Tag Archives: Proverbs

A Sermon on Sunday

Bubble-bursts-at-the-right-moment-resizecrop--Today I am preaching for the first time at my own church, where we have been attending for about the last two years. The theme this month is Seek, and intends to explore what it means to live a Spirit-directed life. Here is an outline of my message which intends to (a) lay a biblical foundation for being led by the Spirit, and (b) to illustrate this biblical truth with stories from my own life and that of others. My hope is that the congregation will be encouraged to reflect on their own experiences in order to identify how they have experienced the Spirit’s leading in times past, and so with greater confidence, be open and responsive to the Spirit’s continued work in their lives. In the end I ran out of time before I ran out of examples. But hopefully, the message will bear fruit in the people’s lives. Inglewood Church have put the sermon up online if you want to listen to it.


Three Key Texts

John 10:1-5, 27         
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” …

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

One of the most precious promises the believer has, is that the Good Shepherd not only finds and saves us, but calls us by name, knows us and leads us. The blessing of divine guidance is not about experiences, but about knowing the Guide. My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me. This is one of the ways in which God draws close to us, and draws us close to himself. It is one of the ways in which he draws the Christian to participate in his own life and work.

Proverbs 20:27
The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every innermost part.

Spiritual guidance is spiritually received. We err if we seek to ‘hear God’ by means of the physical senses—seeing something, hearing something, etc. Through the senses we contact the physical world. The world of the Holy Spirit is discerned spiritually. One way in which God  enlightens us is via the spiritual dimension of our life, and so it is necessary that we become spiritually attuned to ‘the still, small voice; the gentle whisper.’

Romans 8:12-16; 9:1 
 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. …

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit…

In this text we gain some specific insight into how the ‘still, small voice’ comes to us, and so how we might recognise and name it in our experience. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit. … My conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.

My contention: if Christians can learn to recognise the promptings and intuitions—the ‘voice’—of their own conscience, they can learn to be led by the Holy Spirit.

  • This is not for a moment to identify the divine and human spirit, but to insist that somehow, the Holy Spirit touches the human spirit and a communication takes place whereby we know what we previously had no way of knowing. Image: a fragment is transferred from the hard-drive to the floppy drive.

This ‘inner witness’ might be likened to a hunch, an intuition, an inner prompting or urging, an awareness, a perception or premonition. Further, verse 13 shows that one of the primary ways in which we can begin to learn this way of the Spirit is via the common experience of conviction: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body…”

Learning the Way of the Spirit

In the second part of the sermon I simply tell a range of stories from my own life and that of others which illustrate a variety of ways in which the ‘inner witness’ might be experienced, so that listeners can begin to identify in their own experience how and when the Spirit may have spoken to them. Some of these ways include:

  1. A text of Scripture coming to mind at just the right time
  2. An inner conviction, prompting or urging
  3. A ‘burden’ and strong sense of urging, especially to do with prayer
  4. A movement of compassion towards others
  5. An inner unease or restlessness concerning something specific
  6. A picture, image or impression
  7. An inner ‘voice’ in which specific words are heard

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 5

Couple in Fountain

Drink water from your own cistern and fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be exhilarated always with her love. For why should you, my son, be exhilarated with an adulteress and embrace the bosom of a foreigner? For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the Lord and he watches all his paths. His own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin. He will die for lack of instruction, and in the greatness of his folly he will go astray.

I had not been a Christian very long, before I stumbled across this passage in Proverbs. Still unmarried, a young man, all it took was the word “breasts,” and my attention was captured! Over thirty years have passed since then, and I am still pretty much the same.

This passage is both a celebration and warning, though the note of warning captures the function of the chapter as a whole. As is often the case in the early chapters of Proverbs, the passage is addressed to “my son,” and may be conceived as parental instruction (cf. Proverbs 1:8; 4:1-3; 6:20). In many cases the instruction might just as easily be addressed to “my daughter.” Though that might go against the cultural grain of the text in the period when it was written, it is certainly appropriate today to recognise the equal value and blessing of both daughters and sons, and to affirm their equivalent need for instruction. Having affirmed that, however, it may also be noted that the particular theme of this chapter is appropriately addressed to “sons” (5:7). The recent Ashley Madison hacking scandal indicates once again, the relative disparity between men and women with respect to sexual promiscuity. Although the owners of the website claimed the client gender split was 60% male – 40% female, the hackers claimed the true figure was probably higher than 90% male.

The first fourteen verses warn the son against the “adulteress” (v. 3), who lies in wait for his life (cf. 6:26; 7:23). In the early centuries of the church, it is clear that women were often and unfairly seen as the source of sexual temptation, as sexually dangerous, and perhaps even as predatory and inherently immoral. If we are not careful, we might read these chapters in Proverbs as affirming a similar—unjust—perspective. It is easy to blame the woman involved for sexual sins and failings which are just as much if not more, those of the men involved, just as it is easy to overlook the socio-economic factors which often lure or drive a woman into using her sexuality as a means of survival, or as the ground of her value as a person.

