The Call of Wisdom

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the January 3, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding—indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” Proverbs 2:1-5, NIV

As we begin this quarter’s study of the book of Proverbs, we should understand that in spite of this book being considered wisdom literature, the many aphorisms contained in this text might be better understood not as wisdom but as the fruits of wisdom. This could be seen as a parallel to salvation by grace and the works of righteousness. Just as those works of righteousness do not save us but are only the fruits of that salvation, so these pithy sayings do not make us wise but demonstrate the fruits of wisdom if we choose to seek after it.

Although one can profit from reading about the experiences of others, wisdom is necessary to understand how to apply those lessons to one’s own life and to understand the lessons to be gleaned from our personal experiences as well. For instance, if we take a common secular proverb and its counterpart we can perhaps see that just having knowledge of the proverbs is not wisdom. When we want help, we quote the proverb “Many hands make light work.” Conversely, when we don’t want the help of others we might say, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Obviously, when used in the wrong situations these sayings can produce the opposite of what we intended and therefore would not be the fruits of wisdom we hoped them to be.

This brings up another point about proverbs. They are not necessarily universally applicable. Unlike a precept of the Decalogue, they are variable. The two just cited are good examples, but we can see a more biblical example in the contrast between “Answer a fool according to his folly,”[i] and “Answer not a fool according to his folly.”[ii] Logically both cannot be universal truths, and if one is a universal truth then the other would be universally false. This, of course, would call into question the veracity of Scripture, and in particular its inspiration since Jesus who claimed equivalence with God the Father[iii] also claimed to be Truth itself.[iv] Notably, He did not claim to be a truth, but The Truth. It would therefore be inconsistent to believe that a universally false proverb was inspired by God. Thus the proverbs in question, and perhaps all proverbs to some degree, are relativistically true depending on context. If so, then the essence of wisdom may be understanding the contextual application of lessons learned from our experiences and the shared experiences of others.

How do we get those experiences? Perhaps it is in making the mistakes that wisdom later guides us to avoid. In the 1980s when computer technology was much less advanced, operating and maintaining a personal computer could be challenging. Arguably, the heart of the computer was its hard drive. This usually contained the operating system and the programs that enabled the computer to perform its magic. Many electrical components were necessary as well, but without the operating system and programs, they could do nothing but wait for those things to be loaded into the computer’s memory. There were exceptions where these things were “hard-wired” into the computer, but most employed the disk drive method of “booting up” the computer so it could receive input from the user. However, back then hard drives “crashed” far more frequently than they do today. To prevent the disastrous loss of data and programs that could result from such a crash, users were advised to back up their hard drives onto alternative media so the data could be restored to the drive once it was repaired or replaced.

Today the hard drives are not only more reliable, but they contain so much data that such backups are far more time consuming than they were in the past. For many, it has become more practical to only backup items that contain changed data such as documents, photos, music, etc. instead of the programs themselves. What does all this have to do with wisdom? Back in the 1980s, many of us were amateur programmers, software engineers, and computer technicians. It was the genesis of the personal computer and systems were much more transparent with their open architecture back then. Hobbyists could, with some effort, not only operate their own computers but also build them from scratch.

In those days, when you had a problem and called tech support, the answer was often, “Your computer is not functioning because the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) is not compatible with the software you are trying to run.” The BIOS tells the hardware in the computer how to communicate with the programs. Back then there were two BIOS types, Phoenix and Award, that were competing for the market in a manner similar to the competition between JVC’s VHS and Sony’s Betamax that battled it out during the same decade. In spite of this advice from tech support, only rarely was the BIOS the actual problem, so users often had to become sleuths at ferreting out the real issue. They might discover that the problem was instead caused by competing operating systems for instance. During this “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” era of computer history, one of the proverbs that began to be shared was “He who backs up his hard drive never learns anything.” In other words, the person who is insulated from the results of his or her errors did not gain the experience to know 1) what causes a hard drive to fail, 2) how a hard drive failure plays out in real life, and 3) how to recover from a hard drive failure when no backups have been done.

Almost invariably, users did not regularly back up their hard drives as instructed, so when their drives crashed, they sought out the experiences and wisdom of those who had also failed to do so and recovered. Some of the advice received was more useful, and some was less so, depending on their particular situation. They therefore gained wisdom from what had happened, and the fruits of that wisdom augmented the overall pool of wisdom as they passed on the results of their experiences. Much of that information which was formerly passed on by “word-of-mouth” over the nascent internet is now readily available through online searches. But the information must be parsed wisely, for the technical information that would help the user of an Apple computer may not be of much help to one using a Microsoft based system and vice versa.

In similar manner to those early computer hobbyists, when we look at the book of Proverbs, we may be well advised to consider the context both of the original proverb we are reading as well as the context in which we may be thinking of applying it. As in the two proverbs about answering fools, wisdom helps us decide which of the two is applicable in a given situation. However, wisdom, as in our computer illustration, often comes from making mistakes. Sometimes learning the best way to deal with a situation arises from failing to deal with it properly and then searching for a better result. Over time, one begins to recognize the hallmarks that determine what is appropriate for each context.

A special part of the process is helpful to those who are Christians. For those who are not, the application of wisdom can become confused with seeking the most peaceable outcome, or conflict avoidance. While some may feel that this is the goal of wisdom, to make one’s life more peaceable, this may be a self-centered way of leading one’s life that can devolve into a loss of one’s personal identity in order to maintain external harmony with others who may be vacillating and not so altruistic. However, the goal of the Christian, while seeking peace as well, is focused on the internal harmony that comes from a persistent relationship with a value system based on the absolutes of interaction with the divine. This tends to steer us on a purposeful course in spite of the vagaries of life and places the focus outside of our own narcissistic world on something more immutable than personal emotions or desires.

The fruits of wisdom without God can be tainted with all sorts of personal agendas. But this can be so even among the body of believers if we are not careful. Instead of bringing real peace and harmony, emotions and desires can be the basis of quarreling, factionalism and ultimately schism within the family of God.[v] The true source of wisdom comes not from our own desires but from God as a result of that persistent relationship. As inspiration informs our dealing with the various mistakes or experiences, we learn the reliability of that inspiration and begin to bear fruits of wisdom without so much of the taint of selfishness and desire. Instead of being obsessed with our own needs in any given situation, we can focus instead on fulfilling the needs of others, knowing that in so doing, God will more than care for us and any needs we may have. That is the beginning of wisdom.[vi]

[i] Proverbs 26:5

[ii] Proverbs 26:4

[iii] John 14:9

[iv] John 14:6

[v] James 4:1

[vi] Proverbs 9:10



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