“A Life Listening to Wisdom”
Ecclesiastes 1, Proverbs 1, Psalm 1
June 17, 2018
The wise lifelong-learner learns from the wise and the word.
I. My stance toward worldly wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:1-18)
II. My stance toward people (Proverbs 1:1-33)
III. My stance toward God’s Word (Psalm 1:1-6)
Most of the topics we’ll be studying this summer involve character qualities that push back on our culture to benefit it. Friendship, which we talked about two weeks ago, and hospitality, which we talked about last week, seek to counter the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in our culture. But not every cultural trend is bad, not every cultural idea needs to be eliminated. At times they can be graciously re-directed. This week’s lesson is an example. Currently in the business world there is a practice called “Lifelong Learning.” Wikipedia says “lifelong learning is the ongoing, voluntary, self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. It not only enhances social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development, but also self-sustainability, as well as competitiveness and employability.” Wow. Sounds awesome. In some ways it is, a great idea that we, as Christians, can support.
But. The Christian lifelong-learner needs to be very sensitive as to the source and purpose of the knowledge they pursue. It’s not so much that you learn all your life. We all do. What’s important is who you listen to and what you learn. This morning we’ll look at the first chapter of 3 books of Biblical wisdom, Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. From Ecclesiastes we’ll find out what our attitude needs to be toward worldly wisdom. From Proverbs we’ll find out what our stance can be toward people wise in the things of God, and in Psalms we’ll find the ultimate source of wisdom, the Scriptures. As my tongue twisting key sentence says, the wise lifelong-learner learns from the wise and the word.
Yet this truth, which shouldn’t sound surprising, is a life changing re-direction away from the world’s lifelong learning. The world’s current approach has been tried before and found lacking. The book of Ecclesiastes, where we begin this morning, tells us of the futility that comes when you only focus on life in this world. That’s the problem with culture’s lifelong learning. It only focuses on this world. If you leave God out of the equation you get Wikipedia’s vision: “lifelong learning is the ongoing, voluntary, self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. It not only enhances social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development, but also self-sustainability, as well as competitiveness and employability.”
And then you die. Ecclesiastes teaches us how to view this worldly wisdom. The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
The phrase translated ‘vanity of vanities’ is an emphatic repetition of the Hebrew word ‘hebel,’ which “refers, concretely, to a mist, vapor, or mere breath, and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive. It appears 33 times in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 1:14 “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” The catalog of meaningless things in Ecclesiastes includes almost everything our world, our culture and to some extent we ourselves consider valuable.
Take pleasure, for example. We make a god of pleasure. But Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, the richest and wisest and most foolish of the Hebrew kings tells us “I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.” He says “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” The pursuit of pleasure is meaningless, dust in the wind. As Caroline Cobb says in the song we heard as an offertory “Pleasure is nice, the taste and the touch. But with all your indulgence, you can’t get enough. You can chase every pleasure around every bend. But in the end all this chasin’ is just chasin’ wind”
Notice though that it is not just sensual pleasures he pursues, drugs, alcohol and sex or even comfort, beauty and peace. No. He also pursues pleasure in toil, the Wikipedia vision that focuses lifelong learning on the workplace. “My heart found pleasure in my toil and this was my reward for all my toil.” Implied in the Wikipedia vision, of course, is financial reward, the pursuit of wealth. Ecclesiastes has a lot to say about this, almost none of it good. Ecclesiastes 5:10 “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” So the pursuit of lifelong learning in order to improve your job situation or gain wealth is meaningless.
But more surprising, coming from the wisest man in the world, is the conclusion that the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom itself is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 “I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. 18For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” This is the bottom line. Pleasure, power, money and even wisdom itself, all the goals of traditional lifelong learning, are meaningless.
