Updated: Dec 14, 2020
The wise person does good to his neighbor, and his conscience, his confidence, and his stature are blessed.
This article began as a supplement to the Sunday School lesson on Proverbs 3:21-35, focusing on the central idea "Following God's wisdom is demonstrated in how a person treats others". The Lifeway study guide includes this handy summary of what Proverbs has to say about how we treat one another:
What Proverbs Teaches about Neighbors
Bad neighbors betray their neighbors’ trust (3:29).
Bad neighbors say bad things about their neighbors (11:9,12; 24:28; 25:18).
Bad neighbors try to entice their neighbors to sin (16:29).
Bad neighbors are inconsiderate of their neighbors (21:10).
Bad neighbors lie to their neighbors (26:19).
Bad neighbors are loud and obnoxious neighbors (27:14).
As you might imagine, this lesson focuses on the right way to treat people. This passage, even though it is built around a "don't do this" structure, is filled with extremely practical words that anybody in the world could (and should) live by.
Getting Started: A Potential Icebreaker
There are three common ways to get into a lesson:
Something related to the calendar, in this case Father's Day
Something related to current events, in this case the racial unrest
Something related to the passage itself
This just depends on where your class's heart is. I would say that Father's Day is an easy connection to this passage. After all, Solomon wrote it as a father to a son. Think about life lessons your dad taught you, particularly in how to treat other people. Our dads weren't perfect, so the lessons we learned may have had flaws, but many of us view our dads as positive models we have tried to emulate. Current events might be a little harder simply because everything is so negative right now. But it is certainly a crucible for how strongly we really believe what Solomon is saying! What do the protests and riots in our country say about the way most people treat one another? What might be a solution? Because world events are vague and broad, focus on McDuffie County. What about our actual neighbors? We have unrest right here? How might the way we choose to treat our neighbors affect where things go next? And what do we do when our neighbors aren't doing a good job treating one another well?
So those possibilities are out there. Let me throw out an idea based on the passage itself. One of our verses is "When you lie down, your sleep will be pleasant". That reminds me of a saying: "A clear conscience is a soft pillow." What does that mean?
What are other sayings you've been told about the conscience? Here are some that I found:
A clear conscience is a soft pillow. - German saying
A clear conscience is far more valuable than money. - Philippine proverb
A clear conscience can bear any trouble.
A clear conscience never fears midnight knocking. - Chinese proverb
A clear conscience sleeps in thunder. - English saying
A good conscience is a choice companion.
He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain the ashes. - Chinese proverb
These come from non-biblical sources, which I think is interesting based on the commonalities between them. While some people try to pass off the conscience as superstition or fear of the police, we understand that the conscience is real, which is why people all over the world laud a clear conscience. But what is it? What does it mean?
Ultimately, it's a kind of echo of the image of God in us. As Christians, we can tune into it more directly by the Holy Spirit God has given us. That's why our hearts resonate with these words in Proverbs. We read them and say, "Yes, this is what we should do." And these words reverberate throughout the Bible--how we treat one another is foundational to how we demonstrate our transformed life in Christ. As we go through these verses, we will find ways we have fallen short (or are falling short presently). What needs to change for us to do better at showing compassion for the people around us?
Neighbor Horror Stories
Or, if you just want to have some cringe-laughs, you could share some horror stories about neighbors (preferably not about someone the rest of us would know!). There are lots of stories on the internet about bad neighbors. Here's the problem: most of these website are uncensored, and the things you read are quite inappropriate for any discussion, let alone a Sunday School class! (Here's one site that is rather benign: https://www.littlethings.com/terrible-neighbor-stories) One church member friend from many years ago told me how his neighbor took him to court over the location of his sprinkler system. The first house my wife and I owned, we had caddy-corner neighbors who would throw loud parties late every Saturday night, making our Sunday mornings less-than-rested. Stories like that are safe for Sunday School and still make the point. What kind of neighbor you are makes a real impact on a family. Sometimes you can only shake your head:
Where We Are in Proverbs
Like last week, we are still in the introduction. Solomon (or the editor if Solomon did not compile this part of the book) is laying the framework for all of the sayings that will follow. Last week was "wisdom is the foundation of morality": wisdom that comes from listening to God (and your teacher). This week is "wisdom lived out is compassionate": a person who lives according to God's wisdom will treat people a certain way. Next week is "wisdom demands a choice to live by it".
