The best way to become wiser is to be wise in the first place.
Wisdom is a progressive ordering of one’s life. It is cumulative. The more one learns, the more one can learn. In the context of that blending of wisdom and apocalyptic traditions that occurs in the book of Daniel, a key criterion for Daniel’s reception of divine revelation when failure would have meant death was to have become wise prior to the crisis.
This, at least, is a plausible reading of the the text’s rhythms. The summary that follows and Daniel’s prayer with it come just after the man’s back has been to the wall. No heaven-sent insight into the king’s unspoken dream would have meant death for Nebuchadnezzar’s apparent battalions of counselors.
Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night, and Daniel blessed the God of heaven. Daniel said: ‘Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him. To you, O God of my ancestors, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and power, and have now revealed to me what we asked of you, for you have revealed to us what the king ordered.’ (Daniel 2.19–23 NRSV)
It is possible that we are to understand the italicized words to suggest that, if anyone shows evidence of wisdom or knowledge, it is God who has given these virtues to him. That is, the wise are wise because God has given wisdom to them. Yet this rather obvious affirmation seems not to plumb the text’s depths.
Not only does it fail to qualify as the most natural reading of the expression, ‘he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.’ It also neglects the potency of the word translated ‘and … now’ (Aramaic וכען) within the context of the unfolding narrative about Daniel’s life in the Babylonian court.
A different reading overcomes these difficulties. We are probably meant to understand that God adds to the wisdom and the knowledge of those who have already acquired these things. Daniel then looks back upon the process by which God has given him wisdom and power, recognizing in the relief of the crisis’ resolution that God has now gone beyond all that and revealed ‘what we asked of you’.
If this is what the author has placed before us, then it aligns well both with the process-oriented texture of biblical wisdom and the crisis-oriented rhetoric of Jesus. In the case of biblical wisdom, each step towards wisdom moves one further down the path of which deep understanding is the destination. Conversely, each step in the direction of foolishness makes one less penetrable to wisdom’s voice and closer to arriving at hopeless folly.
Jesus would in time employ a figure we have come to call ‘the parable of the sower’. In a context with uncanny parallels to Daniel’s situation, where truth is a precious commodity that is hidden and revealed in a moment where everything matters, we read:
Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ (Matthew 13.10–12 NRSV)
In all cases, the surest way to become very wise is to become a little wise. Learning is not a posture of arrival. Wisdom has little or nothing to do with finish lines. The ‘learned person’ knows better than any observer how little he or she has truly brought under mastery. Intellectual snobbery is not, in fact, a feature of the intellectual. It is rather the ugly vice of a fool with a report card.
Wisdom merits energetic pursuit precisely because it is on the way to more wisdom, that is to say, on the way to ever deeper engagement with reality.
In Daniel’s case, the way to becoming useful by supernatural means in the crisis was to become useful by natural means in the ordinary. Daniel considered both experiences to be God-given. Both were matters of wisdom.