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Seekers of Wisdom: Where to Begin

January 7, 2007

Proverbs 1:1-7; 3:1-7

Every year for the last several years, I have received an e-mail from one of my children on the second or third of January, giving me an internet link to the latest Darwin Awards. People who have done some very foolish act and lost their life receive a Darwin Award. I have shared some of their stories with you in the past. To be perfectly honest, the top ten winners of the award have stories that are so grisly I am reluctant to share them. However, I enjoy the stories of those people who have won honorable mentions. These winners have not lost their lives, but they have behaved very foolishly.

Listen to these stories. A man in Yellowstone National Park decided to steal some gasoline. He planned to siphon the gasoline from a motor home with a long piece of plastic tubing that would act as a straw. He opened the cap to the tank, ran the tube down the pipe, and started siphoning. The man had not opened the gas tank. He had opened the sewage tank. He earned an honorable mention.

In Louisiana, a man stopped at a quick-stop gasoline station. He went inside, laid a twenty-dollar bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash register drawer, the man pulled out a gun and yelled, “Take all the money out of the drawer, put it in a bag, and give it to me!” The clerk did as ordered, giving the robber all the money in the cash register. The robber left, leaving behind the twenty-dollar bill on the counter. He was arrested for armed robbery. The money he stole amounted to less than fifteen dollars. He received a Darwin Award honorable mention.

A man in Los Angeles was tired of walking, so he decided to steal a motor vehicle. He led police on a chase down a street in Los Angeles, a chase that proceeded at about five miles an hour. The vehicle he stole was a steamroller. An officer on foot caught him, stepped up on the running board of the steamroller, and arrested him.

A woman in California drove to a fast-lube station and asked to have the oil in her car changed. The mechanic discovered eighteen bags of marijuana hidden under her hood. Yes, it was her car. Yes, she did know the marijuana was there. She said she did not realize the mechanic would have to open the hood in order to change the oil. She got an honorable mention in the Darwin Awards.

People can act very foolishly. A woman who loves to shop maxes out her credit card over the Christmas holidays. It will take her several years to get out of debt. A man who has difficulty breathing because of emphysema still smokes a pack and a half of cigarettes every day. A student, bright and capable with above-average IQ, simply refuses to do homework and study. A person, impatient and angry in rush-hour traffic, becomes reckless and exceeds the speed limit. He hits and kills another driver.

The book of Proverbs, located right in the center of the Bible, reminds us that we all have a propensity to be foolish. The many sayings in Proverbs give us practical, commonsense advice about how to avoid foolishness. Every culture has proverbs, usually short sayings designed to come as major truths, fundamental principles. You are familiar with, “A stitch in time saves nine” or “Haste makes waste.” Proverbs sometimes rhyme so that they will be easy to remember. The sayings in this book of the Bible are easy to remember. At one point in the history of Judaism, every Jewish boy was required to memorize the entire book, thirty-one chapters. I do not recommend that you do that, but I do recommend that we all memorize some of them. These proverbs are written, designed, for those who are young, as well as those who have a little mileage, for those who are old.

I would like to read the first seven verses of this book, beginning at Chapter 1, Verse 1 so that we will begin to get a little flavor of the book’s purpose.

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for attaining wisdom and discipline;

for understanding words of insight;

for acquiring a disciplined and improved life,

doing what is right and just and fair;

for giving prudence for 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.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

Solomon is the main author of this collection of proverbial wisdom. He probably did not write all of them. Near the end of the book, you get the real sense that a mother is instructing her son about his choice of a marriage partner. Any person who seeks wisdom from a biblical perspective certainly must come through the book of Proverbs.

