Many people consider that they are making up their own mind, but the sad reality is that outward pressures and relationships are often shaping our values and decisions. This in turn plays a significant part in the direction of our lives. Today, our sphere of influence has dramatically increased. From the arts (like movies and music) to social media, these spheres in our lives have significant impact on what we believe and how we live.
The internet is one means in which popular culture is shaping our lives. Based on what our interests are, the internet feeds us more of the same kinds of information that we are searching for. This further ingrains us to a certain conclusions even in the face of conflicting messages. This is called cognitive bias. Our minds filter out what we don’t want to hear and embrace what we do want to hear.
Another example of how popular culture can shape our thinking is the subtle messaging we receive in our entertainment choices. We need to watch with biblical filters on or we are subconsciously being influenced. I notice that in almost every Hallmark Christmas movie, which are all rated G, we have a moment in every movie where the advice given is to ‘just follow your heart’ in making key life choices. Yet, if we listen to our hearts in making decisions, where will that lead us? Jeremiah warns us against the fickleness and sinfulness of our own hearts. When we speak of the heart, I want to remind us of the biblical understanding of heart as including our minds, emotions and our wills.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.[i]
So, how should we make decisions if we don’t follow our hearts? Two things come to mind. First, we need to surrender our hearts to God to help bring about a transformed life. Secondly, we are to trust God rather than ourselves and God will direct our steps through His counsel found in the Word of God. Obedience to God’s word directs us in making significant life decisions.
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.[ii]
Will we allow God and his word to influence us, or will we look to ourselves being swayed by popular culture to shape our desires and direction? What about the people we surround ourselves with? The family we grew up in helps shape us, but eventually it becomes about the people we choose as friends that will have the greatest impact on our lives. Who will we listen to? Proverbs basically outlines for us two paths and the kinds of people who walk them. The wise walk on God’s path whereas all others walk on a broad road that leads to harm. On that path we find mockers, scoffers and fools (those who are morally deficient). As we are about to see here in Proverbs 25, we need to wisely choose our associates because they will ultimately influence us. That’s why earlier in the Proverbs we are instructed to associate with those who are wise in proverbial understanding, this means those who ‘fear God.’ “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm (Proverbs 13:20).” Another proverbs states the necessity of being selective in choosing those we allow to influence our lives. “The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray (Proverbs 12:26).”
In the wisdom literature we have some powerful insights into the value of determining what and who is influencing our lives. This is particularly critical in the realm of leadership, as leaders make decisions that impact the lives of those they lead. In Proverbs 25, we find a number of proverbs dealing with the issue of leadership and those who follow. Here we find a number of elements that shape and influence human behavior. I’ve grouped them into three key areas of human dynamics influencing human relationships.
THE FIRST AREA IS THE WILLINGNESS TO LEARN
There are times where we need to be instructed and disciplined in order to grow and develop. It is not just learning what not to listen to, but also what we need to learn in order to grow in our relationship with God and others. Do we have a teachable spirit? Are we willing to discover what God is saying to us and then acting upon that knowledge in obedience? Here in chapter 25 we have more proverbs of Solomon as compiled by the men living in the days of the reign of King Hezekiah, which happened hundreds of years later.
A. In Proverbs 25:2-5 we have verses dealing with the issue of good leadership and its influence.
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.
As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, so the hearts of kings are unsearchable.[iii]
What is being communicated to us here? Richard Clifford relates some important cultural background that will help us understand what was intended for the readers to understand:
God and king were closely related in the ancient Near East and in the Bible. In some creation accounts the king was created to organize the human race to serve the gods. To fulfill his tasks, he was endowed with wisdom which was the ability to govern the people.
God’s world is full of conundrums and puzzles beyond the capacity of ordinary people, but the king is there to unravel them and lead people to serve the gods.[iv]
There are many different versions of the creation accounts in ancient civilizations, but they have the common understanding that the king would help his people serve the gods. Though this text is speaking specifically to political leaders, most of them in ancient societies were also the leader in the theological sense. Many of them functioned as the High Priest. A contemporary application of the text could be applied to Christians, as the New Testament portrays believers as ‘kings and priests (cf. Revelation 1:6, KJV; or translated into a kingdom of priests). The role of a priest is a mediator between God and others. We could argue than that one of the primary purposes of believers is to help lead others to serving God (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). In the Contemporary English Version it catches the nuances of the text. “God is praised for being mysterious; the rulers are praised for explaining mysteries.”[v] We then have the responsibility of explaining the greatest mystery that has now been revealed in Jesus Christ, the nature of God’s redemptive work on behalf of humanity.
