Proverbs: Wisdom for Life - 14th July 2013 - Dave Walker

Bible readings: Proverbs 1:1-7 & 8:22-36

Click here to listen to the sermon

On 31st July 2005, a 30 year old man in Darwin, Australia, arrived home after a night out to discover that he had locked himself out of his apartment. The trouble was, it was a top floor flat, and the keys were inside. So the man decided that the best thing to do would be to climb up the outside of the block of flats. He made it to the second floor before he slipped and fell. Fortunately, his fall was broken when he landed on a parked car. Undeterred, he picked himself up off the broken windscreen, and tried again. This time he was more successful, and made it to the third floor before he slipped and fell. Unfortunately, however, this time he missed the parked car, and knocked himself out. At least that stopped him from trying again, however.   

How do you do life well? Some people can: they do life well; they handle the business of day-to-day living well. Others: not so good. 

What’s the difference between them? It’s not a question of how clever or intelligent you are. You can have a brain the size of Barnet and yet still not have much of a clue about living. Nor is it just about how fortunate you’ve been. You can be born into wealth and prosperity and not have the foggiest idea of how to get on with life.

The difference is down to wisdom. Wisdom is the thing we need if we are going to do life well. Wisdom isn’t just knowing facts or general knowledge; the sort of thing that you need to pass exams or win pub quizzes. Wisdom is practical knowledge. It’s about knowing how to do things. Life is full of decisions, big ones and little ones, moment by moment, day by day. Wisdom is about getting those decisions right. Life is full of pressures and conflicting demands, things that demand our time and energy and money. Wisdom is about knowing what’s really important, and making sure that the most important things are the most important things in our lives. Wisdom is how to do life well.

But some might ask: what has God and the Bible and church got to do with real wisdom? You see many people think that Christianity doesn’t have much to do with real day-to-day life. Christianity is a religion, people think, and religions are just about getting that bit of a spiritual buzz every now and again, perhaps a few high-minded ideas and a bit of moral direction on a Sunday, but nothing that will really make much difference at work on Monday morning. Church might be nice and all that, but it’s hardly practical.

But to think like that is to massively underestimate God. God is the God of the universe, not just of a few little bits here and there, like Sunday mornings and church buildings. As Christians, we believe that God the creator of everything has spoken in the Bible. That has everything to do with daily life.

And this book of Proverbs in particular is all about the nitty gritty of daily life. Look at chapter 1 verse 2 again. It tells us what Proverbs is for. It’s “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.” It’s to help us do what is right, in the day to day. It’s wisdom. As one writer put it, the function of Proverbs in Scripture “is to put godliness in working clothes.” It’s not so much about what happens when we’re in church, it’s about life out there.

So the aim of the sermons over the next few weeks is to have a listen to what the Bible has to say about wisdom. We’ll cover some real, practical issues; the sort of things that we find ourselves worrying about. But today we’re going to think about where to start: where does wisdom come from? Here are two foundational things we need to know about acquiring wisdom:

1. Wisdom begins with God.

The first reading we heard from proverbs sets the scene for the whole book. And in particular it introduces us to the theme tune for the book; the repeated line that comes up again and again, the theme that is written all the way through the book like the writing on a stick of rock. And it’s this: verse 7: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”

Wisdom begins with God. And so if you want to be wise, then you need to begin by having a right attitude to God. You see, the biggest, most important fact in the universe is that God is there. He made it, he’s in charge of it, he’s the most important person there is, so we need to start with him if we’re going to understand the rest of it. “The fear of the Lord” is where it starts. To fear the Lord in the Bible sense doesn’t mean being terrified of God, but rather it’s a reverent obedience; a worshipful submission. It’s the right response to the one true God. We need to recognise God as who he is, we need to give him the respect he deserves, if we’re going to make sense of the things he’s made.

2. Wisdom comes from listening to the right voice

Wisdom is something that needs to be learned. You can be born intelligent but you can’t be born wise. Wisdom has to come to you from outside. In the book of proverbs, wisdom is often depicted as a voice calling out to be heard. Have a look at that second reading that we had: chapter 8 verse 32: “now then, my sons, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise, do not ignore it.”

The Bible assumes that none of us have wisdom already to start off with. It’s something we have to gain, through listening, and watching, and learning. And you have to know that you need it. In fact the worse thing you can do is think that you know it all. “Proverbs 26:12  Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Wisdom must be learned. It takes time, and you have to think about it. Proverbs is not a bunch of quick fixes. There are no short cuts; we need to listen and learn.

