The paradigms of Israel's religion law, prophecy, and wisdom were not exclusive to Israel but were shared by other ancient Near Eastern cultures. So it was not the form of Israel's religion that made it distinctive, but its content. Wisdom was a common way of thinking in this part of the ancient world. Briefly, it was a way of viewing and approaching life, which involved instructing the young in proper conduct and morality and answering the philosophical questions about life's meaning.
The Old Testament. In the Old Testament wisdom at one level describes skilled arts and artisans, like weavers ( Exod 35:25-26 ), architects ( Exod 35:30-36:1 ), and goldsmiths ( Jer 10:9 ). At a second level, wisdom was keen insight into life and ways of dealing with its problems. Solomon was associated with wisdom in this sense ( 1 Kings 3:1-15 ; see also 1 Kings 4:32-34 ), although the term used was "understanding, " which occurs often as a synonym of wisdom. At a fourth level, the terms "wisdom" and "wise" apply to men and women who represent a way of thinking and conduct that is orderly, socially sensitive, and morally upright. Thus, the major thrust of wisdom in the Old Testament was a code of moral conduct. This is especially represented by the Book of Proverbs, which gives instruction on personal behavior from the discipline of children ( 22:6 ) to the golden-rule treatment of one's neighbor ( 24:29 ). The goal of wisdom was to build an orderly and functional society that reflected the moral requirements of God as set forth in the law of Moses. Although Wisdom Literature has no emphasis on Mosaic Law as a code, the moral propositions of that law nevertheless underwrite the moral code of Wisdom Literature, particularly the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The closing admonition of Ecclesiastes, only implied in the main body of the book, is to "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" ( 12:13 ). The apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (Jesus ben Sirach) carries this view to the point of equating wisdom with law. Keeping the law produces wisdom, and wisdom is found in the keeping of the law ( 15:1 ; 21:11 ; 24:23-33 ).
Certain theological presuppositions undergird the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. First, the individual rather than the nation is addressed. In one sense, wisdom is an appropriate theological complement to the law and the prophets, the latter two religious paradigms basically addressing the nation. That is not to overlook the fact, however, that much in the law and prophets applies to individuals. Rather, it is to recognize that God spoke the law to the nation of Israel, and similarly the prophets spoke basically to the nation. It is not reading too much into Wisdom Literature to say that wisdom's way of building the society that reflected Yahweh's will for humankind was to work from the individual up, whereas law and prophecy tended to work from the corporate nation down to the individual.
Second, the view of God put forth by Wisdom Literature was God as Creator rather than God as Redeemer, the latter theological construct characterizing law and prophecy. This is evident in the Lord's redemptive Acts of bringing Israel out of Egypt and giving them the land of Canaan. In contrast, wisdom never makes reference to historical events, but rather describes God as Creator of the world. Again, this view is a helpful theological complement to the Redeemer theology of the Torah and Prophets.
Third, wisdom simplifies religion by describing faith as born out of decisions that are either wise or foolish. There are two ways a person may take, and the choices one makes determine one's direction. In Proverbs, wisdom personified stands in public places and calls to those who will listen to follow her precepts ( 1:20-33 ; 8:1-31 ). The disposition that characterizes the wise person is summed up in the phrase the "fear of the Lord." It is this disposition that is the beginning of wisdom, and it also designates the process by which wisdom matures the individual. Not surprisingly, the fear of the Lord also names the end of the process. Sometimes in the Old Testament this phrase is a general term for religion (since the Old Testament has no specific word for religion), and sometimes, as in the Book of Proverbs, the phrase carries a meaning very close to the New Testament concept of faith.
The wisdom books of the Old Testament are Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs. A few psalms fall into the wisdom category ( 1 , 37 , 49 , 73 , 112 , 127 , 128 ). The emphasis of this material subdivides into two rubrics, one emphasizing the theological problems of life, such as the suffering of the innocent (Job) and the meaning of life (Ecclesiastes). Scholars sometimes call this rubric higher or reflective wisdom. The other rubric is much more practical (Proverbs), and deals with the issues that touch the individual's life, such as personal industry, integrity, sexual purity, and family relations. This subcategory is sometimes called lower or practical wisdom. The wisdom psalms divide into these categories as well, 37, 49, and 73 representing higher wisdom, and 1, 112, 127, and 128 belonging to the practical category.
The New Testament. In the New Testament the Epistle of James is often considered to incorporate wisdom elements in its practical advice for Christian living. The practical nature of the Beatitudes ( Matt 5:3-12 ) also puts them in a category akin to wisdom. Luke took note that Jesus "grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" ( 2:52 ). Perhaps this connotes the practical side of Jesus' teaching, so simple and direct, but it could also include a deeper knowledge of mission and God's purpose of salvation.
Paul compares the wisdom (sophia [sofiva]) of men to a "wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began" ( 1 Cor 2:6-7 ). The "wisdom of men" was human understanding as compared with the "hidden wisdom of God, " which was a knowledge of God's plan of salvation through Jesus Christ foreordained before the world began. The ultimate manifestation of wisdom was Jesus Christ. Ultimately God revealed his wisdom in the person of his own Son, Jesus Christ ( 1 Corinthians 1:24 1 Corinthians 1:30 ).
C. Hassell Bullock
Bibliography. C. H. Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books; J. L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom; J. H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature and Its Cultural Context.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Wisdom'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".