We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us
Proverbs 2:1–22 – Proverbs: Wisdom for Life
18th Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2018 (am)
The idea of special words between a father and a son or a daughter capture our imagination. In the movie ‘Second hand lions’ the orphan boy longs to hear ‘the talk’, [no not the birds and bees talk, what he longs for is the talk about the secrets of how to live.] He has seen its mysteries transform the lives of others, and aches to be let in on the secret, to hear the words meant just for him, words to live by, and maybe even words to die for!
I had such an encounter with my dad when I was a freshman in high school, and here’s the story. Now I knew, going in, that the rocky shoals of my academic career would likely be named Algebra and trigonometry, and so it was no big surprise that the looming final exam would determine whether I passed or failed freshman Algebra. For one week prior to the exam my dad tutored [I almost said ‘tortured’] me extensively on the subject matter with this constant refrain…………. ‘algebra is nothing more than a logical sequence of steps!’ And by the time that the test rolled around, I actually felt like I was beginning to get it! And the test itself proved to be not nearly as intimidating as I feared. In fact I felt pretty good about it……………….. until the results came back. I got a ‘d’ on the final exam! Now for those of you who don’t have categories for this kind of performance, let me explain that it was ……not good. [I must add here that my friend Paul Rupsis tells a story where the mere potential of getting a ‘d’ in some scholastic endeavor brought about a spiritual crisis!…… and my words of comfort to him [had I been around to comfort him in his youth] would have been to always keep in mind that the first ‘d’ is the hardest……… it gets easier after that]
Now, I did squeak by with a strong ‘d’ in the course which meant that I did not have to re-take it, but it was on the heels of that dark day that my father gave me ‘the talk’. It was a talk that we laughed about in the succeeding years and it began with words like these: ‘My son, life is a series of hills and valleys and though this is a dark valley right now, the hilltops will surely……. Etc. etc. etc. We referred to it in years to come as the ‘hills and valleys speech’
In the book of Proverbs there is a son and there is a father and there is ‘the talk’. Let me read chapter 2.
Let me ask you a question to sort of round out this introduction, and then I will lay out a road map for us. Why was it possible for my father and I to laugh over ‘the talk’ given that day so long ago?....................... Yes! It was because ultimately the stakes were not so very high after all. Yes Virginia, life is more than algebra. [Hear me you freshmen in high school!] And that precisely is one of the differences between the talk I heard from my father and the words of the father in this passage of scripture. The stakes in this talk are knee buckling! In fact they are certainly beyond the comprehension of the young man. For that reason the warnings are repeated, they grow in intensity. The consequences of not heeding this warning will be life altering, and this warning ignored, as sure as night follows day, carries death and ruin in its wake. Another difference is that there is nothing to laugh about in the passage. There is no wink of the eye, no fingers crossed, no ‘well let’s get this over with, your mother is expecting it!’………. [I am reminded of when my dad would tell us kids before we took the dog outside in the winter, back when we use to get real snow………….. ‘Kids!.... don’t eat the golden snow!’ It took me a while to get it. Funny? Maybe, a little bit, but also a not so subtle mockery of our foolishness! There is nothing subtle or funny or cute about these words. Here’s how I plan to proceed:
I am going to walk us through this passage thought by thought and pause and make some observations that I believe may change us, challenge us, strengthen our resolve and draw out our praise and thanks. Then I would like to zero in for a while on what this passage has to tell us about our precious persons, and about a salvation that is rich and free and complete and available to all who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, let’s begin:
II. Observations about the text:
[Just a word about walking through a text. One of the most presumptuous things about teaching from scripture, whether it be in an ABF or whether it be from this pulpit is that there will almost surely be some un-picked fruit left on the tree when you are done. For my part, what I am doing here is to lead us on a leisurely stroll through a beautiful ripe Red Haven peach orchard and simply pick out a few amazing pieces of fruit…… knowing that some of the best fruit is just beyond my grasp]
a.  My Son.
This occurs tons of times in the book and it is heavy with freight in scripture. Remember David’s words when Absolom was killed by Abner? 2 Sam 19:4
‘O my son Absolom, Absolom my son, my son.’ And do you remember the incredibly insightful rebuke by Joab.
