Great Texts of the Bible
The Beginning of Wisdom
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.—Proverbs 1:7This proposition is by some commentators regarded as the motto, symbol, or device of the Book of Proverbs. Others regard it as forming part of the superscription. As a general proposition expressing the essence of the philosophy of the Israelites, and from its relation to the rest of the contents of this book, it rightly occupies a special and individual position. The proposition occurs again in Proverbs 9:10, and it is met with in similar or slightly modified forms in other books of the Wisdom literature. The Arabs have adopted it at the head of their proverbial collections.
The Importance of Wisdom
1. Knowledge, that is, true knowledge or wisdom, is the supremely important thing. “Wisdom” was the key-word of the East in general, as well as of the Greek philosophic systems of thought. In the different cases the force of the term and the content assigned to it were different, yet, in spite of the differences, the term marks a common ground on which all meet, and reveals the essential unity of human thought and aspiration. “Wisdom” may be differently conceived, but there is agreement on this, that there is a great world-secret which to know is to find life, that there is a sphinx riddle, which we must answer or die. In the general Oriental idea of “Wisdom” there was much superstition. The wise man was he who could read the secret of the world, and unfold for men’s guidance the roll of destiny. This sometimes took the form of such superstitions as that of astrology; yet there was a manifest effort to propound the right questions concerning human life, and to find the right answer. The result seems, from our point of view, to be meagre and inadequate enough, but there must have been a truth for them at the heart of it.
Prior to its contact with Hellenism, the Semitic mind had proceeded no farther in the path of Philosophy than the propounding of enigmas, and the utterance of aphoristic wisdom. Detached observations of Nature, but especially of the life and fate of Man, form the basis of such thinking; and where comprehension ceases, resignation to the almighty and inscrutable will of God comes in without difficulty. By the side of this wisdom there was found everywhere the Magic of the sorcerer,—a knowledge which was authenticated by command over outward things. But it was only in the priestly circles of ancient Babylonia that men rose to a more scientific consideration of the world. Their eyes were turned from the confusion of earthly existence to the order of the heavens. They resembled rather the Greeks who came to understand the Many and Manifold in their sublunary forms only after they had discovered the harmony of the All in the unity and steadiness of the movement of the heavens. This Chaldæan wisdom, from the time of Alexander the Great, became pervaded, in Babylonia and Syria, with Hellenistic and later with Hellenistic-Christian ideas, or else was supplanted by them. Of more importance than any Semitic tradition was the contribution made by Persian and Indian wisdom. India was regarded as the true land of wisdom. In Arab writers we often come upon the view that there the birth-place of philosophy is to be found. By peaceful trading, in which the agents between India and the West were principally Persians, and next as a result of the Muslim conquest, acquaintance with Indian wisdom spread far and wide. Many a deliverance of ethical and political wisdom, in the dress of proverbs, was taken over from the fables and tales of India. The investigations of the Indians, associated with their sacred books and wholly determined by a religious purpose, have certainly had a lasting influence upon Persian Sufism and Islamic Mysticism. But the Greek mind was needed to direct the reflective process to the knowledge of the Real. In Indian philosophy knowledge in the main continued to be only a means. Deliverance from the evil of existence was the aim, and philosophy a pathway to the life of blessedness. Hence the monotony of this wisdom,—concentrated, as it was, upon the essence of all things in its Oneness,—as contrasted with the many-branched science of the Hellenes, which strove to comprehend the operations of Nature and Mind on all sides.1 [Note: T. J. De Boer, The History of Philosophy in Islam, 6.]
2. The Greek idea of “Wisdom” was a grander thing; it meant a clear insight into the eternal order of the world. In more modern terms, it meant the knowledge of God. But it had its defects. The God that was sought after was too much of an intellectual Infinite, and too exclusively apprehended by the intellect. Hence the dictum that the highest wisdom was a kind of intellectual contemplation in which the mind transcended appearances and looked right into the heart and the reality of things. Even by the Greek this wisdom was held with a strong element of ethical apprehension and feeling. The ethical factors were presupposed even when not expressly stated, for the Greeks declared that knowledge was virtue, and it is clear that the knowledge which is virtue is ethical at the heart of it. But the intellectual and metaphysical predominated too much in the Greek system; the transcendence and sovereignty of the ethical element was not made clear and emphatic, and Greek wisdom at last degenerated into a jingle of syllogisms. Yet the Greek had seen much of the truth of the world, and many of the sons of Greece lived strong and heroic lives through the wisdom that God had revealed to them. When their old truths were ready to vanish away, God was already preparing to send them the higher wisdom, the wisdom revealed in Christ.
