ARE YOU REALLY LISTENING?

Who is shaping our viewpoint? Who is shaping how we think and feel, which in turn leads to actions on our part? Let us reflect on how our thinking and emotions are influenced and lead to actions that have consequences.

In James Emery White’s book, ‘A Mind for God,’ he identifies the challenges that we are facing for the battle for our minds.

Consider the media, perhaps the most important challenge facing Christian reflection. At its most base, the media tell us both what to think about and then how to think about it. Sociologist Christian Smith writes that we may talk about ‘the culture,’ ‘the media,’ ‘television’ and ‘Hollywood,’ but if we think systemically, these are euphemisms for a worldview that constitutes the human self in a very particular way: as an autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit calculating consumer. This constitutes a moral order with particular assumptions, narratives, commitments, beliefs, values and goals.[i]       

Malcolm Muggeridge tells of taking Mother Theresa into a New York television studios to appear on one of the morning shows. It was the first time that Mother Teresa had been in an American television studio, and as a result she was completely unprepared for the constant interruptions for commercials. On that particular morning, Muggeridge observed that all of the commercials dealt with food that was being advertised as non-fattening and low in calories. Mother Teresa took it in with a sense of unbelief. Her own work was in trying to nourish the starving, to put some flesh on human skeletons. Suddenly, without even thinking, she said out loud,’ I see that Christ is needed in television studios.’

A total silence fell on the studio and everyone there. Muggeridge said that in the midst of the media fantasy, reality had suddenly intruded. But it took someone being still and reflecting on what reality entailed. Because of the influences of the media on our world-and our minds-the dynamics of reflection on cultural discourse (which is generally carried out through the media) is decisive. Few of us would have thought twice about the commercial content, much less the messages they were sending, that was so evident to Mother Teresa.[ii]

So, what are we really listening to? How is what we are hearing actually shaping our lives?

Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, co-author ‘How Now Shall We Live?,’ a book addressing this significant issue of world view and its impact on our lives.

Some years ago, in the middle of a doctrinal discussion, a young man differed with Nancy over a point the apostle Paul makes in 1 Corinthians. ‘I disagree with you,’ he said. ‘No, you disagree with Paul,’ Nancy corrected him gently. ‘Okay, then, I disagree with Paul,’ he shrugged. He went on to explain that as he saw it, the Bible was written long ago for a different age and that today the Holy Spirit can reveal new truth-truth that might even contradict what the Bible teaches. Now, this young man was a sincere Christian-president of a Christian campus group and a leader among his peers-but he had absorbed the mental framework of a secular culture and was reinterpreting Scripture in the context of that framework. He had lost his understanding of truth and revelation, of a worldview that roots Scripture in the God who is ultimate reality. This carried over into his personal choices, evidenced by the fact that he was sleeping with his girlfriend. He was not untaught in biblical ethics; and he was not deliberately backsliding. His honest convictions told him that the Bible consisted of nothing more that human documents and, therefore, was not normative for his life. Whenever he read Scripture, it was filtered through a mental grid set by a non-Christian worldview, resulting in a distorted understanding of doctrine [teaching] and personal ethics.[iii]  

Proverbs 22:17-24:22 is a subunit which entitled ‘thirty sayings of the wise.’ These sayings are primarily ‘exhortations,’ which are commands or strong moral urging, to be obediently responded to. There is much debate among scholars as to their similarities with other Ancient Near East Wisdom literature, particularly, the writings of the Egyptian, ‘Instruction of Amenemope.’ However there are parts of the thirty sayings here found in our Hebrew Bibles that are not in the Egyptian ‘thirty sayings,’ and have more in common with Aramaic and Akkadian wisdom traditions (cf. Bruce Waltke, 217). Tremper Longman summarizes it best when he writes:

Perhaps the best conclusion is that there is not a specific relationship between Proverbs and Amenemope; rather; both texts are part of an international tradition of wisdom that shares many similarities. In the light of the similarities, the differences-particularly the role of Yahweh in the wisdom of Proverbs-stands out even more.[iv]

What is being conveyed is that though there are other ancient wisdom texts that may have similar moral instructions, what makes Proverbs or the Hebrew wisdom tradition different is that the foundation of it stands upon the person of God, whose words instruct us in how to live wisely or successfully.

Today, we are going to briefly look at the first 6 sayings which I’ve broken down into the prologue or introduction and then the three things we need to avoid and the two elements we need to embrace. Scripture is filled with exhortations that we need to listen to and apply in our lives. The question is, ‘Are we listening?’

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain [develop] a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).”

That is what we are going to trying to accomplish as we hear these words of instruction- to develop a heart of wisdom.  Here we have the prologue or introduction to this new section from Proverbs 22:17-21.

Pay attention and turn your ear to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach; for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips (Proverbs 22:17-18.”