When I was a hippy freak college student a rock band called Kansas came out with one of the few songs ever based on Ecclesiastes, “Dust in the Wind.” I still listen to it from time to time. “I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone. All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity. Dust in the wind. All they are is dust in the wind. Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea. All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see. Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind.” That’s how Solomon feels about worldly wisdom, riches, pleasure and toil. If our lifelong-learning is intended to get us closer to any of these things, it’s futile, vanity-of-vanities.
Our culture is drenched with meaningless, pretending-to-be-needed knowledge. Here are some headlines from a glance at my Facebook news feed: This revolutionary procedure can safely remove blood clots. Gallery to specify which early American subjects benefitted from slavery. 7 things millennials can actually look forward to in their future. Turkish candidate could offer hope for Brunson. I spend thousands to fly business class, and it’s not worth it. How to survive meeting your in-laws. A message for Californians moving to Arizona. Naill Aslam’s friends fear for his safety. Glitter Pizza is now a thing. An ipad in cap and gown stepped in for a hospitalized student. How much do you know about the weapons and equipment of the Vietnam war. 7 outdoor essentials you need this summer. Why my neighbors called the cops on me. Bombshell Hedy Lamar and the duty to remember. Ugly Delicious season 1 episode 6 fried chicken. 27 Things 60’s kids did that would make you scream.
There you go. Now you’re a lifelong learner. Of course those serious about lifelong learning would scoff at my caricature. “We’re not just looking at internet feeds, we’re learning skills. We’re gaining knowledge. We’re studying human behavior so we can get ahead.” There is merit in some of these things. Learning that helps us understand and glorify God or help others is good. But Solomon says most of what the world offers won’t ultimately do any good.
If what the world offers as lifelong learning is dust in the wind, why am I affirming this as something culture nearly gets right? Because it is. Lifelong learning is a worthy goal if pursued properly. Who are we going to listen to? The wise. What are we going to listen to? The word. The other two books of wisdom literature we’ll scan this morning show these two powerful alternatives.
Proverbs, also mostly written by Solomon, stands in sharp contrast to Ecclesiastes. When writing Ecclesiastes Solomon was keenly aware that human wisdom could not change human patterns of foolishness. But in writing Proverbs, Solomon is saying that godly wisdom can lead to positive change. As he says halfway through the book “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise.”
So let’s briefly look at Proverbs 1 and find out about positive lifelong learning. Proverbs 1:1-5 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: 2To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, 3to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; 4to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth— 5Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.
Do you hear the goal of lifelong learning even in those few verses? In knowing wisdom and instruction, in understanding words of insight, we become people who deal with others wisely and in righteousness, with justice and fairness. This is lifelong learning: “let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.” Notice three things: first, it comes by hearing or listening. Most translations say “let the wise listen.” Being willing to listen is a huge part of lifelong learning. I had a young man in a difficult situation say to me just a few months ago “If only I had listened.” Second, if you are willing to listen it indicates that on some level you are already wise. You know you haven’t learned everything, and by listening to more wisdom you, third, increase in learning. The wise are lifelong learners.
Proverbs 1 goes on to say that lifelong learning has it’s foundation in the fear of the Lord and is accomplished by listening to others. Verse 7: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. 8Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, 9for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.
The fear of the Lord is a marvelous multi-faceted Scriptural concept, foundational to the godly life and to lifelong learning. Some of the facets of this fear awe at his greatness, power, beauty, truth and creativity, true fear of the judgment that flows from his perfect holiness, justice and sinlessness, and practical respect. By respect I mean giving God first place in our lives, deferring to him in everything, to his word, to his ways, to his guidance and to his commands. It also means practicing his presence, day by day and moment by moment awareness of him that brings him the heart of your choices.
But these wise choices often present themselves on the lips of the wise, those who are already walking with God and who care enough to tell us his truth. Verse 10 “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.” Verse 15 “my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths,” which he briefly describes and then says “Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.” Don’t miss, on this Father’s day, that this counsel against foolish greed is counsel from a father to his son. Fathers play a key role as ‘the wise’ in the lives of their children.
