Diary of a Wise Old Man
August 28, 1994
“Wisdom calls aloud in the street. She raises her voice in the public squares. At the head of the noisy streets she cries out. In the gateways of the city she makes her speech.” Proverbs 1:20-21
We are beginning a new sermon series. In order to get it off on the right foot, I’d like to ask you to take your Bible and turn with me to Proverbs 1:1-7. The title of this series is “Street Smarts, a Handy Guide to Streetwise Living”. Wisdom cries from the streets. What we want to do in the following sermons is get street smart. There is church smart, there is book smart, there is school smart, and then there is street smart.
As I begin, I want to make a little exhortation. I want to encourage you to open your Bible every time you’re reading one of these sermons. These sermons will not be nearly as helpful to you without your Bible. This will be really practical, nitty-gritty, not much theory, right down where you live, right where the rubber meets the road. I want you to follow along with me in your Bible because most of the sermons will not be like this one. This one will be just in this one passage. But most of the sermons in this series will take you all over the book of Proverbs, putting verses together, and you will be lost without your Bible.
I imagine that many of you know who William Bennett is. During the Reagan-Bush years he was the Secretary of Education. After that he was the drug czar. After that he resigned from government and went into private consulting practice and began making speeches and writing columns around the country. He became moderately well known. However, about eight or nine months ago, possibly a year ago, his name burst on the national scene in a big way because of a book—a book that he didn’t write. It’s a book that he basically edited, an anthology of stories, short stories, poems, and sayings put together by him called The Book of Virtues. It’s a great book. It’s thick, over 700 pages long, and you wouldn’t think that a hard back book that long would be a best seller. This week it’s on the Best Seller list. It’s been on the list ever since the day it was released. It has sold over 1,000,000 copies, at about $20-25 a copy.
A best selling book.
What’s in the book? Why is it a best seller? Basically, it is a book of stories arranged around nine virtues or characteristics of a good or wise or virtuous person. There are a whole bunch of stories about hard work, perseverance, courage, compassion, faith, and several others. In those sections there are famous poems and short stories that illustrate what the virtue of perseverance, or compassion, or faith, or hard work looks like in real life. It is interesting that out of all the things that are being sold today, this thick book should be a best seller.
William Bennett wrote an article in the September 1994 issue of Ladies Home Journal. The article is entitled “How to Teach Children Values”. This is the first sentence.
“We live in an era that almost seems dedicated to the corruption of the young, to assuring the loss of children’s innocence before their time.” Then he goes on to give some statistics in the very first paragraph. He says, “Since 1960, there has been more than a 500% increase in violent crime, more than a 400% increase in out of wedlock births, tripling of the percentage of children living in single parent homes, tripling of the teenage suicide rate, doubling of the divorce rate, a drop of almost 75 points in the SAT scores of our students. In comparison with the other nations of the industrialized world, the U.S. ranks at or near the top in the rate of abortion, divorce and unwed births. We lead the industrialized world in murder, rape and violent crime. Intelligent public policy can address some of our plights, but we need to recognize that many of the problems afflicting society today are moral problems, and therefore, remarkably resistant to government cures.”
“After much debate they passed the great crime bill up in Washington—$30,000,000,000 of anti-crime legislation. I know that it has been very controversial. After it was passed, the President said, ‘This is going to make every home and every street in America a safer place.’ I hope and pray that is the truth. But do you feel any safer today? Do you think the streets of your town are going to be measurably different because they passed this huge crime bill in Washington D.C.? I’m not making a political statement at this point. I am just saying that if you really want to get to the root problem of crime, you’re not going to solve it in Washington, D.C. That’s probably the worst place in all of America to solve that problem. The real answer to the perils of our times is that we simply must become more civilized, and the best way to become more civilized is to inculcate virtue in our children. We must pay attention to something that every civilized society has given great importance: instilling in our children some real traits of character. Traits like honesty, compassion, courage, perseverance, altruism and fidelity to one’s commitments.”
We must instill real traits of character in our children.
