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Saturday Word Study: Σοφια in the LXX Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is known for its integral place amongst the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. In the church, much is often spoken of as either “wise” or “foolish,” but often people use the terminology without thinking it through closely. Our aim today, is to look at sophia and her various derivatives as they are found in the Greek translation of the book of proverbs with the aim of putting some definition to the bones of how we think of wisdom. I’ve chosen to explore σοφια in the LXX rather than חכמה in the Masoretic Text, partly out or curiosity and partly because many of us in the west have more of a Greek understanding of wisdom than we do a Hebraic understanding. Hence, we begin in the Septuagint and will look to the MT at another time.

Proverbs begins with a glorious introduction in the first seven verses that sets the tone for the book as a whole. The book’s goal, as found in these verses is to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth, increase in learning to the wise, and guidance to the ones with understanding.

In these verses, we have six uses of the term, verse 2 speaks about wisdom as something this book is aiming to teach, verse 5 speaks of these proverbs as that which will make a wise man wiser (2 uses). Verse 6 speaks of the sayings of the wise which are contained in the book of Proverbs. And verse 7 speaks of the nature of wisdom. Up until verse 7, we have a largely introductory use of the term and not that which is helpful in advancing our basic cultural knowledge of what wisdom is or of what wisdom does for those who have it.

Verse 7 changes that. Here we have two very clear statements about the nature of wisdom. First, wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. If wisdom is the opposite of folly and folly, as David states, is believing that there is no God (Psalm 14:1), then you would assume that to have wisdom one must have a healthy fear and reverence before the God of heaven. If I might editorialize for a moment, given that there is so little reverence before God in the western church, I would thus propose, based on Solomon’s words here, that there is very little wisdom in the churches at large. 

In verse 7, there is a second use of the term, in this case, with the negative aspect of what was spoken of at the start. Those who are ungodly, will set wisdom to the side and will not listen to instruction. Again, discerning the presence of wisdom is easy, based on these words. When the Scriptures are laid forth, how shall people respond? The wise will revere the Word of God and seek to put it into practice; the wicked will ignore the word of God and continue thinking and living as they choose.

It should be noted that wisdom is often personified in the book of Proverbs. In one sense, she is the one crying out in the streets for those who will listen. In another sense, she is the one to whom we are to flee. These uses are interesting, though not overly useful to us as we seek to better define wisdom in a more abstract sense, so we will highlight them on occasion but will not dwell upon them.

Wisdom described as one who is calling for those to listen: 1:20; 2:2; 8:12

Wisdom as one to whom we are to flee: 2:3; 7:4; 9:1; 

Wisdom as the words of a loving father: 4:11; 5:1; 19:20; 23:19; 

Proverbs 1:29 — There is an interesting contrast here between the MT and the LXX:

MT: “Instead, they hated knowledge and the fear of Yahweh they did not choose.”

LXX: “For they hated wisdom and did not choose the fear of the Lord.”

Notice that knowledge and wisdom are used almost interchangeably in this translation. Hebrew tends to distinguish between the two: knowledge being a base of information and wisdom being the ability to use that information and to apply it in Godly ways. The Greeks don’t seem to make that distinction and thus, as in 1:7, σοφια is used in the place of knowledge. In the context of this passage, those who refuse to wisdom as she speaks not only demonstrate their hatred for her but will find them under the wrath of God. This is reminiscent of Paul’s language in 2 Thessalonians 2:10.

Proverbs 2:6 — The Lord gives wisdom as well as knowledge and understanding. If you reject God then you are the fool.

Proverbs 2:10 — If you follow the path of wisdom then you will be given both discernment and understanding. This naturally follows from 2:6 but also is reminiscent of Paul’s language in Romans 12:2.

Proverbs 3:5 — the Godly man who trusts in God leans on God’s wisdom and not human wisdom.

Proverbs 3:13 — those who learn wisdom will be blessed

Proverbs 3:19 — God created the earth by his eternal wisdom (this connects wisdom not only with God the Father but with God the Son (John 1:3).

Proverbs 3:35 — the wise will inherit glory

Proverbs 6:6,8 — the wise is like the ant who diligently labors for his needs (in contrast to the lazy sluggard)

Proverbs 8:1 — those who proclaim wisdom will grow in both understanding and obedience

Proverbs 8:11 — wisdom is more valuable than earthly wealth

Proverbs 9:8 — a wise man accepts rebuke

Proverbs 9:9 — a wise man accepts instruction

Proverbs 9:10 is another passage that is worth contrasting the MT with the LXX

MT: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh; the knowledge of the holy ones is understanding.”  (Note: Some English translations render קדשטם as “The Holy One”, “the holy,” or as “holy things.” My translation reflects that of Young’s Literal Translation and the LXX).

