Sunday, January 14, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 2: In the Father's House (Prov 3:1-12)

Address 2: In the Father’s House (Proverbs 3:1-12)

Last week’s address was titled “In the School of Solomon.” Scholars think that the Wisdom Literature of the Bible and the wider ancient Near East flourished in the court of kings. Some wisdom dates back 2000 years before Christ and 1000 years before Solomon, such as “The instruction which the king of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt made for this son Meri-kare.” However, even if it is true that wisdom matured in the royal family, it was in the family per se, the Family of Everyman, that it took its birth. Hence we are to imagine wisdom coming, first of all, from the family fire.

Since I have been in Africa, I have realized that half of every day is spent in darkness, and only part of that is taken up with sleeping. What do families do, in a traditional society, in the evening after the sun sets but before they go to sleep? Surely the women and children are often busy fetching wood and water and preparing the evening meal. But that still leaves time, especially for the men, to talk. And it is, I presume, during these times that the wisdom of the fathers – and in traditional society several men could be called fathers – is passed on. I do not know how many of you here today have learned your first lessons in these circumstances, but it seems to have been the situation in the ancient world as well.

Traditional teaching often has a circular character. The technical name from this in the Bible is chiasm, and I have highlighted it by labeling it A-B-C-C`-B`-A`. Chiasm often is like a sandwich, with the meat in the centre. In this passage the meat is comes in the exhortation to “trust God with all your heart.”

So now let’s turn to our text. My son, do not forget my law; and let your heart keep my commandments; (verse 1). We can imagine the Hebrew father or elder saying something like this: “Son, “don’t drift off to sleep; don’t be distracted by the silly boys playing in the market square or by the pretty girls fetching water. It’s class time in the family, and I require your full attention.”

Right here in the first verse, we encounter two words that stand out as special in the context of the one God of Mount Sinai. The words are law (torah) and commandments (mitzvot). In one sense, the father’s instruction comes as law and commandments, and children first learn to obey their parents’ law before they begin to learn other laws, the law of the community and the law of God. But the use of the words law and commandments here puts the Hebrew father in a special relationship with his children. He is standing in for God, who revealed his law and commandments once and for all. Not that the father is literally teaching the Ten Commandments here, but the family wisdom and the revealed law seem to go hand in hand.

A good society will be governed by laws, morals, and mores (mores is a Latin word meaning folk ways). This applied to the Hebrew nation. There are several law codes in the Old Testament, which functioned as the public law of Israel. These law codes were based on the moral principles laid out in the Ten Commandments. But the first line of defense in a society, and in Israel, is its mores and its taboos. “In our family, in our clan, we always do this, but we never do this,” children are taught. To do one thing is shameful and the village will blame you, to do another is honourable and the village will praise you. This is the kind of instruction in mores which children receive from Day One.

Many customs of this sort vary from culture to culture and even contradict each other. For instance, in America we teach children when they reply to an adult, to “look him in the eye.” In Uganda, I think, it is just the opposite. Children are taught to look away when they speak with an adult. Each custom has a certain logic: both involve showing respect for elders, but in a different fashion.

The mores of cultures vary greatly, as anthropologists are quick to point out. But there is also a common core that unites them. C.S. Lewis, in a famous book called The Abolition of Man, called this common core the Tao or first Principles. Lewis gives examples from various cultures, for instance of the principle of respect for elders, e.g.,

“I tended the old man, I gave him my staff.” (Ancient Egyptian)

“You will see them and take care of the old men” (American Indian)

“To care for parents” (Greek)

And of course the Fourth Commandment of the Hebrew Law is “Honour your father and mother that you may live long in the land” (Exodus 20:4). According to Scripture, God gave his Law by revelation. The law of the family, however, He has built into the creation, and it is passed on by instruction from generation to generation. Not only are the laws built in to creation, so are their consequences, for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare will they give you (verse 2).

Notice how every alternate verse in this passage gives the consequences of following the father’s wisdom. The wise child will get long life, prosperity, good reputation, and healing and refreshment. “Do good, and good will happen to you,” is the basic formula. And this makes sense if God is the one who makes the rules of the creation and rewards people accordingly.

