Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
My father was a great teacher. When I was young, he drilled me on his favorite proverb: “Hindsight is better than foresight, but never as good as insight.” As a child I was more intrigued by the fascinating twist of the words than by the wisdom it communicated. Time, however, has taught me the truth of this proverb (even though it isn’t one of those found in the Bible): We see farther into the past than into the future, but those who are aware of how things fit into God’s grand scheme are truly wise.
The book of Proverbs is the heart of Old Testament Wisdom Literature. Even though Proverbs does not lend itself to theological outlines, a clear understanding of the book’s structure helps us to better understand it. Before the collections of proverbs fashioned in the definition of the English term (short, pithy sayings) begin in chapter 10, chapters 1–9 form a cohesive, well-developed introductory series of lectures. Although the words are addressed to a “son,” this is more of a literary device than a reference to a historical person.
Both wisdom and folly in the Hebrew language are feminine nouns. So the writer of this section used these words to evoke possible partners for a masculine addressee. Throughout Proverbs 1–9, both Wisdom and Folly take turns declaring their attractions in a series of personified mating overtures. The speeches are biased in favor of Wisdom, of course, for this is the thesis stated in Proverbs 1:7.
The goal of Proverbs 1–9 is to show us how godly wisdom merges with real life. Along the way we get principles for building strong marriages, families and work relationships. The proverbs of chapters 10–31 are word pictures that describe the furnishings scattered throughout Wisdom’s house. When we marry Wisdom, we begin to surround ourselves with her sayings, perspectives, tools and visual aids.
These words of introduction and the proverbs that follow are meant to be applied to all dimensions of life. But they resonate clearly with dating and marriage relationships. It is from our fathers and mothers that we first learn what marriage is like. If the lessons of marriage are taught well by parents who have lingered long in Wisdom’s house, we gain invaluable perspectives on how to respect others, to enjoy the give-and-take of domestic living, and to create an environment of hospitality in which to bring children and friends.
The reverse is also true. Our parents are prone to sin and often tempted by Folly. So we may need to unlearn some of their bad lessons, such as deception, lack of discipline, immodesty or infidelity. But that mixed bag of instruction should only remind us that true wisdom, after all, is gained first from God.