LXX: “The beginning of wisdom if the fear of the Lord; and the counsel of the holy ones is understanding. For the knowledge of the Law is a good mind.” (Note: while I recognize that the final clause is not inspired writ but is a translator’s edit, it should be understood that the edit is not inconsistent with the scriptural teaching; in fact, it is quite consistent. For the one who fears the Lord will most certainly be diligent in seeking to live that fear out in obedience to God’s commands).

The interesting thing to note is how the LXX brings out the importance of the counsel of mature Christians in the church. When we find ourselves with matters that we don’t understand or in which we need clarity, the church leaders ought to be the first to whom we appeal for wisdom.

Proverbs 9:12 — the wise person’s wisdom benefits their neighbors. Once again we have a passage where the LXX translator has added embellishment, though it does not advance our discussion here.

Proverbs 10:1 — a wise son makes his father glad

Proverbs 10:4 — the wise son accepts instruction and will master the fool

Proverbs 10:8 — the wise accepts commandments

Proverbs 10:13 — the wise smite their enemies with their words

Proverbs 10:14 — the wise will hide their judgment (MT reads knowledge here). In other words, a wise person is discrete.

Proverbs 10:23 — a wise person is prudent

Proverbs 10:31 — wisdom is the product of the mouth of the righteous. 

Proverbs 11:2 — the humble meditates on wisdom

Proverbs 12:15 — a wise man seeks out the counsel of the wise

Proverbs 12:18 — while the words of the wicked harm others, the words of the wise bring healing

Proverbs 13:10 — those who judge themselves are wise

Proverbs 13:13 — taken from a scribal addition, the wise person shall be directed righteously by wisdom and understanding

Proverbs 13:14 — the wise find a fountain of life in the Law of God

Proverbs 13:20 — if you walk with the wise you will become wise. As C.S. Lewis used to summarize this: “The next best thing to being wise yourself is to surround yourself with those who are wise.”

Proverbs 14:1 — a wise woman builds up her house

Proverbs 14:3 — wisdom preserves a person from discipline

Proverbs 14:6 — wisdom is not found with the wicked

Proverbs 14:7 — the wise are discrete

Proverbs 14:8 — wisdom and prudence should guide your path

Proverbs 14:16 — the wise depart from evil

Proverbs 14:24 — the wise person treasures a prudent person

Proverbs 14:33 — The LXX speaks of wisdom as in the “good heart” of man…the MT speaks of wisdom laying in the heart of the understanding.

Proverbs 15:2 — the wise knows what is good

Proverbs 15:7 — the lips of the wise are discrete

Proverbs 15:12 — the uninstructed person will not be drawn to the wise

Proverbs 15:20 — a wise son gladdens his father

Proverbs 15:33 — The fear of the Lord is wisdom

Proverbs 16:14 — a wise man pacifies an angry king

Proverbs 16:16 — the brood of wisdom is more valuable than gold

Proverbs 16:17 — again, a translators addition, the wise accepts reproof

Proverbs 16:21, again, we should compare the MT with the LXX

MT: “To the wise heart it is called understanding; sweetness of lip increases instruction.”

LXX: “The wise and intelligent is called evil; but the sweetness of word improves hearing.”

Both are communicating the same idea, though in different ways. To simplify, wisdom is sometimes hard to listen to but when spoken with sweet words, it is often heard.

Proverbs 16:23 — the ways of the wise are discerning

Proverbs 17:16 — wisdom is not for sale to the fool

Proverbs 17:24 — the attitude of a wise person is intelligent

Proverbs 17:28 — if the fool is quiet and listens he will be presumed wise

Proverbs 18:2 — the one who lacks understanding will not see the value of wisdom

Proverbs 18:15 — the heart of the prudent purchases wisdom

Proverbs 20:1 — the wise is not a drunkard, brawler, or engaged in illicit sexuality

Proverbs 20:26 — a wise king crushes the ungodly

Proverbs 20:29 — wisdom is the world to young men and grey hairs to old

Proverbs 21:11 — the simple become wiser when the wicked are punished

Proverbs 21:20 — the words of the wise is a desirable treasure

Proverbs 21:22 — the wise demolish fortresses that threaten (think of Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 10:4-6)