Job raised the question, “Where can wisdom be found?” in Chapter 28, Verse 12 of the book of Job. That question came out of his suffering. Job had lost so much: his children, his property, and even the confidence of his wife. Can you imagine a man so bereft, hearing his marriage partner counsel him, “Curse God and die!” Job’s friends came to him, but they offered only cold comfort. They wanted to blame him for all of his troubles. We find Job sitting on an ash heap, clothed in sackcloth. With a piece of broken pottery, he scrapes the boils that cover his body and asks the question, “Where can wisdom be found?” Job answers his own question with the one we find here in Proverbs 1:7 and in the books of Psalms and Deuteronomy: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

A woman sits at her desk, looking at an accumulation of credit card bills. She looks at her overspending and asks, “Where can wisdom be found?” A man with emphysema takes one last draw on his cigarette and throws it to the ground. As he crushes it with his heels, he has a coughing fit. Where can wisdom be found? The negligent student who receives his report card and sees that the grades are not good asks, “Where can wisdom be found?” The reckless driver, now with the guilt of causing the death of another person on the highway, asks, “Where can wisdom be found?”

Some of you are old enough to remember the television program Rawhide. I remember watching the episode in which the wagon master asked Rowdy Yates, “Are you a God-fearing man?” before employing him. Rowdy Yates answered, “I am scared to death.”

Does “fear of the Lord” mean that we are afraid of God? Certainly, there is a sense in which we tremble before the Almighty. The beautiful hymn entitled “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” points, of course, to the sovereignty and majesty of God, God who is so far beyond our understanding. We cannot comprehend His power, His ability to know all things. I suppose fear is part of the way we relate to Him. God Himself said, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. My ways are higher than your ways. My thoughts are higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). We just cannot understand everything about God. Frederick Buechner says that a human being trying to understand God is a little bit like a beetle trying to understand a human being. God is just beyond us. A part of that mystery does create a sense of awe. Is that what it means to fear God?

The book of Deuteronomy has much to say about wisdom. We find a helpful passage in Chapter 10, the final summary words of Moses before the people of Israel crossed into the Promised Land. Verse 12 defines what it means to fear the Lord:

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

Fearing the Lord is not for God. It is for us. The Bible says in several places that fear is the beginning of wisdom. The book of Proverbs does not focus so much on doubt verses faith or on wrong verses right. It focuses more on what is foolish verses what is wise. The book does not talk about being smart. Being smart is not the same as being wise. Some very smart people have done some very foolish things. Wisdom is different from intellectual ability. Wisdom is the theme of the book of Proverbs. Some have said that the book of Proverbs is not very religious. There is very little mention here of worship, so I understand why people might say that.

More than 500 tribes of Native Americans have their own languages. Not one single Native American language has a word for religion because religion is not separate from life. They have no need to make a distinction between what is sacred and what is secular. Everything is sacred. They have no need to define what is religious because everything is religious. The same thing is true in Hebrew thought. All of life is a religious experience. Every part of life is sacred. In Hebrew thought, understanding that God is at the center of everything results in wisdom.

The apostle Paul quotes in the New Testament a phrase that comes from Greek philosophy: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is a way of saying that God is a part of everything in life. He is not just the God of Sunday, for example. He is the God of every day. He is not just the God of a little part of each day during our time of devotion. He is a part of every moment of our days. It is the reason Charles Wesley could write, “Take our moments and our days; Let them flow in ceaseless praise.” The fear of the Lord means that we have a sense of reverence for God in all of life. He is a part of everything.

Proverbs 3:5-6, a passage of instruction to a young man, give us a four-fold commentary on what Chapter 1 means by “the fear of God.” Verse 5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Many of us have followed this week the services in commemoration of former President Gerald Ford. I remember clearly that I heard President Ford quote this scripture in one of his speeches. He referred to it as one of his favorite passages. This scripture means that you are to invest your life, your very being, in the hands of God. It is true that we never know what the future holds, but it is also true that we know that God holds the future. We trust in the Lord with all of our heart. We put our lives in His hands.

The passage “lean not to your own understanding” is the definition of humility. Understand that it is not your decision, your wisdom, which matters most. You cannot depend on your understanding. You must depend on wisdom from above. It takes humility to seek God’s wisdom.

