Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding. —Proverbs 3:13
Proverbs chapter 3 explains why wisdom matters and what wisdom creates. Wisdom matters, according to verses 13-26, because wisdom is the open secret of the universe. It is not a private option, take it or leave it. Wisdom is how life works. We can disregard that for a while and get by with it, because God built everything so well. But we want the last chapter of our stories to be the best, don’t we? So, wisdom matters. Wisdom also creates something, according to verses 27-35. Wisdom creates a culture of life amid this culture of death called our world. Wisdom is a community experience. It is a shared experience of life in its fullness. Let’s go there together.
What our city needs is churches where sinners are safe and people can live again, because Jesus rules there. I grew up in that kind of church. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. And until you’ve experienced that kind of happy church, you cannot know how wonderful it is. The only biblical strategy for world redemption – the church – is undervalued even by God’s own people. But God wants to take us into that promised land, and Proverbs 3 shows us the way. It takes more than good intentions, more than biblical doctrine. It takes the wisdom of God, embodied here among us, so that people can see how wonderful life in Christ really is. Then they can join us and stop dying and start living, even forever. So much is at stake in the quality of our church.
So the passage divides into these two main sections – verses 13-26, wisdom as the open secret of the universe, and verses 27-35, wisdom as a culture of life amid a culture of death. Let’s think it through.
Wisdom: the open secret of the universe
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding.
The sage is telling us three things in verses 13-26. First, wisdom enriches everyone who finds it (verses 13-18). You see the word “blessed” at the beginning of verse 13 and the end of verse 18, marking this off as a paragraph. The key here is easy to overlook. It’s the two little words “the one” here in verse 13: “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom.” It’s the Hebrew ’adam, that is, generic “man,” a human being, because wisdom is available to everyone. There is such a thing as common grace, and there is such a thing as special grace. Common grace is the goodness of God that he showers universally on the human race. Jesus said, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). God throws out onto the world many gifts on many people. All that’s required for anyone to benefit from the wisdom of common grace is to get up and find it: “Blessed is the one, the anyone, who gets up and goes searching for wisdom until he finds it.”
But common grace is God’s grace. Wherever you see skill and expertise, you see a gift of God. John Calvin understood this:
Whenever we come upon [giftedness] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. . . . Shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God?
When people excel in science, art, business, athletics, and so forth, it’s because God made his wisdom available, and they got up and found it. For example, “Crazy” by Willie Nelson, sung by Patsy Cline. You don’t have to like country music to know that that song is two minutes and forty-one seconds of pure magic. Guess what? God gave it, in his common grace. Let’s be thankful.
Where we go wrong is that we think it’s about money: “. . . for the gain from [wisdom] is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold” (verse 14). The sage is counseling us, “Don’t aim at money. If you need money, aim at wisdom and you’ll make the money that’s right for you. That’s why wisdom is “more precious than jewels” (verse 15). Wisdom is skill at living life well. Money is not. Money can put food on the table, but wisdom puts laughter around that table. Money can buy a house, but wisdom makes it a home. Money can buy a woman jewelry, but wisdom wins her heart. All the ways of wisdom are “pleasantness” (verse 17). You cannot say that about money. We can wreck our lives by settling for the wisdom that does make us money when God is offering us the wisdom that takes us to the tree of life (verse 18). That is no common grace. That tree of life feeds our hearts with the special grace of Jesus Christ. He died on the cross for geniuses who excel in earthly skills but are clueless about real life. Don’t stop short. Don’t settle for money. If you like money and silver and gold and jewels (verses 14-15), they are mere metaphors for the life-giving prize of Christ himself.
Secondly, wisdom matters to God, who uses it as his tool in both creation and providence (verses 19-20):
The LORD by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.
We’ve been told that the universe just happened. We’ve been told that we emerged out of the primordial goo by sheer luck. But the truth is, God created all things, and the tool he used was wisdom, his own wisdom, and it was all he needed: “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth.” At this very moment, he sustains – you see the present tense “drop down” in verse 20 – he sustains all things, even the dew drops, by his wisdom. Dr. John Piper wrote about this about rain in a Thanksgiving meditation a few years ago:
Picture yourself as a farmer in the Near East, far from any lake or stream. A few wells keep the family and animals supplied with water. But if the crops are to grow and the family is to be fed from month to month, water has to come on the fields from another source. From where?