Bennett is not the only one saying that. Even such a liberal icon as Newsweek Magazine came out about with it two months ago, on June 13, 1994, in their cover story. This is what really got my mind moving toward this sermon series. There was a painting of three pictures on the cover—Hillary Clinton, Bill Bennett and Peggy Noon. Underneath the picture it said, “The new virtue-crats.” Not aristocrats, but virtue-crats, holding up those three people who are calling for our nation to return to the teaching of what we used to call old fashioned character and is now called virtue, those traits that Bill Bennett was just talking about.
What’s a Virtue-Crat?
If you read the article, it says that there has been a fraying of the moral fabric of America, that in American today we no longer believe anything is right, we no longer believe anything is wrong, therefore we’re not sure what’s virtuous and what’s not virtuous. The article quotes a survey from this year in which 76% of all Americans surveyed said that America is in a serious moral and spiritual decline. That’s three out of four. (I want to ask what’s wrong with the other 24%!) All you have to do is walk out the door or turn on the TV or read the newspaper or go to a public school or go to a modern office place, and you will see what’s wrong with America today. We have lost the concept of character and virtue.
Have you ever heard that five minute program on the radio by Chuck Colson called “Turning Point”? It’s sort of a commentary. He had a word about this a few weeks ago. He said that America now has gone down to such a point that we basically have done something that has never happened in the whole history of America. Because we have moved away from a moral spiritual foundation, we have now at the end of the 20th century, for the first time raised an entire generation of young people who have no conscience. He said we have a whole generation of teenagers, pre-teens and young adults who have no conscience because their parents have no sense of morality or right and wrong. Since the parents had nothing, they had nothing to pass along to their teenagers. So we are raising a group of young people today who know not the difference between what is right and what is wrong.
An entire generation without a conscience.
Tony Evans, preaching on the same subject, made this observation. The situation in the American cities is this. If you are walking down the street late in the day and you are by yourself and you see a group of teenager kids coming down the street toward you, they are laughing and goofing off and talking, it doesn’t matter the race involved, black, white, Asian or Hispanic, if you’re by yourself and you see a group of kids you don’t know coming down toward you, your first thought is, I’d better cross the street, because I don’t know what these teenagers are going to do. That is why here in Oak Park people are scared to walk the streets. That is why on Harrison Street they are scared. That’s why they have the parents patrolling Riem Park this summer. We have raised a generation without a moral conscience.
What is virtue? A virtue is a universally agreed-upon standard of moral and ethical behavior, like honesty, like compassion. Bill Bennett is right. If we want to change America, what we have to do is go back to the basics, back to things like character and virtue. What has really happened all around us is that our society has lost the concept of absolute standards. We are now living in what Newsweek calls the “age of enlightenment skepticism,” where it’s OK for you, but not OK for me; it’s right for you, but not right for me; wrong for you, but not wrong for me; you’ve got your way and I’ve got my way. There are no standards of absolute right and wrong. But if there are no absolute standards, then dishonesty is just as good as honesty and hatred is just as good as compassion and laziness is just as good as hard work. That’s what happens to a society that loses the concept of what’s right and what’s wrong. If America is going to change, the hearts of people have to change one by one. I think if things in this area on the western side of Chicago are going to change, we have to see a group of people who are living changed lives. We have to see people who hold a different moral standard and values and different kinds of ethical behavior, because we can preach all we want to, but until they see the difference incarnated in us, it will just be talk, another Sunday morning sermon.
Something needs to change.
So what I want to do in this sermon series is really simple. I wish I had a pulpit to speak to the whole nation, but I don’t. I want to address the inculcation of character and virtue—Street Smart—learning what God has said about what is right and wrong.
Practical, down to earth teaching about what is right and what is wrong, and how you ought to treat people and how you ought to live, how your behavior ought to be different if you call yourself a believer in Jesus Christ. For a world that has lost its way, God wrote a book to bring us back. That book is called Proverbs. We don’t often preach on it because its an unusual book. We don’t often do a lot of sermons from this book, but we’re going to be in Proverbs for several sermons. We are going to study what it has to say, learning its principles, trying to become different people so we can make a difference when we go out into the world.
How to make a difference in this world.
I begin now in Proverbs 1. “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.” If I could say anything about the Book of Proverbs by way of introduction, I think it would be this. I would give you these three words about the book of Proverbs.
