Now who wants to be successful? Some of you are thinking, I'm not sure, is that something I should want to be? Well, of course, it depends what you mean by success. Success in the world's terms often leads ultimately to foolishness, failure and forfeiting the free offer of the fulness of eternal life (Proverbs 2.20-22) resulting in eternal separation from God and all the consequences of that in hell, unless there's true repentance and faith in Jesus; witness the reading we had from Luke's Gospel. Business people who were once considered successful and thought they were set for a long and more than comfortable retirement are having to face up to the possibility of ruin in every sense – such as Sir Philip Green, Neil Woodford (who manages many retirement funds) and Mike Ashley's empire. Some were once thought to be wise but have now been exposed as having been, at best foolish and selfish and maybe worse. They've so far refused to listen to God (Proverbs 1.33). But they still have time to turn to Christ. Jesus says the wise man builds his house on the rock of Christ and his words and the foolish man builds on sand. Are you praying for them and others you know to get off the sand, off the beach and wise up and build on the rock of Jesus and his word? Yes where there's been dishonesty there needs to be justice but we should also pray for them; and for others - the 89% of 16-29 year olds who say their lives are empty and lack purpose and therefore wisdom and for the 36% of all adults who say they wish they could rerun their lives more wisely; and we should also examine our own lives – how wise or foolish are you and I?
People lack godly wisdom. People haven't carefully read the book of Proverbs. People haven't learnt to be wise. Instead folks go for worldly wisdom. Such as:
Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. Erma Bombeck
If you don't cut the cake in pieces and just eat the whole cake, then you only had one piece. (Which is where I've been going wrong!)
So, what about you? When did you last read Proverbs? Perhaps some of you have used Tim Keller's Daily Devotional book 'The Way of Wisdom' on Proverbs. There are copies on the church bookstall. But how we need God's wisdom today in a hostile culture and mixed up world. James says if we lack wisdom, we're to ask God, in prayer and through reading his Word. And notice from Proverbs 1.5 that we don't wise up overnight, no, just as Paul says we learn the secret of contentment in Philippians 4, we also learn to be wise, which takes time, once we've come to know Jesus Christ, who is Wisdom.
But it is worth it. Billy Graham used to read a chapter of Proverbs every day during every 31 day month. It's no surprise then that over decades in ministry he retained his integrity and holiness in the harsh spotlight of the public eye. He was a man of one book, the Bible, and he immersed himself in Proverbs. He delved into God's wisdom and applied it to his life. He learned to be a wise man who understood what godly success is – growing in godliness, fruitfulness and godly wisdom, in the power of the Spirit; as well as its cost and that all the glory goes to God. And so can we, if we too hear and apply Proverbs. We too need to be people of the Word. Because, as Proverbs clarifies, wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action. Which brings us first to
1. Wisdom: What It Is
You'll see from verse 1 that the main author of Proverbs (which means 'wise sayings') was King Solomon. And if we turn back to when Solomon prayed for wisdom to rule God's people, we get a pretty good definition of what wisdom is. God's people are in the promised land, with God's law to tell them how to please God and a King to lead them in doing so. And Solomon prays, 1 Kings 3.7:
"And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?"
So what is wisdom? It's discernment to distinguish between right and wrong – and moreover, to distinguish between the good and the best. 'Wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action.'
2. Wisdom: What It's For
"The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction;
to understand words of insight [remember: wisdom is the ability to see what is right or best];
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice and equity [remember: wisdom is the inclination to do the right or best thing]"
So, why do we need wisdom? Or, why Proverbs? Wasn't it enough simply for God's people then to have the law? And why do we, as God's new covenant people, still need Proverbs?
One reason we need wisdom is to help us obey God. Simply being told what to do doesn't in itself enable us to do it. And from a New Testament point of view, we know that only being forgiven through the Lord Jesus and receiving his Spirit into our hearts actually changes us into people who want to do God's will. But one of the ways God works in our hearts is by helping us see the wisdom of what he commands – its goodness and desirability - and that's what Proverbs does. Remember: 'Wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action.' And chapter 1 later helps us to see through the deceitful promise of immorally gained money.
So we need wisdom to help us obey what God does tell us to do. But the other reason we need wisdom is to help us use our freedom where God doesn't tell us precisely what to do. For example, God doesn't tell any of us whether to marry or exactly who to marry. God tells us that we must marry only another believer, and someone who's not already married in God's sight, and someone of the opposite sex. Within those limits, we're free. Those are decisions for us to make, and for that we need wisdom - which won't tell us what to decide. But it will show us how to decide. Proverbs 31.10:
"An excellent wife who can find?"
And then verse 30:
"Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised."
So remember: 'Wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action.' And here Proverbs is helping us see things that are of first importance - because if your aim is to spend your life serving the Lord Jesus, then you'll want to choose someone whose aim is the same. If you're choosing a university, wisdom says, 'Is there a good church where you're thinking of going?' Three to five years without one won't do your godliness any good; and your godliness is a goal far closer to God's heart than your degree. If you're weighing up a possible new job, wisdom says, 'How will it affect your involvement in evangelism and church?' Wisdom helps us see if the good threatens the best.
