By Rob Slane
What is wisdom? Here are a couple of definitions, taken at random from the internet:
- The ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments.
- The ability to discern the true nature of a situation, especially by intuition.
There is no doubt a lot to be said for these definitions. We certainly need knowledge and experience to be able to exercise wisdom, and the outcome of exercising wisdom will lead to good decisions. Yet none of these definitions gets to the heart of the Biblical definition of wisdom.
A definition I’ve come across a number of times is that wisdom is the application of knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is the raw data. Understanding is the ability to analyze the data. And wisdom is the ability to apply it. Some have pointed out that this threefold division, which occurs over and over again in the Book of Proverbs, is similar to the Trivium of classical education: grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and there may be something in this. Yet, I think it still misses the mark.
So what is Biblical Wisdom? In Proverbs 8, Wisdom herself (for Wisdom is given a female persona in that book) speaks to us and says:
I was there when He set the heavens in place, when He marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when He established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when He gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep His command, and when He marked out the foundations of the earth (Proverbs 8:27-29).
Jeremiah says more or less the same thing:
It is He who made the earth by His power, who established the world by His wisdom, and by His understanding stretched out the heavens (Jeremiah 51:15).
So the Bible makes it clear that God used Wisdom to create the universe. But what did that actually look like? If we go back to Genesis 1, we find a series of separations. Heaven is separated from earth. Light is separated from darkness. The waters are separated from the waters. The dry land is separated from the sea. Man is taken out of the dust. This is all Wisdom at work.
In chapter 2, we also get a series of separations. However, the difference between chapters 1 and 2 is that whereas in the former the separations remain (at least for the moment), in chapter 2 they all lead to unions or reunions. So man is separated from the animals, but the reason is so that he can be united with a helpmeet. Man’s rib is separated from his body, but the reason is so God can use it in the creation of woman who is then reunited with the man. Man leaves his father and his mother, but the reason is so that a new union can be formed.
The separations in chapter 1, however, are only temporal. At the other end of the Bible, in the last couple of chapters of Revelation, we find that these divisions are restored. Heaven and earth are reunited as the new Jerusalem descends and God dwells with his people. There is no more sea. There is no more night, only light.
In the first two chapters of the Bible, it is God who does all the dividing, and He does so in order to then bring reunification to create something much better. This is Wisdom. But when we get to chapter 3 of Genesis, we see something else making its entrance: folly. This time, it is no longer God, but man, doing the separating. The consequences are disastrous, with his rebellion leading not only to separation from God, but subsequent history showing that he is, to varying degrees, also separated from his neighbor, from the created order, and even—the root of all psychological problems—from himself.
Yet God isn’t finished with His separations. After man’s sin, He separates man from the Garden by exiling both the man and the woman. Yet He does so with the promise that He will provide a way—the seed of the woman—for them to one day come back.
That promise was fulfilled in the ultimate example of separation and reunion—the death and Resurrection of Jesus. On the Cross, Jesus is separated both from His Father as well as from man. In the Resurrection He is reunited with both. However, it is not a mere restoration of the relationship before. Everything is better: the risen Christ is now God’s King, and He is the New Man, destined to dwell with His people in the New Heavens and New Earth forever.
Was this separation and union done by Wisdom? According to Paul, it was the prime example of Wisdom:
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2:7-9).
The essence of Wisdom therefore has much to do with separating or discerning, and reuniting or restoring. This can be seen in the story of Solomon and the two prostitutes. Why is this story included in the Bible? Is it meant to be just one among many examples of His wisdom? Are we meant to just look at it and say, “Wow, that was pretty neat, Solomon?” I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is there to give us insight into the real nature of wisdom itself.
You no doubt know the story. There are two women, both of whom have a baby, but one accidentally suffocates hers in the night. So she swaps the babies—the living for the dead. When the other woman awakes, she realizes that the dead baby isn’t hers, and so a dispute arises. Solomon—pre-DNA testing—has to sort this mess out.
He calls for a sword, ordering that the living baby be chopped in half with each woman getting an equal part. The truthful woman cries out in anguish to Solomon not to do this thing, but to give the baby to the other. The deceitful woman is unconcerned by the baby’s fate. So Solomon gives the baby to its true mother—the one who would rather give it up than see it killed.
Now what actually happened? First, the baby has been separated from its true mother as a result of human wickedness and folly, and Solomon—as God’s anointed—is called on to successfully reunite them. When he calls for a sword, at first it looks like yet another tragic separation is about to take place. However, what he is really doing is this: While appearing to divide the baby, he is actually dividing the women. He is separating between them, and between truth and falsehood, using another Sword—the Sword of wisdom. And he does it solely so a reunion can then take place between the baby and its true mother.
If this is wisdom, what is the application to us? In the first place, it means we must beware of separating after the manner of men, and we must learn to do so after the manner of God. As shown above, man separates not for the sake of restoring or reuniting, but for the sake of causing separations and divisions. God, on the other hand, separates in order to restore and reunite, and to create something much better than existed before. Man’s separations are folly; God’s are wisdom.
In the second place, we need to put it into practice. We are often given seemingly intractable problems, which God wants us to sort out using His wisdom, and not our folly. Think about issues and disputes that arise in a church. What is man’s way of dealing with it? Quite often, we make separations, but we do so not in ways that are ever going to restore and reunite, but to create a permanent rift. So instead of separating out matters according to what is true and what is false, we divide into factions (see 1 Corinthians for an example of this in practice). Or if we do separate according to truth and falsehood, we fail to separate out love from bitterness and a vengeful spirit, and so end up crushing the other person or people “because we have right on our side.” Before you know it, the Church, which God hath joined together, has been put asunder.
That’s the opposite of Biblical wisdom. Biblical wisdom separates, but doesn’t separate into factions. Biblical wisdom separates, but doesn’t confuse issues with people. Biblical wisdom separates, but does so separating love from bitterness and a vengeful spirit. In other words, the goal of Biblical wisdom in church disputes is not to be right, not to be with the right party, not to seek revenge. Rather, its goal is to bring about restoration and reunion. If you see a dispute or an issue settled in a way that brings about these results, you will know that Biblical wisdom has been at work.
Rob Slane lives with his wife and six home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, contributes to the Canadian magazine Reformed Perspective, and blogs on cultural issues from a Biblical perspective at www.theblogmire.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @theblogmire