Understanding Biblical Wisdom

Man kneeling and praying

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. Proverbs 2:6 NIV


Wisdom in the Bible may begin with a combination of God-given skills and moral faithfulness, but it ends in Jesus Christ.

Concept of Wisdom:

The Hebrew term for wisdom refers to skill in a variety of endeavors, including crafts such as tailoring (Exod 28:3), trading (Ezek 28:4), navigation (Ps 107:23-30), and divine enabling for constructing the tabernacle (Exod 31:1-11) and temple (1 Kgs 7:13-14). In the moral sense, wisdom is skill in living according to God’s way (Prov 2:6).

At the heart of wisdom is character formation, because the purpose of wisdom is to guide humans into life that is truly good as Yahweh evaluates it. This life is marked by wise choices (Prov 9:6) and commitments (Prov 4:7) because wisdom insists on radically reorienting life so that pursuing wisdom becomes the primary value (Prov 3:13-15).

Core of Wisdom:

Central to the concept of wisdom in the Bible is the fear of Yahweh, which is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). Proverbs cites this expression 18 times, and the prominent occurrences frame the book (Prov 1:7; 31:30). Similar language occurs in Job 28:28 and Eccl 12:13 as well as in two of the wisdom psalms (Pss 34:11; 111:10).

The fear of Yahweh is both the starting point for wisdom (Prov 9:10) and its final goal (Prov 2:5). Wisdom, then, is the ethical principle that guides humans along their entire path toward genuine life. The Hebrew term for “fear” has a range of meaning that includes both (1) overwhelming awe that prompts humans to tremble before God in dread and (2) reverence that turns them toward God in joyful obedience. Fear is the appropriate humble and dependent stance for humans before Yahweh, the creator and sovereign of the universe.

When humans fear the Lord, they embrace what he desires and avoid what he disapproves because they reverence who he is. Because Yahweh is holy, those who fear the Lord hate evil (Prov 8:13). Wisdom, then, does not just provide secular, pragmatic advice about how to become successful in life; it presents the wise life as grounded ultimately in one’s relationship with Yahweh.

Complexity of Wisdom:

The wisdom sayings featured most prominently in Prov 10 – 31 are often called “practical wisdom.” By observing common patterns in life that Yahweh embedded in the world, practical wisdom teaches how life typically works by synthesizing from experience general principles for living. By this means, practical wisdom demonstrates how wisdom leads to life, while folly leads to death (Prov 26:27; 28:10; Ps 7:14 – 16) — an approach to wisdom commonly called “retribution theology.” Wisdom teaches that as a rule the righteous path leads to life, but it also recognizes that Yahweh may overrule the best human plans (Prov 20:24).

The practical wisdom that predominates in Proverbs is complemented by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, often called “speculative wisdom.” Speculative wisdom focuses on those situations in which the general pattern of retribution does not explain some aspects of life as people actually experience it. Two of the wisdom psalms ask why good things hap-pen to bad people, in apparent dissonance with the retribution principle (Pss 49; 73).

Job and his friends all begin by assuming the validity of the retribution principle. Only when Yahweh speaks at the end of the book does it become evident that his rule cannot be reduced into the tidy formula of rigid retribution theology (Job 38 – 41). Yahweh’s ways are higher than human ways, and his thoughts transcend human thoughts (Job 42:1 – 6; cf. Isa 55:8 – 9), so his purpose eludes human comprehension. Yahweh’s wisdom includes aspects that remain mysterious to the finite human mind, so the wise person trusts Yahweh, even without understanding how he governs his world. Despite their most diligent efforts, humans cannot find ultimate wisdom (Job 28:1 – 14) because only God knows the way to it (Job 28:23 – 28).

Culmination of Wisdom: 

Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are so dominated by wisdom themes that they are customarily called “wisdom literature.” However, from this epicenter wisdom features reverberate throughout the entire Bible. In the Pentateuch, Joseph (Gen 41:39) and Moses (Exod 7:10 – 12), with their wisdom from Yahweh, sur-pass the sages of Egypt. Moses equates keeping Yahweh’s commandments with Israel’s wisdom in the sight of the nations (Deut 4:5 – 6), a juxtaposition of divine instruction and wisdom that the similarities between Deut 6:4 – 9 and Prov 3:1 – 12 imply and that Eccl 12:13 explicitly states: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of all mankind.”

The historical books feature wise women (2 Sam 14:1 – 20; 20:14 – 22) and describe Solomon as the paragon of wisdom (1 Kgs 3:9 – 14). Daniel excels among the wise men of Babylon (Dan 1 – 6) but unswervingly retains his commitment to Yahweh’s law despite intense pressure to compromise. The prophets Jeremiah and Habakkuk echo Job in their anguished complaints about the ascendancy of evil in the world Yahweh governs.

The Gospels repeatedly present Jesus as a wise teacher. Using wisdom sayings, riddles, and parables (Matt 13:10 – 13), Jesus astounds the people with his teaching (Mark 1:22). He surpasses the wisdom of Solomon (Matt 12:42).

In his letters, Paul explains in theological terms that God’s wisdom is ultimately incarnated in Christ. He is the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24, 30) and the goal of creation and history (Eph 1:10). As the embodiment of divine wisdom, Christ stands over against the folly of human speculations that diverge from him (Col 2:1 – 8).





  • Becky Testerink says:

    Our world is in desperate need of that life that is grounded in our relationship with Yahway. I guess that is true now and always. This was great reading! Thank you.

  • Joyce Bunch says:

    Is wisdom from God the same as discernment.?? After receiving Jesus are we not given the gift of discernment??

    • Darrell Johnson says:

      Good question Yes we are given the gift of discernment but any other gift it must be developed! Time in the Word with good teaching, study and praying all mixed together is how this is developed! Glory to Yahweh!!

  • Yes we have all been endowed with gifts but we are to develop and use them. Engaging the Word of eternal life and the force of faith turns any who dares to be different to another man.

  • Graham Seel says:

    Good summary – thanks! I’ve shared this with several others. It would be good to add a note on the 1 Cor 12:8 reference to a word of wisdom as a gift in the context of worship, and perhaps also to expand a bit on the personification of wisdom – clearly in Christ in the NT, but what about the feminine personification in Prov 8 etc?

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