WISDOM FOR THE WAY
Part 2 Wisdom and Folly–or-
A Tale of Two Women
This is the second part of our series from the Book of Proverbs entitled “Wisdom for the way” which Vijay kicked off last week.
My subject is “wisdom and folly.” Vijay, in his usual open-hearted way, allowed his preachers to choose our own topics from the suggested list and one that I chose first was “wisdom and folly.” As I prepared by reading through the Book of Proverbs a few times I began to seriously doubt the wisdom of choosing this topic and consider that it was folly to have done so. Why? Because the subjects of wisdom and folly run through the entire book! I thought to myself: “Oh no! I’m going to have to preach on the entire Book of Proverbs!” But once I’d had a cup of tea and calmed down a bit I thought that perhaps I could deal with the subject of wisdom and folly without doing the whole book and, anyway, I had to leave something for the others to preach on!
What is wisdom? Well, Vijay told us last week that wisdom is the ability to know how to act appropriately in every situation and that the essence of wisdom is reverence for God, so that the deeper our devotion to God the wiser we will be in our large and small decisions. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7 NRSV). I’m working today from the NLT and some of the words used as synonyms for wisdom flesh out for us what wisdom actually is. Some of the most commonly used words are (in addition to wisdom itself) these:
And all of these words simply tell us that wisdom is the ability to make good, that is, God-honouring, choices at all of life’s intersections.
Well if that is what wisdom is, what is folly? In many senses folly is anti-wisdom. The verse Vijay quoted last week in full is as follows: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools (or people characterised by folly) despise wisdom and instruction.” There are three main words used for foolish people in Proverbs. These are in the NLT simpletons, mockers and fools. “How long, you simpletons, will you insist on being simple-minded? How long will you mockers relish your mocking? How long will you fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22 NLT). These are the basic characteristics of folly, or people characterised by it. Let’s unpack these words a little.
Simpletons are simple-minded people and this is nothing to do with intelligence. It’s all about the trash we let into our minds and which forms the basis of our decision making. To be simple-minded is to uncritically let anything we hear or see take root in our minds and become part of the fabric of our thinking and decision-making. It’s very easy to be a fool and I think the battle to keep trash out of our minds has never been harder. We are constantly assaulted with information, opinions, ideas, lifestyles and it is real battle to keep the junk from influencing us and forming the paradigm within
which we make decisions. To be simple-minded is to uncritically let just anything into our minds and use whatever suits us as the basis of decision-making.
Mockers are those who just ridicule anything that doesn’t suit them. The idea that there is a Supreme Being in the first place is patently ridiculous in their view. The idea of reverence for God is as stupid as leaving out a mince pie for Santa Claus and a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve. The idea of factoring God into decision-making is so much religious mumbo-jumbo that people who think this way are clearly insane. Mockers take many different forms, from comedians who poke gentle fun at Christianity right through to aggressive atheists who are on a crusade to prove that God doesn’t exist (and why bother if He doesn’t exist?) and to show why your view that He does is ridiculous.
Fools are a catch-all group characterised by hatred of knowledge. They just don’t want to hear anything that challenges their worldview. It’s not that they hate all knowledge – they will be quite happy to know who the Dons bought during the January transfer window; what the height of Bennachie is; and what the pound to euro exchange rate is if planning a holiday in Tenerife later in the year. It’s knowledge of God and the things related to God that they specifically hate. The idea that the fear of God is the essence of wisdom is anathema. Factoring God into their thinking is like having a cobra as a pet. They just hate the very idea.
But in some ways it is easier to see what wisdom is by looking at its opposite, folly, and then saying, “Well wisdom is the opposite of that.” Hey! Did you see that guy who just shot a red light on South Anderson Drive? Was that wise? I don’t think so? Wisdom would have made him apply the brakes and wait until the lights changed to green. And scattered throughout Proverbs are wisdom/folly couplets and comparing one with the other makes it easier to see wisdom and folly for what they are. Here are some examples:
10:23 “Doing wrong is fun for a fool, but living wisely brings pleasure to the sensible.”
12:15 “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to others.”
12:16 “A fool is quick-tempered, but a wise person stays calm when insulted.”
14:16 “The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence.”
22:3 “A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.”
29:11 “Fools vent their anger, but the wise quietly hold it back.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list but gives some illustrations of the stark difference between wisdom and folly, between the wise and the foolish.
A Tale of Two Women
But Solomon drives home the choice that faces us between following the way of wisdom and the way of folly by a parable of two women, Wisdom and Folly. This could scarcely be more dramatic and the parable is found in chapter nine. This is actually a complex
chapter presented in what is known as a chiastic structure, that is the core message is in the centre and flanked by two parallel (and in this case contrasting) ideas. I’m not going to read the full chapter – I suggest you do this slowly and meditatively after the service – but will dip into it so I think you’ll get the drift of it.