Proverbs 21:30 — Wisdom and counsel do not dwell in the presence of the ungodly

Proverbs 22:4 — the fear of the Lord is the offspring of wisdom

Proverbs 22:17 — the words of wise men should be listened to

Proverbs 23:15 — the wise son gladdens his father’s heart

Proverbs 23:24 — a wise father raises his children well

Proverbs 24:3 — wisdom and understanding go hand in hand

Proverbs 24:5 — wisdom is better than physical strength

Proverbs 24:7 — wisdom and understanding belong to the wise person

Proverbs 24:14 — if you seek wisdom, your end will be good

Proverbs 25:12 — obedience is a jewel in the ear of the wise

Proverbs 26:5 — if you do not correct a fool, he will think himself wise

Proverbs 26:12 — the fool thinks himself wise but isn’t

Proverbs 26:16 — the sluggard thinks himself wise but isn’t

Proverbs 27:11 — in wisdom one’s heart may rejoice

Proverbs 28:11 — the conceited rich man thinks himself wise but isn’t

Proverbs 28:26 — there is safety in walking in wisdom

Proverbs 29:3 — the father rejoices when his son loves wisdom

Proverbs 29:8 — wise men will spare a city destruction

Proverbs 29:9 — the wise shall judge the nations (think of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 6:2)

Proverbs 29:11 — the fool tells everything; the wise is discrete

Proverbs 29:15 — discipline gives wisdom

Proverbs 30:3 — God teaches wisdom

Proverbs 30:24 — ants, rock badgers, locusts, and lizards, from which we can learn

Proverbs 31:5 — strong wine robs you of wisdom

Proverbs 31:28 — the tongue of a woman of character discloses wisdom

A Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation

“Because of this, and hearing of your faith in the Lord Jesus and the love you have toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, making remembrance of you in my prayers in order that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.”

(Ephesians 1:15-17)

For what does Paul pray when he gives thanks for the Ephesian church? His prayer is that God would give to the the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God. This does not so much seem to be a matter of the Holy Spirit (hence we have not capitalized the noun, plus there is no definite article); they already have the Holy Spirit as he is the one who converted them and made them believers in the first place. No, it is so that they would have a spirit of wisdom and that they would have a spirit of revelation.

We have already discussed wisdom at length, but this is just one more reminder of the importance that the Bible places upon wisdom as well as the source of that wisdom, which is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). You can have no authentic wisdom if you do not first approach God with fear and reverence. As the psalmist states, nothing but sin results from the lives of those who do not fear God.

“Transgression utters to the wicked in the depth of his heart; 

there is no dread of God before his eyes.”

(Psalm 36:2 — verse 1 in English translations)

The second thing for which Paul prays is for a spirit of revelation. We often think of revelation — ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis) in the Greek — in terms of the Revelation of Jesus to John that closes our Canon. Because of that, we often only think of revelation in terms of end times things. To be fair, Paul does use this term in such a way (cf. Romans 8:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:7), but he also uses it to speak of God’s revelation to him (Galatians 1:12), and in terms of the full revealing of the Gospel (Romans 16:25). That seems to be the context in which he is using the term here — in other words, that God would more and more reveal to their understandings the magnificent outworking of His Gospel. 

Don’t miss the clarification at the end of the verse, though. Paul is praying for the spirit of revelation for the Ephesian church, but that such revelation always be in the knowledge of God. Indeed, how important this principle is, for anything received or held without the knowledge of God is in vain and worthless. As I look around at the evangelical world today, it strikes me at just how often knowledge of God is downplayed. As a result, this generation is without fear of the Lord even in the bodies that proclaim themselves to be churches (for many are not!). Paul makes it abundantly clear that knowledge, to be of any value, must first and foremost be of God. Plenty of people have knowledge of the world but the world is passing away. The things of God are eternal.

Solomon and Reality TV

“And also along the road, as the fool walks, his heart is lacking — he says to all that he is a fool.”

(Ecclesiastes 10:3)

A fool is not so merely in private things, but in public things as well. As he goes through his life, the actions he takes, the decisions he makes, they way he converses all point to his foolishness and little more. In many cases, the fool revels in the attention that his foolishness brings — if he cannot gain fame through wise things, he will gain fame through folly. And for this, his heart (mind, personality, etc…) is lacking.

Daytime television amazes me. Actually, anymore, television in general amazes me. Whether it happens to be a matter of talk shows or the supposed “reality television” that is popular, people will do almost anything to get on television. I must confess, many years ago, I went through a phase where I would occasionally watch a show like Jerry Springer or Judge Judy. And I would sit there amazed, asking myself, “where do they find people like this?” Understand, at this point in my life as a pastor, I have been “around the block a few times” and few things surprise me when it comes to family dynamics. But these folks choose to air all of their “dirty laundry” out for the world to see. That is amazing to me. But, that’s the fool.