So, we need wisdom to help us obey what God commands and to help us use our freedom where God doesn't tell us precisely what to do. And the assumption in Proverbs is that none of us is naturally wise. Look at v4. Proverbs is, for giving prudence to the simple…
'Simple' is a word in Proverbs used to describe the foolish. It means 'easily deceived, easily led astray.' So, it's talking about you and me – the Bible says all of us, by nature, are easily deceived and led astray. We're all foolish and sinful by nature. Which means that the only way to be wise is to become wise – not least, by digesting Proverbs. And verse 4 says that's especially true for 'the youth'. Proverbs gives knowledge and discretion to the youth.' And look at verse 8:
"Hear, my son, your father's instruction and forsake not your mother's teaching."
Many sections of Proverbs begin like that. So, this book was especially designed to help believing parents prepare youth for independent adulthood, whether the world of work or study where they'll face many unbelieving voices, looking to entice them, verse 10, and then swallow them alive, verse 12, enticing them with the ways of the world in such areas as unjust gain, verse 19, money, sex and power, Proverbs 2.16. If you're heading off – or back to university – reading Proverbs will help to make you wise for facing worldly pressures and finding friends. Wise up to the dangers of complacency, verse 32, of refusing to listen, verse 24, of hating knowledge and not choosing the fear of the Lord, verse 29. But, verse 33, "whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster." And as chapter 2 continues – "if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments", "if you call out for insight" and incline your ear and heart to wisdom, "if you seek it", "then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God." "For the Lord gives wisdom", verses 1 to 5. You see at issue here in chapters 1 and 2 is not merely gaining more insight, but a deliberate choice between two ways. Wisdom and folly, righteousness and wickedness, are constantly put up against each other in Proverbs as the only two options for life. Will you choose life or death as Proverbs 2.20-22 put it? Will you accept God's grace or reject it? Will you refuse to listen to God's call as Israel did, Proverbs 1.24 and continue to love being 'simple' or foolish, Proverbs 1.22 or will you receive God's words, Proverbs 2.1? Will you trust in the Lord, Proverbs 3.5 or not? So put Proverbs on your summer reading list. Or get a copy of Keller's devotional on Proverbs for a young person.
But verse 5 reminds us that we all need it:
"let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance."
Wise living is like riding a bike: unless you keep pedalling, you can take some bad falls. And Solomon is a prime example: for a man who wrote so much wisdom about marriage, he didn't keep pedalling at being wise himself in that area. So, he's a warning that we're all capable of being foolish tomorrow if we become complacent or arrogant. So thirdly and finally
3. Wisdom: Where It Comes From
Verse 7 makes it crystal clear:
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline."
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." Or later, in chapter 9, it says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom," (v10). It amounts to the same thing. It's not talking about fear of punishment or fear of rejection by the LORD. If we're reading this as Christians - as those who trust that the Lord Jesus has taken on himself the punishment for all our sin - then we know it can't mean that. No, the fear of the LORD is to say, 'Look God is God; I'm not; and so he knows best; so I'll bow to his will.' The fear of the LORD is to recognise his absolute authority and wisdom as the Creator of life and to operate on the basic principle that where I feel I want to disagree with him, he's right and I'm wrong. Now there may be parts of God's will that you're finding very hard to obey right now, or situations that God has you in that you're finding very hard to accept. And the fear of the LORD is to say, 'God is God; I'm not; and so he knows best; so I'll bow to his will.'
But that could sound rather cold. So, go to Proverbs 3.5-7:
"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."
What underlies all genuine, willing submission to God is trust in his goodness. And the fundamental reason we don't obey what he's told us, and/or don't use our freedom to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, is that we don't trust him: we don't trust his goodness, and that whatever he's asking of us is good for us. We don't trust that it's never a case of doing his will at the expense of our good; but that his will always has our best interests at heart. And that trust is anchored in Jesus' death on the cross. Romans 8.32:
"He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him, graciously give us all things?"
If we trust that he was good enough to give up his own Son for our eternal salvation, can't we trust his goodness over the relatively lesser matters of our lives? Wisdom begins with trust in the LORD and the fear of the LORD.
The only alternative, verse 7, is to play the fool. And yes the fool can be the atheist. But we can all play the fool by professing to trust in the Lord and yet in the heat of the moment, act as if there's no God. In the face of a temptation or a decision or a testing situation, we can easily do what we think best, or by following what we desire without really thinking at all.
But wisdom doesn't. Wisdom says to the LORD, 'You are God, you are real, you know best, I trust your goodness to have my best interests at heart; and even though I don't always understand, or find it easy, I bow to your will.' That's 'the fear of the LORD'. And that's the beginning – and the end – of wisdom.
To put it another way. True wisdom begins when we bow the knee before the living God and start living his way. To fear the Lord means not to be afraid of him, but to stand in awe of him and understand that he is the living God who demands our very lives. True wisdom is to recognise this God and to live his way. That's the best way to live and the only wise way to live.
Now we know that we can't live his way all the time. Which is why we must finish by bowing the knee before the wise one, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because he is for us the wisdom of God. In him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found. In him we find one who has died our death on the cross, paid our price. Allowed us to be forgiven so we can live the way of wisdom. Given us his Spirit to empower us to live his way. And true wisdom is seen in obeying Jesus' word. "Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock." Which begs the question have you done that? Have you obeyed by trusting in him? And, if so, are you continuing to go the way of wisdom?