November 1st, 2015

Godly wisdom reminds us that things are not as they seem.

Proverbs 14:8-15

What we want

Today is our fifth Sunday teaching on the book of Proverbs at Corinth. The first week we pondered the thesis of the book: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). The second week our guest speaker, Dr. Curt Thompson, used Proverbs 4 to remind us, “Wisdom is not about finding a thing. It’s about finding a Person who is looking for me.” The third week I took that theme further from Proverbs 8, comparing Wisdom your favorite teacher.

Last week we looked at Proverbs 10, a black and white passage in our world of gray. There are two destinations and two paths to get there. In the words of Proverbs 10:27, “The fear of the LORD adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short.” Remember, though, proverbs are principles, not promises. It doesn’t mean that everyone who fears the Lord lives long on the earth, or that all who die young are wicked.

In an earlier sermon I asked who’s in need of wisdom. Almost every hand went up. I suspect when we think about needing wisdom we want help for making good decisions. Should I buy that car? Which school is right for my child? In a difficult relationship, is this the moment to confront, forgive, or wait? Should we eat out tonight or make dinner at home? Do I go to the doctor or wait to see if I feel better tomorrow? Proverbs won’t directly answer those questions. It won’t tell you if you should take that job or adopt that child or break up with that boyfriend. So what’s the point?

A passage like today’s reading in Proverbs never mentions God, just like the song we heard for special music today, “For Good” by Stephen Schwarz. So what’s the point?

Verse by verse

What’s new in Proverbs 14:8-15? Let’s first take a brief look at the verses.

8 The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways,

but the folly of fools is deception.

“Prudent” means “clever,” and cleverness can be good or bad. Here the word is used positively. Clever people are thoughtful, but fools are easily deceived.

9 Fools mock at making amends for sin,

but goodwill is found among the upright.

If you have a Bible other than the New International Version, verse 9 may read quite differently. The Hebrew is notoriously hard to translate.[1] Let’s skip it for now.

10 Each heart knows its own bitterness,

and no one else can share its joy.

Every life is lonely to some degree, and those who experience unique suffering or blessing can never full share it. No one else can fully grasp what you feel.

11 The house of the wicked will be destroyed,

but the tent of the upright will flourish.

There are three contrasts: house v. tent, wicked v. upright, destroyed v. flourish. Bottom line: a good life in a shack will have a better end than an evil life in a mansion.

12 There is a way that appears to be right,

but in the end it leads to death.

Have you ever made a decision that seemed to be a no brainer at the time, and it backfired? Sometimes the obvious choice will end up destroying you.

13 Even in laughter the heart may ache,

 and rejoicing may end in grief.

Just because someone is laughing doesn’t mean all is OK. Even if’s OK now, it may not last. Outward emotions never tell the whole story and are always temporary.

14 The faithless will be fully repaid for their ways,

and the good rewarded for theirs.

A faithless life and a good life will both be appropriately rewarded. Once again, it may not look like this at all now. But just wait. You reap what you sow.

15 The simple believe anything,

but the prudent give thought to their steps.

We return to the contrast we started with – between those who are “prudent” and their counterpart. The clever carefully weigh the pros and cons, but the simple are impulsive and gullible.

The X-factor

As with Proverbs 10, the verses we read appear at first to be somewhat random. Even within chapter 14, we just selected 8 verses. Remember, though, that the chapter and verse divisions in the Bible as we know them were not added until the 16th century, which means that Proverbs as a collection existed 2000 or more years without them.

What if the groupings of proverbs are not as random as they seem at first? We saw last week that chapter 10 actually encompasses a coherent theme of two destinations (life or death) and two paths (righteous or wicked). You may have noticed as we went through our text today that some themes were repeated in these verse: prudence (cleverness), emotions, and appearances, for example.

On careful examination, the sayings in Proverbs 14:8-15 are apparently arranged in a chiastic construction. “Chiastic” comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like an “X.” The best definition I’ve heard of chiasm this week came from Brent Fox, who led our Tuesday morning Bible study. He said a chiasm is “the same things said twice, backwards.”[2]

Here’s a famous American example: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy used chiastic construction to help you remember his speech. Here’s another brief example: “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” Will Rogers said of Congress, “Every time they make a joke it’s a law. And every time they make a law it’s a joke.”

Chiasm occurs all over the Bible,[3] usually in longer forms than the examples I just quoted. Studying the Bible without understanding chiasm is like ignoring parables or metaphors. Let’s look at the chiastic structure of today’s text.

A – Prudence: Clever people are thoughtful, but fools are easily deceived (8)

B – __________ (?): Fools mock, but the upright have good will (9)

C – Emotions: No one can fully grasp the inner world of others (10)

D – Appearances: The size of your house may be illusive (11)

D1 – Appearances: An obvious choice might destroy you (12)

C1 – Emotions: Outward merriment doesn’t tell the whole story (13)

B1 – Reward: Faithlessness and goodness will both be repaid (14)

A1 – Prudence: Clever people are thoughtful, but fools are gullible (15)[4]

What’s the point of talking about chiasm? Chiasm helps us twice with this passage. First, it helps us with verse 9. If this is a chiastic construction, we can fill in the blank by comparing with verse 14. It means something similar to or parallel to verse 14, with a theme of “reward.” It probably means something like, “God rewards fools with guilt, but rewards the upright with blessing.”[5]

More significantly, we now know what the whole section is about. A chiasm’s point is the point of the chiasm. What’s in the middle of the “X” is the main theme. In the example, “Winners never quit and quitters never win,” the point of the saying is, “Don’t quit.” Stop focusing on whether you will win or not. Just don’t quit.

