One of the most catchy pop songs from recent years is Lukas Graham's '7 years'. "Once I was seven years old…" Yes, you know the one! During the song, Lukas Graham takes us on a journey through his life past, present, future – and then back to the past:
"Once I was seven years old my momma told me
Go make yourself some friends or you'll be lonely
Once I was seven years old…
Once I was eleven years old my daddy told me
Go get yourself a wife or you'll be lonely
Once I was eleven years old…
Once I was twenty years old, my story got told…
Soon I'll be sixty years old, my daddy got sixty-one…
Once I was seven years old, momma told me
Go make yourself some friends or you'll be lonely
Once I was seven years old."
There are several themes which flow out of this song. There's the hunger for relationships in the cold modern world. And the fear of loneliness. There's the transitory nature of life. Life is like watching a film which is being played out before our eyes. But we also see particularly the power of words from parents in a child's life. These words from Lukas Graham's Mum and Dad stick in his mind. They affect the course of his life.
Well here in Proverbs chapter 3, we have the words of God himself communicated through a father teaching his son how to live life. Will they stick in our minds? Will they affect the course of our lives?
Turn with me, if you would, to Proverbs chapter 3. Just before we get going, we need to answer some questions about the Book of Proverbs as a whole. Who is the 'father' and who is the 'son' in Proverbs 3? How do we interpret the book of Proverbs? How does it speak to Christians? Well, as Christians, we can read Proverbs on four different levels…
On one level, Proverbs is an education manual for Christian parents. It's God's wisdom for Christian parents, so we can teach our children to live God's way, just as God's Old Testament people did. So, parents, Proverbs is a good book to be reading with your children.
On another level, Proverbs is a wisdom book for all Christians. We see this in Hebrews 12:5-6. The writer writes to other Christians:
"And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?"
What is this "exhortation that addresses them as sons"? Well, the writer to the Hebrews moves on to quote Proverbs 3:11-12. He says that Proverbs 3:11-12 applies to them as Christian believers directly. So Christians today are "sons". We can put ourselves in the shoes of the "son" in Proverbs 3 and read God's wisdom for us today.
On another level, Proverbs points out the disobedience of Israel. In Exodus 4:22-23 and Hosea 11:1, God calls Israel, his Old Testament people, his son, whom he rescued from Egypt. Yet Israel was a disobedient son. Always turning away from God's wisdom, not trusting his leading, not honouring him. Time and again.
Finally, Proverbs points forward to the obedience of Jesus. Luke 2:52 picks up on Proverbs 3:4. Luke writes of Jesus growing up:
"And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature[h] and in favour with God and man."
Jesus has always been God's Son. When he lived on earth as a human, unlike Israel, he never forgot his Father's teaching or turned away from his commands. He perfectly lived out God's wisdom. And because of Jesus we can approach God as our Father. Jesus lived a perfectly wise life in our place. He died in our place, taking the punishment we deserve for our foolish disobedience. And so, if we believe in Jesus, we become God's adopted children – his sons.
Keep that in mind as we read through Proverbs 3 together this morning – and if you are reading through the book on your own.
I've got two points this morning. I'm going to follow the 'boundary markers' of the first appeal to "my son" in verse 1 and the second appeal to "my son" in verse 11.
1. Live God's way to enjoy his blessings (v.1-10)
My first point is this: live God's way to enjoy his blessings. v.1-10
- Live God's way...
If you put the father's words here next to songs like '7 Years', or books about how to be successful in life today – and you do a 'spot the difference' – you'll find the big difference is their God-centredness.
Firstly, the father is saying negatively: stop thinking you know better!
v.1 – don't forget my teaching
v.3 – don't let God's promises go
v.5 – don't trust your own wisdom
v.7 – don't think you're already wise
Secondly, he is saying positively: start trusting God knows best! And notice how God-centred his vision is here.
v.1- keep God's commands
v.3 – hold on to God's promises
v.5 – trust God with all your heart
v.6 – acknowledge the Lord
v.7 – fear the Lord
v.9 – honour the Lord
This father's greatest desire was simply for his son to live life in relationship with God, trusting his wisdom.
