The Bible speaks of wisdom nearly 400 times. And unlike words like submission or discipline, wisdom is a word that evokes a positive emotion, wouldn’t you say? If pressed, ‘Do you want wisdom or not?’ most of us would say ‘Yes, I want wisdom.’ But isn’t it funny we don’t hear people using that term much today? Rarely does a politician’s ad proclaim “Here is a wise leader!” The books I read to my children don’t teach wisdom. Why is this? “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding,” writes the author of Proverbs, “For her income is better than silver and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 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” (Proverbs 3:13-18 NRSV). Now who wouldn’t want that?! Apparently, a whole lot of people.
There is a reason, as our plunge into the abyss of secular humanism accelerates, we have lost the ability to speak of wisdom. Wisdom is not self-affirming. You cannot think hard enough to be wise. Wisdom is not the inheritance of the creative, the ambitious, or the tolerant. You cannot experience it. You do not become wise by winning arguments, amassing wealth, or gaining Twitter followers. Wisdom is sought. Wisdom is found. Wisdom is received. Happy are those who find wisdom.
We might say wisdom is the knowledge of truth, the recognition of beauty, and the application of justice. But I know none of those things by nature. They are things I must be taught or, rather, things that must be imparted to me. It should come as little surprise that a culture undergirded by the worship of personal freedom and sustained by the pursuit of self-expression would have little value for, and difficulty speaking of, wisdom.
This is because wisdom cannot be tailor-made to fit the individual. It is not created. On the contrary, wisdom is itself a creative force. No matter what I may think or feel, the essence of wisdom is (thankfully!) not up to me. Beauty, to take one aspect of wisdom, does not become ugly by virtue of my proclamation or yours. Beauty simply is. Beauty does not ask its beholder, “What do you think of me?” Rather, beauty compels the subject to make a choice; “Marvel at me or dismiss me.” The wise marvel. The fool dismisses. In either case, however, beauty stands firm, unchanged and confident as ever. How infuriating this concept of wisdom must be to a world whose creeds are “To each his own”, “In the eye of the beholder”, and “True for you”. How demoralizing this talk of wisdom feels. How oppressive. How dare wisdom try to tell me what she looks like…I’ll be the judge of that!
Not all instances of the word wise in scripture are positive. There is a kind of ‘wisdom’ the Bible mercilessly mocks. “The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish; the wise counselors of Pharaoh give stupid counsel” (Isa. 19:11). “Do not be wise in your own eyes. Fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:7). “On that day, says the Lord, I will destroy the wise out of Edom” (Obadiah 8). “The wise shall be put to shame…they have rejected the word of the Lord, what wisdom is in them?” (Jer. 8:9). And in judgment the Lord says through Isaiah, “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!” (Isa. 5:20-21).
How do you know what is true? What is beautiful? What is just? Are you the ultimate arbiter of such things? If so, who cares? Is not the whole thing a senseless charade; a waste of time? For who is to say one person’s opinion is superior to another’s? Moreover, my life is mist, here today, gone tomorrow. Why should anyone care about my opinions when I’m gone? If the answer is ‘My culture’ or (God forbid!) ‘The majority’ we are in more danger still. Cultures change with the wind and majorities often side with the foolhardy.
The Bible offers a perfectly satisfying and intellectually sound alternative to all that nonsense. “Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his” (Dan. 2:20). Should you desire such things, you know where to find them.
“If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith…” (Jas. 1:5-6a).