Now What?

“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
—Proverbs 9:4

As we come to Proverbs chapter 9, we’re faced with a choice. We notice two houses, one on either side of the road, so to speak. On one side, a house stands open, with an elegant lady named Wisdom inviting us in. On the other side of the road, another house stands open, with a seductive lady named Folly inviting us in. Which way will we turn?

The choice is obvious, of course. But for people like us, even this choice is not so easy. In theory, it should be simple. We’re often told today that all we need is the right information. Do the research on the internet, and then we’ll know what to do. But in reality, we’re running back and forth between these two houses all the time. The choice is clear enough, but we are complicated. So, before we jump into Proverbs chapter 9 we need to understand two things.

One, we are not blank slates. We have histories. We have scribbles and erasures and misspellings and doodlings written messily all over us. In fact, we were born complicated. We were born with a bias toward folly. We were born guilty. Theologians call it Original Sin, and it’s real. It explains why our wills are unfree. It tells us the truth that our hearts are corrupt down beneath the level of choice. Our problem is that deep. And it gets worse. Just add to that the layers of scar tissue, as it were, from the wounds we’ve suffered in our lives, layers of scar tissue from botched surgeries, mostly self-performed. And all of that complication is by now the real you and me poised here at the crossroads of Proverbs 9. That is the unsimple you and me for whom an obvious choice can be difficult, even paralyzing. But that is the real you and me God loves and understands and wants to help. That takes us to the second thing.

Two, in the gospel God addresses the real us in a new way. We’ve already seen it in Proverbs 1-8. The word “son” (or “sons”) appears 22 times in Proverbs 1-8. That word from God tells you who you are now in Christ. That word of grace opens up your future. It makes the wise choice here in chapter 9 not only possible but joyous. Again and again, God looks you in the eye and calls you his beloved, in whom he is well pleased, for the sake of Christ. The Bible says, “God is treating you as sons” (Hebrews 12:7), not as losers. The Bible says Christ is not ashamed to call us his brothers (Hebrews 2:11). The Bible says, “And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, Jesus said, ‘Here are . . . my brothers!’” (Matthew 12:49). How can you define yourself out as a reject, when he has already defined you in as a child and therefore an heir of every promise God has ever made? William Romaine, the Anglican pastor during the Great Awakening, told us how to see ourselves in a new gospel way: “Consider your state. You are a pardoned sinner, not under the law but under grace, freely, fully saved from the guilt of all your sins. There is none to condemn, God having justified you. He sees you in his Son, washed you in his blood, clothed you in his righteousness, and he embraces him and you, the head and the members, with the same affection.”[1] Christ has come to the real us to say, “I’m changing the subject from your failure, your impasse, your defeatedness, to my grace!” We’re humbled, we’re encouraged. We’re ready now for Proverbs 9.

The passage divides into three paragraphs of six verses each. The first and third paragraphs mirror one another like bookends, each one with an invitation. The sage is telling us, “It’s an either/or decision. There is no third option.” And the invitation to wisdom stands open to everyone – with one exception. Scoffers are excluded (verses 7, 12). The middle paragraph here in chapter 9 explains why God ignores scoffers. But he welcomes both the wise and the simple.

Wisdom’s invitation to life

Wisdom has built her house;
she has hewn her seven pillars.
—Proverbs 9:1

Wisdom is personified as a classy lady, opening to us her palatial home. But what is the sage talking about, in real terms? Taking the whole Bible into account, this is a picture of Jesus Christ as a wealthy genius who has thought of everything we need. The word for “wisdom” here in verse 1 is singular in English but plural in the Hebrew – “wisdoms.” It isn’t a numerical plural, it isn’t alternative wisdoms to choose from; it’s a plural of majesty[2] for wisdom in all its perfections and fullness. Jesus Christ lacks nothing we need. Here is another biblical way of saying it: “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food” (Psalm 63:5). Here’s another way. Jesus himself said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The fact that Wisdom’s house has seven pillars says the same thing – effort in hewing them out, wealth to finance them (ordinary homes didn’t have pillars), and perfection in completing them. If you think of Jesus as a really nice but incompetent person, a religious idealist for people whose lives are sufficiently privileged that they can afford that luxury, you don’t understand him at all. He is the greatest expert in the universe on you, and he’s better at building a great life for you than you are.

