As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. –Proverbs 27:17
Knives dull. Trying to cut a piece of meat with a dull knife is an exercise in frustration, an improper use of the word “butchering.” A few months ago, we bought a blade sharpener. What a difference it has made in our decade-old set of kitchen knives. I can easily tell which knives I’ve sharpened and which ones I’ve yet to get to. Sharpening is for improved usage. The instructions say I only have to run the blade of the knife parallel to the sharpener a few times. More than that and I am doing more harm than good. Eventually I would shave the blade down to an anthill of useless metal.
Sharpening is the opposite of the natural process of dulling. The currents of life, our daily rhythms, polish us down to smooth edges unless we have someone else to sharpen us. It is inevitable. This is marriage. This is spiritual friendship.
This is the rebuke of Jesus to his disciples. Oh you of little faith! Do you not understand? Get behind me Satan! Christ knew His followers would be of little use if they were allowed to continue in their disbelief or misguided belief in Him. Their sharpening would leave them ready for use in the kingdom. And Christ also knew how much sharpening they needed. He did not constantly berate them or belittle them. But He also didn’t ignore their ignorance or pass by their problematic theology.
I recently sat with a friend who is starting to write a book. He asked me to proofread the first chapter before he sends it to an editor. I marked it up. Comments about punctuation, flow, assumptions, theology all over the place. I told him, “Jeramy, I hope this was helpful.”
Little did I expect a hug after debriefing together. “That was the best hour I’ve had in a long time. Thank you so much for your constructive criticism!”
A small group can be an environment where sharpening takes place. Often, we hear someone express a faulty belief or gossip about another person and we silently, awkwardly press on with the next question, hoping no one else noticed what just took place. These are opportunities to sharpen one another, even if it means pulling someone aside after the group is done meeting.
A leader is given permission to do this if he or she has proven they have the other person’s best interests at heart. Sharpening is not proving who is right. It is not intellectual dominance. Those things dull others. A leader is also given permission to do this, I think, if he or she makes it reciprocal. The leader needs sharpening, too.
In the end, the whole group is better for it.
We don’t have great models for this in our society. Many of us don’t know how to receive constructive criticism. We are so insecure that we wither at the slightest correction. I know I am inconsistent at best.
Questions to Ask:
- When was the last time I received constructive criticism? How did I handle it?
- On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable am I in giving and receiving it?
- When have I seen it go well? What lessons can I learn from that example?
- When will I introduce this to my small group?
When I was a kid growing up in the 90s, the church I attended sang praise choruses. One was taken from these verses:
Lord, you are more precious than silver
Lord, you are more costly than gold
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds
And nothing I desire compares with you
Evidently “diamonds” is more singable than “rubies.” In the 90s, that chorus sought to express a truth: The valuable things of this life pale in comparison to God. In Proverbs, these verses are about wisdom.
13Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
14for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
15She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
16Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
18She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.
19By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
20by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:13-20, TNIV).
The main point is that the person who finds wisdom will be blessed. This is not the word most often used in the Old Testament for blessing. This is esher, from which the name Asher comes. In Proverbs, people are called esher when they keep wisdom’s ways (8:32) and listen to wisdom (8:34), when they are kind to the needy rather than despise the poor (14:21), when they trust in the Lord (16:20), and when they tremble before God rather than allow their hearts to harden (28:14). You would say this word wth an exclamation point often, with the sense that these are the truly happy people.
They can be happy because they’ve found something even better than gold, silver, or rubies. This isn’t a consolation prize. It’s not a poor man’s way of boasting about how he’s better than the rich man; there is nothing to suggest that wisdom and wealth are a dichotomy.
Think about the returns you might get in the stock market today. If you invest your “gold” wisely, how rich will you be in several decades? God says to us, “Wisdom yields a better return on its investment.”
Wisdom holds long life in one hand and riches and honor in the left. The imagery here is from the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, whose name is “wisdom,” and who was often depicted holding life in her left hand (not right) and a scepter of rule in her right. By putting life in wisdom’s right hand, God has given it more honor, more weight, than wealth and honor. As Waltke comments, “Wealth is a desirable state and the reward of wisdom, not the aim of one’s life.” Solomon asked for wisdom first and was given wealth and honor also.
In verse 18, the tree of life reminds us of the Garden of Eden, whose actual tree of life was guarded by an angel so no one could ever eat from it again. Through wisdom, though, we are granted access to a so-called tree of life. This imagery will be used three more times in Proverbs 11:30; 13:12; and 15:4. The tree of life represented immortality to Adam and Eve. They would not physically die if they ate from it. While no one reading Proverbs would confuse gaining wisdom with a promise of eternal life, the point was that reading this book and listening to the father’s advice was the same kind of connection to life as the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. Like the tree, wisdom is a gift from God. Like the tree, it symbolizes life, which God has in Himself and freely gives to us.
