In Proverbs the ideas of wisdom, righteousness, and reward are prevalent. And as I highlighted here and here, these three ideas are developed together under the old covenant. Therefore, they cannot be directly applied to the new covenant believer—at least, not without showing how they apply to us in Christ. That said, they are important for understanding the righteousness of Christ and the way in which we are to follow him when, by the Spirit, we walk by faith.
In what follows I want to consider how to read the Proverbs wisely by holding the old covenant and new covenant together as we read Proverbs. In this approach to the Proverbs, we see the covenantal context of Proverbs relates to Christ and the whole counsel of Scripture. In other words, by holding these biblical realities together, we begin see how the wisdom of the old covenant called for God’s people to enjoy God’s gracious promises through wisely applying the law of Moses. However, for us, because we do not live under Moses, we learn how to apply them in Christ. Graphically, we might illustrate the difference like this:
Law >> Wisdom >> Righteousness >> Reward (=Inheritance) . . . [Gospel]
Gospel >> Faith >> Reward (=Inheritance) >> Law >> Wisdom >> Righteousness**
** Righteousness defined as a progressive growth in righteousness (i.e. sanctification) as the believer exercises faith in God’s Word, demonstrated in love and justice.
With this framework in place, we can see that the wisdom of the Proverbs still has a vital place in the life of a Christian. But it is not a pathway to salvation or blessing, as some prosperity preachers wrongly apply the proverbs. Neither are the Proverbs timeless principles that promise material blessing today; they are instead enduring principles that teach the child of God how to walk in the light of Christ.
In truth, by living out the Proverbs, we are often protected from many earthly trials and find greater earthly success. However, such proverbial fruit is all the more reason to be careful with Proverbs. Why? Because earthly fruit through a Provers-centered life does not mean that we can read Proverbs as a certified manual for ensuring material blessing. In fact, there are hints in the Proverbs that righteousness is itself a reward: “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice” (16:8).
In the end, we should read Proverbs regularly, but we must read them wisely. And to help us read wisely, let’s consider how Proverbs speaks of righteousness and how we might apply its words in and through Christ today.
Learning to Walk in Wisdom
1. Life and Death
Proverbs 10:2 says, righteousness delivers from death, but wealth gained wickedly threatens life. Likewise, wealth does not promise security, but righteousness does—“it delivers from death” (10:2; 11:4). Proverbs 11:19 explicates the old covenant (cf. Lev. 18:5; Deut 30:15–16), “Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live, but he who pursues evil will die.”
Such proverbs don’t teach works-righteousness; they do explicate the old covenant. In other words, because the covenant at Sinai could not overturn the curse of death (see Gen. 3:19), these old covenant proverbs are not offering life eternal. As Moses himself taught, righteousness was credited to Moses because of his faith (Genesis 15:6). These proverbs, therefore, are reinforcing the old covenant and its promise that as God’s people kept God’s covenant, they would enjoy long life in the land and receive honor for their faithfulness (16:31).
Ultimately, the blessing of life is only found in Christ, who is the way to life (John 14:6). Because he never sinned and perfectly kept the law, he merited life. And now by faith in him, we receive the blessing of his resurrection life, that in turn enables us to desire the wisdom that not only leads to life, but that actually comes from Christ’s life.
Proverbs 11:5–6 says righteousness protects a man from going astray and from being ensnared by his own lust. In this way righteousness is more than a static position; it is a pathway. As Proverbs 12:28 puts it, “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death.” And again Proverbs 13:6 states, “Righteousness guards him whose way is blameless, but sin overthrows the wicked.”
In these verses, we learn that the true son of Israel walks in righteousness. In time, Israel proved himself to be an unfaithful son. God’s covenant people not keep the law or walk in the ways of God. By contrast, Christ does. And thus he receives the rewards of the law. In him, we too experience those blessings, and Proverbs helps us to see concretely what the path of righteousness looks like.
Under the old covenant, God promised Israel a land overflowing with milk and honey. The blessings are very material, and hence God required righteousness from his people to enjoy inheritance in his presence. In the Proverbs then, the theme of reward is united with righteousness. For instance, Proverbs 21:21 reads, “Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor.” The theme of wealth/blessing/inheritance continues to depend on righteousness. Wickedness gains “deceptive wages,” but the life of the righteous results in a “sure reward” (11:18).
Using the imagery of sowing and reaping, we learn that righteous seeds bear pleasing and lasting fruit, but unrighteous seeds bear poisonous and fleeting fruit. At the same time, there are seasons when righteousness does not result in material reward, but that doesn’t change the intrinsic worth of righteousness: “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice” (16:8)
Proverbs 16:8 hints at the superlative value of righteousness, just as Psalm 63:3 tells us that God’s love is better than life. In these verses, we pick up clues that God engineered obsolescence into the old covenant. Ultimately, the righteousness of Christ secures life, and God’s love is seen in providing a righteous son who will atone for sins under the law. This same son shares his reward with his people, so that by his Spirit we can walk in the statutes of the law (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
Thus, to read of the rewards in Proverbs is leads us to Christ and to what his ministry accomplished on our behalf. Secured with a certain hope of inheritance in a Christ (Ephesians 1:11–14; 5:5), gratitude and love, not fear and uncertainty, are now the underlying motivations for walking in righteousness.
4. Personal Speech and Action
Righteousness is evidenced in one’s speech and actions. As Proverbs 12:17 says, “Whoever speaks the truth gives honest [“righteous”] evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.” Applied to the legal system, this means he who justifies the wicked and condemns the righteous evidences their own unrighteousness and invites God’s wrath (Proverbs 17:15). By contrast, the righteous judge, or anyone else for that matter, opens their mouth to “judge righteously” and to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9; cf. Proverbs 24:10–12).
Similarly, righteousness is more than just parroting right words. Proverbs 21:3 addresses the actions requisite for righteousness: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.” In this, we learn that justice towards our neighbors matters deeply to God. And when a nation is filled with righteous neighbors, it establishes the prosperity of that nation.
Again, these proverbs teach us how to recognize righteousness, but they don’t in themselves enable us to do them. As James 3 tells us, he who is able to control his tongue is a perfect man. Since no son of Adam is able to control their words perfectly, no one is righteous. Again, these words lead to Christ, and in Christ the sons and daughters of God are able to grow in their speech. This is the reality of Christians born of the Spirit, their language is seasoned with grace and truth, and under the Lord’s tutelage they learn how to think wisely and speak purely. Thus, through the mediating work of Christ, these proverbs have great effect.
5. National Rule
Finally, righteousness is more than a personal virtue; it is also a prerequisite for national peace and security. As Proverbs 14:34 reads, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The Lord redeemed Israel so that his people’s righteousness would display his wisdom (Deuteronomy 4:5–8).
Despite what our country and many others have accepted—leaders evaluated by their charisma not their character—Scripture plainly states that governments and rulers are established by righteousness and brought to ruin by sin. As Proverbs 16:12–13 read, “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness. Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right.” Likewise, Proverbs 25:5 says, “Take away the wicked from the presence of the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness.”
Why can’t an unrighteous people persist? Because “the way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD” (15:9). Just as the wages of sin leads to death for the individual, so a nation “dies” or is driven into exile because of their unrighteousness actions. Passively, God hands a people over to their sin (cf. Romans 1:21–32), thus producing chaos in society. But ultimately, God’s judgment is active. When a nation crosses the threshold of wickedness, God will bring severe judgment (see Gen. 15:16; Dan. 8:23). This is true for his covenant people Israel, but as Proverbs 14:34 indicates, this applies to “any people.” Scripture and history both confirm this sad reality.
Ultimately, only a holy nation will be exalted before the Lord, and this is the nation which Christ himself is building. Today the citizens of Christ’s kingdom are being gathered into little embassies called churches. But one day all the people whom the Lord has purchased will be raised in lasting righteousness to dwell with him and occupy his coming kingdom. When that happens the wisdom of God will be proven true—no unrighteousness nation will stand, but only the one clothed by Christ’s righteousness.
Tolle Lege: Take Up Proverbs and Read Them Wisely
All in all, Proverbs is a needed word for walking wisely. But we should not forget that the way they produce righteousness and offer reward must be understood in its historical and covenantal context. Only then can we avoid the error of directly applying them to ourselves or trying to implement them without respect to Christ.
By the same token, when we read them through the mediating and finished work of Christ, we see how they continue to apply to new covenant believers. They first lead us to know the wisdom and righteousness of our Lord who rightly deserves all the blessings told in the Proverbs. Then, second, in him and by the teaching of his Spirit, we learn how to apply these words to our lives. As children of God, we are motivated to walk the path of righteousness and enjoy the first-fruits of the life Christ has given to us by his Spirit.
In that way, we see the goodness of God’s wisdom and by that wisdom we walk in union with Christ. To that end let us take up the Proverbs and read them wisely.