If you would turn with me in your Bibles to Proverbs chapter 21. It’s found on page 544 in your pew Bibles. And we’re in a time of the year that, for some, is a time of transition. Along with graduations and weddings, come toasts and speeches with words of encouragement for the days ahead. At least that’s the case some of the time.
One of the more memorable graduation speeches from recent years was given by David McCullough Jr. to the Wellesley High School graduating class of 2012. Wellesley is a prestigious high school in New England. But McCullough told the graduating class that day these words. He said, "Contrary to what your U-9 soccer trophies suggest, what your glowing seventh-grade report card said, despite every assurance of Barney the dinosaur, Mr. Rodgers, and your Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save the day, you're nothing special." That's not what we're used to hearing at commencement speeches. Is it? But he said he had facts to back that up. And these are the statistics that he goes to. He says that that year, there were 3.2 million seniors graduating from high school at over 37,000 high schools. That meant that there were 37,000 valedictorians, 37,000 class presidents. He said there were 92,000 harmonizing altos and 340,000 swaggering athletes and over 2 million pairs of UGGs. "You're nothing special."
Now maybe it's a bit heavy on the sarcasm for your taste, but the reason that it's funny, the reason it stands out to us, is because it's not what we expect to hear in those kinds of situations. We expect to hear more words that you are prepared and that you're ready to go out and to start out and that you can be whatever you want to be and do anything that you want to do. We're used to those superficial slogans and motivational clichés. But where can wisdom be found? Well, we look for wisdom tonight in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs, you know, is one of the wisdom books in the Bible, along with Job and Ecclesiastes. We've been studying Job from the pulpit in recent evening worship services. They're very different though. Aren't they? Sandy Wilson would say that the Proverbs, they capture wisdom for life in 90% of the occasions; 90% of circumstances. Job and Ecclesiastes deal with the 10% of times when things go unexpectedly. And Proverbs, they're not promises, they're not guarantees, but they're saying that things typically go this way. This is what life looks like when it's lived out in the fear of the Lord. And those things which are not captured, those areas of life which are not captured by the Law or the prophets, we look to wisdom to look for ways that we can glorify God and honor Him and enjoy His blessings.
So tonight, we’re going to look at one proverb. We’re going to look at Proverbs 21:31 and we’ll see the freedom and the confidence that comes with trusting our plans and our futures to the Lord. So with that in mind, let me pray again for us.
Our Father, we thank You that You are a God of wisdom and that we worship a Savior who is wisdom incarnate. Father, we thank You that You have given us Your Spirit to guide us and to direct us into all wisdom. And so we ask that You would give us wisdom tonight as we study this proverb. Give us minds to understand, hearts to understand and to apply to our lives what You have to say for us. And we ask that You would help us to glorify You in all that we do and to bring honor to Your Son, Jesus. We pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Proverbs 21, verse 31, says this:
“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.”
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.
I want to look at this verse, this one verse, this proverb, along two lines today. I want us to see first, superficial slogans, and then secondly, a strong confidence.
First, superficial slogans. We live in a world of superficial slogans, in everything from advertisements to political campaigns to bumper stickers and awareness movements. Everything is condensed down into a few memorable catchphrases. And certain ideas, even certain worldviews, creep into our thinking through those catch phrases and through those clichés and slogans. And there are ways in which we would say, yes, the horse is prepared, it's made ready for the day of battle. Preparations must be made and preparations have been made. But how do we go about making those preparations and how do we go forward once all of those preparations have been made?
Well, that's what this proverb is all about. This proverb is about making preparations. It's about training and development. It's about making plans. Now we might use a different metaphor if we were speaking of battle today. Maybe we would say something about a tank or a battleship. I remember several years ago, a couple of years ago at the General Assembly in Mobile, Alabama, one of the more memorable things that happened that week was looking out across the bay and watching them design and build a battleship. It was amazing to see the preparation and the strength of that ship. It was an impressive feat and it stuck with me. But in the past, people would look to a horse and a symbol of military power. The horse was a symbol of military power for centuries. In fact, we still use the word "horsepower" don't we, today, to describe the power and efficiency of engines of all sorts – whether cars or motorcycles or airplanes. Horsepower is still in our language.
