Proverbs (1) — Pursuit of Wisdom

This morning, we begin a new sermon series, and for the next two or three months, we’re going to be in the book of Proverbs. And, as you can see, the focus of our attention is going to be on the topic of wisdom.

One of the things that I enjoy is learning word origins, finding out where our English words came from. And one of the words that I think has a most interesting origin is the word “sophomore”. Becoming a sophomore in high school or college is a big step because it means you’re not a freshman anymore, you’re not on the lowest rung of the ladder.

But the word “sophomore” is thought to be derived from two Greek words – “sophos” which means “wise”, and “moros” which means “foolish”. So “sophomore” literally means, “a wise fool”. And I guess the idea is that by the time you get to that second level of school, you know a little bit; but the trouble is that you think you know everything. So, you end up being a little bit wise, but still a little bit foolish, which makes you a “sophomore”, a “wise fool”.

But there are a lot of other “wise fools” `in this world. We’re living at a time when human knowledge is expanding at a phenomenal pace. Our grandparents can remember a time when no one in their neighborhood owned a car. Our parents can remember a time when no one in their neigh¬borhood owned a television set. And, though our children may have a hard time believing this, we adults can remember a time when no one in our neigh¬borhood owned a cellphone or a microwave oven.

Things are changing so rapidly, it’s frightening when you stop and think about it. I wonder if our grandchil¬dren will someday look back at our lifestyle and wonder how we managed in survive in such a primitive fashion?

It has been said that the world’s body of knowledge doubles every 10 years. And the accumulation of so much information has left people with the impression that they are wise. In fact, some people believe that they have come to such a high level of understanding that they no longer need God. Or as Paul put it in Romans 1, “claiming to be wise, they became fools…” (Romans 1:22).

And part of the problem is that most people don’t seem to understand that knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing. Knowledge comes by gathering facts. You go to school to get more knowledge. You get on the Internet to get more knowledge. If there’s something you want to know, you just Google it, and you’ll have the answer within seconds. But you don’t go to school or to the Internet to get wisdom.

Knowledge is a lot easier to measure. If you want to measure a person’s knowledge, all you have to do is give them a test. Answer these questions, tell me what you know. But determining the how much wisdom a person has is much more difficult. You have to look at how they live and the decisions they make.

Perhaps the simplest way to put it is that knowledge is the accumulation of facts, whereas wisdom is the ability to use those facts in a responsible manner. Or, as someone has put it, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”

It’s one thing to know a fact; it’s another thing to know what to do with that knowledge. And a major problem in today’s society is that man’s knowledge has far surpassed his wisdom.

Paul had this to say about wisdom: “I do speak with words of wisdom, but not the kind of wisdom that belongs to this world or to the rulers of this world, who are soon forgotten. No, the wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God — his plan that was previously hidden, even though he made it for our ultimate glory before the world began.” (I Corinthians 2:6-7, NLT).

Now, I want you to understand that distinction before I begin this series of lessons. Because, in the weeks ahead, I’m going to be talking about wisdom, but not in the sense that the world understands wisdom. I’m going to be talking about the wisdom of God, which is the wisdom that really matters.

And while all of the Bible is concerned about helping us to develop wisdom, there are certain books that especially have that as a focus, and so we call them “wisdom literature”. The books that make up the wisdom literature in the Bible are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Some would say that the book of James in the New Testament could also be classified as wisdom literature.

But, of all those books, the one that is most focused on wisdom is the book of Proverbs. Over and over in this book, Solomon encourages us to get wisdom.

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom.
And in all your getting, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7, NKJV)

Solomon often talks in Proverbs about how valuable wisdom is. “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:13-17).

Solomon says there is nothing in this world that is more important than wisdom, and later on in this lesson, I think you’ll begin to see why that’s true. But we need to begin by defining what wisdom is. We’ve already noticed that wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge. But, what exactly what is it?

