Sound advice - Proverbs 1:1-33

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 6th April 2008.

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Advertising is often thought to be the key to success for any company or product. Provided that is you don’t offend the very people you want to buy your particular product. For example, when Coca-Cola started selling in China, they promoted their drink as Ke-kou-ke-la. They printed up thousands of signs, plastered them up all over the place, only to discover that in Chinese Ke-keo-ke-la translates as "female horse stuffed with wax". Following hot on their heels, Pepsi launched their "Come alive with the Pepsi generation" advertisements in Taiwan, only to find their ad translated as "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead." Not to be outdone, Kentucky Fried Chicken launched in China with their memorable "finger-lickin good" slogan going out across the country as "eat your fingers off."

Well it just goes to show that successful advertisers need to do their research, and there is a fine line between success and failure. But it does beg the question how we define success. For many people, success in this world is defined by some sort of self improvement. If you were to write a book about how to be successful in this life, then it would have to be centred on improving yourself financially, bodily, mentally, relationally. In fact if you type in "success" to Amazon’s website, you’ll discover hundreds of books promising to give you success in every part of life. Here’s a quote from just one of those books, "Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking". ‘Repeat out loud these powerful affirmations: I am going to be happy today! Though the skies are cloudy and grey, No matter what comes my way – I am going to be happy today! . . . I’m happy. I really am happy. I have great possibilities within me." That claims the book is the key to success in life. Or from a different perspective just take a look at the Apprentice on TV this week with Alan Sugar, and see how totally self focussed those young people are. They want the best for themselves and they will get it any way, regardless of the outcome for other people. We human beings crave success and we want it at any costs. And when we don’t get it, like the advertisers in the Far East, then it brings much pain and sorrow.

Well this evening we are beginning a new sermon series in the book of Proverbs. And really at its heart, Proverbs is a book about finding success in life. Success is not actually a dirty word. It’s just the kind of success you want that is the crucial thing. And Proverbs shows us what true success is all about. Success as the Bible defines it is living with God as your King and Lord. That is how to lead a blessed, successful life. Now as we will see, that does not always mean a life of ease and comfort nor a life free of mishap and disaster. Rather Biblical success is getting the key to life right. It’s seeing what is most important. Living with God as your Lord and King. And that radically affects everything we do. So the book of Proverbs is all about what that life looks like in practice when God is at the centre. How to live a life in practice which honours God. If you like, Proverbs is holiness in action. It is a very practical book, full of advice on all sorts of things, as we will see. And the word Proverbs uses to describe this way of living is called "wisdom". Just glance down to 1 v 1 to see how the book begins: "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight." So this book is written by Solomon, although there are other authors as well, and by all accounts Solomon was very wise. He was given wisdom by God to help him run the country when he was king. And in his later life he wrote down some of his wise sayings. And the theme that runs all the way through the book is which way do we want to live. Do we want to live God’s way, the way of wisdom, which is the best way to live, the way that is successful, so to speak. Or do we want to live our way, the way of folly, the foolish way to live. And that way will eventually lead to disaster. So as we come to study this book over these next few weeks, we’re going to be challenged on our practical holiness, on how we are living. Because if we claim to be God’s people, then we need to marked by wisdom. That is a life lived in God’s way in every aspect of our lives. So this evening, as we begin in the first chapter we’ll see three things about wisdom by way of introduction:

1) Wisdom: What it is (Vv 1-6)

2) Wisdom: What it’s for (Vv 8-33)

3) Wisdom: Where it comes from (V 7)

1) Wisdom: What it is (Vv 1-6)

So the first thing we learn about wisdom is what it is. Now when we come to the Proverbs it can be one of those books which is a little hard to get a handle on. It appears to be a list of wise sayings that go on for chapter after chapter. But actually we’re used to such sayings in our culture. In fact every culture has lists of wise sayings, comments on life that make a general point. At the same as Solomon, the Egyptians were writing down their own lists of wise saying. And we have such in our culture. For example, "too many cooks spoil the broth." Or "always look before you leap." Or "once bitten twice shy." Of course, they are not always easily understandable, like the primary school teacher who tried to teach her year one class a few proverbs. She gave them the first line, and then they were to fill in next. Here’s some of their responses: "The pen is mightier than .....pigs. Where there's smoke there's .....Pollution. Two's company, three's.....the Musketeers. Children should be seen and not.....spanked or grounded. If at first you don't succeed.....get new batteries. When the blind leadeth the blind.....get out of the way." Well the wisdom of five year olds is very profound! But, like those five year olds, it is easy to misunderstand so much of the Proverbs and it’s wisdom teaching.

But it becomes clearer when we examine the author’s introduction in verses 1-3: "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair." So what does Solomon say his proverbs are for? Well in verse 3 he says that they are for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair." In other words, he is writing to help us do what is right. Wisdom is fundamentally about how to live. That’s what this book is about. It’s for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life. And that is exactly what Solomon asked for when he asked for wisdom from God to help him govern the land as King back in 1 Kings 3. Just listen to what he said: "Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?" Did you notice what he said. He needs wisdom to distinguish between right and wrong. So we might define wisdom in the following way. "Wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action." Or to put it another way, wisdom is the ability to go God’s way regardless of the circumstances. Now of course sometimes that will be costly. It will be hard to make the wise decision. But as we grow in wisdom then we will be able to discern better God’s way and then to be able to walk in it.