This leads to verses 19-20, part of a theme in Proverbs–God used wisdom when making the world. Not “used” like He made wise choices, but used wisdom as the means to create. Athanasius, in the 4th century, commented:
Solomon says, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” And this wisdom is the Word, and by him, as John says, “all things were made” [and without him not one thing was made]. This Word is Christ, “for there is one God the Father, from whom are all things. We are for him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we are through him” (qtd. in ACCS, Proverbs).
After Lady Wisdom’s first self-introduction, the “son” is addressed again. If you read chapters 1-9, every time you find the phrase “my son,” it notes the start of a new address.
My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
2turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding—
3indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
4and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
5then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
6For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
7He holds success in store for the upright,
he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
8for he guards the course of the just
and protects the way of his faithful ones.
Notice the progression in verses 1-4. The son takes a more active role in becoming wise.
From accepting his father’s words (v. 1)
to listening for it wherever it may be found (v. 2)
to calling out so it might find him (v. 3)
to searching as if for buried treasure (v. 4).
Then comes the turning point in verse 5: If this, then you will understand the fear of the Lord. We must always take ownership for the pursuit of wisdom, for the pursuit of God Himself. It begins with another’s instruction and ends in our passionate search for God, like we used to perhaps pursue other treasures.
God promises that our pursuit of wisdom will not be in vain. He gives wisdom, which is inherently tied to the character of the person. A wise person is upright, blameless, just, and faithful–just like God Himself.
9Then you will understand what is right and just
and fair—every good path.
10For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.
11Discretion will protect you,
and understanding will guard you.
But a wise person is only possesses these God-like characteristics because, in verse 10, wisdom enters the heart. If we keep in mind that wisdom is ultimately displayed in our lifestyles, we see a picture of spiritual formation here: God piercing the heart, changing us from the inside out, enabling us to exercise justice and right decision-making. Verse 11 is also important, and leads to what comes next. One of the byproducts of wisdom is protection. But from whom? From what? In verses 12-15, it is from wicked men; in verses 16-19, it is the adulterous woman. In the eyes of the father writing to his son, these are the two biggest temptations, the two potential sidetracks for his young son.
12Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men,
from men whose words are perverse,
13who have left the straight paths
to walk in dark ways,
14who delight in doing wrong
and rejoice in the perverseness of evil,
15whose paths are crooked
and who are devious in their ways.
16Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman,
from the wayward woman with her seductive words,
17who has left the partner of her youth
and ignored the covenant she made before God.
18Surely her house leads down to death
and her paths to the spirits of the dead.
19None who go to her return
or attain the paths of life.
The end result? A picture of what we see in Deuteronomy 28-30. If Israel remains faithful to keep the covenant, they remain in the land. If not, they will be kicked out in exile. So while Proverbs boils this down to the level of an individual, the context is that of the entire nation of Israel, called to be wise as God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23). It would be the responsibility of every Israelite to heed the message of Proverbs, though realistically, some would choose the path that led to exile, a forceful tearing from the land.
20Thus you will walk in the ways of the just
and keep to the paths of the righteous.
21For the upright will live in the land,
and the blameless will remain in it;
22but the wicked will be cut off from the land,
and the unfaithful will be torn from it.
1. We have a choice to listen to those who would instruct us in the wise ways of God.
2. This choice should lead us to an ardent running after wisdom. We cannot passively hear the sermons of pastors or the words of the Bible. Living in wisdom is our responsibility.
3. How tempted are we by those defined as wicked? To commit adultery with another person? Our desires betray the depth to which we have allowed God to pierce our hearts with wisdom.
The authors of Proverbs were no dummies. One would hope not, since they were writing about wisdom. In targeting young men, they personified wisdom as a woman.
20Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square;
21on top of the wall she cries out,
at the city gate she makes her speech:
Evidently, Lady Wisdom is eloquent, too. She speaks in the most public places she can–out in the open, in the public square, on top of a wall, at the city gate. It’s like she’s Sam I Am from Green Eggs and Ham, going wherever necessary to receive an audience. Luckily, she’s not offering free samples of said meal. She’s offering a change.
When I was dating Jamie, she didn’t have to make herself accessible like this. I was already attracted to her. But with wisdom, there is some attraction necessary. And yet, she doesn’t express her message in an endearing way. She’s harsh and rebuking.
