I recently came across a true story about a Victorian preacher. On one occasion he had his sermon notes upside down, and on another, they were written on the back of an envelope and consisted of just one word. And unless you know the story you'll never guess what it was – so I'll tell you – it was the word 'FOG'! Now, I wonder, did that describe the response of the congregation to his preaching? Or was it a reminder for him to preach clearly to dispel the fog! I leave it up to you to decide which it was! And this morning - at the end of this sermon - do tell me whether or not I've managed to dispel the fog as we look at Proverbs 3! Many of you will have seen 'The Railway Children' (the 1970 version). At the end of the film is the memorable scene when Bobby (played by Jennifer Agutter) was waiting on the platform. The train had just pulled in and the steam enveloped everything; until it gradually cleared and a familiar figure appeared. And on recognising him, Bobby ran towards him and cried 'Daddy, my daddy'. What an emotional and weepy end to the film! A memorable Kleenex moment!
Reading the book of Proverbs can be a bit like FOG – seemingly impossible to penetrate. Or like the steam in that film sequence. At first, there is obscurity. Then a sense of anticipation. Gradually a recognisable figure emerges. And then our response is – or should be – 'Now at last I can see and understand'. The divine wisdom – the revealed wisdom of the book of Proverbs – reveals to us someone we already know. It points us to the Lord Jesus Christ as the source and embodiment of divine wisdom!
1. Wisdom - the Background
a) Wisdom in the Bible
Before we look at the Old Testament, I want us to look at the New Testament. Immediately after the resurrection, we have two important references to what we call the Old Testament. On the road to Emmaus, the risen Christ referred to "Moses and all the prophets" (Luke 24:27) and then in the upper room he said to the disciples: "Everything written about me in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled" (v.44). The law, the prophets and the writings. That is the threefold division of the Old Testament – the Law (the first five books of divine instruction), the Prophets (the historical and prophetic books) and the writings. The book of Proverbs is part of that third section in the Old Testament. It's one of the so-called wisdom books – alongside Job and Ecclesiastes. Some of the Psalms also reflect that wisdom tradition. And two of the books in the Apocrypha speak about it too – Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon.
b) Wisdom in the Ancient near East
Wisdom is found in the Bible and also in other nations in the ANE - in Egypt, Babylon, Syria and Israel. A Jewish commentator (Robert Gordis) put it like this: 'Wisdom is the least national and the most broadly universal element in the cultural heritage of ancient Israel it is concerned, not so much with the nation but with the individual, his hopes and fears, the pitfalls along the path of daily life, and the qualities he needs for success.' Biblical Wisdom is 'part of the larger pattern of Oriental Wisdom, international in scope, secular in spirit, and practical in application.' In other words 'wisdom' is for living life in the world and not in the ivory tower. Practical and not theoretical. Everywhere its purpose was the same. To pass on the wisdom from one generation to the next. To give insights from personal experience. To provide advice for the individual at home and in society. Here then are wise words from a king to his subjects. From a teacher to his pupils. From a parent to a child. Notice that many of the chapters begin with the words from the father: "My son … listen to what I am saying to you". And we too, need to listen!
c) Wisdom as a person
A thing to notice about the book of Proverbs (particularly in the first nine chapters) is that wisdom is not some abstract concept. Wisdom is personified. Look at Proverbs 8:1: "Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?" And in verse 4 "To you … I call, and my cry is to the children of man."
The book of Proverbs is rooted in the doctrine of creation. Notice the words in Proverbs 8:23: "Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth, when there were no depths I was brought forth …". Before creation wisdom, divine wisdom, was present as an identity. This is touched on briefly in Proverbs 3:19-20: "The Lord by wisdom founded the earth: by understanding he established the heavens." Divine wisdom – heavenly wisdom - points us to the creator God – whom we acknowledge as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is the embodiment of divine wisdom. In him wisdom is personified.
2. Wisdom – a Personal Response (3:13-18, 21-26)
Verse 13 begins with an Old Testament beatitude – "Blessed is the one who finds wisdom". And that blessedness is mentioned twice more in verses 18 and 33. Progressively, Wisdom is hidden, searched for and then found (Proverbs 2:4).
And what does 'blessed' actually mean? Blessed means happiness and well-being. And those who are blessed are happy, joyful people. We could say: 'O how happy are those who find wisdom.' As God makes himself known there are two responses. The wise respond to him and submit to him. But the foolish deny him and ignore him. The book of Proverbs highlights these two responses. One is positive. The other is negative. One is wise. The other is foolish (v.35). Remember that the Psalmist tells us: "It is the fool who says in his heart 'There is no God'" (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). The fool is the god-denier. The person who ignores him. Who turns his back on him and rejects him. Or, putting it in another way, the response is presented as a choice. And you and I have to make that choice. Psalm 1 also begins with an Old Testament beatitude – "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked … but his delight is in the instruction of the Lord." We are also familiar with the two ways in the teaching of Jesus. He spoke about the broad way and the narrow way (Matthew 13:14). Of a house built on the sand and a house built on the rock. In these proverbial stories, Jesus is the teacher of divine wisdom. In his stories he echoes the wisdom tradition of his fellow Jews.