We started chapter 3 last week. Here's a quick outline:
Remember my teachings (vv. 1-4)
Trust and honor the Lord (vv. 5-12)
Wisdom is foundational (vv. 13-20) - we skip these verses
Wisdom is prudent (vv. 21-26)
Be a good neighbor (vv. 27-30)
Avoid wickedness (vv. 31-35) - this is continued into chapter 4
As you can see, it is introducing a number of topics to be fleshed out in the chapters to come. We could focus on any of these; Lifeway suggests focusing on the good neighbor part. Based on where our country is, I think that's a good idea.
Part 1: Confidence Gained (Proverbs 3:21-26)
21 Maintain sound wisdom and discretion. My son, don’t lose sight of them. 22 They will be life for you and adornment for your neck. 23 Then you will go safely on your way; your foot will not stumble. 24 When you lie down, you will not be afraid; you will lie down, and your sleep will be pleasant. 25 Don’t fear sudden danger or the ruin of the wicked when it comes, 26 for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from a snare.
If these verses sound familiar, they are! Read 3:1-4 again:
1 My son, don’t forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commands;
2 for they will bring you many days, a full life, and well-being.
3 Never let loyalty and faithfulness leave you.
Tie them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Then you will find favor and high regard with God and people.
But now, it's not "my teachings" but "wisdom and discretion" that lead to the benefits. And that should only make sense; Solomon is teaching wisdom and discretion! "Sound wisdom" is in other versions translated "sound judgment", "common sense", and "competence"; "discretion" is elsewhere "discernment" and "purpose". There's a lot of overlap between the two. "Sound wisdom" focuses on judgments that lead to practical success. "Discretion" focuses on the ability to come up with a wise plan of action. They work together: discern the right goal and discern the right steps to get there. Surely you don't need to be convinced how important these two things are!
Think about ways you have benefited from someone else's wise discernment and discretion. And think about ways you have failed to be discerning or discrete. What happened? What did you learn? What did you lose?
What are New Testament parallels to these ideas? What are the virtues extolled by Jesus and the apostles? Jesus talked about "counting the cost" (Luke 14:28) and being "shrewd and innocent" (Matthew 10:16). Peter talked about "gentleness and respect" (1 Pet 3:15). James talked about "humility and mercy" (James 3:17-18). Paul talked about "righteousness and unity" (1:30, 2:16). How do those concepts inform our understanding of wisdom and discretion?
For example, as we return from the coronavirus rules, we are doing so cautiously, believing this to be showing the most discretion. Should we move to quickly and someone get sick, that would be a terrible outcome and it would set us back far more than if we moved slowly. I'm sure you can think of multiple examples of times when part of you wanted to "rush on ahead" or "burn that bridge" while another part of you warned of the folly of that course. That's God's wisdom encouraging you toward discretion. This is not quite "slow and steady wins the race", because sometimes there's no need to be slow. Fast always beats slow. But sometimes fast is reckless and dangerous.
Now, check out these new benefits. What were the benefits Solomon mentioned before with respect to wisdom? God being their shield. God guarding their path. Getting a long and full life. Finding favor with people. Being blessed materially. Here, yes the benefit is a long life. And, as in 1:9, a known characteristic of being gracious and pleasant (the phrase "adornment for your neck" is literally "garland of grace"). But these verses go more into the quality of the life you lead. It explains what a "full life" means:
You live confidently and securely
You are not worried about stumbling
You are not afraid all the time
You sleep soundly
You are not paralyzed by the news around you
Doesn't that sound great? Isn't that what we all want? When was the last time you slept like a baby? (And what does that mean if not that a baby does not have the worries you have?)
