Proverbs 1:5-6 reads:
“Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.”
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Proverbs: Wisdom That Works” by Ray Ortlund. This volume is part of the Preaching the Word commentary series edited by R. Kent Hughes. 224 pages, published by Crossway in March 2012. It is available for USD24.99 via Amazon Kindle or free from Logos in October.
The author is Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. He is in his 70s, having spent most of his life as a pastor and served for a season as professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has written several books, most recently “The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility” which I reviewed and recommended in Episode 25.
Writing must be in the Ortlund gene. His father and his sons wrote many books. I have Dane Ortlund’s “Gentle and Lowly” in my Kindle. I have read Gavin Ortlund’s “Finding the Right Hills to Die On”, which you can listen to my review in Episode 34. I haven’t counted but I think it’s possible to find a hundred books written from the Ortlund household.
More noteworthy and praiseworthy than the amount of ink they have spilled is their faith. Ray Ortlund, who is in his 70s, is still going strong in the faith, he is a pastor to pastors. His parents finished well. And his children are going strong as well.
If only we could tap on what has worked so well in the Ortlund household. What wisdom can Ray Ortlund share with us? And as we will see, Ortlund would say, any wisdom he has is not his but God’s and it is available to all, if only we would seek it.
So let us seek it. Let us open today’s book “Proverbs: Wisdom That Works” by Ray Ortlund.
Proverbs the book in the Bible is a difficult book to outline. Compared to Genesis, a child could pick out the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as self-contained stories. Or compared to Romans, an attentive reader could outline Romans as a series of logical arguments. But Proverbs? The short sayings seem random. They are not grouped into any discernible topic.
Ortlund guides us. First he shows us that chapter 1 is where we read God’s purpose for this book. Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
He explains that chapters 1-9 is:
a series of poems selling wisdom to us, motivating us to get into the book and receive its teaching with an eager heart.
Then you turn the page to Proverbs 10:1 and read, “The proverbs of Solomon” and this kickstarts the collection of proverbs from Solomon, Agur, King Lemuel and other unnamed wisemen which culminates in Proverbs 31, the wisdom of a godly woman.
In writing a commentary on Proverbs, there are two approaches. Ortlund could comment chapter by chapter, verse by verse. Or he could group the proverbs into key themes. And in his wisdom, Ortlund chose to do both.
Ortlund’s commentary has 21 chapters. The first 14 chapters is a slow and steady exposition of the first 9 chapters of Proverbs. He dedicates three chapters on Proverbs 1. That’s laying down the foundation. And later three chapters on Proverbs 3, an integral part of the book.
You may wonder why Ortlund takes so much time to unpack what seems obvious: “Of course, wisdom is important!” But just look around you. Do you see more fools or wise sages? Is the world suffering from an oversupply of wisdom? Wisdom calls out but no one heeds her.
After we understand what is wisdom, only then does Ortlund give us samples of what wisdom offers. He does this with 7 topics in 7 chapters:
- Chapter 15: The Tongue (18:21)
- Chapter 16: Humility (22:4)
- Chapter 17: Family (22:6)
- Chapter 18: Emotions (15:30)
- Chapter 19: Friendship (18:24)
- Chapter 20: Money (10:22)
- Chapter 21: Life and Death (12:28)
The book then ends with a scripture index, general index and index of sermon illustrations.
Long Term Review, Ten Years Later
I have told you that this book is available for free from Logos in October but I have not told you that I have, in my hand right now, a physical, hardcover of this book.
I bought this book ten years ago, when it first came out. So this is my second time finishing this book. This is a rare opportunity for me to do a long term review of a book. Ten years later, how has this book influenced me?
To be honest, I don’t remember much of it. I remember thinking this was a good book and that it made a lot of sense. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of this book.
Now, after finishing this book for the second time, I have to say, this is a good book and it makes a lot of sense.
You know how it is that you don’t appreciate good advice until after you messed up? Wise people tell us, “don’t go into debt” and we only see the wisdom of it after we get out of terrible debt. Then you look back and you write a post with the title, “10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 years old”.
