A sermon on Proverbs 3 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 27 May 2018.
Proverbs chapter 3 teaches us that wisdom works. The wise life, the examined and carefully considered life, that’s the life that prospers and succeeds. Proverbs 3 not only teaches us that wisdom works. but it also teaches us why wisdom works.
Here’s an example of wisdom working. I once visited a lady who had a terminal illness. She had weeks to live, if not days. Family and friends were coming to visit from every corner of the country. Friends and neighbours were bringing casseroles and cakes to feed all the visitors. She seemed a little embarrassed by all the fuss. So I said to her, “You deserve this. They’re just giving back the love you showed them in the past.”
And she said, “Well I’ve always said, “What goes around, comes around.”
It’s a proverb, a small sliver of wisdom crystalized in catchy words. This one doesn’t come from the Bible. Instead, it comes from the wisdom stored in our culture. It means that our actions have consequences in the future. We get back what we give. If we hurt people, they will hurt us. If we do good to others, others will do good to us. And that lady was living proof that she was right. What goes around, comes around. It didn’t mean she was immortal or was going to win the lottery. But it did mean that she had looked after others and in her time of need, others looked after her.
Proverbs like, “A rolling stone gathers no moss”, or “A stitch in time saves nine” contain truths that are generally true. They’re not true all the time. General truths are only generally true. In fact it is possible to have two proverbs that mean the exact opposite. Many hands, they say, make light work. But too many cooks spoil the broth. Generally, the more people share a job, the easier the job is for everyone. But a simple job can be ruined if too many people try to do it at the same time. They are both true, just not at the same time.
The proverbs in the Bible are the same. They aren’t promises that you can claim. There’s no ombudsman that you can complain to if they don’t come true. They are just catchy sayings that talk about the general results of living well and living badly from the experience of those who trust God.
For example, Proverbs 14:23: “All hard work brings a profit.” It simply means that working hard pays off. Like we would say, You only get out of something what you put in. It’s generally true. It doesn’t mean that if a salesman works hard he’ll never miss a sale. It doesn’t mean that bosses never exploit their hard workers. But it is still true that there is a close connection between the effort you put into something and the results of that labour. That’s how proverbs work.
Proverbs work because wisdom works. The examined life, the life that thinks clearly, that uses the brain God gave us to make the right decision for the right situation, that kind of life works. It is successful. It enjoys the benefits for which it works so hard. Wisdom works. Proverbs chapter 3 not only tells us that, but it also tells us two good reasons why wisdom works.
Verses 1 to 10 remind us what we learned last week from Proverbs chapter 1. Wisdom begins with the fear of God. We fear God when we trust him enough to obey him. So wisdom begins with this respect that God deserves that is inspired by trusting him. So that the right life to live is the one that puts God first and does what is right.
In these verses the writer speaks to us like a wise and good father appealing to his son. He appeals to his son because he has had more experience of life. He is aware of the pitfalls, the kind of mistakes that beginners make in the big wide world. He knows what kind of life is prosperous and successful. He loves his son and cares about what kind of life he will lead, what kind of person he will be. And he knows that the life of wisdom is not an easy life. The foolish life, the life of sin is easier and tempting. But the short term pleasures it offers must be put aside in order to live a life that matters.
Wisdom puts God first because he is first. We put God first as verse 3 says by tying love and truth around our neck, so that they become our source of beauty and charm, by writing them on our hearts, so that they become the core of our lives and of all our values, as verse 5 says by trusting the Lord with all our heart, so that we obey him even when we don’t really understand, as verse 7 says, by fearing the Lord and shunning evil, as verse 9 says by honouring the Lord with our wealth, investing our lives and our income in the kingdom of God. This is the right life to live. This is wisdom. And this is the kind of life that works.
Verse 2 says that wisdom will bring long life and prosperity. Verse 4 says that wisdom will bring us favour and a good name. Verse 6 says that the Lord will make our paths straight. Verse 8 says that wisdom will bring us health and nourishment. Verse 10 says that wisdom will bring us success that will brim over every attempt to contain it.
If you think about these blessings, you will see straight away that the promises of the life of sin just can’t compare. Any short term pleasure or satisfaction that the life of sin delivers will vanish in a moment and will always be mixed with regret and guilt and shame. The richest man in all the world would still be poor compared to the simplest believer who trusts in Jesus and inherits all these promises. Because all he would have is his money. The life of sin is the way of foolishness and only a fool would follow it. Because wisdom works. Wisdom is more profitable than silver. It yields better returns than gold. It is more precious than rubies. Wisdom holds long life in one hand and wealth in the other. But folly holds only ashes and dust.
Proverbs 3 teaches that wisdom works. But it also teaches why wisdom works. So secondly, wisdom works because God is the wise judge of the world he has made. In the game of life, the Lord holds the whistle and he referees according to his own holy rules. Verse 12 says that the Lord disciplines those he loves, like a father disciplines the son he delights in.