Roland Murphy notes that the

Translations and understanding of the … “a foreign woman” and the … “a strange woman” vary considerably. The literal sense of the terms includes: stranger, outsider (outside of what? family, tribe, nation?), foreign, alien, another. A secondary meaning that may be derived from some contexts is adulteress. It is better to keep to the literal meaning wherever possible, and let other levels of meaning, if any, emerge in the course of chaps. 1-9 (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 13-14.

It may be that in ancient Israel, the foreign woman had no other means of survival than the sale of her body. Or perhaps she was alluring because different, and so perceived as a threat, especially if she also brought other gods and foreign worship with her. There may be xenophobic as well as sexual elements at work in this passage. In any case, the woman is portrayed in very negative terms: she is deceitful, uncaring and unstable (vv. 4-6), and the sons are warned in very strong language to have nothing to do with her.

The warnings in this passage have to do with consequences. Those who frequent the door of this woman will give their “strength” to strangers, their years to “the cruel one.” Strangers and aliens will receive their hard-earned wealth, their flesh and their body will be consumed, and their final years will be filled with isolation, regret and reproach (5:7-14). Poverty, bitterness, shame, and perhaps even disease will await those who indulge in her pleasures.

Old couple embraceIn this context, then, the positive marital-sexual vision of verses 15-20 is set forth. Here the language is that of abundance, of a well-watered garden—a very rich and evocative image in a desert landscape. Not simply evocative, the language is overtly erotic, “wells” and “fountains” imaging the female and the male sexual partners. It seems likely that the partners have been married for some time since the passage refers to the husband’s wife as “the wife of your youth” (v. 18; Cf. Ecclesiastes 9:9). As already noted, the addressee of the passage is especially the man, who is admonished to be satisfied in her love, with her breasts, to view her in terms of the grace and vigour of a doe. He is to drink water from his own cistern—not that of others—and likewise, keep his streams “out of the streets.” He is to rejoice in his wife, and she evidently, in her husband. Their congress is a joyful meeting, unrestrained and, one hopes, mutually exhilarating. She remains the only object of his sexual desire through the years, the only well from which he draws water, the only guest to visit his fountain.
The possibility of such an idyll seems remote in the present. The prevalence of divorce, adultery, and promiscuity, the existence of Ashley Madison (“Life is short; have an affair”), the globalisation of the sex trade, and the pervasive sexualisation of our media all demonstrate a culture in thrall to disordered sexuality, as well as the loss of a positive marital vision. “I sex, therefore I am” may capture the contemporary western vision of what it means to be human. Such a terribly oppressive philosophy can only multiply the number of victims in a brutal world of dog-eats-dog, where winners are few and the disenfranchised are discarded.

The monogamous vision of this proverb is oft decried today, viewed as quaint, unrealistic and sometimes as oppressive. It is also true that it is an ideal many fail to live up to, despite their best intents, for monogamy is difficult, especially in a sexualised world. Still, the vision must be upheld, otherwise we will lose sight of the biblical wisdom it proclaims: that sex is God’s good gift to men and women, that sex is a means and never an end, that sex belongs and ultimately can only thrive in a covenantal context, that sexual union images the fruitful and faithful union of Christ and his church, and of God and his people.

Removed from this context and vision sex becomes a destructive and enslaving power: his own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin. Sex, like other creational goods, can become an idol, an obsession and an addiction. This proverb would have us retain our strength and avoid the personal, familial and cultural dissolution that results from unrestrained sexual practice. It honours the marriage bed and keeps it a private garden of delight for husband and wife alone. It calls men, especially, to restrain their sexual proclivities and remain faithful and satisfied with the wife of their youth. And it calls husbands and wives to an idyllic vision, and so to a mutual intention and commitment toward the realisation of that one-flesh vision in their own lives.

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 15:32


He who neglects discipline despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.

The word “discipline” conjures different images for different people. For some, the unjust or brutal disciplines inflicted on them in childhood, in school, or in the workplace stir a negative reaction. Others have a more positive view, having experienced discipline as instruction, as gentle correction or wise advice.

In Proverbs, discipline is always something that arrives, visiting us in one of two forms. The first kind of discipline is that which a parent inflicts on their child, as in Proverbs 22:15: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (cf. 13:24; 19:18; 23:13-14). Care must be taken here. Many times I have heard such verses used to justify harsh forms of discipline, or “corporal punishment” as it was called when I was a child. While Proverbs rightly commends discipline as an essential parenting practice, we would be wise to recognise the very different cultural environment in which we live, at least in the west, and so be very moderate in our use of physical disciplines. Further, we should note that the purpose of discipline is not punishment but regulation and instruction in hope that the child will learn to self-regulate and self-discipline (cf. Proverbs 23:15,-16, 19, 22-25).

The second form of discipline common in Proverbs is the reproof of others. Our text today contrasts the one who neglects discipline with those who “listen to reproof.” Verse 31 states the same truth in a positive tone: “He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.” And verse 33 commends the essential demeanour if one is to receive this kind of reproof: “The fear of the Lord is the instruction for wisdom, and before honour comes humility.”

