Sermon for August 27th, 2017
1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: 2 For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, 3 for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; 4 to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young— 5 let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, 6 to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. 7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. 8 Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching; 9 for they are a fair garland for your head, and pendants for your neck. 10 My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. 11 If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent; 12 like Sheol let us swallow them alive and whole, like those who go down to the Pit. 13 We shall find all kinds of costly things; we shall fill our houses with booty. 14 Throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse”— 15 my child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; 16 for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood. 17 For in vain is the net baited while the bird is looking on; 18 yet they lie in wait—to kill themselves! and set an ambush—for their own lives! 19 Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.
Walk This Way: The Wisdom of Proverbs
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a proverb as a "short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice." It comes from the Latin word proverbia; pro (forward) + verbia (words); words put forth.
I thought I'd start our sermon series on Proverbs by putting forth some pithy words or sayings of my own this morning. These are not sayings I invented, but rather are ones I have collected through the years. Some are from people I admire,or from posters hanging in my office, but most are anonymous quips from bumper stickers, facebook, or other internet memes. You might think of them as "Pastor Neal's top 20 favorite accumulated wisdom teachings."
- When everything is coming your way, it usually means you're in the wrong lane.
- There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who can't.
- Peyton Manning: Pressure is something you feel when you don't know what the hell you're doing.
- When you stop to think, don't forget to eventually start again.
- You never truly understand something until you can successfully explain it to your grandmother.
- Henry Ford: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.
- The only difference between a grave and a rut is the depth.
- A meeting is an event at which the minutes are kept and the hours are lost.
- Wayne Gretzky: I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been.
- If you tell someone there are 300 billion stars in the universe, he will believe you. If you tell him a bench has wet paint on it, he will have to touch it to be sure.
- After all is said and done, more is usually said than done.
- The man who leaps off a cliff has too quickly jumped to a conclusion.
- He who laughs last probably didn't get the joke.
- Steve Jobs: A lot of times people don't know what they want until you show it to them.
- Everybody is somebody's else's weirdo.
- A complex problem always has a simple, easy to understand, and thoroughly incorrect answer.
- If you want a track team to win the high jump, you find one person who can jump seven feet, not seven people who can jump one foot.
- Expecting the universe to treat you fairly because you're a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian.
- A fool and his money are soon...elected.
- Sattinger's Law: It works better if you plug it in.
For the next few weeks, we'll be studying the Book of Proverbs, which is one of three books in the Bible considered to be Wisdom Literature. The other two books are Job and Ecclesiastes. I've often said that Ecclesiastes is "Advanced Wisdom," the Book of Job is "Intermediate Wisdom" and Proverbs is "Wisdom 101." So a great place to start, as we begin a new school year, and as we begin our season of emphasis on the commitment to study together as a church community, to pursue wisdom in our faith journeys, individually and collectively.
In just about every book of the Bible except for Proverbs, the core teachings are presented as coming from on high to those below--Direct revelation from God to the people, or Moses going up the mountain and coming back down with the law completely and fully formed. Even in the New Testament, wisdom comes from Jesus to the masses, or from Paul or another apostle to his audience: This is wisdom from above, or from one to many.
Proverbs, on the other hand (to borrow a quote from one of my seminary professors) is Wisdom from below. It's a collection of popular sayings and teachings circulated and passed on from generation to generation. It's folk wisdom, or the accumulated wisdom of the people, from the many to the one--the "one" being the young reader or listener addressed throughout the book as "my child."
But wait a minute, Pastor Neal--I thought Proverbs was written by King Solomon! Doesn't it say that right in the first verse? "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel."
While traditionally the Book of Proverbs was attributed to King Solomon, there are several problems with this:
First, the Hebrew language and vocabulary used in Proverbs is much later than what would have been used in Solomon's time. Even if Solomon is the author of a few of the proverbs, they would have been written down hundreds of years later.
Second, many of the Proverbs are similar or identical to much older Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom writings, indicating influence from outside of Israel. Even within the book, other sources are named, like those attributed to "King Lemuel, which his mother taught him," or the "words of Agur" or those that "the scribes of Hezekiah copied."
Finally, some of the proverbs disagree and contradict each other, like Proverbs 26:4, which says "Do not answer fools according to their folly,or you will be a fool yourself" followed immediately with Proverbs 26:5, which says "Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes." That kind of contradiction is not usually common in a work with a single author, but very common in folk sayings. Consider our modern proverbs "The early bird gets the worm" which is contradicted by the equally popular proverb "Good things come to those who wait."
So why does Proverbs begin with an attribution to King Solomon? In the 21st century we are obsessed with authorship and proper attribution of source material. But that wasn't really a big concern to the ancients. Or more accurately, it has never been a big concern to folk wisdom tradition.
