The way of wisdom and the way of folly

[Sermon audio found here.]
Theme: The fear of God produces wisdom that leads to salvation.
Are we to fear God as Christians?  Is fear compatible with faith and love?  Weren’t OT believers the only ones to fear God?  Besides, those were the days of Moses and the exacting laws of the Old Covenant.  Those were times when God punished his people for disobedience and destroyed entire nations.  Hasn’t the terrifying description of God as holy judge in the OT been replaced with the God of love in the New?  And yet, the NT calls us to worship God with reverence and awe.  And Paul calls us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling…
The fear of God is not a popular subject today.  In fact, more and more, churches are doing whatever it takes to make people feel familiar with God and comfortable with themselves.  However, a proper fear of God is crucial to a correct understanding of the way of salvation and what it means to worship God.
In Proverbs 9:10 – which is the verse I would like to focus on this morning – we are told: “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” The way of wisdom leads to eternal life, while the way of folly leads to destruction.  If the fear of the Lord leads to salvation, then it naturally follows that we must know what it means to fear and revere God.  What the Spirit teaches us from the Word this morning is that God is holy and just judge, but also merciful redeemer.  As Christians we worship God and we live in his presence as those rightly under condemnation for our sins, but nevertheless forgiven by the blood of Christ.  God has invited us into a relationship with himself through his Son, who is the incarnation of wisdom.  We must accept this invitation with joy and gratitude, but also with reverence and awe. Yes, our God is love, but he is also a consuming fire.
So, how then do we cultivate such wisdom?  If we could sum up the book of Proverbs, it is basically about heeding God’s instruction and gaining the wisdom he has revealed that leads to life.
         The Invitations of Wisdom and Folly
In Proverbs 9, we find the climax of two rival sources of instruction that have been set forth for us in chapters 7 and 8, which are Lady Wisdom and woman Folly.  Both offer an invitation to the naïve or gullible: that is, those lacking insight, but open to instruction.  One offers life and the other death.  Proverbs 9 sets the stage for the rest of the book of Proverbs in which Solomon works out the contrasts between the life of wisdom and the life of folly.
In verses 1-6, Lady Wisdom is personified as the noble wife.  She has built her house and flung wide her doors of hospitality to those who would come and feast with her.  Out of true love, Lady Wisdom competes for the hearts of the uncommitted that pass by, longing for a relationship with them.  She has prepared a delectable feast including bread and wine.  But this is no ordinary meal.  For as we read in verse 6, this supper contains spiritual life and insight.
However, Lady Wisdom is not the only one vying for the hearts of the “simple” and those “who lack sense.”  In verses 13-18, we read about the crowing invitation of woman Folly, who is the personification of the adulterous wife.  In verse 13, we are told: “The woman Folly is loud: she is seductive and knows nothing.”  Like the false God’s, “she takes her seat on the highest places in town” and calls out to the simple who are passing by, “who are going straight on their way.”  In contrast to Lady Wisdom, she offers the illicit pleasures of “stolen water” and “bread eaten in secret.”  Driven by no-strings attached erotic lust, she competes for the bodies of the gullible.  What the visitor does not know, however, is that Lady Folly offers a banquet in the grave.  At her table, there are dead people; “her guests are in the depths of [hell].”
These two women have sent out their invitations.  So, what then are the responses that Ladies Wisdom and Folly receive?  Remember the Bible tells us there are only two ways – the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked – and you and I must choose one of them.  Which one will it be?
        The response of the wise man and the scoffer
Notice first of all the response that Lady Wisdom gets from the wicked or the scoffer in verse 7 and following.  Her invitation is met with insubordinate abuse, injury and hatred.  This is because the proud are unwilling to submit to authority, especially God’s rule.
However, not so with the wise man that we read about in verses 8-12.  “[R]eprove a wise man, and he will love you.  Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.”  In contrast to the obstinate pride of the scoffer, the wise man has the humility to be taught by Lady Wisdom – which is God.  Life a good student, the righteousness man submits to the teaching of his master, and as a result, he increases in wisdom and learning.
What, then, is this wisdom and learning that the righteous man has?
        The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
Verse 10 tells us: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
But what does it mean to fear God?
Our passage helps us to begin answering this question with the contrasting description of the person who does not fear God: which is the wicked man who is drawn away by woman Folly.  The scoffer rejects the instruction of Lady Wisdom, and instead lives for the fleeting pleasures of this life.  The wicked man’s unbridled appetite for adulterous sex and illicit indulgence reveals a deeper spiritual problem, which is a heart that is in rebellion against God.
At the end of the day, wicked man does not fear God because he does not know who God is.  The scoffer does not fear God because he does not understand his terrible condition before God.
However, the righteous man hears the call of God and gains wisdom that leads to eternal life.  He understands from Scripture that God is not like one of us.  He is eternal and unchangeable.  Yahweh is the creator of the heavens and the earth.  He is the transcendent and sovereign Lord of the universe.  There is no one like him.  He is all knowing.  He is everywhere and all-powerful.  His wisdom is beyond searching out.
