We're currently studying the book of Proverbs, a book that's written to teach us wisdom, which is the skill of living well.
If you've been following along so far, you may have noticed that the book of Proverbs takes a long time before it gets to what we normally think of as proverbs. The first 9 chapters of Proverbs are kind of an introduction, and only in chapter 10 do we get to some of the short, pithy statements that we expect to read. We need to ask why the book spends so much time by way of introduction. I think the answer is that the author of Proverbs knows something about us that makes the first part of Proverbs necessary. He knows that although we want wisdom, we really won't understand what wisdom's worth. And because we don't know what wisdom's worth, we won't pursue it like we need to.
When I was a high school student working a part time job, I went to work one day and got a check I wasn't expecting. It was my holiday pay, equivalent to 4% of what I had earned in the past year, in lieu of me taking a vacation. I think the check was for about $150 or something like that. I was making about $2.65 an hour, so this was a huge windfall for me. It was like I had won the lottery.
So I did what any high school student would do: I cashed the check and spent it that same day. I can only remember one thing I bought with it, even though that item and the money are ancient history. It drove my mother crazy, because I squandered something that I probably should have valued a lot more.
Imagine that when I got that check, a financial adviser had somehow shown up at that very minute, before I could go to the bank and cash the check and spend it all. Suppose that the financial adviser had told me that if I took that money and invested it, that it would be worth five times as much right now. And what if she told me that if I put it away and forgot about it until I retired, that relatively puny amount would be worth thousands of dollars, about 30 times more than it was worth when I started?
Well, to be honest, I probably would have still spent the money anyway. I didn't recognize the value of thousands of dollars later. I recognized the value of $150 now, and I wanted to spend it.
Unless we understand the value of wisdom, we won't get serious about pursuing it. So in today's passage, the writer tells us three things:
- what wisdom's worth
- what wisdom's worth to us, and
- what wisdom can do
And when we see what wisdom is worth, and what it can do, then we'll be prepared to pursue it with our lives.
So first, let's look at what wisdom is worth.
Verses 13 to 15 say:
Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Imagine for a minute that you inherited a necklace from your grandmother. It's not really your style, so you throw it in a drawer somewhere. One day you decide to take it in to a jeweler to see if it's worth anything. As he looks through the eyepiece, you see his eyes begin to bulge. And then he goes into the back room and gets an even bigger eyepiece. Then he goes on the Internet and looks some things up. Eventually he comes back and evangelizes you. He tells you that this necklace is priceless, that it's a long lost treasure that's worth far more than everything he's sold in that entire store in 25 years. What would you do? That necklace, that wasn't really your style, would suddenly become very valuable to you. You wouldn't leave it in the drawer anymore. You'd sell it or put it away somewhere safe, but it would become far more valuable to you than it had ever been before.
That's exactly what happens in this passage. Because we're likely to undervalue wisdom, we're told how much wisdom is worth. One of the main reasons we don't pursue wisdom is because we undervalue it.
So we're told that wisdom is more profitable, a better investment, than silver or gold, and more valuable than rubies. Gold, silver, and rubies are extremely precious and expensive. They're difficult to extract from the earth and rare. But the profit and value of wisdom surpasses them all.
But wisdom's also valuable because of what it offers. Verses 16 to 18 say:
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.
Notice that wisdom is personified as a female. She's got long life in her right hand, and riches and honor in her left. Wisdom's valuable because she offers so much.
Then verse 18 says that wisdom is a tree of life. The tree of life is what we lost access to in the Garden of Eden when Adam sinned against God. It represents healing and eternal life, which can be received again if we humble ourselves and take hold of wisdom.
So wisdom is profitable, valuable, and life-giving. In case you're still not buying the beauty and value of wisdom, there's more in verses 19-20:
By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew.
Wisdom is the principle by which God created this world, and it's the principle by which he sustains it. Divine wisdom guided our Creator, and it continues to guide the operation of this world. Wisdom is of such value that the world wouldn't exist or operate without it.
We're very prone to undervalue the importance of wisdom. The Royal Canadian Mint recently conducted a survey on the penny. They asked what you would do if you dropped a penny down the back of your sofa while watching TV. Would you stick your hand in to get it back? Two-thirds of Canadians said no. It's just a penny; it's not worth the effort. It's not valuable enough; it probably wasn't worth having in the first place.
The writer of Proverbs spends nine chapters waving his arms saying: wisdom is no penny. Don't underestimate its value.
But he doesn't just stop with its intrinsic value. In verses 21 to 26 he switches to addressing the reader. He doesn't just describe what wisdom's worth, he describes what wisdom is worth to you.
So second, let's look at what wisdom is worth to us.
Practically speaking, what can wisdom do for our lives?
Verses 21 to 26 say:
My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.
Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked,
for the LORD will be at your side
and will keep your foot from being snared.
We're cynical and used to being oversold. But the writer promises a lot to us if we pursue wisdom. If we have wisdom, he says, we will be secure. We will be able to go through life and even go to bed at night knowing that we are secure. When tragedies come and other people panic, we won't need to be afraid.
