The Beginning of Wisdom
January 22nd, 1956 @ 10:50 AM
THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-22-56 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled The First Proverb or The Beginning of Wisdom. It is dedicated to the graduating class, midterm, of Woodrow Wilson High School and with the prayer that the burden of its message shall bless and encourage every heart and be a medium through which the Holy Spirit might bring someone in faith to Christ Jesus our Lord.
The first proverb is in the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs and the seventh verse. After the introduction, speaking of, "The Proverbs of Solomon the son of David, the king of Israel: To know wisdom, to receive instruction . . . to give subtlety to the simple . . . the wise to hear . . . to understand the proverb" [Proverbs 1:1-6], the first one then follows: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" [Proverbs 1:7]. In the ninth chapter and the tenth verse, that same proverb is said again: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" [Proverbs 9:10]. And between those two proverbs is written a paean of praise to what he calls "wisdom." And I read it. It’s in the eighth chapter, the twelfth verse, and the seventeenth verses to the end. And this is what the wisest of all God’s men wrote:
I wisdom dwell with prudence . . .
I love them that love me; those that seek me early shall find me.
Riches and honor are with me; yea, durable riches and righteousness.
My fruit is better than gold, yea, than fine gold; and my revenue than choice silver.
I lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment:
that I may cause those that love me to inherit substance; and I will fill their treasures.
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His way, before His works of old.
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
When there was no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
While as yet He had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.
When He prepared the heavens, I was there: when He set a compass upon the face of the deep:
When He established the clouds above: when He strengthened the fountains of the deep:
When He gave to the sea His decree, that the waters should not pass His commandment: when He appointed the foundations of the earth:
Then I was by Him, as one brought up with Him: and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him;
Rejoicing in the habitable part of His earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.
Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways.
Hear instruction, be wise, and refuse it not.
Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favor of the Lord.
But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all that hate me love death.
[Proverbs 8:12, 17-36]
Now, you couldn’t read that without a most apparent persuasion that this thing of wisdom reaches higher and deeper, is wider and broader than most of what we identify it with as being pure, factual knowledge. So the message this morning is what it is, the first proverb: The Beginning of Wisdom – the fear of the Lord.
The educational process has an awesome and tremendous responsibility, for what we are is mostly what we have been taught. And the fruit of teaching and learning is the culture and the civilization in which we live. I one time heard a learned man give a lecture on environment and heredity, and in that lecture he said, "I am not saying that environment is everything; but I do say that whether a child is a cannibal or a communist; whether he’s a Democrat, a Republican, or a goose-stepping fascist; whether he’s a Catholic, a Baptist, or an infidel; whether he crawls on all four, or walks upright; whether he eats with a knife and fork; whether he speaks a language or not; all of these" – – said that brilliant man – "is the fruit and the product of training, of education. We are what we are taught." And that teaching can turn to such tremendously vital and all-encompassing determining ends. There was a time in the history of the Teutonic race when there arose a great tremendous spiritual power by the name of Martin Luther, and from him emanated those influences and those cultural interpretations that fruited in the building of the greatest universities and the greatest culture and the greatest civilization that the world had ever seen.
Then there came along Nietzsche, and a thousand other rational critics just like him. And they turned those same universities and that same culture and that same civilization into the despair and destruction of the world. For you see, it can take either the right or the left, it can go up or down, it can glorify God and elevate the man, or it can bring the wrath and judgment of God and the destruction of the soul; the same thing: the educational process.
When you go by, as many of you have, you have seen great blocks of marble quarried out of the earth, and beautifully done, such as you find in some of the great deposits in Italy. There in those blocks of marble, so rough, so un-hewn, so just out of the earth, there, sleeping in that great block of marble, will be an angel; but it takes a sculptor’s chisel to discover it, to bring it out, to make it form, to set it before your eyes.
That’s a beautiful thought, but I’ll tell you another thing: in that same block of marble where poetic fancy says an angel sleeps, in that same block of marble a satyr sleeps, a devil sleeps, for the same chisel that could outline the face of a Christ or of a seraph, can outline also the face of an imp or a devil. I went in Copenhagen to look upon what some of us think is the most beautifully effective piece of sculptured work in the world; Thorvaldsen’s Picture of Christ, with His arms outstretched saying, "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden" [Matthew 11:28].
But this summer, walking with one of our military personnel in Europe, we passed by a park, and out of that park the United States Army had taken sculptured pieces. They were so vile, they were so suggestive that the United States Army took them off of their pedestals and hid them away. Made of the same marble, by the same chisel, it can be up or down, it can be good or bad, it can bless or it can curse.