Yet, the fool is not just a fool when it comes to earthly things, but with spiritual things as well. The fool lives a life that betrays little or no understanding of the demands of God upon his people nor does he try to live them out. Instead, he acts foolishly and flaunts his spiritual foolishness saying things like, “Yeah, but God will forgive me anyway.” Those who think this way ought to be forewarned of two things. First, that genuine repentance is turning away from the things that you once did and living differently — even thinking differently with respect to those things. Second, God gives a stern warning to those who flaunt their sin thinking God will forgive them anyway. Of this group, God says that he will not be willing to forgive (Deuteronomy 29:19-20). 

Friends, pursue wisdom until you live wisely. Along with that, subdue your foolishness and do not flaunt it…that too is a step in the path of growing wise. Pursue God with your whole being and repent of your pursuit of the folly of men.

Bigger, Better, Faster, More

“The words of the wise while at rest will be heard; in the cries for help from a ruler with fools.”

(Ecclesiastes 9:17)

Wisdom will never be listened to in the midst of a mob. How sad it is that in today’s world, the mob who yells loudest is considered the one who has won the day. Wisdom will never be listened to in the midst of panic; the bells of alarm rob our ears of being able to hear. Wisdom will never be listened to in times of fear; self-defense mechanisms are like a trumpet sound we cannot ignore. Wisdom will never be listened to during times of hectic activity — the tyranny of the urgent does not value deep contemplation.

Wisdom is listened to during times of rest. Wisdom must be reflected upon, meditated upon, and pondered. Wisdom must be dined upon like a fine steak, not consumed like a $5 lunch at a fast-food store. Wisdom requires that time be set aside and that all of our attention be given to it. Time to listen for wisdom does not just happen; it must be set aside and it must be protected from the encroachment of the activities of the day.

One of the challenges that we all faced when I worked at the Christian school in Florida is that of setting aside time for reflection — “Is what we are doing the best thing?” Could we be doing things better?” “Is God being glorified in this?” And, the questions go on. The same challenge holds true in the church. There are so many demands that fall into the week that sometimes one wonders if there is a way to just stop the world from turning and get off. There are so many things to do that sometimes budgeting time to talk about spiritual things — about wisdom — seems like a waste of time. We fall into the trap of wanting to “Get it all done” without ever asking why we are doing it and how Christ is glorified in these things. It is not that the activities of church are bad…just the opposite, they are quite good and beneficial…but only when handled with and cared for by wisdom.

As a parent, I find it fascinating that timing has so much to do with having those parental conversations that are designed to impart wisdom to our children. How radically different the outcome of the conversation when things are peaceful and time can be had to talk while at rest than in the busyness of the day. How much less confrontational those conversations are when rest is the key component that defines the context. How much more the wisdom sinks in both to parent and child. Solomon is giving us one of the most practical insights for living that can be offered in the modern age of hustle and bustle…an age “where one more thing” is always being added to life. Friends, “Bigger, Better, Faster, More,” is not always to be desired.

5 Things You Need to Know about Going Deep

Back in High School, I was a competitive swimmer. No, I never broke any records, but was good enough to be on the team and consistent enough that the coach put me in relays and things like that. And so, during those years, I swam seemingly endless laps across the surface of the water of the swimming pool — so much so that often, when I got home from a late practice or meet, that I would fall asleep and dream about swimming more laps. 

In college, though, I was introduced to something different by a friend of mine’s father who was a scuba instructor. One evening, while I was at the pool swimming laps, he took me to the side, strapped a tank on my back and taught me how to breathe through the regulator and let me loose. I had been certified with a snorkel and a mask before, so the principle was pretty easy, bu the contrast was profound.

Slowly, I descended to the bottom of the swimming pool in the area used for diving. I saw the other swimmers on the surface making laps and heard some of the commotion, but being 9 feet below them, underwater, it was strangely quiet and peaceful; I found myself largely sitting there, peacefully reflecting on life — contrasting the frantic pace of the busy “surface-swimmers” with the slower, more deliberate movements in the stillness of the deep.

It strikes me that life is reflected in that contrast. How often it is that we are so busy with the frantic pace of life that we are like those people swimming on the surface, completing lap after lap, exhausting themselves with labor, but never going any deeper than a few inches from the surface and how few people, take the time to slowly find the peace that comes with going deep into the waters of life. 