22“How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?
How long will mockers delight in mockery
and fools hate knowledge?
23Repent at my rebuke!
Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
I will make known to you my teachings.
24But since you refuse to listen when I call
and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand,
25since you disregard all my advice
and do not accept my rebuke,
26I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you;
I will mock when calamity overtakes you—
27when calamity overtakes you like a storm,
when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind,
when distress and trouble overwhelm you.
Those who are simple and foolish have been so for too long, she says. It is time for repentance. Do this and she will teach. This is a huge point–we are all in need of repentance of foolish ways, and we will not be able to hear the voice of wisdom until we do. We won’t be able to do what wisdom requires until repentance does its work in us.
She continues. Apparently no one is listening to her or has listened to her in the past. Since this is the case (vv. 24-25), she will laugh. She does not laugh at the disaster, but, “at the triumph of what is right over what is wrong when your disaster happens” (Waltke, Pr. 1-15, NICOT). Disaster is coming. It is, in the worldview of the ancients, a natural result of foolishness and failure to heed wisdom’s call.
We are so accustomed to political correctness and tolerance that many of us “scoff” at these verses. But perhaps we are the ones who need to be laughed at. It will do us some good and remind us that not every idea is valid, not every meme or video we see accurately portrays a situation, and that we are not inherently wise.
28“Then they will call to me but I will not answer;
they will look for me but will not find me,
29since they hated knowledge
and did not choose to fear the Lord.
30Since they would not accept my advice
and spurned my rebuke,
31they will eat the fruit of their ways
and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
32For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,
and the complacency of fools will destroy them;
33but whoever listens to me will live in safety
and be at ease, without fear of harm” (Proverbs 1:20-33, TNIV).
Lady Wisdom’s last words (until we hear from her again in chapter 8) are sad. She warns there will come a point when it is too late for the simple, naive person to change his/her ways. And again, she’s not talking about death. Life and death are fruits of wise and foolish living. Death will come, but it will not be the reason that the foolish have run out of chances to repent. Her strong language bears this out: they ‘hated’ knowledge and ‘did not choose’ to fear the Lord. They ‘spurned’ rebuke. She had called and they refused to listen (v. 24); now when they call, she will not answer (v. 28).
I am convinced that the motive for fearing the Lord goes beyond wanting to live in safety. And yet, part of God’s covenant with Israel was a gift of the land and peace. We see throughout Israel’s history exile, judgment, and war as they do not choose the fear of the Lord. So verse 33 makes perfect sense. At the same time, we choose wisdom because in doing so, we are choosing God’s way of living, trusting that the God who created both us and wisdom knows what is best. Regardless of our quality of life or safety, we live in such a way that we do not have to search out wisdom, but rather are attracted to it like a young man to a woman.
Every dad’s nightmare is to find out that his son or daughter has fallen in with the wrong crowd. I can remember a time when I was younger, somewhere in elementary school. My parents had just finished tucking my brother and I in at night. As they were leaving the room, I yelled, “Shut up!” Maybe there was a reason, maybe not. I had heard it at school. Probably not from the worst kid in class, but probably not from the best, either. I hesitate to give that example because it is so trivial compared to what some parents experience from their kids.
It’s also far from the warning given in Proverbs 1:10-19. Right out of the gate, the first teaching given to this young, simple son is this: Don’t get mixed up with a group of killers.
My first thought: Isn’t that common sense?
The dad says,
10My son, if sinful men entice you,
do not give in to them.
11If they say, “Come along with us;
let’s lie in wait for innocent blood,
let’s ambush some harmless soul;
12let’s swallow them alive, like the grave,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
13we will get all sorts of valuable things
and fill our houses with plunder;
14cast lots with us;
we will all share the loot”—
Often in Proverbs we think of the contrast between fools and the wise; these are more than fools. They are sinful men. They are blatant and blunt in their scheme. The only positive thing about it is they’re approaching the boy to join them rather than make him their victim. Verse 12 refers to the grave/pit, which was Sheol. In the Old Testament, Sheol is a dark place for all of the dead. Heaven was reserved for God and his angels. God did not choose to reveal eternal life as we understand until Christ. They want to swallow this unfortunate fellow like Sheol swallows the dead. The idea is that they will hurt him in a surprise attack and he will not have a chance to defend himself. The loot will be theirs. It sounds like a foolproof plan, pun intended.
The admonition to steer clear is wise because this father knows the outcome.