Hearing reproof is difficult, especially when it comes in the form of criticism. The critic often is less than kind, less than caring, less than formative in their criticism. Criticism stings. It may be unfair, ill-informed and intended to wound. Or it may be legitimate and aim to instruct. Either way, if we are to benefit from the criticisms, admonishment and discipline that come our way, humility is essential. In such times we need the grace to listen and respond quietly in the moment, perhaps clarifying what we are being told so we may reflect on it later. Even if the criticism is harshly given and unkindly meant there may be a grain of truth in it that we would be wise to hear.

This combination of discipline and reproof is common in Proverbs—see Proverbs 12:1; 13:1; and 15:5. Proverbs 3:11 indicates that the Lord disciplines us by way of reproof, while 6:23 show that such reproofs are the pathway of life. As was the case with parenting, so here: the purpose of reproof is that we might become wise (19:20, 27). According to Proverbs 13:18, “poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, but he who regards reproof will be honoured.” And so Proverbs 23:12 exhorts each one to “apply your heart to discipline and your ears to words of knowledge.”

Both the ears and the heart are necessary to gain the wisdom that comes from reproof. With the ears we listen to the reproof, no matter how hard it may be to hear. With the heart we ponder and evaluate the truthfulness and relevance of the counsel we have heard. If the words spoken were unkind and untrue we may reject the so-called counsel, but still learn something profitable about that person and the relationship we are in. If, however, the words contain some degree of truth or relevance, we would be wise to accept that part of the counsel, despite the sting which the words delivered. And, of course, it may help to have a trusted friend or counsellor with whom we can process these words and thoughts.

The great irony of this verse is that often we refuse discipline because we despise others; we despise their interference, their authority, their nagging, or sometimes, we simply despise the person. Yet the proverb insists that those who neglect discipline despise themselves. Some disciplines focus on the pursuit of the good: disciplines towards healthy lifestyle, productive work habits, spiritual growth, and kindness toward others. Without such disciplines we may fail to achieve what we otherwise might, or fail to receive all that God might graciously give. Other disciplines focus on the refusal of evil: disciplines against laziness and lust, anger and anxiety, foolishness and falsehood. Without these disciplines we may fall into disaster and unending shame—and not only ourselves, but others who depend upon us.

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 31:1-9

King-DrinksProverbs 31:1-9
The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him:                

What, O my son?       
And what, O son of my womb?          
And what, O son of my vows?

Do not give your strength to women, or your ways to that which destroys kings. 
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine,          
Or for rulers to desire strong drink, for they will drink and forget what is decreed, and pervert the rights of the afflicted.          

Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter. Let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his trouble no more.

Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy (NASB).

Although we cannot be sure whether any women authored books or passages of Scripture, there are a number of texts in Scripture attributed to women, including this one. King Lemuel is otherwise unknown to us, although Murphy suggests that he was king of “Massa,” understood as an area in northern Arabia (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 239). He bases this conjecture on a possible translation of the word “oracle” as Massa. The name itself, however, is a Hebrew word meaning “belonging to God” (Kidner, Proverbs (TOTC), 182). The passage has a number of similarities with other wisdom texts from the Ancient Near East, and even includes Aramaic words and idioms. Nevertheless, Murphy (240) notes that this is the only instance in such literature where the king is instructed by his mother. In the end he considers the oracle to be a Hebrew composition.

It is tempting to suggest that the passage is about “wine, women, and song,” although there is no mention of indulging in the pleasures of music. Nevertheless, the king is instructed to “open his mouth!” Of wine and women, however, there is firm, blunt instruction, though the order is reversed. The mother offers this counsel on the basis of her maternal authority: he has come forth from her womb, having received his life from her. Further, he is the “son of my vows,” perhaps reminiscent of the promise Hannah made with respect to Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 1:11, 28).

“Give not your strength to women, or your ways to that which destroys kings!” The admonition is more a warning against promiscuity than an assertion of the supposed wickedness of women. Kings often have the resources to indulge their desires in ways not available to poorer, less powerful folk. Nor is it for the king to indulge in wine and other strong drink lest he forgets the decrees and perverts the rights of the afflicted. Whereas the king is not to drink and forget, he should give strong drink to the afflicted that they may drink and forget – their afflictions and poverty. This, too, is unusual advice, especially in light of a text like Proverbs 20:1, a strident repudiation of strong drink and drunkenness (cf. 23:20-21, 29-35). Perhaps it is best to let verse 6 set the scenario: “Give strong drink to him who is perishing,” and so see the advice in terms of administering a palliative or an analgesic.

Finally, the mother counsels her son to open his mouth for the mute, for the rights of the dispossessed, afflicted, vulnerable and needy. Rather than forget their rights, he is to enter the fray on their behalf, defending their rights and upholding their cause.

A number of themes in this short passage deserve reflection.