So if this series of studies in Proverbs is going to help you then you need to know that you need wisdom. You need to desire it. And you need to be prepared to think. Don’t imagine that just hearing a few sermons and leaving it at that will do the job. Proverbs doesn’t work like that – you need to listen and think. It needs chewing over. In fact, why don’t you take up the Proverbs challenge this summer? There are 31 chapters in Proverbs. Read one chapter a day, and the whole book will take you a month. You’ll certainly be able to read it all by the time our series finishes at the end of August. That’s not too hard is it? It’d really help. Are you up for it?  

You see we need to make sure that we’re listening to the right voice. A big theme in Proverbs, especially in the first nine chapters, is the idea of there being two voices which call to you – the voice of wisdom and its opposite, the voice of folly. Folly is foolishness. If wisdom begins with God, folly begins with ignoring God. If wisdom leads one way, then folly leads the other. But it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that you’ll choose the right way.

This week I heard of some lawyers who settle divorce cases where there’s a dispute over who owns the dog. What they do is they put the dog in some kennels for a month, then they bring it out and stand it in the middle of a corridor, with one of the now divorced owners at either end. They do their best: “here Fido! Come one, boy!” And the one who Fido goes to gets to keep the dog. Amazing, isn’t it?

Proverbs says “imagine you’re the dog. The two opposite voices are calling to you – which way will you go?” Look across that page at chapter 9 – in verse 4 we see wisdom calling out “Let all who are simple come in here!” she says to those who lack judgment. “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.” Then look down at verse 16 where we see folly calling out too: "Let all who are simple come in here!" she says to those who lack judgment.  17 "Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!"  18 But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave.

Wisdom says “come to me and be wise, I will show you how to live,” but folly says “no, if you really want to live, come to me. I can show you a better life.” There are two voices calling out. They lead to very different end points. Don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll choose the right one.

The book of Proverbs gives us a challenge. It says “choose carefully who you listen to.” Most of us don’t. We just take in whatever happens to come to our attention, on the computer or in the paper or on TV or radio or whatever our friends and colleagues tell us. Proverbs says ‘be discerning. Be careful what you listen to. It’s not all helpful. Choose wisdom.’ Because to choose wisdom is to choose life.

So then, wisdom begins with God. Listen to the right voice, and learn. Listen to wisdom, from God, not folly. Let’s now think a little more about what wisdom is. Here’s 3 things to know about wisdom which will really help you:

1. Wisdom is built into the fabric of the universe.

The reason that God’s wisdom is the right way to live is because it is built into the fabric of the universe. Have a look at verse 27 of chapter 8. Here we hear the voice of wisdom speaking: I was there when [God] set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,  28 when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,” The message is simple: God made the universe in its entirety, and the whole enterprise was done in line with his wisdom. God’s wisdom is built into the fabric of creation.

That’s a really important point. It means that wisdom isn’t just a human invention. It’s not just something that you make up in your head, with no real connection to the world out there. No, wisdom is objective fact; it’s a real, substantial thing; it’s the principle that underlies all of creation. It’s built into the real world of space and time. When we follow the way of true wisdom, we’re not just doing something that seems to make sense, we’re going with the grain of creation.

That’s hugely different from the way an atheist would see the world. For the atheist there’s no governing wisdom, because there is no creator. History is just an endless sequence of things that happen because they happen. Life is guesswork and you have to hope you guess right. There’s nothing fixed to hang on to. There’s no plan.

No, says God’s wisdom. The world is ordered. It is planned, by a creator. And the creator has spoken to us; he has given us his words of wisdom so that we can live in his creation. The words of wisdom in the Bible are more than just clever thoughts. They are the makers instructions.

Now, I’m a man, and men are rubbish at following instructions. When I get a new piece of flat pack, or whatever, I want to just have a bash and see what happens. But even I know that there are some things where you have to follow the maker’s instructions. If you don’t put all those fixings and panels together in the right way, then the wardrobe will come crashing down. So it is with God’s maker’s instructions for the universe. We need to pay attention to them, if we are to avoid serious problems. As wisdom says at the end of chapter 8, “whoever finds me finds life and receives favour from the LORD.  36 But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death." You can’t ignore what God says, without putting yourself in danger. Wisdom is built into the fabric of creation.

