Science in Christian Perspective



Redefining "Wisdom"
Robert K. Johnston
Visiting Professor of Theology and Old Testament
New College, Berkeley
Berkeley, California 94704

From: JASA 34 December 1982): 44-47.

"Wisdom" is one of those slippery words in English. It is difficult to define precisely, yet common to most people's vocabulary and usage. "Wisdom" (in the Hebrew, hokmah) is also a complex, yet frequent Old Testament term. In its noun, adjective, or verb forms it is used over three hundred times. For both the ancient Hebrew and the modern English-speaking individual, "wisdom's" range of overlapping and at time contradictory meanings extends from craftiness to sagacity, from erudition to common sense.

There are, however, important differences in meaning and nuance between Old Testament "wisdom" and modern conceptions of the term. In particular, three common characteristics of the word "wisdom" in our society contain aspects of a biblically derived definition, but also serve to cloud over more fundamental meanings of the biblical term.

Contemporary Characteristics of "Wisdom"

For some modern Westerners, "wisdom" is associated with erudition, with great learning, with a high degree of knowledge. Particularly for those lacking in formal education, wisdom is thought to be discovered in the classroom and the academy. The counsel of teachers and pastors with specialized learning in one area is often sought out by students and parishioners, for example, because it is assumed that such educated people are generally wise.

For others, particularly those who have witnessed the lack of insight characteristic of many who have acquired strong theoretical knowledge in one area, "wisdom" has taken on a second association, namely, that of common sense. Here wisdom is thought to be a native quality of the mind, capable of cultivation but largely inborn. Viewed from this perspective, one's immigrant grandmother might well be wiser than one's physics professor.

Whether learned or innate, whether expressed in academic journal or folk music, modern "wisdom" possesses a third characteristic-its cerebral orientation. Wisdom is primarily a quality of the mind. Most modern-day people would not think of applying the term "wisdom" to describe the skill of a plumber, or even a painter. Thinkers, not doers, are wise. If a plumber is also judged to be wise, it is for reasons other than his skill in his vocation.

Now there is a sense in which these contemporary characteristics of "wisdom" ate consistent with the use of the term "wisdom" in the Old Testament. Solomon's wisdom, for example, is in part his intellectual brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge. It is said in the fourth chapter of I Kings that Solomon uttered three thousand proverbs and composed songs. But the thrust of this biblical assessment of Solomon as being "wise" centers on his ability as a "scientist". Solomon could catalogue trees, animals, birds, reptiles and fish (I Kgs. 4:33). It is this sense of "wisdom" as learning that lies behind God's use of the term in Chapter 38 of Job as well. It is also this academic wisdom that comes under fire in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Scripture rarely considers anything that man possesses as innate. Everything is from God, and this is true of wisdom too. But it is interesting to note that "wisdom" does at times have a certain naturalness, or commonness associated with it. In Scripture even the animals are sometimes judged wise. That is, they have a certain survival instinct, a certain common sense approach toward life that the absent-minded professor lacks. The writer of Proverbs 30:24-28 has this in mind when he labels the ant, the badger, the locusts and the lizard "exceedingly wise" (cf., Pr. 6:6f). The use of the word "wisdom" to mean basic "common sense" seems also the intention of Hosea in his caustic judgment on Israel. He chides, "The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son; for now he does not present himself at the mouth of the womb" (Hos. 13:13). Israel, Hosea charges, lacks wisdom; she doesn't even know what the fetus does naturally without prompting.

Contemporary discussion of the origin of Old Testament Wisdom Literature has debated whether ancient wisdom's provenance was the court or the clan, the school of the family. Did wisdom sayings develop naturally out of the life of the people, or were they the product of the educated counselors of the king? The answer need not be either/or. Increasingly, scholars are recognizing that wisdom came from both sources. Wisdom is the accumulated observations of past generations of common folk. It is also that legacy which Solomon and his court wise men fostered. Here is the same dual orientation for wisdom that even its definition betrays. Seen from one perspective, wisdom is the property of the "cultured;" seen from another, wisdom is the possession of the "common."

In both cases, however, wisdom has to do largely with the mind. As the Preacher states in Ecclesiastes: "I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven" (1: 13). He repeats the association a few verses later ("I applied my mind to know wisdom"), although he concludes, "For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow" (Ec. 1:18).

Old Testament Characteristics of "Wisdom"

The ancient Hebraic term for wisdom shares in common with its contemporary English equivalent an orientation toward the mind, whether this be an inborn quality or one that is acquired. Yet we miss the fuller meaning of the Old Testament term "wisdom" if we rest content here. For such a description largely reinforces various of our cultural prejudices, while overlooking more inclusive biblical perspectives. Wisdom must be understood as more than the academic competence our society values so highly; it has to do in its oldest layer of meaning with any form of skill, or know-how. Similarly, wisdom, while resident in humankind and animals, is never the creature's independent possession; however much we might think of ourselves as having "come-of-age", it is always a gift from God the Creator. It is sacred. Lastly, wisdom, while having to do with the mind, has equally to do with other aspects of our personhood less valued today. In particular, wisdom has a strong ethical cast.

