What is wisdom?

Huston Smith, senior professor of religion at Syracuse University, recounted his interaction with a famous author and professor:

While I was teaching at MIT, Aldous Huxley joined us for a semester as distinguished visiting professor in the humanities. Needless to say, he was in demand all over New England, and my regard for him was so great that I volunteered to be his social secretary, driving him to and from his engagements because I wanted nothing so much that semester as to spend as much time in his presence as I could manage.

On the way to one of his engagements, he said, “You know, Huston, it’s rather embarrassing to have spent one’s entire lifetime pondering the human condition and to come toward its close and find that I really don’t have anything more profound to pass on by way of advice than, “’Try to be a little kinder.’”

Here was one of the influential philosopher’s of his time, a man who shaped the way people thought about and lived life, and he self-admittedly had no real wisdom for how to live life.

His comment raises the question, “What does it mean to be wise?”

The book of Proverbs has much to say about wisdom, as the words “wisdom” and “wise” appear 124 times in the book and are constantly used in contrast with the fool and foolish activity (e.g., 7:24-27).  There are three primary words the Hebrew writers used for wisdom in the book —

  • “Wisdom” (hokhmah) is used of skilled craftsmen (garment makers, singers, sailors, counselors, administrators, metal workers).  It is expressed in shrewdness (2 Sam. 20:22) and prudence (Ps. 37:30; 90:12), but most of all, its source is God who is holy, righteous, and just (Prov. 2:6).  True wisdom involves knowing the Holy One, and thus in application it “involves a proper discernment between good and evil, between virtue and vice, between duty and self-indulgence.”  This is the word that is used most often in Proverbs (cf. 1:2, 7; 2:2, 6; 3:13; 4:7; 9:10).
  • “Understanding” (binah) denotes “the ability to discern intelligently the difference between sham and reality, between truth and error,…there is always an analytical or judgmental factor involved and the ability to distinguish between the valid and invalid” (cf. 4:1, 5, 7; 9:10; 16:16; 19:25; 23:23).
  • “Sound wisdom” (tushiyyah) appears only four times in Proverbs (and seven times in rest of the Old Testament).  This word “points to the activity of the believer’s mind by which he is able to deduce from what God has revealed the manner in which these principles are to be applied in everyday situations of life” (cf. 2:7; 3:21; 8:14; 18:1).

wisdom wordsBiblical wisdom is different from secular wisdom which often flies under the banner of “common sense.”  Biblical wisdom surpasses secular wisdom because it sees life in the context of pleasing and enjoying God and living in the wisdom and power of the cross (1 Cor. 1:20-25) as preeminent.  Wisdom is rooted in Christ (Col. 2:3 — “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”) and we are in Him (1 Cor. 1:30 — “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption”).  Biblical wisdom, thus is about living with and for God through the power of Christ.

As one writer has noted,

God’s wisdom isn’t about brain power; it’s about a heart filled with reverence for God that makes practical choices to do what God has revealed in His Word. The Bible closely connects wisdom with right behavior. [John Crotts, Craftsmen]

So let me summarize this with a simple definition:  “Wisdom is the skill of living a holy life governed by the truth of Scripture and the love of God.”  Wisdom produces distinction, reason, ability and confidence, living the way God intended us to live when He made us, and coping with life in a God-honoring way.

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