Monday, 10 September 2012

Proverbs 8:12-36, The Beginning of Wisdom

Sermon notes from the first of a series of three last night.

Introduction —
It is a sign of the times we live in that elements of the opening ceremony of the Paralympic games could be described as a service and a sermon, neither of which was what you could call ‘religious’.

The service element was a praise session, dedicated to the human spirit. The sermon was delivered by one of our most outstanding scientists and called on us to discover the meaning of life — to look up at the stars and ask why we’re here.

This is not to knock either the human spirit or the natural sciences. In fact, in urging us to inquire about the meaning of life, the sermon was spot on. The question is whether we are going to find the right answers.

People have been looking up and asking why we’re here for thousands of years. The difference is that in the past people looked through the eyes of religion. The constellations and planets are named after the Greek and Roman gods, and many of the stars bear Arabic names from the golden age of Islam.

And here in this church tonight, presumably we think religion has something to say about these big questions. Yet there often seems to be a disconnection between our faith and daily life. We don’t always apply our religion very well to living.

The age of Wisdom
And I think part of the reason for this is that we ignore a whole segment of the Bible known as the ‘wisdom literature’ — Ecclesiastes, Job, the Song of Songs and, tonight’s subject, Proverbs. But to understand these books, we have to do a bit of Bible history.

The Old Testament reaches its ‘Golden Age’ in the reign of Solomon, about 900 bc. Solomon’s reign is the most peaceful and prosperous of all the kings. But it is also significant for the role played by wisdom — which I think is generally overlooked.

In chapter 3 of 1 Kings, God appears to Solomon in a dream and offers to grant him anything he asks for. Solomon replies in v 9:

... give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.

And so God gives him wisdom. Then immediately after this, in 3:16-27, we see Solomon’s wisdom in action, in the case of two women claiming the same child, after which we have this comment (3:28):

28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

That is what Solomon had asked for, and that is what he had got.

The Scope of Wisdom
Then at the end of chapter 4, we get this long comment on Solomon’s wisdom:

29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.

Notice here the scope of Solomon’s wisdom. It doesn’t just allow him to govern the people, it includes the natural world — Solomon is a biologist: he can hold forth about all kinds of plants and animals (4:33).

Yet once the reign of Solomon comes to an end in chapter 11, wisdom is not mentioned again in the whole of 1 and 2 Kings. Not one single king is described as ‘wise’ or as acting wisely.

Law and Justice
Now this is surely significant theologically. We tend to look back on the Old Testament as the period when Israel was governed by God’s law. But in the golden age of Solomon, what actually governs the people is wisdom.

So the first example of Solomon exercising wisdom is a court case where the law can’t help. Two women claim the same baby. Neither can prove they are the real mother, so Solomon says cut it in two and give them half each. At that point, one of the women says “Fair enough”, whilst the other says “No, let the other woman keep it”. And so the true mother is revealed — the one who would give her child up to let it live.

There is no law to govern such cases. You can’t make a legal precedent out of it. But justice is done.

And here is the first lesson for us about wisdom, which is that administering justice is ultimately a matter of wisdom, not law. Turn now to Proverbs 8:15. The NIV translation says this:

15 By me [ie by Wisdom] kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; 16 by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth.

A better translation would be, “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.” And that is important, because justice here comes from wise people, not fixed laws.

Jesus, Law and Justice
A key feature of modern life is that we are increasingly governed by laws. But we need to be quite clear that law is not justice. Laws are aimed at producing justice, but laws can be unjust, and the application of the law can actually lead to injustice.

Take the example of Daniel in the lions’ den. Why was Daniel thrown into the lions’ den when he was the friend of the king? The reason is that the king had passed a law, and when he tried to go back on it, Daniel’s enemies pointed out that he couldn’t:

“Remember, O king, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.” (Dan 6:15)

The fixed, unchangeable law meant that a godly man was thrown to the lions.

And Christians especially should be aware of the limitations of the law. Jesus challenged the Sabbath laws on the basis of justice. The law of the Sabbath said people with a disability should be healed on another day. Jesus healed on the Sabbath because that produced true justice, which again isn’t just ‘keeping the law’ but putting things right.

The Personal Source of Wisdom
The theological point Proverbs makes, therefore, is that true justice has a personal source because it is based in Wisdom, and Wisdom is personal. In Proverbs 8:12. Wisdom speaks, and says,

I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion.

Notice, Wisdom is an ‘I’, not an ‘it’. But the law is an ‘it’, not an ‘I’. And the law binds us, whereas a wise person can set us free.

The Nature of Wisdom
And understanding this helps us understand what is wisdom. Wisdom is not just being clever or smart! There are plenty of clever people around who lack wisdom.

