“If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it.” – Proverbs 9:12
If you do it right, you will do the most good by being the most selfish. This is one of those paradigm-shattering axioms that behaves like a nuclear weapon. If developed and stewarded appropriately, the idea can bring peace and general welfare. However, when it falls into the wrong hands, it can wreak a world of hurt. The sheer quantity of ways this idea can be misapplied subject it to general disapproval and suspicion.
However, the Bible does not shy away from pragmatism on account of its abusive adherents. God does not conceal the practical benefit you stand to gain from wisdom, despite the scores of people who abuse this pursuit as a justification for things that have nothing to do with wisdom. This proverb confesses that acquiring true wisdom benefits you first and foremost. There is a degree of personal benefit accompanying wisdom that goes beyond any other good you could obtain.
In one sense, all of our lives are intensely personal. The consequences of your thoughts, words, and actions fall on you more heavily than on anyone else. Wisdom, however, in contrast to skills, hard work, or possessions is protected from external manipulation and the fluctuations of time and chance. If you gain wisdom, it is not as if this will only benefit you and no one else. Rather, wisdom is something so intensely personal, so bound up in your person and soul, that you carry it with you at all times. It stands to reason, then, that you would benefit the most by wisdom you continually carry with you.
Curiously, the antithesis of wisdom in this proverb is not the traditional “folly,” but is described as “scoffing.” Why does a reaction of scoffing lead to self-destruction? It is because scoffing cuts off any hope of rescue. In this way, it shares much in common with the unforgivable sin against the Spirit. If all avenues of conviction, correction, and truth are summarily laughed off and dismissed, then what hope remains?
Scoffing is the antagonist of wisdom because the first step towards wisdom is humility. You have to be open to receiving at least some particle of truth from outside. Scoffing is like an impregnable fortress wall around a city. It wards off attacks, but it also wards off food and supplies while its inhabitants starve. Just like wisdom, it is not as if an attitude of scoffing will not harm other people or hamper larger efforts. But the one to suffer the greatest loss will be you, because no matter where you go, your scoffing goes with you.
When it comes to wisdom, it pays to be selfish. When you get wisdom, you benefit yourself first, and then the effects trickle out from there. But this still leaves too much unsaid. You can easily chase after business savvy, charm, beauty, intelligence, or professional development as if one of these was wisdom. They are not. We’re told two verses earlier that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Prov 9:10), which means putting God at the top of your priority list. Prioritizing God and gaining wisdom go hand in hand, and in both cases you are the one who gains the most.