“In both cases, God and king are honored and held in high respect, though clearly the hierarchy is God first, next the king, then the rest of humanity.”[vi] Richard Clifford rightly sets this equation in its proper value:
Though it might seem that the king is being exalted to an unquestioned status, the next saying, and others in the book as well, make it clear that the king (like any human being) is bound to practice justice.[vii]
In other words, leaders have a responsibility to do what is right. Those who are in authority should not abuse their position, but rather use their office to enrich and nourish the lives of those that follow.
B. The ability to listen to the right people is critical in the direction of our lives.
In the previous chapter of Proverbs we were admonished to obey those in authority over us.
Fear the LORD and the king, my son, and do not join with rebellious officials,
for those two will send sudden destruction on them, and who know what calamities they can bring?[viii]
What is being communicated in these texts is that both God and King are not to be trifled with, but rather obeyed as they have authority and power to bring sudden calamity on those who rebel against them. It is God who establishes authority. When we rebel against the established order, we undermine the stability of society. Anarchy is a greater danger and creates greater evil than even wicked kings. We must guard against having a rebellious heart as we find ourselves not just fighting against a human leader, but God, Himself.
Yet having said that, the warning against who is influencing a person is especially important in the realm of leadership. Leaders must ensure that they are surrounding themselves with wise counselors or they will become arrogant and the results will be injustice towards those they are leading. Notice how the wisdom writers state it; “Remove the dross from the silver, and a silversmith can produce a vessel; remove wicked officials from the king’s presence, and his throne will be established through righteousness.”[ix]
Proverbs operates with the concern that people will become like those with whom they associate (1:8-19). Here the stakes are high because the person in view is the king, the most influential person in the kingdom.[x]
Whomever influences the king, influences the kingdom, either for good or bad. A stark example of this is found just prior to the collapse of Judah as a nation. Before being taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, in which he had already conquered and placed Zedekiah as a puppet king, the nation had another opportunity to humble themselves and get it right.
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months and ten days. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD.
In the spring, King Nebuchadnezzar sent for him and brought him to Babylon, together with articles of value from the temple of the LORD, and he made Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, king over Judah and Jerusalem.[xi]
However, Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians which in turn meant another invasion of Judah. Zedekiah then asked Jeremiah to give him a message from the Lord, which ultimately Zedekiah did not act on because he was misled by his advisors.
Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “This is what the LORD God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live.
But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be given into the hands of the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from them.’
King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, ‘I am afraid of the Jews who have gone over to the Babylonians, for the Babylonians may hand me over to them and they will mistreat me.[xii]
One of the reasons we disobey what God has to say is that we are afraid of what others might say or do to us. We are reminded the reality of Proverbs 29:25. “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.” Who is influencing you? Here in this pivotal episode in the life of king Zedekiah, we see that God’s word and the counsel and advice of the king’s friends are in conflict. Not only is the king’s life in jeopardy over what he decides but the fate of his nation also rests in his decision. Notice how Jeremiah assures the king that trusting in the Lord will keep him safe and spare the city destruction. Life and death are often determined by the people who shape our lives through their influence. Jeremiah speaking the message of God is unfortunately ignored, even though the warning is so clear and direct.
They will not hand you over,” Jeremiah replied. “Obey the LORD by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared.
But if you refuse to surrender, this is what the LORD has revealed to me:
All the women left in the palace of the king of Judah will be brought out to the officials of the king of Babylon. Those women will say to you:
“They misled you and overcame you- those trusted friends of yours. Your feet are sunk in the mud; your friends have deserted you.[xiii]
So we have seen from these first five verses in Proverbs 25, the challenge was for those in leadership to search out the matter. So, who does this apply to? We need to remind ourselves as believers that we are described as ‘kings and priests’ in His kingdom. We all have a sphere of leadership as parents, employers and role models for those younger than us. We are also warned to seek advice from godly people. The question we need to ask ourselves when we are in relationships is ‘who is influencing whom?’ Who are we learning from? Who and what are we teaching others through our lifestyle, example and words of instruction?