Wisdom, the third of Plato’s cardinal virtues, consists in the supremacy of reason over spirit and appetite; just as temperance and courage consisted in the subordination of appetite and spirit to reason. Wisdom, then, is much the same thing as temperance and courage, only in more positive and comprehensive form. Wisdom is the vision of the good, the true end of man, for the sake of which the lower elements must be subordinated.1 [Note: W. D. Hyde, The Five Great Philosophies of Life, 129.]
On the broad distinction between the morally good life, manifesting itself in such “virtues” as self-mastery and liberality, and the life of intellectual insight as typified in the wise administration of one’s own and other people’s affairs, Aristotle shows no tendency to suppose that a man can be good in the full sense without being intelligent and thoughtful. The life of prudence he consistently conceives of (as we should expect from his general view of the relation of higher forms of reality to lower) as the end to which the life of conformity to moral and social traditions points, and in which it finds its reality. According to this view, to be good is to be on the road to wisdom; to be wise is to know where goodness points and what it means. Aristotle endeavoured to hold the balance between the citizen and the philosopher, first, by representing the life of good citizenship as a means to the life of leisure or philosophy, and, second, by identifying the latter with that highest form of intellectual activity which is the end and the soul of civilization. Wisdom, as conceived by Aristotle, presents two features which are the marks of truth. In the first place, it is activity, and activity of the highest element in man. To possess this wisdom is thus to heighten, instead of to depress, the sense of living. Secondly, it is a deepening of the present, and not merely the preparation for a future life. It is true that Aristotle speaks of it as a putting off of our mortality, but the immortality which he has in view consists not in an other-world life foreign to the present, but in the power of seeing the eternal principles or laws of which our own world is the expression.1 [Note: J. H. Muirhead, Chapters from Aristotle’s Ethics, 162.]
3. The Hebrew, though we cannot compare him in intellectual might with the great Greek athletes, found a nobler and truer and more abiding conception of “Wisdom.” While the Greek conception contained much that was noble and true, and was to that extent a preparation for the coming of Christ, especially preparing the intellectual elements and methods for the apprehension of the teaching of the Son, yet it was of the Hebrew conception that the Wisdom revealed in Christ was a direct development. The standpoint is the same in the Old and in the New Testament, and the Hebrew presentation of the relation of “Wisdom” both to God and to man contains some striking suggestions which become almost startling in the light of the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ. The primary and fundamental idea in Hebrew “Wisdom” is ethical. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The Hebrew does not argue the matter; he does not prove it by a series of syllogisms. He knows it to be so. He is self-consciously ethical. God’s voice within him speaks to his spirit, his God-filled life presents him with a clear message, and that message he proclaims to the world. The question he propounds to himself is not, Whence came the world? but, What is the true path for me to pursue? What is the utterance within me which I recognize to be noblest and divinest? What is the course of life, the manner of existence, in which I shall be true to the best within me, and find peace and satisfaction for my life? The great merit of the Hebrew lies in this, that he, of all the old nations of the world, gave the truest answer to these questions, that he became the oracle of God in the shrine of human life, and that, while systems of thought have changed and been superseded, the message he gave the world of the will of God as the ethical Sovereign of the world remains in its integrity, his ethical standpoint has been confirmed by the development of the world, and the “Wisdom” he proclaimed stands for ever as the highest wisdom, the true guide of human life, and the true explanation of God’s world.
When we speak of Hebrew wisdom we must not think of it as concerned with the problems of metaphysics which absorb the attention of Western philosophers. It was concrete not abstract, practical not speculative. Its task was not to win an ordered and harmonious conception of the universe, but to teach men how they might direct their way aright. Even where it busied itself with problems, it was a practical interest which supplied the impulse. We have no reason to doubt that from the earliest times there were those who reflected on life and conduct, and embodied their observations in picturesque parable or terse aphorism. Many of the maxims in the Book of Proverbs may well be quite ancient, and not a few may have come from Solomon himself. The main body of the book consists of maxims for the right conduct of life, written from the standpoint of the virtuous middle classes, and with a firm belief that morality and prosperity went hand in hand. The shrewd worldly wisdom, the prudential note, the value placed on success, perhaps bulk too largely in the common estimate of the book, and do injustice to its finer, nobler, and more generous qualities. And even the lower element has its place in any sober judgment of life. Society needs it for a stable basis, the commercial world has much to learn from the insistence on integrity, while many of the children of light would be all the better for some of that wisdom in which they are notoriously deficient.1 [Note: A. S. Peake, The Religion of Israel, 145.]
