We need to remind ourselves every week of two important things in the study of Proverbs:
First, these are the instructions from a father to a son about the son’s eventual role in leadership. They are not simply rules for a happy life. They are part of his training for responsibility and we should not read them without our own increased responsibility in mind. Again, all of this life is an apprenticeship for what is to come. We are being prepared.
Second, these are principles and not promises. The author is not a prosperity preacher telling us how to avoid hardship or the normal circumstances of life. They will not make us exempt from real life. They are not lucky charms.
Our passage this morning divides into two parts:
Verses 21-26 are concerning the personal traits of a ruler.
Verses 27-35 are concerning our relationships with neighbors
What then are the important habits and characteristics of a leader?
They must have two qualities that are essential: sound judgment and discernment
Sound judgement is the ability to deliberate and not be impulsive. It does not mean paralysis by analysis on the one hand or impulsiveness and constant changing on the other. It is the ability to weigh the options and make the best decision possible even if it is not perfect.
Discernment is insight – especially into people. It is the ability to not only pick good people but to keep them and encourage their growth. It is a sense of recognizing their strengths and how to use those strengths. It is the ability to see them for who they are and not for what we want them to be.
Solomon goes on to tell his son what the benefits are of sound judgment and discernment.
First, you will not be overcome by fear. It does not mean you will not experience fear but you will not be ruled by it. Your life will not be marked by always anticipating the worst that could happen. You will not live looking over your shoulder for the ruin that eventually catches up with the fool. The fool is always pursued by ruin but cannot outrun it.
Second, your mind will allow you to sleep. You will find yourself able to trust that God wants you to have rest even in the middle of danger or, as David says, in the presence of my enemies.
Third, your feet will not be caught in a snare. This is not like a bear trap that springs suddenly without warning. It is a snare that draws you in gradually and then you are caught. It is a snare you could have avoided but you kept going further and further in. The wise leader knows when to turn around.
This is what life can look like when we value judgment and discernment. Who would not want a life like this?
The second half of the passage is how a ruler deals with neighbors. These are not strangers but people who live nearby. It is not just the scribe in the New Testament who wanted to know the precise definition of who was his neighbor. It is us as well. How many people can we love at any one time? I take it to mean the people with whom we are in regular contact and whose lives are affected by ours. Love is hard work and it takes time and intention. That is why I don’t think “love your neighbor” is a glib and all encompassing phrase.
First, do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow when you now have it with you.”
What does James say? “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”
If it is in your power to act (and some things are not in your power) then do it now. Not rash. Not impulsively. Not thoughtless. But do not put off doing the good that is in your power.
A family here in Tyler felt a burden for people who have been affected by COVID but cannot receive unemployment or other benefits. While they support non-profits they wanted to make immediate gifts to individuals – like restaurant workers, service workers, contract labor, and medical workers among others – who have lost income or their work because of COVID. They have set up a way for qualified individuals to receive $500 that will help them pay rent, electricity, food or whatever else their need is. Other families have joined them and they now have a fund of $500,000 that will provide 1,000 gifts to individuals in our community. They had it in their power to do good and they acted on it.
Second, do not intentionally do harm to people in your life either by scheming, lying about them, mocking them or doing violence to them. Do not make things hard on people or try to take advantage of them. Do not ridicule them. What does Solomon call people who do this – who take advantage, scheme, and mock other people? He calls them perverse. They are not normal people but are distorted people.
Worse, the Lord’s curse is on them. While he gives grace to the humble and honor to the wise, those who are mockers and schemers and do violence to the reputations of other people will be put to shame. They may not feel guilt over what they do but they will be shamed in time for what they have done to other people. They will be laughed at and held up for ridicule themselves because their lives had become so riddled with wickedness. There was no good left in them to salvage.
How do we learn?
We learn by dwelling on the benefits of sound judgment and discernment. We hold up the example of lives of those who have been wise and honorable and strive to be like them. We set a course for that kind of character knowing that they will mark our lives as well.
But, we also learn from watching fools who have no judgment or discernment and are impetuous while harming everyone around them. We learn from those who are paranoid and have no capacity for trust – either to give it or earn it. We learn from those who cannot pick good people and only destroy others around them. We learn the lessons from those who scheme, mock and take advantage of others at every chance.
Both ways will work but I would much rather have a gallery of those who know how to handle responsibility, leadership, integrity, trust, judgment and discernment. Find those people and hold to them. They will be lights in a dark world.