He tells David essentially this, ‘there are other father’s sons lying on this battlefield. There are other fathers who have cause to weep today over lost sons! And if you cannot lead them through a shared grief as the King ought, there is not a man in all of Israel that will remain standing with you by the time the sun sets.’
Or in Luke 15 when the prodigal father speaks to the older son, he says, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” Or in Genesis 22, the angel of the Lord tells Abraham………..Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. And of course twice in the new testament, at Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3 and in his transfiguration in Luke 9 the Holy Spirit of God declares ‘you are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.’ In Luke nine the same spirit declares ‘This is my son, my chosen one. Listen to him.’ [I so love the way the KJV says it, ‘hear ye him!’
It would be a shame I think to get hung up on the gender language here. And to properly address it fully is certainly beyond the scope of what I am capable of, but please understand this, the words of a good and discerning father will always seek out the ears of a daughter, and speak of relationship and bonds that are stronger than he can really express. And that is precisely the point, the words ‘my son’ elevate this rather one-sided conversation to a place of lightning and thunder and tears.
b. [Embracing these instructions]
Staying in verse 1 for a moment, the language in the ESV is a little awkward. It says, ‘if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you”……… this sounds like ‘take them with you’ and this actually carries the sense. The KJV says it like this, My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee……. This is a pretty clear exhortation to dwell on, to live in, to maybe even [gulp] memorize scripture. For you AWANA kids who wonder why you are coaxed to memorize about twenty million verses of scripture, this is why we make you do it! And for the rest of us, though it seems hard, it is possible. And one less intimidating way to begin is to memorize hymns that are pure scripture. Have you ever sung ‘create in me a clean heart O God’?
Create in me a clean heart O Lord my God
And renew a right spirit within me
Cast me not away from thy presence
And take not thy holy spirit from me
Restore unto me the joy of my salvation
And take not thy holy spirit from me.
That is straight from ps 51, did you know that? There are about 140 hymns with lyrics that are straight from psalms. [My wife tells me that there are probably many, many more than that…… Some of you may remember that about ten years ago or so, we memorized the book of James as a church. Maybe it is time to tackle that project again……………… and it brings to mind a story:
One of my sons, [I won’t say which one] was in love, and had just discovered that being in love was expensive! I had urged him to join with us in memorizing the little book of James, and when I incentivized him to the tune of $400 [he actually claims it was $600 but that amount breaches the threshold of embarrassment that I am not willing to cross!] he woke up and smelled the coffee and memorized the book in about two days, and I had to pay up, with an increased resolve to guard my tongue!.......... The point is that these instructions are not to be catalogued and referred to at need. They are to be on our minds, in our hearts, when we get up and when we lie down, and when we walk together down the shoulder of I-88……..….. gas can in hand! [by the way, though the 400 or 600 seems kind of crazy as I think back on it, I wonder if in the final reckoning it may prove to be the best investment I ever made. I do know this, I have certainly spent more and received less at various points in my life!]
[1-5] Notice the if/ then statement that starts in vs 1 and ends in vs 5? I am somewhat suspicious of if/then statements because they sound vaguely like math to me! In fact the concept can be illustrated mathematically [are you not glad that I don’t have a chalk board this morning?!] Here’s how it goes:
If: you receive my words, treasure my commandments, make your ear attentive, incline your heart, call for insight, raise your voice for understanding, seek it like silver, search for it like hidden treasure. [note the increasing tension and urgency]
Then: you will understand the fear of the Lord:
And find the knowledge of God, for the Lord gives wisdom, from his mouth comes knowledge, he stores up sound wisdom, He is a shield, He guards the path of justice, He watches over the way of his saints. You will understand righteousness and justice, and every good path, and equity, wisdom will come into your head, knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will wash over you, understanding will guard you and you will be delivered from the way of evil.
