Choose your women carefully! - Proverbs 9:1-18
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A number of years ago there was a major strike amongst New York City’s refuse collectors and as you can imagine as this went on the garbage, as they call it, began to accumulate into unmanageable proportions. No one was clearing the stuff away. Then one resident had a brilliant idea, in order to get rid of his trash, he bought himself sheaths of cheap gift wrapping paper and each day he would wrap some of his rubbish up in this glitzy paper, place it on the wall outside his apartment and within minutes it was gone. Of course it wasn’t until it was too late that the greedy gift grabbers realised that what they thought was a good find was nothing but a load of rubbish!
And you know, the Bible would say that is a pretty good picture of what many people are like in their lifestyle choices. The gullible, which sadly depicts most of the human race out of sorts with God- (by the way that is the Bible’s description not mine)- are like the greedy New Yorkers, they are taken in by what appears to be attractive, but only when it is rather later in the day do they discover that what they have in fact bought into is spiritually, morally and socially toxic. By way of contrast what God our Creator is eager to give are gifts which not only look good on the outside but are fantastic on the inside. In short God wants us to have the good life. God wants us to give us the wherewithal not only to enable us to be able to negotiate ourselves through this world for our own and other people’s good, but for his greater glory. You see, God has so made us and the world that there is a good fit and a bad fit. The bad fit is trying to throw off God’s ways of doing things, exchanging his priorities and values for our own and that is when the wheels come off the bike. The Bible calls this, the way of folly and wickedness; folly because it is ultimately stupid, and wicked because it attempts to dethrone God. The good fit approach is called wisdom and righteousness, wisdom because it is the smart thing to do, (after all who wouldn’t want the good life?) and righteous because it humbly acknowledges where God rightly belongs, on the throne of the world and our lives.
Now when we turn to the Book of Proverbs we find that it tends to operate in terms of generalisations, putting things in black and white, polar opposites- so you have the things which characterise the good life and the bad life. And according to the Bible, possessing wisdom is the key to living the good life, and having wisdom is more than having information; it is having the ability to use that information properly. We might think of it in terms of wisdom being the art of cultivating those skills and virtues which enable us to live in God’s world, God’s way. This means first of all seeing the world as God sees it- a good world which operates both on the physical level and moral level according to certain laws and principles and we are to fit in with those. It also recognises that it is a scarred and fractured world, broken and dislocated by the effects of our sin, so things don’t always work out in the short term as we would hope. What is more, it is a world which is the theatre of a spiritual war which we ignore at our peril. So wisdom is both descriptive and prescriptive. The wise person sees things as they are and then seeks to act accordingly. There are wise ways of doing things which have good effects and foolish ways which have harmful effects. And growing in wisdom involves gaining the ability to discern which is which. And the ideal way we learn wisdom is from wise people- usually those a little older and more experienced in the Christian faith than ourselves.
Now, these two contrasting ways of living are presented to us in Proverbs 9 in picture form of two women who are trying to attract us: Ms Wisdom and Ms Folly. And as is the stuff of many a TV programme we are going to take a tour of their houses and have a taste of their food. Because what we have here in these two women, one who is out to care and the other on ‘the game’, is a picture of what the church is meant to be like and what the world is actually like.
First of all we have two offers. Proverbs 9 is constructed in such a way that the second half of the chapter is a perverted mirror image of the first. The first section verses 1-9 and the last 13-18 focus on the two female figures who seem to have so much in common. Look at vv 1-6: Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her maids, and she calls from the highest point of the city. "Let all who are simple come in here!" she says to those who lack judgment. "Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.’ But then v13, ‘The woman Folly is loud; she is undisciplined and without knowledge. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, calling out to those who pass by, who go straight on their way. "Let all who are simple come in here!" she says to those who lack judgment. "Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!”’
I said that they are mirror images of each other, but that isn’t quite right; Ms Folly is more of a cracked mirror, throwing up a grotesque image of the original. She is a parody of the real thing. And when you think about it, that is the nature of evil. Evil is a corruption of the good. It has no existence in and of itself; it is always parasitic on the good. Vices are virtues driven to excess or used in the wrong way. So greed is the good food instinct left unchecked. Lust is the good sex instinct gone wrong. Pride is the good sense of self-worth grossly inflated and so on. And the closer the lie gets to the truth then the more effective and enticing it becomes. So the advocates of permissiveness declare, ‘There is nothing wrong with sex’. The Christian would agree. But would qualify it by adding there is everything wrong with it when it is flouted, exploited and taken out of its proper setting , that of heterosexual marriage. You see a superficial glance might lead some to think that both these women are offering the same thing- a home to live in and a meal to eat, but on closer inspection we discover that the contrast could not be greater. One offers plenty the other offers poison. One is the purveyor of delight the other a peddler of death. And that is the world we live in.
