“Wisdom is the principal thing.” It is obvious from the scope of Proverbs that Wisdom is vital to life. Wisdom comes from Yahweh (Prov. 2:6), in fact, the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Wisdom is to be prized more than jewels or anything else people desire (Prov. 8:11). The person who finds wisdom is blessed (Prov. 3:13), but fools die because they lack wisdom (Prov. 10:13). Wisdom is the principal thing, the chief thing, it is supreme (cp. ASV, KJV, ERV, Geneva; NIV84; NET; Rotherham; YLT).
Like many things in life, wisdom can be simple but difficult. It can be easy to know what to do but difficult to do it. In the Semitic mindset, a person is not wise when he knows what to do but does not do it, he is wise when he actually does what he knows to do. Knowing what to do but not doing it is not wisdom in the biblical sense of the word; in fact, it is foolishness. However, wisdom is the principal thing, the supreme thing, so we should make up our minds to acquire wisdom, which includes following through and acting on what we know to do.
The Hebrew word we translate as by the phrase “the principal thing” is reshith (#07225 רֵאשִׁית), and it means “first, beginning, best, chief thing, main point,” thus the wording in Young’s Literal Translation: “The first thing is wisdom.” Reshith is well known for its first use in the Bible, where it is translated “beginning” (Gen. 1:1). Scholars argue over the primary meaning of reshith in Proverbs 4:7, and whether it means “beginning, starting point,” or whether it means “chief thing, supreme thing.” The NET text note briefly explains the problem: “The absolute [state] and construct state of ) רֵאשִׁיתre’shit( are identical [see BDB]. Some treat ) רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָהre’shit khokhmah) as a genitive-construct phrase: ‘the beginning of wisdom’ )cf. NAB, NASB, NRSV(. Others take רֵאשִׁית [reshith] as an absolute functioning as predicate and חָכְמָה [‘wisdom’] as the subject: ‘wisdom is the first/chief thing’ (cf. KJV, ASV).”
Because God could have inspired Proverbs 4:7 to be written in a way that would not have allowed for the two possible translations, both of which are grammatically legitimate and both of which are true, we conclude that God intended for both meanings to be understood here: “Wisdom is the principal thing: get wisdom” and also, “the starting point of wisdom is this: get wisdom.” This makes Proverbs 4:7 an amphibologia; a verse with two meanings, both of which are true. A person fluent in biblical Hebrew reads the one verse and sees both meanings, while, sadly, English translators must choose which meaning they will put in their English translation and put the other meaning in a footnote or commentary entry.
The REV text has the translation, “Wisdom is the principal thing” because that seems to best fit the immediate context, and does not present a potential contradiction to the statement in Proverbs that the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Many commentators opt for the primary meaning being “the starting point [or “beginning”] of wisdom” because the word reshith occurs five times in Proverbs (Prov. 1:7; 3:9; 4:7; 8:22; 17:14), and the other four occurrences of reshith all mean “beginning,” “starting point,” or “first.” However, it often happens in both the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament that a word has one definition in a majority of verses but a different meaning in some verses, which is one reason why biblical lexicons usually have a number of different definitions for any given word.
However, as we have said, both translations are grammatically correct and fit within the scope of Proverbs. “Wisdom is the principal thing: get wisdom” certainly fits in Proverbs. Wisdom is the principal, chief, supreme thing. It is better than wealth or power, and God’s people should “seek her like silver, and search for her like hidden treasure” (Prov. 2:4). Also, however, the beginning of wisdom is to get wisdom. The starting point of being wise is realizing how important it is and then getting it—making the diligent effort to acquire it.
It is vital for the Christian to understand the importance of wisdom. The Devil does, and so aggressively downplays it in the world. How much do we hear about wisdom in the media or the world around us? Little or nothing. The world constantly encourages people to do unwise things. Many examples could be given. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements that encourage people to spend money and go into debt rather than be frugal and live debt free. We are encouraged to consume food and drink that is not healthy (such as candy and soda pop). We are encouraged to follow our feelings into relationships and sexual union rather than be cautious and use wisdom, despite the fact that the divorce rate is 40-50% and many people who stay married are unhappy. Many young men and women participate in extreme sports and wrench limbs and break bones that seem to heal well when they are young but later in life result in aches and pain such as traumatic arthritis that will bring years of discomfort. Many other examples could be given, for they are legion, but the point is that the world encourages unwise living.
In general, Christian teaching does not help much, because it often puts an emphasis on “faith” rather than on wisdom. In fact, there is so much teaching on “faith” in the Christian world, and what faith can accomplish, that you might think the Bible said “Faith is the principal thing,” but that is not what it says. One of God’s laws of life is that a person reaps what they sow, and having faith will not reliably cancel that and make a person’s life wonderful if they have made unwise decisions. In God’s pyramid of success, wisdom is the principal thing, it is supreme. Christians should be keenly aware of that and constantly be asking themselves if what they are doing is the wise thing.
[For more information on faith, see Appendix 16, “‘Faith’ is ‘Trust’”].
“purchases.” The Hebrew noun is qinyan (#07075 קִנְיָן), and it refers to something that is acquired, something that is purchased, or wealth. It has overtones that are not just “getting” in the sense of accidentally finding or being given something, but rather that the person has purchased it or paid for it in some way. Some versions (cp. NASB; NET; Rotherham) use “acquire.” There is a great lesson here. Some people are offended that getting the truth costs them something, but it makes sense that something as valuable as truth has to be purchased in some way, including with both time and money. The Hebrew text has the root word for “purchase, buy, acquire,” three times in this verse, and a more literal translation of the text would be “Wisdom is the principal thing, so purchase wisdom; and with all your purchases, purchase understanding.” The point of the repetition is to emphasize that even though acquiring wisdom can be costly, it is worth the price.