A reading from Proverbs appears a number of times in the lectionary, though the last one was the Second Sunday after Trinity. There the focus was the contrast between Wisdom and Folly. Proverbs 4:10-23 occurs within the same division of the book, but focuses instead on the pursuit of Wisdom. For the wider context of the book of Proverbs, consult the previous study.
It is important to bear in mind that, as he says elsewhere in the book, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10). Solomon’s admonition to his sons, therefore, is an admonition to those who fear the Lord. The fool, the unbeliever, cannot pursue Wisdom. “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Faith, on the other hand, pursues Wisdom, because it fears God.
“Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live” (Proverbs 4:4). Because Solomon speaks to those who fear the Lord, they indeed delight in the Law in their inward being. “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:35)! Faith delights in the Law, because it is the will of God. This ties this reading from Proverbs very closely with the appointed reading from Galatians 5:16-24. The fool delights in the works of the flesh, because they are contrary to the Law of God, which he hates. God must therefore give him the Law in order to show him the folly of his ways. The Law reveals that he is headed down the path of destruction, and his life confirms that verdict. But for those who have the Spirit of God, the Law shows what is good and right in the sight of God. “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8).
The pericope has three primary divisions: the admonition to avoid evil and seek wisdom (Proverbs 4:10-15); the way of evil (Proverbs 4:16-19); and the pursuit of wisdom (Proverbs 4:20-23). While the exact division is debatable, this emphasizes Solomon’s three main points.
The first part flows out of the earlier part of the chapter. Those who seek wisdom will see many years, just like the commandment to honor father and mother “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). Seek life, because the Lord “is your life and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30:20). The wise will not stumble and fall, because that is what will happen to evildoers (Psalm 27:2). But one cannot go on limping between two different opinions (1 Kings 18:21). One cannot serve two masters. “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). Therefore, those who are of the light must avoid the works of darkness and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:14).
The second part speaks of the way of evil. Those who seek after the way of death and destruction do so with their whole being. They “cannot sleep unless they have done wrong” and “eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence” (Proverbs 4:16-17). Nor is it a matter of being only partly wicked. Those who are opposed to God cannot submit to Him at all. “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)? As Jesus says: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).
The last part of this pericope calls to the wise to pursue Wisdom and to listen to his words. “Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart” (Proverbs 4:21). In the last part of the chapter, which is oddly not included in the reading, this admonition is much clearer. Put away crooked speech, but “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). Ponder the path of your feet, and “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Do not turn to the right or to the left, but pursue the Lord diligently and without wavering. These are commands directed to the believer and not to the unbeliever, which is to say that they do not save. But the believer is commanded to run and to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10), because faith is a living and active thing. Let us, therefore, wage a holy violence against all that would hinder us and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).