You might have heard of a book called A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, well this morning we're looking at a far more profound and personally challenging tale - A Tale of Two Women from Proverbs 9.
A while ago there was a strike by New York's refuse collectors and the garbage or rubbish, began to pile up higher and higher. No one was clearing it. Then someone had a brilliant idea. In order to get rid of his trash, he bought lots of wrapping paper and each day he would wrap some of his rubbish up in shiny paper, place it on the wall outside and within minutes it was gone. Of course, it wasn't until it was too late that the greedy gift grabbers realised that what they thought was a good find was nothing but a load of rubbish.
But the Bible would say that's a picture of what many people are like in their life choices. The gullible, which is sadly most humans out of sorts with God, are like the greedy New Yorkers. They're taken in by what appears to be attractive, only to discover that what they've actually bought into is spiritually, morally and socially toxic and bankrupt. In contrast, God's eager to give gifts which not only look good on the outside but are also amazing on the inside. You see God wants us to have the good life. Do you realise that? God wants to give us the wherewithal not only to enable us to live in this world for our own and other people's good, but for his greater glory. You see, God has so made us and the world that there's a good fit and a bad fit. The bad fit is throwing off God's ways, exchanging his priorities and values for ours and that's when the wheels come off. The Bible calls this, the way of folly and wickedness; folly because it's ultimately stupid, and wicked because it attempts to dethrone God. The good fit is called wisdom and righteousness, wisdom because it's the smart and right thing to do, and righteous because it humbly acknowledges where God rightly belongs, on the throne of the world and our lives.
Now, these two contrasting ways of living are put to us in Proverbs 9 in picture form of two women who are trying to attract us: Ms Wisdom & Ms Folly. And rather like ITV's 'Through the Keyhole' show we're going to take a tour of their houses and have a taste of their food. Because in these two women, one who cares and the other who's quotes on 'the game', is a picture of what the church is meant to be like and what the world is really like. So first we have
1. The Two Offers
The first section verses 1 to 9 and the last verses 13 to 18 focus on the two female figures who seem at first to share some similarities. Look at verses 1 to 6:
"Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call, from the highest places in the town. 'Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!' To him who lacks sense she says. 'Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live; and walk in the way of insight.'"
But then verse 13,
"The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, she takes a seat on the highest places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way. 'Let all who are simple come in here!' she says to him who lacks sense. 'Stolen water is sweet; and bread eaten in secret is pleasant!'"
But as you may have noticed, Ms Folly is actually a mockery of the real wisdom. And that's the essence of evil. Evil is a corruption of the good. It has no existence in and of itself; it's always parasitic on the good. For example, vices are virtues driven to excess or used in the wrong way. So, greed is the good food instinct left unchecked. Lust is the good sex instinct gone wrong. Pride is the good sense of self-worth grossly inflated and so on. And the closer the lie gets to the truth then the more effective and enticing it becomes. So, those who push for sexual freedoms declare, 'There's nothing wrong with sex'. The Christian would agree. But would qualify it by adding there's everything wrong with it when it's misused and taken out of its proper context, that of marriage between one man and one woman for life. You see a superficial glance might lead some to think that both these women are offering the same thing - a home to live in and a meal to eat, but on closer inspection, we discover that the contrast couldn't be greater. One offers plenty the other offers poison. One is the genuine giver of pure delight the other a peddler of death. And that's the world we live in.
So, let's take a look at Ms Wisdom. She offers the best house, verse 1. Notice that Wisdom has built the house. And that the length of the room and overall size was determined by the number of pillars. There are seven, which not only tell us that we're dealing with a mansion, but also that it's perfect- represented by the perfect number 7. Nothing's going to cause this house to collapse. It's sturdy and built to last. It's also vast, able to accommodate many. Given the restriction of space in ancient Israel's cities, this building is extravagant and impressive. You see early Jerusalem was only 15 acres in size - so you can imagine how outstanding this house is portrayed to be.
And Ms Wisdom not only offers the best accommodation but also the best food, verse 2, "meat and wine mixed with spices". The picture of a feast or banquet is meant to be an image of the mouth-watering attractiveness of God's wisdom - the good life which we find in the gospel. It's not cheap junk food that God through Christ offers; it is as Jesus says, "life in abundance", the best on offer, which is appealing and deeply satisfying. To settle for anything less than Christianity is to settle for the tenth-rate option at best. We're not to be apologetic about the Christian faith, no - it's a banquet - spiritually speaking.
What's more, she offers the best promotion - verse 3. She sends out her young women or maids to invite people. She herself stands at the highest point in the city so everyone can see her and hear her. In other words she's going out of her way so that as many people as possible have the opportunity of taking what she is making freely available. There's an overwhelming generosity about Ms Wisdom. And who's she inviting? Well, everybody but especially the "simple" or 'gullible', and those "who lack judgement". She actually feels genuinely sorry for them. In fact, her heart breaks for them. And so, she pleads with them to leave their simple ways - that is their shallow and superficial lives - and instead really live. To really live in and through Christ.
