The cash value of the covenant - Proverbs 18
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Have you ever come across the ‘Yellow Pages’ approach to the Bible? What I mean by that is the desire by some Christians, often new Christians, to treat the Bible as if it were some kind of celestial yellow pages. So just as when you have a problem at home with a leaky tap which you need fixing, you turn to the yellow pages directory, letting your fingers do the walking to find a plumber who can come and fix it and lo and behold six months later he is free to take on the task, so when as a Christian you are facing a difficult situation, maybe having to make some major decision in your life and you are not sure what to do, you turn to the Bible in the hope of finding a passage or verse which will come to the rescue and give you the ready made answer. But it is not long before the frustrations and disillusionments set in as you discover that the Bible doesn’t quite work like that. You will be aware that when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and met them at Sinai, through Moses he gave them a law, summarised in the ten commandments to enable them to live together in a new society in a way which would be marked by harmony and justice and which would testify to the surrounding nations that there is only one God in the universe and his name is Yahweh- the LORD. And as you read that law in Exodus and Leviticus, and the way it is expounded in Deuteronomy, you may be tempted to think to yourself, ‘This is pretty comprehensive. Every area of life is covered from social ethics to personal hygiene, from public worship to private devotion. This has got everything more or less taped.’ But you would be wrong. Sure there is plenty of detail there. But there are also plenty of gaps. There is lots of room for interpretation and application whereby you have to use your mind to think through how some of these laws or moral principles are to be worked out in the nitty gritty of day to day life. Now to help us navigate such unchartered waters of life, we have wisdom literature- proverbs. Not always coming in the form of does and don’ts, but examples- good and bad, the sort of things to do and the sort of things to avoid. And that is what we find going on here in Proverbs 18. We have a mixed bag of proverbs which are meant to enable a child of God to think and act like one. Now as you cast your eye over this chapter your immediate thought might be: ‘But there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to this, there is no clear order, it is all rather messy.’ And you would be right. But when you think about it, that is what life is like- messy. People and events don’t come to us in any clear predictable order; we can be doing one thing one minute- like changing a baby’s nappy, and something quite different the next- attending a friend’s funeral. So the apparent haphazard nature of these proverbs is itself a testimony to the fact that they are down to earth dealing with life as we know it. In short, this is the cash value of the covenant, what it means to live as a Christian in God’s good but broken, messed up world. However, there are certain common themes which group the different proverbs together in this passage, certain questions which the proverbs raises with us to make sure that we are walking on the right path.
The first question that is raised is: how redeemed is your rushing? Here we focus on verses 1-13 and 15- 17. The common element in these verses is the pressure to get things done now: to act now, to speak now, to have it now. These are words for the kind of person who wants things done yesterday. Perhaps that’s you or at least it is someone you know and to be honest they are driving you nuts. So is your rushing redeemed? Is it godly or in the rush are some folk getting trampled in a crush? Now these proverbs point out that there is more than one downside when you approach life like that.
In the first instance that is not the way to safety –v1, ‘An unfriendly man pursues selfish ends; he defies all sound judgment.’ So what is that all about? Well, he is talking about someone who knows what he wants- ‘pursuing selfish ends’ and is so intent of getting it that he doesn’t want to come into contact with counter arguments which might cause him to change his mind. So what does he do? Well, he isolates himself by becoming unfriendly, his unfriendliness is a defence mechanism, a means of keeping people at a distance who might say things he doesn’t want to hear and so ‘defying sound judgment’. You have met people like this. Their mind is made up and they don’t want to be confused with the facts. No matter what you say, they are not going to listen, they want to get on with achieving their particular goals, no matter how foolish and detrimental and so they keep themselves to themselves. They are not necessarily rude to you, but they are standoffish. And this can easily translate into the life of a professing believer and is one of the reasons why some people start skipping church. Perhaps they are backsliding- their relationship with God has cooled- they find themselves happier in the public bar than public worship. Maybe they have slipped in the area of sexual purity or started a relationship with a non-Christian and they know that if they go to the Bible study or go to church, then they will be challenged. So they find all sorts of excuses not to go- ‘The people are unfriendly, the worship is dull, I have other commitments at home’ And yet if they do care to come through the church doors they give off the vibes- ‘don’t get too close’. That is the sort of thing the writer has in mind. Well, defying wisdom of Christian friends and the ministry of God’s Word has its consequences, not least the devil lulling us into a spiritual slumber. Not listening to sound advice is not the way to safety.
