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Deeper Commentary

Pro 4:1 Listen, sons, to a father’s instruction. Pay attention and know understanding-
If we "attend" to God's word (Prov. 2:2; 4:1; 7:24), then He will "attend" to our word, of prayer (Ps. 55:2 and often in the Psalms). There is thereby a mutuality between God and man. Our attitude to His word becomes reflected in His attitude to our words in prayer; for God and man are in dialogue.

Pro 4:2 for I give you sound learning. Don’t forsake my law-
Solomon condemns those who "forsake the law" (Prov. 4:2; 28:4), and he likely has the house of Saul in view as his father David when using this phrase (Ps. 119:53). But he speaks here in Prov. 4:2 of those who forsook his law; as if he was playing God, considering any inattention to himself as inattention to God. David by contrast continually emphasizes the need not to forsake God's law. 

David so often talks about God's "law", using the word torah. But Solomon so often speaks of his own torah, and that of his wife, the mother of "my son" (s.w. Prov. 1:8; 3:1; 4:2; 6:20; 7:2; 13:14; 31:26). Yet elsewhere in the Bible, the well over 200 occurrences of torah are always about God's law. Solomon applies the word to his own teachings and that of his wife, and thereby plays God. Whilst it could be argued that Solomon's teachings were Divinely inspired, all the same he ought surely to have spoken of them as God's torah rather than his own torah. This kind of playing God is seen so often in the teachers of God's people.

Pro 4:3 For I was a son to my father, tender and an only child in the sight of my mother-
David had taught his children with the words: “Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 34:11- did David say this to his children every evening?). And Solomon uses just the same words, even whilst disobeying God’s law at the same time in his own life: “Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father… I give you good doctrine… for I was my father’s son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother. He taught me also, and said unto me, Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments and live” (Prov. 4:1-4 AV). And so Solomon taught his kids with the same outward form of words, although the personal reality of wisdom was lost on him.

David  took time out from his busy schedule to spend  time  instructing  his  special,  beloved  son. And David wasn't  just  playing  Scrabble with Solomon in the evenings; he was  really  drumming  into  that  lad  vital  spiritual values. Solomon  really  respected  David  and  loved his mother; he was without  doubt  the  blue  eyed  boy  to  her,  and  he  reacted accordingly.  We  have seen how in Prov. 31 she lays the law down with him about his girlfriends, about not marrying Gentiles, and about  not  drinking, yet in Song 3:11 we see Bathsheba with all her  motherly pride crowning Solomon on the day of engagement to that  Egyptian  girl  who  was  to  be his downfall. Like David, Bathsheba  taught  Solomon the principles with great enthusiasm, but   she  allowed  parental  pride  to  make  her  dismiss  the possibility  that  her  son  was seriously going astray.

Here again, Solomon justifies himself by implying that he was David's only son. He wasn't, and his half brothers were in bitter competition with him. And so he uses his wisdom to just get the point in that he was the only legitimate heir to the throne.

Pro 4:4 He taught me, and said to me: Let your heart retain my words. Keep my commandments, and live-
Solomon's prophetic sonship of David was conditional upon him preserving or observing Yahweh's ways (1 Kings 2:4; 1 Chron. 22:13; 2 Chron. 7:17); but he didn't preserve of observe them (1 Kings 11:10,11); despite David praying that Solomon would be given a heart to observe them (1 Chron. 29:19). We can pray for God to work upon the hearts of others, but He will not force people against their own deepest will and heart position. Solomon stresses overmuch how God would keep or preserve the righteous (Prov. 2:8; 3:26), without recognizing the conditional aspect of this. Why did Solomon go wrong? His Proverbs are true enough, but he stresses that obedience to his wisdom and teaching would preserve his hearers (Prov. 4:4; 6:22; 7:1; 8:32; 15:5), preservation was through following the example of the wise (Prov. 2:20); rather than stressing obedience to God's ways, and replacing David his father's simple love of God with a love of academic wisdom: "Yahweh preserves all those who love Him" (Ps. 145:20).