Discipline is more than punishing. Any father, any parent can punish. This, for example, is a wooden spoon. I’m sure that in some families wooden spoons are used for doing things like stirring pots. In my family it was only used on our backsides. Any parent can punish, sending their child to their room, grounding them for a week, cutting their pocket money, banning the television. But discipline is more. Discipline is motivated by love and is used to correct wrong behaviour and to inspire right behaviour, to produce self-discipline.
Jesus taught us that God is our heavenly Father. And like any good father, he will discipline us. He will correct us when we do what is wrong so that we will do what is right. He will discipline us through the things that happen to us. He will correct us through the plain teaching of the truth in the Scriptures. He will convict us through the testimony of the Spirit and of our conscience within us. And he will put us straight through the rebuke of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Nothing hurts more than being told that we are doing the wrong thing. But nothing is as precious as knowing that someone loves us enough to put us right.
But God does more than discipline us. Verse 26 reminds us that he protects us. This is why we will go on our way in safety. This is why our foot will not stumble. This is why we can sleep without fear. Jesus said,
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny? But not one of them falls to the ground without your Father knowing it. He even counts every hair on your head! So don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”
It doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. But it does mean that our lives aren’t at the mercy of any hostile or uncaring power. Nothing can happen to us against the will of our loving heavenly Father. God disciplines us and he protects us.
And he will judge us. Wisdom works as verse 32 to 35 make clear because:
“the Lord detests a perverse man, his curse is on the house of the wicked, he mocks proud mockers and holds fools up to shame, but his blessing is on the home of the righteous.”
What goes around comes around, because the Lord makes sure that it comes around. In fact, he brings it around. He mocks the mockers. He hates the haters. And he makes sure that the devious fall into their own traps. Wisdom works because the Lord makes it work. For he has appointed a day when our Lord Jesus will return and he will put right every wrong and he will wipe away every tear and his truth and justice will reign for ever and ever. And on that day we will reap the harvest that we have sown. The foolish life sets us against the will of our creator. So the Lord calls us to abandon our folly to walk his way of faith and obedience and wisdom.
Wisdom works because wisdom begins with the trusting obedience that repents of its sin and clings to Christ in faith for salvation. Wisdom works because only the wisdom that begins with trusting obedience will survive the purifying fire of judgment to enter the kingdom of God.
Thirdly, the other reason why wisdom works is because wisdom is the operating principle of the universe. As verses 19 and 20 say,
“By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.”
God created the world with wisdom. Nothing makes this clearer, of course, than the first chapter of the whole Bible. As creation is portrayed as a series of divine works over six successive days we see that what God does he does in order and that what he makes contributes to his overall purpose and plan. God subdues the hostile forces of darkness and water. He makes air to breathe and land to live on. He creates animals and plants to breed and multiply. And he forms humankind and makes them in his image. All by the word of his mouth that not only expresses his will but makes it happen. By wisdom the universe began, and by wisdom the universe continues.
We see that wisdom in how night follows day and day follows night. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The moon grows and then shrinks in a period of about 28 days. Spring leads to summer then autumn and winter. All these phenomena depend on the motions of the sun, moon and earth according to the regular laws of physics. Too often modern science is made out to be some kind of alternative to God. As if it can prove that there is no God or at least no need for God. But the truth is that the success of science as a way of looking at the world we live in depends on the faithfulness of God to regulate the world according to reliable and predictable principles. Science works because a good, wise God rules over his world.
Wisdom works for the same reason. Wisdom is based on the observation of the general principles that govern human behaviour. Wisdom is based on predicting the consequences of right and wrong actions according to regular patterns. Wisdom works because it is in harmony with the purpose of God in making the world and in ruling it. Resisting that purpose, fighting against the will of God is as silly as building a house out of twigs, as dangerous as running a red light, and as reckless as jumping off the roof in the hope that this time you might fly. And that is why folly fails, but wisdom works.
To put it another way, life is like a game of monopoly. It has rules. It has structure. It has a goal and purpose. Many things happen in an actual game that are beyond the control of the players. They can’t control the roll of the dice, or the turn of the cards. They can actually only control the decisions they make during their turn. The good player is not the one who rolls the best dice, but the one who makes the best decisions when the dice are rolled. A bad player can beat a good player in any one game if the dice goes his way, but a good player will always do better with the same dice rolls and so will win more games over all.
That’s how wisdom works. The wise person doesn’t succeed because things outside their control always go their way, but because they make better decisions in the things that are in their control. This is the promise of wisdom. It doesn’t promise you an easier life than the person next to you. You can’t follow the crucified Jesus and expect an easy life. But what wisdom does promise is an easier life with wisdom than one without it.
In life’s great game lots of things are outside our control and we can feel like the dice are loaded against us. We can feel like we’ve been dealt a bad hand. But the wise person makes the right decisions in the right situation. Wisdom is the skill of living well. Wisdom is playing life’s great game well whatever the roll of the dice and whatever the cards we are dealt. We will always do better with wisdom than without it. Because wisdom works.