew poetry.
“Personification” occurs when something that is not a person is described as a person. We humans relate so well to other humans that referring to something as a person often makes a complex subject easy to understand. Personification can also make an abstract idea or thought easier to understand than literal narrative does because it uses concrete imagery from human experience, so the Bible often uses personification when describing intangible concepts.
Whereas stating something factually gives us information, the figure of speech personification communicates both information and emotion well. For example, saying the people of Israel broke their covenant with God gives us information but does not communicate much emotion. In contrast, referring to Israel as a woman and saying she deserted her husband and committed adultery with her pagan lovers gives us the information but also brings up a host of emotions. Similarly, we can very factually say the earth will be blessed when it is restored to a pristine state in the Messianic Kingdom, or we can communicate the joy and excitement by personification and say, “the mountains and the hills will break forth into singing…and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands” (Isa. 55:12).
There are many dozens of examples of personification in the Bible. Wisdom is portrayed as a woman calling out for people to listen to her (Prov. 8:1). Ethiopia is portrayed as a woman stretching out her hands to God (Ps. 68:31); The blood of Abel is portrayed as a person crying out from the ground after Cain killed him (Gen. 4:10). The waters of the sea, which split to let Israel escape from Egypt, are portrayed as being afraid of God and thus running away: “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid” (Ps. 77:16 ESV).
“Wisdom” is personified in the book of Proverbs so that the reader can better understand the virtuous qualities that wisdom can offer and the role it played in God’s acts of creation. Similarly, “Folly” (foolishness) is personified in Proverbs (cp. Prov. 9:13) so we can see how foolish people think and act, and also see the disastrous consequences of their actions.
We should also pay attention to the fact that Wisdom is personified as a woman, not a man, and so is “Folly” (Prov. 9:13), and also Wisdom’s female attendants, such as “discernment” (Prov. 2:2, tebunah #08394 [תְּבוּנָה]); “understanding” (Prov. 2:3, 1st stanza, biynah #0998 [בִּינָה]); and “discretion” (Prov. 2:11, mezimmah #04209 [מְזִמָּה]), which are all feminine nouns. In fact, one cannot read Proverbs in the Hebrew without getting the feeling that God has gone out of His way to find feminine nouns that support the personification of Wisdom and her attendants.
Casting “Wisdom,” “understanding,” “discernment,” and “discretion” as women adds to the overall sense of what God is saying in Proverbs about desiring those things and following after them in life. Culturally, the readers of Proverbs would be men because women (and lower-class men) typically were not taught to read, and Proverbs is specifically for the young and inexperienced, thus the young men, although to others as well (Prov. 1:4). The young men should be interested in, and desire, the godly women, but will they? Wisdom and her female friends call out to them, but they are godly and demand things like being wise and exerting self-control. Alas, Wisdom has a rival: Folly. Folly (Prov. 9:13) uses her sex and sensual pleasures to appeal to the young men, and despite Wisdom’s warning that those who “visit” her end up dead, many foolish young men ignore the consequences and follow their fleshly desires.
One thing that is important to understand when reading a personification, such as Wisdom, is that even though it is portrayed as a woman, “Wisdom” refers to any wise person, male or female. Thus, when Proverbs 14:1 says that “Lady Wisdom has built her house,” the person who understands the figure personification knows that “Lady Wisdom” refers to both women and men. The verse is saying that the wise woman or man builds up their house, but “Folly,” the foolish woman or man, tears it down.
Culturally, Proverbs portrays Lady Wisdom doing things that women would not do, or almost never do, in the biblical culture. For example, women would almost never be calling out at the city gate, which is where the town elders gathered, who would have been men (Prov. 1:20; 8:3); nor would a woman send her young female servants out into the town to gather people for a feast; male servants would be sent to do that (Prov. 9:3). Similarly, “Wisdom,” as an advisor would be either a man or woman depending on who was getting the advice (Prov. 13:10). These verses are not a cultural aberration giving women jobs they culturally would not do; the reader would understand they applied to wise men, who are included in the figure personification.
