Friday, November 4, 2011

The Old Testament Concept of Wisdom

The concept of wisdom in Old Testament is torah-centric. Wisdom in the Old Testament has frequently been defined as being “practical knowledge of the laws of life and the world, based on experience” (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology [New York: Harper & Row, 1962], 1:418), or else understood in terms of the human endeavor to understand and live in harmony with the divine order that has been built into the cosmos. But when applied to wisdom as it appears in the Old Testament, these definitions are inadequate.

From the biblical perspective, wisdom is supremely the possession of God (Job 12:13; 38:36–37; Ps 104:24; Prov 3:19–20; Isa 28:29; Dan 2:20; Rev 7:12). Wisdom is basically whatever God thinks and says and does. Because God is the source of all wisdom, he is the one who grants wisdom to people, and he does this by means of his Spirit (Exod 31:3; 1 Kgs 4:29; 10:24; Prov 2:6; Eccl 2:26; Dan 2:21–23; Jas 1:5). Because God is wise, God’s word or law is a source of wisdom (Ps 19:7; 119:98, 104, 130; Jer 8:8–9). Jesus’ definition of wisdom in Matt 7:24 is consistent with, and hence a neat summary of, the Old Testament definition of human wisdom: being wise means hearing and doing the word of God. In the context of the Old Testament, this word of God, or law of wisdom, typically equates to the law of Moses, which was viewed as being the source of Israel’s wisdom before the nations (Deut 4:6, 8; see also Rom 2:17–20). According to the Old Testament, wisdom also involves an attitude of fearing Yahweh such that one is concerned to live out every aspect of one’s human existence in accordance with God’s law (Ps 119:100; Prov 28:7; 31:26). Thus, the wise person, i.e., the person with understanding, is supremely viewed in the Old Testament as being the person who obeys the law of Yahweh from the heart (Ps 119:34).

wisdom = hearing + doing torah


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve. I thought I would drop by and see what is new. I have some thoughts about wisdom and so I read your post with interest. I wanted to offer the following observations.
1 – Many of your references do not back up your points. For example, many of your examples for why we should understand wisdom as being supremely possessed by God, do not show this. I am not arguing with your claim, but rather pointing out that many of the references simply indicate that God did some things with wisdom, not that wisdom is supremely possessed by him.
2 – Similar to this is your suggestion that Matt 7:24 is a definition of wisdom offered by Jesus. Jesus actually says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man...”. This does not equal, “Wisdom equals people who put my words into practice.” Again, I am not arguing with your statement, just your evidence to support it.
3 – I agree that the definitions you offered for wisdom are not adequate. I would offer the following, “Knowing who God is and who we are in relation to him, and living this knowledge out in everyday life.”
4 – You did not mention Jesus’ summary of the OT law, being to love God and love one another. After all, at the heart of God’s word is relationship, seen ultimately in Jesus. He is, after all, the rock on which the wise man builds.
5 – Your final reference (Psalm 119:34) does not back up your statement. You claim that it is saying that the wise person is seen as the person who obeys the law with his heart. In actual fact it is saying very clearly that once someone has wisdom (understanding), then they will be someone who obeys the law with all their heart. It is not saying they are wise because they obey, but rather that they obey because they are wise. The result is that your equation is wrong.
Hearing -> Wisdom -> Doing

Anonymous said...

Steve, I had to post as anonymous, but it is Dave Woolcott!

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Dave,

Good to hear from you. I trust that you have been keeping well.

Your point about some of the references indicating that God uses wisdom rather than supporting that God supremely possesses wisdom is literally true on the surface of things in some cases, but it seems to me to be a little pedantic given the bigger picture. If God uses wisdom, he does so because he possesses it, and (reading these verses in the whole context of the supremacy of God that is taught in the Bible) I think that it is fair enough to take the verses as showing that wisdom is supremely the possession of God as per Dan 2:20–22. Proof texts need to read in the wider context of Scripture as a whole, so I would argue that those particular proof texts are legitimate.

I agree that sometimes doing is viewed as being the fruit or actions of wisdom (e.g., Matt 11:19; Jas 3:17), i.e., that wisdom leads to doing. But I note that your definition of wisdom includes living … out the knowledge of God, and the Old Testament often defines wisdom as including this practical outworking.

To be more precise, when it comes to wisdom, perhaps we need to talk about a narrow and broad definition of the concept. Sometimes in the Old Testament wisdom is viewed more in terms of heart knowledge which leads to action (e.g., Prov 10:31; 19:11), but at other times wisdom is used in a broad way that is inclusive of action (see Deut 4:6 in the HB or ESV; Job 28:28; perhaps also Prov 14:8). My post was concerned more with this latter definition in order to highlight the strong connection in the Old Testament between wisdom and torah. On this level, hearing and doing God’s word implies knowing God and who we are in relation to him. Doing torah in the Jewish way of thinking means accepting the content of torah (including the knowledge of God taught therein).

Many blessings!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Steve!