Such broadened perspectives on "wisdom" seem foreign to much of modern thinking. To be once again appreciated, therefore, they need to be considered in some detail.

Wisdom" as Know-how

During the eighteenth century, musicians such as Bach, Handel and Haydn were known first of all as craftsmen with mastery over their instruments. Their art was viewed primarily as technical proficiency in subjecting sounds to a valid ordering. Out of the abundance of possibilities for sound, these composers produced that which was beautiful, not ugly-creative, not chaotic. Such an understanding of the musician would have appealed to the Old Testament person, and the term used to describe the successful practitioner might well have been "wise". For "wisdom" in its most elemental usage meant know-how, or skill, or special ability.

Perhaps the most explicit example of this meaning of "wisdom" is in Yahweh's words to Moses in Exodus 31 concerning the designer of the tabernacle:

The Lord said to Moses, "See, I have called by name Bez'alel ... and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability (literally "hokinah", i.e., "wisdom") and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every craft" (Ex. 31:1-5).

Good artisans are said to possess wisdom (cf., Ex. 35:35). Similarly, the skills of farmers (Is. 28:24-29), merchants (Ezek. 28:4-5), professional mourners (Jer. 9:17), builders (Pr. 24:3), soldiers (Pr. 21:22), astrologers (Is. 47:9-13), knife-sharpeners (Ec. 10: 10), sailors (Ps. 107:23-27; Ezek. 27:8), scribes (Jer. 8:8-9) and kings (11 Chr. 1:10; Is. 10:13) are labeled "wisdom", hokmah. Such skills can be turned to doing evil (Jet. 4:22) or to misusing the Law (Jer. 8:8), but the fact that it is a skill, the fact that it helps to order reality, sets it apart as wisdom. Experience is helpful (Job 12:12); training can provide insight (Pr. 1:3); observation is instructive (Pr. 6:6). But central to "wisdom" is the result, the ability to steer one's way skillfully through life (Pr. 1:5).

Contemporary Old Testament wisdom scholarship, influenced by the use of the term maat in the Egyptian wisdom writings, has often interpreted wisdom as a search for, or an uncovering of, a world order established by God (cf. Koch, Schmid, Gese, VonRad). But such a notion of wisdom is too static. The wise person is not just one who recognizes an order. He is the one skilled at ordering experience. It is in this sense that later in Israel's history God, too, is described as wise (Is. 31:2; Dan. 2:20). God is the master craftsman (cf., Ps. 8:5; Pr. 3:19). It is he who is at work in the world, shaping it according to his design as the writers of Proverbs (Pr. 8:22-31), Ecclesiastes (Ec. 3:17; 7:23-24) and Job (Job. 28:23-27) all realize.

"Wisdom" as Divine

Not only is God wise, creating and shaping according to his sovereign will and design, but people are wise only as God chooses to bestow wisdom upon them. It is the Lord who gives wisdom (Pr. 2:6). This was the secret of Solomon's success (I Kgs. 3:12). This was the source of the writer of Ecclesiastes' frustration (Ec. 2:26). Wisdom is personified in the well known eighth chapter of Proverbs, as well as in the extra-canonical books of Sirach (Sir. 24) and the Wisdom of Solomon (Wis. 7). The exact meaning of this personification has been hotly debated. Has an hypostatization of wisdom taken place? That is, has wisdom been deified and given an independent status? It seems not. The personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8 is a rhetorical device aimed at communicating more effectively an attribute of God's nature. It is God's wisdom that is offered to us as a life-companion (Pr. 4:6-9; 7:4). It is God's wisdom that was at work in creation (Pr. 8:22f).

There are three primary implications that derive from the fact that wisdom is viewed in the Old Testament as being with and from God. First, wisdom is inaccessible to us by our efforts alone. Thus, modesty and humility are our proper garb. Job recognizes this after encountering God's wisdom in the voice of the whirlwind: ". . .1 have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (Job 42:3). The writer of Proverbs asserts this fact as he observes: "No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord" (Pr. 21:30). Given the mystery of God's wisdom, it profits nothing to be wise in one's own eyes (Pr. 3:7; 28:26).

Instead, and secondly, wisdom is a gift from the Lord (Pr. 2:6), and wisdom's access is limited to the "fear of the Lord" (Job 28:28; Ps. I 11:10; Pr. 9:10). David Hubbard has pointed out that in the Old Testament there are a cluster of terms used to describe our relationship with God: "trust", "love", "fear", "obey", "know". The words overlap and bleed into one another. In the Wisdom Literature, the most frequently used of these terms are "fear" and "know". If we are to be wise, we must first fear God and know Him. This was Solomon's key (I Kgs. 3:12, 28); so, too, Joseph's (Gen. 41:38f.) and Daniel's (Dan. 1: 17-20). To fear is not to cower in terror, but to take God's revelation of himself in creation and redemption with utmost seriousness, to yield to its authority, and to follow through with its implications. To fear is to love, which is to know, which is to trust, which is to obey. Here, alone, is the path to wisdom.