Try this: Do a google search for Albert Einstein quotes. Then dig a little deeper and research their origins. You'll find that about half of the quotes we attribute to Einstein (popular quotes you have heard many times) are things he never actually said. But in modern times, Einstein is the epitome of the smartest person we can think of, so if it's smart, he must have said it. The same is true of countless false quotes from Mother Theresa and Gandhi. Is it a quote about kindness and compassion? Must be Mother Theresa. Is it a super wise or spiritual quote? Must be Gandhi.
I think this has more to do with our desire to claim and categorize things. If you're living in ancient Israel and you hear a wise saying (even if it comes from your Egyptian neighbor), Solomon is your Einstein, your paradigm of all things wise, and your way to claim and understand that saying as part of your own heritage.
But there's something else important about this very first verse in Proverbs--far more important than the name of Solomon. It's the two roles attributed to Solomon, the "son of David, king of Israel." Son and King. This indicates that Proverbs is a collection of teachings for use at home, in the family, for the instruction of the young, but also at the royal court, for the instruction of scribes, bureaucrats, and civil servants--in other words, the class of young, upwardly mobile professionals in Israel who valued education, but also wealth and success.
Verses 2-6 underscore this intended purpose: The book is for "learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity"--all the things you want in your communities leaders. It is primarily "to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young" but also mid-and-late career types to "gain in learning, "to acquire skill," and to be competent in engaging with other educated nations and their leaders, to "understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles."
You might say that Proverbs is the MBA of ancient Israel.
And all of its accumulated wisdom from various sources is tied together, hinged on this one, over-arching principle that was indispensable to the people of Israel. Verse 7: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." In other words, you can't even begin to study wisdom without first acknowledging God, the source of all knowledge and wisdom, and second without being open to instruction, or being taught. Both of these are principles of humility--realizing your smallness and ignorance in the grand scheme of the universe, and your dependence upon others in order to learn. They are still great principles for beginning any kind of educational program.
After I graduated from college, I spent the next decade as a teacher and educator. So when I finally went back to school for my masters degrees, I was convinced that I knew more than most of the Teaching Assistants who graded my papers. Most of them were younger than I was, PhD students who had spent less time in a classroom or grading papers than I had. While that may have been true, technically speaking, my attitude made things a lot harder than they needed to be. When that approach failed miserably, a good friend shared his approach with me. He believed that there was always something that he could learn from anyone he met, whether a Professor, a PhD student, or just some random, seemingly-uneducated stranger. He considered it both a game and a challenge to figure out what valuable thing he could learn from the people God placed in his life. I've tried to adopt that approach, and when I do, I'm always surprised at just how smart people are, and just how much I have to learn.
Verse 8-9: "Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching; for they are a fair garland for your head, and pendants for your neck." Wisdom begins at home, with the family. This verse also sets up the contrast for what comes next, by comparing wisdom to a fair garland (which is a sign of worldly success) and pendants for your neck (a sign of wordly wealth). Then as now, the temptation for the young, educated, and upwardly mobile class was to get caught up in the race for power, prestige, and financial prosperity.
Listen to verses 10-14. On the surface, it may sound like a warning against falling in with thugs and gangs, but like so much in Proverbs, this is metaphorical language. It's a metaphor for those who engage in dishonest business practices, those who use their power and education to exploit the weak, those who invest in corrupt get-rich-quick schemes:
10 My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. 11 If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent; 12 like Sheol let us swallow them alive and whole, like those who go down to the Pit. 13 We shall find all kinds of costly things; we shall fill our houses with booty. 14 Throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse."
The title for this sermon series is "Walk This Way: Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs." If you're anywhere close to my age, you're probably hearing Stephen Tyler's voice screaming in your head right about now, belting out the chorus to the Aerosmith hit song, "Walk This Way." I'm not going to lie--that song actually was part of the inspiration behind this sermon series, but I'll talk more about that next week. For this week, suffice it to say that choosing which way to walk--the way of the wise or the way of the foolish--is a theme that runs throughout the book of Proverbs.
Greed and power and fame and lust are always calling out to us at every point along our life journeys, saying "Walk THIS way. Talk THIS way. Come with us and we will fulfill all of your dreams and desires. We will take care of you."
But Wisdom also calls out to us, although much more softly, subtly. It says, "15 my child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; 16 for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood." But the traps they so cleverly lay for others eventually turn against them. For those who are greedy for gain, no matter how much they acquire, the only thing they will ever truly possess...is their insatiable greed.
At some point in all our journeys, there are decisions we must make, large and small, important and seemingly insignificant. Knowledge is seeing and recognizing that there are indeed two paths in front of us. Wisdom is choosing the right path, and never looking back.
People of First Presbyterian Church, may you always choose wisely, and may the Lord your God, the source of all wisdom and strength and heavenly power walk before you, behind you, and beside you all the days of your life.