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THE CHARACTER OF TRUE WISDOM, AND THE MEANS OF OBTAINING IT.
PROVERBS, Iv. 7.
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and, with all thy getting, get understanding.
THE sage instructor of the world, from the eminence on which Providence had placed him, surveys mankind. Discontented with themselves and their present condition, he beholds them engaged in the pursuit of something that still flies before them. Pleasure, wealth, and power appear in their view, and solicit their attention. Grieved to see time misspent in quest of things perishable, and labour lost on that which either may not be obtained, or, when obtained, may disappoint in enjoyment all the hopes excited by expectation, he raises his voice, and wishes it to be heard to the ends of the earth. He calls men off from a fruitless chase after objects attained with difficulty, and possessed without satisfaction; he points out one adequate to all their efforts; one in the pursuit of which no time can be misspent, no labour can be lost; one which presents itself a fair mark, to be always hit by the quick eye
and the steady hand; one that may be surely gained by genius and diligence, and, when gained, is productive of pleasure, riches, and honour; pleasure which fadeth not away, riches which none can take from the happy possessor, and the honour which cometh from God only. Solomon found, if men were disposed to be contented with any thing, it was that with which they never should be contentedtheir ignorance. He exhorts them to LEARN. "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wis"dom: and, with all thy getting, get understanding."
The subject will best be laid before you, in its several branches, by considering WHAT it is we are enjoined to acquire, How we are to acquire it, and WHY we are to acquire it.
First, then, we will consider the nature of that which we are so earnestly enjoined to acquire.
It would be tedious, and it is needless, critically to discuss the signification, and nicely to trace the shades, which discriminate the meaning of the different words employed in the book of Proverbs; such wisdom, understanding, knowledge, prudence, discretion," and the rest. They scem often to be used promiscuously. So far, at least, as relates to our present purpose, and the institution which is the occasion of our assembling at this time, they may certainly be regarded as terms nearly synonymous, and intended to convey the idea now generally expressed by the word LEARNING. The wisdom of Solomon, we know, extended itself on every side; it was conversant in matters physical and theological, natural
and artificial; it investigated and stated the duties and offices of man, political, domestic, and personal; it contemplated him in the several relations and employments of life, and prescribed the conduct respectively proper in each. And this surely is true wisdom; this is the end of all learning. Philosophy, the result of sagacity, reading, and experience, lays down rules and maxims; history furnishes examples; and the system of nature, with the inventions and improvements of art, supplies images and illustrations.
A distinction has been made between divine and human learning, and much has been written upon it. The former has by some been magnified to the contempt and exclusion of the latter, as if that ought noť to be brought into the sanctuary; as if any great quantity of it were not only useless but prejudicial'; as if science were the death of goodness, and ignorance indeed the mother of devotion. On the other hand, there are who pretty plainly intimate, that they think the name of learning due only to that which we style human; religion, in their opinion, being calculated to engage the attention of none but those whose abilities qualify them not for scholars. In the first of these representations there is a want of judgement; in the second, of piety. The two species of learning differ; but they differ as the MEANS do from the END. Were there no divine learning, human learning would lose great part of its value: limited to the present life, it must terminate on the confines of the grave. And had we no human learning, we should not be able to attain to that which is divine. The days of inspiration have
been long since at an end. God has ceased to communicate immediately the treasures of wisdom and knowledge to any man. Modern pretensions to such communications betray some fault either in the hearts or heads of those who make them. These treasures must be sought for, with the blessing of God upon our endeavours, in the ordinary way. All the divine learning upon earth is contained in the books of the Old and New Testament, which are written in Hebrew and Greek. Those languages, therefore, with the Latin, must be studied; and the study of them falls within the department of human learning.
Enough, perhaps it will be urged, may be gathered from translations, for all the purposes required. But to whom are we indebted for translations, unless to those who by good and sufficient learning became qualified for the work? And as they, however worthy and able, were yet very far from infallible, it will frequently happen, in points of difficulty, that we can neither sufficiently establish our own faith, nor confute the arguments of the adversary, without recurring to the originals. The adversary, to serve his turn, will recur to them; and what will become of us, if we are not able to follow him?
The history of the people of God cannot be understood, without taking with us that of pagan states, particularly of the Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, and Roman empires. An exact acquaintance with what has been passing in the world since the extinction of the last, cannot be dispensed with in a commentator on the prophecies, particularly those in the Revelation. To adjust the situation of places and the
succession of times, we must call to our assistance the sciences of geography, chronology, and astronomy. Nor can the proportions of the temple and its furniture, described in the books of Kings and Chronicles, and afterwards referred to by Ezekiel and St. John, be well comprehended and ascertained, without something of mathematics and mechanics. Thus necessary is a knowledge of languages and sciences to interpret the letter of Scripture, the source of doctrines and precepts, the foundation of all improvements, moral and spiritual; and they must ever be the best interpreters who have the largest share of it. The advantages of a superior skill in the Greek language, as exercised on passages in the New Testament and the early ecclesiastical writers, has been eminently displayed in a controversy now subsisting, the subject of which is of the highest importance.
Less, indeed, of human learning was needed by the clergy when the world around them had none, as was the case in the dark ages preceding the reformation. To the clergy, however, of those very ages are unbelievers indebted for the preservation of that learning which, since the reformation, they have employed in vain against Christianity. From the clergy in modern times have proceeded nine in ten of the books written to facilitate the progress of literature, and disseminate every species of it through the world'. Enemies to false philosophy, they have ever proved themselves the
See the late Dr. Jortin's admirable Charge, upon the subject, at the end of his Sermons.