Monday, January 15, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 1: In the School of Solomon (Prov 1:1-7)

Note: The following eleven talks were given to students at Uganda Christian University in the Spring Semester 2001.

Address 1: In the School of Solomon (Proverbs 1:1-7)

This semester we will not be focusing on what it means to be a student, a learner. Actually, the command to learn is not very far removed from the command to believe. In Jesus’ Great Commission to the apostles, he says: “Go make disciples of all nations…” Someone has translated these words as “Go, make learners…” Christianity is a religion of the Word, and therefore it is natural that believing the Gospel will have a lot in common with “book learning.” It is therefore no accident that the first converts in Uganda were called “readers” (abasomi).

The Wisdom Books of the Old Testament – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs - are among the most beloved books of the Bible. Yet they are strikingly different from the Law of Moses, or the Prophets from Elijah to Daniel, or the Psalms of David. Solomon is the author of some of the proverbs and the patron of the whole body of Wisdom Literature. Thus the Book of Proverbs begins: The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel (verse 1). In this little superscription, we see two sides of Solomon, the son and the king.

We have no portraits of Solomon learning at David’s knee, or at Bathsheba’s for that matter. But we do have the revealing story of the young Solomon, just after he had become king, praying:

O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this your great people?" It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. And God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. (1 Kings 3:7-13)

Solomon’s willingness to be educated must have been formed in his early years and it became the foundation of his later renown as the wisest king in all Israel, so wise that “the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind” (1 Kings 10:24).

If verse 1 identifies whose school we are in, verses 2-7 serve as a syllabus or course outline. I have divided these verses into two main sections and a coda or conclusion. The first section (verses 2-4) emphasizes the role of wisdom in primary education (by this I would include what you would call “secondary education”); the second section focuses on the role of wisdom in higher education (by this I do not mean just university studies but what one might call adult education or continuing education).

Let’s consider the first section first. Solomon starts by listing the benefits of wisdom. “Wisdom” (Hebrew hokmah) in the Old Testament always has a practical component. Indeed one of the first wise men in the Bible is Bezalel, the decorator of the Tabernacle, who was filled with the spirit of God, “with wisdom and discernment, with knowledge of all crafts” (Exodus 31:3). Some say there is a tendency in Uganda to look down on artisans as inferior to “educated” people. In the Bible, wisdom is utilitarian: it is formed by careful practice and it leads to practical results.

Wisdom in verse 2a is complemented by education (Hebrew musar). The English word “education” comes from a Latin root that means to “lead out.” We often speak of motivating a person like a donkey with a carrot and a stick. You hold the carrot in front to entice the animal to move forward , and then at just the right moment you whack him with your riding stick. Leading someone out of ignorance requires a process of applying the right amount of incentive and threat, of love of learning and fear of failure.

Wisdom also requires literacy, discerning insight into words (verse 2b). Literacy involves skill with words, but it is not merely the ability to read. In fact, most proverbs began in an oral culture and were later written down. Do not look down on “illiterate” African folk; for they may possess a great wealth of knowledge just like that found in Book of Proverbs. Nevertheless, there is great value in reading the thoughts of others, sages of all ages, whose thoughts are recorded in books. Equally, it is important now to collect and record many of the proverbs that are being forgotten by today’s generation.

So wisdom is practical, it is developmental, it is verbal. But beyond that, wisdom is moral. Solomon goes on to describe the fruit of wisdom as a prudent and successful life (verse 3, my translation). One thing I really enjoy here in Uganda is how so many parents have named their children after Christian Virtues, like Patience or Charity or Prudence. Prudence is a word that has lost its salt in modern English. I’ll call it “common sense,” the ability to make smart choices toward a proper end.

Often that proper end is success or prosperity. According to Solomon, it is not bad to seek to be successful or rich. But Solomon also knew that true prosperity is accompanied by moral integrity, honest dealing and fairness to all (verse 3b). These three characteristics have a legal dimension: justice, judgment and equity. But there is a sense in which these virtues precede legal righteousness. A society will only be truly good if its citizens are taught to be moral apart from the compulsion of the law. By the same logic, St. Paul says of the fruits of the spirit are freely practiced, for “against such is there is no law” (Galatians 5:23).

