We continue with our studies in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. Proverbs is part of what is called the "Wisdom Literature" of the Bible.
It's not a history of the ups and downs of God's people before the coming of Christ, like the Old Testament historical books. Nor is it a record of God's word at specific times like the Old Testament prophetic books. Nor is it a book of laws. It is, as its title says, a book of Proverbs - or wise sayings. King Solomon, King David's son, was the great mind, under the Holy Spirit's overruling, behind a great number of these proverbs. And this book reminds believers of the wisdom of living by God's word, while it challenges non-believers over the folly of ignoring God's word.
But by way of introduction note three things that you will find as you read Proverbs. First, you will find that it deals with the very ordinary things of life. It is, therefore, a vital reminder that God is not just for Sundays but for every day and the whole of life. Secondly, it teaches that your mind matters. The fact that God, in his providence, has provided his people with this book of wise sayings reminds you that he wants you to use your mind and that belief in God is eminently reasonable. Thirdly, it shows you that you need to know more than the letter of the Ten Commandments for right living. You have to apply them using sanctified common sense. So you avoid murder by never getting into bad company. You avoid adultery by keeping out of the red-light district. You avoid coveting by being satisfied with enough. And so on. Of course, the fulfilment of God's wisdom is in Jesus Christ, who is "wisdom" incarnate. The New Testament says that Jesus Christ is the "wisdom of God" and he…
“… has become for us wisdom from God - that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1.30)
Jesus Christ offers us righteousness, holiness and redemption through his cross and resurrection. But when your are accepted as righteous in Christ through trusting him, and redeemed from the power of Satan and given God's Spirit of Holiness, how are you then to live? Well, you are to obey God's word and that will include heeding this book with its timeless advice and its timeless principles for Godly Living. I trust we shall see some of what this involves as we now look at Proverbs chapter 4.
My headings tonight are: first, EDUCATION IN WISDOM (verse 1-11); secondly, RIGHTEOUSNESS AND WICKEDNESS (verse 12-19); and thirdly, "YOUR HEART" (verse 20-27).
First, EDUCATION IN WISDOM (verse 1-11) - at this Commissioning Service that is a relevant subject as so much of our work is among children, young people and students.
If it is true that your mind matters, from where do you get wisdom for you mind to work on? Many in the modern world say, "From nowhere. You make it up as you go along. You can have your truth and I can have mine. So let's just celebrate our diversity." Elsewhere in Proverbs this is described as folly:
“He who trusts in himself is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe.” (Proverbs 28.26)
You need God's wisdom not your own hunches about life. You are to begin with God and not yourself.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom… ”
says Proverbs 9.10. And verses 1-11 say you get that wisdom as you learn it. You need education in God's wisdom. And especially young people need that, but so do older people. Look at verses 1-4:
“Listen, my sons, to a father's instruction; pay attention and gain understanding.
I give you sound learning, so do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a boy in my father's house, still tender, and an only child of my mother,
he [my father] taught me... ”
Solomon is, here, engaged in education. And in teaching his sons he is recounting what his own father, King David, taught him. So what did King David teach Solomon? Look at verses 4-9 and let me make a number of observations about this teaching and how it challenges us today.
First, verse 4 says Godly teaching is a matter of life and death - "keep my commands and you will live", with the implication that if you do not keep those commands, you will die. So if there is bad education that ignores God's truth and moral law, why be surprised at more teenage killings through stabbings and shootings and an increase of other crimes? I had to be in a BBC Radio Newcastle discussion on Friday morning with a humanist. It was about a recent poll. That showed 83% of the population think our society is collapsing morally; but 62% believe that religion is important for moral guidance, and that figure is even higher for 16-24 year olds. I argued that it is faith in Christ that makes a difference. When more children go to Sunday School and more people are committed church-goers and a nation's laws encourage rather than discourage Godly Living, as a fact there is social improvement. That is proved by history and social science. So learning Godly wisdom is a matter of life and death.
Secondly, verse 5 and verse 6 say, "do not forget" and "do not forsake wisdom". Sin so often comes because people simply forget what is true and right and so drift into error and what is wrong. It is not learning new truths but remembering old ones that is often needed.