1. The Book of Proverbs is practical and down to earth.
2. The Book of Proverbs is timeless. Though it was written 3000 years ago, it speaks to us today.
3. It is amazingly relevant.
By the way, the word Proverbs itself in the Latin comes from Pro-verb, and it means in place of words or in place of speaking.
What is a proverb?
A Proverb is a short statement that encapsulates wisdom. In just a few short words it says something that would otherwise take a long sermon to get across. For example: a stitch in time saves nine; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise; trust in the Lord with all thine heart, lean not onto thine own understanding; in all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths; train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. Those are proverbs. They are short sayings that take the place of a long explanation. They are practical, timeless, relevant. They will teach you street smart living.
Proverbs are principles, not promises. They tell you how life is supposed to work. Proverbs are short sayings that teach us how to live life skillfully from God’s point of view. Having said that, let’s jump in and look at the four benefits that God promises to you and me from studying this book.
1. You will learn the art of skillful living.
“Wisdom and discipline.” The word for wisdom is “hokma” in the Hebrew. It refers not just to head knowledge or even just heart knowledge. Actually, hokma in the Old Testament was used for anybody who had an unusual skill in any area. For instance, if an artisan was excellent at making something, he was said to have hokma. A composer who could take notes and put them together and make beautiful music was said to be skilled and to have hokma. A person who was a great speaker and who could make his ideas clear was said to have hokma. If he was a good counselor, if he could solve the problems of people, he was said to have hokma.
It means to be skilled in some area of life.
When you take that definition and apply it to Proverbs 1, wisdom is the ability to live life skillfully from God’s point of view. That is, you’ll be good at living your life, at facing the problems of life, at handling whatever comes your way.
2. You’ll gain mental alertness.
This is something some of us need. Verse 2 says, “For understanding words of insight.” The word understanding means the ability to discriminate between two different things. Look at verse 6, “For understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.” By reading this book you’ll be sharper mentally than you are right now.
3. You’ll develop moral insight.
Look at verse 3, “For acquiring a disciplined and prudent life.” The word prudent means shrewd and clever. I don’t like that because shrewd and clever kind of shade over into the negative area, but in the Hebrew they have a positive sense in this verse. It means street smart. It means that when you’re out on the street you know how to handle yourself. If you have a problem, you know how to get out of it. A person who has prudence is clever and shrewd in the ways of the world. He knows how to do things that need to be done. He defines it here. He says, “Doing what is right and just and fair.” So it’s not just how to do things, but how to do things that are right and just and fair.
4. You begin to grow up.
“For giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young. Let the wise listen and add to their learning. Let the discerning get guidance.” Notice the two groups in verse 4. There are the simple and there are the young. Who are the simple? It does not refer to I.Q. It does not refer to mental ability in any way at all. In the Bible, the word simple refers to people who are naive or gullible. What are the signs that a person is naive or gullible? They are easily tricked, they are a sucker for a sob story, they are easily conned and scammed. They have “SUCKER” written all over their face. And they make the same dumb mistakes over and over again. Sometimes you talk to people and they ask for help. You tell them what went wrong and what they need to do. They agree to do it. But they go out and make the same mistake. They come back and ask what they did wrong. You tell them what they did wrong and tell them what they need to do. They go out and make the same dumb mistake again. And you go through the process again. They get into the same bad relationships over and over again. They make the same bad investments over and over again. They say the same foolish things over and over, they hurt their friends the same way, they make promises they break, they start out trying to do something but they bite off more than they can chew and they have to back off over and over again. Maybe you know somebody like that, or maybe you are like that. This book will teach you how to break the cycle of making the same mistakes over and over again. It will teach you how to get on the right path.
Break the cycle of wrong decisions.