15my son, do not go along with them,
do not set foot on their paths;
16for their feet rush into evil,
they are swift to shed blood.
17How useless to spread a net
where every bird can see it!
18These men lie in wait for their own blood;
they ambush only themselves!
19Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain;
it takes away the life of those who get it (Proverbs 1:10-19, TNIV).
Listen to how many words are repeated to emphasize the evil outcome will really be for the sinful men: men (v. 10, 18); lie in wait (v.11, 18); blood (v. 11, 18); ambush (v. 11; 18); alive/life (v. 12; 19). Verse 17 means that this plan is not as well-thought-out as they portray it to be. Rather, it’s a plan that has been shown for what it truly is. It will not work, but only end in misery and life.
What might God be saying in all of this? There are two negative commands: Do not give in (v. 10) and do not set foot on their paths (v. 15). They are paralleled, with the second one magnifying the first: Giving in to the appeal leads to going along with them. We are all tempted to fall in with the wrong crowd. This crowd may not be plotting murder and stealing, but we know when we’re being wrongly influenced. We tend to think this message applies mainly to teens and “peer pressure,” but adults are not immune either. Especially when it comes to money, we are all tempted to have more than we own. One commentator wrote, “The blessings of the wicked are counterfeits of the blessings of the wise. Both the wicked and the wise speak of finding wealth (1:13; 8:18).” The difference is that the wise find wealth by seeking wisdom. Money will be a large theme of Proverbs, and the message is clear. Do what is wise, and only then will you find wealth.
We think we are so cool when we are young. At least I did. As a teenager, I remember feeling like this was the life. I was in control of my time, where I went, my tribe of friends, and I looked good doing it. Okay, that last one is debatable.
The audience of Proverbs was, as we saw last time (Pr. 1:4), primarily “the simple.” In modern terms, the teenager. While it seems like teens stay that was well into their twenties, that’s a different topic.
In Hebrew culture, the simple person was moldable, immature, and could be easily swayed into becoming either wise or foolish. Being a simpleton was a fact of life for every person at some stage of their development, as is true today. It was vitally important that these young men hear the words of their parents and other wise people who had lived life ahead of them and learned how to act wisely.
In Proverbs 1:8-19, we see the first of several mini-sermons or exhortations written to this group of simple, young boys on their way to manhood. They are addressed from a father (and mother) to a son.
8Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
9They are a garland to grace your head
and a chain to adorn your neck (Pr. 1:8-9, TNIV).
Listen! Code for catch what I’m about to tell you and obey it. It is interesting that the father’s and mother’s teachings are placed on the same level–they have equal weight and authority. These verses introduce all of 1:8-9:18, giving the impression that it all falls under parental wisdom.
The very first thing these simple young boys needed to hear was that this teaching was a garland for the head, a chain for the neck. Not “like” a garland, but a garland. Since the only time we grab garland is at Christmas, this doesn’t quite inspire obedience. “Oh, yeah, I’d better listen to my dad. Is that garland pre-lit?”
Since Proverbs draws on wisdom literature from other cultures, some of the imagery we find has its background there. The garland and chain were one example. In Egypt, the garland and chain were given by one of their gods to a person prior to his death if he had lived in that god’s service. It was a symbol of being granted eternal life. They would also symbolize to others that this person lived for the god and therefore was not going to be swayed into immoral behavior.
The point is this: Listen to our teaching and you’ll be headed down a path that ultimately leads to God. Live by it, and others will know that you are not chasing after the foolish things of this life.
I think back to my parents. They didn’t give me a garland–that might’ve made the teenage years even more awkward than they already were–but they did instill in me the need to differentiate myself from “the crowd” by living for God. And I’m glad they did.
My plan over the next few months is to read through Proverbs and blog about it, giving my observations along the way. Before I get started, here are some of my presuppositions about reading.
- We read the verses of a biblical book in their literary context: first asking how they fit with verses immediately around them, then within the book, then within the testament they’re in (Old or New), and then within the whole of Scripture. Verses are never to be read out of context–they’re not tweets.
- We also read the text in its historical context by finding out as much about the life and times of the author and audience as possible. This was God’s word to them before it became God’s word to us.
- The purpose of reading is more than information, but transformation. Information often precedes transformation, though–as God’s word pierces our hearts like a two-edged sword, we respond with godly sorrow and repentance when needed.
There is so much more we could say…
But now on to Proverbs.
We can tell a lot about a biblical book by its introduction. Like my brother can identify a vehicle make and model by looking at its front lights, so we can identify where we’ll be heading by reading the first several verses. That’s Proverbs 1:1-7.
