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Bibliography: F. D. Kidner, Proverbs (TOTC), 1964; James Wood, Wisdom Literature, 1967; K. L. Jensen, Wisdom the Principal Thing, 1971.——ER
Possessors of wisdom
Some men were thought to possess wisdom above that of ordinary men. In fact wisdom became the collected account of the experiences and observations of such men; and in whatever respect wisdom brought power, these were also men of influence.
Kings and rulers.
The kings of heathen nations were supposed to possess wisdom, but their wisdom was mocked and ridiculed by the prophets. Isaiah announced that God would punish the king of Assyria because of his haughty pride and boast that it was by his own wisdom that he had triumphed (
Advisers to kings and men who stood in the courts of kings were judged to be wise men, and this not alone among the Jews. Homer’s Iliad is filled with references to wise men such as Odysseus and Gerenian Nestor who spoke with a god or goddess standing by their sides, becoming the mouthpieces of deity to counsel the king, often interpreting signs and dreams.
Joseph when enslaved in Egypt was known to Potiphar, his master, to possess an understanding above other men (
Later Moses was to stand in another Pharaoh’s court to give counsel, and likewise he would be in competition with the wise men of Egypt, the “sorcerers” and “magicians” of Egypt. When Moses sought the release of the Israelites from captivity, he wrought miracles before Pharaoh, but Pharaoh countered by commanding the magicians of Egypt to do the same things (
In still later times Daniel and the young Jewish princes were counted among the wise men who attended Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. They are described as “youths without blemish, handsome, and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding, learning, and competent to serve in the king’s palace” (
Wisdom was not restricted to men among royal counselors. Sisera, Deborah’s opponent, was attended by wise women. After his death at the hands of Jael, Heber’s wife, Deborah, who was Israel’s wise woman, sang a taunt song against those wise women who were speculating on Sisera’s delay in returning from battle, insisting that their dead leader was late because he was “finding and dividing the spoil” (
There appears to have been a remarkable restraint among the wise men of Israel. They were not magicians, sorcerers, or astrologers. Those who attended Israel’s kings were thought of esp. as spokesmen for God, giving the wisest of advice because it had the sanction of divinity. Of Ahithophel it was said that the counsel which he gave “was as if one consulted the oracle of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel esteemed, both by David and by Absalom” (
The prophets were esp. spokesmen for God, but they seem to have distinguished between themselves and those whom they identified as counselors of the kings. Most frequently the prophets were in conflict with those counselors who gave the kings political advice that ran contrary to that of the prophets. Isaiah strongly condemned those counselors who advised Hezekiah to make an alliance with Egypt contrary to his insistence that the protection of Pharaoh would turn to the nation’s shame (
These men arose as a class of professional exponents of the law after its codification by Ezra. The result inevitably was that the scribes who interpreted the law tended to produce a wisdom of their own. Prophecy had about come to an end; Messianism was a remote hope at best. The life of the nation was turned to the law; the men of influence were esp. the interpreters of that law. As a direct result of the cessation of prophecy and the emphasis upon scribalism there was a movement that brought the considerations of religion under observation through an evaluation of the nature of man and the universe which mankind inhabited. This movement produced a type of lit., subsequently known as Wisdom lit. The difference in viewpoint between scribalism and that lit. is seen in that the major representative of Wisdom lit. in the OT, Ecclesiastes, Job and Proverbs, scarcely mention the law at all.
The term “magi” (Gr. for wise men) orignally referred to the Median priests from Persia who were both religious leaders and teachers of wisdom. Eventually the term came to refer to anyone who possessed supernatural knowledge and power. In the rabbinical writings the term was applied to magicians (from which the Eng. term derived). Philo of Alexandria used the term in a derogatory fashion to describe men who were not genuinely religious, or even philosophical. In the LXX magi was associated with “enchanters, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans” (
Magi sought Jesus, being led to the newborn Messiah by the heavenly sign, the star that went before them. Matthew records that they sought the king of the Jews which prob. indicated that they were pagan (
A man encountered by Philip in Samaria who has been called
The Coming One, or Messiah, was associated with wisdom even prior to the Wisdom lit.; this seems esp. to have been true because the Messiah was the grandest figure in a family distinguished by men of wisdom, David and Solomon. Isaiah identified him as the “Wonderful Counselor” (the RSV gives the expression as one term, not two as the KJV) and as one upon whom the “spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” would rest (
The writers of the books of Wisdom took a most important step when they personified Wisdom. Proverbs declared “Wisdom cries aloud in the street” (
Many have professed to find a relationship between the Logos of
Sources of wisdom
Where could a man obtain wisdom was a question of vast importance to the writers of the books of the Bible and non-Biblical lit. as well.
Human ability to acquire wisdom is acknowledged; but such wisdom, according to the Bible, comes only from “the fear of the Lord” (
The writings of the rabbis concerned with the interpretation of the law became eventually the depository of wisdom, and those who studied the law gained the treasure of wisdom. Proverbs gave the practical advice that led to a happy and successful life, which that book termed “wisdom,” such an ethical quality that it was a short step from morals which equalled law to wisdom which equalled law. In the Apoc. the book of Ecclesiasticus (The
Wisdom lit. in the OT is identified as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job and
The Heb. māshāl (מָשָׁל, H5442) or proverb is the most primitive as well as the most common expression of Heb. wisdom. It is not possible, however, to speak of any particular proverb or collection of proverbs in the Bible as being esp. ancient. One portion of the Book of Proverbs (
The Book of Proverbs preserves much ancient material, but did not attain its present form until late, no earlier than the time of Hezekiah (see
Ecclesiastes has been all things to all men. Jerome thought it was a manual enjoining renunciation of the world. Comenius spoke of it as an appealing book of consolation. Heine referred to Ecclesiastes as a “Hymn of Skepticism.” Delitzch called it a “Hymn of Godly Fear.” Johannes Pederson gave it the title “Israelite Skepticism” and Morris Jastrow called its author “a gentle cynic.”