And throughout history, the horse represented a major and a significant military advantage. It was helpful in battle more than anything else because of its strength and its speed and its aggressiveness. And we can think of places in the Bible where even the thought of charging horses, even the thought of charging chariots sent the people into terror, sent them into panic. Think about Exodus 14 when the people had come out of Egypt and they were delivered out of slavery, and yet, Pharaoh and his chariots started to pursue them and the Red Sea was in front of them. And they asked Moses, in some of what is the saddest but also I find somewhat funny words of Scripture, they say to Moses as the Egyptian chariots are pursuing them, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us into this wilderness to die?” You see, they were terrified. They were terrified of the thoughts of the chariots coming after them. They thought that they had no chance, that they were no match for those chariots. And that’s why when the Lord delivered them through the Red Sea as our first graders sang for us a little while ago, and defeated the Egyptians, that the people sang out, “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea!”
I was reading this week about Alexander the Great’s horse. His name was Bucephalus. And some people say that Bucephalus was the most famous horse in history. And he was so important to Alexander the Great that Alexander the Great founded a city in memory of his horse and he named the city, Bucephala in honor of his horse. That’s how important his horse was for the advance of his kingdom, for the advance of his empire. The horse made ready for the day of battle. It’s a picture of strength; it’s a picture of efficiency, of having all the strategies in place and the plans worked out. In other words, it’s having the risks and the obstacles assessed and the goals and the objectives have all been worked out and the next step is to put them into play. The next step is to go into the battle.
Now we could think of all sorts of ways in which preparations have been made and the next step is to enter into the task ahead. Maybe it’s that the nursery has been finished, the car seat is in the car, the bags are packed for the hospital, and life is about to change. Perhaps it’s your classes are almost finished, your report card, your GPA represents all the hard work that you have put into your school work, your resume has been filled out with all of your skills and your references. Hopefully, your resume looks better than my first resume! When we graduated from Ole Miss, the Career Services told us to put "electronic mail" as one of our job skills. That's email. Not a very impressive job skill, but that's about all we had at that point! Maybe you've chosen a healthy diet, you've set up an active lifestyle and you've kept up or committed to regular doctor check-ups and everything is in place for success. You're ready for good results.
Well, you know what? Everything in this proverb assumes or implies that people, that we will make proper plans and preparations. This proverb assumes that we will be ready to carry out our work diligently when that time comes. As a matter of fact, if you look back into your Bibles, look at Proverbs 21:5, just a few verses before this. It says, "The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty." You see, it's commending diligence. It's not saying that this is a guarantee that every time, diligence will lead to abundance. But normally, ordinarily, diligence leads to good results. Jesus Himself says that. Doesn’t He? He commends the sitting down and planning a project before starting. Doesn’t He? Counting the cost. He says, “If any of you desire to build a tower, who does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” He says, “Otherwise, when he has laid the foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin mocking him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” There’s wisdom in counting the cost. There’s wisdom in training our minds and our bodies. There’s wisdom in putting our material resources to good use. In fact, that’s good stewardship. That’s going back to Genesis chapter 1, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it.” To show dominion under God’s dominion and using our resources, using our gifts and our abilities and cultivating them for good purposes. There’s wisdom for having the horse ready for the day of battle.
But doesn’t it make all the difference about how those plans are formed? And doesn’t it make all the difference about how those plans are carried out? That’s where we have to be careful not to buy into all the lies of the worldly mottos and the popular catch-phrases. I think most of us would tend to be more careful and tend to be diligent. Most of us would say it’s good to have the horse ready for the day of battle. But how are we tempted to finish that proverb? What are some of the slogans that we turn to from time to time? We may say, “The horse is ready for battle, and just do it,” to borrow the Nike phrase. You know, “If it feels good, do it. The ends justify the means? Do it! The statistics make sense? Do it!” But there’s more to it than that. Isn’t there? Or maybe we would say that “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, and we’re all we’ve got, but we’re all that we need.” I crack up sometimes when I see eight-year-olds or kids around that age, little boys, and they’ll be wearing t-shirts and it will say something like, “Un-guardable” or “Try to Keep Up.” And I think, “Well that’s quite the air of confidence and pride. Isn’t it?”
