Old Wisdom: Solomon & The Book of Proverbs

Most of us, if we're honest, can relate to the feeling of regret - of making a mistake that we wish we could undo. It's a universal human experience; we all make mistakes and retrospectively wish we could have done better.

Such was very likely the case with Solomon, the son of King David and heir to his father's throne over Israel. He was known as an incredibly wise and knowledgeable man, whose wisdom came directly as a gift from God. But he also repeatedly made terrible decisions, foremost among them being his hundreds of wives and concubines. Getting into all of these political marriages caused Solomon to lose sight of his specific loyalty to Israel's God and his duty to model devotion to this God in place of any others. The story of Solomon sees the kingdom of Israel begin a downward spiral into chaos and disorder, in many cases because of his leadership.

But Solomon made sure to pass on both his best advice and his worst regrets, in hopes that generations after him might not make the same mistakes. The book of Proverbs contains philosophical poetry, traditionally attributed to him. Filled with punchy, short sayings that promote an idealistic outlook, Proverbs is one of the most complete expressions of the Bible’s “philosophy of life.”

But we can tell from the opening of the book of Proverbs that there is a hint of warning. We can see the story of Solomon's personal failures - and Israel's failures more broadly - sitting like a shadow of regret just underneath the principles of wisdom written in the book. These are the words of a father who has felt the consequences of turning away from wisdom, and wants to steer his children away from similar mistakes.

It's important to remember that Solomon's wisdom - even the wisdom gained from experience - is ultimately a gift from God. As such, the book of Proverbs is meant to point its readers to the ancient source of all wisdom - God. Throughout the book, Wisdom and Foolishness are personified as two different women, or as two different relationships - a good one and a terrible one. Solomon specifically pictures Wisdom as a feminine character - a woman (she/her, Proverbs 3:13-18), preaching out in the streets (Proverbs 1:20-33). She is, apparently, one of God’s feminine attributes. The “virtuous woman,” or “lady wisdom” is the Wisdom of God; she was involved in God’s creation of the world (Proverbs 3:19-20, 8:27-31), and is always seeking to guide people.

It is probably significant that Wisdom is portrayed as a feminine character in the Solomonic literature, since relationships with women were such a significant part of Solomon's moral problems throughout his life. For more on the significance of Solomon's life in relation to the wisdom literature, check out the Bible Project's Podcast series on this topic.

"So within the narrative frame of the Old Testament, the Book of Proverbs is addressed to the line of David. It's Solomon speaking to "my sons." Narratively to the future seed of David. Calling the future seed of David to keep away from Lady Folly, and to embrace Lady Wisdom. And you the reader imaginatively set yourself at the foot of Solomon as if you are among the seed of David." - BibleProject

Gaining wisdom from the experiences of those who came before us is important. The story of the Kings of Israel is the story of generation after generation struggling - and often failing - to do the right thing, to live in the wisdom of God.

It may be difficult at times to accept the wisdom of previous generations. But if we take the time to get to know our parents, grandparents, teachers, and other elders, we may come to learn that they have gained great wisdom through their pains and regrets. It can be hard, but it’s worth finding good mentors who can offer advice and guidance when you face difficult choices. We all make mistakes we can learn from, but we don’t have to keep repeating them. We can tap into God’s ancient wisdom, which is always ready to show us the right path.

Study Questions:

  • Solomon was a complicated man, a theme that we have already discussed in previous posts. Read the opening poem of the book of Proverbs (Proverbs 1:1-19), and take note of the advice that Solomon gives to his royal sons.
    • What does the passage specifically warn against doing?
    • How would a man like Solomon have gained insights and wisdom about being led down the wrong path by others?
    • Do you think that having learned from experience and mistakes makes this advice more believable, more legitimate?
  • Would you rather learn moral lessons from someone who has or from someone who has not made a particular mistake? Is it more worthwhile to know about how harmful something is from first hand experience, or is knowing about it theoretically good enough? Or is either form of wisdom legitimate? What do you think?
    • How would you relate your conclusion here to the way you think about mentors in your life who have shared their experiences? Have you learned more from people who have made a lot of mistakes, or from people who have cautiously avoided those pitfalls? Or is your level of learning equal from both kinds of people?
  • Who is this "Wisdom" character in Proverbs? How would we identify this individual? Read Proverbs 3:13-18 and answer the following questions:
    • What do you notice about the gender of the pronouns used to describe Wisdom in this passage?
    • What do you think this might mean for interpreting more famous passages like Proverbs 31:10-31? Should Proverbs 31 be taken to only refer to a hypothetical woman in real life, or is it possibly a description of wisdom itself, worked out in the life of a person? What do you think?
    • Look at Proverbs 1:20-33. Read through it and pay special attention to the tone of voice and personality of the character "Wisdom" as she proclaims things in the streets. How would you describe the tone? The emotion? What are the main concerns being expressed?
    • Now read Jeremiah 7:1-15. Do you notice any similarities in style, tone, emotion, content, and themes?
    • Do you think that the "voice" of Wisdom in Proverbs 1 is the same voice that we hear from God in Jeremiah 7? Is wisdom in Proverbs similar to God, or perhaps one of God's characterstics being personified?
    • Read 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30. Who, according to Paul, is the manifestation of God's wisdom? Who is the Wisdom of God, really?
  • Solomon and the book of Proverbs show us that wisdom can be passed from one generation to the next. Read James 1:5-8.
    • What is another way to gain wisdom, besides inheriting it from previous generations and mentors?
    • What similarities do you see between the warnings given in this James passage and the story of King Solomon?


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