Well, the sky. The sky? Water will come out of the clear blue sky? Well, not exactly. Water will have to be carried in the sky from the Mediterranean Sea, over several hundred miles and then be poured out from the sky onto the fields. Carried? How much does it weigh? Well, if one inch of rain falls on one square mile of farmland during the night, that would be 27,878,400 cubic feet of water, which is 206,300,160 gallons, which is 1,650,501,280 pounds of water.
That’s heavy. So how does it get up in the sky and stay up there if it’s so heavy? Well, it gets up there by evaporation. Really? That’s a nice word. What’s it mean? It means that the water sort of stops being water for a while so it can go up and not down. I see. Then how does it get down? Well, condensation happens. What’s that? The water starts becoming water again by gathering around little dust particles between .00001 and .0001 centimeters wide. That’s small.
What about the salt? Salt? Yes, the Mediterranean Sea is salt water. That would kill the crops. What about the salt? Well, the salt has to be taken out. Oh. So the sky picks up a billion pounds of water from the sea and takes out the salt and then carries it for three hundred miles and then dumps it on the farm?
Well, it doesn’t dump it. If it dumped a billion pounds of water on the farm, the wheat would be crushed. So the sky dribbles the billion pounds water down in little drops….
The point is, if God by his wisdom can work that wonder in nature, what will he accomplish by his wisdom in you? We are surrounded and sustained by God’s wisdom, though we barely understand it. C. S. Lewis helped us see why:
At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But . . . some day, God willing, we shall get in.
Jesus died to get us in. But even now, we can see the creation for what it is – God’s ingenious wisdom. Jonathan Edwards taught us a godly attitude toward life:
True virtue most essentially consists in a benevolence to Being in general. Or perhaps to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, that is immediately exercised in a general good will.
A general good will and appreciation of all God has made – it’s virtuous. But a crabby negativism is how we feel when our outsider-ness is all we pay attention to. Some of us have lived in a foreign country and we know how lonely it is to walk the streets of a city unable to read the signs, unable to ask for directions, because we don’t know the language. We are like that here in God’s amazing creation. But God is translating his wisdom for us, supremely in Christ. That wisdom is the true foundation and meaning of the universe. He’s urging us to take it to heart and make it our own as outsiders who put their hope in him.
That’s the third thing the sage is saying, in verses 21-26, where the sage changes his style to direct address:
My son, do not lose sight of these –
keep sound wisdom and discretion,
and they will be life for your soul
and adornment for your neck. . . .
For the LORD will be your confidence
and will keep your foot from being caught.
—Proverbs 3:21-22, 26
This paragraph is about personal safety. As we grow in wisdom, God protects us from the land mines that sin has hidden here in his world. The Lord himself is with us. That’s how verse 26 can be translated. When we read, “The LORD will be your confidence,” it means he will be our companion. The alternative translation of the Hebrew is, “The LORD will be at your side.” When the apostle Paul was suffering, the Lord was at his side: “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me” (2 Timothy 4:16-17). The longer you and I live, the more stories we have of the Lord standing at our side strengthening us. We’re not trusting wisdom as an impersonal cosmic force; we’re trusting Jesus to stay close moment by moment, because he has promised, “I will be at your side.”
That’s the first section of the passage – why wisdom matters. It matters to everyone, it matters to God, and it matters to us. Now, in verses 27-35, the sage explains what wisdom creates here in God’s magnificent world, which has been hijacked by stupidity and death. But the risen Jesus is pouring out his Spirit to create a new culture of life, called the church.
Wisdom: a culture of life amid a culture of death
The sage made three points in the first section, and now he makes three points in the second section about a new culture of life: help your needy neighbor, protect your innocent neighbor, avoid your violent neighbor. Let’s break it down.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go and come again,
tomorrow I will give it” – when you have it with you.