Now what is this thing that the wisest man in all the earth wrote of when he said, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge [Proverbs 1:7], and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" [Proverbs 9:10]. What is this thing? What is wisdom? Well, it is not knowledge, that’s the first avowal. It is not learning, it is not factual information. There is nothing in information as such; there is nothing in education as such, nothing in training or knowledge as such, to elevate the man or to glorify God, nothing.
The man who is ignorant, and unlettered, and untutored, and untaught, the man who is highly educated with all of his faculties and gifts raised to their highest order, both of those men actually may be fundamentally the same. There may be walking down the railroad track a sorry, dirty, filthy, ragged bum, and he breaks into a railway car and steals a can of tomatoes. Take that same ragged, dirty bum, dress him up, send him to college, and he’ll steal the entire railway system, and get away with it.
For his factual information, his education as such, doesn’t change the man. If he’s a thief as a bum, he can be a thief as a graduate of Harvard. If he is actually a thief in his soul, as a petty pilfering wastrel and wandering prodigal, he also can be a thief and head the greatest insurance company in the state of Texas. As such it doesn’t change the actual man. For men are made by something else besides knowledge, training, learning, education, factual information. Wisdom is not knowledge.
To me – – now this is a personal observation – – to me one of the tragic errors into which modern men have fallen is the persuasion that in order to be realists, in order to face the facts, in order to be honest, we must take unto ourselves all of the dirt and filth and sewage of humanity, for if I exclude that then I’m hiding my face from all of the facets of life. Consequently, when you have a newspaper article – – as three or four days ago – – one of these famous playwrights of America was putting on a TV program on a Saturday night a week ago, and it was greatly advertised. And it had filth in it, and it had blasphemy in it, it had cursing in it. And when they remonstrated with the playwright against that, he said, "But that’s life, that’s facts, that’s knowledge. And if we are to portray this as it is, then it must also have the filth and the sewage in it!" Now that principle is throughout American life and literature. Some of the great novels of all time have been written in our generation; but they are so full of shame and dirt, until they are an affront to God and affront to man.
Listen, a star is as real a fact as a sewer. Goodness, and righteousness, and courage are as real as prodigality, and iniquity, and felony. Christ and God and heaven are as real as sin, and Satan, and dirt, and darkness, and hell. We don’t elevate and glorify by trying to be dirtily factual, living in the cesspools of life. Knowledge in itself, just because it’s a fact, is no reason at all why we must degrade the mind and the soul to receive into our hearts and lives those unspeakable and terrible things. They are here for us to overcome, for us to put out of sight, for us to rise above, for us to battle against, and never to glorify. Knowledge in itself is not wisdom.
What is it? It isn’t skills; it isn’t mechanical achievement, not at all, never, never. That is another aberration of the American mind; so much so in the Soviet communistic mind. These great abilities of ours that you see flower and fruit in vast industries and great plants and technical progress, in themselves they’re either good or they’re evil. But in themselves they are neither.
When you go from Dallas to Fort Worth, there’s an enormous plant just this side of Arlington, and it’s built by General Motors. Wonder how come that plant to be there? "Oh," you say, "preacher, look at the sign. That plant is there to build Buicks, and Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles. That’s why that plant is there." Well, that’s fine. That’s very fine. But the actual reason that plant is there is this: the United States government faces a tremendous and ultimate contest with the Soviet Union and all over this nation the United States government has appropriated millions and millions and millions of dollars to build what they call "dual purpose plants." That is, an assembly line is erected, and in days of peace down that assembly line will come electric stoves and refrigerators and automobiles, but at the pressing of a button in the Pentagon, on the other side that assembly line can immediately turn into turning out jet propulsion planes, and tanks, and aircraft guns, and all the weapons of war. That’s why that plant is there; it’s what you call a "dual purpose plant." For jet propulsion, the skill and the science that makes it can either bring death and living horror from the sky, or it can bring a blessing incomparable to the human life.
Atomic energy can mean the blasting and the wasting of civilization, or it can mean the healing of our people who have diseases. All of the skills and the gifts of life are dual purpose. They can be turned into the glory of God and the elevation of man, or they can be dedicated to the destruction of the soul and to the wrath and judgment of Almighty God.
I have another avowal in that vein, one other: what is it not? It is not culture and civilization; I wish it were sometimes. Do you ever go to a great city like New York – – and Dallas is getting to be a little like New York – – do you ever walk around Dallas, downtown in those great canyons, look up at those magnificent buildings? Or go to New York City, stand there and look at the Empire State Building until the sun burns the roof of your mouth? Country boy, you know, just looking and looking and looking, walking around in amazement, do you ever do that? You couldn’t without being proud of America.
