beginning of wisdom

A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Proverbs 1 on Sunday 20 May 2018

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” This morning we must begin our journey in search of wisdom. It is a journey of a lifetime, but today we take a first step. For we begin today at the beginning of the book of Proverbs. And this beginning tells us two important things. How this journey ends and how it begins. Because it not only tells us what wisdom is, wisdom which is the thing we want, the thing we need, the goal that lies at the end of our quest, but it also tells us how that quest begins. And the good news is that although that goal seems out of our reach, although wisdom seems to be so far beyond us, everyone can begin the journey to seek it.

What is wisdom? The opening passage of the book of Proverbs gives us some idea. Verse 1 is the title of the book. It contains the proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel. The next five verses spell out the purpose of the book, by pointing out the usefulness of these proverbs for our life. The proverbs are for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young. By these similar but slightly different expressions these verses clarify that the proverbs in this book are useful for acquiring wisdom. And these different expressions help to paint a picture of what this wisdom actually is.

Wisdom is the skill of living. A wise builder lays a firm foundation. He measures all the angles to check that they are square. He measures all the widths and lengths and heights to check that they are exact. He chooses the best materials. He builds a structure that will serve its purpose and that will last for years. A wise doctor cares for her patients. Their health is her main concern. She knows when they are sick and she knows when they only think they are sick. She proscribes the medicine they need and not the medicine they want. She sends them for tests and refers them to the most appropriate specialists. A wise politician has the skill of negotiating and consulting and making good decisions. A wise teacher has the skill of demonstrating and clarifying and inspiring. Wisdom is the skill of living which can be applied to any sphere of life. Anyone can exist. Anyone can inhabit a body for seventy, eighty or even ninety years, breathing in and out about 30 times a minute. But the true skill, the real art is knowing how to live and how to live well, of applying our mind and soul and spirit to making the right decisions and doing the right thing at the right time.

As verse 2 also makes clear wisdom involves acquiring discipline. Discipline means having the strength of will to do the right thing. Anyone can learn the right thing. Anyone can do the right thing when they want to, when doing the right thing intersects with want they want. But it takes character to do the right thing when we don’t want to, or when it’s hard. It takes humility to learn from our mistakes and to change our behaviour. It takes real courage to listen to advice or to hear someone correcting us and doing things a different way. Wisdom requires discipline because being wise, doing the wise thing, making wise decisions is not doing what is convenient or popular, but as verse 3 says it is about what is right and just and fair.

As verse 2 also says wisdom requires insight. Insight is the ability to see in. To see past the surface. To know that things aren’t what they seem to those who lack experience, but that the truth often lies deeper than just the way they look. A wise man, for example, knows that penguins can fly. It is easy to look at a penguin and see a bird that can’t fly. That can only waddle across the ice. But a wise man knows that penguins can fly underwater.

As verse 3 says wisdom requires prudence. To be prudent means to be thoughtful to be cautious, to consider the consequences. It is the opposite of being impulsive. This is an especially important element in the skill of living. It is easy to charge through life like a wrecking ball out of control without a care, without a thought, until everything starts to go horribly wrong. But it requires skill, it requires concentrated thought to consider the consequences, the things that will happen afterwards if I make this or that decision. This is prudence. Prudence is often mistaken for fear. But prudence does not hesitate out of anxiety but from the need for more careful thought.

As verse 4 says this is what the simple and the young need. The young of course are young. The simple are not stupid. They aren’t retarded or suffered a brain injury. The simple are inexperienced. The simple are naïve. The simple are open minded and easily swayed either to what is right or to what is wrong. They are vulnerable to being manipulated by the cunning and deceitful. What the simple need is experience. What they need is careful thought. What they need is wisdom.

To sum up, we might say that wisdom is common sense. It is the knowledge we need to live well. The only trouble is that common sense is not all that common. Common sense is what we call that knowledge that we have from experience that we expect others to have without any experience. Better to call it wisdom, because it reminds us that it is rare, that it is precious, that it isn’t something we are born with. It isn’t something we have at the beginning. Wisdom lies at the end of our quest.

If this is the goal, then it seems out of our reach. If wisdom requires discipline and insight and prudence then it all sounds too hard. But the good news is that however far it seems to the goal, to the end of the journey, anyone can begin the journey to wisdom. As verse 7 says,

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. But fools despise wisdom and discipline.”

Wisdom, the knowledge of living well, begins with the fear of the Lord.

Notice that it is LORD with a capital L, O, R, D. This tells us that this is not a description of God’s job. Like I’m a minister and you might be a farmer or a teacher. Lord with a capital LORD means that this is God’s name. Like my name is Richard. The LORD is the name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush.

