Given how many dumb decisions they made, it’s easy to forget the pagan kings in the Old Testament valued wisdom. When the Egyptian king reigning during Joseph’s imprisonment had a troubling dream, he summoned his wise men to interpret it (Gen. 41:8). A successor king, too, called on counselors and sorcerers—to conjure responses after the Lord wrought wonders through Moses. Centuries later, when wise men from eastern lands wandered into Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews, Herod (who was called “the Great”), an imposter on that throne, likewise summoned his chief priests and scribes for guidance (Matt. 2:4).
In this, the kings of old were no different than any political ruler in history, for even pagans know that “in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov. 11:14). You won’t rule any sizable territory for long if you don’t surround yourself with smart counselors. Fortunately for the leaders of every age, there have always been a great many wise guys willing to serve the powerful. Indeed, given the abundance of specialists, of trained diplomats, of highly educated Ph.D.s in our modernizing world, perhaps it ought to surprise us how often rulers get themselves—and too many of us with them—into trouble.
It’s a perplexing question: How can so much accumulated knowledge yield worldwide folly? Why did Pharaoh, surrounded by learned men, bring his country to ruin? How can world rulers today spend their countries into bankruptcy, plunge them into wars that waste their young men, and allow layers of bureaucracy to choke the enterprise of their citizens? Open any newspaper, and you’ll read about the ideas brilliant officials in Europe and North America have for making their nations stronger; turn toward the back, and you’ll also read about millions unemployed, about old and young alike consumed, in growing numbers, by suicide and drug addiction. We are perhaps the most learned generation in Western civilization, yet we are literally destroying ourselves.
Indeed, reading a newspaper is perhaps the best way to give full force to these words in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, regarding the world leaders of his day: “Professing to be wise, they became fools.” (Rom. 1:22).
But how can this be? How can the very pursuit of wisdom lead to folly? Paul explains the course such foolishness followed, how unbelievers “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man” (Rom. 1:23). But why have so many—often the most learned people—done this over the centuries? Why do those with access to wisdom exchange it for madness?
We should consider, in trying to answer this question, how genuine learning is a profound act of submission. To be educated by a teacher, for example, I must first acknowledge that she knows what she is talking about, and then be willing to receive her instruction. To learn from a scientific experiment, I must be open to the reality that I don’t fully comprehend how the world works. To learn a craft, I have to sit at the feet of people I acknowledge as my betters. Acquiring wisdom requires humility. Acquiring wisdom about the things of God, then, requires humility before God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10).
But these kings of the Old Testament didn’t approach wisdom as something greater than themselves; they approached it as something that might serve their greatness. It’s a character flaw I suspect hasn’t improved over the course of human history, for how many people these days come to wisdom with a willingness to be changed by it? All too often, I know, I’ve approached wisdom with a notion that it has value only if it serves my ends.
How can so much accumulated knowledge yield worldwide folly?
If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then folly starts with an unwillingness to kneel before God. The apostle Paul explained to the Romans that unbelievers “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” for the knowledge of God “is evident within them” (Rom. 1:18-19). So it’s not that unbelievers are simply ignorant of God; rather, they actually undertake the mental effort of burying the knowledge God in His grace has given to all mankind. They do this because they don’t want to glorify the Lord and give Him thanks (Rom. 1:21). They would rather have wisdom serve them. So their minds are darkened.
Men did not begin as fools, in other words. They became fools.
Even though these rulers of old—like many powerful people today—were surrounded by learned men, their scrutiny of the universe began with two fatally false propositions. First, they believed that wisdom is born within. Joseph the dreamer knew better. When Pharaoh summoned him from prison to interpret the troubling dream that all his wise men failed to understand, he explained to Joseph that he had heard how adept the Hebrew was at interpreting dreams.
“It is not in me,” was Joseph’s reply. “God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Gen. 41:16). Whereas less faithful men, having languished for years in prison, would have been tempted to play up their own powers to the king, Joseph was quick to acknowledge that the source of wisdom was God, not man.
