Which road to take, which path to follow? Choices determine destinies. This is the time of year where many young people are graduating from school, and feel some pressure to make significant decisions. Which school to attend for further training, which career to pursue, which job opportunity to take. For those who are indecisive and do nothing; that in itself is a decision. Ultimately there are many other significant decisions to be made ahead on this journey called life. Where should I live? Who will I build relationships with? Will I marry and to whom? All of these decisions have consequences. Some more significant than others? Who am I listening to? Who can I trust? Who really cares about me? Are the people shaping my life even healthy? Are they people I respect and can learn from? Are they successfully navigating their own lives?
It reminds me of a luncheon I had many years ago with an experienced pastor and his executive pastor from a very large congregation on the West Coast. I asked them, ‘how they were caring and helping build community within their congregation? The senior pastor looked to the executive pastor and said, ‘How are we doing it? To which he said, ‘I don’t know.’
I responded, ‘Or I see, you’re just as confused but on a higher level.’ To which they both laughed. Is that what is happening when we are looking for direction? Are the people we are turning to, just ‘confused as well?’
One of the great people of the Bible is a man by the name of Abram, who later God changed his name to Abraham to reflect a promise that God would make Abraham, the father of many nations.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Abraham? Living in a major urban center, shaped by his family and culture. But there came a day when something significant happened. God appeared to him and called him which radically changed his life and set him on a journey that is a model for all of us.
In Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin he retells the calling of Abraham by God.
To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran.
Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.
So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settle in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living.
He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child.[i]
Abraham responded in obedience to God’s word and promises and acted upon them. God did exactly as He promised. Abraham is noted in Scripture as a man of faith. He is a model for each of us to respond to God’s call on our lives and embrace His will for each of our lives. What God promises He will fulfill. What is revealed in Scripture will come to pass.
Because of his obedience, Abraham is called the father of the faithful, or the father of many nations. When you and I walk with God by faith, we are Abraham’s descendants. This is what the apostle Paul explains in Romans 4:16.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring- not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.
What kind of life are you aspiring to? A life of faith or a life by sight? What often appears durable and lasting can be tentative and perishable. It doesn’t last. In contrast there are things that may at first glance seem more tentative and less stable but, in the end, prove to be eternal and durable. The following proverbs outlines this truth for us. “The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the righteous will flourish (Proverbs 14:11).”
Here we see the contrast between a house and a tent but as Bruce Waltke points out: “This proverb also implicitly teaches the disciple to walk by faith, not by sight. Paradoxically the wicked’s house is less secure than the upright’s tent.”[ii]
Though outwardly it would appear that the house is more stable and durable, the reality is what determines durability is the character of the people rather than the material structure of the dwelling place. Character then determines whether things endure or collapse.
Once again, we see how Abraham’s faith as described in the book of Hebrews reveals to us the wisdom of choosing God’s ways or path. Another way of speaking of God’s way is actually His will for us.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.
For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.[iii]
Abraham was looking for a permanent place where God lived. It’s a picture of pilgrimage. We are only passing through this life. This is not our final destination. The goal is not this world but we are looking forward to that day when we will be with our Lord.
Far too often in life, people make choices as if this world is it. What we think about things shapes how we make decisions and what direction we take. Far too many people look to themselves and trust in their abilities to make decisions but unfortunately it is primarily based upon material considerations, human intellectual prowess and what they can momentarily see, rather than by trusting in God or having faith in obedience to what God is calling them to do. Here in our text we are reminded the folly of such decision making. “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).”
What is confusing for most people making decisions is the idea that there are so many options and choices that are before them. Yet, that is often a strategy to bring about great confusion in people’s lives. What the book of Proverbs does is give guidance and wisdom in the area of choice. There are only two foundational aspects in making decisions, which ultimately determine the path we will walk. The question is will we walk by faith or by sight?
Trusting in Ourselves
It is true that God has given each of us a gift of volition or will to make decision and often the decisions we make are being influenced by many factors that are shaping our hearts and affecting our emotions. Yet, ultimately we choose. We are responsible for our decisions, even though we have been shaped by those who parented us, those who have educated us, our peers and friends who counsel us, and the various cultural expressions such as media in which we have either embraced or rejected. It is within that context that we create a way of looking at life. This is called a ‘world view.’ It is these things that define for us what we think is the means to a healthy, happy and successful life.
Yet we are reminded by the wisdom writers that “there is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).”