She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine;
she has set her table.
—Proverbs 9:2

No junk food at this feast! Lady wisdom has been bustling about preparing a banquet of her best – for us. Mixing the wine does not mean watering it down. It means adding in spices to make the wine even better. The point of verse 2 is, what Christ offers you is ready right now, and it couldn’t be more thoughtful or loving or generous or honoring to you.

But again, what is the reality behind the metaphor? This table spread with wisdom has delicacies to satisfy us in every area of life. For example, Proverbs chapter 1 – wisdom preserves us from violent people. Chapter 2 – wisdom, unlike rules, enters our hearts with peace of conscience. Chapter 3 – wisdom improves us financially. Chapter 4 – wisdom elevates our status in human society. Chapter 5 – wisdom makes sex better. Chapter 6 – wisdom gets us up off the sofa and successfully accomplishing worthy goals. Chapter 7 – wisdom protects us in temptation. Chapter 8 – wisdom opens our eyes to the joyous creation we live in. And that’s just for starters. We haven’t even gotten to the actual Proverbs yet, in chapters 10-31. So God has set a good table for us.

She has sent out her young women to call
from the highest places in the town,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
To him who lacks sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave the company of the simple,[3] and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”
—Proverbs 9:3-6

Wisdom – really, God himself – has sent messengers out into the world to invite more and more people into her banquet. Wisdom is bold and public. Wisdom cares deeply about people. And we are her messengers today. But it’s God’s voice being heard. A more literal translation of verse 3 is, “She has sent out her young women, she calls . . . .” That is, her servants are getting the invitations out, but Lady Wisdom herself is speaking through them. It’s a picture of the prophets, the apostles, Christ himself. It’s a picture of Christian parents and Sunday school teachers and preachers today. The Bible says, “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as . . . the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). This understanding of the ministry of the gospel is almost forgotten today. When I am preaching, I am not tossing out my own opinions. I don’t even care about my opinions. Why should you? But previous generations understood and enjoyed what is really happening here. The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 says, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” When you can see in your Bible that what I’m saying comes from the Bible, you are hearing the Word of God. He is inviting you in. My job is not to complicate that, and your job is to receive it. God is inviting us all into joys we’ve never known before, because they come down from heaven.

Anyone can get involved: “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” Remember that “the simple” is the beginner who lacks even commitment. But Christ is so humble to welcome us in as we really are. Remember The Immanuel Mantra: One, I’m a complete idiot. Two, my future is incredibly bright. Three, anyone can get in on this. All we have to do is turn to him: “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” That’s repentance. Gospel repentance is more than turning away from sin. Gospel repentance is, first and foremost, turning toward Christ. How can you and I ever turn completely from our sins anyway? Remember the old hymn: “If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.” Christ is inviting us to come now: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (verse 5). He is telling us to come freely and eat fully. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, wrote against what he called “cheap grace.”[5] He had a point. But be careful. Grace must be cheap, or it isn’t grace any more. It wasn’t cheap to Christ at the cross, but it is cheap to us. That is exactly the force of verses 4-5: a fine banquet of grace freely open to fools.

Here’s the price we do pay: “Leave the company of the simple” (verse 6). Why is that there? Because Christ is creating a new community of wisdom. He is so wise. Here is what he understands about us. To some degree, reality is socially constructed. Music is an obvious example. Music brings people together, but it also drives people apart. Parents cannot understand why their kids love that noise in the iPod, but that same music ties the kids closely to their peers. Music divides up according to the generations, their corporate memory, the soundtrack of their lives. Even so, when Christ brings us to himself, we enter a new group experience. Community in Christ isn’t a legalistic rule against missing church; it’s plugging into the power of sharing Christ together. Your old group couldn’t give you that. Keep on loving them. But you have a new community in Christ, where you can “live and walk in the way of insight.”

Here’s what is most powerful in our community. It’s why the scoffer is excluded:

Why scoffers are excluded

Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
For by me your days will be multiplied,
and years will be added to your life.
If you are wise, you are wise for yourself;
if you scoff, you alone will bear it.
—Proverbs 9:7-12

Every one of us needs someone to whom we say, “How can I improve?” And then we listen. It’s how we grow. Scoffers don’t do that. What is a “scoffer”? A scoffer is anyone who never accepts correction and thinks that people really need his opinions and is easily offended. He’s above other people. If someone seems to threaten his superiority, he scoffs. He mocks. He mouths off. This kind of person is dangerous. If you cross him, he will punish you – and claim it’s your fault. We see this in the strife within our churches today. It’s the mood of our culture. Why? What has happened to us? Paul Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, spoke at Yale in 2005 and explained it this way:

For me and for many others in my generation, the real root [of our cynicism] is . . . personal. When we were very young, our parents broke their promises. Their promises to each other, and their promises to us. And millions of American kids in a very short period of time learned that the world isn’t a safe place; that there isn’t anyone who won’t let you down; that their hearts were much too fragile to leave exposed. And sarcasm, as C. S. Lewis put it, “builds up around a man the finest armor-plating . . . that I know.”