The second false proposition nurtured by unbelievers is that wisdom is something to be employed in service to men, rather than we in service to it. The English theologian Richard Whately noted this self-centered tendency: “It is one thing to wish to have Truth on our side,” he wrote, “and another thing to wish sincerely to be on the side of Truth.”
How many people these days come to wisdom with a willingness to be changed by it?
Surely Pharaoh must have been tempted to nudge truth to the side and disregard Joseph’s warning about the coming fat and lean years, given the radical changes this prophecy necessitated. But Joseph made clear that the king had better submit to this wisdom from God: “Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice,” he warned, “it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about” (Gen. 41:32).
Whatever his other failings, that king of Egypt, unlike those who came after him, was smart enough to listen to a man of God. For the most part, however, the pagan rulers of old did not lend their ears to understanding. They surrounded themselves with smart guys, they scrutinized the stars, they conducted magic rituals, but they sought knowledge to use for their own ends. They served themselves, for they favored “an image in the form of corruptible man” (Rom. 1:23)—namely their own. Being self-worshippers, they sought wisdom that would give them more power and pleasure. Professing to be wise, they became fools.
Consider, for example, the fool who was Herod the Great’s less accomplished son, Herod Antipas. He was “very glad” when Jesus was sent his way by Pontius Pilate, because he’d heard about Jesus and hoped to see a miracle or two (Luke 23:8). The Son of the living God stood under his very roof, but Herod did not approach him to learn. Instead, he wanted to be amused. Our Lord did not oblige, and Herod grew angry—as does every vain, powerful person when the world does not accommodate itself to his whims.
When I read the story of Herod, I am ashamed at the number of times I have held the same attitude, judging churches and preachers, for example, not by what I could learn from them, but by how much their music and sermons entertained me. In the past, I approached church with a belief, deep in the recesses of my hidden heart, that it was created to serve me. Consider for a moment the wickedness of that idea, given that the church was created to serve Christ.
How easily we make ourselves into gods. How easily.
It makes all the difference, the state of one’s heart in the presence of wisdom. Because if we approach wisdom as a thing to be evaluated based on its usefulness, for how well it conforms to our desires and dreams, we will be inclined to cast it aside when it displeases us. A subsequent king of Egypt—more hardheaded and hardhearted than the one for whom Joseph worked—didn’t want to give up the free labor provided by the Israelites, so even when the waters were turned to blood, he refused to see the truth. Because his sorcerers could turn a few pots of water into blood (for the great waters were already turned, sparing Pharaoh’s magicians the impossible task of repeating that miracle in full scale), Pharaoh believed he could ignore the word of God, spoken directly to him through Moses.
Wisdom is anchored in God, who is the truth, and truth is greater than the hunger or delusion of any man.
Professing to be wise, in other words, Pharaoh became a fool, and later, when the hail and locusts destroyed his crops, he became enraged. Little wonder that Christ instructs us: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matt. 7:6). It’s not simply that an unbeliever doesn’t recognize wisdom—he hates it, along with any who dare offer it to him. That’s because wisdom reminds him that he is the clay, not the potter. Wisdom threatens to cast him from his throne.
And perhaps that’s why so many rulers, though they are surrounded by intelligence, become fools—because wisdom is anchored in God, who is the truth, and truth is greater than the hunger or delusion of any man. It endures, even in the face of every modern-day philosopher who echoes the cynical question uttered by Pontius Pilate toward our Savior: What is truth (John 18:38)? Pilate asked it, not to hear the answer from Christ, but to shut Him up, because in his gut he understood that to approach wisdom is to risk being dethroned.
Only it’s not just kings who sit on thrones, is it? Every one of us sits on a throne, be it a throne of pride, or of riches, or of the good opinions of others. We are all prone to cling to our paltry power just as fiercely as did Pharaoh and Pilate and Herod. And if we convince ourselves that we sit at the center of our universe, how then will wisdom enter our world? How will it enter us?
The thing about kneeling is that you have to leave your throne to do it. That’s where wisdom begins. May we have the humility to seek it and the courage to receive it.
Illustrations by Keith Negley