Inquire of the Former Age

by Glenn Conjurske

I have no question that pride is one of the major hindrances to progress in the church of the present day. Every man supposes himself to know some things, and “Knowledge puffs up.” Even a large dosage of the most excellent sort of knowledge has that tendency, among men who are sinful in heart. But a little knowledge is more dangerous still, especially if it be the wrong sort of knowledge, and the longer I live, the more I feel this, when I see the most ignorant supposing themselves very learned, and men everywhere who are shallow and ignorant at best, yet setting up as teachers of the church, editors of magazines, authors of books, and even translators of the Bible. I feel a solemn responsibility in this proud age to bear a frequent testimony to the fact that “we know in part”—-that in fact none of us know much, and that most of us don’t know half of what we think we do. I may in time—-not for a while, however—-run out of texts of Scripture from which to harp upon this string, but when I do I suppose I will be obliged to begin afresh, and use the same texts over again.

Meanwhile consider the text which stands above as the title of this article. One of Job’s friends—-though certain enough of his own mistaken notions—-had the good sense to say, “For enquire, I pray thee, of the former age, and prepare thyself to the search of their fathers, for we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow.” (Job. 8:8-9). What solemn truth is here! How can we know anything, who were born but yesterday, and whose days are a shadow? Our life is a vapor, which appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. As the smoke from the chimney, or the steam from the kettle, so is our life. It vanishes away almost as soon as it appears. Yet in that little vapor of time we are to become wise.

Now observe the doctrine of this text. “We know nothing.” Not absolutely nothing, but comparatively nothing. Why do we know nothing? Because we have not time to learn anything. It requires time to learn anything aright, time to perceive the bearings and relationships of things, time to learn what the questions are, and much more time to find out the answers. Indeed, it seems to me that in general the most we can hope for in this little vapor of life is to learn what the questions are, and I count the man wise who knows that, though the answers are far beyond him. When we have learned what the questions are, if we have yet a little time left in which to learn, by process of elimination, what the answers are not, we may consider ourselves fortunate. But the present age knows the answers without knowing the questions, and of course counts itself passing wise. I counsel it to pay heed to this solemn word of Bildad the Shuhite, “We know nothing.”

But again, why do we know nothing? Because, Bildad affirms, “We are but of yesterday.” Our little vapor of life has been too short to learn anything. We only grope for answers, perhaps not knowing what the questions are, perhaps not knowing where to look for the answers. We may spend half of our little vapor of life—-or the whole of it—-as David Livingstone spent his last six years, in searching for the source of the Nile, having a secret misgiving all the while that it was not the Nile which he was following, but the Congo. His misgiving proved to be the fact, but the vapor of life was gone, and he never found what he sought, nor ever came near it. How many men pursue wisdom in the same manner, without even so much as a secret misgiving that they are following the wrong stream.

There was little loss in Livingstone’s failure, as there would have been little gain in his success, but we have a more noble and more profitable undertaking, in the pursuit of truth and wisdom, and yet we must pursue it as infants or lame men pursuing a fox. Most of us begin with a hundred prejudices and false notions which we must overcome, and all of us have a thousand knotty questions with which to wrestle—-if we ever advance so far as to learn what those questions are. But the greatest hurdle in the way is our thinking we know, when we do not. Paul says, “And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” (I Cor. 8:2). Our knowledge is partial, fragmentary, “in a glass darkly.” “We know nothing,” for “we are but of yesterday.”

But query, who is it who uses this strong language? Surely he must have been a mere stripling, a mere kindergartner, to say that he was born but yesterday, and therefore knew nothing. How old was Bildad the Shuhite?

Without pretending to give his age in years, we may safely say that he was much older than I or any of my readers. Job’s friends were old men, and that in a day when men lived long. Job himself lived a hundred and forty years after his great trial, and we suppose he must have been at least sixty at the time of it, since he had ten grown children. In the hundred and forty years which he lived after his trial, he saw four generations of his offspring, which places the average of the minimum length of those generations at thirty-five years. Job’s father, then, must have been nearly a hundred years old at the time of Job’s trial. But what of Job’s friends?

