The Flow of Wisdom
A sermon on Proverbs 14:33-15:29 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 11/20/05
How many of you know the name of Robert Morrison? Born in 1782 in England, Robert was the youngest of eight children. Expected to enter father’s business of making wooden lasts for cobblers, his conversion at age 15 led to other plans. He soon became interested in missions. Surely this was by God’s grace, for missions was hardly prominent in that year of 1798. William Carey had only been in India for five years, and he had very little to show for those years. But God was moving in His church to further His desire to bring those from every tongue and tribe and nation into His body, and He moved in the heart of 15-year-old Robert.
Understandably, his family was reluctant to see their youngest son leave the country. Indeed, his mother asked him to promise not to leave before her death. After he was ordained, other ministers put pressure on him to remain in England. But Robert felt the call to China. God provided a tutor in Chinese during his time in London, and he diligently pursued language studies. His mother died 1802, when he was 20; he finally sailed for China in 1807 at the age of 25.
After a seven-month journey (via the US), he arrived in Canton, the first Protestant missionary to China. But there was no rousing welcome. He quickly saw that his problems had only just begun. The East India Company controlled all foreigners; out to maximize profits, the company enforced strict rules prohibiting evangelism. His discouragement increased as month after month passed with no communication from home. In his first year in China he wrote over 200 letters and received in return two.
Although the East India Company eventually employed him as a translator, that was a mixed blessing. He now had a role in the country, but his job took considerable time and energy. And he was still forbidden to evangelize. In his first seven years in China, do you know how many Chinese became believers? None. Not one.
Many of you know the story of William Carey. As noted already, his first few years in India were similarly unproductive. But later, he had a huge, obvious impact on the country. Similarly, about this same time Adoniram Judson sailed to Burma and saw almost no fruit of his work for many years. But within his lifetime, though he experienced trial after trial, he saw the beginnings of a great movement of God.
Not so with Robert Morrison. He succeeded in translating the Bible into Chinese - a huge accomplishment. But in his entire missionary career, only twelve Chinese believed through his witness; in part because of persecution, there were only three Chinese Christians in the entire empire at the time of Morrison’s death.
As a young man, Morrison had prayed that “God would station him in that part of the field where the difficulties are the greatest and to all human appearance the most insurmountable.” God answered that prayer. Morrison never saw a response to his work.
But he persevered. He sought out God’s wisdom. God granted him wisdom through His Word – and through very little else in his many years in China. Still, God’s wisdom flowed out through him. He completed the translation. He rejoiced in the Lord in the midst of great adversity. And he glorified God with his life.
That’s what this passage of Proverbs is about: Encouraging us to seek God’s wisdom, for it is near us; encouraging us to let it flow into us, through God’s Word, through Godly counsel and rebuke; encouraging us to let it flow out from us, though what we say, through our joy, through our contentment.
That will be our outline for this morning:
God’s Wisdom is Near!
May Wisdom Flow into You!
May Wisdom Flow out from You!
So often we tend to make excuses for why we don’t act wisely:
Other circumstances are much more serious:
Today’s text tells us that no matter what our circumstances might be, God is near, God’s wisdom is near. We can – we must – rejoice in Him. Proverbs 14:33 sets the theme:
Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools. Proverbs 14:33
Do you see what this is saying? If you can be around a man of understanding, do so. You will learn much about wisdom from him. Wisdom dwells there; it rests in such men and women. Find a sage – a person God has molded and made through trials and years of seeing Him. We want to develop more and more sages in this church: Men and women who are radically God-centered, who are permeated with the Word, who love God with all their heart, who speak words of wisdom into numerous situations. So find that sage. Find that man or woman of understanding. Become one yourself.
But what if you can’t find such a person? Or you do find such a person, but then circumstances cut you off from him or her? The second half of the verse encourages us in that case: “Wisdom makes itself known even in the midst of fools.”
Do you see what this says? Seek wisdom, even if you are surrounded by fools! That was Robert Morrison’s case, wasn’t it? He had no colleagues. He had no accountability partner. He was surrounded by nominally Christian company officials who prohibited evangelism and pagan Chinese. His situation was tough. But God’s wisdom was there – through His Word.
The lesson? Don’t bellyache. Wherever you are, you have the opportunity to get God’s wisdom. Whatever your circumstances, you can take the next step to becoming a sage. The very problem that seems to stand in your way could well be God’s tool which He uses to fashion you for His purposes.
Jesus tells us, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He is with us always – that is, in every circumstance. He can always make wisdom known to us.
