I wonder how the preachers were matched to the titles in this sermon series. Do they have some particular expertise or insight into the subjects they were given? Pride and Humility (Jonathan Redfearn); Wisdom and Folly (Ian Garrett); Hard Work and Laziness (Ramzi Adcock); Righteousness and Wickedness (David Holloway) and for me Integrity and Dishonesty! I hope that we are not all proud, foolish, lazy, wicked and dishonest – but humble, honest, righteous and wise! Hopefully that should be come evident by the end of the series.
L. P. Hartley's novel ‘The Go Between’ is set in the golden summer of 1900. It's a story about the rich and the poor; of the loss of innocence; and of the unconnected worlds of children and adults. The book begins with the line 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there'. That's certainly true. Life in 1900 was so very different from life in the 1950s and a world away from life today. If 'The past is a foreign country', so too is the book of Proverbs. It's like entering another world. It's certainly unlike any other book in the Bible. When we start to read Proverbs we are in unfamiliar territory; a world away from Luke or Ephesians or Peter. Proverbs is not like reading Isaiah or John or Paul. And because its style is unfamiliar we find Proverbs hard to engage with; and are inclined to ignore it! But since Proverbs is in the Bible, and as 2 Timothy 3 verse 16 says:
all scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.
then we ought to try and uncover some of its secrets; to enter into its world and to respond to its insights and challenges. Here certainly are words for us today!
I want to look at the background to Proverbs before looking in more detail at the theme of honesty illustrated in the example of Agur (in Proverbs.30).
As you know, the Jews divide the Old Testament into three parts – the Law, the prophets and the writings. As Jesus revealed himself to his companions at Emmaus he said in Luke 24:44-45;
Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
And what a fantastic Bible study that must have been! And a useful reminder to us that - The Old Testament points us forward to Jesus! The Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus! We encounter him throughout the Old Testament and sometimes he is veiled and sometimes he is unveiled. Sometimes clear to us, and at other times hidden. In the Law (the first five books in the Bible). In the prophets and the histories. In the sacred writings, the books like Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.
In this third group the Bible writers drew on a common tradition of wisdom that was found throughout the Ancient near East – in Egypt, in Syria, in Israel and in Babylon. This wisdom literature helped to provide a bridge between the neighbouring cultures of the ancient world. And in the Old Testament these sacred writings are the least nationalistic in their outlook. Although they share a common identity with other nations, they did so without compromising their faith in the living God. In that the unfamiliar becomes the familiar. So what then do we make of this book called Proverbs? The key verse (and it’s always worth looking for the key verse of a book), the key verse of Proverbs is 1:7:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…
That sentiment is so important that it’s repeated several times in various forms in Proverbs and also in Job and in Psalm 111. Certainly wisdom is the theme of Proverbs – and godly wisdom is necessary if we are to live an upright, merciful and honest life. Godly wisdom is foundational for the godly believer in living the godly life. We are to be honest with ourselves and honest with our God! That is our quest as we read Proverbs and apply its message to our lives.
In the Bible we are made aware of the contrast between the wise man and the foolish man. We are familiar with these two individuals in the Sermon on the Mount. The wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. But long before Jesus told that story the Old Testament tells us about them. In both Psalms and Proverbs we read of the wise man and the foolish man. Now in the Bible the foolish person isn't a 'Mr Gumby'; or a character from a TV drama or a contestant for the Big Brother House! So what is the identity of the fool? John Calvin refers to a fool as having 'cast off all sense of religion... they have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity... in short, they madly rush into every kind of wickedness [and extinguish] as far as they can, all remembrance of God from their minds.' That sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? It sounds like the people we know, the people we sit next to on the Metro, the people who influence the media, those who teach our children. They have cast off all sense of religion. The fool is the person who denies God, who turns away from him, and who is not subject to him; on the other hand, the wise person is obedient and responds to God, believes in Him, submits to God's rule and orders his life by the word of God. Or put in another way, the fool is an unbeliever and the wise person is a believer. Which are you?
