Will Durant once wrote: “From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day.” It’s easier to destroy than to build a meaningful life.
The drama of history is played out along the frontiers of great belief systems as they ebb and flow. …The conflict of our day is theism versus naturalism. Theism is the belief that there is a transcendent [personal] God who created the universe; naturalism is the belief that natural causes alone are sufficient to explain everything that exists. …Is ultimate reality God or the cosmos? Is there a supernatural realm, or is nature all that exists? Has God spoken and revealed his truth to us, or is truth something we have to find, even invent, for ourselves? Is there a purpose to our lives, or are we cosmic accidents emerging from the slime?
In morality, naturalism results in relativism. If nature is all there is, then there is no transcendent source of moral truth, and we are left to construct morality on our own. Every principle is reduced to a personal preference.[i]
The Judeo-Christian ethic believes that God has spoken an absolute and unchanging standard based on his holy character and moral law have ultimate consequences. But when as a culture we reject God, we become pragmatic or utilitarian in our approach to life. We make decisions that seem to work best in the moment. We see then that what we believe about life defines who we become and what we do. It’s the music we are dancing to. The music is our world view, the big picture of life, which helps us answer the critical questions of life. Where did we come from? Who are we? Why are we here? What is wrong with our world? What can fix it? Where are we going? These questions help us fix our purpose and discover meaning to life.
Proverbs 21 brings out three powerful concepts. In my blog last week, on ‘Writing your own Eulogy,’ the focus was on the actions and consequences of those who were morally deficient, or as Proverbs describes as ‘the fool.’ But what happens when we come to an awakening to the reality that God is ultimately in control of human affairs, not humanity? This understanding affects how we make choices. It addresses much of the anxiety, fears and insecurities that we battle as human beings acting as if it all depends upon us. We are better able to cope when we disagree with those who are in political power and both scientific and medical technology has no answer for the current context we are living in.
Our view of life, or as some call it, our world view will determine the choices we make. Atheists see humanity as the ultimate source of authority. However, if we know God, and revere him it will motivate us and transform our thoughts and actions. People of faith see life through a different lens.
In Proverbs 21, we see how the wisdom writers explained the course of human affairs from God’s Sovereignty and therefore what a proper human response ought to be. If we have a biblical wisdom’s understanding of a proper foundation, namely the sovereignty of God, we then can respond accordingly.
THE FIRST ASPECT TOWARD BIBLICAL WISDOM IS EMBRACING THE AUTHORITY AND SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD.
It is not so much what we say but how we live that reveals whether we truly believe that God has all things in control. Are me motivated by fear or are we walking with a quiet confidence that God is watching over us and caring for our lives? Do we think that everything depends upon us, or others or do we have confidence that God is orchestrating life? Is God in control of life or random chance? The wisdom writers show us that God is ultimately working out his purposes even though there are situations and circumstances challenging us. The wisdom writers give us an assurance that God works through human agency, even though there are those who seem at cross purposes with godly values. God does work his purposes to bring grace to our lives through others, including leaders who don’t know him. “In the LORD’S hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him (Proverbs 21:1).”
Derek Kidner points out that the water here controlled by God is a picture of ‘irrigation canals.’[ii] Since water was a source of great blessing in the arid world of the Middle East we can be assured that God uses leaders to bring blessing to those who please God. The text is stating that God is the one who put’s things into the hearts and minds of kings (leaders) that ultimately accomplish what he intends.
A. God uses non covenant leaders as instruments to bring blessings to his people.
One of the greatest examples of this is Cyrus, the King of Persia who God raised up to bless his people.
This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut.
For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me.[iii]
So, what did Cyrus do for the exiles in Babylon. He allowed them to return to their own land and rebuild the Temple.
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put in writing:
This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.
Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem and may their God be with them.
And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.
