April 22, 2007

Wisdom Needed
Proverbs 1:1-7

The book of Proverbs almost did not make it into the Bible. During a lengthy, communal process that ultimately ended soon after the time of Jesus when an assembly of Jewish leaders closed what we now call the Old Testament once and for all, the merits of Proverbs, like those of Ecclesiastes, Esther and the Song of Songs, were hotly debated. No one fussed about the books of Moses or the writings of great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Ecclesiastes, however, wallows in excessive pessimism, the Song of Songs fixates on sexual intimacy, and Esther—if you can imagine it—never even mentions God. How can a book be included in sacred Scripture, people wondered, if God is not among the characters?

But what about Proverbs? Why the controversy here? Proverbs, as even a quick reading indicates, lacks the broad, sweeping theological ideas that most discerning readers came to expect from books in the Bible. Proverbs, for example, rarely refers to the covenant between God and Israel, temple worship, or prophecy. It does not talk about the holiness of God, explain how to offer sacrifices, or provide insights into prayer and other spiritual practices. It lacks, in other words, a distinctively “religious” flavor, providing instead what William Abraham refers to as “good, old-fashioned horse sense.” Proverbs is earthy, exploring such everyday matters as the selection of friends, power of words, payment of workers, disciplining of children, use of time, and gathering and spending of money. Such ordinary matters, everyone agrees, are vitally important—we all need “good, old-fashioned horse sense.” But including such a book in the Bible, this inspiring collection of sacred writings?!? Many sought to leave it out. I, for one, am thankful to God and his guiding Spirit that it was eventually left in. After all, common sense and godliness are hardly mutually exclusive.

In these few opening verses, we find the introduction to the book of Proverbs as a whole. Words, ideas and connections introduced here appear again and again in the chapters that follow, albeit with far more specificity. For the time being, what this opening section does is help us understand three fundamental principles concerning the “good, old-fashioned horse sense” that the writers of Proverbs are so interested in.

The first principle goes like this: God placed within creation a certain rhythm or beat that all people are called to follow. Creation, in a sense, was like a finely tuned engine or a meticulously performed symphony. In a finely tuned engine, each part works together with such precision that you can sometimes hardly tell if it is running. When you sit down in the driver’s seat, you pause for a moment to decide whether or not to turn the key. That never happens with my ’89 Corolla! Or in the case of the symphony, each musician plays a perfectly tuned instrument and follows every lead of the conductor. As these musicians play in concert with the conductor, they produce a sound that enables even the most troubled listeners to forget about the cares of the world around them.

So it is with creation. God fashioned it to run smoothly and without ever missing a beat. He equips every part of creation with a fine instrument and invites everyone to join in the performance. Migrating wildebeests and snorting warthogs are part of the performance, as are rippling brooks and congregated clouds. We, too, are called to make music, and we do that by living our lives in accordance with God’s rhythm—the beat that God has placed within the very fiber of the world. We join the performance, according to Proverbs, by living balanced and God-honoring lives in all that we do, say and think. We follow God’s beat when we use our time wisely, eat well, choose the right friends, work hard, rest regularly, treat others fairly, speak in life-giving ways, share our money, and on and on. That is how God, our Creator, wants us to live every day.

And here is the second principle: people must now be taught and trained to follow the beat that God has instilled within creation—it no longer comes naturally. Come back with me for a moment to that finely tuned engine. Imagine that someone put contaminated fuel in the tank or threw a wrench in the gears. Or think of the symphony with instruments that are second rate or totally out of tune. Picture the violins, violas or cellos with broken strings. Suddenly, the previously quiet engine kicks and bucks, and the meticulous performance degenerates into chaos.

This, once again, is the story of creation. Beginning already in Genesis 3, humanity’s disobedience—our refusal to follow God’s beat—has left the world scarred and broken. With that brokenness have come multiple beats, beats that compete with and seek to drown out the beat that God himself has built within the world. As time passes, it becomes harder and harder to hear God in the middle of all of the noise and distractions around us. Which beat do we follow? Which tune do we play? How do we know how to live? We have to learn to listen. We must be taught how to make godly choices. We need to be trained to carefully distinguish between what is true and what is false. We need to learn to discern which voices—which sounds—come from God and which do not.

