The wisdom agenda - Proverbs 6:1-19

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 20th April 2008.

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Franklin D Roosevelt was President of the USA from 1933-1945, the only US President to serve four terms. The story is told of Roosevelt that he often had to endure long receiving lines at the White House and he used to complain that no one really paid any attention to what he said. The people in the lines just mouthed pleasantries to the President, because they were more concerned with flattering the President than listening to what he had to say to them  Well one day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who came down the line and shook his hand, he muttered, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvellous! Keep up the good work, Mr President. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Not reacting in the slightest, the ambassador simply leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming to her, Mr President.”

            Listening, it appears, is a dying art. How many times this week have you heard the phrase: “You’re not listening!” And listening is of course quite different from hearing. It’s perfectly possible to hear what someone is saying, but not to listen to them. To listen is to act on what you are hearing. But a lot of the time words just go in one ear and out the other. But actually far more important is not just listening, but who you listen to. Because the voices we hear and act upon will have a profound effect on our lives. Just think of the different numbers of voices we have heard this week. There’s the voices of our families- spouses, parents, siblings, even children, all clamouring for us to listen to them. There’s the voices of friends, giving us advice on this situation and that. There’s the voices of work colleagues, whose opinions and attitudes we may or may not be influenced by, depending on whether we listen to them. But perhaps most subtly there are the voices of our culture around us, the society in which we live, the media we hear every day in different formats, radio, tv, internet, newspapers, the advertising industry. Those voices especially will frequently tell us messages which are contrary to the word of God. They will tell us of the need to buy more, to change the way we look, to seek self worth and self esteem in our bodies, our clothes, our cars. These voices will tell us to lighten up in terms of morality. The great god TV will at the very least give us mixed messages about how to conduct ourselves sexually, and in our use of our words and actions, in our thinking on ethical issues and the place of Christianity in society. At the worst, such voices are blatantly anti Christian. These, you see, are the voices we hear day in day out. But just occasionally we hear another voice, a voice which is barely audible in this din of competing voices. And the danger is that we do not give this voice the attention it deserves. Because if truth be told this voice is one we hear less than all the other voices. It barely gets a look in apart from on Sundays and the odd few minutes during the week. But it’s the one voice we must listen to. A voice whose message we ignore at our peril. The one voice that is the most important of all. And that voice is the voice of the living God, who has spoken to us in his word the Bible. Who you listen to will have a profound affect on the way you think and act.

            Now when we come to the book of Proverbs, we find that this theme of listening is really at the heart of everything the author wants to say. Because he is putting before us two ways of living. The way of wisdom and the way of folly. God’s way and the world’s way. And one will lead to life and the other to death. And Proverbs, as we have already seen is an intensely practical book. The author wants us to listen to God’s way of wisdom, so we can know how best to live in God’s world. It’s practical wisdom for every day life. And it affects our sex lives, our money, our family life, our work life, everything! And in these first nine chapters that we are looking at together this summer, the writer records for us some fireside chats, between a father and his son. The father is giving his godly practical wisdom to his son. And these first nine chapters lay out the principles of wisdom, and then between chapters 10-31 there are numerous applications of that to every day life. And so far, the wisdom has been very positive. But now in this chapter, the advice takes a different turn. Because now the father will expose the way of folly so his son will not walk in it. He shows his young son three aspects of foolish living which he would be wise to avoid. And for us living many years later, the same lessons apply. Because these are truths about godliness. And the question is whose voice will you trust. The world will tell us that the fool’s way is full of enjoyment and gain. God says such a way will only lead to death. There is a far better way. The way of wisdom. So let’s turn to the father’s wisdom and see what he says about avoiding the way of folly. And he’s going to tackle three very practical issues of every day life.

1) The Fool’s Attitude to Promises (Vv 1-5)

2) The Fool’s Attitude to Time (Vv 6-11)

3) The Fool’s Attitude to People (Vv 12-19)

1) The Fool’s Attitude to Promises (Vv 1-5)

So first then we see the fool’s attitude to promises. And notice first of all what the problem is. Verse 1: “My son, if you have put up security for your neighbour, if you have struck hands in pledge for another, if you have been trapped by what you said, ensnared by the words of your mouth…” So the father imagines a situation where the son has got himself into a spot of bother. What has happened is that the son’s neighbour has come to him and asked him for money, maybe a loan or an underwriting of a project like building a house, or to help finance a debt. And without much thought, the young man has stumped up the cash. He’s a generous soul, but a little naïve. He’s made a pledge with no real thought attached. Has he worked out the finances? Does he know the background of the person he’s lending money to? Has he costed the situation, and wisely thought through all the implications? No- he’s just foolishly leapt in. And the result? Verse 2, “he’s been trapped by what’s said, ensnared by the words of his mouth.” In other words, it’s all gone wrong. He’s placed himself in a very tricky situation he can’t get out of. Maybe the original person to whom the debt was owed has come round with the boys. Maybe the money needed has increased. Maybe the young man himself has realised he can’t finance the deal. Whatever has happened, it is not good and it has led to near ruin. So verse 5 shows how serious things have got. It’s as if the young man is a gazelle being tracked by hunters. The gazelle is cornered and is about to killed. Or like a bird in a net- she’s about to come to a sticky end. That’s what’s about to happen to this young man if he’s not careful!

