The God of wisdom - Proverbs 3:1-12
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Just imagine if by some strange miracle, God our heavenly Father were to call you into his throne room tonight in order to give you some of his Fatherly advice, what do you think he might say to you? Well, I would want to suggest to you that we can know exactly what advice he would give because we have it here in proverbs chapter 3- ‘My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity.’
The form in which these proverbs are delivered is that of a father speaking to a son. And the way this guidance is set out is that a command is given in the odd verses with the results being worked out in the even verses-. So we have: ‘do not forget my teaching’- the command, ‘they will prolong your life many years’- the consequence.
Now, if we are going to benefit from these sayings then we have to understand how they are to be read and applied. You see, if taken at face value in an over literal sense, we might interpret verses 1-2 as saying something like this- ‘Keep the father’s commandments- which are ultimately God’s commandments- and everything is going to work out just fine- you will live to a great age and have plenty of money in the bank.’ Is that the way we are to understand these pearls of wisdom? Hardly, because we can think of at least half a dozen examples of people who have kept God’s commandments and have come to a sticky end with very little to show for it materially speaking- the greatest of them all being Jesus who died at the tender age of 33 without a penny to his name. We can also think of examples where this sort of teaching has been turned into a form of spiritual abuse, for example, ‘the health, wealthy and prosperity Gospel’- God wants you to be rich and healthy, and with the right faith and usually with the right financial contribution to some Christian guru, God wants it to be you.’ And there is a good theological word to describe that kind of teaching- rubbish. What you have to ask in your mind when reading proverbs is whether what you are looking at is a promise- do this and this will happen or a principle, do this and this is the sort of thing you can generally expect to happen. Many proverbs are neat one liners, sound bites if you like, and so invariably oversimplify things to make a memorable point- that is how sound bites work, it is part of their strength, but it is also part of their weakness because life tends to be a bit a more complicated than can be summed up in one line. So part of the trick when it comes to proverbs is having the nous to discern which way you are to take and apply these sayings. So you ask yourself these questions, is what I am reading always true, typically true or ultimately true?
So in chapter 3 verse 1-2, it is always right to keep God’s commands. And it is typically true that someone who walks God ways will have a wholesome life, a life of shalom (which is what the word ‘prosperity’ means), and it is ultimately true because the end result is eternal life.
So how do we actually go about pursuing this life of wholeness? Well, the writer gives four instructions which taken together lead to a life which receives God’s smile of approval and the best life possible- the God infused life.
First, adopt the Lord’s character-vv3-4, ‘Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4Then you will win favour and a good name in the sight of God and man.’ Here the father is referring back to one of the greatest of all Old Testament passages –Exodus 34:6, where Moses asks to see God’s glory, but what God gives him is a revelation of his character, the kind of God we are dealing with. So Yahweh declares: ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands.’ The word ‘love’ should be translated ‘unfailing love’ –hesed. It is faithfulness in action. In part it speaks of a commitment to help out those who cannot help themselves, obligating oneself to somebody and saying, ‘I will stick with you through thick and thin. I will remain loving towards you no matter what.’ It is a word which appears over 246 times in the OT. It is the love of the marriage service, ‘for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’. As someone has said, ‘this is love with Velcro on it’. The other great word is ‘faithfulness’ –emet- with its root in ‘truth’. The idea here is that God is true to himself, he cannot lie, and go back on his promises - he is changeless. That is what God is like towards us. We may turn our backs on him, but because of Jesus Christ he won’t turn his back on us. We break our promises, he keeps his. It was the Puritan John Owen who said that ‘the greatest unkindness we could ever pay God was to doubt that he loved us.’ You can call it integrity if you like, so that with the Lord what you see is what you get. Now, says our father in proverbs that is what you are meant to be like in your relationships. You may never be able to perform miracles like God, but you should perform mercies. Your word may not be able to keep a universe in being like God’s word, but it should, like God’s, be relied upon to keep friendships in being. Unfailing love and faithfulness are to be bound to your person like a necklace around the neck. You see, in these days that is where you would put anything of value, they didn’t have wallets, they had necklaces. More than that, you are to have imprinted into the very depth of your soul this character, so it is not so much something which you carry around your person like a purse which you can put on or take off at will, it is to be engraved upon your heart where it is fixed. Now, do you not think that that is what the Holy Spirit wants to do in you day by day, to replicate the character of the Lord whose name is Jesus? Was there anyone whose love was covered in Velcro more than his, who said what he meant and meant what he said so could be trusted completely? One of the greatest needs in Christian circles is for people of character who act upon their word and are unfailing in their love. Adopt the Lord’s character.
Secondly, a life of peace comes by depending on the Lord’s direction- vv 5-8, ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.’ What does that mean? We can recite it, but how do we put it into practice? Let’s start with the word ‘trust’. Originally the Hebrew word translated ‘trust’ is the picture of ‘lying helplessly face downward’. It denotes a position of self-surrender before someone whose position is superior. So at least trusting in the LORD with all your heart means believing that God knows what he is doing, that his wisdom is the best wisdom and his ways the best ways.
