Where is Wisdom?
Jordan Pickering, GWC Faculty, Biblical Studies, Old Testament, Greek
LTh (GWC), BTh, Hons BA (NWU), MTh (Stellenbosch)
In an era when even Christians ask the proud and the foolish to lead them, it is appropriate that we should dwell for a moment on the often misunderstood topic of biblical wisdom.
In Hebrew thinking, the heart is not the centre of the emotions, as it is for most of us, but rather the centre of moral and intellectual decision, which we might call the mind or will. So, naturally, when the Bible indicates that the seat of wisdom is the heart (as in Solomon’s request, ‘Give your servant a discerning heart…’ [1 Kings 3:9]), it is a matter of good thinking and behaviour rather than what feels right.
A major mistake that Christians make concerning wisdom is inspired by a misunderstanding of, for example, Proverbs 9:10, which says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Some take this to mean that wisdom is possessed by those with genuine faith and absent from those who don’t believe. This in turn deceives some into thinking that wisdom is merely a matter of doing what the church or the Bible says. Obeying the Bible is of course a good thing, but paradoxically, unthinking obedience—even of the Bible—is close to the opposite of wisdom.
On the contrary, there is wisdom literature included in the Bible that seems originally to have been sourced outside the Bible (such as the proverbs of Lemuel), and understanding the Bible itself requires wisdom! Wisdom literature in the Bible also seems intentionally to make it impossible to merely obey what it says. For example:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5)
Clearly, these verses cannot be commands, because they are intentionally contradictory. One cannot obey one without disobeying the other.
This leads us to a crucial point. Wisdom literature is not the same as law. It cannot (and should not) merely be obeyed. The point of wisdom literature is not to tell people what to think, but to teach them how to think.
So, when Proverbs 12:21 tells us, ‘No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble,’ it is absolutely not a promise that the righteous will always be spared pain and suffering, and nor does it let us accuse others of unconfessed wickedness when things go wrong for them. It is a forceful way of saying that the wicked make trouble for themselves but the righteous do not. It is generally true, and only in some ways but not others. It is not a promise.
Similarly, when Proverbs 13:24 says, ‘He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him,’ it is not making a law to specify beatings with a rod as the godliest form of discipline. One can use the rod liberally and hate one’s son, and one can use forms of discipline other than the rod and completely fulfil the Proverb.
Wisdom literature in scripture provides us with principles for living that remain remarkably relevant today. Nevertheless, we should not forget that it remains bound to Israel’s context from well over 2000 years ago. It would not be successful in its task of teaching us to think if we now received its 2000-year-old advice without asking whether some of it needs modification. There are proverbs that encourage its reader to have many children—something that reflects the problem of staggeringly high infant mortality in a society where the labour demands on a family were massive. To use one of our own proverbs, many hands make light work. The Apostle Paul himself advises the opposite to his readers—it is better to remain single and be undivided in one’s focus on gospel things—because new circumstances demand new thinking. In our own age, Paul’s point remains the more relevant one, and indeed, the possibility of overpopulation straining natural resources might add yet more data to the debate about whether it is always wise to have children (and especially a big family).
Evangelical Christians wish to obey the Lord, and obedience is essential. However, we are sometimes under-appreciative of the role of careful thinking in the Christian life. If we can persuade ourselves that we are in the right—that our intentions were good, or that we are not breaking any Biblical commands—then we acquit ourselves of any responsibility if our handling of things turns out badly. As long as we preserve the gospel message, we might say, it doesn’t matter how we preach or evangelise.
In fact, a large proportion of the Bible exists to try to teach us wisdom. Understanding much of the rest of the Bible depends on wisdom being used. Let’s commit to cultivating patterns of thought and behaviour that are both godly and wise.