Wisdom in the Old Testament

Did you hear the one about the wise parrot? A lady got a new job in town and she would have to walk by this pet store to and from work every day. The pet store owner was very proud of this parrot, because he was a very wise parrot. So he would set him outside in front of the pet store where he would talk with the people walking by. But when the lady walked by the first morning on her way to work, the parrot said to her, “You sure are ugly.” Of course, it really upset the lady. But she went on to work. When she came back that evening on her way home, the parrot was still out there, and when she walked by, again he said, “You sure are ugly.” It really bothered the lady, so she decided, “If that happens tomorrow when I come by I’m going to go have a talk with the manager of that pet store.” The next morning he came by on her way to work. The parrot was out there, and sure enough he said to her, “You sure are ugly.” So she marched right in that pet store and had a talk with the manager about what the parrot was saying to her. He apologized and said, “Ma’am, I’ll have a talk with that parrot and we’ll get that fixed. He won’t be saying that to you on your way home tonight.” So she left and headed to work for the day. That evening she came back on her way home and the parrot was out in front of the store as usual, and as she walked by she looked at that parrot and the parrot looked at her and she looked at that parrot and the parrot looked at her. Finally the parrot said, “You know.” (Just wanted to make sure you’re awake before we get into the lesson.)

What is wisdom in the Old Testament?

Usually when you see wisdom in the OT it is translated from the Hebrew word hokmah. The basic meaning of the term is “skill” or “know how” or “practical expertise”. There are different kinds of wisdom in the OT. You can have wisdom, skill, know how, expertise in many different areas, in the various kinds of trades and artistry and professions. Let me give you some examples.

In Exodus 28:3 we find wisdom in the craft of tailoring, in the making of clothes. “You shall speak to all the skillful [hokmah, wise] persons whom I have endowed with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, that he may minister as priest to Me. These are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece and an ephod and a robe and a tunic of checkered work, a turban and a sash, and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons…” So there were men in Israel who were wise in the craft of making clothes. They had tailoring wisdom. They were skillful at it. They knew how to take stalks of flax from the field and soak them and dry for a long time to soften the fibers, and then how to scrap and comb them to separate the fibers, and then how to spin the fibers to make thread, and then how to weave the thread to make cloth, and then they knew how to dye it any color and measure it to your body, and eventually create beautiful and quality garments. That’s tailoring wisdom, skill.

In Exodus 31 you read about some who had wisdom or skill in metalwork and carpentry. “Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. 3 “I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, 5 and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship. 6 “And behold, I Myself have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and in the hearts of all who are skillful [wise] I have put skill [wisdom], that they may make all that I have commanded you: 7 the tent of meeting, and the ark of testimony, and the mercy seat upon it, and all the furniture of the tent… etc.” These guys that knew how to create the beautiful pieces of furniture for the tabernacle and make the beautiful curtains had wisdom in those forms of craftsmanship. (See also I Kg 7:14; Jer 10:9)

You find places in the OT where one could have wisdom in being a sailor and knowing how to keep the ship afloat in a storm and how to navigate at sea (Ps 107:27; Ez 27:8). Or one could have warfare wisdom and know how to strategically conquer enemies (Isa 10:13; 29:14; Jer 49:7), or musical wisdom (I Kgs 4:31-32). So skill, know how, practical expertise is the basic idea.

There’s a story in I Kings 3 that illustrates the wisdom that God gave to Solomon. When he was the newly appointed king of Israel in place of his father David, two women were brought before him arguing over one baby. They’d both had babies, and one night one of the babies had died. One lady claimed, “While I was sleeping she took my living baby and replaced it with her dead baby.” The other claimed, “That’s a lie. It’s her baby that died, not mine.” So they were both claiming the surviving baby. What do you do about that situation? Without DNA testing available, how do you make sure that the true mother keeps her baby? I mean even if he’d seen these mothers and their babies when they were both alive, how could he tell if they’d between switched. Women seem to be able to tell babies apart, and if one baby is cuter than another and who the baby looks like, but you know to most of us men, babies, if they’re the same color, look the same; they all look sort of like little wrinkly old people. So how in the world is Solomon going figure out which one is the mother? Well, he said, “Somebody get a sword.” So his servants fetched a sword. He said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to her and half to her.” As soon as he said that, one of the women said, “No! Don’t! Let her have the child. Just don’t kill him.” Solomon said, “That’s the mother.” What skill, what know how, what expertise he had in handling civil cases justly.