We know from history that Cyrus acted on behalf of all the nations that the Babylonians had conquered and repatriated them back to their homelands. This was an amazing blessing to God’s people. As we read in Isaiah it was God who raised up Cyrus and put it in his heart to act in this manner. But there is another way that God uses non-believing leaders for the ultimate good of his own people.
B. God often uses wicked leaders as instruments of Divine discipline.
Wait a minute, Pastor, I thought this was God working to do good for his people. Discipline is for our good, to address that which would ultimately destroy us. Discipline is an expression of love. Neglect of discipline is indifference for the wellbeing of others. We are not talking about abuse here.
Both the Assyrian and Babylon Empires were used of God as vehicles to discipline his people, Israel and Judah in their rebellion, as well as many other nations.
Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!
I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets.
But this is not what he intends, this is not what he has in mind; his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations.[iv]
A simple humanistic view of what is transpiring is the militaristic expansion of the Assyrian Empire, but in God’s design, it is as a tool to discipline his errant people. After God’s purpose had been completed, God deals with this instrument by disciplining them. “When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, ‘I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes (Isaiah 10:12).”
God then disciplines the Assyrians for their sins of pride and cruelty. Here Isaiah points out that Assyria was simply a tool in God’s hand, but they acted as if they could act independently of God. “Does the ax raise itself above the person who swings it, or the saw boast against the one who uses it? As if a rod were to wield the person who lifts it up, or a club brandish the one who is not wood (Isaiah 10:15)!”
Another example of the same idea is found with the raising up of the Babylonians as God’s instrument of judgment on Judah, about 150 years later.
The word of the Lord came to me:
“Son of man, mark out two roads for the sword of the king of Babylon to take, both starting from the same country. Make a signpost where the road branches off to the city.
Mark out one road for the sword to come against Rabbah of the Ammonites and another against Judah and fortified Jerusalem.
For the king of Babylon will stop at the fork in the road, at the junction of the two roads, to seek an omen: He will cast lots with arrows, he will consult his idols, he will examine the liver.
Into his right hand will come the lot for Jerusalem, where he is to set up battering rams, to give the command to slaughter, to sound the battle cry, to set battering rams against the gates, to build a ramp and to erect siege works.
It will seem like a false omen to those who have sworn allegiance to him, but he will remind them of their guilt and take them captive.
“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.[v]
Ezekiel was basically telling the people of Judah, that it was God who sent the Babylonians as His servants to discipline them. God is ultimately in control of those who don’t know him and they have been given that power and authority for a season and a purpose.
The prophet, Habakkuk struggled with the idea that God would use wicked people to discipline those who may be more righteous. “Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted (Habakkuk 1:4).”
God’s response to his prophet is enlightening.
Look at the nations and watch- and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.
I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.
They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.[vi]
Habakkuk’s response to this message from God is to question why God would use people more wicked to punish those who certainly were guilty, but of lesser crimes. “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Habakkuk 1:13).”
God addresses us according to the light and understanding he has given us. When we rebel against what we know to be right we are in far greater danger than those who sin more grievously but are living in ignorance (cf. Romans 2:12-16).
As we come to the end of Proverbs 21, we discover that no plan can thwart the purposes of God, for he is Sovereign.
C. There is no human or demonic plan that can succeed against God’s purposes.
There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD. The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the LORD (Proverbs 21:30-31).”
What are the wisdom writers communicating to us? Simply that God is in control of all the affairs of life. He determines what will occur not humanity. We are reminded of this truth throughout the wisdom literature.
No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.[vii]
“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps (Proverbs 16:9).”
THE SECOND ASPECT TOWARD WISDOM IS OUR RESPONSE TO GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY.
God desires that we grow, gain understanding and act with confidence and faith that God truly has all things in control. We need not live in fear. When we know that there is a just God who deals with humanity according to moral laws, we can be confident that if we live by faith in God, we will ultimately experience a life pleasing to God. A life that God will honor. When we learn of God’s ways and act accordingly, blessings do come into our lives. We then live to do what is right and pleasing in the eyes of God. “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice (Proverbs 21:3).”
