A Study of Proverbs 4
Things I wish my father had taught me.
As I studied the book of Proverbs in preparation for today’s sermon, I looked up that phrase online. I was amazed to find page after page of blogs and posts and newspaper columns and magazine articles and books devoted to that subject: Things I wish my father had taught me.
Well, that could be the title of the book of Proverbs. The writer of Proverbs understood that the primary place of education for children is the home. It’s not the school. It’s not even the church. It’s the home. And he composed this book within that context, as a father giving advice to his son. Some of the advice is appropriate for young children, and some of the passages sound like a dad giving very plain and explicit advice to his teenager.
The first nine chapters of Proverbs especially convey this concept. Today, let’s dig into Proverbs 4, which I’m going to read to you. I debated whether to do it because it’s a lengthy 27 verses, but then I used my stopwatch to see how long it would take, and it only took two-and-a-half minutes. There is tremendous power to the public reading of Scripture. In fact, that’s where the power is. So follow along as I read:
Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction;
pay attention and gain understanding.
2 I give you sound learning,
so do not forsake my teaching.
3 For I too was a son to my father,
still tender, and cherished by my mother.
4 Then he taught me, and he said to me,
“Take hold of my words with all your heart;
keep my commands, and you will live.
5 Get wisdom, get understanding;
do not forget my words or turn away from them.
6 Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;
love her, and she will watch over you.
7 The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom.
Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
8 Cherish her, and she will exalt you;
embrace her, and she will honor you.
9 She will give you a garland to grace your head
and present you with a glorious crown.”
10 Listen, my son, accept what I say,
and the years of your life will be many.
11 I instruct you in the way of wisdom
and lead you along straight paths.
12 When you walk, your steps will not be hampered;
when you run, you will not stumble.
13 Hold on to instruction, do not let it go;
guard it well, for it is your life.
14 Do not set foot on the path of the wicked
or walk in the way of evildoers.
15 Avoid it, do not travel on it;
turn from it and go on your way.
16 For they cannot rest until they do evil;
they are robbed of sleep till they make someone stumble.
17 They eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence.
18 The path of the righteous is like the morning sun,
shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
19 But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know what makes them stumble.
20 My son, pay attention to what I say;
turn your ear to my words.
21 Do not let them out of your sight,
keep them within your heart;
22 for they are life to those who find them
and health to one’s whole body.
23 Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
24 Keep your mouth free of perversity;
keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
25 Let your eyes look straight ahead;
fix your gaze directly before you.
26 Give careful thought to the paths for your feet
and be steadfast in all your ways.
27 Do not turn to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil.
I think the key verse in this chapter is verse 7: The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom!
Wise up! Use your head! Get some common sense! Think about what you’re doing! That’s especially the theme of the first nine verses. Then the writer goes on to tell his son that if he gets wisdom it will change the direction of his entire life. He will go down a different pathway than most people. He will be taking the road less traveled.
Look at verse 11: I will instruct you in the way [that is, the highway, the roadway, the pathway] of wisdom, and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble.
And verse 14: Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it, turn from it and go your way.
And that brings us to the verses I want to emphasize today – Proverbs 4:18-19:
The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining every brighter until the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.
Several years ago, Katrina and I bought an oil painting of the Texas countryside, with the sun low in the horizon. But she and I had an ongoing disagreement about the painting. She always thought the sun was coming up, and I always thought it was going down. Was it a morning scene or an evening scene? Was it sunrise or sunset? We never knew, but Katrina was usually right about such things.
But here’s my point. It’s very important to know whether the sun is coming up or going down on your life. So let me paraphrase this verse for you. The path of a Christian—the person who is righteous in Christ and who is growing in Jesus—is like the morning sun. That person’s life is like the sun coming up. It gets brighter and brighter until it fills the entire sky. It actually never goes down. The sun never sets for the believer. We go from dawn to midmorning to noon. Our lives get brighter and brighter until we get to heaven. Outwardly we are perishing, but inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
But the life of someone who doesn’t walk with God only gets darker. That person gets dimmer and darker until there’s nothing left but stumbling and falling. The life of the righteous person gets brighter and brighter. The life of the lost person gets darker and darker. That means:
- For the believer, every stage of life is better than the last.
- For the unbeliever, every stage of life is dimmer and darker than the last.