A few things here: An if/ then statement applied to life is not a purely mathematical statement. There is a higher math that comes into play with a deeper and richer calculus! But it is more than a principle or a rule to live by, it is the steady and abiding promise of a loving and wise father to a young and vulnerable son. Also, how does the deal sound to you, to me? Pretty compelling eh? Well, the father is just getting started……. [Do you notice by the way the gathering momentum, the increase in intensity as the words unfold. Don’t miss that, it is part of the reason that Proverbs resists the sort of verse by verse dissection that we so often engage in. It is not as though Proverbs can be cut and pasted into little snippets that find their permanent home on our refrigerator doors]
d.  The fear of the Lord:
Let’s look one more time at the first few verses. What is the first outcome to the kind of single-minded earnest cry that the father pleads for? Yes, it is this, ‘you will understand the fear of the Lord.’ What is that exactly? Proverbs 1: 6 gives us a strong clue……. It is the beginning of wisdom! What this suggests is that wisdom is not synonymous with the fear of the Lord. I really like how George Lawson put it about 150 years ago:
The fear of the Lord, and the sound knowledge of God, are inseparably connected. Religious fear is not a blind and tormenting passion of the soul, but a holy and delightful grace, founded in true apprehensions of the awful and lovely glories of the divine nature, and disposing him who possesses it, to walk with God. The knowledge of God regulates this fear, and preserves it from sinking into terror, or degenerating into superstition, but guides it to express its power in checking and subduing every corrupt affection, and animating the soul to every instance of obedience.
The call of the father to the son in these first few verses is a plea that this son articulate and express in dead earnest, the ‘cry of faith of the believer’, that is to humble himself before the Lord and surrender to his kingship. And in so doing, the magnificent promises of God will begin to unfold one by one, building up in the course of days to a life of wisdom and stability and discretion and salvation fruit.
e.  The wisdom of God:
What is the wisdom of the Lord…………….. that the fear of God is the beginning of?
Neil Plantinga puts it this way:
“In the literature of scripture, wisdom is broadly speaking, the knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting oneself into it. The wise person knows creation. She knows its boundaries and limits, respects its great dynamics. She understands that creation possesses its own integrity and significance quite apart from her claim on it and quite apart from any possibility that creation will make her happy. The wise person gives in to creation and to God—and she does the first because she does the second. She knows that the earth is the Lord’s and so is its fullness. She knows that wisdom itself is the Lord’s and so is its fullness. She knows some of the deep grains and textures of the world because she knows some of the ways and habits of its maker.” [p 115]
Do we long for, ache for this wisdom? I know I do! And where does it come from anyway? Is it a product of our experience? No, not according to Proverbs 2. It is quite clear actually, the Lord gives wisdom and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. This I think should give us something to think about the next time we read the words in Luke 9, ‘this is my beloved son, Hear ye Him! Part of the urgency of the father’s plea to his son is rooted in the inescapable fact that true wisdom is not something that we can bootstrap our way into. There is no shortcut. The wisdom of God is embedded in the ‘mouth of God’ awkward though that may sound. The word of God, the wisdom of God, the cry of God is embodied first, last and always in the Lord Jesus Christ, beloved son of the father.
f. [12-19]The path of destruction:
Proverbs two is a book of polarized contrasts and verses 12-19 are stark in their poetic presentation:
In verse 17, the adulterous woman forsakes not only the companion of her youth but holds the covenant with her God in contempt. This is speaking of the primary accountability in marriage not in terms of the violated partner, but in terms of a contempt for the author of marriage. Sobering words for sure:
These verses describe cold hard hearts, a delight in evil, a forsaking of all that is righteous, a tolerance of and reveling in injustice. They describe a path toward wrack and ruin, toward darkness and death and it is a road from which there is no turning back! Any takers? [should we pass around a sign-up sheet?] That is the peculiar thing, the siren call of sin is ever present for us…. In spite of the horrifying cost and the good alternative that is so clearly marked for us! And that leads me to ask another question: Why do we not see that sin is indeed a ‘logical sequence of descending steps.’ [by the way, ever hear of someone tripping and slipping up the stairs?!] Where does this destroyer come from, and this leads me what I think may be a useful question.
III. Who is the real enemy?
a. The strange power of the siren call: Cornelius Plantinga poses the question in this way:
“Why does sin ricochet down the generations, and why does history echo? What accounts for the fact the combatant ethnic groups in feuding clans lock themselves into round after round of hostilities that neither mend nor end? Where do the patterns of dysfunction in family systems come from, and why are they so miserable [so] hard to fix? Why do even grade school students commit sins in sequence, each touching off the others like firecrackers on a string? [pa 60]
Or, to put the question another way, “after all, why do human beings persist in sin despite the notorious miseries of this program? Why does the heart want what it wants? “[p 73]
b. Mirror, mirror.
