St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 30th June 2013
Reading – Proverbs 9
Which button do I press?
Over the past few weeks we have been looking at the book of Romans. There has been no doubt that this book has been a source of immense blessing to us all. We have learnt just so much about being the body of Christ and how to put love into practical, direct action. It’s the sort of book that bears reading again and again. Because it is full of deep truths and presents a breathtaking picture of God and His plans for the church. It’s rather like a mine you can dig into again and again for spiritual nuggets of treasure, and I hope you have been excited by some of the riches we’ve found there.
But today we are moving on to the book of Proverbs, and as soon as you turn to it you realise it has a very different feel. You won’t find too many long sentences or complex language about God. It is full of short, pithy images about basic day-to-day matters, such as how much to eat, or when to speak, or what to do with your money. It’s written very much with an eye to giving instruction and advice about the sort of decisions all of us face daily.
I guess the difference between the two books can be explained if you think for a moment about what it’s like owning a computer. On the one hand, it’s important to know – at least roughly – how a computer works. A computer isn’t that much use if you don’t know how to set it up and which device goes into which funny-shaped hole round the back and why. But on the other hand, it’s just as important to know which button to press when you finally get it working – particularly and especially when something unexpected happens.
And the whole reason why Proverbs is in the Bible is that it helps us, so to speak, to press the right button when something unexpected happens. It’s about helping us to make the right decision when the pressure is on, when we are not certain what to do. And the way it does this by giving us some memorable sayings that once heard are never easily forgotten.
Here are some examples:
Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. (Prov 25:24)
Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbour and says, “I was only joking!” (Prov 26:18-19)
Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. (Prov 26:20)
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred. (Prov 15:17)
What are you like?
But let’s be clear – the book of Proverbs is there more than to simply entertain us, or give us a list of handy hints. It is meant to help us live as children of the living God when we are faced with real-life situations. Because, as I am sure you know from your own experience, sometimes it just isn’t clear what is the best thing to do. Yes, sometimes we get a sense the Holy Spirit is leading us in that direction, or we receive a clear answer to that particular prayer. But sometimes we don’t.
In our reading this morning the writer of this book imagines there are two women called Wisdom and Folly. This may sound slightly strange to us, but he wants to get over an extremely important point. The decisions which we make each day matter. There is a right way to go and a wrong way to go. Just as in the same way Jesus tells us there is a narrow way we can choose to walk down or a wide way.
For, as I have said before, and will keep on saying, if Jesus is Lord, then He has to have authority over every part of our life. There is no situation we face where it doesn’t really matter what we do. That’s why over the next few weeks we will be covering topics such as not being lazy, not making trouble, being generous, minding your language. I could have extended this series and looked at issues such as adultery, and alcohol, and anger, but I hope you get the drift. In every area of life there is the wise thing to do, and there is the foolish thing to do.
So how do we tell the difference between Mrs Wisdom and Mrs Folly? After all, if you look closely at this passage, both live at the highest point of the city. Both are calling out to those who are passing by. Both are inviting you to come and eat at the banquet they have prepared. And their message is the same: “Let all who are simple come in here!” (Proverbs 9:4,16).
Well, there’s an expression that’s crept into the English language recently when someone does something silly or outrageous. The rather pompous website where I looked it up explained it is mostly said by the young. But I am sure all of us have heard it one time or another – “What are you like?” I couldn’t help thinking of that phrase when thinking about Mrs Wisdom and Mrs Folly. Because the things we do and the decisions we make reflect the type of person we are. That’s the consistent message which flows throughout the book of Proverbs. On the one hand, there are people who are wise and righteous, on the other hand there are people who are fools and mockers. And the difference between these two kinds of people is whether they eat at the house of Mrs Wisdom or the house of Mrs Folly.
We read in verse 13: The woman Folly is loud; she is undisciplined and without knowledge. And so it’s no surprise that time after time we read in the book of Proverbs that the foolish person too is loud, and undisciplined and without knowledge. For example:
A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly (Prov 14:29)
He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame (Prov 18:13)
A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much. (Prov 20:19)
A quick temper, an inability to listen, talking too much – they are all, in the language of Proverbs, the mark of a fool. I know for one that I can get very uncomfortable when I read this book, and maybe rightly so. Because if we are honest, there is an element of folly in all of us. Which is why, ultimately, this book points us forward to the New Testament and our need for a Saviour. For all of us all need to be rescued from our own stupidity – those things we said in the heat of the moment which we bitterly regret, our impatience, our lack of discipline, and so much more. It’s as if the book of Proverbs holds a mirror up to each one of us and asks, “What are you like?” Are you like Mrs Folly or are you like Mrs Wisdom?
Where are you heading?