Ah, the genius of the American mind! Swing a bridge across Golden Gate entrance – that over a mile long – great steamers going underneath, that great bridge towering above or the Oakland Bay Bridge. Those enormous conservation projects; the Grand Cooley Dam, the Hoover Dam, these vast cities, it’s endless, it’s endless. And sometimes when you look at it, you say, "O Lord, how God has blessed the mind, the genius, and the skill of America, my America, this glorious city, this incomparable land."
Then I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of the times, but almost inevitably a shadow will come over my heart. So easily all of this great culture and display fall into ruin, just heaps of rubble and wreckage. Every other one has. Have you ever been in Egypt and looked at those great monuments of an Egyptian civilization? Have you ever been to Baalbek, the most colossal Greek ruins in the world? Have you been to Rome and to Athens? Have you been to the Orient? Those vast civilizations of another day and of another time, what is come of them? Those men too were great and proud.
You children, you kids in school, when you study literature do you remember Shelley’s sonnet on Ozymandias? Do you remember it? I – no, I never did memorize it, but it made an impression upon me when I read it. People didn’t travel a great deal in those days, as they do now, and a traveler from Egypt came back to England and told young Shelley about a monument that he had seen there, lying in the sand. And Shelley wrote this sonnet, "Ozymandias"; and this is it:
I Met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert,Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing else remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Ozymandias, "my works"! The level unending sand; all the civilizations of a day gone by have perished in decay.
What is this thing then of, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" [Proverbs 9:10]; and, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" [Proverbs 1:7], what is this thing? This is what it is: it is the reverential awe and respect of the Lord God Almighty, who holds the imponderables of life and death, of peace and war, of destiny and all eternity in His hands. It is a looking up to God for understanding and enlightenment. It is the finding in God the key to all that we see in this universe – the whole manifestation of creation, and those great moving wars and passions, and feelings, and intensest life that we feel in ourselves – when we look to God for the key to the meaning of them all. And when you throw that key away, that reverential awe and respect of God, what he calls "the fear of the Lord," when you throw it away all you have left is a mass of uninteligable facts and figures. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no destiny, it has no end – it’s just a jumbled mess of this and that and the other. But when you have the key of God, all of it comes together in a great understandable philosophy and purpose; it forms a plan and a destiny.
Young people don’t throw that key away. Only in atheism, only in infidelity is the spring able to rise higher than the source. Only in infidelity is there life coming out of a stone. Only in unbelief is there a creation without a creator. Only in infidelity could there be a Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made by the walking of a kitten across the keys. Only in atheism and unbelief could you throw up the alphabet into the air and it come down in the form of an Aristotalian treatise on Greek drama, just in infidelity. Only in infidelity and atheism do we have effects without causes. If you ever lose the key of the reverent respect and awe of God, then nothing means anything; it’s not going anywhere, it didn’t come from any place. And nothing faces us but an ulitmate despair, and madness, and darkness, and death. We need that key, we must have God.
As the violin needs a player,
As a temple needs a plan,
As a painter needs a canvas,
Is the need of God to man.
["The Soul’s Need," Fra Alexus, 1934]
And beyond and above all of the facts you’ll ever see, and all of the phenomena you’ll ever observe, and all the things you’ll ever learn, above and beyond them all there is the hand of God. And He is present in power, and in glory, and in majesty to the one who has eye to see Him.
Some can go out under the great chalice of the sky, look up into the canopy of the heavens and say, "Just stars, that’s all, just stars." But a psalmist could go out under the heavens and say, "The heavens declare the glory of God!" [Psalm 19:1]. Ah, to be able to see over and beyond with the eyes of the soul. Some of the botanists could take a tree, and there’s the bark, and there’s the sap, and there’s the heart, and here’s the branch, and there’s the leaf, and there’s the roots, and that’s a tree. Ah, how much more beside; just need a Joyce Kilmer:
Think I’ll never see a poem lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed against the earth’s sweet flowing breast
A tree that looks at God all day, and lifts its leafy arms to pray
Poems are made by fools like me, but it takes God, only God could make a tree
["Trees"; Joyce Kilmer, 1919]
The insight of an Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
Flower in the granite wall, I pluck thee out of the crannies
I hold you here little flower, root and all in my hand
Little flower, but if I could understand what you are
Root and all, all in all, I should understand what God in man is
["Flower in a Crannied Wall"; Tennyson]
Hidden in the creation of that little blushing piece of plant life, the great mysterious infinite hand of an Almighty God; the eyes of the soul can see Him everywhere, behind everything.
