On this first Sunday of the year, I want to kick off a series of sermons on the Book of Proverbs. The series is titled ‘Wisdom for the Way’. We’ll look at several areas where wisdom is necessary. We’ll look at the wisdom of diligence, contentment and kindness. We’ll look at being wise with our friendships. We’ll look at how to be wise with our words. There’ll also be other topics we’ll look at.
We’ll hear not just from myself, but also from James, Florence, Derek and Dave in the coming months.
I suppose we don’t always think about being wise. We don’t always appreciate how important wisdom is. And yet if there’s any quality that’s going to help us make good decisions for the future, it’s wisdom.
If, for example, you’re thinking about what you’ll do for work, you’re needing wisdom. If you’re in school wondering which subjects you’d like to choose for next year, you’re needing wisdom. You need wisdom to handle relationships. You need wisdom to parent your children.
Or to put it in another way, wisdom is simply skill for life.
There are several books in the Bible that focus on wisdom and how to acquire it. But the Book of Proverbs is a kind of ‘Coursebook on Wisdom’. So, we’ll stick for the most part to this Book as we learn about wisdom as God sees it.
This morning I want to do couple of things. I want to first look at the use of biblical proverbs and sayings as a tool for gaining wisdom. And second thing I want to look at is the essence of wisdom. The essence of the wisdom is ‘the fear of the Lord’.
Let me read the opening lines from Proverbs:
Proverbs 1.1-7 (NRSV):
1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2 For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
3 for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
5 let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
6 to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
So, the passage tells us that King Solomon compiles the Book of Proverbs. He’s not the author of all the sayings in the Book. But he is, you might say, the patron. He authorises which sayings make it into this book.
I want to pause for a second and think about why it is that Solomon uses ‘sayings’ and ‘proverbs’ to teach wisdom?
You see, the thing about proverbs is that you find something like them in just about every culture. Proverbs are universal. An African proverb goes like this:
‘You need someone else to scratch your back’.
The point is that there are somethings we can’t do on our own. We need others to help us.
Here’s a South American one:
‘Step by step, a person walks far’.
The point is that you cover the greatest distance one step at a time.
Proverbs are obvious, short and memorable ways of remembering some universal truth regarding life. You learn from observing nature. For example, you might observe the industry of birds and ants and learn something about how life works. You can observe human relationships and realise that there are some ways of relating with people that allow you to get along with them and some ways of relating with people that create conflict. The Bible’s point is that God has left traces of his wisdom in nature. You simply have to observe it to learn wisdom.
Proverbs teach us to be reflective about life. As you reflect and observe life, you discover there are wise and foolish ways of acting.
PRINCIPLES, NOT PROMISES
Here’s something else about proverbs. Proverbs tend not to be iron-lock promises. People sometimes see a biblical proverb as an immovable guarantee. Proverbs aren’t promises. They are general principles for life. Let me try and explain what I mean. Listen to this biblical proverb.
Proverbs 10.4 (NLT): Lazy people are soon poor; hard workers get rich.
The principle of this proverb is straightforward. Generally speaking, hard work is rewarded with wealth. The most probable outcome of hard work is prosperity.
Now, you may come with a counterexample. You may point out to a lazy person who you know, who happened to inherit great wealth after years of doing nothing. Or, you may point to someone else you know who has worked hard all his life but has remained poor.
You see, that doesn’t disprove the proverb. Proverbs don’t work like that. Proverbs are principles that says, all things being equal this is kind of the way life goes.
WISDOM IS TIMING
I suppose, this baffles some people about proverbs. Some people simply want a rule. They’ll say, ‘tell me what I need to do, and I’ll do it. Tell me what I need to do in black and white and I’ll do it’.
Of course, there are somethings that will always be true without exception. So, for example, this following biblical proverb is not going change:
Proverbs 11.1 (NLT): The LORD detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights.
It’s not up for debate. God always hates corrupt business, so don’t fiddle with the system to defraud your customer. But not every situation of life is going to be so straightforward. And there’s a sense that there is a right thing to be done at the right time. So, for example to do the right thing at the wrong time would be unwise. Listen to this proverb.
Proverbs 27.14 (NLT): A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning will be taken as a curse!
So, for example, it’s not going to be terribly wise to wake up your kids in the morning with a loud jolly song. Trust me I’ve done that. Very foolish! Wisdom is about being able to know what’s the best way to act in every given circumstance. A wise person knows that one size response doesn’t fit every situation.
Listen to the wisdom that these next two proverbs are trying to teach us. On the surface they seem to contradict each other.
Proverbs 26.4-5 (NLT): Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation.
Well, which one is it? Do you answer the foolish argument of fools or do you not do so?
It’s both. Wisdom is about knowing what to do in every unique circumstance. There’ll be occasions when you’ll be a fool to answer a fool. And there’ll be occasions where you’ll be wise to answer a fool. Real wisdom is about knowing the difference.
Let me give you examples of everyday English proverbs that we use that seem to contradict each other.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Many hands make work light.
Well, which is right? Both are right, depending on the context.