            So what’s the solution? Verses 3-4: “Then do this, my son, to free yourself, since you have fallen into your neighbour’s hands: Go and humble yourself; press your plea with your neighbour! Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids.” Basically the solution is that he needs to eat some humble pie. He needs to go round to his neighbour and get himself out of the situation. He needs to ask for mercy, before things go even more pear shaped! And in a society which prided itself on keeping your word, then such begging for a release of the contract, even if the contract was the tenth century BC equivalent of a handshake, which all these reference to hands might imply, asking for a release was a big thing! But it’s more important in this instance to get yourself out of a stupid situation than make things worse. And do it quickly! Take action, even if there is some eating of humble pie involved.

            So what’s the lesson? Well surely the obvious lesson is to learn to act quickly when we know we have done something wrong. The rash promise, the quick word. Such things need to be dealt with quickly before they escalate. And it needs to be done even though it will mean we are humbled by the action. Far better to apologise humbly than to allow a situation to worsen and much more harm occur. Humble admission of wrongdoing is surely the wise way, says the father to his son. And that is great wisdom for real life isn’t? How many problems would be quickly solved if we took on board such wisdom. The problem is we are often too proud to quickly and humbly acknowledge our mistake. And we’d prefer to wait to see if we are vindicated or the situation improves so we don’t have to lose face. But godly wisdom dictates that our pride be laid aside and godly humility take over, even if it’s costly to us. We need to act quickly to apologise, to take back a word rashly spoken, to get humbly draw back from foolish promises.

            But surely there is a deeper lesson here, and that is to make sure we do not make such promises rashly. You see the wise and godly person will think carefully before committing themselves to a course of action. In short for the wise and godly person, his or her word should be enough. We should not be known as people who go back on their promises, whose word is not good enough, who cannot be trusted. That is the principle behind this proverb. What did Jesus say? “Let your yes be yes and your no, no.” Be someone who is known for integrity. You do what you say. And then you will not have to go back on your word. Christians are to be known as men and woman of integrity. And again that is very practical isn’t it? What a difference it would make to our evangelistic witness if our friends knew us as people whose word was enough. We say we will be at such and such a place at a certain time, and we are, barring disaster. We say we will perform such and such a task, and do we. We promise to support a person through thick and thin and we are as good as our word. We promise to pray for someone and we do. That’s the sort of integrity the Proverbs demands of those who follow God’s way, the way of wisdom. I wonder if you and I are men and woman whose yes is yes, and no no.

            A while ago I came across a remarkable example of such godly integrity. The story comes from the time of the American slave trade and it’s about a man who had been a slave for a number of years. In those days a law was passed which meant that the slave was allowed to buy himself out of slavery, by paying so much per year for his body; and while he was paying for himself, he was to be permitted to work where and for whom he pleased. Now this slave discovered that he could secure better wages in Ohio, and so he went there. A few years later, the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, which meant that all slaves were freed. It also meant that any remaining debts that slaves owed who were trying to buy themselves out of slavery were written off. So this slave was totally free and officially did not owe a penny to his original slave master. So what should he have done? He should have simply walked away, freed from the debt. But not this slave. Because although free from debt, this slave still felt it was right to pay off the remaining $300 to his original master who lived hundreds of miles away in Virginia. So this man walked all the way back to where his old master lived in Virginia, and placed all $300, plus interest, in his hands. When asked why he felt he had to do this, even though officially freed from the debt, the slave said that he knew that he did not have to pay his debt, but that he had given his word to his master, and he had never once broken his word. He felt that he could not enjoy his freedom till he had fulfilled his promise. You see here is a man who practices the practical wisdom of Proverbs. Who goes the wise way, the way of godliness. A man who is as good as his word. And that’s the first lesson we learn from the father as he warns his son. Don’t have the fool’s attitude to promises. Instead be a man or woman of your word.

