Every man is like the company he is wont to keep. —Euripides, c. 430 BC
Sooner or later everyone has to decide which gang they belong to. —Pratchett and Gaiman, Good Omens (1990)
To Be a Man
When David was nearing the end of his life, he gave his son Solomon a strong admonition. He told him how to be a good king. This, in part, is what David said:
I go the way of all the earth: be thou strong therefore, and shew thyself a man; and keep the charge of the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and whithersoever thou turnest thyself. (1 Kings 2:2-3)
In this passage, David sees manhood in terms of moral integrity. A real man keeps God’s commandments. He does so out of his heart, as a matter of character and lifestyle and not as superficial show for the public or the press. David goes on to tell Solomon that God’s promise concerning the monarchy and the kingdom depend on Solomon’s moral character. While Yahweh’s long-term promises will not fail, their fulfillment in each generation, in each administration, hinges on the private and public morality of the reigning king.
Solomon’s Good Start
Initially, Solomon took his father’s advice very much to heart. Though Scripture doesn’t present the young Solomon as a man of flawless character, it does show us that his priorities were in the right place (1 Kings 3:1-10). When he ascended the throne and set himself to seek after Yahweh, God appeared to him in a dream and told him bluntly: “Ask what I shall give you.”
Solomon asked for wisdom to judge God’s people: He wanted to be the good king and the godly man that David had in mind (v. 9). God was pleased and granted his request. In addition, he gave Solomon riches and honor and a long reign—forty years, as it turned out (vv. 10-14).
Within a short time, Solomon had a marvelous opportunity to test God’s gift. Two prostitutes came before him for judgment (vv. 16-28). Each had been delivered of a child within a span of three days. Now one child was dead, smothered in its sleep, and both women claimed the living child. There were no witnesses, and in that age no DNA tests were available. Solomon had to draw on God’s wisdom. He called for a sword and ordered the living child to be divided in two so that each woman could have half. The real mother immediately yielded her claim; the other woman, driven by envy, agreed to the division. Solomon—and everyone present—saw the truth of the matter, and the king delivered the baby to its real mother. All Israel heard of Solomon’s judgment and held him in awe. They knew this judicial wisdom was from God.
The Book of Proverbs
While Solomon was still young, before the apostasy of his later years, he wrote a lengthy monologue about the nature of such wisdom. He adorned it with proverbs rich in metaphor and heavy with implication. He addressed the monologue to his son, Israel’s prince. Under divine inspiration, later editors combined the monologue with more of his proverbs and with a few short pieces of wisdom literature to create what we know as the Book of Proverbs. It’s a book about wisdom, maturity, and righteous judgment.
Right at the beginning of the book, Solomon tells his son—and us—where wisdom and understanding begin: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). The fear of the Lord is a heartfelt awe of God, a loving reverence for Him, and a filial fear of displeasing Him. Given its nature, this fear of God can’t be taught by the precepts of men (Isa. 29:13); it must be the work of God’s Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:2-3). True wisdom and knowledge must begin in a right relationship with God, in regeneration, justification, and adoption. If we don’t know and fear God—that is, if we don’t have a proper relationship with Him—we can’t know His world or ourselves properly. We can’t see God’s order.
Wisdom and Relationships
Solomon’s next lesson deals with basic relationships. He tells his son that he needs to listen to his parents. He needs to obey their law. Why their law? Why not God’s law? Because the young man is young. He hasn’t mastered all of God’s law yet. He doesn’t know how to apply it to the more complex problems of life. He needs direction from those who do. Even in his later years, he will need to respect and honor the wisdom of his parents and teachers.
Then Solomon turns to the lure of gangs. Solomon is talking about our choice of companions. We need to know that there is more to wisdom than postulates and world-views. What we believe and how we think will be shaped by the friends we choose. This is fundamental. “He that walkest with wise men will be wise: but a companion of fools will be destroyed” (Prov. 13:20). Young people who value ungodly friends above godly parents place themselves on the road to folly. Slowly—perhaps suddenly—they will find their parents’ beliefs outdated, narrow, and oppressive. Our worldview is shaped in good measure by our choice of friends. We pick our identity by the company we keep.
Finally, Solomon shows us 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).
Wisdom will keep the young man from bad companions, from the arrogant man and the strange woman (2:10-20). Again, Solomon is very concerned with his son’s choice of companions, especially with his choice of a bride. Every prince needs a princess. Proverbs shows us two potential brides: Wisdom, who puts on flesh in ch. 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 an Israelite, she has forgotten “the covenant of her God” (2:17). She is not necessarily a prostitute, but she dresses like one (7:10). She is a seductress, and her paths lead to hell (7:27). She is the chief stumbling block the young man is likely find in his walk with God. But as the young man embraces Wisdom, he will flee the strange woman and the mentality she represents.
We need to understand something more. We need to see that Wisdom in Proverbs is more than an abstraction or a personification: Wisdom is in fact a Person. For Wisdom hates, loves, promises, leads, and commands (8:1-21). Wisdom is eternally begotten. “The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old,” she says (8:22). 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). This should sound familiar to anyone who knows the Gospel of John.
Wisdom is the divine Logos (John 1:1-18); Wisdom is Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 7:35; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30; Col. 2:2-3). The man who would be wise must listen to Christ, seek Christ, and love Christ. When we hear Him, when 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 (Luke 6:40). We are transformed into His image. There is no legalism or moralism here… this is true spiritual religion. Proverbs is a faithful preaching of the gospel.
And so the young man must seek Wisdom, first, in Christ and, then, in other Christians. 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). Since Jesus reveals Himself in the preached word and the sacraments, the young man needs to go to church. He needs to submit to God’s covenant order and to true worship. Second, the young man must seek Christ in his companions and, especially, in his bride. He will never be wise and just and righteous when his best friends are fools or when his true love is a harlot.
What we are talking about is communion and community. For the creature, communion with the Creator must mean worship (3:9). And worship in Scripture is covenantal. The godly man is a covenant keeper whose perception of truth is shaped by his relationships with God and men. And so, if we would be wise, if we would rule and judge and do justice, we really do have do decide which gang we belong to. We must choose the right companions. We must worship the right God. We must know whom we serve and whom we ultimately trust.
Solomon was preparing his son to be a man and a king. He wasn’t content to recommend a lifestyle of noble principles, conservative traditions, or family values. He didn’t talk about the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” He didn’t recommend rational self-interest. He wanted his son to fear God and to love the Wisdom of God. We should want the same for our sons, for our judges, and for our elected rulers. Anything less is folly.
For Further Reading:
Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).
John Gill, “The Fear of God” in A Body of Practical Divinity (1770) <http://www.pbministries.org/books/gill/Practical_Divinity/Book_1/book1_05.htm>.
Charles Bridges Proverbs (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994 ).
Greg Uttinger, “The Gospel According to Proverbs,” Chalcedon Report, Sept 2002, no. 444.