What Is Wisdom in the Bible, and Can We Find It apart from God?

What Is Wisdom in the Bible, and Can We Find It apart from God?

What Is Wisdom in the Bible, and Can We Find It apart from God?

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” -Yoda

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” -Confucius

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” -Gandalf

Wisdom. When I think of wisdom I tend to think of the long grey beard of Gandalf, or the quiet demeanor of Yoda, or the pithy statements of Confucius. But is this what the Bible means by wisdom?

The dictionary definition is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Certainly Yoda, Confucius, and Gandalf would fit within that definition. But the Bible defines wisdom a bit differently. In Scripture, wisdom is directly related to living in accordance with how God has ordered the world.

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A stack of books, what we cannot know unless we know the Bible

What Is Wisdom?

Amazon has clearly disrupted the retail space. They have changed the way we think about shipping, about purchasing products online, and a host of others changes. Jeff Bezos understands marketing, advertising, shipping, and online retail. He put together a great team of people to revolutionize the way we think about shopping. Jeff Bezos has wisdom. But Jeff Bezos, as far as we can tell, would not claim to have a relationship with Christ. And we would teach that Jesus is the fountainhead of all wisdom.

So how should we think about wisdom? If it’s beginning is the “fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 9:1) then how can unbelievers exhibit such wisdom?

I think John Piper’s definition of wisdom might be helpful here: 

“The greatest human wisdom is the factual knowledge and the situational insight and the necessary resolve that together have the greatest likelihood of success in achieving the intended, righteous goal.

We could quibble here with whether Bezos is achieving a “righteous goal,” but let’s focus on the aspects of factual knowledge, situational insight, and necessary resolve. Factual knowledge simply means that you know your stuff. If you’re Amazon, wisdom requires that you understand products, marketing, shipping, etc.

But that isn’t enough to actually be called wisdom, situational insight is also necessary. The folks at Amazon need to know when to disrupt the market, when to raise the price on Amazon Prime, how to promote these changes successfully, among other things. You need to know how to apply the knowledge you have to certain situations.

There is one other component to wisdom which must be considered. It’s one thing to know the right stuff and even how to apply it, it’s quite another to act upon that wisdom. This is, in part, what Jesus meant when he said that “wisdom is proved right by her actions” (Mt. 11:19). Wisdom is actually shown by its fruit—by it’s acted result.

Lastly, biblical wisdom is going to add a God-ward and righteous component to its definition. One could have right facts, correct insight, and resolve to act, but do so to accomplish an ungodly end. A wicked ruler could have the right facts about invading a vulnerable territory, he could know when is the best time to accomplish this, and have the will to act upon it—but if it does not have a “righteous goal” then it is not to be considered godly wisdom. And the Bible is concerned with leading us into godly wisdom. 

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Woman reading the Bible

What Does the Bible Say about Wisdom?

One of the best places to learn about biblical wisdom is the Book of Proverbs. Most of the proverbs are written by Solomon, the wisest person in the Bible (apart from Jesus, of course). A particularly helpful place to look is in Proverbs 9. Here we see the difference between Lady Wisdom and the Woman Folly. There are four main differences.

1. Actions vs. Words

You see in this passage a contrast between Lady Wisdom quietly building her house, and the noisy ramblings of folly. Actions speak louder than words. The way of wisdom is a way of action, and the way of folly is the way of mere talk. Words do indeed matter, but they matter little if not accompanied by right action.

I remember hearing a sermon illustration about a boastful guy who went to a foreign country and came back telling everyone all the amazing things he’d done and seen. He told them how when he went to Crete, he absolutely had astounded everyone because he leaped higher than anyone had ever seen anyone jump. They all marveled at the amazing things he could do. To which one wise person said, “Now, my good man, if this be all true there is no need of outside witnesses. We shall be the witnesses ourselves. Suppose this is Crete. Leap now here in front of us.”

Would you rather have someone who talks a big game but won’t back it up? Or someone who is quiet but actually accomplishes what he says? Someone who quietly plods along and yet builds away? The former is that of folly, the latter of wisdom. 

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man sitting on beach thinking wondering pensive

2. Sustenance vs. Show

This is the difference between fine dining and eating the gruel that you see given to prisoners in old Western films. Of course, everyone would pick fine dining over prison food, but the woman folly is tricky. I think Wesley Hill paints a pretty accurate portrait of our temptation to folly:

“If the gospel brings comfort, it also necessarily brings affliction. The gospel resists the fallen inclinations of Christian believers. When we engage with God in Christ and take seriously the commands for purity that flow from the gospel, we always find our sinful dreams and desires challenged and confronted. From God’s perspective, our [sinful] inclinations are like the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst. Yet when God begins to try to change the craving and give us the living water that will ultimately quench our thirst, we scream in pain, protesting that we were made for salt. The change hurts.” (Hill, 67)

And this is what we see the woman folly does. She knows that we are beholden to the temporary. We are like the cat that just cannot resist following a laser pointer or the dog that can’t stop himself from chasing the shiny bumper of a car. So she appeals to this. She says to a thirsty man, “what you really need is salt….” But wisdom gives actual sustenance. If you want to know if you’re walking in wisdom, consider whether or not you are live a life of contentment in Christ.

