The Great Value of Gaining God’s Wisdom – Proverbs 3:13-20

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What is better than silver or gold? The wisdom of God. Why? God’s wisdom provides riches you just can’t buy.

If that is so, how do you motivate yourself (and others) to pursue God’s wisdom? Further, what does this wisdom have to do with the Lord Jesus Christ? Read on.

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.

– Proverbs 3:13–20

An Invitation to Take Hold of Wisdom

Every parent understands the challenges of convincing their children to adopt their point of view. Children are not naturally endowed with wisdom and often their choices are foolish. They, like everyone, need to be taught wisdom so they might avoid making choices that destroy their lives.

The same parental concern is at work in the extended wisdom discourses contained in Proverbs 1:8-9:18. The work is an address from a father to a son in an attempt to convince the youth to take hold of God’s wisdom and not let go. The father uses a variety of means to persuade the son from commands, to warnings, to promises, to scenarios which show the various outcomes of rejecting wisdom.

One passage of particular interest is Proverbs 3:13-20. In this passage the father shifts from the command-heavy verses that come before to laying out the benefits of wisdom in order to entice his listener. Richard Clifford says of the passage,

“like the lectures of chaps. 1-9, the poem provides motives for hearers to pursue wisdom with all their heart.”

– Richard Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary [1]

Through its unique form and content, the passage uses a particular tool of persuasion in an attempt to win over the son. Acting as a compliment to the other persuasive techniques in chapters 1-9, Proverbs 3:13-20 serves to entice the son to fully embrace wisdom by using positive statements of fact, listing its numerous benefits, and connecting wisdom to the divinely established cosmic order.

The Literary Form and Context of Proverbs 3:13-20

In 2 Timothy 3:16, the apostle Paul states that all Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproving, and correcting to equip God’s people for good works. Interestingly, the extended proverb discourses in 1:8-9:18 use all these methods in an effort to convince the reader to embrace wisdom.

However, 3:13-20 stands out from the rest since the primary form it uses to persuade the reader is by merely listing important facts about wisdom. Unlike the surrounding material, there are no commands, no warnings, and no enticements connected to obedience. Instead, the author merely teaches the reader about wisdom’s benefits and God’s use of it in creating the world.

It is helpful to see exactly how 3:13-20 fits within 1:8-9:18 to understand why the style is so different. Bruce Waltke argues for the following concentric pattern as a way to understand the arrangement of the material in this major section of Proverbs[2]:

A  Rival invitations of the father and the gang to the son  			1:8-19
	B  Wisdom’s rebuke of the gullible					1:20-33
		C  Janus: The father’s command to heed teaching
		as a safeguard against evil men and the unchaste wife		2:1-22	
			D The father’s commands to heed teaching		3:1-4:27
			D’ The father’s warnings against the unchaste wife	5:1-6:35
		C’ Janus: The father’s warnings against Wisdom’s rival		7:1-27
	B’ Wisdom’s invitation to the gullible					8:1-36
A’ Rival invitations of Wisdom and the foolish woman to the gullible		9:1-18

If Waltke is correct, 3:13-20 lies at the conceptual heart of Proverbs 1:8-9:18. As can be seen from Waltke’s summaries, this passage is surrounded by sections heavily laden with commands, warnings, and invitations yet contains none of those forms itself.

To account for this uniqueness, commentators such as Aitken, Murphy, and Whybray believe the genre of 3:13-20 is best understood as a hymn to personified wisdom. McKane agrees and notes,

“this is written in praise of wisdom and the style is hymnic rather than didactic. The intention is certainly to recommend wisdom but no one is addressed directly and no demands are formulated.”

– William McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach [3]

Although calling this section a hymn may be pressing the personification of wisdom too far, its form certainly stands out in its approach to convince the reader to embrace wisdom wholeheartedly.

This Passage is Meant for You

Additionally, as McKane points out, instead of addressing the son directly as the author does in 3:1 and 3:21, there are clues that a broader audience is intended through references such as “the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding” (ESV 3:13) and “those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast” (3:18).

With the exception of the brief personal address in v.15, this shift from the author speaking directly to his son is probably displaying an argumentative strategy that universalizes the appeal of wisdom for all while taking a short break from the rapid fire, personal commands found in 3:1-12 and 3:21-32. By doing so, the author shows that wisdom’s benefits are for all humanity and not just the son. This tactic shifts the focus from personal exhortation to a universal appeal for all to embrace wisdom and receive its benefits.

In fact, not only is wisdom beneficial for mankind, the section ends by stating that wisdom was essential in God’s creating and sustaining the world. Thus, the argument progresses from a father’s individual appeal to a son, to a universal call to all humanity, and finally to its ultimate use by God Himself. This unique form and style is an effective addition to the commands and warnings in the surrounding passages to entice the reader to hold fast to wisdom.