And the very first verse of Proverbs tells us. The Living Bible has paraphrased Proverbs 1:1 in this way: “These are the proverbs of King Solomon, David’s son: He wrote them to teach his people how to live — how to act in every circumstance.” And I think that’s a good definition of what wisdom is! It is knowing “how to act in every circumstance.”

Which means that the book of Proverbs is not all that concerned about how we act in the church building. Instead, Proverbs is going to take us into our businesses, our schools, our homes, our personal relationships with others. And it will tell us “how to act in every circumstance.”

I like one definition of wisdom that I heard recently. “Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions in difficult situations.” And, let’s be honest, that’s something that all of us could use a lot more of. Because our lives are often filled with stress and anxiety because we’re just not sure what to do. And most of the time, it’s not a moral decision that we need to make. I doubt if any of you have ever wrestled with the question of whether or not you should kill someone, or steal, or commit adultery. You know the answer to those questions.

But, usually, the questions that bother us are not about morality. Rather, we stress over questions like, where should I live? Should I date this person? How should I raise my child? Should I take this job or that job? Should I move or stay? And we all know that state of confusion where you feel really unsure about what you ought to do — and so, you talk with all your friends, you make a list of pros and cons, you weigh the options, and you spend a lot of time lying awake at night. Because these are the kinds of decisions that can affect your life dramatically. If you make the wrong choice, the outcome could be disastrous. So, what we all need is wisdom. We need to know “how to act in every circumstance.”

And it’s important that we understand how God’s Word relates to us in those kinds of situations. Because we run the risk of either misusing the Bible or neglecting it altogether.

Now, there are some people who misuse the Bible because they think that God is going to give us a direct answer to every question they have somewhere in the Scriptures. But they’re not sure where to find it, so some of them do what I call the “Bible Ouija Board method”. They take the Bible, open it up, flip through the pages and stick their finger down. Then they do whatever it says.

You may have heard the story about the man who wasn’t sure what to do with his life, so he decided to do just that. He opened up his Bible and put his finger down to see what God had to say. The first verse he turned to was Matthew 27:5 which says Judas “went and hanged himself.” He wasn’t quite sure how that verse applied to him, so he flipped to another passage and the Bible fell open to Luke 10:37: “Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do likewise.” The man was quite upset, so he decided to turn to one more passage. This time, his finger landed on John 13:27: “Then said Jesus unto him, What you are going to do, do quickly.”

But that’s what can happen if we think there’s a Bible verse in there somewhere that’s going to give us a direct answer to the question we’ve got. And so we’ll take a verse completely out of context and use it to make our decisions. After all, if you’re single, maybe you can find a wife by asking a girl for a drink of water and if she gives you a drink, you know she’s the one. It worked for Isaac!

The truth is there’s usually not a direct answer to the question we’ve got. And so, sometimes people will go to the opposite extreme and totally ignore the Bible. You try looking for answers, but there just doesn’t seem to be any answers in there. There doesn’t seem to be a verse anywhere that tells you exactly what you need to do. So, you give up. You still have a relationship with God. But God doesn’t seem to have any bearing in your daily life and decisions. In your mind, it’s almost inconceivable that this spiritual God could help you with the decisions you face every day.

And so, we can end up either misusing or neglecting the Bible. And either way, we end up stressed out trying to make decisions that the Bible doesn’t give us a clear answer to. So, what we need is wisdom. We need God’s help in making decisions in our life.

Let me share with you a quote about wisdom that I think is significant. I don’t know who the author was, but I think it’s profound — “Wisdom won’t give you answers to every question, but it will give you clarity to every situation.” In other words, if you’re not sure whether to take this job or that job, God will rarely answer that question directly for you. He’s not going to put a flashing billboard outside your house telling you, “Here’s what you need to do.” Now, we would love it if God would do that. But he doesn’t.

God rarely gives us an answer to our question, but what God does provide is clarity. As we develop more and more wisdom, the right decision or the best decision becomes clearer and clearer.

