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The Wisdom of Solomon: True Wisdom

May 22, 2011

                                        

Sermon:  The Wisdom of Solomon:  True Wisdom
Text:  Proverbs 1-3

 

Today as we continue the series The Wisdom of Solomon, we will consider several very important chapters in the book of Proverbs.   We come to one passage in particular that addresses living in wisdom, walking the path of wisdom.  It is a passage that many of us memorized when we were children:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5).  

Every Jewish boy was required to commit to memory the entire book of Proverbs by the time he was twelve years old.  That memorization is no longer a requirement, but I sometimes tell families, “The book of Proverbs has thirty-one chapters.  If you take one chapter a day, beginning on the first day of the month – at least during the months that have thirty-one days – you read get all the way through the book by the last day of the month.”

So many verses in this book offer words of life for us.  Sometimes we get a little puzzled, though, because we have this nugget of wisdom and that nugget of wisdom.  We wonder how the pieces are connected.  Our confusion is due to the fact that the proverbs were collected over a number of many years.  Though Solomon is given credit for writing the entire book of Proverbs, the internal text informs us that Solomon did not write all of the passages.  They were merely collected under the name of Solomon.

Why is it important for us to understand walking in wisdom?

Graduates and others in the congregation this morning, you have all studied many books in your past.  You will know many additional books from this point forward in your life.  Books are changing just like everything else.  You will read e-books and listen to audio books.  Regardless of their type, books will be important to you.  Many will provide knowledge, but you need to make a distinction between knowledge and wisdom.

You can have real wisdom by considering three essential books.  The first is your checkbook or your online banking account.  By analyzing the way you spend money, you can understand, with some wisdom, where you place your priorities.  The Scripture says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34).  Second, look at your calendar.  Looking at how you spend time also informs you about your priorities.  Next week, we will have more to say about the wisdom of using time.  The third book is the Bible, the Word of God.  We are to allow it to be a “lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105).  The Bible provides a roadmap that shows us how to walk in wisdom.  The Bible defines wisdom as the ability to judge correctly and to follow the best course of action.  Wisdom is based on knowledge and understanding, but it goes beyond that.

The Ten Commandments fall into two categories.  The first four Commandments teach us about our relationship with God.  The fifth Commandment, which teaches us about honoring our father and mother, serves as a transition.  The last five Commandments teach us how to get along with others.  All ten teach us that real wisdom takes into consideration our relationship with God and our relationship with other people.

When Jesus is asked by one of the Pharisees to identify the greatest commandment, he refers to Deuteronomy 6:4-9, that Hebrew passage known as the Shema.  He says that the most important commandment is, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”  Our top priority is our relationship to God.   Then he adds, “And the second is like unto the first:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.’”  Jesus’ response to this question is based on the two categories of the Commandments:  our relationship with God and our relationship with others.  Real wisdom is not a matter of just following the rules.  It is also a matter of making the right decisions and choosing the right path.

Harry Royster, a member of our church, is very familiar with Zion Baptist Church, located in the northern part of Cleveland County in North Carolina.  On two different occasions, I have conducted the funerals for his brother, Jim Royster, and for his sister-in-law, Mary Royster.  Both were members of this church.  While walking in the cemetery of the church, I noticed probably the most unusual marker I have ever seen in a cemetery anywhere.  On a small granite marker was the man’s name Ora Pruitt.  The date of his death, 1953, was included, as were the words “Fell from an airplane.”

I said to Harry, “Harry, tell me the story behind this marker.”

“Well, a fellow fell out of an airplane and hit the ground on that spot.”

I said, “You have to be kidding me!”

“No, it really happened right here in this cemetery.  A plane was flying overhead when a man fell out of it.  He’s buried somewhere else, but the deacons thought his death was so unusual that they ought to place a marker there.”  Harry added, “A guy who is here today saw it happen.”

When I went to the lunch, I was seated next to this very man who had witnessed the man’s death.  He explained, “I was over on the next hill, running my tractor and bailing hay.  An airplane flew over, and I saw the guy fall out of it.  Another fellow, who was digging a grave right there in the cemetery, saw it happen, too.  When that fellow fell out of the airplane and hit there on that spot, he did not bounce.  He did not roll.  He just made a big dent in the ground.  We put up a marker in his memory.”