Why You Should Pursue Wisdom – Wisdom’s Benefits

In addition to the form, the content of 3:13-18 serves as a means of enticing the son (and all of us) to embrace wisdom by explaining its benefits.

Blessedness

First, the benefit of blessedness frames v.13-18. The section moves from the one who finds wisdom and understanding as blessed in v.13 to the one who holds fast to wisdom as blessed in v.18. The point is that wisdom must not only be found, but it must be held on to for all of life. Obtaining wisdom briefly and rejecting it later in favor of foolishness will not bring about a state of permanent blessedness.

Daniel Treier observes that this progression in v.13-18 is one that continues the father’s exhortations earlier in the chapter from the command “do not forget my teaching” (3:1), to bind faithfulness and steadfast love on the mind and heart (3:3), and continues after the section with the exhortation “do not lose sight of [wisdom and discretion]” (3:21).[4]

In fact, the father’s urging not to let go of either wisdom or his teaching is repeated often throughout 1:8-9:18.[5] Therefore, it is only the one who holds fast to wisdom that is the blessed person.

What Does Being Blessed Mean?

To be blessed is to be happy[6] or, as Perdue explains the concept,

“[blessedness is] the state of well-being and joy entered by the student who follows the teaching of the sages.”

– Leo G. Perdue, Proverbs [7]

Waltke adds that the pronouncement of “blessed” is reserved for those who “experience life optimally, as the Creator intended.”[8]

By finding and holding on to wisdom, one achieves a state of joy intended by the Creator as they live in harmony with His will and the cosmic order that He created. Thus, this passage insists that all those seeking true happiness in life must come first through the gate of wisdom and continue on its course without straying.

The Superiority of Wisdom Over Wealth

Next, wisdom is held up as superior to all material wealth. The author states that,

“the gain from [wisdom] is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels”

– Proverbs 3:14-15

Again, there is a progression from silver as the lesser valued material wealth to jewels as the greatest value. In fact, the gain from wisdom exceeds all that one can possibly desire in the material realm (v.15).

There is some confusion as to exactly how to render in English the Hebrew word for “jewels”. Kidner believes “corals” to be the nearest equivalent[9] while Reyburn prefers “jewels” or “precious stones”.[10] Whatever the correct rendering might be, all agree that the term is conveying the idea of a natural resource of great value.

Exactly why wisdom offers more valuable gain than monetary items is explained in the succeeding verses by listing benefits money can’t buy. Waltke notes that wisdom’s superiority over silver, gold and jewels can be seen in the fact that,

“money can put food on the table, but not fellowship around it, [buy] a house but not a home, and can give a woman jewelry but not the love she really wants.”

– Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 [11]

By elevating wisdom’s benefits over that of material wealth, the reader is shown the inherent limitations of wealth and urged to pursue what money can’t buy.

The author does not merely assert wisdom’s superiority over material wealth without providing justification for his claim. In verses 16-18, the speaker delineates exactly what wisdom can provide which, ironically, includes riches.

The Imagery of Lady Wisdom

In v.16, the personification of wisdom continues by portraying her as a figure holding long life in the right hand and riches and honor in the left. A number of scholars note that C. Kayatz argued that the figure of wisdom in this verse closely resembles that of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of wisdom and justice.[12] Waltke notes that Ma’at is often portrayed with life in the left hand and the ankh, a symbol of power, in the right.

However, this picture of wisdom in 3:16 has the items reversed, with life in the right hand showing its greater value.[13] The ancient church Fathers Cassiodorus and Jerome[14] also make the point of the item of greater value presented in the right hand. Treier[15] and Kidner[16] both agree with this line of thinking and Aitken provides justification for it by listing other parts of Scripture that portray the left hand containing items of lesser worth (i.e. Gen. 48:14, Eccl. 10:2, Matt. 25:33).[17] However, Reyburn sees the two hands of wisdom instead communicating the comprehensive nature of God’s gifts to the one who embraces wisdom rather than as a statement regarding the relative quality of the gifts.[18]

Though both hands present valuable gifts, it is hard to dismiss that there is indeed a statement of relative value being made due to both the Hebrew thinking displayed in Scripture and the comparison with Ma’at. In fact, it might be best to see the figure of wisdom serving several purposes including its use as a polemic against the competing goddess Ma’at. Not only does wisdom properly prioritize her gifts by emphasizing long life over riches and honor, but she is the true gateway to these gifts.

Does this passage guarantee material wealth?

