Being Wise When Wisdom Seems Foolish

A sermon on Proverbs 3 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 9/18/2005

Imagine that as you are walking out of Dick’s Sporting Goods, the man in front of you drops his package. He leans over to pick it up; as he does so, two twenty-dollar bills fall from his hand. Not noticing, he picks up his package and walks away. What do you do?

Or imagine that you have committed yourself to give $300 a month to the church. Saturday afternoon you’re getting ready for Sunday; you are about to write the check for that amount. But just before you make it out, your child brings in the mail. You receive an unexpected medical bill from the hospital, a charge your insurance rejected. The amount: $300. What do you do?

More generally: What do you do when you know what is right – but doing what’s right would seem to hurt you? What do you do when there seem to be significant benefits to doing what you know is wrong?

Last week we looked at Proverbs 1:8-2:22. We contemplated the repeated image of a choice between two paths. As far as you can see, one path looks easy, while the other looks hard. But in that passage, the father and Wisdom herself tell you that the path that looks hard initially is the one that leads to life and peace. The other path may look easy, but sorrow and death are ahead, around the corner.

Chapter 3 elaborates on these themes. This chapter promises us that a life focused on God, a life lived seeing God, seeing how He rules the world, and responding to Him with joy and trust, will lead to the deepest pleasure. Like giving up the forty dollars that fall in front of you, like continuing to give to the church when the unexpected bill comes, living a life based on wisdom will look, at times, like you are throwing away any chance for joy. But Proverbs 3 assures us that is not the case. The path of wisdom is indeed the path of life – even when the path of wisdom seems to be contrary to common sense.

Let’s see how the author of Proverbs shows us these truths.

Verses 1-12 provide us the outline for the rest of the morning. Verses 13 to 34 elaborate on the themes brought up in the first verses, so we will examine them along the way. The first 12 verses divide into four two-verse sections, with a middle section of four verses:

1-2: Guarding Commandments in Your Heart

3-4: A Life of Love and Truth

5-8: What do You Trust?

9-10: Giving and True Wealth

11-12: The Lord’s Discipline

In each case: we’ll note an exhortation and a promise.

Guarding Commandments in Your Heart

My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, 2 for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Proverbs 3:1-2

Why does the father command the son not to forget his teaching? Because the evidence of our senses works against our remembering these commands. Look ahead to the rest of the chapter. Again and again, the instructions here seem like the way to lose rather than to gain life, property, and joy. Thus, we have a strong temptation to put such commands out of our mind, to conveniently forget them, so that we can do what seems wise in our own eyes.

That’s why the father says, “Let your heart keep my commandments.” Here, the word “keep” is used not in the sense of  “obey,” but rather in the sense of “guard.” Further, remember that the ancient Israelites considered the heart to include not just emotions, but also will and intellect, functions we often think of as residing in the brain. With that in mind, the father is saying, “Use all your inner resources to hold onto these commandments. Don’t let them slip out of your mind!”

Remember that Proverbs 1:7 is the interpretive key for the book: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” If you truly fear the Lord, then your heart will guard these commandments. You will not just go through the motions of external obedience to the father’s commands, but will have a heart aimed at obedience.

Think of it this way: Imagine that you are the father of two sons. One morning as you get ready to leave the house, you notice that both of their rooms are wrecks. So you say, “Sons, before I get home these evening, clean your rooms.” They both agree. But the first son forgets the command after he goes off to play basketball. The second son cleans his room.

When you come home, you ask your sons, “Are your rooms clean?” Son number 1 remembers the father’s command for the first time, and replies, “Oh, Dad, I’m so sorry. I got involved in other things. But I know that’s no excuse. I’ll go clean it thoroughly right now.”

The second son replies, “Yes, I cleaned the stupid room. It’s a pain in the neck. You just put burden after burden on me. I hate living in this house.”

Which of the two sons obeyed his father?

One obeyed externally, but his heart was far in the wrong. His obedience was only external, only perfunctory. The other disobeyed externally, but his careless forgetfulness is much easier to deal with than the heart problem of his brother. The father has reasons to be disappointed in both sons – but his greatest concern will be for the outwardly obedient but inwardly rebellious son.

Just like the father, God does not want perfunctory obedience. God wants our hearts; He wants our behavior to flow from hearts that fear Him and guard His commands.

So “do not forget my teaching” means more than “continue to obey externally.” We are to guard the father’s commandments in our hearts.