From a biblical point of view, Wisdom can be described as the outworking of the character of God in its application to the world.

The most famous thing Proverbs says about Wisdom is found in 9:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

For us, then, Wisdom is not just personal — it is not just something we possess — it is relational. It something that can only be had fully in a right relationship with God. A person can be wise, but true wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord.

The Range of Wisdom
However — and this is another important point — it does not stop there. First of all, Wisdom is not just a matter of faith. In fact, you can have a degree of wisdom without faith. Proverbs 4:31 says

Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt.

Solomon was wiser than other people, but the point is they weren’t stupid. Wisdom is not exclusive to believers. Indeed, it possible to have faith and not be wise — wisdom is something we develop.

And secondly, as we saw in the case of Solomon, Wisdom includes the natural world — it isn’t confined to religious matters or even to human affairs. It includes the natural sciences. And this is because the whole world itself is founded on the basis of Wisdom.

In Proverbs 8:22-31, we have a ‘hymn’ about wisdom and creation. Look especially at vv 27-30:

27 I was there [says Wisdom] when [God] set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, 28 when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, 29 when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. 30 Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, 31 rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.

Wisdom and Modern Materialism
And you see here is another difference between our own culture and biblical Wisdom.

At its most extreme, scientific materialism treats personhood as an accidental irrelevance. In some areas of neuroscience, the brain is treated as if it was somehow an entity in itself. The other morning on the radio, I heard a neuroscientist getting very excited about how brains interact with other brains.

Fortunately there was a woman philosopher in the studio with him and she was saying don’t be ridiculous — brains don’t interact with brains, its people who interact with people.

But this sort of materialism treats persons as almost an illusion — we think we are people, but actually we are just brains. And brains like ours are a late development in the universe, and in any case are just the result of blind physical forces.

But then someone like the astronomer Brian Cox talks about the amazing nature of the universe, forgetting it is only amazing because we are here to be amazed by it. Without persons to observe it, the universe is neither amazing nor indeed very old, because ‘age’ is a concept based on the experience of time and memory.

And Stephen Hawking telling us to look up and wonder about why we are here is talking about persons. The stars don’t look down and wonder why we are here — you need personality to do that.

So when Proverbs says Wisdom is fundamental to the universe it is telling us something we need to hear: the universe is deeply personal.

Wisdom and Culture
But at the same time that our scientists are telling us that persons and personhood isn’t really that important, our opinion makers and politicians are telling us we are so important that our survival as a species and our happiness as individuals are really the things that matter.

And so there is a conflict in our culture between our understanding of reality — material things are the only things that exist, personality and experience are kind of tricks played on us by our brains; and our concerns about life — human happiness and fulfilment should be the focus of our energies.

And then Stephen Hawking tells us we should spend huge amounts of time, effort and money discovering why we’re here.

Wisdom and Christianity
This is an open goal for Christians to kick a few balls into — but we don’t because we have neglected Wisdom.

We treat the world as an irrelevance, and we drive a wedge between faith and daily life. And then we wonder why the world thinks we have so little to say. Too often it feels like we come to Christ and leave behind our understanding, and then we go into the world and leave behind Christ.

The Bible, by contrast, promises great blessing to those who fear God and seek Wisdom. Look again at these verses from Proverbs 8. Wisdom says,

17 I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. 18 With me are riches and honour, enduring wealth and prosperity. 19 My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. 20 I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, 21 bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full.

The fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of Wisdom, but there is so much more Wisdom available and necessary in the world God has made. Let us seek to be people of Wisdom for the rewards that Wisdom brings to all.

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  1. Thanks John...
    ... soooo, there should be a distinctly Christian view of the life, universe & everything, that sometimes turns received "wisdom" on it's head. We don't ignore natural science - but can slot it into an even bigger framework. Same with art and literature. But generally Christians work the other way & try to apply received wisdom back to the Bible to take the edge off.

    Darren Moore

  2. By the same token would you say that there is usable
    wisdom to be found in other religions and philosophies even though they may not be explicitly Christian?

    I believe C S Lewis was of this view. He had much to say about the Confucian idea of the 'Tao'.

    Chris Bishop

  3. Chris, correct - as it says above, "In fact, you can have a degree of wisdom without faith. Proverbs 4:31 says 'Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt.' Solomon was wiser than other people, but the point is they weren’t stupid. Wisdom is not exclusive to believers."

  4. That has to be right doesn't it?

    That's why the Puritans were so big on common grace. Non-Christians can do good art and make scientific discoveries. It's interesting for example, how Muslims can decorate their Mosques beutifully, without coming close to violating the 2nd commandment (well not in their art work anyway).

    Face it, I wouldn't want a theologian fixing my car or my teeth. & although I do care about their personal beliefs, at that moment I'm more concerned about their competence.