Jesus will never let us down. He is why we open up and listen and change. He is why the tone of our community is not sarcasm but reverence: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” We revere Jesus as the Holy One, outside our categories, surprising us, especially because he loves us more than we love him. We’ve let him down, but here is his heart toward us: “I will not execute my burning anger . . . for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:9). The Holy One is sweet natured. He’s the easiest person in the universe to get along with. He doesn’t flatter us. He said, “Those whom I love I reprove and discipline” (Revelation 3:19). And because it’s his loving heart speaking into our lives, we say back to him, “I want to know how I can grow. Please tell me.” That eagerness is wisdom. It is the fear of the Lord. It is reverence.

Revering him makes all the difference: “If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it” (verse 12). As important as community is, I can’t borrow character from you, nor can you borrow character from me. Just being at church will not change us. No one gets a degree from Vanderbilt by hanging out on campus with other students. Even so, each of us must receive Christ personally. We must seek him and engage with him. He is how we change. He is how wisdom enters into us. And when he gives it, no one can take it away, no matter what they say or do. Are we laying hold of Christ? Are we saying in our hearts, “I refuse to read the great stories of how God has blessed others in the past and just leave it there. This is my moment. This is my life. And I need Christ now. I will not let him go until he blesses me”? He loves to answer that prayer. Good thing, given the world we’re walking through:

Folly’s invitation to death

The woman Folly is loud;
she is seductive and knows nothing.
She sits at the door of her house;
she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,
calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who lacks sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.
—Proverbs 9:13-18

It’s a picture of our world today. In the Revelation of John the two great enemies of the human race are the Beast and the Prostitute – the Beast to savage us and the Prostitute to seduce us. Here in the West, the Prostitute is our primary enemy. She is soft and soothing, but just as destructive as the Beast. That’s not always easy to see. Here in verses 13-18 the parallels with Wisdom’s invitation in verses 1-6 are striking. The message is exactly the same: “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” (verses 4, 16). But there are differences. One, Wisdom builds her house, but Folly just sits there and expects us to be impressed. Two, Wisdom offers us meat and wine, but Folly offers us bread and water. Three, Wisdom is dealing honestly with us, but Folly is making glamorous promises that cannot be true. Four, Wisdom’s followers live more and more forever, but Folly’s playmates die a sugarcoated death before they even know what hit them.

Folly is truthful at one point. Stolen water is sweet to us – for a little while, until the guilt sets in. But our hearts are corrupted with a relish for evil. Augustine was honest about himself. In his autobiography he told about a moment of self-discovery when he stole something he already had plenty of. He stole because it was wrong, because doing something wrong and getting away with it is exciting. And Augustine wrote, “Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart. You had pity on it when it was at the bottom of the abyss.”

Do you have a taste for sin and vulgarity and compromise and laziness and folly? We all do. But Christ has pity on our hearts! We know what it’s like to be stuck down there in that abyss where we can’t even choose Christ decisively. What do we do then? How can we choose him as the passion of our lives when we’re not passionate? How can we jump out of a hole that has no bottom? We need to hear the gospel again. Jesus Christ loves you – not the rehabilitated you, the real you in the abyss. And for your sake, he lived a perfect life, he chose wisdom every time, and against intense seduction. Then he died on the cross a death he didn’t deserve, a sacrificial death for the stupidity of the rest of us. That’s what the gospel says. If you’ll believe it, he’ll give you his perfect record as a gift. He wants your conscience to be happy and free again. Why? In the strength of being forgiven, you will change. Knowing that he covers your sin for you and accepts you when you expect to be rejected – that assurance will lift your heart and take you further with him than you’ve ever dreamed of going. His love creates your wise choice, moment by moment. Look up to him by faith, and see his love for you right now. Then, whatever might be your next step of faith and obedience, that bold new step you’ve been putting off, you’ll take it. You’ll be able to choose, and you’ll choose wisely.