The good news is this: If you wise up, you can change your path. One moment you’re walking toward the setting sun, and the next moment the entire disk of your life turns 180 degrees and you’re walking toward the noon day.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to speak at a conference in New Jersey, and I met a wonderful fellow named Steve. Steve became immoral during high school, and in college he began drinking and drugging. He wanted to be a physical therapist, but he developed drug-induced schizophrenia. His life got darker and darker. When Steve was twenty-two he wised up.
This is how it happened. He got to a very low place and opened his Bible. Steve had two brothers and their names were Matthew and Daniel. So Steve read all the way through the Gospel of Matthew, and then he read all the way through the prophet Daniel. And while reading Daniel, he told me, he heard the voice of God and he found Christ as his Savior and he wised up. He went into the rehabilitation program sponsored by the conference where I was speaking, and he came to every service. One morning, he sent me a text and said, “If I got a couple of the guys together, would you lead us in a Bible study?” I was speaking six times at this conference, but how could I turn that down? We had a wonderful time. Steve told me he’s still being treated for schizophrenia, but he’s also working in a nearby hospital with other patients suffering the same thing. He believes the Lord will make that his life’s work.
He was trying to wise up, and he heard the voice of his heavenly Father as he read Matthew and Daniel, the books for whom his brothers were named, and the horizon rotated 180 degrees. The setting sun became the rising sun.
It is possible to change the direction of your life, but only Jesus Christ can help you do that in a lasting and meaningful way. In fact, Jesus employed this same general concept of life in His Sermon on the Mount, when He said:
“Enter by the straight gate; for wide the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there are who go in there-at. (But) narrow is the gate and straight is the way which leads to life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14, my paraphrase).
Proverbs 4 takes us a little deeper into what it means to get wisdom. We listen to our Heavenly Father and make sure we’re on a path that gets brighter and our lives progress. But that means we must develop the right habits.
I walked into a store the other day and there wasn’t much going on. The sales clerk was sitting down with his nose in a book. I asked, “What are you reading?” He said, “Atomic Habits.” I said, “I’m reading it too.” This book begins with the author, James Clear, telling about a catastrophic injury that nearly cost him his life in high school, but during his recovery he learned the power of making small but habitual improvements to his life. And his thesis is this:
“Changes that may seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits.”
I believe the last part of Proverbs 4 is an ancient biblical version of Atomic Habits. The writer tells his son to develop good habits as it relates to his ears, his heart, his mouth, his eyes, and his feet.
First, we have to establish habits for our ears to hear the Word of God. Look at verses 20-22: My son, pay attention to what I saw; turn your ears to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body.
When I was a child, we were taught in school that the circuitry or wiring of our brains did not change after the age of six or so. Doctors didn’t think the brain produced new cells or new mental pathways. But now we know that isn’t true.
I’m no expert in neuroscience, but this is what I’ve read. A person has 100 billion neurons, and each neuron has thousands of connections. Your brain has over 1,000 trillion connections, but these connections are not permanent. By learning to change the way we think and what we think about, we can actually change the wiring or circuitry of our brains.
If you become immersed in pornography, it changes the neurological circuits in your brain. If you live in fear and anxiety or if you can’t process grief, it affects your mental circuitry. On the other hand, nothing rewires and repairs your brain like Scripture.
So the Lord tells us here: Pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart.
Look at those two phrases: Do not let the Word of God out of your sight. Keep it in your heart.
Total exposure! Constant and total exposure to God’s Word is what keeps your feet headed in the pathway of the rising sun. In Atomic Habits, James Clear talked about how British bicycle racing changed in 2003. Until then, British racers didn’t win anything. They were a laughing stock in world sports. But then the British team hired a new coach—and he had just one key goal. To break down everything that goes into riding a racing bike and improve it by 1 percent. They studied every aspect of the mechanics of racing and determined to improve everything by just 1 percent. Within five years, British cyclists dominated the sport.
Now, let me ask you a question. How can you improve your intake of Scripture by just 1 percent? Here’s an idea. This passage tells us not to let the Bible out of our sight and to keep its words within our hearts. What if you found one verse—just one verse—that you wanted to memorize? What if you took a pack of post-it notes and wrote that verse on about twenty of them? Take the whole week to do it. But one by one, post those 20 sticky notes on your mirror, your refrigerator, your dashboard, your desk. Read it aloud every time you saw it? Soon, you’d have it memorized.