Eliphaz says in the fifteenth chapter (verses 9 & 10), “What knowest thou, that we know not? What understandest thou, which is not in us? With us are both the grayheaded and very aged men, much elder than thy father.” Now the plain fact is, men who were accounted “very aged” in an age when men lived two hundred years were aged indeed. They were “much elder” than Job’s aged father, and of course much older than any of us. Yet one of these men must lament that “we are but of yesterday,” and “know nothing.” What then shall we say of ourselves? Verily, we are the merest babes, and we know nothing. Yet if we know that, truly we know something. If we but learn our ignorance, we in fact take possession of one of the keys of knowledge.

Well, but we live in the prophesied time of the end, when “knowledge shall be increased” (Dan. 12:4), and if it has always been difficult for proud man to learn his ignorance, that difficulty is greatly increased in our own day. Knowledge is increased, and in direct proportion to the increase of knowledge, men are puffed up.

But what sort of knowledge is increased? Man now knows of the moons of Jupiter, the distance to the sun, the surface of Mars, the rings of Saturn, the existence of far-off galaxies, how to split the atom, how to manipulate genes and chromosomes, how to harness electrical power, how to produce radio waves and X rays, and ten thousand other matters equally profound—-and equally needless to the kingdom of God. So far as solid and substantial spiritual knowledge is concerned—-knowledge of the ways of God, the ways of faith, the nature of sin, the nature of the world, the nature of the devil—-the church today is certainly very far beneath what it was three hundred years ago. Yet the church has imbibed the same pride and self-importance which has puffed up the world, and complacently views itself as wise and enlightened, in spite of its prevailing shallowness and ignorance. How many modern preachers have ever preached on the text, “We know nothing”? How many of my readers have ever heard a sermon on this text?

But I turn from Bildad’s acknowledgement to his advice. “We,” he says, “are but of yesterday,” and “know nothing.” Therefore, he says, “Inquire of the former age.” We whose days are but a shadow, we who have lived but 150 or 200 years, we are but of yesterday. Let us therefore inquire of the former age, when men lived nine hundred years—-when they lived long enough to learn something. To inquire of that age was probably quite possible in Job’s day. We assume from the number of years which Job lived that he was contemporary with Abraham, or a little earlier. We know too that almost the whole of Abraham’s short life of 175 years was lived during the long life of Shem, the son of Noah, who rode the ark over the waters of the flood, and conversed with Noah, the seventh from Adam, for three centuries afterwards. Shem the son of Noah, Arphaxad the son of Shem, Salah the son of Arphaxad, and Eber the son of Salah—-all these were doubtless alive during the lifetime of Job, and doubtless something of the wisdom of the old patriarchs was yet known to them.

We, however, cannot inquire of that age. It is very much easier to let wisdom slip than it is to acquire it. One careless and complacent generation may lose what a dozen diligent and careful generations have acquired, and it is certain that whatever wisdom the old patriarchs may have acquired in their centuries of life has been mostly lost by their offspring. We cannot inquire of the former age. Yet we can inquire of a former age, though the present age is grown too wise to have much inclination to do so. About twenty years ago I was upstairs in the used book department of the old Baker Book House on Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids. This was one of my usual haunts, and I was often enough mistaken for an employee, by the other customers. One woman came inquiring for a good commentary on the whole Bible. Good commentaries are almost nonexistent, but as one of the fuller and more interesting ones, I suggested Adam Clarke. She asked who he was. “A Methodist preacher,” said I, “of the late eighteenth century.” “Oh!” she said, “I don’t want anything that old.”

And why not? The plain fact is, no single generation has time enough to learn much, but if we incorporate and build upon the wisdom of former generations, we may perchance make a little progress. But men today are puffed up with their own supposed enlightenment, and too generally despise the former ages. They suppose that wisdom was born with them. They want something “modern” and “contemporary” and “up to date.” And since the modern fellow who wrote it was probably as enamored with modern “scholarship” as they are themselves, and as much despised the former ages as they do themselves, they shall spend their money for shallow trish-trash—-for the babblings of a babe, who was too wise to listen to his fathers. Indeed, it is a great grief to me, in occasionally looking over the bibliographies at the back of some modern books, to see that almost all the books they list are modern ones. There is little chance of learning wisdom at this rate.