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Silhouette of a woman praying at sunset

3. Intentional vs. Opportunistic

Lady Wisdom sends out disciples. She is intentional about inviting people into the banquet. And she has poured herself into others. This is likely a picture of parents and a faith community which wisdom has built and are now reproducing in the lives of others. It’s intentional.

The woman folly does the opposite. She is alone. And she’s just sitting at her house. She is waiting on people to come by. Wisdom is intentional and initiates. Folly is passive and opportunistic. I suppose the woman folly is a bit intentional. Notice where she positions herself. She’s at the center of town. She is at a place where people are going to walk by. She’s a bit of a predator here. She’s waiting for the passerby to come by her house so she can lay her trap.

4. Eternal vs. Temporary

This is really the biggest difference between the two. Would you rather have a small present right now or a big present later? Do you want the temporary pleasure of sin or the eternal joy of following the Lord? And because our hearts are given to that old adage, that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, we tend to go to the temporary. We don’t think much in the future. We want what we want and we want it now. And so even though it’s foolish to say, “I’ll take the dollar now, rather than the $100 later” we take the dollar. You see how the way of the woman folly ends in death. But the way of lady wisdom is a way of life. One follows the fleeting pleasures, the other goes for the eternal.

And this is really the ultimate difference between biblical wisdom and folly. It’s also the difference between biblical wisdom and the type of wisdom which might be given to us by God through common grace. I would argue that true biblical wisdom is only possible for believers in Christ.

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names of god, jehovah nissi

Can We Have Wisdom apart from God?

If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then it is impossible for those who do not have the fear of the Lord to have wisdom. Of course this does not mean they cannot have a type of wisdom given by common grace. Using Piper’s definition that we referenced earlier, I would argue that an unbeliever can certainly be knowledgeable, they can have situational insight, and they can have the will to act. But I do not believe they are able to do so for right reasons and for the glory of God.

It is impossible to have wisdom apart from God. He is the source of all knowledge and wisdom. Yes, unbelievers can at times be given the common grace to stumble upon truths and even act rightly. But true biblical wisdom can only come through a right relationship with Christ.

How Can We Grow to Be More Wise?

If we have a relationship with Christ, we are called to pursue wisdom and to grow in wisdom. But how does this happen? Dan Phillips in his book, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, provides a helpful illustration. He likens it to getting bread. How do you get bread? According to Matthew 6:11 you pray for it. But 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says that if you do not work then you will not eat. So how do you get bread? You work for it and pray for it. It’s both. The same is true when we talk about wisdom. James 1:5-7 tells us to pray for it and Proverbs 2 tells us to work for it.

Proverbs 2 is filled with active verbs. We search for wisdom. The pattern here is study, study, pray, study. You aren’t sitting there waiting for some mystical voice of God. You aren’t waiting for feelings or impressions. That isn’t what is meant here of wisdom. What we are after are the words of God—we are after what God says to us in His Word. Charles Bridges says it well:

“The rule of success is—Dig up and down the field; and if the search be discouraging, dig again. The patient industry of perusal and re-perusal will open the embosomed treasure” (Bridges, 15).

This is the way we ought to study the Scripture. Not hoping to uncover clues and following the various whims that we have to uncover something the author only wanted the really smart people to uncover. But instead, diligently search because the treasure is worth every bit of our effort.

Seek Out a Deeper Relationship with Christ

Ultimately wisdom comes through the work of Jesus Christ. He is the fountainhead of all wisdom and in Him we have all the wisdom we need for life and godliness. Mining for wisdom is ultimately mining for a deeper walk with Christ. But our previous definition is helpful here as well. We do not grow in wisdom merely by adding to our knowledge bank. We grow in wisdom by praying for the insight to apply our knowledge correctly and specifically in situations, and we grow when we actually enact that which we know to be true. You grow in wisdom by following the path of wisdom instead of the path of folly. 

One tremendous practice to grow in wisdom is to spend time each day in the Proverbs. There are 30-31 days each month and there are 31 Proverbs. Read a chapter of Proverbs every day and you will certainly grow in wisdom.

Related articles
What Are the Characteristics of a Wise Woman?
7 Pillars of Wisdom to Build Your Life Upon
Applying the Wisdom of Proverbs Today


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Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and his writing home is http://mikeleake.net