This ability to discern and live in accordance with God’s rhythm or beat, then, is primarily what the Bible means by wisdom. When we think of wisdom, we typically imagine a supernatural moment in which we are inspired to make a potentially life-changing decision. “Lord,” we pray, “which of these job opportunities should I accept? Where should I go to college? Which of these ten people who all adore me should I marry?” And make no mistake about it, God does in fact guide us during such moments when we genuinely call out to us. The writer of Proverbs says as much:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths (3:5-6).
But far more often, wisdom refers, not to a special, momentary empowerment, but to an ongoing ability to live a balanced and God-honoring life—at home, work and play. Wisdom is the capacity to make godly choices when the broken world around us encourages us to do otherwise. When the world—or what Proverbs calls “folly”—tells us to look for quick fixes and lottery prizes, wisdom encourages us to work for what we have. When the world assures us that we are not affected by the people we hang around with, wisdom reminds us to choose our closest friends carefully. When the world lies to us and tells us external appearances are of the utmost importance, wisdom assures us that character carries the day. When the world tells us to eat like crazy and run ourselves into the ground, wisdom whispers into our ears and says, “Take care of your bodies—you only get one.” And when the world entices us to think only of ourselves, wisdom prompts us to give and serve. Wisdom, in short, is the capacity to hear competing beats—conflicting voices—and to follow the ones that truly come from God.

But we need to be taught about wisdom. I always get a kick out of parents who seem surprised at times that their children need training. Some people seem to think that godliness and wise living come naturally. They don’t. It’s been said that of all of the Christian doctrines, the doctrine of original sin is the only one supported by irrefutable empirical evidence! Acting foolishly comes naturally to all people. We need to learn about wisdom. We need to be taught the art of self-discipline and how to follow helpful instructions. We need to be trained how to distinguish between words of insight and words of foolishness, good books and bad books, constructive ideas and sheer nonsense, earthly appetites and genuine needs. We need to learn what leads us to God and what pushes away.

And it doesn’t matter, quite frankly, how young or old, intelligent or dim-witted, or experienced or inexperienced we are. Verses 4 and 5 refer to the simple, the young, the wise and the discerning. All of us share in common the need to grow in wisdom—we never totally arrive. We are never too young to learn, nor so insightful that there isn’t something new for us to experience. We might, of course, be too stubborn and thick-headed, thinking that we are beyond correction and training. “Fools,” according to 7b, “despise wisdom and instruction.” We can be unteachable, and our pride can always stunt our growth. But if we remain pliable, inquisitive, observant, and open to both God and other God-honoring people around us, we can grow and grow and grow.

And the third and final principle? You can find it in verse 7. In the same way that musicians in an orchestra must keep their eyes and ears focused on the conductor, so too does true wisdom begin and end with a profound reverence and respect for God. In a world full of competing and conflicting voices, a world calling for our attention and demanding our energy and resources, the most basic principle of all is simply this. Watch the conductor rather than the crowd. Listen to his instructions rather than the finicky people in the audience. Focus your attention on him, and learn to know and do exactly what pleases him. That’s how you make wonderful music. That’s how you live. Look to God, or as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews phrases it, “to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).

In the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the town of Hamelin in Germany is nearly overrun by rats. In desperation, the citizens of the village search for anyone who might rid them of this menace. One day, a self-acclaimed rat-catcher came to the town and promised to free it of its countless rodents. And he did. As he walked up one street and down another, he played enticing music on his seemingly innocent pipe. One by one, the rats came out of the woodwork and followed the Piper down … down into the river, where they drowned.

There are, in case you don’t already know it, Pied Pipers all around us, playing music and offering adventures that are sometimes hard to resist. And everyday we make hundreds and even thousands of decisions of one kind or another, choosing which voices to listen to and who to follow. Sadly, most pipers seek only to lead us down into the river. The book of Proverbs almost didn’t make it into the Bible. What a loss its omission would have been. For in here we find the kind of advice—“good, old-fashioned horse sense”—that will enable us to ignore the enticing music of such harmful pipers. And here is that advice in a nut shell. God placed a rhythm, a beat, in the world that he calls us to follow. Following that call and living godly lives, however, does not come naturally for any of us. We need wisdom, guidance and instruction. We need to learn how to discern between God’s voice and the endless others that cry out for our attention. And above all, we must keep our eyes and ears focused on God, the conductor. That is how we can navigate our way through the endless pitfalls that inevitably appear all along the way.