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Wise Strangers and Sojourners

Young people, are you wise? I suspect that most of you would answer affirmatively. Some of you may be correct to a degree. But I suspect that not everyone who answers positively is completely honest. Most of you have a ways to go when it comes to wisdom. Young people generally are not noted for their wisdom. I write this not as an insult to you, but as a fact based on observation and experience. It you are honest with yourselves and with me, you will have to admit that all of us to one degree or another are not always wise.

I do not pretend to be the world’s expert on wisdom. When I think back to when I was a teenager (despite the fact that that was a long time ago), I did some stupid stuff. By the way, in case anyone does not like my choice of words, I would point out that John Calvin himself used the word stupid with exactly the same meaning that it has today; he equated it with foolish. Nor would I pretend, even at my advanced age, that I have arrived at ultimate wisdom. I’d like to have the chance to make the chance to make different choices and decisions. I won’t tell you what these are, but the truth is that there are no do-overs in life, as you no doubt are learning.

However, it is your calling and responsibility to be wise. Wisdom does and must characterize us as strangers and sojourners. This leads us to ask, what is wisdom? This question needs to be answered because the Bible teaches us that wisdom is one of God’s attributes. We therefore must answer what wisdom is.

Noted Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof defines wisdom as God’s perfection whereby he applies his knowledge to the attainment of his ends in a way that glorifies him most. God’s own glory is his ultimate purpose, and he uses the best possible means to achieve the result of that glory, whether or not we always understand the means. The apostle Paul teaches this truth in Romans 11:33 when he exclaims,”O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”

Although both knowledge and wisdom are mentioned in this verse, Berkhof goes on to say that although they are closely related, knowledge and wisdom are not the same. Knowledge is acquired by study and learning, while wisdom results from an intuitive insight into things. Knowledge is theoretical, while wisdom is practical. The relation between the two is that knowledge forms the basis for wisdom. Wisdom should arise out of knowledge, and should be the application of knowledge, although this is not necessarily true. A person can be very knowledgeable without being wise, and vice versa.

An example will make this point clear. During my high school and college years I worked for a man who had only an eighth grade education. Yet he was one of the wisest people I have ever known. Despite his lack of formal learning, he served repeatedly as an elder in the church. Besides being my employer, he also monitored my life, and when I dated a girl of whom he did not approve, as I sometimes did, he would say (in Dutch, which was funnier than in English), “There is no pot so crooked that you can’t find a lid to fit it.” It’s a good thing I listened to him, because he was almost always right.

It should be emphasized that wisdom is a spiritual and ethical concept. Wisdom is not natural and earthly. People are not born wise, and the natural man cannot become wise by learning or by practice. The world has its philosophical idea of wisdom, but this is not the same as the scriptural idea. In fact, often the wisdom of the world is really stupidity.

True wisdom has its root in God. God is the all-wise; he is wisdom. Proverbs 9:10 makes this clear: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” To worship the only all-wise God is to be truly wise, and to know the holy God is understanding. Proverbs 8 personifies wisdom, beginning in the first verse: “Doth now wisdom cry? And understanding put forth her voice?” Please take the time to read this chapter, which tells us the content of what wisdom cries.

Moses calls the people of Israel to keep God’s commandments, “for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these great statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6). Conversely, If the people of Israel corrupt themselves and become a crooked and perverse generation, they will be called a “foolish people and unwise” (Deut. 32:5–6).

James makes this point by way of contrast when he says that the wisdom of this world is “earthly, sensual devilish, while “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:15, 17).

Just as the opposite of knowledge is ignorance, so the opposite of wisdom is foolishness. This is clearly taught in Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1, where we read the identical words, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Foolishness is not ignorance of the truth that God is the true God, but a refusal to acknowledge that he is indeed God and man’s putting himself in God’s rightful place.

Solomon is the ultimate example of the difference between knowledge and wisdom. According to scripture he was the wisest man who ever lived. People from all over the world came to learn from him, and he wrote 3,000 proverbs or truths, which still today are true and profound. He knew the truth of God in the Old Testament as did no one else. But despite his extensive knowledge, in his later life his sexual desires overcame and annulled his wisdom. Although he knew better, he took hundreds of women from heathen nations as his wives and concubines, which resulted eventually in the division of the kingdom of Israel. He was indeed wise, but yet foolish.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that the ultimate manifestation of God’s wisdom is Christ. I have already pointed out that God’s own glory is his ultimate purpose, and that he uses the best possible means to achieve the result of that glory. God’s wise purpose is his glory through the salvation of his people. Christ is the means that God has chosen to use to realize this goal. Through the salvation of his people in Christ, God is glorified. Proverbs is the ultimate book of wisdom, and it has rightfully been said that wherever you find the word wisdom, you may substitute the word Christ. We may therefore say that wisdom=Christ. This means that as we believe in Christ and follow his teachings, we are wise in the sense that we live out of Christ and that we govern our lives as those who are saved.

Now that we have defined and explained what wisdom is, we must ask how all of this applies to you as young people. Wisdom is not a theory, but a very practical idea that has specific implications for your lives.