THE SECOND AREA IS THE ISSUE OF CHARACTER
Character is what we are. This is being shaped within us and expressed outwardly to others. There are many qualities that reveal the type of person or character we are. There is an incredible need in our lives to have patience and restraint and this comes from the work of God’s grace upon our hearts. We need to shift from the power of personalities influencing us, to the power of practices or behavior that is an outgrowth of God’s work in our innermost being. What really shapes the human heart? God’s Spirit activating His word not only instructs us but also empowers us. This will help guide us in how we go about our tasks and how we relate to others.
Here in Proverbs 25 we see some areas that proverbs focus our attention in order to for to exercise restraint. We need to be more restrained as it relates to self-promotion, litigation and gossip.
Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, ‘Come up here,’ than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.
What you have seen with your eyes do not bring hastily to court, for what will you do in the end if your neighbor puts you to shame?
If you take your neighbor to court, do not betray another’s confidence, or the one who hears it may shame you and the charge against you will stand.[xiv]
We are taught in our culture to assert ourselves and put ourselves forward; however, here we see that we are not to exalt ourselves in the presence of others. That’s one way of trusting in ourselves rather than God. The Lord can get you and me to where we need to go. The key to getting there is being faithful in the daily sphere of life that we are currently in. If God can take a shepherd boy by the name of David, whom even his own father ignored and place him as king over the nation, then the most important person we need to be concerned about pleasing is God. Promotion comes from the Lord, let him exalt you. The apostle Peter reminds us of this.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.[xv]
In Proverbs 25:9, we are warned not be too hasty in bringing things before the courts, nor to betray another’s confidence; which is another way of saying not to gossip. Often what we see is only part of the story. Harry Ironside, a preacher from another generation, applies this text.
Much trouble and mischief might be avoided if people were careful to keep their differences to themselves, in place of spreading abroad information as to shameful quarrels.”[xvi] We need to follow the instructions from Matthew 18 which explains to us to go the person and work out the differences.
To go directly to one with whom there is danger of a quarrel, and debate the matter in a gracious spirit with him in secret, carefully keeping the matter from sharp ears and prying eyes- this is what the proverb commends.[xvii]
What these proverbs are stating is that what we think will happen may not work out that way. We often misunderstand or misinterpret what we are witnessing. It is wisdom to ask questions rather than to make pronouncements so that we may be fully informed and not be embarrassed by making false accusations. This only creates a negative impact on human relationships moving forward. We need to learn to be more restrained in our speech. The apostle James who is deeply influenced by the wisdom literature shares a modern proverb in his letter.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.[xviii]
THE THIRD AREA IS THE MASTERY OF OUR MOUTHS
What I mean here is the spirit, tone, attitude and words that we share with others. When our hearts are right, our words are healthy, inspiring, encouraging, instructive and even corrective; but when our hearts are wrong, we can become easily offended, angry, critical, hostile and abuse in our words. Wisdom literature addresses the need for restraint and forethought in communication. “The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent, and their lips promote instruction (Proverbs 16:23).”
James tells us in his letter that people who can control their mouths are perfect or blameless. The idea here is a person who is evidencing spiritual maturity. “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check (James 3:2).”
This is not to suggest that words can never be corrective in nature. Jesus, as the Scriptures teach was sinless (cf. Hebrews 4:15) and therefore able to control his mouth, spoke very pointedly to some Pharisees in correcting them and explaining the nature of the origin or our communication.
You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.[xix]
My wife Patty showed me a video presentation of how a father or teacher was trying to convey the pain that abusive words impact others. He was dealing with the issue of bullying. In the clip he was speaking to a couple of young teenaged girls who had been bullying others. He asked them to write down the words they were conveying in their bullying. They began to put down hateful and abusive terms on a wooden board and then were asked to strike nails, representing each word onto that wooden board, just enough for them to attach to that board. Then he had them pull out the nails by hand and repeat that they were sorry. Afterwards, he asked them what they saw. Even though they said they were sorry, there were indentations were the nails had left their mark in the wood. The point he was driving home was that even though we are sorry for what we have said and done, it still leaves scars in people’s heart. Words have an abiding aspect to them and influences the emotions of others.