It doesn’t matter what your calling in life happens to be, it is worth going deep and the satisfaction you will find in the deep waters will compensate for the “lack of laps” you complete on the surface. 

1. While knowledge can be gained at the surface, wisdom is found in the depths. Education in the modern western world is largely about swimming laps. Like it or not, you almost cannot help it. Now, understand, my point is not to “bash the system,” though I do think the system has some serious flaws. My wife and I are both products of the system and she spent the majority of her teaching career in that system. And though I spent the majority of my teaching career in a private Christian school, it is still modeled on the same system (just with a Christian curriculum), so I lived it as well. This was the system that shaped both my college and my seminary education as well. There is so much to cover in a limited period of time — swimming laps is the only way to accomplish this.

Yet, if one is deliberate, one can make the time (at least occasionally) to go deep. For me, that meant guarding my Sundays from school responsibilities so that I could rest and read some things that were not required-reading (and read them at my own pace, meditating on them as I went). In college, I discovered this in debates that took place in the student lounge and in studying philosophy — not so much in the philosophy classroom as what took place when the philosophy professor opened his home so some of us could come and talk about ideas — where we were gathered out of a love for learning and ideas, which, after all, is what “philosophy” is all about anyway… And wisdom is not just knowing things, it is applying those things you know in life.

2. Going Deep takes time and patience. There is no doubt about that reality, the deeper you go, the more time you will spend going down rather than swimming laps. And so, there is a trade-off. If you work on an assembly line, the chances are, this won’t be valued. Sadly, at the Christian School where I served, this was only partly valued — in principle it was commended, but in practical application, we were kept so busy that we did not have time to do so. Even more sadly, this is often not appreciated in the church where all too often, people do not value the need for a pastor, for church leadership, and for others of influence in the church to think, reflect on what is being done, and to contemplate things deeply. All too often, if the pastor or those leading are not present for every church activity, people wonder what is wrong.

3. Not everyone likes going deep. Here’s the thing, when you are swimming laps, progress is easy to measure…lap one, lap two, lap three, etc… Going deep leaves things in a more undefined state. You don’t count laps when you are contemplating from the bottom of the pool. Yes, you can measure depth, but much of that is only done with respect to those who are swimming over top of you on the surface, but the reason you are swimming deep is not to count laps but to contemplate for a season. Scholars, scientists, and others who have mastered their field understand this — there comes a point where they focus more on growing in their understanding than on completing tasks. Tasks, of course, are still completed, but often for different reasons than the surface-swimmers are turning out laps. On the surface, tasks are completed to achieve goals, purposes, and ends which often are meant to enable more lap-swimming. In the deep, tasks are completed because the moment of epiphany is sought out. There is a difference and that difference makes people uncomfortable.

4. You occasionally need to surface. Here’s the thing; the oxygen tank only has so much air in it. Eventually you have to surface if only to gain a new tank. And, like with scuba diving in deeper contexts than a swimming pool, the ascent must be taken slowly as to not harm yourself (I have never had “the bends” or “decompression sickness,” but the way it has been described to me sounds like it can’t be any fun). Also, from the depths of the waters, things on the surface can become distorted if you stay down so long. This, I would argue, is why so many professors are so out of touch with reality — they live in the deep and rarely come up for air.

Working on an advanced degree is teaching me a lot about this. Every article that I read points me to another article or to a book that I need to read and the cycle seems endless. It is an enjoyable cycle for those who like being in the deep, but I have also been counseled that there comes a point when one is “deep enough” that one needs to come to the surface and start writing that dissertation. Otherwise it will never get written.

5. Like your vegetables, going deep is good for your soul even if you prefer swimming laps. Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen what was better (Luke 10:42). That does not mean that the things Martha was doing were unimportant. It also did not mean that Mary was unwilling to help her sister after the teaching time was done. It simply meant that at the time and in that situation, Mary chose to go deep, listening to Jesus’ words and allowing the housework to wait. Laps would be swum later; it was good for her to go deep. If you are a Christian, the same wisdom applies, when it comes to Jesus, you need to go deep if you are going to grow wise. Again, this does not diminish the value of the Martha’s in the church (we need them), but even Martha needed to stop her laps and swim deeply on occasion.

Oh How Deep!

“How your works are great, Yahweh,

Your plans are quite mysterious.”

