This time of year will be very poignant for many parents as your little one starts at nursery school, primary school, secondary school, their first term at university or their first day at work. All the time you've been preparing and nurturing them for the world that lies before them. Which route will they take, which path will they follow, which road will they navigate along?
Of course, we are not all parents, but the same sort of questions arise when we, or someone we know enters a new season of life. Maybe you're the one heading off to University? Or starting a new job? Or you're just about to get married? Or perhaps facing a trial or challenge. Will we flourish? Will we cultivate and protect our heart, whatever is happening all around us. Which route will we take, which path will we follow, which road will we navigate along?
This morning, as we continue in our series in Proverbs, we come to the wonderful words of chapter 4. If, you glance down over chapter 4, you'll see it breaks up into three sections – each one beginning with a similar opening line. So verse 1: "Hear, O sons" and verse 10 "Hear, my son" and verse 20 "my son, be attentive to my words". What we have here are three speeches from a father to a son, inviting him to live with wisdom and in the fear of the Lord in order to experience the good life.
We'll take each section in turn, and so my first point – from verses 1 to 9 is
1. Whatever You Do, Get Wisdom
The first thing to notice is the setting of this speech. It is a father speaking to his son, asking him to pay attention to his words. And we find that father teaching his son the words that he himself had been taught by his own father.
Look at verse 1:
"Hear, O sons, a father's instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight,
for I give you good precepts;
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,
he taught me and said to me"
We know that from Proverbs 1.1 that these are the proverbs of Solomon – King of Israel. His father was King David. And his son was Rehoboam. So, reading these words casts our mind into the royal courts of none less than King Solomon as he passes onto his son the godly heritage that was passed onto him by his grandfather King David. Verse 3 is a reference to Bathsheba his mother. What a privilege to sit in on this lecture, and gate-crash the domestic life of such a celebrity. What will we learn? Military strategy? Royal secrets? Political methods? What does the royal prince and heir to the throne most need to hear and learn?
Let's read on…
"Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live.
Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever you get, get insight.
Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honour you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a graceful garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown."
This is a passionate, emotional, urgent plea. But what is he saying? Well, notice the repetition – often a helpful clue to what the writer wants us to notice. Verse 5: "Get wisdom; get insight" and verse 7: "Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight". Which I have summarised as: son, 'whatever you do, get wisdom'.
Which begs the question: what does he mean here by wisdom? In proverbs, that isn't just talking about gaining knowledge in general. Wisdom is talking specifically about living well in the world, recognising that God created it and reigns as king. Wisdom is living life God's way. Turn back a page to Proverbs 2.6: "For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding".
And with that in mind, these words of King Solomon to his son could just as easily be the words of any father and mother to their sons and daughters. Whatever you do, get hold of wisdom. Learn God's ways and live according to them. Nothing matters more than this, so sacrifice anything and everything else and get hold of this. Whatever else you may learn from me – learn this: get wisdom, get insight.
Which is just another way of saying pursue God. Get to know him and his ways. A helpful reminder at the start of a new academic year.
The reason the father stresses that this teaching goes back to his grandfather and beyond is to show us that God's ways – his wisdom has been tried and tested. And it works! God's ways are good. Verse 4: "Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live". Hold onto this wisdom, love it, prize it, embrace it, and you will find it keeps you, guards you, bring you honour. Verse 9: "She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown."
Taste and see for yourself what generation after generation have proven to be true: that the Lord and his ways are good. God's ways are not burdens to restrict us, but springs of life that give understanding and protection. So get wisdom, get insight.
What is it every child – son and daughter – needs more than anything else? The wisdom that comes from the Lord. Yes, we seek to give them physical and educational blessings. Our kids may feel their greatest need are the new Sainsbury's Hero cards. Or a new laptop for uni. But we can give them nothing better than to seek to share in words and life the wisdom that comes from the Lord. Fathers and mothers – take note. Parents have the primary responsibility to raise kinds in "the instruction and training of the Lord". But they need help from spiritual aunts and uncles and older brothers and sisters – we all have a part to play. Especially if the parents can't look back to parents who taught them God's ways.
And whatever age we are – whether or not we have kids – whether royal princes or not – this message is for us. We can all eagerly listen to this father's instructions who pleads with us: whatever you do, get wisdom. And we can all play a part in encouraging one another to do that – especially in seasons of change and difficulty. In fact, that one of the main strengths of our small groups and if you're not yet in a group that meets regularly to read the Bible and pray together, then now would be a great time to do so.
So that's verses 1 to 9, Next we see
2. Whatever You Do, Choose Life
This is from verse 10 to 19. Again, the setting is of a father speaking to his son. But this is slightly different. In section one, there was mum and dad teaching young son. Now, that teaching is referred to in the past tense. Now, something is changing, the son is moving onto a new stage, with new found responsibilities and a chance to decide for themselves what path to take.
So think graduation speech. Or a parent writing a letter to a child about to head to a new school, or to uni. Here we have some final advice for those about to move onto a new stage. And the advice – no stronger than that, the plea here - is to choose to walk in ways of wisdom which will bring life rather than the ways of the wicked, which will bring destruction.
Which route will they take, which path will they follow, which road will they navigate along?
Will he pursue wealth, a spouse, a reputation? My son, choose life! Choose wisdom! Verse 10:
"Hear, my son, and accept my words,
that the years of your life may be many.