“I am the Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob. This is my name forever. The name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.”

It was the Lord who stretched out his hand to strike Egypt and to rescue the people of Israel from their slavery. It was the Lord who brought the people of Israel to himself at Mt Sinai. It was the Lord who made a covenant with Israel, a solemn agreement to be their God and that they would be his people. When we see the name the Lord in Proverbs chapter 1 verse 7 we remember that God is a God of grace, who saves his people and who makes them his own. That God is ours, he belongs to us. And that we are his, we belong to him.

This is what the Lord meant when he said to Moses in Exodus chapter 19

“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

The Lord is the God of the covenant, the God of grace, the God of salvation, the Father of our Lord Jesus who sent his son to give his life to rescue us, not from Egypt, but from ourselves and from all the consequences of our wickedness and foolishness. The Lord, this God of grace calls us to believe. To trust. To have faith. But because he is the Lord, because he brings his people to himself, he also calls us to obey. As he said to Moses in Exodus chapter 19,

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt. I have brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

And of course he gave them his ten commandments. In the same way the Lord Jesus set us free from sin’s penalty and power so that me might no longer serve ourselves, but that we might serve him. This reminds us that we do not obey in order to earn the right to have a relationship with God. We obey because we have a relationship with God. Because the law is love. Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. This is the fulfilment of the law. Trust and obey, says the hymn, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey. This trusting obedience is the fear of the Lord. It fears the Lord because he is the almighty God, the creator of heaven and earth, our maker and our saviour. And it fears him so that it obeys him. Even when it does not understand. In fact, it does not have to understand. Because it trusts, it obeys.

This is the attitude that is the beginning of knowledge. This is the attitude that is the beginning of wisdom. This is the first step on the thousand miles journey to acquire wisdom. It is to fear the Lord. It is to believe him. It is to obey him.

On the other hand, as verse 7 says, the fool despises wisdom and discipline. The fool is not a simpleton. The fool is not the same person as the simple or the young mentioned in verse 4. The fool is the person who rejects God. As Psalm 14 says the fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” The fool is the person who is out of harmony with the will of the creator. The fool is the person who wilfully chooses their own way through life and celebrates their rebellion. The fool sings in her heart, “I won’t go to rehab” and then is found dead in her London apartment at the age of 27. The fool does not just lack wisdom and discipline. He despises it. And yet even the fool can begin the journey to wisdom. Even the fool can stop following the paths of destruction and turn around and find the right paths. But they must hear the gospel and respond. They must repent and believe. They must submit their life to the gospel which is God’s wisdom and then they will be ready to receive wisdom for themselves.

This is the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. But the beginning of wisdom is not the end of the journey. Let’s look thirdly at the goal of wisdom. Because it is not enough to believe and obey in order to live well. I mean think about it. How many commandments are there? There aren’t a thousand. There aren’t a hundred. There aren’t even fifty. There are only ten. And they are summarised by two key requirements. Love God. Love others. Love God first Love God above all. And love others equal to yourself. Or as Jesus said, “Love each other as I have loved you.” Ten commandments, summed up in two. That still leaves us an extraordinary freedom in our decision making. Where we live. What kind of home we build. What kind of job we do. How we spend our money. How we spend our time. We don’t get commandments to tell us what to do. We don’t get written instructions on how to make our everyday decisions. We have that extraordinary freedom to either live well or to live badly. So what we need is wisdom.

What we need is knowledge. Not just the content of knowledge. I know this. I know that. Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. Lima is the capital of Peru. Not just knowing facts. Not just the content of knowledge. But also the faculty of knowledge. Using what we know in order to know what to do. This is wisdom. It is the skill of living. It is the goal of life’s journey. But the good news is that the journey begins when we respond to the good news. When we believe. When we obey. And when we use the brain God gave us to think.

Proverbs chapter 1 tells us what is wisdom. But in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 the apostle Paul tells us who is wisdom.

Christ Jesus has become for us wisdom from God, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Christ is our wisdom. And so the journey to wisdom does not begin when we are born. It doesn’t begin when we start school. It doesn’t begin when we enrol in university. Christ is our wisdom and so the journey to wisdom begins when we believe the gospel, when we trust in Christ, and when we submit our lives to his wisdom because he is Lord. And the journey to wisdom continues as the light of his truth shines into the lies that we believe so that we grow in our love and obedience for him as we live by his truth and so that in every sphere of life in every choice we make in every challenge we face we may apply his truth and act appropriately. Christ is our wisdom and so he call us to believe and to obey and to think.

Christ is our wisdom and the journey of a thousand miles begins with him and follows in his footsteps.