After I returned home I found, with the help of a search engine on the internet, an article in The New York Times dated the day after the man’s death.  I learned that the fellow, who had just gotten married, was flying on an old Piedmont airplane from Charlotte to Asheville for his honeymoon at the Grove Park Inn.  He was inebriated and a bit unruly when he arrived at the boarding gate, but the attendants allowed him to enter the plane anyway.

Some of you remember flying on those Piedmont planes, with its big hull and wings that were higher than the body.  Folding chairs were essentially set up in the plane for seats.  I have ridden one several times, and they are very noisy.  Traveling in one is somewhat like riding on a grasshopper.

About midway in the flight, the man needed to go the restroom.  He got up out of his seat, opened the wrong door, and fell out of the plane.  He landed in the cemetery.  His actions were not wise.

In our walk of wisdom, it is so easy to misstep.

My dad used to say, “You can get in more trouble in five minutes than you can get out of in a lifetime.”

This walk of wisdom requires constant vigilance.  We cannot just assume that we have everything all worked out and that we have become so mature that we do not need to be cautious anymore.  Every step along the way, every day that comes, requires acting in wisdom.  Trying to make the right decisions and doing what is right must last a lifetime.  On this Graduate Recognition Sunday, I am addressing these students in front of me.  I am also speaking to everyone in the congregation.  We all need to learn and remember this lesson.

Acting in wisdom begins, as the Scripture says repeatedly, with the fear of God.  What does that mean?  It means that we begin each day with a sense of reverence and awe for God, with a sense of admiration for God.  It means that we begin each day with a desire in our hearts to obey Him.  We discover, as we go along, that God wants us to do what is right.  We struggle with this task of making a wise decision on a daily basis.

That goal is not always easy to accomplish.   Think about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Can you imagine our Lord trying to make the right decision?  Doing so was not easy for him.  Can you visualize the perspiration on his brow?   Scripture says that during his struggle to make the right decision, “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).  You would think that by this point in Jesus’ life this decision would have been a piece of cake for him.  No.  He struggled with it.  Why do we think that we should be exempt?  Graduates, it is important to know that throughout life, you will be called upon to make wise decisions.

Just a little over a week ago, I was sitting in my backyard at night, something I enjoy doing.  Frogs have now cranked up for the summer season.  They were croaking in the pond.  Crickets were chirping, and a mockingbird was singing in the top of a weeping willow tree.  I was just enjoying being outside under the stars.

All of a sudden, an enormous bird swooped down across my yard.  I could not tell what kind of bird it was, but it flew up over a fence and into the field behind my house.  I heard a lot of scurrying back there and guessed that the bird had caught something.  My assumption was that the huge bird was an owl.

Two days later when I was in the yard again, my suspicions were confirmed.  I saw in an oak tree a great horned owl.  After seeing that bird, I started thinking about the wisdom God wants to teach me.

In Native American lore, the owl is often associated with wisdom, with foresight.  The owl is said to be the keeper of knowledge.  Native American cultures have a repository of teachings that is very similar to the wisdom of the Bible, to the wisdom of the book of Proverbs.  The difference is that the Bible begins with God.

An old chief knew that it was time for him to step down as the leader.  He wanted to appoint a young brave to replace him.  He had considered men within the tribe, including his own son.  Naming his son as the replacement was not an automatic decision.

The chief announced, “The young man who asks a question that I cannot answer will become the chief.”

One after another, braves came, each asking a question about the four directions and the way of animals.  The chief was able to answer all of their questions.

Finally, the chief’s own son came to him and said, “Father, I have a question for you.  In my hand, I have a bird.  Is the bird dead or is it alive?”

The chief knew that if he said the bird was dead, the young man could open his hand and let the bird fly away.  If the chief said the bird was alive, his son could crush the bird and let it fall to the ground.

The chief thought for a moment and answered, “Son, the answer is in your hand.”

