Proverbs Chapter 4
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Go to Bible: Proverbs 4
“O sons.” This is the first occurrence of the plural, “sons.” The translation reflects the Hebrew text and the culture of the time, in which a father would instruct the male children, particularly as they got older. However, the instruction is as valuable for women as for men.
“learn.” The Hebrew word is literally the common word yada, “to know,” (#03045 ידע), but here it is being used more in the sense of “to learn.”(top)
“good.” The Hebrew word is tov (#02896 טוֹב), the standard word for “good,” which has a huge semantic range. It is the word used in Genesis 1 when God said of His works that they were “good.” It refers to good of all kinds, including mental, moral, and material good. Thus it can mean things such as, “pleasant, agreeable; good, right, excellent; valuable, rich, prosperous; happy, glad; kind; appropriate; and better.” In this context, it clearly also includes “sound” or “accurate.” The best way to understand the teaching that the father gave is that it is “good” in lots of different ways. It would be sound and accurate, mentally and morally helpful, valuable, etc.
“instruction.” The Hebrew word is torah (#08451 תֹּרָה torah or תּוֹרָה towrah). Traditionally, torah is translated “law,” but that translation gives English readers the wrong impression (the Hebrew word mitzpah means “law” or “commandment”). Torah means much more than just “law.” On a basic level, it means guidance or instruction, but that instruction also includes doctrine, custom, theory, regulations, etc. “The Torah” instructs us through moral and legal regulations, examples, historical events, practical advice, customs, and the acts of God. We are to use Torah to develop sound thinking. A person who studies the Torah learns how to think like God thinks.
[For more on Torah, see commentary on Prov. 1:8.](top)
“only son.” This phrase is rare (under ten times in MT), but its most prominent use is in Genesis 22:2, where it means “only son” within that context. The fact that the teacher says “only son in the sight of my mother” means he may not have been the only son, but felt special as if he was.(top)
|Pro 4:4||- (top)|
|Pro 4:5||- (top)|
|Pro 4:6||- (top)|
“Wisdom is the principal thing.” It is obvious from the scope of Proverbs that Wisdom is vital to life. Wisdom comes from Yahweh (Prov. 2:6), in fact, the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Wisdom is to be prized more than jewels or anything else people desire (Prov. 8:11). The person who finds wisdom is blessed (Prov. 3:13), but fools die because they lack wisdom (Prov. 10:13). Wisdom is the principal thing, the chief thing, it is supreme (cp. ASV, KJV, ERV, Geneva; NIV84; NET; Rotherham; YLT).
Like many things in life, wisdom can be simple but difficult. It can be easy to know what to do but difficult to do it. In the Semitic mindset, a person is not wise when he knows what to do but does not do it, he is wise when he actually does what he knows to do. Knowing what to do but not doing it is not wisdom in the biblical sense of the word; in fact, it is foolishness. However, wisdom is the principal thing, the supreme thing, so we should make up our minds to acquire wisdom, which includes following through and acting on what we know to do.
The Hebrew word that is translated in the REV by the phrase “the principal thing” is reshith (#07225 רֵאשִׁית), and it means “first, beginning, best, chief thing, main point,” which explains the wording in Young’s Literal Translation: “The first thing is wisdom.” Reshith is well known for its first use in the Bible, where it is translated “beginning” (Gen. 1:1). Scholars argue over the primary meaning of reshith in Proverbs 4:7, and whether it means “beginning, starting point,” or whether it means “chief thing, supreme thing.” The NET text note briefly explains the problem: “The absolute [state] and construct state of ) רֵאשִׁיתre’shit( are identical [see BDB]. Some treat ) רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָהre’shit khokhmah) as a genitive-construct phrase: ‘the beginning of wisdom’ )cf. NAB, NASB, NRSV(. Others take רֵאשִׁית [reshith] as an absolute functioning as predicate and חָכְמָה [‘wisdom’] as the subject: ‘wisdom is the first/chief thing’ (cf. KJV, ASV).”
Because God could have inspired Proverbs 4:7 to be written in a way that would not have allowed for the two possible translations, both of which are grammatically legitimate and both of which are true, we conclude that God intended for both meanings to be understood here: “Wisdom is the principal thing: get wisdom” and also, “the starting point of wisdom is this: get wisdom.” This makes Proverbs 4:7 an amphibologia; a verse with two meanings, both of which are true. A person fluent in biblical Hebrew reads the one verse and sees both meanings, while, sadly, English translators must choose which meaning they will put in their English translation and put the other meaning in a footnote or commentary entry.
