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The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

by | Jul 25, 2022 | Featured, News

Dr Graham McLennan
23 July 2022

In my role as the Chairman of the National Alliance of Christian Leaders (NACL), I recently shared about the seven pillars of wisdom mentioned at the beginning of Proverbs 9:

Wisdom has built her house;
she has set up its seven pillars.

Proverbs 9:1

At that time, I suggested that the seven pillars of wisdom are:

  1. Prudence
  2. Discernment
  3. Knowledge
  4. Discretion
  5. Judgement
  6. Understanding
  7. Counsel

Since that time, I have been asked to expand on wisdom’s seven pillars. The timing could not be more relevant. Our nation, our media, and our political and education systems certainly need wisdom at this crucial time in our history. Just as Solomon prayed for wisdom and discernment, we must pray that our leaders will do likewise.

If there is a single message in the book of Proverbs, it is this: wisdom is supreme, so get wisdom! In the book of James, sometimes referred to as the “Proverbs of the New Testament”, we read:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 1:5

Likewise, the author of Ecclesiastes explains his journey towards finding wisdom:

So I turned my mind to understand,
to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
and to understand the stupidity of wickedness
and the madness of folly.

Ecclesiastes 7:25

Reading Proverbs 1-9 and Job 28 also provide us with an excellent backdrop as we consider the seven pillars of wisdom. Consider this highlight from Proverbs chapter 4:

Get wisdom, get understanding;
do not forget my words or turn away from them.
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;
love her, and she will watch over you.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom.
Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
Cherish her, and she will exalt you;
embrace her, and she will honour you.
She will give you a garland to grace your head
and present you with a glorious crown.”
Listen, my son, accept what I say,
and the years of your life will be many.
I instruct you in the way of wisdom
and lead you along straight paths.
When you walk, your steps will not be hampered;
when you run, you will not stumble.
Hold on to instruction, do not let it go;
guard it well, for it is your life.
Do not set foot on the path of the wicked
or walk in the way of evildoers.
Avoid it, do not travel on it;
turn from it and go on your way.

Proverbs 4:5-15

It is imperative that we apply the seven pillars of wisdom to our lives. They show us how to grow our character and produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5)

There is not much we can take from this life into eternity, but our character is one of those things. It is therefore very important for us to develop a godly character, including traits such as perseverance, attentiveness, integrity, decisiveness, boldness, initiative, obedience, thoroughness, diligence, truthfulness, alertness and self-control. Other character traits we must pursue include responsibility, resourcefulness, benevolence, availability and meekness.

When it comes to employment, it is striking to realise that most people are hired on the basis of skills — but if they are dismissed, it is due to a lack of character. In other words, character matters far more than we often realise.

So what is a “pillar of wisdom”? We know that pillars are an essential part of many built structures. They are a foundational element of a building, without which the structure will collapse.

Noah Webster’s American Dictionary, written in 1828, contains over 140 biblical references to pillars. A descendant of the Pilgrim Governor William Bradford, Webster wrote his dictionary at a time when the home, church and school were founded on biblical principles in America. Wrote Webster,

In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed… No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.

Defining the word pillar, Webster referred to Numbers 14:14, where we read of “a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night” by which God led His people. Webster explains that, in this light, a pillar speaks of leadership, guidance and safety.

That Proverbs 9:1 speaks of seven pillars is significant, given that the number seven means completeness and perfection, both physically and spiritually. To possess these seven pillars, then, is to possess complete and perfect wisdom.

The Scriptures teach us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10; see also Psalm 111:10)

Truly, it would take a lifetime to comprehend the depths of wisdom and have it penetrate out soul, body and spirit. Until we experience divine revelation, we cannot see things clearly. It is as though we are squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.

But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We will see it all then, just as clearly as God sees us — knowing Him directly just as He knows us. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face,” we read in 1 Corinthians 13:12. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Pillar One: Prudence

Today, many associate prudence with the idea of cautiousness. But prudence comes from the Latin prudentia, which means sagacity, or the ability to see ahead.

To be prudent is to govern and discipline yourself by the use of reason — and biblically speaking, by the wisdom provided by the Holy Spirit. It means being able to discern the correct course of action to take in specific situations and at the appropriate time.

Classically, prudence is regarded as one of the four cardinal virtues, the other three of which are justice (fairness, righteousness), fortitude (courage, endurance) and temperance (restraint, moderation).

To the cardinal virtues, the Church Fathers added three theological virtues — namely, faith, hope and love. These appear first in 1 Thessalonians 1:3, and later in 1 Corinthians 13:13, where Paul highlights love as the preeminent virtue. The Catholic Church eventually came to regard the cardinal and theological virtues together as the seven virtues.

(These remain distinct from the seven virtues that oppose the seven deadly sins.)

The Ancient Greeks and Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas considered prudence to be the cause, measure and form of all virtues.

Left unchecked, prudence could morph into cunning. But what sets prudence apart is the intent with which it is practised. An act becomes cunning or a kind of “false prudence” when it is done for evil ends or with evil means.

By contrast, true prudence is the ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions in specific, real life scenarios. Prudence includes the ability to read the circumstances of a situation to distinguish when an act might be either cowardly or courageous. To risk one’s life, for example, might be done for reckless reasons, or for honourable martyrdom. Prudence is the ability to tell these two apart.