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
3for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
4for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
5let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
6for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
7The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction (TNIV).
What do you notice? Here’s what I see.
- v. 1: The book is titled as the proverbs of Solomon even though later on we’ll read of proverbs from others. Solomon is known for his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34), though apparently only some of his 3,000 spoken proverbs (1 Kings 4:32) made it into this book.
- These proverbs are “for” five specific things.
- 1. For gaining wisdom and instruction (v. 2a). This presumes that at least some of the intended audience has little or none. This also seems to be a broader category which is then specified more fully in the next verses. Gaining wisdom means
- 2. For understanding words of insight (v. 2b). Ironically, only in reading or hearing these words of insight can someone begin to have understanding.
- 3. For receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair (v. 3). The second line further defines what is meant by “prudent behavior.” Ultimately, whatever wisdom is gained will be shown by one’s actions.
- 4. For giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young (v. 4). As we go throughout Proverbs, we’ll see several types of people, the simple and young being two of them. These are two of the main groups being addressed, though verse 5 shows that the wise are a secondary audience.
- 5. For understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise (v. 6).
- So, in reading this book we are shooting for more than mere knowledge about the best way to live, though we’ll find that. We also ought not assume that we are to be labeled among the wise right off the bat. Maybe we’ll find that we need to gain wisdom, too.
- Verse 7 offers us a contrast: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. This is not fear like what we feel about tornadoes or heights. This is awe and wonder at the holiness and majesty of God. It is understanding our rightful place in the relationship–we are not God, and there is no other God worthy of our wise living or worship. By contrast, fools “despise” wisdom and knowledge. It’s not that they don’t have it–they loathe it. They don’t want anything to do with it.
- The fear of the LORD suggests that although wisdom was considered universal by the ancient Hebrews, it also began with God. If a proverb was wise for an Israelite, it would be wise for an Egyptian or Assyrian, too. Spending less than you earn is wise no matter who you are. The provocative question becomes, then, whether or not a person today can be considered “wise” without the fear of the LORD. Is that possible?
What do you think? What else do you notice?
The renewing of the mind means a renewing of both thoughts and feelings. Dallas Willard says that our mind is composed not only of our thoughts, but also of our feelings. Feelings have been neglected by many segments of Christianity as irrelevant. I think of Bill Bright’s pamphlet on the Spirit-filled life that reminds us that feelings are always at the “caboose” while our faith is built on facts. And there is a partial truth there: Our faith in Jesus Christi is built on a “fact,” but the way we react to and engage the fact of Jesus happens at the level of emotions. Our feelings are what motivate us to action or inaction.
Proverbs has several verses that speak about the good and evil of feelings.
- Proverbs 10:12 Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
- Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
- Proverbs 12:25 Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.
- Proverbs 15:15 All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.
- Proverbs 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
- Proverbs 21:17 Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.
- Proverbs 22:4 Humility is the fear of the LORD; its wages are riches and honor and life.
- Proverbs 23:21 …for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
- Proverbs 29:25 To fear anyone will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.
Feelings can only be transformed as we recognize that a feeling is derived from an inward heart condition. Willard says,
“When we confuse the condition with the accompanying feeling–peace, for example, with the feeling of peacefulness–we very likely try to manage the feelings and disregard or deny the reality of the conditions…. The person who wants the feeling of peacefulness will be unable to do the things that make for peace–especially doing what is right and confronting evil. So, as far as our planning for spiritual formation is concerned, we must choose and act with regard to the condition, good or bad, and allow the feelings to take care of themselves, as they certainly will” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 123).
Therefore, emotions are not simply a matter of the renewal of the mind, but of the renewal of the heart! Willard identifies major feelings that will characterize the person who has been transformed by the renewing of the mind. They are love, joy, and peace, the first three fruit of the Spirit. The first three fruit are inseparable from the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and love.
“Practically speaking, the renovation of the heart in the dimension of feeling is a matter of opening ourselves to and carefully cultivating love, joy, and peace: first by receiving them from God and from those already living in him, and then as we grow, extending love, joy and peace to others and everything around us in attitude, prayer, and action” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart, pp. 136-137).
Feelings are what leads to action, and therefore the road to spiritual formation here is critical. They must not, however, be taken as the basis for action or character change. Christians today who make decisions prompted by feelings of need over insight and understanding of how things are with God and their soul get into trouble. It is why churches make bad decisions and why Christians even with good intentions get things wrong. Satan can use our emotions to captivate us, to guilt us over what we do and do not feel, and to lead us into action or inaction in wrong directions because of them.