In his book Intellectuals, historian Paul Johnson described the personal lives of several people considered to be among the smartest and most influential people of the last few centuries. He wrote about Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Russell, Sartre, and more, people whose books are still read and whose ideas have shaped the world we live in. Some of these ideas were good and some were not, but all the men and women described in this book were brilliant and inspired huge followings. Yet, the story Johnson tells of each is a story of outrageous sin and failure in their own personal lives. Their successes and the many admirers they had around them seems to have resulted in a pride and arrogance that made them all extremely self-centered, and then careless, thoughtless, and wicked in their treatment of everyone, especially their closest loved ones. The book is filled with shocking stories of abuse, greed, rudeness, unfaithfulness, irresponsibility, lies, cheating, and even violence. The message is clear– intelligence is no guarantee against sin and moral failure.
The daily newspapers tell the same story as Johnson’s book. Presidents Nixon and Clinton were brilliant men, but both had their time in office marred by huge moral failures. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., also brilliant and greatly admired, were world-class adulterers. And few today would want to argue for the high moral character of the two current front-runners for the next president of the United States. Polls show that many people feel they will be forced to vote for the person they find least despicable.
Ironically, Paul Johnson himself, the moralizing author of Intellectuals, was also publicly shamed. He too is an intellectual, a writer of many huge books on a wide variety of subjects: the story of Christianity, a definitive history of the United States, a history of the 20th century, books on the arts and sciences, etc. He seemed to be a man of upright, unquestioned morality; a loving family man, good father, the same wife all his life, faithful churchgoer, promoter of conservative beliefs and standards in his writings, eloquent and powerful defender of traditional values. Yet, in his later years it was revealed to the great disappointment of his family and friends that he had been involved a long-term adulterous affair. Johnson’s own life became an example of the same moral failure he condemned in other intellectuals. Intelligence is no guarantee against foolishness and sin.
The Bible has its own account of this kind of failure, which is in many ways the most striking example of all. It is in the story of King Solomon who became king of Israel after the death of his father, the great King David. Not long after Solomon became king, the Lord God appeared to the young man in a dream and made him an amazing offer. “Ask me for whatever you want,” God said to the new king. What an offer!
Solomon had an admirable and noble response. He first expressed his gratitude to God for all God had done for the nation, his father David, and for himself. Then, after expressing concern about his ability to handle the huge task ahead of him, he made his request. Solomon asked God for wisdom, saying, “Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”
Even God was impressed by the request. I Kings 3:10 says that God was pleased, and told Solomon that since he asked for wisdom to rule, and not for wealth and long life, God would give him that too, along with a wise and discerning heart for the administration of justice. Not only that, but God went on to say that his gift of wisdom would be like no one ever had or would have. Thus, Solomon was the most intelligent man who ever lived.
The very next story in I Kings 3 gives an example of Solomon’s wisdom. Two women came before him, both mothers of infants. They were all sleeping in the same house, and one mother rolled over onto her baby in the night and the baby died. This mother then got up and switched her dead infant with the other mother’s living child. When the other mother awoke, she immediately saw that it was not her child, and made the accusation. The problem of both mothers claiming the same child could not be settled, so they came before the King. After hearing their stories, Solomon asked for a sword. “Cut the baby in half,” he said, “and give one half to each mother.” The one mother said, “All right, that’s fair enough.” But the other mother cried out in horror, and said, “Let her have it, just don’t kill my baby.” Solomon then said of the second women, “This is the mother; give the child to her, for she was the one who had compassion on her son.”
The story concludes with verse 28 which says, “When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.” (continued…)
FROM THE PROVERBS OF SOLOMON:
Proverbs 1:7 — The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 3:5-6 — Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 11:2 — When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
Proverbs 11:7 — When a wicked man dies, his hope perishes; all he expected from his power comes to nothing.
Proverbs 14:16 — The wise fear the Lord and shun evil, but a fool is hotheaded and reckless.
Proverbs 16:25 — There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
Proverbs 19:3 — A person’s own folly leads to their ruin, yet their heart rages against the Lord.
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in endless praise…
Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
Every power as Thou shalt choose.
—Take My Life and Let it Be, Hymn by Frances Havergal, 1874, verses one and four.