But that may be one of the most common temptations that we have – to think that we are in control and that it’s up to us to make the perfect decisions and to research all the options and to eliminate all of the risks. And if we set up the best plan, if we get everything just like we want it, then we can have it all, we can do it all, we can be anything that we want to be. Don’t we hear that so often in the world around us? But that’s a heavy burden to carry. Isn’t it? We’re all familiar with some form of helicopter parenting – picking out all the right food and the school and the friends and the activities for our children and thinking that their success is ultimately our responsibility.
We would all agree that we live in a culture that is obsessed with productivity – to do more and to do it faster and to do it better. One writer argues that the pleasure of productivity or the pleasure of time management is ultimately all about control. And he says, "How often in your conversations, in our interactions with one another, when you ask somebody how they're doing, how often do they say, ‘I'm busy'?" We're busy. We need to be busy. Don't we? We need to be efficient if it's all about us, if it's up to us to bring about success. And that success can be dangerous because it just fosters more self-reliance and more pride. What kind of pressure does that put on us? What kind of pressure does that put on others to meet our expectations and to pick up the pieces when we can’t do it all? What happens when the unexpected occurs? What happens when it doesn’t all go as planned? It can be crushing. Can’t it? There’s a lot of pressure there when we think that it depends all on us.
And along the same lines, we may also say, “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, and don’t take ‘No’ for an answer. Find someone to complain to. I’ll take my business, I’ll take my gifts somewhere else, or at least I’ll threaten to do that until someone listens and gives me the respect that I desire.” Isn’t it interesting that one of the first words that we learn to say is – what? “No.” Little children learn to say “no” almost before any other word. They love to say, “no,” and yet isn’t it so hard for us to hear. So hard for us to hear the word “no” and be turned down. And we dig in and we flex our muscles and we fight back, so often.
Maybe hearing “no” is so scary that we say, “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but why do today what you could put off to tomorrow. You know, keep your options open. That way, we’re not disappointed. Maybe a better option will come out. Maybe the circumstances will get better. Maybe the perfect situation will arise.” And yet that can be so paralyzing. Someone has said that we live in a “just as soon as” with a “just as soon as” mentality. That we say, “Just as soon as I get married, I will be happy.” Or, “Just as soon as I make enough money, then I’ll spend time with my kids.” But what if that right situation never comes and we just look to the next time, we look to something better, and we never act on the plans and the gifts that God has given to us.
Or maybe we think that "No" is just going to happen anyway. It's just going to happen no matter what. "The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but it is what it is." How often do we hear that? I don' even know how that phrase worked its way into our language so deeply, because, in the first place, it really doesn't mean anything at all. It says nothing. And then, on the other hand, it just seems to fatalistic, so hopeless, that some things will always be the same, they'll never change; there's no point in trying, there's no point in making any effort at all or even discussing it. But we hear it all the time and it's just a way of dismissing the challenge in front of us. It's a way of ending the conversation that we're engaged in.
And I wonder if you recognize some of those tendencies in your own hearts and minds. I know I do. I recognize some of these tendencies in my own heart and mind even as I’ve been studying this passage and preparing to preach on it. And we certainly recognize it all over the Bible. Don’t we? One of my favorite examples of that is in the book of Numbers. And you remember Moses sent the spies into the land to search it out, to check out the Promised Land. And they come back with a report that everything was just as God had said that it would be. It was a fruitful land, it was a spacious land, it was flowing with milk and honey, and yet, they were terrified of the people in the land. The people were big and the people were strong and the Israelites looked like grasshoppers in their eyes. And they gave a bad report. God had brought them that far and He had promised to give them the land. The horse was prepared for the day of battle, and yet they refused to go in. They refused to take the land that God had promised to them, that God had commanded for them to take. And when God saw that they would not enter into the land, what did He say? He promised judgment on them. He said that for forty years they would wander in the wilderness until that first generation of Israelites coming out of Egypt would perish in the wilderness. And then what did the people do? They dig in and they went into the land. They went into battle on their own, ignoring what God had said, and they were swiftly and soundly defeated and sent away in retreat. See, relying on our own strength and relying on our own efforts, it either leads to foolish in-action or it leads to foolish action as we see with the Israelites there. And it always comes with sad consequences.