Proverbs 15:13-19 elaborate on this idea, showing how a wise person responds to different circumstances. Look first at verses 13 and 14:
13 A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of
heart the spirit is crushed.
14 The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.
The word “heart” links these two verses together; each helps to interpret the other. What do these verses tell us? The person who has understanding in verse 14 is the same as the person with the glad heart in verse 13. If you have understanding, you know our theme verse, Proverbs 14:33. You know that wisdom will make herself known in all circumstances. So you seek wisdom, you seek knowledge, even in the midst of fools. Because of this confidence in God’s presence despite your circumstances, your heart will be glad – and this will show in your cheerful face. On other hand, fools will fill themselves with folly - like most of what is produced by the US entertainment industry. This will dominate their thoughts rather than knowledge of God and His ways. Thus, their hearts will not be glad when circumstances get tough. Their spirits will be crushed by hard times.
Verse 15 elaborates on these themes:
15 All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.
The first part of this verse is not talking about the afflictions that result from being wicked, from being evil, but the afflictions that come on all men, even on the righteous. We might paraphrase this clause, “Life is tough; afflictions will come.” But part B tells us: If you are a man of understanding, if you have glad, cheerful heart, your life will be a continual feast. God will be with you. Even in the midst of fools, even in the midst of suffering, you can feast on Him and His Word.
This is what Jesus tells us in John 6:35:
35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
He offers us a continual feast – of Himself.
Verses 16 and 17 then look at two specific challenging circumstances as an illustration of this principle:
16 Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great
treasure and trouble with it.
17 Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.
The first tough circumstance is poverty, having little money. The second is related: Want, having little food. But do you see what Solomon says here? Circumstances don’t control you! You could have all the money you can imagine: a Mercedes, a 60-inch plasma TV, a 5000 square foot home on Lake Norman, a boat, all the best food you can imagine – you could have all that, and not have a continual feast. Instead, you can have trouble and hatred. On the other hand, you can have virtually nothing materially and have the greatest joy imaginable. Circumstances do not control the inner life of the wise man. Wisdom is making itself known even in tough circumstances.
Verse 18 again highlights the importance of our inner attitude:
18 A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.
What circumstances are mentioned here? Note that in verse 18, in both halves of the verse there is contention and strife. The circumstances are the same. But the hot-tempered man and the wise man respond to these similar circumstances very differently. One makes matters worse. The other quiets and soothes the situation. We’ll look at how the wise man accomplishes this in more detail later. For now, simply note again that our circumstances do not control us. God is with us, in every circumstance. The question is: Will you recognize Him or not? Will you seek wisdom in tough circumstances or will you give in to the temptation to be angry, to be despondent, to be annoyed?
Verse 19 summarizes the entire section:
19 The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns, but the path of the upright is a level highway.
This verse is not saying that the way of the upright is easy, for the preceding verses just said the opposite! We’ve already looked at situations where the upright faced contention, poverty, a lack of food, and many afflictions. So if this verse is not promising an easy life for the upright, what is it saying?
The sluggard and the upright are on two paths, two ways. Both ways have bumps. Both have obstructions. Both have difficulties. The difference is not in the obstructions but in the way the traveler responds to the obstructions. The sluggard says, “This way is too hard! There are mountains in front of me! I can’t possibly climb over them! Whoever lay out this path didn’t know what he was doing!”
In contrast, the upright says, “This is the path God has called me to. Yes, there are difficulties. But by His grace, I can make it.”
This was Robert Morrison’s response to the serious trials he faced. He experienced loneliness, including long years of separation from his wife and children. He saw little response to his work. His wife eventually died. The tears were many. But nevertheless, his path was “a level highway.” God enabled him to walk it.
Remember what Paul calls his many trials? “Momentary light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17). His many afflictions – beatings, imprisonments, stonings, shipwrecks – were neither momentary or light on a human scale. But when he compared them to the “eternal weight of glory” which God was accomplishing through them, they became insignificant.
Thus, verse 3 is our assurance:
3 The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.
No matter what your circumstances may be – afflicted with evil (verse 15), having but little (16), having dinners only of vegetables (17), having contention around you (18), having obstacles in the way (19), living in the midst of fools (14:33) – you have the opportunity to acquire and to speak wisdom (33) through fearing of the Lord (16), and having confidence in His presence (3).
God’s wisdom is near! So seek out wisdom!
