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Seekers of Wisdom: To Walk in Integrity

January 21, 2007

Proverbs 11:2-3

I only caught a glimpse of the local news last night, but I saw enough to know that a six-point buck tried to go into a Dollar General Store. It crashed through a window and decided that store was not the right place. The deer went down a shopping strip mall and stood in front of the doors at a grocery store. When the doors opened automatically, the buck walked inside. Most people scattered; but three women tackled the buck, wrestled him to the floor, and sat on him until the Department of Natural Resources could send officers to get the buck. I pity those women’s husbands.

Some of us were talking about this incident after the early service. Deer hunters know a lot more about this behavior than I do, but they say that these animals’ reflections in glass attract them. A buck thinks the reflection is an opposing buck. Wayne Hyatt said that this poor deer was just confused about the time, place, and date of the Wild Game Dinner and showed up at the wrong place.

Why does something this bizarre occur? My reaction is to say, “El Nino or global warming causes it.” We seem to blame everything else on those two occurrences. I know how my grandmother would explain this buck’s behavior. When I was a child, if she looked out of her kitchen window and saw a dog eating grass, she would say, “That dog is not getting something.” My grandmother meant that the dog had some dietary deficiency that caused it to eat grass. I have often thought that principle also applies to people. When you see people violating common sense, behaving in a way that they must know is very foolish, it may be that they are not getting something. One possible answer to what is missing is a sense of integrity.

The message today is about learning to walk with integrity. For the past several weeks, we have been considering the wisdom of the Old Testament, especially the wisdom of the book of Proverbs. Now, we will consider the structure of this book because it will inform us about this issue of integrity. I want us to begin at the end. We say that Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs; but Chapter 31, Verse 1 provides an inscription that says the verses are the sayings of King Lemuel. Chapter 30, Verse 1 gives credit to Agur. I do not know who those two individuals are, but we have a few of their sayings collected here in the book of Proverbs.

An inscription at the beginning of Chapter 1, Verse 1 identifies all of the proverbs as coming from Solomon, son of David, king of Israel. The first nine chapters are sayings that parents have given to their children. Most scholars believe that these chapters are a collection of wisdom that has come through the people of Israel from one generation to another, passed along by oral tradition. The elders would repeat these sayings while people gathered around campfires, while people went about their work, and while people moved from one location to another. The inscription that precedes Chapter 10, Verse 1, called The Proverbs of Solomon, leads most scholars to believe that Solomon really wrote the proverbs included in Chapter 10 through Chapter 24. Let us look one more place, Chapters 25 through 30, more proverbs ascribed to Solomon but collected and copied by men in Hezekiah’s court. Hezekiah, King of Judah, lived about two hundred years after Solomon. The book entitled Proverbs, like many other books in the Bible, is a composite of proverbial wisdom.

Why is this structure important? We find the teachings about integrity between Chapter 10 and Chapter 24, writings specifically prescribed to Solomon. I want us to read several passages.

Chapter 10, Verse 9: The man of integrity walks securely,

but he who takes a crooked path will be found out.

Chapter 11, Verses 2-3: When pride comes, then comes disgrace,

but with humility comes wisdom.

The integrity of the upright guides them.

but the unfaithful are destroyed by their
duplicity.

We discover what Solomon means by integrity by considering a word that reoccurs only in these chapters ascribed to Solomon. The Hebrew word tabuna means “a man of understanding.” It may be that tabuna identifies an office in the court of Solomon. He may have designated people as wise counselors, men of understanding. Tabuna could have also applied to any person of understanding, any person who wanted to live a life of integrity. The culture here is one occurring nearly a thousand years before Jesus. The references were often to men; but for us, this instruction applies to both men and women. We must understand that “a man of integrity” or “a man of understanding” means both men and women to us.

In preparation for this message today, I concentrated on those chapters assigned to Solomon in particular. We will just skim a few verses from these chapters to get a flavor of all of them. Throughout this section, numerous passages help us define what it means to be a person of understanding, what it means to be a person who lives in integrity. The first part of this collection, beginning in Chapter 10, contains antithetical proverbs. They contrast what is wise with what is foolish and what is righteous with what is unrighteous.

Chapter 10, Verse 23: A fool finds pleasure in evil conduct,

but a man of understanding delights in wisdom. (There is the word tabuna.)
Chapter 11, Verse 30: The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,

and he who wins souls is wise.