Though wisdom offers long life, riches, and honor, the question remains as to whether or not these gifts are guarantees. Waltke notes that Solomon asked for wisdom and the Lord rewarded him with riches and honor in addition (1 Kings 3:9).[19] The lesson from Solomon could be that wisdom, not wealth or honor, should be the primary pursuit of one’s life. McKane agrees and says,

“wisdom is to be sought first and the other things will be added.”

– William McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach [20]

Yet can the example of Solomon, and the statements of 3:16, really be taken as guarantees for all who attain wisdom? Like most of Proverbs, the answer can be found by taking into account the numerous other statements in the book, and the rest of Scripture, regarding the attainment of wealth, long life, and honor.

Space does not permit a comprehensive treatment here but a few examples from Proverbs may suffice. Proverbs 23:4-5 and 27:23-24 acknowledges that riches do not last forever. As we’ve seen above, Proverbs acknowledges the limitations of material wealth and it is probably why it is offered in the left hand of wisdom. However, when it comes to long life and honor, assuming one pursues wisdom and the fear of the Lord, Proverbs remains fairly positive and does not include the same kind of limitations on these as it does with wealth.

The answer must be found in the rest of Scripture. For instance, the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:2-12 convey blessing upon those who are downtrodden, impoverished, and reviled for the sake of Christ. Though they might be denied riches, honor, and long life on earth, all those things are promised in the kingdom of God. Therefore, in Christ, one can find the ultimate realization of wisdom’s blessings in the age to come.

Peaceful Paths

Next, wisdom is said to possess ways of pleasantness and peaceful paths. These stand in stark contrast to the way of the gang of thieves that leads to their own death (1:17-19), the way of the fool that rejects wisdom’s call and perishes (1:29-31), the paths of the adulteress that leads to death (2:16-19, 5:5-6, 7:25-27), the way of the wicked that leads to stumbling (2:14-19), and the way of those who follow Lady Folly that also leads to death (9:13-18).

For the son, the enticements of easy money, easy sex, and foolish behavior may be strong, especially if he fails to see the outcomes of straying after such things. In contrast, wisdom’s ways provide security and lasting benefits. They are not ways that lead to doom and destruction. Instead, wisdom guides its followers down paths that lead to happiness, joy, and well-being, just as God intended life to be for His creatures.

The Tree of Life Regained?

Finally, wisdom is said to be a “tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (v.18). There is some debate as to whether or not this image refers to the tree of life denied to Adam and Eve after they sinned in Eden. Waltke believes that due to its symbolic importance in the Ancient Near East and the its use in Scripture, that the tree of life here represents the promise of eternal life.[21] Clifford sees the reference as communicating that the tree of life is no longer off limits as it was in Genesis but that wisdom has provided access to it once again.[22] Aitken acknowledges there may be echoes of Genesis here but taken with the other occurrences of the tree of life image in Proverbs (11:30, 13:12, 15:4), the phrase may simply be imagery that describes fullness of life,[23] a view that Murphy also takes.[24]

Schwab provides compelling reasons to connect this tree of life reference with Genesis. He notes that the word translated “one” in v.13, is the Hebrew word “’ādām”. Interestingly, ’ādām is repeated twice in v.13, a fact that both Schwab[25] and Whybray[26] find highly unusual. Additionally, Schwab points to the creation references in 3:19-20 to further build his case that the tree of life in v.18 is certainly the same as the one found in Eden. The meaning being conveyed by the image then, according to Schwab, is that

“there is a motif of eternal life associated with the acquisition of wisdom – in some manner, to lay hold of wisdom is to enter a state of blessedness analogous to what Adam would have experienced had he eaten of the tree of life.”

– George Schwab, Psalms, Proverbs [27]

Schwab’s evidence is compelling and, if correct, would be a powerful enticement to lay hold of wisdom. Though wisdom can provide benefits that can make earthly life more enjoyable, such as riches, honor, and long life, even more attractive is the opportunity to enter the eternal life lost by Adam. Thus, wisdom promises nothing less than an eternity of unbroken fellowship with God, the loss of which has caused humanity so much pain and destruction. Of all the benefits offered by wisdom, this one exceeds them all.

Connecting Wisdom to the Divinely Established Cosmic Order

The final method of enticing the son in this section occurs through the author connecting wisdom to the divinely established cosmic order. In 3:19-20, the author points out that God Himself used His wisdom both to create the world and to exercise His providential care over it through the provision of moisture to sustain life. The emphasis on wisdom is presented in a threefold form through the repetition of the phrases “by wisdom”, “by understanding”, and “by his knowledge”. Each phrase introduces a different aspect of creation from the foundation of the world, to the creation of the heavens, and to the clouds producing moisture for life.

