How are you finding Proverbs? Not perhaps a book to read from cover to cover, but if we don’t have some sort of system, quite probably one of those books we don’t look at very often. Also the Proverbs can seem a bit simplistic at times – if you do this, that will happen or vice-versa – and our experience in life tells us that some things are not that simple. What is the purpose of this book? Well the opening verses of chapter 1 tell us and perhaps they can be summed up in verse 7:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Repeated in 9:10:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
The prominent theme throughout is that of wisdom and it is linked to knowledge of God and following his ways. Wisdom is clearly something to be desired and is personified as she calls out in the street:
Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square;
on top of the wall[d] she cries out,
at the city gate she makes her speech:
‘How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?
How long will mockers delight in mockery
and fools hate knowledge?
Repent at my rebuke!
Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
I will make known to you my teachings.
There is much that makes immediate sense in Proverbs and much that presents an immediate challenge – such as today’s section. It raises the age old question of why the wicked seem to prosper at the cost of those who are good and decent; to the cost of those who are righteous and fear God. You will not be surprised that I do not have a solution to this problem that will satisfy everyone, but as Christian believers, we do have a long term view and believe that there will be ultimate justice, which is what the Bible points to. That doesn’t excuse working for the Kingdom of God come and God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven; it doesn’t mean we just wait to be taken to heaven – something I spoke about in the Creation series. We are God’s servants in the here and now for God to use in this life. Ultimately our example is the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am going to use examples from life in which people have not rejoiced over the fall of an enemy; have overcome evil with good and looked to God as the ultimate bringer of justice. However, we begin with verses 13 and 14.
Honey features prominently in the Old Testament as a symbol of God’s bountiful provision (Exodus 3:17 the land of milk and honey); as a gift (Jacob’s gift to Joseph in Egypt); something to be desired for its sweetness, only exceeded by the law of the Lord (Psalm 19:10). Just 3 examples. Now if you don’t like honey this may not be helpful! However, you get the picture: this is something of great value and to be desired – a gift you would give to kings. The writer then links it to wisdom. Wisdom is just as sweet and desirable and what is more it will bring benefit to your soul and give you hope and a future. It is clearly something to be sought out and not all find it:
wisdom is like honey for you:
if you find it, there is a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.
A New Testament parallel can be found in Matthew 13 where Jesus talks about the person discovering treasure in a field and selling all they have to buy the field; or the merchant who discovers a pearl of great value and sells all he has to buy the pearl – such is its worth. As Christians we believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is that thing of great value or the honey to be greatly desired and it is found in Jesus Christ. Here is the beginning of all wisdom and knowledge and having entered the Kingdom, our lives are then directed by him. In Jesus is our hope and future.
It is interesting that the writer has to say to the reader, ‘Don’t follow the way of the wicked.’ The writer is well aware that we are weak people and easily led into ways that are not good and right. It is very difficult for someone working where there is abuse of trust or corruption that enriches, to resist that pressure when it seems so easy and others are prospering. There are many reasons why young people join gangs and run drugs, because here is the promise of the things they couldn’t otherwise have. ‘Eat honey for it is good…know that wisdom is such to your soul…’ says the writer of Proverbs.
Verse 16 could cause a bit of a problem. It suggests the ‘righteous’ just keep bouncing back and the ‘wicked’ will stumble and fall when calamity comes. This seems to be one of those simplistic statements not always borne out by experience. We need to link this verse with 20-22. These verses don’t point to immediate justice but certainly to future justice. They remind me of Psalm 1 which says,
The wicked will not stand in the judgement ,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous….
The way of the wicked will perish.
These verses point us to the ultimate judgement of God when Jesus returns, because the gospel message is one of victory over sin and evil both now and for eternity. This is totally countercultural. Jesus may have said, ‘Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you’ but the world says ‘I am going to crush my enemy and make life hell for those who oppose me.’ Thankfully, there are plenty of people who will not follow this way – both Christian, those of other faiths and those of no faith. The example of God in Jesus Christ is the example of victory over sin and evil through, loving, serving and sacrifice – the example we are called to follow. Let’s look at some examples of this.
