Two Ways


It might be helpful to consider these verses as constituting the poetic form of a chiasm. Themes are repeated in Proverbs so frequently that one must give careful attention to the various nuances to develop a more comprehensive grasp of specific themes. Also, this interpretive device, chiasm, can be superficially imposed on a text, particularly in Proverbs that repeats themes so frequently and sometimes with the appearance of randomness. A close look at this passage, however, shows that interpretive help is present in considering this device. This means that we will look at the verses by couplets: 8 and 15, 9 and 14, 10 and 13, 11 and 12.

I. In the first couplet of verses (8, 15), the writer gives a specific slant on comparing the way in which the sensible and the foolish consider the direction of their lives. Those who are sensible (NASB), or prudent (ESV).

A. The first half of 8 and the last half of 15 point to the circumspect manner a prudent person, informed by the wisdom that is from above, looks long-term at the direction of his life. His principle of discernment is to do “all to the glory of God,” (1 Corinthians 10:31 and, therefore, he works carefully to “discern words of knowledge” (verse 7). We are more able to make wise decisions when our minds and hearts are saturated with the truth of God’s word.

  1. The two phrases used in the two verse are “understand his way,” and “considers his steps.” He does not run headlong into situations without knowing the implications spiritually of a course of action. He looks at those traits of the wisdom that is from above (Proverbs 1:23; 8:33-35; James 3:13-18) and pursues a “harvest of righteousness” from the steps that he takes.
  2. He is aware of the various manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26) and pursues their character in his relationships. He is aware of the cluster of virtues resident within saving faith (2 Peter 1:5-8) and pursues them so as not to be unfruitful in his knowledge of Christ.

B. The fool, however, is easily deceived by the immediate appearance of circumstances. He does not possess the internal capacity to consider options carefully. His principles of discernment focus on himself and his own pleasure. “The complacency of fools destroys them” (Proverbs 1:32).

  1. The two phrases used about the fool, or the “simple” person, affirms how easily deceived he is. The simple, or naïve, “believes everything” and the “foolishness of fools is deceit.” He has no standard by which he measures the goodness, the rightness, or the wisdom of any course of action. His standard fluctuates according to how his desires meet a situation.
  2. The wise person also will believe everything that is from the word of God for it is free of all error, constitutes wisdom from above, and leads into paths of righteousness. But this phrase “believes every word” or “everything” is in contrast to the way of the prudent. His gullibility, therefore, is the point. He seeks what he believes will be pleasing and fulfilling but does so without any constraint from a pattern of truth. Neither is there fear of God before his eyes nor love of truth in his heart but only a mindless movement into thoughts and actions that deceive. What a sad picture of an undiscerning approach to life!


II. The second couplet of verses (9, 14) looks at the difference between fools and the wise in finding satisfaction in their way of life. The one considers his steps in light of Scripture while the other is prompted by every suggestion placed before him by the world—he remains “simple-minded” and thus delights in scoffing (Proverbs 1:20).

A. The fool mocks at sin and fills his life with his own ways and harvests the fruit thus produced.

  1. His mocking at sin could also be translated as despising the “guilt offering.” This means that the entire fabric of lawlessness and sin as depicted in Scripture is considered ludicrous.
  2. He hears the law of God and the biblical warnings against sin, transgression, iniquity, and wickedness and spurns the reproof (1:30). He mocks at the concept of moral absolutes to which he is responsible. He ignores the first table of the law and sees nothing compelling about the requirement to honor, worship and love God. He did not “choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29).
  3. His mocking the idea that he is God’s creature and necessarily subject to God’s law leads to gradual erosion of any conformity of the second table. He covets with no compunction of conscience and finds it easy to lie and fabricate untruths about others. He learns to steal, ignore any ideas of sexual morality, and his feet become “swift to shed blood.” Indeed, he will “have his fill of his own ways” (14). He will be glutted with lawlessness, obese with self-centeredness, and soon find no more boundaries to break. He is “satiated with his own devices” (1:31 NASB) and “filled to the full with [his] own fancies” (1:31 NKJV).
  4. In like manner, the sacrificial system designed to bring repentance and point to a once-for-all atoning sacrifice for sin becomes insignificant; it is seen as foolishness” and a stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:22, 23). They say, “The table of the Lord is contemptible” and they “sneer” at the sacrificial offering (Malachi 1:7, 13). With diminished views of sin and thus of righteousness and holiness, the cross becomes non-sensical and they forfeit the way of salvation. Because they scoff at sin, they scoff at the guilt-offering, the remedy for sin.