Richard Clifford explains that “this well-known saying contrasts the judgments that people make of their paths (course of life) and their actual outcomes. ‘Path’ is a metaphor for human conduct and ‘straight’ is a metaphor for what is honest and good. The word ‘end’ in wisdom literature often means the outcome in the light of which the whole is evaluated. Its end indeed shows the rightness of a path, but only God can see the end at the beginning. Human beings judge only what is directly in front of them, but cannot see what is further down the road, the future.”[iv]
In his comments on this particular text, Tremper Longman writes: “The proverb deals with human perception versus reality. What seems the right path of life may well turn out to lead to dire consequences. The proverb calls on the wise to constantly question and evaluate their life path.”[v]
It is interesting how this text is developed or illustrated in the next two verses. What outwardly appears to be a joyful and happy person may simply be a mask hiding tremendous pain. “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and rejoicing my end in grief (Proverbs 14:13).” Once again we are reminded that what we physically see may not be the actual reality. We don’t see into the hearts of others. What may appear to us as a happy existence may not be what is transpiring at the core of the person’s soul. We are constantly making evaluations based on sight. Many people use humor to mask the pain in their lives. They don’t want to take life seriously because for them it is far too painful. Humor is one form of escapism. This is not to suggest that humor is not valid. We need to learn to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously.
Richard Clifford relates that ‘laughter and sadness can coexist. “In the second part of the proverb we see one emotion following the other. People are complex. Outward emotions often are not the whole story. Emotions are fleeting.”[vi] One thing we know for sure, the party does ultimately come to an end. At the conclusion of life’s course there is grief. Death brings sorrow to those who loved us, which is then followed by this warning, but also a hope for those who are righteous. “The faithless will be fully repaid for their ways, and the good rewarded for theirs (Proverbs 14:14.” Bruce Waltke writes: “This proverb, which is connected with v. 13 by the catchword leb (heart), relativizes ‘the end’ of the present fleeting joy in this world (v. 13) by pointing beyond that end to a final retribution. In spite of present heartache and the grief that follows joy, the disciple must press on in faith, fully expecting the LORD to reward the good and to punish the faithless.”[vii]
Decisions have profound consequences. How many people live with regret? If they could just start over they would make different choices. But would that necessarily mean totally different outcomes? It would, but what we need to understand is that at the time of the decision, that decision is a snapshot of the condition of our heart at that moment. So, what kind of a person are we becoming? How are we going about making decisions? What is the aim of our decisions? The decisions we are making reflects the kind of person we are or are becoming. How do we go about making decisions? What voices are influencing our choices?
So what should this tell us? We should consider carefully the path that we are walking on, and the choices we are making. People who easily dismiss their impulsive actions are often not aware that those decisions may have a lifetime set of consequences. Wise is the person who is reflective and considers ramifications before acting. Those who are truly wise look to God for direction. “The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps (Proverbs 14:15).” The concept of having prudence as expressed here as a virtue comes from a Latin word, meaning ‘to see ahead.’ It is the ability to of a person to govern and discipline themselves by use of reason and good judgment. Each decision we make impacts our future. This proverb teaches us to consider before we act. It is a lack of wisdom to believe everything we hear; a prudent person will investigate matters before making decisions or taking actions.
Trusting in God
What we find earlier in Proverbs is the idea of learning to discern the wisdom that comes from God. Our trust shifts from ourselves to him. This is where we now find practical expressions to guide us in this walk of faith, rather than making decisions based on human knowledge alone, either ours or others.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.
So, how do we know that we are trusting in God rather than ourselves? This is demonstrated by the way we live. The way or course of our life is determined primarily by the decisions we make that are shaped by the values we glean from God’s word. When we embrace God’s values, decisions are made in keeping with his will. To be wise or to fear the Lord means that we do what is right in His eyes. Whenever we disregard what God has to say and do what we think is best for ourselves it leads to consequences we had not considered. “Whoever fears the LORD walks uprightly, but those who despise him are devious in their ways (Proverbs 14:2).”
Derek Kidner reminds us: “Every departure from God’s path is a pitting of one’s will, and a backing of one’s judgment, against His; but the contempt which it spells is too irrational to acknowledge.”[viii] Why is this so irrational? We are reminded from the prophet Isaiah that God’s ways and thoughts are unlike ours.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.[ix]
One of the great tragedies is that there are people who are talking the talk, but not walking the walk. They have a form of godliness but they are not living according to God’s word (cf. 2 Timothy 3:1-5).
If there was ever an example of this it is found in the life of King Saul. Chosen by God, anointed and empowered to fulfill his calling; Saul constantly revealed this deficiency in his life. Saul’s actions were about outward compliance rather than an inward transformation and desire to do God’s will.
Two examples demonstrate that Saul was deeply affected by outward circumstances rather than by an inner disposition to please and trust God. When Samuel was to confirm the kingship to Saul, he set up the appointed time, but Saul under duress took matters into his own hands and offer the sacrifice himself, which Samuel rebuked him for.
You have done a foolish thing, Samuel said. You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.[x]
Proverbs defines the person who is a fool as someone who does not fear God and lacks wisdom. This is a person whose course of life is determined by human understanding rather than trusting God. What Samuel is revealing to us here is the condition of Saul’s heart. Saul was more concerned about the outward situation rather than trust and obey God.