That response tells us where wisdom is to be found.  We do not inherit wisdom.  We do not gain wisdom through much study.  The answer is within us.  Wisdom is very personal.  It comes out of our own personal relationship with God in Christ.  We obtain wisdom through our walk with God.  It is an internal quality that God cultivates within our hearts.  We cannot vaccinate a person against stupidity.  We cannot inoculate an entire population against foolishness.  The world would certainly be a better place if we could.

The beginning of the relationship is the fear and awe of God, the reverence for God; but the relationship is also a matter of walking with God every day, every step of the way.  Proverbs says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.”

I would offer to you five considerations for making wise decisions.  First, acting on impulse is usually not the best way to make a decision.  We cannot arrive at a good decision through a knee-jerk reaction. Doing so increases the probability of being wrong.    We need to follow a deliberate plan – not our plan, but God’s plan.  Do you remember the words of Jeremiah?  “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to do you good and not harm, plans to give you a future and a hope’” (Jeremiah 29:11).  God has the right plan.

How many times have I seen people make a horrible decision about the person they were going to marry?  They did not use their head.  They did not use their heart.  They made that decision based on their glands, their hormones.  Make the decision about your marriage partner by submitting it to the Lord.  Let the Lord direct that decision through prayer.

Second, wanting the approval of other people is not the best way to make good decisions.  The only approval that matters is God’s approval.  It is the reason Paul would write to Timothy, “Show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not be ashamed” (2 Timothy 2:15).  Let me repeat:  the only approval that matters is God’s approval.  The truth is that you will never get the approval of others.  It is elusive.

An old man and a boy wanted to sell their donkey.  The two started out early in the morning, walking to town with the beast.  They passed a store.  The men sitting out front ridiculed them, saying, “Look at that foolish old man and that foolish boy.  They have a perfectly good animal there, and no one is riding.”

The old man thought, “That’s right.  Someone ought to be riding the donkey.”  He lifted the boy onto the back of the animal and continued on their journey.

As they passed some women hanging out clothes on the line, one sneered, “Look at that selfish little boy riding on that donkey.  He is making that poor old man walk.”

The two went around a bend in the road and swapped places.  The little boy now walked while the old man rode.

As they passed a schoolyard, children playing there made fun of them, “That old man is riding that donkey and making that little boy walk!”

A little further down the road, they stopped at a bridge.  The old man and the young boy went into the woods and cut down a good-sized stick.  They turned the donkey over on its back and lashed its legs to the stick.  The little boy picked up one end of the stick, and the old man picked up the other end.  They lifted the stick to their shoulders and walked to town, carrying the donkey upside down on the pole.

We cannot please everybody.  The harder we try to satisfy others, the more ridiculous our attempt becomes.  We can only seek God’s approval.

Third, trying to be like other people is not the best way to make a decision.  My mother often quoted an adage that Clare and I have inscribed on a wall in our house:  “Be who you is and not who you ain’t ’cause if you is who you ain’t, you ain’t who you is.”  We must be the person God created us to be.  The only person we should try to identify with, the only person we should try to be like, is Christ Jesus.  It is the reason Paul said that we are to grow into “the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).  He also said, “For to me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21).  God intends for all of us to do the same.  He has given us the perfect example of what it means to be a complete human being.  That perfect example is Jesus.

Fourth, making decisions out of arrogance will result in a lot of foolish mistakes.  Only through humility can we really find the path of wisdom.  It is the reason that Proverbs 3:7 says “Do not be wise in your own eyes.”  We become most vulnerable when we think that we have everything all figured out, when we think that making a mistake is impossible.  Humility is required every day.  The prophet Micah raises the question “And what does the Lord require of you?”  His answer, “To do justice and to love mercy,” (Micah 6:8) is a difficult balance to obtain.  Micah tells us that we can find the balance between justice and mercy by walking humbly with God.  When we have a walk of humility, we are more likely to make wise decisions.

We sometimes feel as though we are shrouded in fog when we need to make a decision.  That situation calls for a period of stopping and waiting until the confusion clears.  Waiting must be active.  Isaiah says, “They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31).  They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their wisdom, too.  As we wait, we should pray.  God will show the way.

