What Is Biblical Wisdom?

Posted On September 16, 2021

Written by Dr. Ben Shaw, professor of Old Testament

What is biblical wisdom?

There are several ways of answering that question. One way is to think of what is commonly called “wisdom literature” in the Bible. This list includes the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, as well as the New Testament book of James. The key word in these books is “wisdom.” Job, whatever else it may be about, includes an entire chapter (Job 28) that seeks to answer the question, “Where is wisdom found?” In Proverbs, we see wisdom personified, especially in the first nine chapters. The remainder of the book gives wise direction for the conduct of life. Ecclesiastes offers a different take on wisdom, focusing on the shortcomings of human wisdom and its inability unaided to answer ultimate questions or to deal with the fact of universal death. James makes the point that there are two types of wisdom—divine and earthly. It is divine wisdom that guides not only the behavior but also the thinking of the Christian.

Focusing on wisdom literature might give someone the impression that biblical wisdom is primarily intellectual and philosophical. Though there is a mental or reflective aspect to biblical wisdom, that is not all there is. For example, we find that God gave wisdom to those in charge of building the tabernacle and the temple. Exodus 31:3 says of Bezalel, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship.” The word translated “ability” in the ESV is the word hokmah, more commonly translated as “wisdom.” (See also 1 Kings 7:14.) Biblical wisdom also includes the kind of shrewdness and understanding of human nature that Solomon demonstrated in the case of the two prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16–28). Notice also that when Solomon prayed for wisdom, he asked for the kind of political insight necessary to govern a country successfully.

Biblical wisdom, then, refers to a wide variety of things, ranging from intellectual understanding to mechanical skill. Fundamentally, though, right wisdom is the gift of God. Like Solomon, we should pray for it. And we have the assurance that God will give it generously and without reproach (James 1:5).

This article was written by Dr. Ben Shaw, professor of Old Testament.