The point is that all aspects of God’s world were established via wisdom. If the son had any doubt up to this point about the worthwhile pursuit of wisdom, perhaps God’s use of it in ordering and establishing the world would remove any remaining hesitation.

Yet wisdom here is not something to be regarded as frozen in the past. Habel points out that “the implication persists that wisdom continues to provide the ordering principles that govern the cosmos.”[28] If the son wants success in the world that God created and ordered by wisdom, then wisdom is necessary to live in blessed harmony with that world.

Attaining Wisdom Today

For those convinced that wisdom’s benefits are essential, the question remains – “How can I get this wisdom?”

For the original audience, all that was required was to believe and follow the revelation God had given them. People today are under the same requirements. However, God has provided more revelation that people are accountable to believe.

An indispensable aspect of this new revelation is Jesus Christ as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Colossians 2:3 reveals that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If one desires wisdom and its manifold benefits, Christ is key. There is no other source that offers God’s wisdom to man.

In fact, a quick survey of a few New Testament passages will show that Christ offers the same benefits as wisdom in Proverbs 3:13-20.

  • The blessed life is pronounced on all those who the Father has blessed in Christ (Eph. 1:3).
  • The faith of all who trust in Christ is called more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:7).
  • The riches of Christ’s inheritance He offers His followers far exceeds the wealth of this world (Eph 1:18).
  • God offers glory, honor, peace, and immortality to all who do good and have faith in His son (Romans 2:6-11).
  • Faith in Christ grants us both peace with God and internal peace (Romans 5:1, 15:3).
  • All who believe in Christ receive eternal life (John 3:15) which includes access to the tree of life (Rev. 22:1-2).
  • Finally, Christ is the wisdom of God through whom God made the world and through whom the world is sustained (Col. 1:16-17).

Clearly, all who seek wisdom and its benefits must search no further than Jesus Christ, without whom these benefits are unattainable.

Conclusion

By using positive statements instead of commands or warnings, laying out wisdom’s great benefits clearly, and connecting wisdom to the cosmic order, the author makes an effective case in his efforts to win over his readers to wisdom’s value. The form, style, and content all contribute to the broader argument to embrace and hold on to wisdom in Proverbs 1:8-9:18.

Wisdom is the way God created, ordered, and sustains the world and it is vital for one to attain wisdom to live successfully in God’s world. Yet wisdom cannot be gained without faith in Christ, the wisdom of God. Thus, one cannot live successfully in God’s world without faith in His Son. The church would do well to preach this message to the world with confidence.

Bibliography

Aitken, K.T. Proverbs. The Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986.

Clifford, Richard J. Proverbs: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Habel, Norman C. “The Symbolism of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9.” Interpretation 26, no. 2 (1972): 131-157.

Kidner, Derek. The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964.

McKane, William. Proverbs: A New Approach. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977.

Murphy, Roland Edmund. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. The New International Biblical Commentary 12. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1999.

———. Proverbs. Word Biblical Commentary 22. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.

Perdue, Leo G. Proverbs. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2000.

Reyburn, William David. A Handbook on Proverbs. New York: United Bible Societies, 2000.

Schwab, George M. Psalms, Proverbs. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary 7. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009.

Treier, Daniel J. Proverbs & Ecclesiastes. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.

Waltke, Bruce. The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

Whybray, R. N. Proverbs. New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

Wright, Robert J. ed. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture IX. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Footnotes

[1] Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary, 54.

[2] Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, 12.

[3] McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach, 294.

[4] Treier, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes, 25.

[5] Specifically at 1:8; 2:1-2; 3:1, 3, 13, 18, 21; 4:1-6, 10, 20-21; 5:7; 6:20-21; 7:1-5.

[6] Aitken and Murphy both translate blessed as “happy”

[7] Perdue, Proverbs, 102.

[8] Waltke, 256.

[9] Kidner, The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, 65.

[10] Reyburn, A Handbook on Proverbs,

[11] Waltke, 257.

[12] Waltke (258), Aitken (46), McKane (295-6), and Whybray (67) all note the connection to Ma’at.

[13] Waltke, 258.

[14] Wright, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, 25-6.

[15] Treier, 26.

[16] Kidner, 65.

[17] Aitken, Proverbs, 46.

[18] Reyburn, 81.

[19] Waltke, 258.

[20] McKane, 295.

[21] Waltke, 259.

[22] Clifford, 55.

[23] Aitken, 47-8.

[24] Murphy, 24.

[25] Schwab, 486

[26] Whybray, 66.

[27] Schwab, 487.

[28] Habel, “The Symbolism of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9,” 151.

Jim Rosenquist

Jim Rosenquist

Jim is Founder, Editor, and Author at 4Elect. He holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary. Jim rejoices that God chooses insignificant people to bring glory to Himself.

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