Fifth, knowing the great difference between being smart and being wise will help you make good decisions.  Your IQ does not matter.  Your GPA does not matter.  Your score on the SAT does not matter.  Every single one of us here today has known some very smart people who have made some very foolish mistakes.  Making wise decisions requires that we understand that nobody gets a free pass.  Everybody – including even the smartest people – must have the same humility, the same deliberate decision-making, the same regard for the opinion of God, the same desire to be like Christ in order to be wise.

I heard story that comes from Native American culture.  Perhaps you remember Iron Eyes Cody, who appeared in a television commercial several years ago.  This Native American, dressed in an outfit of buckskin with beadwork, is rowing a canoe across a body of water.  Just as he arrives at the edge of the bank and steps out of the canoe, someone throws a bag of garbage at his feet.  He turns toward the camera, and we see one tear rolling down his face.  That scene, which focuses on the pollution of the environment, is unforgettable.

Iron Eyes Cody is also concerned about another kind of pollution – the pollution of young people.  Alcohol and drug abuse are rampant among the Native American people.  Iron Eyes Cody travels from one reservation to another, telling the teenage boys and girls this story:

Years ago, Native American boys were required to participate in a vision quest when they reached the age of twelve or so.  The purpose of the vision quest was to enlighten them.  They stayed in the wilderness alone for four days, taking with them no food.  Once they returned home, they had a time of debriefing with a council of elders.  It was from that debriefing that the council derived the name that this young boy would carry with him for the rest of his life.

One particular young boy went out on his vision quest.  During the first day, he walked through a lush valley filled with beautiful trees, tall green grass, and a sparkling stream.  There he spent his first night.  He drank cool water from the stream and slept in the grass.  When he awoke the next morning, he looked off in the distance and saw a snow-capped mountain, which he decided to climb.  When he finally reached the top of the mountain, he stood in the snow, looking out over all the countryside and below to the valley where he had spent the previous night.

Hearing something at his feet, he looked down and saw there in the snow a rattlesnake.

As so often happens in Native American stories, the rattlesnake spoke, pleading, “I am so cold here in this snow.  I will die if you leave me here.  Please pick me up, and carry me down to the valley where I can be warm.”

The young boy stepped back and said, “Oh, no.  I have been told to avoid rattlesnakes.  I have been told that rattlesnakes will hurt me.”

The rattlesnake continued, “But I’m cold.  I promise that if you will pick me up and take me to the valley, I will not hurt you.  Do this for me this time, and you will not get hurt.”

The young boy finally relented.  He picked up the rattlesnake, which was indeed cold.  He placed it inside his buckskin shirt and started the journey down the mountain.  As he walked, the heat from his body warmed the snake.  It began moving around inside his shirt.  When the boy reached the valley, he opened up his shirt, removed the rattlesnake, and placed it in the tall grass.  The rattlesnake immediately coiled and struck the boy.

He cried out, “But you promised!  You told me that you would not hurt me!  You promised that I would be different.”

Laughing, the rattlesnake jeered, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.”

Fifth, heeding the warnings we have been given help us along the path of wisdom.  It is not enough for us to be smart.  We also have to be wise.  We must follow a path that is different from the world’s path.  The book of Proverbs says several times that the path of the wicked is crooked, but the path of the righteous is straight.  It is that straight and narrow path that we are to follow in wisdom if we are the children of God.

Can we really be wise?  We never completely arrive at wisdom, but we must follow the path of wisdom day after day after day after day.  We must remember that wisdom is a gift from God.  If we seek God and His way with an attitude of reverence, with a desire to please only Him, with a yearning to be only like His Son, then we can follow a path of wisdom.  Becoming like Christ is to be our goal. Wisdom is a lifelong search.  All along the way, we will have many opportunities to misstep, to succumb to temptations, to do what is wrong.  We must be forever vigilant.

I ask you, have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If you have never done that, could I extend that invitation to you today?  Some people here today need to make that decision.  Some have another decision to make.  We invite you to respond to these invitations from God.

Kirk Neely
© May 2011
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