“I teach you wisdom and her ways in all that I profess; instructing as I’m leading you in paths of righteousness.” (Proverbs 4:11)
This is the fourth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. Today’s blog contains my rendering of Proverbs 4, preceded by a brief reflection.
Steve Jobs was one of the great entrepreneurs of our time. From humble roots and a love of tinkering, he co-founded Apple Computer. Combining a practical knowledge of electronics with marketing and design and later leadership and finance, he gave the world iMacs, iPhones, iPads, and iTunes. He had the ability to call on knowledge from disparate fields and apply it in new and innovative ways. Incidentally, he was worth over $10B when he died in 2011. By almost any measure, Steve Jobs had wisdom.
Wisdom is highly esteemed in the Bible. And Proverbs, of course, is the quintessential Biblical book about wisdom. But is the wisdom that Solomon writes about in Proverbs of the same kind that was exemplified by Steve Jobs in his professional life? Or for that matter, when any of us shows good judgment in the give and take of daily life, is this Biblical wisdom? Or is the wisdom written about in Proverbs and elsewhere in the Bible something different?
We all desire wisdom – particularly when the alternative is foolishness. We all want to be known as wise; no one wants to be seen a fool. I remember the winter of 1977/78 when Pat and I were living in a tiny cabin in rural Maine while building a larger house on the property. One day as I was in the cabin making window frames for the house, I decided to use the kitchen table to support strips of wood as I cut them with my power circular saw. Predictably, I went too deep on one piece and cut a deep slash in our table. This was not wise, nay, it was pure and simply dumb. Pat was too kind to call me a fool, but that’s what I was. Still, did this make me a Biblical fool? Did my action reflect a lack of Biblical wisdom?
Proverbs doesn’t provide a definition of “Biblical wisdom,” per se, so we are left to figure it out more or less on our own. A good starting place comes from Charles Spurgeon, the so-named “Prince of Preachers,” who almost 150 years ago wrote, “Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.” As a general definition of wisdom, this is pretty good. Still, the question remains as to whether this captures the meaning of wisdom as used in Scripture and specifically Proverbs. And frankly, I’m not sure it does.
John Piper formulates a definition of Biblical or Godly Wisdom by starting with Jesus’ concluding words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.” (Matthew 7:24) From this, Piper proposes the following definition for Godly Wisdom: “hearing and doing God’s Word.” But because not every circumstance is covered by God’s Word, Piper is compelled to add, “Wisdom must include a sensitive, mature judgment or discernment of how the fear of the Lord should work itself out in all the circumstances not specifically dealt with in the Bible.”
I find a somewhat different picture of Biblical wisdom emerging in Proverbs. Generally speaking, verses in Proverbs are related to wisdom either in a generic sense, or by way of specific examples. In chapter 4, generic verses are 1-10, 12-13, and 20-22, which involve listening to wisdom, seeking it out, and following it (1-7, 13, 20-21); and the rewards of doing so (8-10, 12, 22). Specific examples are verses 11, 14-19, and 23-27. In these, wisdom is depicted solely in moral terms. Verse 11 is a key verse because in it Solomon specifically equates wisdom and righteousness. “I teach you wisdom and her ways in all that I profess; instructing as I’m leading you in paths of righteousness.” This conflation of wisdom and righteousness is found throughout. In simple terms, wisdom is following the way of the righteous (18, 23, 25-27); and avoiding the way of the wicked (14-17, 19, 24). For Solomon, wisdom and righteousness are one and the same (as are foolishness and wickedness).
Proverbs 4 is illustrative, but consistent with the two principal messages about wisdom found throughout all of Proverbs, namely, 1) Wisdom is important; and 2) Wisdom is demonstrated by righteousness or virtue. This seems to be precisely what we read in the book of James, which probably has the best description of Biblical wisdom. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:13-17)
What James is saying is that those who harbor wickedness such as envy or pride in their hearts do not have Biblical wisdom. Whereas those who exhibit virtues that are pure, peace-loving, considerate, etc. have Biblical wisdom. From this I conclude that Biblical wisdom is the same as Christian virtue, which means that the pursuit of Biblical wisdom is the pursuit of virtue.
