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COMMENTARY ON THE BOOK OF PROVERBS: PART NINETEEN

SERMON PRESENTED ON 11-05-16

       Today we will continue to explore the thoughts and observations of Solomon as expressed in the many proverbs he wrote.  Last time we concluded with a review of Proverbs 20:14.  Today we will continue in Chapter 20 and begin with verse 17.  As I explored what it was Solomon was saying in verse 17, what he said turned into a whole sermon based on this one verse.  So here is a sermon based on Proverbs 20:17.

       Proverbs 20:17: Food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man, but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel.

       While the Hebrew word translated “food” in this proverb means literal food or bread, it is unlikely Solomon is talking here about literal food.  There is no reason that literal food or bread that tastes sweet in a man’s mouth would end up tasting or feeling like gravel in his mouth.  It is apparent Solomon is using the word food in a figurative manner to signify anything gained by fraud may initially be satisfying but in the end creates unwelcomed consequences.

       In discussing this proverb, I want to expand the discussion to include not only what Solomon was saying here but explore how food is used in Scripture to represent both righteous and unrighteous behavior.

       We see both food and drink used in Scripture as metaphors of wicked behavior. We see Solomon using this metaphor in a very obvious way in Proverbs 4:17. Here the Hebrew word rendered bread is the same word used in 20:17 where it is rendered food.  But here in 4:17 it is very directly tied to wicked behavior and in Proverbs 9:17-18 we see the consequences of wickedness which is represented by food.

       Proverbs 4:14-17: Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evil men.  Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way. For they cannot sleep till they do evil; they are robbed of slumber till they make someone fall. They eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.

       Proverbs 9:17-18: "Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!"  But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave.

       Water, bread, wine and food in general are being used here to not just represent what is obtained through sinful behavior but to represent sinful behavior itself. On a literal level, food is the mainstay of human existence.  We can’t live without food.  Food provides the nutrition our bodies need to live. So that we would find the eating of food a desirable thing, we were designed in such a way that the eating of food is a pleasurable experience.  Staying alive would be difficult if the eating of food was not a pleasurable experience.  What if you didn’t like the taste of food, any food?  

       I know we all have foods preferences.  We all have foods that we prefer to avoid because we just don’t like the taste.  But think what life would be like if all food we ate tasted bad.  Just think what it would be like if every meal you sat down to eat you would find distasteful and anything but enjoyable.

       It is because the eating of food is generally a pleasurable experience that this commodity can be used as a metaphor for sin.  Just as food has been a mainstay of the human experience from the beginning, so has wickedness and violence. While humans are designed to find food enjoyable and the eating of food a pleasurable experience, humans often find sin a pleasurable experience as well.

       For many the exercise of sinful behavior is pleasurable.  If it wasn’t, it would be avoided.  Even the Scriptures speak of the pleasures of sin.  Moses is seen as forsaking the pleasures of sin in exchange for following the will of God.

       Hebrews 11:24-25: By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.

       Since both the consumption of food and sinful behavior can be pleasurable experiences for us humans, we see in Scripture the use of food in a figurative manner to represent sinful behavior.  We see this in the book of Job.

       Job 20:12-14: "Though evil is sweet in his mouth and he hides it under his tongue, though he cannot bear to let it go and keeps it in his mouth, yet his food will turn sour in his stomach; it will become the venom of serpents within him.

       Here, like we see we see in the Proverbs, sinful behavior is compared to the pleasurable taste of food in the mouth. But the analogy stops there.  Physical food which has a pleasurable taste in the mouth passes into the intestines and is digested.  The nutrients from that food are used to support the wellbeing of the body.  Sinful behavior, analogized to spiritual food, may initially be pleasurable but it turns sour in the stomach, figuratively speaking.  Sinful behavior does not support the wellbeing of the body but leads to any number of negative physical and spiritual consequences,

       We began today’s discussion with Proverbs 20:17 where Solomon wrote that, “Food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man, but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel.  The Hebrew rendered “fraud” means to be deceitful. It means to lie. We know it is contrary to the will of God to act deceitfully.  Lying is sin.  While lying may initially bring about what one considers a desired result and therefore appear sweet to the taste, in the end it can bring about a great deal of pain and suffering and ultimately the penalty of eternal death if not repented of and covered under the blood of Jesus.

       Solomon is analogizing food to anything gained by dishonesty.  It may seem like a sweet deal at first, but eventually it turns out to be a bad deal.  It turns out to be a mouth full of gravel which is a picturous way of saying it ends up producing a bad outcome.

Food as a metaphor for righteousness:

       It is interesting that while food is used in Scripture as a metaphor for sin, it is also used as a metaphor for righteousness.  Jesus used food as an analogy for doing the will of God.  He used it as an analogy to instruct us as to the pathway to be pleasing before God and reaching the goal of eternal life.

