Every man is like the company he is wont to keep. — Euripides
Sooner or later everyone has to decide which gang they belong to. — Pepper1
It is strange that more Christian educators have not tried to work out an educational theology from the Book of Proverbs. The book professes to be instruction for the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, and yet few books on Christian education make any use of its material and themes, except perhaps in the area of character training. It may be because Proverbs does not directly address what we generally consider academic topics: mathematics, natural science, literature, and such. Or it may be that Christian scholars don't quite know how to fit the book into the framework of the New Covenant.
One commentator, for example, sees Proverbs as law for the Jewish Millennium — practical rules, but lacking in grace; another sees the book as an inspired transcript of natural law, good advice for everyone, as it were. Both recognize the relevance of Proverbs to the practical issues of life; but neither can find in it any connection to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who find in Proverbs more of Ben Franklin than of the Spirit of God have also missed the point.
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge," Solomon tells us (1:7). The fear of the Lord is basic to the gospel. In fact, in Revelation an angel preaches the "everlasting gospel" to the whole world with the words, "Fear God, and give him glory" (14:7).
The fear of God cannot be taught by the precepts of men (Is. 29:13); it is the work of God's Holy Spirit (Is. 11:2-3). True wisdom and knowledge, then, begin in a right relationship with God, in regeneration, justification, and adoption. If we do not know God — that is, if we do not have a proper relationship with Him — we cannot know His world or ourselves properly.
Good Calvinists should, of course, say amen to this. But then Solomon turns away from traditional Reformed philosophy. He says nothing about worldviews, antithesis, or the Creator/creature distinction. Instead, Solomon tells his son that he needs to listen to his parents' law and stay away from gangs [editor: see the above quote from Pepper].
Why his parents' law? Why not God's law? Because the young man is young. He has not mastered all of God's law yet. He does not know how to apply it to the more complex problems of life. He needs direction from those who do. At this point he is (apparently) still under his parents' authority. And even when he passes beyond that relationship, he will still need to honor his parents and their wisdom. Godly tradition has its uses. Sola Scriptura does not mean our fathers have nothing to say to us or that we have nothing to learn from them.
Now, this assumes that the young man's parents are godly and that their law is a valid interpretation and application of God's law. Since the father speaking in these verses is King Solomon before his fall, he can speak with an assurance that we do not have. He was the wisest of men and a prophet, and we are neither. Worse, we are often ignorant of the most basic principles of God's law. Nonetheless, Solomon tells us how young people should be able to begin their search for wisdom: they should learn wisdom at their parents' feet.
Then Solomon turns to the lure of "gangs." In some other era, this might seem odd, but God often uses extreme examples to make His point. We need to know that there is more to wisdom than postulates and systems. What we believe and how we think will be shaped by the companions we choose. This is fundamental. "He that walketh with wise men will be wise: but a companion of fools will be destroyed" (Pr. 13:20). God plants believers in churches for many reasons, but this is one of them. Young people who value ungodly friends above godly parents place themselves on the road to folly. Slowly — or suddenly — they will find their parents' beliefs outdated, narrow, and even oppressive. Our worldview is shaped in good measure by our choice of companions. We pick our identity by the company we keep.
Leaving "gangs" behind, Solomon shows us at last that most excellent lady, Wisdom. Everywhere men gather, she calls out to them, offering them her words and Spirit. The young man must listen to her, seek her, and love her (2:1-4; 4:6). For she is "the principal thing" (4:7); she is the Tree of Life restored (3:18). We should begin to suspect who she really is.
The visible effects of embracing Wisdom are first of all ethical and social. Wisdom keeps the young man from bad companions, from the forward man and the strange woman (2:10-20). Doubtless, wisdom has its academic consequences, but Solomon ignores these. Of first consequence for Solomon is his son's choice of companions, especially his choice of a bride. For every prince needs a princess. Proverbs shows us two potential brides: Wisdom, who puts on flesh in chapter 31 as the Excellent Wife, and Folly, who is incarnate throughout the book as the strange woman.