Wisdom in all matters is a good thing. No doubt what Steve Jobs accomplished in his life was the result of great wisdom. But all wisdom is not Biblical wisdom. Biblical wisdom is first and foremost a matter of whether we are living lives of virtue, and secondarily how we decide problems of an ethical and moral nature.
That said, I don’t want to put too fine a point on defining “Biblical wisdom” as virtue for several reasons. 1) For one thing, “Biblical” wisdom itself is merely a construct based on what is revealed in Proverbs. Nowhere does Proverbs refer to “Biblical” wisdom or “Godly” wisdom, it is always just wisdom. 2) Moreover, even if the wisdom in Proverbs is a matter of virtue, which I believe it is, that doesn’t mean that the kind of secular wisdom demonstrated by Steve Jobs is unimportant. Indeed, Jesus sent out his disciples with the caution to, “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) Other translations say “as wise as serpents.” It does us no credit to be foolish in our finances, health, work, or any of a myriad of non-moral matters we face daily. 3) Finally, there are many matters of an ethical nature that do not involve a choice between good and evil, but between two matters more or less equally virtuous. These are some of the hardest decisions we must make, and require great wisdom indeed.
1 O listen, children, to the words
a father speaks to you;
Attend so insight you will gain,
and understanding too.
2 The precepts that I have are good,
the learning in them sound;
So don’t forsake these things I teach,
or what my words expound.
3 For I was once a child like you –
I was my father’s son;
My mother also cherished me –
her most beloved one.
4 My father said, “Cling to my words,
and don’t let them depart;
Keep my commands and you will live
if they are in your heart.”
5 “Get understanding for your path,
get wisdom for your way;
Do not forget my words to you,
or turn from what I say.”
6 “Do not abandon wisdom, child,
and she will keep you whole;
Just always love and cherish her,
and she will guard your soul.”
7 “The way of wisdom is supreme,
so hold it close to you;
Get understanding for your way,
whatever else you do.”
8 “Love wisdom like a special prize,
and she will lift your name;
If you embrace and cherish her,
she’ll honor you the same.”
9 “She’ll place a garland on your head –
a wreath beyond compare;
She’ll give to you a noble crown –
a diadem to wear.”
10 O hear, my child, these words I speak,
accept what they bestow;
For if you do, then many years
of life you’ll surely know.
11 I teach you wisdom and her ways
in all that I profess;
Instructing as I’m leading you
in paths of righteousness.
12 Now wisdom helps you when you walk,
so nothing holds you back;
You will not stumble when you run,
or trip upon your track.
13 Hold to instruction all you can,
don’t let it get away;
For it is surely life to you,
so guard it well today.
14 Don’t set your foot upon the path
where wicked people stalk;
Or ever follow in the way
where evildoers walk.
15 Avoid the pathway of the vile,
and on it do not tread;
Just turn your eyes and pass it by,
and go your way instead.
16 The wicked cannot find their rest
till evil they have done;
They find themselves deprived of sleep
until they’ve hurt someone.
17 They eat the bread of wickedness
until their gut is filled;
They drink the wine of violence,
and not a drop is spilled.
18 The pathway of the righteous soul
is like the morning the sun;
That shines more brilliant with the day
than when it’s just begun.
19 But wicked people walk a path
that’s darker than a tomb;
They do not know what causes them
to stumble in the gloom.
20 My child, please listen to my words,
attend to what I say;
O turn your ear to what I speak
to help you on your way.
21 Don’t let my words escape your sight,
or from your mind depart;
But keep them always close at hand,
forever in your heart.
22 These words are life for everyone
who finds them out at last;
They’re health for body and the flesh –
a healing unsurpassed.
23 O guard your heart above all else,
with all that you hold true;
For from it flows the springs of life,
and everything you do.
24 Avoid perverse and wayward speech,
and all that is a lie;
Eschew deceit and scheming talk,
don’t let it tarry nigh.
25 Look only forward with your eyes,
don’t let them deviate;
Direct your sight on what’s ahead,
and let your gaze be straight.
26 O ponder where your feet will go –
the paths that are secure;
Be steadfast and dependable,
so all your ways are sure.
27 Don’t ever turn this way or that,
not either left or right;
But keep your foot from evil ways,
and all that is not light.