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The Beginning of Wisdom

Throughout history humans have used many methods to pursue wisdom. Philosophy is defined as the “love of wisdom” or “pursuit of knowledge,” yet when we consider the wide variety of differing philosophies like existentialism, hedonism, or stoicism, we may be left wondering how they could diverge so extremely while striving after one goal. While we may be tempted to think of philosophy as modern, the Bible contains many case studies in the failures of normative ethics and denial of truth (Ps. 53:1; Rom. 1:18–31). What, then, is the biblical view of the virtue of wisdom? In short, wisdom is truth applied in specific situations for godly ends.

A survey of biblical Wisdom Literature—like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job—shows the use of various literary techniques for both instruction and also exceptions to “the rules.”1 Wisdom is personified as a protector and a woman who is “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (Prov. 2:11; 4:6; 3:18). In the Bible we see numerous examples of wisdom and engagement with—rather than denial of—life’s most difficult questions. The virtue of wisdom is not simply a privilege for the educated, experienced, or respected. Instead, wisdom is made available to the plain. The Lord provides wisdom generously to those who ask Him for it (James 1:5–7). For those who are aware of just how deceptive the world can be, this is truly a great comfort.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Ps. 111:10). Rather than a posture of hiding or shame, this type of fear describes a posture of awe. Awe acknowledges God as the Creator, center, and steadfast foundation of all truth. Many experiences in life can be confusing, disorienting, and even imprisoning. Yet, all one needs to receive wisdom is humility (Prov. 11:2).

Recognizing Folly

One of the literary tools the Bible uses is the “fool.” Set in contrast to wisdom, examples of the fool highlight the life wisdom brings. We soon realize, folly isn’t just “out there”—it can be found when we look in the mirror. Even Shakespeare recognized this truth saying, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”2

While “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). What does it mean to be foolish? Augustine said, “They love truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them.”3 Rather than simply lacking knowledge, the refrain of Scripture is that a fool is “right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25; Prov. 3:7; Isa. 5:21).

Wisdom is truth applied in specific situations for godly ends.

In the Bible, wisdom and foolishness are moral categories. The foolish deny God and His wisdom (Prov. 14:1). The wise embrace God and His wisdom (Prov. 3:5–7). The fool is recognized by his deception, which is often self-deception (see 1 Cor. 3:18; James 1:22–24). The wise are concerned with truth. While the fool may keep up appearances or play a part, ultimately, he is known by his fruit (Matt. 7).

Applying Wisdom

Man-centered wisdom is self-seeking, but “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). Rather than being open to any reason, this reason seeks God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. In contrast to being deceived, true wisdom is oriented around anchored truth. This makes it useful for life’s greatest conflicts (see Job 28:12–28; Matt. 10:16; Acts 7:9). No one can prophesy the providences God will bring; we must have a framework for living so that we may apply wisdom in our time of need. Again, wisdom is truth applied in specific situations.

Shallow understanding trusts only in well-weathered paths (Prov. 14:12). Wisdom, however, is an exercise of trust in the Lord (Ps. 146:3–5). Our ultimate rubric is not popular opinion rather, the wise man “builds his house on the rock” (Matt. 7:24). Wisdom does not use force or coercion but instead appeals to the conscience with humility and courage. While the road to humility can be painful, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). This is why employing wisdom is an act of trust, teachability, stewardship, and sincerity. This trust is not in man or our circumstances, but in God’s provision, His omniscience, and His eternal goodness.

Growing in Wisdom

We embrace wisdom in the gospel brought to us by His Word, for Christ Himself “is the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). We grow in the skills of wisdom by sitting under expository preaching, becoming a student of God’s Word, and becoming a student of God’s creation. An active student learns questioning skills and forms habits of reflection and evaluation. These reflections help us to make more connections in our learning as we observe echoes of God’s character in all that is good, true, and beautiful. We diligently pursue wisdom in order to know our revealed God, to rightly know ourselves, and to grow in our understanding of the world God created—and this is what we will spend eternity doing.

Pursuing wisdom is not about having a foolproof plan. It is preparation for humble application as we learn. Our unawareness of God’s law often brings us into sin, and we can surprise ourselves with our own folly. Wisdom is readiness to evaluate and try again. Wisdom can be applied to our bad decisions and their unanticipated consequences. It is never too late to apply wisdom if we are willing to bend the knee. May we embrace the Shepherd who leads us by still waters for His name’s sake (Ps. 23:2–3).

This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.

  1. See Max Rogland, “How to Read Wisdom Literature” for a brief, helpful explanation.
  2. William Shakespeare, As You Like It.
  3. Augustine, Confessions.