B. The upright person who understands and pursues true goodness will find acceptance and final satisfaction.

  1. Those who are upright accept the goodness and absoluteness of God’s law; they see it as a loving revelation of fitting participation in the life of God and enjoyment of all his creation. Conformity to the voice of wisdom has brought good will toward them from God; they are accepted. They heard well when wisdom spoke, “If you turn at my reproof, behold I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (1:23).
  2. Like the fool who is filled with the legitimate outcome of his chosen path, so the upright will be filled with the fruit of theirs. The scoffer will find emptiness of soul and destruction of heart, while the upright will find full satisfaction in the outcome of wisdom’s call. The upright has acknowledged the eternal verity of God’s law, has seen the legitimacy of the divine provision for transgression of that law, and has found acceptance before God on the basis of that provision. Like the apostle Paul, he can say, “Through the law I died to the law, that I might live to God” (Galatians 2:19). Knowing the absolute legitimacy of the law, this one heeds the call of wisdom, sees the cross in all its righteous glory and says, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
  3. Wisdom said, “But whoever listens to me will dwell safely, and will be secure, without fear of evil (disaster)” (Proverbs 1:33). Those who are upright, that is, properly aligned with God’s righteous law, have found this promise of wisdom fulfilled in the guilt-offering made by incarnate wisdom—by the propitiatory transaction of the cross they have found God to be both just and gracious. They have received the “washing of regeneration,” have been “justified by his grace,” and live in the “hope of eternal life” (Titus 3: 5, 6).


III. The third couplet (10, 13) shows that the working of conscience has deep affects that are not obvious to observers. Both verses relate to people in general, emphasizing the hidden nature of heart issues not always open to the outside observer. Both pain and joy may be disguised by an external demeanor that hides the deepest sensibilities of the heart. It applies in a rich way, however, to the heart-affection of the two persons under consideration—the sensible person and the scoffer.

A. The one who has mocked at sin finds that he cannot escape the assaults of conscience (10 a, 13).

  1. Though an unremitting course of transgression and scoffing at the reality of divine righteousness sears the conscience, yet bitterness, pain, and grief gradually cast a black cloud of doubt and moral panic over the fool. He cannot escape the deepest witness of soul that he is not autonomous but must eventually give an account.
  2. He may appear raucously jovial in his unrestrained course of self-centeredness, but “even in laughter the heart may be in pain” (13). While the conscience loses sensitivity to the deeper issues of holiness, it cannot completely dismiss the idea that there are standards of right and wrong and that judgment for wrongdoing is inevitable (Romans 2:2, 3; Romans 1:32).
  3. The temporary joy that the sense of unfettered mental and moral freedom appears to give, proves to be too brief indeed, for when the consequences of such a commitment begin to press in, “the end of joy may be grief” (13 b).
  4. The words of James could be an encouragement for the person in such a condition: “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” James 4:9, 10). Those who mourn for their sins and humble themselves before God will be comforted (Matthew 5:6).

B. The joy experienced in the confident conscience of the upright is unknown by the fool who has mocked at sin (10 b). The one who is a stranger to the security of forgiveness (“joy inexpressible, full of glory” – 1 Peter 1:8, 9) does not share in the satisfaction and confidence toward future judgment that floods the forgiven heart.

