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A Word to the Wise

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Proverbs 22:17–29; 23; 24

The essence of wisdom is making wise choices, and sometimes the wisest choice is to avoid certain people and habits. Thankfully, the book of Proverbs gives some very specific guidance on such decision making through “the words of the wise.”


A Word to the Wise

Proverbs 22:17–24:34


Our Wisdom Journey through the book of Proverbs brings us now to the middle of chapter 22 and the beginning of a new section, called here in verse 17 “the words of the wise.” In fact, these are not only words of the wise; they’re also “a word to the wise.” A word to the wise is an expression we use today when we give advice to people who are willing to listen.

In verse 20 we are told that this section contains “thirty sayings of counsel and knowledge.” This section takes us through Proverbs 24:22; then even more sayings of the wise are added in the closing verses of chapter 24.

Evidently, these proverbs were written by other people but collected by Solomon. It was his passion to collect proverbs. Some people are passionate about collecting stamps or coins. Some have been known to collect pencils and napkins. I read of a woman who had a collection of more than 5,000 bars of soap, and a man who had collected more than 1,000 toothbrushes—he has no excuse for getting a cavity!

Now those collections might keep your hands clean and your teeth white, but they cannot give you a wise heart. This collection of proverbs will.

Solomon writes in verses 17-18:

Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge, for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips.

The Hebrew literally reads, “If you keep them in your belly and fix them on your lips.”[1]

These words to the wise do not just inform us; they will transform us. They were not given to make us smarter but to make us wiser.

In verse 28 we have this warning: “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set.” In other words, do not move a boundary marker.

In ancient days, people marked the edges of their property with stones. Apparently, it was common for people to secretly move the stones—perhaps just a little at a time over a long period. This amounted to stealing somebody’s property and was forbidden in the law back in Deuteronomy 27:17. So, God is essentially defending private ownership—the right to own personal, private property.[2]

Over in Proverbs 23, we are given a warning in verse 10 about stealing property from the fatherless. God considers taking advantage of such vulnerable people a serious crime.

Other Scriptures emphasize protecting people like widows and orphans, as well as those without fathers. This includes children growing up with a single mother. Let me tell you, they are of special concern to God. They are vulnerable, and the followers of God should pay special attention to their needs. [3]

In Proverbs 23:4 we encounter an interesting, and perhaps puzzling, proverb: “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist.” At first glance, this seems to contradict other proverbs that encourage hard work and obtaining wealth. Solomon wrote back in Proverbs 12:27, “The diligent man will get precious wealth.”

This is not a contradiction at all. It is one thing to work hard and receive a paycheck. But it is another thing to center your life on that paycheck—pursuing wealth and wearing yourself out to climb the ladder, so to speak. Proverbs 23:4 is talking about that kind of pursuit. Focusing on getting rich empties your life of fulfillment, and that is because you are never going to have enough. Solomon writes in verse 5 that your wealth is going to sprout wings and fly away one day. It will soon be gone. [4]

Proverbs 24 opens in verse 1, “Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them.” In other words, don’t hang around their locker, their corner. Don’t give them an opportunity to influence your life. Why not? Verses 19-20 spell it out: “Be not envious of the wicked, for the evil man has no future.” It might look like they have a future, but you just need to look a little farther down the road. They might have the nicest seats with the softest cushions, but they are sitting on the deck of the Titanic. They have no future hope or joy.[5]

But here is the contrast for the believer; back in Proverbs 23:18, Solomon writes, “Surely there is [for you] a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” You might have a hard bench to sit on and a lousy view, but look where you are heading—to the promised land of pure and wholesome pleasures forevermore.

Now we are given some warnings here about overeating and alcoholic beverages. You might not like this section, but these are words to the wise.

We read in chapter 23, “Put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite” (verse 2). That is a pretty strong way of saying, “Stop overeating.” Of course many people in the world today don’t have enough to eat, but there are others of us who just can’t seem to get enough to eat. We are not hungry, but we keep on eating. Wisdom invites us to take self-control seriously in this matter.

Then in the last seven verses of chapter 23, the Bible describes the danger of alcohol. The writer asks here who has woe, sorrow, strife, complaints, wounds, and bloodshot eyes. The answer is, “Those who tarry long over wine.” And you say, “Well, I just won’t tarry very long.” But verse 31 goes on to warn, “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly.” This is a reference to strong drink—frankly, the kind of drink you might be buying at the grocery store today. The wine of today is equal to the strong drink that is forbidden here. Verses 32-33 describe its power: “In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things.” Said another way, you can’t think straight, and you can’t see straight.

This is not a pretty picture, is it? This kind of picture is not going to end up in a beer or wine commercial on television, where it’s all happiness and good times. But this warning reflects reality. Verse 34 says, “You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast.” In other words, you are going to stagger all around.

Now why all the warnings here about drunkenness and gluttony? We need to recognize the problems associated with them. Alcohol has ruined more lives and taken more lives than anything else sold over the counter. And we rarely hear any kind of warning about gluttony—unless it comes from our doctor who tells us about the complications and risks to our health that might very well take our lives.

Has it ever occurred to you that Solomon puts gluttony and alcohol in the same category of warning? They are both equally dangerous. Both of them can ruin our lives.

Three thousand years ago, Solomon collected warnings that are just as important and applicable today as they were then. So many heartaches could be avoided if we would listen to these “words to the wise” and follow them today,

So, let’s not see how close we can get to the line here. Let’s take these warnings seriously. I for one am not going to keep a snake in my cupboard, and I am going to battle gluttony as a dangerous trap as well. 

[1] Robert L. Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice (Baker Book House, 1983), 165.

[2] Integrity: 2:7; 11:1, 3, 20; 12:19, 22; 14:25; 16:13; 19:1; 20:7, 10; 24:26, 28; 28:6, 13, 23

[3] Widows: 15:25

[4] Riches: 1:10-14; 11:4; 13:7,11,22; 18:11; 28:8,22

[5] Wickedness: 3:31–33; 4:14–19; 5:22–23; 6:12–15; 10:6–7, 24–30; 11:10–11; 12:5–7, 10; 17:23; 21:7


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