But, most importantly, the righteous man has the Spirit-enabled understanding that God is holy, but also merciful; that God is righteous judge, but also redeemer; that God is wrathful, but also loving Father.
The man of wisdom knows from the Word of God that all is not well with his soul.  He acknowledges that he is a sinner and therefore justly under God’s condemnation.  But he also understands that the “Holy One” is also the Gracious One; the One who promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses and the prophets that he would save his people from their sins and give them eternal life.  In Proverbs 9:11, Solomon writes: the “days” of the wise man “will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life.”
All very well, but isn’t the fear of God something that was for the OT only?  Back then there were all sorts of strict ceremonies and regulations for cleansing in order to come into the presence of God.  Only the high priest could venture into the most Holy Place in the Temple.  In fact, God killed people who did not worship him the way he wanted – remember Nadab and Abihu (cf. Leviticus 10).
Isn’t the God of justice and vengeance a thing of the past?  Has he not been replaced with the God of love in the NT?
        Work out your salvation with fear and trembling
There is no doubt that things are much better for us in the NT compared to the Old.  Think about it.  According to Hebrews 8, unlike OT Israel we do not have an earthly priest but rather a High Priest who is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.  His name is Jesus.  He endured the white-hot wrath of his Father for our sins so that we might have peace with God.  It is because of Christ’s death that we can enter boldly and with confidence into the presence of God: into the Holy place.  Hebrews 8:6, “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.”
Beloved, thanks to our Saviour Jesus we need not be afraid of God’s condemnation for our sins.  The fear of becoming an object of God’s wrath is not part of the Christian life of faith.  But there is, nevertheless, still a kind of “fear of God” that the NT commands of us, which is in continuity with the “fear of the Lord,” which is “the beginning of wisdom” found in our passage this morning in Proverbs 9:10.
In Acts 9:31, Luke speaks about the “church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria… walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.”  In 2 Cor. 7:1, Paul writes: “Since we have these promises beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of the Lord.”  And the again, later, in Philippians 2:12, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  The Apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:17, “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile…
Brothers and sisters, children, to fear God is to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit with the knowledge, first and foremost, that God is absolutely holy and righteous.  And second, to know that we are sinners who would justly be consigned to eternal torment were it not for the death of the eternally begotten Son of God.  To fear God is not to forget that God is a terrible judge.  To fear God is not to take lightly the fact that our sins nailed Jesus to the cross and put him through the most unconscionable spiritual agony.  To fear God is to know our place before him as a mortal sinner saved by his grace.  The fiery storm of God’s wrath as passed over us only because we are safely hidden in the cleft of a Rock, which is Jesus Christ.
This wisdom concerning God’s holy nature and our sin should produce in us a posture of reverence as we live our lives in his presence.  Holy fear should however at the same time converge with unspeakable joy and confidence through faith in our mediator, Jesus.  For, consider whom we now have a relationship with.  You and I are united to the eternal source of truth, beauty, goodness and love.  We have entered into communion with the creator, sustainer and redeemer of humanity.
Does this not fill you with gladness and awe?
Friends, the knowledge of the severity and kindness of God revealed in Christ through his Spirit demands a response that includes holy fear, which is not out of step with true faith.  To waltz into God’s presence as if he is our girlfriend at the drive-through or our entertainer at a rock-concert is wholly incompatible with the serious matter of God’s holiness, our sin and costly grace.  To continue practising a life of lustful indulgence is out of keeping with the reality that we now united to our spotless Saviour who paid the ultimate price for our transgressions.
Indeed, we are to worship God with reverence and awe, for as the writer to the Hebrews in chapter 12 exclaims, he is a consuming fire.  And we are to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual service.  And yet, again, this attitude of holy fear, reverence, awe, gravitas and respect, must also be joined with adoration, honour, worship, confidence, thankfulness and love, as we become aware of being in God’s presence every moment of our lives – and in a special way when we are gathered like this in corporate worship.
        Which way will you choose?
Friends, have you responded to the call of Lady Wisdom or are you “enjoying” a banquet in the grave with the woman of Folly?  Do you know that the one who invites you into God’s house today is Jesus Christ: the fulfillment of the noble wife and the lady of wisdom found in our passage this morning?  According to Paul in 1 Cor. 1:31, Jesus has become to us the incarnation of “wisdom from God,” which is eternal life.
Jesus is the doorway into God’s house.  Will you accept his invitation to come in?  Jesus has prepared a meal with his very own body and blood.  Will you come and drink and never thirst again?  Will you come and eat the bread that has come down from heaven and become immortal?  Let us humble ourselves in the sight of almighty and Holy God and confess that we sinners.  Let us turn away from the fleeting pleasures of sin and put our trust in Jesus Christ who is our Saviour from sin.  Let us behold both the severity and kindness of God revealed in Jesus and walk before God in holy fear and reverence, but also in joy and gratitude, all the days of our lives here on earth, and for all eternity.  Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service (April 28, 2013)