John Wesley grew up in a world of rapid change, very much like ours in some respects and very different in others. The whole way of work was changing in eighteenth-century England. Revolutions in smelting, spinning, and distilling created whole new industries.
…Personal health and cleanliness were deplorable. The plague, smallpox, and countless diseases we call minor today had no cures. Rodent and insect control was minimal. Most dwellings had no running water, had chamber pots only for elimination, and had no soap as it was not yet in common use. Infant mortality was extremely high, and a person’s life expectancy was in the forties. Clothing was expensive, so many of the cities’ poor wore rags that were, like their bedding, full of lice.
…One of the great indictments of the age was in William Hogarth’s prints about the conditions of life around him. … [The prints] Gin Lane and Beer Street rival, and in some respects surpass, present-day city scenes. One ragged mother in Gin Lane is letting her crying baby fall to his death while she, oblivious, seeks her moment’s pleasure in a glass of gin. Gin was fed to the babies too, to keep them quiet, with blindness and often death as a result. …What we know today as social conscience was not a prevailing state of mind in Wesley’s day.
In this world of little hope and few options, John Wesley appeared on the scene. Where his brother Samuel followed the prescribed path for sons of the clergy-to become a stolid gentleman preacher in the Anglican Church, associating with the gentlemen and wits of the day, John and Charles Wesley took a path that was hazardous and requiring self-sacrifice. John decided to live on a stipend of 28 pounds annually (well below the poverty level by today’s standards), using any additional earnings to fund his various ministries. Charles turned down a fortune in inheritance from an Irish relative to do God’s work. What made such men?[i]
What motivated them to give their lives in such a dramatic manner to serve their countrymen with the gospel? When we continue with their story, we discover that both of these brothers had a profound encounter with God that shaped their lives. We would say that ‘the fear of the Lord,’ was the motivating principle of their lives. This would fit the description from the book of Proverbs describing what wisdom looks like in a person’s life and the values and priorities that shape such a life.
So, what does a person of wisdom look like? What characterizes them? In Proverbs 20, we find two key elements that a person of wisdom has. They know what to avoid and what to embrace.
A WISE PERSON KNOWS WHAT TO AVOID.
In life there are certain pitfalls that we need to stay away from in order to follow God’s path leading to a godly, healthy and fruitful life. What we discover is that we are not to be controlled or under the influence of substances or behaviors that will jeopardize our credibility, and effectiveness in life. What we are looking at is the means to a successful life before God.
- We are immediately challenged to avoid chemical addictions.
“Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise (Proverbs 20:1).” Here wine is described as a mocker or a scoffer who won’t listen to instruction and leads those who are captured astray. The Hebrew word sagah means to stagger which is playing on what happens when one is intoxicated. It impairs not only motor function but mental clarity.
More important, those who are ‘not wise’ are ‘led astray’ (sgh) by this mocker, just as the one who stops listening to instruction ‘will stray (sgh) from the words of knowledge (19:27; cf. 5:19,20,23; 28:10). The use of (sgh) suggests that to stagger from drink is to err both in one’s steps and one’s judgment (Isa. 28:7).[ii]
Harry Ironside has rightly pointed out:
No other vice has so cursed the world, and caused such awful misery and suffering, as intemperance. …The wretched victims of the wine cup have been numbered in hundreds of millions, yet Satan has no difficulty in persuading thousands of reckless youths to daily start upon the same fearful road that has lured these untold hosts to ruin. Like every other creature of God, wine has its place. Scripture recognizes its medicinal virtue and a lawful use of it also when needed (1 Tim. 5:23). But how easily it becomes a snare that destroys the will and wrecks the life.[iii]
What is fascinating is that those who are called to live a responsible life of leading others ought to avoid the trap altogether.
It is not for kings, Lemuel-it is not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish![iv]
Both the wine and strong drink (translated here as beer) impairs a person’s judgment. It also fosters a mocking and quarrelsome attitude leading to unhealthy and unwholesome behavior; described here as a brawler or an argumentative individual. Literally a fighter.
The apostle Paul describes the kind of leader that is needed to oversee a church community, which is someone who is not addicted to things that enslave and alter behavior.
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.[v]
- Another area that wise people avoid is alienating those in authority.
“A king’s wrath strikes terror like the roar of a lion; those who anger him forfeit their lives (Proverbs 20:2).” Here in this ancient text, the King had absolute authority in himself, both as executive and judicial head of the people. Life and death could come merely from his command. This was not a person to treat lightly or with disrespect. To anger him would be like facing the threat of a lion. A wise person understood the sensitive nature of standing before this person.
We who live in our modern world have very little concept of this. However the apostle Paul in writing to the church at Rome understood not only the authority of the Emperor but also the fact that God was the real power behind all human authority. This is something that we struggle with today. We are witnessing ever increasing tensions, demonstrations that turn violent and the emerging anarchy that is growing.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Consequently, whoever rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.[vi]
What must be kept in mind was that the ruler of the Roman empire at this stage was none other than the infamous, Nero, who was instrumental in persecuting the early church. Yet, the apostle Paul understood, that God had allowed such a leader to arise.