Neither is it the way to clarity- v 2 and 13 ‘A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.’ ‘He who answers before listening that is his folly and his shame.’ This is the person who just loves the sound of his own voice, who is keen on you seeking his opinion and being quick to give it. They are in such a hurry for you to know what they think. So this is the man or woman who loves the discussion group as being much more preferable to a Bible study where God gives his views, for then they can give their views. They can’t wait to show off what they know and who they know. There is no pleasure in gaining understanding, that is not why he is there, the pleasure comes from pumping up his ego by letting you know how clever he is, how well read he is, how he is the one who has got it all sussed and isn’t he great! The same idea is there in verse 13. Again you have met them. Before you have finished your sentence in they cut with the answer and you are left feeling unimportant and deflated. They couldn’t even be bothered to listen before the offer of the quick fix. Again this is all very sad, for the person, the Christian, who has got into this habit far from appearing knowledgeable, soon reveals how little they do know. At some point, often early on their ignorance on a subject soon becomes apparent, and they try to cover up for their ignorance by engaging in bluster. But you and I know that it is all a front because you have to ask why do they feel the need to impress you with their opinion? The answer; because underneath all the bluster they are really quite insecure. And here too is a downside. For not only does the person achieve the exact opposite of what they are hoping to achieve by giving their views- admiration, they can never get to the heart of an issue, there is no clarity. What is needed to solve issues is being conversant with the facts-that leads to understanding. But if you never stop to listen because you are too busy giving your opinion, then you are never going to grow in knowledge and pretty soon people will be giving you a wide berth.
Neither is this unredeemed rushing the way to wisdom v15-16- v15 The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out. The idea in verse 15 is that wisdom is a process which requires time and effort. Wisdom cannot be microwaved. But so often in the Christian life that is the way we see it. We want wisdom now and we are not too keen in working for it. But did you know that that is precisely what Jesus had to do? In Luke 2: 52 we read of the boy Jesus that he ‘grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and men.’ This is God incarnate we are talking about. But as man Jesus did not shortcut the wisdom process by simply taping in to his pre-incarnate divine knowledge. He ‘grew in wisdom’ he asked hard questions and worked hard to get the answers, as he was doing here in the temple. He studied the Scriptures long and hard, he memorised them, he meditated upon them, he wrestled with them, so that when he embarked upon his public ministry he was ready. And you know, if you are to grow as a Christian you cannot take any shortcuts either. Sure, we are to read the Bible, but do Christians read books any more or listen to tapes and CDs of talks?
However, there is a faster way to get on in life-v 16. 16A gift opens the way for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great.’ So if you don’t want the effort and sweat which lead to wisdom, there is another way which is easier leading to power and status- buy you way. Now the writer is not commending that we offer bribes or grease the palm, he is simply observing that is what can happen. But he is contrasting it with what has gone before- wisdom which is won the hard way and prestige gained the easy way. But you know, in order to get to the top quick and fast people can offer all sorts of gifts other than money. They may offer flattery, they may compromise their beliefs and behaviour- broaden out a little so they will be well thought of and climb up the greasy pole faster than those who are so narrow and cling to principles- the Bible-that certainly happens in the Church of England.
Neither is rushing the way to accuracy v17The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.’ I am sure we have all been there. Someone comes along and tells you something that has happened to them and you think, ‘Goodness me, that is rough. How terrible. This is an open and shut case.’ But then you meet the other person involved and hear a different side of the story and then you realise things are not as straight forward as they first of all appeared. Hold back on your judgement, don’t rush it. So is your rushing redeemed? Can you be a Christian without getting high blood pressure, being content waiting for an answer rather than having it all sorted today? Even Jesus, remember, did not rise from the dead until the third day!
Secondly is your security sound v10-11? There are two sources of security which are being contrasted. One is real, the other apparent. The real security is there in v10 ‘The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.’ The picture is of a besieged city of which the walls have been breached by the enemy and so the inhabitants take refuge in a tower which forms a redoubt, a haven. Now, says our writer, Yahweh’s name is the stronghold of the righteous. That is God himself, all that his name stands for stands between you and those who would hurt you. And what does that name stand for? It is ‘Yahweh’ which could be rendered ‘I AM’ but also ‘I will be whatever I need to be for you’. This is the one whose power is inexhaustible, whose wisdom is inscrutable and whose love is totally dependable. It is the phalanx of this name which will ensure that you will make it safe and sound from this world to the next- the name we now know as Jesus.
But there is another form of apparent security which the majority of our fellow countrymen and not a few Christians are relying on- money-v11, ‘The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it an unscalable wall. ‘This is evidenced in so many ways isn’t it?- the queue of cars on a Sunday at Homebase investing in our homes; the desire for more and more easy credit. But it is hardly an unscalable wall, it only imaginary- as property values fall into negative equity, as Northern Rock teeters on the brink and we feel the credit crunch. Why do we do it? Well because it gives us the illusion that we are in control and we would rather live with that illusion than face the reality that it is God who is in control. And so there may be more of a hint of the real problem in v 12, ‘Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud, but humility comes before honour.’. ‘Blessed are the meek’, says Jesus, ‘for they will inherit the earth’. But when we have our goods and our gadgets, that is when we can become proud- ‘Look at what I have got, I am cushioned against all that life may bring’- and that is when there is the heart attack. So, is your security sound?