Thirdly, verse 7 says, "wisdom is supreme, therefore get wisdom;" and verse 8 says, "esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honour you." If wisdom, God's wisdom, is supreme, education in that wisdom will be the most important thing in human life. That is Proverb's or King David's view of education.
So, fourthly, the challenge to us is "how does that compare with the education in our schools and universities today?" Answer: with some exceptions, it bears little comparison. The motto of Oxford University is 'Deus Illuminatio Mea' - the Latin for "The Lord is my light". That is Psalm 27 verse 1. While a good number of students are beginning to believe that, it is not the ethos of the university. Take another prestigious university, Harvard in the USA. Today the motto on its shield is simply the word, "Veritas" - the Latin for "truth". But it's original and official motto is "Veritas" with surrounding it the Latin words 'Pro Christo et Ecclesiae' - "for Christ and the church". Those Christian words have now been left off. And what about our schools?
What about our schools in this city? In that Radio discussion on Friday I quoted the Newcastle upon Tyne Education Committee's official 'Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education (Senior Section)' for 1972. That syllabus was agreed just before I arrived at JPC in 1973. And it was modelled on the Northamptonshire Education Committee's syllabus. Newcastle was not an exception. The first words you read are on AIMS; and the first aim is, I quote...
“... To help the pupils towards an understanding of the Christian Faith in Jesus Christ as ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14.6), and to provide a basis from which they may move toward the belief that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20.31)"
But a year ago the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority were no longer wanting to help 11-14 year olds even in "distinguishing between right and wrong". They just wanted "secure values and beliefs" - which, of course, Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot all had.
Recently a distinguished American Social Scientist gave a lecture on university education to a university audience, in the course of which he said this:
"When a university decides not to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, it is not saying nothing. Rather it is saying that adherence to this way, this truth and this life is not necessary to, or is a hindrance to, being the kind of university it wants to be."
You see, a university can't be neutral. If it is not going to be Christian, it is going to be something else. So what do we want our universities to be? Many are in danger of being merely colleges where students learn utilitarian skills of various sorts but with no moral direction. In fact many discover a positive encouragement to immorality - to drink too much, to have premarital sex, and to take drugs. Look at some of the Freshers' packs soon to go out to 400,000 new students this autumn. But what does Proverbs suggest for a school or a university?
Here is a recent and official Church statement that is following the tradition of Proverbs in stressing "the priority of the ethical over the technical [and] the primacy of the person over things". And it goes on: "The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience. Men and women of [learning] will truly aid humanity only if they preserve the sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person."
I believe we have to do something, as Christians locally and nationally about education. In this period, 2007-2008, 77 billion pounds are being spent of our tax-payers' money on education. In a democracy, as Christians, we need to ensure it is well spent.
That brings us to a fifth observation from this chapter. Proverbs 4 suggests that education is a parent's and certainly a father's responsibility. So if you delegate that responsibility to the state at primary, secondary and, yes, at tertiary level, should you not be working for change where you see a defiance of Christian ideas, ideals and values in our schools and universities? Christians must not impose their beliefs on others. They rightly should demand, however, that other beliefs are not imposed on their and other children and young people whose parents would rather they were taught within a Christian world-view than a secular or other religious world-view. There can be no-neutrality. In a country where the very latest figures are that 54% claim to be Christian, 40% claim to have no religion, and 6% other religions, surely at least a Christian world-view should be on offer in our schools and universities?
And that is because, and the sixth observation on these verses, Proverbs says that children and young people benefit from a Godly education. Look at verses 10-11:
"Listen, my son, accept what I say, and the years of your life will be many.
I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths."
There is now social science evidence that the outcomes for believers, on average, in terms not only of mortality but of health - both mental and psychological (and in many other areas) - are better, other things being equal, than the outcomes for non-believers.
Seventh, and finally, before we move on, notice the obvious - this is home or family education. Delegated education may well be necessary but it will never be enough. The most fundamental education is what goes on in the home - fundamental because the home, whether good or bad, provides the first, or actual, primary schooling. Universally and throughout history families have played an essential part in transmitting a society's culture, values, virtues and beliefs. Therefore, when there is family breakdown, expect to have social, moral and cultural breakdown. How vital, therefore, that you not only contend for a more Godly education but also for the restoration of the life-long monogamous married family. So much for education in Godly wisdom.
