Bible Commentary: Proverbs 4

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Proverbs 4

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Passing Instruction to the Next Generation

The fourth exhortation (Proverbs 4:1-27) is initially addressed to “my children” or “my sons” (NIV), but later returns to the singular address. This plurality may denote Solomon addressing multiple children. Yet it also may be a nod to the fact that the words here are intended as a collective address for a broader audience and are to be part of the instruction of all homes.

We earlier read verses 4-9 in conjunction with the life of David, as these words—if this chapter was written by Solomon, as it appears to be—constitute David’s instructions to him. Wisdom is exalted here as the principal thing to pursue, keep faith with, love, exalt and embrace. “The metaphor of Proverbs 4:1-9 is that of obtaining a wife, and verse 9 is a reference to the wedding when the bride placed a garland on the head of the bridegroom” (Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books, 1988, p. 169, note on 4:1–5:6). That is, David seemed to be telling Solomon to, in a figurative sense, marry wisdom. And David’s instruction was heeded initially. When presented with a choice of blessings from God, Solomon asked for wisdom and God was extremely pleased. Sadly, Solomon’s later marriages to foreign women, who led him away from God, was a betrayal of his figurative marriage to wisdom.

We may notice that there is no mention of God here, but He is of course integral to the true wisdom that sons are exhorted to seek. The NIV Application Commentary has this to say: “It is noteworthy that in contrast with chapter 3, there are no references to the presence or teaching of Yahweh, but this does not indicate that an earlier, nonreligious form of wisdom instruction has been preserved here. If anything, the verbal link between the father’s ‘instruction’ (Proverbs 4:1, musar) and Yahweh’s ‘discipline’ (Proverbs 3:11, also musar) indicates a tradition of teaching that begins with God and is passed from generation to generation. A series of additional verbal links suggests that the first half of this chapter is to be read in relation to the last half of the preceding chapter. Here is a chart that compares the discipline of Yahweh (Proverbs 3:12) with the instruction of the two fathers (Proverbs 4:1, Proverbs 4:4, Proverbs 4:10):

Proverbs 3 Proverbs 4
12: Yahweh’s musar like a father’s 1-3: The father’s musar
13: Wisdom and understanding 5-7: Wisdom and understanding
22: Life and grace 9-10: Grace and life
23: Safe way, not stumble 11-12: Straight way, not stumble
24: Sweet sleep 16: No sleep for the wicked
25: Ruin of wicked 19: Paths of wicked darkness
26: Yahweh your confidence 18: Path of righteous bright
31: Do not envy violent man 17: They drink wine of violence
31: Do not choose his ways 14-15: Do not walk in the way of evil men

“The significance of the comparison becomes clear when we observe that there is no mention of Yahweh in chapter 4 whereas he takes center stage in chapter 3. In chapter 3 we have the view from above; Yahweh is the one who teaches and disciplines, looks out and protects, and blesses the righteous. Chapter 4 gives us the view from below, in which fathers teach sons to observe the ways of both the righteous and wicked. It is a signal that this teaching comes from God. By placing chapters 3 and 4 next to one another, the sages who gave us these instructions [most likely Solomon here] meant to show that it would be a mistake to separate the wisdom instruction of the home from the wisdom teaching of the Lord. The picture of Yahweh teaching and correcting as a loving father (Proverbs 3:12) makes a theological statement that is key to all of the instructions in Proverbs 1–9, revealing the larger picture of what the parents are doing as they teach their son(s). They pass on what they have received from Yahweh, the source, the beginning of wisdom teaching. Therefore, the stress in this chapter is on the transmission of wisdom” (note on Proverbs 4:1-27).

Note also the emphasis on the “path” or “way” one chooses to go. To get to the right destination, one must stay exactly on the only path that leads there. Verse 18 is especially significant and inspiring. The end of the chapter (verses 20-27) tells us to keep all these principles firmly in mind and to watch where we’re going so as to stay on the right path.