Who are the young? In the biblical sense, the young are people who aren’t old. So who is old? The Bible talks a lot about old people. It talks about the wisdom of the aged and the crown of grey hair being the crown of the godly. That means this: if you follow the Lord from the time you’re young, by the time you’re old you’ll be wise. You may start off foolish, simple and gullible, but by the end you’ll be prudent and disciplined and wise. It’s not chronological, but by the time you’re 40 or 50 you ought to have some street smarts. There is no excuse for being gullible when you’re 45. There are gullible 45-year olds all over the place, people in mid life crises and all that. There is no excuse for it. You ought to wise up and start living the way God says you ought to live. It is not a matter of age, because I have known some 75-year olds who are really quite gullible. They are making the same mistakes they made when they were 25. It’s not strictly chronological, but the older you get, the wiser you ought to become. When you are young, you just don’t know enough yet, you haven’t lived enough, you haven’t seen enough of life yet to be really experienced in street smarts.
If you follow the Lord from the time you’re young, by the time you’re old you’ll be wise.
How young is young? Let’s say 30 years. You’re young if you’re under 30, because in the Old Testament you had to be 30 to become a priest. If you’re under 20, you’re a child. There is no such category as teenager in the Old Testament. You’re a child, then you’re a young adult, then you’re an adult. If you are young, you really need this book. And the younger you are, the more you need the book, not because of any reason other than when you’re young you haven’t had enough experience to know what life is really all about.
That’s why this book is here—to help the young know how to grow up morally, ethically, and spiritually.
Now we come to verse 7, which is really the climax of this whole first passage. Verse 7 is the theme of the book of Proverbs.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Let’s take the last part of the verse first. “Fools despise wisdom and discipline.” There are about five different words in the book of Proverbs that are translated by the word fool. So when you see the word fool you have to find out what the Hebrew word is because they all have different meanings. There is the young fool, the naive fool, the gullible fool, the angry fool and so on. And there is the arrogant, stubborn, hard-headed fool who will not listen to anybody’s advice. That’s the word used here. It’s the most extreme form of the word.
Here is a two-way test to spot a fool.
1. A fool doesn’t know what he is doing.
2. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t know what is going on around him, and he doesn’t even care enough to wise up and figure it out.
There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know.” The wise man has to say that all the time. “I don’t know, would you teach me?” “I don’t know, I’d like to learn.” “I don’t know, can you help me?” But the fool says “I don’t know, I don’t care, I don’t want to learn anything and you can’t teach me anything.”
Now let’s look at the beginning of the verse, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” The most important word here is “beginning”. It has three meanings.
1. It means that which is first in order of priorities, that which is basic or foundational.
2. The essence or central truth of something.
3. The capstone or the ultimate goal of something.
What is the fear of the Lord? It is not cringing terror. It is respecting God for who he is. It is understanding that God is God and you are not. The fear of the Lord is to bow the knee before Almighty God and acknowledge that he made the world and that it runs according to his plan. Respect for God is where knowledge begins, it is where knowledge continues, and it is where all knowledge ends up.
Let me give you my three conclusions.
1. The road of wisdom leads to a temple, not to a palace.
It leads back to God. If your learning leads you away from God, you’re learning the wrong things. If your learning leads you toward greater independence from God and his word, you have been studying at the feet of the wrong teachers, because all true learning begins with the understanding that there is a God to whom all of us must one day give an account.
2. All education that leaves God out omits the central principle of the universe.
Did you know that our public school system was founded 150 years ago by people who, if they were not practicing Christians, at least believed in Judeo-Christian principles and the truth of the Bible as the foundation for all learning? Go back and look it up. The public school system of America was founded on those biblical principles. That is why if you go back to the 19th century and read the McGuffy Readers, when they wanted to teach the ABC’s it was “A—All have sinned,” “B—believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,” “C—confess your sins and you will be forgiven.” All education was based on basically biblical foundations.
It occurred to me what would happen up here at this high school where my son just enrolled as a freshman if a teacher stood up the first day of class and said, “Because I am a Christian, I am going to teach you from the standpoint of the Christian faith. I am going to let my Christian faith influence all of my instruction. I am going to be up front about it. You don’t have to believe what I believe, but I am not going to hide my Christian faith any longer. I am going to teach you everything I teach you, whether it’s math or geography or algebra or English or world history or cultural diversity, I’m going to teach it to you from the standpoint of the Christian faith because I believe that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” How long would that teacher last? The students love the protest over the firing of left wing teachers. How much would they protest over that?