If the chiasm’s point is the point of the chiasm, Proverbs 14:8-15 is about appearances. Things are not what they seem. People who live in tents might be better off if they are “upright” (11). The way that appears to be right might destroy you (12).

If that’s the point, it helps us understand and apply the rest of the chiasm.

Prudence (8, 15). Worldly wisdom says when you’re making a decision, “Go with your gut.” I don’t know about your gut, but mine wants to eat all the leftover Halloween candy. Mine wants to pull out the credit card and buy something I can’t afford. Godly wisdom says, “Things aren’t always what they seem. Don’t trust your impulses. That’s the way of the fool. Be clever about it. It’s not that your first impulse is always wrong, but slow down and be thoughtful.”

Reward (9, 14). Worldly wisdom says, “You only go around once in life, so go for all the gusto you can.” In other words, all the reward you’re going to get in life is now and visible. Godly wisdom says, “Things are not what they seem. What will this decision look like from a future perspective, even from an eternal perspective?” Today is All Saints Day, a day when we remember the “great cloud of witnesses”[6] who have preceded us into the next life. Some are enjoying the presence of the Lord. Others are suffering like the rich man in Lazarus in Jesus’ parable.[7] They are all telling us that the rewards of our actions are not immediate. Just because a particular decision led me into more trouble than I thought it would doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision. Rewards are not immediate.

Emotions (10, 13). Worldly wisdom says, “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” Do you know who penned those words? In 1977 Joseph Brooks wrote “You Light Up My Life” as the title song for a movie. The song declared about love, “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” Thirty years later Brooks was indicted on 91 counts of rape, sexual assault, and other charges committed while he was a screenwriter, composer, and director. He committed suicide before he could be tried. It makes me wonder how many vulnerable young actresses succumbed to that line, “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” Apparently it can be wrong.

Godly wisdom says, “Things are not what they seem. Don’t trust your emotions.” It’s not that emotions are bad – they are God-given. But precisely because your feelings are so private (10) and because happy feelings often cover up what’s really inside (13), be careful when you make commitments and decisions based on the fact that you’ll feel better in the short term.

So what’s the point?

So it turns out that Proverbs does help us with our daily decisions. It also turns out that God is all over this passage even though he’s not named. People who wrote and preserved the proverbs were just like us – people who worshiped God and studied the Bible but lived out their lives making decisions and choices without a clear teaching of the Bible to guide them. I believe that’s intentional on the Holy Spirit’s part.

But here’s the thing. They were people with a God-centered life. You may say, “Well, Solomon wasn’t.” True, if you’re talking about the end of his life. I suspect that his collection of proverbs came more toward the beginning of his life. And in any case, the whole collection was preserved, edited, and refined over hundreds of years by those whose worldview was shaped by the knowledge that there is a God who created us and to whom we are accountable. If we went by appearances we might think there is no God, or that he doesn’t care, or that there are no consequences if we flaunt his law, or that bad people get away with it. Wisdom knows better. Wisdom shaped by a biblical worldview knows that what seems to be true might not be. Wisdom understands that things are not what they seem.

So how do you know if it’s wrong even though it feels right? Jesus said it’s the narrow path that leads to life and the broad one that leads to destruction.[8] A biblical worldview will tell you to doubt your instincts about a given path if it’s (1) quicker, (2) easier, or (3) more popular. Not everything that is quicker and easier and popular is bad; otherwise I wouldn’t have an iPhone, which is all three, as is an automobile and a washing machine and a laptop. Remember that proverbs are principles, not promises. They’re not absolutes. But wisdom runs from get-rich-quick schemes. Wisdom casts doubt on what everyone’s doing. Wisdom sneers at the fad diet or the momentary pleasure.

Like salmon, wisdom swims upstream. You say, “Bob, bad example. Salmon swim upstream to die.” No, it’s a good example of godly wisdom. Do you remember that great chiasm from Jesus? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”[9] The chiasm’s point is the point of the chiasm: life. The way to find life is to lose it. Things are not always what they seem. Amen.



[1] Click here for various translations. Part of the problem is that the subject is plural in Hebrew, but the verb is singular in the first line of the proverb – literally, “fools mocks guilt.”

[2] “Chiasmus” is the term more often used outside the Bible, usually just the crossing of single words or phrases. Overlapping terms include inverted parallelism, syntactical inversion, and antimetabole.

[3] Google “Chiasm in the Bible” for web sites that offer examples. Click here for one of them.

[4] The use of the superscript1 in the second part of the pair is borrowed from math. Usually referred to as “A-prime” (for example), this indicates that the matching line is a derivative of the original.

[5] The first line of verse 9 in the NIV reads, “Fools mock at making amends for sin.” There is probably an implied subject, “God,” and “making amends for sin” is one Hebrew word, which can be translated “sin,” “offering,” or “guilt.” Using chiasm to compare the parallel verse (14), the meaning is something like “God mocks fools with the reward of guilt.” The second line of the verse reads in the NIV, “but goodwill is found among the upright.” The Hebrew literally reads, “But with the upright there is favor.” Again, if the theme is reward, the meaning is more like, “God rewards the upright with favor (or blessing).”

[6] Hebrews 12:1

[7] Luke 16:19ff.

[8] Matthew 7:13-14.

[9] Mark 8:35.

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