Proverbs 3 – Trust the Lord, Not Self & Ancient Near Easter Wisdom

1 My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments:

2 For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee.

“length of days, and long life…shall they add to thee” –  fear of the Lord (10:27; 19:23) brings health to the body (v 8) and “prolongeth days” (10:27).

“peace” –  or “prosperity.”  When Solomon prayed for wisdom, God promised him riches as well as long life if he obeyed God’s commands (1 Kgs  3:13-14).  Normally the righteous are prosperous and happy (12:21), but sometimes it is the wicked who are strong and prosperous (Ps 73:3, 12), temporary though that may be (Ps 73:17-19).  Job 1-2 also shows how disaster and death can strike a godly person.

3 Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart:

“Bind…neck” –  like a beautiful necklace (cf 1:9); 3:22).

“Write them upon the table of thine heart” –

But he shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their

hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer 31:33).

4 So shalt thou find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man.

“favor” – see 8:35; Gen 6:8.

“God and man” – see Lk 2:52; Rom 12:17; 2 Cor 8:21.

5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

“Trust in the LORD” – commit your way to the Lord (Ps 37:5), like Israel’s forefathers, who trusted in God and were rescued (Ps 22:4-5).

“with all thine heart” – like Caleb (Num 14:24; Deut 1:36) or the godly King Hezekiah (Is 38:3).  David challenged Solomon to serve God with wholehearted devotion (1 Chr 28:9).

6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

“acknowledge him” –  be ever mindful of God and serve Him with a willing and faithful heart (see 1 Chr 28:9; Hos 4:1; 6:6).

“direct thy paths” – He will remove the obstacles from your pathway and bring you to your appointed goal (see 11:5; Is 45:13).

7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.

“Fear the LORD, an d depart from evil” –  Cf Job, who was a “perfect (blameless) and upright” man according to God Himself (Job 1:1)

8 It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones.

“bones” –  elsewhere, good news and pleasant words bring health to the bones (115:30; 16:24; cf 17:22), which stand here for the whole body.

9 Honor the LORD with thy substance, and with the first fruits of all thi ne increase:

“First fruits of…thine increase” –  the Israelites were required to give to the priests the first part of the olive oil, wine, and grain produced each year (see Lev 23:10; Num 18:12-13).

10 So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.

“filled with plenty” –  for those who bring to the Lord His tithes and offerings, God promises to pour out more blessing than they have room for (see Mal 3:10; see also Deut 28:8, 12; 2 Cor 9:8).

11 My son, despise not the chastening of the LORD; neither be weary of his correction:

Verses 11-12 – A warning that the righteous are not always prosperous.  Through times of testing and affliction, God is teaching them (see 12:1; Job 5:17; 36:22; Ps 119:71).  Heb 12:5-6 quotes both of these verses to encourage believers to endure hardship (Heb 12:7).

12 For whom t he LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.

“as a father” –  God disciplined His son Israel by testing the nation in the wilderness 40 years (Deut 8:2-5).  God will test or chastise those that seek Him (Heb 12:6-15).

13 Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.

Verses 13-18 – A poem praising wisdom, the first and last verse of which suggest that happiness attends those who find it.

14 For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.

“the merchandise of it is better than…silver, and…gold” –  the psalmist takes the same claim for the commands and precepts of the Lord (Ps 19:10; 119:72, 127).

15 She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.

“rubies” – See Job 28:18, where wisdom is also more valuable than rubies, and Prov 13:10, where the price of a “virtuous woman” is “far above rubies.”

Verses 15-18 – wisdom is personified.

16 Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honor.

17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

18 She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.

“tree of life” –  source of life.  This figure of speech may allude to the tree in the Garden of Eden (see Gen 2:9; cf Prov 11:30;13:12; 15:4).

19 The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens.

“founded the earth” – God’s work in creation is compared to the construction of a building (see 1 Kgs  5:17; 6:37;; see also 8:29; Job 38:4-6; Ps 104:5; Zech 12:1).

“established the heavens”

Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath

unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein (Is 42:5).

But I am the LORD thy God that divided the sea, whose waves roared: The LORD of hosts is his name.  And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people (Is 51:15-16).

