Updated: Feb 19, 2020
School teachers always begin their lessons with the basics. When you finally get to kindergarten, the teacher will start with the first and most important lessons in what you need to know: your ABCs, and your 123s. Later, when you look back on what you first learned at school, it’s all very simple—you probably can’t remember a time when you didn’t know how to read a book, or how to do long division. But it’s only possible because you learned the basics, the first principles.
In the same way, God’s law begins with first principles, for after his gospel-prologue (Exod 20:2) God says in the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). This is the building block for everything else, that we love and worship God alone and not any other thing or any other person. There is a sound reason that the first commandment is first, because in it God tells us about the whole orientation of our life: Love God! If we learn this key lesson, the rest of the Ten Commandments make perfect sense. What’s more, our obedience to God’s words demonstrate that we do love him more than anything else. As Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). It’s the point of departure for the Christian life: God first, and God first all the time.
The lessons of Proverbs have a similar opening in chapter 1, laying down the truth that nothing is more critical than being in loving fellowship with the LORD. Solomon is teaching his son, nurturing and mentoring his child like every godly parent should, and he begins with the core lessons of faith. The template for wise living is in 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” If you fear the LORD—if you have a reverence for his glory, a humble submission before his power, and a sure dependence on his grace—then you’ve already gained a fixed bearing and direction for life. It becomes a holy instinct: What is my Father’s will in this situation? What does the Lord require of me?
And as the lessons of Proverbs unfold, God’s first commandment comes to beautiful expression in 3:5, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” This is the core of what God asks: that we know him, trust him, and submit to him.
It’s a fundamental teaching of Proverbs—and all Scripture—that there really are only two ways to live. You can go one way: the narrow way of faith and obedience, leading to life. Or you can go another way: following the broad track of unbelief and sin, ending in death (see Matt 7:13–14). Solomon tells his son about these two ways early in Proverbs, and he keeps reminding him. For instance, you can see the fork in the road in 15:9, “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.” Do you go down the way of the wicked, or chase after what is holy? The same intersection is found in Proverbs 16, “The highway of the upright turns aside from evil” (v. 17).
As often in a day that we’re confronted with temptation, we’re confronted with a choice about what way to follow: Shall I take the highway to sin—the broad, easy way? Or shall I preserve my way according to the will of God? This life presents one opportunity after another either to serve the LORD, or to serve ourselves. In the strength of Christ, let us deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.