My second heading and more briefly: RIGHTEOUSNESS AND WICKEDNESS (verse 12-19).
In these verses "righteousness" and "wickedness" are not really defined. It is assumed that everyone is pretty clear about righteousness and wickedness when they meet them. Proverbs seems to assume what the theologians call General Revelation. That is when God reveals his truth through nature. It is called General Revelation because it is received by everyone as distinct from God's Special Revelation. You have that special revelation in Christ and through the Bible. It gives you specific truths about God that you cannot find in nature - especially God's plan of salvation. However, Psalm 19.1, for example, tells you about general revelation: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands."
Then there is Romans 1.19-20 where Paul says,
"what may be known about God is plain to them [sinful men and women], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."
Paul told the people of Lystra how, through nature, also the goodness of God is known:
"… he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." (Acts 14.17)
And Romans 2.14-15 says that some, at least, of the demands of the moral law are known to every human conscience. So is God's judgement that those who do evil deserve death (Roman 1.32). Deep down people are conscious of these truths. But sin means that unless the Holy Spirit brings life to lifeless hearts and light to spiritually blind eyes, people will be hindered from living by these truths. They will "be hampered" and "stumble". Look at verses 12-19 where there is a contrast between the righteous and the wicked. It says that if you are righteous, verse 12:
"When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble."
Verse 13 says that if you are righteous you will persevere in your obedience to God's wisdom:
"Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life."
And if you are righteous, verses 14-17 say you will be careful about your friends and associates:
"Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evil men.
Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.
For they cannot sleep till they do evil; they are robbed of slumber till they make someone fall.
They eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence."
The wicked are so concerned with doing evil that they do not sleep. You say only a few people are overtly wicked. Yes, but where there is an erosion of a culture that has been influenced by the truths of General Revelation, social and moral breakdown in time will follow. Then all sorts of apparently "good" and "nice" people are corrupted. That happened in Nazi Germany. It happened in Rwanda. It is beginning to happen in Britain. By contrast if you are righteous, you will grow morally and spiritually. The contrast is put poetically, but clearly in verses 18-19:
"The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble."
Thirdly, and as we draw to a close, "YOUR HEART" (verse 20-27):
Let me read those verses and then say something about one of them:
"My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words.
Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart;
for they are life to those who find them and health to a man's whole body.
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.
Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you.
Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm.
Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil."
Verse 21 says God's wisdom has to be "within the heart"; and then the verse I want to look at verse 23 says:
"Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life."
In the Bible the heart stands for the real you - what you are like when you are thinking your own thoughts that no one else knows about, and your goals and desires. Paul equates your "heart" with your "inner being" in Ephesians 3.16-17. This verse 23 says that from the heart everything else flows out - "it is the wellspring of life". That is so important. Jesus taught the same thing in our New Testament reading - Mark 7.21:
"For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly [everything that is not wisdom]."
The big lie today is that the basic problems of existence are in the environment or the external world. The Bible teaches that is not true. The basic problems are in the human heart. If the heart is wrong, of course, the environment and the external world will then be affected. But the human heart is the basic problem. Sometime later than Solomon, prophets were telling that one day it would be possible to have new hearts and so new power and so an ability better to "get" and, then, "embrace" God's wisdom. The good news is that Jesus came and brought about that renewal and the possibility of a new heart through a new birth. His new life - his resurrection life through the Holy Spirit - is available to those who trust him. And his cross means that if you trust him, there is forgiveness too for all the folly and evil in your life. Who has never yet trusted Christ - God's wisdom incarnate - as Saviour and Lord? If not, why not do that tonight?
Let me conclude now by summing up:
First, Proverbs 4 teaches that education in God's wisdom is important: It is a matter of life and death; it involves remembering old truths; it is the most important thing in human life; it challenges today's education; it is a parent's responsibility; it benefits the pupil; and as the family is important in the process, marriages need to be strengthened.
Secondly, God's general revelation means that deep down people are conscious of God's moral order of right and wrong. And righteousness, the mark of God's wisdom, leads to the "light", wickedness to "deep darkness".
Thirdly, how can you enjoy that light and avoid that darkness? Answer: you need a new heart, for the heart affects everything. You need a new life. And Jesus Christ offers that as you seek his forgiveness and trust in him.