Humility and Grace (Proverbs 3:34)
I. For Our Instructiond
This morning we are turning once again to the Old Testament (OT), specifically to the book of Proverbs. Why study the OT? Well, remember what God told us through the Apostle Paul: For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
I can't think of a better reason to study the OT, can you? So turn once again to the book of Proverbs. This morning, we'll be looking together at chapter 3.
II. The Passage: "But to the Humble" (3:34)d
Look with me at what Solomon tells his son in 3:34. He writes...
Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.
Who is the “he” in this verse? Verse 33 provides the answer: the LORD, that is, Yahweh. Toward the scorners [Yahweh] is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.
Brothers and sisters, if this was and is God's word to his people, then we want to live in light of this truth, don't we? But in order to walk by its light, we need to know what it means. So to better understand what it means, let's simply break this verse into parts and investigate some of the key terms.
1. “Toward the Scorner” (v. 34a)d
For example, what does Solomon mean when he speaks about the “scorners”? Well, based on the word scorn, Solomon is speaking about those who speak about others with contempt; who speak to others as if they were worthless.
But in Proverbs, this same word is also translated as “mock” or “scoff”. So if we substitute that second alternative, a simply translation of 3:34 would be, “The scoffers he scoffs at; the humble he favors.” That has a nice rhythm to it, doesn't it? What is scoffing? Scoffing is scornful derision. What's helpful about translating this word as “scoffer” instead of scorner, is that it connects with an explicitly defining verse in Proverbs: Chapter 21, verse 24... "Scoffer" is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride. (2x)
If there was any confusion about the identity of the scoffer, Solomon has just made it abundantly clear. The scoffer or scorner is the person who speaks to other like they are worthless because he or she has a wrongly and dangerously inflated view of their own worth. What fuels the mouth of the scoffer? Arrogance. Haughtiness. Pride. As the Apostle Paul would later warn believers...
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)
In a book that's all about prizing, pursuing, pondering, and practicing wisdom, one of the dangers of being a scoffer/scorner is spelled out in 15:12: A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise. Of course he won't go to the wise. Of course she doesn't like to be reproved. Who needs correction or instruction if you already have everything figured out?
But according to our main verse, the greatest danger for those who are scoffers is that God himself scoffs at the scoffers. He will mock the mockers. The “Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25) will hold in contempt the scornful; those who speak against others out of arrogance; from a prideful heart. Why will God scoff at the scoffer? Because in seeing himself or herself as the most worthy, they mock the worthiness of God, and prove they are only worthy of judgment and condemnation. In loving the lie about their own inflated worthiness, they have rejected the truth about themselves, others, and worst of all, about God.
2. “To the Humble” (v. 34b)
But if we move to the second half of Proverbs 3:34, we find a contrast. Solomon tells us that “to the humble [Yahweh] gives favor.” Now, if we were reading through the OT, having just come to Proverbs from the Psalms, God's disposition toward the humble would abundantly clear. Listen to how Solomon's father David wrote using this same Hebrew term:
Psalm 18:27... For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
Psalm 25:9... He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
Psalm 147:6...The LORD lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground.
Ps. 149:4... For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.
In Proverbs, Solomon emphasizes God's favor in terms of various blessings. Twice read about how “humility comes before honor”. Listen to 15:33 and 18:12...
The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.d
Before destruction a man's heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.
Solomon adds to honors in Proverbs 22:4... The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life. Notice how humility dovetails so wonderfully with the “the fear of the LORD”. That shouldn't be surprising. Unlike the scorner, the scoffer, the mocker, the humble man or woman has a right estimate of God's infinite worth and their own finite worth. The humble man or woman rightly understands God's position as Creator and their own position as creatures; God's position as righteous and their own position as sinners.
In understanding this idea of humility, it's also helpful to consider how this Hebrew word, translated in 3:34 as “humble”, how that word is translated in others ways in Proverbs and throughout the Hebrew Bible. For example, listen to Proverbs 16:19...
It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.
Now guess how that Hebrew word for “humble” is translated here. Did you guess “lowly”? It's actually the word “poor”. In fact the word is often translated “poor”. But it's also translated at “meek”, “afflicted”, and “lowly”. Three times David uses this word in the sense of being inwardly impoverished...
Psalm 70:5... But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!
Psalm 86:1... Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
Psalm 109:22... For I am poor and needy, and my heart is stricken within me.
