Few people become famous philosophers. A few more become philosophers. A few more study philosophy. A few more appreciate philosophy. But everyone follows at least one philosophy. We all love some word of wisdom — some goad for our seasons of straying. The closest exception to this rule are those who silently contend that “the value of wisdom diminishes because of examination.” But, even if some lead an unexamined life, they do so because they believe their lives are better for it. And though few people become philosophers, everyone relies on words of wisdom to guide them through life’s challenges.
So, shall we risk an examination of wisdom? Perhaps the silent contention that “wisdom diminishes because of examination” conceals a vital truth. Ecclesiastes reminds us that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow” (1:18, NIV). Nevertheless I say, let us gather courage and risk the sorrows of wisdom! And let us be watchful, lest we take care not to offend an idol, for every anxiety indicates idolatry. And it is more pleasant to walk with God through a sorrowful valley than to clamber alone on shale cliffs of angst.
As we begin to examine wisdom, it is helpful to emphasize the simplicity rather than the grandeur of it. For although many cultural shifts have been effected through philosophical writing and speaking, most of us will never be known alongside Socrates, Kierkegaard, Kant, Noam Chromsky, Cornell West, J.P. Moreland, or William Lane Craig — to name a few. As a student, I saw little better than to dabble in communities that read and discuss such accomplished philosophers. But I wish I would have embraced a simpler approach — one that didn’t isolate my cognitive structures from my bodily and emotional experience of everyday life.
Today, I find myself willing to try a simpler approach. Wisdom comes in four simple forms: Imperative, Predictive, Declarative, and Interrogative. Here we will consider one example of each form
Proverbs 1:8 demonstrates the Imperative form of wisdom. To apply this wisdom, one needs to obey the command.
“Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (NIV).
Proverbs 2:1-5 shows us the Predictive form. Predictive form statements delineate what the hearer should expect in cause-and-effect language.
“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” (NIV).
And Proverbs 25:18 exemplifies the Declarative form. The declaration announces an aspect of reality, expecting the hearer to act accordingly. Sometimes, applications can be plentiful and even vary by the challenge at hand.
“Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow
is one who gives false testimony against a neighbor” (NIV).
Finally, wisdom may be communicated through a question inviting reflection — the Interrogative form. One subset of the interrogative form is the rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions are not sincere inquiries from the posture of ignorance but rather artful statements from the posture of confidence. Proverbs 6:27-28 shows us such questions:
“Can a man scoop fire into his lap
without his clothes being burned?
Can a man walk on hot coals
without his feet being scorched?” (NIV).
Clearly, one cannot encounter fire or coals so intimately without protection against the charring of their flesh.
Focusing on these four forms of wisdom may seem a strange approach to the “love of wisdom.” After all, the world nearest us, affects us, shaping our perceptions and imagination. The world makes many errors, but the error that seems most significant to me is the placing of more trust in human reasoning than in divine revelation. Among those placing excessive confidence in human reasoning, the critical limitation is human ignorance. Knowledge then, is the most valuable asset to seek, and its accumulation falsely promises a reservoir of deliverance. Should we imitate this error, and embark seeking knowledge more than wisdom, we could easily become puffed up and forget the creature’s proper fear of the Lord. But let us look for wisdom instead.