The aphorism “With age comes wisdom” is often times not true. Just look at the two old guys and one old gal running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Their positions on a variety of moral issues are contrary to God’s Laws. Holding positions that are contrary to God’s Laws does not seem very wise at all.
Then again, the vast majority of politicians these days, Democrats and Republicans alike, do not seem to be all that wise. In fact many do not even appear to be blessed with good old fashioned common sense.
But this is not about politics and politicians. It’s about wisdom.
What is Wisdom?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines wisdom as the “ability to make good judgments based on what you have learned from your experience, or the knowledge and understanding that gives you this ability.” This is not a bad way to define wisdom, but it does not quite hit the mark.
A person can indeed make good judgments in a specific field of endeavor based on what he or she has learned, and on experience and understanding. But this only means that the individual excels in a specific field of endeavor. It does not mean the individual is a truly wise person.
Similarly, a person might be ‘streetwise’ or even ‘wise in the ways of the world’ but neither term connotes true wisdom. In both cases the terms imply a capability to survive and possibly prosper. Of course, some people think the ability to prosper does show wisdom, and many who prosper think they are wise. But such thinking is often self-delusion.
King Solomon’s Wisdom
King Solomon is the exception to this rule. He was rich but he was also truly wise. He received the gift of wisdom directly from God. His wealth, too, was a gift from God.
The Bible – the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Sirach, and the story of Solomon – has a lot of advice for us about wisdom and how we can become wise. Solomon’s story is told in 1Kings, Chapters 2 through 11, and in 2 Chronicles, Chapters 1 through 9.
We read in 1 Kings 3:5-12 and in 2 Chronicles 1:6-12 that Solomon truly loved God. His love of God was so great that right after he became King God appeared to Solomon in a dream and told him whatever he wanted would be given to him. Solomon realized that he was young and inexperienced when it came to being a leader, so he replied, “Give me, therefore, wisdom and knowledge to govern this people, for otherwise who could rule this vast people of yours?”
God gave Solomon “a heart so wise and discerning that there has never been anyone like you until now, nor after you will there be anyone to equal you.” And because Solomon asked for wisdom instead of wealth, God also made him wealthy.
So it would seem that Solomon is the human epitome of wisdom. But since Solomon’s wisdom was a gift from God this would seem to indicate that acquiring true wisdom requires assistance from God. And this just may be the case. Luckily for mankind, Jesus tells that God’s help is available to those who ask for it: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” [Matthew 7:7-8].
I had a teacher in high school who said that a wise person is one who knows there is a lot that he or she does not know. This was certainly true in Solomon’s case because Solomon recognized his own shortcomings. My teacher was, however, not attempting to define wisdom. He was, instead, trying to impart a simple truth – humility comes before wisdom.
The story of how Solomon became wise gives credence to my teacher’s point. Proverbs 11:2 also backs him up on this: “When pride comes, disgrace comes; but with the humble is wisdom.” Aphraates (270-345 AD), a Catholic bishop and Syriac sage also says in his Demonstrations, Chapter 9, “Humility brings forth wisdom and understanding (discernment).”
So it appears that in order to become wise we need to first be humble like Solomon.
What else might we need to become wise? The Book of Proverbs provides another answer. We learn right at the outset, in Proverbs 1:7: “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Sirach 1:14 also says, “The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord.”
Fear of the Lord
Msgr. Charles Pope wrote a wonderful article explaining what Fear of the Lord really means. As Msgr. Pope says it means that “we dread to offend God or be separated from him.”
Fear of the Lord is like the true filial fear that a little child feels. Most children know that doing something wrong will result in a punishment of some kind. But over and above punishment the child dreads loosing mom’s or dad’s love more than any punishment. “I’m sorry,” the child says through his or her tears, “Do you still love me?”
Solomon certainly had a proper understanding of Fear of the Lord. He was truly in awe of God’s goodness and love and had a proper disdain for sin. Once he secured his kingdom he immediately set about building God’s Temple in Jerusalem. His words in dedicating the Temple to God reflect his Fear of the Lord.