"Strange" here means foreign or alien to God's covenant. Though the strange woman is apparently an Israelite, she has forgotten "the covenant of her God" (2:17). She is not necessarily a prostitute, though she dresses like one (7:10), but she is a seductress and her paths lead to hell (7:27). She is the chief stumbling block the young man is likely to find in his walk with God. But as the young man embraces Wisdom, he will avoid any connection with the strange woman.
Wisdom in Proverbs is a Person, not an abstraction. Wisdom hates, loves, promises, leads, and commands (8:1-21). Wisdom has wisdom (8:14), an odd thing if she were merely a divine attribute personified. Wisdom is eternally begotten. "The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old," she says (8:22).2 The Hebrew verb is the same used by Eve when she said, "I have gotten a man from the LORD" (Gen. 4:1); gotten, that is, by generation. Indeed, Wisdom tells us twice that she was "brought forth" before creation (vv. 24, 25) — from eternity. Yet Wisdom was "by" God and "before him" (v. 30).
Wisdom is the divine Logos (Jn. 1:1-18); Wisdom is Jesus Christ (cf. Lk. 7:35; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30; Col. 2:2-3).3 The man who would be wise must listen to Christ, seek Christ, and love Christ.
Now we can step back and look at the book of Proverbs as a whole. There is nothing of Ben Franklin or Aesop here. The words of this book are the words of divine Wisdom: they are the mind of Christ and a transcription of His character.4 He is the wise Son, the Wise in heart, the just and righteous Man, the One who walks uprightly, whose mouth is a well of life. He is the merciful Man, the true and faithful Witness (cf. Rev. 1:5). He, above all others, has found "favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man" (3:4; cf. Lk. 2:52). As we hear Him, as we take His words into our hearts (2:10; 3:1, 3; 4:4, 21; 7:3), we become like Him. Communion produces conformity (cf. Rom. 6). The disciple becomes as his master (Lk. 6:40). There is no legalism or moralism here: this is true, spiritual religion.
And so the young man must seek Wisdom on two levels or in two ways. First, he must seek to know Jesus Christ so that he may be wise, so that Christ may be formed within him (Gal. 4:19). Second, he must seek Christ in his bride. Moreover, he must do the first so that he can do the second.5 This is, perhaps, why Wisdom is feminine in Proverbs: it is in their wives that godly men find or should find the clearest and dearest personal representation of Jesus Christ. In chapter 31, the prince finds his bride: and they will live happily ever after.
What, then, are the means of seeking Wisdom? Wisdom is everywhere (8:1-3), and general revelation has much to tell us about our Creator. But the words of Wisdom are more important still. Wisdom cries by her maidens, her appointed officers (9:3). We must submit ourselves to the pastors and teachers Christ has established in His churches. Wisdom calls us to a banquet of bread and wine (9:5). This feast and the Lord's Supper point to the same reality, and we must seek Christ at His table as surely as the young man must seek Wisdom at hers.6
What we are talking about is communion, and for the creature, communion with the Creator must mean worship (3:9). More than a rational creature, man is a worshipping creature. Any educational philosophy that calls itself Christian must reckon with this. Moreover, man is a covenantal creature, one whose perception of truth is shaped by his relationships with God and other men. And so, if we would be wise, we must decide what "gang" we belong to. We must know whom we serve and whom we trust. Any approach to education that does not mention all of this up front still has one foot in the Enlightenment.
1. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omen (London: Corgi Books, 1990), 343.
2. The Latin Vulgate renders the verb as created, and the Arians, recognizing Wisdom as the Logos of John 1, used this mistranslation to argue for the creaturehood of the Son.
3. See Charles Bridges's arguments on this point, especially in his footnotes on 1:20, 28 and 8:1.
4. As the Psalms give us Jesus singing God's law-word, the Proverbs give us Jesus meditating on God's law-word.
5. The Excellent Wife in Proverbs 31 often intimidates young women. But let's put things in perspective. Women are given their example in twenty-two verses; young men get the rest of the book to tell them how to be worthy of the young woman.
6. Note the two women, the two banquets in ch. 9, and the revelation of the bride at the end of the book. We should not miss the parallels to the Book of Revelation.