And one of the ways that we grow in wisdom is by recognizing the patterns that God has put into creation. God has made this world with a sort of logic to it. There are certain patterns, actions, and ways that tend to lead to the same results.

Now, I don’t know if I have ever done this in a sermon before, but allow me to quote the great philosopher Jim Croce. Many, many years ago, Jim Croce came out with a song entitled, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” And in the chorus of that song, he sang, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, You don’t spit into the wind, You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, And you don’t mess around with Jim.”

And the point of that song was that there are certain things that you just know not to do because you know what the result is going to be. And that’s true in so many areas of life. If you lose your temper and fly off the handle, you know what the result is going to be. If you eat too much of the things that aren’t good for you, you know what the result is going to be. If you fail to get enough exercise, you know what the result is going to be.

And as you begin to see those patterns that relate to different areas of your life, you get more and more clarity. You don’t get answers, but you get clarity.

We see this in the physical world around us. Take the Law of Aerodynamics. If you want to build a plane that will fly, you have to follow the Law of Aerodynamics, because there is a pattern in this world to the way different forces act to make an object go up or down, go faster or slower. And, if you understand what those patterns are, and you understand what effect they will have on different designs, then you can build an object that can fly. But, if you don’t understand those patterns, then you’re gonna fail.

The same thing is true with our lives. There are certain actions, attitudes, rhythms, and disciplines that tend to lead to good things happening in your life, your job, and your relationships. And there are certain actions, attitudes, rhythms, and disciplines that tend to lead to bad things happening in your life, your job, and your relationships. And the better you understand what those patterns are, the better chance you have at having a successful life.

The book of Proverbs is all about identifying those patterns. For example, wisdom tells us that those who are successful typically have worked hard to get there. God has put a pattern of logic into this world that says that hard work tends to lead toward success.

And so, Solomon said, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.” (Proverbs 14:23)

“The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” (Proverbs 13:4).

There’s a pattern in this world. And the better we understand that pattern, the wiser we will be, and the better choices we will make.

Another example. Wisdom tells us that there is a pattern in the way parents raise their children. Generally speaking, children end up going in the direction that their parents teach them to go. If you teach your children to have no respect for God or for other people, they are probably going to end up being a problem and to all of society. On the other hand, if you teach your children what is good and what right, and teach them to have love and respect for God, then they are probably going to end up being good people. That’s a pattern that exists in this world.

And so, Solomon said, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

There’s a pattern in this world. And the better we understand that pattern, the wiser we will be, and the better choices we will make.

But it’s important for us to understand there is a difference between the wisdom of God in Proverbs and the promises of God in the rest of the scriptures.

The promises God has made through Jesus Christ are definitely going to happen. At the end of Matthew 28, Jesus said to his apostles, “Behold, I am with you always to the end of the age”, that’s a promise. In Romans 8:28, Paul said, “There is nothing in all of creation can separate those of us who are in Christ from the love of God.” That’s a promise. In 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That’s a promise. We know that will happen.

Promises are always true, all the time. But wisdom is different. Wisdom is about patterns. Wisdom tells us what is generally true, but there will sometimes be exceptions. God made this world to work a particular way, but sin ruined this world, and so now things don’t always work the way they’re supposed to work all the time.

Take hard work, for example. Generally speaking, hard work leads to success. But there are some hard-working people in this world who still struggle to be successful. Maybe because of discrimination, or disability, lack of education, all sorts of things. It is possible for you to be hard-working in this life and still be unsuccessful.

Or take parenting. Generally speaking, if you train your children in the way they should go, they’re not going to depart from it when they get older. But, we know people in this room who had bad parents and yet are walking in the truth of the gospel. And there are also parents who trained their children the very best way they could, but their kids still turned their back on God.

There are always exceptions. Wisdom tells us what is generally true. It doesn’t give us all the answers. It doesn’t offer any guarantees. Wisdom says, “I want to know the patterns of this world and more closely align my life and decisions to them.” And the better I understand what those patterns are, the better my chance for success. The better I understand what those patterns are, the easier it is to make a decision when I’m faced with a tough choice.

