22th Sunday after Pentecost October 28, 2012
261, 262, 294, 39
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly; He guards the paths of justice, and preserves the way of His saints.
In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption, dear fellow-redeemed:
Imagine you had a treasure map with a long list of instructions, and the first instruction on the list was: “Take ten paces north from the old oak tree.” What do you think would happen if that first step in the instructions were somehow torn off or missing? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You’d never find the treasure. The rest of the map really wouldn’t matter very much except possibly as an interesting artifact. You could wander around, randomly digging here and there and trying in vain to recognize other landmarks, but you’d have very little chance of finding the treasure if you didn’t know the starting point.
There are many people in our age and every age who are searching for the treasure of true wisdom. Sadly, most of them are using a treasure map with the first part torn off. What’s the first part? Proverbs 9:10 says: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Only the reverent heart of faith, standing in awe of God and giving all glory to its Creator, can follow the instructions in God’s Word and find the treasure-trove of true wisdom and the eternal salvation which such wisdom bestows.
495 years ago, the fear of the Lord was one thing that was in notoriously short supply in a Europe dominated by the corrupt influence of Roman Catholicism. That’s when a former monk named Martin Luther began a personal search for true wisdom and ended up restoring the treasure of the Gospel to the Christian church. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that our theme on this Reformation Sunday is: TRUE WISDOM COMES FROM THE LORD. I. He invites us to seek true wisdom, II. He defines what true wisdom is, and III. He bestows the benefits of true wisdom.
The very first words of this text are among the most important: “My son.” God through the pen of King Solomon addresses us not as servants, not as subjects, but as His dear children by faith. It’s a beautiful invitation to seek the true wisdom. We’re immediately reminded of Martin Luther's explanation to the address of the Lord’s Prayer: “God would by these words tenderly invite us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.”
This is markedly different from the way God speaks to unbelievers. Elsewhere in Scripture God has words for the unbeliever: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6), “Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11), “Repent and be baptized, every one of you” (Acts 2:38), and many more such words. Here, however, God speaks to you, His dear child. This section is for believers. It is for those who have already grasped by faith the truth of the Gospel and are seeking to strengthen their grip, to improve their understanding, and to deepen their knowledge of the gracious will of God.
True wisdom comes from the Lord. What is our Lord’s advice for attaining true wisdom? He lays out four steps in the first four verses of our text. The steps are simple, but they are very elegant in their simplicity. So graceful is the poetry in these verses, so uniquely perfect the progression of thought! One Lutheran writer said that this passage is so surpassingly beautiful that it proves the doctrine of divine inspiration! No one but God, he said, could write so beautifully, with every word the perfect word in the perfect place. No human writer, he said, could attain so perfect an expression of the steps by which wisdom may be attained. If you have a chance to meditate quietly on these verses on your own, I think you’ll come to the same conclusion.
What is the ultimate wisdom? Of course, the ultimate wisdom is to know Christ by faith as your Savior. That is the only knowledge that enables you to live forever in heaven, and even a weak faith in Christ can save. The Bible says, “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).
The saving knowledge of Christ is not a step-by-step process. However, in many places in Scripture God promises a deepening of spiritual knowledge to those who are already believers and who earnestly desire it—a greater appreciation for the wonders of your God’s gracious plan. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). The cultivation of this knowledge is a progressive experience. It is a function of Christian sanctification, and it is this process to which vv. 1-4 of our text refer.
True wisdom comes from the Lord. In step one, our heavenly Father urges us to “…receive His words.” [v.1] This too is important. Where do you find wisdom? In the words of the Lord—the Bible—and nowhere else. The first step toward wisdom is to receive the Word of God and treasure it. As James says, “Receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21 KJV).
Simply receiving the pure Word is so important. Think of Mary of Bethany. Her search for wisdom wasn’t complicated. She sat at Jesus’ feet and simply received His words, and she found the “one thing needful” (cf. Luke 10:38ff).