The Beginning of Wisdom
1. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. That is to say, the gates of Knowledge and Wisdom are opened only to the knock of Reverence. Without reverence, it is true, men may gain what is called worldly knowledge and worldly wisdom; but these are far removed from truth, and experience often shows us how profoundly ignorant and how incurably blind pushing and successful people are, whose knowledge is all turned to delusion, and whose wisdom shifts round into folly. The seeker after real knowledge will have little about him which suggests worldly success. He is modest, self-forgetful, possibly shy; he is absorbed in a disinterested pursuit, for he has seen afar the high, white star of truth; at it he gazes, to it he aspires. Things which only affect him personally make but little impression on him; things which affect the truth move, agitate, excite him. A bright spot is on ahead, beckoning to him. The colour mounts to his cheek, the nerves thrill, and his soul is filled with rapture, when the form seems to grow clearer and a step is gained in the pursuit. When a discovery is made he almost forgets that he is the discoverer; he will even allow the credit of it to pass to another, for he would rather rejoice in the truth itself than allow his joy to be tinged with a personal consideration. Yes, this modest, self-forgetful, reverent mien is the first condition of winning Truth, which must be approached on bended knee, and recognized with a humble and a prostrate heart. There is no gainsaying the fact that this fear, this reverence, is the beginning of wisdom.
The greatest men of science in our own as in all other ages are distinguished by a singular simplicity, and by a reverence which communicates itself to their readers. What could be more reverent than Darwin’s way of studying the coral-insect or the earth-worm? He bestowed on these humble creatures of the ocean and of the earth the most patient and loving observation. And his success in understanding and explaining them was in proportion to the respect which he showed to them. The coral-diver has no reverence for the insect; he is bent only on gain, and he consequently can tell us nothing of the coral reef and its growth. The gardener has no reverence for the worm; he cuts it ruthlessly with his spade, and flings it carelessly aside; accordingly he is not able to tell us of its lowly ministries and of the part it plays in the fertilization of the soil. It was Darwin’s reverence which proved to be the beginning of knowledge in these departments of investigation; and if it was only the reverence of the naturalist, the truth is illustrated all the better, for his knowledge of the unseen and the eternal dwindled away, just as his perception of beauty in literature and art declined, in proportion as he suffered his spirit of reverence towards these things to die.1 [Note: R. F. Horton, The Book of Proverbs , 16.]
2. The deepest reverence arises from the recognition of God. If this universe of which we form a part is a thought of the Divine mind, a work of the Divine hand, a scene of Divine operations, in which God is realizing, by slow degrees, a vast spiritual purpose, it is evident that no attempt to understand it can be successful which leaves this, its fundamental idea, out of account; as well might one attempt to understand a picture while refusing to recognize that the artist had any purpose to express in painting it, or indeed that there was any artist at all. So much every one will admit. But if the universe is not the work of a Divine mind, or the effect of a Divine will; if it is merely the working of a blind, irrational force, which realizes no end, because it has no end to realize; if we, the feeble outcome of a long, unthinking evolution, are the first creatures that ever thought, and the only creatures who now think, in all the universe of Being; it follows that of a universe so irrational there can be no true knowledge for rational beings, and of a scheme of things so unwise there can be no philosophy or wisdom. No person who reflects can fail to recognize this, and this is the truth which is asserted in the text. It is not necessary to maintain that without admitting God we cannot have knowledge of a certain number of empirical facts; but that does not constitute a philosophy or a wisdom. It is necessary to maintain that without admitting God we cannot have any explanation of our knowledge, or any verification of it; without admitting God our knowledge can never come to any roundness or completeness such as might justify us in calling it by the name of Wisdom.
True Wisdom must account for the worlds that sweep in space, and even for the lily of the field and the sparrow on the housetop. True Wisdom is ultimately a philosophy of things, though it may be much more than this. We know that the New Testament makes Jesus Christ, as rightly apprehended, the explanation of the creation of the world, and of all the eternal activities of God, though the starting-point of this position is an ethical relation, and not a system of thought. This position is already obscurely anticipated in the Hebrew idea of Wisdom, on which is made to rest the whole superstructure of the universe.1 [Note: J. Thomas.]
