Proverbs: Wisdom That Works

January 4, 2013 — 1 Comment


Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Proverbs: Wisdom That Works (Preaching the Word). Wheaton: Crossway, March, 2012. 224 pp. Hardcover, $27.99.

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Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!

Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. is lead pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, TN. He also happens to be president of Renewal Ministries, a regional director in the Acts 29 Network, and a council member for The Gospel Coalition (which also hosts his blog). Though this is the first book I’ve read in the Preaching The Word series (which is getting a progressive facelift), it isn’t the first I’ve read from Ortlund. My introduction to the New Studies in Biblical Theology was through reading his God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery. He’s also written the commentary on Isaiah in this series, which I’m now interested to check out.


This commentary on Proverbs is not the typical exegetical commentary. Nor on the other hand is it a specifically theological commentary like Daniel Treier’s in the Brazos Theological Commentary on The Bible series. Rather, it is a commentary in a series that is “written by pastors for pastors, as well as for all who teach or study God’s word” (back cover). The result is a concise commentary on Proverbs that exposits clearly the main contours of the book, while also using numerous illustrations to bring out the points (and can be mined later in the handy illustration index in the back).

Since this commentary is rather concise, and since Proverbs is a notoriously difficult book to preach straight through, Ortlund opts for a hybrid approach to the text. Rather than working verse by verse through the entire book (see Waltke if that’s what you’re looking for), he instead focuses on several key passages in the first 9 chapters, and then proceeds topically through the last 22.

Before he gets there, he offers an introductory chapter on why Proverbs matters. Here, Ortlund sets the gospel-centered, pastoral tone for what will follow in the rest of the book. He immediately had me hooked, and I ended up finishing this book rather quickly. I particularly struck by his illustration of the difference between wisdom from above and our own wisdom:

Our natural widom panders to our pride and makes losing unthinkable. But J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring Triology reminds us that our golden rings of power only make us weird, like Gollum. The key to life is not getting more of these golden rings but throwing them decisively away into the fires of Mount Doom (18).

Having just re-watched the trilogy in extended blu-ray, and then The Hobbit in theaters, this caught me a bit off guard and made Ortlund’s point very well. I need more of the wisdom that is offered in the Word and not that I’ve mined from the depths of my own mind.

With this, Ortlund connects the study of the wisdom to the study of God and the gospel, and then proceeds to offer 13 successive chapters on key passages in Proverbs 1-9. Each chapter serves as both an exposition of the text and a brief, model sermon on the passage.

When Ortlund reaches chapter 14, he turns to a topical approach and covers the main foci of Proverbs:

  • The Tongue (15)
  • Humility (16)
  • Family (17)
  • Emotions (18)
  • Friendship (19)
  • Money (20)
  • Life and Death (21)

There is no formal conclusion after we work through each of these topics. While they have a key verse to start off, Ortlund moves around to other relevant proverbs in his exposition and continues to movingly illustrate his points.


For what this commentary is aiming to do, I think it is all strength and I really don’t have much to say by way of critique. Any deficiencies of Ortlund’s treatment of Proverbs relate to him not reproducing a commentary by Waltke, or something along those lines. I would have like the book to be longer (it clocks in under 200pgs) but that might just be because I enjoyed reading it so much.

There is one strength that I really appreciated in reading this, and it relates to what I was talking about yesterday. Ortlund does a superb job of lingering over the text, and gives this admonition in the beginning of the book:

In our chaotic lives of constant start-stop-start-stop short-attention-span mental habits, with an endless stream of momentarily visible Twitter-feed fragments of information, we have been reduced to one spliter factoid after another, and we are trying to patch together some kind of elegant whole worth living (20).

In an understatement, Ortlunds says, “That is difficult.” He then continues:

But the problem is not just that we are fidgety and distracted; it’s that our information, however much we have, is no basis for a life. We need Jesus to rescue us from our information and even from our knowledge. We need Jesus to counsel us with a new (and yet ancient) wisdom that comes from him. Then we can live. That is what is at stake here – our living rather than our dying. And Christ speaks to us for our living calmly, patiently, lovingly, seriously through the book of Proverbs.

And, Ortlund reminds us, the book of Proverbs “works when we deliberately slow down and listen and think and journal and pray.” Ortlund led the way on this in writing his commentary, and it shows. And it gives us a model to follow as we read and learn to do the same.


In the end, Ortlund provides a wise, pastoral commentary on the book of Proverbs that I think just about anybody serious about Bible study could get into. Ortlund is a clear and compelling writer that illustrates and teaches well the wisdom found in Proverbs. Especially if you’d like to start 2013 off with a refocuing of your heart on the wisdom that comes from God’s Word, you’ll find this book a welcome addition to your library!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

One response to Proverbs: Wisdom That Works

  1. I have been recently intrigued by Ray Ortlund after having watched an interesting discussion with him on The Gospel Coalition site. I’ve been wanting to read something from him. Looks like this may be a great place to start. Thanks for the review!

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