The author of Ecclesiastes called himself “koholeth,” a Heb. term derived from the word meaning “to assemble.” Koholeth is usually tr. into Eng. as “the preacher,” perhaps because Luther used the term prediger which meant just that. Tradition has said that Ecclesiastes (from the LXX title of the book) was Solomon’s, David’s son (
Koholeth felt bound by no tradition; he possessed an inquiring spirit, but with little interest in dogma. His range of knowledge did not equal Job’s, but he was a cultured, well-in-formed man who had much insight into the affairs of his day. He was possibly acquainted to some degree with Gr. philosophy. Three great loves possessed him. He had a love for life, his emotions were tempered, but to be alive was good indeed. His second love was justice. He was not indifferent to human suffering and was deeply sensitive to the cruelty and folly of the human race. The charge of cynicism grew out of his seeming resignation to an inevitable fate about which men could do nothing. His third love was truth. He tried to solve the puzzle of the universe, but concluded that all was vanity. Man was powerless and could do nothing for himself to solve the riddle of human existence. Koholeth loved life, but his search for justice and wisdom brought him only sorrow and disillusionment.
Job has been commonly believed to be the greatest of all the Wisdom lit. It is the greatest drama in the OT and was called by Carlyle “the world’s greatest book.” At first it seems that the author is simply telling the story of Job’s trials but in actuality he is using those experiences to impress his readers with the truths he has received from God. The problem of suffering, the greatest enigma of the human mind, is that which the author faces. The Jew had been taught that the righteous always prosper and the wicked always suffer. If, therefore, a man suffers it was conclusive evidence of his wickedness. Because there was no view of immortality, it had to be that way for the Jew to maintain a moral universe. In Sheol distinctions were non-existent. The grave was no friend to any man. Because God was righteous, it was necessary for Him to reward men in this life. The author of Job found two serious errors in this: (1) men would be led to do right in order to be rewarded with earthly benefits, (2) the poor, the hurt, the wretched were abandoned to their suffering (it was what they deserved). To Job it was not possible to identify suffering and sin. To Job the unfortunate man in life could none the less be God’s man, well pleasing to Him. The author could have simply declared these truths, but he chose to present them in a matchless dramatic form, Job accused of wrongdoing by friends because he had come upon hard times.
Several of the Psalms belong to the Wisdom lit. of the OT.
Ecclesiasticus is attributed to Jesus, the Son of Sirach, and is also known as the Wisdom of Sirach. It has a proverbial nature, and some have supposed that Sirach took the Book of Proverbs as his model. It has been thought that the book itself contains all that is known of its author (
The Wisdom of Solomon gains its title in the LXX, but in the Vul. it is called Liber Sapientiae (
Wisdom for some of the prophets became a word that was heathen in its connotation. The NT finds something of the same problem, and wherever wisdom has become identified with legalism on one hand, or pagan philosophy on the other, it is rejected. Yet there is an appreciation of a certain kind of wisdom to be found in Christian teaching.
Positively Paul taught a wisdom of his own which was for mature Christians, morally strong. It was prob. not a reference to doctrine that Paul made when he said “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom” (
The Book of James is the only book in the NT that can be accurately described in its entirety as Gnomic, or Wisdom lit. The writing most similar to James in early Christian lit. is known by the Lat. title, De Doctrina Apostolorum (Concerning the Doctrine of the Apostles). The epistle of James could, with a very few Christian notations removed, pass quite appropriately as a synagogue exhortation. James contemplates the danger to Christianity not so much as a perversion of doctrine from a heretical teaching but as a mistake (or mistakes) in the realm of practical living. The interest of the book is dominantly ethical, an emphasis on a godly life. The wisdom of James is the wisdom of living a life acceptable to God which is the same emphasis that Jesus gave as recorded in the synoptics.
E. Mack, The Hebrew Looks Up To God (1936); J. R. Macarthur, Biblical Literature and Its Background (1936); T. W. Manson, A Companion to the Bible (1939); R. H. Pfeiffer, History of NT Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha (1949); H. H. Rowley, The Unity of the Bible (1953); M. E. Chase, Life and Language in the OT (1955); L. Kohler, Hebrew Man: How He Looked, Lived and Thought (1956); B. M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (1957).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
3. Religious Basis
5. Teaching of Christ
6. Remainder of the
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
See also PRUDENCE.
(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; 37; 104; 107; 147; 148); 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 (
(3) The attitude toward the written Law varies. In Ecclesiastes, Job and Proverbs it is hardly mentioned (
(4) The attitude toward the temple-worship is much the same. The rites are approved (
(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 (
(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.
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.
5. Teaching of Christ:
6. Remainder of the New Testament:
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.
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
Yet Paul had a "wisdom" of his own (
(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 (
(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
(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,
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, "," EB, IV (1903); Meinhold, Die Weisheit Israels (1908); Friedlander, Griechische Philosophie im Altes Testament (1904, to be used cautiously). On Philo, compare especially Drummond, , II, 201-13 (1888).
See also the articles on the various books and compare LOGOS; PHILO, JUDAEUS.