3. If true wisdom is to be ours, the God that we acknowledge must be no mere idea or abstraction, but Jehovah, the God of revelation. It may be taken for granted that, so far as the intellect alone claims satisfaction, it is enough to posit the bare idea of God as the condition of all rational existence. But when men come to recognize themselves as spiritual beings, with conceptions of right and wrong, with strong affections, with soaring aspirations, with ideas which lay hold of Eternity, they find themselves quite incapable of being satisfied with the bare idea of God; the soul within them pants and thirsts for a living God. An intellectual love of God might satisfy purely intellectual creatures; but to meet the needs of man as he is, God must be a God that manifests His own personality, and does not leave Himself without a witness to His rational creatures. A wisdom, then, that is truly to appraise and rightly to guide the life of man, must start with the recognition of a God whose peculiar designation is the Self-existent One, and who makes Himself known to man by that name; that is, it must start with the “fear of the Lord.”
(1) In building the temple of knowledge, this fear of the Lord must be the foundation-stone. Knowledge being the apprehension of facts, and the application of them to life, cannot properly begin, or be based on a right foundation, without first apprehending and applying a fact which includes and which modifies all other facts whatever. The world has lived long enough to know that there is no such thing practically as getting at the knowledge of God through His works and ways—through the phenomena of nature, or the unfoldings of providence, or the operations of the human intellect. God is that which He has declared Himself to be; that which His Spirit has in and by man’s spirit testified that He is. And this revelation of Himself standing recorded for all the world, it is mere idleness to suppose that we can by searching find Him out, or can place that great fact last, as an object of research and conclusion, which He has blazoned forth for us on the face of His written word. This then must come first, unless we should have all our knowledge crippled and distorted.
A very clever man, a Bampton Lecturer, evidently writing with good and upright intention, sends me a Lecture in which he lays down the qualities he thinks necessary to make theological study fruitful. They are courage, patience, and sympathy. He omits one quality, in my opinion even more important than any of these, and that is reverence: without a great stock of reverence, mankind, as I believe, will go to the bad. I might add another omission: it is caution—a thing different from reverence, but an apt handmaid to it, and the proper counterpoise to the courage of which certainly there seems to be no lack.1 [Note: Letters on Church and Religion of W. E. Gladstone, ii. 327.]
(2) The fear of the Lord lies at the foundation of knowledge because knowledge, understood as the mere accumulation of facts, is inoperative upon life. The way from the head to the heart is stopped by a hard rock, which must be softened and cut through before a constant and reliable communication can be established. And in order to this, which is of first and paramount importance, if knowledge is to be of any real use to help and renovate man, the affections must be wrought upon at the very outset of teaching; the information imparted must stir fear and hope and love in the breast; and these must break up the stony way, and get diffused over the torpid heart, and stir it into action for good. But what fact will you disclose, what knowledge impart, which shall stir these affections? Fear and hope and love are inseparably connected in man with personal agency. Unless such agency intervene, i.e., if the object of these feelings be only a material one, fear becomes mere terror, hope mere expectation, love mere profession. And what personal agency will you bring in at the beginning of knowledge, which shall supply, and continue to supply, the exercise of these affections, so as to guarantee through life that knowledge shall not be barren or unprofitable? God has wisely placed about our infancy personal agencies exciting all these affections. He has continued around us through the greater part of life personal agencies on which fear and love and hope more or less depend. But all these pass away from us, and we from them. There is but one personal agent, whose influence and presence can abide through life, can alike excite fear and hope and love in the infant, in the child, in the youth, in the man, in the aged, and on the bed of death; and that one is God Himself. And unless He be known first, and known throughout, knowledge will abide alone in the head, and will not find a way to the heart; man will know, but will not grow by it; will know, but will not act upon it; will know for narrow, low, selfish purposes, but never for blessing to himself or to others; never for the great ends of his being—never for glory to his God. The fear of the Lord is not a barren fact, like the shape of the earth or the course of the seasons; it is a living, springing, transmuting affection, capable of enduing even ordinary facts with power to cheer and bless, and to bear fruit in men’s hearts and lives.
