The Beginning of Wisdom

We’re going to be in the book of Proverbs this morning,
so you’re invited you to turn there.

The Bible isn’t a soloist.
It’s not singing with just one voice.

Growing up as a part of the church like I did, 
a lot of times I got the impression from hearing people talk about the Bible
that every book of the Bible had the exact same voice 
and should be read exactly the same way.

But the older I’ve gotten—
as I’ve begun listening to the Bible 
and trying to take the witness of the Bible and authority of the Bible seriously—
I’ve realized that the Bible doesn’t make any sense as a soloist.

It doesn’t make sense on the very practical level of how we actually read it—
because the different books of the Bible all sound very different
and all reflect different periods of history.

And it doesn’t make sense on the very practical level 
of how we understand the significance of what we’re reading.

Between the covers of this book,
we read the story of a left-handed assassin killing a morbidly obese warlord (Jg 3)
and ancient instructions on how to handle psoriasis (Lev 13)
and incredibly long genealogies of people we’ve never heard of
and first-century correspondence between the earliest Christian communities.

What do we make of all of this?

How do we understand the shape of the forest 
when we see all these crazy trees?

As I’ve gotten older and tried to take the Bible seriously, 
I’ve begun realizing that the Bible is less like a soloist and more like a choir.

It’s a library of ancient texts 
that has got all kinds of different voices 
singing all kinds of different parts.

Not all of the voices sound the same.

They’re not all singing the same words or the same notes or the same parts.

Some of the voices are singing tenor.
Some are singing soprano.

Some are punching small parts of the song really hard at certain moments
while others are softly carrying the theme and melody through whole song.

They’re not all one voice,
but they are all part of one choir.

And they’re all singing the same song.

As Christians, we would say that they’re all singing 
the song of the glory of God—magnificence of God.

How God creates the world, 
how God rescues the world,
how God shares his limitless life and love and joy with the world.

That’s the story the Bible is telling.
That’s the song the choir is singing.

Over the summer, we were exploring the Gospel of Mark.

And that’s one of those voices in the choir
where we can clearly hear some of the main themes and melodies of the song.

I mean—we were following God-in-the-flesh around
and watching what the world looks like 
when things are he wants them to be.

But now over the next eight weeks or so, 
I thought we could listen to another voice in the choir—
someone singing a different part.

So we’re going to be exploring just a little bit of the book of Proverbs.

Here’s how the book begins:

(1.1-6) The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for gaining wisdom and instruction;
    for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
    doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
    knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
    the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
There’s a scene at the end of the movie National Treasure,
where Nicolas Cage and Jon Voight and company 
find themselves in a massive treasure chamber.

As far the eye can see—
gold and artifacts and statues 
and treasure, treasure, treasure.

Maybe that’s the feeling we should have when open of Proverbs.

The riches and wisdom of Israel’s third king—King Solomon—are legendary,
and here we have a treasure chamber of wisdom open wide before us.
Nobody really knows how much of this book goes back to Solomon himself,
and how much of the book was later collected and christened in his name.

What’s absolutely certain is that Solomon didn’t just sit down
and write the book of proverbs from beginning to end.

Throughout the book, there are places where it says,
“Now some sayings from Solomon,
and here are some things that a guy named Agur said,
and now here are sayings of King Lemuel.”

One section in chapter 24 just opens by saying “here’s what wise people say” (v23).

And there are plenty of parts of Proverbs that have
sections of poetry and writing that seem to be completely anonymous.

This opening verse seems to be saying 
that the treasure chamber before us captures
what was best and wisest of their great King Solomon.

These are the proverbs of Solomon, son of David.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs are actually a giant poem.
This book starts with a poem that is inviting readers into this treasure chamber
(“have a look around”) and imploring us above all else—take what you find here.

Don’t just admire wisdom—
actually seek it.

And then in chapter 10, we hit what we would all think of as proverbs.
We all kind of know what a proverb is, right?

A proverb is when practical truth 
gets loaded into a short saying.

In Scripture they’re often little micro-poems—
artistic little riddles (in the language of verse 6)
that unfold more and more truth the longer you sit with them.
But they can also be just popular sayings—
popular, memorable ways of expressing of truth.

We still use proverbs today.
Imagine parenting for a moment.
Imagine wanting your child to know something.

They’re struggling to do something—
they’re doing something hard and they’re getting frustrated and discouraged—
and you want them to know something.

You want them to know them to know 
there are things much more important than this.

And so you say to them:

“My child, the way we conduct ourselves 
and the kind of people we’re being formed into 
is very often far more important than the results we get.

It might be true, but it’s not very memorable.

But when I say, “It isn’t whether you win or lose… [it’s how you play the game]”
suddenly we’ve found practical truth loaded into a memorable saying.

Suddenly we’ve found a proverb.

That’s what the proverbs are.
They’re short sayings loaded with truth.