When we talk about soul winning, we talk about it in evangelistic terms. The phrase in the Old Testament means that a wise person tries to help other people walk in paths of righteousness. The person tries to lead others in the way of wisdom. Perhaps we do not ascribe the same evangelistic meaning, but it is something similar. We invite people to take paths of righteousness. Several verses in a row are quite applicable to this message:

Chapter 12:15: The way of a fool seems right to him,

but a wise man listens to advice.

A fool shows his annoyance at once,

but a prudent man overlooks an insult.

Chapter 12:18: Reckless words pierce like a sword,

but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
I want us to try to gather all of this information and think together about four characteristics of a person of integrity. First, a person of integrity tells the truth. Sometimes telling the truth is easy; but at other times, it is difficult. Visualize yourself seeing a dear friend in the grocery store. This friend has been trying to lose weight since January 1 when he or she made a New Year’s resolution. The person asks you, “I have been on this diet, and I feel so much better. Can’t you tell a difference?” You look at your friend, and you really cannot see a loss in weight. What do you say?

A pastor had been talking to his children about the importance of telling the truth. One day when he was standing at the door of the church with his two children, a woman came out and presented him with a caramel cake, his favorite. The children got excited about the gift and were anxious to taste the treat. Once home, the pastor’s wife said, “We will not be able to eat that cake. Just throw it in the trashcan.” When the pastor asked why, she explained, “Have you ever been in that lady’s house? She has about a dozen cats. They walk all over the kitchen counter and eat out of the dirty dishes in the sink. Those cats are everywhere. That cake will be full of cat hair.”

The pastor removed the plastic wrap, sliced a piece of cake, and put it on a plate. Sure enough, cat hair was in the cake layers and in the icing. As his wife suggested, he picked up the cake and threw it in the trashcan. The next Sunday, he was again standing at the door with his children when the woman approached him. She asked, “Pastor, how did you enjoy the cake?” Wanting to practice what he had been teaching his children and wanting to tell the truth, he answered, “A cake like that just doesn’t last long at our house!”

It is not always easy to tell the truth, but it is so essential. When you tell the truth, you do not have to remember what you said; you say the same thing every time. My grandfather used to say, “Tell the truth, even when it hurts, and a lot of times it will.” Sometimes it hurts us to tell the truth. We want to be careful not to hurt another person. Christians are supposed to speak the truth in love. We are to speak the truth in a redemptive way. A person of integrity tells the truth. Other people learn to value a person of integrity when they know they can count on what the person says.

Second, a person of integrity is also true to his/her word. A movement among men that really caught on like wildfire at first, but has somewhat faded now, is called Promise Keepers. Promise keepers have been around for a long time, long before the formation of any organization. People of integrity keep their word. They will say what they will do. They will do what they will say. How can people trust you if they cannot depend on what you say? If you are not true to your word, you destroy the trust from others.

When I meet with a couple planning to be married at this church, we discuss the wedding vows. You know the wording: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish and keep only unto you so long as we both shall live.” The Old English version of the marriage vows concluded with, “And thereto I plight thee my troth.” I do not ask couples to plight their troth. I have changed the wording to “This is my solemn promise.” The marriage vows are a solemn promise before God. People who keep their vows are promise keepers.

A story that some of you have heard involves a man who came into the lumberyard one day with his little boy. The son said, “Daddy, give me a Coke. I want a Coke. Daddy, please buy me a Coke.” His father said, “Hush” and continued talking to my grandfather. The son again pleaded, “Daddy, give me a Coke. Daddy, please give me a Coke.” The man said, “If you don’t hush, I’m going to give you a licking.” A few minutes later, “Daddy, buy me a Coke. Daddy, please give me a Coke.” The man looked in disgust at my grandfather and said, “I told him if he would get in the truck and come over here with me, I would buy him a Coke. Now he won’t leave me alone.”

Without a word, my grandfather opened the cash register, took out a dime, and put it on the counter. The price of that drink lets you know how long ago this incident happened. My grandfather then reached under the counter, got a yardstick, and placed it on the counter beside the dime. Having reared nine children, he looked the man squarely in the eye and said, “The dime is for the Coke. The yardstick is for the licking. When you make a kid a promise, you keep it.”