Here's a survey from 2016 about common fears:
Corruption of government officials (same top fear as 2015) — 60.6%
Terrorist attacks — 41%
Not having enough money for the future — 39.9%
Being a victim of terror — 38.5%
Government restrictions on firearms and ammunition — 38.5%
People I love dying — 38.1%
Economic or financial collapse — 37.5%
Identity theft — 37.1%
People I love becoming seriously ill — 35.9%
The Affordable Health Care Act/”Obamacare” — 35.5%
I've certainly worried about a number of those things. And as we have observed from social media, if you let yourself really get sucked in to one of those fears, it can dominate your life and even paralyze you. (I checked out that same Chapman survey from 2019. Here are the updates: 1. Corrupt government officials 77.2%. 2. Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes 68%. 3. People I love becoming seriously ill 66.7%. 4. Pollution of drinking water 64.6%. 5. People I love dying 62.9%. 6. Air pollution 59.5%. 7. Cyber-terrorism 59.2%. 8. Extinction of plant and animal species 59.1%. 9. Global Warming and Climate Change 57.1%. 10. Not having enough money for the future 55.7%. Yes, some of the entries changed, but what really floored me was the increase in the percentages. Americans are "20% more worried" now than they were 3 years ago. That's disturbing! What will it be like in 3 more years?)
What is God's alternative? How does wisdom help us with our fears? Trust in God is greater than fear of danger. Why? Because God is greater than anything in this world. Sure, we can be concerned about the direction of our country and desire to change it, but why should any Christian be afraid when we have the eternal security of salvation in Jesus Christ? What can the world do to us? It can make our circumstances miserable, but that's no different than things were with David 3000 years ago, and he still wrote
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I have what I need. 2 He lets me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters. 3 He renews my life; he leads me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.
Is that not exactly what David's son, Solomon, is saying here?
But there are further, practical effects of wisdom on fear. How does having a good plan for life help you overcome the fear inherent in life's uncertainties?
What a fantastic passage. To make it fit with the theme of the lesson, I assume Lifeway must be interpolating the fact that if you have treated your neighbors well, you have less reason to fear what they might do to you or your family or your property. And that's certainly true! I think, though, that Solomon had a lot more than that in mind when he wrote this.
[Side thought related to "ruin of the wicked". When God punishes a people for their sin, everyone suffers, from the people who led the wickedness to the people who had nothing to do with it. That's just the way it goes. I have no doubt that there were good, righteous Jews in Jerusalem when the city was destroyed by Babylon. But they were killed along with the idolaters. What I think Solomon is saying here is that when social calamity comes as a consequence of wickedness, you don't have to be afraid of it. God will help guide you through the turmoil if you trust in Him. Most importantly, God will guard your soul. So, while we are concerned about the moral choices our country is making right now, and while we know that there will be consequences for them, we can trust that God will walk with us through them and show us how we can be righteous and redemptive in their midst.]
Part 2: Kindness Expressed (Proverbs 3:27-30)
27 When it is in your power, don’t withhold good from the one to whom it belongs. 28 Don’t say to your neighbor, “Go away! Come back later. I’ll give it tomorrow”—when it is there with you. 29 Don’t plan any harm against your neighbor, for he trusts you and lives near you. 30 Don’t accuse anyone without cause, when he has done you no harm.
Here's where Lifeway got its lesson emphasis. I don't think any of us should have any trouble knowing exactly what Solomon is saying and what it means to us. We simply fail to obey it.
Importantly, note the two attendant clauses: "when it is in your power" and "when it is there with you". God does not expect us to do more than we can. But He certainly expects to not to do less than we can. Also note the two characteristics: "the one to whom it belongs" and "he trusts you". This requires some interpretation. Solomon seems to talking about doing good for the people who deserve it (if your neighbor trusts you, he is probably a good neighbor). However, Jesus does not give that caveat. Consider the Sermon on the Mount:
Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
It's possible to argue that Jesus is speaking in the context of religious persecution, as in if you have not been struck out of persecution, these words don't apply. To a certain extent, I believe that to be true. Jesus is not telling us to be doormats. But the larger phrase "love your enemies" does not have any such boundaries. It means just that: love your enemies.
Is this contrary to what Solomon said in our passage? I don't think so. Solomon's phrase "the one to whom it belongs" can equally be translated "the one who needs it". It's not about worth, it's about need. Here's what I think happened: over time, Jews began to turn inward and focus on merit and worth--"are you worthy of my generosity?"--to the point that they would only do something good for someone who could return the favor. That's rather beside God's point, and so Jesus raked them over the coals for it.