The REV text has the translation, “Wisdom is the principal thing” because that seems to best fit the immediate context, and does not present a potential contradiction to the statement in Proverbs that the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Many commentators opt for the primary meaning being “the starting point [or “beginning”] of wisdom” because the word reshith occurs five times in Proverbs (Prov. 1:7; 3:9; 4:7; 8:22; 17:14), and the other four occurrences of reshith all mean “beginning,” “starting point,” or “first.” However, it often happens in both the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament that a word has one definition in a majority of verses but a different meaning in some verses, which is one reason why biblical lexicons usually have a number of different definitions for any given word.
However, as we have said, both translations are grammatically correct and fit within the scope of Proverbs. “Wisdom is the principal thing: get wisdom” certainly fits in Proverbs. Wisdom is the principal, chief, supreme thing. It is better than wealth or power, and God’s people should “seek her like silver, and search for her like hidden treasure” (Prov. 2:4). Also, however, the beginning of wisdom is to get wisdom. The starting point of being wise is realizing how important it is and then getting it—making the diligent effort to acquire it.
It is vital for the Christian to understand the importance of wisdom. The Devil does, and so he aggressively downplays it in the world. How much do we hear about wisdom in the media or the world around us? Little or nothing. The world constantly encourages people to do unwise things. Many examples could be given. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements that encourage people to spend money and go into debt rather than be frugal and live debt free. We are encouraged to consume food and drink that is not healthy (such as candy and soda pop). We are encouraged to follow our feelings into relationships and sexual union rather than be cautious and use wisdom, despite the fact that the divorce rate is 40-50% and many people who stay married are unhappy. Many young men and women participate in extreme sports and wrench limbs and break bones that seem to heal well when they are young but later in life result in aches and pain such as traumatic arthritis that will bring years of discomfort. Many other examples could be given, for they are legion, but the point is that the world encourages unwise living.
In general, Christian teaching does not help much, because it often puts an emphasis on “faith” rather than on wisdom. In fact, there is so much teaching on “faith” in the Christian world, and what faith can accomplish, that a believer might think the Bible said “Faith is the principal thing,” but that is not what it says. One of God’s laws of life is that a person reaps what they sow, and having faith will not reliably cancel that and make a person’s life wonderful if they have made unwise decisions. In God’s pyramid of success, wisdom is the principal thing, it is supreme. Christians should be keenly aware of that and constantly be asking themselves if what they are doing is the wise thing.
[For more information on faith, see Appendix 16, “‘Faith’ is ‘Trust’”].
“purchases.” The Hebrew noun is qinyan (#07075 קִנְיָן), and it refers to something that is acquired, something that is purchased, or wealth. It has overtones that are not just “getting” in the sense of accidentally finding or being given something, but rather that the person has purchased it or paid for it in some way. Some versions (cp. NASB; NET; Rotherham) use “acquire.” There is a great lesson here. Some people are offended that getting the truth costs them something, but it makes sense that something as valuable as truth has to be purchased in some way, including with both time and money. The Hebrew text has the root word for “purchase, buy, acquire,” three times in this verse, and a more literal translation of the text would be “Wisdom is the principal thing, so purchase wisdom; and with all your purchases, purchase understanding.” The point of the repetition is to emphasize that even though acquiring wisdom can be costly, it is worth the price.(top)
|Pro 4:8||- (top)|
|Pro 4:9||- (top)|
“and the years of your life will be many.” 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, and so there are people who obey God and their parents but who do not live long lives for any of a number of reasons: accidents, disease, crime, and more. This promise will only be fully fulfilled in the future.
[For more on promises like this, see commentary on Prov. 19:5.](top)
|Pro 4:11||- (top)|
“if you run.” The Hebrew text is clearly “if,” although some English versions think it is supposed to match the first stanza and thus translate it as “when.” But “when” is not really accurate here. Everyone walks a path of life—“walking” is unavoidable. But not everyone “runs” on it. It takes a lot to run in life, especially to run the distance race—running year after year. Runners need to trust God and have vision, courage, and tenacity. But it is worth it to spend the time it takes in prayer, seeking the will of the Lord, studying, getting wise counsel, and whatever else is needed, to be able to run for God—to give Him all you’ve got.(top)
“teaching…her…she.” The Hebrew of this verse reflects something that occurs elsewhere occasionally in the Hebrew text, which is that strict attention is not always paid to the gender of a noun, which is in part due to the fact that Hebrew only has two genders: masculine and feminine; it does not have a neuter gender. In this case, “instruction” is a masculine noun, but put with feminine independent pronouns thrusting even a masculine noun into a personified female role akin to Lady Wisdom.(top)
|Pro 4:14||- (top)|
|Pro 4:15||- (top)|
|Pro 4:16||- (top)|
|Pro 4:17||- (top)|
“until the full light of day.” The Hebrew phrase is literally, “until the day is established,” but that might be unclear to the English reader because we are not familiar with the idiomatic speech used in the Hebrew Bible. The meaning is “until the full light of day,” when the sun is up and the light is bright.
