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He guides me in paths of righteousness

The Lord Is My Shepherd  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  27:50
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The wisdom writer in Proverbs describes a life that walks in the path of righteousness.

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Proverbs 3:1–10 NIV
1 My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, 2 for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. 3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. 5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. 8 This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones. 9 Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; 10 then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.
Proverbs can often be one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible. It might be good if we start our time here with a little explanation of what the proverbs are about in general. That will give us a better framework to look at the words of this passage in particular with some insight to its meaning.
Verses 5-6 from today’s passage are familiar to many. These words are among the best known of the 31 chapters in Proverbs.
Proverbs 3:5–6 NIV
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Those verses are common to find on coffee cups, artistic wall decorations, and journal covers. But taken out of context we lose something of the power in the meaning of this proverb.
proverbs contain sayings of general outcome, not specific formula
Let me begin with a general principle about the proverbs as a whole. Most biblical commentators agree that the proverbs contain sayings of general outcome, but not specific formula. In other words, the proverbs contain wisdom that direct the reader towards a general pattern of living that is seen to yield a general pattern of results. Or more to the point, the proverbs are not one-to-one promise formulas. The blessings that come from a life of wisdom are better understood as results, not rewards. One commentary I read on this passage put it this way: it would be a mistake to read the proverbs in a way that portrays God as a sort of cosmic vending machine. If I put the right thing in, then somehow God is obligated to dispense the right reward out. That is not what the proverbs are about.
This is helpful; because at first glance these verses from Proverbs 3 can quickly be misconstrued in the mistaken direction of health-and-wealth gospel. If I pattern my life in this right way, then God is obligated to fulfill a promise for long years of peace and prosperity, a good reputation among others, healthy and nourished bodies, full barns and overflowing wine cellars. To be clear, that is not what is going on in these verses from Proverbs 3.

Admonitions

That leaves the question; how do we understand these words from Proverbs? In order to get us toward a fuller meaning of this passage, let’s take a little closer look at some of the features that show up in the structure. We are only looking at the first 10 verses of chapter 3. But let me make a quick reference to overall shape of Proverbs 3. There are three sections to this chapter that are easily distinguishable with the introduction of “my son.” You see it as the form of address in verse 1. It repeats in verse 11, and again in verse 21.
odd numbered verses = admonitions 1 - appeal to the teacher 3 - appeal to love 5, 7, 9 - appeal to the LORD
Look at the structure, then, in this first section of ten verses. There are five admonitions listed in the odd numbered verses: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. Keep my commands and teachings in your heart; let love and faithfulness never leave you; trust in the LORD; fear the LORD; honor the LORD. The progression goes like this: it begins with an appeal to heed the wise words of the teacher, then moves to an appeal to love, then concludes with three appeals that are focused directly to the LORD. Remember that whenever we see the word LORD in our NIV Bibles spelled in all capital letters, it is a reference to the divine name YAHWEH. We see the LORD mentioned by name three times in this section of Proverbs 3. That is not random. The divine name of the LORD also shows up three times in the middle section of Proverbs 3, and again shows up three times in the final section of Proverbs 3. There is beautiful symmetry here in Proverbs that follows the patterns of Hebrew poetry.
verse 7 - “Do not be wise in your own eyes” stay teachable
If there is one verse in this section that helps set the overall tone, I think it comes at the beginning of verse 7. “Do not be wise in your own eyes.” As a negative admonition, this could be understood as a warning against the destructive sin of pride. But I think this verse has a positive feature as well. Stay teachable. Keep an open ear and an open mind, recognizing that you do not always have all the right answers all of the time. What the wisdom writer realizes in this statement is that even he—the wise teacher—is not the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom. His instruction is this: wisdom and knowledge come from the LORD; live then in a way which is always receptive to the corrections and affirmations of the LORD.
lean not on your own understanding, rather submit to the LORD, and he will make your path straight
And so the writer can declare, lean not on your own understanding, rather submit to the LORD, and he will make your path straight.
righteousness as path — implication that righteousness is a journey, process
We have been looking phrase by phrase through Psalm 23 noting the seven activities of God—scenes, as I have been calling them. Today we look at scene 4; He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. The path of righteousness is what the author of Proverbs 3 is talking about. It has to do with the journey and process of living deeper and deeper into the righteousness which comes from God. And it is just that—a journey, a process.
Calvinist tradition | Reformed and reforming | sanctification
Here in this church we follow in a tradition of theology that is shaped by the theologian John Calvin. Calvin was one among many pastor/theologians who lived during a time in church history known as the Reformation. This is why the name of our denomination is the Christian Reformed Church. I remember a conversation once with an acquaintance who was relatively new to the Christian faith and had never learned any church history. When I told him I was part of a Reformed church, he gave a funny look and asked if that meant we were all ex-convicts who had been previously incarcerated. In his mind, what else could reformed mean except that we were all rehabilitated delinquents.
along the path of righteousness, the Psalmist David declares that it is the LORD who guides our steps
At its core, being Reformed is embracing an acknowledgment that our path of sanctification is a journey which is ongoing. We say that part of being reformed is that we continue to be people who are reforming. And it is into this Reformed faith of our heritage that the wisdom poet of Proverbs tells us, this path of righteousness upon which we walk is a path which not only points us to the LORD, but in fact the path itself is provided to us by the LORD. Along this path of righteousness, the Psalmist David declares that it is the LORD who guides our steps.