       John 4:31-34: Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about."  Then his disciples said to each other, "Could someone have brought him food?"  "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.

       John 6:27: Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."

       John 6:55-66: For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.

       In these passages of Scripture we see Jesus using food in a spiritual sense.  Jesus is using food to get the point across that we are to seek righteousness and the doing of God’s will.  In John 6:27, Jesus contrasts what apparently is a reference to physical food that can spoil with spiritual food that can’t spoil but will last forever. Apostle Paul also uses food in a spiritual sense to get a point across.

       1 Corinthians 3:1-2: Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.

       Paul, in looking at the level of spiritual maturity of the Corinthian Christians, determined they were not ready to be fed solid food but only milk.  Obviously, Paul is using the words milk and food in a figurative sense. 

       As I have said in the past and like to remind everyone from time to time, in the Scriptures we fine a great deal of non-literal language where the writers use metaphor, analogy and hyperbole to get a point across.  This is especially true of the prophetic writings.  Many writers of books on Biblical prophecy have gone far astray of the intended meaning of the Scriptural author by failing to recognize the difference between literal and non-literal.  Others have abandoned belief in the Scriptures because of a failure to distinguish between literal and non-literal.

       I still remember that back in the 1960’s, when I was still in college, I came across a booklet written by Herbert Armstrong entitled “The Proof of the Bible.”  In this booklet Mr. Armstrong discussed the fulfillment of various OT prophecies including a prophecy against Tyre where the prophet Ezekiel said Tyre would be completely destroyed and never be rebuilt.  Mr. Armstrong put out the challenge that if anyone could rebuild Tyre they could disprove the Bible. 

        At the time I was rather impressed with what I read. It partly led to me coming into what was then The Radio Church of God.  However, a few years later, I read an article in a religious magazine explaining how Tyre had been rebuilt many times.  The author of this article attempted to explain Ezekiel’s prophecy by saying it was still in the process of being fulfilled which I found to be a rather unsatisfying answer.  My interest was peaked and my curiosity led me to the Public Library where I found a book on the history of Tyre which showed how it has never been completely destroyed and is a viable city to this very day. 

       At the time this discovery caused me to question the reliability of the Scriptures.  It appeared the prophet Ezekiel was a false prophet and if this was the case, how could I believe what other writers of Scripture were saying.  It wasn’t until I came to recognize the element of hyperbole in Scripture that the issue became resolved for me.

       Hyperbole is rhetorical exaggeration.  It is the use of language to overstate something and make things appear to be over and above what they really are. It is rhetorical embellishment.  The word hyperbole comes from a Greek word meaning “excess.”  Hyperbole involves figures of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis. 

       We use hyperbole all the time in our speech.  The very statement I just made is hyperbolic.  I just said “we use hyperbole all the time in our speech.”  That is an exaggeration.  We don’t use hyperbole all the time in our speech.  We do, however, use it some of the time.  We say things like “it’s raining cats and dogs” to say it is raining hard.  We say “I have a million things to do today” to say we have a lot of things to do today.  A student will say, “I have a ton of homework” which simply means the student has a lot of homework.  We say things like “her smile was a mile wide”  We have said to our children, “I’ve told you a million times not to do that,”  we have all heard the phrase “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow” or “this suitcase weighs a ton.” 

       Just as we do, Biblical personalities used a lot of non-literal language to get a point across as well. Sometimes Scriptural non-literal language is obvious.  At other times it is more difficult to distinguish between the literal and non-literal in Scripture.  With Jesus and Paul, their use of food to get certain points across is pretty straightforward.  It should be obvious they are using food in a figurative sense.  The writer to the Hebrews uses food in the same figurative sense as Paul does in his letter to the Corinthians.  Because of this similarity, some feel Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews whereas others believe it to be Apollos and some early church fathers believed it to be Barnabas.  Be that as it may, here is what we find in Hebrews

       Hebrews 5:12-14.  In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

       In writing to Jewish Christians of the first century, the writer makes some very interesting observations, observations that can be just as applicable to the Christian community of today.

       After Pentecost, the Christian Church began to grow rapidly. Thousands recognized and accepted Christ as the promised Messiah to Israel. This included thousands of Jews, not only Jews living in Jerusalem but throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.  The letter to the Hebrews appears to have been written shortly before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. We know this because there are references in Hebrews to the temple still standing and the Levitical priesthood still offering sacrifices. There also are references to a near at hand judgement. Hebrews appears to be written primarily to Jewish converts to Christianity but may have been circulated among non-Christian Jews as well.

       So what we have here is a group of people who apparently had been in the church for quite a few years as born out by the writer saying that by this time those he was addressing should have been mature and educated enough as to the elementary truths to be teaching others and not that they had to be taught.  The writer is chiding these Christians for failing to mature in knowledge and understanding of God’s word. 