Pillar Two: Discernment

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines discernment as the power or faculty of the mind, by which it distinguishes one thing from another, such as truth from falsehood or virtue from vice. It notes that the errors of youth often proceed from a lack of discernment.

To be discerning is to go beyond the mere perception of something and making more nuanced judgments. Someone who is discerning is considered to possess wisdom and be of good judgment, particularly when they perceive details that are overlooked by others.

In Christian usage, discernment may have several meanings. It can describe the process of determining God’s desire in a situation or identifying whether something is good or evil. Often, discernment is related to the search for one’s vocation — namely, whether God is calling one to be married, single, consecrated, ordained, or in some other specific calling.

The discernment of spirits is mentioned in several New Testament passages, and is used in both Catholic and Charismatic theology to indicate judging different spiritual agents for their moral influence in a given situation.

When we ARE in the process of discernment, there are steps we can take in order to do so. For example, taking time to make a decision is vital in discernment. Decisions made in a hurry can be tainted by a lack of contemplation. But when time is variable to assess a situation, it improves the discernment process.

Using both the “head” and the “heart” is another important step in discernment. Making a decision with the “head” means first reflecting on the situation and emphasising the rational aspect of the decision-making process. The “heart” is also important, in that it involves experience and emotion, which a purely rational approach lacks.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) designed a series of spiritual exercises that helped him discern life choices, and these included identifying the issue; taking time to pray about the choice; making a wholehearted decision; discussing the choice with a mentor; and then finally trusting the decision made.

For the Christian, discernment means making decisions in accordance with God’s will. Christian discernment emphasises Jesus — making decisions that align with His character, as revealed in Scripture.

Pillar Three: Knowledge

The first place we encounter knowledge in the Bible is in the Garden of Eden, at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree contained the knowledge that separated man from God:

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.
He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Genesis 3:22

This highlights to us that, biblically speaking, knowledge can be wielded for either good or evil. The Encyclopedia of the Bible elaborates:

The Bible frequently commends knowledge and wisdom… [but] nowhere does Scripture modify the high value it places on knowledge by deprecating “mere” human reason.
Reason and knowledge are integral parts of the image of God in which man was created.

Knowledge can be defined as a familiarity, awareness or understanding of something. In many Christian expressions, knowledge is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And whereas human knowledge is very limited and gained mostly by observation and experience, God has perfect knowledge of everything.

In the final installment in this series, we will look at the final four of the seven pillars of wisdom: discretion, judgment, understanding, and counsel.

Pillar Four: Discretion

Psalm 112:5 tells us that a good man “will guide his affairs with discretion”. Proverbs 3:21 enjoins us to “keep sound wisdom and discretion”.

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines discretion as “individual choice or judgment,” and the “power of free decision or latitude of choice within certain legal bounds”.

Discretion is about wise judgment — but in particular, it means having the liberty to act without the control of someone else’s judgment. It is about being sober-minded, and acting with the wisdom and judgment that God has given us.

Pillar Five: Judgment

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines judgment as:

The act of judging; the act or process of the mind in comparing its ideas,
to find their agreement or disagreement, and to ascertain truth;
or the process of examining facts and arguments, to ascertain propriety and justice;
or the process of examining the relations between one proposition and another.

In Scripture, judgment includes the spirit of wisdom and prudence, enabling a person to discern right from wrong, and good from evil. Ultimately, the person who enacts perfect judgment will be God, when He judges the whole world. This is the declaration of Ecclesiastes 12:14:

For God will bring every work into judgment,
including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

But God’s judgment is not relegated only to the end of time. Biblically, judgment means the spiritual government of this temporal world. “Give the king Your judgments, O God,” pleads Solomon in Psalm 72:1. Likewise, in John 5:22, we read that “the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son.”

Pillar Six: Understanding

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines understanding as “the faculty of the human mind by which it apprehends the real state of things presented to it, or by which it receives or comprehends the ideas which others express and intend to communicate.”

Understanding also includes intelligence between two or more people; and agreement of minds; a union of sentiments.

In Catholicism and Anglicanism, understanding is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 1:18-19, Paul’s prayer is that:

“the eyes of your understanding [are] enlightened;
that you may know what is the hope of His calling,
what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,
and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe.”

Pillar Seven: Counsel

Counsel means advice given by a professional regarding the judgment or conduct of another, or advice, opinion or instruction, given on request or not.

Proverbs 20:18 declares that “plans are established by counsel”. There is likewise a warning in Proverbs 12:15 that “the way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise”; and yet another in Proverbs 11:14, that “where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”

In concluding this survey of the seven pillars of wisdom, let us turn to Isaiah 11:2, which describes the manifold wisdom of Jesus:

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him —
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord

In Jesus is found all of the wisdom we need. When our lives are filled with His wisdom, wellbeing follows. As Proverbs 9:11 declares,

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
For by me your days will be multiplied,
And years of life will be added to you.

And remember there are two kinds of Wisdom:

Who is wise and understanding among you?
Let them show it by their good life,
by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.
But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts,
do not boast about it or deny the truth.
Such “wisdom” does not come down from Heaven
but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
For where you have envy and selfish ambition,
there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from Heaven is first of all pure;
then peace-loving, considerate, submissive,
full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James 3:13-18