Wiser Than the Ancients (A Meditation on Psalm 119:98-100)
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
This passage highlights one of the most wonderful things about God’s Law: it makes one wise. Earlier in the book of Psalms, King David lauded the perfect law of the Lord, exalting its divine ability to make “wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). Here, in Psalm 119:98-100, the psalmist lists three specific things that God’s Law does for him: (1) makes him wiser than his enemies, (2) gives him more understanding than his teachers, and (3) makes him understand more than the aged. There are three different Hebrew words used for each characteristic: chakam (wiser, v. 98), sakal (understanding, v. 99), and biyn (understand, v. 100). The three words act to provide a complete, poetic picture of biblical wisdom. God’s Law makes the psalmist wise, enabling him to skillfully consider the world around him and faithfully discern between good and evil. The image is of a person able to look out at God’s world and act wisely and prudently in the midst of a plethora of temptations to do otherwise.
The progression of comparisons is striking. God’s Law enables even a simple shepherd boy to be more advanced in wisdom than three categories of people that have acquired increasing levels of knowledge. First, God’s commandment makes one wiser than enemy kings—political leaders who have likely amassed a wealth of knowledge in governing empires. Second, God’s testimonies allow one to have more understanding than teachers who have mastered the art of gathering and dispensing information. Finally, God’s precepts can cause one to even surpass the aged in terms of understanding and wisdom. This reminds us that while the phrase “you live and learn,” has some utility, “learn and then live,” is a far better motto for acquiring wisdom. America’s greatest wordsmith, Noah Webster, defined wisdom as “the right use or exercise of knowledge; the choice of laudable ends, and of the best means to accomplish them.” Wisdom, Webster understood, is all about living out the truth; it is not about stockpiling information over the course of many years. This is why a young man can be wiser than enemy kings, knowledgeable teachers, and elderly people—or, as the KJV renders it, “the ancients.”
These verses remind us that God’s wisdom is not limited to the highly-qualified or the advanced in years. Contrary to how Christianity has sometimes been presented throughout church history, the treasures of God’s wisdom are easily accessible to any eager and humble reader. In the early days of the church, erroneous movements such as Montanism and Gnosticism taught that true knowledge (and with it, true wisdom) was only available to a select, enlightened few within the body of Christ. The error of the Montanists and Gnostics was not only that they limited knowledge to an exclusive group within the church, but that they fundamentally misunderstood the goal of knowledge. R.C. Sproul, the late, great theologian, explained the connection between knowledge and wisdom: “Ignorance breeds foolishness, but true knowledge—the knowledge of God—leads to the wisdom that is more precious than rubies and pearls.” Knowledge is meant to culminate in biblical wisdom. Robert Tracy McKenzie warns his readers that many of the “teachers” in our culture fail to understand this: “Contemporary culture teaches us to measure the worth of our intellectual pursuits in dollars and cents, to value marketable skills above wisdom, to stress learning how to make a living over learning how to live.” That mistake is not new in our day, and it was a mistake that the psalmist was set on avoiding.
Due to our human limitations, there are things in the Bible that are difficult to understand, but there is so much more that is simple, clear, and direct as it relates to how we are to conduct ourselves in the world. As you read the Bible, and meditate on God’s laws, do so with a mind to wisdom. This means that you are pondering how God’s precepts ought to influence how you live your life. God’s commandment against idolatry (Exodus 20:4), for example, ought to guide and direct your affections and desires in your day-to-day life. His injunction against bitterness (Ephesians 4:31) ought to impact your personal relationships. His mandate about contentment (Hebrews 13:5) should be expressed in your attitudes, actions, and words. His statute concerning adultery (Exodus 20:14) should guide your interactions with others, protecting you from sin. His ordinance concerning marriage (Ephesians 5:22-28) should cultivate love and commitment to your spouse. His word regarding ingratitude (2 Timothy 3:2) ought to be experienced in your personal life by increasing levels of thankfulness to him. The list goes on—God’s commandment is exceedingly broad, covering every area of our lives.
When William Tyndale was laboring to make the Word of God accessible to the people, he ran up against the opposition of the Pope. The Pope and his prelates did not want the Bible in the hands of the simple, common folk. Tyndale, however, was determined to see that God’s Word—and with it the way to true wisdom—was available to everyone. He is quoted as saying, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he does.” Tyndale’s passion cost him his life, but his vision became a reality. Not only did boys and girls across England and Scotland know more of the Bible than hypocritical religious leaders, they had more wisdom, because they were living out the commands of Jesus in their everyday lives.
After leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, travelling with them for forty years in the wilderness, and finally bringing them to the brink of the Promised Land, Moses gave one last speech to the people. This farewell address is recorded in the book of Deuteronomy. One of the most poignant and practical sections of that speech is found in chapter four. Moses focuses on obedience to God’s Word as the key to blessing in the land they are about to enter. His purpose is not merely to inform his audience, but to motivate them to obedience. Moses recounts how he taught the people the “statutes and rules” of the Lord. He then makes an amazing statement, referring to God’s commandments and precepts: “Keep them and do them, for this will be your wisdom” (Deuteronomy 4:6). The word for wisdom here denotes skill or expertise—the way to be skilled in living life is by keeping and doing God’s laws.
We must always remember that any wisdom we possess does not come from our own intuition or personal acumen. It is “the Lord [who] gives wisdom,” not man (Proverbs 2:6). In one of the Apostle Paul’s final letters before his martyrdom, he wrote to a young man and told him that God’s Word is “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” All the wisdom of God’s commandments find their full and radiant expression in the infinite person of Jesus Christ. It is impossible to be wise apart from living a life of faith in the Son of God. If the law of the Lord teaches us the way of wisdom—how to live in our Father’s world—then the greatest treasure of practical wisdom is found in the sublime commandment given by the Savior himself: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). That divine edict contains the key to all the wisdom any sage could ever dream of in a thousand lifetimes. Be wise and heed it.