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Proverbs’ Portrait of the Wise Man

Friday, October 20th, 2006

The poetry of the Old Testament emphasizes wisdom. Biblically speaking, wisdom is essential to our spiritual well being. We cannot please God without it.

A common way of defining wisdom is by differentiating it from knowledge: Knowledge is an understanding of the facts; wisdom is the ability to use the facts. This definition is helpful, but it oversimplifies the concept of biblical wisdom. According to the inspired writers, wisdom involves a mentality that seeks God’s approval. It is the ability to discern the difference between good and evil, right and wrong (cf. Eph. 5:17; Heb. 5:14).

All of us have a picture in our minds of what a person with wisdom is supposed to look like. Most of us envision a wise old sage with a long, white beard sitting in a peaceful setting with giant oaks and waterfalls. The book of Proverbs offers a different portrait of the wise man. What does he look like?

1. He has thick skin. The wise man of Proverbs is humble enough to take a little criticism and advice from others without getting his feelings hurt. He realizes that he is only one man and that he cannot know everything on his own. By remaining open to what others say and staying calm whenever he is challenged, he continues to learn and grow.

Proverbs 12:16 says that a wise man “ignores an insult.” When the criticism is unnecessary or spoken out of envy and hate, he brushes it off, knowing it would do him no good to get his feelings hurt.

But when it comes to constructive criticism, he responds in a completely different manner. He “loves” helpful advice, even when it confronts, knowing it will only make him wiser (Prov. 9:8-9; cf. 12:15; 15:31).

2. He has a chain in his hand. The chain is for himself. He uses it to lead himself captive, away from the sin that will certainly destroy him.

When Paul spoke of self-control, he used strong language, saying, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control…” (1 Cor. 9:27). Literally, the text would read, “I pummel my body and make it a slave.” Paul knew how difficult self-control can be. It’s like chaining yourself up, or working yourself over with a set of brass knuckles.

Throughout Proverbs, we see that the wise learn temperance. Some of the areas where self-control is practices are…

  • Anger (29:11; 16:32; 25:28; Eph. 4:26)
  • The tongue (10:19; 11:12; 16:23; Jas. 1:19; 3:2-12)
  • Doctrine (14:15-16; Eph. 4:14; 1 Jn. 4:1)
  • Alcohol (20:1; 23:29-35)

3. He has a big heart. This is clear from the wise man’s love for souls.

He has a love for his own soul. “He that getteth wisdom loveth his own soul…” (Prov. 19:8, KJV). If you love your own soul, you’ll search for wisdom and find it. You won’t rely on feelings to instruct you in the way of righteousness. You won’t rely on friends and family members, either. A person who loves his own soul searches the gospel for the truth, and, upon finding it, remains faithful to its word.

The wise man also has a love for the souls of others. In another place Proverbs reads, “…he that winneth souls is wise” (11:30). Why is it wise to “win” souls?

  • Because wisdom is more than an acknowledgement of the facts; it is acting upon those facts (cf. Jas. 5:19-20).
  • Because God commanded us to win souls, and to disobey his commandments is not wise (Mt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15-16).
  • Because those who win souls receive a great reward (Dan. 12:3; 1 Thes. 2:19-20; 1 Cor. 3:12-15).

4. He has powerful muscles. Wise men are strong. Proverbs 24:5-6 reads, “A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.” Solomon even recollected an incident in which a physically weak citizen of a small city was able to defeat a great king with his wisdom (Ecc. 9:13-18).

What is the wise man’s strength?

  • Power over his emotions–as we’ve seen, he has thick skin. He has the emotional strength to work with other people and deal with differences.
  • Power over the lusts of the flesh–also, we found that the wise man holds a chain in his hand, a chain to take his own soul captive from the temptations that wage war against it.
  • Power over the devil and sin–he is driven by a love for souls.
  • Power over grief and sorrow–he sorrows, but not as those without hope (1 Thes. 4:13). Having heaven as his home and Christ as his Savior, he is able to endure all things (Phil. 4:13).
  • Power over death–with Paul he can thank God for the resurrection through Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:55-57).

With power comes great responsibility. The wise man, then, reaches out to those with weaker faith, and helps them bear their burdens (Gal. 6:2; Rom. 15:1).

Who doesn’t want to be wise? But don’t make assumptions. Examine yourself and see if you look anything like Proverbs’ portrait of the wise man.