Every day we face dozens of decisions. Some of them are relatively unimportant, like where should we eat for lunch? Or should I wear by blue pants or my black pants today? Some of them are incredibly important, but it's pretty clear what we should do, like should I pad my expense account? Or should I flirt with this person who isn't my spouse? We may not do the right thing, but at least we know what the right thing is.
But there's a third type of decision that we face every day. These decisions are important, and which choice we make can change our lives. But the answers aren't always very clear. They're questions like:
- Which university should I go too out of all the ones that have accepted me?
- Should I take the job in Calgary or stick with the one I have here?
- How do I handle the guy at work who drives me crazy?
- How do I handle my own bad temper?
There are tons of decisions that we face just like these in which the answers aren't obvious. There's no "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not" about some of these choices. Yet we need to be able to make these decisions, and many more like them, and the choices that we make with these decisions will ultimately change our lives.
That's why I'm really excited to begin a series from the book of Proverbs today, because Proverbs is written to address this category of decisions which are important, and yet for which there is not always a black and white answer. It's absolutely critical that we gain the skill we need in order to live wisely, and Proverbs is designed to help us gain this skill that we need.
One scholar says that "the church has practically discarded the book of Proverbs" (Waltke). Out of its 930 ancient sayings, many Christians know only three or four, and even these are often misunderstood. It's a book of the Bible that's often ignored, and there are probably a few reasons. The proverbs can seem banal to some, sometimes contradictory, and far from the twenty-first century. Because we live in a culture that's full of hype, I'm going to assume that we're going to be a bit cynical about grandiose promises, especially from a book that was written thousands of years ago in a very different culture from our own. Given all of this, we need to ask why we should make the time to study this book of the Bible.
At the very beginning of the book, Proverbs gives us some reasons why we should make the time to study it – not only study it, but be mastered by it. This morning I'd like to look at these reasons. They're contained in Proverbs 1:1-7. Here's the first reason:
1. Because of who compiled it
Proverbs 1:1 says, "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel."
There are a couple of things to notice here. First, that these are proverbs. A proverb comes from a word that meant "likeness," with the idea of offering comparisons, but it came to refer to a pithy statement or object lesson that helps the reader choose a wise course of action. We're going to see many examples of these proverbs in this book.
It also tells us the author or compiler of these proverbs. For years, some scholars have had a hard time believing that the book of Proverbs was written by Solomon. Some other collections of proverbs in the ancient world were written by some obscure person and then attributed to someone famous so that more people would want to read it. But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that Solomon indeed is behind this book. Kings at that time often collected wisdom material that could be used within the royal court to educate royal officials on how to conduct themselves. It certainly seems likely that Solomon, king of Israel, put the bulk of this book together, collecting proverbs from other sources, writing his own, and shaping the material into what has been preserved.
One of the reasons why this is important is because if we learn from Solomon, we're learning from one of the wisest people who has ever lived. It would be like learning hockey from Wayne Gretzky or how to play guitar from The Edge. Solomon is the Wayne Gretzky of wisdom.
I mentioned that other nations and cultures had their own proverbs. For instance, here's a Babylonian proverb on living within your means: "Build like a lord, go about like a slave! Build like a slave, go about like a lord!" Here's an Egyptian one on dining with your boss: "Take what he may give, when it is set before your nose…Do not pierce him with many stares…Laugh after he laughs, and it will be very pleasing to his heart."
These are good proverbs, and they're still useful today. But the Bible describes how Solomon's wisdom was even greater than what you find in these collections. 1 Kings 4:29-34 says:
God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
One reason why Proverbs is still worth reading is because it was written by somebody who was world-renowned for his wisdom. Solomon's wisdom is greater than the wisdom found in the Assyrian or Egyptian ancient literature. Solomon observed nature – we're going to see that in this book – and applied what he observed to how to live life. People travelled from all over the world to hear his wisdom. It's one reason why we should study it today, because the person who collected these proverbs was uniquely qualified to do so.