  1. Some things are wrong, bad and evil for anyone, but especially for those charged with leadership or who hold the reins of power, justice or influence. Self-indulgence eviscerates moral awareness, courage and determination. Drunkenness, sexual laxity and other self-indulgent pursuits cause one to centre in on themselves and to forget their responsibilities, and sometimes, all else. These things destroy leaders, cause them to become oppressors, and tear at the very fabric of trust that binds the relationship of leader and followers.
  2. Murphy translates verse three as “Do not give your strength to women, or your power to those who destroy kings.” Many of us have been granted a measure of strength or power, often in different spheres of endeavour or responsibility, and we can use that power to indulge ourselves and satisfy our own desires, or we can use it to help, benefit and bless others around us. Instead of spending it on himself, the king is admonished to preserve and direct his strength for the sake of the mute and the vulnerable. He is to remember the “decrees,” the sacred trust granted to him as king, as a leader, as one given power and influence. He is to serve others rather than himself, and not simply any others, but the poor and defenceless, those who have no other helper, and those who cannot repay him with favours.
  3. The primary service the king is to render is to “open his mouth” for the mute (vv. 8, 9). According to Murphy, “the ‘mute’ are not so much physically as they are socially weak, without a voice among those who administer justice” (241). I find this one particularly challenging. Too often, I think, I have not spoken up when I could and should have done so. Larry Crabb entitled one of his books “The Silence of Adam,” arguing that Adam stayed silent when he should have spoken up. He suggests this a sin that befalls many men particularly. It is true there is a time to be silent, but there are also times where to be silent is to add affliction to those already suffering. I must remember to “open my mouth for the mute.”
  4. It is not uncommon to hear that the language of “rights” emerged in western culture with the Enlightenment. Although there may be some truth in that, this passage is a clear biblical example of rights language, though in Scripture it applies to the “rights” of the vulnerable, afflicted and needy. It is not at all unusual in our culture for the powerful to stand up for their rights. Again, this passage calls us to stand up for others’ rights.
  5. Finally, I have sometimes tried to imagine a world in which women held the offices and reins of power instead of men. Would such a world be different to what it often is now? Certainly women are sinful just as men are. But would a world ordered by women be as given to violence as it is now? Would abuse and oppression be so widespread? Perhaps. Lord Acton’s famous dictum probably applies to women as much as it does to men although it seems he had men specifically in mind: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” But the words of this passage originated as the counsel of a woman, a mother using her power and influence to train her son who one day would be king. May her tribe increase.

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 19:22

random-acts-of-kindnessWhat is desirable in a man is his kindness,
and it is better to be a poor man than a liar.

This is but one of many verses in Proverbs which laud the virtuous life, including specific attributes and character traits. In Proverbs 20:6 the sage asks, “a faithful man, who can find?” In Proverbs 28:20 this attribute is positively stated: “A faithful man will abound with blessings.” So, too, “he who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). Another personal favourite is Proverbs 19:11, “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.” Other proverbs extol prudence, wisdom, humility, love and righteousness. Perhaps the root of them all is the fear of the Lord, that orientation of heart and life in which one is meek before God, open to God, listens to God’s word, and obeys God’s commands. Eugene Peterson argues that the fear of the Lord, this attentiveness to God, lies at the root of all true Christian spirituality.

Our proverb today is quite straight-forward—in English, at least: what is desirable in a man—and one might also say, in a woman—is kindness and integrity (cf. the virtuous woman on whose tongue is the “law of kindness” (31:26)). The NASB notes that kindness might be rendered loyalty. The Hebrew word is hesed, often used of God’s covenant loving-kindness. God’s love is also faithful, and so loyalty is not inappropriate, although Murphy notes that kindness is the normal translation of the word (Proverbs, WBC; 145). It seems odd, therefore, that Murphy makes an entirely different and obscure translation of the verse:

One’s desire, one’s disgrace;
so better poor than a liar (140).

Murphy reads desire as the greed which accumulates wealth through deceit and which therefore leads to disgrace. As such, the poor person who has not resorted to such greed and deceit is better. Murphy’s intent is to force the two lines of the proverb into a harmony bearing a single message. This is unnecessary, however, especially when it requires obscure translations of both desire and kindness. In many of the proverbs, the second line expands the thought of the first line, complementing and extending it in new directions. That appears to be the case here. The proverb is not a comparison between the rich and poor, although this comparison occurs often enough elsewhere. Rather, it is about desirable character, or the character that makes one desirable. Earlier in the chapter a similar comparison is made between “the poor who walks in his integrity,” and the “one who is perverse in speech” (19:1). Understood in this way, the proverb commends two character traits: kindness and integrity.

Kindness, as we have seen, is grounded in the divine character. God is kind. God’s covenant love and faithfulness are expressed in God’s kindness toward his people (see Deuteronomy 7:9; Hosea 2:19). In the New Testament, God’s work of salvation is the expression of God’s kindness: “But when the kindness of God our Saviour and his love for humanity appeared, he saved us…” (Titus 3:4-5). It is the kindness of God which draws men and women to repentance (Romans 2:4). Indeed, throughout the ages to come, God intends to lavish the riches of his grace upon his people in his kindness toward them in Christ (Ephesians 2:7).