Every person makes the decision to follow either God or the flesh, and how we decide is reflected in what we think, say, and do, as Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16).
“raises her voice.” The Hebrew is literally, “gives forth her voice,” but it is an idiom for speaking loudly, raising one’s voice, or shouting. Idioms can be hard to spot when the literal seems to make sense, and this is one of those places. That is why a scholar has to know the language very well.
Although it would not necessarily be common to hear women raising their voices in public in the biblical culture, it was not unheard of. Throughout history there were wise women who rose to prominence and were given a voice in the city and even in the whole country. Deborah became the judge over Israel because of her wisdom and prophetic ability (Judges 4 and 5). A wise woman saved the city of Abel Beth-maachah from Joab and David’s army (2 Sam. 20:16-19). A read through the Old Testament shows a number of wise women, especially prophetesses, who rose to prominence through their wisdom and actions.
“At the head of noisy streets.” The Hebrew is literally, “at the head of the noisy,” with noisy being an adjective, a substantive, which native Hebrew readers of the time would automatically fill in with “noisy places,” “noisy streets,” etc. The point is that Wisdom wants people to have the opportunity to hear her, so she goes where the people are, which then are the “noisy” places.
The reason the verse says at the “head” of noisy places is that it is making a reference to the city gate, which is the “head” of all the streets in the city. Although the large city of Jerusalem had several gates, that was unusual because Jerusalem was one of the largest cities in ancient Israel (Hazor was likely as large or larger). Most of the cities in Israel had only one gate (although sometimes the location of the city gates changed, as we see at the city of Dan, which had a Bronze Age gate on the east side, but a later gate on the south side). From the city gate, all the different major streets of the city would start and then wind their way through the city, branching into different alleyways, but the gate was the “head” of all the streets.
“where the city gates open.” The gate of the cities in Israel almost always opened to a large open area where people gathered to meet friends, get the news, conduct business and just hang out to see what was happening. In Greek towns, this happened more at the town center, the agora (Acts 17:17), but in the cities in Israel the city gate was where the elders sat and the people gathered.
In the biblical culture of the Old Testament it was the custom that the elders of a city would sit at the city gate (Gen. 19:1, 9; Deut. 21:19; 22:15; 25:7; Josh. 20:4; Ruth 4:11; 1 Sam. 4:18; Esther 2:19, 21; 3:2; Lam. 5:14; Dan. 2:49; cp. Amos 5:10). Sometimes even the king of the land would sit at the gate of the city (2 Sam. 19:8; 1 Kings 22:10). Most cities had only one gate, and so everyone who went in or out of the city would have to pass through that gate. Furthermore, there was usually an open space just inside the gate so there was plenty of room for people to gather.
The elders at the gate were generally older, mature men who were the powerful men of the city. As elders and often acting as judges, they were supposed to be godly and wise, which is why “Wisdom” could be found at the city gates (cp. Prov. 1:20-21). However, it was sometimes the case that the powerful men of the city were self-centered or ungodly, in which case the advice they gave would be ungodly too. Proverbs, reflecting the wisdom of the time, advises people to get advice from a multitude of counselors, and often those wise counselors could be found at the city gate (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6).
The larger cities often had a “double gate” for security. A double gate was a gate complex consisting of an outer gate and an inner gate with a space between them. The idea behind the double gate was that if an enemy managed to break down the outer gate they would not be able to break down the inner gate because while they were trying to breach it the city defenders could shoot arrows and spears, or throw rocks, or pour boiling water or oil down on top of them from the city walls surrounding them. The Old Testament city of Lachish is a good example of that.
If the city had a double gate, sometimes the elders sat “in” the gate, in the shade between the walls. The Hebrew “in” can also usually be translated “at,” so whether the elders were “at” the gate or “in” it usually has to be determined from the archaeology of the city. For example, Bethlehem was not a big city so when it did have a wall during what archaeologists refer to as the First Temple Period, it would have been a simple wall with just one gate, not a double gate, so the elders would have sat “at” the gate, not “in” it. [For more information on the elders at the gate, and that a person could seek wise advice there, see commentary on Prov. 1:21, “at the head of noisy streets”].