I mention these verses and terms because they help us better understand the word “humble” in Proverbs 3:34.... but to the humble [to the meek, to the lowly, to the poor in spirit] he gives favor.
3. “He Gives Favor” (v. 34c)
Speaking of “favor”, what might Solomon have in mind here what he talks about God's favor? Well, more often than not, when we find this word chen in the OT, what's described is a person being favorably received by a neighbor, by a host, or in many, many cases by a king or ruler. It means to be welcome, to be accepted, to be well-regarded, to be in one's good graces.
That's a good thing when you are seeking safety. That's a good thing when you are in need. That's a good thing when you are desperate for help. And though the word is used less frequently of God's favor, that... is the glorious promise of this verse. The man or woman who embraces the fact that God is infinitely worthy and that he or she is desperately needy, will always find that God is graciously ready, ready to bless in every way.
III. But He Gives More Grace
And it's that reassuring idea of the King's incomparable favor that led not one, but two, NT writers to use Proverbs 3:34 as a way to call their readers to genuine, biblical humility. Like those first Christian readers, if you are a follower of Jesus, then listen as God speaks to you through both Peter and James...
I Peter 5:5–7... Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to [i.e., submit yourselves to] the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes [lit. sets himself against] the proud but gives grace [i.e., favor] to the humble.”  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,  casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
The version of Proverbs 3:34 in that verse actually comes from the Greek, rather than the Hebrew, OT. That's why it sounds a little different. But it's essentially the same message. And look at how Peter uses the verse here. He is calling every believer to humility in terms of their relationships with one another.
But he also wants to reassure them, doesn't he? Some walk that path of pride because they believe no one else cares; that no one else will lift them up in their time of need. But Peter reminds us that when we are humble with one another, and humble before God, he will raise us up “at the proper time”. We don't have to be anxious about that. He really does care.
The second NT author to use Proverbs 3:34 was James. Listen for it in James 4:6–10...
But he [God] gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
If Peter talked about the need for humility in terms of our relationships within the church, James is emphasizing that need in terms of our relationship with God. Just look at how verses 7-9 unpack the word “humble” that brackets that section in both verse 6 and verse 10. The one who is “humble”, the one receives grace, the one who finds favor, is the one who “submit[s]... to God”, who “resist[s] the devil”, who “draw[s] near to God”... who cleanses his hands, who purifies his heart, who “mourn[s] and weep[s]”, that is, the one... who... repents.
So this OT/NT humility means being humble before a great and awesome God, being humble as repentant sinners, and being humble with one another, in light of our equality, our unity, and our mutuality, that is, our need for one another.
Brothers and sisters, friends, God is calling us to humility in all these ways this morning. Yes, some of us need to repent of an overt and crass kind of haughtiness or arrogance. Yes, even many Christians are guilty of scornful talk and foolish scoffing, especially on social media. But usually pride is more subtle than these examples. The pride that inspires arrogant posturing and scornful comments is the same pride that often inspires the belief that I know better than God; and so we 'take charge' of the situation. It's the same pride that often inspires us to put our own needs first and steer clear of others in need. It's the same pride that often drives us to go it alone; to not rely on others.
Pride makes it far easier to find fault with others, rather than pray for them. Pride hijacks competence and twists talent so they inflate the ego rather than inspire gratitude to God. Pride minimizes sin and inspires justifications as we regularly tell ourselves, “my situation is different”.
Follower of Christ, God is calling you to humble yourself this morning. Do you sense how, and in what ways? Be convicted, but also be encouraged. As James 4:6 reassures us, “But he gives more grace.” The very best news this morning is not that God blesses the humble with favor. It's that, ultimately, He blesses the humble with favor by first blessing them with humility. Wait... what? While the promise of Proverbs 3:34 is precious, it isn't ultimately possible. You and I can never ultimately find favor in the eyes of God by way of humility because ultimately we are scornful sinners; because at the end of the day we are the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.
What we ultimately need is not divine favor given because of our humility, but divine favor given in spite of our pride. The message of the gospel is that the God who opposes the proud, directed that opposition toward One who, for our sake, “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8) That is the unmerited favor we call grace. And so, through the repentant humility with which God gives, and through faith and faith alone, faith in the resurrected Christ, we find both forgiveness for our pride and a heart of humility by which we can walk regularly in the favor of God. Because of Jesus, we can dwell forever in the King's favor. Let's praise God for that gift, and pray for his humbling work in us.
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