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

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 3:13-26
May 18, 2014 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

         “Is college worth it?” That was the title of an article in the Economist last month. The writer attempted to answer that question in terms of dollars. On the average, college graduates age 25 to 32 earn at least $17,000 more per year than those who only graduated from high school. But factor in the cost of a college education and paying off student loans and the fact that not all degrees pay off equally and you realize that many young people are worse off after college than if they had started working right out of high school.

         The Economist article cited a study that rated colleges according to how much on the average their graduates could expect to make over those who start working after high school. Some prestigious universities had a nice return on the investment, but several schools showed a negative balance even after two decades of work.

         A lot depends on your major. Engineering usually always pays off, but humanities and the arts are a big financial risk. When I was in high school, our counselors told us that IBM and other big companies wanted to hire people with humanities degrees because they made better, more well-rounded employees. But I’m pretty sure that Google hasn’t hired any philosophy or English majors recently.

         So when you hear Proverbs telling us this morning here in chapter 3 verse 13, “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold,” it’s a tough sell. All the evidence suggests that wisdom and understanding are nice luxuries these days, but if you want to make a living you better know how to code a subroutine or plug numbers into a spreadsheet.

         Notice that Proverbs is calling wisdom “her.” We skipped the end of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2, but they set the stage for a theme that is going to unfold here for several chapters. Wisdom is pictured as woman, a good woman, and she is described in contrast to an evil woman. In chapter 1 wisdom is calling out for simple and foolish people to come into her house and find comfort and security. At the end of chapter 2, the evil, loose woman is luring the stupid to their destruction with smooth words. Verse 19 there says, “those who go to her never come back.”

         We will come back to that either/or of the good woman and evil woman several times in the next few weeks. At points it feels like Proverbs is literally warning us against the dangers of sexual promiscuity and adultery. At other moments, the metaphor is in full swing and it’s clear that these two women represent wisdom and foolishness and the choice we make between them.

         As I mentioned last week, much of Proverbs reads like a young man’s guide to life. If you are female, you might wonder what all these warnings have to do with you. I can’t say from experience, but my guess is that you can pretty easily adjust the picture to be a warning against a smooth-talking, handsome devil who will bring you nothing but heartbreak, and an invitation to seek out an honest, good man who will bring you happiness and joy.

         In any case, when we read “Happy are those who find wisdom,” we can imagine the happiness of those who find a true and good spouse, or maybe a faithful friend. Our relationship with wisdom is meant to be deep and intimate. That’s how this text can go on in verse 15 sounding like love poetry, “She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.”

         But there is more going on here than just wanting lusty youth to sublimate their physical desires into an intellectual desire or asking greedy young people to seek out the treasures of learning rather than material wealth. We’ve sung the praise song that says,

         Lord, you are more precious than silver;
         Lord, you are more costly than gold;
         Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds;
         And nothing I desire compares with you.

         Do you hear what happened there? Christians took these words from Proverbs about the beauty and value of wisdom and applied them to our Lord. That’s been happening for a long time. As we will discuss more when we get to chapter 8, Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries connected wisdom directly with Jesus, and thought they could find out whether Christ is truly God or not by reading Proverbs. That doesn’t really work.

         What is true, though, and what started much earlier in Paul’s writings and with Jesus Himself is that the New Testament sees the true and deepest fulfillment of wisdom in Christ. I Corinthians 1:25 says Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God. In Luke 7:35 Jesus talks about His actions and then speaks His own proverb, “Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Which all means that the woman wisdom here in Proverbs is not the same as Jesus, but she points us to Jesus. Many of the things that are said about her can be said about Him.

         And we heard Peter picking up the theme in I Peter 2:7 this morning when he referred to Jesus as the stone that was rejected but which we who believe now regard as precious, just as wisdom here in Proverbs is more precious than jewels. Wisdom is not Jesus, but she is always aiming us at Jesus.

         Near the beginning of Proverbs 3 are those famous verses we said in our call to worship today, verses 5 and 6:

         Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.
         In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.

That’s the basic message this female figure of wisdom is always teaching. Remember last week we heard in chapter 1 that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” the beginning of wisdom. Trust in God is at the heart of wisdom, so now that God has come to us as His Son Jesus Christ, wisdom now means trusting in Jesus.

         So that is how what is said about wisdom here in the next five verses can be true for us today. Verse 16 tells us, “Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.” If you take wisdom to be merely practical advice, then all that can mean is that if you are wise you will live long and prosper, like Vulcans hope. But if wisdom is teaching us to fear God, to trust in the Lord, then she is leading us to Jesus who rose from the dead to give us eternal life and bless us with all the riches of His kingdom.

         It’s the same for verse 17, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” Wisdom is pointing us to Christ who told us in John 14:1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” It’s a pleasant and peaceful way to follow Jesus and let Him speak comfort to the trouble in our hearts.

         When we come to verse 18 that intimate imagery of finding a spouse, a dear friend continues as we picture “those who lay hold of her,” those who embrace wisdom like we embrace someone we love. And what we are embracing in wisdom “is a tree of life.” This is the only place a tree of life is mentioned in the Bible other than at the beginning in Genesis and at the end in Revelation. Wisdom is a truly good path, a way back to the everlasting life which we lost in the Garden of Eden, a way back to the tree of life.

         As Christians we believe that the tree of life is given to us again in the Cross of Christ. His death on the tree and resurrection from the dead is what restores our life, what gives us back the tree of life we lost because of our sin.