And that expression (it’s not whether you win or lose) is actually a fantastic example of a proverb,
because it’s also something that we’ve heard SO often—
it’s become such a popular rendering of a particular truth—
that it’s easy to despise it a little.

It’s easy for me to say “I’ve heard that a thousand times, I know what that means,”
but not really be captured by the depth and reality of the truth.

If I say, “Oh I know what that means” 
but then I spend untold amounts of energy
obsessing over outcomes more than doing my best and living with integrity…

I might know what that saying means, 
but do I really KNOW what that little saying means?

It’s one thing to know something—
some truth, some wisdom, some reality—
but it’s another thing to KNOW it.

To really KNOW something in the depths of our being means 
that we’re learning to live in alignment with—
to live in rhythm with, to live in the reality of—
that truth.

I think this “deeper knowing” is what the book of Proverbs invites us into.

This treasure chamber holds such an invitation before us.

It wants us to become people of “insight” (v2) 
and be able to see beyond just the surface of things
and understand the world and our lives in a new and deeper and truer way.

The proverbs want us to learn a better way of living (v3)—
a different way of behaving where we do what is right and just and fair.

We’re invited into a better a way of living—
to learn the art of human life a little better.

That’s what we’re invited into with “wisdom.”

It’s a little different than we might expect.

You don’t have to be genius 
or have a certain IQ 
to learn this wisdom.

“The simple” and “the young” (v4) 
are invited to come and learn.

In fact, even the wisest among us (v5) 
are invited to come and to know wisdom even more deeply.

And then verse 7 gives us quite the saying—quite the riddle—
to welcome us into this treasure chamber.

It says,

(v7) “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, 
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

That is the opening proverb of the Book of Proverbs.

(v7) “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, 
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Rabbis and scholars and teachers over the centuries 
have said that we only really begin to understand the proverbs
when we chew on them for a while.

Proverbs can sound like the stupidest of sayings—like the tritest of truisms—
if you just read proverb after proverb after proverb.

But if you take one of them 
and if you start chewing on it 
and wrestling with it and reflecting on it—
then you may begin to taste its subtleties and layers and depth.

If you let one sit in your mouth for while—
like a lozenge or a menthol cough drop—
you’ll begin to absorb their wisdom.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be trying to practice doing this—
we’ll be trying to practice chewing on some of the proverbs together.

But evidently this is where we begin:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, 
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Let’s chew on this for just a few minutes
as we’re preparing to come to the table.

For most of us, the thing that grabs us immediately is the word “fear.”

Most of us spend most of our lives trying to avoid fear—
we rig up our houses with intricate security systems so we’ll have fearless night’s sleep,
we take medications to numb any kind of low-grade anxiety and fear we might have
and we generally avoid going into dark rooms filled with spiders and snakes.

We don’t like fear.
And we do what we can to avoid it.

So isn’t it a little strange 
that one of THE books of wisdom the Bible 
begins with this proverb?
I think most of us would love to enter into a vast treasure chamber 
that help us see the world in a deeper, truer way
and would teach us how to live a better way.

Sign me up for that.

But fear?

That doesn’t sound like a great opener.
That doesn’t sound like the right way in.

So chew on that word for a couple of minutes.

That little word “yirat” that gets translated “fear” 
is more than just the dread and terror we would feel
if we were plunged into the dark room of spiders and snakes.

The word yirat is a word that conveys reverence and awe and respect.

It’s a healthy fear.

Like the fear that most of us have of electrical outlets or natural gas on a stovetop.
We know that electricity and natural gas are good and powerful
and so we treat them with the awe and reverence and respect they deserve.

Every day we make sure 
that we behave reverently and live respectfully
before the power of electricity and natural gas.

We know that there are ways of behaving—
like being careless grease on the stovetop or sticking metal objects into the outlet—
that would be the path of the fool and would result in destruction.

When this proverb says that “yirat yahweh” (the fear of the Lord) is the beginning of knowledge, 
I think it’s largely talking in this way—about healthy fear and awe and reverence and respect.

That the beginning of knowledge
is learning to live with care and reverence 
before the all-powerful Mystery behind the universe.

The beginning of wisdom is learning to open up all of our lives—
our thoughts and emotions and being and energy and attention and will—
and give all of that to God for revaluation—for review, for reordering, for change.

Notice—in this proverb—the contrasting image of “the fool.”

That should give us clue about what “the fear of the Lord” means.

The person who wants no instruction—who isn’t open to review or reordering—
that’s the person who has no “fear of the Lord.”

The beginning of wisdom is fear.
Fear of the Lord.

But that isn’t just us quaking in dread or terror
but it’s when we’re learning to invite instruction.

Which begs the question—am I that kind of person?

Am we the kind of people who invite instruction?

Who want to be directed?
Who ask for guidance?

As we enter into this treasure-chamber of wisdom, 
the Scripture invites us to stand in awe of the grandeur and power and wisdom of God—
the reality of a Presence more grand and more ancient and more lovely than ourselves—

And then Scripture says, “Don’t you want this Presence to reorder your life?”