2. Wisdom is Moral

There is a kind of worldly wisdom which basically says: “I’ll do whatever it takes to get the results I want.” It consists in doing whatever seems to work, regardless of whether or not it is the right thing to do. It’s the wisdom of Machiavelli. So, for example, there are people who try to get ahead in life by putting others down. They know how to throw their weight around at work, to make themselves heard. They build themselves up using little lies. And they don’t care about the effect it has on their colleagues.

Do you remember a couple of years ago when there was the controversy over waterboarding, and whether or not it’s ok to torture someone because it gets results? The whole ‘do the ends justify the means’ thing? If it gets results it’s the right thing to do.

True godly wisdom is not like that. It is moral. It is always principled; it will not do bad things in order to get the results it wants. Proverbs 8:13  To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behaviour and perverse speech.

Real wisdom comes from responding rightly to God. And God has clear moral standards. He is a God of righteousness, and so real wisdom in his creation involves righteousness. This is a moral universe. There is such a thing as right and wrong.

Atheism cannot give you this clear sense of right and wrong. If there is no God, then there are no fixed standards of right and wrong. Now, that doesn’t mean that atheists don’t have morals. They do. But the problem is that if there is no fixed standard of morals, then morals just become a matter of opinion. And so what is right for one person might be wrong for another person, and how do you judge between them?

That problem gets bigger when you try to live like that. You get into this sort of moral drift. Everybody blames each other when things go wrong, but there’s no unified idea of how to make it better. It happens in society, doesn’t it? It happens to individuals as well. Many of us will know what it’s like to drift away from the sort of moral wisdom that God lays down for us. Maybe you’re experiencing that now; maybe for some time you’ve been drifting; not really listening to what God says in the Bible, listening to other voices much more, and losing touch with what you know is right. And it doesn’t satisfy you; it just separates you from God, and from other people, and leaves you feeling confused, and hollow.

What all of us need is to get in touch with this true wisdom. We need to internalise it, and let it work through our lives, so that it shows itself in action. So how are we going to do that? That brings us onto our third characteristic:

3. Wisdom is a person

We’ve noticed already, haven’t we, that in the book of Proverbs wisdom speaks like a person; calling to us, inviting us to listen to it and come into relationship with it. “Whoever finds me finds life,” says Wisdom. Come to me and live.

You see, Proverbs wants us to grasp that wisdom is more than just gathering a few wise sayings and then doing them; wisdom is personal. Wisdom, in fact, comes from a person. One person in particular.

The rest of the Bible helps us here: Listen to the Apostle Paul in this verse from the book of Colossians in the New Testament. “My purpose… is that they may know… Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

The New Testament makes it clear that it was Jesus himself who was with God at the beginning, creating the universe and ordering it. The language from that reading in chapter 8 – that’s Jesus language, isn’t it? He himself is the wisdom of God.

And he invites us to come to him and receive life. Proverbs tells us that our lives need to be built on real wisdom from God. Jesus tells us that our lives need to be built on him. He tells the story of two men who build houses: one is a wise man who builds it properly, with a decent foundation. The other man is a fool: he doesn’t bother with a foundation, which seems fine to him until the storms come along, and the house collapses. And Jesus says that the wise man is like “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.” Jesus himself is the foundation: build your life on him, and it will stand.

So the essential first step in becoming truly wise; the wisest thing you will ever do in fact, is to come to Jesus for life. If you will repent; that is give up your other agendas, and entrust your life, your self, your future to Jesus, then you will find him to be the foundation you need for your life. You can rest your weight on him, and he will not let you down.

That’s the starting point. It’s not that Christians are automatically wise people; no, we have to listen and learn too. But the thing is, if you commit your life to Christ, then you can be sure that you’re starting in the right place. You are living in the right fear of the Lord, treating God as God, by trusting in his Son. You are listening to the right voice, the voice of true wisdom, instead of the voice of folly. So you’re starting right. You will need to listen a whole lot more. You will need to get to know Jesus more, for that wisdom to really work through your life. That will take time.

That’s what the rest of our series on proverbs in the next few weeks will be about; working the wisdom of God out in the nitty gritty; taking a few more steps down the road of wisdom. But for now, let’s make sure that we’re starting right. Let’s make sure that we’re starting with Wisdom himself, Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.