Imagine you’re cooking soup at church. Someone says, ‘I love carrots in my soup. Carrots make great soup’. And they chuck in carrots. Someone comes along and says, ‘Well, I love anchovies.’ And they make their contribution to the soup. And then a creative type comes along and says, ‘I love my soups kind of quirky and different. I’ll tell you my secret. I put fruit in my soup’. They throw in some pineapples and oranges.
Well, that’s the kind of scenario when we say ‘Thanks for offering to help. But too many cooks spoil the broth. We don’t need everyone’s help. Let’s just have one cook to make the decision’.
We’ve heard of great projects that have been totally messed up because too many people have wanted an input.
But what if we’ve now been served our soup and it’s time to clean up. That’s when we say, ‘Many hands make work light’.
Wisdom is knowing the best course of action in any given situation. It’s knowing how to conduct yourself. It’s knowing what sort of attitude to have. Wisdom knows the uniqueness of every situation and knows how to tailor a response to it.
Let me try and apply what this wisdom might look like in practice to something like what we do when we tell others about Jesus, the practice of evangelism. The New Testament is quite clear. Some of us may have a special gift for evangelism. But we’re called to do it as followers of Christ. We don’t do it from a sense of arrogance, but from a humble concern for everyone. Christ Jesus changes those who meet him. And he does it for their good.
But how do you go about it? For example, is it wise today to take a megaphone onto the streets and tell pedestrians the Good News of Jesus? Maybe, in certain contexts? But maybe not? Is sharing the reality of hell at a funeral the best way to share the Good News? Perhaps it is, but perhaps it is not.
To be wise is to know the appropriate context.
THE FEAR OF THE LORD
Well, how do you know the difference? That’s the million-pound question? And notice how the passage answers it.
Proverbs 1.7 (NRSV): The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge
Think about any decision you need to make. Let’s say, you’re wondering if you should continue being friends with someone at work. He has been a huge emotional drain on you. He constantly maligns others to you.
How you decide depends on what your framework of life is. Let’s say this emotionally draining friend of yours happens to be the son of the owner of the company you’re working for. You think being friends with this guy improves your chances of getting a promotion. Or let’s say that the opinion of the rest of your colleagues really matter to you. The more you are seen with this emotionally draining friend, the fewer friends you seem to have. Or perhaps, you do genuinely pity this emotionally draining friend.
Whatever course of action you take will be dependent on your larger framework for understanding life. It will depend on your priorities.
If you are ambitious and value the esteem and money that comes from keeping your friend, you’ll persevere with him. If you value being well-liked, you will abandon him. If you are motivated by a deeper commitment to your fellow human, you may decide to stick with your friend.
Now the point I want make is this. There is a kind of calculus. There is a kind of framework that influences how you make your decision. You are in awe of something. You are, maybe, in awe of esteem, ambition, popularity or something else. Whatever you are in awe of is kind of driving your decision.
THE ESSENCE OF KNOWLEDGE
Now this is what the proverb is telling us. Do you want to act in genuine wisdom? The way you do that is by fearing God. What is ‘the Fear of the Lord’. It isn’t a negative emotion. ‘Fear of the Lord’ isn’t grovelling and servile terror. It is where the whole person is committed to God. It is another way of speaking about faith in God as an awe and reverence for God, a devotion to God, a commitment to his purposes as revealed in the Bible.
You see, when we seek knowledge, when we try to understand how to act and live in the world, it’s very easy to go off on a wrong path. We can do terrible and destructive things with our knowledge. The only way we stay on the path of true wisdom is by committing ourselves totally to the truth of God. That’s the ‘fear of the Lord’.
And the proverb tells that the ‘fear of the Lord’ is the ‘beginning’ of wisdom. The word in Hebrew translated as ‘beginning’ can also be translated as ‘essence’.
So, a commitment to the Lord is not only the first step to walk in the way of wisdom, it is the essence of wisdom. It is the core of wisdom. You look at one side of the coin, it says ‘wisdom’. You turn it over, the same coin says ‘fear of the Lord’.
So, here’s the takeaway point: if you want wisdom for life, learn to be in awe of the God who is revealed in Scriptures. The deeper your devotion to God, the wiser you will be in your big and small decisions. The better you understand the nature and heart of God, the more skilled you will be in navigating life. The wisdom we hope to find for our lives is found in the depth of our relationship with God.
What that means is that to be wise, you don’t have to clever. To be wise, you don’t have to be powerful. To be wise, you don’t have to have loads of money. To be wise, you don’t have to have degrees or great amounts of talent.
Wisdom depends on who you revere above all else. Do you revere God?
Let me close this morning by turning to the New Testament. Paul the apostle is writing to a group of believers who weren’t considered very bright by the world’s standards. They weren’t considered powerful. They weren’t considered wealthy and influential. Paul writes them a letter to encourage and instruct them. Let me read part of his letter to you. I’m reading from 1 Corinthians 1.26-31.
1 Cor 1.26-31 (NLT): 26 Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. 30 God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. 31 Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the LORD.”
Notice what Paul says about Christ Jesus in verse 30. God made him to be wisdom itself. Jesus is the Wisdom of God incarnate. As we unite ourselves to Jesus through faith, we have access to the wisdom of God. As we relate to Jesus in love, we who might be foolish in many respects turn out to be wiser than all the wisdom of the world. We turn out to have the skill necessary to live life wisely.