Pro 4:5 Get wisdom. Get understanding. Don’t forget, neither swerve from the words of my mouth-
"Swerve" is the word for "incline" or "decline", used by David of how he himself inclined his heart to God's word (Ps. 119:51,112,157). But David prayed that God would incline his heart towards His word (Ps. 119:36) and away from sin (Ps. 141:4). This is how the Holy Spirit works to this day- we are confirmed in the psychological attitudes we ourselves choose to have. The word is used of God's mighty "stretched out" arm and "strong hand" in human affairs (Ps. 136:12 and often in Isaiah). This powerful hand of God is at work in human hearts, confirming us in the psychological way in which we ourselves wish to go. In this sense God turns or inclines the heart where He wishes (Prov. 21:1). Solomon in the Proverbs places all the emphasis upon a person themselves in their own strength inclining their heart toward his teaching (Prov. 2:2; 4:5,20; 5:1). He fails to appreciate what David his father did; that God's word is His word and not that of the human channel through which it comes. And he totally puts the emphasis upon human strength of will, self inclination towards God's word, rather than perceiving as David did that without God's psychological help in this, we shall ultimately fail. As Solomon himself did.

Pro 4:6 Don’t forsake her, and she will preserve you. Love her, and she will keep you-
David sees God Himself as preserving and keeping him, by His grace (s.w. Ps. 12:7; 140:4), whereas Solomon sees our keeping and preservation as predicted upon our keeping and preserving of wisdom (s.w. Prov. 5:2). He reasons as did the brethren with misplaced ideals who told me to keep and preserve "the truth" delivered to me as a teenager, and I would be fine in the end. Intellectual maintenance of theological positions will not save in the end; it is God's grace by faith, as David learned by experience.

Pro 4:7 Wisdom is supreme. Get wisdom. Yes, though it costs all your possessions, get understanding-
It is possible that he asked for wisdom only because his father David had taught him to ask for it, just as he taught his children (Prov. 4:5-7). Again Solomon alludes to how he was commended for choosing wisdom over wealth, as ever justifying himself.

Pro 4:8 Esteem her, and she will exalt you. She will bring you to honour when you embrace her-
Dt. 17:17-20 is a warning to the King of Israel not to multiply horses and wives, lest his heart be turned away. It’s a conscious prediction of Solomon’s apostasy. But one result of such behaviour would be that the King’s heart would be “lifted up” or exalted above his brethren (Dt. 17:20)- and this is exactly what happened to Solomon. He came to see himself as somehow above the rest of humanity, to the extent that he was convinced that he was acceptable to God, and that he could abuse his brethren because… he had wisdom. Significantly, Solomon uses the same Hebrew word translated “lifted up” in Dt. 17:20 in Prov. 4:8, when he speaks of how the possession of wisdom will “exalt” or lift up a person. He came to think that his mere possession of true wisdom gave him a superiority over others, and thus he was lifted up above his brethren. There are major warnings here for those who consider that they possess more Bible truth than any other church on earth. It has, sadly, led to a lifting up of many hearts above their fellow man and even their fellow brethren.

Pro 4:9 She will give to your head a garland of grace. She will deliver a crown of splendour to you-
Again Solomon reasons as if the mere possession of truth is what will adorn us before God. But it is personalization of the wisdom, not mere possession of it, which is required. And Solomon was a stellar example of failure in this.

Pro 4:10 O my son, receive my sayings; and the years of your life shall be many-
This is alluding to the promise of long life for the obedient to God’s laws; but never does Solomon make the admission that his laws are only a repetition of God’s laws. He was playing God by implying that his words carried the weight of God’s words. He taught his son obedience to him as a father, but not to God Himself.

Pro 4:11 I have taught you in the way of wisdom, I have led you in straight paths-
He is repeating the words of David in Ps. 32:8: “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye”. But those words in their context were wrung from a David desperately grateful for God’s forgiveness of his sin with Bathsheba. Solomon hadn’t gone through this contrition- he was a self-justified womanizer, and yet he used the same outward form of words as his father. Solomon assumes he is going in the right way when he says: “I have led thee in right paths” (Prov. 4:11 AV), in subtle contrast to the way David repeatedly asks to be led in the right way by God Almighty (Ps. 23:3; 25:4,5).

Pro 4:12 When you go, your steps will not be hampered. When you run, you will not stumble-
Again Solomon presents a simplistic picture of the life of wisdom as running without stumbling. The only other reference to steps not being hampered is when the phrase is used about Job in Job 18:7. The reality of spiritual life is that there are times when the steps of the righteous are hampered, and even a righteous man like David stumbled in his path (s.w. Ps. 31:10, and again about Job in Job 4:4). 