That’s the exhortation. What’s the promise? “Length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.” As we said last week, this promise is not always fulfilled during our earthly existence. We can easily come to this conclusion by looking at other books of the Bible, but even Proverbs itself makes this point. Recall that in chapter 1 the father warns the son about being enticed into joining a gang plotting robbery and murder. If such gangs did not exist, or if they existed and were never successful, there would be no temptation to join them! God does not guarantee that someone who keeps the father’s commandments in his heart will not be murdered by a gang. Furthermore, look at Proverbs 3:31: “Do not envy a man of violence.” Why would anyone envy such a man? Only because he seems to benefit from being violent! Violence appears to be an easy way to get riches and respect. It seems to work. And it often seems to work against victims who are obedient to the father’s commands.

As we have seen, the whole point of chapter 3 is this: ‘Though wisdom doesn’t seem to pay in the short run, get wisdom! Keep her commands! This is the way to true joy. This is the path to life.”

So the promise of verse 2 is a promise of eternal life. God is just; He will ensure that justice is done on the last day. In some cases, He will right wrongs in this life, and the righteous person who guards wisdom in his heart will see the benefits of doing so. In other cases, he will not. Our task is to believe God, to fear Him, to trust Him – and to follow.

A Life of Love and Truth

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. Proverbs 3:3-4.

The son’s life is to be characterized by steadfast or covenant love, and by faithfulness or truth. Love and truth. A love that recognizes the truth of who God is, how He rules the world, and responds accordingly. So the love here is in part a love of God. But it is also in part a love of man. For God tells us the truth that He loves the world, even though all mankind is lost without Him. As we see His character, as we become like Him, we too love man.

So Jesus summarizes the law and the prophets in two commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” And, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30,31). Proverbs 3 elaborates what a life characterized by such love and faithfulness looks like in verses 27 to 35:

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. 28 Do not say to your neighbor, "Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it"- when you have it with you. 29 Do not plan evil against your neighbor, who dwells trustingly beside you. 30 Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm. 31 Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways, 32 for the devious person is an abomination to the LORD, but the upright are in his confidence. 33 The LORD's curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous. 34 Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor. 35 The wise will inherit honor, but fools get disgrace. Proverbs 3:27-35

The author arranges these prohibitions in order of increasing evil. He describes a slippery slope we tend to slide down if we are not careful. So think of all these actions as sequential in one man. This man starts in verses 27 and 28 by not paying back what he owes to someone. Instead, he thinks of excuses: “Oh, I can’t find it now – it’s around here somewhere. Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you.” Have you ever said something like this – when it is a lie? Why would you tell such a lie? Perhaps because you think you might need the object or the money, and so you want to use it a bit longer. Perhaps because you just want to exercise power over this other person. In both cases, you are putting your personal advantage above your honesty, and above the interests of the other person.

The next step down the slope is in verses 29 and 30: the man is now planning evil against his neighbor, accusing him of something he hasn’t done. Here, the man is trying to gain his neighbor’s property or gain some other advantage over him. So do you see the progression? The first step is not giving something back which the man borrowed. It belongs to the neighbor, but it is in his possession, and he tries to keep it longer by lying. The second step is trying to take something forcibly or deceitfully from his neighbor’s possession. What is the motivation this time? Once again, it could be power or property. In either case, the man is thinking, “This is the way to joy! Power! Posessions!”

Verses 31 and 32 describe the final step: The man now envies a man of violence. The word translated “violence” is one you’ve heard before if you follow Middle East politics at all: “Hamas.” He envies a “man of hamas.” This crime is further down the slope, for now he is not only taking property. Now he is committing a crime against the person. Once again, the motivation is power and property. He sees a man who has been criminally violent, and thinks, “Hey! Look at the way he dresses. Look at the car he drives. I want to be like him.” At this stage, at the bottom of the slope, his passion for possessions has demolished his last semblance of love for neighbor – and thus his last semblance of love for God.

So the father says, “Don’t start down that path! Don’t get on that slippery slope! Pay what you owe, when you owe it! Don’t contend with your neighbor!”

That’s the exhortation. What’s the promise?

The man who steals from his neighbor, who envies the violent man, thinks he gains by this. Does he? Verse 4 tells us no, saying that “favor and good success in the eyes of God and man” are with the one who loves and is faithful. Verses 32 to 35 elaborate on this point, listing the blessings of being wise:

But on the other hand, the man who goes down the slippery slope, who takes matters into his own hand, using lying, deceit, and violence to gain property and power, receives the opposite:

This is what is down each of the two paths. Thus, the father makes an appeal to desire. “That evil path is not the path to joy. If you go down that path you will lose everything you desire most. There is no true joy on the path to death, only brief, ephemeral joys. It looks to be the path to pleasure and joy and success, but ends in sorrow and disgrace. Don’t go that way!”

