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From pastor and New York Times bestselling author Timothy Keller comes a beautifully packaged, yearlong daily devotional based on the Book of Proverbs.
Proverbs is God’s book of wisdom, teaching us the essence and goal of a Christian life. In this 365-day devotional, Timothy Keller offers readers a fresh, inspiring lesson for every day of the year based on different passages within the Book of Proverbs. With his trademark knowledge, Keller unlocks the wisdom within the poetry of Proverbs and guides us toward a new understanding of what it means to live a moral life. God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life is a book that readers will be able to turn to every day, year after year, to cultivate a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with God. This makes a perfect companion to Keller’s devotional on the Psalms, The Songs of Jesus.
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Timothy Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. His first pastorate was in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has nearly six thousand regular Sunday attendees and has helped to start more than three hundred new churches around the world. He is the author of Hidden Christmas, Making Sense of God, and The Songs of Jesus, as well as The Meaning of Marriage, The Prodigal God, and The Reason for God, among others.
Kathy Keller received her MA in theological studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Kathy cowrote The Meaning of Marriage and The Songs of Jesus with Tim. God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life is their third collaboration.
There may be readers picking up this book who profited from our earlier yearlong devotional book, The Songs of Jesus. In that case especially, it is helpful to reflect on the differences between Psalms and Proverbs. The Psalms are filled with expressions of emotion, of pain, joy, and praise. They show us how to process our experiences before God. Proverbs is a very different book. It calls us to study, to think, to learn the practical discipline of centering all our thoughts and actions on God. Indeed, one of the main messages of Proverbs is—you’ve never really thought enough about anything. Psalms is about how to throw ourselves fully upon God in faith. Proverbs is about how, having trusted God, we should then live that faith out. If the Bible were a medicine cabinet, Psalms would be the ointment put on inflamed skin to calm and heal it. Proverbs would be more like smelling salts to startle you into alertness. Here are a few pointers for studying the book of Proverbs with profit.
Proverbs as Poetry
Proverbs is not a set of “simple steps to a happy life” for quick consumption. A proverb is a poetic art form that instills wisdom in you as you wrestle with it. As English readers we cannot receive the full force of the original, and yet we can still learn enough about the features of Hebrew poetry to discern layers of meaning that we would otherwise miss. Perhaps the most fundamental mark of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Two phrases, clauses, or sentences are brought into close connection with each other so that they modify and expand on each other. The second may magnify and extend the thought of the first, or it may instead offer a counterpoint that limits and softens the first idea.
In each case the two thoughts mutually clarify each other, sharpening our understanding. So Proverbs 13:6 says, “Righteousness guards the person of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner.” The first clause helps us understand “wickedness” in the second clause more specifically as a lack of integrity. Because of parallelism, the words “wicked” and “righteous” and “wise” and “foolish,” which show up constantly and (seemingly) repetitiously, actually mean somewhat different things in each proverb. We miss much of the meaning of a proverb unless we compare the clauses very closely and watch for the interplay between words.
Another prominent feature of Hebrew poetry, as in all poetry, is the importance of vivid images. A beautiful but foolish woman is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout (Proverbs 11:22); a lazy employee is like vinegar to the teeth (Proverbs 10:26). Images and metaphors are always invitations to think out the many ways that “this is like that.” A thoughtful reader can list five, then ten, then more ways that the image explains the principle.
Proverbs as Puzzle
Goethe once said of languages that “whoever know only one, knows none,” and that is likely true, but it is even more true of proverbs.1 If one proverb says, “The morally good always have a good life,” and later another says, “Sometimes the morally good suffer,” we modern readers think we’ve found a contradiction. That’s because we think of proverbs either as individual s tand- alone promises or commands. But usually they are neither. Each is a description of some aspect of how life works. One proverb on marriage, taken all by itself, seems to apply to every instance. A later proverb, however, reveals that there are some marriage situations in which a different practice is required. Only taken and fitted together, with each one modifying the others as the parallel clauses do, do the proverbs yield a full, multidimensional picture of a particular topic.
Proverbs, then, give up their meaning only cumulatively. No one saying gives you the whole picture. Proverbs 29:19 says that servants simply can’t understand the reason they should do things, so you just have to be very strict with them. This seems to be a sweeping statement about their capabilities, but Proverbs 17:2 tells us that a wise servant can end up being better than a family member. Only when the two are placed together can we see that 29:19 is not talking about all servants and employees but rather about those with an unresponsive, sullen attitude.
So if we read Proverbs’ various statements on a subject all together, we can see many larger points. In chapter 12 we are told that the path toward disaster can seem to be the right one to a fool, but in chapter 16, that the disastrous road can appear to be right to anyone. In other words, sometimes, even if you have done due diligence, your choices may still go wrong, because it is a broken world. The wise know that sometimes “all paths may run ill.” As we will see, there is an order God put into things when he created the world and by which we must abide. But on the other hand this is a fallen world, distorted by sin, and the wise know that the created order does not always work, nor is it always easy to discern.
Only all together do the proverbs bring us a wise, nuanced, theologically rich, many-faceted view of the world.