Proverbs gives us the wisdom of the ages and the sages, the words of a father to a son, of a teacher to a pupil, of a master to a servant. Here through a series of questions and answers is the secret to living the godly life. He is the voice of experience that directs the hearer and the reader to live an honest upright life. But here is no developed theology, no ABC of the gospel, but practical tips for the godly believer living in an ungodly world.
Listen to what is said in the book of Proverbs 12:15-19:
The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice. A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult. A faithful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies. Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips endure for ever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Proverbs lays down what one commentator describes as 'the foundation for living the good life'. And whether for the individual, or for the family, or for the community the principles for right living are set out before us. So as we read the book of Proverbs it challenges us, and goads us into answering two simple questions. Am I wise or foolish? (or put it another way - do I believe in God or not?) Do I follow the way of the Lord or the way of the world? (or put it another way - do I follow the way of the Lord or echo the sentiments of the song so popular at funerals 'I did it my way'?) 'The past may be a foreign country', but the teaching of Proverbs still has relevance and application to each one of us today.
The other evening the theme of the radio programme the Moral Maze was that of honesty and dishonesty. The speakers all referred to the cultural shift in today's society and some on the panel attributed this to the collapse of Christian belief and practice. Certainly without any absolutes and certainties it's not surprising that the Christian faith is ignored and that people live as they choose. And since there are no absolutes then they are free to create their own, in the rather scary words of Peter Mandelson, 'Our job is to create the truth'. Now this may have been his honest response, but it’s certainly not a Christian response and is certainly far removed from the outlook of the book of Proverbs. Truth is a given, truth is revealed, truth is found uniquely in Jesus and not made up by man. But how is the Christian to live in such a world; and at such a time as this? Of course there is nothing new in this. For the past 2000 years the individual Christian and the Christian church have been called to be both salt and light; to witness and to testify to the truth of the Gospel. To live an upright, honest and sober life to the glory of God and for the benefit of mankind. This means that for each one of us there are three simple challenges. How can we begin to share the Christian faith with those around us? How distinctive are our lives from those around us? Now the book of Proverbs helps us to begin to answer some of these questions. But we need the NT to give us a sharper focus so that we test all things in the light of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Proverbs provides the backdrop – but centre stage is the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
2 Agur's testimony
In Proverbs 30 we have the sayings of Agur. What comes across is that he is an honest, godly man. Sadly we know next to nothing about him. His name suggests that he wasn't a Jew, but came from northern Arabia. But since we know nothing about him it is foolish for us to speculate. Now there's a sort of dialogue going on here, and it sounds a bit like the discussions between Job and his friends. First, Agur confessed his own ignorance. Though he was a wise man, he made it clear that he lacked divine wisdom. He admitted that, Proverbs 30:2-3:
I am the most ignorant of men ... I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
What an honest confession! Of course unaided he was ignorant; he did lack godly wisdom; he had no knowledge of God. And if that was true of Agur it is certainly true of you and me. Until God in his grace and mercy draws us to himself, opens our eyes and warms our hearts, we cannot enjoy fellowship with him, and we have no spiritual life in us. God takes the initiative and we make the response. We are saved by grace through faith alone and not through baptism or church-membership, or being what we think is a 'nice' person.
In his hymn 'grace acknowledged', A. M. Toplady wrote:
Repentance, holiness and faith,by which to thee we live,
are not conditions we perform,but graces we receive.
And more familiar to us are the words of his hymn (Rock of ages) that he called, 'a living and dying prayer for the holiest believer in the world':
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling, naked come to thee for dress, helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me saviour, or I die.
In other words, 'I am unworthy. I am a sinner. I am saved by grace through faith alone'. The words of that confession must come from our heart-felt response to the Word of Life and prompted by the Spirit of God. Not simply as a matter of theory or intellectual assent, but of a response of the heart to the love of the Saviour. And that response must be an honest response. One commentator says that 'genuine humility is the only path of [true] wisdom.' We need to kneel at the cross before we stand at the empty tomb. To stoop before we stand. To be humbled before we can be exalted. To be honest in our quest and honest in our response. 'Lord open my eyes to the truth as it is in Jesus.'