Waltke summarizes this section: “The wise . . . are confident that if they fulfill their obligations, [God] will uphold his in his own time and in his own way, even when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.”

What Do You Trust?

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7 Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. 8 It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.

How much are you to trust in the Lord? With all your heart – that is, with all your will, all your emotion, all your intellect. If you do this, then how much do you trust in your own intellect, your own wits? None! All your intellect is trusting in the Lord!

The first phrase of verse 6 is translated by Waltke, “In all your ways desire His presence.” And we are to do this in all our ways – that is, in every minute of our lives. So don’t only desire His presence Sunday morning, Wednesday evenings, and at church gatherings. We also desire His presence while at work, at school, on the ball field, at home.  

This leads to verse 7. If we are trusting God, not leaning on our own understanding, and desiring His presence always, then we can’t be wise in our own eyes. To desire God’s presence, to acknowledge who He really is, is to fear Him, to know you are small and God is big. That is, to be humble.

Ask yourself this: How much do you know compared to God? Think of one-year-old Andrew back in the nursery. How much does he know, compared to his mom? Not much. In all his ways, he needs to acknowledge his mom, desiring her presence so that she can lead and direct and protect him. But Andrew knows a much higher proportion of his mom’s knowledge than you know of God’s knowledge. Even more than Andrew needs his mom, you need God.

That’s why we don’t rely on our wits, but desire His presence!

How do we do this? How do we trust in God with our whole heart? Don Carson puts it this way:

This trusting the Lord with your whole heart entails meditating on his word, hiding that word in your heart, learning to think God’s thoughts after him – precisely so that you do not lean on your own understanding.

He continues by saying that acknowledging him in all our ways

demands more than that we acknowledge that God exists and that he is in providential control, or some such thing. It means we must so acknowledge him that his ways and laws and character shape our choices and direct our lives.

Do you see the point? To trust in the Lord is to depend on His Word, to study and meditate on the whole counsel of His Word, to learn His character. Today, that means seeing Jesus as Savior, Lord, and treasure; bearing the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, and peace through His indwelling presence, becoming like Him. That’s the logical outworking of our trusting in the Lord with all our heart.

So that’s the exhortation. Trust in Him, trust in His Word, and so become like Him! What is the promise? “He will make straight (or “make smooth”) your paths.” When God makes your path straight, he removes any obstacles that keep you from living righteously, from reaching the end of the path of life. He promises that He will complete the work He began in you, bringing you to Himself.

Note that the promise is not that the path will seem smooth and straight to us. From our perspective, the path will often look bumpy and difficult. But His promise is that every bump, every turn, every difficulty is chosen by Him as part of His process of completing His work in us. From His perspective, the path towards Christlikeness is perfectly straight. All is working together for your good and God’s glory, even when the way is painful. As Waltke says,

One has to view the course of one’s life from a bird’s-eye view, not from a worm’s-eye view, to see this truth. A Portuguese proverb says, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

Verse 8 contains a second promise: “It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” If you have a King James Bible, you may have noted that the first phrase is “healing to your navel,” that is, your belly button. That’s a literal translation of the Hebrew word. To my knowledge, my belly button has never been in need of healing since those first few days after my birth. The navel here is probably representing the center of your body, thus standing for all your body. And your bones hold all your body together, enabling it to function. So the idea seems similar to Psalm 73:26:

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

He strengthens us and enables us to bring glory to His Name.

Verses 21 to 26 flesh out the meaning these promises. If our paths are made straight, if fearing the Lord brings healing to our flesh and bones, then we need fear nothing. Let’s read from verse 23:

23 Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble. 24 If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. 25 Do not be afraid of sudden terror or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes, 26 for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.

With God, you need fear nothing. Now, tragedies and tribulation will still come. Many people who trusted in the Lord lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. This is not a blanket promise of protection from such trials, but a promise that His hand guides and directs all events. So Paul, knowing he was to be beheaded, can say,

“The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack . . .” Really, Paul? When you know you will be beheaded? “. . . and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.” 2 Timothy 4:18 NIV

The rescue is eternal, not temporal. That is what counts.

Giving and True Wealth

Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. Proverbs 3:9-10

Here is our fourth exhortation and promise. Note the verb used. The author does not say, “Give to the Lord from your wealth.” Instead, he says, “Honor the Lord with your wealth.” Do you see why? Giving in and of itself means nothing. Giving is only valuable when it glorifies God. We can give and be acting selfishly. But we honor, we glorify God when we give to His work with joy, saying, “You are the source of all I have. Without you, apart from you, I could earn nothing. Without you, even with an abundance of wealth, my life would be worthless. So I acknowledge all this is from you by giving of the firstfruits, the best, the first, to You.”

