Wisdom literature is not unique to the Bible. In fact, the bible itself refers to the wisdom and wise men of Israel’s neighbors. The wisdom of Egypt (1 Kgs 4:30), Arabia (Jer 49:7), Babylon (Is 47:10) and Phoenecia (Ez 28:3) are all given mention in Holy Scripture. Indeed many of these schools of wisdom emerged earlier in history than Israel. The wisdom of God’s chosen people flowered quite late in the day. And so, the question arises…
What is so distinctive about biblical wisdom?
1. Its Supreme Quality
Its widely accepted that Solomon was the wellspring of the wisdom corpus. Just as David was the spring of the psalms, so Solomon was the fountainhead of the proverbs . It is quite impossible, therefore, to think of Israel’s wisdom without also thinking of Solomon. And when we think of Solomon, we consider a man who possessed an extraordinary level of wisdom.
Several passages emphasize the unprecedented degree of Solomon’s wisdom. After Solomon asks Yahweh for wisdom, the LORD replies, “I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be” (1 Kings 3:12, emphasis added). This unparalleled wisdom is then demonstrated in the following account, when Solomon brilliantly discerns between two claimants to one baby (1 Kings 3:16-28). Solomon’s wisdom is commended further through the visit of the Queen of Sheba. She concludes at the end of their state visit: “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” (1 Kings 10:6-7).
All of this is designed to demonstrate Solomon’s superior wisdom. The world may have its wise-men, but Solomon towers above them all. And if the wisdom corpus was largely spawned by Solomon, that means that it too has a superior quality.
2. Its Divine Source
Much of wisdom literature has an earthy feel. It reflects ‘life on the ground’ in the dirt and dust of daily life. Nevertheless, this earthy material – we mustn’t forget – has a heavenly source. Unlike other wisdom writings which are purely the product of human reflection, biblical wisdom is divine revelation.
This is not to say for a moment that God bypassed the human mind. We are not claiming that God circumvented the reflections upon experience which human beings are capable of. What we are saying is that the Holy Spirit was ultimately guiding this process. Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are part of that ‘all Scripture’ which Paul tells us is ‘breathed out by God.’ Biblical wisdom is not merely human observation, it is divine revelation.
3. Its Divine Orientation
Biblical wisdom is God-conscious. This is in contrast to much of the wisdom materials outside the bible – whether in Egypt, or in Waterstones. Human wisdom is entirely humanly focused. There is usually no mention of God in those writings.
But biblical wisdom is theological. A repeated maxim in Proverbs is that, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10. And Proverbs 1:7. Also see Psalm 111 verse 10)
In biblical thinking, then, wisdom is not merely worldly experience or practical smarts. The tree of wisdom, with all of its delectable fruit, grows out of the fear of the LORD. Reverencing God, and seeing all life in relation to Him, is the root system out of which the truly wise life develops and grows. The truly wise man is the man who knows God, fears God, relies on God and who lives their life with a constant consciousness of their Creator. Knowing and fearing God is the starting point of all true wisdom. This means that a person may abound in knowledge and experience and still be a fool (see Ps 14:10, Luke 12, James 4). If they haven’t factored God into their equation for living they are unlikely, indeed unable, to live with wisdom.
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