The words of Agur also convey a sense of mystery and awe. He longs for a fuller revelation of God. He pleads, 'Who is this God?' 'What is his name?' 'Tell me if you know'. He asked the questions and the answer is clear. This God is the creator God (seen in his mighty works) (vv.4). Once hidden but now revealed. And this revelation is made known in two ways. He had revealed himself through his word (v.5). He would reveal himself through his Son (v.4). This divine wisdom, the wisdom from the beginning of time itself (8:23ff) would become known to us in the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. For he is the divine wisdom personified. His identity, his name 'the Lord' was manifest in word and deed. In time he would become known to us as Jesus the Saviour. Agur asked: 'What is his name?' The answer: 'His name is Jesus'.
Agur is a man of integrity, an honest man who was looking for a clear answer to his questions. If you want to have a faith that is true, then at the heart of that faith is the God who has made himself known in and through the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the source of divine wisdom. He is the embodiment of that wisdom. Though Agur confessed his ignorance before God, at the same time, he had a deep spiritual insight. He was both humble and honest. His heart was right with God and his prayer flowed from a right understanding. We are used to lists like '100 places to visit before you die'; or 'ten books you should read this summer'. But what did this wise man ask for? He could have asked for wealth and riches; for power and influence. But his requests were simple and direct; 'short, but comprehensive'. His two questions are in v.7 and the answers are in v.8:
a) Concerning his character.
The first request concerns his character. It’s a prayer for integrity and honesty in being a believer. 'Keep falsehood and lies far from me' (v.8). Keep me honest and true to you. Certainly also for us in terms of how we understand the faith we profess and in how we try to express it. We need to keep falsehood and lies away from our hearts and from our lives. To be honest and transparent in our testimony. We do need to admit when we don't understand and we don't have all the answers. There can be arrogance among Evangelicals that suggest that we have the faith that is all buttoned up and that we have all the answers. But history and experience shows that this is not the case. We need to be honest in expressing both our certainties and also our doubts and our failure to understand. One commentator rightly says that for the believer dishonesty is a besetting temptation.
b) Concerning his daily needs
The second request concerns his daily needs. 'Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread' (v.8). This is echoed in the words of the Lord's Prayer, 'Give us today our daily bread' (Mt. 6:11). This is a prayer to live a day at a time and to have sufficient to live on but not to excess. As someone has put it: 'Used in the morning, this petition would ask bread for the day just beginning. Used in the evening, it would be a prayer for tomorrow's bread.' We speak much about faith and if we are comfortably off we can distance ourselves from the Christ-like humility that prays 'Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread'.
Rather like the giving and receiving of the manna in the wilderness, George Muller knew from his own experience what living by faith was all about. In time Muller ran five orphan homes in Bristol, and his was a faith-based mission. He prayed for the food for his orphans. He cried out to the Lord and the Lord heard him. In November 1839 he recorded.
'I said this morning, “Man's extremity is God's opportunity” is a proverb of the world, and how much more may we, his children, now look to him in our great need. I knew we must have help in some way, as now it had come to the greatest extremity, there being in none of the [Orphan] Houses anything for dinner, except potatoes, of which we have an abundance. At ten this morning I was informed that a large box had arrived at one of the Orphan Houses. I set off immediately, and found it was from the neighbourhood of Wolverhampton. [The box] contained 12 s for the orphans, 1 11s 10d for the other funds, several lengths of dress materials, and numerous trinkets to be sold for the benefit of the orphans. The joy which I and my fellow-labourers had when these things lay before us, cannot be described; it must be experienced in order that it may be known. It was two [and a half] hours before the dinner time, when the help was granted. The Lord knew that the orphans had no dinner, and, therefore, did he now send help' (G. F. Bergin, Autobiography of George Muller, 1929, 130).
Muller had a need. He prayed and the Lord heard his prayer. Now most of us might not have the faith of a George Muller, but we need to be honest in how we pray, when we pray and for what we pray.
Proverbs is an interesting book and it challenges us and speaks to our hearts. And the two questions it asks are these. Am I wise or foolish – do I believe and trust in God or not? Do I follow the way of the Lord, or the way of the world? May each of us give an answer that is true and honest before our God.