Now what if you had a spiral notebook or a journal and you took one of those sticky notes and stuck it at the top of the first page. Now find a second verse and do that same thing. Within a year, you’d have a significant portion of God’s Word hidden in your heart, along with a notebook recording them in a permanent way for review and for posterity.
Establish habits for your ears to hear the Word of the Lord.
Second, we also need habits for our hearts. Verse 23 says: Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. The older translations say, for out of your heart flow the issues of life.
I don’t have time to dwell on this, but I can sum it up in the verse of an old hymn, which says:
Once earthly joy I craved,
Sought peace and rest,
Now Thee alone I seek.
Give what is best!
Third, we need habits for our mouths. Verse 24 says: Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
We’re living in a day when people have totally lost control of their tongues. Dr. David Jeremiah told me that he was recently in Washington, DC, and was caught in the middle of some of the rioting that exploded near the Willard Hotel. He said, “I have never heard the F-word so many times in my life.”
Sometimes in the evening before bed, I relax by watching a TV show on my iPad. I found a new series that was just up my alley. It was action and adventure and fun. But after about five minutes, I turned it off. I was so disappointed. Every single sentence had that f-word, and the more we hear it the more tempted we are to say it. There’s a new book that celebrates the joy of using profanity and how therapeutic it is. But I don’t believe it, because the Bible says: Keep your mouth free from perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Fourth, we need habits for our eyes. Verse 25 says: Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. In particular, this has become more and more of an issue among teenagers and even children. This week the Wall Street Journal had an article that troubled me very deeply. They cited a study that found 1 in 4 adolescents had received a sexually explicit message. There is an increasing pressure, especially on young girls to send immoral pictures of themselves, to boys. They are pressured to do this online, even in elementary and middle school Many surveyed students said that sharing these messages was something they felt the need to do as a precursor to relationships.
One girl, who is 17, said she has been receiving these solicitations since she was 14. Although some of these are from people she knows, she noted that many of them come to her through her social media. Many of us can hardly imagine dealing with this as far back and junior high, but it’s happening right in front of our eyes. Many students have been convinced that they have to give into this pressure and send improper pictures of themselves, and that it’s an inevitable part of relationships.
We have children in this service. We have middle school and high school and college-age students in this service, and I want to tell you—never, never, never do that. It is wrong for you, and it is wrong in the sight of God. Never do that.
Here we have some advice given by a father to his son 3000 years ago, and it has never been more relevant.
Finally, we need habits for our feet. Verse 26 says: Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left. Keep your foot from evil.
That’s the last verse in the chapter and it says something I had never seen before. What we do with our feet can be evil. This is primarily written to teenagers. This is a dad talking to his teenage son, and he says, in essence, “There are some places you should not go.”
These are habits, but they are the habits of personal holiness. So that is chapter 4 of Proverbs. A dad says to his children, listen to my words. Choose the right roads in life. One pathway becomes brighter and brighter, and the other will grow darker and darker. You have to choose the right pathway and then develop the habits of holiness.
That is how you get wisdom!
Last fall, I was leaving San Diego to return home, and a family was in front of me in security. It was a father, mother, and three children. There was some confusion among them. The little boy, who was about six or seven, was crying and the father was very angry. The mother and daughters were tense. Apparently, the boy had tried to take his toy gun on board the plane, and the TSA had taken it away. I’ve had that happen when I was traveling with a grandson, so I know the routine. The father said, “I told you not to bring that. I told you to put it in the luggage. Now you’ve lost it.” That just made the little fellow cry more.
When we all got through security, I looked through my backpack to see if I had anything to give to the little fellow. Well, I didn’t. The only thing I had was a New Testament. So I went up to the father and said, “I’m sorry your son lost his toy. Would you mind if I gave him this little book. It’s a New Testament.”
The man said, “No. We are atheists. He doesn’t want it.”
I said, “Well, would you mind if I gave it to you.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t want it.”
Well, I wisely backed off because I didn’t want to provoke him. But I can still see that little boy looking at me and looking at the New Testament in my hands—which he wasn’t allowed to have. And as I boarded my flight, I prayed that one day he would discover the wonderful wisdom in this little book.
The beginning of wisdom is this—get wisdom. Listen to the voice of God, choose the right path, and develop godly habits. You’ll find…
The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter until the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.
Or, to paraphrase an old song, “Every day with Jesus is brighter than the day before.”