 

2) The Fool’s Attitude to Time (Vv 6-11)

But the father’s fireside chat continues, and he warns us secondly of the fool’s attitude to time. And this is seen in verses 6-11 as we are introduced to the sluggard. Now often in Proverbs we find certain characters that the writers come back to, people like the fool or the adulteress and the sluggard. It appears he was a favourite of Solomon. And through the sluggard, Proverbs teaches us some very important lessons on time. All of us have 24 hours in the day and 7 days a week to use either in an ungodly or a godly way. Time is a gift from God as the Bible often reminds us. The apostle Paul tells us that we should redeem the time, or make the most of every opportunity. And I guess most of us lurch between two extremes. Massive overwork and massive under work. Some of us are prone to working every hour God sends us, which is as dangerous and ungodly as laziness. For all of us need to rest and need to make sure we give the right time to our families and God’s people. But for others the problem is under work. Some of us are quite frankly lazy, and fritter away God’s precious gift of time as if it were sand running through our hands. So what’s the best way to use this gift God has given us?

            Well notice how the writer shows us the foolish way to use time. It’s seen in the caricature of the sluggard. If we take in some of the Proverbs’ other teachings about the sluggard, then there are basically three big problems that the sluggard has. First he will not begin things- He’s so lazy that his bed is virtually part of his body. So here in our passage, 6 vv 9-10: “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 arms to rest.” Or 26 v 14: “As a door turns on it’s hinges, so a sluggard turns in his bed.” Of course he never says to himself, I’ll never get up, but he deceives himself by the smallness of his surrenders- he kids himself that he’ll get up in five minutes time. The snooze button is a delightful invention for the sluggard. He’s the perfect procrastinator, always putting things off and saying “I’ll do it later”. And that’s partly because secondly he won’t face things: He makes ridiculous excuses in 26 v 13. He won’t go out because there may be a lion outside, or in 22 v 13 he thinks he’s going to be murdered. Endless excuses never get anything started. And when he does begin things, thirdly he won’t finish things, not even his bowl of Branflakes, 26 v 15: “The sluggard buries himself in his dish. He is too lazy to bring it to his mouth.” It shows he’s totally uncommitted to seeing something through, even breakfast. It’s the “can’t be bothered” attitude which rears its ugly head again and again, even amongst Christians. Now of course there is something amusing about all of this, but the writer’s point is that actually it’s ungodly. It’s folly in Proverbs’ language. Such endless excuses and procrastination and bad use of time are just plain ungodly. So what’s the result? He’s restless. 13 v 4: “The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” He never gets what he wants. He’s helpless. 15 v 19: “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway.” And he’s useless. 10 v 26: “As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a sluggard to those who send him.” Hardly a ringing endorsement is it? And if that is the way we act, then it certainly does nothing to adorn our gospel witness does it? In fact it dishonours the Saviour whose message we carry. And I guess that for some of us this is a real challenge to our use of time. How many of us fritter away hour after hour by spending endless hours oversleeping or simply wasting time watching far too much TV or playing far too much on our Playstations. It’s not that the Bible forbids relaxing. Of course not. But it does warn against self indulgent laziness. We have no handle on our time. And of course laziness will impact others. It will impact our family life because we suddenly find we have no time to give them, because we’ve frittered it away doing other unimportant things. We suddenly have to get something done in a rush and badly because we’ve left it to the last minute. Some of us are very bad at leaving things right to the last. Not because we’re that busy, but because we’ve never sorted out our time management. Well, says the father, if any of us have elements of the sluggard in us, then we are acting foolishly. We need to act quickly and get it sorted out. Because it will only lead to a life of frustration and dissatisfaction. And the real danger is that wasted hours turn into days which turn into years. And all of sudden life has passed us by, simply because we haven’t got our act together. A precious life wasted because we couldn’t be bothered. And surely none of us wants to stand before the Lord and say “sorry Lord I didn’t quite use my life how you wanted, because I was too lazy to do anything”. That’s the warning of the sluggard, the way of folly.

            So instead we need to adopt the wise way, which strangely we see in the life of an ant! It says a lot about the folly of the sluggard that the writer should direct him to small insect, but the writer believes we can learn from nature. So what does this ant have which perhaps we don’t? Well first he has good self discipline. Back to chapter 6 vv 6-7: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler.” Notice that the sluggard is challenged to consider and think. That might be the first problem- he doesn’t ever think! But rethinking is vital before action is to take place. And notice that the ant needs no commander or overseer. It just gets on with what is needed. It’s self disciplined. It can clearly manage it’s own time well. It doesn’t need someone nagging it or pushing it along all the time. Good self discipline is the first step to wise use of time. And notice as well that this ant uses its time well in verse 8: “It stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” The ant does everything the sluggard doesn’t. It doesn’t procrastinate, it doesn’t waste time, it’s not lazy. It plans well knowing that a time is coming when food will be scarce, so it works hard to get ahead. That’s the wise way. Using our God given resource of time to honour the Lord and to serve others. And again such teaching is very practical but essential if we are to honour the Lord in every day life. So in your use of time, how do you score? Wise or foolish? We need to take heed to what the teacher is saying, otherwise we’ll be an ungodly sluggard. And that would be a fool’s attitude to time.