Down in Georgia this very week there is a big dispute over the so-called moment of silence. There are teachers who don’t even want to do the moment of silence. Is it any wonder, brothers and sisters, that our young people have no conscience? When you take God out of the equation, there is no basis for a moral conscience. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. When you take God out of the process, you are teaching them numbers, reading, writing and arithmetic, but you’re not teaching them the most important thing in all the universe, that there is a God and that he has spoken and that his word is true.
When you take God out of the equation, there is no basis for a moral conscience.
I thank God for every Christian teacher. Those people in public schools have my 100% undivided support. One of the ladies of our church just this year started teaching down at Cicero. She came up and said, “Pastor, you have to read this article. It will shock you.” Not much shocks me anymore. I folded it up and put it in my pocket. She said this to me, “You can’t even believe or understand what is going on in the public schools.” I support every coach, every teacher, every faculty and staff member, every administration official, and I say God bless you. You are missionaries. I am totally behind the Christian School, but I am totally behind the teachers and workers and students who are in the public schools. I had one of our teachers say to me a few weeks ago, “You know, I can’t say I’m a Christian, really. But at least I can wear my cross…until they tell me I can’t wear that.”
Chuck Colson is right. When you take God out of society, away from the educational system, what you get is chaos.That’s what we have in America today. No crime bill, no educational bill, no bureaucratic solution can solve that problem until we come back to what God said was the answer 3000 years ago. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
I believe in education. I attended three colleges and four graduate schools of theology. I have a Bachelors degree, a Masters degree, and an earned Doctors degree. There is nobody in here who believes in the value of education more than I do. But if you have a PhD in some field, but you don’t have the fear of the Lord, what you have is an intellectual genius and a spiritual moron. If you have all the book learning and all the degrees but don’t have the fear of the Lord, you would be better to be an illiterate reader of the Bible who at least believes in God. I am in favor of education that also bows the knee before Jesus Christ. If you have to make a choice, choose the fear of the Lord, because without it you’re still in spiritual kindergarten. Without the fear of the Lord you may be an intellectual giant but you are a moral and spiritual pygmy.
3. God honors those who build their lives on the unshakeable foundation of his unchanging truth.
I believe that. I encourage you to do it.
A Closing Challenge
1. My challenge to the young.
If you’re under 30, you’re young. I want you to come and learn and listen. I am preaching these sermons for you first, for the young generation. I am preaching to my three boys, wherever they are. How many times does Proverbs say,”My son, listen; my son, my son, my son.”
2. My challenge to the parents or grandparents.
Listen and then pass on what you learn.
3. My challenge to the men of the congregation.
Let me tell you what that Newsweek article said back in June, from a non-Christian perspective. The article said that one of the problems about teaching virtue is we’ve left it to the women. We have women in Sunday School, women in the church, women doing all the teaching in public school. Newsweek said men have to learn virtue and they have to begin to teach it.
This week Newsweek again wrote an article, this time about Promise Keepers. It was a good article. At the very end, quoting what they called the “pastor of a biker church” in Las Vegas on the importance of men in spiritual leadership, this is what he said, “My grandmother was a praying woman. My granddaddy was a fishing man. It has been that way as long as I can remember. It’s not going to change as long as the women do the praying and the men do the fishing. It’s time for the men to do the praying and the teaching and for men to develop virtue and character and become spiritual leaders in their homes, in the churches, in their places of work, in the school and in our society. It’s not going to change until we men make it change.”
Brothers, it has to start with you and me. There is nothing wrong with the women. They have never been the problem. It’s always been us. When we change, our families will change. When we change, our churches will change. When we change, the world around us will change. So men, rise up and take seriously the call to be men of character.
4. My challenge to all of us.
Pay attention to what God is saying; listen to his word. If you don’t know where else to begin in applying this sermon, let’s do what Billy Graham does. For over 50 years Billy Graham has had a special practice in his devotional life. There are 31 days in the month, and there are 31 chapters in the book of Proverbs. For 50+ years, Billy Graham has read one chapter a day of the book of Proverbs. If you don’t know where else to begin with this sermon, start right here. Let’s go back to God’s word and let’s get Street Smart.