I want to take you to one of the schools I worked in. This is an example that shows the work of God through the staff to bring about change. I was appointed headteacher of a school that was out of control and told to make it work or it would close. I had to interview former members of staff and new members of staff to form the team. One of the former teachers I interviewed described the children as animals in the interview. They didn’t get a job. The new team that joined the school were not all crack teachers, but were willing to overcome the negativity in the school. This meant conquering opposition, animosity, expectation of failure with love and valuing the pupils.
The local vicar came in and prayed through the whole building with us – both Christian and non-Christian staff. We introduced a positive discipline approach and refused to exclude any child except for serious assaults. The staff accepted minor assaults and abuse. With the perseverance of the prophets and the patience of Job, we brought about change in the lives of the children of the school. Wisdom provided a hope and a future, even though it was a hard path, we stumbled many times and it would have been easier to walk away.
Vi and Ray Donovan, a Christian couple, lost a son to the mindless violence of a gang. He was walking down the road with his brother and as they passed a group of lads, they were set upon and Chris was kicked to death. Ray and Vi had to go on a journey of forgiveness. They would have been justified in seeking revenge and gloating over their son’s killers as they were sentenced, especially as they showed no remorse. They knew they should forgive but battled to do so.
God in Christ enabled them to do more than forgive in words. They met with one of their sons’ attackers to ask why they attacked Chris. They forgave him and the others, keeping in contact with this young man when he came out of prison. They began to go into schools and prisons to talk about the impact of violence on people’s lives, both perpetrators and victims, and without softening the impact of the violence done, share the difference Christ has made. They rose again because they have a hope and a future.
I’ve used the bombing at the Enniskillen Remembrance service before, but here is a clear example of a righteous person rising and knowing that evil has no future. Gordon Wilson said,
I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no
grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. I shall pray for those
people [the IRA bombers] tonight and every night. May God forgive them.”
He worked for peace and reconciliation and faced opposition and threats because he wanted to overcome evil rather seek revenge or gloat when enemies fell.
On Deal beach there is an abandoned dinghy…We should be angry about the evil people who treat others as commodities and don’t care if they live or die. There are those this side of the Channel and in Calais who don’t just bemoan the fact that there are immigrants but overcome the evil that has caused migration with the love of serving them, caring for them and helping them in their time of need. There are those with influence, such as the Bishop of Dover who spoke of the children coming across the Channel as being our children. We cannot divest ourselves of responsibility. She and others like her have the position to influence government to do something more positive than just returning them to France or the countries they have fled from.
I called this message, ‘Don’t fret over evil’. To fret over something is to be constantly and visibly anxious over something; to be worn down by it. The encouragement not to fret found in verse 19 does not mean we are passive in the face of evil and injustice; it does not mean we should not be angered by it. It does not mean it shouldn’t stir us into action. It does remind us that God is the ultimate judge and that evil has no future in this world now or ever. We hold fast to the fact that if evil prospers now it will not have a future in the coming Kingdom of God. Wickedness and evil are parasites living off others and they will come to destruction.
These verses point us to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. He demonstrated that wisdom was not and is not found in following evil, but in loving sacrifice. The world is not saved through revenge, but through sacrifice. The example of Jesus was and is, ‘Father forgive them.’ No-one is saying this will be easy and there may not be a struggle. However, just as Jesus wrestled with the evil one in the desert and overcame, so in the strength of His Spirit, we can also overcome.
The honey that is good for us is the gospel of repentance and new life in Christ. It is the wisdom that brings a hope and a future. This is the honey that will flavour our lives and the lives of all those who seek Jesus and accept their need of his sacrifice and love. It puts out and will put out the lamp of the wicked.