Next we store away those words in our hearts, we “treasure the commandments of God within us.” [v.1] Many preachers in our day see that word “commandments” and immediately go off on a tangent. “See,” they say, “salvation is all about obedience!” If you keep the commandments you can please God and do your duty to your Sovereign Lord!” One Lutheran writer commenting on this verse said simply, “Please put away all ideas of legalism and work-righteousness because neither Proverbs nor any other book of the Bible teaches anything of the kind.”
The Lord is speaking here about sanctification—the directions from God’s Word that the redeemed child of God happily and eagerly fulfills, not because it is a duty but because faith expresses itself naturally in the life of a Christian. The best example of this is our Savior’s own words, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).
With each verse the process becomes more intense. Here's step two: “Incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding.” [v.2] Have you ever noticed that when someone is really interested in what you’re saying—really excited about what they’re hearing—that they will incline toward you. They’ll lean in to make sure they don’t miss a single word. Receiving the Word of God is the same way. It may seem like a somewhat passive activity, but when the hearer is excited and motivated by the Word he receives, he then begins to actively incline toward the word, to seek it out, to extend his ears and heart to meet it.
Step three: The desire to get more heavenly wisdom can no longer be quietly contained, but begins to break out into raucous crying: “Yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding!” [v.3] My dear Christian friends, the more you meditate on the salvation your Savior has given you, the more you understand how great a windfall is yours in Christ, and the harder it is to keep quiet about it all! Blind Bartimaeus of our Gospel reading comes to mind: “Many warned him to be quiet; but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (Mark 10:48). All of us pastors can think of examples of devout parishioners (often elderly), who literally clamor to take advantage of every opportunity to hear the life-giving Word and to deepen their own spiritual knowledge.
True wisdom comes from the Lord. Finally, at the apex of the process comes step four: “If you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures…” [v.4] Silver often means “money” in the Bible, and it’s a significant metaphor. Think about it for a moment: What is money’s place in our culture? It’s a pretty big place, isn’t it? Money is the one thing in any society that is almost constantly sought by almost everyone. But God is telling us that that there comes a point in the believer’s search for true wisdom when even money fades into the background. When the material is completely overcome by the spiritual and getting more heavenly knowledge becomes more important to the believer than any amount of money. Here, indeed, the supplicant has reached the point where he will stop at nothing to further his knowledge of God’s Word. He has such a desire to achieve this knowledge that it is to him like a buried treasure.
In Biblical times there were no banks. A great treasure had to be hidden—usually buried—and there actually were many lost and long-forgotten buried treasures that any poor farmer might stumble across and thus be rocketed instantly to great wealth. This is a great picture of the treasure we have in our Savior Jesus. Our Lord said, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). There are so many devout Christians who have made great sacrifices in their lives in order to obtain the divine knowledge of salvation in Christ. None have regretted the sacrifice. Most of them, if you ask them, won’t even be aware that they have made a sacrifice!
True wisdom comes from the Lord. In verses one through four, the Lord invites us to seek true wisdom. Now, He moves on. He defines what true wisdom is.
Hebrew is a difficult language, but verses five and six are not difficult. They are easy. The fruits of the pursuit of wisdom are so simple in their magnificence that they may be expressed with the simplest and most common of terms, terms which any child can easily understand.
Verses 5-6 are the answer to verses 1-4. If you do the things in verses 1-4 you will get the things in verses 5-6. If the believer follows the course of pursuing wisdom which is prescribed by God’s Word, then this is the goal he may expect to achieve—these are the rich rewards he will reap. He will “understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.” [v.5]
What is the height of achievement in the search for wisdom? To find the fear of God. Much ink has been spilled on the subject of what it means to “fear God.” We’re not talking about the quavering and slavish fear of the condemned man toward the judge, though many on the Last Day will feel that type of fear. Rather, “to fear God” is to have a Spirit-worked understanding of His loving nature and His gracious plan in Christ Jesus and thus to stand in absolute awe of His undeserved kindness and love, His power and might to save. As Scripture says, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Or in the words of the old adage, “Slave-like fear fears when God comes; childlike fear fears when God leaves.”