(Psalm 92:6 [verse 5 in English])

 

Oh, heavenly Father, “what is man that you are mindful of him!” We make plans and perceive our designs to be deep and meaningful, but in a moment they are washed away by the winds of time. How we plan for tomorrow yet have no control over today. How we ponder our designs while neglecting the design that you have revealed in your word. Oh, how foolish are we puny men, yet you have condescended to reveal yourself to us in fearful and wonderful ways. Amen!

As great and mighty as God’s works are, his decrees and plans run deeper. We may spend a lifetime plummeting the depths of that which he has revealed in his Word to us, yet will never scratch much more than the surface. Oh, were we given a thousand generations to dig into the word, we still would not come closer to reaching the bottom of the richness of God’s revealed Word.

Thus, they are a mystery to us, but not the kind of mystery that discourages or disheartens, but the kind of mystery that draws us in, that sparks our interest and curiosity, and that envelops us in the love and truth of this mighty God.

Oh, the depths of the riches and of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!  How unfathomable are his decrees and incomprehensible are his ways!  For who is he who knows the mind of the Lord? Who is he that has become his counselor? Who is he that first gave to him that he might receive repayment? For out of him and through him and for him are all things.

For to him is the glory unto eternity, amen!

(Romans 11:33-36)

A Christian Hierarchy of Values

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of values in terms of what was worthwhile for individuals and society to pursue.  For Aristotle, the highest value was the knowledge of truth for its own sake.  Of course, Aristotle was an Empiricist, which means that his real interest in “Truth” has to do with what one can observe with one’s senses or through the use of observational tools.  Some might be tempted to simply label this, “science,” but such a label would shortchange both science and Aristotle’s view.  Much of science is based on the use of reason built upon basic presuppositions and Aristotle recognized that observation could be applied to things outside of the realm of what we would typically classify as science (metaphysics, for example).

Aristotle’s second value was the discovery of practical knowledge—what Christians and Jews typically refer to as wisdom.  This is the kind of knowledge that can guide one to live a life well and skillfully.  For Aristotle, this was exemplified in the Four Cardinal Virtues of Greek thought: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation.  Finally, the value at the bottom of Aristotle’s list was that of learning to be skilled in Technique—what we would refer to as technical or vocational skills.  These are the skills by which one would earn a trade.

I began to reflect on these ideas for two reasons.  First, I heard a contemporary philosopher argue that our modern culture has turned Aristotle’s hierarchy upside down—that those who our society values the most (based on their paychecks) are those who demonstrate a high degree of skill in technique and those who are valued the least are those whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake.  Thus we live in a society where professional athletes, popular musicians and actors, and skillful doctors (again, technique with the surgical instruments) are the wealthiest class and preachers, teachers, and philosophers make up one of the poorest classes in society.  The second reason that I began reflecting on this idea is because I happened to be teaching on Augustine’s approach to the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Greeks.  Ultimately, Augustine affirmed these virtues as Christian virtues, but only when they were joined by faith, hope, and love—especially love.

Thus, I began asking the question, if I had to construct a hierarchy of values for the Christian life, how do I think that they would be reflected in the Christian life.  One might be tempted to begin, as Aristotle begins, with a knowledge of truth for its own sake.  Jesus said that his purpose in coming to dwell with men was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37).  God, of course, is the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) and those who reject God suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).  In addition, those who have no knowledge of God (as truth resides in God) destroy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:34).  Also, the implication of scripture is that it is the knowledge of God that allows his people to be faithful (Hosea 6:6) and when there is no faithfulness in the land, it is joined by a lack of the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).

Yet, it seems to me that a higher virtue sets the stage for the knowledge of the Lord.  When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus’ response is not to congratulate him on that knowledge, saying it was the highest virtue, but Jesus instead said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah” for this knowledge came from “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).  There are two things that need to be brought out from this verse in light of understanding Christian virtue.  First of all, the source of the knowledge of God is God himself, not something gained through a human pursuit—and if something has a source, or a precursor, it ought not be seen as the “highest” virtue.  Secondly, Jesus does not say, “virtuous are you,” but he says, “blessed are you.”  The Greek word for virtue, ajreth/ (arête), refers to one’s moral excellence or other attributes that make one praiseworthy.  Yet, blessedness, maka/rioß (makarios), has to do with one’s internal state as a result of their relationship to God.  Thus, Jesus can say, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake…”  Similarly, Peter’s blessedness does not come from anything he has done, but because of what has been done to him.

Now, we may be tempted to engage in a discussion of regeneration, but since the purpose of a hierarchy of virtue is to give us something of merit to pursue, such a discussion does not seem to have a place here as regeneration is something that God does in us which in turn precipitates a response of faith and repentance in the believer.  Our temptation, too, might be to jump immediately to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to Peter’s instructions on how to build up our faith (2 Peter 5-7), but again, these seem to have their source in a virtue that is more primary.