I have taught you the way of wisdom; [note the past tense]
I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
When you walk [on your own], your step will not be hampered,
and if you run, you will not stumble.
Keep hold of instruction; do not let go [you're moving on, but don't leave wisdom behind];
guard her, for she is your life."
So the father sets out clearly the advantages of the way of wisdom. The Lord and his ways are good. Which makes sense – the creator of our world knows how his world works! The way of wisdom, Following God's design for life brings blessing – verse 12, your step will not be hampered and if you run, you will not stumble.
Of course – like so much of proverbs – that is not a guarantee, or a promise. We live in a broken world. And so, there are exceptions. So for example, Proverbs 22.6 says "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." It's an unbelievable blessing to have been brought up in a house that fears the Lord and teaches God's ways. But is that a guarantee that such kids will choose life. No, we know that. But those exceptions do not change the principle that living according to God's ways will typically lead to good results. It leads to life.
So, we are faced with two paths: the path of wisdom where we follow God and his ways and the path of foolishness where we walk according to our own understanding and desires. The first leads to freedom. The second does not. Verse 14:
"Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evil.
Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;
they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.
For they eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence."
Every year at the start of the university term, you see students who have just moved from home celebrating their newfound freedom from their parents' restrictions. They may think that choosing their own path leads to freedom. But here is a warning that the reality is far from that. Walking away from God and his ways will lead to slavery – desires and addictions overcome us and we find we are no longer in control. We are driven by those desires and cannot sleep until the addiction is fed. We eat and drink the very things that poison our souls. What we sow, is what we reap.
We face a choice. Two paths are set before us. This choice we face is powerfully summarised in the final two verses. Verse 18:
"But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know over what they stumble."
This shows how far apart the two paths are.
When it comes to a fork in the road, it's helpful to know not just right from wrong, but why right is right and why wrong is wrong. There's a really helpful parenting principle here – don't just teach what to do – explain why. It's also true when discipling a new believer. The father here shows why the path of righteousness is attractive. And why the way of the wicked is not. Throughout this whole chapter, we have reminder after reminder of the great benefit that comes from embracing wisdom – and these two verses summarise that.
The way of the wicked is deep darkness and even when the wicked stumble they cannot understand why. They see how their life might be messed up or falling apart, yet their explanations don't get to the heart of the problem and their solution makes things worse. Their darkness means they cannot see how wisdom fits into the overall pattern of life.
However, the path of righteousness begins like the first glean of dawn. When we first turn to the Lord Jesus we begin to see and understand how things really are. Things begin to make sense – even the darkest and hardest parts of life and the world. And the more we walk along the path of wisdom, that first glean of light gets brighter and brighter. As we walk in fear of the lord, in trust and obedience so more and more light keeps coming, the dawn turns to morning and noonday sun.
So, whatever you do, choose life! Verse 10 to 19.
Then finally we come to section three, verse 20 to 27.
3. Whatever You Do, Guard Your Heart
Again, the setting for this speech is a father addressing a son. Again, the father is packing his words into the suitcase of his son as he prepares to head onto new things.
But this time the plea is to let wisdom shape every area of his life – to be careful about the way he lives.
"My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh."
Wisdom – God's ways – bring life to those who find them. Wisdom concerns every area of life and following his ways in every part of their flesh – their body – will bring healing and benefit to every area of their life. Which is why the rest of the book (especially chapters 10 to 29) contains instructions on every area of life.
So, living life God's way will involve being careful about what they do with their mouth – their speech. Verse 24:
"Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you."
And, living life God's way will involve being careful about what they do with their eyes – what they look at. Verse 25:
"Let your eyes look directly forwards,
and your gaze be straight before you."
And, living life God's way will involve being careful about what they do with their feet – their actions. Verse 26 and 27:
"Ponder the path of your feet;
then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil."
However, the key to wisdom shaping every area of his life is to watch his heart. Verse 23:
"Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life."
Your heart includes your mind, your emotions, your will – in other words, your whole inner being.
Where do you set your heart? What do you value more than anything else? From your heart flows the springs of life – what you say and do and the direction you walk in. If we are to stay on the path of life – not swerving to the right or to the left we need to guard our heart. It all comes down to our heart – and that is where Jesus comes in.
Jesus of course is the only son who has perfectly lived out Proverbs 4, in the power of the Holy Spirit. He has shown us what the wise life looks like. He's the only one who eagerly listens to his Father's instruction. Only Jesus does what his Father says, only Jesus kept his heart pure. Only Jesus speaks as his Father directs and follows his Father's path.
And because he was the perfect son, when we trust in him and his death on the cross in our place, we receive from him the right to become sons of God. He calls us to come in from the darkness into his wonderful light, to be washed from all that has made is unclean. Our foolish ways will be forgiven and he will set us in the ever-increasing light of his ways, as we remember as we take bread and drink wine together this morning.
And when we become his sons, by his Spirit he changes our hearts. This is not about head knowledge or learning facts. It is a change at the heart level. We have a new birth, a new heart, a total change of mind. That's not something we can do ourselves. It's the inward transformation of the Spirit – we are forgiven and he frees us from sin so it no longer reigns in us. This is God's work – to turn our hearts from the foolishness of sin and to the wisdom of righteousness.
So that's Proverbs 4 –
Whatever you do, get wisdom
Whatever you do, choose life
Whatever you do, guard your heart