  1. Those who see sin as it is also see the sin offering as He is. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4: 10). As they face judgment, therefore, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts (Romans 5:5) “so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4: 17).
  2. Not only does joy arise from present forgiveness and confidence in judgment, but from the incomprehensible prospect of a glorious eternity. The hope that dominates the future prospects of the sensible person is both a present certainty and a future mystery, yet to appear. Presently, we confess amazement that God’s love has made us his children, “and so we are.” But mystery still keeps us leaning forward in joyful expectation for “it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He [Jesus] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1, 2).
  3. In turn, such a mysterious expectation gives the prudent incentive to “consider his steps” even more carefully, for “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).


IV. The fourth couplet (11, 12) gives light on the eternal consequences of paths chosen respectively by the foolish and the prudent. Though these verses are in the middle, their convergence presents to us a sobering conclusion to the themes of the chiasm.

A. Those who have chosen their own way apart from wisdom’s urgent call to hear will find death, eternal death, as the culmination of their self-imposed pilgrimage to destruction (11 a, 12).

  1. A house represents a stable place of permanent abode. The wicked considers himself secure, unintimidated by present mutability and regardless of the certainty of death and future judgment. He has chosen his way, followed his own wisdom deemed a pleasant path, and said to his soul, “Take your ease.” He has misjudged severely, for this apparent security will be upset and the call to account will dishevel his neatly arranged life.
  2. The way he has chosen proves to be a long deceit and a fatal path. It seemed right at the time, for it met his sense of personal pleasure and worldly standing. When he rejected the call of wisdom and “disdained all [her] counsel,” he shed the shackles imposed by an external standard of absolute righteousness. He eschewed what came from above and preferred what arose from within his own corrupt heart. Now he finds calamity and the sudden presence of holy terror (Proverbs 1:25, 26).
  3. The picture of terror in the coming of the Lamb proves not to be hyperbole but more severe than any image employed to depict it. They now prefer the worst of natural disasters to the manifestation of just wrath at the end of a foolishly chosen path. They call to “the mountains and rocks, ’Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6: 16, 17).

B. “The tent of the upright will flourish” (11b). The style of life that seemed not to regard this present life as the place of permanent importance expands into a beautiful and joyful eternity.

  1. Those who sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness have found all other good things of eternal value added to them. They might have wandered “about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth,” (Hebrews 11:38), but they were looking for a home not made with hands but permanent in the heavens.
  2. Through the “resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” they now look for the “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, reserved in heaven” by the One who went there to prepare a place for them (1 Peter 1:4; John 14:3).


V. A Summary of the two ways.

A. All persons, with no exceptions, will pursue life to the end in one of two ways.

  1. The fool chooses to live according to the deceitfulness of his corrupt heart.
  2. The upright repents of sinful corruption and seeks the path revealed by divine wisdom.

B. All persons, with no exceptions, find their path marked by their respective attitudes to sin and its consequences.

  1. The fool rejects the conviction of personal sin and thus resists the necessity of an atonement for sin.
  2. The upright and prudent person knows that the path of sin leads to a deserved death and that acceptance before God comes through the offering made for sin.

C. All persons, with no exceptions, will find their heart, their conscience, either convicting them or consoling them.

  1. The fool, though he seeks to escape its power, finds that conscience puts the terror of judgment before him.
  2. The upright person finds that the assurance of Christ’s substitutionary work gives a deep reservoir of joy and confidence and cleanses the conscience for the day of judgment.

D. All persons. with no exceptions, will find a permanent and eternal home commensurate with the way they have chosen. (Revelation 22:14, 15)

  1. The fools will find, that in spite of all the warnings of wisdom and of conscience, his willful and ill-chosen path has led to eternal condemnation and he resides permanently with “everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
  2. The upright person, having been made sensible of his sin and of the perfect acceptance through the blood and resurrection of Christ, will have a “right to the tree of life.”
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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