Proverbs as Pedagogy
Many have concluded that the book of Proverbs was originally a manual for the instruction of young men. The addressees are always “sons.” If that is the case, then it makes sense that we should have warnings against predatory, adulterous women in chapters 5 through 7 but no analogous warning about predatory, adulterous men.3 Modern readers sometimes chafe, therefore, at how male oriented the book is. We should not conclude from this, however, that Proverbs is more negative about female character than male, or that women should not be instructed in wisdom while men should be.
We have seen that the creation and dissemination of proverbs took a great deal of artistry and deep learning. Yet in Proverbs 1:8; 4:3; 10:1, and elsewhere it is both father and mother who are instructing their son. The mother was “an authoritative voice along with the father.” 4 This surely means that daughters as well as sons must have been trained in the terse poetry and epigrammatic wisdom of proverbs. Indeed, the idealized wife of Proverbs 31:26 “speaks with wisdom” and “faithful instruction is on her tongue.” These are technical terms meaning she speaks at length with great solemnity and imparts the wisdom of the ages.5 So while the original readers of Proverbs were male, not female, the wisdom and training of this book nevertheless applies to everyone.
We should, however, never forget that Proverbs was written not for private reading but as a manual to be worked through in a community of learners, with older, wiser mentors. At the very least, then, we would like to urge you to use this daily devotional together with a group of friends. Here is a suggested way to do this.
Choose one or more friends and agree to use the devotional together, each reading the same reflection individually, in private, on the same day. At the end of each reflection there is a question that helps you think more personally about how the teaching applies to your life. Write the answer to the question in a journal. Then write answers to two additional questions about the day’s proverb(s) in your journal, unless your response to the first query has already included them.
1. Where in your life or the life of someone else have you seen this observation illustrated?
2. How can you put this observation into practice— in thought, attitude, word, or deed?
After completing your journal entry, pray the prayer at the end of each page. These short prayers are just “on ramps”—suggested ways to begin talking to God personally about what he is teaching you in his Word. Put the prayer in your own words if you wish, and then continue speaking to him about how the particular Scriptural teaching should play out in your life. This should be your daily routine—read, meditate using the journal questions, and pray.
Then meet with your friends who are doing the same daily exercise as often as you can. Share your best insights, discuss them together, encourage one another to apply the insights to your lives, and report to one another on how your efforts are going.
Proverbs as Part of the Whole Bible
While we call Proverbs a “book,” it really is one chapter in a much larger book—the Bible— which presents, through all its various parts and narratives, a single, coherent story. That story is that the human race has marred God’s good creation through sin and now needs salvation, and that this salvation has been accomplished and can be found only in Jesus Christ. Therefore, like every other part of the Bible, Proverbs will give up its fullest and richest meaning only when it is read in the light of the person and work of Jesus. Jesus dazzled his listeners with his wisdom (Luke 2:40,47; Mark 6:2). He claimed to be the new Solomon with the ultimate wisdom (Luke 11:31). The personified Wisdom that created the world (Proverbs 8: 22–31) is finally revealed to be Jesus, the Word of God, with whom God created the world (John 1: 1– 4.) Paul calls Jesus the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30), the one in whom all God’s wisdom is hidden (Colossians 2:3).
Remember, too, that “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10) is the beginning of wisdom. A living, vital relationship with God is wisdom’s absolute prerequisite. This “fear,” as we will see, is not cringing terror but an attitude of awe and wonder before the faithful, covenant love of God. The New Testament shows us that the kind of relationship with the Lord that Proverbs calls for can be fully realized only through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Themes of Proverbs
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the study of Proverbs is the task of synthesizing all that it says on a particular subject. In this devotional book, the first weeks of the year examine the general teaching on the subject of wisdom in the first nine chapters of Proverbs. After that, however, I have grouped the daily readings into sets of topics, enabling the reader to accumulate the various insights on a specific theme, piecing together the wisdom that the book offers on the subject. Readers should expect that some proverbs recur in more than one daily reading. The reason is that many proverbs do not speak strictly to one topic, but have implications for practice under several headings of wise living. The themes are listed below.
Knowing wisdom: January 1–February 7
What is wisdom?
What is foolishness?
How do we become wise?
The case for wisdom
Knowing God: February 8 –March 23
The fear of the Lord
God’s order perceived
God’s order disrupted (Ecclesiastes) God’s order hidden (Job)
Knowing the heart: March 2 4–June 12
Understanding the heart
The Seven Deadly Sins
Knowing others: June 1 3–August 10
Knowing the times and seasons: August 11– September 3
Guidance, planning, and decision making
Insights for our age
Knowing the spheres: September 4–December 14
Money and work
Knowing Jesus, the true wisdom of God: December
15–December 31 In each day’s reflections, text references for Proverbs will be cited only by chapter and verse numbers. (So “10:13” rather than “Proverbs 10:13.”) Text references for every other book of the Bible will have chapter and verse numbers accompanied by the name of the book. (So “Psalm 37:29.”) Also, words and phrases taken from that day’s biblical text that are quoted in the body of the reflection will be in italics rather than within quotation marks.
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