Here in Proverbs 1:21, “Wisdom” is a personification; there is no “person” named wisdom, so what does it mean that she raises her voice in the noisy places? There were always older people and wise people with whom one could confer at the city gates and where people gathered.
The idea of the elders and judges of a city being present at the gate of the city is a consistent one through Scripture and the point Scripture is making is that there is no reason to be unwise about something, there are people who can give you wise advice if you seek them out.(top)
“How long.” This begins the speech of Lady Wisdom, which continues until the end of the chapter.
“hate.” In this context “hate” has a number of different possible meanings, or a range of possible meanings, because there are many different kinds of fools. Some fools are hostile to knowledge, while others simply ignore it.
When the English reader sees the word “hate” in the Bible, it is natural to think in terms of the common dictionary definition of “hate,” which is an intense aversion, an intense emotional dislike, or an intense hostility to something. For example, the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines hate as a “deep, enduring, intense emotion expressing animosity, anger, and hostility towards a person, group, or object.” But the Hebrew and Greek words for “hate” have a much broader range of meaning than the English word, and this can confuse the English reader.
The most common Hebrew word for hate is sane (#08130 שָׂנֵא) and the Greek word for hate is miseō (#3404 μισέω). The word “hate” in Hebrew and Greek can run the full range of meanings between intense emotional hostility to simple avoidance. The uses of “hate” listed below show some of the range of meanings that the Hebrew and Greek words have in the Bible.
Often the word “hate” has a combination of the above meanings. For example, when God tells us to “hate” evil and love good (Amos 5:15), He wants us to have nothing to do with evil, be disgusted and repulsed by it, and actively work to eradicate it. That extensive meaning goes for verses such as Deuteronomy 16:22, where God says he “hates” the idolatrous sacred pillars. Ecclesiastes 3:8 is another verse that lumps many different meanings into the one use of “hate.” It says there is a time to “love” and a time to “hate,” but that can mean everything from there being a proper time to engage in helpful or hostile activity toward someone or something; a proper time to be delighted in or disgusted by someone or something; or a proper time to pay attention to or neglect and ignore someone or something.
Sometimes the exact nature of the “hate” in a given context is unknown, or the context covers such a large number of individuals that “hate” includes all the different meanings that apply to the different people in the group. For example, when Moses was moving the camp of God through the desert toward the Promised Land, he said, “let those who hate you flee before you” (Num. 10:35). While there were people in Canaan who actually “hated” Yahweh in the sense they were actively hostile to Him, the majority of the Canaanites were simply engaged in the worship of other gods and did not know Him or care about Yahweh. Given the range of meaning of “hate,” all those unbelieving Canaanites “hated” Yahweh even though some were emotionally and physically hostile to Him while others simply ignored Him.