Wisdom is characterised as a wealthy woman who issues calls to those who lack wisdom to come to her and receive it. In fact she issues not just one call but three. She is insistent that the way of wisdom is best and wants those who lack wisdom to have every opportunity to come to her and receive it. The first call (1:22) is addressed to these three categories we’ve already seen – simpletons, mockers and fools – but by the time of the second call (8:5) – she has given up on the mockers, as the call is only addressed to simpletons and fools: “You simple people, use good judgement. You foolish people, show some understanding.” There’s no hope for the mockers. They don’t want to hear anything that wisdom has to say. The third call is addressed only to simpletons. The fools, those who “hate wisdom and instruction” have now dropped off her invitation list. They refuse to listen to wise counsel and knowledge that would enable them to make right choices. Wisdom has given up on them too and now concentrates on the simpletons, those who are uncritical about what goes into their minds, in the hope that they will allow some truth in and will be better able to make wise decisions.
As a wealthy woman, Wisdom lays on a feast of good things for the simple, those who lack good judgement. This feast has three components:
“Wisdom has built her house; she has carved its seven columns. She has prepared a great banquet, mixed the wines, and set the table.” (Proverbs 9:1-2 NLT). This is a picture of the extent to which God has prepared a body of wisdom available to us to benefit us in decision-making during our life’s journey. It’s the idea of an Eastern banquet hall lavishly decorated for the dinner guests, a place of beauty, ease, tranquility, luxury, plenty; in short a great place to eat! A couple of years ago Florence and I attended a family wedding up the west coast. The venue for the reception was the local village hall. Now as some of you will know, local village halls up the west coast have a variety of uses and are generally drab little rectangular buildings with wooden floors and plain walls, suitable for anything from a church service to a ceilidh to a five-a-side football tournament. Well, the wedding planners had really gone to town with this little hall and had transformed it so that it looked like a sultan’s palace out of the Arabian Nights! There were silk drapes covering the entire inside of the hall; floral wreaths and bouquets hung from the ceiling and decorated the walls; there were fairy lights everywhere. It was amazing! Well, Wisdom’s lavish preparation for her guests are like this. The wisdom that comes from knowing God isn’t a collection of witty or pithy sayings to help us or a dose of quirky ideas from self-help gurus. It’s truth carefully crafted since before time was and embodied in his Son; as Vijay said last week “Jesus is the wisdom of God incarnate.”
The invitation is personal but universal – “she has sent her servants to invite everyone to come.” It’s also specifically directed at those who lack wisdom. “Come in with me,” she urges the simple. To those who lack good judgement, she says, Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed.” The invitation is therefore to sit down and enjoy of the lavish banquet she has in store and so to develop
the knowledge of God and begin to acquire the wisdom which we so much need for living well. But it’s also a command to abandon our old ways of decision-making, ways based on self- interest and guided by the warped principles which we unconsciously imbibe from our culture. “Leave your simple ways behind.” “Learn to use good judgement” It’s hard to be wise. It requires a conscious decision to screen out unhelpful or misleading messages from the opinion formers of society, develop our relationship with God, ask him for wisdom, as James tells us (James 1:5), and allow him to guide us by his word and Spirit.
The transforming power of wisdom is held out here: “begin to live.” The idea is that as we use heavenly wisdom we will make good decisions which will enable us to live life to the full as children of God. As Jesus, “the Wisdom of God incarnate” said “My purpose is to give them (his followers) a rich and satisfying life.” (John 10:10 NLT)
Folly as opposed to Wisdom is characterised as loud-mouthed, ignorant, lacking insight and lazy. “The woman named Folly is brash. She is ignorant and doesn’t know it.” She also calls out to the simple and those who lack good judgement, just like Wisdom, but what she offers and what the outcome is are rather different…
In contrast to the lavish banqueting house and extravagant feast laid on by Wisdom, Folly does nothing – apart from a bit of shoplifting perhaps. She just sits in her doorway and the banquet on offer consist of stolen water and food which is literally bread. The picture is that she has just nipped round to the convenience store, put a couple of bottles of spring water and a loaf in her bag and nipped out before the cashier could stop her. Some preparation. It’s easy to be a fool, but hard to be wise.