Well, ten years ago, I was a young Christian. I didn’t have as many decisions to make (compared to now), children were still young and ‘easily manageable’ (diapers are easier than discipline). I hadn’t seen the dark underbelly of the church. I shouldn’t say that. My church is not a bad one, the people are a blessing. It’s just that as a young Christian, I had to grow to understand that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners.
And I confess I didn’t, I don’t always handle the interpersonal relationship problems well. Anger is an issue. One which I didn’t fully appreciate was a problem in my heart.
So ten years ago, I read Ortlund’s chapter on emotions, specifically on anger. Let me read it for you:
Conquering a city is child’s play compared with ruling the turbulent, demanding, upset world inside us. The one is only the battle of a day. The other is the conflict of a lifetime.
In those days, I read that and I nodded my head. Yup. Sure. I agree 100%. Now I read the same passage and I recognise this. I know this!
It’s like how war veterans see war movies differently from the rest of us. They can tell what is real and what is Hollywood.
In a somewhat similar way, after I have lived life a little more — only ten years — I recognise folly and wisdom, not the theoretical but the hard realities of it. I have grown to know people who have wrecked their lives with alcohol, adultery, drugs, very poor life decisions which if I had only one word to describe what they all had in common, it would be folly. Foolishness. A lack of wisdom.
And may the Good Lord protect me from the folly of my ways!
So in terms of a long term review of this book, what is amazing is how little I cared for what is here at that time. I liked the book. I agreed with the book. But it did not resonate as much then as it does now.
Learn and live
Aside from the long term review, another way to look at this book is it’s the only self-help, self-improvement book you ever need.
Consider the seven topics Ortlund has: the tongue, humility, family, emotions, friendship, money, life and death.
Psychologists, counsellors, publishers, gurus, social media influencers, family therapists, sex therapists, life coaches, the list goes on. Their existence and proliferation just demonstrates how utterly useless we are in handling the tongue, humility, family, emotions, friendship, money, life and death.
If you want to make friends, do you read “How to Make Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie or “Proverbs: Wisdom That Works” by Ray Ortlund? Don’t get me wrong. Dale Carnegie’s book is helpful. But does it offer the wisdom of the world or the wisdom divine?
This is why the first 14 chapters of Ortlund’s commentary is so important. What is wisdom? You have a long line of people knocking on your door offering wisdom. But what is it?
Repeat after me:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Sure you can memorise it, repeat it but do you embrace it? Does that fear of the Lord, that beginning of wisdom grip you? Ortlund writes:
Biblical wisdom is more than what we find in a fortune cookie. It is more than an optional add-on for people who want to upgrade their lives from, say, 4 to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. This wisdom from Christ is a matter of life and death.
Life and death. That is what is at stake.
Later he writes:
If we have love but not wisdom, we will harm people with the best of intentions. If we have courage but not wisdom, we will blunder boldly. If we have truth but not wisdom, we will make the gospel ugly to other people. If we have technology but not wisdom, we will use the best communications ever invented to broadcast stupidity. If we have revival but not wisdom, we’ll use the power of God to throw the church into reverse gear.
After Ortlund convinces the reader on the source and importance of wisdom, he presents the seven topics. And I’m not saying that these seven chapters are the final word on the topic, by all means, read Dale Carnegie, read whatever the world’s experts or fellow Christian writers offer, but read them knowing what is true wisdom.
For much more can be written on these topics. Ortlund knows that. That’s why he wrote a whole book on pornography, “Death of Porn”.
Just a quick aside, I’ve only read two of Ray Ortlund’s book and in both books he uses Galadriel, the elf queen in Lord of the Rings, as an illustration.
In Proverbs, wisdom is personified, wisdom is pictured as a woman. Ortlund casts Galadriel in that role, because as he says, she is, “lovely, dignified, wise”. In “Death of Porn”, Ortlund invites us to see every woman as Galadriel, so that we would treat every woman as royalty.
Then we have the “Rings of Power”, the Amazon series that centres on Galadriel. I wonder what Ortlund thinks of that show. If anybody knows, please tell me.
Do You Need A Commentary To Read Proverbs?
Coming back to the book, his commentary on Proverbs. Has it occurred to you, “Why would I want to read a commentary on Proverbs? It’s so easy to understand.”
“Sure, maybe you need a commentary to understand the history or culture behind Genesis. Or a commentary to get to grips with the theology in Romans. But Proverbs? You don’t need a commentary for that.”
