Monday, 30 July 2018

How to succeed (Proverbs)

I was having a relaxing sleep in, while the others had gone down to the water.  We were in Croatia, at my brother and sister-in-law’s ’s apartment.  I heard some people talking.  When I went to the fridge I could see that there were men sitting on our chairs on the patio.  What should I do?  Should I tell them that this is private property, and tell them to get lost?  To be honest I am not that brave.  I also didn’t think that would be very wise.  So, I thought of a proverb, put on the kettle and said a prayer.  I’ll tell how it turned out at the end of this sermon.

This is the beginning of a series of talks on the book of Proverbs.  I want to introduce the proverbs by asking some questions about this book.  You are going to love Proverbs!  They are clever, entertaining and sometimes even a little confusing.
Who wrote this book?
Proverbs is traditionally attributed to Solomon.  First Kings tells us that Solomon spoke over three thousand proverbs (1 King 4:32), and this book contains a selection of them.  But other people are also mentioned.  There are the sayings of unnamed ‘wise men’, there is the wisdom of Agur (of whom we know nothing) and there is wisdom from King Lemuel (who wrote down an inspired utterance his mother taught him).
Is the Book of Proverbs sexist?
This is one of the questions that I wondered as I headed into this book.  For example, why so much about a nagging wife and yet nothing about a nagging husband?  Is it only women who nag their spouse?  I suspect that Caroline would tell you that husband’s can he moody, nagging and oversensitive, too.  Or, why is the reader only warned about the seductive adulteress?  Are men never guilty of seducing and charming people away from their spouse? 
The answer to these questions is found by looking at who is been addressed in this book.  ‘Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching’ (1:8).  This is a ‘book for boys’.  It contains the teaching of parents for their son.  Because it is a book for boys, it consists of issues that are particularly relevant to young men.  So, for example, we get advice for what to look out for when choosing a wife.  However, if this book had originally been written for twenty-first century young western women it would undoubtedly have advice regarding the qualities to look for in a husband.
Notice that the young man is been told to pay attention to both his father and his mother.  He is being taught to respect the teaching of a woman.  Indeed, in this book, wisdom is personified as a woman.  This is not a sexist book!
What is wisdom?
The book opens by telling us that wisdom concerns issues of righteousness, justice and equity.  It gives us discretion and prudence.  We are also told that ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge …’ (1:7).
To fear God is not about being scared of him.  God wants us to know him as the most loving of all fathers.  Fearing the Lord is about relating to him with reverence and awe.  The opposite of the fear of the Lord is the fear of people.  This fear of the Lord is about who we want to please most in life.  Wisdom helps us live a life that is pleasing to God.  That is the way to live a truly successful Christian life!  The book of Proverbs shows us how to really succeed in life!
Tim Keller points out that this wisdom includes doing what is morally right, but that it includes more than this.  There are many situations in life where there are no moral commands to guide us in.  Wisdom includes knowing what to do in these situations.  So, don’t just look at these nine-hundred-and fifteen proverbs as a complete guide to wisdom, ask God to use these to shape your thinking so that you might be wise in situations that are not even addressed here.
Notice that Solomon talks about the beginning of wisdom being the fear of the Lord.  This implies two things.  Firstly, you cannot not live a God-pleasing life without knowing the God you are seeking to please.  Secondly, wisdom has a beginning that you move on from.  That doesn’t mean that we start with fearing the Lord and move on to something else, but that we need fresh wisdom from God for the new challenges that every day brings.       
What are these Proverbs?

Proverbs are not cast-iron promises.  They are insights and inspired observations about the way things are supposed to be.  They are general truths, but that does not mean that there can be exceptions.  It is true to say that ‘when a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies be at peace with him’ (16:7), but we can see times in Jesus life when this truth did not apply.  Similarly, the Proverbs blesses the righteous with wealth, but knows that you can have integrity and remain poor. 

We read the Book of Proverbs along with all the wisdom teaching in the Bible.  While Proverbs teaches what life looks like when things are orderly, a book like Job tells us how chaos can interrupt that order and bring devastating pain even upon the wise and faithful.
Who is wise?
The risen Jesus told his disciples that all the Old Testament points towards him (Luke 24:27).  How do the Proverbs direct our thoughts to Jesus?  Well, Jesus is the truly wise person.  You remember as a twelve-year-old boy how he was found in the temple of Jerusalem asking the teachers questions.  ‘And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and answers’ (Luke 2:47).  When he returned with his parents to Nazareth, ‘Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and men’ (Luke 2:52).  While Solomon was the greatest example of wisdom in the Old Testament, Jesus makes the remarkable claim that he is wiser.  He tells his hearers, that one ‘greater than Solomon’ is here (Matthew 12:42).  The apostle Paul tells his readers in Colossae that all the treasures of wisdom are found in Christ (Colossians 1:28).  In the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ we see the pinnacle of wisdom.  To be wise is to act as Jesus would act, and to remember what he has done to make us God’s own children.
You might remember the hymn, ‘May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day, by his love and power controlling all I do or say’.  That is wisdom!

How do we become wise?

Wisdom begins in the home, as we learn from our parents (1:8).  How important it is for Christian parents to take responsibility for the wisdom of their children! 

Wisdom comes to us through the experiences of life.  It calls out to us from the streets (1:20), rather than from the comfort and seclusion of an ivory tower.

Wisdom is learned from those who have travelled further down the road of life than we have.  That is why it speaks so positively about grey hair (e.g. 16:31).  Grey hair is not a fashion statement, but it is evidence of the experience of age.

We are to learn wisdom by understanding our mistakes.  ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly’ (26:1).

Wisdom comes through the disciple of a parent (13:4) and being humble enough to listen to the correction of our friends (27:5).

Finally, wisdom comes through meditating on the word of God (30:5). 

Back to the patio
There were a bunch of men sitting on the patio of my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in Croatia.  What should I do?  I had been thinking about the Proverbs and thought that the best one for this situation was ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath; but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (15:1).  I clicked on the kettle, said a prayer, and, with a coffee in hand, went out and sat at the table with them.  I introduced myself with a smile and asked them their names.  I even offered them a coffee.
It turns out that the men were surveyors who were there to sort out a dispute that two of the other apartment owners were having over a piece of space.  The judge and solicitors were up in those apartments and they were waiting for them.  I told them that I was glad that they were surveyors because I needed someone to assure me that where they were sitting was private property (they knew I was joking!).  When they heard I was Irish they said, ‘Conor MacGregor’ and I told them that he could sort out a dispute over an apartment without needing a whole bunch load of people to descend on the place.  The judge came down, and she was really friendly, so I told her that I needed her help because I had these guys I needed to remove from my patio (she knew I was joking too). 
It all turned out to be very pleasant, which would not have been the case if I had gone out to them with a harsh word and told them to get lost!  It is a great truth to remember that ‘a gentle answer turns away wrath; but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (15:1).    

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