We’ve spent 4 weeks reading through Ecclesiastes working out how that sort of wisdom literature fits with the rest of God’s revelation of himself and I hope we discovered that it fits well. But I thought we might round that series off with a short excursion into Proverbs, in particular to think about how families might be wise in living not just under the sun but also under heaven.
Now if you’re not living as part of a family right now please don’t turn off or go to sleep. I think you’ll find there are things in this that will be applicable to you as much as they will to fathers and mothers and children.
But let me begin by asking whether it matters how families behave? If you’ve seen the statistics on marriage and divorce lately you might think it can’t hurt. I think it’s something like 40 to 50% of marriages in Australia end in divorce and it’s only getting worse. The cultural changes we’ve experienced over the past 50 years have meant it’s getting harder and harder to raise a family with any success. So any help we can get must be a good thing. And where better to go for help than to the one who made us the way we are?
But notice that the wisdom we find here isn’t just about avoiding the pitfalls, of surviving being a family. It’s actually about maximising the benefits there are in being a family. The basic premise of the Bible is that families were created by God as the basic unit of social structure. And he did this before the fall. So families are part of God’s design for his perfect creation. Marriage was ordained to create a nuclear community of mutual love and support. Marriage is meant to reflect the nature of the community that God has planned for all his people in the new Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, though, families are now a fallen social institution so we need rules to govern how we live. We need boundaries that will enable us to experience the love and freedom that God desires for us. The family is the setting in which most children and young people develop their value systems and their world view, where they learn personal discipline, tolerance, patience and care for others. When children are brought up without these values, these skills, without boundaries on their behaviour, they end up less balanced people.
So what can we do that will produce families that produce godly people?
Well Proverbs isn’t a how-to book. It’s not like a Reader’s Digest ready reckoner on life. It isn’t organised neatly along categories that we might want to study chapter by chapter. Rather it address its many themes in almost random order. So what we need to do is find out some of the things it says about what makes up a good family. So let’s start with
A Wise Husband
Proverbs has a lot to say about wise husbands and fathers. In fact because of its historical context it tends to concentrate much more on husbands than it does on wives, though we will get to wives in a moment.
What makes a husband wise?
- He fears the Lord. 1:7 "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." Clearly the first criterion for a wise husband is that he fears the Lord. That sounds good but what does it actually mean? What does it mean for him to fear the Lord? In other words what does it look like in terms of his character and behaviour?
- He’ll be a righteous person. I guess if you fear the Lord then your behaviour is going to be above reproach isn’t it? You might be able to fool your neighbours but you’ll never fool God. If you fear the Lord then you’ll be working at being a righteous person inwardly as well as outwardly and then you’ll teach your children to be righteous as well.
But let me issue a warning here. Sometimes men try so hard to be righteous that they forget love. They try to impose righteousness on their children by fear rather than growing it through love. Through Christ we’ve discovered that true righteousness comes from a personal relationship with God. So be careful that love is the driving force in seeking righteousness from your children. But more of that later.
- He’ll be a servant. If you fear the Lord then you’ll want to be like the Lord, so you’ll be someone who’s desire is to serve others. As a husband and father that means your desire will be to serve your wife and family. In fact isn’t that what God tells husbands to do in Eph 5&6? There he tells us to love our wives the way Christ loved the Church - and gave himself up her.
- He’ll think ahead. A good husband is like a good boy scout. He always prepared. Prov 24:27: "Prepare your work outside, get everything ready for you in the field; and after that build your house." I’m not sure if that’s also a justification for a man’s backyard shed, but it might well be!
- He’ll avoid the Femme Fatale
Chs 5, 6 & 7 have a lot to say about the folly of adultery and the hole men dig for themselves when they forget the gift of God that they have in marriage. According to Proverbs the adulterer loses dignity, wealth and health. If you doubt that just talk to someone who’s had an affair that’s ended in divorce. And if you remember back to when we looked at this issue in 2006, this particular temptation is one that creeps up on you by stealth. No-one ever sets out to have an affair. They just happen because one or both people are being foolish, closing their eyes to the destination to which they’re heading, and convincing themselves that what they’re receiving is true love.
But the wise husband avoids those traps by staying close to home, where his wife, if she’s the sort of wise wife we’re about to talk about, will give him the true love he’s looking for.
- He’ll value and praise his wife
Finally love shows itself in the way the wise husband values and praises his wife. Prov 18:22: "He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the LORD." One of the reasons I think men have affairs is that they’ve never really thought about what a great gift God has given them in their wife. We husbands need to realise what a treasure we’ve been entrusted with. And we need to let our wives know that we value them. In Proverbs 31, as the writer is telling us about the wise woman he also tells us about the wise husband: 31:28-31 "Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: 29"Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all."" When was the last time you told your wife that’s she’s the best thing that ever happened to you?
I actually wonder whether there’s a circular effect going on here. The wise woman acts the way she does to some extent because she realises that she’s valued. And the husband values her because she acts wisely.
