The Discipline of Moral Knowledge


This series of proverbs teaches us that truth held in wisdom fosters kindness, peaceful relationships, spiritual maturity, generosity, and humble submission to divine discipline. [I have used a variety of Scripture translations and personal paraphrases in citation of explanatory texts].


I. Wisdom manifests itself in edifying human relationships (3:1-4).

A. The pattern of these verses is admonition and then the result of fitting attention to the admonition. The first admonition draws attention to teaching and commandments. The commandments must be kept from the heart, out of a love for the one that gives them. Ultimately, though Solomon is writing these and admonishing his child, all that he says is an application of the two great commandments toward God and neighbor as delineated in the 10 commandments. He says, “Obey and have a long and peaceful life.”

B. Obedience not only gives a long life, for it will not be squandered by dissipation, or by murder, or by execution, but will be prolonged by earnest labor and peace of mind. Life not only will be long, relatively speaking, but will be productive of good things, human flourishing in this world that God has created for his image-bearers to subdue (Genesis 1:28). Peace of conscience also gives confidence as one approaches the day of judgment. Length of days finally is to be desired in the Lord’s presence and in his heavenly house forever.

C. Verses 3, 4 – Give yourself to “kindness and truth” and both God and man will find favor in you. These words, kindness and truth, will speak to us of the redemptive and revelatory truth of God.

  1. God’s grace comes to us so that “in the coming ages he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). When we were deeply entangled in the deadly errors of sin “the kindness and love of God our Savior toward mankind appeared” (Titus 3:4). Kindness is a saving attitude and constitutes a major element of what it means to love our neighbor in this fallen world.
  2. Truth comes to us through divine revelation. We are filled with error. Worldly lies are pressed on us from the world throughout our lives. Those lies are deadly poison. The only antidote is divine truth received through revelation. The word of God revealed by the Spirit of God is given to us so that we might know the things freely given to us by God (1 Corinthians 2:10-12).
  3. Kindness and truth, therefore, must be bound around our necks, placed in a position where we always are aware of them and we cannot escape their constant press for our attention. Always present to our consciousness must be the reminders, “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32)” and “Sanctify them through the truth: Thy word is truth . . . that they also might be sanctified through the truth”” (John 17:17-19).
  4. “Write them on the tablet of your heart” (3c) – Here Solomon emphasizes that from the heart comes true obedience. If kindness and truth do not arise from the heart, then all our ostensibly kind and truthful acts are displays of mere hypocrisy. Such a façade of falsehood is endearing neither to God nor man. But the heart is desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) and must become a new creature (Galatians 6:15).
  5. Jeremiah prophesied that due to the spiritual condition of the Israelites, in spite of their being the recipients of divine revelation and extraordinary providences to make them a peculiar people for himself, their steadfast love and faithfulness from the heart would only be secured when, as God said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
  6. What Solomon commends as giving true life and good favor before God and men (verse 4) will only be resident in the heart through an internal operation of grace. In covenant Israel, the actions arising from this kind of person would gain for him an excellent reputation,


II. Wisdom trusts in the Lord as the Source of all Good. (Verses 5-8). Trust in God’s directions, not your own, and you live a life that avoids killing pitfalls.

A. These verses contain several phrases that point us to God as the source of both knowledge and moral power. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” “In all your ways acknowledge him,” Fear the Lord.” This shows that the way of life comes out of reverential, heart-felt submission to God as the source of all good. Not only is he the source of all good things,(“God saw all that he had created and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31); he himself is the standard and the primary source of all goodness. The knowledge of him is the greatest of all goods.

B. These verses warn against making our personal knowledge and desire as the guide for true life.

  1. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” This trust points to both the word and the work of God. It fully embraces the truth of his revelation to man and the redemption that he has accomplished in Christ. We cannot trust one that we do not know and whose will is a mystery. So the revelation of himself and his will in his word is essential for trust. Trust also is dependent on the removal of our present distrust, alienation, rebellion, disobedience, and criminal culpability. God has done this in the death and resurrection of Christ, in which he blotted out the “handwriting of ordinances that was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Colossians 2: 14). Now, if we “believe in out heart that God raise him from the dead,” we will be saved.
  2. “Lean not to your own understanding,” “Be not wise in your own eyes; “Fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (7). Our state of understanding is purely natural and given over to the darkness of this world. “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
  3. This Godward life has a promise. “He will make your paths straight,” (6) and “It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones” (8). Certainly life here is more satisfying in the light of goodness, and righteousness, and the worship and knowledge of God. But also, eternal life and resurrection mean the ultimate healing of the body and the endless occupation of the full enjoyment of God forever.