This is a very encouraging verse because it points to the reward in this life for being faithfully righteous. It takes time to develop an understanding of God and life, but that understanding brings a blessing and comfort to those that have it. Life may not get easier as we grow in the Lord, but our increased knowledge and understanding make life make more sense, and make it easier to bear hard times. This verse is not speaking of the full light of day being our next life—it is encouragement for this life—but the blessings of the next life might be considered an undertone in the verse.(top)
“gloomy darkness.” The Hebrew word translated “gloomy darkness” is aphelah (#0653 אֲפֵלָה), and it refers to “darkness, gloominess, calamity.”a But aphelah can refer to moral darkness, a darkness in the mind and soul as well as “darkness” (evil) versus “light” (good). Aphelah is used only ten times in the whole Old Testament, whereas other words for “dark” or “night” are used dozens of times.
The first time aphelah is used it refers to the supernatural plague of darkness that came upon Egypt as a judgment from God for their hardness of heart (Exod. 10:22). The second use of aphelah is in Deuteronomy 28 and was part of the curse pronounced upon Israel if it turned from the Law and Covenant. In the fourth use, Proverbs 7:9, the naïve young man goes to visit Folly, the adulteress. He goes “in the evening of the day, in the middle of the night and the gloomy darkness,” a graphic description of the physical and moral darkness involved in the seduction and adultery, as well as a good description of the moral darkness involved when people reject Wisdom and choose Folly, which is the wider context of Proverbs. The other uses of aphelah are Isaiah 8:22; 58:10; 59:9; Jeremiah 23:12; Joel 2:2; and Zephaniah 1:15.
Different versions and commentators have tried to capture the fuller meaning of aphelah, and so besides just “darkness,” English translations include “deep darkness” (ESV); “gloomy darkness” (NET); “darkest gloom” (HCSB); “total darkness” (NLT); and “night” (NJB). Michael Fox translates the verse: “The way of wicked is as the murk,” and quotes Ploger that this is “the darkness of their moral irresponsibility surrounding them.”b Bruce Waltke writes: “Without the moral light of either conscience within or of revelation without they do not know the cause of their calamity, for they see no connection between sin and death.”c Waltke also references Meinhold in noticing that this is the first time in Proverbs that the sinner “does not know” what he stumbles over, but that same judgment is made of the unfaithful wife (Prov. 5:6); the woman Folly (Prov. 9:13); and the ones seduced by her (Prov. 7:23; 9:18). These sinners do not know the ramifications of what they are doing or the consequences of their actions.
Sinners generally do not realize that when they begin to choose sin over obedience to God, their heart begins to harden and their conscience slowly becomes “seared as with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). The human heart is never stable, never “fixed.” It is constantly changing. That is good news for the sinner who wants to change, and it is why repentance works and people can change their behavior and thought patterns. But it is bad news for the person who wants to ignore God to indulge themselves in sin. Eventually, any tug of the conscience goes away. Also, eventually if not quickly, the consequences of sin become manifest in a person’s life, not to mention the unseen consequences to come on Judgment Day. Sin has done its work, darkness pervades, and the person does not know what they are stumbling over. That is why godly people must keep speaking up. Hope and help almost always must come from “the outside,” even if the outside help a person gets is a distant memory of a conversation or confrontation offering deliverance through Jesus Christ. There is always a chance that a sinner will hear the truth, come to realize their situation, and repent.
Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon.
Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 [NICOT].
|Pro 4:20||- (top)|
|Pro 4:21||- (top)|
“body.” The Hebrew text is literally “flesh,” but in this case, it refers to the whole body. This is an example of the figure of speech synecdoche, which generally occurs when a whole is put for a part of, or as here, where a part is put for the whole for emphasis (the emphasis occurs because the statement catches our attention). Literally, “flesh” excludes the blood, bones, etc., but in this case, those things are included. One way we can be sure that this verse is a synecdoche is that we would not normally think in terms of “all their flesh” (or, “their whole flesh”), so the inclusion of the word “all” alerts us to the synecdoche. E. W. Bullinger has an entire subsection on the word “flesh” being put for the body in his entry on synecdoche.a
[See word study on “synecdoche.”]
Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, s.v. “synecdoche.”