I’m sure a number of you have studied in the past the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, in his poem, "To a Mouse." Burns wrote that poem after he was tilling a field and he destroyed a mouse's nest. And he wrote in that poem, "The best-laid plans of mice and men oft' go awry." That's not actually how he wrote it in Scottish. I'm sure David Strain would be disappointed that I didn't say Scot's dialect. But, "The best-laid plans of mice and men oft' go awry." And this apology that he was giving to the mouse, it turns into being a reflection on a life of struggle with little reward at the end. And some have said that it is the most despairing and bitter of all his poems. You see, a life of self-reliance. The best-laid plans come with no promise of victory. There's no guarantee for victory in the best-laid plans.
A Strong Confidence
But, where does victory come from? Victory comes, victory belongs to the Lord. Let's see, secondly, a strong confidence. That's the rest of this proverb. "The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord." Here's what Matthew Henry says about this proverb. He says, "There can be no success without God, be the cause ever so good and the patrons of it ever so strong, wise, and faithful. In the means of carrying it on and gaining the point ever so probable, still, they must acknowledge God and take Him along with them. He can save without armies, but armies cannot save without Him." God can save without armies, but armies cannot save without Him. The victory belongs to the Lord.
The Victory Belongs to the Lord
It’s such a simple phrase. It’s really only two words in the Hebrew language, but it basically captures the entire message of the Bible. Isn't that what the first graders, again, were singing about? That victory belongs to the Lord. And those words should impact everything that we do from the planning to the doing to the completion of any task that we carry out. And we can notice several things about that. And one of them is that if victory belongs to the Lord, then every plan that we make should be directed and informed by the Word of God. The Bible tells us the will of God. We learn what it means to love God and to love our neighbor in the Bible. God's Word is "a lamp to our feet and a light to our path." It's in His Word that we find wisdom for every area of life – from family and work, to speech and finances, to sufferings and trials; our worship and faith is revealed there. In God's Word is contained matters of time and eternity. Thinking of the Proverbs, I've thought before how the Proverbs would make a great Twitter feed. You know it's just a few words of wisdom in each verse and it captures a complete thought. How helpful would it be to just have appeared onto our screens, onto our phones, a word of wisdom, a proverb in a time when common sense seems to be so missing. Maybe somebody does that. Maybe that already exists. I don't know.
But then, wouldn’t it be better if instead of receiving that, we had a hunger for God’s Word, that we had a thirst for God’s Word? That we weren’t just passive recipients, but that we were searching it out and finding those truths for ourselves. Because if the Bible is God’s Word and it’s “the only rule of faith and practice,” as our catechism says; in other words, it’s necessary for life and salvation. It’s our authoritative guide for how to please God. We believe that, but do we read it? Do we know it? Do we hide God’s Word in our heart? “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Do we filter our decisions, do we base our plans, on what God tells us in His Word? And if that’s the case, then do we also submit all our plans to God in prayer? Do we bow before Him in humility and dependence, asking that He would be our help and our guide, that He would provide our daily bread, that He would lead us not into temptation? You see, the Bible and prayer are the ways in which we make our preparations, not depending on ourselves but depending on God. Submitting to His will for all of our plans.
And if victory belongs to the Lord, we can go ahead with our work trusting in the Lord with confidence. One of the best illustrations of that from the Bible is from 2 Chronicles 14 about King Asa. Asa was the king of Judah. He was going to battle against Zerah, the Ethiopian. He was severely outnumbered and overmatched and he cried out to the Lord, “Help us, O Lord, our God, for we rely on You and in Your name we have come against this multitude. We rest on Thee, and in Thy name we go.” And the Lord gave him victory that day. It wasn’t Asa, it wasn’t his army, it wasn’t the shields or the spears that he took with him. The victory was from the Lord. Resting in the Lord, going on His name. That guards us against so much – fear and worry. It strengthens us to face the challenges with courage, to do hard things, to do the things that we didn’t think that we could do.
