May 24, 2020

The Beginning of Wisdom (2): “Simplicity” vs. Humility

Last time we looked at the definition of the fear of the Lord as presented in Proverbs 1 and saw that there it involves attending carefully to Solomon’s words. It’s my belief that we, in an age of universal literacy and a mode of education that has convinced us all really important things should be “simple” to grasp, should take care not to imagine that just “simply” reading the words of Solomon in English automatically grants us the sort of understanding Solomon himself was directly given by God.

Wisdom is not the sort of thing that we get off the retail shelf, neatly packaged to aggrandize our preferences and agitate our itch to impulse-acquire. Unless God grants wisdom to us directly, as He did Solomon, we’re going to have to invest a good bit more effort in getting hold of it than we may at first find comfortable.

Ancient Wisdom Literature, a genre of which portions of Scripture are a substantial part, possesses the paradoxical feature of sometimes being really super-simple to understand (“Look at the ant, sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise!”, Prov. 6:6), and other times being maddeningly complex (“Answer a fool according to his folly…do not answer a fool according to his folly…,” Prov. 26:4-5).

So, moving on, we read in Proverbs 9:1-9 that a characteristic of wisdom is that it is the opposite of simplicity and having no sense. Now simple, a word we Moderns frequently use in our impatience to have “just the facts” so we can use them to “get things done,” was just two chapters earlier (7:6-27) represented as just the kind of thing that the adulteress uses to snare the unwary young man.

Now this is interesting. Chapter 9 goes on to state that it is those who are already wise who will, perhaps paradoxically, be very willing to receive rebuke and additional instruction so that they can add to their wisdom. It seems, then, that wisdom is not the sort of thing that one obtains immediately (say, just by reading something and concluding it is “simple” to understand), but rather, a thing that, if one actually has it, is pretty self-effacing.

As attentive readers, we should notice that it is only after speaking of the wise person as someone who receives rebuke in order to add to his wisdom that we see again a reference to “the fear of the Lord.” This quality, said to be the beginning of wisdom, stands thus clearly connected not with a self-aggrandizing belief that oneself either already has wisdom or else that it is really quite simple to get hold of. Rather, we see here that wisdom is a quality that involves a fair bit of sophistication, having sense, and being open to correction.

In a word, getting wisdom requires humility, and so if we refuse to be humble, we dare not imagine that we have or even can get wisdom.