Verses 19-20 – The role of wisdom in creation is described more fully in 8:22-31.  Divine wisdom guided the Creator and now permeates the whole creation.  To live by wisdom is to imitate the Lord and conform to the divinely appointed creation order.

20 By his knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew.

“broken up” – God opened up springs and streams (see Gen 7:11; 49:25; Ps 74:15).  Alternatively, though perhaps less likely, reference is to the dividing of the waters above from the waters below (see Gen 1:7; Ps 42:7)

“dew” – Probably also includes rain (see Deut 33:13; 2 Sam 1:21).

21 My son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion:

22 So shall they be life unt o thy soul, and grace to thy neck.

23 Then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble.

24 When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet.

25 Be not afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked, when it cometh.

“fear…desolation” –  the Lord shields the godly from deadly arrows and plagues (see 10:25; Ps 91:3-8; Job 5:21).

26 For the LORD shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken.

“keep thy foot from being taken” – contrast the fate of the fool in 1:18; 7:22-23).

27 Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it.

“Withhold not good” –

Now there was at Joppa a certain discipline named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did (Act 9:36).

As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:10).

But whose hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?  My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but indeed and in truth (1 Jn 3:17-18).

The poor and needy.

28 Say not unto thy neighbor, Go, and come again, and tomorrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee. .

29 Devise not evil against thy neighbor, seeing he dwelleth securely by thee.

30 Strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm.

See Job 2:3.

31 Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways.

32 For the froward is abomination to the LORD: but his secret is with the righteous.

“abomination” – a word that elsewhere expresses abhorrence of pagan practices (see Deut 18:9,12) and moral abuses.  it is common in Proverbs (e.g., 6:16; 8:7; 11:20).

“his secret is with the righteous” – God takes the righteous into His confidence by revealing his plans to them.  See Gen 18:17-19; Job 29:4; Ps 25:14; Jn 15:15.

33 The curse of the LORD is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just.

This contrast is seen also in Deut 11:26-28.

The curse of the LORD is in the house of the wicked – see Josh 7:24-25; Zech 5:3-4.

Blesseth the habitation of the just – see Job 42:12-14.

34 Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly.

35 The wise shall inherit glory: but shame shall be the promotion of fools.

Ancient Near Easter Wisdom

Ptahhotep, sometimes known as Ptahhotpe or Ptah-Hotep, was an ancient Egyptian official during the late 25th century B.C. and early 24th century B.C.

Life
Ptahhotep was the city administrator and vizier (first minister) during the reign of Djedkare Isesi in the 5th Dynasty.

He is credited with authoring The Instruction of Ptahhotep, an early piece of Egyptian “wisdom literature” meant to instruct young men in appropriate behavior.

He had a son named Akhethotep, who was also a vizier.

He and his descendants were buried at Saqqara.

Ptahhotep’s tomb is located in a mastaba in North Saqqara where he was laid to rest by himself.

His grandson Ptahhotep Tshefi, who lived during the reign of Unas, was buried in the mastaba of his father.

Their tomb is famous for its outstanding depictions.

The Maxims of Ptahhotep
Ptahhotep wrote what is believed to be the first book in history by many scholars.

His book was entitled The Maxims of Ptahhotep.

The ancient Near East has yielded a great deal of what scholars call “wisdom literature” – texts that instruct the reader about life, virtue, and social interaction or reflect upon profound issues.

The Instructive, or Didactic, Texts, like Proverbs, were typically written with a boy or young man (“my son”) as the implied reader.  These straightforward texts, exhorting the reader to right behavior, concern issues like personal morality, work ethics, career choice or peer respect.

The Reflective Texts, like Job, are addressed to a more mature reader – one who acknowledges that the world is not always as it should be.  They lament societal ills and wrestle with complex issues.

These categories are not mutually exclusive.  Ecclesiastes wrestles with life’s unfairness and perversity but also instructs the reader.  We could classify Proverbs as the workbook for a beginning or “undergraduate” course, with Ecclesiastes being an advanced or “graduate school” text.

Wisdom texts may address the reader directly, as do Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, or have a narrative structure, like Job.

