Introduction - A travel guide to Proverbs
Well we're starting our new series in the book of Proverbs today. It contains classic proverbs like these:
"The sluggard says, 'There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!'"
I.e. lazy people make lame excuses!
Or Proverbs 27:14.
"If anyone loudly blesses their neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse."
Funny, but true!
I wonder whether you've read much of the book of Proverbs before? If not, you might be quite intrigued as to what it's all about! And if you have read some, you'll know that it can all feel a bit like landing in a foreign country and not knowing quite how to get your bearings.
So before we dive in, let me give you a quick travel guide to the book of Proverbs.
- First, what's the layout? Is there any structure? On first appearance it might look like a random mix of ideas. But there's a clear introduction to the book, which we're going to dive into in a minute, and it divides into at least seven sections. And it covers a whole range of themes – friendship, work, money, planning, family etc.
- Who wrote it? It's a collection of writings from several authors - there are five authors named across the different sections - including King Solomon, the most famous one, who lived around 950BC.
- Thirdly, what about culture? Isn't it culturally distant? Well yes, clearly it's written into a different culture, but it's important to remember that this book contains a timeless message from God which we need to hear today, and so sometimes we'll need to 'translate' them into our cultural context.
- How do I read it? Isn't it difficult to understand…like Chinese?! Well I hope we'll see today that in many ways it's very clear. But we do need to ponder and chew over these Proverbs to take them on board.
And in terms of understanding, and how to read Proverbs, we need to recognize that it's written as poetry. Hebrew poetry – which mainly uses parallelism. It sounds complicated, but it just means that the second half of the verse corresponds with the first half of the verse, and helps you to understand it. It might develop or contrast, or complement the other half.
For example, in contrast,
"Hatred stirs up strife,
but love covers all offences." (Proverbs 10:12)
Or complementing and building on the first half -
"A generous man will prosper;
he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." (Proverbs 11:25)
Proverbs also has a certain tone. It's written in a way which persuades, warns, reasons with us, rather than written as law, like 'you shall not do this'.
Read Proverbs, in fact, the whole of the Old Testament, in light of Jesus! Jesus said that all the Scriptures point to him. So as we read the Old Testament, we should allow the New Testament to shed light on it. The New Testament is the best commentary on the Old Testament.
5. And last but not least, what is the book of Proverbs all about? What the purpose?
Well it's laid out there in verses 2-6. Have a look. The author or compiler had a definite purpose in writing this book. Verse 2:
"To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
To receive instruction
To give prudence to the simple"
This book is about gaining wisdom.
And biblical wisdom is not something we find in a fortune cookie. It's not some optional add-on which might take our lives from 4/10 to 6/10. It's a matter of life and death. It's clear in these opening chapters that we either choose wisdom, which leads to life, or we're foolish, and it leads to death. There's no in-between.
So how do we find this wisdom? Where do we start with the book of Proverbs? Proverbs 1.7 is the place. Take a look.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction."
That's the headline for the whole book of Proverbs. We're looking at the whole of the first two chapters today, so we'll be dotting around looking at the key points. but we only read 15 verses in our reading so why not go away and read the whole thing at some point this week?
So my first point is that headline for Proverbs:
1. Fear the Lord. Don't Be a Fool!
If you were here for our sermon on Science and Faith recently, Ian Garrett quoted Stephen Hawking as saying:
"There is no God. [And] I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. And there is no heaven or afterlife."
That's Hawking's worldview – the lens through which he sees the world. But the headline for the book of Proverbs says:
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge"
You see, if there is a God who has created everything in this universe, then he is the starting point for all knowledge. If we don't interpret the world in light of him then we've totally missed the point.
And as we go through Proverbs, we'll see that it covers a huge breadth of topics and it's very practical. But the fact it's so comprehensive, even about the details of everyday life, reminds us that knowing God is the basis for everything in life. It's the only basis for a true understanding of reality and everything around us.
And so, even though these Proverbs are often about little practical details in life, God is not just going after little details with this book - he's going after deep change inside our hearts. He wants us to recognize that we either choose foolishness (the wisdom of the world), or wisdom (the fear of the Lord).
Now, fear of the Lord in the Bible doesn't mean being terrified of him. It means a reverence towards God – recognizing him as our creator and mighty God. And being open to him, eager to please him, being willing to surrender to his ways and turn from evil.
C.S. Lewis pictured it beautifully in the Narnia books. Mr Beaver is asked about Aslan the lion (who represents Christ). He's asked "is he safe?". And he replies: "Safe? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn't safe. Be he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
Lewis knew what it was to fear God. He wrote:
"In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down."
And the second half of verse 7, in our passage, tells us about the proud man or woman. The fool. This person despises wisdom and instruction from the Lord. In their pride and arrogance, they write off God and think they know best. Or that they just don't need him. Or they're too busy for him.
There is wisdom and there is folly, and they are competing for our trust. And we have to keep making a deliberate choice between the two. We're going to that again and again throughout Proverbs. Which are we going to choose?
I guess the answer should be obvious. But what we see next in this passage is that:
2. Sin is Enticing
In verse 8 we see a Father lovingly instructing his son, and pleading with him not to ignore his mum and dad's teaching.
But in verses 11-14, sinners try to entice him. They say 'Come with us', join us in our sinful ways. We can promise you everything! Verse 13:
"we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse"—
These sinners want you to join them. They aren't happy going about their wicked ways on their own – they want to draw others in. They want others to celebrate what they're doing. They promise the world. They say 'we'll be a great community together, we'll share one purse. And life will be amazing with everything we have'.
