Prov 8:10-17: Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom, is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her. I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech. Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power. By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth. I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.


Job 38:1-3: Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me."

Ecc 1:13, 16-18: I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! [. . .] I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge." Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

I Cor 1:18-25: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

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Teachings of Wisdom

Wisdom, in all its variations, invites us to find a fit between our behavior and the divine order of the world we live in. Christians believe that God constructed the world with Wisdom at his side and, therefore, that there is a continuum between our personal lives and that of creation. Certain behavior leads to success, and other behavior leads to failure. However, it is not quite so simple to say that we easily understand what success and failure add up to. Wisdom also teaches us what our limits are--what we do not understand, how blind we may be to God's true wisdom for our lives.

Different Kinds of Wisdom

There is more than one kind of wisdom. The kind of wisdom praised by Proverbs is practical. It amounts to a skill in living, an insight into varying circumstances, and a certain shrewdness in dealing with a variety of personalities. This method of wisdom at its best is discipleship. More than the technical mastery of a few key insights, practical wisdom cultivates an internalized habit, a way of living in the world. Wisdom grows into a cultivated good-sense that sizes up situations. Job and Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, teach us that wisdom has a limited potential. It cannot solve everything. God may leave us with questions, or we may discover that what we thought was wisdom breaks apart before the circumstances. These aspects of wisdom, then, are more interrogative in nature.

Practical Wisdom

Because of wisdom's practical side, some have suggested that the wisdom tradition of Ancient Israel is essentially secular. There is some truth to this suggestion because many of the proverbs of Israel share the same kinds of concerns that other ancient wisdom traditions share. Proverbs' God-inspired editor was quite willing to adapt several Egyptian proverbs (cf. Prov 22:17ff.) Like its other Near eastern counterparts, the later chapters of Proverbs mainly teach ethical maxims and day-to-day management of circumstances. Take, for example, the biblical portrait of the foolish and the wise. The fool is one who refuses apt words, who is lazy, and who is always undercuting others. The wise are those who speak fitting words, who care for others in the community, and who know how to avoid misunderstandings. These are observations that can be found in almost any culture. However, it would be a mistake to understand this wisdom as finally secular. Israel's wisdom ultimately begins in the fear of God and has its confirmation in the Torah. Even supposedly "secular" insights are recontextualized within the worship and service of God. This suggests a manner for us in approaching the limited wisdom of literature.

Practical wisdom is both inductive and deductive. It works by observing specific cases in life and applying general maxims to those circumstances, yet it also begins with a sense of divine revelation, for Yahweh has spoken to what is good and evil. Literature, as a source of wisdom, can be evaluated from two complementary directions: 1) we can take an inductive approach that seeks to gather together principles for living from the stories and poems we read, and 2) we can take a deductive approach that tests these examples by scripture. It isn't always true that the world portrayed in poetry and fiction matches up to the real world, but even the time we take to test a fictional setting against the actuals of life and relationships can help strengthen our sense of what existence is like. Equally, literature can help fill out our sense of the truths of scripture because we learn to compare, contrast, and evaluate worldviews. 

Wisdom's Interrogative Side

This practice can become rather reductive if we do not keep in mind, however, that wisdom also has an interrogative side. It asks questions to bring us to the end of our easy answers. We run the risk of a kind of "wisdom" that treats literature as ethical material to evaluate but then dispose of, as if literature were simply content to master. The impulse to wisdom, if it is shorn from its foundation in God, can prize itself for technique, for the ability to manipulate situations and manage persons. The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that such an approach is finally empty; it is but grasping wind. Our attempts at achieving success are vain, for the end of the matter is to fear God. There is much literature that brings this theme home to us in varying ways. No one can read Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, for example, without seeing the disturbing side of a relentless pursuit for success. And no one can ever quite answer the mysteries that T.S. Eliot writes of in The Four Quartets. We end only too aware of our limits. Literature is often wise when it raises questions without attempting to answer them.

Human Wisdom

The New Testament also reminds us that human wisdom, conceived of in yet another way, with all its pretensions, may end up seeing God's wisdom as foolishness. Human wisdom has its noetic blindness, after all. Erasmus suggested as much when he noted that those of the world and those of God each believe the other to be insane. To pour out your life on something other than the brightest, richest, and most powerful makes no sense to the person who does not believe in an eternal reward or the one who does not think bliss is possible with God. In some sense, then, human wisdom is also a matter of control beliefs, those essential assumptions that shape the rest of the way we see and understand existence. This is one reason that a Christian may evaluate a work of literature in very different fashion from a person of another persuasion. The freedom that a poem by Allen Ginsberg claims may seem like liberty to an atheist and bondage to a Christian. The wisdom each one derives about life from Ginsberg will seem impenetrable to the other.

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Central insight: Literature can help the reader develop wisdom, both practically and interrogatively. It is also a place where differing worldviews meet in disagreement over just what that wisdom is.

Suggestions for Application: Pull together a particular theme that a text offers as an example of wisdom, show how a text questions our preconceived understanding and perhaps challenges our self-assurance, or show how a text serves as a site for contesting worldviews.