Wisdom and folly - Proverbs 9
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A Russian peasant farmer placed an ad in the local newspaper which ran: ‘Farmer looking for wife with tractor. Please send photograph….of tractor.’
Well, there was a man who certainly knew what he wanted and what he thought was best for him- a wife with tractor or at least a good tractor. And we all have to make those kinds of wisdom calls on a day to day basis: should I buy this item or that; should I take this job or not; should I live in this place or somewhere else; should I marry this person or another or remain single?
Having the proper nous to make those kinds of decisions and much more as someone who is a believer living under God’s kingship- is what the Bible calls ‘wisdom’, which begins when we ‘fear God’.
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 our lives, which of course means having Jesus ruling there.
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. 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 become the kind of people living under the King which can then 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 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 receive God’s approval and foolish ways which result in his anger . And growing in wisdom involves gaining the ability to discern which is which.
Now, these two contrasting ways of living are presented to us in Proverbs 9 in the form of a picture 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. What we have here in these two women, one who is out to care and the other to corrupt, is a presentation of what the church is meant to be like and what the world actually is 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 set up[a] its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, “Let all who are simple come to my house!” To those who have no sense she says, “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight.” But then by way of contrast, v13, ‘Folly is an unruly (or loud) woman; she is simple and knows nothing. 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 to my house!” To those who have no sense she says, “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. Vices are virtues driven to excess or used in the wrong way. 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 accomodation-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. 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 provision-v2, ‘meat and wine mixed with spices’. She is the quintessential banqueting director. The picture of a 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. As Jesus says, he offers ‘life in all its fullness.’ To settle for anything less than Christianity is to settle for something which is third rate at best.
What is more, she is engaged in the best promotion-v3. She sends out her servants 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, a keen evangelist, 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’. She actually feels sorry for these folk, she pities them, and 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 ‘unruly’ or ‘loud’-v13, what we would call a ‘loud mouth’ -brash and vulgar. She will be on twitter or Facebook all the time trying to draw in as many people as possible to her half-baked ideas. She is ‘simple and knows nothing’ appealing more to impulse than intelligence because she doesn’t have much upstairs herself. 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 cliché. She is also attractive, 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- ‘To those who have no sense she says, “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 seem desirous but in the end she is disastrous- v18, ‘But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead’
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 and never defined. Those who oppose her are degraded as ‘repressed’, ‘narrow’ or demonised as some ‘phobe’ or other. Miss Folly has more or less had free reign now in our society for over 50 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.
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.
The results speak for themselves. Within two generations in Britain there has been an increase of between 300 and 1,000 per cent in the incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, stress-related syndromes, depression, violent crime, suicides and suicide attempts among the young. Similarly, when stable marriages cease to be the norm, children are more likely to live in poverty and a significant minority are abused, sexually assaulted, abandoned, intimidated or neglected. Read Jill Kirby’s ‘Broken hearts: Family Decline and the Consequence for Society’ for all the data which undeniably shows this. That is what listening to Ms Folly produces-misery.
The contrast to Ms Wisdom could not be greater. Note how she speaks into 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 for those who live under his loving rule and want to please hi. -empirically this is being proved. 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, 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. If you try to speak and he will shout you down. Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you.’ There does come a point with some people when it is totally unproductive to attempt to engage in a rational conversation.
On the other hand the believer is realistic enough and humble enough to know that he hasn’t all the answers. And so he is open to correction- v 8b rebuke the wise and they will love you’. Furthermore he is also open to instruction v 9, Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their 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? The answer is a new power and new direction and this can only come about by having a new relationship with God under his appointed ruler, Jesus.
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-‘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. The freedom of Ms Wisdom is the freedom of the skydiver fully equipped with a parachute and knows exactly how to operate it, steering it in whichever direction he sees fit and coming to a safe landing exactly where he intended.
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.
 Oliver James, Britain on the Couch: Why we’re Unhappier Compared with 1950 Despite Being Richer: A Treatment for the Low-Serotonin Society (London: Arrow, 1998).
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