Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.Proverbs 9:9-10
What does it mean to live wisely? This is not something that we think about too often in our worship services. We usually think more about what it means to live faithfully. But there are a number of places in God’s Word that focus on living wisely. One of the most obvious places is the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs is a book that we don’t hear from very often on Sunday mornings. But we do today – in our First Reading. And it is a reading which really focuses on what it means to live wisely. And the rest of the chapter focuses on the opposite, on what it means to live foolishly. And the choice – to live wisely or to live foolishly – is placed before all who read this thought-provoking chapter.
It seems like an easy choice, doesn’t it? Who would not want to live wisely?! But one look around our world is evidence enough that many people choose to live foolishly. And one (honest) look at our own lives is evidence enough that we ourselves sometimes choose to live foolishly. Or at least, we sometimes make foolish choices.
Why do we do that? And how might we live more wisely? That is what Proverbs 9 is all about. It is a story with two characters – Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly. They both offer an invitation to join them. And both of their invitations are tempting, as we shall see.
So let’s look first at Lady Folly. We hear a great description of her beginning in verse 13. Lady Folly is loud, we read; she is ignorant, and she knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, “You who are simple, turn in here!” And to those without sense she says, “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
So, first of all, Lady Folly is loud. It reminds me of going to a movie theater, where the previews always seem to be much louder than the movie itself. As if being loud will force us to pay attention. Isn’t that why our voices get louder in an argument? We demand to be heard, and think that louder will get the job done.
Lady Folly demands to be heard, to be noticed, and she will do anything to get our attention. When we are trying to go straight on our way, to live our life wisely and well, Lady Folly calls out loudly to us, and invites us to join her for a feast. It is a feast, she says, of stolen water, and bread eaten in secret. Think about that description of Lady Folly’s feast – stolen water, and bread eaten in secret.
Stolen water. This seems to me to symbolize the shortcut, the easy way out, the quick fix. And this is often tempting. But never right. And never wise. And how about the bread eaten in secret? When there are secrets in our life, it’s usually a good sign that Lady Folly has made her appearance. Secret meals, secret encounters, secret actions. These are enticing, perhaps, but almost never wise. Stolen water and secret bread may satisfy our immediate desires, but they never feed our hungry souls. The meal that truly satisfies that hunger is provided by Lady Wisdom.
Lady Wisdom appears in the beginning of Proverbs 9, and, as with Lady Folly, Lady Wisdom invites us to a meal. But it is a very different meal. Not a meal of stolen water and secret bread, but a meal of wine that she herself has prepared, and bread which she herself has made. Think about the contrast here. There is no shortcut to making wine. It is the total opposite of stolen water. It requires planning ahead, work, patience, persistence. All the things that Lady Folly abhors.
And the bread that Lady Wisdom offers, unlike the bread eaten in secret with Lady Folly, is eaten in the house that Wisdom herself has built, with its seven pillars, and its strong foundation. Lady Wisdom offers us a very different meal, indeed. One that satisfies our hungry souls. But where is this meal to be found? How do we accept the invitation from Lady Wisdom?
The Fear of the Lord
At the heart of Proverbs 9, between the descriptions of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly, is the most famous verse in this chapter, and the one that shows us where true wisdom is to be found. Verse 10 says:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.Proverbs 9:10
Wisdom begins with fear of the Lord. We often think about this phrase in a rather negative way, wondering why a God who is so filled with love would want us to not only love God but also fear God. But I think this is a very important dimension of our faith, and a very important requirement for living wisely. After all, isn’t it wise to fear the One who created us? Or, to put it differently, what would the opposite of this be? The opposite of fearing the Lord would be to be completely unafraid of God. Wouldn’t that be a foolish thing to do?
To fear God is simply to take God seriously. It is where true wisdom begins. Taking God seriously, believing that our Lord is real and present in our world and in our lives. Seeking to obey God’s commandments, to serve only God. This is where true wisdom begins.
Of course, there will be naysayers. The “Lady Follys” of the world will always be around, mocking those who seek to live wisely. Fearing the Lord, doing God’s will. Choosing to love our enemies as well as our friends. Choosing to live as stewards rather than owners of our worldly belongings. Daring to trust God in times of trial and temptation. Believing that our prayers, our worship, matter. Trusting that this life is not all that God wants for us. Building our lives on the fear of the Lord will always seem foolish to the one content to drink stolen water and eat bread in secret. But it is the path of wisdom offered to us by the Lord our God.
But if we really want to look at Wisdom in God’s Word, we as Christians shouldn’t stop there. We shouldn’t stop with the invitation in the Book of Proverbs to live wisely. We should go one step further, and take note of the fact that Lady Wisdom invites us to a very familiar banquet. Where bread and wine is served. Where her servants are sent out to invite everyone to come and eat of this bread and drink of this wine. We shouldn’t stop without seeing the obvious similarities between the meal that Lady Wisdom offers, and the meal that God’s Son offers.
Because for us, Jesus is Wisdom personified. Who prepares a place for us at His table. Who labors and sacrifices His life on the cross to provide the bread of life for us. Who invites all who are hungry to come to him. Who invites all who are weary to come to him. To eat his bread, to take up his yoke, to learn from, and find true wisdom, and with it true rest.
Wisdom begins with fearing the Lord. But it ends with accepting the invitation to come to Jesus to learn from he who is “gentle and humble in heart.” Come to him and hunger no more.
When we as Christians think about living wisely, you might say, we actually end up in the same place as when we think about living faithfully. We end up with Jesus. We end up at church. We end up at the foot of the cross, and at the Lord’s Table. We end up right where we started our Christian journey, giving thanks to God for Jesus, God’s Son, who is Wisdom for us. It is Jesus who invites us to live wisely by coming to Him and learning from Him. It is Jesus who incarnates and extends Lady’s Wisdom invitation to “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” He invites us to eat and to rest. And then? To go and to live wisely and faithfully, until the day when he calls us home to the place that he himself has built. Thanks be to God. Amen.
3 thoughts on “Learning to Love Lady Wisdom: My Sermon on Proverbs 9”
Thanks for this great study. I am currently memorizing James with a cohort in our mission and this week’s verses are at the end of chapter 3. So I had just put in a cross-reference to Proverbs 9! Your words underline and enrich my meditations and conclusions this week.
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Thank you so much for this comment, and blessings to you as you memorize James. It is a great letter, and I will be leading a Bible Study on it beginning next week.