The Beginning and End of Wisdom
PROVERBS ii.2, 3, 5.

If thou incline thine ear to wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; yea, if thou criest after wisdom, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.

We shall see something curious in the last of these verses, when we compare it with one in the chapter before. The chapter before says, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That if we wish to be wise at all, we must BEGIN by fearing God. But this chapter says, that the fear of the Lord is the END of wisdom too; for it says, that if we seek earnestly after knowledge and understanding, THEN we shall understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.

So, according to Solomon, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the end likewise. It is the starting point from which we are to set out, and the goal toward which we are to run.

How can that be?

If by wisdom Solomon meant high doctrines, what we call theology and divinity, it would seem more easy to understand: but he does not mean that, at least in our sense; for his rules and proverbs about wisdom are not about divinity and high doctrines, but about plain practical every-day life; shrewd maxims as to how to behave in this life, so as to thrive and prosper in it.

And yet again they must be about divinity and theology in some sense. For what does he say about wisdom in the text? 'If thou search after wisdom, thou shalt understand the fear of the Lord;' and is that all? No. He says more than that. Thou shalt find, he says, the knowledge of God. To know God. -- What higher theology can there be than that? It is the end of all divinity, of all religion. It is eternal life itself, to know God. If a man knows God, he is in heaven there and then, though he be walking in flesh and blood upon this mortal earth.

How can all this be?

Let us consider the words once again.

Solomon does not say, To understand the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but simply the fear of the Lord is the beginning of it. But the end of wisdom, he says, is not merely to fear the Lord, but to understand the fear of the Lord.

This then, I suppose, is his meaning: We are to begin life by fearing God, without understanding it: as a child obeys his parents without understanding the reason of their commands.

Therefore, says Solomon to the young man, begin with that -- with the solemn, earnest, industrious, God-fearing frame of mind -- without that you will gain no wisdom. You may be as clever as you will, but if you are reckless and wild, you will gain no wisdom. If you are violent and impatient; if you are selfish and self-conceited; if you are weak and self-indulgent, given up to your own pleasures, your cleverness will be of no use to you. It will be only hurtful to you and to others. A clever fool is common enough, and dangerous enough. For he is one who never sees things as they really are, but as he would like them to be. A bad man, let him be as clever as he may, is like one in a fever, whose mind is wandering, who is continually seeing figures and visions, and mistaking them for actual and real things; and so with all his cleverness, he lives in a dream, and makes mistake upon mistake, because he knows not things as they are, and sees nothing by the light of Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom alone all true understanding comes.

Begin then with the fear of the Lord. Make up your mind to do what you are told is right, whether you know the reason of it or not. Take for granted that your elders know better than you, and have faith in them, in your teachers, in your Bible, in the words of wise men who have gone before you: and do right, whatever it costs you.

If you do not always know the reason at first, you will know it in due time, and get, so Solomon says, to UNDERSTAND the fear of the Lord. In due time you will see from experience that you are in the path of life. You will be able to say with St. Paul, I KNOW in whom I have believed; and with Job, 'Before I heard of thee, O Lord, with the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.'

And why? Because, says Solomon, God himself will show you, and teach you by his Holy Spirit. As our Lord says, 'The Holy Spirit shall take of mine, and show it unto you, and lead you into all truth.' And therefore Solomon talks of wisdom, who is the Holy Ghost the Comforter, as a person who teaches men, whose delight is with the sons of men. He speaks of wisdom as calling to men. He speaks of her as a being who is seeking for those that seek her, who will teach those who seek after her.

Yes, this, my friends, is, I believe, the secret of life. At least it is the secret both of Solomon's teaching, and our Lord's, and St. Paul's, and St. John's, that true wisdom is not a thing which man finds out for himself, but which God teaches him. This is the secret of life -- to believe that God is your Father, schooling and training you from your cradle to your grave; and then to please him and obey him in all things, lifting up daily your hands and thankful heart, entreating him to purge the eyes of your soul, and give you the true wisdom, which is to see all things as they really are, and as God himself sees them. If you do that, you may believe that God will teach you more and more how to do, in all the affairs of life, that which is right in his sight, and therefore good for you. He will teach you more and more to see in all which happens to you, all which goes on around you, his fatherly love, his patient mercy, his providential care for all his creatures. He will reward you by making you more and more partaker of his Holy Spirit and of truth, by which, seeing everything as it really is, you will at last -- if not in this life, still in the life to come -- grow to see God himself, who has made all things according to his own eternal mind, that they may be a pattern of his unspeakable glory; and beyond that, who needs to see? For to know God, and to see God, is eternal life itself.

And this true wisdom, which lies in knowing God, and understanding his laws, is within the reach of the simplest person here. As I told you, cleverness without godliness will not give it you; but godliness without cleverness may.

Therefore let no one say, 'We are no scholars, nor philosophers, and we never can be. Are we, then, shut out from this heavenly wisdom?' God forbid, my friends. God is no respecter of persons. Only remember one thing; and by it you, too, may attain to the heavenly wisdom. I said that the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. I said that the fear of the Lord was the end of wisdom. Now let the fear of the Lord be the middle of wisdom also, and walk in it from youth to old age, and all will be well.

That is the short way, the royal road to wisdom. To be good and to do good. To keep the single eye -- the eye which does not look two ways at once, and want to go two ways at once, as too many do who want to serve God and mammon, and to be good people and bad people too both at once. But the single eye of the man, who looks straightforward at everything, and has made up his mind what it ought to do, and will do, so help him God. As stout old Joshua said, 'Choose ye whom ye will serve: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.' That is the single eye, which wants simply to know what is right, and do what is right.

And if a man has that he may be a very wise man indeed, though he can neither read nor write.

It is good for a man, of course, to be able to read, that he may know what wiser men than he have said: above all, that he may know what his Bible says. But, even if he cannot read, let him fear God, and set his heart earnestly to know and do his duty. Let him keep his soul pure, and his body also (for nothing hinders that heavenly wisdom like loose living), and he will be wise enough for this world, and for the world to come likewise.

I tell you, my friends, I have known women, who were neither clever women, nor learned women, nor anything except good women, whose souls were pure and full of the Holy Spirit, and who lived lives of prayer, and sat all day long with Mary at the feet of Jesus. -- I have known such women to have at times a wisdom which all books and all sciences on earth cannot give. I have known them give opinions on deep matters which learned and experienced men were glad enough to take. I have known them have, in a wonderful degree, that wisdom which the Scripture calls discerning of spirits, being able to see into people's hearts; knowing at a glance what they were thinking of, what made them unhappy, how to manage and comfort them; knowing at a glance whether they were honest or not, pure-minded or not -- a precious and heavenly wisdom, which comes, as I believe, from none other than the inspiration of the Spirit of Christ, who is the discerner of the secret thoughts of all hearts: and when I have seen such people, altogether simple and humble, and yet most wise and prudent, because they were full of the fear of the Lord, and of the knowledge of God, I could not but ask -- Why should we not be all like them?

My friends, I believe that we may all be more or less like them, if we will make the fear of the Lord the beginning of our wisdom, and the middle of our wisdom, and the end of our wisdom.

Nine-tenths of the mistakes we make in life come from forgetting the fear of God and the law of God, and saying not, I will do what is right: but -- I will do what will profit me; I will do what I like. If we would say to ourselves manfully instead all our lives through, I will learn the will of God, and do it, whatsoever it cost me; we should find in our old age that God's Holy Spirit was indeed a guide and a comforter, able and willing to lead us into all truth which was needful for us. We should find St. Paul had spoken truth, when he said that godliness has the promise of THIS life, as well as of that which is to come.

sermon xxi salvation
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