Here at the close of the chapter are a number of proverbs that address this issue of our words and their impact on others.
1. The value of a rebuke from a wise person.
“Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is the rebuke of a wise judge to a listening ear (Proverbs 25:12.” It is important to understand that wise words can be corrective and when we listen to them they are of great value in our lives. Rereading the story of Cain and Abel, I was reminded that God warned Cain to address his sinful attitude toward his brother. He warned him that sin desired to overtake him and he needed to address it before it got out of hand. Unfortunately, Cain didn’t listen to God’s rebuke and ended up murdering his brother out of envy and jealousy.
2. The refreshing nature of wise words.
“Like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time is a trustworthy messenger to the one who sends him; he refreshes the spirit of his master (Proverbs 25:13).” In a day where the only way to communicate over great distances was by sending someone to speak on your behalf, you have to have confidence that they will represent you well. The picture here is a faithful messenger is like an ice-cold drink on a hot day where you have been exerting a lot of physical activity and are thirsty. There is nothing more refreshing that that cool beverage to quench your thirst.
3. The power of persuasive speech is often expressed by gentleness and patience.
“Though patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone (Proverbs 25:15).” Here is a text teaching that threatening, volume, intensity and anger may be tools to manipulate others, but they often have very little impact on changing people’s minds, especially when we have no leverage. However the better and healthier approach when we have no leverage in the conversation is the attributes of patience and gentleness which are far more persuasive. These two aspects have a greater power to persuade those in positions of authority.
4. The painful and often deadly experiences of false testimony and relying on unfaithful people.
Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is one who gives false testimony against a neighbor.
Like a broken tooth or a lame foot is reliance on the unfaithful in a time of trouble.[xx]
Here is where gossip and lying are like weapons of destruction and can destroy others. The second example expressed is of the unfaithful messenger who conveys falsehood which creates heartache and pain. False accusations of innocent parties have brought great destruction in the accused person’s life. People have lost their livelihood and even their marital relationships because of unproven false allegations that were never proven.
So, how can we respond to those who malign us or mistreat us with their words? When there is no redress, how do we live with being unjustly treated? Many people never get beyond that moment in their lives, whereas others learn to move forward.
5. The right or wise response to those who wound us:
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to earth; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.[xxi]
People who learn the power of forgiveness will not be defined by that evil in their lives. The only way to move forward and overcome is by applying what is being stated here. We can only overcome the evil done to us by blessing and doing good to those who wound us. The apostle Paul actually quotes these proverbs in his letter to the Romans and concludes with this summary remark: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).”
Who is influencing our decisions? The cultural values that are pressing in and telling us to stand up and assert our rights? Or are we taking our cues from the word of God and faithfully putting these truths into practice? Have we surrendered our lives to God and manifest a teachable spirit? How is practicing God’s word affecting our attitude and actions? What is coming out of our mouths? We only discover the true condition of our hearts when pressured by the challenges of situations and difficult people. How will we respond?
[i] Jeremiah 17:9-10, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] Proverbs 3:5-7.
[iii] Proverbs 25:2-3.
[iv] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 222.
[v] Proverbs 25:2 Contemporary English Version, American Bible Society, 1995.
[vi] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 451.
[vii] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, 222-23.
[viii] Proverbs 24:21-22.
[ix] Proverbs 25:4-5.
[x] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 451.
[xi] 2 Chronicles 36:9-10.
[xii] Jeremiah 38:17-19.
[xiii] Jeremiah 38:20-22.
[xiv] Proverbs 25:6-10.
[xv] 1 Peter 5:6-7.
[xvi] Harry A. Ironside, Proverbs and Song and Solomon, An Ironside Expository Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 216.
[xviii] James 1:19-20.
[xix] Matthew 12:34-36.
[xx] Proverbs 25:18-19.
[xxi] Proverbs 25:21-22.