Later in the chapter, however, wisdom itself is personified as a woman. Wisdom speaks as ‘the wise,’ ‘the wise woman.’ She says “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” In our culture, for everyone who goes off course by pursing worldly wisdom there are others who go off course by not pursuing wisdom at all. “I don’t want to think about it.” “Don’t confuse me.” “I just want to live my way.” But the wise point out that choices have consequences. Verse 29: “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, 30would have none of my counsel and despised my reproof, 31therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices.”
A huge part of lifelong learning is taking wise counsel seriously. Our culture makes it hard. The voices of the wise are frequently drowned out by the shouting of the know-it-alls. We need to pray for discernment of those wise voices, but we also need to pray for openness, being willing to do what a wise person tells us, even sometimes when we don’t think it’s the right answer. The Wikipedia vision of lifelong learning in service of selfishness is shouted from the screens in your life. But real people, wise people, in some cases your parents, in some cases your friends or better yet your mentors, can guide you into lifelong learning that changes your heart and mind, your attitude and behavior and thus leads to better consequences than the world’s wisdom can provide.
Finally, the third book of wisdom we’ll look at today is the one that points us most concisely to the source of lifelong learning and its consequences. Psalm 1: Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
A wise lifelong-learner learns from the wise and the word. Proverbs teaches us to learn from the wise, but one of the many things the Psalms teach us is to learn from God’s Word. Psalm 1 sets that up beautifully as a contrast between the person whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, and the wicked. Do you see that contrast? This is not, explicitly, a contrast between the righteous and the wicked, which is what you might expect. No, the opposite of someone who is wicked is someone who delights in the law of the Lord. A godly lifelong learner is someone who all his or her life delights in the law of the Lord.
So the questions we need to ask ourselves are, first, am I a lifelong learner who re-directs his path away from the world’s purpose in lifelong learning? Second, am I a lifelong learner who learns and submits to the wise people God brings into my life? And third, am I a lifelong learner who delights in the God’s word? The first and third questions are explicitly addressed in this Psalm.
“Blessed is the man.” God’s blessing comes on the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers. This is a rejection of the world’s wisdom. Sinners, scoffers and the wicked themselves would love to influence your thinking. The whole world system, from twitter and Instagram to TV binging is out there shouting for your attention, trying to get you to focus your time, energy, and thoughts on the mundane and the meaningless. The Wikipedia vision for lifelong learning presses you to pursue the only slightly more noble task of focusing on personal development, self-sustainability, competitiveness and employability.
But God wants you to delight in his word. Don’t miss the word ‘delight.’ Look inside you and think ‘what do I delight in? What brings me delight?’ My daughter Hannah and her husband Darin were here this week with their baby, Adelaide. I didn’t get to spend as much time with her as I’d have liked, but I delighted in my chances to make her smile and half laugh, or to let her fall asleep on my chest. I delight in babies. And I’m sure you have things that bring you delight.
But. Is. Scripture. One of them? Do you regularly light up inside when you see God or his ways or his will through the lens of Scripture. If it’s not a regular thing, this Psalm is handing you a lifelong learning task. Verse 2: his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night. ‘Day and night’ is a poetic way of saying “all the time for all your life.” Lifelong learners have a lifelong relationship of slow steady delight in God through his word.
Verse 3 gives the outcome of this and again it’s a picture of lifelong investment in learning from God’s word. He shall be like a tree. A tree is the opposite of a flower, which is here today and gone tomorrow. A tree is a symbol of permanence, strength and stability, along with life and growth and beauty. So the person who delights in the law and meditates on it day and night is blessed to be like a tree: permanent, strong, stable, living, growing and beautiful.
We all know that trees can die, succumb to disease, storm, or drought. Not this tree. This tree is planted by streams of water that continually sustains it, just as the Scripture sustains the life and strength and stability and growth and beauty and fruitfulness of the believer who delights and meditates in it. He or she is like a tree that is planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. That is, a believer fully alive and fruitful.