Applications

Now then, the real question for today is to consider what that looks like in our world and in our lives today. Let’s consider the real-world picture of what it means for you and me to be guided in paths of righteousness. This is where the lesson of Proverbs 3 is helpful. It begins with a teachable heart. Every good athlete has a coach. Even at the highest levels of athletic competition there are coaches working with the very best in the world. Sometimes it is noticeably front-and-center. Back in the late 1980s the unruly and physically aggressive players of the Detroit Pistons basketball team earned the nickname “The Bad Boys” among the NBA. But it was the style and leadership of coach Chuck Daly who reigned in the potential among these athletes and got them to work and play together as a team. It resulted in the Pistons taking back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990.
coaches
Sometimes it is a little more behind the scenes; especially in individual sports. Professional golfers and tennis players maybe look as though they are out there competing on their own against one another. But behind all of the practice and preparation is countless hours spent with coaches. Sometimes it is little tips and pointers and techniques that coaches notice which help an athlete grow. Sometimes it is the reinforcing encouragement and support that helps and athlete improve. Often it can be the rebuke and correction of errors which help an athlete get better. All of these things work together in the general trajectory of moving an athlete towards better performance. But even with top athletes, the best coaches are no guarantee that every hit will be a home run, that every putt will go in the hole, that every shot will score a basket.
But this much is true. Time spent with a good coach will lead in the general direction of athletic improvement. The same is true with a musical instrument or a performance art of theater or dance. Let’s stop there, though. I don’t mean to take this analogy to the level of comparing God’s guidance along the path of righteousness as nothing more than coaching tips for a better life. That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that the proverbs share wisdom which—like good coaching—points us in a general trajectory of growth. And just like an athlete who is teachable and open to instruction gains the most benefit from a good coach, so too followers of Jesus who are teachable and open to instruction gain the most benefit from the wisdom of the Proverbs. And so it begins there with a teachable heart.
where this path of righteousness leads | temptation to stamp this passage with a Jesus sticker, declare that the path of righteousness leads to heaven
Now let’s talk about where this path of righteousness leads. I will admit that the temptation here is to immediately stamp this passage with a Jesus sticker and declare that the path of righteousness leads to heaven. But hang on; not so fast. We need to do a little work with the words of this passage before we can get there. Because strictly going at face value, looking plainly at the words of what this passage from Proverbs says, there is no mention of heaven, or an afterlife, or eternity with God. So, let’s first pay some attention to where it is that Proverbs 3 tells us the path leads. For this we look at the even numbered verses: 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10.
even numbered verses = applications (centered) 2, 4 - shalom and reputation 6 (center) - straight path 8, 10 - good health and bountiful harvest
This forms one of those familiar mirror structures that is so common in the Bible, in which the outline forms around a main point which is placed right in the middle; in this case, verse 6. In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. From there the framing verses of 2 and 4, and also 8 and 10 give the more poetic description of the general result or outcome to which the straight path of righteousness points.
shalom illustrates general outcome (cosmic pattern) over specific formula (individual success)
Verse 2 speaks of peace and prosperity. In the Hebrew it is only one word—a familiar Hebrew word we have discussed many times: shalom. If you have spent any significant time with me, hopefully you know by now that I agree with a growing number of biblical scholars who prefer the words “flourishing” as a better English translation of shalom than peace or prosperity. Shalom is the world thriving in all of its created goodness as God originally created it to do. Shalom is a flourishing which extends far beyond a personal individual experience of peace to enfold a cosmic pattern in which all of God’s creation abides in this condition of thriving.
