Wisdom Literature in the Bible

Wisdom appears throughout the Bible, though it sometimes seems different from what we think of as wisdom today. What is wisdom in the Bible? How can we have it?

Anyone who has read through the Bible will know that wisdom is a major theme. If it is so important in Scripture, shouldn’t we crave that wisdom?

To understand the wisdom of the Bible, it’s helpful to survey the wisdom literature throughout the Scriptures.

What is wisdom literature?

Like so many of the people of the ancient Near East, some of the authors of the Bible wrote what scholars today call “wisdom literature.” The wisdom literature of the ancient Near East shares some traits with the wisdom literature of other nations, but it is also distinct.

Unlike Greek philosophy, which focused on abstract concepts and reasoning, the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East was practical. It looked at everyday life, not the life of the mind.

What sets the wisdom literature of the Bible apart is its focus on God and how man should relate to God, described as the fear of the Lord. This expression appears repeatedly in biblical wisdom literature (see Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). One popular Bible handbook explains the distinction:

“Secular philosophy tends to measure everything by man, and comes to doubt whether wisdom is to be found at all. But the Old Testament . . . turns the world the right way up, with God at its head, his wisdom the creative and ordering principle that runs through every part; and man, disciplined and taught by that wisdom, finding life and fulfilment in his perfect will” (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, p. 318).

Wisdom literature in the Bible

Proverbs is the biblical book most associated with wisdom, and it is the core of biblical wisdom literature. Looking at the New King James Version, we find the word wisdom 50 times in the book of Proverbs, accounting for more than a fifth of the uses in all of Scripture. Proverbs is both straightforward and practical.

The books of Job and Ecclesiastes are also commonly labeled as wisdom literature. In addition, parts of the book of Psalms fit the category, though the bulk of that book has a different purpose. In the New Testament, wisdom is a key component of the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians and the entire book of James.

The wisdom literature of the ancient Near East, including biblical wisdom, can be likened to parental guidance. That’s especially the case in the book of Proverbs. For example, Proverbs begins with, “My son, hear the instruction of your father” (Proverbs 1:8). Afterward, we see many similar pleas, such as, “Hear, my son, and receive my sayings” (Proverbs 4:10).

If we have reverence for God, we will recognize that He is the source of wisdom.Throughout these books, the value of wisdom is compared to precious metals and costly jewels: “How much better to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver” (Proverbs 16:16).

A whole chapter in the book of Job makes this comparison (Job 28). It begins by speaking of the extremes to which men will go in pursuit of precious metals and gemstones. The picturesque imagery portrays miners, who “hang far away from men; they swing to and fro” in their search for treasures “in places forgotten by feet” (verse 4).

Job then asks, “Where can wisdom be found?” (verse 12). He concludes the chapter by revealing that wisdom is found with God: “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” (verse 28). Psalms and Proverbs come to the same conclusion, each stating that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10).

If we have reverence for God, we will recognize that He is the source of wisdom.

Folly versus wisdom from God

The first third of the book of Proverbs contrasts wisdom with folly, personifying each as a woman calling out to passersby: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice” (Proverbs 1:20, English Standard Version). In these passages, the personified Wisdom seeks to protect her disciples from destructive sins.

For the young man, the allure of forbidden pleasures offered by an adulteress is one such trap. The enticement of the seductress (Proverbs 7:10-23) stands in stark contrast to the call of wisdom in chapter 8. Wisdom concludes this exhortation by saying, “All those who hate me love death” (Proverbs 8:36).

Proverbs 9 then provides a contrast between the personified Wisdom and Folly. Wisdom urges the simple and those who lack understanding (verse 4) to “forsake foolishness and live” (verse 6). Folly also prevails upon the simple and those who lack understanding (verse 16), encouraging them to sin. Those who yield to her enticement don’t know that “the dead are there” (verse 18).

This imagery shows that so much in life is a choice between two contrasting ways. It also sets up the poetic couplets that characterize the book of Proverbs. The first such couplet in the next chapter contrasts the results of this choice: “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother” (Proverbs 10:1).