On Wednesday nights, David has been leading a group through James. A famous verse that directly reflects our passage is 2:15-17:
If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself.
What are examples you can think of that might apply to what Solomon is saying? Here are some ideas I came up with:
Your neighbor wants to borrow your lawn mower, but you're worried he won't pay you for the gas.
You purchased something from your neighbor, and now he wants the money.
Your neighbor's tree fell down, and you have time and a chainsaw to help, but you wanted to play golf.
And then step back even further. Solomon is speaking figuratively in several ways in this passage. In other words, he is not talking about your literal next-door neighbor any more than he was talking about literally stumbling. This is about all the people around you. This is about how you live your life. (This is also something the Jews apparently had forgotten. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:25-37], Jesus made the very specific point of identifying who your neighbor is.)
As for the "don't plan harm" or "accuse falsely" statements, I truly hope and pray that you have never been that neighbor. This goes to the "bad neighbor" topic I mentioned at the very top. Some neighbors really do those things. Here is a 5-minute video from Fact Faction about 5 bad neighbors; it's clean, but also horrifying what some people will do. One of the stories took place in Georgia.
Sure, those are extremes. But just because you haven't put a hit out on your neighbor doesn't make you a good neighbor. What does make you a good neighbor?
Here's my challenge:
Take the nearest 4-6 houses to you. Make sure you know the residents' names (use a service like http://pray4everyhome.org/ if you don't know them). Begin praying for them regularly by name.
Come up with a short list of simple things you can do for your near-neighbors. If you need to be on the lookout for future opportunities, go ahead. Some things you can do: bake and deliver cookies; send a postcard saying you are praying for them; sit out front and wave as they drive by; go for regular walks and start up a conversation if you catch anyone outside.
What are simple things you have done for neighbors? Share those with your class members.
Part 3: Blessing Secured (Proverbs 3:31-35)
31 Don’t envy a violent man or choose any of his ways; 32 for the devious are detestable to the Lord, but he is a friend to the upright. 33 The Lord’s curse is on the household of the wicked, but he blesses the home of the righteous; 34 He mocks those who mock but gives grace to the humble. 35 The wise will inherit honor, but he holds up fools to dishonor.
And then Solomon closes with some verses that are perhaps more general than Lifeway has constrained this lesson. There are 4 contrasting pairs in here; I recommend creating a chart with two columns. Put "the wise" on one side and "the foolish" on the other. Then, put 4 main entries under each, one for each verse.
But don't stop there! That's the easy part. Do a little more study of this contrast. Go back through chapters 2 and 3. In each column, write down the words you see used to describe a wise man (like "righteous" and "humble") and a foolish man (like "wicked" and "mocker"). Then write down what Solomon says will happen to a wise man (like "God blesses" and "God gives grace") and a foolish man (like "cursed" and "mocked"). Take your time. This picture you're painting of a wise person and a foolish one should be giving you a clear goal and motivation for following the Lord's wisdom!
Here's the great thing about a contrast chart: you can think of the two words as the end of a spectrum. Where do you place yourself on each spectrum? Pick one or two in which you aren't where you need to be and make a plan for "getting better". That's exactly what Solomon meant by wisdom and discretion. We have to have a plan, and we have to be able to act on that plan. If you don't know where to start, ask your Sunday School teacher or a pastor or a trusted friend. That's also a part of wisdom and discretion!
There are so many ways you could go with this passage! Do you have a heavy conscience? Are you fearful right now? Do you have a good relationship with your neighbors? Do you realize you are further away from "wise" than you thought? Pick one of those. Spend time in prayer and Bible study and Christian conversation on the topic. Solomon gave us these words to help guide us from foolish to wise, so let's act on them.
Most importantly, if you haven't taken the step beyond the wisdom of Solomon to the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ, now's the time to do so. As Jesus said, "What good does it do a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?" It's great to be a good neighbor. But that won't make you right with God. Only humbly trusting Jesus for salvation will do that. And then, in the power of the Holy Spirit, you can be a far better neighbor than you realized possible. I'm praying for you - mww