shalom is not shalom if I am the only one experiencing it
“believers cannot enjoy shalom without practicing shalom.” -Paul Koptak
In other words—catch this now—shalom is not shalom if I am the only one experiencing it. If it is not a shared experience of thriving and flourishing that is soaking and drenching all around me, then it is not shalom. Biblical scholar Paul Koptak says it this way, “believers cannot enjoy shalom without practicing shalom.” It must be shared as well as received. What follows, then, in Proverbs 3 is not just a description of an individual result or outcome of the path of righteousness, but a shared universal result and outcome of the path of righteousness.
The good reputation and name among God and others (verse 4), the health and nourishment of our bodies (verse 8), and the overflowing pantries of bountiful harvest (verse 10) are all poetic descriptions of shalom flourishing which is experienced by all of God’s creation when the people of God’s earth heed the wisdom of Proverbs: in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
we are not very good at walking a straight path when it comes to sharing the shalom of God
Let’s face it, we are not very good at walking a straight path when it comes to sharing the shalom of God. Our world, our nation, our communities are filled with examples every day of steps that lean off to one direction or the other. Our track record of path-walking has ended up looking rather crooked, full of ups and downs. And this is the place where Jesus comes and enters our story. This is the place where we acknowledge our own inability to perfectly walk this straight path of righteousness which brings about the perfect shalom flourishing of God in our world. This is the place where our lives land in a confession that we cannot walk this path and we have failed miserably in attaining this righteous holy standard of living by our own efforts.
in Jesus, God has brought that path of righteousness to us again
In Jesus, God has brought that path of righteousness to us again. When you and I were left hopelessly stuck without being able to take another step towards God on our own, Jesus took a step towards you. Jesus picked you up. Jesus said, “I am going to take that step of righteousness for you.” Jesus made a straight path for you, brought that path to you, and carries each one of your steps going forward. And it is only in Jesus, then, that we find a final and complete restoration of the shalom flourishing of God in this world. Only in Jesus is all creation redeemed and made new. Only in Jesus will there be resurrection to new life.
while this shalom flourishing of God’s world is has not yet reached its promised fulfillment, Jesus sets our steps upon a path which leads in that direction
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Psalm 23 reminds us today that while this shalom flourishing of God’s world is has not yet reached its promised fulfillment, Jesus sets our steps upon a path which leads in that direction. Psalm 23 reminds us that this path of righteousness is not only a someday event pointing to an eternal future—there are also here-and-now glimpses of shalom right before us; we have a good shepherd who guides us within his righteousness right now.
Jesus guides our steps upon a path which invites us into his perfect righteousness… (justification) …so that we may learn to share his perfect shalom with others (sanctification)
May we be people who declare along with the wisdom writer of Proverbs that our hearts are open and teachable to see all the ways God guides our crooked steps onto his straight path of righteousness. May we be people who catch tiny glimpses of that shalom flourishing of God even now as we focus our gaze upon the shepherd who guides us. May we be people who eagerly anticipate the coming day when God will make all things new when Jesus comes again and his shalom will be made complete. And may we be people who even now declare with our lives a desire to embrace and share that shalom of God through the righteousness of Jesus given by God.
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