What is wisdom? In the Beatitudes, Christ takes his disciples aside and summarizes the way of living for the believer. How did Christ come to understand these things? In his upbringing he grew in wisdom and stature. Jesus was taught from the Scriptures.
Throughout the wisdom literature — Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes — we see this teaching repeated: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111 says the man who fears the Lord has learned the first of wisdom’s ways. Job 28 says “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding.”
Wisdom is choosing the correct end and the most appropriate and effective means of achieving that end.
The Sermon on the Mount tells the disciples and us about the character of the citizens of the kingdom. It’s spiritual and inward, not merely external and behavioral (a list of things to do). It involves the transformation of our inner hearts. At one time in history Christians were called God-fearing men. You’d say of a Christian, “He’s a God-fearing man.” When that phrase is heard today it’s typically thought of as a craven fear. The fear of the Lord is not a fear that has torment. What does this fear mean? What is wisdom?
In the Old Testament literature wisdom is contrasted with two other characters: the fool and the simple. While the fool claims to know and doesn’t, the simple doesn’t care to know. So what is the alternative, the way of wisdom? Wisdom is choosing the correct end and the most appropriate and effective means of achieving that end. We can clearly see from that definition if you don’t have the Lord at the beginning you’ll never choose the correct end nor can you begin on the path of wisdom. The idea of appropriate and effective means has to do with taking all things into account. In wisdom all relevant things are considered.
This motto, “the fear of the Lord,” is found in all the wisdom literature and keeps the shrewdness of the proverbs from slipping into mere self-interest. All the nations of the world have proverbs that are easily understood as mere self-interest. The fear of the Lord keeps the perplexity of Job from turning into mere mutiny, and the disillusion of Ecclesiastes from final despair.
Wisdom is the very principle of creation issuing from the mind of God, present in every moment of activity and delighting supremely in the human race. If this is wisdom’s status then to turn from wisdom is nothing less than to choose our own unmaking. On the other hand to find it at any cost is nothing less than life. We can understand the creation because it was made by the wisdom of God. When we see that we haven’t done that we should repent in sackloth and ashes, taking Job’s example.
Although Job was blameless, in sin we ignore the works of God. We don’t love wisdom. To take the name of someone who loves wisdom and not to have done that will be one of the woes in the Beatitudes: (enter text here). The woes are not only for believers, they are for humankind. If you are someone who claims to love wisdom and you haven’t begun with the works of God, have you loved wisdom? If you’ve been teaching that you are a lover of wisdom (the Greek word for philosopher) and you haven’t started here, Jesus says woe to you.
In the wisdom literature basic questions are wrestled with from the first person perspective, in anguish and suffering as we call out for understanding, especially suffering and evil in the world.
The wisdom literature teaches us about our condition. It begins with the fear of the Lord and the condition of the human heart. Think for a moment about the modern world and all of the ways in which people deal with the problems that are besetting us. Be they political, economic or psychological or dietary problems. If you don’t understand the human condition will you be able to offer solutions to those problems?
The wisdom literature is a distinct category of Scripture. In the Old Testament we move from history and the commands of God (thou shalt) and the prophets (thus sayeth the Lord) to the cooler comments of the teacher and the often anguished questions of the learner. We begin to think about existential problems. In the wisdom literature they are wrestled with from the first person perspective, in anguish and suffering as we call out for understanding, especially suffering and evil in the world.
We’re summoned by the wisdom literature to think hard and think humbly as we consider the most disturbing questions that face us. So here we combine the logical and the existential as we wrestle with what is most basic and most important. The wisdom literature presents us with difficult questions and invites us to make them our own. Have they become yours Problems of suffering generally or the problem that Job faced: I’ve been good and I’m suffering. The problem of meaning in the world — what can appear to be futility of life from beginning to end. Have you wrestled in the way we’re called upon? These draw us in and ask us to work on these problems. It can be both painful but also take us further than a proclamation or a lecture.
This demand for thought presupposes a world that answers these questions. How does the world answer this? We’re presented with God whose work of creation is a perfect expression of divine wisdom so that human wisdom is rebuked. Not wisdom simplicity but human wisdom that sets itself up apart from God and does not start with basic things. We don’t find any divine caprice or a tale told by an idiot. We don’t find existence arising from blind chance. To call the wisdom of God equivalent to non-being is the height of folly.
The display of the creator’s glory is in the creation, especially the wisdom of God. Contempt shown for that wisdom is the sin for which we must all repent.
We see everywhere in the wisdom literature God’s sovereignty over man’s rebellion. The stamp of reason upon all of God’s works is something that the wisdom literature emphasizes. The display of the creator’s glory is in the creation, especially the wisdom of God. Contempt shown for that wisdom is the sin for which we must all repent. Like Job’s comforters, we may not have even identified it as a sin. They accused him of all the other kinds of sins you can think of besides the root sin of not seeing what is clear. They didn’t get back to what is basic. We may find ourselves comforted in that same way thinking, “I haven’t done those things” or find ourselves grieved because we say “I have done those things” but either way we have to get back to the root sin of failing to see God’s wisdom in creation. This is what God hold’s Job accountable for when he asks, (“quote”). That must be confessed and forgiven.
Isaiah 5:21 is a summary of the alternative to wisdom literature. It says (quote). Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight. That is not a woe against wisdom but a woe against the fool. We use that word in a very specific sense, the fool — we don’t use it just in general as an insult but in the biblical definition. Woe to the person who is wise in their own eyes; they don’t begin with the fear of the Lord. In one way philosophers have wanted to get to this point and in another way this describes the condition of the unbelieving philosopher. The first point is found in Hebrews 11:6: without faith it is impossible to please him for he who comes to God must believe that he is and that he is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him.
Here we have the positive statement of the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Is it possible to please God without faith? It describes what that faith is: believing that God is and that he is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him. Do you believe that? God rewards those who diligently seek him. Sometimes? Some lucky individuals are rewarded? Or it is a categorical statement: always true. Some might say well they haven’t been rewarded. Is God a liar?
Woe is expressed toward those who thought they were seeking. Is it possible to come to God without this understanding? He rewards those who diligently seek him, which is the key world. You could lackadaisically seek him. He’s the rewarder of those who lackadaisically seek him? Who slothfully seek him? Or who diligently seek him? That is the statement of the fear of the Lord. Do you believe that God is?
There are atheists who say that there is no God and there is no soul, only atoms and the void. More commonly is the atheist who says there is a God but does not believe God acts in the world and is sovereign over all things. He’s more a practical atheist who thinks, “I’ll have to take care of things myself. I’m responsible for doing things for making my life good.” In contrast is God’s active ruling in history and each of our lives. At the micro level and also the national, international and macro level. Do you believe that about God?
This is the beginning of wisdom: without faith it is impossible to please God. Have you found happiness and peace or meaning apart from the fear of the Lord? Have you found it in the world’s ways? The wisdom of the world does not bring these things because it doesn’t begin with the right principle, and so it will not provide the right outcome. As Christians we affirm the need to repent of root sin. These things have been clear about God and we should have been following that and none of us has.
Do we know God as we should? As we continue to wrestle with questions of wisdom literature, these are deep and personal questions each of us has to face. They’re the questions of philosophy; the true love of wisdom is displayed in the wisdom literature. It teaches us what we need to be repenting of, the not seeking described in Psalm14, and that our joy is in knowing God our creator and redeemer. This is life that the fear of the Lord leads to. Whatever other conditions in life that we’re facing we find our joy in knowing God. Our deep contentment is in knowing God.