But something happened to Solomon toward the end of his 40-year-reign. Solomon seemingly lost his Fear of God.
We learn in 1 Kings 11 that in addition to his great wealth and power Solomon had 700 wives. And it turns out that Solomon’s wives influenced him to turn away from God.
In taking all these wives Solomon failed to heed God’s warning. His wives were “from nations of which the LORD had said to the Israelites: You shall not join with them and they shall not join with you, lest they turn your hearts to their gods.”
Solomon allowed his love for God and his belief and faith in God to become compromised. He allowed false gods to come between him and our one true God. Solomon’s loss of Fear of the Lord spelled the end of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
A Kingdom is Lost
The rest of the story quickly unfolds. Solomon did “what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” He did not follow the Lord “unreservedly as David his father had done.” He started following false gods. God became angry with Solomon because God had warned him twice not to turn to false gods.
“So the LORD said to Solomon: Since this is what you want, and you have not kept my covenant and the statutes which I enjoined on you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant. But I will not do this during your lifetime, for the sake of David your father; I will tear it away from your son’s hand. Nor will I tear away the whole kingdom. I will give your son one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen” [1 Kings 11:11-13].
Wisdom is a Gift from God
Every Catholic should know that Fear of the Lord is one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit that we receive in Baptism. These gifts are deepened and strengthened in us in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Wisdom, too, is one of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, along with understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, and piety. All Baptized Christians therefore, have within them the potential to become wise. Why then, does wisdom seem to be in such short supply these days?
This question brings us right back to Proverbs 11:2 and 1:7. The virtue of Humility proper and Fear of the Lord are necessary precursors to wisdom.
Somewhere along the line, over the last 50 or 60 years, however, society in general seems to have forgotten this. Like Solomon, people have let too many false gods into their lives. Hubris has replaced humility. The worship of false gods has replaced Fear of the Lord. Even worse, some people began to think of themselves as god-like.
Today, thanks to the sexual revolution of the 60s, the rise of progressivism, secularism, modernism, scientism, and moral relativism, coupled with a wholly secular and bureaucratized education system, we have far too many people walking around with high self-esteem who are completely clueless as to what is really important.
Too many today have forgotten that mankind is on this earth for one reason only: to love and serve God so we can be with him in heaven when we die. So many people are so caught up in the here and now that they do not give any thought to the hereafter.
Many today are even trying to re-interpret God’s laws to make their earthly wants and passions seem perfectly normal. And too many are worshiping false gods – money, self-gratification and pleasure, power, popularity, vanity, drugs, and so on. Society has forgotten that God, and a proper Fear of the Lord, needs to be at the center of our lives.
God’s Warning to Solomon
Mankind has only itself to blame for its current woes. God’s warning to Solomon after he had dedicated the temple just might apply to us today:
“[I]f ever you and your descendants turn from following me, fail to keep my commandments and statutes which I set before you, and proceed to serve other gods and bow down to them, I will cut off Israel from the land I gave them and repudiate the house I have consecrated for my name.
“Israel shall become a proverb and a byword among all nations, and this house shall become a heap of ruins. Every passerby shall gasp in horror and ask, “Why has the LORD done such things to this land and to this house?”
“And the answer will come: “Because they abandoned the LORD, their God, who brought their ancestors out of the land of Egypt, and they embraced other gods, bowing down to them and serving them. That is why the LORD has brought upon them all this evil.” [Emphasis added.]
I read somewhere that true wisdom is seeing everything and everyone the way God does. If this is so, Solomon’s gift of wisdom was a truly magnificent gift. And like God said, no one will ever be as wise as Solomon again. But such a goal is still one worth pursuing even if we cannot become as wise as Solomon. And we don’t even have to ask ‘how do I begin such a quest?’ Being humble and developing a proper Fear of the Lord is the starting point.