So what are some of the characteristics of the righteous? What does a life that is pleasing and acceptable to God look like? In other words what should our response to God’s Sovereignty be?
A. The righteous have a teachable spirit.
“When a mocker is punished the simple gain wisdom; by paying attention to the wise they get knowledge (Proverbs 21:11).” Who gains knowledge? The simple or the person who needs to learn God’s ways. The simple is part of the target audience from Proverbs 1. The simple is the person who doesn’t know or the inexperienced person. This is the person who needs to embrace God’s wisdom. If we will not be rebellious but develop a teachable spirit we will grow wise. We will live a life pleasing to God.
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young.[viii]
Here we see the target audience as the people who are learning through observing what is happening around them. Those who ignore sound counsel, who make unhealthy and rash decisions will ultimately suffer the consequences. The wisdom writers are pointing out that a godly, or wise person learns not only from their own mistakes but also from the mistakes of others. We can learn what to embrace and what to avoid. People who have a teachable spirit keep growing, learning and developing. When we stop being teachable, we will become rigid, hard, stubborn and will suffer as a result.
B. The righteous have a generous spirit.
“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered (Proverbs 21:13).”
“All day long he craves for more, but the righteous give without sparing (Proverbs 21:26).”
Here we see the proper attitude toward those who are impoverished and struggling in life. Why are the righteous generous? Wise people realize that what they have is a gift from God. When we become more like God, we develop in certain characteristics; one of which is a generous spirit.
The wise or righteous person recognizes that desire drives all of our lives and we all have to address this issue. When is enough, enough? Wise people learn self-control.
…what distinguishes the righteous person from others is that these longings can be redirected, and a self-centered person may become an other-centered person. The righteous do not hesitate to share their wealth. It is not a matter of meeting one’s own desires (which never end) and then becoming generous.[ix]
Often we see great generosity of heart among those who have little because they know what it is like to lack.
C. The righteous person does what is right and rejoices in it.
“When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers (Proverbs 21:15).”
The righteous or wise also rejoice in doing what is right and seeing right done for others. Justice is important to God and therefore ought to be important to us. The prophets constantly challenged the people of God on the issue of justice towards others. One of the great dangers of personalized faith is that the focus is on ourselves while ignoring the larger issues of justice in our own society. Isaiah’s scathing words to those who appeared or acted in a religious manner but then would violate others is a warning to every generation.
For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
Why have we fasted, they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed? Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.[x]
Jesus certainly spoke to this issue in Matthew 25, when he talked about true righteousness is how we treat those who are generally despised by society: the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. When we serve the oppressed we are actually serving Christ.
D. The righteous or wise person prepares for the future.
“Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and olive oil will never be rich (Proverbs 21:17).”
“The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down (Proverbs 21:20).”
Here we see that the wise or righteous person lives beyond the moment. One of the great problems of our day is the unwise use of credit. If we live an overindulgent life, living above our means we will suffer. The wise then have foresight and prudence. How will my actions impact the future? What am I doing to provide for a day when I’ll not have the physical or mental ability to work and provide for my future? It’s the idea of preparing for the ‘rainy day.’ As a culture we generally are at in the moment. What is true in the realm of money is even more evident when it comes to how we have spent our lives. How are you investing yourself? Are you enriching others and thereby enriching your life? Learning to curb our appetites is part of learning to be a wise person.
E. The righteous have the right goals for their lives in mind.
“Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor (Proverbs 21:21).”