If we look broadly through the Bible, we find a number of ways God gets His wisdom into us, including the reading His Word and the preaching of His Word. This section does not emphasize those means, instead underlining the way God imparts wisdom to us through His People: Sages, our parents, the wise, and even those who may not be wise, but who see something in you that needs reproving. For often it is through rebukes that God imparts wisdom. How do you respond when you are reproved or rebuked? Rebukes always provide an opportunity to move closer to God’s ways.
Consider Proverbs 15:5, 20, and 21:
5 A fool despises his father's instruction, but whoever
heeds reproof is prudent.
20 A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish man despises his mother.
21 Folly is a joy to him who lacks sense, but a man of understanding walks straight ahead.
The fool doesn’t listen to his father. Instead, he despises his father’s teaching and despises his mother altogether. His joy is his folly, his foolishness, his rejecting parental advice.
What about the wise? He listens to his father. He honors his father and his mother. He listens to rebukes and takes them to heart. He takes joy in walking on the path to life, and he welcomes whatever might help keep him on that path.
Note that these verses do not say, “The wise son blindly does whatever his parents say.” But the wise son does honor his parents. He listens carefully to their counsel. He respects their age and experience, admitting that he has much less experience. He listens and thinks hard, even if in the end he chooses not to follow their advice.
As we noted, this was the case with Robert Morrison. His family did not want him to be a missionary. He reflected on their advice and did choose to honor his mother’s request to wait until after her death. At that point, however, he told his remaining family members that he was called to go against their wishes. He went to China.
We can respectfully disagree with those who rebuke us or give us advice. But we must listen carefully and judge their advice prayerfully.
Verse 10 and 12 concern more general reproof:
10 There is severe discipline for him who forsakes the way;
whoever hates reproof will die.
12 A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.
These verses imply that you will forsake the way of life, you will leave the path and thus die, unless you listen to reproof when it is offered – indeed, unless you seek out reproof.
Why? We are easily deceived. Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:4). We much need each other to help us fight Satan’s wiles, to help us fight the inherent deceitfulness of sin.
We need the input of others even when no rebuke is in order:
Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. Proverbs 15:22
Are you seeking out the wise? Are you listening to reproof? Are you seeking wise counsel? Or have your reactions to past reproofs made those who love you reluctant ever to say anything to you again? Did you brush them off? Did you get angry? Did you say, “I already know that!”
Wisdom is available: from our parents’ instruction, from rebukes, from the counsel of others. Do you seek it? Do you let it flow into you?
We have already seen in verse 13-19 how contentment, patience, confidence, and joy flow out of the righteous despite tough circumstances. We have seen in verse 20 how the wise son makes his father glad. All these verses show that when we hear instruction, when we respond to instruction, we affect others, and they delight all the more in wisdom.
Several verses in our passage elaborate on the way that wisdom flows out from us. First, consider the way wisdom flows out of our mouths through prayer:
8 The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,
but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.
29 The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.
Why is the sacrifice of the wicked an abomination? If we get the wicked man to take part in a religious activity – in today’s world, if we get the wicked man to church – isn’t that good? Isn’t some religious activity better than none?
The two other verses in today’s passage that use the phrase “an abomination to the Lord” help us to understand verse 8. Verse 9 tells us that the “way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD;” verse 26 says the abomination is the thoughts or plans of the wicked. Thus, the whole course of the wicked’s life is wrong. What’s going on inside his head is wrong, the direction he is headed is wrong. There is no problem in his coming to hear the Word of God. That is good! But there’s a huge problem if he thinks that coming to hear the Word of God makes him righteous. There’s a huge problem if he thinks that engaging in some religious ritual makes him acceptable before God when his thoughts and way continue unchanged.
Prayer should consist of wisdom, the fear of Lord, flowing out of your lips, flowing from your heart. That is acceptable, pleasing to God. Our calling on Him in the day of trouble honors Him, for He is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). God-honoring prayer leans on Him, relies on Him, calls out to Him, expressing our weakness and extolling His character. Such prayer God hears. He is not far from the one who calls on Him. He is with you, listening.
Wisdom has flowed into the upright person, and wisdom flows out in God-centered prayers. Indeed, when you want to get to know someone, suggest that the two of you pray together for an hour. If the person is wise, you will hear his or her heart in that time. And you will know him or her much more deeply as you hear wisdom flow out.