The word “hate” is a good example of a word that has a specific meaning in English but does not have that same meaning in the Bible, which is why we have to learn the language, customs, and idioms of the Bible.(top)
“to you all.” The Hebrew is literally, “with you all.” Although the meaning is closer to the English translation “to you,” it helps us understand the Bible when we know that the Hebrews spoke of words (or knowledge) being “with them.” Once we know that background, we can better understand why John 1:1 would say the Word was “with God.” A wise person kept the Wisdom’s words “with them.”(top)
“stretched out my hand.” The imagery here of lady Wisdom “stretching out her hand” should be read as an extension of the poetic metaphor used to personify God’s wisdom as actively involved with His creation; she is actively trying to help people. Wisdom stretching out her arms is not to be regarded as an indication that Lady Wisdom is an actual person alongside Yahweh who has literal physical arms. The exact Hebrew phrase about stretching out the hand is used of Yahweh in Ezekiel 16:27 to indicate His interaction with the Israelites in an attempt to offer help and deliverance (see also Exod. 7:5; Deut. 4:34; and Isa. 9:12).(top)
“neglected.” The Hebrew is literally, “let go of,” which in this case refers to neglect. It is not that the person never had, or had readily available, God’s counsel and advice, but rather he “let it go,” he neglected it. Far too many Christians neglect God’s Word and then don’t have it in their minds when it could really help them. Jesus Christ is our example and it is clear that he had God’s Word and “it is written” clearly in his mind.(top)
“I will mock.” This sounds so harsh, but it is actually just a statement of fact. People mock God and Wisdom, and then get themselves into trouble and receive the consequences of their actions. Those consequences often cannot be undone, and sometimes cannot even be mitigated. A person who ignores Wisdom and drives drunk, wrecks his car and cripples himself and kills his passengers cannot undo that damage, and will pay for it for years to come—perhaps his whole life. A man or woman who is sexually promiscuous and gets an incurable venereal disease may live with that consequence the rest of his or her life. The point of the Bible personifying Wisdom and saying she “mocks” is making the point that she cannot undo the damage you did to yourself. Wisdom is not bringing the punishment, the punishment is a consequence of one’s own actions.
“what you dread.” The literal Hebrew is “when your dread comes.” The main emphasis is a metonymy, where “dread” is put for “what you dread.” However, there is also a very literal sense to the verse, because when “what you dread” comes, your dread comes too. Although sometimes what people dread comes upon them in this life, often those who mock God and Wisdom die rich and in peaceful circumstances. Nevertheless, no one can escape God’s judgment. Judgment Day will come upon them, and because they had no fear of God, they will fear the flames of Gehenna, and die in them.
This verse, like hundreds of others like it, puts the responsibility for disaster upon the person—no one has to mock God, no one has to reject Wisdom. God begs people to turn from wickedness and be saved, but if they refuse, God respects their decision and they will eat the fruit of their ways.(top)
“terror.” Here “terror,” “calamity,” “trouble,” and “distress” are personified as actually travelling to those who refuse to heed the voice of Lady Wisdom. That these four are personified continues the line of the use of the figure of speech personification within this section, which began earlier with Lady Wisdom. It is not just an accident that people who ignore God and wisdom have trouble in their lives. Sinful activity actually brings trouble upon people, and that trouble can come from many different sources, including lawful authorities bringing justice and vengeful “partners” or competing parties who want any ill-gotten gain for themselves, and much more. Some ungodly activities can even open the doors of a person’s life to demonic oppression and possession. Although godly people experience troubles too, at least they will be vindicated on Judgment Day. Not so the wicked, who suffer both in this life and in the next.(top)
“I will not answer.” This is a statement of fact. People who are in trouble because they ignored Wisdom often call out for her and for the deliverance they want, but to no avail. Often the consequences of foolishness cannot be undone. See commentary on Proverbs 1:26, “I will mock.”(top)
“hated.” This is one of the places where “hate” refers to something that a person did not choose, and thus did not support and pay attention to, but instead chose something else. One of the standard Semitic definitions of “hate” was “to “ignore, neglect, love less” or “not choose someone or something,” instead choosing someone or something else.
The immediate and remoter contexts of this verse lead us to believe that “not choose, ignore, and neglect” is the meaning of “hate” in this verse, because “hate” in the first phrase is juxtaposed with “not choose” in the second phrase. The “they” in the phrase “they hated knowledge” refers to the naïve ones, the mockers, and the fools (Prov. 1:22). The naïve ones “loved” their naivety, that is, they chose it over knowledge, and the mockers did the same thing by “delighting” in their mocking. Meanwhile, the fools “hated” knowledge, that is, they chose ignorance over knowledge.
