Tim Moore: Following the inspiring Psalms of David and other Old Testament hymn-writers, Proverbs represents a unique book of wisdom. Its opening verse ascribes the book to “Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel.” We know from 1 Kings that Solomon was blessed by God with a “wise and discerning heart,” more so than any who came before him. We also discovered in 1 Chronicles that wisdom can be fleeting for individuals and societies that stray from the living God.
But, in Proverbs, Solomon offers a collection of short, pithy statements that offer prudence to the naïve, knowledge and discretion to youth, increased learning to the wise, and counsel to those with understanding. That is an apt description of the entirety of God’s Word — from Genesis to Revelation.
To help us plumb the depths of the wisdom of the book of Proverbs, I’ve reached out to someone whose learning and insight are respected far and wide. Dr. Al Mohler is not only the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, he is a deep thinker, incomparably well-read, and a cherished friend.
It is a daunting proposition to find a person widely respected for their insights on wisdom, but Dr. Al Mohler has been called the “reigning intellectual” of the Evangelical movement here in the United States. He is as well-read and widely educated as anyone I know. And, his book knowledge is enhanced by a deep reservoir of wisdom, because his commitment to the Lord undergirds all of his amassed knowledge.
The Source of Wisdom
Tim Moore: Dr. Mohler, our focus is on the book of Proverbs. There are so many individual verses and passages that jump out at us from that book. For example, during last year’s leadership transition here at Lamb & Lion Ministries, our key verse was Proverbs 16:9, “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.”
My own family considers Proverbs 27:17 a theme verse for our family, “Iron sharpens iron, but one man sharpens another.” When I served in the Kentucky legislature, one of my favorites was Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish, or are unrestrained.”
What are some of your own personal favorites from the book of Proverbs?
Dr. Mohler: To simply kind of paraphrase a bit, the verses that contrast between wisdom and the fool. This is a very important theme to me. All of the proverbs about the foolishness of fools are very instructive. I read them as a young teenager and they struck me immediately.
I’ve also been struck by the very context of the Proverbs in which you have a father sharing wisdom with his son. Proverbs makes it very clear with the personification of wisdom that wisdom comes only from God. It is given to human beings in order that we might live. This is one of the lessons people miss in the Proverbs. It’s not just a matter of riches and poverty, it is also a matter of life and death. Wisdom is the way of life, but foolishness is the way of death. This lesson contains deep theological dimensions to it.
A Love for Wisdom
Tim Moore: Dr. Mohler, you are known for being very well-read. Even from a very young age, you had a heart’s desire to gain knowledge and understanding. You possess a love for reading that is obvious by your massive personal library. What gave you a love for learning and knowledge that has provided you with such obvious wisdom?
Dr. Mohler: I believe that thirst for knowledge and wisdom came from God, but it was channeled through my parents and my grandparents. My grandmother — my father’s mother — was an elementary school teacher. She was an expert at teaching children to read. And so, long before I went to school I was absolutely seduced by books. I could not wait until I could read them on my own. Then, my parents kept me supplied with books from the library mostly, or our church library, and they encouraged me to read.
Now, I had to learn a lot, and as a matter of fact, I got in trouble sometimes for reading. My father, who is a wonderful godly father, he enforced lights-out even when I wanted to keep the light on and read. But, he never dissuaded me from reading. There are some concrete things I could add here, but a hunger to know, a thinking of how reading is the most important way to know, and learning through conversations with other minds, those came to me very, very early in life.
Tim Moore: I have observed this, and I know you have as well, that sometimes great learning, even from book knowledge or worldly knowledge, can lead to great confusion. We have the example in the Bible where Festus actually dismissed Paul’s testimony by exclaiming, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad” (Acts 26:24). Of course, Paul was not mad, as he was speaking words of sober truth.
We also have examples such as Charles Templeton. When he began to read and acquire learning from the world, he ended up lampooning his fellow evangelist, Billy Graham, by accusing him of holding on to the veracity of God’s Word and dismissing Graham’s faith as intellectual suicide. Billy Graham did grapple with that criticism, but he ended up testifying that he was just going to trust in the Lord because he said, “That is the path for me.” Graham never veered from his reverence for God’s Word and the Lord’s calling on his life.
How can we expand our knowledge and yet avoid falling into the pit of becoming enamored by our own intelligence?
Dr. Mohler: The father of the Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, once wrote about complexity and simplicity. He said, “The simplicity on the near side of complexity is very fragile, but the simplicity on the far side of complexity is very strong.” That statement may seem like a rather opaque statement, but it means a lot to me.
When you look at somebody such as Charles Templeton, you look at someone who encountered complexity, but he was totally unprepared for it. He did not turn to any trustworthy source to get out of his confusion. Instead, he just surrendered to the complexity. He believed in God, but the moment he started to face some real challenges and some big questions, he caved. His cognitive faith just disappeared.
I think Templeton is a warning to us, which takes us back to the book of Proverbs. Here you have a godly father who is instructing his son in wisdom. And, you’ll notice, he brings up tough subjects. This exemplifies good Christian parenting, by the way, as well as good Christian leadership and good Christian ministry.
We should not let the world bring up all of the tough subjects or we are going to end up with a lot more Charles Templetons. Instead, we should be bringing up the tough subjects with our own sons and daughters and with our own church members.
This is revealed in Scripture, by the way, and it’s revealed in human patterns throughout history, how we know that there is a massive change that comes in adolescence and in pre-adolescence in what is called the “acquisition of complex cognitive operations.” What that really means is that a 4-year-old thinks, but a 14-year-old thinks about thinking. And so, a proverb to a 4-year-old is of course true, but to a 14-year-old a proverb provides an opportunity and a conversation with a parent or a trusted Christian. It provides an opportunity for them to ask, “What do Christians believe about this and why?”
I am thankful that you raised the specter of Charles Templeton, who died after a very sad life with no hope of salvation or the resurrection to come. Compare Templeton to his dear friend Billy Graham and you will see two different ways of approaching complexity. The book of Proverbs is about helping to raise children who when faced with complexity just don’t collapse in their faith.
In the second segment of this series on finding Jesus in the wisdom of the ages, Dr. Al Mohler will explain what happens to a society that dethrones wisdom and how it can gain its wisdom back.