My son, if sinners entice you . . . . Proverbs 1:10

The Bible isn’t describing how life ought to be. It’s telling us how life is. The wisdom of Proverbs is reality-based counseling as we live in this fantasy-world of human invention. We’ll see the realism of Proverbs in our passage for today.

Why are we in the book of Proverbs at all? Because life demands of us nuanced judgment calls. For example, the Ten Commandments say, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Are you struggling with that decision? But this week, in the next hour, even at this very moment, we are all immersed in social dynamics that can be either life-depleting or life-enriching. What makes the difference is wisdom. Have you ever done something with the best of intentions, but it explodes in your face – like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons? Good intentions can be oblivious. Wisdom helps us create the chemistry – that’s what it is, not rules but chemistry[1] – of life at its best together.

Wisdom doesn’t theorize. Wisdom sees the reality God has created, humbly gives in to God, adapts and adjusts. A wise person pays attention, notices, picks up on the clues, cuts with the grain, tears along the perforated line. Unwise people can be gifted, but they’re trying to be healthy on junk food, run high RPMs on low octane gas, get home by the wrong road, swim against the stream of the universe. Sin is trying to succeed by ignoring reality. And that makes the devil the ultimate fool. He wants to re-engineer the creation his own way. He is both evil and dumb. C. S. Lewis put it bluntly: “The Devil is (in the long run) an ass.”[2] But the book of Proverbs is where God speaks to us as our life coach, guiding us into the only real success that’s out there.

In our passage today we hear two voices – the wisdom that’s reality-based, and the folly that’s in denial. Wisdom is speaking here as a loving father. Fools are speaking here too. Their message is a kind of reverse-evangelism. They’re inviting us into their dead-end lives. But God is calling us into beauty. Here’s what God is saying in this passage: Refuse violence. It is tempting, but it will destroy you. Wisdom will beautify you.

Time-out, before we dive in. Violence? That’s a bad thing, we all know. But why is that message here? Has anyone ever said to you, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood” (verse 11)? In certain neighborhoods, it might happen. But still, this passage surprises me. The book of Proverbs opens with a mini-introduction in 1:1-7, then the rest of chapters 1-9 is the mega-introduction. Chapters 1-9 are a series of poems in praise of wisdom, preparing us for the actual proverbs in chapters 10-31. So now we come to 1:8. We’re thinking, “Okay, Solomon, tell us the positive difference wisdom can make in our lives.” And the first thing he says is, “Don’t join a gang!” Why? Let’s get inside this and dig out the wisdom. Three points: the offer of wisdom, the warning of wisdom, the promise of wisdom.

The offer of wisdom

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
—Proverbs 1:8–9 

God is speaking to us through a father advising his son. Every dad needs to have some talks with his son during the critical teen years. That’s where the passage came from originally. Now, embedded in the book of Proverbs, it speaks to us all. But a dad is looking his boy straight in the eye and saying, “Son, here’s the kind of world you’re going to be living in every day of your life. Here’s what you can expect. And here’s what you’ve got to do about it.” That’s a wise dad. He isn’t shielding his boy from the real world. He’s telling him about it, but in a way that will help his son rather than degrade him. He doesn’t take his son to see a gangster movie, which is fantasy anyway. He tells his son the truth.

Here we are in a family too, right here in church. That’s worth a lot today. Some of us were under-parented. But God our Father loves us by locating us inside his family, where we have father-figures, we have spiritual mothers, and all of us are growing together.

How is our heavenly Father counseling us in verses 8-9? He’s saying, “If you’ll listen to me, my wisdom will make you attractive.” Why is most of Nashville not in church this morning? Because they don’t see churches as attractive. I’m sorry to be negative, but let’s face it. Here’s the good news. God did not make us for mediocrity. He made us for glory. And he gets us there through wisdom. God’s wisdom is beautiful, impressive. He puts a garland on our head and pendants on our neck. What do those metaphors mean? A garland was a victor’s wreath. In chapter 4 the garland stands in parallel with “a beautiful crown” (Proverbs 4:9). And a pendant was a chain around your neck as a mark of prestige. Think of an Olympic gold medal.

The gospel says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). We take off the rags of pettiness, and we put on the humility of Jesus, which is so winsome. You can sniff out the difference immediately between someone who is proud and self-important and someone who is kind and sincere. And which one do you esteem? Our Father is offering to put his glory upon us. A big part of the spreading power of the gospel is the wisdom God puts on a church. The Bible says, “We aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (2 Corinthians 8:21). The Bible says, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5). I love that word. It’s the opposite of being trigger-happy. It’s being fair, especially toward those who disagree with you. In this angry world, that’s impressive. God is saying to us, “May I put that pendant around your neck?” And we’re saying, “Yes, please do.” We want the people of our city, as they visit our church, to walk away saying, “I don’t agree with everything they believe, but those people are fair. They are not out for themselves. I’m attracted.” We don’t put that wreath on our heads. God does – and then other people do. Here’s our part: “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage” (1 Corinthians 10:33). That wisdom takes us way beyond crossing T’s and dotting I’s. Technical rule-keeping can be ugly. But there is nothing degrading in Christ. He is a classy person, and listening to him rubs off on us.