Exactly in the degree in which you can find creatures greater than yourself, to look up to, in that degree you are ennobled yourself, and, in that degree, happy. If you could live always in the presence of archangels, you would be happier than in that of men; but even if only in the company of admirable knights and beautiful ladies, the more noble and bright they were, and the more you could reverence their virtue, the happier you would be. On the contrary, if you were condemned to live among a multitude of idiots, dumb, distorted, and malicious, you would not be happy in the constant sense of your own superiority. Thus all real joy and power of progress in humanity depend on finding something to reverence, and all the baseness and misery of humanity begin in a habit of disdain. Now, by general misgovernment, I repeat, we have created in Europe a vast populace, and out of Europe a still vaster one, which has lost even the power and conception of reverence;—which exists only in the worship of itself—which can neither see anything beautiful around it, nor conceive anything virtuous above it; which has, towards all goodness and greatness, no other feelings than those of the lowest creatures—fear, hatred, or hunger; a populace which has sunk below your appeal in their nature, as it has risen beyond your power in their multitude;—whom you can now no more charm than you can the adder, nor discipline, than you can the summer fly.1 [Note: Ruskin, Crown of Wild Olive, § 137.]
(3) In New Testament times “the fear of God” has blossomed into “the love of God.” The characteristic Old Testament designation of religion as “the fear of Jehovah” corresponds to the Old Testament revelation of Him as the Holy One—that is, as Him who is infinitely separated from human existence and limitations. Therefore is He “to be had in reverence of all” who would be about Him—that fear or reverential awe in which no slavish dread mingles, and which is perfectly consistent with aspiration, trust, and love. The Old Testament reveals Him as separate from men; the New Testament reveals Him as united to men in the Divine Man, Christ Jesus. Therefore its keynote is the designation of religion as “the love of God”; but that name is no contradiction of the earlier, but the completion of it.
It hardly entered into the mind of a Hebrew thinker to conceive that “fear of the Lord” might pass into full, wholehearted, and perfect love. And yet it may be shown that this was the change effected when Christ was of God “made unto us Wisdom”; it is not that the “fear,” or reverence, become less; it is that the fear is swallowed up in the larger and more gracious sentiment. For us who have received Christ as our Wisdom, it has become almost a truism that we must love in order to know. We recognize that the causes of things remain hidden from us until our hearts have been kindled into an ardent love towards the First Cause, God Himself; we find that even our processes of reasoning are faulty until they are touched with the Divine tenderness, and rendered sympathetic by the infusion of a loftier passion. And it is quite in accordance with this fuller truth that both science and philosophy have made genuine progress only in Christian lands and under Christian influences. Where the touch of Christ’s hand has been most decisively felt, in Germany, in England, in America, and where consequently Wisdom has attained a nobler, a richer, a more tender significance, there, under fostering powers, which are not the less real because they are not always acknowledged, the great discoveries have been made, the great systems of thought have been framed, and the great counsels of conduct have gradually assumed substance and authority. And from a wide observation of facts we are able to say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge”; yes, but the wisdom of God has led us on from fear to love, and in the love of the Lord is found the fulfilment of that which trembled into birth through fear.1 [Note: R. F. Horton.]
One in a vision saw a woman fair;
In her left hand a water jar she bare,
And in her right a burning torch she held
That shed around a fierce and ruddy glare.
Sternly she said, “With fire I will burn down
The halls of Heaven; with water I will drown
The fires of Hell,—that all men may be good
From love, not fear, nor hope of starry crown.
The fear of punishment, the lust of pay,
With Heaven and Hell shall also pass away,
And righteousness alone shall fill each heart
With the glad splendour of its shining ray.”
Such is the Hindoo legend quaintly told
In Bernard Picart’s famous folio old;
And ’neath this symbol ethnical, we may
A moral for the present time behold.
When fear of punishment and greed of pay
Shall faint and die in Love’s serener day,
Then shall the Kingdom of the Lord arrive
And earth become the Heaven for which we pray.1 [Note: W. E. A. Axon.]
Alford (H.), Quebec Chapel Sermons, vii. 1.
Banks (L. A.), The Problems of Youth, 1.
Benson (R. M.), The Wisdom of the Son of David, 1.
Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, ii. 258.
Hart (H. M.), A Preacher’s Legacy, 221.
Horton (R. F.), The Book of Proverbs (Expositor’s Bible), 9.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Esther, etc., 71.
Thomas (J.), Sermons (Myrtle Street Pulpit), ii. 177.
Warschauer (J.), The Way of Understanding, 11.
Churchman’s Pulpit: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, iv. 150 (H Goodwin).