“issues.” The word “issues” is not an exact translation, but it captures the sense of the text, and especially so because the Hebrew text is hard to literally translate here. The Hebrew word is totsaah (#08444 תּוֹצָאָה) and means a source, a border, an exit, an outgoing, extremity, or end. We think Bruce Waltke gets the sense correct, and writes: “The noun…designates the actions of the verb, the “goings out.” The cartographer uses it for the ‘exits’ of a city (Ezek. 48:30) and, by metonymy, for ‘borders,’ ‘extremities’ of a territory (1 Chron. 5:16); the rescued psalmist uses it for ‘escaping’ from/before death (Ps. 68:20). The point here is that the heart is the source of the body’s activities.”a
Michael Fox writes that the Hebrew word means “outgoings,” and says, “In 20 of its 22 occurrences [totsaah] is a geographical term meaning ‘extremities,’ ‘outskirts,’ a sense inappropriate here. The verse designates the heart as the source of the ‘outgoings.’ Context requires understanding the word as the process or action of departure. In other words, life proceeds from the heart, which in this context is the inner core of the person’s life, not just what he is thinking at the time; the heart is life’s source.”b
Jesus confirmed that the heart is the source of much of what we say and do (Matt. 15:18-19; Mark 7:20-23), and because of that, we can easily see why the Word of God tells us to guard our hearts more closely than anything else we guard. The heart needs to be guarded because it is constantly changing—we cannot “get our hearts right” and then neglect them, thinking they will stay “right” forever.
The Bible has a lot to say about how a person’s heart can change. For example, it can turn directions (1 Kings 11:2-3, 9), become hard (Exod. 4:21; Josh. 11:20; Heb. 4:7); become proud or lifted up (Deut. 8:14; 2 Chron. 26:16; Ezek. 28:5); become humble (2 Chron. 32:26); become tender (2 Chron. 34:27); become strong (Ps. 10:17); become broken or be healed from being broken (Ps. 69:20; 147:3); be cleansed (Ps. 73:13); be destroyed (Eccles. 7:7); become “fat,” meaning stubborn (Isa. 6:10; Acts 28:27); be deceived (Isa. 44:20); become dull and stubborn (Matt. 13:15), be nourished (James 5:5); be established (James 5:8), be purified (James 4:8).
The great gatekeeper of the heart is the mind. Things get into our hearts through the mind, which is why it is so important to watch what we see and hear, and control our thoughts. Philippians 4:8 says to think about things that are true, pure, righteous, etc. Peace is also one of the guards that watches over our hearts (Phil. 4:7). It is also vital to control our actions. Uncontrolled actions only reinforce any anger or evil that is already in us. That is one reason why “self-control” is one of the fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:23).
The thoughts in our minds are constantly changing, which is why we use the phrase, “I changed my mind.” But the heart—the core of our mind and character—is more constant and changes much more slowly, and so it is a much better indicator of who we truly are as individuals. That is why the Bible says that God looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), and why He tests our hearts (Ps. 7:9; 17:3; Jer. 11:20; 1 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 2:23). People who want to please God must take Proverbs 4:23 seriously, and work diligently to guard their hearts so that they become more and more pure before God.
There is a great war going on between God and Satan for people’s hearts. The Devil knows that if he can win people’s hearts they will suffer a lot in this life and the next. For Satan to win someone’s heart they don’t have to openly worship him; they just have to think and act in ungodly ways. If we do not control our thought life and our actions and bring them in line with the Word of God, our heart will change and we will slowly become more ungodly, and sadly, we will often not even be aware we are being more and more ungodly. Solomon was the wisest man on the earth at one time, but he gave in to his sensual desires and his heart changed. He ended his life with lots of money, with 1,000 wives and concubines, and worshiping pagan gods (1 Kings 10:14-11:10), but Satan had won his heart and he “did evil in the eyes of Yahweh” (1 Kings 11:6). The blessing of God was off of his life. Wise Christians guard their heart and diligently watch what they see, hear, think, and do.
[For more information on “heart,” see commentary on Prov. 15:21.]
Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 [NICOT].
|Pro 4:24||- (top)|
“Focus.” The Hebrew word is nabat (#05027 נָבַט), which means “to look,” and here the verb is in the hiphil aspect, meaning to regard with one’s mind and sight. So it seemed like “focus” brought out the meaning of the verse more than just “look.”
God is not telling us in this verse to physically just look straight ahead and never look around; that would be foolish. In the idiom of Scripture, looking straight ahead is looking at the things of God, and also looking at the future. In Scripture, people who look to the side or turn to the side are turning to the ways of evil.(top)
|Pro 4:26||- (top)|
|Pro 4:27||- (top)|