The second reason we need to pay attention to this book is:
2. Because of its purpose
So we've looked at the author. Verses 2 to 6 give us both the purpose of this book, and its intended audience, which we'll get to in a minute. Here's the purpose. You'll notice that there are five purpose clauses beginning with "for":
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-
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance-
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
Did you get the five purpose clauses? Verse 1 gives us the title and author of this book, and then these verses give us the purpose. Most scholars think that verse 2 is a summary statement, which is then broken down even further in the other verses. So verse 2 says that the book has been written "for attaining wisdom and discipline, for understanding words of insight."
Wisdom here literally means skill. It's a word that's used elsewhere for the skill of sailors, administrators, and of craftsmen. But here it means skill in living. Wisdom means having the knowledge and skill necessary to life your life in a God-honoring way, making good choices in life. We got talking about this in the office the other week. There are some people who are intelligent, but who aren't wise. They have a high IQ, but they make horrible choices in life. Then there are people who are wise. Their wisdom isn't measured necessarily by book knowledge or the ability to pass tests, but they consistently make good decisions. That's wisdom. One scholar (Von Rad) says that wisdom means becoming competent with regard to the realities of life: how things really happen, how things really are, and what to do about it. Wisdom is simply the art of living well in God's world.
Verse two gives us the flip side of wisdom. My version says "instruction." Yours may say discipline. One translation says "moral instruction." It's what happens when you observe the negative consequences of foolish actions. By observing what happens when people make negative choices, one can be trained and instructed how not to act.
You have a number of other words here: prudence – knowing what's right to do in a situation given the circumstances. The point probably isn't to make a distinction between all of the terms here, and break the proverbs into categories. The point is that this is what you get overall as you read the book. You can see that the type of knowledge that the proverbs hope to impart is:
- practical – it's not abstract or theoretical; it's about everyday life
- about knowledge, but also about more than knowledge – in other words, it's about knowing things, but it's also about how to use that knowledge well
- moral – it assumes that there are right and wrong things to do, and it guides you into making the right decisions
- it draws you into the mysteries and complexities of life – no easy answers
We all need this. Somebody has said that in many churches, you learn how to do churchy things better. You learn how to pray and study the Bible and that kind of thing. That's fine, but we also need to learn how to deal all of the complexities of life: how to get along with our neighbors, what to do with a difficult boss, how to choose which car to buy. C.S. Lewis wrote:
Before I become a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one's life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before, one hopes in a new spirit, but still the same things…Conversion [does not] obliterate our human life… (The Weight of Glory)
We need a faith that's not just about how to do religious things. We need insight and skill in not just living on Sundays, but every day of the week. Proverbs gives us just that.
So, it's worth tackling the book of Proverbs because of who wrote it, and because of its purpose. Two more quickly:
3. Because of its intended audience
One of the most important steps in writing a book is to define your audience. If you're going to write a book, they say, you need to understand the sort of person who will wander into a store and buy it.
Oftentimes, as I mentioned, proverbs were compiled for the royal court, so that those who were princely or close to power would learn the skills they needed to carry out their roles. You see traces of this in the book of Proverbs. For instance, in Proverbs 23 you get guidance on how to behave when you sit down with a ruler. But Proverbs isn't just for the royal court; it's for all of us. There's wisdom here that relates to living with neighbors, plowing fields – everyday kinds of matters that anyone can relate to. In fact, according to verses 4 to 6, there are two target audiences in mind with this book.
The first is described in verse 4: those who are simple, those who are young. I realize that if I described you as being a simple person, you probably wouldn't take it as a compliment. If we call someone simple, it usually means they're not all that smart. They're maybe a few ants shy of a picnic. But it's not the case here. Simple here means those who are still young enough to be open-minded. They're still being formed. It's too soon to know if they'll take the path of wisdom or the path of folly, so the purpose of this book is to help make up their mind.
If you're young, if you still have a lot of life decisions ahead of you, then this book is for you. I'm really excited that we can look at it together, because this book can help you make wise decisions as you set out in life. It's a lot easier to make the right ones up front than to go back and clean up the mess after.