Amenemope was a resident of Akhim, a town in Upper Egypt on the east side of the Nile.

One of his Wisdom Literature is:
Respect the Weak, Reject the Evil

1 – Beware of robbing a wretch,
Of attacking a cripple;
Don’t stretch out your hand to touch an old man,
Nor open your mouth to an elder.
Don’t let yourself be sent on a mischievous errand,
Nor be friends with him who does it.

2 – Don’t raise an outcry against one who attacks you,
Nor answer him yourself.
He who does evil, the shore rejects him,
Its floodwater carries him away.
The northwind descends to end his hour.
It mingles with the thunderstorm.
The storm cloud is tall, the crocodiles are vicious,
You heated man, how are you now?

Wisdom texts may be presented as prose (like most of Ecclesiastes) or poetry (like most of Job). 

Didactic texts often employ simple, two-line maxims and parallelism (as in Proverbs), while reflective texts are typically more complex in structure (as in Job’s more problematical poetic discourses).

Other nations also had wisdom literature.  A few examples from the ancient Near East:

Egypt
The instruction of Visier Ptah-hotep (5th Dynasty, 2500-2350 B.C.): An aged counselor instructs his son in the principles of proper and effective ruling.  

This text, reflecting the social turmoil of the First Intermediate period, asserts that Merikare must earn the respect of the nobles through just governance in order to maintain his hold on the throne.

The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant (oldest copy dates to the 12th Dynasty, 1963-1786 B.C.): A peasant who has been defrauded of his goods pleads for justice from high officials, eventually winning his case and gaining a high position for himself.  The text reflects upon the nature of justice and the importance of eloquent speech.  

The instruction of Amen-emope (oldest copy dates to between the 10th and 6th centuries B.C.): This text, which is remarkably similar to Proverbs 22:17-24:22, includes introduction and 30 sections of teaching on wise behavior.

Mesopoptamia Akkadian proverb Texts:
These writings contain pithy adages and maxims of the sort found all over the world.  For example, one proverb states that an enemy army never departs from a city whose weapons are weak (similar to the Roman proverb, “If you want peace, prepare for war”).

Counsels of Wisdom: This Akkadian book of practical advice include a warning not to marry a prostitute and an admonition that the steward of a ruler’s property should not give in to covetousness.

Senet Game of Tutankhamun
The senet game board of Tutankhamun rests on a stand with animal-shaped legs attached to sledge runners.

The stand and sledge are made of ebony.

The top and bottom surfaces of the board are veneered with ivory and divided into compartments by raised strips.

The game board has a drawer used as storage for the gaming pieces: pawns and knucklebones of ivory and casting-sticks of black ebony and white ivory.

The upper side of the board is divided into 30 squares for the senet game; the object of which was to safely navigate all the pieces off the board, while preventing the opponent from doing the same.

The reverse side of this game board is laid out for another game that has only 20 squares; it is unclear how this game was played.

Ivory Board Game from Megiddo

Ancient game boards were made of precious woods, ivory and gold.

Egyptian pharaohs and their children played the above game more than 3,000 years ago.

The Babylonian Theodicy (1100-1000 B.C.): A cynical sufferer enters into a dispute with a man who defends traditional notions of wisdom.  The text originally included 27 stanzas, each with 11 lines, but not all remain intact.  This writing is often compared to Job; there are in fact both clear similarities and sharp differences between the two.

The Book of Ahigar (found on a 5th century B.C. Aramic papyrus but set in Assyria and possibly composed originally in Akkadian):

The text describes how Ahigar overcame the adversity of a scheming and ungrateful nephew, avoided execution on false charges and proved himself to be the wisest man of his age.

The story was translated into Armenian and Arabic, and the Apochal book of Tobit alludes to it.  The motif of the wise man that triumphs over adversity appears repeatedly in the Bible as well.

We cannot deny that such similarities exist; the Israelites did not live in cultural isolation.  At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the Biblical texts as just another version of ancient wisdom.

In grandeur of scope, internal complexity and theological profundity, the Biblical texts of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are in a class by themselves.

Literature of the ancient people shows that intelligence was one thing they did not lack, and aside from that, imagination and creativity was also present.