Pro 4:13 Take firm hold of instruction. Don’t let her go. Keep her, for she is your life-
This is the language of Dt. 31:17,20, which taught that if Israel's heart did not decline to idols, then Yahweh Himself would "be your life". Solomon's heart did decline to idols. Because he appropriates the language of personal relationship with God to intellectual acceptance of abstract truth and wisdom. And so many in fundamentalist Christian circles have made the same mistake.

Pro 4:14 Don’t enter into the path of the wicked. Don’t walk in the way of evil men-
This is of course true, but Solomon is also making a swipe as his competitor and potential usurper Jeroboam, who is described as walking in the way of evil (s.w. 1 Kings 13:33). It seems that always Solomon uses Divine truth to his own self justification, as we can.

Pro 4:15 Avoid it, and don’t pass by it; turn from it, and pass on-
Throughout Proverbs, Solomon assumes that he, his sons and his audience are already on the right path, and must not turn aside to the way of the wicked. There is no search for the right way by Solomon, because he assumes that the gift of theoretical truth and "wisdom" to him meant that he personally was walking the path of that truth. But it is one thing to know truth and another to walk the talk. And he totally failed in this, disobeying his own wisdom about women whilst writing it.

Pro 4:16 For they don’t sleep, unless they do evil. Their sleep is taken away, unless they make someone fall-
This is all true, it is Divinely inspired wisdom. But 'being made to fall' is the word used of David after his sin with Bathsheba, Solomon's mother (Ps. 31:10), and he appears to want to whitewash this by blaming it upon evil men who made David do it.

Pro 4:17 For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence-
The contrast is with the invitation of wisdom to eat her bread and drink her wine (Prov. 9:5). Solomon again presents life as being of diametrical opposites, with people within Israel divided between the desperately, criminally wicked- and the spotlessly wise and righteous. But this is simply not true to reality. Human thought and behaviour within the people of God is more mixed than that. Bread and wine even in Old Testament times were of sacramental significance. The wicked are presented as not offering true sacrifice, but a fake appearance of it, to the praise and glory of wickedness and violence. Whereas the wise offer perfectly acceptable sacrifice.

Pro 4:18 But the path of the righteous is like the light of the dawn, that shines more and more until the perfect day-
As often noted on Proverbs, Solomon sees the righteous as having an unrealistically glorious path towards "the perfect day", their way ever brighter, never stumbling, with no darkness. But as noted on :12 that is simply not the case. The language here is very similar to that in 2 Sam. 23:4, where David speaks of his Messianic son as being as the ever brighter shining light of the dawn. His hope was of course that Solomon would be that Messianic son, and he expresses that hope in his Psalm for Solomon in Ps. 72. So again, Solomon speaks global truths about the righteous, but always seems to have himself in view as the parade example. When in fact at the very time he was writing down this Divine wisdom, he was living in an utterly opposite way by marrying pagan women.

We may interpret this verse as meaning that the dawn of the sun of righteousness at the Lord's second coming is in fact presaged by the bursting of light upon His people in the lead up to it. This would make "the perfect day" equivalent to the future Kingdom. But I doubt this is what Solomon himself had in mind; because he considered himself as the Messianic ruler, and his kingdom to be the Kingdom of God. He has nothing much to say about the hope of the resurrection of the body and the coming of the Kingdom; he considered that his possession of wisdom meant that he had the glory of the Kingdom in this life. And it was this refusal to accept the gospel of a future Kingdom of God which was his moral undoing. 

"Perfect" is the word translated "establish" concerning the establishment of the Kingdom of David's son (2 Sam. 7:12). Solomon understood this to mean that he was indeed the Messianic son, he saw no future greater son of David than himself. He saw the righteous as slowly attaining to his own great light, climaxing in his kingdom becoming the full Kingdom of God on earth. But his apostacy meant that this was not to be, and the dawning of Zion's light is yet future (s.w. Is. 60:3,19). He refused to accept that the eternal "establishment" of his kingdom was dependent upon his personal obedience (1 Chron. 28:7).   

Pro 4:19 The way of the wicked is like darkness-
This is so, but as it is baldly presented here, it fails to reflect the nuance of spiritual life in practice. Solomon considered himself absolutely and totally right, and all who followed his wisdom would never know darkness. But the righteous man Job had darkness set in his way by God (Job 19:8), and every truly sensitive believer will go through times when the darkness s such that we can't find our paths. 