Third, a person of integrity has to be true to himself/herself. We are who we are. I have seen many people try to amputate their heritage, try to act as if they did not come from where they came from. They try to act like someone different. I have learned that every single one of us in this church is no more than a generation or two away from the farm, the cotton mill, or the lumberyard. Few of us are far away from those roots. I realize that some people have a painful heritage because they come from dysfunctional families. It is vital that we claim our heritage, cling to some parts of our heritage. You cannot deny who you are.

Most of you know that I attended Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. People in this part of the world are suspicious about places like that. Before I went, a coworker at a North Carolina church I was serving advised, “Kirk, be careful when you go up there. Being at Harvard is like living in a bowl of granola. Them that ain’t fruits and nuts are flaky.”

Do you know what I discovered? Everybody in Cambridge came from other locations similar to Spartanburg. Very few people are born there. It is true that some people there wanted to amputate their heritage. You must be true to yourself. You must be true to your roots.

The other word of advice I received before going to Harvard was from my own dad who said, “Just remember who you are, and remember where you came from.” My mother had a quaint way of saying this: “Be who you is and not who you ain’t ’cause if you is who you ain’t, you ain’t who you is.” You have to be yourself, true to yourself, true to who you are if you are going to be a person of integrity.

Fourth, you have to be true to your Lord. If you are a Christian, you have made a commitment to God in Christ Jesus. The Bible talks of that commitment as a covenant. The Bible regards the covenant of marriage as imperative, but the covenant with God is more important. You can read the Bible and see that God never broke covenant with His people. The people who were in relationship to God broke the covenant. God is a covenant maker, not a covenant breaker. If you are going to be a person of integrity, you have to honor the commitment you have made to God. Young people, I especially want you to know that at times it is hard to be a Christian. Others will leave you out of activities if you live the Christian life. That is true for adults, as well. That is true for all of us.

My mother asked all of her children to memorize a scripture passage at the beginning of every summer. When I was in the seventh grade, she gave me the passage of Romans 12:1-2. I memorized it rather quickly, repeating it any time she requested. The following summer when she gave me the same memory verse, I said, “Mamma, that is the one I had last year.” She answered, “I know, but I want you to have it again this year.” “Why? I already know it.” She explained, “Kirk, you know the words. I want it on your heart.” The summer following the ninth grade, she gave me the same passage again. Do you know what it says?

I beseech ye, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

And do not be conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.

Do you know what it means? It means that you belong to God. Give yourself to Him completely. Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold. Let God mold you. The renewing of your mind must be constant, always reminding you to whom you belong.

I want to share with you a very sad story about Solomon, this king who provided these proverbs about integrity. I Kings 11:1-4:

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women beside Pharaoh’s daughter – Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, You must not intermarry with them because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives or royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.

Three women wrestled a buck to the floor in a grocery store. Seven hundred wives and 300 concubines – 1000 women – destroyed King Solomon. This man, known for his wisdom, ended his life by betraying the very wisdom he had taught. Philip Yancey writes about this in a piece he called Solomon’s Epitaph, found in the Men’s Devotional Bible: “With everything imaginable working in his favor, at first it seemed Solomon would gratefully follow God. His prayer of dedication for the temple in I Kings 8 is one of the most majestic ever prayed. Yet by the end of his reign Solomon had squandered away nearly every advantage…”

You read Solomon’s story in the book of I Kings. After the beautiful prayer of dedication for the temple, the scriptures never again record a prayer of Solomon.

Think back to the first sermon in the series. We talked about the first step in finding wisdom: reverence for God. Wisdom comes through the life of prayer that lasts all through life. Solomon quit praying. He violated his own sense of integrity. He was initially a man of understanding, a man of great wisdom; but he lost sight of God’s Kingdom. Solomon ended his life, behaving in a very foolish way. Every day, we must renew our vow to walk in integrity. Every day, we must pray with humility, “God, grant me the wisdom to walk in Your way. Lead me in your paths of righteousness for Your name’s sake.” We cannot walk in the paths of integrity in our own strength. We sang the words, “Without him, I can do nothing.” We must have the guidance of God every single day.

Many of you have made the decision to accept Christ as your Savior. If you have never done that, I invite you to make the decision. It will mark the beginning of your walk in integrity. It is a lifelong journey. Acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life. Live your life for him. Walk in integrity. Some of you have other decisions to make, a decision perhaps about church membership. In whatever way God is leading you, we invite you to respond as we stand together and sing our hymn of commitment, “I Know Whom I Have Believed.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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