In two places Solomon, the author of the book of Proverbs, alerted readers to the difficulty in distinguishing between a wise decision and a foolish one. He warned that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25).

This contrast between two types of wisdom appears elsewhere in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah discussed the human propensity for self-deception: “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:21).

This distinction between two types of wisdom continues in the New Testament. The apostle Paul declared that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). James proclaimed that what the world regards as wisdom “does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic” (James 3:15).

God and the wisdom literature of the Bible

As already noted, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). God is the source of true wisdom.

Not only is true wisdom from God, but God has never been without that wisdom. The personified Wisdom of Proverbs declares that “the LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23).

Isaiah describes the coming Messiah as a “Wonderful Counselor” (Isaiah 9:6, New American Standard Bible), a role that can be filled only by someone full of true wisdom.

In another well-known messianic passage, Isaiah states that the “Spirit of wisdom and understanding” will “rest upon” the prophesied Davidic King (Isaiah 11:2). This passage hints at how humans can acquire that wisdom—through the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament confirms this. With the explosive growth in the number of believers, the apostles found themselves unable to take care of everything (Acts 6:1). Rather than neglecting the preaching of the gospel to handle physical tasks, the apostles decided to appoint deacons. Those deacons were to be “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (verse 3). One of those deacons was named Stephen.

At the time, believers still met in synagogues with Jews who were not convinced about Jesus as the promised Messiah. Some of the Hellenistic Jews—Jews who had returned to Judea from living in far-flung parts of the Mediterranean world dominated by Greek culture—began “disputing with Stephen” (verse 9). But “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (verse 10).

The New Testament approach to wisdom from God

The discussion of wisdom takes on a new dimension in the New Testament. That’s because the Greek language, culture and ways of thinking had become pervasive throughout the ancient Near East after the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Part of that culture was philosophy. (The English word comes from two Greek words. When put together, those words mean “love of wisdom.”) The Greek concept of wisdom, however, was entirely different from the idea reflected in the Old Testament. Greek ideas continually clashed with Hebrew thinking, and later, with Christian doctrine.

As James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).Greek philosophy was actually composed of various schools of thought, often at odds with each other. We see this reflected in Paul’s encounter with individuals representing two of those schools, the Epicureans and the Stoics, in Athens (Acts 17:18). What is clear, regardless of the particular school of thought, is that Greek philosophers sought to reason their way to truth, or wisdom.

Paul actually devoted much of the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians to denouncing that wisdom. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible explains that “the wisdom against which Paul wrote was not of Jewish parentage, but Greek. It was the vain speculations of philosophy” that Paul condemned. “This philosophy was a trusting of human thought processes rather than a reception of God’s revelation” (Vol. 5, pp. 944-945).

In the first chapter, for instance, Paul explains that Greek philosophy could not produce true wisdom, the wisdom of God: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

How Christians can gain the wisdom of the Bible

In Proverbs, the portrayal of folly as a seductress enticing young men to their deaths is essentially the same message that Paul addressed when denouncing the philosophy of the Greek world. Our ideas, our reasoning and our thinking will not produce positive results, in and of themselves.

We must be careful not to rely on our own reasoning, elevating our thoughts beyond what they are—our thoughts. The first step in gaining the wisdom of the Bible is to recognize God as the only source of true wisdom. We must see the Bible as His gift through which He offers that wisdom.

Second, we must approach the Bible with humility, understanding that what “seems right” to us can actually lead to death (Proverbs 14:12). As we read Scripture, we need to be prepared to change our lives to conform to God’s will. Humility prepares us for repentance.

Third, we need to ask God to give us His wisdom. As James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

To receive His wisdom, we also need God’s Spirit working within us so we can understand at a deeper level. That’s because “no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11; to study what the Bible says about how to receive the Holy Spirit, see “How Do You Know You Have the Holy Spirit?”).

The wisdom of God is not some esoteric knowledge. Instead, it is the understanding of how we as His children can live our lives in a way that pleases Him. That’s why it is the “principal thing; therefore get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7).

About the Author

Bill Palmer

Bill Palmer attends the Birmingham, Alabama, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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