Now, in Proverbs and predominantly in the Bible wisdom refers to skill in the craft of living life, the know how to live your life well, how to relate well to people and to God, how to handle your money and your time and your circumstances, how to handle your children and your friends and your enemies, how to respond and act and talk with people in the best way. It is the expertise to live in a way in which you are blessed and you are a blessing to those around. You live a life if you are wise that finds favor with God and with people generally and in which you are blessed and blessing to others (Prov 3:4; Lk 2:52).

Where does true wisdom for living come from?

Is it inherited? Is it genetic? Do some people just come into the world with this skill to be able to live a good blessed life, and others are just not so fortunate? Does it come from schools of higher learning like Harvard or Yale? Do we get it from Oprah and Dr. Phil on T.V.? Do we get it from just reading a lot books? Or do we acquire it through experience? Well, I’d like us to first listen to Job and then listen to Solomon about where true wisdom for living comes from.

There’s a beautiful poem in Job 28 in which Job asks the question, “Where can wisdom be found?” In the first 11 verses he talks about how men through ingenuity and diligence find precious metals and precious stones in the ground and rocks and streams of the earth. And let’s pick up the poem at v12, “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? 13 Man does not know its value, Nor is it found in the land of the living.” Men are to true wisdom like animals are to gold and sapphires and rubies (cf. 28:6-8). Animals don’t know the value of those things. My dog doesn’t see a ruby as any different than any other rock. And so you don’t find those things with animals. If they happen to ever come across a precious stone, they don’t stop and pick it up. That’s how we, on our own, are to wisdom. We don’t recognize how valuable it is and  we don’t recognize it even if we happen to come across it.  “14 The deep says, ‘It is not in me’; And the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’ 15 “Pure gold cannot be given in exchange for it, Nor can silver be weighed as its price. 16 It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, In precious onyx, or sapphire. 17 Gold or glass cannot equal it, Nor can it be exchanged for articles of fine gold. 18 Coral and crystal are not to be mentioned; And the acquisition of wisdom is above that of pearls. 19 The topaz of Ethiopia cannot equal it, Nor can it be valued in pure gold.“” There may be two points in that. One, wisdom is worth more than all the money in world. And two, men don’t have it to sell. “20 Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? 21 Thus it is hidden from the eyes of all living And concealed from the birds of the sky.” Even if you could see as far as the birds way up in the sky can see you wouldn’t be able to see where wisdom comes from. “22 Abaddon and Death say, ‘With our ears we have heard a report of it.’” The source of wisdom is neither in the land of the living nor the realm of the dead. Well, where does that leave as the source of wisdom? Heaven. “23 God understands its way, And He knows its place.” God is the only one really acquainted with wisdom and its source. The only way you and I can have wisdom is if God imparts some to us. “24 For He looks to the ends of the earth And sees everything under the heavens.” This is why we can be confident that God knows wisdom. It’s because God has comprehensive knowledge. He sees all things. Without comprehensive knowledge you have no absolute knowledge. Unless you can see the whole you have nothing for certain. For example, we used to think all forest fires were bad and we should always try to put them out quickly as possible. But when we learned more we learned that forest fires have their place; they’re part of the forest’s life cycle. Here in my area of Montana they used to think that putting a freshwater shrimp in Flathead Lake would help the salmon to flourish. But it actually messed up the ecology and killed off the salmon. Unless you know comprehensively you cannot know for certain what is good and what is bad. Only God knows comprehensively and so only God is in a position to say authoritatively what is good and what is bad. v24-27 give evidence of God’s wisdom in the marvels of creation, like wind and rain and lightening. (Place a marker here, we’ll come back for the last verse, v28.)

Let’s hear Solomon on the source of wisdom. Proverbs 2:6, “For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.”

Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, “The words of wise men are like goads…” In other words, the wise words of men who have received wisdom are like the stick with a spike at the end that keeps animals moving in the right direction. The words of wise men sometimes sting us a little because they show our faults, but they direct us in the right way; they prod us into better living. “and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails.” The ESV is better here I think. It has, “and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings;“. In other words, what nails are to a structure, wise words are to your life. Your life will fall apart and end in ruin without them. But with them your life can be saved from disaster. But where do wise men get their wise words? “they are given by one Shepherd.” If a man speaks wisdom, that wisdom did not originate with Him. Every human being, even the brightest of us, are like sheep. Sheep are desperate for the guidance of the shepherd. Without a shepherd’s guidance, sheep get either eaten or lost out where they freeze, overheat, fall off a cliff, starve or die of thirst. Oprah, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, the Harvard professor, Donald Trump… all sheep. The only way a fellow sheep is going to be imparting words of true wisdom for living to us is if they got the wisdom from the shepherd or another sheep who got it from the shepherd. But if the words of men do not trace back to the shepherd then they are not conveying true life wisdom. So v12 warns about being too devoted to the literature of men. v12, “But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.” The only books through which we can really gain wisdom are those that truthfully convey what has been revealed to us by the Shepherd. So reading lots of books won’t necessarily make you wiser, because you may be reading just a bunch sheep reasoning.

Let’s talk a little more about…

The value of wisdom

Job 28:13 said, “Man does not know its value.” What does the Shepherd tell us about the value of wisdom? How interested should we be in acquiring it? How does it compare to all the other things that we want to acquire that demand out time and attention? How does wisdom compare in value with the money we want? How does it compare with the friendships we’d like to develop, and the health and fitness, the bod and muscles, we want, the promotion at work we’re hoping for, the perfect lawn that’s greener than our neighbor’s? How does wisdom compare with the other things we might invest our time and energy into acquiring?

The night before Solomon judged the case of the two women and one baby, he’d just finished worshiping God at Gibeon, offering over the last few days a thousand burnt offerings on the altar. He loved God and sought His favor. That night God appeared to him in dream and said to him, “Ask what you wish Me to give you.” God in a sense handed him a signed blank check and said, “Write on it whatever you want.” What would you have put on that check? A billion dollars? Perfect health? Long life? Honor, to be famous and respected? I think very few would have put on that blank check what Solomon did, wisdom. Over everything else he said, “Lord, I ask for wisdom that I may rule your people well.” He must have already had a little wisdom to ask for wisdom. God said to Solomon, II Chronicles 1:11, “Because you had this in mind, and did not ask for riches, wealth or honor, or the life of those who hate you, nor have you even asked for long life, but you have asked for yourself wisdom and knowledge that you may rule My people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge have been granted to you. And I will give you riches and wealth and honor, such as none of the kings who were before you has possessed nor those who will come after you.” So by wanting wisdom over everything else, he acquired everything else.

Solomon teaches us in the book of Proverbs that acquiring everything else is not unusual for those who acquire wisdom. Proverbs 3:13ff, “How blessed is the man who finds wisdom And the man who gains understanding. 14 For her profit is better than the profit of silver And her gain better than fine gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels; And nothing you desire compares with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; In her left hand are riches and honor.” Solomon says if you acquire wisdom , then you will also acquire long life, riches and honor. Often the wise acquire those blessings in this present life, but they always do in the life to come. I Timothy 4:8, “… godliness [which is a product of wisdom] is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Though you can’t escape trials in this life, wisdom still enables you to live the most abundant life here and into eternity. You don’t just miss out on the best of the age to come if you fail to acquire wisdom, you miss out on the best of both worlds. Proverbs 3:17-18, “Her [that is “wisdom’s”] ways are pleasant ways And all her paths peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, And happy are all who hold her fast.” Wouldn’t you love access to that tree of life in the Garden of Eden that humanity lost back in the beginning? How valuable would the tree of life be to you if you could have it? What give to acquire? Certainly, you’d give everything for it. But do you hear what Solomon is saying? The tree of life is not really lost and unavailable to us. It’s just not in tree form any more. And it’s not in the form of anything material or physical. It’s in the form of something spiritual that you take into your mind and heart. It is wisdom. The acquiring of wisdom it is the equivalent of eating of that tree of life. (See also Proverbs 19:8; 24:13-14)

Let’s address quickly one last question.

How do we acquire wisdom?

Here 5 Biblical instructions, instructions from the Shepherd to us, on how to get wisdom.

#1 – Fear the Lord.

Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge…” 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Job 28:28, after establishing that wisdom comes from God, says, “And to man He [God] said, ‘Behold, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom; And to depart from evil is understanding.’” So it appears the first step in being wise is to fear the LORD.