But the wise Father takes his son, and he says, verse 15:
"my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil,
and they make haste to shed blood.
For in vain is a net spread
in the sight of any bird,
but these men lie in wait for their own blood;
they set an ambush for their own lives."
I don't know about you, but I love a good spy drama. And when someone's at a rendezvous handing over intelligence or a suitcase of money, if they see agents or police getting into place on the rooftops they run a mile. They know it's an ambush.
And here, the Father says to his son, 'even birds aren't stupid enough to see a net getting put up and then fly into it.' And yet, if you revel in sin, if you entice others into sin, it's like setting an ambush for your own life. It's walking headlong into a trap.
As Christians, we're on mission in the world. In John 17, Jesus says that as he has been sent into the world, so he sends us into the world. We're to love those outside the church and be a light to them - but we also need to be wary of the world – because sinners want to entice us. They want to be affirmed in their ways. They'll make it sound great. They'll say – come and join us!
Maybe it's colleagues at work milking their expenses – "it's free money, get involved!". Maybe it's people encouraging you to drink more than you should on a night out, or to watch a show that isn't edifying as a Christian – 'hey it's not that bad'. Or those little white lies at work or university. 'I'm bunking off but do you mind just signing me in? I can do the same for you next time.' Maybe it's the liberal cultural agenda of our day encouraging us to celebrate what God clearly calls wrong. And finally, maybe it's pride. Intellectuals saying 'there is no God.' And it sounds quite attractive… Because at heart, the Bible tells us that none of us wants to fear God. We're proud and we're foolish.
And so in those situations, we need to let the voice of wisdom cry out to us. It's there in Proverbs 1.20 onwards. We're told that wisdom cries aloud in the street and in the markets. Wisdom shouts in the everyday places – the streets, the workplace, where we're tempted to fall into the trap. And the voice of wisdom says, verse 22:
"How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof,
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you."
And the voice finishes by saying, verse 32
"the complacency of fools destroys them;
but whoever listens to me will dwell secure
and will be at ease, without dread of disaster."
Don't be a fool. 'Fear the Lord'. That's the headline. Fear him, rather than fearing man, or thinking that we can ignore him. And there are great promises here for those who do that. We don't need to do something amazing. We just need to turn back towards God, and be willing to listen to him – and he'll pour out his spirit on us. He'll make his words of wisdom known to us. And we'll find security, and hope, even in the face of disaster.
Which brings us to my final point:
3. Seek God's Wisdom Like Hidden Treasure! (chapter 2)
Back in the days when we were young and free, my wife Sophie and I climbed a winter route up in Glencoe in the highlands. We got to the top and enjoyed a brew looking over the fantastic view of Glen Etive (which was where they filmed the Bond film Skyfall). We then started down and halfway down, I suddenly realized that my ice axe wasn't on the back of my bag – it had somehow fallen off.
Now they're not that cheap, and it had a certain sentimental value as well, and so, even though we had a five hour drive back when we got down, we were worn out after 10 hours on the hill, the light was fading and the weather was getting worse, we trudged our way most of the way back up (which you can imagine went down really well with my wife!) and stumbled around looking for this axe until it was dark.
We did that just for a £100 bit of metal, but what if you knew for sure that there was treasure up there on that hill in the highlands? A whole chest of gold which won't devalue like the pound! You'd probably go and camp up there for the whole summer looking for it. Even if it was a 'Scottish' summer without any sunshine…
And chapter 2 tells us that wisdom from the Lord is of such value that we should seek it like treasure!
The start of chapter 2 says:
"Incline your heart to it
Call out for it
Seek it like silver
Search for it as hidden treasure."
"then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom;"
And do you notice here that back in chapter 1, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. And yet here in chapter 2 it's the destination. If we search for God's wisdom like hidden treasure then we'll "understand the fear of the Lord".
Maybe you're here today and you're thinking things through about Christianity. Well this passage says, the beginning of the Christian journey is putting aside your pride and recognizing God as God. Fearing the Lord.
But that's also how we continue as Christians – we're to grow in our knowledge of God so that we fear him and love him more. And so the question for us today, whether we're at the beginning of the Christian journey or somewhere on the way, is this - are we going to search for wisdom as for hidden treasure? Are we going to seek it with all our heart? Are we going to treasure God's commands?
Searching for treasure might mean reading a book of the Bible whilst you're on holiday. Or catching up with the St Joseph's sermons using the podcast or our website. It might mean joining one of our midweek Bible study groups next year, so that we can be helping one another to treasure God's word.
Or getting along to Summer Series over the summer. Maybe it means memorizing some scripture to help you fight against sin (or sinners) that are enticing. Or, like the Father in this passage guiding his son, maybe there's someone you could act as a spiritual father to this year – shepherding them in their walk with Jesus. Or maybe you need ask someone to do that for you.
But in all these things, remember that it's not just about gaining knowledge, it's about our relationship with God. Knowing him and trusting him more. So that, as we get to know him better, we can say with Mr Beaver - "Safe? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn't safe. Be he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
How do we experience that? How do we get to know God in a way which humbles us and leaves us in reverence and wonder?
Here's how we can…we look to the cross, where a man who perfectly revealed God's wisdom, and who perfectly lived it out, died for fools like you and me. We might despise him, or think ourselves better than him, but he showed his love for us there. And the more we look to the cross, and the more we get to know Jesus for ourselves (and develop a relationship with him) the more our pride will melt away. We'll worship him. And we'll become wise. Let's pray.