         These are big claims for wisdom: long life, eternal life, riches, pleasure, peace, and “those who hold her fast are called happy.” The book of Proverbs is going to make those claims over and over. If you follow the wise course and do what is right, you will be blessed, be prosperous, be happy, have success, have long life. It seems too good to be true, and unless we get a little more wisdom about it all, it is too good to be true. As we are going to see many times as we study this book, Proverbs is not a collection of unfailing promises. It’s a guide to true and good life, ultimately a guide to life in and through God.

         That’s why verse 19 and 20 jump out of the realm of human life for a moment and teach us something that is going to be filled out and expanded in Proverbs 8. Wisdom was the means God used in creation. It was the divine wisdom by which He created earth and heaven, by which the oceans were filled and clouds formed. Or, if you like, it was divine wisdom which laid out the laws of the universe, so that whirling clouds of cosmic dust would spin off a little globe which cooled enough so that hydrogen and oxygen molecules would bond together and become a liquid that made life possible. Either way you tell it, there is an intelligence, an order, a wisdom to the physical world in which we live. Science is one way in which we as human beings get to glimpse that wisdom.

         The wisdom behind creation is the foundation for the last section of our text, which becomes once again human and very personal. It starts, “My child,” literally “My son.” We remember that when we left off last week in chapter 1 verse 9, we had just started to hear a father and mother give instruction, teach their child how to live wisely. These are words parents want a beloved son or daughter to remember, to take to heart. Because the wisdom of God created the world, wisdom will give you a secure place in that world.

         Much like we heard in chapter 1 verse 9, verse 22 hear says that wisdom and prudence will “be life for your soul and adornment for your neck.” Parents want their children to go out well-clothed, protected from the weather and looking respectable. Wisdom will provide both protection and a good appearance… and something even better.

         Verses 23 to 26 describe a sure-footed confidence and calm which come from keeping hold of wisdom. You won’t stumble, you won’t be afraid, “your sleep will be sweet.” All those panics and storms which trouble other people, trouble the wicked, you don’t need to worry about. Instead “the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from getting caught.” We invest in locks and web cameras and police and military protection, but it is wisdom that promises true security.

         Like I said, we need to think about that promise. We need to see it both in the light of our actual lives in the world and in the light of Jesus. To begin with, like so much of what Proverbs says, the promise of security through wisdom is not a guarantee. As we’ve learned all too well in the last eight years, just being wise and careful will not keep you from losing a business or a home. And as we’ve heard on the news this week about that Christian woman in Sudan, just following Jesus will not protect you from injustice and harm.

         Sometimes people explain this book of the Bible by saying that proverbs are not promises, they are probabilities. In other words, they tell you what will be the results for wise action most of the time. Do what is right, act wisely, speak gently, help the poor, and, most of the time, things will go well for you. But that doesn’t quite do it. If that’s all Proverbs is, then it’s just a self-help book, a management program. It doesn’t really address the deepest questions and problems we face.

         That’s why we need to read this text and all of Proverbs as a call to live in a way that reflects knowledge and wisdom regarding God’s eternal and ultimate purpose for our lives. In John 14 we heard Thomas once again doubting, wondering about his and the rest of the disciples’ security if Jesus is going to leave them. But Jesus invites us to trust in the secure place He has prepared for us, and to believe that He Himself is the way to that place, the way to God. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus is the truth, the wisdom by which to travel securely through this world into the new life God has waiting for us.

         In I Peter 2 we heard that Jesus is the chosen and precious cornerstone “and whoever believes in him will not be ashamed.” Psalm 31 today told us that God is our rock and our fortress, that God will guide our steps and take us out of the traps that are laid for us. None of that means we will avoid all suffering, that nothing bad will happen to us. It does mean that if we walk in the way of wisdom, if we follow Jesus Christ, that path will lead to security, that path will lead us home to the kingdom of God.

         Proverbs is a constant invitation to live out chapter 3 verse 5, to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” That way invites us to trust more in God’s eternal promise of happiness and security and less in the things which make us temporarily happy and secure.

         We put locks on our doors and passwords on our computers in the hope of security, but none of those are one hundred percent secure. Every other week some new virus or scam threatens our computer data, our credit card information, even our identity records. The wisdom of Proverbs invites us to make ourselves secure in the Lord, in His home for us, in His truth and grace.

         Thursday afternoon I came back to the church late in the day. When I got out of my car I heard a young woman crying at the apartments next door. I wasn’t sure whether to intervene and went on into my office. But then I thought I should at least ask her what was wrong. She was standing at her door with groceries and said her key wouldn’t work. I asked if she had contacted the apartment manager. She said the office was closed. So I asked if she wanted me to come over and try to help. She said yes.

         I walked around the fence and down their driveway and took her key. It fit and even turned a little, but not enough. The lock was stuck. I pulled hard on the door and turned the key at the same time and it moved. The door popped open. I handed the key back as the woman rushed in and hugged her cat.

         That’s how it can be with us. The very things we think are going to keep us safe and secure in life can frustrate us and ruin our security. Locks are good until they don’t work. Computers are great until they freeze up or we don’t know how to make them do what we want. Money and success are fine until they run out or can’t save us from sickness or disaster. Proverbs invites us to seek that which has lasting value, that wisdom upon which our world was created, that wisdom which gives eternal security.

         There is lots more to say about the wisdom of Proverbs. When we trust in God we will live in new and better ways. The very next section of this chapter tells us part of the path of wisdom is to respect and help the poor. The book is filled with practical advice like that. Just remember it is not merely practical. It’s eternally practical. It’s the way to life not just in a comfortable and safe apartment or house. It’s the way to the place which our Lord has prepared for us, forever.


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

Last updated May 18, 2014