The next question: is your hope hopeless? –verses 8, 14, 18 and 19. Here we have situations which from a human point of view seem very difficult to reverse, where there is little hope of recovery because things have simply gone too far. Like what? Well, like words verse 8 ‘The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts.’ He has already touched on the subject of words in verses 6 and 7 but in verse 8 he zooms in on the subject of gossip, that tasty titbit or innuendo about someone which we take in and savour like some delicious delicacy until it becomes part of us, changing us. And even when you may later discover that what has been said about that person isn’t true, the fact is your view of them has been altered, you can never think of them in the same light ever again, there is always the nagging suspicion. In other words the damage has been done, the reputation has been maligned, words just come out and they can’t be taken back in again- it’s the toothpaste effect, once it is out of the tube-that is it, no matter how hard you try it can’t be put back in. It is hopeless.
Another apparently hopeless situation is painted for us in verse 14 where it is hard to reverse-despair v 14 ‘A man's spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?’ Do you see what he is saying? That an attitude can make a real difference for good or ill. There are those people who have such a positive approach to life, Pollyannas who like the little bunny charged up with the long life battery can just keep on going, seemingly, no matter what. So that kind of spirit will sustain you even in sickness, when the body is crushed. But what of those whose spirit is crushed? Well, there everything is flat, there is no vitality, how can it bear anything? The answer is that it often can’t. You sometimes see this when a spouse of many years of marriage dies. The one left has all the stuffing knocked out of them, there seems little point in going on because the one they have loved and lived for, for so long is no longer there. It happens.
There can also be hopelessness in relationships- v18 and 19 , v18 ‘Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart’ The idea is that you have two powerful adversaries locked in dispute and no one is yielding. But then the lot is cast- as we would say –it is agreed that heads one wins, tails it is the other, then there might be some hope in getting things settled. But in v 19 we have a different situation, ‘An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city, and disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.’ In other words, there are those close to us, like a brother, who when we get into a dispute are more or less impossible to reach a resolution with. They dig their heels in and there is no budging at all. This is how family feuds begin which can last generations. And this can happen with Christians. I know of two well know and influential Christian leaders in America, great preachers in their own right, who theologically are totally one, but who over something that happened years ago will not be in the same room together. People have tried to reconcile them-how they have tried-but to no avail. That is ugly and sad-but it happens-v19. So what is the point of these sayings about hope which is hopeless? Is it just that he is preparing us for what life can be like in this fallen world-even amongst Christians so that we don’t give up or give in to cynicism? In part it may be that. But may it not be that he is flagging these things up so that we take preventative measures? So don’t look for gossip and certainly don’t peddle it. Try and cultivate a joyful spirit from an early age, don’t become whiney and self-pitying- think on the goodness of the Lord rather than the bad hand you feel he has dealt you. And get disputes sorted out at an early stage before they degenerate into trench warfare- tossing a coin to sort things out if necessary. So, is your hope hopeless?
Finally and more briefly, are your friends faithful? vv 22-24. That is clearly the subject of verse 24, ‘A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother’, but also as we shall see verse 23 and I think it is included in v 22 about marriage, ‘He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favour from the LORD.’ It is a good thing to have a wife in that one of the chief benefits is that here is a friendship. This is something we can so take for granted that we miss it. I often say to Heather my wife- ‘You are my best friend and the best friend I have ever had’ and I really do mean it. She has stuck by me through things when many a friend would have given up. She has given me advice often which has simply been invaluable. I enjoy her company- that is finding favour in the Lord. Contrast that with verse 23- ‘A poor man pleads for mercy, but a rich man answers harshly’ Here we see how economics plays a role in friendship. If you are rich then it will be from amongst the rich that you will look for your friends and speak roughly to those who are not of your class-namely the poor. And one sees that too in Christian circles where there may not be so much a speaking harshly to a fellow Christian who has not been to the same school as you have or who speaks with the same accent as you do, but there is that patronising attitude- a certain sort of friendliness but it is strained and superficial and real friendship is reserved for their own type. Of course there can be a reverse snobbery too. Whereas in v 24 a contrast is being made between having lots of companions, but whose friendship is superficial and comes at a price. This is where you can only belong to a group or a gang if you share the same vices, but which when push comes to shove will drop you in an instant when trouble comes your way. Has that happened to you? But what is so valuable is that one friend, just the one who will stick by you closer than a brother. If you have someone like that they are gold. Better still be one.
But some of us may feel that we don’t have such a friend, plenty of acquaintances maybe, even Christian ones, but no real, deep friend. But that is where we would be wrong: ‘Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.’ That is Jesus speaking. You see because of him we need not be frantic in rushing since he is sovereign over every twist and turn of our lives; we can have a security which is sound for his blood has sealed our fate for eternity; we have a hope which is not hopeless because he has conquered death and we have a friend who is faithful because he reigns and is with us by His Spirit.
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