Wisdom and knowledge
Cowper wrote, "Wisdom and knowledge far from being one, have
ofttimes no connection."
The poet was trying to express the truth that wisdom is
superior to knowledge, but in his statement of the difference he went too far.
There is bound to be a connection, for although it is possible for men to have
knowledge without wisdom, no one can be wise without possessing knowledge.
Wisdom makes use of knowledge as mind makes use of matter. It is superior
because it is comprehensive. A new-born babe begins life without knowing
anything of the world he has entered and without any of the qualities that may
come with experience. He cannot possibly be wise until he has knowledge --
knowledge of the difference between good and evil, knowledge of the God who has
called him into being, and knowledge of the way of life. Wisdom is revealed in
the proper use of that which is known. The One who is perfect in wisdom has also
the perfection of knowledge.
Wisdom is always good, but there is such a thing as the
knowledge of evil. It can never be an advantage to lack wisdom in anything, but
there are matters in which it is a blessing not to know.
The apostle Paul wrote, "knowledge puffeth up" (1Co 8:1). He
was not condemning knowledge, but simply stating a truth. Knowledge of the right
kind is excellent, but even it may tend to inflate the individual who possesses
it. Men may be puffed up even by their knowledge of the Scriptures, especially
if their reading has been ill-balanced. Much charity is needed to guard against
this evil and to make knowledge lead to edification.
There are people who will say that it is only the dangerous
"little knowledge" that puffs men up, while those who have studied deeply are
truly humble and never boast. This thought has been stated often, but it is not
true. Indeed it would be difficult to define the words of such a saying. All the
knowledge of mankind is only little. The most ignorant and the most cultured are
only separated by a few degrees. It is quite true that intelligent people
perceive the ugliness and folly of blatant boasting and so if they boast they do
it more skilfully. Or it is possible for a man to feel himself so superior to
the common run of humanity that he finds no pleasure in the admiration of the
multitude. His detachment is a form of pride, and he may fall into the worst of
errors by being puffed up against God.
For all ordinary people it is most natural to find a certain
pleasure in the possession of knowledge that is denied to others. The child's
open triumph with the delighted affirmation "I know, I know!" is only the
natural expression of a pride which we conceal in later life. Men and women do
not feel such keen pleasure in little triumphs, and they may be so self-deceived
as to imagine that they are completely above such childish weakness. Often,
however, circumstances conspire to reveal the inflation that is there even in
those who would claim to be quite free from it. Even in dealing with the oldest
and most dignified of men, a diplomatist remembers this human vanity.
An active business man once told us that in early days he made
this discovery by accident. He was trying to sell certain articles to engineers,
and was finding it very hard work. One day, aside from his business he thought
of a very interesting engineering problem which baffled all friends to whom he
put it. One of these friends suggested that there was probably one man in the
country who could solve the problem, the head of a very large firm, why not
write to him? The young man hesitated to be so bold, but at last he wrote,
stating his problem. He was invited to make a call. The big man received the
youth quite graciously in his office and explained the interesting difficulty.
Then having given full satisfaction by his superior knowledge and ability, he
began to question the youth as to what he was doing in life, and ended by giving
him a good order. There is a sequel to this story which illustrates a worldly
wisdom, hardly falling within our subject. The young salesman having found by
accident that exalted men were children at heart, changed his method of approach
and played on this human weakness. He took advantage of this nattering thought
of superior knowledge, the truth noted by the apostle that "knowledge puffeth
In some measure all men are subject to this weakness, but if
they are instructed in the knowledge and wisdom that has been divinely revealed,
they are aware of human vanity and so are on their guard. Knowledge and
ignorance are only relative terms. It is said that in rural England a century
ago, a man who could read and write was accounted a scholar, although in other
circles the same man would have appeared as an ignoramus. In the same way the
man with the greatest reputation for learning in all the world might seem
deplorably ignorant to the angels. It is possible even that some of those with
the greatest reputation would appear more foolish than their less capable
fellows, just as we have noticed when we have chanced to overhear the
conversation of children, the cleverest boy talks the worst nonsense, for there
is no one to check him, or call in question his assertions.