Unlike Wisdom’s invitation which is offered to all personally but specifically directed towards those who need wisdom, Folly just sits at her door and waylays anyone who happens to be passing, minding their own business. It’s as if Folly is trying to seduce people into being foolish. It’s easy to be a fool. Folly doesn’t, unlike Wisdom, urge her hearers to leave behind simple ways. No! Just carry on right as you are being a fool. It doesn’t cost anything. So Folly’s invitation goes like this: “Come in with me,” she urges the simple. To those who lack good judgement, she says, “Stolen water is refreshing; bread eaten in secret is best!” It’s naughty but nice is her invitation. Don’t follow the rules. Do what feels best to you. Illicit pleasures are the most enjoyable. Even if they’re just bread and water! This is obviously bad advice when Wisdom has laid on a lavish banquet in an eastern palace and Folly can only offer a crust and a mouthful of water in a back room somewhere. When viewed this way it makes no sense at all to listen to the voice of Folly and yet the naughty-but-nice nature of Folly is very seductive if we remain in our simple-mindedness and don’t exercise good judgement in our decision-making.
This is the most shocking part of the story and like so many parables in the Bible, the punch line hits us right between eyes. Folly takes her guests by the hand and leads them into a dimly-lit back room to have some stolen water and bread. They follow her through the door – and find the dimly-lit back room filled with corpses. Folly is a
seductive serial killer! “But little do they know that the dead (Rephaim) are there. Her guests are in the depths of the grave (Sheol = the abode of departed spirits).” It’s a terrifying image and no doubt Solomon intends to shock us. The transformation that Folly offers us is not one from simple-mindedness to abundant living but from simple-mindedness to death. A living death, one of relational death, spiritual death apart from God the source of life. And so the choice between wisdom and folly is at its root a choice between life and death.
Now I said that this chapter is chiastic in the sense that the core message is in the centre with two parallel and in this case contrasting ideas on either side. So what is the core message? Well we’re back to what Vijay said last week. “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgement.” (Proverbs 9:10 NLT). So all this contrast between wisdom and folly is to focus our attention again on the source of wisdom and good judgement, the ability to make right decisions in life’s choices, that is God and knowing Him. After all, “Jesus is the wisdom of God incarnate.”
So how do we go about making right decisions?
1. We develop our relationship with God so that wisdom comes to us naturally from our knowledge of Him.
2. We ask God for wisdom.
3. We ask ourselves when faced with a decision, which is the right, i.e. the God-honouring one?
4. Before making a decision, if it’s not clear which is the right one, pause, try and foresee danger, consider the possibility that we may be wrong and if necessary seek advice from wise people who are thoroughly in tune with God and his word.
5. Decide! Don’t use thinking and seeking advice as an excuse for procrastination…then we’re in danger of being sluggards and I’m straying into the territory Derek will be dealing with in his sermon on diligence on February 14!
At every intersection of life’s journey we are faced with a choice – to either follow the way of wisdom or the way of folly; to make wise or foolish choices; to choose the God-honouring or me-pleasing easy option; to choose fulfilment or emptiness; to choose spiritual life or death. May God’s Holy Spirit impress upon our minds this one truth: “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgement.” As we go into 2021 with all of its uncertainties and challenges, some of us may find we have more time on our hands because of further tightening of Covid restrictions. Let’s use any extra time to get to know God better, spending more time in private worship, prayer and Bible study so that by the time the Coronavirus restrictions lighten up we are wiser people better able to make good decisions at the intersections of our life’s journey.
I was going to end there but I felt I couldn’t. Some of you listening to this message, instead of being encouraged, may be feeling crushed by some of what I’ve said. You’re thinking to yourself: I’ve made some really bad decisions and I’m not in a good place
because of them. Is there any way back for me? My life is a mess.” Yes, there is a way back. Let me tell you a story. There once was a young man who took half his father’s fortune and moved overseas for the good life. He squandered all his money on partying and ended up as a homeless beggar. Eventually he thought he might go back to his father although he wasn’t sure how he’d be received at home. He even prepared a little speech to win his father’s forgiveness. However when his father saw him a long way off he ran and hugged him even though he was smelly and unkempt. He cut him off half way through his speech and ordered a great celebration to mark his lost son’s return.
Of course the story I’m referring to is that amazing story of the Prodigal Son which Jesus told. It’s recorded in Luke 15:11-32. You may have made some really bad choices and you feel your life is a mess. You’re a prodigal son or a prodigal daughter. I want to assure you that there is a way back. The father in the story is God. He is just waiting for you to come back. If you don’t know what to do just read the story and copy the son. Come to yourself, think about your bad decisions and use the same words the son did: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and am no longer worthy to be called your son; I’m no longer worthy to be called your daughter.” Then you, and all the rest of us, might like to add this little bit drawn from our study of the Book of Proverbs. “Father, please forgive my sin. I know that you are the source of all wisdom. Father I want to know you more. Please help me to make