       The writer tells them they need milk and not solid food.  The writer is apparently using the analogy of a baby who is being breast fed and has not yet been weaned so that the baby can begin to receive solid food.  He tells them that, “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  The writer is accusing these Christians of failing to grow in their Christian walk.  He is accusing them of failing to be weaned off the elementary truths of God and becoming mature to the point of being able to understand more fully the difference between good and evil.  The writer defines the elementary truths of God in chapter six of his letter to the Hebrews.

       Hebrews 6:1-2: Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

       So here we see the elementary teachings defined as repentance, faith in God, instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement.

       Well, isn’t this what we see today in much of Christianity?  People come to acknowledge they are behaving sinfully and determine to change their behavior.  It’s called repentance.  They come to recognize and accept Jesus as Savior and Lord.  They get baptized.  They learn about the resurrection of the dead and a time of judgement.

       Most converts to Christianity begin their Christian walk on a high note.  They join a church congregation and often became active in the church they join.  They regularly attend church services and listen to sermons about Christian living. They try to practice righteous living and teach their children to practice the fundamental behavioral standards contained in the teachings of Scripture.  This could all be equated with those elemental truths of God’s word that these Hebrew Christians were apparently taught and were following.

       But then something happens.  Just like with the Jewish Christians of the first century being addressed in this letter, there is little if any movement beyond the fundamentals.  There is little growth beyond gaining knowledge of the elemental truths of God.  Because of this, stagnation sets in and even the elemental truths that had been learned begin to fade from view necessitating the relearning of such truths.  Except such relearning often doesn’t happen.

        Because a weaning from the milk of God’s truths never occurs to facilitate a movement toward the solid food of God’s word, there is a failure to be trained in distinguishing between good and evil.  Because of this lack of maturity, we see Christians who can’t distinguish between good and evil.  As the writer to the Hebrews said,

       Hebrews 5:14: But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

       While the writer does not define what the solid food is that he is talking about, he appears to be saying that only through consistent use of this solid food can one be trained to distinguish between good and evil.  The writer appears to be saying that a mature Christian is one who has practiced righteous behavior on such a consistent basis that they have come to understand and instinctively distinguish good from evil at all levels of human activity.  Here are a couple other renderings of this passage that appear to place a little different spin on what is being said here

       Hebrews 5:14: But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (KJV).

       But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil (RSV). 

       But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil (NET).

       These renderings appear to say that solid food is for those who have had their senses exercised and perceptions trained through practice. It is for those who have already through practice reached a level of Christian maturity.  It is unclear whether it is the solid food that is being used in such practice or if the solid food is first available to those who have already accomplished a mature level of training through practice.   

       Regardless of what exactly is meant here, it is apparent that these Jews being addressed were negligent in growing and maturing in their Christian walk and were even having to be re-taught the fundamentals of Christian doctrine.  They apparently weren’t practicing their Christian walk in such manner as to be trained to distinguish good from evil at the level they should have been at this stage in their Christian walk.

       I earlier said that the writer to the Hebrews makes observations that can be just as applicable to the Christian community of today as it apparently was to some of the Jewish Christians of the first century.  Like as was true with some of the Jewish Christians being addressed in the letter to the Hebrews, we have Christians today who fail to grow and mature in their Christian walk and consequently don’t reach the point were they are instinctively able to understand and distinguish between good and evil.

       And so we have Christians today who support gay marriage which is to support same sex sexual behavior. Those who support same sex sexual behavior are apparently oblivious to the Scriptural teaching on this issue. You have Christians supporting abortion.  Here again there is a lack of insight and knowledge of the Scriptures that apply to this issue.  You have Christians who don’t see lying or committing adultery a necessarily wrong. 

       You have Christians attending churches where little is taught about moral living and a lot is taught about how you, as a child of God, deserve to be wealthy and have everything go well for you.  All you have to do is claim it and God will give it to you.  You have Christians gravitating to preachers who preach the social gospel or the heath and wealth gospel and Christians substituting these false gospels for the true gospel.  Paul warned about this kind of thing in a letter to Timothy.

       2 Timothy 4:3-3: For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

       The milk versus solid food analogy is as applicable today as it was in the first century.  All of us need to be aware of how easily we can be drawn away from the elemental truths of God where it becomes necessary to be given the milk of the word all over again. More distressing is a failure to advance in our Christian walk by having our senses exercised and perceptions trained so we instinctively are able to distinguish between good and evil which apparently is equated to assimilating the solid food of the truths of God.

       We started out today in seeing how Solomon used eating of food as a metaphor for wicked behavior.  It is this kind of food we need to avoid.  We also saw how Scriptural writers have used food as a metaphor for sound Christian doctrine and the truths of God.  It is this food we need to chew on and make a part of our daily diet.

PART TWENTY