Wisdom involves character formation, and character is formed early in life. So the aim of wisdom is addressed first of all to the simple and the youth (verse 4). Next week we shall go further into the role of parents in forming the character of their children. But now we turn to the second group addressed by wisdom: those who are already wise! In my country, we have a proverb that goes like this: “A university education never hurt anyone who was willing to learn after he got it.” Another story is about a little boy who returned from his first day at school. “Did you learn anything today?” his mother asked. “No,” he replied in disgust, “I have to go back tomorrow.”

Many adults I know have the same negative attitude toward their education as this little boy had. They think once they have received their degree, they can put their books away and never learn another thing. Solomon does distinguish between the wise person and the simple youth, but he sees the truly wise man as garnering deeper understanding and gaining greater ingenuity (verse 5). I have used the words “garner” or harvest and “gain” because we all know that people never cease harvesting larger crops (if possible) or re-investing their profits. The Lord Jesus himself sees such wise investment as the key to good stewardship (Matthew 25:14-29).

In one respect, continuing education is not different from primary education. In both cases, the person must apply his mind to knowledge and skill. But the challenges of the adult learner are more advanced: to discern the meaning of a proverb and a parable, pithy sayings and puzzling riddles (verse 6). It is good mental exercise to be playful, to enjoy word-plays and figures of speech. For instance, here is a Luganda word-play proverb: Ababiri babibira ebigambo: naye abasatu babisattula. Two make plans: but three frustrate them. A secret is better kept by two than by three.

But there is even a deeper way in which proverbs and parables distill a life’s worth of experience. Take for instance, this East African proverb: “What the family talks about in the evening, the child will talk about in the morning.” Not only does this proverb express a truth about education, but also about integrity. Families cannot hide their “dirty talk” inside the hut, because a little child will go out and repeat it in the market place next day.

So we have now seen that wisdom, according to the Bible, has a primary school, learning the practical and moral truths of life; it also has a academy for adult learners to ponder the deeper truths of life: the joys of love and the vanity of death. But overshadowing both these schools is the lifelong curriculum of spirituality: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (verse 7a).

“Fear” in this verse does not mean fright so much as respect. Fear is an attitude of receptiveness. The good student is afraid to skip a lecture because he may miss out on some truth that he will never hear again. Fear is an attitude toward authority. It is the beginning or first principle (Hebrew reyshit) of wisdom. Wisdom involves learning from one’s immediate superiors: parents and elders and teachers. However, elders themselves get their teaching authority “from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

One of the truly sad facts about the modern university is that it has forgotten its first principle. Many American universities uses the motto: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:38), while systematically excluding any religious instruction from its classrooms. As we develop our curriculum as a Christian university, some students may say: “why don’t you keep religion confined to the chapel.” But if God is the Alpha and Omega, as our motto says, how can He not be right in the middle of all that we do?

According to Solomon, if you pursue truth without the fear of the Lord, you will be a greater fool than the ignorant child: fools despise wisdom and education. The fool is not the uneducated person but the person led astray by false desires, whose life is not ordered by God. The fool forgets fear, leaves his torch behind, and falls down the stairs.

No one is exempt from this temptation to pursue foolishness over wisdom. Sadly, Solomon himself in his later years no longer sought guidance from God but rather was led by his love of many women: “King Solomon loved many foreign women… He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:1,4). From these we learn that wisdom is not simply acquired and possessed for ever, but it must be continually pursued.

Why are you here at the University? Why have you and your family made so many sacrifices to get you a place here and to keep you here? I hope your final answer may be “To get wisdom,” wisdom that is practical, wisdom that is moral, wisdom that is deep, and wisdom that is spiritual, rooted in the fear of the LORD. Register now for the school of Solomon. I shall see you there next week.

Proverbs 1:1-7

1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:

2 To learn wisdom and gain education,
To have discerning insight into words,
3 To get education for a prudent and successful life,
a life of moral integrity, honest dealing and fairness to all;
4 To give to the simple cleverness,
          to the youth knowledge and resourcefulness;

5 So that the wise may garner deeper understanding
and the intelligent may gain greater ingenuity,
6 to discern the meaning of a proverb and a parable,
pithy sayings and puzzling riddles.

7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and education.

Revised 13 September 2006

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