A haze on the far horizon,
The infinte tender sky;
The rich, ripe tint of the cornfields,
And the wild geese sailing high;
And all over upland and lowland,
The charm of the goldenrod
Some people say, "Why that’s autumn,"
But some of us say, "That’s God."
A picket frozen on duty,
A mother starved for her brood,
Socrates drinking the hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood
And many who humble and nameless,
The straight hard pathway plod.
Some people say, "Why that’s consecration."
But some of us say, "That’s God."
["Evolution" by William Herbert Carruth]
Do you remember reading this? In 63 BC, Pompey, the imperious, contumacious general of Rome, Pompey conquered the Middle East, and he added Palestine to the Roman Empire. When he conquered Judea he conquered Jerusalem. And when he entered with his Roman legionnaires into the city of Jerusalem, he stalked up to the temple of Jehovah God. He walked through the outer court. He walked through with his soldiers the inner court. He walked up to the temple porch of the temple itself and he entered the Holy of Holies. And he saw there on the right the golden candlestick seven-branched, and on the left he saw the table of showbread, and in the center he saw the golden altar of incense, and beyond was the veil. No man but the high priest once a year, with the blood of the covenant in his hands, no man but that high priest had ever gone beyond the veil of the Holy of Holies [Hebrews 9:7].
When Pompey stood at the door of the temple and looked inside, the Jewish people gathered round, bowed down themselves to the ground, "Cut off our heads, step on our necks, make slaves of us; but enter not our Holy of Holies!" Imperious and contumacious Pompey, with supercilious scorn looked around on their prostrate forms, stalked into the Holy Place, took hold of the veil and thrust it aside. He was the first Gentile that ever walked into the Holy of Holies. He looked around, felt around, came back out and said, "Why, why, it’s empty! Why, why, it’s just dark! Why, there’s nothing in it at all!" That’s Pompey.
In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, in that identical and same place, Isaiah says:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw also the Lord . . . high and lifted up, and His train filled that temple.
Above Him stood the seraphim . . . crying one to another, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is filled with Thy glory.
But Pompey said, "And it is empty!" It’s empty – just nothing, vacuous emptiness – but to an Isaiah, the glory of God, the eye to see; wisdom, the knowledge of the soul.
In this remaining moment, may I speak of its highest consummation, its glory, its ultimate end and purpose, when the flower has turned into fruit? This holy wisdom, this fear of the Lord [Proverbs 9:10], it finds its end, its consummation, its flower, its glory, its ultimate purpose in the mind and the heart and the life of Jesus Christ the Son of God and our Savior [Acts 4:12]. Now I want to illustrate that. What do you mean that I would find in Jesus the ultimate end and purpose of all knowledge, of all the experiences of life, find it in Jesus? Well, you’d have to write a book, you’d have to have a library to answer that. But in the few moments that remain, could I just illustrate it?
What of poverty and riches? You see it everywhere. You’ll never have a civilization where everybody’s rich. You’ll never have a culture where everybody is taught. You’ll never have a life where everybody is strong and well. What about this thing poverty and riches? You see it on every hand, what about that?
Well, if I find the truth in Jesus, this is what I find. I find that those outward differences are immaterial and inconsequential. He was born in a stable, and His mother laid Him in a manger. And she had no little clothes for Him, she just wrapped Him in rags, what the Bible calls "swaddling clothes" [Luke 2:7-16]. And when He grew up – – have you ever been to Nazareth? Have you ever seen those places where they say Jesus lived? It’s poverty beyond anything you’ve ever seen in your life. And when He was a man He did not have any place, He said, "to lay His head" [Matthew 8:20].
And when He died, there were five pieces of clothing that He possessed [John 19:23]; it’s all He owned in the world. He had a headpiece, He had a sash, He had sandals, the fourth one was an outer garment, and the fifth one was an inner garment woven without seam [John 19:23]. Of the quaternion of soldiers that killed Him, one said, "I’ll take His turban. I’ll take His headdress." One said, "I’ll take His sash, His girdle." A third one said, "I’ll take His sandals." And a fourth one said, "I’ll take His outer garment." And when they came to the inner coat without seam, they said, "Let’s sit down here at the foot of the cross and let’s shoot craps for the fifth piece" [John 19:24]. And that’s the way Jesus died: naked, and with what five pieces of clothing He had divided among the soldiers that killed Him [John 19:16-34]. But young people, there never lived in this earth a man as rich as Jesus, because He was rich toward God [Luke 12:21].