Kindness, therefore, has to do with active goodness and benevolence which seeks the welfare and benefit of another. In the New Testament, believers are commanded to be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32), and to serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13). Yet kindness is also the result of the ongoing presence and action of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). It may be that as the Spirit prompts us to kindness and we respond with obedience, the fruit develops and grows.

Better to be poor than a liar. The liar is someone who practises deceit and spreads falsehoods thus rendering themselves untrustworthy and undependable. Their lies tear at the fabric of relationship, undermine confidence, and betray trust. If it is better to be poor than a liar, then being a liar is most undesirable, for who wants to be poor? What is desirable, therefore, is honesty, truthfulness and integrity. These characteristics, too, are grounded in the character of the faithful God who is true to his promise.

God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good? (Numbers 23:19).

A few years ago a common bumper sticker read, “Practise random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.” Although clichéd, this is sound counsel, so long as the random refers to the recipient of the action, rather than to an occasional practice! Kindness should not be a random or occasional practice, but a constant disposition, a developed habit, and a consistent pattern of life. This is a model of masculinity sorely needed in our present world. What is desirable in a man? KindnessHonesty. These are all the more necessary in a world in which cunning and violence are idealised and idolised. In these ways we image the God in whose image we are created. In these ways we participate in the divine life and become the men—and women—God calls us to be.

He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 3:5-6

TRUST-acrobatsProverbs 3:5-6
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.

This is one of what I sometimes call, a “golden text.” It is the kind of biblical text that gets written up on greeting cards, sown into tapestries, found in a promise box, and, once upon a time, would be the “daily text” published in the newspaper. All this is to say is that it can easily become cliched, though this is undeserved.

For generations and for centuries, Proverbs 3:5-6 has been a favourite for many believers. Simple in word and structure, the threefold command is followed by a single promise. It captures the hope that God is truly present and at work, involved and engaged in our lives, even when God’s presence and activity are not visible to us.

The text calls the believer out beyond themselves, to live toward another. The Christian life, in this sense, is “ec-centric,” whereby the believer lives toward a centre external to themselves. It is to be God-centred rather than self-centred, to lean the weight of our confidence on God rather than on oneself. All this is to say is that this text is more easily cited than obeyed!

The three commands are perhaps better understood as practices than simply commands. That is, trustdo not lean, and acknowledge describe an ongoing and habitual orientation on the part of the believer, rather than a once-off or occasional behaviour. Further, there is nothing passive about the activity envisaged here. To trust in the Lord is to entrust oneself to the Lord – all one is and does and has and hopes for. It signifies relinquishing self-sufficiency and self-help, and consciously, deliberately, putting our lives into the hands of God, looking for God, hoping in God, relying on God and resting in God.

The apostle Paul echoes this sentiment with his exhortation: “in everything with prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). So, too, does the apostle Peter: “Cast all your cares upon him, for he cares for you.” Such trust, however, is hard won, difficult at the best of times, and near impossible unless we are reduced to trust through desperate circumstances. Yet trust can be learned; trust can be practised, by acknowledging God in word and prayer, turning to God in praise and petition, seeking God humbly for wisdom, direction, strength, listening for God’s voice in Scripture and through others, and standing firm even when circumstances threaten to undo us.

So many stories in Scripture reinforce this text in narrative form, and often negatively. Asa turned to human alliances, and then to physicians, instead of seeking the Lord (2 Chronicles 16). Ahaz also turned to human alliances and was rebuked by the prophet: “If you will not believe, you surely shall not last” (Isaiah 7:1-9). Naaman, on the other hand, obeyed the apparently ridiculous instruction from the prophet, and was healed (2 Kings 5). Jehoshaphat and all his people turned to the Lord in trust and prayer in 2 Chronicles 20 and were heard and rescued. Mary said, “Be it unto me, according to your Word (Luke 1: 38). Peter said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as you say and let down the nets” (Luke 5:5).

Before, however, we imagine that this is a “magic wand” kind of text that promises a life of easy-believism, unending triumph, security and blessing, we must remember that it is a proverb, a generic statement of the way things generally go. It is not an absolute promise of God for every imaginable circumstance as some mistakenly hope. We do not have God in our pocket, but God remains ever and always the free and sovereign God whose ways are not our ways. Hebrews 11, therefore, reminds God’s people that

Others were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – those of whom the world was not worthy… (vv. 35-38a)

Trust in God extends beyond the horizon of our existence, beyond the boundaries of earthly life. It reaches “beyond the veil” to where Christ sits at the right hand of God. To trust in the Lord is to trust him with the entirety of our person and irrespectively of what transpires. It is to believe that “faithful is he who promised; he will also do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24). 

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 16:32

Dog, Self-ControlProverbs 16:32
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit than he who captures a city. (NASB)

Like a city that is broken into and without walls,
is a man who has no control over his spirit (Proverbs 25:28; NASB).