How can he promise so much? It seems impossible. But verse 26 tells us: it's because when we have wisdom, the LORD will be at our side. Nothing will take place that he doesn't allow. No matter what happens, we will have God's presence or protection.
So wisdom is valuable, but not just intrinsically. It's also valuable for our lives. Like the necklace that's priceless, it's not just the beauty or value of the necklace that's significant. It's how that value can change our lives.
This passage doesn't end there. The author or compiler leaves us with one more section. Scholars have struggled to piece together why it's included here, because it at first looks unrelated. It seems to be a practical application of the command to pursue wisdom. In any case, it highlights the value of wisdom because it shows what wisdom can do.
So third, let's look at what wisdom can do.
The American poet Carl Sandburg said, "Love your neighbor as yourself; but don't take down the fence." Love has its limits. At the beginning of 2008 three men decided to walk the 9,000 miles between Britain and India without a dime in their pocket. Their goal was to rely only on the kindness of strangers as they traveled. Whenever they entered a town, they would offer a few minor services and accept food and lodging as payment. At the end of January 2008, they packed a few items, stepped into their hiking shoes, and hit the road.
The confident trio got as far as Calais, France, before they gave up. No one in the group spoke French, and the language barrier proved too difficult to overcome. The townspeople were suspicious of what they believed to be a bunch of freeloaders, so they turned a cold shoulder to them. Saddened over their failed mission, they returned home. You can only expect so much from strangers.
But verses 27 to 35 show us what real community could look like when we get wisdom. If you weren't convinced by the value of wisdom, or what wisdom can do for you, maybe you'll see the value of wisdom when you see what it can do to a community. Verse 27 commands the student who wants wisdom to never withhold good from one's neighbor if you're able to help. Verse 29 says never to do anything evil toward your neighbor. Looking at the broader community, verse 30 says to never make false accusations, and verse 31 warns against being jealous of those who get ahead by getting what they want unjustly. Put this all together and you realize that wise people make good neighbors. They are the kind of person that you want living next door. Wise people aren't only wise for their own sakes, but they bring blessing and good to the entire community. If you don't value wisdom for its own sake or for what it can do for you, value it for the type of people that it produces.
We're going to get into some practical areas in the upcoming sermons from Proverbs. But for now I need to ask you: do you see the value in wisdom? Until you see what wisdom's worth, you won't pursue it.
I know we all see the value of wisdom in our minds, but the real question is one for your heart. Do you treasure wisdom? That's what it's going to take if you are going to be wise. When we see what wisdom's worth, that's when we'll really begin to pursue it.
When Solomon, the compiler of this book, became king of Israel, we read that "the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, 'Ask for whatever you want me to give you.'" Solomon replied, "Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong" (1 Kings 3:5,9). God granted his request. Out of everything that Solomon could have asked for, he valued and received wisdom.
And now we're being invited to pursue wisdom ourselves by Solomon. And the first step is to see what wisdom's worth and begin to treasure it in our hearts. When we recognize it's value, we'll really begin to pursue it.
Somebody might ask, "Do you really mean to say there's nothing more valuable than wisdom?" Actually there is. Remember that in Proverbs that pursuing God means pursuing wisdom, and pursuing wisdom means pursuing God? Proverbs 2 said that if we pursue wisdom, we'll gain the fear of the LORD, and Proverbs 1 tells us that the fear of the LORD is where wisdom begins. But there's something, or more accurately, someone even better than the wisdom Solomon knew about:
- The Queen of Sheba testified to Solomon's wisdom, but Jesus said that she would rise at the judgment and condemn people for not listening to his own superior wisdom.
- Solomon talked about finding the tree of life, but Jesus offers eternal life.
- Solomon called on his students to write his teachings on their hearts, but Jesus gave us the Spirit to write God's Word on our hearts.
- Solomon was a good king, but Jesus is the ultimate King.
- Solomon ultimately failed to obey his own wisdom, but Christ is the perfect embodiment of wisdom.
- Solomon lost his kingdom, but Jesus' kingdom is eternal.
- Solomon called on his students to feed their enemies, but Jesus died for his enemies.
Jesus is the wisdom of God. Colossians 2 tells us that in him "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
When we not only see what wisdom is worth, but we see that wisdom is ultimately about the one who gave his life for us, we'll see that it indeed is worth pursuing. Because this type of wisdom is incredibly valuable, both intrinsically and practically. It makes us good neighbors, and it brings us to the only One who can truly offer us life.
Father, our great temptation is to undervalue wisdom. I pray that today we would have learned the incredible value of wisdom. And how much more so now that we know the One who embodied wisdom, who did what Solomon couldn't do, and actually met the standards of wisdom perfectly.
Thank you that Jesus, who is the wisdom of God, offered his life for those of us who fall short. And thank you for the wisdom that is found in him. May we see his value, and may we pursue him with all of our lives. In his name we pray. Amen.