And note that the writer says we are to ‘trust the Lord’ which is not the same as ‘understanding’ the Lord. There will be many times when we may not understand why God is saying what he is saying or doing what he is doing but we can still trust him nonetheless to get it right. The writer does not give us six easy steps to finding God’s direction in life- should I take this job or that, marry this person or the other? It is more of an attitude he is concerned with, a stance in relation to God and his teaching. All of God’s instructions are to be acknowledged in every area of life. What is your sex life to be like? There is a good question- reading Proverbs 5 might be an idea if you want to know the answer. What of your work life? Read Proverbs 6. What about your speech life, the kind of language which comes out of your mouth, let alone your thought life, the ideas floating around in your mind? Proverbs 10 might not be a bad place to start in order to get that sorted. In short it is God’s wisdom we are to search out and rely upon, not our own, ‘lean not on your own understanding…do not be wise in your own eyes.’ The word lean means to lean heavily in order to support yourself, like leaning on a crutch. He is not saying don’t think, leave your brains at the door when you come into church and go with your feelings, and so encouraging a kind of mindless mysticism; rather, it is the call to start thinking like a Christian should think with the Word of God open before him. If you lean on your own understanding, then like a rotten stick it will break because it will not be able to take the weight. God however can take whatever leans on him. Do you not think that the wisdom which guides the planets in their orbits can’t guide your life and mine? Do you not think that the one whose laws govern the seasons has not given us moral laws to govern our lives? We have access to only the smallest fraction of information about the world, God has complete access. Do you not therefore think it would be wise to listen to him instead of ourselves? To be wise in our own eyes means that it is we and not God who knows best. And we live in a society, and indeed a Church, which for the last 60 years or so have decided to go down that route and what have we to show for it-the wholesome life of verse 2? Hardly. We find ourselves in the situation summed up by the American comedian Woody Allen, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
So how do we know if we really trust the Lord with all our heart? That question is answered in verses 9-10- thankfulness for the Lord’s goodness, ‘Honour the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.’ Again we ask, is this always true? No, but it is typically true and certainly reveals who or what we are really trusting in. The Israelites were commanded to give the first fruits of their work- from the harvest or the flock and from a human point of view that was a very risky thing to do, for what if the rest of the harvest didn’t come in because of blight or bad weather? What if you flock was ravaged by wolves or disease? Then you would be stuffed. Leaning on your own understanding would say, ‘No keep the first instalment yourself, and if the rest of the harvest comes in, all well and good, give some of that to God.’ But do you see the wisdom in the LORD giving this command?
First, it makes us practice what we preach- trusting in the Lord with all our heart. Some of you will have heard of the story of the French Canadian tight- rope walker Blondin, who crossed the Niagara Falls with a wheelbarrow. On making it to the other side, the crowd cheered and hailed him as the greatest tightrope walker in the world. Then he asked the crowd, ‘Do you believe I am so good that I could take a man in the wheelbarrow all the way across?’ ‘Yes, of course’ they exclaimed, ‘you are the great Blondin.’ ‘Well,’ came the question, ‘Who will be the first to volunteer?’ It is easy enough to say, ‘I trust the Lord will all my heart’, as it was easy for the crowd to say they trusted Blondin, but one sure way of proving it to yourself, (not to God he knows your heart anyway) is by trusting him with your finances. Let me tell you about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. When he was a fellow of Oxford University, he had an income of £30 a year. He lived on £28 and gave away £2 which was 15%. Some years later his income had increased four times to £120 per year. He still lived on £28 and gave away £92, almost 77%. An earlier generation of Christians used to talk about the tithe- the giving of 10%- not many are doing that today, let alone giving even more. A wife once asked her husband: ‘Can you give me a little money?’ He answered, ‘Yes- how little?’ Isn’t it sad that sometimes the attitude we can take with God? And so we should not be surprised that God used John Wesley so powerfully the way he did. And that practice of Wesley was carried on by many Methodists down the years as the Gospel took root in people’s hearts giving them life transforming wisdom. Here’s something. In 1881 Holy Trinity Hull, which was then evangelical, had a 1,000 people attending each Sunday. The five Wesleyan Methodist chapels in Hull had a 1,000 each. In 1885 the three Primitive Methodist Circuits in Hull had a total of 5,000 children attending Sunday school. Do you see how verse 10 was fulfilled spiritually here in Hull- ‘then your barns will be filled to overflowing and your vats will brim over with new wine.’
The second reason he focuses upon this area of our lives is that it is the one area we are most likely to engage in idolatry. An idol is that for which we mainly live and which occupies most of our waking hours. We live in a’ shop till you drop’ culture which is one of the idols of our age. But by giving of our best to God first makes us stand out as distinctive sending the message that we believe there is a living God who sent his Son Jesus into the world who gets our vote first. And we give not out of obligation, but out of thankfulness.
Finally, the way of peace means submitting to the Lord’s correction, v11, My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.’ Now here we have one of those qualifications in Proverbs which goes to show that we are dealing with reality and not fantasy. Not everything is smooth running for the believer. Sometimes God cuts across our purposes and the experience can be rather unpleasant- it hurts. Not everything turns out the way we would wish for there is such a thing as the discipline of the Lord. So what are we to do if we find ourselves in God’s gymnasium, when God the schoolteacher turns into God the coach and it is cold and raining and we don’t fancy the spiritual cross country run which he has in mind for us? Well, we are not to despise his discipline or resent his rebuke, although that tends to be our immediate reaction. We find that things aren’t going the way we planned and instead of asking God, ‘What can I learn from this?’ we resent him and complain ‘Why are you doing this?’ No, we are not to resent God knocking off the rough edges through hardship; we are to take comfort in them. Why? Because it is a revelation of his love- ‘The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.’ There is the story of two maestros who attended a concert to hear a promising young soprano. One commented on the purity of her voice. The other responded, “yes, but she’ll sing much better when her heart is broken.” There are certain passions only learned by pain. And there are times when God, knowing that, allows us and enables us to endure the pain for the sake of the Gospel song.
This section ends in v11 pretty much like it began in verse 1 ‘My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline- My son, do not forget my teaching.’ As if to say, ‘I am your father and I love you and because I love you I pass on these instruction to you, but behind it all, there is an even greater Father who loves you much more than I and who calls you to a full and prosperous life by imitating his character, by relying on his direction, enjoying his goodness and by enduring his correction.’
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