There is no need to be naïve, a mocker, or foolish. As we see in Proverbs 1:31-32, that kind of stupid behavior only results in trouble, and can lead to death and destruction—dying in this life and everlasting death instead of everlasting life in the age to come. God says, “Today I call heaven and earth to be witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live” (Deut. 30:19). We humans have the freedom of will to choose life or death, and the wise person chooses life. [For more on the biblical use of “hate,” see commentary on Prov. 1:22, esp. definition 4].(top)
“counsel.” Proverbs 1:30 sets God’s counsel in parallel with his words of reproof. Oftentimes, God’s counsel and advice suggests that the listener needs to repent and reorient their behavior. Since this particular counsel is godly counsel expressed through Lady Wisdom, it would be wise to change one’s behavior and thinking to line up with the counsel and reproof.(top)
“way.” This is the Hebrew word derek (#01870 דֶּרֶךְ), referring to a road, not just a small path or “way,” but we felt like “way” read much better here than “road.”
“satisfied” This is one of the wonderful “obscure expressions” and “riddles” of the wise (cp. Prov. 1:6). The Hebrew word translated “satisfied” here in Proverbs 1:31 is saba (#07646 שָׂבַע), which refers to eating or drinking enough to be satisfied. However, it also has the negative meaning of eating to the point of being overfull and then getting sick or getting to the point the food is revolting, and in that sense, it is used for being repaid for what one has done, thus they will “get what their ways deserve” (NRSV). The context determines which meaning saba has, but in this verse both meanings apply. The two contrasting meanings of saba account for the different translations, those which read “satisfied” or “filled,” (ASV; KJV; NASB; NIV; Rotherham), and those which try to say “filled” but in a negative way (“overfilled” CJB; “glutted” HCSB; “glutted” NAB; “stuffed full” NET).
This is a good example of the figure of speech amphibologia (double entendre), where a word has two (or more) different meanings and both are true. The people who ignore the counsel and reproof of Wisdom are generally “satisfied” with the choice they have made. For example, if they choose to ignore Wisdom and steal and rob to get rich, they may be very satisfied with their wealth, or if they choose to lie and defame others to get political position and power, they may be very satisfied with that. But eventually, even if it takes until Judgment Day, those fools will be “stuffed full” to the point of revulsion with the results of their own plans. This verse is similar to Proverbs 14:14. It is a consistent theme through Scripture that evil people bring evil upon themselves (see commentary on Prov. 1:18).(top)
“turning away.” The Hebrew is meshuwbah (#04878 מְשׁוּבָה) and it occurs 13 times in the OT, with all the occurrences in Jeremiah and Hosea except this verse in Proverbs. In the prophets it referred to Israel turning away from God and the Covenant they made to keep His laws. Here in Proverbs the simple one, a naïve and foolish person, turns away from wisdom, the right way, etc. It seems that because in Proverbs it is the simple one who turns away that it is not referring to someone who sets out to do evil, rather it is the simple person who gives no thought to his way and just follows every emotion and inclination. In fact, he could wander back and forth between truth and error if that was how he felt at the moment (cp. “aimless wandering” CJB by D. Stern). He does not “turn” from his way to follow wisdom (Prov. 1:23), but “turns away” from wisdom and what is right, and ends up dead—eternally dead, but sometimes even coming to a premature death on earth. Such grave consequences! God created us and expects us to love and obey Him. If we are too foolish to do that, we “eat the fruit of our own way” (Prov. 1:31). We could see “turning away” as a personification here, although it is a weak one, because “turning away” kills the person.
“false security.” The Hebrew word is shalvah (#07962 שַׁלְוָה), and it means quietness, ease, rest, security, unconcern, or prosperity. It can refer to a feeling of security, or a feeling of false security. Here it refers to the feelings of false security that the fool has, not seeing the dangers of life or his responsibility to God and man, he does not see disaster coming. The ASV says, “careless ease,” and fools certainly have that too. Other versions read ‘complacency,” which means “an inclination to please,” and does not seem to fit the profile of most fools.(top)
“will live in safety.” This is one of the many “ideal” promises in the Word of God which would be fulfilled here on earth today if we lived in a godly world with godly people. We do not, so this promise will be fully fulfilled in the future. [For more on promises like this, see commentary on Prov. 19:5].(top)