Wisdom and Folly

Audio Player

16 And [Jesus] told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
18 "Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." '
20 "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
21 "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
(Luke 12)

The reason that parable has such a sting in the tail is that from the world’s point of view, that man was anything but a fool. He was clearly bright and had done very well. And yet God says to him, ‘You fool.’ Because in the Bible that word doesn’t mean you lack intelligence. It means you lack judgement - you lack the ability to see the way things really are, and what really matters. To use another Bible word, you lack wisdom.

We begin a sermon series in one of the Bible books which God inspired to give us the wisdom we need. E.g. the wisdom to make decisions. Like: which university course shall I choose? Should I start going out with someone? Or carry on going out? Or ask her to marry me - or say yes if he asks? Should I try to change jobs or stick with what I’ve got? But life isn’t just about acting when we’ve got decisions to make. A lot of it’s about reacting to situations often not of our making. And we need wisdom for those, too. E.g. in being the only believer in your family, or in your marriage. Or in what to do with money gained through successful business or inheritance – or about money lost through some misfortune or mismanagement. Or in handling difficult family relationships or working relationships. And so on. And if I were to ask, ‘What decision or situation do you need wisdom for right now?’ I’d be surprised if at least one thing didn’t come straight to mind. We need wisdom, and the New Testament (NT) book of James says this:

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

So before we turn to the book of Proverbs, let’s pray along those lines:

Father God,
As Solomon did centuries ago, we come to you and say we are like little children. By ourselves we don’t understand life and how to act and how to react. And so we ask that tonight, and through the coming Sunday nights, you would put in our hearts the wisdom we need. In Jesus’ name.
Amen

So would you turn in the Bible to Proverbs 1. And let me read from the beginning:

1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2 for attaining wisdom...

So,

First, WHAT IS WISDOM?

You’ll see from v1 that the main author of the Proverbs (which just means ‘wise sayings’) was King Solomon. (I say ‘main author’ because if you read to the end of chapter 31, you find that there are a few collections of other people’s proverbs, too.) And if we turn back to the moment in Solomon’s life when he prayed for wisdom to rule God’s people, we get a pretty good definition of what wisdom is. So would you turn back to 1 Kings 3? This is the point in the Bible where God’s people are finally in the promised land, with God’s law to tell them how to please God and a King to lead them in doing so. And look at what Solomon prays, v7:

7 "Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. 8 Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. 9 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?"

So what is wisdom? It’s discernment to distinguish between right and wrong – and you could add to that, to distinguish between the good and the best. And perhaps the best definition I found this week was this one:

‘Wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action.’

So that’s my first question answered.


Second, WHY DO WE NEED WISDOM?

Let me read from Proverbs 1.1 again:

1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2 for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight
[remember: wisdom is the ability to see what is right or best; v3:];
3 for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair [remember: wisdom is the inclination actually to do the right or best thing];

So, why do we need wisdom? Or, to put it another way, why did God inspire books like Proverbs? Why wasn’t it enough simply for God’s people then to have the law that he’d given them through Moses? And why do we, as God’s new covenant people today, still need books like Proverbs?

One reason we need wisdom is to help us obey what God does tell us to do. Let me give an example which is a trailer for next week’s sermon on ‘Faithfulness and Adultery.’ In his law, God said to his OT people – and still says to us – 14 “You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20) I.e. God says, ‘Keep sex within marriage.’ But simply being told what to do doesn’t in itself enable us to do it. And from a NT point of view, we know that only being forgiven through the Lord Jesus and receiving his Spirit into our hearts actually changes us into people who want to do God’s will. But one of the ways God works in our hearts is by helping us see the wisdom of what he commands us – the goodness and desirability of what he commands - and that’s what Proverbs does. So, e.g. next week we’ll look at some of the parts of Proverbs that warn us off sexual immorality by helping us see how destructive they are; and which encourage us to cherish and protect our own marriages by helping us see how good they can be. So turn over to Proverbs 5.3:

3 For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil;
4 but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword.

Remember: ‘Wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action.’ And in that example, Proverbs is helping us to see through the deceitful promise of immoral sex – just like chapter 1 later helps us to see through the deceitful promise of immorally gained money.