And what exactly is 'wisdom'? The key that unlocks the book of Proverbs is found in 1:7 and in 9:10. 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom'. But what sort of God is a God whom we fear? It's not an irrational fear – a fear of spiders or snakes or walking through a cemetery at night – but awe – of reverential, humble, obedience. It's a holy fear that takes God seriously. It acknowledges who he is. In humility bowing down before him. Worshipping him. Wisdom means walking with God.
This is the base-line for the book of Proverbs. That is the assumption that is being made. The believer is one who has been touched by the love of God and who responds to that divine embrace. The sinner has been captivated by the Saviour's love and mercy and forgiveness. In the first twelve verses of Proverbs 3 it speaks about trusting in the LORD and acknowledging him. Does that, I wonder, describe you? For unless you do you will never understand the book of Proverbs.
And what is the nature of our relationship with God? Is it a take it or leave it – do what I like – go my own way – sort of relationship? Putting self before God? Ignoring his grace and mercy? No, of course not. Think of it more in terms of what is said in verses14 to 15. True wisdom is greater than gold or silver or precious stones. Personal income is important, and the generation of capital is a significant part of our society. But these things will pass away. They are not long-lasting. But finding divine wisdom, and knowing the value of divine wisdom is of eternal significance. Jesus told two stories – two proverbs – about the Kingdom of God – of a man who bought a field (to secure the treasure he had found), and of a merchant (on finding a valuable pearl) sold all that he had (Mattew 13:44-45). Have you yet discovered the meaning of true wisdom?
Most of you here today already know these things. You have already found the truth and know and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. The one who is the embodiment of divine wisdom. The one who is the teacher of divine wisdom. But you may be someone who is still searching for the meaning of life, for the knowledge of God, longing for a sense of inward peace and purpose for living. If that is you, then could I encourage you to look to the one who embodies the living wisdom of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Look to him. Trust in him. Believe in him. Commit your life to him.
3. Wisdom – a Social Obligation
If you are a person who has found true wisdom in Christ, there are rich rewards. Look at verses 21 to 27. Wisdom is described as life for the soul. Your way is secure. You have no cause to fear. You have confidence in the Lord who has saved you. The true believer is eternally secure in Christ. Not in any arrogant, proud, boastful way, but in terms of receiving with a thankful heart all that the LORD has given you – new life – a purpose in living – and eternal hope.
Personal faith in God is important. Each one of us must respond to God through faith in Christ. Each one of us will be accountable to God for the lives we've lived; for our stewardship of all that he has given to us. But personal faith in God is never meant to be simply private pietism. John Wesley was right when he said that to turn religion into a private matter was the sure way to destroy it.
There are many wider obligations for us as Christians. For no man is an island, and we are all part of a wider society that includes the wise and the foolish, the believer and the unbeliever. From time to time we've thought about our 'Frontlines' – those contacts and opportunities that are unique to each one of us. To the neighbour. To the local shop-keeper. To the colleagues at work. To the people whom we serve in the community. As Christians we are to make a stand for Christ in the public square – whether in our immediate neighbourhood and city or in the life of the nation.
The writer of the book of Proverbs tells us how we should relate to other people. He puts it in terms of five negatives (vv.27-32). Here is some practical, proverbial wisdom that is simple and profound and challenging.
Don't hold back from doing good.
Don't make promises you can't keep.
Don't plot evil against other people.
Don't get involved in pointless arguments.
Don't pursue violence.
Here is the practical wisdom of the wise in a world where the foolish are in the majority. The proverbial wisdom of Jesus also highlights our place in society and our witness to unbelievers. He said that we are to be "the salt of the earth", and "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:13-14). The book of Proverbs challenges our attitudes, our thinking and our behaviour. And we must be willing to examine ourselves in our motives and actions as we seek to follow the LORD in our daily lives. The believer is to live a godly, righteous and holy life of humble service. Of being an icon that reflects the love of God to a fallen world. Pointing not to ourselves – but to Jesus.
At the end of the chapter, we return again to the contrast between the righteous and the unrighteous. The wise and the foolish. The believer and the unbeliever. And if you are prepared to think about it, there is only one way to go. For who but a fool would reject the love of God, and the mercy of God that we find in the wisdom of God embodied in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ?