First of all, a huge thank you to Kress Biblical Resources for generously sending a review copy of the book.
The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; Wisdom and discipline, dense people belittle” (Proverbs 1:7, Phillips’ literal translation)
If you’re going to read a review of God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, you can go here first for a brief review by Jay Adams, and here’s the Themelios book review by James Hamilton. Also, here’s another great review of the book, focusing on all the things the book is not. All three reviews are great. Now here’s mine.
A chapter into God’s Wisdom in Proverbs by Dan Phillips, I found I was in for a unique reading experience. I’d never read a book on Proverbs before, and whatever nebulous expectations I had, were broken from the beginning. The only problem was figuring out where to start in on my review. This book had a profound effect on me and my walk with the Lord, so I’ll base this post on the pastoral impact it had. In this I hope I can honor the book rightly, and show you some measure of this its value.*
Phillips writes as a no-nonsense pastor and shepherd, who cares deeply for his audience. And from the outset, he demonstrates the working knowledge of a scholar as well, bringing the original Hebrew text to bear on his interpretation from start to finish. Phillips’ personal, pastoral tone comes through even in the technicalities. I almost always felt like I was being personally tutored through a study of Proverbs, by a very well-studied tutor and shepherd.
Phillips sets the stage for his study of Proverbs very clearly in the first chapter, called “Essentials for Understanding Proverbs,” by arguing that Solomon is the actual author. Contrary to some widely-read commentaries Phillips contrasts with his own study, Phillips sets us up for a literal, grammatical, and historical interpretation of Proverbs. He assumes that Solomon is the author, who wrote Proverbs intending it to be taken as a collection of “pithy points and principles” (20) on how to live in the fear of God, which is to live a life of worship. Phillips builds the case that the literal interpretation of Proverbs gives them immense weight, because they actually come from the stated author. And the author was uniquely gifted by God with an exceedingly great amount of wisdom. Knowing this, we’d do well to get into Solomon’s “pithy points.”
No Postmodern Readings Here
I can’t stress the importance of the book’s first chapter enough, because of the method of biblical interpretation (or hermeneutic) demonstrated here. Phillips goes into even more detail on the literal interpretation of Proverbs in Appendix One. Both chapter and appendix are hard-hitting reminders of the beauty and simplicity of interpreting Scripture literally. Phillips’ book is also a demonstration of how to do this. If we’re in the mode of literally interpreting Scripture, then we assume the text has an intended meaning by the author, and our task is to grapple with it to eventually arrive at that meaning.
Phillips sets his reader up with a right hermeneutic, and he does us a great service. This will extend beyond Phillips’ book to help one’s personal study of Scripture. May we not distort our interpretation or application of any verse of the Bible by fuzzy Postmodern thinking about the meaning intended by the author.
Earthy, Living Wisdom
Phillips has been in the book of Proverbs, and given them much study time. And it shows. Phillips treats the Proverbs as you’d hope he would: like someone who’s really been in the book, and has made Solomon his companion; and he treats Solomon’s words like they’re relevant and alive for saints today. Which they are.
Here’s how Phillips writes about the Proverbs:
“Solomon aims at more than the mere acquisition of facts. Information is indeed essential and invaluable. But it is not an end in itself. The facts lead to a ‘knowing’ which is an encounter, a relationship with the truth.”
“We must not merely become theoretically aware of some nice ideas; we ust get involved with wisdom, we must become personally acquainted with it.”
“Solomon intends to initiate the reader into the life-long journey of wisdom” (36-37).
And what does it mean to have wisdom? Phillips stresses throughout that the foundation of true wisdom, and “foundational truth of the book of Proverbs” is “the utter, indispensable centrality of the fear of Yahweh. This thought opens (1:7) and closes (31:30) the book, occurring fourteen times in all” (65).
But the book doesn’t stop there. Developing Solomon’s definition of wisdom, Phillips goes on to bring it to bear on the major issues of everyday living.
The Middle Chapters (Or, The Practical)
The Proverbs are meant to be practical. They’re meant to bring the fear of Yahweh into the specific, unique, messy circumstances of our everyday living. This is where the book got quite convicting. Phillips devotes his middle chapters to the following topics: “Relating to God by Trust and Worship,” “Skill in Godly Relationships,” Skill in Godly Marriage,” and “Skill in Godly Child-training.”
These chapter topics are wisely chosen, and wisely ordered. They move from the individual’s relationship with God, which should be defined by trust and worship, to the effects that relationship will have as we relate to other people. Phillips brings the fear of Yahweh to bear on the whole gamut, from choosing good friends, to raising children who love and fear God. Phillips pulls the Proverbs together to form a cohesive, complete argument around these topics. By the end of the book, I felt that just about every area of my life had been addressed, exposed, and evaluated by the Word of God.
Specifically for me as a new parent, chapter 8 on “Godly Child-training” was the hardest-hitting of them all. Phillips borders on harshness at times in some of these middle chapters, but for me it was really the harsh feeling of God’s truth exposing sin and error in my life. I told friends as I was nearing the end of this book, that it’s been a while since a book has made me feel like this one did. This is because Phillips doesn’t pull punches, but writes with the pastoral conviction of “thus saith the Lord.” He explains what Holy Scripture says, and doesn’t lower the standard God sets for His people. As I heard a pastor put it once, it’s the “stab of sanctifying grace” that you’ll probably experience as you read this book. I’m thankful it had this effect on me, because it evinces that God isn’t done conforming my sinful heart to the image of Christ; I fear the day a study of God’s Word doesn’t have this effect. May it never be, by God’s great grace.
The whole book is framed, not only by the theme of the fear of Yahweh, but also by the context of the Gospel as the only context in which someone will truly fear God, and wisely walk in that fear. In the Epilogue, the Gospel is given as the only way to know God, to fear Him rightly, and to be made right before Him. If the Proverbs seem full of unattainable goals, it’s because they are. But Phillips is clear that if our faith is in Christ to save us from our sin, our sins are washed away by His blood. Christ has made us right with God by His sacrifice, and we can, by grace, embark on the Proverbs’ wise path of worshiping God with our lives.
*Paragraph revised on 22 April, 2014, to include the link to Hamilton’s review.