And, as you read through the Bible, God begins to show you these patterns. But wisdom is more than just knowing a bunch of proverbs. You begin to find that in all the patterns and principles, there is one particular pattern woven throughout all of them.

Because wisdom is not fundamentally about memorizing a teaching or a pithy saying; it’s about knowing God, because God is the essence of wisdom.

Solomon put it this way: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

For all the many statements that Proverbs gives us, Proverbs says itself that wisdom starts not by knowing all the proverbs, but by knowing God, and having a proper respect for Him.

It may seem counterintuitive, but you don’t get wisdom by analyzing your situation over and over and over. You get wisdom by starting to analyze who God is. That’s where the clarity begins to happen. But we tend to get things backwards, and so we analyze and stress over our situation and then we go to God later on when we’ve exhausted all other possibilities.

Because, our problem is, we just want to know what to do. We find ourselves in those situations where we have a tough choice to make and we just want to know what to do. What we really want is a book that would tell us the answer to all our questions. And instead, God gives us a book that tells us about Him

And, in those moments of decision-making, if we had to choose between a book with all the answers or a book about God, I think most of us would want the answer book. We would rather get an answer to our questions without ever having to interact with God. Which is another way of saying that we want God’s wisdom more than we want God.

But, we have to know God first, before we can understand wisdom, because that’s the only way that things will ever work out right. The truth is, you could know the right answer to every predicament you’ll ever face and still not be at peace. Because there’s something inside of you that no amount of practical information can fix.

Take a look at the bookstores. We have how-to manuals for everything. How-to shop. How-to eat. How-to have sex. How-to do this, how to do that. But, with all of the help that’s out there, people don’t have any more confidence they’re doing the right thing. People are just as stressed and anxious as they were before those books were written. Because we weren’t made for a how-to manual. We were made for a relationship with God.

Knowing God is the ultimate goal. And it’s in this relationship that wisdom begins to flow into all of your life. God takes our blinders off and we begin to see this world as he sees it. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that once we know God, he’ll tell us everything we need to know and we won’t ever have any questions. But God doesn’t promise to give us all the answers. He does promise to give us satisfied hearts that are less worried about having all the answers.

But, seeking wisdom always begins with seeking God. Allow me to leave you with three practical things we can do to start pursuing wisdom in our relationship with God.

1. Read your Bible as often as you can.

The Bible is God telling us what this world is like. When you read the Bible, you’re putting on the glasses of God, viewing this world the way he sees it. Wisdom is seeing the patterns of God as he has weaved them into the world. And over time, things that once were difficult to you will begin to be clearer and simpler.

As Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2).

2. Pray for wisdom.

Wisdom doesn’t involve a set answer. You can have two almost identical situations, yet wisdom may prompt you to act very differently in each one. Each circumstance is unique. Every new challenge brings new elements. And the only person who has all the information is God. So, we need to humble ourselves and ask him for wisdom.

As James said, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5)

3. Understand that getting wisdom is a slow process.

I understand, you and I want to microwave everything in our lives. We want quick and immediate results. We need to realize that gaining wisdom is a slow and steady process. Those who get wisdom pursue it consistently from God over time. The pathway to wisdom is not one big leap, but rather ten thousand small steps.

Solomon imagines wisdom speaking, and she says, “Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.” (Proverbs 8:34)

Over the weeks ahead, we’re going to dig into the book of Proverbs, and we’re going to listen to God as he tells us about some of the patterns he has put into this world. And as we see what God has to say, we have the opportunity to listen and gain wisdom so that we can make better choices in our lives.

One Comment

  1. Ruth Udochi Alphonsus

    Thank you for this beautiful message. I just stumbled on this while I was searching for explanations to book of proverbs verse by verse and it was very enriching. I hope by God’s grace that I go through all your lessons on the book of proverbs. God bless you!

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