“Hear, my son, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many. I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness. When you walk, your step will not be hampered, and if you run, you will not stumble” ( Proverbs 4:10-12 NKJV).
One of the popular songs of the past lamented, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger; I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was stronger.” Almost everyone can relate to such a wish. If we knew in advance the consequences of our actions we might well choose differently on many occasions. That is we would do differently if we truly believed that those consequences would certainly follow.
The human capacity to ignore the lessons of experience is no less than incredible. A definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein is, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It does not matter whether the experience is our own or that of others; whether it is contemporary or from ancient history. When a particular belief or behavior consistently produces negative consequences, it is foolhardy to continue in it.
The assumption that we would have lived differently and more successfully if we somehow had possessed the advantage of hindsight is refuted by our tendency to ignore history. Not only do we continue to make the same mistakes ourselves, over and over again; we also make the mistakes that others have made and that are well documented in history. Nations rise and fall along predictable paths of progress and regression. Individuals fall prey to the same weaknesses generation after generation.
The simple fact is that hindsight is available to us in advance, if we are willing to listen and learn. Solomon spoke to the youth of his day, pleading for them to follow his instructions so as to be able to live successfully (Proverbs 4:10-12). There is no need for every generation to have to learn for itself things that have been discovered by their predecessors. We understand this in regard to science – our technology would be impossible had we started where eighteenth and nineteenth century inventors began. By building on a store of accumulated discoveries we have been able to do things that were unimaginable only a short time ago.
The same is true of philosophy, religion, and other areas of the intangible. Much wisdom has been discovered in the past. Even more has been revealed to us by God, through inspired Scripture. The Psalmist proclaimed, “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation” (Psalm 119:98-99). Solomon stated it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7).
In his parable of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus made it plain that we must be willing to learn from events and teaching of the past if we are to please God. The rich man, after his death, asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn the rich man’s brothers of their destiny so that they would repent. Abraham refused, saying that the living brothers had “Moses and the Prophets” (i.e., the Old Testament Scriptures) and they should heed them. The rich man protested that if they heard it from one raised from the dead they would believe. Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:19-31).
Wishing we could go back to previous times with greater wisdom is not productive. It is far better to learn from our mistakes, from those of others, and especially from God’s revealed Word so that we will not continue to fail. That is true wisdom.