So let’s take a look at Ms Wisdom first. She offers the best house-v1. Notice that Wisdom has constructed the house. She has put a lot of hard work into this. And in these days the length of the room and overall size was determined by the number of pillars. Here there are seven, which not only tell us that we are dealing with a mansion, but it is perfect- represented by the perfect number 7. Nothing is going to cause this house to collapse. It is sturdy and enduring. As such it is also vast, able to accommodate many. Given the restriction of space in ancient Israel’s cities, this building is extravagant and as such is impressive. You see early Jerusalem was only around 12- 15 acres in size- so you can imagine how outstanding this house is portrayed to be.
But Ms Wisdom not only offers the best accommodation but also the best food-v2, ‘meat and wine mixed with spices’. She is the quintessential banqueting director. The picture of a feast or banquet is meant to be an image of the shear mouth watering attractiveness of God’s wisdom-the good life which we find in the Gospel. This is not cheap junk food that God through Christ offers; it is as Jesus says, ‘life in all its fullness’ the best on offer which is appealing and deeply satisfying. To settle for anything less than Christianity is to settle for that which is third rate at best. We are not to be apologetic about the Christian faith, how can we be when it is a banquet which far exceeds that had at Will and Kate at their wedding- spiritually speaking?
What is more, she offers the best promotion-v3. She sends out her maids to invite people. She herself stands at the highest point in the city so everyone can see her and hear her. In other words she is vigorously active, evangelistic, going out of her way so that as many people as possible can have the opportunity of taking what she is making freely available. There is an overwhelming generosity about Ms Wisdom. And who is she inviting? Well, everybody but especially the ‘simple’ or ‘gullible’, and those ‘who lack judgement’- literally the brainless. She actually feels sorry for these folk, she pities them, her heart breaks for them. And so she pleads with them to leave their simple ways- that is shallow, superficial lives and really live.
But you don’t find any of this with Miss Folly. Miss Wisdom calls out, she is smart, reasoning, appealing to good sense- but Miss Folly is simply ‘loud’-v13, what we would call a ‘loud mouth’ -brash and vulgar. She is ‘undisciplined and without knowledge’ appealing more to impulse than intelligence. In this way she is undemanding, people don’t have to use their brains to think about what she is saying, they just digest the soundbite, and are swayed by the glib cliché. She is also desirous, selling herself in lofty terms, ‘she is seated on the highest point of the city’. Literally it reads that she in ‘on a throne’, a seat of honour. We don’t realise how rare seats were in the past. For example in Elizabethan England chairs were a luxury, people sat on stools or benches, the gentry perched themselves on cushions on the floor. Only a ruler would sit on a chair like this, so she sees herself in that way- all ‘high and mighty’ and obviously this is meant to impress the less discerning.
But she is also lazy. Did you notice how in v14 and 15 she just sits at the door of her house and can’t be bothered to go out and contact people, she just waits for them to come passing by and then simply tries to grab their attention. How does she do that? By appealing to their fallen desires-v17- she says to those who lack judgment. "Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” In fact the reference to ‘stolen water which is sweet’ is a metaphor for illicit sex involving adultery-hence it being ‘stolen’ the woman belongs to another man. And that this is ‘secret’ or ‘hidden food’ points to the same idea, you have to sneak in at nighttime under the cover of darkness for such sex while no one is looking. So she may be desirable but in the end she is disastrous:- v18 But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave.’
Now without doubt, Ms Folly is the dominant voice of today. You hear her on day talk shows. She writes the editorials in most of the daily newspapers. She is the Agony Aunt of the teenage magazine. She is social policy advisor of all the major political parties. She is a professor at our universities and the chief controller of all the major TV channels. She speaks in the name of ‘liberation’, ‘freedom’ ‘rights’ and ‘choice’. Assumed rather than argued values. Those who oppose her are ‘oppressed’, ‘narrow’ and –the killer put down of all- ‘fundamentalist’. Miss Folly has more or less had free reign now in our society for over 40 years. Now tell me, do not the results of the great ‘liberal experiment’ fit the description of verse 18 to the letter? The dead are in her house. It is a house of horror, butchery.
The name of the game is, ‘Get rid of boundaries’. But that can only happen in dreamland. Films and TV Soaps can write stories which have no boundaries and contrive endings in which everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. But real life is not like that. It is harsh and it is cruel, marital break up caused by adultery is hurtful, no least to the children. Boundaries are in place to protect us not to enslave us. There is after all, the boundary of the school fence as well as the boundary of the prison wall- what else is all the talk of safeguarding procedures all about- but no such safeguards are allowed to be in place as far as the media is concerned-that is considered to be an infringement of artistic freedom.
