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
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.
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
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
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj