1. Linguistic

2. History

3. Religious Basis

4. Ideals

5. Teaching of Christ

6. Remainder of the New Testament

(1) James

(2) Paul

7. Hypostasis


See a list of verses on WISDOM in the Bible.

1. Linguistic:

In the Revised Version (British and American) the noun "wisdom" and its corresponding adjective and verb ("be wise," "act wisely," etc.) represent a variety of Hebrew words: bin (binah, and in the English Revised Version tebunah), sakhal (sekhel, sekhel), lebh (and in the English Revised Version labhabh), tushiyah (and in the English Revised Version Te`em, `ormah, piqqach. None of these, however, is of very frequent occurrence and by far the most common group is the verb chakham, with the adjective chakham, and the nouns chokhmah, chokhmoth, with something over 300 occurrences in the Old Testament (of which rather more than half are in Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). Cokhmah, accordingly, may be treated as the Hebrew equivalent for the English "wisdom," but none the less the two words do not quite correspond. For chokhmah may be used of simple technical skill (Ex 28:3; 35:25, etc.; compare The Wisdom of Solomon 14:2; Sirach 38:31; note that the English Versions of the Bible gives a false impression in such passages), of military ability (Isa 10:13), of the intelligence of the lower animals (Pr 30:24), of shrewdness applied to vicious (2Sa 13:3) or cruel (1Ki 2:9 Hebrew) ends, etc. Obviously no one English word will cover all these different uses, but the general meaning is clear enough--"the art of reaching one's end by the use of the right means" (Smend). Predominantly the "wisdom" thought of is that which comes through experience, and the "wise man" is at his best in old age (Job 12:12; 15:10; Pr 16:31; Sirach 6:34; 8:9; 25:3-6, etc.; contrast Job 32:9; Ec 4:13; The Wisdom of Solomon 4:9; Sirach 25:2). And in religion the "wise man" is he who gives to the things of God the same acuteness that other men give to worldly affairs (Lu 16:8). He is distinguished from the prophets as not having personal inspiration, from the priestly school as not laying primary stress on the cult, and from the scribes as not devoted simply to the study of the sacred writings. But, in the word by itself, a "wise man" need not in any way be a religious man.

See the definition of wisdom in the KJV Dictionary

In the Revised Version (British and American) Apocrypha and New Testament the words "wisdom," "wise," "act wisely," etc., are always translations of phronimos, or of their cognates. For "wisdom," however, sophia is in almost every case the original word, the sole exception in the New Testament being Lu 1:17 (phronesis).

See also PRUDENCE.

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

2. History:

(1) In the prophetic period, indeed, "wise" generally has an irreligious connotation. Israel was fully sensible that her culture was beneath that of the surrounding nations, but thought of this as the reverse of defect. Intellectual power without moral control was the very fruit of the forbidden tree (Ge 3:5), and "wisdom" was essentially a heathen quality (Isa 10:13; 19:12; 47:10; Eze 28:3-5; Zec 9:2; specifically Edomite in Jer 49:7; Ob 1:8; contrast Baruch 3:22,23) that deserved only denunciation (Isa 5:21; 29:14; Jer 4:22; 9:23; 18:18, etc.). Certainly at this time Israel was endeavoring to acquire a culture of her own, and there is no reason to question that Solomon had given it a powerful stimulus (1Ki 4:29-34). But the times were too distracted and the moral problems too imperative to allow the more spiritually-minded any opportunity to cultivate secular learning, so that "wisdom" in Israel took on the unpleasant connotation of the quality of the shrewd court counselors, with their half-heathen advice (Isa 28:14-22, etc.). And the associations of the word with true religion are very few (De 4:6; Jer 8:8), while De 32:6; Jer 4:22; 8:9 have a satirical sound--`what men call "wisdom" is really folly!' So, no matter how much material may have gathered during this period (see PROVERBS), it is to the post-exilic community that we are to look for the formation of body of Wisdom literature really associated with Israel's religion.

(2) The factors that produced it were partly the same as those that produced scribism (see SCRIBES). Life in Palestine was lived only on the sufferance of foreigners and must have been dreary in the extreme. Under the firm hand of Persia there were no political questions, and in later times the nation was too weak to play any part in the conflicts between Antioch and Alexandria. Prophecy had about disappeared, fulfillment of the Messianic hope seemed too far off to affect thought deeply, and the conditions were not yet ripe that produced the later flame of apocalyptic enthusiasm. Nor were there vital religious problems within the nation, now that the fight against idolatry had been won and the ritual reforms established. Artistic pursuits were forbidden (compare especially The Wisdom of Solomon 15:4-6), and the Jewish temperament was not of a kind that could produce a speculative philosophy (note the sharp polemic against metaphysics, etc., in Sirach 3:21-24). It was in this period, to be sure, that Jewish commercial genius began to assert itself, but there was no satisfaction in this for the more spiritually-minded (Sirach 26:29). So, on the one hand, men were thrown back on the records of the past (scribism), while on the other the problems of religion and life were studied through sharp observation of Nature and of mankind. And the recorded results of the latter method form the Wisdom literature.

(3) In this are included Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, with certain psalms (notably Ps 19:1-14; 37:1-40; 104:1-35; 107:1-43; 147:1-20; 148:1-14); in the Apocrypha must be added Sirach and Wisdom, with part of Baruch; while of the other writings of the period parts of Philo, 4 Maccabees, and the Abikar legend belong here also. How far foreign influence was at work it is hard to say. Egypt had a Wisdom literature of her own (see EGYPT) that must have been known to some degree in Palestine, while Babylonia and Persia could" not have been entirely without effect--but no specific dependence can be shown in any of these cases. For Greece the case is clearer, and Greek influence is obvious in Wisdom, despite the particularistic smugness of the author. But there was vitality enough in Judaism to explain the whole movement without recourse to outside influences, and, in any case, it is most arbitrary and untrue to attribute all the Wisdom speculation to Greek forces (as, e.g., does Siegfried, HDB).

3. Religious Basis:

The following characteristics are typical of the group: (1) The premises are universal. The writers draw from life wherever found, admitting that in some things Israel may learn from other nations. The Proverbs of Lemuel are referred explicitly to a non-Jewish author (Pr 31:1 the Revised Version margin), and Sirach recommends foreign travel to his students (34:10,11; 39:4). Indeed, all the princes of the earth rule through wisdom (Pr 8:16; compare Ec 9:15). And even some real knowledge of God can be obtained by all men through the study of natural phenomena (Ps 19:1; Sirach 16:29 through 17:14; 42:15 through 43:33; The Wisdom of Solomon 13:2,9; compare Ro 1:20).

(2) But some of the writers dissent here (Job 28:28; 11:7; Ec 2:11; 8:16,17; 11:5; The Wisdom of Solomon 9:13(?)). And in any case this wisdom needs God's explicit grace for its cultivation (Sirach 51:13-22; The Wisdom of Solomon 7:7; 8:21), and when man trusts simply to his own attainments he is bound to go wrong (Pr 3:5-7; 19:21; 21:30; 28:11; Sirach 3:24; 5:2,3; 6:2; 10:12; Baruch 3:15-28). True wisdom must center about God (Pr 15:33; 19:20 f), starting from Him (Pr 1:7; 9:10; Ps 111:10; Sirach 21:11; Job 28:28) and ending in Him (Pr 2:5); compare especially the beautiful passage Sirach 1:14-20. But the religious attitude is far from being the whole of Wisdom. The course is very difficult (Pr 2:4 f; 4:7; Sirach 4:17; 14:22,23; The Wisdom of Solomon 1:5; 17:1); continual attention must be given every department of life, and man is never done learning (Pr 9:9; Sirach 6:18; Ec 4:13).

(3) The attitude toward the written Law varies. In Ecclesiastes, Job and Proverbs it is hardly mentioned (Pr 28:7-9 (?); 29:18 (?)). Wisdom, as a special pamphlet against idolatry, has little occasion for specific reference, but its high estimate of the Law is clear enough (The Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-15; 18:9). Sirach, especially, can find no terms high enough for the praise of the Law (especially Sirach 24; 36; compare 9:15; 21:11, etc.), and he identifies the Law with Wisdom (24:23-25) and claims the prophets as Wisdom teachers (44:3,4). Yet this perverse identification betrays the fact that Sirach's interest is not derived from a real study of the Law; the Wisdom that was so precious to him must be in the sacred books! Compare Baruch 4:1 (rather more sincere).

(4) The attitude toward the temple-worship is much the same. The rites are approved (Pr 3:9; Sirach 35:4-8; 38:11; Sirach seems to have an especial interest in the priesthood, 7:29-33; 50:5-21), but the writers clearly have no theory of sacrifice that they can utilize for practical purposes. And for sacrifice (and even prayer, Pr 28:9) as a substitute for righteousness no condemnation is too strong (Pr 7:14; 15:8; 20:25; 21:3,17; Sirach 34:18-26; 35:1-3,12; Eccl (5:1).

(5) An outlook on life beyond the grave is notably absent in the Wisdom literature. Wisdom is the only exception (The Wisdom of Solomon 3:1, etc.), but Greek influence in Wisdom is perfectly certain. In Job there are expressions of confidence (14:13-15; 19:25-29), but these do not determine the main argument of the book. Proverbs does not raise the question, while Ecclesiastes and Sirach categorically deny immortality (Ec 9:2-10; Sirach 14:16; 17:27,28; 30:4; note that the Revised Version (British and American) in Sirach 7:17; 48:11 is based on a glossed text; compare the Hebrew). Even the Messianic hope of the nation is in the background in Prov (2:21,22 (?)), and it is altogether absent in Job and Ecclesiastes. To Sirach (35:19; 36:11-14; 47:22) and Wisdom (3:8; 5:16-23) it is important, however, but not even these works have anything to say of a personal Messiah (Sirach 47:22 (?)).

(6) That in all the literature the individual is the center of interest need not be said. But this individualism, when combined with the weak eschatology, brought dire confusion into the doctrine of retribution (see SIN). Sirach stands squarely by the old doctrine of retribution in this life: if at no other time, a man's sins will be punished on his deathbed (1:13; 11:26). Neither Job nor Ecclesiastes, however, are content with this solution. The latter leaves the problem entirely unsolved (8:14, etc.), while the former commends it to God's unsearchable ways.

4. Ideals:

The basis of the Wisdom method may be described then as that of a "natural" religion respecting revelation, but not making much use of it. So the ideal is a man who believes in God and who endeavors to live according to a prudence taught by observation of this world's laws, with due respect, however, to Israel's traditional observances.

(1) From many standpoints the resulting character is worthy of admiration. The man was intelligent, earnest, and hard-working (Proverbs has a particular contempt for the "sluggard"; and compare Ec 9:10). Lying and injustice are denounced on almost every page of the literature, and unceasing emphasis is laid on the necessity for benevolence (Ps 37:21; 112:5,9; Job 22:7; 31:16-20; Pr 3:27-28; 14:31; 21:13; 22:9; Ec 11:1; Sirach 4:16; 7:34,35; 29:11-13; 40:24, etc.). All of the writers feel that life is worth the living--at their most pessimistic moments the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes find attraction in the contemplation of the world. In Proverbs and Sirach the outlook is even buoyant, Sirach in especial being far from indifferent to the good things of life (30:23-25; 31:27; compare Ec 2:24 and contrast The Wisdom of Solomon 2:6-9).

(2) The faults of the Wisdom ideal are the faults of the postulates. The man is always self-conscious and self-centered. All intense enthusiasms are repressed, as likely to prove entangling (Ec 7:16-17 is the most extreme case), and the individual is always calculating (Sirach 38:17), even among his friends (Sirach 6:13; Pr 25:17) and in his family (Sirach 33:19-23). Benevolence itself is to be exercised circumspectly (Pr 6:1-5; 20:16; Sirach 12:5-7; 29:18), and Sirach, in particular, is very far from feeling an obligation to love all men (25:7; 27:24; 30:6; 50:25,26). So "right" and "wrong" become confused with "advantage" and "disadvantage." Not only is adultery wrong (Pr 2:17; Sirach 23:23), but the injured husband is a dangerous enemy (Pr 5:9-11,14; 6:34,35; Sirach 23:21). As a resuit the "moral perspective" is affected. With some of the finest moral observations in Proverbs and Sirach are combined instructions as to table manners (Pr 23:1-3; Sirach 31:12-18) and merely humorous observations (Pr 20:14), while such passages as Pr 22:22-28 and Sirach 41:17-24 contain extraordinary conglomerations of disparate motives.

(3) So hope of earthly recompense becomes a very explicit motive (Pr 3:10; 11:25, etc.; The Wisdom of Solomon 7:8-12 is the best statement on the other side). Even though riches are nothing in themselves (Pr 10:2; 11:28; 23:4-5; 28:11; Ec 5:13; Sirach 11:19; 31:5-7; all the literature denounces the unrighteous rich), yet Wisdom is to be desired as bringing not only righteousness but riches also (Pr 8:21; 11:25; 13:18; Sirach 4:15; 20:27,28; The Wisdom of Solomon 6:21). This same desire for advantage gives an unpleasant turn to many of the precepts which otherwise would touch the highest point; perhaps Pr 24:17-18 is the most extreme case: "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, .... lest Yahweh .... turn away his wrath from him" (!)

(4) But probably the most serious fault was that the Wisdom method tended to produce a religious aristocracy (Sirach 6:22, etc.). It was not enough that the heart and will should be right, for a long course of almost technical training was needed (the "house of instruction" in Sirach 51:23 is probably the school; compare Pr 9:4). The uninstructed or "simple" (Pr 1:22, etc.) were grouped quite simply with the "sinners"; knowledge was virtue and ignorance was vice. Doubtless Wisdom cried in the streets (Pr 1:20-21; 8:1-13; 9:1-6, almost certainly a reference to the canvassing efforts of the teachers for pupils), but only men of ability and leisure could obey the call to learn. And despite all that is said in praise of manual labor (Pr 12:11; 24:27; 28:19; Sirach 7:15; 38:31,32,34), Sirach is merely frank when he says explicitly (38:25-34) that Wisdom cannot be for artisans (a carpenter as Messiah evidently would have been unthinkable to Sirach; Mr 6:3). Scribism was at work along the same lines of development, and the final union of the Wisdom method with the scribal produced a class who called the common people accursed (Joh 7:49).

5. Teaching of Christ:

The statement of the methods and ideals of the Wisdom school is also virtually a statement of our Lord's attitude toward it and an explanation of why much of His teaching took the form it did. As to the universality of the premises He was at one with the Wisdom writers, one great reason for the universality of the appeal of His teaching. Almost everything in the life of the time, from the lily of the field to the king on his throne, contributed its quota to His illustrations. And from the Wisdom method also the form of His teaching--the concise, antithetical saying that sticks in the memory--was derived to some degree. (Of all the sayings of Christ, perhaps Lu 14:8-10--a quotation of Pr 25:6-7--comes nearest to the pure Wisdom type.) In common with the Wisdom writers, also, is the cheerful outlook, despite the continual prospect of the Passion, and we must never forget that all morbid asceticism was entirely foreign to Him (Lu 7:34 parallel Mt 11:19). With the self-conscious, calculating product of the Wisdom method, however, He had no patience. Give freely, give as the Father giveth, without regard to self, in no way seeking a reward, is the burden of His teaching, and such a passage as Lu 6:27-38 seems to have been aimed at the head of such writers as Sirach. The attack on the religious aristocracy is too familiar to need recapitulation. Men by continual exercise of worldly prudence could make themselves as impervious to His teaching as by obstinate adherence to a scribal tradition, while His message was for all men on the sole basis of a desire for righteousness on their part. This was the true Wisdom, fully justified of her children (Lu 7:35; compare Mt 11:19), while, as touching the other "Wisdom," Christ could give thanks that God had seen fit to hide His mysteries from the wise and prudent and reveal them unto "babes" (Lu 10:21 parallel Mt 11:25).

6. Remainder of the New Testament:

(1) James

The remainder of the New Testament, despite many occurrences of the words "wise," "wisdom," etc., contains very little that is really relevant to the technical sense of the words. The one notable exception is James, which has even been classed as "Wisdom literature," and with some justice. For James has the same appeal to observation of Nature (1:11; 3:3-6,11,12; 5:7, etc.), the same observation of human life (2:2,3,15,16; 4:13, etc.), the same antithetical form, and even the same technical use of the word "wisdom" (1:5; 3:15-17). The fiery moral zeal, however, is far above that of the other Wisdom books, even above that of Job.

(2) Paul

Paul, on the other hand, belongs to an entirely different class, that of intense religious experience, seeking its premises in revelation. So the Wisdom method is foreign to him and the absence of Nature illustrations from his pages is notorious (even Ro 11:17 is an artificially constructed figure). Only one passage calls for special comment. The "wisdom" against which he inveighs in 1Co 1:1-31-3 is not Jewish but Greek-speculation in philosophy, with studied elegance in rhetoric. Still, Jewish or Greek, the moral difficulty was the same. God's message was obscured through an overvaluation of human attainments, and so Paul's use of such Old Testament passages as Isa 29:14; Job 5:13; Ps 94:11 (in 1Co 1:19; 3:19-20) is entirely lust. Against this "wisdom" Paul sets the doctrine of the Cross, something that outraged every human system but which, all the more, taught man his entire dependence on God.

Yet Paul had a "wisdom" of his own (1Co 2:6), that he taught to Christians of mature moral (not intellectual: 1Co 3:1-3) progress. Some commentators would treat this wisdom as doctrinal and find it in (say) Romans; more probably it is to be connected with the mystical experiences of the Christian whose life has become fully controlled by the Spirit (1Co 2:10-13). For religious progress is always accompanied by a higher insight that can never be described satisfactorily to persons without the same experience (1Co 2:14).

7. Hypostasis:

(1) One characteristic of the Wisdom writers that proved of immense significance for later (especially Christian) theology was a love of rhetorical personification of Wisdom (Pr 1:20-33; 8:1 through 9:6; Sirach 4:11-19; 6:23-31; 14:20-15:10; 24; 51:13-21; The Wisdom of Solomon 6:12 through 9:18; Baruch 3:29-32). Such personifications in themselves are not, of course, remarkable (compare e.g. the treatment of "love" in 1Co 13:1-13), but the studied, somewhat artificial style of the Wisdom writers carries out the personification with a curious elaboration of details: Wisdom builds her house, marries her disciple, mingles wine, etc. The most famous passage is Pr 8:22-31, however. The Wisdom that is so useful to man was created before man, before, indeed, the creation of the world. When the world was formed she was in her childhood, and while God formed the world she engaged in childish play, under His shelter and to His delight. So Pr 8:30 should be rendered, as the context makes clear that 'mwn should be pointed 'amun, "sheltered," and not 'amon, "as a master-workman." And "Wisdom" is a quality of man (Pr 8:31-36), not a quality of God.