So we need wisdom to help us obey what God does tell us to do. But the other reason we need wisdom is to help us use our freedom where God doesn’t tell us what to do. Let’s stay with marriage as an example. I was preaching on ‘Being Single’ last Sunday morning, and for many that includes handling the desire to marry. And the passage we looked at – 1 Corinthians 7 – says that God doesn’t tell any of us whether to marry or exactly who to marry – there’s no verse of the Bible specifying the name of any future husband or wife of yours. All God tells us in the Bible (as far as what we must and mustn’t do) is: that we must marry only another believer, and someone who’s not already married in God’s sight, and someone of the opposite sex. Within those limits, we’re free (opportunity permitting). It’s as if the Christian life is like a football pitch. And the lines around the edge are where God in the Bible does tell us where we’re not to go – e.g. not to marry an unbeliever; not to marry someone who’s already married in God’s sight; not to marry someone of the same sex. But God in the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly where to ‘play’ on the pitch (e.g. whether to play in a single position or a married position), nor does he tell us exactly what move to make at any given time (e.g. whether to start going out with someone, ask them to marry you or say yes if they ask you). Those are decisions for us to make, and for that we need wisdom - which won’t tell us what to decide. But it will show us how to decide. E.g. flick over to Proverbs 31, and look down to v10:

10 A wife of noble character who can find?

I.e. This last chapter of Proverbs is wisdom for seeking a marriage partner. So look on to v30:

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

So remember: ‘Wisdom is the ability to see and the inclination to choose the right or best course of action.’ And here Proverbs is helping us see through things that are less important (not unimportant, but less important) to things that are of first importance - because if your aim is to spend the rest of your life seeking to serve the Lord Jesus, then if you’re still free to marry, you’ll want to choose someone whose aim is the same – to use the language of Proverbs, someone who also ‘fears the LORD’. So, going back to the football pitch illustration, wisdom helps us understand not just the reasons for the lines we’re to stay within, but also the goal we’re kicking towards – the goal of being godly and seeking to serve the Lord Jesus first. So in this example, wisdom says, ‘Look first for godliness in a marriage partner.’ In the example of university choices, wisdom says, ‘Ask first whether there’s a good church in the university town you’re thinking of going to.’ - because three or four years without one will do your godliness no good; and your godliness is a goal far closer to God’s heart than your degree. Or in the example of work choices, wisdom says, ‘Ask how a change of job or within a job will affect your contribution to both evangelism and church. Some of you will know the speaker Vijay Menon. He worked in Lloyds of London and was so capable that he was repeatedly offered promotion. But in order to protect his many evangelistic speaking engagements, he kept turning it down, knowing that in his case it was evangelism or the heavier demands of promotion – which wisdom helped him see as the good threatening the best.

So, we need wisdom both to help us obey what God does tell us to do and to help us use our freedom where God doesn’t tell us what to do. And the assumption in Proverbs is that none of us is naturally wise. Look at v4. This part of the Bible (like other ‘wisdom’ parts) is,

4 for giving prudence to the simple… (Proverbs 1)

As we’ll see over the coming weeks, the book of Proverbs uses a collection of different words for the wise and a collection of different words for the foolish. And ‘simple’ is one of those words used to describe the foolish. Literally the word translated ‘simple’ means ‘easily deceived, easily led astray.’ So, again, like the rich fool we began with, it’s not talking about low IQ. It’s talking about all of us – because according to the Bible all of us, by nature, are easily deceived and led astray. We’re all foolish by nature, which is just another way of saying we’re all sinful by nature – that’s how we start out life. Which means that the only way to be wise is to become wise – not least, by reading and taking in the ‘wisdom’ parts of the Bible. And v4 says that’s especially an issue for ‘the young’. These Proverbs, it says, are ‘for giving... knowledge and discretion to the young.’ So just look down to v8:

8 Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching. (Proverbs 1)