    CS Lewis (like the Puritans, although he was no Puritan) had a high place of general/natural revelation. That's why he talks about why there is so much common ground.

    But there is another Christian step isn't there. This wisdom is possible because there is a God of order who has made things so.

    Also, despite our great discoveries our knowledge of him is corrupted by sin, therefore needs revelation from outside.

    BUT, I liked John's stuff about the difference between wisdom & law. Both having their place. I've met Christians who talk about wisdom, but are looking for a "rule" which turns it back to law, nicely missing the point.

  5. I agree that he the starting point for wisdom has to be the fear of the Lord. What I think that many have to contend with as Christians, is how that wisdom should be applied -particularly in a pastoral context.
    I once heard a story of a missionary who had successfully evangelised a remote tribe in Africa. Polygamy was the norm for the African chief – he had a number of wives. The missionary realised that to preach the Christian ideal of marriage i.e. one man one woman would mean the chief would have to keep one of wives and relinquish the others. However if he did this then the other wives would be treated as outcasts and have no means of support in the tribal society that they lived in.

    After praying about this the missionary surmised that the wise thing to do was to let things remain as they were with the chief and his many wives.

    I wonder how many pastoral situations we encounter where wisdom is the better choice even though the action does not necessarily live up to the Christian ideal?

    Chris Bishop

  6. Christian wisdom however, because we have something revealed from outside, can be counter-intuitive & feel a bit risky.

    On the case of Polygamy, I guess we'd start with what the Bible teaches about marriage 1st, what e.g. are there of Polygamy in the Bible & go from there. Not a pastoral problem I've faced personally... yet.

    The Bible's didactic material seems straight forward, 1 man + 1 woman. But obviously there is polygamy in the narratives. However, I think the cases of polygamy show the (mostly) negative consequences of the practice (favouritism, insecurity, arguments, jealousy)

    What I've heard is that there is generally an East & West African solution, which I gather is, West, "OK, you're a Christian now... no more wives. Tell your kids to only marry 1." East African, "Wife no. 1 = your wife. BUT you must financially support these other women".

    Again, we look at this from the Bible's revelation about marriage. But any length of time in a polygamous society will expose those cracks (& that marriage becomes for richer older men, younger poorer men can't get wives). & the only positives I've heard is, "child care & chore share".

    But I think you've got a point. Wisdom means that we have to look at 2 Christian values that clash by a course of action & think about "weightier matters of the law". That isn't always easy as we can't see into the future and we rarely have all the information at our tips. That's also why we can't just do "a short course on wisdom". Although keeping our nose in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of songs etc. for a bit would probably help.

  7. Thanks for this Darren.

    If John is agreeable, I would be very interested to hear on this thread of other peoples experiences particularly in a pastoral context -where wisdom is found to be most often required - where they have applied wisdom in a way that does not immediately adhere to what we might think is 'the christian way' but is nonetheless, seen to be the wisest action to take.

    The judgment of Solomon in a modern context if you like.

    Some pastoral situations I have come across have been very knotty indeed. People live very complicated lives these days.

    Chris Bishop

  8. Put pastoral issues on the internet!!?? not likely!

    I can give you 1 vague e.g. just because I've been in this situation more times than I can think. Witnessing to someone who is in some kind of obvious sexual sin. I don't site that as an example for repentance, figuring, if they want to become a Christian, we'll deal with it then. They MAY hear save by works etc, leave it for now. EVERY time THEY then bring it up with me. They seem to know what they are doing is wrong. Sometimes they are like the rich young ruler & walk away sad, wanting Jesus, but wanting something(/one) more (an idol), or sometimes something dramatic happens, a life changes or a proposal happens or the like. The problem with rejecting Jesus because we can't change, is that Jesus is the means of change! He doesn't say, "be clean & come", but, "come & be clean".

  9. OK how about this one. Couple come to you and the wife is pregnant. Medical advice is that the pregnancy should be terminated because of certainty (and I mean absolute certainty) that the mother will die if the pregnancy is continued.

    Family already has four children that depend on their mother. What wisdom do you give? (PS I don’t think that answers like ‘God can work a miracle’ and we must trust him’ are particularly helpful in this case – the mother will definitely die if the pregnancy continues).

    I thank God, haven't been faced with this pastoral situation (yet) but it has happened to others.

    So what general principles of wisdom should we apply?

    Chris Bishop

  10. One more point I forget to add before you shout that abortion is always wrong. Was Solomon only joking when he advised splitting the child in two? Seems here that the wisdom of God advocated infanticide if the women could not agree!

    Chris Bishop

  11. I think people will do what they think is right in that situation regardless of what say/think. We're just there to pick up the pieces, whichever decision. Same as if it was a cut & dry, "That's wrong".