Education is a matter of imitation and repetition. At the very basic level it involves memorizing and repeating back. The Bible describes education in this way: “train up a child in the way it should go, and it will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). A Kiganda proverb puts it this way: Omwana aggya ku ngozi. A child takes steps, when it is still in the ngozi (swaddling cloth). I know many of you have experienced this kind of education in primary and secondary school because I often hear you say, “And the answer to the question is WHAT” – and then you give the answer. I strongly expect you picked up this way of speaking from your school teachers.

Imitation and repetition are the primary tools for instilling virtue. Virtue, according to the philosopher Aristotle, is a habit. One does not learn virtue out of book but by constant practice. Becoming a good hunter or a good cook is a matter of virtue. But even more important, virtues like courage and self-control are learned by practice from early years on. The father emphasises this way of learning in verse 3: Let not loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them about your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. The words here “loyalty and faithfulness” translate two of the primary traits of God Himself: steadfast love and truth. But whereas these traits flow naturally from God, for us donkeys they must be “bound around the neck” and “written on the tablet of the heart.”

The first of these images suggests a memory device, like writing on your hand. Religious Jews to this day wear “amulets” around their neck with tiny copies of the Ten Commandments in them. The second image – writing wisdom “on the heart” – suggests interiorizing, i.e., making these ways “second nature.” The difference between a person “trained up” in loyalty and faithfulness often becomes apparent in a crisis. The virtuous man or woman reacts immediately and instinctively to the crisis, while the vicious person hesitates and is lost.

I have spent much time on the father’s instruction, but Solomon, in the meaty centre section, now makes clear that such instruction by a human father must ultimately lead the child to the heavenly Father. Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (verses 5-6). This famous verse is a wonderful statement of Old Testament faith.

The philosophers Aristotle and Plato debated whether virtue is single or manifold. The Law may have had 613 commandments, but the ultimate virtue, according to Scripture, is to trust God. Trust is like leaning on a walking stick so that one can walk straight ahead. Hence the proverb goes on to say “lean not on your own understanding.” To be a mature Christian, one must learn to lean on the everlasting arms of the heavenly Father.

Trusting God is the source of the “peace that passes all understanding”; it is to those who do trust in him that God adds the promise: It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones (verse 8). To trust God with all your heart is not merely a feeling but an action rooted in economic and social life, because as our Lord says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). So also Solomon teaches: Honour the LORD with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce. Trust and obey, there is no other way to be happy in life. Outward obedience without leaning on God in one’s heart, and being happy-clappy Christians without following Him – both of these are hypocrisy.

Learning to trust and obey is the most natural thing in the world, and also one of the hardest things in the world. What child does not want naturally to please its father and mother. We are genetically coded from infancy to look up into our parents’ eyes and smile and then laugh. But of course there is another side to our genetic code, the selfish side. The baby who laughs one moment cries and fusses the next. It does not care what the father wants, it only knows what it wants. Hence, education is a lifelong discipline of choosing what is good and turning away from evil (verse 7).

Education, as I mentioned last week, involves use of the carrot and the stick, the reward and the rebuke. The same need for both incentive and punishment applies to our relationship to God. So our section ends with these famous lines: My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights (verses 11-12). There are some pastors and theologians today who portray God as a kind of cosmic “sugar daddy” who gives out goodies without ever saying a cross word to his little dearies. This, my friends, is not the biblical God; this is a figment of our spoiled imagination. We would not really enjoy such an indulgent person for our earthly father, and certainly not want the universe to be run by such a Person.

The earthly father’s own authority as a teacher derives from having experienced God’s fatherly rebuke first-hand. For the Christian, the highest wisdom is to trust Jesus and to trust like Jesus, who “learned obedience from what he suffered.” Learning in the house of the Father God is a deeper lesson than learning in the school of Solomon. And it bears a higher reward. “For [earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but [God the Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness (Hebrews 12:10). The whole Christian life is a process that the Eastern Church calls theosis, growing up into Godhood, becoming like Jesus. As we are in the midst of our educational course, let us not forget our first beginnings, in our fathers’ house, or our final destination, to abide in our heavenly Father’s house for ever.

Proverbs 3:1-12


1 My son, do not forget my law,
but let your heart keep my commandments;
2 for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare will they give you.

3 Let not loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them about your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man.

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

7 Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD,
and turn away from evil.
8 It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.

9 Honor the LORD with your substance
and with the first fruits of all your produce;
10 then your barns will be filled with plenty,
and your vats will be bursting with wine.

11 My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
12 for the LORD reproves him whom he loves,

as a father the son in whom he delights.

Revised 4 October 2006

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