Peace, peace and more peace - Proverbs 3:1-12

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 13th April 2008.

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The 1960’s was the heyday of Westerns on TV. Programmes like Wagon Train, Bonanza, Rawhide ensured that little boys like me were glued to the Telly night after night. But one of my all time favourites was a show called Maverick starring James Garner, later to be remade into a film with Mel Gibson. Well, Maverick was the first TV comedy Western which centred on the card gambling, fast talking Maverick brothers. And often on the programme the Maverick boys would recount the advice of their father, whom they always called pappy. And so developed what came to be known as ‘Pappyisms’ For example, ‘My old pappy would say, if ever you see trouble coming, turn tail and run.’ Or ‘As my old Pappy said, Never cry over spilt milk, it could have been whisky.’ Or, one of my favourites, ‘A coward dies a thousand times. A brave man dies just once. A thousand to one is pretty good odds." Pithy one liners from a father to a son in order to provide guidelines to help his offspring get through life with a view to coming out on top. And when we turn to the book of Proverbs that is pretty much what we find. But these are not just tit bits of worldly wisdom picked up along the way in some haphazard fashion, they are the sayings of a man whose life has been shaped by God. So what is being promoted is not so much the ‘good life’, although it is that, but the ‘God life’ the God -centred, God- directed, the God-driven life for as we are reminded in chapter one it is the ‘fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom’- knowing God and having a healthy respect towards him so that we can get on living in God’s world, God’s way- that is what wisdom is designed to achieve.

So how are we going to go about that? Well, we find out in chapter 3:1-2, ‘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.’

Now the form in which these proverbs come is by way of a father speaking to a son. And the way this guidance is set out in chapter three is that a command is given in the odd verses with the results being worked out in the even verses- ‘do not forget my teaching’- that is the command, and, ‘they will prolong your life many years’ is 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, taken at face value in an over literal sense, we might interpret verses 1-2 as saying- ‘Keep the father’s teachings and 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.’ Although the word which is translated ‘prosperity’ here is ‘shalom’ meaning peace or wholeness, a life which has got it together. Is that the way we are to read these pearls of wisdom? Hardly, because we can think of at least half a dozen examples of people who have kept God’s teaching and commandments and have come to a sticky end with very little to show for it materially- 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.’ When I was in South Africa last I visited a very, very poor black township called Kylesha. Conditions were dire. And in this midst of this township of a couple of million impoverished souls was a large church whose rich pastor rebuked the people for being so poor unlike him with his big house and big car, because they didn’t have enough faith. That is both crass and cruel. What you have to bear in mind when reading proverbs is whether what you are reading 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 follow. Many proverbs are neat one liners, sound bites and so invariably oversimplify things to make a memorable point- that is how sound bites work, that is their strength, but it is also a weakness because life can be a bit 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. And there are basically three ways in which proverbs can be understood. First there are things which are always true such as chapter 11:1 ‘The Lord abhors dishonest scales but accurate weights are his delight.’ God never, ever approves of swindlers-that is easy enough. Second, there are things which are ultimately true- take chapter 10:30, ‘The righteous will never be uprooted, but the wicked will not remain in the land.’ That is true but it won’t necessarily happen by next Thursday, but it will happen eventually. Then there are those things which are typically true- 12:25, ‘An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.’ That doesn’t always work of course, but by and large it is a good thing to do and often works.

And so in chapter 3 verse 1-2, it is always right to keep God’s commands. It is typically true that someone who walks God ways will have a wholesome life, a life of shalom, and it certainly is ultimately true because the end result is eternal life, living with God for ever.

So how do we go about pursuing this life of peace? 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- life.

First, take on 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 asked to see God’s glory, but what God gave him was a revelation of his character, the kind of God we are dealing with as 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 you might do to me.’ It is a word which appears over 246 times in the OT, over half appearing in the Psalms. As someone has said, ‘this is love with Velcro on it.’ It sticks to you and cannot be shaken off. 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, he cannot go back on his promises and so is changeless. That is what God is like towards us. We turn our backs on him, but he never turns his face away from us. We break our promises, he keeps his. You can call it integrity if you like, so that with the Lord what you see is what you get, there is no question of being one thing one day to someone and different another day to someone else- he is thoroughly consistent. Now, says the father, that is what you are meant to be like. You may never be able to perform miracles like God, but you can and should perform mercies. Your word may not be able to bring a universe into being like God’s Word, but your word should, like God’s word, be relied upon. 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 being this character, so it is not so much something which you carry around your person like a purse which you can discard at will, it is to be engraved upon your heart. Now, do you not think that that is what the Holy Spirit is wanting 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 you could trust him totally? One of the greatest needs in Christian circles today I believe is for people to act on their word and be unfailing in their love. That means love for God, but also love for God’s people-his church, instead of them coming way down on our list of priorities with the attitude, ‘Well, if I have not got anything better to do, I will volunteer my services, I will turn up to be with my brothers and sisters on a Sunday.’ God is not like that and neither should we be. Regardless of our likes and dislikes and what may be in it for us- we stick by each other-that’s the idea. Take on the Lord’s character.