In addition to prayer, wisdom flows out of us through other speech. Three weeks ago we emphasized that what comes out of your lips is what is in your heart (see sermon). Today’s passage picks up and expands on that idea. Consider Proverbs 15:1, 2, and 4:
1 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up
2 The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.
4 A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
We noted verse 18 earlier: “He who is slow to anger quiets contention.” These verses state a similar idea, but emphasize that one way to quiet contention is through our words. Verses 1 and 4 use similar descriptions of those words: a soft answer, a gentle tongue. Other translations render this a “soothing answer” or a “tongue that brings healing.” Verse 2 calls such a tongue the “tongue of the wise.” For such a tongue shows what true knowledge is like: it commends knowledge to others, giving “knowledge” a good name. Instead of just having foolishness and hurtful sayings pour out of his mouth, the person who has received much wisdom speaks the right word.
That right word is a “tree of life” according to verse 4. In the earlier sermon on the tongue we read Proverbs 10:11:
11 The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.
Combine the picture of a fountain with the picture of a tree, a fruit tree. We are to use our tongues as the means God ordains to have wisdom flow from one person into another. Ask yourself:
Verses 23 and 28 broaden the context to any time wise words need to be spoken”
23 To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in
season, how good it is!
28 The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
Saying exactly the right words, giving an “apt answer” or a “word in season,” is a great joy. But often, as verse 28 implies, what is apt is not the first thing that comes to mind. For example, imagine that someone comes and rebukes you wrongfully. You don’t deserve this rebuke. In that case, what is the first response that comes to mind? Most likely, to defend yourself, and even to lash back at the accuser. But what is an apt answer? “Thank you for caring enough to say that to me. I will ponder it seriously. Have you notice anything else about me later that needs rebuking? I’m trying to learn to be wise, and I’m all ears.”
Gary Ezzo gives a wonderful example of an apt answer. Gary had had a tough day at the office when everything imaginable had gone wrong. To make matters worse, he had left the office late and was trying to rush – but hit every red light on the way home. As he was about to enter the house, he heard a noise in the garage. He entered, and saw his teenage daughter Amy in the midst of opening a package, with Styrofoam peanuts surrounding her. She looked up and said, "Hi Dad! Did you have a good day?" Gary surveyed the situation and blew up: "Amy! I've told you not to let Styrofoam get all over the floor – that stuff's impossible to clean up. And look, my hammer is missing! I bought hammers for each of you girls so you wouldn't use mine. You're responsible for all this, young lady, and you're going to deal with it!" Amy just looked at her dad for a second, then stood up, put her arms out, and hugged him. "Daddy," she said, "you must have had a terrible day. Just let me hold you."
Gary comments on her actions: "When I was least approachable, she approached me; when I was least lovely, she loved me."
That is a gentle, soothing answer. That is an apt answer. That is an answer that shows the beauty of wisdom.
As many of you gather with families this next week, there will be numerous opportunities for apt, gentle, soothing answers. Maybe a gentle answer, a soothing reply, even to something that was said twenty years ago. Maybe a word in season in the midst of present tension. Maybe an apt reply to a statement about present pain and suffering.
May wisdom flow from you this week.
I want to close by having you think about yourself. Ponder yourself. Think about an interaction you had with someone this week – an interaction that did not go well, an interaction where wrong words, perhaps, gushed out of your mouth. Far from commending knowledge and wisdom, you gave “Christian” bad name. It may not have been words. Your offense may have been an action – or a lack of action.
Close your eyes for a minute. Replay that scene. What would have been apt reply? What would have been a southing action? How could you have displayed wisdom in that moment? Given the wisdom that has flowed into you through God’s Word this morning, how could you have displayed wisdom in that earlier setting?
Repent in your heart. And ask God for wisdom to know how your mouth this afternoon can speak a word in season to that situation.
We read during the service from Romans 10:
The righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'"(that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'"(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:6-9
My friends, God does not tell us to go perform some great feat to earn His favor. What He desires is a humble heart.
Whatever your circumstances, God is near. The Lord Jesus is with you always. So turn and repent.
If you believe in Him, He will use you. He will fill you with knowledge. Wisdom will flow into you:
And wisdom will flow out from you as God uses you to proclaim, to counsel, to love, to glorify Himself through your joy.
He is near – either to aid you or to judge you. His wisdom is available. Will you let it flow into you? Will you be the means by which it flows into others’ lives? Will you live for Him
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 11/20/05. Bruce Waltke’s The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Eerdmans, 2004) was exceptionally helpful throughout. Apart from this commentary, I would have taken a completely different approach to preaching this series. The Gary Ezzo quote is from his tape series "Growing Kids God's Way," which is available via www.gfi.org. While not agreeing with every detail of the Ezzos’ recommendations for child rearing, Beth and I have profited from listening to these tapes, and encourage others to do so.
Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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