And this is the part where the book shines. You are right. The book of Proverbs is incredibly accessible. It’s so practical, so easy to read that one almost makes the mistake of forgetting that it’s actually part of the Bible. It’s a part of the historical-redemptive story in which Christ is the key.
And it’s not so obvious to see how Wisdom, or wisdom applied in the tongue, humility, family, emotions, friendship, money, life and death, can be traced to Jesus Christ. And I think this is where Ortlund’s book really shines because every chapter just overflows with Jesus Christ. You don’t just learn how to live a godly life, you must want it and you must have Christ who enables you to live that godly life.
Oh, what a contrast this book is to the last one I just reviewed. Even after the episode was published, it’s done, I was still second guessing myself. Was I too harsh? The book, “Living in Christ’s Presence” by Dallas Willard is in essence his life’s work and I dare suggested there was a fatal flaw.
But I was not the only one who saw it. Someone heard him define the gospel and asked, “Why does your definition of the gospel not have forgiveness of sin in it?”
I don’t want you to misunderstand, Dallas Willard does not deny forgiveness of sin, he affirms it. He says it’s central. It’s essential. But, the way he frames it, the church has done a good job explaining the forgiveness of sin but not as good a job at explaining how to live in grace, which is where, to him, the spiritual disciplines come in.
I quote: “The idea is not to grow in being forgiven for your sins. It’s to grow in learning how to live by grace…” The book puts a contrast when it should be a basis.
Dallas Willard and his ministry is much beloved and endorsed by many Christians. Am I too insistent with the way he defines the gospel? Does it really matter if the cross of Christ is there but not on the exact spot that I think it should be?
Then I read Ray Ortlund.
In Chapter 14, he asks:
Do you have a taste for sin, vulgarity, and folly? We all do. We all know what it is like to be stuck down there in that abyss of Self where we cannot even choose Christ. What do we do then? How can we choose him as the passion of our lives when we are passionate for lesser things, even wrong things? How can we jump out of a hole that has no bottom? There is only one way. We hear the gospel again.
I don’t think we can ever hear enough of the Gospel. Maybe the problem is we don’t know how the Gospel works in our lives.
For your sake, Jesus lived a perfect life, he chose wisdom every time, and against intense seduction. Then Jesus died on the cross a death he did not deserve, a sacrificial death for the stupidity of the rest of us. That is what the gospel announces. If you will receive this Jesus by mere faith, he will give you his perfect record as a gift. He wants your conscience to be happy and free again. Why? Because in the strength of being forgiven, you will change.
Did you get that? “In the strength of being forgiven, you will change.”
I have read so much from this chapter, I’m just going to go ahead and read the final paragraph.
Knowing that Jesus covers your sin when you deserve to be exposed, but he accepts you and rejoices over you—that stunning new awareness will lift your heart and take you further with him than you have ever dreamed of going. His love creates your wise choice, moment by moment. Look up to him by faith, see his love for you right now, and receive it. Then, whatever might be your next step of obedience, that bold new step that maybe you have been putting off, you will take it. You will be able to choose, and you will choose wisely, to the praise of the glory of his grace.
When you have these two books in front of you, the contrast between the two is stark. I don’t know how Raymond Ortlund sees the ministry of Dallas Willard. For all I know, the two of them were best pals, speaking at each other’s churches, recommending each other’s books. But from where I’m sitting, in Willard the cross of Christ is placed in the background but in Ortlund the cross of Christ is front and centre.
Let’s wrap up.
First, the book was good the first time I read it 10 years ago. And it was even better reading it the second time.
Second, we mess up in so many places. We obviously need wisdom, not the world’s wisdom but God’s wisdom. And Ortlund shows us where it’s at.
Third, Christians who know Proverbs — They hear Wisdom calling and they come running — will get from this commentary, a clear line from Lady Wisdom to the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is a Reading and Readers’ review of “Proverbs: Wisdom That Works” by Raymond Ortlund Jr. This volume is part of the Preaching the Word commentary series edited by R. Kent Hughes. 224 pages, published by Crossway in March 2012. It is available for USD24.99 via Amazon Kindle or free from Logos in October.
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