The question matters, because in the end the path of folly leads to death and the path of wisdom leads to life. Yes, Mrs Folly’s house on the hill may seem attractive. After all, it’s the original house of fun. It’s full of guilty pleasures and it’s the place where you can live out all your secret phantasies. No wonder it’s crowded night after night with lots of partygoers and revellers, but … there’s a sting in the tail: little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave. (Proverbs 11:18).
You see, in the end the path of folly cuts us off from a living relationship with God. When we consistently choose to follow our own pleasures, to keep on doing the things that are against God’s commands, then we face the most terrible and most miserable spiritual danger. That’s why amidst all the practical wisdom and descriptions of the wise and the foolish, we also from time to time find warnings about which path to take:
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. (Prov 16:18)
He who obeys instructions guards his life, but he who is contemptuous of his ways will die. (Prov 19:16)
If a man curses his father or mother, his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness. (Prov 20:20)
For the message of this book is clear. There are only two ways to live – the way of wisdom and the way of folly. Now I realise that in this current day and age that’s a very unfashionable thing to say. We are told it doesn’t matter what path you take in life, so long as you follow it sincerely. We are told more than one way is right. We are told every point of view is equally valid. But the book of Proverbs challenges all that and says in the end we can either choose life or death. It is as plain and simple as that.
Where can you find wisdom?
So where can we find wisdom? And how do we make sure we are on the right path? Well, in so much of Hebrew Scripture the most important point of the passage is not at the end, but right in the middle. And that’s exactly the case here, with our memory verse for this morning, Proverbs 9:10: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. This is the underlying basis of the whole book of Proverbs. Although we won’t find much mention of the Lord as we go through our sermon series, this key principle is behind every saying, every word of wisdom. Because if we want to know is what the right thing to do, and if we want to develop the right kind of character, and if we want to make sure we are on the right path, then we need to make sure we are in a right relationship with the Lord.
But let’s be clear what fearing the Lord does and doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean, for example, that we go round in constant terror that the Lord might be about to punish us, or that there is a stray thunderbolt out there with our name of it. That kind of image is totally at odds with the God of love we find elsewhere in Scripture, a God who desires to be our Heavenly Father, a God who sent Jesus to be our Saviour.
So what does it mean to fear the Lord? Very simply this – that we live with an awareness of all that God is. We sometimes sing, “Our God is a great big God”, and yet so often in the busyness and rush of each day we forget this basic fact. The God we worship is far greater, far more powerful, far more awesome than we can ever imagine. He is the one who made us. He is the one who keeps us alive day by day. He is the one whose presence fills every area of our lives and every area of this planet.
And a God like that you need to respect. That’s why, when it comes to our relationship with the Lord, we need to realise He sets the terms and conditions, not us. When He says something, we need to listen. When He tells us to do something, we need to obey. Because that is the beginning of wisdom. And certainly I know from my own experience it becomes an awful easier to make the right decision day by day if we are actively seeking to carry out the Lord’s will. Yes, sometimes knowing what the right thing isn’t easy. But at least if we are praying and reading our Bibles and meeting for fellowship we will certainly have a far better idea of God’s plans and purposes for our lives.
Because the amazing thing is, this God who is so powerful and so awesome can also be known personally. That’s what the writer of the book means when he says: knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Now we can easily misread this sentence and think he’s talking about head knowledge, or knowing lots of facts about God. But that’s not what he’s saying at all. In the Bible the word “knowledge” is used to describe a deep, personal relationship. It’s the reason why, for example, older versions of the Bible talk about a man knowing his wife. Knowledge of the Holy One is not academic knowledge or theory. Rather, it’s about being able to say, “I know who this God is. He is my Lord. He is my Saviour”. And when we can say that, we can – to pick up a phrase from our recent series on Romans – test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom 12:3). For that is understanding.
So to sum up: We all need practical wisdom in our lives. When the pressure’s on, it can sometimes be hard to see how our Christian faith connects with the direct, practical issues we face. But the book of Proverbs can help us to make a link. It is full of earthy advice and memorable sayings which help us remember what the Lord wants. But we will really only do what the Lord wants if we want to grow in wisdom and understanding. If we’re still eating in the house of Mrs Folly, then we better watch out. She may offer all kinds of pleasure, but in the end she will lead us down the wrong path. No, if we are serious about living out our Christian faith, we need to make sure our one constant desire is to seek the Lord, to fear Him and to know Him, day by day.
What will you do?
As it says in Proverbs 4:7-9:
Wisdom is supreme; therefore getwisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honour you. She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendour.
That’s a promise the Lord is making to you this morning. So let me ask: what are you doing to get wisdom in your life at the moment?