And that brings us to the question, what then does the Bible present as primary?  The logical answer seems to be that the highest virtue is the fear of the Lord.  We are told in scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).  The fear of the Lord gives life and health not only to the individual believer, but it is also a sign of a healthy church (Acts 9:31).  And then, out of the fear of the Lord proceeds the pursuit of the other Christian virtues.

Not Far from the Kingdom of God (Mark 12:34)

“And Jesus saw that he answered thoughtfully, and said to him, ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God.’  And no one was bold enough to question him any longer.”

(Mark 12:34)

 

And Jesus saw that the man had answered thoughtfully, or, as in many of our English translations, “wisely,” though the word sofi/a (sophia) is not used, which is the normal word that means “wisdom” as we understand it.  The term that is used here is nounecwvß (nounechos), which is derived from the term nouvß (nous), which refers to one’s intellect.  Thus, the response that the scribe gave to Jesus was one of thoughtfulness, though it was not necessarily one of wisdom.  Sometimes we forget that there is a difference between intellect and wisdom in our culture.  We think that wisdom is a result of great intelligence, and that is not necessarily true.  Intellectual knowledge deals more with what you know and wisdom deals more with what you understand.  Intellect is developed through education; wisdom is developed through Godly experience.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ statement that the scribe was not far from the Kingdom?  Is that to suggest that the Scribe understood the gospel?  I am not sure that the text gives us enough information about this scribe to go quite that far in our assumption, though the scribe was on the right path.  Note, that Jesus does not tell the scribe that the Kingdom is his, but rather he is not far from it.  For the scribe to have come into the kingdom, he would have had to become a follower of Jesus Christ and the text remains silent about this particular scribe from hereon out.  What we do know, though, from this interaction is that there were some scribes that had not fallen into the legalism of the Pharisaical school, though who still had a high regard for the law.  Sometimes, when we read the Biblical accounts, we automatically group all of the Jewish teachers and officials in the same category of legalism.  While many did fall into this error, there were some that were faithful in seeking out the intent behind the law that God gave—instructions for holiness, not a license for legalism.

The second thing that we learn from this final statement of the interaction is that this is the last time during the Passion Week that the Jewish authorities question Jesus in this way.  As the text records, they were no longer bold enough to challenge Jesus any longer.  Was this due to Jesus’ fine answers?  Probably not.  The fact is that these Jewish authorities had been hounding Jesus with questions trying to trap him for the past 3 years—you would think that they would have gotten it by now and repented, following Christ as Lord and Savior—if they trusted the wisdom of his answers.  It is most likely because they realized that Jesus had quite a bit of popular support from the crowd.  Jesus’ enemies knew that they needed to arrest him and convict him at night where the crowds could not intervene.  This event took place on Tuesday of Jesus’ last week, by Thursday evening, Jesus would be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  That time is coming, but for the moment, it is not quite there yet.  Oh, beloved, one of the great difficulties of the study of this week is that we know the horrors that await our Lord.  We rejoice that he would sacrifice himself for us so, but oh, how we agonize over the price that Christ had to pay for our sin.  Beloved, in the shadow of the cross, remember this teaching of Christ—we are to love God with all of our being—every inch of our soul—and we are to love others as Christ loved us.  Oh, how different our lives might be if we were able to faithfully live that commission out in all that we do.

 

 

A Proverb in a Song: part 4

“My mouth shall speak wisdoms;

the meditation of my heart is understanding.”

(Psalm 49:4 {Psalm 49:3 in English Bibles})

 

And now that the psalmist has called peoples from across the planet to heed the words of his lips, he addresses them specifically.  He is saying, listen here, you people of the earth and I will provide true wisdom for your ears!  In addition, the psalmist clarifies the importance of what he is going to say by pointing out that the meditation of his heart—that which he is about to speak—will give them understanding.  Oh, beloved, how deep a truth this is for us—wisdom and understanding come from no other place but from God and is conveyed to us through his Word.  How often do we seek to forge our own understandings?  How often do we reject the plain teachings of scripture because we cannot comprehend what is being revealed?  How often do we submit the scriptures to our own understanding rather than submitting our understanding to the scriptures?