Is there ever a time to protest or to refuse to obey the governing authorities? We can only conscientiously object when what the authorities are forbidding is what God has commanded or command what God has forbidden. Ultimately, all authority is accountable to the ultimate authority, namely God.
- Wise people avoid creating strife.
“It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel (Proverbs 20:3).” There is a modern proverb that states: ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ In other words, don’t agitate others unnecessarily. This is not to suggest that avoidance from all issues is wisdom, but rather the idea is that wise people are not easily provoked and don’t defend themselves at all cost.
The wise are more concerned to bring peace than to be right, but the fool cannot restrain himself and at the first opportunity explodes and shows his teeth. This demeanor to forgo defending one’s pride when insulted demands that one be humble and submissive, not a rash hothead who trumpets his refusal to submit to anyone.[vii]
James describes what wisdom from God looks like in a person’s life.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.[viii]
- The fourth thing stated here in Proverbs 20 and elsewhere is that a wise person avoids gossip or those who speak too much.
What we discover is that in a life that loves to be heard, we find in many words, that we are apt to sin and cause offense. “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much (Proverbs 20:19).” One of the characteristics of the deceived in Paul’s letter to Timothy are those who are idle and go from house to house gossiping, described as “…busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to (cf. 1 Tim. 5:13).”
Worse still are those who criticize those who God has placed over them. We must learn to honor those, who though imperfect, have given of themselves for our benefit. It is interesting how the bible constantly reinforces the need to show honor to our parents and those who God has put over us in life. “If someone curses their father or mother, their lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness (Proverbs 20:20).” This is indeed a strong warning of severe consequences.
This proverb essentially applies a curse to those who curse their parents. ‘Lamp’ here may stand for one’s life energy, but whether or not the penalty implied here is death, horrible consequences are in store for those who treat their parents with disdain.[ix]
So we discover that it is not just avoiding those who talk too much but we need to learn to restrain our own talking. Often, less said the better. “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity (Proverbs 21:23).” “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise (Proverbs 10:19, Holman Christian Standard Version, 2007).”
“Ordinarily, abundance is good and scarcity is bad. But with regard to words the opposite is true. Words should be few and well chosen.”[x] We can summarize this by simply stating: ‘Wise people think before speaking.’ Knowing what not to do is one thing, but what do wise people do? What do wise or godly people embrace?
A WISE PERSON KNOWS WHAT TO EMBRACE.
If we are doing what is right it often negates the things we ought to be avoiding. So what is it that wise people do?
- They are diligent in their lives.
This is evident in every aspect of their lives: from relationships, to work, to study and above all in their worship of God. What we are going to see is the contrast between the wise person who is diligent and those who are foolish and let things slide. Here we see a contrast with the sluggard who sows nothing but expects something. In other words, the wise don’t have an entitlement mentality. That reveals to me that our culture today which is dominated by this entitlement mentality is walking in folly. Here we see a number of proverbs that reinforce this to us. “Sluggards do not plow in season; so at harvest time they look but find nothing (Proverbs 20:4).”
The plowing season was the rainy season in Israel that went from Mid-October to April. Rather than put in the work, the sluggard here relaxes, yet expects to gather a crop in the harvest season. If there is no work, there ought to be an expectation of no crops. We could state it that there is profit or reward for labor. Yet what we are discovering is that some people today expect free handouts. There are people today who expect something for nothing. Yet here in Proverbs 20, we see the challenge to be industrious; to work hard or diligently and then a reward can be expected. “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare (Proverbs 20:13).” “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless go hungry (Proverbs 19:15).” Here we see that laziness changes our state of being. Like a deep sleep, we become unaware of our surroundings and are unprepared for what is about to happen, which in this case is hunger. Apart from diligence, desires will not be fulfilled. “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth (Proverbs 10:4).” “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labor (Proverbs 12:24).” What we see here is that diligence leads to promotion whereas laziness leads to serving under others.
- Next we see the wise person evidencing a concern for others.
“The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out (Proverbs 20:5).” Here we see the ability to draw out of others that which lies often just below the surface. This is the person who shares in the heartaches of others and tries to understand the other person. Wise people are outward bound and others focused. Here we see that wise people are able to give wise counsel. “Advice is what the sages offer to others in order to give them guidance to navigate the troubles of life.”[xi]
We also see that they have a patient and forgiving spirit rather than seeking revenge. They entrust the wrongs done to them to the Lord. God is the one who will ultimately vindicate his servants who entrust themselves to Him. “Do not say, ‘I’ll pay back for this wrong! Wait for the LORD, and he will avenge you (Proverbs 20:22).”
- The wise are also noted for their faithfulness.
“Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find (Proverbs 20:6)?”