In the war of 1812, captain Oliver Hazard Perry sent this message back to his superiors, “We have met the enemy and he is ours.” This phrase was changed around and made even more famous by the political cartoonist Walt Kelly in his strip, Pogo, ‘we have met the enemy and he is……… us.’! Romans 1:28-32 underlines this idea, and in fact echoes portions of Proverbs 2.
Romans 1:28-32 English Standard Version (ESV)
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Do you see the similarity between these verses in Romans 1 and Proverbs 2? Do you see the difference? Where Proverbs 2 holds this portrait up as a warning, Romans paints the same portrait not as a warning, but as a reflection of who we are, you and me and all save one, who have ever drawn breath on this planet.
Folks, you and me and all our friends and relations have chosen very, very badly. We have an ear for the pied piper of destruction and will follow that call of death, to death and beyond, forever and ever amen. But there is hope for us because of another son, a beloved son, one who fulfilled all righteousness, who embodies all the wisdom of God. I have read that knowledge plus love equals wisdom and like Paul says in Romans 7:24-25a. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through jesus Christ our Lord!
IV. A particular application:
Two paths diverged in the woods and I
Took the one less traveled by
and that has made all the difference…………. [Frost]
Proverbs two is the presentation of two paths, and they could not be more different, or lead to more different destinations. But the trouble with a path is that sometimes it is hard to know which path you are on. In fact, in my experience I don’t think I have ever met anyone who is on the path to destruction and also willing to ‘own’ it or even name it! In retrospect they may, but typically, every one proclaims that the path they are on is the one that embodies justice, and at least some kind of moral value. But, there are a few ways to guard against that dangerous conceit. First of all, know and acknowledge that our own hearts are prone to vanity and pride and self-justification. Second, know that we are not left alone with our own whisperings. Brothers and sisters in the body of Christ will tell you, if they care and if they dare, and importantly if you are willing to walk in their company, exactly when you are on a bad, dark road. Finally consider this from Proverbs 1: 19. ‘Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.’ This verse and many others like it are particular gifts to us, and here’s what I mean. If we are willing, they are reminders to us to ask questions about our path. Is it tainted by greed? It is insensitive to injustice? Does it have any aura of selfishness? Let me give you an example from my life recently. There is the potential of a 300 unit apartment complex to be built at the edge of our neighborhood. We have lived there for a long time, and many, in fact most of our neighbors have signed petitions, have protested at city hall, have sought allies across the community, and there are many good and sound reasons for voicing concerns and calls for reconsideration of this issue. But at the end of the day is this a path of life or a path of death? Is there a strong hint of ‘n.i.m.b.y.’ syndrome? Is there a motivation of fear? Of a single-minded desire to protect property values at all cost? Of an insensitivity to the real need of people to simply live somewhere?................ I am not trying to adjudicate this issue from the pulpit this morning, but I am presenting it as an illustration of an important point, namely that the roads we walk will sometimes not be labelled by their true names.
I have quoted a couple of times this morning from Plantinga, and I will do so once more. This is remarkably succinct for a theologian, ‘Sin is both wrong……. And dumb!’ Is there an ‘amen’ out there this morning for this insight! Our every fleshly inclination is to tear asunder our covenant documents and violate God’s moral law. And we do so knowing full well that it will lead to our destruction in this life and the next. But, there is hope for us, and I want to conclude with three pretty short statements about that hope as a conclusion this morning.
1. Wisdom is from the mouth of the Lord, embodied in his beloved son the Lord Jesus Christ. It is found in the word of God, and it is available for us. “hear ye him.” 1 Corinthians 1:28-31. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being[b] might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him[c] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
2. Salvation is needed and it is real, and it is as clear as it could possibly be:
Romans 5:6-10 English Standard Version (ESV)
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
3. Of all unlikely places, Proverbs 2 contains for us not just gospel advice , but a gospel promise backed by the integrity of God’s words and it is this: if we cry out, if we seek it like silver or buried treasure, if we submit to the creator and judge and only redeemer of this tired and dangerous and O so beautiful place, He will quicken us to the fear of the Lord………………. Which is the beginning of wisdom and also the triumphal salvo of a great and coming salvation.