Secondly, a life of peace and prosperity comes by relying on the Lord’s direction- vv 5-8 ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. 7Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. 8This 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? Well, trusting in the LORD with all your heart at least means believing that God knows what he is doing, that his wisdom is the best wisdom and his ways the best ways. Unless you believe that a person claiming to be a doctor knows what he is doing, that he his qualified to do what he is doing, then you would be out of your mind to trust him with a major operation. The trouble is, we sometimes treat God like that and so do not rely upon him with all of our heart. You get this when we come across a passage in Scripture which goes against the grain of our cultural norms. For instance in 1 Timothy 2 when Paul, which I take to be God speaking through the inspired apostle, forbids a woman to hold an authoritative teaching position in the church. Why do we get so hot under the collar with that? We should at least quietly and respectfully ponder such teaching if we believe that God has our best interests at heart and knows what he is doing rather than just dismissing it as out of date. And note what the writer says, we are to ‘trust the Lord’ which is not the same as ‘understand’ 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. This is couples with verse 6, ‘In all your ways acknowledge him’ literally ‘know him.’ You see, there are documents discovered from the Ancient Near East from the time of Moses and afterwards called, ‘Vassal treaties’ that is legal documents drawn up by a conquering King which the conquered King was expected to agree to. And this would include a list of stipulations- does and don’ts- which the vassal or conquered king would be expected to ‘know’ or ‘acknowledge’, that is to submit to what has been agreed. That is what it means here. 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 we take 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- read Proverbs 5 might be an idea. What of your work life- your life at school or the factory? 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 on, not our own, ‘lean not on your own understanding…do not be wise in your own eyes.’ He is not saying don’t think, leave your brains at the door when you come into church and go with your feelings, he is not encouraging 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 can guide the planets in their orbits can guide your life and mine? Do you not think that the one whose laws which govern the seasons has not given us reliable moral laws to govern our life? We have access to only the smallest fraction of information about the world, God has total 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 has decided to go down that route and what have we to show for it? The peaceful , wholesome life of verse 2? One thing which sums up the mood of the nation and the Church, if the truth be known is fear- fear of economic melt down, fear of increased violence, fear of decline. The one fear we should have but which is in short supply, is the fear described in verse 7 ‘fear of the LORD’- fear of upsetting him.

So how do we know if we are really trusting the Lord with all our heart? That question is answered by the next section- gratitude for the Lord’s goodness-vv 9-10, ‘Honour the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; 10 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 that was all you got and the rest of the harvest didn’t come in because of blight or bad weather? Then you would be stuffed. Being wise in your own eyes 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 and his temple, or as we might say today, the Church.’ 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. Most 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. A previous generation of evangelicals did practice the tithe, that is giving a tenth of their income to the Lord’s work. And I think it would not be far of the mark to say that it was that generation of evangelicals that God used mightily in this nation and beyond. Could it be that one of the reasons we are not seeing such blessing today is because we are not carrying out Proverbs 3:9? Why our evangelism in our CU’s is weak and our growth in the Church is slow? And perhaps God is now calling us to get our giving sorted. But 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 the idol of our age. But by giving of our best to God first makes us stand out as distinctive. Giving to the Gospel instead of GAP sends a powerful message to our friends, that 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 gratitude.

Finally, the way of peace means submitting to the Lord’s correction, v11My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, 12because 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 living in la la land. 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 wish it would, 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 or correction. That is our natural reaction isn’t it? We find that things aren’t going the way we planned and instead of asking God, ‘what can I learn from this? What lessons in humility or patience or kindness might you be teaching me through this?’ we resent him and complain about him. I would suggest that it is on this point that many young Christians drop out. They say, ‘I didn’t expect it to be so tough. I thought God would give me what I want-that exam result, that job, that partner. But he hasn’t.’ And so they either drop out altogether or find a fellowship which will tell than what they want to hear, that the Christian life is the feel good life and that will keep them going for some time until reality eventually bites. 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 God’s love- ‘The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.’ Will you notice how 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, v2, there is a father who loves you much more than I and who calls you to a full and prosperous and peaceful life by imitating his character, by relaying on his direction, by enjoying his goodness and by enduring his correction.’

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