They don’t know what they stumble over-
"Stumble" is the word for "fall" in :16. The wicked make others fall, and they themselves fall. The idea is that they want to bring down others with them. This is a basic human desire; to make others like ourselves, to not sin alone.

Pro 4:20 My son, attend to my words. Turn your ear to my sayings-
See on :5; Prov. 2:2. As noted on Ps. 119:36; 141:4, David believed that God could act deep within the psychology or heart of man, to incline us toward righteousness and away from evil. This is how the Holy Spirit works today. Solomon believed the same (s.w. 1 Kings 8:58), but only in theory; for his Gentile wives inclined or turned away his heart from God (s.w. 1 Kings 11:3,9). God will not turn our hearts anywhere we ourselves don't want to go. Solomon often appeals for us to incline our hearts to wisdom (s.w. Prov. 2:2; 4:20; 5:1; 22:17), but he himself was inclined to apostasy (s.w. 1 Kings 11:3,9). All his emphasis is upon the need to incline ourselves, whereas his father David trusted in the work of the Spirit to incline his heart to good and away from evil (Ps. 141:4; 119:36 etc.). 

Pro 4:21 Let them not depart from your eyes. Keep them in the midst of your heart-
Our entire mindset, intentions, dreams, hopes are to be dominated by wisdom. This is the essence of the spiritual life; to be spiritually minded. But we live in an age which like no others seeks to dominate our thinking with unspiritual things. See on Prov. 3:21.  

Pro 4:22 For they are life to those who find them, and health to their whole body-
Life and health are here made dependent upon Solomon's words (:20). He has again subverted the teachings about God's words and applied them to his words. Even though they were divinely inspired, he speaks as if his book of Proverbs eclipses all other Divine revelation. See on Prov. 15:4.

Pro 4:23 Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it is the wellspring of life-
Solomon often emphasized the importance of keeping the heart (Prov. 2:10-16; 3:5,6; 4:23-5:5; 6:23-26); he had foreseen that the essential sin of God’s people was “the plague of his own heart” (1 Kings 8:46), and he imagined how for this sin God’s people would later pray towards the temple. And yet his wives turned away his heart (1 Kings 11:13), for all this awareness that the heart must be kept. It was as if the more he knew the truth of something, the more he wanted to do the very opposite. And this is exactly true of our natures. It’s why we ourselves can discern the same perversity in our lives. Perhaps with Solomon he reasoned that in his case, foreign wives wouldn’t turn away his heart. Just as our flesh thinks ‘Yes, but it can’t happen to me’. Perhaps too he reasoned that if the temple somehow could bring forgiveness for the plague of the heart, his heart was incorruptible because of the temple.    
Pro 4:24 Put away from yourself a perverse mouth, put corrupt lips far from you-
The idea may be that Solomon was the ultimate mouth of wisdom; see on Prov. 15:2,4. And he is warning against listening to any other teachers. Always he seems to have a subtext of commending himself. The only other usage of the term "perverse mouth" is about those whom Solomon considered to be the wicked within Israel (Prov. 6:12). Again, Solomon's idea of spirituality is avoiding false teachers and mixing with sinners- rather than internal spirituality and personal relationship with God.

Pro 4:25 Let your eyes look straight ahead-
The ways of man are "before" or "straight ahead" of Yahweh's eyes (Prov. 5:21 s.w.), and our eyes are to likewise "look straight ahead" (Prov. 4:25 s.w.). Our perspective and vision is to be His. We are to see life as He does. And He looks in the perspective of eternity, His Kingdom on earth which is to dominate the vast majority of our eternal existence. This is the meaning of faith in practice.

Fix your gaze directly before you-
Solomon thinks of the righteous as walking unflinchingly forward in wisdom, never turning to the right or left, refusing to be distracted by any wicked person who suggests walking another way (Prov. 9:15 "to call travellers who go directly on their way"). This approach fails to take account of the simple fact that righteous people sin and stray from the direct path every day, and are saved finally into God's Kingdom by grace alone. That is all something Solomon failed to have any grasp of, whereas David his father did. Prov. 11:5 makes the somewhat tautological statement that "the righteousness of the perfect shall direct his way", s.w. Prov. 4:25 "fix your gaze directly before you". This contrasts with how David uses the word in Ps. 5:8: "Lead me, O Yahweh... make Your way straight [s.w. direct] before my face". The same statement of God directing in the straight way is found in Is. 45:13; Jer. 18:4 s.w. Solomon didn't see this need for the Spirit of God to direct his path because he assumed that mere possession of Divine truth would itself keep him in the way; hence he teaches that "understanding" makes a man walk "directly" (Prov. 15:21). And he failed miserably because of that arrogant position. 

