Ancient Wisdom

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A certain sage-like professor once quipped: “Would you, after having obtained a one-hundred dollar bill, proceed to throw away the fifty crumpled up in your pocket?” The rhetorical question was aimed at the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. To put it another way, would we, after having received Christ, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), proceed to relegate the biblical books of wisdom to the shelf, never to be utilized again?

Unfortunately, nothing less has happened within the church. The fact that they are neglected (especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) reveals a few problems many of us have with them. We Christians know the oft-repeated phrase, “Fear the Lord,” but do we understand it? Also, there are times when portions of the Proverbs leave us with a sneaking suspicion that they are trite, even wrong, at times. Does health, wealth, and prosperity always meet the righteous? Moreover, the very values we Americans disdain, biblical wisdom exalts — age and tradition.

Why not throw the fifty away? Because many of the words of wisdom testify to Jesus the Christ (see Luke 24:27). Furthermore, “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8b), and the whole of Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The apostles themselves directly quote or allude to approximately sixty Proverbs — not to mention the other wisdom books. They saw that only truth is unchangeable, despite the many ways those truths have been interpreted by people throughout the ages. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament expresses such truth — truth that transcends every situation — and thus it can be applied to many of life’s circumstances.

One such transcendent truth found in biblical wisdom is that well-known expression, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 11:10; Prov. 9:10; see also Job 28:28; Eccl. 12:13). But what kind of “fear” serves as the prerequisite for the attainment of wisdom?

To begin with, to “fear” the Lord (or to have the “fear of God”) involves three aspects: First, the most obvious is that of emotional awe — to have faith, love, and trust in a holy God. Second, to fear God simply means that we must humble ourselves before the unchanging revelation of who He is in His Word. Third, fearing the Lord is a transcendent truth that can be instructed and committed to memory or pondered in the heart. This last point is important if for no other reason than to show us that no matter how many people do not fear God, it nonetheless endures. Thus, “fear of the Lord” refers to God’s eternal word, and it is this ageless inspiration from which wisdom flows. “Fear,” therefore, has little to do with pacifying an angry God; rather, it has to do with an expressive response of humility, trust, and love — this last effect, we are reminded by Jesus in Matthew 22:40, being that upon which “all the Law and the Prophets” depend. Again, biblical “fear” does not entail a robotic response to the legalist’s laws; it is humility and awe of the One who set before us “life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). Using Jesus as the ultimate example, the fear of the Lord is the Son’s loving adoration that manifested itself in humble and meticulous obedience to His Father’s will. If we do this, then God-pleasing wisdom will follow. But of what exactly does this “wisdom” consist?

Wisdom (Heb., hokma) ordinarily means “skill,” “shrewdness,” “prudence,” “expertise,” or “masterful understanding.” Throughout Scripture, such wisdom often refers to the art of war, of governing, diplomacy, or discernment. Generally speaking, this wisdom is accessible to anyone. It comes not by miraculous visions but by careful observation of everyday life, as well as deference to tradition. Wisdom is that which enables the individual to manage his or her life, to achieve solutions against insurmountable odds. Compare this to 1 Corinthians 1:24 cited above, and the connection becomes clear: Christ is now our wisdom, and through Him, we can meet anything (Phil. 4:13). Finally, wisdom is not neutral. The wisdom described in the Old Testament is God-centered, which makes God-pleasing wisdom, in the end, inaccessible but by God’s grace. Fearing God, therefore, brings a certain kind of clarity to life — both moral and mental — and makes possible the use of godly insight and understanding.

Biblical wisdom not only teaches us how to live, it also teaches us how to die. That is, it teaches us about what it means to face the inevitability of death in faith. Many of us (myself included), find talk about death less than exciting — even terrifying at times. But God’s wisdom gives us a sober reflection, not blind naïveté: “He who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccl. 9:4). This is true, is it not? So long as we live (and many of us still love life), do we not have high hopes? But alas, this hope, according to the Preacher, enables us to see that “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing …” (Eccl. 9:5). Why does the wisdom of God jar us from the joy of life and hope, sunsets and love, to the sober thought of death and silence? The answer is too easy, and too easily overlooked — especially by the successful church of the western world: Forgetting that life is not about being as comfortable as possible, we have forgotten how to die, and thus we have forgotten how to live.

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