Proverbs was one of my favorite books in the OT as a teenager because it was just straight advice. Advice is a good thing when you’re a moron high schooler. I mean, I didn’t understand half of it, but the verses were short and it felt easier to read. When I hit college and went through my bitter realist phase (which I may or may not still be in) Ecclesiastes and Job jumped up the list. The reality that life doesn’t work out cleanly, that bitterness has corrupted our work and our play “under the sun”, and that our only hope is in Christ really resonated. It still does.
Still, now that I’ve got my own ministry working with college kids I find myself returning to the Proverbs. One of the things I’ve realized about my job is that I’m not just here to preach the Gospel. I mean, that’s my main job, but part of loving and discipling college students is teaching them some of basics of being an adult. Apparently, I’m supposed to teach them wisdom–the practical knowledge of living in God’s world. Go figure.
Since I’m still somewhat of a youngster myself, the Proverbs have been a blessing to me. In many ways it’s a biblical short-cut on the road to not being a moron.
As I started doing some more in-depth study, I picked up Tremper Longman III’s commentary on Proverbs in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms series. (Book nerd note: it’s excellent, readable, preachable, and scholarly.) In it, he notes that not only do the proverbs teach us specific bits of wisdom and practical advice like, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1), a key tidbit to remember in the blogging world, but also teaches the way to gain wisdom.
Longman specifically notes four sources of wisdom in Proverbs–where morons ought to look to become wise:
1. Observation and Experience. This should be obvious, but wise people are those who pay attention to life and reflect on the meaning of their experiences. In 6:6-11, the teacher tells the student to go look at the ant, observe his ways, and learn diligence. Wise people stop and think about which of their behaviors work and which don’t. They consider the actions of others, the way the world, history and draw lessons from it. This is why typically older people have more wisdom. Longman points out that in the Proverbs it is always the father or the mother instructing the son and never the other way around. (pg. 75) This not a universal truth–I’ve met some old fools–but it is a general one, that you will grow wiser as you grow older because you’ve experienced more. So, if you’re young and wanting to gain wisdom, listen to older people who’ve gone before and learn from their experiences. It’s the first step to not being a moron.
2. Instruction Based on Tradition. This last point is the essence of the next source of wisdom: tradition. In this passage, a father tells his son to cling to the instruction that was taught to him by his father, which apparently has served him well in his own life:
Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight,
for I give you good precepts;
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,
he taught me and said to me,
“Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live.
Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.”
See, tradition is not just dead, trite ritualism. Over the years accumulated observations about successful and failed strategies for living, truths of human nature, and relationships end up becoming “tradition” that we can learn from. To some degree we know this instinctively. When we want to learn a new skill or a trade, we apprentice ourselves to someone who knows it–an expert that’s been doing it long enough to know the ins and outs of the business. Living well is also a skill, a practice that people have been working at for a long time, and the wise take advantage of the wisdom of their elders. That’s another great way to not be a moron.
3. Learning from Mistakes. Connected to the last two is the idea of learning from one’s mistakes. A great amount learning from experience and heeding the wisdom of the tradition has to do with finding out what doesn’t work. The sages know that you’re gonna screw things up as you go. That’s why two common words you’ll find in the Proverbs are “discipline” and “correction.”
“Those who love discipline love knowledge; and those who hate correction are dullards.” (12:1)
“Those who guard discipline are on the way to life, and those who abandon correction wander aimlessly.” (10:17)
The idea is that the wise are those who receive correction, learn from their mistakes, and do not reject the counsel of those who are trying to return them to the way from which they’ve strayed. This is why pride is so foolish; the proud never learn from their mistakes that eventually lead to their destruction. (Prov. 16:18) On the contrary, the wise humble themselves to the point of loving correction because it leads to wisdom. (Prov. 9:8) The bottom line is that a significant part of learning from experience and from tradition is figuring out what didn’t work and avoiding it. Only morons don’t learn from their mistakes.
4. Revelation. Longman notes that while these three sources–experience, tradition, mistakes–are key for gaining wisdom, nothing is more foundational than revelation, for “at the heart of wisdom is God himself.” (pg. 78) This is clear from the very beginning:
“The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (1:7)
How can you know how to live properly in the world, if you don’t know the character of the one who made it? Indeed, it’s not simply that God is an important feature of reality that one must account for in order to be wise. The Lord is the source of wisdom:
For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
guarding the paths of justice
and watching over the way of his saints.
Ultimately God is the one who teaches you through experience, tradition, and correction. Whatever you learn, you learn because of him. This is why, according to Proverbs, the way to gain wisdom, and yes, stop being a moron, is to humble yourself before the creator of the universe and ask him for it.
Wisdom in Christ
Finally, for the Christian the ultimate source of wisdom is Christ himself “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.“ (Col. 2:2-3) If we want to see the fullness of human life, to know what a truly wise life, a life lived in sync with the rhythm with which God created all things, then we must look to Christ. He is not simply wise, but wisdom from God himself, incarnate for us. (1 Cor. 1:30) Jesus is God’s gracious wisdom come to us–to help us stop being morons.
Soli Deo Gloria