Again and again a new section of Proverbs begins like that. Which implies that this book was especially designed to prepare the young man or woman to make the transition from dependent childhood to independent adulthood. It assumes the background of parents who are believers, and the situation of a child moving into independent adulthood – e.g. in our culture, through senior school and then heading off to university or into a job – where they face the challenge of an increasing number of unbelieving voices telling them how to live. And can I say, if you’re heading off to university next September – or back to university – reading this book alone would make you very wise for facing the pressures and immorality of Freshers’ Week and beyond, not to mention the crucial business of choosing your friends well. So, if that’s you, read Proverbs this summer. But it may be that, like me, you didn’t have Christian parents and didn’t grow up within church circles but wish you had - both for the head-start in wisdom it would have given you, and for the experiences of sin and folly it might have spared you. But if that’s you, again, read Proverbs. Because it’s a book in which those who didn’t get the training of a believing father and mother can receive the training of a heavenly Father on paper. And if and when, God-willing, it becomes your turn to be the believing father or mother, then open this book of the Bible to your children. A friend of mine, a father of three boys, periodically returns to Proverbs for a month in his bed-time Bible reading with them - one chapter for every day of a 31-day month. We should be teaching Proverbs in families, in CYFA and in the student work especially.

But v5 reminds us that we all need it. Look at v5:

5 let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance (Proverbs 1)

And so, e.g. Billy Graham throughout his life has read a chapter of Proverbs every day – one chapter for every day of a 31-day month. Because the business of wise living is like riding a bike: unless you keep pedalling, you can take same bad falls. And Solomon is the prime example of that: for a man who wrote so much wisdom about marriage, he didn’t keep pedalling at being wise himself in that department. And he’s a warning that whether we’re relatively wise or relatively unwise today, we’re all capable of being foolish tomorrow if we become complacent or self-confident.

So, what is wisdom? Why do we need wisdom? And lastly,


Third, WHAT’S THE KEY TO BEING WISE?

It’s there in v7 – which is one of the key verses of the whole book:

7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Proverbs 1)

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.’ Or later, in chapter 9, it says, ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,’ (v10). It amounts to the same thing. It’s not talking about fear of punishment or fear of rejection by the LORD. If we’re reading this as NT believers - as those who trust that the Lord Jesus has taken on himself the punishment for all our sin - then we know it can’t mean that. So some translations say, ‘Respect for the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ – which isn’t a bad try, although ‘respect’ is a rather weak equivalent. The fear of the LORD is to say, ‘God is God; I’m not; and he therefore knows best; so I’ll bow to his will.’ The fear of the LORD is to recognise his absolute authority and wisdom as the Creator of life and to operate on the basic principle that where I feel I want to disagree with him, he’s right and I’m wrong. And I’m aware that there may be parts of God’s will that you’re finding very hard to obey right now, or situations that God has you in that you’re finding very hard to accept. And the fear of the LORD is to say, ‘God is God; I’m not; and he therefore knows best; so I’ll bow to his will.’

But that could sound like rather cold submission. So turn over to the parallel verses in chapter 3, v5:

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.
(Proverbs 3)

What underlies all genuine, willing submission to God is trust in his goodness. And the fundamental reason we don’t obey what he’s told us, and/or don’t use our freedom to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, is that we don’t trust him: we don’t trust his goodness, and that whatever he’s asking of us is good for us. We don’t trust that it’s never a case of doing his will at the expense of our good; but that his will always has our best interests at heart. And from a NT point of view, that trust is anchored in Jesus’ death on the cross. Like Romans 8 says:

32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

I.e. if we trust that he was good enough to give up his own Son for our eternal salvation, can’t we trust his goodness over the relatively lesser matters of our lives – even though they rightly seem big to us. So, picking up again the example of handling the desire to marry: it’s easy for someone to feel they won’t find a Christian to marry and therefore to doubt God’s goodness – either in making that one of the lines within which we’re to live, or in placing them in the situation of there being seemingly no-one on the horizon. And that’s just one example of many where wisdom begins with trust in the LORD and the fear of the LORD.

The only alternative, like the end of v7 says, is to play the fool. And as Psalm 14 puts it,

1 The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’

So the fool can be the atheist, like Richard Dawkins, who professes to believe that there is no God. But we can all play the fool by professing to trust in the Lord and yet in the heat of the moment, becoming practical atheists. I.e. in the face of a temptation or a decision or a testing situation, we can easily act (or react) as if there is no God - either by doing what we think best, or by following what we desire without really thinking at all.

But wisdom doesn’t do that. Wisdom says to the LORD, ‘You are there; and you are God; and you do know best, and I trust your goodness to have my best interests at heart. And even though I can’t necessarily understand it, and even though it isn’t necessarily easy, I bow to your will.’ That is ‘the fear of the LORD’. And that is the beginning – and the end – of wisdom.

Back to top