But you don't find any of this with Ms Folly. Ms Wisdom calls out, she's smart, thought through and appealing to good sense - but Ms Folly is simply "loud"- verse 13, what we would call a 'loud-mouth' - brash and vulgar (sounds like our parliament). She's 'seductive and knows nothing' - appealing more to impulse than intelligence. In this way she's undemanding, people don't have to engage their brains to consider what she's saying, they just digest the soundbite, and get taken in by the cliché. She's also desirous, selling herself as the one seated on the highest point of the city'. Literally she's 'on a throne', a seat of honour. Only a ruler would sit on such a chair, so she sees herself as all 'high and mighty' to impress the gullible.
But she's also lazy. Notice how in verses 14 to 15 she just sits at the door of her house not bothering to go and contact people, she just waits for them to come passing by and then simply tries to grab their attention. How does she do that? By appealing to their sinful desires, verse 16 and 17, "she says to those who lack sense, 'Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!'" In fact "stolen water which is sweet" is talking about adultery - the stolen person belongs to another. And "secret" or "hidden food" points to the same, you have to sneak in at night under the cover of darkness while no one is looking. So, she may be desirable but in the end she's destructive, verse 18, "But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol or the grave".
Now without doubt, Folly is the dominant voice of today. She's the Agony Aunt, the social policy advisor of most political parties - and she's also the head of the major TV channels. She speaks in the name of 'liberation', 'freedom' 'rights' and 'choice'. Those who oppose her are dismissed as 'narrow' and 'fundamentalist'. Folly fits the description of verse 18. The dead are in her house. It's a house of horror.
The name of the game for them is, 'Get rid of boundaries'. But that can only happen in dreamland. Movies and Netflix can write stories which have no boundaries and contrive endings in which everyone 'lives happily ever after'. But real life's not like that. It's harsh and cruel, family breakdown is hurtful. Boundaries are in place to protect us not to enslave us. There is after all, the boundary of the school fence as well as the boundary of the prison wall.
Sexual promiscuity isn't clever; it's emotionally damaging; and it doesn't lead, long term, to sexual satisfaction. Research confirms that those most satisfied with their sex lives and the most sexually adjusted are those who keep to biblical standards. One survey found that those who had the most fun in bed were – drum roll - married Bible-believing Protestants.
This leads on to the contrast of Ms Wisdom. Note how she speaks in the public arena from "the highest point in the city". Our faith isn't to be privatised. Christians are the light of the world – yet so often today we hide our light. She shows us that God's ways are the best ways. And experience bears the Bible out, which is to be expected given that Wisdom is a creation of the Lord and instrumental in bringing about his world (Proverbs 8.22). When Wisdom says, verse 6, "you will live", she means it. Research in New Scientist magazine showed that Protestant Christians are the happiest denominations and evangelicals the happiest of all. What showed that? Well, significant to happiness are: making friends, right relationships and doing good for others. The very stuff of Ms Wisdom. Least important are: money, intelligence and good looks - the stuff of Ms Folly. So, when it comes to behaviour, you can't beat following Christ and living his way. And a change in behaviour also results in a change in mood - there is such a thing as 'joy in the Holy Spirit'. However, we're not to think that these facts will be well received or given great publicity. They won't. So next
2. The Two Responses
In verse 7 we have the stance of the unbeliever. He doesn't argue, he mocks. If you try and correct him, he'll abuse you. "Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse; and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury." A book by Christian writer James Dobson on raising boys was leant to a non-Christian. Dobson believes in boundaries and discipline as an expression of love. It was then passed on to the Head of the University's Social Work Department. His response wasn't 'the writer's methods have been tested and failed'. No. It was: 'When there's a public burning of this man's books I want to be there to help with the bonfire.' That's the voice of the scoffer - the fool. And this proverb says we're to expect such a response, which will hurt.
But the Christian's a realist and humble enough to know that he hasn't all the answers. And so, he's open to correction - verse 8 "reprove a wise man, and he will love you". But, he's also open to instruction verse 9, "Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning". How open are you to being corrected? How willing are you to learn? The answer we give will be the measure of how wise we are.
So, what do we need in order to see society pulled up out of the mire? A new moralism or rule-keeping? Hardly, that simply adds guilt to frustration. More education? No, that just produces clever devils. A new parliament? What's needed is a new power and new direction and this can only come about by having a new relationship with God. So finally
3. The One Basis
Verse 10 is the centre point of Proverbs 9, separating the two women on either side. What does it say?
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight."
It looks back - "the beginning of wisdom" and forward, "gaining insight" and in both cases the source is God. When it comes down to it our lives are shaped and motivated by what really matters to us. We either have a proper view of reality that there's a Good God who knows what's best for us and this he's made known to us in the Bible, or we have a false view of reality which means we make things up as we go along and this leads to sin and misery. To do as you please may feel like freedom; but it's bondage, because its end is destruction. That's what verse 12 says, "if you scoff, you alone will bear it". Ms Folly's freedom is like the freedom of a skydiver who enjoys the free-fall but doesn't know their parachute is defective and won't open. They think they're free, but actually – they're enslaved to the law of gravity. Freedom's not doing what you please, it's doing what you ought. Freedom's knowing the truth, loving the good, which comes down to knowing God in Jesus Christ through faith in his death and resurrection. Have you put your trust in him and so know him and follow him, the Good Shepherd? Or, if not, will you? He promises you wisdom and life! Going the way of folly, the way of the world, the way of the evil one leads to death and destruction. So, if I may put it like this, choose your women carefully – will it be wisdom or will it be folly, because the benefits and the losses, depending on who you choose, are out of this world. And today God's asking you to make your choice.