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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 1:1-9
“Why Proverbs?”
May 11, 2014 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

         “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” “Always wear clean underwear; you might be in an accident.” “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” “What if everyone jumped off a cliff? Would you do it too?” “Be careful with [that], or you’ll put your eye out.” In honor of Mother’s Day, I took those sayings from a list of “momisms,” familiar thoughts that mothers are fond of expressing. Many of you could add a few from your own mother, or else your children could repeat some of your own.

         All those momisms are proverbs, the subject and substance and name of the book of the Bible we are beginning together. Verse 1 tells us these are the “proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel.”

         What’s a proverb? We recognize one when we hear it, but what’s the substance of a proverb? Definitions abound, but there is something a little mysterious about these statements. They are commonsense and practical, but more than simple advice or instructions. There is wit, even humor, in some proverbs. They are short and memorable.

         In Don Quixote, the hero advises Sancho Panza that “proverbs are short sentences drawn from long and wise experience.” Lord John Russell said proverbs are “the wit of one and the wisdom of many.” says a proverb is “a short popular saying, usually of unknown and ancient origin, that expresses effectively some commonplace truth or useful thought.”

         Some people spend a lot of time reading and learning the proverbs in this book. When I went to Windows Bookstore this week and asked for commentaries on Proverbs, another customer overheard me and was just delighted. He immediately quoted Proverbs 20:15, “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.” He kept at it, repeating verse after verse from this book of wisdom.

         Whether you realize it or not, most of you already know several biblical proverbs. Maybe you remember and have said, “Pride goeth before a fall,” or “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,” or “Iron sharpens iron; so one man sharpens another.” We are acquainted with this book. Maybe you’ve even read it. But unlike that man in the bookstore, I doubt many of us, and I include myself, have spent much time studying it or memorizing more than a verse or two.

         I usually follow the church lectionary when I preach. It’s a good way to hear passages from each major part of Scripture each Sunday and in a year to hear the whole history of what God has done for us. Over its three-year cycle we hear most of the four Gospels and much of the rest of the Bible. What we don’t hear often is Proverbs. In three years there are only five Sundays with readings from Proverbs.

         There is not much preaching from Proverbs. I can’t think of a single sermon I’ve heard from this book, except maybe a Mother’s Day sermon from chapter 31, which rhapsodizes about the perfect wife and mother. But it may be a little daunting to compare yourself to a gal who is a brilliant business woman and seamstress and household manager and teacher. She gets up early and stays up late to clothe and feed her family. She’s strong and beautiful and totally adored by her husband and children. And she’s completely devoted to God. Wow! That’s all pretty impressive, but we will save it for another time and just be thankful today for the wonderful but more ordinary women who are our mothers and wives.

         Last fall, then, as I prayed over and thought about a sermon plan for this year, I felt myself drawn to Proverbs. Maybe part of it was the challenge of preaching material that is usually neglected. I also realized that I think of myself as a student of philosophy, which means “love of wisdom,” and this is the book of the Bible which specifically and directly claims to be wholly about finding wisdom.

         But what are this book’s own reasons for being studied? Verse 2 tells us the purpose is first of all to learn “wisdom and instruction” by “understanding words of insight.” A proverb you never hear or don’t understand is of no use at all. Stephen Arnott collected proverbs[1] from other countries that make little sense in English. Italians say, “Dogs and rude people have no hands.” In Egypt they declare, “Better the gurgling of a camel than the prayers of a fish.” In China you are told to “Give a dog an appetizing name, and eat him.”

         While most Bible proverbs are clear, there are some that need explanation. Proverbs 14:10 says, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” What does that mean? Proverbs 26, verses 4 and 5, tell us “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Which are you supposed to do? And Proverbs 27:15 is amusing, “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious wife are alike.” But how is it helpful?

         So the first reason for studying Proverbs is just to understand what’s here, to absorb and grasp what Solomon and other authors of this book meant to teach. But the second reason is verse 3, to gain “instruction in wise dealing: righteousness, justice and equity.” Other translations say you will learn to do what is “right and just and fair.”

         Your neighbor blows his leaves into your yard. Your employer wants you to work late on your wife’s birthday. Someone asks you for money as you get out of your car at the grocery store. Your children want a dog and promise they will do all the work to take care of it. A professor gives you a lower grade than you think you deserve. Wouldn’t it be good to spend sometime studying how to do what is right and just and fair?

         Our city is trying to balance concern for homeless people who want places to camp with the interests of homes and businesses in the neighborhoods where those camps might be. Our nation is trying to balance concern for personal liberty and fiscal responsibility with everyone’s need for access to healthcare. The nations of the world are trying to figure out how to live together despite deep differences in values and beliefs. We desperately need to know what is right and just and fair.

         Wouldn’t it be good to fill out and mail in your ballot this week having thought, at least a bit, about which candidates will try to do what is right and just and fair in our county, in our state, in our nation? But how will we know? Maybe by studying Proverbs.

         The third reason for Proverbs is verses 4 and 5. We all have something to learn. As you read this book, you quickly realize that it’s written primarily to the person named in verse 4, the “simple,” the “young.” Proverbs is a sort of young person’s guide to life, like one of those books people give you when you graduate from high school, but which you never read. But is that all there is to Proverbs?

         There is a lot here for young people starting out in the world. There’s advice on what to look for in a spouse, how to conduct yourself in business, how to deal with annoying people, how to behave around people in power, how to treat the poor, how to be content with what you have, and more.

         But like the very best introductory textbooks on any subject, Proverbs contains insight  and guidance for those who already have some experience, some learning, some skill in living life. Verse 5 says, “let the wise also hear and gain in learning and the discerning acquire skill.” No one is so skilled at the business of living, or at anything we do, for that matter, that we have nothing left to learn.