And notice as Solomon goes on in chapter 1, who this wisdom is for? Verse 4: "[It’s] for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young- let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance- for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise." Wisdom is for the simple, that is in Proverbs language, those who recognise they need wisdom, who are humble hearted. And notice there is no age level. Even the young can acquire this wisdom. And even those who think they are wise can add to their wisdom. So wisdom is nothing whatsoever to do with how brainy you are, or how many letters you have after your name, or how many degrees you have. In fact, I have met some highly intelligent but very foolish people in my time. Some might know a lot, but their wisdom as the Bible understands it is minimal. A small child can have more wisdom in the Bible’s understanding than a 60 year theology professor if that man has not sought the wisdom of God. And it’s not about having to be one of the spiritual elite. No it means that every single one of us here can get this wisdom that Solomon talks about. No-one is barred. Everyone is welcome to receive if only we will listen.

Now I trust there is not a Christian here who does not want such wisdom. I would love to be someone of whom it could be said that he’s acquired a disciplined and prudent life, he does what is right and just and fair. Wouldn’t you? And if we are serious about it, says Solomon, then we need to hear what he is saying. We need to read his book. No wonder that Billy Graham, the great evangelist, once said he reads a chapter of Proverbs every day. It’s no surprise to discover that when he see how over 50 years he has retained his integrity and holiness in the harsh spotlight of the public eye. He’s a man of one book, the Bible, and in particular he has immersed himself in the Proverbs. He’s delved into God’s wisdom and applied it to his life. He’s a wise man. And so can you and I be if we too hear and apply what Solomon is saying. We too need to be people of the Word. Because wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action.

2) Wisdom: What it’s for (Vv 8-33)

But if that is what wisdom is, then let’s see next what it is for. Now in a sense we’ve already touched on this in our definition, in that wisdom is an ability to see and do the right thing according to God’s way of thinking. It’s about holiness. And that becomes increasingly clear in verses 8-33. Now it’s important before we look at the details to understand that proverbs is not case law. Proverbs are wise sayings that need to be carefully applied to different contexts. They are not legal pronouncements telling us what is always true in every situation. For example turn to Proverbs 26 vv 4-5: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes." Now what is going on here? Are these two passages contradicting each other? Well no. Rather in life both things are sometimes the wise thing to do. Sometimes when someone says something foolish, it is best not to respond at all. It’ll only make the situation worse. But at other times, the fool needs exposing for his and everyone’s own good. And you might do it by replying in kind to what he says. Proverbs you see are not law. They don’t tell you want you must do in every situation. They show you what you might do in a particular situation. Sometimes you’ll answer a fool according to his folly, at other times you won’t.

So if we go back to our definition, we can see how this might work in practice. "Wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action." Wisdom then helps us to do what pleases God. It helps us to decide what the best course of action is on any given situation in life might be. Now at this point it’s worth us pausing to think about how God guides us in life, because there is a lot of misunderstanding on this point. Many Christians rightly understand that life is a bit like box "a" on the sheets. The box represents what Christians should do, but outside the box represents what we should not do. We might mention things like stealing, committing adultery, lying etc. We know from our reading of God’s word that such things are always wrong. So far so good. But now, many Christians make the mistake of thinking that we need to find out exactly what God expects us to do in our lives, the bull’s-eye in the box. God has a very specific will for our lives in terms who we will marry, what job we will do, where we will live etc. And if we miss the bull’s-eye, then we have strayed from God’s will. If I marry Jemimah instead of Georgia, and I end up as a tree surgeon in Bolton, as opposed to a yak farmer in Brighton, then I have missed God’s will for my life. That’s our fear, and that is how so many Christians understand guidance. Unless we do exactly what God says and has planned for our lives, then we miss out on his will for our lives. We’re doing second best or third or fourth or twentieth best. And so we beat ourselves up worrying about whether we are doing the right thing.

But look at box "b". Box "b" represents a more Biblical way to approach guidance. There is still a box. God has made it clear that certain things are right and wrong. But notice there is no bull’s-eye in the box. The box is empty. And that represents the fact that God has given us freedom to choose how to live within certain parameters. Of course he cares for us and of courses he knows what we will do. But there is no fear of missing out on his will. Because his will is simply that we be holy. There is no bull’s-eye that we have to hot to do God’s will. As long as we stick to the big picture and stay within the box, then we are doing the best thing. So ultimately it doesn’t matter if I marry Jemimah or Georgia, so long as they are Christians and not already married, and not my sister. And nor does it ultimately matter what we do, so long as we don’t do something immoral, and are godly tree surgeons or yak herders, so long as we are godly citizens of Bolton or Brighton. God gives us freedom to do what we want, so long as we don’t abuse that freedom and do something immoral which is outside the box of God’s will.