Sexual promiscuity and experimentation are not clever; they are emotionally damaging; and it does not lead, long term, to sexual satisfaction. We now have other research that confirms that those most satisfied with their sexual lives and the most sexually adjusted are those who keep to biblical standards. The massive recent Sex in America survey found that those who had the most fun in bed were – wait for it-married Conservative Protestants.
This leads on to the contrast of Ms Wisdom. Note how she speaks in the public arena from ‘the highest point in the city’. This is no privatised faith or relativised faith –‘true for me but not for you’. She shows us that God’s ways are the best ways-empirically this is being proved. It’s as if you don’t just have to take the Bible’s word for it- experience bears it out, which is what we would expect given that Wisdom is a creation of the Lord and instrumental in bringing about his world according to Proverbs 8:22. When Miss Wisdom says in v 6, ‘you will live’ she means it, in some cases, quite literally. A few years ago New Scientist carried reports on its evaluation of happiness studies. They showed that Protestant Christians are the happiest of all denominations and evangelicals the happiest of all. They also found that other things significant in happiness are: making friends, getting married and doing good for others. The very stuff of Miss Wisdom. Least important are: intelligence, good looks and money- the stuff of Miss Folly. Interestingly enough, most significant was genetics, some folk naturally better disposed towards happiness than others. But, when it comes to behaviour, you can’t beat following Christ and living according to his ways, and a change in behaviour also results in a change in temperament- there is such a thing as ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’.
However, we are not to think that when these facts are reported they will be well received or given the widest publicity. They won’t. Hence, the two responses- vv7-9.
In verse 7-8a we have the stance of the unbeliever. He does not argue, he mocks. If you try and correct him, he will abuse you. 7"Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse.’ Some time ago one of our members leant someone a book by the Christian writer James Dobson on raising boys. Dobson does believe in boundaries and the importance of discipline as an expression of love. She said this was then passed on to the head of the Social Work Department in the university in which she worked. His response wasn’t ‘the writer’s arguments are weak and his methods have been tested and failed’. No. It was: ‘When there is a public burning of this man’s books I want to be there to help with the bonfire.’ That is the voice of the mocker-the fool. And according to this proverb we are to expect that response which will hurt.
But the believer on the other hand is a realist and humble enough to know that he hasn’t all the answers. And so he is open to correction- v 8b rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Furthermore he is also open to instruction v 9, Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.’ Could I ask how open are you to being corrected? How willing are you to learn? Because the answer we give will be the measure of how wise we are.
So what is it that we need in order to see our society pulled up out of the mire in which it finds itself wallowing; A new moralism? Hardly, that simply adds guilt to frustration. More education? No, that just produces clever sinners. What is needed is a new power and new direction and this can only come about by having a new relationship with God. And so we turn to the one basis. It is no accident that v10 forms the pivotal point of this sermon in Proverbs, separating the two women on either side. Look at what it says: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.’ It looks back-‘the beginning of wisdom’ and forward, ‘gaining understanding’ and in both cases the source is God. At the end of the day our lives are shaped and motivated by what we value, by what really matters to us. We either have a proper view of reality that there is a Good God who knows what is best for us and this he has made known to us supremely in the Bible, or we have a false view of reality which believes we make things up as we go along and this leads to sin and misery. To do as you please may feel like freedom; but it is bondage, because its end is destruction, that is what the passage says-‘if you are a mocker you alone will suffer’. Ms Folly’s freedom is like the freedom of a skydiver who enjoys the free-fall but does not know his parachute is defective and will not open. He thinks he is free, but he is enslaved to the irrevocable and destructive law of gravity. Freedom is not doing what you please, it is doing what you ought. Freedom is knowing the truth, loving the good, which comes down to knowing God in Jesus Christ.
The great American preacher Jonathan Edwards puts it like this as he describes the Gospel as God’s feast: ‘God is the host and he is the one who makes provision and invites the guests. And sinners are the invited guests. Believers are those who accept the invitation. And Jesus Christ, with his benefits that he has purchased by his obedience, and death, and which he communicates by his Spirit, is the entertainment (that is the person who delights us)…..As feasts are expensive and are provided at the expense of the host, so the provision which God has in the gospel made for our souls is exceedingly expensive to him… God has purchased it at no less a rate than with the blood of his only and infinitely dear Son. That holiness and that favour, and that peace and joy which we have was bought with the heart’s blood of the Son of God, his precious life.’ So, choose your women carefully- wisdom or folly, because the benefits and the losses, depending upon who you choose, are out of this world. And tonight God is asking you to make your choice.
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