Daniel 12.1-4: Wisdom or Knowledge?

Do you believe in progress? Whether civilisation in general has progressed is an open question. What is not in question is that we have increased in knowledge. As Daniel says:

Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.

Daniel 12.4 ESV

That’s the best brief history of the world I know: lots of running about and an undeniable increase in knowledge.

We naturally assume knowledge must be a good thing. But in the Bible it’s not that simple. The demand for knowledge goes back to the Garden of Eden and humanity’s desire for a knowledge which would make us like God – equal to him and therefore independent of him.

Knowledge is double-edged. It enables us to tackle cancer but it increases our anxiety about getting cancer. Knowledge enables us to understand the physical processes which operate in our world but it enables us to exploit the planet and kill and maim our fellow humans. Knowledge enables us to communicate face to face with our loved-ones on the other side of the world but it enables government and Big Tech to keep us under permanent surveillance.

Will more knowledge solve our problems? It’s not obvious that this is true. Because we believe in knowledge we tend to think that education is the answer to changing the world. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made “education, education, education” his government’s top priority. But education doesn’t always deliver what we want. Where education fails we resort to legislation: making more and more things illegal, thrusting the long arm of the law ever-deeper into our lives. And those who think that legislation is not enough, or not quick enough, resort to intimidation. Think of the Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University who was hounded out of her job for expressing supposedly “incorrect” views on transgender issues.

There is a Russian proverb: Меньше знаешь крепче спишь. The less you know the better you sleep.

What about wisdom? Daniel commends wisdom as the key to a life well-lived:

Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above

Daniel 12.3

What is wisdom? Here is a good definition:

Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions, good decisions come from experience and experience is the result of making bad decisions!

That’s why older people are supposed to be wiser than young people.

But wisdom is not just for the old. It is available to any who ask, according to James in the New Testament. It was a characteristic of Jesus in his youth. According to Paul, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. He tells the Colossians that all wisdom and knowledge (you can have both) are found in Christ.

Elias Chacour is a Palestinian Christian leader. He tells the story of a conflict between one of his churchwardens and another member of the congregation. The conflict came to a head over a vine which this other person had planted in the pastor’s garden. The churchwarden was so incensed by this that he demanded that Chacour dig it up and get rid of it. This is how Chacour describes his response:

I thrust my chin out stubbornly. Anger and exasperation boiled up inside. My thoughts blistered with accusations of stupidity and small-mindedness. And at the same moment, amazingly, a small, almost unheard voice somewhere inside prayed, “Father, let me speak with your tongue, not my own”.

Almost before I knew what I was saying, I replied evenly, “Bring me a bucket of water”.

Triumphantly, the churchwarden sent one of his men hunting for a bucket supposing I meant to loosen the soil so the vine could be uprooted. When the man returned, lugging water from the outdoor tap, I had only just determined what to do with it.

 He thrust it into my hands, and I stooped, spilling water over the leaves in slow, ritual fashion. Setting the empty bucket aside, I raised my hand over the vine. In as serious intonation as I could manage, I said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”.

 The men stared at me as if I were dangerously insane. “There”, I addressed them warmly, “now this is a Christian vine. You cannot uproot your own brother. So he stays”.

Indignantly, they turned on their heels and stomped away.

Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers

Knowledge tends to create problems. Wisdom solves them. Wisdom often comes from left-field, astounding and sometimes confounding the hearers. Remember how unpredictable and unanswerable was Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar.

Our world desperately needs wisdom. Whether we’re responding to climate change or refugees crossing continents in search of safety or handling the Covid-19 pandemic, we need wisdom as well as knowledge. So does the church. So do all of us. According to James in the New Testament, we only have to ask. The answer doesn’t always drop into our minds just as or when we would like. We have to wait for God’s time, which is often not ours. Chacour didn’t know just what he was going to do with the bucket of water he’d asked for till the last minute. And we may have to put aside our natural inclinations and our pride in order to receive and act on it.

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

4 thoughts on “Daniel 12.1-4: Wisdom or Knowledge?

  1. Dear Mark

    Thanks so much for these mailings, which are so clear and brief and so sharp and helpful.

    I thought I’d be able to find an exact quote somewhere in Paul Kingsnorth, but I’ve not been able to find it; but I’m pretty sure he says somewhere that ‘progress is destruction.’ That, to me, rings a death-knell over all claims that the church must ‘keep up to date’ – not least as in David Runcorn’s progress argument in favour of same-sex marriage. Certainly Kingsnorth also somewhere says quite recently that what we lack, and need, is wisdom, while what the world offers is ’technique’ (Ellul), and the attraction of remaining teenagers for ever – even into old age … 😉

    Thanks then, too, for alerting me to Paul Kingsnorth – who I think must be my ‘man of the year’. I find I resonate so much with him – and others to whom he leads me. I was much attracted by Ellul decades ago, but need to return to him again. I’m intrigued that Kingsnorth is so shaped by Ellul’s critique.

    And just for fun, I attach my Remembrance Day sermon from this morning. For once I tried a large-scale theme. I hope it wasn’t too right-wing or retrograde – though I was grateful for quite a number of ‘thank you’s’ from the men in the congregation!

    Much love, as ever, and thanks again for your writing. Philip 🙂



    1. Thank you for this – a real encouragement to keep going even when I’m not sure I should. I agree about Paul Kingsnorth. I was particularly moved by a recent piece of his invoking the Exodus theme. I might have a go at Ellul, though I think he might be quite demanding. I couldn’t find your sermon: send it to me as an emall attachment? with love to you both


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