Pro 4:26 Make the path of your feet level. Let all of your ways be established-
If a man prepares his way after God’s principles (2 Chron. 27:6; Prov. 4:26), then God will ‘prepare’ that man’s way too (Ps. 37:23; 119:5), confirming him in the way of escape.

When Solomon teaches that God must be allowed to establish or direct our way (Prov. 4:26; 16:29), he is using the same Hebrew words as in Ps. 37:23 and Ps. 119:5, when David says the same. It’s as if he was given God’s truth and yet he never quite made it his very own- he still articulated it in terms of the faith of his fathers. And thus he lost it in the end.  One cannot help notice the great stress placed by Solomon on teaching his children, as David had taught him. It could be that there was too much emphasis on theory, thinking that by merely teaching the Law, the children would turn out OK. But Dt. 6:1-7 taught that Israel must “do” the commandments of the Lord “so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes…these words…you shall teach them diligently to your sons”. It was by the parents both doing and teaching the Law that their children would “do” it too. Behaviour patterns are learnt by observation and experience of parents, not by mere theoretical inculcation. So could it not be that there is a lesson here for us- that the diligent teaching of the Law, as David did to Solomon and as Solomon so proudly did to his children, actually has no lasting effect unless that Law is lived out in a daily life. It seems to me that the Western Christian attitude and program for child-rearing is based very much on the assumption that both parents are believers, marry in their 20s, mother raises the kids and father brings in the money, with the result that the children will in due time also be baptized and repeat the cycle. This is all well and good. But the reality is that less than 7% of America’s population fits the traditional nuclear family profile. “Today’s family can be a single parent with one or more children, a two-career couple with no children, a female breadwinner with child and househusband, or a blended family that consists of a previously married couple and a combination of children from those two previous marriages” (John Naisbitt, Megatrends, NY: Warner Books, 1984 p. 261). Our style of Sunday School material and teaching needs to be appropriate to this reality, if we seek to win this world for Christ rather than just reproduce within the existing Western community. The brethren and sisters of our community and ecclesias must be the de facto spiritual parents of many of our children. Mere doctrinal teaching alone is not enough- it must be seen regularly and meaningfully and relevantly to be lived out in transformed lives. Solomon’s Proverbs, although inspired by God, have so many similarities with the Psalms of his father David. It seems to me that although he was of course inspired in writing Proverbs, he chose to articulate the wisdom given him in terms which his father had used in his songs, prayers and Psalms.

Pro 4:27 Don’t turn to the right hand nor to the left-
The Angel put Balaam in a position where he couldn't turn to the right hand nor the left, and thereby he was forced to face up to his sin (s.w. Num. 22:26). But this was of God's providence, attempting to bring the man to repentance. Whereas Solomon seems to assume that the power to not turn to the right nor left is solely within the steel will of the individual. He totally denies God's action in human life and hearts, just as many self congratulatory legalists do today.

Remove your foot from evil-
Removing or departing from evil is a major theme of Proverbs (Prov. 13:19; 14:16; 16:6,17). Solomon uses the same phrase in Ecc. 11:10, but he gives the reason as being because youth is vanity; old age will prove that there is no point in not departing from evil, and going the way of evil, like going the way of righteousness, is all the same vanity. This nihilistic approach is because Solomon failed to discern that the end point of the path of righteousness, departing or removing our foot from the way of evil, is the redemption of the body in God's future Kingdom. But because he failed to understand that, he ends up concluding as he gets older that the choice between evil and good is all the same vain and meaningless. It is the hope of the resurrection of the body, the reality of judgment to come and the future Kingdom of God, which make morality of so much meaning today. We may also note again Solomon's overly simplistic idea that if a man removes himself from evil, all will go wonderfully for him in life. The same phrase is used of how Job removed himself from, or "eschewed", evil; but his life was traumatic and without all the blessings for wisdom which Solomon liked to imagine.