In terms of our calling to walk as strangers and sojourners, wisdom means that we do not walk on the wide road that leads to the broad gate, which in turn leads to eternal destruction. This is crucial and basic. Such spiritual foolishness and stupidity result in everlasting death. If you do not conduct your lives in harmony with Christ’s teachings to the glory of God, you go lost. On that scripture is clear. In contrast, to walk along the narrow road that leads to the restricted gate, which in turn leads to eternal blessedness, is true wisdom. I do not say all of this as a threat that is intended to scare you into heaven (which is impossible), but as a biblical fact.

Rather, the point is that wisdom is exceedingly practical. It has to do with how you live your lives. Wisdom implies that you live your lives in harmony with reality. This applies to your finances and your making provision for the future, as illustrated by the example of the ant. Ants are one of the smallest insects God made, but they are perhaps the most industrious. Proverbs 6:6–8  gives us an example to follow: “Go the ant, thou sluggard (lazy person); consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the summer.” Commenting on this passage, Herman Hoeksema in his Reformed Dogmatics writes:

 

What are the ways of the ant? The wise man explains: The ant gathers her food in the     time of harvest and provides her meat in summer, not in winter. She adapts herself to      that reality by gathering her food when it may be had, thus providing for the time when       food cannot be gathered. In contrast with this wisdom of the ant, the sluggard is the    fool who faces the same reality, fails to apprehend it and adapt himself to it, and         therefore is put to shame and destroyed by that reality (vv. 7–11).

 

As you mature and have to deal with the finances of your future family, young people, wisdom dictates that you remember and follow the example of the ant. Don’t forget that this is God’s example for you to follow as you walk on your earthly sojourn.

Another example is the figure of the two builders that Jesus used in Matthew 7:24–27. The foolish builder constructed his house on the sand; it did not have a proper foundation. Probably in an effort to cut corners and increase his profits, he did not take into account the inevitable and predictable storms and floods. The result was that his house was destroyed. The wise builder built his house on a rock; it had a solid and firm foundation. The result was that despite the ravages of storms and floods, his house stood strong.  This example applies to those of you young people who are thinking about entering the building trades. You need to be wise in all aspects of your trade, from architects to framers to the various trades, to the completed building.

As Hoeksema points out further, wisdom is skill. When he was building God’s temple, Solomon sought out the best tradesmen he could find, since God’s house required the absolute best possible workmanship. While the people of Israel had at least some of the required skills, apparently they needed some assistance and supervision. Solomon therefore sent to Huram, the king of Tyre, with the request found in 2 Chronicles 2:7: “Send me now therefore a man cunning to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in iron, and in purple, and crimson, and blue, and that can skill to grave with the cunning men that are with me in Judah and Jerusalem, whom David my father did provide.”

According to account of scripture, the result of this wisdom (skill) was the wonderfully beautiful temple, an Old Testament picture of the dazzling splendor of heaven, where God will dwell with his people in the brightness of his glory eternally. The point is that wisdom was necessary to the building of the temple. The means of using skilled (wise) workmen was necessary to the goal of constructing the temple according to God’s instructions and to his glory. Once again there is application to you young people in the choice of your vocation. There is probably more than one application, but from the viewpoint of wisdom, one thing that we can take away from this example is that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well, and to the glory of God.

Acquiring wisdom is a learning process not just for you as young people, but for all God’s people, regardless of age. The difference, I think, is in the steepness of the learning curve. In turn, the steepness of the learning curve depends in large measure on your personalities and abilities. Not everyone is wise to the same degree, and not everyone gains wisdom at the same rate.

Some of you learn wisdom in the hard school of negative experience. Many examples could be given, and you can make your own. Perhaps a simple one will be sufficient. Let’s assume that you live in a cold winter climate that receives snow, which in turn produces slippery roads. You drive too fast around a curve, lose control of your car, and wrap it around a tree. After that is doesn’t run very well. After purchasing another car, you drive around the same curve, but this time you slow down and don’t crack up your car. This is wisdom. If, however, after purchasing another car, you go too fast around the same curve and hit the same tree, this is foolishness. The score is now tree two, car zero. Admittedly this is a pretty juvenile example, but I think it drives home the point: we learn—or should learn— from our mistakes. The wise do; the foolish never quite get it.

Most of you who are reading this article are students either in high school or in college. This means that you are acquiring knowledge: mostly factual information that you need to know. The question is whether or not this knowledge translates into wisdom. For the unbelieving world it does not, because the wicked cannot use this knowledge and apply it correctly; their understanding is darkened, so that they cannot rightly use the knowledge of God even in the creation or in history. But for you who are strangers and sojourners, knowledge forms the basis for wisdom in the scriptural sense.

So what is your calling? Proverbs 23:12 instructs: “Apply thine heart unto instruction, and thine ears to the word of knowledge.” The Hebrew word translated “apply” means “to cause to go in.” This means that instruction and words of knowledge (synonyms of wisdom) must become part of us. Similarly in Proverbs 2:2 we are enjoined to “incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding.” Nor may we postpone the acquisition of wisdom, for Psalm 90:12 asks God, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

Strangers and sojourners, may you be blessed with wisdom!