- He communicates with his wife. Proverbs is honest about life though, so it warns us to speak the truth. Communication is the key to a good marriage. So in 27:5&6 he says: "Better is open rebuke than hidden love. 6Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy." A marriage where the couple never talk to each other is doomed to failure. Even if it’s a complaint it’s better than silence. And if something’s bugging you it’s much better to talk about it than to pretend it’s not there, just as it’s no good loving someone secretly. They need to know how you feel if it’s going to be reciprocated.
A Wise Wife
Well that’s the wise husband. What about a wise wife? Well the definitive description is in ch31. There we discover that she too
- She fears the Lord
31:30: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised." In other words spiritual beauty is far more than skin deep.
- She’s faithful to her husband
This isn’t mentioned directly but the adulteress is depicted in sharp contrast to the wise woman who remains faithful to the partner of her youth. (2:16You will be saved from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, 17who forsakes the partner of her youth and forgets her sacred covenant;)
- She provides for her family: 14:1 "The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands." And in ch 31 we see that idea filled out with the wise woman being portrayed as a person of great enterprise who uses all her great skill and energy to bring success and prosperity to her household. If anyone ever suggests that a woman’s place is in the home then get them to read Prov 30:10-31. The picture there is of a woman who goes out into the halls of commerce buying and selling, managing enterprises so her family can live in comfort no matter what happens.
- She desires to bring her husband honour
A wise wife, like a wise husband desires her spouse to be honoured and so does all she can to bring that honour to him. 12:4: "A good wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones." In other words the foolish wife destroys a husband like bone cancer.
- She’s not quarrelsome
Obviously nagging wives have been around for a long time. 21:9, 19: "Better to live on the corner of a roof or in the desert than with a quarrelsome or ill-tempered wife."
27:15: "A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day" She’s like a leak in the roof, persistent and annoying. You do see couples where the wife is always picking a quarrel. We saw the play "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" last year. It tells the story of a dysfunctional couple who, although they love each other, can only communicate by picking fights. It’s a tragic story that’s too often acted out in real life.
But the wise wife won’t be like that. Like her husband she values the gift that God has given her in her husband.
Well that’s the two individual stories, but what about the two together. What makes for ideal parents.
- They work together to raise their children. The book begins with: 1:8 "Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching." Although, as I said, the emphasis in much of Proverbs is on the father, simply because that was the cultural setting in which it was written, there’s a real sense in which the two are seen as equals before their children. Together they build their house, together they teach their children wisdom. (10:1; 24:27; 14:1; 31:26)
- They recognise that the child needs discipline and training
22:15: "Folly is bound up in the heart of a boy, but the rod of discipline drives it far away." 22:6 "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray."
Of course we don’t like the idea of rods for discipline any more do we? I guess we’ve seen too many examples of the sort of discipline I mentioned earlier where men sought righteousness through fear rather than through love. But that doesn’t mean that we forget discipline. There are other ways to discipline that are just as effective. I’ve seen my daughter apply "Time out" to our grandchildren very effectively. But to fail to discipline is to do our children a disservice: 13:24 "Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them." I think some parents occasionally forget who are the parents and who are the children. So they let their children decide for themselves how they’ll behave even if the parents know they’re making the wrong decision. I’ve seen this over and over again, for example, with children who don’t want to go to church and their parents just roll over and give in, rather than saying something like, "Yes we’re all going to Church because we’re part of God’s community, God’s family, and that’s what God’s family does. No discussion." It’s like eating decent food. We might occasionally go to McDonalds or KFC but our general rule is we eat healthy food - "Yes, including your vegetables." Sometimes we think that the pain isn’t worth it, but the long term result if we give in on issues like this is that they leave the Church and therefore they leave God altogether and are left to face an eternity in that state. Now they may do this anyway in the end, but while you have the responsibility for raising your children, be wise about it.
- They respect the child’s dignity and themselves exemplify wise behaviour: 4:3"When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favorite, 4he taught me, and said to me, ’Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live.’" As I said before, godly discipline arises out of a relationship of love. So it needs to be couched in tenderness, in understanding; it involves explanation as well as punishment. And so in the first few chapters we see a father carefully explaining to his son the repercussions of wisdom and folly. Eph 6:4 warns: "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."
Well, we’ve nearly run out of time. Let me just finish by pointing to some of the wisdom of Proverbs to help us know
Where to begin
- With humility, 15:33: "The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility goes before honor." It’s much better to start with humility when it comes to raising children because it won’t be long before they’ll be pointing out very clearly how little you know and how dumb you are. Better to admit it from the start and let them discover for themselves that you’ve actually learnt a few things in your time.
- With confession, 28:13: "No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy." To start with confession is to start acknowledging that we’re as fallen as our children are. Which is just an extension of humility really isn’t it?
- With Faith, 16:3: "Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established." There are no guarantees with raising children. Any parent will tell you that they’ve made lots of mistakes, their children haven’t always followed the paths they’ve set out for them and there’s no end of guilt associated with being a parent. But in the end all we can do is trust them to the Lord and ask him to work in their hearts to bring about what he desires for them.
Our part is to do all we can to be people who fear the Lord and who model the worship of him in every aspect of our lives to our children.
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