If we are to honor God with our income, as soon as we receive a paycheck, as soon as we get any income, before we spend any part of it, right up front we will give to the Lord’s work.

That’s the exhortation. What’s the promise?

Verse 10 is one of those verses I referred to two weeks ago that makes preachers nervous. Many will say, “How can I preach such an outrageous promise! I’ll sound like a televangelist, saying, ‘Send my ministry $100 and I guarantee that by Christmas God will bless your account with $1000!’”

What is being promised here? Is verse 10 a promise of great material reward for giving? If we give and fail to reap such a reward, should we search for unconfessed sin, or try again hoping it will work this time?

Once again, we need to look in the context for other verses that qualify or modify the statement in this verse. When we do that, what do we see? Look at verses 13 to 18. These verse make very clear that the promise is not for material rewards. Instead, the promise is much more valuable.

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, 14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. Proverbs 3:13-18, emphasis added.

These verses tell us about true riches. Note particularly verses 15 and 16. Wisdom is worth far more than jewels; indeed, wisdom is worth far more than anything else you might desire. True riches, true honor – which don’t have anything to do with money – are held in her hand.

So these verses tell us, “Don’t seek money instead of wisdom! Don’t withhold $300 from the Lord’s work to pay an unexpected medical bill! True riches, true joy come with wisdom, not apart from it. Dollars are just pseudo-riches. Seek the real thing!”

Another way to say this: What you gain from giving to the Lord’s work is always more than what you give up. Sometimes what you gain monetarily is greater than what you give up. Always what you gain more broadly is greater. If you give in response to seeing who God is, seeing how He rules the world, then what you receive is greater than anything you can desire. Paul makes a similar point in 2 Corinthians 9 (see audio of sermon), as does Jesus in Mark 10:28-30 (see sermon).

Finally, note that wisdom is said to be a tree of life to those who lay hold of her. The tree of life is mentioned explicitly in only three books of Bible: Genesis, Revelation, and Proverbs, which happen to be the subjects of our last three expository sermon series. (The tree also is described in Ezekiel 47:12, but is not called the tree of life). The tree of life is in the Garden of Eden, the first temple of God, the place where God meets man. The tree of life is in the New Jerusalem, the perfected temple of God, the dwelling place of God with man. So the tree of life here in Proverbs is a clear image of God’s presence with man – of God’s eternal presence with man since the author is well aware of Genesis 3:22-24, where eating of the tree of life implies living forever.

This is greatest gift, the greatest reward: Seeing Jesus face to face; seeing Him rejoice over us with singing; learning more of His character, of His excellence, day by day. He is our joy. Nothing can compare to seeing and knowing Him.

The Lord’s Discipline

What happens if you don’t guard the commandments in your heart? What happens if you stray off the path, or backtrack towards the path of death?

My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12 for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. Proverbs 3:11-12

“He will make your paths straight” implies giving you the rod when you stray from the path. Like a shepherd catching a sheep with his crook, God will hook you, and return you to the right path. This is God’s discipline – a sign of His love. As author of Hebrews says when quoting this verse,

He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.  11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:10b-11

Some of us have walked that path leading to death. God had to knock some of us on the head; he had to drag us kicking and screaming back to the path of life. We resisted him with all our power until He overcame us with his discipline, and put us on the right path. Praise God. He persists. He corrects. He overcomes all opposition.

He loves us too much to let us go our own way.

So what is the exhortation and promise here? Exhortation: Do not despise the Lord’s discipline. The promise: All that discipline has a purpose:

Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 23:6


The question ultimately is: Do you believe this?

Through His death on the cross, Jesus has bought access to the tree of life, access to His presence, for all who believe and trust in Him.

Do note: Jesus suffered! The wisest man who ever lived suffered - according to God’s plan. And God plans for more suffering. Jesus Himself says, “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Paul says, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Thus, the first part of the road ahead undoubtedly will include difficulties. Yet Jesus is our perfect example of how to endure suffering. He endured “for the joy that was set before Him” (Hebrew 12:2) for the joy of redeeming His people, for the joy of bringing all those from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation together into one body to the glory of God. That’s what Proverbs 3 is encouraging us to do: For the joy that is set before us of glorifying God whether by life or by death, of living in His presence for all eternity, we endure anything. We know we have true, ultimate joy. So we fulfill Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways desire His presence, and he will make straight your paths.

He will ensure that what is ahead of you is joy indeed.

Do that – and you will taste of the tree of life in the paradise of God.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 9/18/05. 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 Waltke quotes are found on pages 243 and 245. The Don Carson quote is from the March 16 reading in For the Love of God, Volume 2(Crossway, 1999).

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