“In all your ways acknowledge him.” Simply recognize that God is sovereign, that He is in control, that He knows everything. God will guide and direct you. He has a plan for your life. Jeremiah 29:11 affirms, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” When we acknowledge that God does have a plan, we are coming close to what it means to fear the Lord.

The last truth stated here is that God will direct our paths. Of course, He can direct our paths only if we are willing to follow Him.

How does this sense of reverence have a plan in our lives? Can we find wisdom by writing a check? Can we find wisdom by purchasing something? Can we find wisdom by taking a college course? No. Wisdom is not for sale. We cannot buy wisdom. We cannot obtain knowledge that way. I like how Vance Heffner words it: “If you want knowledge, go to college. If you want wisdom, pray.” The only way to obtain wisdom is through the life of prayer. The book of James, sometimes called the Proverbs of the New Testament, gives this counsel: If any of you lack wisdom, ask for it” (James 1:15). Ask God for wisdom. The only way to seek wisdom is to begin with prayer.

King David was a great man, good in so many aspects. He was an astute politician. When he was trying to unite the monarchy, he could have chosen any place to serve as the capital city. He went outside the boundaries of all the tribal groups and chose the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, a neutral city. David was a poet and a singer, the “sweet singer of Israel.” He was a leader, a mighty warrior. David was also a man who, in almost every way, consulted God. Scriptures call him “a man after God’s own heart.”

One day, David did something kings did not do. When his army went to war, he stayed home and took a walk on the roof of his house. He looked down from the top of the palace and saw a beautiful woman bathing. He decided that he must have this woman, Bathsheba, so he sent for her and committed the sin of adultery. When she became pregnant, David ordered his general Joab to put her husband, Uriah, on the front line during battle. In essence, he conspired to commit murder. David was guilty of a double sin – adultery and murder. He sought the wisdom of God in so many ways; but on this occasion, he turned away from wisdom and followed his own desires, his own designs.

The prophet Nathan went to King David and said, “King, I want to tell you a story. A wealthy man was going to give a banquet for visitors. He owned an entire flock of sheep. Instead of killing one of his lambs, he stole and killed the lamb of a poor man.” David became enraged and declared, “I will bring that man to justice.” Then Nathan held up a mirror and confronted David with his sin, asking, “Do you see what I see? That man, O King, is you.”

David could have had Nathan put to death, but he did not do that. Confronted with his sin, he prayed, “Against thee and thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in thy sight. Create within me a clean heart, O God. Renew within me a right spirit. Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:10). God forgave David of his sin, allowing David to renew his relationship with God and again become a man of wisdom.

Yesterday was Christmas Day in much of the world. The entire Eastern Orthodox Church – Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox – celebrates January 6 as Christmas Day. The western church, the church that started in Rome, calls that day Epiphany. It is a day that we mark the coming of the wise men to Bethlehem. Most of us place the shepherds and the wise men together in our manger scenes. If you read Scripture carefully, however, you will see that the shepherds came first. The wise men followed sometime later. The wise men knelt in humility before the Christ child, offering their gifts.

Wise people still do the same. Wise people know that wisdom begins by coming before the Lord, trusting Him, acknowledging Him, making a commitment to follow Him. It begins when we come to the Lord Jesus and acknowledge him as our Savior, as our Lord. Only then do we come to the point where wisdom begins.

Do you want wisdom? The only way to have wisdom is to acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Savior. Do you trust him with your life? In humility, do you consult him? Will you acknowledge that he is in control? Will you follow him? It is a good way to start the new year. If you have never made that decision, could I encourage you to come to Jesus? Some of you have decisions to make about church membership. You know that God has led you to this place. Some of you need to make a decision to recommit your life. We encourage you to make the decision that Christ Jesus has laid on your heart as we stand together and sing a beautiful hymn of invitation, “The Savior Is Waiting.” We invite your response to the invitations of God.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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