I’m just telling you that when you sit at His feet this whole thing goes upside down! What is poverty and what is riches? You rethink it; you look at it again. That great tycoon that they say is such a success, he may be earth’s greatest failure! And there may be a poor Diogenes somewhere living in a barrel, under the lamp of a lantern, that may be God’s true servant who has arrived – just turns it around.
What about life and death? What about life and death? And He was cut down when He was three and thirty years of age, and He died ignominiously; He died like a criminal, He died like a malefactor. They executed Him, that’s how He died! [Luke 23:32-46]. But somehow, when you sit at His feet the whole thing is turned around – life and death. Seems like when you sit at His feet, the great life is the life that is to come, and this is just an antechamber for the glory that is to be. How He turns it around: sorrow and suffering, oh, learning at the feet of Jesus! [Matthew 11:29]. Could I take the time?
Friday, I was preaching, Friday of this last week, I was preaching in Wichita, Kansas. And Saturday morning, yesterday morning, I went to the coffee shop for breakfast . And it’s kind of elevated, you go down in that beautiful hotel there, go down the steps into the coffee shop, and I stood there and for a moment and a man on the other side stood up – I did not know him – – he stood up and he called my name. He said, "Would you come and share my table with me?" And I went over there and sat down by him. He’s a businessman from Kansas City, a princely fellow, and he had been down here to Dallas, had visited our church, had heard me preach, and so recognized me when I came into the coffee shop yesterday morning. I sat down and we talked a long time together, just visiting. And as we talked, he told me a whole lot of things about himself.
And one was this: he was just a young fellow, just beginning, just getting a hold, and he began to tire and he didn’t know why, and it seemed that the very energy of life went out his fingertips, and he didn’t know why. He went to the physician, and the physician said, "You have a most active case of tuberculosis." It came like the overwhelming of the world to him! There a young fellow just beginning, just getting a hold, and to hear the physician say, "and you have a most active case of tuberculosis," it means you quit; it means you stop and you go rest.
"But Doctor, my business, I’m just beginning. My wife, our little family, how can I?"
The physician says, "You have no other cause. You must stop and rest. You must rest."
And he went from the office kind of in a daze he said, and he went home. He walked in the door; his wife had no idea of such a thing. He said, "I met her in the living room, where she came to greet me." And he said, "She came and put her arms around me, welcoming me home." And he said, "I put my arms around her," and he said, "I cannot describe, but it seemed to me that the whole fountains of my soul broke, and I sobbed aloud, there in the arms of my dear wife. I just cried."
And the wife said, "Husband, why, what?"
"And I told her, I told her. I must rest, I must stop, and I must rest or I’ll never be well." And he said, "There on the sofa, we dropped down to our knees together. And when I began to pray," he said, "the Lord whispered into my soul that incomparable verse of Matthew 11:28, ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’"
"Why," he said to me, "That’s what the physician had said, ‘Rest, rest.’ And He said, ‘I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your soul’" [Matthew 11:28-29]. He said, "That day I left it with God. I rose from my knees with a new faith and a new confidence." He said, "It wasn’t long until God made me well again." And he’s so strong and fine. He learned the true wisdom; looking up to Jesus. Somehow we never stand so high as when we kneel in prayer. Somehow we never go so fast as when travel on our knees. And in God’s goodness we never learn so much as when we sit at the feet of Jesus. For the beginning of wisdom is looking to God [Proverbs 9:10].
So the Lord bless you, dear young people, and give you victory in your life as you enroll in the school of the Lord [Matthew 11:29].
Now, we’re going to sing our song, our hymn of appeal. And while we sing the song, somebody you, anywhere, give your heart in faith to Jesus. Come, stand by me, a family of you, coming into the fellowship of the church, to be baptized, to join by letter or statement. However God shall say the appeal, in the balcony around, anywhere, you come and stand by me. Into the aisle, into the aisle, down here to the front, "Pastor, today we’re coming into the church." "Today I’m giving my heart to the Lord." However God shall press the appeal, while we stand and sing this invitation hymn, you come, while we stand and sing.
THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Proverbs 1:7, 9:10
I. Education can be for the glory of God or decimation of mankind
1. It is not knowledge
2. It is not skills
3. It is not success
4. It is not materialistic
III. True wisdom
1. Begins with reverence for God
2. It is coming before God daily that we see the true nature of the world around us
3. Found in the humble acceptance of Christ Jesus