The Hebrew verb ‘to pursue’ is strong, conveying energy and determination, at times having the sense ‘to hunt down.’ In this saying, the intense pursuit comes upon something other than the original object of the pursuit-long and vigorous life and honor. Life and honor come from the pursuit of virtue.[xi]
If you were to ask what people are pursuing today, most would say they are pursuing happiness. But the key to achieving happiness only comes as a result of pursuing the right things. Jesus, as wisdom teacher in the Sermon on the mount tells us what brings us happiness. The word, blessed can be translated ‘happy’, so Jesus tells us who the truly happy people are. The blessed or happy people are those who are poor in spirit. They recognize their spiritual poverty, mourns over their own sins, are content with what God has given them, are hungry for what is right, show mercy to others, are pure in heart and are peacemakers. They will experience God’s kingdom, comfort, fulness, mercy, and have an ability to experience God. They will be called God’s children (cf. Matthew 5:3-12).
F. The righteous have moral courage and strength to address the power of the wicked.
“One who is wise can go up against the city of the mighty and pull down the strongholds in which they trust (Proverbs 21:22).”
This proverb is teaching that wisdom is better than might. Richard Clifford relates: “To go up is a Hebrew idiom for mounting a military assault and ‘to bring down’ is an idiom for defeating an enemy.”[xii]
This idea is reflected elsewhere in Scripture when we read in the book of Zechariah.
So he said to me, ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.
‘What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground.[xiii]
When God is at work and the Spirit of God comes upon his people; greater natural and supernatural forces are defeated. One of the most familiar example is the story of David and Goliath. When the Old Testament is describing physical attributes in a narrative it is to make a point. In Goliath, the size, experience and the military armor are all spelled out to make the point that he was a formidable foe. King Saul and his troops were terrified of the taunts of this giant, but David coming on the scene is able to address and defeat Goliath. How? David had a godly perspective. Like Zechariah’s words: this was a mountain that was about to become level ground. While Goliath mocks and curses David; David’s response is insightful.
David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.
This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.
All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’S, and he will give all of you into our hands.[xiv]
G. Finally, we see the righteous person is restrained in their speech and avoids major problems.
“Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity (Proverbs 21:23).”
There is no question that what gets most of us into trouble is our mouths. The godly, described as the wise person realizes that and restrains their communication. They are able to listen and understand and make good decisions and effectively communicate the truth.
A false witness will perish, but a careful listener will testify successfully. The wicked put up a bold front, but the upright give thought to their ways (Proverbs 21:28-29).”
What music are you dancing to? What is your view of life? Is God in the equation? Is he at the forefront of your thinking? Do you see him in control, Sovereignly working out his purposes? If we have embraced what the Bible is teaching us it will shape how we respond to the choices in our world. Let me close with Colson’s remarks about the dangerous world in which we are living.
The dangers of modern popular culture were foretold by Aldous Huxley in his classic-utopian novel Brave New World– which contrasts sharply with another anti-utopian novel, George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell warned of a communist government that would ban books; Huxley warned of a Western government that wouldn’t need to ban them-because no one would read serious books anymore. Orwell predicted a society deprived of information by government censors; Huxley predicted a society over saturated by information from electronic media-until people lost the ability to analyze what they saw and heard. Orwell feared a system that concealed the truth under government propaganda and lies; Huxley feared a system where people stopped caring about the truth and cared only about being entertained. Orwell described a world where people were controlled by inflicting pain; Huxley imagined a world where people were controlled by inflicting pleasure. Both novels have proven to be uncannily accurate-Orwell describing the totalitarian plague of our [20th] century, Huxley the sickness of affluence free society.[xv] https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2019/05/28/05/06/female-4234344__340.jpg
[i] Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live?, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1999), 19-21.
[ii] Derek Kidner, Proverbs, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 15, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1964), 141.
[iii] Isaiah 45:1, 4, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iv] Isaiah 10:5-7.
[v] Ezekiel 21:18-24.
[vi] Habakkuk 1:5-7.
[vii] Psalm 33:16-17.
[viii] Proverbs 1:1-4.
[ix] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 398.
[x] Isaiah 58:2-4, 6-7.
[xi] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 192.
[xiii] Zechariah 4:6-7.
[xiv] 1 Samuel 17:45-47.
[xv] Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live?, 468-69.