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Mission and Wisdom for Daily Living in Proverbs

Maayan Nemanov on Unsplash.

The book of Proverbs forms the practical part of Wisdom Literature in the Bible, alongside the more existential works of Job and Ecclesiastes. A collection of “short sentence[s] founded upon long experience,” the proverbs generally promote traditional values that “survived the passing of time.”[1] This focus appears to lean heavily on “skill[s] for daily living” while making light theological arguments. Even as some scholars describe Proverbs as “unreligious” or “secular,” I suggest that woven through the practical message is a perspective about mission—advice for how to relate well to neighbors, given the experience of wisdom’s transforming presence.[2] 

Mission in “wisdom”

In Proverbs 1:20–22, wisdom is personified and depicted as making a passionate plea for attention to all in the public square as they participate in civic activities.[3] She challenges people without a moral direction to consider how long they will overlook her and live in derision. She offers a better situation if she is appreciated.

Warren Wiersbe asks a significant question in regard to verses 20 and 21, “Where does Wisdom speak?”[4] To this he answers, “In the crowded streets and public places where busy people gather to take care of the business of life.” He posits that “the message of God’s truth is made for the marketplace, not the ivory tower; we must share it ‘at the head of the noisy streets’ (Proverbs 1:21).”[5] In this view, the wisdom of God is not known by all and is to be shared in Proverbs. The everyday wisdom the book holds is meant not only for the readers but for their neighbors as well.

Mission in “good neighborliness and community”

Proverbs 3:27–29 presents a call for the reader to be on good terms with neighbors and other people. It appeals readers not to withhold good from all of the people who stand in need. These obligations include, for example, paying wages to hired laborers.[6] The call also admonishes against delaying doing that which is good or even thinking of doing bad to others. In fostering good neighborliness, verse 29 expands the borders of neighborhood beyond the community of the Israelites so as to include the nations around them in the land of Canaan.[7] By cultivating good neighborliness, the Israelites would fulfill their missionary obligation.

A second example of this call is found in Proverbs 4:18. Here, Solomon states that the path of the righteous is like the rays of the sun in the morning that brighten as the day goes on. This is a popular verse, and its idea is reflected in Daniel 12:3, which reads: “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” In this verse, Daniel not only mirrors the simile of light rays, but he also employs Proverbs’s key concept of wisdom. Unlike the wicked, whose conduct and schemes are all baneful, the lot of the righteous is secure, since it is progressively growing and glowing. The righteous, the just ones, “both have light themselves and shed light on all around.”[8] This is an inference to impacting those who were not counted among God's chosen people.

A third example is found in Proverbs 11:9–15. The passage repeatedly addresses how awkward a relationship with neighbors can be when the tongue is not properly managed. The power of the tongue to destroy or build is plain. Used well, it liberates the righteous (9); exalts a city (11); manifests a man of restraint (12); illustrates a trustworthy man (13); and expedites victory (14). When it is used irresponsibly, it ruins relations with one’s neighbor (9); destroys a city (11); disparages good neighborliness (12); betrays confidence through gossip (13); and misleads or ruins a nation (14). In brief, the tongue can build up relationships or ruin communities.

Neighborliness is not limited to the next-door occupant among the Israelites as a community. Repeated references to “a nation” (as in verse 14), remind readers that wisdom is meant for relationships with people irrespective of their nationality.[9] The writer takes it for granted that these insights are accessible to people of all nations and ought to be shared by those who have experienced them through daily living.

Mission proper

In Proverbs 11:30, the results of the work of the righteous are likened to a tree of life. It brings or restores life (just as it was with the tree of life in the Genesis Edenic account). In addition to blessing the wise, this work will bring a blessing to the surrounding peoples. Ultimately, helping those who are not counted among the righteous makes the righteous “wise.” The “external influence” of the righteous, then, is likened to “a tree of life.” In that sense, for the nations and neighbors, the words and actions of the righteous “exert a quickening, refreshing, [and] happy influence upon them.” By doing so, these people are brought to the knowledge of God and wise, godly living.[10]

In a similar vein, Proverbs 24:11 calls for rescuing people moving into destruction. Some Bible commentators see this text as addressing a court of law where an innocent man is deprived of his justice and the righteous are called to work for his salvation. Others detect a missionary spirit in the text, suggesting that the text “deals with the fault which besets us all in our relations and in life: and the wholesome truths which it utters apply to our duties in regard to Christian missions.” In verse 12, God, who guards human life, confronts the person who neglects to save a man on the verge of “slaughter.” The wisdom of this proverb implies that “by His divine care and communication of life, we live; and surely the soul thus preserved is thereby bound to be a minister of preservation to all that are ‘ready to be slain’ [as the KJV renders it]. The strongest motive for seeking to save others is that God has saved us.” Thus, saving neighbors from unjust courts or from violent threats is clearly part of missionary activity.

In conclusion, although there are few instances of direct missiological addresses in Proverbs, the subject is generally subtly present. Yet in the application of practical wisdom to “matters of daily living,” missiological insights still spring up. The people of God, in whatever place and whatever time, should stay focused on mission. Because God is a missional God, he seeks to bring to the attention of his people their responsibility to enact and embody God’s saving grace with others.


Notes & References:

[1] James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), pp. 67—69.

[2] David Atkinson, The Message of Proverbs (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pg. 170; Quoted in Hee Suk Kim “Proverbs 1–9: A Hermeneutical Introduction to the Book of Proverbs,” PhD dissertation, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2010, pg. 5.

[3] Wisdom itself in Proverbs signifies divine teaching or revelation given to human beings and how people in turn respond through the relationship they have established with God.

[4] Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: Old Testament on Proverbs 1:20–33, electronic (Chariot Victor 2002).

[5] All Bible text quotations, unless otherwise stated, are taken from the New International Version.

[6] Walvoord and Zuck, pg. 913.

[7] When the Jews settled in Canaan, there were nations that circumstantially co-existed with them, e.g., the Moabites and Ammonites (Deut. 2:9; 19); In the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, electronic, 1997, 2003, 2005, and 2006, it is indicated that in this text Solomon forbids “malevolence, especially toward neighbors living peaceably near.”

[8] Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, electronic, 1997, 2003, 2005, and 2006.

[9] The Hebrew for ‘nation’ in this verse is ám. It means a people as a nation. That is to say, people who have a common ancestry and history, culture or language, and live in the same geographical territory.

[10] Commenting on this proverb, the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary explains that it is by their precept and example that the righteous bring others to God (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, 1997, 2003, 2005, and 2006).


Cephas is a district pastor in Keroka township in Nyamira County, Kenya. He is married to Lydiah Moraa. He holds a master’s degree from Friedensau Adventist University and has served in ministry for twenty-four years.

Title image by Maayan Nemanov on Unsplash.

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