III.. Verses 9, 10 – When you recognize God as the source of all you have and duplicate his generosity, you will never lack sufficient provision. This abundant provision transcends this life into eternal blessings: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

A. The law of the firstfruits (Exodus 23:19) involved a recognition of God’s mighty and gracious intervention in the life of Israel (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). He rescued them and gave them the land that would provide abundantly. This is an act of worship and recognition of dependence and that joy abides in submission to God: “I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, Lord, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the Lord thy God, and worship before the Lord thy God; And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thine house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you” (Deuteronomy 26:10, 11). The promise of Malachi 3:10 concerned the joyful and obedient giving of the required tithes (after the Babylonian exile) with the promise of abundant blessing. These were promises to the covenant people, the nation, formed by the Mosaic law.

B. The New covenant people, not as an organized political entity, are promised God’s care as they use earthly means for kingdom purposes.

  1. As a matter of personal contentment in this life because of a kingdom-focus based on Christ’s reign, we pray, “They kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Concerning all earthly needs we are taught, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). In dealing with the necessity to avoid a covetous spirit, Paul told Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).
  2. Caring for fellow-heirs of the kingdom, we share our own earthly goods eagerly with those in need. In reminding the Corinthians of the gift they had promised to Jerusalem he said, “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). When Paul was provided with a sustaining amount of money from the church at Philippi he wrote in gratitude, “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound. . . I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. Notwithstanding ye have well done, that ye did communicate with my affliction” (Philippians 4:11-14).
  3. We give for the support of those who rule well and teach us in our churches: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor especially they who labor in the word and doctrine. . . . the laborer is worthy of his hire” (1 Timothy 5:17, 18). A hearty and gracious support of laborers in the gospel, gifted by God to teach and preach, is a demonstration of love to God for his provision of this grace.
  4. We use material wealth for the support of ministries of gospel-extension transforming “wicked mammon” into spiritual fruit: “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God, for they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore, we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 5-8).


IV. Verses 11, 12 – Receive God’s discipline with humility and you will experience a profound sense of his covenantal love for you.

A. Children under the covenantal relationship of Israel were accustomed to warnings as to how God would give severe discipline to his covenant people (Deuteronomy 7:6-10). He would chasten them to remind them of their dependence on him (Deuteronomy 8:3-5). “As a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee.” Their history of blessing, rebellion, repentance, and restoration had been rehearsed in their ears for generations.

B. Solomon, in particular, doubtlessly had heard of the sin of David with Solomon’s mother Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:3-5; 1 Kings 1:11-13). He knew of both the severity and the advantages of discipline from the hand of the Lord. David found that the discipline of the Lord had the effect of restoring him to a position of joyful praise of God (Psalm 32:3-5; Psalm 51:15-17).

C. These verses (Proverbs 3:11, 12) are quoted in Hebrews 12:5, 6 as an encouragement that the trials have come to show that they are beloved sons of God.

  1. The writer admonishes Hebrew Christians who were experiencing great opposition and persecution from their fellow Jews who believed that reception of Jesus as Messiah was blasphemous and a heresy worthy of death. Jesus had predicted that such times would come in their generation (Matthew 25:3-12, 34, 35) but that the one who endured these times of great opposition would be saved, for they are among the elect of God (Matthew 25:13, 31). The coming destruction of the temple (now much nearer than when Jesus predicted it) would be a cataclysmic appearance of judgment on unbelieving Israel, a particular judgment by the risen and ascended Lord who was now in session at the right hand of the Father, and the days leading up to it would be a time of sifting true believers from those who were mere professors. His sifting process, therefore came as a chastening to purify the “sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and as silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” (Malachi 3:3).The writer of Hebrews draws this precise inference from this text in Proverbs as he applies it to his readers: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
  2. This same principle applies in every generation, for the Lord always is at the task of purifying his people, removing the remnants of indwelling sin and worldly attachments, “that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). In conformity with this purpose we may see Paul’s exuberant encouragement in saying, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28, 29).
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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