In these two proverbs a contrast is made between the one who rules their spirit and the one who does not. In both cases the image used is that of a city surrounded by its walls, a primary and enduring means of defence in the ancient world. Strong walls may not guarantee victory, but lack of walls or broken walls may well guarantee defeat. A city without walls was vulnerable to every passer-by. One need only remember the downfall of Jericho (Joshua 6) or Nehemiah’s tears to understand the importance of sound walls in good repair. As long as Jerusalem’s wall was broken down, the inhabitants there were in “great distress and reproach” (Nehemiah 1:3-4).

The message of wisdom, of course, is that one must “rule their spirit,” and yet this is easier said than done. Indeed, the first text suggests that it is more difficult to rule one’s spirit than to capture a city. It may be possible that a person of unrestrained anger might prove a ferocious warrior, perhaps even a resolute commander who can conquer cities. Yet better is one who rules his or her spirit.

English translations of 16:32 differ, many rendering “rule one’s spirit” in terms of anger, and so making the second part of the verse more explicitly parallel with the first part. So the NRSV translates: “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible captures the sense in a memorable manner for English readers: “Patience is better than power, and controlling one’s temper, than capturing a city.” Nevertheless, Roland Murphy’s suggestion that the word for spirit refers to a person’s appetites and passions perhaps allows us to extend the meaning of these texts beyond a narrow application to anger alone (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 194). Many passions and appetites vie for expression in the human heart, and not all of them good. Anger may be a prominent and suitable example, but others include pride, envy, greed, lust, sloth and gluttony—all of the classic deadly sins. Other emotions such as fear, guilt and shame might also be included. The wise person, it seems, will rule them all.

Taking our lead from the biblical example of anger we gain some hints into how this might be achieved. The text speaks of being “slow to anger.” Sometimes anger smoulders, sometimes it explodes, and sometimes it roars into flame after smouldering away for a long period. Being slow to anger suggests that one stops and “counts to ten” in the face of provocation, and that one keeps one’s regular temperature cool rather than heated, so that small things do not cause us to “boil over.” In other words, we practise restraint, keeping a sharp rein on our temper, considering other perspectives, possibilities and options. A wise person will maintain a “cool spirit,” seeking to subject the affections to reason (cf. Proverbs 17:27).

Another strategy for ruling one’s spirit is to practise the virtue that stands in opposition to the vice. Proverbs 19:11 is an example: “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.” To practise forgiveness is a glory whereas to flame into anger is foolish (cf. Proverbs 14:29). A third strategy is to recall the promise given to us by God and live toward that hope. In light of what is at stake, Jesus advocated a ruthless exercise of self-control in the face of sexual temptations and lust: “If your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).

Of course the problem is that I have only two hands and two eyes… And so in the end, we must pray. Self-control is, after all, a fruit of the Spirit’s work and activity in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). So, too, Jesus counselled his disciples saying, “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). I am reminded of one of the sayings of the desert fathers:

They said of Sarah that for thirteen years she was fiercely attacked by the demon of lust. She never prayed that the battle should leave her, but she used to say only, “Lord, give me strength” (Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, 36).

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 4:10-19

Wine__grape__bread_by_donnobruProverbs 4:14-19
Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not proceed in the way of evil men. Avoid it, do not pass by it; turn away from it and pass on. For they cannot sleep unless they do evil; and they are robbed of sleep unless they make someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence. But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn that shines brighter and brighter until the full day. The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know over what they stumble

These few verses are taken from the slightly larger section of verses 10-19, which in turn are the central section of the fourth chapter of Proverbs. The chapter as a whole concerns the instruction given by a father to his children, the same instruction he received from parents who loved him (vv. 1-4, 10, 20). This is parenting, child-training, wisdom, guidance and instruction for life. And of course, its relevance is not limited to children. Or, alternatively, we might hear in these verses the exhortation of a heavenly Father, “My son, my daughter…”

Verses 10-19 contrast the two ways or the two paths, in a manner similar to Psalm 1. On the one hand is the way of wisdom, the path of the righteous. This is a broad and clear path, shining with light, and one in which a person may walk and even run without stumbling. On the other hand is the path of the wicked, a way filled with darkness and unseen hazards over which one will invariably stumble. The exhortation of the father is urgent; with respect to wisdom he says, “Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life.” With respect to the path of the wicked he is equally as vigorous: “Do not enter…Avoid it, do not pass by it; turn away from it and pass on.” There are two paths and two ways, but only one leads to life.

In our text today, the wicked eat, drink and sleep wickedness. They cannot sleep unless they do evil. They look for opportunities to make others stumble. Wickedness is their bread and butter, their livelihood and means of profit (cf. Proverbs 1:10-19). They drink the wine of violence. There is, at least for some, something intoxicating about violence. It dulls our sense of right and wrong, while at the same time giving us a sense of power, perhaps even invincibility. Wickedness and violence dominate and subjugate their victims, robbing them of their dignity, stripping them of their rights, and exploiting them for benefit, pleasure or profit. There is no righteousness along this path, nor truth, goodness or beauty. There is, however, a kind of wisdom along this path, but it is not the wisdom which is from above, but that which is earthly, sensual and demonic (James 3:13-18).