First, in a culture of life, people help each other as much as they can. We can’t do what we can’t do. We can’t give what we don’t have. But when it’s in our power to do it, when we have it with us, wisdom says, “Give it away.” The grace of Jesus taught the apostle Paul to say, “I am a debtor” (Romans 1:14, NKJV). He didn’t see himself as a demander but a debtor. Nobody owed him a hearing. He won a hearing by loving people the way God loved him – graciously.
Let me show you how radical this is. Verse 27 says, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due.” But you also see the alternative translation in the ESV margin: “Do not withhold good from its owners.” If you have good you can do for somebody, then legally you own it but morally they own it. The state has no right to force you to be generous. And no one can walk into your house and start helping themselves to your things and say, “The Bible says I own it.” What the Bible says to them is “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). But what the Bible says to you is “You shall not withhold.” We sin against each other not only by the bad things we do but also by the beautiful things we withhold. Withheld love is a life-depleting sin. It is a sin to tell ourselves, “I’m not doing anybody any harm.” The question is, What good are you withholding? Jesus withheld no good thing from you. Okay, now we know how to live, how to build a culture of life, by his power. A culture of life is where people love each other openly and eagerly with the love of Jesus. All around us in our city are opportunities to breathe life into more people. We can’t do everything. But we can do something, for his sake. If we have the ability, they have the ownership. And we owe it today, not tomorrow.
Secondly, in a culture of life people protect each other. The sage makes that positive point with his negative prohibitions:
Do not plan evil against your neighbor,
who dwells trustingly beside you.
Do not contend with a man for no reason,
when he has done you no harm.
Trust is the glue that holds community together. What do a husband and wife, for example, most need from each other? Trust. The Lord calls us to trust him unreservedly (verse 5), because trust is the platform on which a wholehearted relationship can happen. We all know what it’s like to trust someone, and then they turn against us. It’s painful, because trust is so profound. What then does wisdom say to us here? Negatively, don’t be a faultfinding, critical person, ready to pounce on some well-meaning person with a “Gotcha!” That’s Washington, D.C. It’s a culture of death. But heaven has come down to us through Christ. He defended us, and we deserved the opposite. So, let’s stick up for our innocent neighbors. That’s wisdom, creating a culture of safety in a world of attack.
Thirdly, in a culture of life the wise carefully keep their distance from the violent:
Do not envy a man of violence
and do not choose any of his ways,
for the devious person is an abomination to the LORD,
but the upright are in his confidence.
The way things are now, violent people succeed, and we are tempted to envy them. It starts early, with the bully on the playground who is also in the popular crowd. People fear and envy them. So the violent pretty much run the world. Remember the scene in The Godfather Part 2 when young Vito Corleone is driving down the street in New York when the cheap hood Con Fanucci jumps into his car, gestures around and snarls at him, “This is my neighborhood”? That’s where the violence comes from: “This is my neighborhood, this is my office, this is my church, this is my world – not yours.” And God says in verse 32, “That’s an abomination.” That is, it turns God’s stomach. But he loves to defend those whom no one else defends. He is involved in this world. He is not standing aloof. He is no bystander or spectator. Whatever abuse you suffer, no one can take this from you: “The upright are in his confidence” (verse 32). Being close to Christ is better than being on top of the world. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. If they drive you out, the Lord will take you in. “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor” (verse 34). He is wise enough to know how to subvert subversive people and also build you up. Humble yourself and trust him with all your heart. The Septuagint translates verse 34 in a way you might be familiar with: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).
We can and will do that, depending on how we understand verse 35: “The wise will inherit honor, but fools get disgrace.” Who are “the wise”? Who are the “fools”? Who really are the winners and losers? Whose stock is rising, whose stock is falling? How you answer that question depends on how you see the cross of Jesus. From one point of view, the cross is for losers and failures and weaklings. From the opposite point of view, the cross is everything you trust, admire and desire. How you feel about that man hanging there on that cross – betrayed, excluded, humiliated by this brilliant world – how you feel about him reveals who you really are, whether wise or foolish, because his stock is rising. Here is the future: the wise in Christ will inherit the honor of Christ.