A few chapters later we see again the condition of Saul’s heart, when God commands Saul through Samuel, to battle against the Amalekites. Saul and his men destroy only what they don’t want for themselves in violation of the herem (the command to completely destroy all). When Samuel comes on the scene, Saul tells him that he has fully obeyed the Lord. “When Samuel reached him, Saul said, ‘The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD’s instruction (1 Samuel 15:13).” Yet, Samuel challenges Saul’s disobedience which leads to Saul’s justification for his actions by saying that the plunder they took was to be offered to God. Saul was in essence saying that what he did was for God. Samuel, however, challenges Saul.
But Samuel replied: ‘Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.[xi]
God is not interested in outward conformity to his word, but a heart that listens and responds in total obedience. There are always consequences to our decisions. Samuel then shares what will eventually happen to Saul. “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, [determining the future] and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king (1 Samuel 15:23).” When we determine what we want apart from trusting and determining God’s will, our willfulness is actually a state of arrogance on our part. We are in essence worshiping something other than God. There are always consequences to our decisions.
Saul’s response is interesting. “Saul replied, ‘I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD your God (1 Samuel 15:30).” Saul knew that he needed the endorsement of God’s representative, Samuel, to continue to secure the favor of the people. What we learn is that Saul was more concerned about what others thought of him than what God thought. He was more concerned about outward appearances than the inner condition of his own heart. He was a person who truly was walking by sight and not by faith.
Another element in this incident that gives us insight into Saul’s relationship with God is that he tells Samuel that he wants to him to sacrifice as an act of worship to Samuel’s God. Notice the expression, ‘…your God.’ Saul realized that Yahweh was the God of Samuel, but he doesn’t express the idea that it is their God. Did Saul realize that he didn’t really know God? It would seem from the course of his life that he didn’t know God but only knew about him.
One of the consequences of people who don’t know God is that they are easily deceived. Why are people so easily deceived? When we trust ourselves rather than God we open the door to deception in our lives. “The meaning of “the folly of fools is deception” in Proverbs 14:8 is not immediately evident, but the parallel in 14:15 implies that the naivete of fools is in view. Fools are easily deceived, but the prudent look beneath surface appearances.”[xii]
So what path are we walking on? How is the course of our life being determined? How are we making decisions? Are we walking by faith which is expressed by are obedience to what God’s word reveals to us, embracing its values in making decisions, or are we walking by sight? Are we affected by all the circumstances of life, making decisions based on what we are witnessing around motivated by elements like fear? Often those who are trusting in themselves develop a false sense of security. “The wise fear the LORD and shun evil, but a fool is hot-headed and yet feels secure (Proverbs 14:16).” Here we see reflected two very different responses to life, one which avoids evil, whereas the other is rash, self-confident and arrogant. David Hubbard states: “…the fear of the Lord is marked by the attributes of mercy (hesed) [translated in the NIV as mercy] and truth (emet), qualities that characterize God’s person and are what He desires in His covenant people. Without this aim to be like God and emulate His virtues, religious acts and rituals are empty deeds of human effort.”[xiii] This contrast of those who are trusting in God is seen by how the decisions they make motivated out of a deep love and respect for God. “Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the LORD evil is avoid (Proverbs 16:6).”
A walk of faith is a walk where we lived a godly life, a life like God. We demonstrate His characteristics of unfailing love and truth, not just external conformity or religious activities.
We began this journey looking at Abraham, the father of those who are faithful, another name for those who are wise. Abraham made a choice not based on what he saw, but he walked by faith. He trusted God and what God said to him. He walked according to God’s will rather than his own. That is the life that God calls all of us as his children to follow.
In Elizabeth Elliot’s book, ‘In the Shadow of the Almighty,’ she shares the story of her martyred husband, Jim Elliot, who with four other young men were killed by the very people they were trying to bring the gospel to in the Ecuadorian jungle. In his journal years before, Jim Elliot wrote: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.’ He understood that he was also a pilgrim on this earth, directing his course of life according to our Father’s will. Who will you look to in directing you? Will it be your will or God’s will? Will you walk by faith or make decisions determined by earthly standards and circumstances?
“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).”
Choose God’s way, His path and by doing so, you are choosing life!
[i] Acts 7:2-5, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 590.
[iii] Hebrews 11:8-10.
[iv] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 145.
[v] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 300.
[vi] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, 145.
[vii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, 592-93.
[viii] Derek Kidner, Proverbs, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), 106.
[ix] Isaiah 55:7-9.
[x] 1 Samuel 13:13-14.
[xi] 1 Samuel 15:22.
[xii] Duane A. Garrett, (1993). Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of songs Vol. 14 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.), 142–143.
[xiii] David A. Hubbard, Proverb, The Communicator’s Commentary, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1989), 200.