Now what does all this have to do with Proverbs? Well very simply because Proverbs helps us in making wise decisions. You see whilst it’s true to say that we can marry who we want, or work where we want, or live where we want, yet it is not always that easy to see the way forward. And that is where wisdom comes in. Yes we known what we definitely should or should not do, in terms of moral decisions. But what about those things where two things are equally morally fine. We need godly wisdom to make a decision and do what is best. So we need wisdom to decide where is best to live or what job is best to do. We need wisdom in choosing a life partner, if we have that option. And the Proverbs are practical wisdom to help us decide what is the best thing to do. So for example, in the realm of marriage, then the whole of Proverbs 31 is an excellent treatment on the sort of wife a godly man should be looking for. Ladies that is the way to make yourself truly attractive. It’s holiness in practice. Or if you find that the person you think you should marry is driving you to distraction, then best to think again. Or for example, how should you act as a student? Consider Proverbs 6 vv 9-11: "How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest- and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man." Students and Mark 2 take note! Do you see what the writer is doing? He is not giving us case law and telling us that lie ins are fundamentally sinful. Rather he’s showing us how to live in the box of God’s ways. Don’t waste your time and be lazy, he’s saying. Now we could go on with plenty of examples: Proverbs deals particularly with parenting, with life and death, with work, with acting foolishly, with love and marriage, with trusting God in tough times. Each time Solomon gives us wisdom to deal with particular situations. And we need God’s wisdom to help us live in his world in his way.

But notice before we move on, one particular application of wisdom from our chapter in verses 8-19. And that is the problem of peer pressure. Often the wisdom literature is written in the language of a father giving his son advice, and so it is here. And he’s showing us how as godly men and women we should resist peer pressure. Notice what is said in verse 10: "My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, "Come along with us; let's lie in wait for someone's blood, let's waylay some harmless soul; let's swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit;

we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse"- my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood." It’s very clear isn’t it? If sinners entice you, don’t give in. Why? Because it will only lead to sorrow and disaster. So verse 18: "These men lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves! Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it." But the problem is peer pressure is so hard to resist isn’t it? We want to be liked, we want to be part of the gang, we want to be in the in crowd. And it’s not just teenagers that suffer from this pressure. Yes teenagers do suffer- from what you wear, to how you act at parties or with your girlfriend, to what you drink to what you say. It affects us students as well in terms of sex and drink as well as many other thing. At work, we’re tempted to cut corners so we’re in with the in crowd. And even as parents, peer pressure comes. The pressure to get the right toy for our child or have the right piece of equipment, the pressure to go against the flow and discipline our children, something Proverbs is very strong on.

Aesop’s fable are a mine of illustrations on human behaviour. One fable tells about an elderly man who was travelling with a boy and a donkey. As they walked through a village, the man was leading the donkey and the boy was walking behind. The townspeople said the old man was a fool for not riding, so to please them he climbed up on the animal’s back. When they came to the next village, the people said the old man was cruel to let the child walk while he enjoyed the ride. So, to please them, he got off and set the boy on the animal’s back and continued on his way. In the third village, people accused the child of being lazy for making the old man walk, and the suggestion was made that they both ride. So the man climbed on and they set off again. In the fourth village, the townspeople were indignant at the cruelty to the donkey because he was made to carry two people. The frustrated man was last seen carrying the donkey down the road. You see going with the flow, giving in to peer pressure, will only lead to disaster. It’s the way of folly. And for every person here there will be pressures on us to go with the flow. It’s a question of who you follow and who you listen to.

Because just look in verse 32 where the paths of wisdom and folly lead: "For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm." Wisdom is often personified in Proverbs as a woman crying out to be listened to. And here she asks us the question, whose wisdom will you trust? The wisdom of God or the wisdom of the world? Because if you follow the world’s wisdom, which is actually folly, it will eventually lead to death- a life lived apart from God for ever. Whereas to accept and live by God’s wisdom is life. Choose your path and walk in it.

3) Wisdom: Where it comes from (V 7)

Which brings us to our final point, and that is to see where wisdom comes from. And again it’s something we’ve hinted at all the way, but verse 7 makes it crystal clear: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline." Or as chapter 9 v 10 puts it, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. True wisdom begins when we bow the knee before the living God and start living his way. To fear the Lord means not to be afraid of him, but to stand in awe of him and understand that he is the living God who demands our very lives. True wisdom is to recognise this God and to live his way. That is the best way to live and the only wise way to live.

Now of course we know that we cannot live perfect lives, we cannot live his way all the time. Which is why we must finish by bowing the knee before the wise one, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because he is for us the wisdom of God. In him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found. In him we find one who has died our death on the cross, paid our price. Allowed us to be forgiven so we can live the way of wisdom. Given us his Spirit to empower us to live his way. And true wisdom is seen in obeying Jesus’ word. Do you remember how Jesus finished his greatest sermon, the sermon on the mount? "Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock." Which begs the question whether we have done that. And if we have are we continuing to go the way of wisdom, living God’s way and not the way of fools. "For the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but fools despise wisdom and discipline."

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