Part of the difficulty Christians face is that our imaginations have been fed and shaped by violence. The stories we tell and the movies we watch often rely on violence for the resolution of difficulties, much of it entirely unwarranted. The violence of internet pornography tears at the fabric of our most intimate relations. Video games allow us to become virtual participants in worlds of violence. Our cultural narratives demand that we insist on our rights even at the expense of others, that we use whatever power we have to get our own way. State-sanctioned violence is justified by reasoning attuned to the cultural narrative, and slowly, steadily, incidents of violence increase even in our own communities.

For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.

In the midst of a world of greed and violence, oppression, manipulation and abuse, Christians are called to envision and enact a different world. One of the primary tasks of discipleship involves the conversion of the imagination, and it for this that we gather week after week in worship, community, and instruction in the gospel. And central to this gathering is bread and wine of a different kind.

In his wonderful book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson argues that in a world of death, death and more death, God has given his people the practice of Eucharist. The way of God in the broken world of history is the way of broken bread and shared wine, the culture of the table where all are welcomed and find a place, where hospitality is practiced, where the community lives and laughs and works and serves, a place where love may be practised, where peace may be found, where a community of grace might arise, and where the path of the righteous may be like the light of dawn that shines brighter and brighter until the full day.

Lord God, we beseech you, so work in our midst
that we may become such a community
in our time and in our place.
Feed us with the body and blood of your Son
and so replicate his life within and among us.
Transform our vision,
renew our imaginations,
fill us with your Holy Spirit
so that we may become servants of your kingdom
for the glory and honour of your name.

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 10:4

??????????????Proverbs 10:4
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

Proverbs 10:22
The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it

Matthew 6:24
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money

In the early days of my Christian experience I attended a church that was part of the “faith message,”—health and wealth, prosperity, etc.—and so these verses in Proverbs were well known to me. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew was not unknown; because one could not serve money we were to give it, to our church and its leaders, and to other “reputable” ministries in the same movement. Of course, in giving we would receive, for as the verse says, “the blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich” (KJV).

Thus we have an Old Testament promise of prosperity, or at least, an acknowledgement of diligence leading to success and riches, and a New Testament teaching condemning the pursuit of wealth. The problem, of course, is that I am wealthy. Exceedingly so, when considered with a global perspective. Even when I struggle to pay the bills, the truth is, I am rich.

Old Testament wisdom literature, based on observations of life, advises the reader to work diligently, to gather and store up their wealth, and thus to see accumulation as a reward. The gospels on the other hand, routinely condemn such a pursuit of wealth, and surely the gospels and the teaching of Jesus must trump the Old Testament?

So, then… I am already rich, loaded down with possessions, and still I accumulate. Especially books! But not only books. I hunger for success and acclaim. I hate not having enough money to do some of the things I would love to do, like travel and holiday whenever I like. I don’t seem to hate not having enough money to give… It would appear that in some ways, then, that I am hopelessly compromised by mammon.

Some years ago when I was wrestling with these matters I put pen to paper in my journal and wrote the following:

Resolved – Yet Still Listening!

I will not live for success but to serve God faithfully,
in obedience to Jesus Christ and for the glory of God;
I am a servant of his name, his kingdom, and his will.

Yet nor will I despise success if God graciously gives it.
Nor will I avoid success or sabotage its possibility
through indolence, laziness, false ideological commitments or lack of courage.

I will labour diligently in the gospel and in pastoral leadership
with all the skilfulness and integrity I can muster;
I will prayerfully and humbly trust God for fruitfulness from my labour;
I will gratefully accept what God gives:
whether smallness, with perseverance;
whether hardness, with endurance;
whether success, with gratitude.

Help me, Lord!
Grant me wisdom to know your way,
and courage to live and walk it.
(January 11, 2008)

I wish I could say that in the intervening years I have followed through on this pious expression of devotion. Sometimes I have. Often I have failed. Yet God is good, and God’s blessing has enriched my life in more ways than I enumerate. The richest blessings are those everyday provisions of grace we often take for granted: an opportunity to work, the love of a faithful spouse, the delight of a healthy grandchild, friends who care, a few moments of peace to write a blog post, food on the table, food in the cupboard, a bed to sleep in and a roof overhead, friendship, the respect and encouragement of peers. The list goes on.


“No one can serve two masters! … You cannot serve God and money.”

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.
(Luke 12:48).

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
(Luke 12:20-21).

And so we return to the central question: what am I to do with all this grace? It is not enough just to be rich; how can I be rich toward God?

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 21:31

War HorseProverbs 21:31
The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.

Should this verse be read in terms of an overarching divine providence in which every outcome is understood in terms of divine will and causality? Or might it be read as a piece of common sense wisdom which has observed that no matter how thorough the preparations made, one cannot always anticipate the results of one’s decisions and actions?