What does that mean, to fear the Lord? What’s involved in that? Should we be afraid of God? Like we may be afraid of the boogeyman or a strange person with a gun? Well, we get a different understanding when we look at what fearing the Lord is associated with and parallel with in the OT Scriptures. In Proverbs 9:10 it’s associated with knowing Him; it involves seeing who God really is. In Deuteronomy 10:12 and Psalm 145:19-20 and many other passages fearing the Lord is associated with loving Him. In Psalm 130:4 fearing God stems from recognizing that He is a forgiving God. In I Peter 1:17-19 it fearing God is motivated out of knowing that God is not only the impartial judge of us all, but also that He is a good father to us who has paid a very high price for our redemption. In Proverbs 22:4 it’s associated with humility, with recognizing that God knows better, that He’s the shepherd and I’m the sheep. In Proverbs 3:7 it is contrasted with being wise in your own eyes. It is often associated with departing from evil and keeping God’s commandments (Job 28:28; Psalm 103:17-18). In Psalm 31:19 it’s parallel with taking refuge in God. In Psalm 147:11 it’s associated with waiting for God’s lovingkindness. When you put all that together, the fear of the Lord refers to having an accurate perspective of God that makes you afraid of displeasing Him and veering from His guidance. It’s a perspective of God in which you see that He is your creator and sustainer and the giver of every good thing and the one in control of everything, and that He knows a lot of stuff that you don’t know, and that He loves you and wants what’s best for you and His guidance is for your highest good, and that He’s completely trustworthy, that He says what He means and He means what He says, His promises are true and His threats are real, and so you recognize that He deserves your total submission and obedience, and that following His guidance is what is best for you and for everyone else. That perspective makes you afraid to stray from His guidance.

Accepting that right perspective of God is the first step in wisdom. Anyone, no matter how smart people think he is , how many degrees he has, how many people buy his books, if he does not fear his Maker, if he is not afraid of disobeying God, he is a fool who will regret how he’s lived his life.

#2 – Ask.

As Solomon did, as James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Have you ever been in a situation where you dreaded asking someone for something because you knew they were going to make fun of you for asking or they were going to say, “Are kidding me? You need me to do that for you? Really? Are you that inept?” Well, James says God is not like that to us. He’s not going to make fun of you when you ask for wisdom. He’s not going to insult you. He’s not going to look around at the angels and say, “Look at this dummy!” Rather He welcomes you to ask Him for wisdom. And James says He is willing give it you. v6, “But he must ask in faith, without any doubting…” When you ask you need to be trusting that He’s listening and He’s able and willing to give you wisdom.

#3 – Think often about the brevity of your life.

Think about the fact that you are going to die, that you are going to leave this world and all that you have here, and it will up to God what happens to you next. And it won’t be long til that happens. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” There is perhaps not a better thought to sort of cleanse our priorities of vain, meaningless, worldly pursuits than the thought of our imminent death, that soon we’ll be looking back on this earthly life in either regret or joy depending on the choices we made here. That leads us to wisdom.

#4 – Apply yourself to learn the word of God.

Psalm 19:7, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” Psalm 119:97-100, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Your precepts.” II Timothy 3:15, “the sacred writings are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Scripture gives us the revelation from the Shepherd that is necessary for wisdom. Notice the purpose statement of the book of Proverbs. 1:2-5, this is why we want to study Proverbs, “To know wisdom and instruction, To discern the sayings of understanding, 3 To receive instruction in wise behavior, Righteousness, justice and equity; 4 To give prudence to the naive, To the youth knowledge and discretion, 5 A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel“.

But of course just the knowledge itself doesn’t necessarily make you wise. You could have the entire Bible memorized in its original languages and be able to explain the true meaning of every passage, but that wouldn’t necessarily make you skillful at the craft of living. There must be acceptance and conformity to God’s word. So a fifth instruction for gaining wisdom is…

#5 – Accept what God says about everything, whether it seems right to you or not.

Proverbs 3:5-7, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and turn away from evil.” In all your ways, in the raising of your kids, in the treatment of your spouse, in the sort of spouse to look for if you’re single, in the handling of your business, in dealing with your anger, in dealing with those who have wronged you, in sexuality, in the way you converse with people, in the way your respond to criticism, in all your ways, recognize God knows about this better than I do. Trust God and accept that His way is right and do it His way, and you will be living wisely; you’ll be eating of the tree of life.

– James Williams

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