(2) Indeed, "Wisdom" is an attribute rarely predicated of God in the Old Testament (1Ki 3:28; Isa 10:13; 31:2; Jer 10:12; 51:15; compare Da 5:11), even in the Wisdom writers (Job 5:12 ff; Job 9:4; Ps 104:24; Pr 3:19). Partly this reticence seems to be due to a feeling that God's knowledge is hardly to be compared in kind to man's, partly to the fact that to the earlier writers "Wisdom" had a profane sound. Later works, however, have less hesitation in this regard (e.g., Sirach 42:21; Baruch 3:32, the Massoretic Text pointing and the Septuagint of Pr 8:30), so that the personifications became personifications of a quality of God. The result was one of the factors that operated to produce the doctrine of the "Word" as it appeared in the Palestinian form.


(3) In the Apocrypha, however, the most advanced step is taken in Wisdom. Wisdom is the only-begotten of God (The Wisdom of Solomon 7:22), the effulgence of eternal light (The Wisdom of Solomon 7:26; compare Heb 1:3), living with God (The Wisdom of Solomon 8:3) and sharing (?) His throne (The Wisdom of Solomon 9:4). She is the origin (or "mother") of all creatures (The Wisdom of Solomon 7:12; compare 8:6), continualiar active in penetrating (The Wisdom of Solomon 7:24), ordering (The Wisdom of Solomon 8:1), and renewing (The Wisdom of Solomon 7:27) all things, while carrying inspiration to all holy souls (The Wisdom of Solomon 7:23), especially to Israel (The Wisdom of Solomon 10:17,18). Here there is no doubt that the personification has ceased to be rhetorical and has become real. Wisdom is thought of as a heavenly being, not so distinctively personal, perhaps, as an angel, but none the less far more than a mere rhetorical term; i.e. she is a "hypostasis."

(4) Most of Wisdom's description is simply an expansion of earlier Palestinian concepts, but it is evident that other influence has been at work also and that that influence was Greek. The writer of Wisdom was touched genuinely by the Greek philosophy, and in The Wisdom of Solomon 7:24, at any rate, his "Wisdom" is the logos spermatikos of the Stoics, with more than suspicions of Greek influence elsewhere in the descriptions. This combination of Jewish and Greek thought was still further elaborated by Philo--and still further confused. For Philo endeavored to operate with the Wisdom doctrine in its Palestinian form, the Wisdom doctrine into which Wisdom had already infused some Loges doctrine, and the Logos doctrine by itself, without thoroughly understanding the discordant character of his terms. The result is one of the most obscure passages in Philo's system. Sometimes, as in DeFug. section 109, chapter xx, Wisdom is the mother of the Logos, as God is its Father (compare Cherubim, sections 49, 50, chapter xiv), while, again, the relation can be inverted almost in the same context and the Logos appears as the source of Wisdom (De Fug. section 97, chapter xviii).


(5) Philo's influence was incalculable, and Wisdom, as a heavenly power, plays an almost incredible role in the Gnostic speculations of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Gnostic work, Pistis Sophia, probably attaining the climax of unreality. The orthodox Fathers, however, naturally sought Wisdom within the Trinity, and Irenaeus made an identification with the Holy Spirit (iv. 20, 3). Tertullian, on the other hand, identified Wisdom with the Son (probably following earlier precedent) in Adv. Prax., 7, and this identification attained general acceptation. So Pr 8:22-30 became a locus classicus in the Christological controversies (an elaborate exposition in Athanaslus, Orat. ii. 16-22), and persisted as a dogmatic proof-text until a very modern period.


The Old Testament Theologies, particularly those of Smend, edition 2 (1899), and Bertholet (1911). For the intermediate period, GJV, III, edition 4 (1909), and Boasset, Die Religion des Judentums, edition 2 (1906). Special works: Toy, "Wisdom Literature," EB, IV (1903); Meinhold, Die Weisheit Israels (1908); Friedlander, Griechische Philosophie im Altes Testament (1904, to be used cautiously). On Philo, compare especially Drummond, Philo Judaeus,II , 201-13 (1888).

See also the articles on the various books and compare LOGOS; PHILO,JUDAEUS .

Burton Scott Easton

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