But I know that not all of us are young. Proverbs gives us a second target audience in verses 5 and 6: those who are wise, those of us who are maybe a bit older and already have some wisdom. If we listen we'll be able to "add to [our] learning". We'll also be able to understand the art of the proverb and maybe learn how to teach others who are younger. This book is not just for neophytes; it's for all of us who want to grow in wisdom. The young and inexperienced need this book, but so do the wise and discerning. You never outgrow your need for wisdom. This book is for everyone.
One other note: although Proverbs often refers to men, as in "my son," it also is very appropriate for both men and women. In fact, when Proverbs gives a picture of what wisdom looks like in the final chapter, it offers the picture of a woman. She embodies the wisdom that's talked about throughout the book. That's not meant to put more pressure on the women. I heard of a man who was single who said, "I'm just looking for a Proverbs 31 woman." Eventually his pastor told him, "Maybe the Proverbs 31 woman you're looking for is looking for a Proverbs 1 to 30 man." The point is that there's plenty in here for all of us, male and female, at all different stages of life. This book is for everyone. In fact, there's only one category of person excluded, and that's the fool mentioned in verse 7.
So far we've covered three reasons why we should study and master the book of Proverbs: because of who wrote it, because of its purpose, and because we are part of its target audience. These are all important and true, but they are not the most important reason. The most important reason is still to come. Here it is:
4. Because of it's God-centered focus
The world is full of self-help tips. To be honest, a lot of it has been tried and found wanting. Every month you can buy magazines that tell you how to lose weight and have a fantastic love life and to de-stress. A lot of us have grown weary of all the pragmatism, because we've tried it before and it promises way more than it delivers.
The book of Proverbs is absolutely unique. Bruce Waltke, an Old Testament scholar, says that there are no parallels in all of the ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature. The thing that sets it apart, that makes it different from the wisdom and advice you get anywhere else, is so central that it's found right in the introduction. It's the theme or focus of this book. It's found in verse 7: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge."
You would think that a book that's about the skill we need for everyday living may not focus too much on God. If that were true, it would just be another self-help book that you could put on your shelf beside all the others. But that's not what Proverbs is. It's not just a set of principles that you can apply; it's also a God that you need to worship. There is no knowledge or wisdom apart from a proper attitude and relationship to the Lord, and if you are going to live wisely and well, then it all begins here. This is a deeply God-centered book.
What does "fear of the Lord" mean? Fear is usually seen as being a negative thing, like we're cowering. What you need to know is that fear is sometimes appropriate. When you are standing close to the edge of a tall building with nothing between you and thin air, then fear is a very good thing. When you are about to touch a hot stove with your bare hands, then fear will prevent you from doing something you'll regret. When you are living life, as indeed you are, as a creature before the God who has created all things, then fear is a very appropriate response. Not fear as in cowering, but fear as in knowing that he is God and you are not; fear as in being subservient to God, acknowledging your dependence upon him, seeing his power and holiness, as well as your own finiteness and unworthiness.
Oswald Chambers said, "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else." Proverbs gives us the skill to live well, and it does so in the context of a God-centered focus, one that we need desperately in our lives.
For all of these reasons, we're going to study Proverbs in the coming weeks. I'm going to invite you to begin by memorizing a verse a week with me. The first one is found in the bulletin this morning. We're going to come back next week and read it. There's also a reading schedule in the bulletin for you to follow. Most of all it's going to involve an attitude of teachability, a willingness to absorb what's written here and use it for our benefit.
As we close this morning, I want to tell you how valuable the book of Proverbs is. In fact, it's only really been improved by one person. Jesus said that the Queen of Sheba came to hear Solomon's wisdom, but then he said, referring to himself, "one greater than Solomon is here" (Luke 11:31). Colossians 2:3 says that in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." As great as Solomon and his wisdom were, we know someone who has wisdom even beyond Solomon's. So as we study this book and are mastered by it, and as we come to the one who is ultimately the source of all wisdom, we'll really gain the skill to live well in God's world.
Father, thank you for the wisdom that you gave Solomon. I pray that you would grant us teachable hearts as we learn from this book. Most of all I pray that you would teach us that living well begins with fearing you, recognizing that there is no knowledge or wisdom apart from you. Thank you for showing us wisdom in Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. May we be drawn closer to him as we study this book. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.