    Two comments a GP made to me about these situations:

    1st that they are vanishingly small number of occurrences like this. An American Dr who used these sort of scenarios to justify abortion now says he regrets that as one can go through an entire medical career & perhaps just see it once. Not really a wisdom issue, but useful for perspective as to why you haven't faced that situation.

    2nd The GP said that a GP has a different perspective to a specialist. The specialist just the organ in question, in this case a womb. The GP has a history with the patient. So in the case of the Christian, a specialist will think, "simple, Mum lives this way, dies that way". But the GP even a non-Christian one, will think, hang on this person has faith, & a belief system generally opposed to this, what kind of guilt & issues will she face if she aborts? So there is another layer of wisdom.

    I suppose we have to back to why do those of us who oppose abortion, oppose it. It isn't an abstract thing, but because we believe that the unborn child is a child, a person with intrinsic value. Not just a potential person and we want to defend the week. So, in some respects, we can replace it with another hypothetical situation which sees, choose which one lives?

    When I've heard women opposed to abortion being given this question, they've said, "I don't see why I'm more important, let nature take it's course".

    A far trickier scenario would be, baby dies anyway. What would you do?

    I wonder if wisdom is for non-right-wrong scenarios. E.g. The Bible gives us right-wrong, to a point, then massive freedom, but with wisdom considerations. The following example, I think may be copied from something John said a LONG time ago - marriage. The Bible says, 1 spouse, opposite sex, Christian (if we're talking to Christians here). What should they look like, how old should they be etc. - not right/wrong. However, there are layers upon layers of wisdom, e.g. from song of songs - sexual attraction (end of Job, Keziah, suggests there is such a thing as physical beauty, but we're not told what it is) & from Proverbs, what matters is friendship. So, a wise choice is a friend who you fancy, within the obediance parameters - then there are other layers, e.g. age gap, these aren't right/wrong, but wise/foolish which will vary from couple to couple. For some a 10 year gap will seem huge, for others it won't. I did hear of a formula, 1/2 age of the oldest + 7 is OK - but I think wisdom says you just can't do that, it will be different from couple to couple.

  12. No, Chris, I think Soloman's wisdom was that he read the situation so well that he knew where this was going. I don't think he would have said, "Oh well, this will settle it".

    That is another huge part of wisdom, reading people & situations. Pastorally it's hugely important to work out what people's "issues" & questions are as they are, I've found, rarely what they say they are when things are 1st raised.

  13. I have to confess that I am playing the Devils advocate Darren! However I do think that you cannot simply appeal to the argument that such cases are small in number. There will be some which are not and a decision rightly or wrongly will have to be made.

    In the case of Solomon then perhaps you are right that he knew what the outcome would be. But the edict of the King was absolute in those days so I would like to be sure that I had the same degree of confidence in wisdom that Solomon had before making such a pronouncement!

    One thing that John has not mentioned are references to 1 Cor 12:8. It seems that the early church did need access to wisdom and one of the ways they got it was by the exercise of spiritual gifts i.e. - that there were individuals that had gifts of wisdom that were shared for the benefit of all. Not that we see much of this today.

    I think the point I am trying to make is that wisdom is an intensely practical thing. It is not much good unless it is applied in practical ways and sometimes wisdom may not match what we might think are the right Christian outcome(s) although it may nonetheless, be the wise action to make

    Chris Bishop

  14. A helpful thing someone once said,
    "People say, the ends justifies the means. For the Christian the means justifies the ends".

    i.e. Biblical obedience is risky & in the world's eyes foolish. I think though wisdom is about applying what we know.

    Another e.g. I thought of (sorry these are all relational); 2 Christian singles from church pop round to see, feeling guilty because they'd just slept together, they want to confess their sin & repent, feel confused & looking for guidance. Wisdom kicks in here as your answer will be different according to their age, life circumstances, their existing relationship, & other things you know about them. It might be, "Well, why aren't you married yet", it might be something more nuanced.

    But I wouldn't want to pit wisdom above revelation. Otherwise we use the word wisdom, to set ourselves up as an authority. Also, I think John's starting point, is that wisdom has to be trained, partly by observing the world & outcomes. Partly by training in the wisdom bits of Scripture so that we are tuned in & can make judgements that may at one time have not been obvious to us. The Soloman e.g. is, let's face it a bit weird isn't it. Normally both claimants would look at him as if he'd lost it. But in that situation it was the right thing to say.

  15. PS - about rare cases;
    I 1/2 agree with you. Just because something seldom happens doesn't meant that we don't do the hard work in understanding them & being ready for them (if you can).

    But, it's worth mentioning the proportion issues, as x00,000s of abortions are justified on the basis of x-dozen genuinely tricky cases.