Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

April 10, 2004

Proverbs 12:23

"The prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly."

I've been wondering about this proverb. Why would someone conceal knowledge, after all? Knowledge is a good thing, and we should all desire more of it, right? The Proverbs themselves speak much of this. These nuggets of wisdom, the book's introduction tells us, will give "prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young." (1:4) Fools despise knowledge, but the righteous value it and are always willing to be corrected by it. "For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding." (2:6) I could go on and on: taken together the Proverbs are a hymn of praise to true knowledge, and the lack of same is associated with immorality and degradation. Ignorance, my friends, is not bliss.

Which brings me back to my question, why should a prudent man conceal knowledge? I suppose this proverb could be referring specifically to a certain kind of knowledge. In other words, Don't be a talebearer. (see 11:13) It could also refer to the very human tendency to be puffed up by knowledge. In such cases we are talking about knowledge without love, as Paul makes abundantly clear.

So let's look at what the great Matthew Henry had to say about all this:

He that is wise does not affect to proclaim his wisdom, and it is his honour that he does not. He communicates his knowledge when it may turn to the edification of others, but he conceals it when the showing of it would only tend to his own commendation. Knowing men, if they be prudent men, will carefully avoid every thing that savours of ostentation, and not take all occasions to show their learning and reading, but only to use it for good purposes, and then let their own works praise them.

I think we're getting close here. This Proverb is obviously not for blanket application, or the fundamental human activity of teaching and learning would grind to a sudden stop. But, as in all things, we must look to the state of our hearts, the root of our motivation. But I would add a point that Henry misses. Not only should the motive of self-promotion or "ostentation" be guarded against, but also the likelihood of ill-timed correction to do more relational harm than intellectual good. It is possible to be forever teaching (that is, imparting knowledge), but never building up. It is also possible not only to be "puffed up" by knowledge, but to use knowledge as a kind of distancing mechanism, keeping others at arm's length.

Knowledge, then, can be misused, abused, and misconstrued. There is a saying, I think of the Buddhists, that goes something like this: "Let no words pass the portal of your lips until they have first passed three essential tests: they must be loving, they must be kind, and they must be true." This is a worthwhile discipline, I think. The perpetual corrector understands perhaps the importance of truth, but often misses the requirements of love and kindness.

I think, then, that there must be a right motivation, and there must be a right time, for the "revealing" of knowledge. It's not that the prudent man always and in every situation conceals it, like a magician concealing the true nature of his tricks, but that he exercises discernment as to the manner, and also the time, in which he "reveals" what he knows. As Solomon said elsewhere, "There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak." (Ecclesiastes 3:7)


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