And don’t we depend on that in times of trial? Maybe some of you are going through an illness or have suffered an injury and you’ve chosen the best doctor. You have your surgery set and you have a plan made for rehab or for therapy. “We rest on Thee, and in Thy name we go.” Or when obedience to God means missing out, or even worse, when obedience to God means causing our children to miss out, when obedience to God means doing the unpopular or doing that which would mean taking a lesser paycheck or sacrificing our own comforts and desires, “We rest on Thee, and in Thy name we go.” “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.” No matter how difficult, our trust is in the Lord and He alone gives the victory.
Respond in Gratitude
And if it is the Lord who gives the victory, then we’ll respond in gratitude; we respond to Him in thanksgiving. We know it’s not our wisdom, not our ingenuity that brings about success, it’s because it is the Lord. It’s His kindness and His blessing. I think about that story, Jesus’ first miracle – John chapter 2 where He turns the water into wine. And you remember the master of the feast comes to the groom and he says, “Everybody serves the best wine first and then the poor wine. You have saved the best wine until last.” And I love to think, “What was going through that groom’s mind?” How did he receive that compliment? Was there a “Thanks”? Because he knew he couldn’t take credit for it. There were all kinds of things that went on behind the scenes that he did not know about that brought about that good result; all that Jesus had done in the background.
Well whenever we boast about our grades our about a promotion or about an experience or something we’ve done or something we’ve accomplished, we’re forgetting about all that has gone on behind the scenes to get us to that point. We’re forgetting about the other people that have helped us get there. And ultimately, we’re forgetting that the victory comes from the Lord. It’s the Lord that gives the victory. And you see, success should come with humility, and that humility is also needed when times of disappointments come. Victory is from the Lord. Defeat and disappointment should be met with contentment.
John Bunyan, he was placed in prison for preaching, for preaching God’s Word. He was placed in prison for not conforming to the Church of England in those days. That was not his plan. He didn’t expect to go to prison. His plan was to preach and to be a minister of the Gospel. And yet what did he say in his autobiography as he thought about his time in prison? He said that he learned a greater awareness of God’s Word, of dependence in prayer, the presence of God in suffering, victory over temptation, and learning patience.
You see, if our plan is not equal to God’s will, we don’t want it. We should be content with what God has in store for us. And a confidence that when we hear a “No” from the Lord or we hear a “Wait” from the Lord, that is for our good. That is for our best. There’s a confidence and a contentment that comes even in disappointments when we know that victory comes from the Lord. I just wonder that if all of our plans and all of our calendars and all of our attitudes, what would they look like if we had a banner in our minds, just a banner in our minds that we’ve processed everything through that thought – “victory belongs to the Lord.” Our plans would be shaped by seeking the Lord and not our own self-interests. Our plans would be carried out in trust in the Lord and not in worry. Our success would be followed by gratitude and not boasting, and our disappointments would be accepted with contentment and not grumbling. Victory, from the Lord, is a sure confidence.
And isn’t that what the psalmist expresses in Psalm 20? “Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” That’s what the Bible is all about. We are not to trust in ourselves, not in our efforts, not in our own righteousness. We don’t trust and look to our own resources. We don’t look to our own might or to other people. But we look to the Lord to provide the victory. We look to the Lord to provide salvation. And that’s how the Bible ends. If we go to Revelation 19, Jesus is there on a white horse. It’s symbolic language. I would assert that that’s the most famous horse in history – Jesus’ return in victory. Jesus comes in victory and in judgment. And all works and all efforts and all accomplishments that are done apart from Christ will be destroyed. They will be shown to be worthless, worse than worthless, to make one liable of eternal judgment. But everyone who trusts in Jesus and who trusts in His victory over sin and death at the cross and by His resurrection, receives the forgiveness of sin and His victory is our victory. For everyone who trusts in Christ, our work in Christ and for Christ will stand as a witness of praise to Him in the end, and His reward is our reward.
Do not trust in chariots. Do not trust in horses. Do not trust in our own plans and in our own resources. But trust in the name of the Lord our God. “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” Let’s pray.
Father, we praise You for this sure confidence that we have in our Savior, Jesus, who has secured the victory for us. Give us hope. Give us lips of praise that we would daily praise You and in our praise that will last forever, that it would foster and fuel our daily performance of our vows and our obligations. Receive all the praise for it. We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.