The warning of wisdom

My son, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”—
my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil,
and they make haste to shed blood.
For in vain is a net spread
in the sight of any bird,
but these men lie in wait for their own blood;
they set an ambush for their own lives.
Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain;
it takes away the life of its possessors.
—Proverbs 1:10–19 

Let’s understand two things here. First, who the “sinners” are: “My son, if sinners entice you.” Every one of us is a sinner. The father-figure here is a sinner. So who are “the sinners” he is warning us against? The structure of this Hebrew noun suggests habitual, chronic sinners.[3] In the extreme, a professional criminal, like The Godfather. It’s how some people make their way through the world. The key to this human profile is anyone who gets ahead by his own devices. They are out for number one. They are the “sinners” to be aware of. You will encounter them.

Secondly, how this scenario actually plays out in our lives. This father is not wasting his breath. He is telling his son, who would have been a young teenager, “Son, when people like this come to you, not if they do but when they do, here’s what you do . . . .” I wonder if you dads are having that kind of talk with your sons. He knows what his son will experience and he warns him in advance. What do all of us inevitably run into? If not an urban gang, how can this scenario play out?

In many ways. Look at verse 19: “Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain.” The father broadens the relevance of his message to everyone who fits a certain description. What description? “Greedy for unjust gain.” That includes money, of course, but more. At its core, it’s about succeeding by stepping on someone else. Along the way, we will meet people like this – self-centered, narcissistic back-stabbers. They can show up in many forms in our world. For starters,

  • bullies at school ganging up on another kid, tormenting him or her to the point of despair
  • computer hackers stealing people’s identity and money
  • Wall Street insiders exploiting the system for their own gain
  • political “good old boys” oppressing their constituents but taking care of each other
  • Islamic terrorists plotting and murdering people
  • class-motivated revolutionaries taking their revenge on the privileged wealthy
  • racists treating others as non-persons who just don’t count
  • political candidates stealing elections and defrauding the voters
  • Mao Tse Tung’s China, Joseph Stalin’s Russia, Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia – the murderous modern state
  • neighbors gossiping someone’s reputation to death
  • office politics bringing the CEO down, or faculty politics bringing the Dean down
  • a faction splitting a church. It only takes one person to start pushing those dominoes over. But the Bible says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Corinthians 3:17).

There are many legal, polite, even religious ways of saying, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood.” But what’s it all about? Pride, envy, greed, jealousy, retaliation. It is not the cross. It is not of the Holy Spirit. Do not trust your own sense of injury. It can be sinful. The test is this. Are you happy when other people succeed? Or are you happy when get their comeuppance? A British newspaper wrote about a century ago,

There is no vice of which a man can be guilty, no meanness, no shabbiness, no unkindness, which excites so much indignation among his contemporaries, friends and neighbors, as his success. This is the one unpardonable crime…. The man who writes as we cannot write, who speaks as we cannot speak, labors as we cannot labor, thrives as we cannot thrive, has accumulated on his own person all the offenses of which man can be guilty. Down with him!

Have you ever felt that in your heart? It is violence. Your heart is lying in wait for blood. Watch yourself. You will probably recruit others to your cause. Sin tends to recruit. Watch those thoughts and feelings popping up to the surface in conversations with people. You will want others on your side. This is the human heart. Look at verse 14: “Throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse.” A cause, even a negative cause, gives us a group to belong to. It’s one way we nurse our grudges. It feels good. But whenever we gather around grievance rather than Jesus, it’s counterfeit community, it’s black-market relationships, and it’s on a collision course with reality. It cannot succeed long-term. Look at this: “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood” (verse 11), but “We will all have one purse” (verse 14). Don’t you see? “Help us slit his throat, but we’ll take care of you.” How long can that hold together? God is warning us. We all long for community. But there is a kind of community we never want to belong to. Here is God’s glorious community, open to us all.

The promise of wisdom

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. —Matthew 5:9

The night Jesus was born, the angels shouted, “On earth peace” (Luke 2:14). The night before Jesus died he said, “My peace I leave with you. . . . Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). His peace is an alternative to this angry world and its negotiated settlements. The Bible says of the peace from above, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15). When we press the gospel into our hearts, this good news that God has come to us not as our blame-assessor but as our peacemaker, that’s when we no longer feel attacked, we no longer need to go into attack mode, we become peacemakers, shalom-makers, and others will see us as sons of God. That means God-like people. In the Old Testament “sons of wickedness,” for example, are wicked people (2 Samuel 3:34). So, “sons of God” are God-like people. They’re wise and beautiful. The gospel does that to us.

Here’s how you go there and live and thrive there. God has made peace with you through Christ. God is not plotting against you. He is not taking aim. His finger is not on the trigger. He is not lying in wait for your blood. He gave his own at the cross. Believe it. Put that truth on your heart every day, and he will make you a life-giver to everyone around, including those who deserve it the least. After all, you didn’t deserve it. Charles Spurgeon, a preacher about 150 years ago, showed us who Jesus is:

“Come unto me,” says he, “and I will give you rest.” That is the gospel. “I will give you.” You say, “Lord, I cannot give you anything.” He does not want anything. Come to Jesus, and he says, “I will give you.” Not what you give to God but what he gives to you will be your salvation. “I will give you” – that is the gospel in four words. Will you come and have it? It lies open before you.

Jesus the life-giver is the only hope for this angry, tense, life-taking world. He is your only hope. Will you receive him today?