True knowledge is not only about God and His grace, Scripture makes clear that God is also the only source of true knowledge and wisdom. True wisdom comes from the Lord, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” [v.6]
“From His mouth comes understanding.” That’s an important passage for it underlines the truth that the words of the Bible truly are the sayings of our heavenly Father. They are words which come directly from the mouth of God even though he used many different writers to put them down. As Peter says, “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). God is the fount and source of all wisdom and those who seek true spiritual insight must seek it only in Him.
In the final two verses we see the outcome of striving after heavenly wisdom. Here is revealed what God accomplishes through the wisdom-getting process He prescribes for man. His Word becomes a storehouse of knowledge for the upright, and working through His Word “He is a shield to those who walk uprightly.” [v.7] In other words, true wisdom comes from the Lord because He bestows the benefits of true wisdom.
What does the writer mean with this description of the person who “walks uprightly?” It does not describe a human being who, on his own, has a perfect record of sinlessness. Thank goodness for that, because I am not such a person, and neither are you. It does, however, describe a person who possesses an imputed righteousness by faith in his Savior. Thank the Lord that is something I do have and so do you! That term does describe someone who by the quickening power of the Holy Spirit is empowered to live a sanctified life to the glory of his Lord—a life such as you and I are aching to live! The terms used here are used in parallel with, and are basically identical to, the term “saint”, for such we are by faith in Christ. Not paragons of virtue by our own right, but humble sinners, rejoicing in the redemption won for us by Christ.
Verse eight is the final comfort and reassurance. It assures us that God’s Word will accomplish the purposes for He sends it. One of these purposes, our text says, is to “guard,” or maintain “the paths of justice.” Footpaths are interesting things. Footpaths only continue to exist in places where people continue to walk in them. There’s a neighborhood of beautiful homes where I sometimes walk. There was one homeowner who had a beautiful front lawn, but it happened to be on a corner, and it was obvious that people were cutting that corner by walking across his lawn. You could easily see the path. What did the homeowner do? He built a fence. Soon the path began to fill in, and in a few months you couldn’t tell that anyone had ever walked there.
That was a path you shouldn’t walk in, but there are paths you should walk in. It is one of God’s purposes to “maintain the paths of justice,” and He does it by having people walk in them. God uses the seeking of wisdom by His saints also to guard the paths of justice. In other words, by prescribing this specific path for His people to walk in their lives—the path of seeking God’s wisdom—the Lord maintains a visible example of righteousness in this world from generation to generation. One Lutheran writer put it well: “He keeps these trodden paths, watches them so that they remain intact, and do not by non-use become obliterated…It is remarkable, this way of preserving right among men, by actually having men live right in a sin-infested world.”
God “preserves the way of His saints.” [v.8] Is it not in just this way that the great Reformer, Martin Luther, was made by God to “maintain the paths of justice?” Indeed the truth of salvation by faith alone in Christ was, by the fifteenth century, such a seldom-used path in Christendom that the weeds had nearly obliterated the way altogether. But God raised up Martin Luther, and God made Martin Luther to walk back and forth on the paths of truth—in the full view of the Pope and all the Roman church, and all Germany, and all the world. In this way that path of God’s truth was restored. In the five centuries since Luther, many more have walked that path, wearing it smooth and maintaining it for the generations to come.
The Bible says, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it. Then you will find rest for your souls.’” (Jeremiah 6:16). God grant that we and our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren after us may continue to walk the path that Luther trod—not because of who he was, certainly, but rather, because of who he worshipped: the true God, revealed in the inerrant pages of Holy Scriptures. There alone is the place where true wisdom is to be found, for as we have learned, true wisdom comes from the Lord. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked “KJV” are taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version, Cambridge, 1769.