We can certainly glean helpful advice from people who don't know God as they make shrewd observations about how life works in our world, but we won't find an overarching coherent vision for living a truly wise life. Because the message of Proverbs is that wisdom comes from relationship with God himself.
Perhaps you think this all sounds a bit abstract, so let me give you examples of how God's wisdom clashes with our secular wisdom.
Firstly, parenting. The secular viewpoint is that children are good deep down, but ignorant. So they need education and warning about unhelpful influences, but not really discipline as such. The biblical viewpoint is that children are a wonderful gift from God, but ignorant and not good deep down (they are automatically disobedient at times!), so they need love, education, warnings and discipline.
Secondly, anger. Secular wisdom encourages us to let off steam in an argument if someone offends us, to make our voice heard. Biblical wisdom urges us to be slow to anger, to avoid quarrelling and to stop quarrels quickly if they get started.
Thirdly, money. Secularism says that money is what we have earned by our hard work and it gives enjoyment now and security for the future. The Bible's view is that money is a blessing from God to be enjoyed, but it comes with a spiritual health warning. It can make us arrogant. It can only provide limited security. It can't save us from hell. And it comes with a responsibility to steward it generously.
But the challenge from the father Proverbs 3 is not really: 'Son, don't listen to the voice of secularism. Listen to God.'
No, the father knows the problem is deeper than that. Foolishness comes from within us. We are reluctant to listen to God's wisdom. As Christians, we need to recognise that while we might be doctrinally evangelical, we are often functionally secular in certain areas of our lives. Maybe with our parenting, our anger and our money – or maybe with our speech, our work and our friendships.
That's why we need to digest the father's words to his son in v.5-7:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil."
- to enjoy God's blessings
But the father doesn't just plead with his son to live God's way. He gives him motivations. He appeals to him to live God's way in order to enjoy God's blessings.
And here they are: v.2 – long life, v.4 – success, v.6 – straight paths, v.8 – good health v.10 – prosperity
Now at this point perhaps your 'heresy alarm' is going off? Is this 'prosperity gospel', you might be thinking? Is God promising health and wealth on earth for those who follow him?
We need to remember where we are in salvation history. At this stage of the Old Testament, the picture of God's blessings is more material and tied to life in the promised land; the idea of more spiritual blessings and a new creation only emerges in the prophets. And even at this time in salvation history, there was not a totally neat relationship between obedience to God and blessing from God. Sometimes those who ignored God and didn't live wisely did enjoy prosperity. Think of Psalm 73 where Asaph envies the arrogant who have an easy life which he doesn't have. And sometimes those who feared God and lived wisely did not enjoy prosperity. I think of Job 2 where the blameless Job who did fear God and rejected evil suffered horrific illness and isolation.
Yet, generally, says the father, living God's way brings God's blessing.
As a family we enjoy watching Masterchef. Perhaps you do too?! The episodes we find most entertaining are the 'team challenges' where the Masterchef cooks divide into two teams and have to do the equivalent of a large Parish Lunch for 100 factory workers. In Masterchef team challenges, the 'voice of wisdom' comes from John Torode and Greg Wallace!! But will the teams listen? Some teams are over-confident. They don't listen to the advice of John and Greg. So more often than not, the team produces undercooked and under-seasoned ratatouille. Other teams are hard-working and organised. But they are keen to hear John and Greg's input. They take on board suggestions, react to warnings and produce tasty beef stroganoff on time. It's not an absolute rule. There are exceptions. But the principle stands: 'This is how life works in the Masterchef kitchen. Listen to John and Greg and you'll produce good food on time.'
Similarly, Proverbs 3 is saying: 'This is how life generally works in God's world. Live God's way and you'll enjoy God's blessings.'
2. Welcome God's discipline to grow in holiness (v.11-12)
My second point is this. Welcome God's discipline to grow in holiness.
