Proverbs iv. 7.
"Wisdom is the principal thing ; therefore get wisdom : and with ah thy getting get understanding".
THERE are two features of the Book of Proverbs which will immediately strike the most careless reader; one is the allusive contrast which runs through its earlier chapters, the other is the constant connection of Wisdom with Knowledge. Two voices are heard in it, the voice of Prudence and the voice of Folly; the voice of Virtue and the voice of Pleasure; the pleading of the virgin Innocence and the pleading of the harlot Sense; the enticements of a Passion earthly, sensual, devilish, and the lofty invitations of a Wisdom which is pure, peaceable, gentle, full of mercy and good fruits.
Subtle, and sweet, and perilous, and evanescent,— powerful only to the soul that forgets its God,—heard only in the twilight, in the evening, in the black, dark night, an unhallowed song is suffered to break in upon those solemn utterances; a song, drowned almost from the very beginning by the groans of the deluded and the stern epitaph pronounced over the living dead : and ever, overmastering that strain, shaming it into terrified silence, chilling it into penitent despair—is heard that other Voice, pure as the voices of the Seraphim, offering peace and pleasantness in life, and hope and safety beyond the grave,—an ornament of grace for the living, a crown of everlasting remembrance and unfading glory for the dead.
And while the praises of this heavenly Wisdom are painted in such fair colours,—while its worth is set far above rubies and crystal, the gold of Ophir, and the topaz of Ethiopia,—it is, both in the Book of Proverbs and in other parts of Scripture, united constantly with Knowledge. " In the night that God did appear unto Solomon, He said unto him, Ask what I shall give thee. And Solomon said unto God, Give me now wisdom and knowledge. And God said unto Solomon, Wisdom and knowledge is granted unto thee." They are not mere synonyms. Knowledge may come when wisdom lingers; and, on the other hand, wisdom may exist in rich and Divine abundance where knowledge is scanty and superficial. And it is clear that, in Scripture, wisdom is the loftier and the more sacred of the two. Take knowledge to mean the sum total of every magnificent endowment and every extensive acquisition;—let it involve not only erudition, but insight; not only information, but intellect ; not only theoretical acquaintance, but practical ability; make it include, if you will, the power to think as Plato thought, and to write as Shakespeare wrote; bestow it on one single mind with such brightness as never yet illuminated the world, and reward it with a splendour of reputation such as no man ever yet enjoyed, —yet even then knowledge falls far, far below wisdom, —below wisdom merged in obscurity; below wisdom accompanied by ignorance; below wisdom burdened with every earthly calamity, and insulted by every human scorn. Does not all history justify herein the estimate of Scripture ? Have we not read of men whose heads towered high above their contemporaries, who by eloquence, or song, or intellect have elevated and charmed mankind, and yet of whom the humblest child, the most ignorant pauper in the kingdom of heaven, is greater than these ? Any age will furnish us with examples. Has not God over and over again scattered penal blindness over vaunted acquisitions, and, smiting a godless intellect with a moral imbecility, has He not frustrated the tokens of the liars, and made diviners mad? But why need we dwell on the fact that intellectual eminence is no preservative against moral infatuation, when God has written the same truth so large over the history of nations ?
Wisdom, then, is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom. But what is wisdom ? The world gives the name to many higher and lower manifestations of intellectual foresight and practical sense, but Scripture sees in it nothing save one single law of life. In that most magnificent outburst of Semitic poetry, the 28th chapter of the Book of Job,—after pointing out that there is such a thing as a high and noble natural knowledge, that there is a vein for the silver, and ore of gold, and a place of sapphires, and reservoirs of subterranean fire,— the Patriarch asks, " But where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?"—and after showing with marvellous power that it is beyond man's unaided search,—that the Depths and the Sea say " It is not in me," and Destruction and Death have but heard the fame thereof with their ears,—then he adds, as with one great thunder-crash of concluding music, " God under-standeth the way thereof, and He knoweth the place thereof. . . . . And unto man He said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom ; and to depart from evil is understand-ing." And again, " The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." And again, he who, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, rises step by step out of the dreary cynicism of the sated worldling into the calm confidence of a godly hope, states as the conclusion no less than as the commencement of the whole matter, " Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man ;" and in the Epistle of St. James, after the question, " Who is a wise man, and endued with knowledge among you ? " the answer is, not he who understandeth all mysteries, not he who can speak with the tongue of men or of angels, but " Let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom".
But, if this be so, perhaps some one may say, Is any knowledge worth the attainment, save the one knowledge which is wisdom ? If knowledge be full of difficulties, if, without charity, it puffeth up,—if he who increaseth it increaseth sorrow, why then do we labour for it with such sore travail ? We toil and toil, and perhaps in a moment we fall ill, and in one day the flames of a fever calcine for ever the tablets of the earthly memory, or in one moment death comes upon us, and under its cold " hie jacet" buries all that we have won. Or death comes to another who has not laboured, and, as that impenetrable curtain is drawn aside, there is revealed to him, as by a single lightning-flash, secrets deeper ten thousand-fold than those which we have wearied ourselves in the very fire to win. Why strive then after that which death may in a moment obliterate, or disease destroy ? Were it not better done as others use—not indeed to waste life in indolent frivolity or shameful sloth, but to give it all to prayer and penitence, to religious musings or charitable works ? " Oh happy school of Christ," wrote Peter of the Cells to a young disciple who had complained of the weary seductions and splendid vices of the mediaeval Paris,—" Oh happy school of Christ, where He teaches our hearts with the word of power; where the book is not purchased nor the master paid. There, life availeth more than learning, and simplicity than science. There, none are refuted, save those who are for ever rejected, and one word of final judgment, ' Ite' or ' Venite,' decides all questions and all cavils for ever." It was a natural exclamation, but the answer to it is, that to the true Christian every school will be a school of Christ. On the ample leaf of knowledge, whether it be rich with the secrets of nature or with the spoils of time, he will read no name save the name of God. The great stone pages of the world will have it carved upon them legibly, as on the granite tables of Sinai, and stars will sing of it in their courses, and winds blow and waters roll. Each Science, each History, each Literature will be to him but a fresh volume of Divine revelation. We were not meant to leave those volumes clasped, or to suffer the book of life to drop out of our idle hands unread. Rather would we exclaim to each young student, as did the wise and holy St. Edmund of Canterbury, " Work as though you would live for ever; live as though you would die to-day." To seek for knowledge where it is possible is the clear duty of man; to win it is the gift of God. " Give all diligence to add to your faith Virtue, and to virtue Knowledge".
The Silence and the Voices of God, p. 119.