But the modern age is too impressed with itself to wish it otherwise. I once read some detracting comments (by whom I do not remember) on one of Wilbur M. Smith’s books on books. I do not much admire Wilbur M. Smith, nor his books on books. He had too little spirituality himself to be able to tell the difference between a spiritual book and an intellectual one, and though (of course) he lists some good books, he lists more chaff than wheat. But the comments to which I refer slighted Mr. Smith on another ground, namely, that many of the books which he listed were a hundred years old. But this is just what the present age needs, and not only books a hundred years old, but two hundred and three hundred.

The present age is very shallow—-too shallow indeed to perceive its own shallowness. It verily believes itself to be enlightened and wise, “but they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” (II Cor. 10:12). Let the present age compare itself with the former ages, and there is a chance it may perceive that “the old is better.” Better still, there is a chance it may become better itself.

But let my readers understand, Bildad does not say “Ye know nothing,” nor to Job, “Thou knowest nothing,” but “We know nothing.” And I do not say to my readers, “Ye know nothing,” but say for all of us, “We know nothing.” Though for more than thirty years I have made it my chief business to “get wisdom with all my getting,” I certainly cannot pretend to know much. Though for thirty years I have poured all the money I could into books, denying myself most everything else to that end, and though I am often up before three in the morning to delve into those books, still I am constantly impressed with two things: I know but little after all, and there is little chance I shall learn much more in the fleeting years which might remain to me. Though for thirty years I have studied and prayed and observed and conversed and discussed and inquired and meditated in the diligent pursuit of all the mysteries of revealed wisdom, and all the avenues of human experience—-after all of this I must constantly say, “I don’t know.” My most common answer, when various questions are proposed to me, is, “I don’t know.” What is thirty years in which to learn anything? The grand desideratum in acquiring wisdom is experience, and what can we experience in thirty years? Verily, almost nothing. We may be more than thirty years in learning a little humility, before we can begin to learn anything else aright. Bildad was perhaps two hundred years old, and certainly much more than one hundred, and yet it is he who says, We are but of yesterday, and know nothing.

Not that I suppose that I know absolutely nothing—-only comparatively nothing. For more than thirty years I have made it my business to get wisdom with all my getting, and I believe that God has blessed me with some little of it, and called me too to teach it to his people. But without doubt one facet of that wisdom which God has given to me, and called upon me to testify to his people, is surely just this, that We are but of yesterday, and know nothing. We aim to call our readers back from the wild frontiers of self-confident change, to the Olde Paths & Ancient Landmarks. We aim to call them down from the dizzy heights of self-gratulation to which the present puffed-up age has borne them, to sober thinking, and humble and painstaking study. We aim to call them away from the murky smog of modern intellectualism, to the pure and fresh mountain air of old-fashioned spirituality.

And this is one of the primary reasons we advocate inquiring of the former age. There is depth and wisdom in many of the old writers which the present age does not possess, and which it will certainly never acquire by reading modern books.

But observe, we advocate that our readers “inquire of the former age,” and not merely of that small segment of it which will serve to confirm them in their own opinion. There are always some who delight to consult some small segment of the former ages, in order to find support for their own doctrines. There have always been, and no doubt always will be, Calvinists who delight to read Owen and Edwards, and Plymouth Brethren who pore over the pages of Darby, but this is hardly inquiring of the former age. This is only narrowing the mind—-only dying the bluish garment deeper blue, where we want a coat of many colors.

It is the fashion of many just now to read Burgon. So far, so good. Burgon is most excellent reading, who has more of depth and wisdom in his little finger than a hundred modern authors have in their whole body. But reading Burgon is not inquiring of the former age. Most of those who admire Burgon the most have never yet understood him, and his detractors understand him but little better. Both sides are destitute of some part of his wisdom, though not altogether the same part. Reading Burgon has not supplied the lack on either side. Reading Burgon may be a good beginning, but something more than this is wanted. Let the men of this day diligently “inquire of the former age.” Let them read Bishop Hall and Richard Baxter and John Fletcher and John Wesley and John Newton and Bishop Ryle, to name a few among the wisest. Let them spend a quarter century in this happy employment, and who can tell what wonders might be wrought in the beloved church of God?

Glenn Conjurske