READ : Proverbs 9:10
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Proverbs 9:10, RSV
What in human life would you say is supremely desirable? What is the highest good, the richest treasure, the “pearl,” as we say, “of great price”? For the writers of the Old Testament Proverbs there can be no doubt about the answer. To them what is most worth seeking for, for all of us, is wisdom. Hear how they speak about it:
Happy is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gets understanding, for the gain from it is better than gain from silver and its profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is within her right hand, in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her. Those who hold her fast are called happy.
In all your striving to get, these sages say, be sure to get wisdom.
WISDOM, WHAT IT IS
What is this wisdom, so highly esteemed? What does it mean to be wise? As we read about wisdom in the Scriptures, we discover a gem with many facets. Sometimes it means a special skill or craft. A man is wise as an artisan, a farmer, a merchant, a craftsman in metals or in cutting precious stones. Some are wise as woodsmen, as soldiers, as scribes, even as professional mourners! Sometimes wisdom seems to mean intellectual brilliance, even encyclopedic knowledge, such as Solomon displayed in penning thousands of proverbs. Sometimes it is a capacity to teach others, imparting insight to them.
In almost every instance, this “wisdom” has a decidedly practical character. It is knowledge, but not abstract learning. It is understanding, but never of a merely theoretical sort. Wisdom means, basically, knowing how to live. It may be the knowledge of human nature that enables us to patch up a quarrel between friends. It may be the special competence needed by a ruler or an administrator. It may be the moral discernment required by a judge to mete out justice. It always has the idea of knowing what to do and how to do it. Often it involves grasping how to deal with stress, how to cope with a difficult situation, how to make hard decisions, how to deal with troublesome people.
The wise person, as we read about him or her in the Scriptures, is diligent, prudent, trustworthy, patient, generous, modest, peaceable and self-controlled. Wise people are those who have discovered the secret of behaving well. They are developing expertise in the highest of all arts, the art of living.
WISDOM, WHERE IT STARTS
The writers who praise wisdom so lavishly agree upon where it comes from. Listen! “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” We start to be wise when we begin to fear God.
This “fear of the LORD” is a key phrase in Scripture and one that is frequently misunderstood. It doesn’t mean, for example, fear in the sense of fright or terror. We are not to fear God as we fear a man-eating shark or a poisonous snake. We are not to flee from Him as we would from mortal danger or a malicious enemy. Sometimes we hear people speak of “putting the fear of God” into someone. They usually mean by that scaring him half to death. But the “fear of God” is a deep kind of respect. To fear God is to reverence Him. This fear is not so much a dread of what He may do to us as a desire to please Him.
A parallel phrase for fearing the Lord is “knowing the Holy One.” We fear God when we listen to what He says in His Word about Himself, when we commit ourselves to Him in repentance and trust, when we enter into a personal relationship with Him as beloved children.
The wise man is contrasted in the Scriptures with “the fool.” The fool says in his heart, “no God.” God is not in all his thoughts. He may profess an intellectual belief in God, but he has no living awareness of Him. The thought of being in relationship with God, of having to do with Him, of being in His presence, never occurs to the mind of the fool. He carries on his relationships, does his work, makes his plans, without ever taking God into account. He lives, for all practical purposes, as though God did not exist.
The wise man approaches everything quite differently. God, to him, is the greatest of all realities. He seeks to be aware every moment that he is living in God’s presence, under God’s eye. He sets the Lord always before him. His relationship to the Lord is the principal factor in how he thinks and behaves. All his thoughts are: “God is, and He is the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
If we want to be wise then, we need to begin by taking God seriously. Our first aim must be to know Him, to know the true and living God as He has revealed Himself to us. Where shall we start?