         Our Covenant Ministerium, the association of pastors to which I belong, has the goal of encouraging our ministers to be “life-long learners.” That’s exactly what Proverbs invites all of us to be, people who are studying and growing all our lives.

         The specific skill to be worked at by those already wise is verse 6, to understand the complexities and difficulties of a “proverb” or a “figure,” in “the words of the wise and their riddles.” A “figure” is a parable, a story or image relating to some deeper truth. That’s what John said Jesus did when He compared Himself to a shepherd in our Gospel reading today, using a “figure of speech,” but they did not understand Him. Do we?

         As we start reading it, Proverbs is asking us for humility. If we come thinking we already know what we need to know about life or about the Christian faith, if we come with cynicism about the kind of proverbial teaching we find here, we will be disappointed.

         When I teach theology to Covenant pastors we may have one or two men who question our position that we ordain women and call them to serve in any position in the church or denomination. Occasionally a person will have his mind completely made up and determined in advance. He’ll quote I Timothy 2:12, Paul saying “I do not permit a woman to teach, and say, “That’s it. That settles it. You can’t tell me anything different.” He simply refuses to learn and think about Christian freedom in Galatians 3:28, or Paul’s female colleagues named in Romans 16, or Priscilla instructing Apollos in Acts 18:26, or Deborah in the book of Judges, or even the woman in Proverbs 31:26 who “opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” There’s no humility to hear and consider another way of looking at what he thinks is settled by a couple verses.

         Proverbs invite us to be wise by being humble about what we know. One of the first stories you learn when you study philosophy is how Socrates learned from a friend that the oracle at Delphi had declared that no one was wiser than Socrates. He didn’t feel wise, so Socrates began to search for someone wiser than himself. He found lots of people who thought they were wise, but when questioned they turned out rather foolish. So Socrates concluded that the only thing that made him wiser than anyone else was that he knew he was not wise. Part of the wisdom Proverbs teaches is that kind of humility.

         Which is why we come to the catch phrase, the tag line of the whole book of Proverbs, maybe of the whole Bible, in verse 7. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” “The fear of the Lord” is mentioned over twenty times in the Bible and at least ten times in Proverbs. It’s here at the beginning and at the end of the book. Nearly the last thing said about the good woman in Proverbs 31:30 is that she fears the Lord.

         It’s not very popular in our day to say we should fear God. We would rather talk about God’s love and grace than about anything which might make us afraid of him. We’re often pretty quick to explain away the “fear of the Lord” as something like “respect” or “honor.” Yet the Bible mentions it over and over to call us to the kind of fear which produces humility before the power and wisdom of God. When we fear and become humble that’s when we start growing wise.

         Wisdom begins by learning we are not wise, that we do not have the answers, that we are not bright or clever or smart enough to figure out life on our own. It begins by realizing that those answers come from God, that we need His help to get a grasp on life, on goodness, on justice, on everything which really matters, We compare our simple minds to the infinite wisdom of God and that’s when we really begin to learn.

         In John 10 today we heard Jesus say that His sheep hear Him and follow Him because they know His voice. That is the wisdom Proverbs asks of us, a humility willing to listen to and follow our Lord when He leads and teaches what we don’t yet understand. Jesus said He came so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” The way to that abundant life is humility about what we know and a willingness to listen and learn from our Lord.

         Proverbs starts and ends with the fear of the Lord because real life, real wisdom begins and ends with God, with Jesus Christ our Lord who came to teach us and give us true wisdom and true life. Our journey through Proverbs this year is aimed not just at practical living, but at that abundant life in Christ.

         It’s a journey that starts at home. My mother taught me how to cook, how to hammer a nail, how to find a book at the library, how to take the tubes out of our old black and white television and test them, how to clean a wound and bandage it properly, how to sew on a button, how to behave politely at the table, how to pray, and all sorts of other skills and wisdom I take for granted and don’t even remember being taught. As I got older there were times I thought I already knew or knew better what she tried to teach me. But I learned from her that you have to be willing to learn, to discover something new, to be taught if you want to be wise.

         For most of us, like for me, parents were our first and most important teachers. That’s why the last two verses we heard this morning encourage us to listen to them, to hear “your father’s instruction” and “not reject your mother’s teaching.” Yes, it can be a mixed bag. I talked to someone a few weeks ago who complained that there aren’t many good moral examples for us. I told him I learned a lot from my mother about what is good, and almost nothing from my father. It’s been that way or worse for some of you, I’m sure.

         Yet we are all called to learn from the Lord and to share that wisdom. Verse 9, our last verse, says that teaching, that wisdom which comes from the Lord through parents and other people will be “a fair garland for your head, and pendants for your neck.” My youngest daughter has a wedding dress hanging now in our closet at home. I’m sure my eyes will fill with tears when she wears it down that aisle in front of me in a couple months. She will have something lovely on her head and a pretty necklace I’m sure. But what I pray most of all is that she will wear somewhere in her heart and mind whatever good, whatever bit of wisdom we’ve been blessed to share with her, that she will not forget the fear of the Lord and His love for her.

         We all have a blessed opportunity to share the wisdom we’ve learned, even the lessons learned from pain and hurt, and to help someone else follow Jesus. It may be our children, it may be a friend here at church, or it may be at total stranger to whom you speak a well-chosen proverb or other Scripture. But if we first make ourselves willing to keep learning, then we will be able to help others learn about Jesus as well. May God bless all you mothers, and all the rest of us, in the holy and life-long task of learning wisdom.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Peculiar Proverbs (St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

Last updated May 11, 2014