3) The Fool’s Attitude to People (Vv 12-19)

And then finally, the father warns us about the fool’s attitude to people in verses 12-19. And if the father has warned his son about being a fool making rash promises and a sluggard mishandling his time, then now he warns him about being a troublemaker abusing other people. And notice the two ways this trouble maker abuses people. First he does it with his mouth. Verse 12-13: “A scoundrel and villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers.” Proverbs has a lot to say about using words, but it’s very clear on the danger of words. Words can easily hurt and this troublemaker uses words to devastating effect. So verse 14, he’s always stirring up dissention. He’s always stirring the gossip and adding fuel to the fire by words or bitterness or anger or jealousy. Now of course, the writer doesn’t mean to say that tough words cannot be said. He’ll tell us later that tough words from a friend are good. But someone who goes out deliberately to undermine others and uses their tongue for bad effect is a fool. And notice in verse 14 it’s the heart which is the measure of all things. For this person is plotting evil with deceit in his heart. Jesus himself said that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouths speaks. The mouth gives voice to what the heart is thinking. And impure motives and thoughts will always find their way out through the tongue. And notice that an ungodly use of the tongue is something the Lord hates, in verse 16: “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue.” Or again in verse 19: “a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” That’s the sort of thing the Lord hates.

            I wonder how you are I are doing on that score. Are we men and women marked by wagging tongues with corrupt motives, hearts full of evil desires. It’s especially difficult amongst groups of Christians to keep our tongues pure. To feed the fires of gossip, or to take pot shots at people, to forget the blessings we have. Or are we people whose tongues are marked by wisdom, whose motive is to build up rather than bring down. A fool will use his tongue only to deceive and destroy, to get his own way whatever the cost. The wise person will use his tongue to praise, build up, give constructive feedback, glorify God.

            But it’s not just with the tongue that the troublemaker makes trouble. It’s his actions too. So notice what the writer says in verse 16: “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil.” Evil thoughts so easily lead to evil words which again lead to evil actions. And at every point it could be stopped by taking radical action. Cut out the thought, curb the tongue, restrain the hands and feet. But the fool rushes headlong into evil actions, causing pain for everyone around him. It’s self obsession, a desire for gain that abuses others and leaves a trial of destruction. And the end result? Verse 15: “Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed- without remedy.” The fool’s way might look attractive and exciting but ultimately it will end in tears for all concerned.

            Now having looked at these three areas of folly, the rash promising making, the ungodly use of time, the ungodly attitude to other people in words and actions, we might well be tempted to think who is up to the task. These things the father demands of his son are a very tall order. And it would be easy to go away from a passage like this thinking that the writer just wants us to do better, to pull our moral socks up. But the fact is we cannot do better on our own accord. We cannot try harder. For we are weak and corrupt, and our hearts are deceptive above all things. And that is why we need to remember the key truth about wisdom which we discovered back in chapter 1 v 7: That the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge or wisdom. True wisdom, knowing the right way and then walking in it, begins with fearing the Lord. That is submitting our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Only by coming into relationship with God can we begin to live the way God intended. Only by receiving his forgiveness and his Spirit in our lives can we hope to keep our word, use our time, and tame our tongues. And in the power of the Spirit, such godly wisdom as is found in the Proverbs is doable. It is possible to live God’s way because God’s Spirit is within us.

            But ultimately it’s a question of who you and I want to listen to. If we always listen to the world around us, then we will not know which way to go. But if we allow our ears to be tuned to God’s word, if we allow that word to sink deeply into our hearts, then our mouths and actions will be transformed. So as we finish, let me tell you about an old Greek story about a man called Jason who sailed to discover the fabled Golden Fleece with a crew of sailors called the Argonauts. One day they sailed past an island on which were some creatures called Sirens which were half women half beast. But they had beautiful voices and they used to lure passing ships to their island and then kill them. Well Jason knew this danger and as they were passing the island Jason got his best singer Orpheus to sing a song to the crew and play his lyre. And the crew had a choice. To listen to Orpheus’ song and be saved or else to listen to the song of the Sirens and risk jumping overboard to go the island and face certain death. And there are two voices ringing in our ears all the time. God’s voice in His Word, or the voice of the world. One leads to life and the other to death. And if we are on the pathway to life, if we have submitted to Jesus Christ, and begun to fear him, then we will long to avoid the three errors of chapter 6, and adopt the wise way. To be people of our word, to be people using God’s gift of time wisely, and to be people marked by a godly attitude to others in the things we say and do.

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