The apostle Paul, in writing to his young friend Timothy, talks about the importance of the Holy Scriptures in coming to know God. Listen:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
Another translation has it, “to make you wise unto salvation through faith in Christ.” “All scripture,” Paul continues, “is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Do you see how that captures so much of what we have been thinking about? The Scriptures are “God-breathed” and because they come from God’s creative inspiration they are all profitable for teaching us, reproving us, correcting us and training us in righteousness, that is, for showing us how to live. But the primary function of the Scriptures, on which all these other things depend, is that of leading us to know God Himself. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are His Word to us in which He draws back the veil and makes Himself known. In the message of the Scriptures we meet the living God. We meet Him as the Creator and learn to live as His creatures. We meet Him as the Lord whom we have disobeyed, and learn to surrender to His rule. Most of all, we meet Him as the God of seeking love who comes in Christ to be our Savior.
The Scriptures make us wise to salvation by leading us to faith in Jesus Christ. He is the central figure of the Bible. In Him the covenant promises of God are fulfilled. In Him God reveals Himself fully and finally to us. In His life of obedience, in His atoning death, in His triumphant resurrection, God acts to redeem us from the power of sin and death. In Him we are given the gift of the Spirit imparting new life to us. Then, knowing God as His forgiven people, as His newborn children, we begin for the first time in our lives to be truly wise. Yes, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
WISDOM, HOW IT WORKS
The fear of the Lord expresses itself as obedience to God’s commands. The Psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments.” There the two are made parallel. To reverence God means to take delight in His revealed will. You know how the Psalmist expressed that again and again, “The law of Thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” “O, how love I Thy law; it is my meditation all the day.” “How sweet are Thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.”
Believers feel that way because they have been given, by God’s grace, a new disposition. When people repent and put their trust in the Lord, He enters their lives by His Spirit; He writes His law upon their hearts. That is, He gives them an inward desire to obey, a heart for God’s will. The fear of the Lord works itself out in us as a hunger to hear God speak, a treasuring of what He reveals and commands, an eagerness to do what He says.
Wisdom thus leads us to purposeful living. In knowing God we discover what the goal of our life is and we bend our efforts to reach it. Our lives are shot through with meaning now. We have a sense of destiny; we want to fulfill the purpose for which we were created and redeemed.
Here’s another parallel for the fear of the Lord: “The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psa. 147:11). Here we gain added insight into how wisdom works in the lives of people. To fear God, as we’ve seen, is to know Him. And when we come to know His grace in Jesus Christ, we are given a child-like trust in His fatherly goodness. We rest in the confidence that the future is in His hands and that nothing can separate us from His love.
Wisdom expresses itself then as hope in God. We know that without Him we can do nothing that is significant, vital and lasting. We seek to make our plans while taking His sovereign will into account. But we so set our hope in Him that we can plan responsibly and joyfully about what’s ahead. To be wise is to know that “unless the LORD builds the house those who build it labor in vain; unless the LORD watches over the city the watchman stays awake in vain.” But the wise man also knows that with God all things are possible. He has heard the Word which says, “My God shall supply all your need, according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” Finally, wisdom expresses itself as a constant appeal to God for light and help. The fear of the Lord is a gift but also a capacity which can develop and grow. Wisdom is a practical knowledge of how to live, but it is never ours as a kind of permanent mental furniture. Because wisdom springs from knowing God, we are constantly in need of Him for it. Listen to James, the Lord’s brother, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.”
James is writing here to Christians. He calls them his “brethren.” He assumes that they “hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But he is also aware that they often lack wisdom. All of us do. Even after many years in the faith and many experiences of God’s help and grace, we still need to depend upon His direction. We still confront situations where we’re at a loss. We don’t know what to do or how to cope. The wise man is emphatically not the person who has all the answers, who assumes at the outset that he is adequate for every situation. To be wise is to pray “teach me Thy way, O LORD, lead me in a plain path.” To be wise is to sing, “I would not have the restless will that hurries to and fro, seeking for some great thing to do or secret thing to know. I would be treated as a child and guided where I go.”
That’s how wisdom works itself out in us, as a desire to know and do God’s will, as a joyful trust in His fatherly goodness and as a constant prayer that He will make Himself known to us and show us His way. May you and I have this priceless wisdom as more and more we come to know God Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord!
PRAYER: Father, may all of us be led through the Scriptures to know You as You have made Yourself known in Christ, to trust Him as our Savior and learn what it is to be truly wise. In Jesus’ name. Amen.