"My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights."
These two verses bring us to a big question: if we believe that, generally, to live God's way brings God's blessing, how do we view the disappointments and disasters which he allows us to face?
Hebrews 12:5-6 quotes Proverbs 3:11-12. Then the writer to the Hebrews says this:
"It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness."
Recently I met up with a Christian friend who had just bought a nice new kitchen, ready for him and his family to enjoy for years to come. Shortly afterwards, guess what? The kitchen tap pipe had a leak.
The kitchen and the whole downstairs of the house flooded! This resulted in enormous disruption, inconvenience and hassle. Dozens of phone calls to builders and the insurance company. Furniture being dumped temporarily in other parts of the house. After having surveyed the damage, I asked him:
"God allowed all this to happen. What do think God is teaching you through all this?" He said: "Patience." If I'm honest it felt a bit weird for me to ask the question. Because for us Christians living in the UK, this is a neglected area of discipleship.
Let's just think about this a moment. When we meet in our small groups and share our struggles, we tend to pray for our trials to end, don't we? That's fine – but how often do we pray to learn lessons from them, I wonder? We talk about means of grace, ways of growing in our faith and we think of personal Bible reading, fellowship, meeting with other Christians, but what about trials? What about persecution, relational conflict, sickness, disaster, unemployment and poverty? Are they not also opportunities for us to grow in our faith?
Now I don't want to be insensitive. I know trials are grim, very grim, horrendous at times. But do you believe Proverbs 3:11-12? Do you know that God is not punishing you in your trials, but he's working to make you more like Jesus? It's so hard to accept this truth when you are suffering – yet such a deep comfort if you will accept it. So will you accept the wisdom of Proverbs 3:11-12 and let it shape the way you see the trials you are facing now?
Let me say more specifically about the sensitive topic of sickness. I know that some of you here today are not well. Maybe you are struggling with depression, or with physical frailty. Or maybe you're aware of others who can't be here because they are not well. Maybe you feel drained yourself because you are caring for a loved one. Sickness and ill-health are painful by itself, but it often leads to the greater emotional pain of isolation (as you suffer alone) and grief (as you see simple things which other people can do and you can't do – or things which you used to do but which you can't do now). Friends, how are you processing your sickness spiritually?
In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, there is a service for the Visitation of the Sick. And it is a helpful corrective for our thinking. After directly quoting Hebrews 12, which I have read out already, the service reads:
"These words, good brother, are written in holy Scripture for our comfort and instruction, that we should patiently, and with thanksgiving, bear our heavenly Father's correction, whensoever by any manner of adversity it shall please his gracious goodness to visit us. And there should be no greater comfort to Christian persons, than to be made like unto Christ, by suffering patiently adversities, troubles, and sicknesses. For he himself went not up to joy, but first he suffered pain; he entered not into his glory before he was crucified."
Friends, if you are suffering now, will you receive your sickness as a visitation from God? Will you receive it – not as a punishment from God, not as bad luck, but as God's loving discipline? Will you ask God to show you how he is growing you spiritually? And if we have friends who are suffering, will we help them to process their sickness in line with Hebrews 12?
Sure, we don't want to be super-spiritual. There is a place to weep with those who weep. There is a place to cook someone a meal. There is a place to listen. But when the time comes to open your mouth, what will you say? Don't be so afraid of being like Job's comforters that you say nothing spiritual at all!
At the right time, you could ask your friend: 'How is our Father lovingly disciplining you through your sickness to make you more like Jesus?'
And when you pray for them, yes, pray for God to sustain them and provide for them, but pray for their holiness too – for them to grow in patience – and compassion for others – and in longing for heaven.
If you're not Christian here this morning, it's great to have you with us. I don't know what suffering you are facing right now. But could it be that God is allowing pain to enter your life, so that you might turn back to him for the first time? You wouldn't be the first. Open up communication channels with God. Read about Jesus. And learn how to live a truly wise life in relationship with him.