Thirdly, "wisdom," being from God, has a special authority over us. It invites life and threatens death. Roland Murphy has correctly pointed out that the kerygma, the message, of the Book of Proverbs is life itself. Here is the good news that wisdom offers. "The teaching of the wise" is said to be a "fountain of life" (Pr. 13:14). Proverbs 8:32-36 states this idea even more clearly. Wisdom is speaking and she says:

... he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death.

"Wisdom" as Ethical

In the Old Testament God's justice (his righteousness) and his love (his mercy) connect and infect each other (cf., Is. 11:2ff.; Jer. 9:24; Hos. 10: 12). This is true also in the New Testament as Luther so forcefully discovered while meditating on Romans 1: 16-17. And as it is with God, so, too, with his children. We are "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with . . . God" (Mic. 6:8). Now in like manner, "wisdom" is not an isolated word in Scripture, but is associated repeatedly with "righteousness" and "justice". It is "the mouth of the righteous" which "utters wisdom" (Ps. 37:30; cf. Deut. 16:19). As does wisdom, so justice leads to life (Pr. 10: 16). "He who is steadfast in righteousness shall live" (Pr. 11:19). 

The Law commands right living; wisdom commends it. For only a context of righteousness allows wisdom to spring forth (Pr. 10: 3 1). Avoid loose women; they will cost you your life by turning you from wisdom (Pr. 9:13-18; 7:21-23). Wealth and beauty can similarly corrupt wisdom (Ez. 28:12-17). Control your speech, for a perverse tongue will be cut off (Pr. 10:31; cf., 19:9). If you wish to be wise, do not be a drunkard or glutton (Pr. 23:19-21).

Wisdom's ongoing ethical concern led her followers in the centuries just prior to the birth of the Messiah to equate wisdom not simply with law, with rules of conduct, but with the Law. To be wise and to obey the Torah were judged one and the same. The pathway to this conclusion was a gradual one. Wisdom's focus had been on God as Creator, and right conduct had been discerned from experience in creation. The Law's focus had been on God as Redeemer, as he revealed to his people the shape of authentic faith and life. But since Yahweh, the Creator and Redeemer, was one, since both wisdom and Law concerned themselves with righteous action, and since God's reward for both wisdom and obedience to the Law was life (cf., Deut. 30:15-20 and Pr. 8:32-36), it was only a matter of time before these parallel revelations from God merged. With Moses, obedience to the Law had been labeled "wisdom" (Deut. 4:6). Now, with Ben Sirach, wisdom is equated with "the Law which Moses commanded us" (Sirach 24:23).


Contemporary people seek wisdom, yet they often do so unmindful of its larger Old Testament meaning. The result is that they tend to seek it in the educational system narrowly conceived, not in the general pursuit of excellence inside and outside the classroom. They tend to seek it in the secular, not in the religious, even if they are Christians. They seek it as a quality of the mind, not as a stance of the whole person. And as a consequence, many are finding the quality of modern life compromised in various ways.

Viewing wisdom as the possession of the academy, our society has, for example, overvalued the college degree with a resultant loss of respect for the trades. It is small wonder that job dissatisfaction with its toll on both product and person is high. No one desires to be thought of as possessing lesser importance or worth. The fundamental definition of "wisdom" in the Old Testament as skill or ability should point us toward new possibilities for finding meaning in all of life's vocations. Why are finish carpenters or watch-repairmen a dying breed? Why are American made products increasingly shabby? Could it be that wisdom within God's wonderful mosaic of humankind has been obscured in order to celebrate the wisdom of man's academic achievements alone?

Again, those who view wisdom as something we are born with often overlook the fact that wisdom is a gift from God. Going back to Kant and beyond, Western culture has tended to divorce science from religion, wisdom from sentiment, the mind from the heart. The result has been the apotheosis of wisdom. That is, wisdom has been made an end in itself, and the implications stemming from this are proving disastrous. Our current explosion of knowledge threatens to overwhelm us. Our man-made launch is traveling full speed ahead across uncharted seas. But are we really moving ahead? We suspect our boat lacks a rudder to guide us. We follow our nursery rhymes and proceed to "jump over the moon," only to question its meaning and the resultant cost. We know much as a society, but life's larger goals and purposes continue to prove evasive. As the writer of Eccleiastes observed long ago, "For in much wisdom (of this kind) is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow" (Ec. 1:18). Without a recognition that wisdom is from God and for God, joy will continue to prove elusive (cf., Ec. 2:24-26).

Finally, the newspapers are filled today with debate over the ethical implications of our work. Is there such a thing as "pure" research? Can we as a society afford not to discipline our intellectual potential along strongly humanistic lines? What of genetic research? What of nuclear energy? The list could be extended. What is needed today is a recovery of wisdom's locus in prudent, ethical action. Right conduct leads to wisdom, and wisdom to righteous action.

Wisdom's task, as well as its context, is the nourishment of human kind. Here, surely, is the meaning of wisdom's metaphor as "the tree of life":

Happy is the man who finds wisdom... She is more precious than jewels ... Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.

(Pr. 3:13-18)