Because that healthy fear and respect and reverence—
that is the beginning of wisdom.

But I wouldn’t want to flatten the word “yirat” too much—
because that CAN BE the word for quaking in dread and terror.

And that makes sense too.

Turn with me to Luke 12.

When I begin to imagine the immensity and reality and gravity of God himself—
when I begin to imagine the glory and grandeur and power of the Holy One—
that’s a bit terrifying.

Because, I mean good grief, 
I know the kind of darkness I carry around in me 
and the kind of darkness I contribute to the world.

My darkness has no place in his world of light.
My corruption has no place in his world of flourishing.
My deadness has no place in his world of life.

I think Proverbs and Jesus may be on the same wavelength about fear
when Jesus says this:

(Luke 12.4-5) I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Jesus says, I’ll give you something to fear.

Don’t fear the wrong things.
Don’t fear people—terrorists or drunk drivers or gossips or those people over there.

You should fear the right thing—fear God.

He’s the One with all the power in the universe—
he’s the One who can destroy body and soul in Gehenna (cf. Matt 10.28).

Realization of your own guilt and darkness before God—
your position before God
(“Yes, I tell you, fear him”) 
that’s a place we all need to come to.

That’s a place to start.

Even that kind of fear of the Lord 
is the beginning of wisdom.

But it’s not the pinnacle of wisdom.
Because Jesus immediately keeps talking. 
(Both here in Luke 12 and also in Matthew 10.)

He says:

(v6-7) Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

You see, terror before Lord might be the beginning of wisdom 
but it’s not the end of wisdom—it’s not the goal of wisdom.

God’s goal in our lives—the end to which God is always aiming—
is that we would believe him when he says,

“Do not be afraid. You’re worth more than a few birds.”

God’s goal for our lives is that we would realize 
the depth of his un-flickering, unwavering, unimaginable love for us
and that we would reflect that love with our lives.

That’s God’s goal.
To know God’s love and reflect God’s love.

That the goal of wisdom.

According to an early Christian leader
the pinnacle of God’s wisdom is seen in God crucified on a cross (1 Cor 1.23-24).

That’s what God looks like.
That’s what wisdom looks like.

God has entered into 
our darkness, our corruption, our death,
and God has made them his own.

Out of his love for us.
That is what God is like.
That is how God uses all his power.

He loves.

Jesus is the place where 
every fear that we could ever have 

And Jesus is the place where
we find joy and freedom and peace.

And if that’s not a better way of living, 
I don’t know what is.

Another early Christian leader:

(1Jn 4.18) There is no fear in love. 
But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. 
The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

The only person who stays in fear
is the person who refuses to receive this love.

Who refuses to believe it,
who refuses to accept it,
who refuses to be embraced by it.

God is the kind of God who banishes darkness,
and the only person I can imagine fearing this kind of God 
is the person hell-bent on staying in their darkness.

If we were to put it in the language of Proverbs,
The wise start with the fear of the Lord,
but the fool will remain in fear of the Lord.

And the invitation of the Proverbs—
and the continual invitation of God throughout of lives—
is not to be a fool.

The beauty of this proverb in the light of Jesus 
is that the fear of the Lord banishes all fear—
especially our fear of God.

God wants us to stand before his cross in awe and respect and reverence—
so that we will recognize his never-failing love for us.

The beginning of wisdom 
leads us to the pinnacle of wisdom.

The fear of the Lord
leads us to the love of the Lord.

We’re invited to fear the Lord,
so that the Lord can drive out all fear.

It leads us to this table.

This table is place we come each week as a community and personally
to say: “I want your life, my Lord and my God.”

“I believe that you are like this. 
I want to receive you love, and I want you to keep reordering my life.”

It’s the place where we come in reverence and awe 
at what we confess the Lord is like.

It’s the place where all fear is driven out by love
as we consider what this bread and this juice mean.

It’s the place where we remember that

the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

In just a few moments, 
you’ll be invited to come down the center aisle
and receive from this table.

That’s what we all of life is—
learning to receive from God.

So that’s what do each week.

You’ll be invited to receive a bit of bread, to dip in the cup,
and then return to your seat along the sides.

As you come this morning, 
what’s the posture of your soul?

Do you want wisdom?
Do you want instruction?
Do you want to be reordered?

Or are you fine—just the way you are?

This table is open—
open to anyone who wants wisdom.

As we receive the bread, as we dip it in the cup,
we’re embodying a prayer together.
We’re confessing our faith in his love
and learning to receive a new kind of life.

We’re inviting him to reorder and cleanse and transform our lives
so that we can stand in the light and live without fear.

So as we approach the table this morning,

may we search ourselves—may we search our lives—
and discover our desperate lack of life,

may we come to Jesus in fear and trembling
and discover the love of God that never fails,

and may we invite this love to reorder and remake our lives
so that we can learn to live full of wisdom and without fear.