Wisdom is needed to guide our steps, or knowledge will only
bring increase of sorrow and a greater capacity for folly. Wisdom begins with
the fear of the Lord and it ends with obedience to all His commandments. It can
make use of knowledge on this mortal, material plane, while recognizing that
there are other planes unknowable to us now. "Wisdom is the principal thing;
therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding" (Pro
In the first chapter of the book of Proverbs we are told that
"wisdom crieth aloud in the streets, she uttereth her voice in the broad places,
she crieth in the chief place of concourse, at the entering in of the gates"
Considered as a "dark saying of the wise", this is provocative
of thought. We very rarely have a literal shouting of words of wisdom in the
streets of a city, or in the broad places of human activity, but when we
remember that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we can see a
definite meaning in the saying. In ancient Israel and in the modern world the
idea of God is before men all the while even though human thoughts fail to turn
to Him. In our time we can hardly live for a single day without Christ being
brought before our minds, and through Christ, the Father who was manifest in
him. Even the daily newspaper utters the call of wisdom in spite of its low aim
and its native foolishness. The date it gives is from the birth of Christ, the
record of human vanity confirms the teaching of Christ, while often, especially
in these latter days, there is an item of news which shouts of the purpose of
God to those who can understand.
Even apart from these matters the call of wisdom can surely be
heard in the ordered wonders of the universe in which we live. Man's cheerful
acceptance of the earth as his home proclaims that in his heart he recognizes
that there is a Creator. Would he feel comfortable on a ship with no captain? A
hundred thousand tons of metal and wood driving through unknown seas at thirty
miles an hour and no one in control? How then should he feel when he realizes
that he is all through life on a vessel weighing millions of tons and going
through space at sixty thousand miles an hour? Of course men believe that
someone is in control. The stability of the earth and its long continuance, the
facts of human consciousness and human ideals, the wonders of chemistry and the
wonders of life all combine to prove that there is a mind far above that of man.
Human intelligence is just sufficient to contemplate these things and to make
some response. Wisdom is thus calling to the sons of men in the streets, in the
broad places and at the entering in of the gate.
The Proverbs, however, do not suggest that it is easy for men
to secure wisdom even though the first call is so loud and insistent. We have to
incline our hearts to understanding, to cry after discernment and to seek for
wisdom as for hid treasure; then may a man understand the fear of the Lord and
find the knowledge of God. Then wisdom may be a tree of life to us (Pro
There is much food for thought in this contrast between the
first loud call of wisdom to the sons of men, and the diligent search which is
necessary before we can find the real treasures that wisdom can yield. The study
of nature will not carry men far. "The mysterious universe" offers new
complexities as men advance in knowledge. The investigations of men are like the
attempt to reach a goal which is moving from them faster than they can
God can only be known as far as He has chosen to reveal
Himself. He has revealed that He is "a rewarder of those who diligently seek
Him". Just as there are treasures and stores of wealth in the material world to
reward the diligent labours of men, so there are spiritual treasures for those
who search diligently in the Scriptures that have been handed down to us. In the
only way possible or desirable in this mortal condition we shall find God if we
search for Him with all the heart.
In the book of Proverbs there are many contrasts drawn between
wisdom and foolishness, most of them easy to understand. From the many passages
we choose one because it contains hidden depths and may arouse helpful
"Every wise woman buildeth her house, but the foolish plucketh it down with her
hands" (Pro 14:1).
Perhaps this has a meaning even on the most material plane.
Some women take steps to improve their houses as time goes on, while others let
everything go to ruin. We have even heard of people breaking up some of the
woodwork of their houses and burning it through foolish indolence or still more
foolish anger. On a slightly less material plane we have noticed the
extraordinary difference between the woman who builds a home of confidence,
unselfishness and love and the one who pulls a home to pieces by suspicion,
jealousy and a generally negative attitude. On a higher plane still, the saying
is true of the corporate woman formed through the ages. Those who desire to be
constituent members of the bride to be, must be wise. They must build the house
and not pull it down.