Here we are told to listen with the intention of putting these things into practice. When we do what these sayings are telling us, they will prove to be a good and pleasing thing in our lives. We are to embrace these concepts by reflecting deeply upon them, which is what meditation is. This requires memorizing them in order to be able to express them to others. “Even the most brilliant moral sayings are powerless without personal application.”[v] In other words we need to master these words, internalize and live them out. When that occurs in our lives something profound happens; we develop a confidence or trust in God that empowers us, even in life’s most difficult and challenging moments.

So that your trust may be in the LORD, I teach you today, even you.

Have I not written thirty sayings for you, sayings of counsel and knowledge, teaching you to be honest and to speak the truth, so that you bring back truthful reports to those who serve you.[vi]

Derek Kidner states regarding the value of these particular proverbs.

Does he read with alert concentration (17)? How much is retained and ready for passing on (18)? Does he receive it in the spirit in which it is given-to deepen his trust (19), guide his decisions (20) and strengthen his grasp of truth (21)? Does he see himself as the virtual envoy (cf. Send thee, 21) of those whose knowledge of the truth depends on him?[vii]

What is Kidner saying? Are we grasping what we are about to hear. Is it so internalized that it becomes who we are and therefore what we communicate both in words and actions to others? Is this not what Jesus talked about when he said on the Sermon on the Mount that when we are doers of what he says, we will be able to stand in the hour of testing.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.[viii]

            Let’s now look at the next five sayings mentioned here. These are all exhortations for us to live wisely. We’ll break them down into two main exhortations.

THE FIRST SET OF EXHORTATIONS IN LIVING WISELY ARE THINGS TO AVOID.

There are things we need to identify as dangers or snares in learning to trust God.

A. The first danger is believing that we need to exploit others in order to have our needs met.

Exploiters are on the lookout for those they perceive are vulnerable. This is true in various areas of our lives and here in Proverbs we see how some are being exploited because they don’t have the resources to protect themselves. Whenever we enrich ourselves financially or in any other way at the expense of others we are actually fighting against the Lord. “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will exact life for life (Proverbs 22:22-23).”

Here we see that in economic terms it is usually the poor that are taken advantage of. Proverbs warns us that God will be the advocate for the poor. “The poor, by not having human protectors, have Yahweh as their protector. Paradoxically, their poverty gives them a more powerful protector than the rich could afford.”[ix]

One of the things rarely pointed out in churches is the warning that the apostle Paul makes against those who exploit others in the church family at a financial level.

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? (1 Corinthians 6:9a).” In our communication of God’s grace, the church is often indifferent to certain behaviors that actually reflect a unregenerated, unbelieving, sin-filled heart. One of these areas is how we treat others financially. In Paul’s list of people who confess Christianity, but deny it by their lifestyle, the first grouping are those who are living sexually immoral lives. But this is often where the church stops warning, but there are other areas that are equally damaging to our souls.

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9b-10.”

If we just stop there it would leave us with no hope about these character issues in our soul, but listen to the good news that the apostle Paul relates: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11).”

The gospel is the good news that despite these sins, God’s grace can change our hearts and help us truly love others and treat them without exploiting or manipulating them. It is interesting that one reason for the northern tribes being taken into exile was because they had exploited the poor.  They were guilty of taking the poor into slavery, levying unfair taxes and taking their garments that they had given in pledge. Amos points out the judgment that was awaiting Israel because of these sins against their own people.

This is what the LORD says: For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.

They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.[x]

Later in the book we see this theme of exploiting the poor continued.

You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.

For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.[xi]

No wonder when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is that he said we ought to love God but he also continued on by saying we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

B. The second danger to living a godly or wise life is to avoid relationships with angry people.

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared (Proverbs 2:24-25).”

How interesting that we are cautioned regarding our associations. Why? The people we spend time with influence and affect us more profoundly than we realize. We are not to be stirred up by angry people otherwise we may become like minded and become entrapped by actions that go too far. When we hang with the wrong crowd, we end up doing things we may never have considered on our own. Be careful who you run with. “As is common in human nature we catch on to sin faster than we do to righteousness.”[xii] David Hubbard relates that having the right kind of even-tempered nature is critical for those in leadership.

Levelheadedness, control of temper, and patience are prime requisites for leadership. One way to cultivate these traits is to avoid ‘friendships’ with those whose lives are stamped by fury and anger.[xiii]

This is not talking about people who on occasion become angry but someone who is hot, an angry person who is ready to explode for little or no reason. Many of the violent crimes are committed by angry people. People who feel marginalized in some way.

C. The third thing to avoid is making rash financial promises.

“Do not be one who shakes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you (Proverbs 22:26-27.”

How many people have been asked to be a guarantor for another’s debt? Here wisdom states that this is a bad practice for even if the person has every intention of repaying their debt, circumstances beyond their control may cost the guarantor everything. There are some among us who could give a firsthand account of the folly of such a decision that their endorsement for another turned out to cost them not only financially but also relationally.  

If you decide to be a guarantor, be prepared to pay for it all. That suggests two things; the first is that you have the resources and secondly, you are willing to gift it to them, without recrimination or personal animosity.