In favour of the first interpretation are some contextual features. The immediately preceding verse reads, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). God’s purposes stand even when human wisdom is ranged against him. So, too, the first verse of the chapter contains a strong affirmation of God’s overarching determination of human events: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). Who is greater than the king? Yet even he is subject to the overriding power and wisdom of God who turns his heart this way or that. Ranging further afield, a text like Proverbs 16:1-4, 9 shows that the kind of theological vision held by those who wrote the Proverbs:

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. … The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

There is an inescapable sense of divine determinism in these verses, yet it is softened somewhat by the devotional appeal of verse 3 (“commit your work to the Lord”). Roland Murphy’s comment is insightful:

It is a well-established fact that in the Old Testament view YHWH is the agent or cause of all that happens, even in the mysterious area of human activity. But it is equally clear that human beings cannot evade responsibility for their actions. They cannot, as it were, blame the divine activity. The entire thrust of the prophets, the condemnation of the people collectively and individually, rules this out. The Bible does not speak of free will, but that idea is presupposed. … But the interesting fact is that Israel never really struggled with the problem of human freedom and divine determination. This was an issue for later theologians, both Jewish and Christian, and it still remains without an adequate “explanation.” Both sides of the question are affirmed equally in the Bible, almost without awareness of the problem (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 125).

Murphy is certainly correct to note that this discussion continues even to the present day. Providence remains mysterious in the full sense of the term, an impenetrable conundrum that has defied our best attempts at resolution. The great temptation is the attempt to resolve it in either one direction or the other. The first is to assign divine causation simplistically to all that occurs, often with a glib “God is in control” response. I should note that those caught in the midst of grief or suffering sometimes or even often do find comfort in the thought of God being in control even in the midst of their hurt; even in the midst of their suffering they are not out of God’s hands, as it were. The problem with the glib response is that it implicates God also in the evil which occurs. If God is the ultimate “cause” of all that happens, he is responsible also for the wicked actions of thieves, rapers and murderers; such a position is untenable.

Equally problematic from a biblical point of view is the attempt to resolve the conundrum in the opposite direction by writing God out of the picture entirely and assigning responsibility for all that happens to human freedom, or worse, to fate or chance. Not only does this dispense—often in a peremptory manner—with numerous passages of Scripture, but it cuts the world adrift from God, the creation from its creator. Further, it undermines the assurance of the believer in the reality of God’s presence and purpose as a faithful creator, while at the same time loading her with the crushing weight of being ultimately responsible for her life.

While the ancient Israelites may not have pondered the relation between divine determinism and human responsibility, in our day and context the question is unavoidable. The power of Proverbs 21:31 lies in holding both sides of the conundrum together without an attempt at resolution, but placing the whole matter within a context of devotion and responsibility. How, then, might we approach this verse with all its difficult implications?

  1. Recognise that Proverbs is proverbial wisdom, general expressions of truth distilled from the observation and experience of life in the everyday world, all cast within a religious worldview. As such, the proverbs are not absolute truths revealed from heaven that apply in each and every circumstance regardless of context.
  2. Note also the difficulties of moving from an ancient text to the modern world. It is often the case that contemporary believers must discern the theological and religious significance of a biblical text while rejecting the form in which that message is conveyed. For example, the ancient Hebrews believed in a geo-centric universe; modern astronomy has shown that view to be incorrect. Modern readers of Scripture must have a sophisticated enough hermeneutic to disentangle the message of the Bible from the ancient form in which it is given. This is easier said than done as modern theology testifies. Nevertheless, the question must be put: are modern readers in a scientific age required to follow the ancient Israelites in believing that YHWH is the divine cause of all that happens?
  3. It is clear that verses 29-30 condition verse 31: one cannot foolishly or arrogantly set oneself against the Lord and anticipate success; rather one must consider their ways. Further, Proverbs 24:6 suggests that “by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counsellors there is victory.” By addressing the same topic, the two verses mutually condition each other. One must plan, prepare, and take counsel, and in so doing one will more likely succeed in their endeavour. But one cannot guarantee that this will be the outcome. As Robert Burns observed, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…”
  4. Finally, Proverbs 16:3 quoted above, indicates the overall orientation of Proverbs: “Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established.” All life occurs within the overarching providence, presence and direction of God and proper human response consists in the fear of the Lord and the acknowledgement of his sovereign rule and will.

In the end, Proverbs regards providence as a mystery to be lived rather than a problem to be solved. The horse is prepared for the day of battle: preparations have been made, forethought, planning, the taking of counsel, the gathering and marshalling of resources; all these and more have occurred. Yet, having done all we can to prepare ourselves, our success or failure, victory or defeat is not within our hands, but in God’s. Therefore, we also must pray, trust, listen, and live humbly, obediently, righteously and wisely in the fear of the Lord.

Years ago I read somewhere in John Haggai’s Lead On: “Work as though the results are entirely up to you; pray as though they are entirely up to God.” This advice, of course, does not even begin to plumb the mysteries of providence, but perhaps the practical nature of the advice is not entirely foreign to the counsel of Proverbs.