Here we have both a warning and a challenge. The word translated here as ‘unfailing love,’ is the Hebrew word hesed, which speaks of a relationship bound by covenant. While many claim to love unconditionally, often we find that many don’t. We certainly see this in marriage vows; where one states before God and others that they will be with the other though all the various seasons of joys and hardships of life (in other words, ‘for better or worse.’) Yet, we are warned that many who make the vow of covenant love and loyalty discover that when things become difficult, unfaithfulness rather than steadfastness is the end result. Many years ago, I met with a couple who had just attended the church and approached me to do their wedding. In exploring their background, I learned that they man had previously been married as a believer and had left his wife because she struggled mentally. There was no indication that he saw this as problematic, so turning to the young woman, I said: I guess his commitment to you will be for better and not for worse. He obviously became very defensive. Not all who say they have unfailing love actually do. The wise are those who fulfill their responsibilities.
- The wise also lead blameless lives.
“The righteous lead blameless lives; blessed are their children after them (Proverbs 20:7).”
The word blameless or innocent does not mean sinless, rather it is the person who lives to please God and be obedient to His words. Job is described as such a person. “Then the LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil (Job 1:8).” So, here in the book of Job we learn what it means to be a blameless and upright person. They are the people who fear God and avoid evil. The wisdom writers then observe that people who live like this have incredible influence particularly on the lives of their children. The far-reaching influence of blameless people extend even beyond their families. Tremper Longman relates that, “…the righteous are good role models to those who watch their lifestyle.”[xii]
- The wise are also honest.
Here we see that they are first honest with themselves and understand and recognize that they are imperfect and need God’s grace to empower their lives. “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’ (Proverbs 20:9)?” The wisdom writers are here pointing out that all have sinned. So, the wise person understands that God will address dishonesty especially in their dealings with others. “Differing weights and differing measures- the LORD detests them both (Proverbs 20:10).” What are these texts teaching us? We can determine the integrity of our lives by our actions. How do we treat others? Are we fair in our dealings with others? “Even small children are known by their actions, so is their conduct really pure and upright (Proverbs 20:11)?”
- The speech of the wise is valuable. They exhibit insight and discernment.
“Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel (Proverbs 20:15).” Here we see the value and rarity of those who speak with knowledge and wisdom. What we are seeing here is the preference of wisdom over wealth. Most people in our culture would challenge that value system and place wealth above wisdom. What we discover is that wisdom was seen as the means to acquire all the benefits that life could offer. It was a matter of priority.
When we read of the value of wisdom, it seems to escape the vast majority of people.
Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.[xiii]
So those who are wise and therefore speak wisely; receive many other blessings in life including pleasant ways, peace, riches and honor. Jesus expressed the same idea when he challenged his disciples to seek first God’s kingdom and all the other things needed in life would be added as well (cf. Matthew 6:33).
- The wise also seek counsel from others.
To gain understanding in difficult choices means that wise people seek input from other wise people. “Plans are established by seeking advice; so if you wage war, obtain guidance (Proverbs 20:18).” We need to know the facts before we address issues. Hearing perspectives different from our own helps us move from subjectivity to a greater degree of objectivity. This can help minimize mistakes as people have experiences that we lack and can give insight that we don’t have.
- Finally, the wise take responsibility for addressing evil when it’s in their ability to do so.
A king’s wrath strikes terror like the roar of a lion; those who anger him forfeit their lives. When a king sits on his throne to judge, he winnows out all evil with his eyes.[xiv]
Yet, having done so, there must be a gracious tone set. The idea is that we must speak the truth in a loving way. “Love and faithfulness keep a king safe; through love his throne is made secure (Proverbs 20:28).”
How important it is to address evil. If left unabated, evil grows until what was once beautiful and healthy will be destroyed and marred by evil. Indifference and apathy to evil generally starts within our own soul and leads to loss. Often we are quick to point out the problems around us, but the starting point of addressing issues must begin within us. The Psalmist wisely points out, ‘Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).”
We all need God’s grace to embrace what is right and avoid what is destructive in our lives. Yet, we can become careless in our walk with God and deviate from the path of wisdom and end up causing ourselves and others much pain.
Let us pray that if we are deviating from the path of wisdom, that we will be arrested in our steps and turn back on the right path. For those who are living ‘blameless lives,’ may you be encouraged in your walk with God. If you don’t know Jesus Christ, may you surrender to Him, who is the person and the path of wisdom.
[i] Christian History Magazine, Vol. II, No. 1, John Wesley: Revival and Revolution, (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1983), 7-8.
[ii] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 483.
[iii] Harry Ironside, Proverbs and Song of Solomon, An Ironside Expository Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1946), 162.
[iv] Proverbs 31:4-6, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[v] 1 Timothy 3:2-3.
[vi] Romans 13:1-3.
[vii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 129.
[viii] James 3:17-18.
[ix] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 382.
[x] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 115.
[xi] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 377.
[xii] Ibid, 378.
[xiii] Proverbs 3:13-18.
[xiv] Proverbs 20:2, 8.