II. THE SECOND SET OF EXHORTATIONS IN LIVING WISELY ARE THINGS TO EMBRACE.

Here we discover two aspects of life that will help us live wisely or successfully in life.

A. The first aspect of wise living is to honor the past.

“Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors (Proverbs 22:28).” Literally these ancient boundary stones marked out their land inheritances and now they were being warned against changing them at the expense of their neighbors inheritance, by moving them even if ever so slowly. In Israel the land was set by a sacred lot received by that generation that came into the land, and if they had to mortgage their property it was redeemable in the year of Jubilee (49th year). We find in Proverbs 23:10-11 a further elaboration of this proverb.

“Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless, for their Defender is strong; he will take up their case against you (Proverbs 23:10-11).” Once again we see God as the advocate of the poor, the weak and the needy. Here was one area that this exploitation was practiced. Though we see the specific situation that this proverb was speaking to, we can make an application that we should be cautious in making changes from the past. This is not an argument for embracing tradition, but we need to value and learn from the past, otherwise we will be guilty of destroying some things of great value. In a day where change is the order of the day, there is very little or no concern for tomorrow and the outcomes of decisions. We are often filled with our own prejudices against the past and therefore in jeopardy of repeating the mistakes of the past. Even where the past was wrong, we need to address those wrongs and make changes but never eradicate history because we learn from both what was right and wrong. The apostle Paul explains that even the wrongs from the past can teach us what to avoid. In speaking about the generation that was delivered from Egypt and led into the wilderness, the apostle Paul writes: 

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our heats on evil things as they did.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.[xiv]

B. The second area we need to embrace is the value of excellence and diligence in our lives.

“Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings; they will not serve before officials of low rank (Proverbs 22:29).” Skill has a way of bringing people to the attention of others, especially those in leadership. One of the things that good leaders are looking for is high degree of competence in two areas: people skills and good work skills. The Hebrew word translated ‘skilled’ can also be translated as expert or those diligent in their work.

How should we apply this text in our time? “…those who work hard and with skill will succeed in their careers.”[xv] Robert Alden explains the text this way:

The way to influence kings or impress employers, say verse 29, is to do a good job. Gifts, bribes, or even boasting achieve little by comparison; those in charge generally know who is most productive.[xvi]

When the apostle Paul was giving instructions to those in slavery he talked about the need to work with ‘sincerity of heart as unto the Lord.’ The challenge is to have a great work ethic which often translates into promotion, if not from earthly employers, than from God who advocates for those who honor him through their diligent service.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

Whatever you do, work at it will all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,

since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.[xvii]

Whatever our vocation and calling, may we realize that we are actually do it as unto the Lord and not just on behalf of people, who may or may not validate or appreciate it.

So, what is shaping our lives? What is it that we are exposing ourselves too? We are living in a day that we can be deeply influenced by ideas from all over the globe through the various forms of media. Who are we associating with? Ideas and people deeply influence our lives. Right ideas and wise people will empower and help shape our lives. God’s word needs to be the foundation on which we build our worldview. It should be pondered, memorized, internalized, applied and is become such a part of our innermost being that is flows out in our words and actions..

When God’s word shapes us we’ll have such a confidence or trust in God, so that we won’t need to manipulate others but rather serve God by serving them. Our relational and financial decisions will be guided by God’s wisdom. We will learn from the past in order to avoid the pitfalls of others and realize that the way we live and work is to be done with all diligence as unto the Lord. God has a way of compensating all of our lives, ultimately.

There is an old expression: ‘Cream rises to the top.’ One example of these proverbs being lived out is seen in the life of Daniel. Taken captive at a young age; living in a totalitarian regime, where everything seems to be stripped from him: his heritage, his family, his name (which speaks of personal identity), language, and then taught the language and culture of the Babylonians. Yet, through it all, Daniel maintained his faith in God and served the Babylonian and eventually the Persian kings faithfully despite great challenges and opposition. There is an old kids chorus that goes like this: Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose and make that purpose known.

During this time in our world, what are needed are people with the courage or heart of a Daniel. The need is for people who have biblical wisdom because they fear God. Let us pray that we learn from the wisdom writers to internalize and obey God’s word when many are succumbing to a secular humanist worldview.

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[i] James Emery White, A Mind for God, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 68. 

[ii] Ibid, 68-69.

[iii] Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live?, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1999), 307-308.

[iv] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 54.

[v] 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), 223.

[vi] Proverbs 22:19-20, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[vii] Derek Kidner, Proverbs, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), 149.

[viii] Matthew 7:24-25.

[ix] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 207.

[x] Amos 2:6-7a.

[xi] Amos 5:11-12.

[xii] Robert Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary of an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1983), 167.

[xiii] David Hubbard, Proverbs, The Communicator’s Commentary 15A, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1989), 354.

[xiv] 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11.

[xv] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 419.

[xvi] Robert Alden, Proverbs, 167.

[xvii] Colossians 3:22-24.

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