The goal of lifelong learning is not to be competitive or employable or even successful in the traditional sense. The goal of lifelong learning is to really live and to be fruitful in praise to God and in the lives of others. The person who listens to the wise, who delights in and meditates in God’s word is this kind of lifelong learner, who ultimately becomes ‘the wise’ for others.
But let’s be honest folks. It’s not particularly easy to become a person who meditates on the law day and night, all the time. Why is that? I mean if we’ve trusted in Jesus to save us from our sins, then we have God the Holy Spirit living within us. And it’s he who illuminates Scripture to us and shows us its delight. Why wouldn’t we put it at the center of our lives and of our lifelong learning?
There are a number of reasons. I could call them excuses but that’s not fair. What they are are hinderances that we somehow need to get past. The first is time. No, not first. We’ll get to time in a moment. The first is conviction. The first hinderance is that I’m not persuaded there really is a connection between my delight and meditation on the word and my strength, stability, growth, beauty, fruitfulness as the believer. Against all odds, against everything that the world teaches, against the wooing of sinners and the rampant doubts of scoffers we cry to God for the conviction that this makes a difference. That’s first.
Second is desire. I hope at least once in life you’ve tasted the delight of Scripture. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist says. This delight is not in Scripture itself, it is in the good, loving, saving, holy, just, eternal, creating, triune, God revealed in Scripture. When you taste something wonderful in the way of food, you desire it. You want to taste it again. That ice cream, that steak, that soup, that bread, that stir-fry, you’ve got to have it again. It’s the same with Scripture. If you a few times persist to the point where you begin to experience and enjoy the taste, the delight, then you’ll begin to desire it again. It’s a positive upward spiral from delight to delight.
Third, let’s be honest here, is literacy. Most of us do not process words as well as our ancestors did in the centuries after the invention of the printing press. We have these other distractions we call screens that supplant words with images, we have audio that supplants the written sentence, and while both of these things, screens and speakers, can communicate truth to delight, they both also lose something precious for those who want to meditate on the law day and night. Meditation requires us to slow down and think, and the written word requires us to think, and the Bible in many places is not an easy book. If reading at the level of Scriptural literacy is painful, that is a barrier to both meditation and delight. This is one of the reasons why I hear, from person after person after person, “I just don’t get anything out of reading Scripture.”
My suggestion is simple: practice, practice, practice, and it gets easier. Just as you persisted in driving and it became second nature to you, so also most people can persist in reading and improve both their ease and their comprehension.
The last barrier is time. We are all too busy. But this is the simplest one to address. The world’s wisdom isn’t doing you much good. A modest adjustment to your priorities will give you the time you need to learn from the wise and the word. How many minutes or hours a day do you spend with Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? How many TV shows have you binge watched in the last year? How much time have you spent learning stuff that will not ultimately bless you, though it may it may be reasonable for getting through this life? I’m not saying these things are sinful or even wrong. I’m saying that you can find a lot of time in your day by reducing these things. I know that on days when I stick to a schedule for checking e-mail and looking at social media, I have way more time for other stuff. I know too that I’m culturally illiterate. I can’t tell you the last TV show I watched. But it’s worth it because hardly a day goes by that I don’t experience “delight,” of one sort or another in God’s word.
I want to close with two very quick images from Scripture. To delight in God’s word is to delight in God. It’s to delight in Jesus. Last week we talked about hospitality from the lives of Martha and Mary. But that image of Mary who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching, that’s the image of a blessed lifelong learner. The other picture is from John 6. Jesus has just been giving some hard teaching about eating his body and drinking his blood, and many of his followers have left. Jesus turns to his twelve disciples and says “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
You, God, have the words of eternal life. Lifelong learning as the world defines it may have value for this life, but lifelong learning from the wise and from the word has value for this life and the life to come. Let’s cry out to God for it.