Now, you will note something unusual about the translation that I have rendered with respect to the word “wisdom.”  In English and in Hebrew, the word wisdom is normally used as a collective noun, simply meaning that whether you speak one piece of wisdom or twenty, it is still referred to as “wisdom” and not “wisdoms.”  Yet, in this verse, the psalmist has pluralized this word.  What is significant about this is that the plural form of wisdom only occurs in four places in the Hebrew Bible—once here, and three times in the book of Proverbs (1:20, 9:1, 24:7).  This provides a connection to what it is that the psalmist is going to communicate in the following verse—the wisdom that he is about to espouse is a proverb to be heard by all the nations of the earth.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Hebrew word for meditation, tWgh’ (haguth), is derived from the Hebrew verb, hg”h’ (hagah), which means, “to growl.”  The imagery is   reflective of the way that traditional Hebrew students of God’s word would mutter softly as they were immersed in their study of the scriptures.  This intense concentration, accompanied by the quiet muttering as they studied, was reminiscent of an animal quietly growling as they were focused steadfastly on their prey.  This being said, it is worth posing the question, in our busy and hectic world, do we ever make the time to study God’s word so intently that we do not permit distractions to encroach on that time?  Sadly, I think that answer for most of us is no. 

Beloved, hear the words of wisdom that will come from the depth of this psalmist’s soul.  They will bring understanding to our hearts.  But do not only hear his words, hear what he communicates to us by his life.  He is a man who has spent time growling over scripture—so deeply focused on the study of God’s word that outside distractions are cast aside totally.  And as a result of this devotion to God’s word, wisdom pours from his lips.  Friends, if you want wisdom, James reminds us that we are to pray for it and that God will give it in abundance (James 1:5-8)—and this comes through trial (James 1:2-4).  Yet, if you want to nurture and mature wisdom, you must immerse yourself in the undistracted study of God’s word.  That means we must be deliberate about making such time—indeed, that is a challenge in our modern, fast-paced culture, but oh, how wonderful the benefits of such time are!

You Delight in Truth: Psalm 51 (part 7)

“Behold, truth you delight of in the inward parts

and in hidden places it is wisdom you teach me.”

(Psalm 51:8 {Psalm 51:6 in English Bibles})

 

Indeed, our God is truth and anything that is found that is apart from God has no truth in it.  The secular world may put things forward as the truth and they may make convincing arguments that they have truth to present, but unless God is at the heart of it, anything that is put forward as truth is but a shadow.  And thus, it is in truth that God delights!  How we as His people, must then reflect the truth in all that we do.  Beloved, do you wish to please God?  Indeed, then your life must radiate the truth of his person.  And oh how often we fall short of making that a reality in our lives.  We like the truth when it is beneficial to us; but when it is more convenient, we often justify lying.  Loved ones, do not fall prey to this trap, for just as truth is a reflection of the character of God, so too are lies a reflection of the character of Satan—and we must always seek to make our lives reflect the character of the one to whom we belong!

Keep in mind that this passage is set in the context of repentance.  One important aspect of confession before God is a recognition of what your sin really is—rebellion against God.  So often, when we look at our sin, we tend to down-play its severity.  We think of it as not that destructive or we justify it based on circumstances.  Sometimes we may even play the, “but I’m only human” card, which is particularly shameful for Christians to use.  While indeed we may be fallen humans, our forgiveness was bought at a terrible price, and when we recognize what Jesus did for us so that we might experience forgiveness, it should drive us to holy living and it should drive us to grieve our sin all the more.  And when we recognize that our lives are living testimonies to the character of the one we claim to serve, oh, how rationalizing sin should be but bitterness on our lips—oh how, as we look to our own sins—as we grieve over our own sins—we should always endeavor to speak the truth about our sins, recognizing them for what they are and hating the sins as God hates the sins.

And how must we learn to recognize sin from truth?  Indeed, the David reminds us that it is God who teaches truth to his people.  Beloved, this is part of the work of the Holy Spirit—to reveal that which is true to the people God has called to himself.  It is the Holy Spirit that must always guide our study of scripture and prayers, it is the Holy Spirit that must set the things of God on our heart so we may live day to day to His glory, and it is the Holy Spirit that testifies that what we have before us in God’s revealed word is truth and not the result of man’s imagination.  Beloved, God is truth, he delights in it and reveals it to his people.  Do you delight in God’s truth as God does?  Do you really cherish it and revel in it?  Does the truth of God in your hand cause praise to come to your lips?  And do you pray to God that he will reveal truth to you in the depths of your inward being?  Lastly, when you repent, is your repentance spurred by a heart for truth, seeking to see your sin through the same eyes as God sees your sin?  Truth is at the heart of David’s confession, is it at the heart of yours?