What does Proverbs mean by “wisdom”?

Q. We’ve been studying Proverbs and throughout the book we are told to seek wisdom. Solomon tells us at every turn to seek it and while he provides many examples, he doesn’t really define it. On the surface, seeking wisdom seems simple and straightforward. But when I go deeper and ask myself what exactly wisdom is, things can get a little cloudy. Certainly many people think they are wise, but I don’t think Solomon is referring to earthly wisdom. God’s wisdom is in His holy word, and I can listen for God’s voice, but is that all Proverbs is referring to? What is wisdom, and how can I obtain more?

Proverbs is one book of the Bible written in the wisdom tradition, but there are others as well, and they help flesh out the picture of wisdom. Other books include Job, Ecclesiastes, and James. There are also wisdom psalms, such as Psalms 14, 34, 37, 49, 94, and 112. If we look at the entire biblical wisdom tradition, we get a good picture of what wisdom is.

It says at the end of the famous “hymn to wisdom” in the book of Job, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.” In other words, if we’re seeking the wise course in life, when we rule out anything we know God wouldn’t approve of, then we are in the right position to discover the wise path God has for us.

Psalm 14 also offers something of a definition of wisdom: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” “Foolish” and “wise” are actually moral terms in the wisdom tradition. The fool is the person who lives without regard to God. Such a person believes that either God doesn’t exist, or that God can’t see what we’re doing, or that God doesn’t care. (As Psalm 94 puts it, “They say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.'”)

In other words, the fool leaves God out of the picture. But the wise person recognizes that God is alive and real, God is aware of everything, and God is actively at work to bless obedience and correct disobedience. In other words, the wise person keeps God in the picture, and is therefore able to find and choose the path to take on which God can and will bless them.

We can recognize the same general idea behind other definitions of wisdom in these biblical books. Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Psalm 111 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.” James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

The consistent picture is that not daring to choose any path God would disapprove of, but in reverent fear doing only what we know will please God, opens up the way for us to find creative and insightful approaches we might have missed otherwise. To me, that’s the classic biblical concept of wisdom.

A sculpture of wisdom above the door of a cathedral. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman who calls out
A sculpture popularly considered to depict Wisdom, personified in Proverbs as a woman who calls out, “Leave your simple ways and you will live, walk in the way of insight!” (See comment section below for further information about the sculpture.)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “What does Proverbs mean by “wisdom”?”

  1. Do you know the location of the sculpture of Lady Wisdom above the door at a cathedral? I would like to visit it if possible.

    1. I apologize, but unfortunately I’m not able to provide the location of this sculpture. I can no longer retrace my steps to where I found the image, and I don’t believe the location was specified in the first place, otherwise I would have cited it as I do wherever possible in other posts. But if I am able to track down the location, I will share it here. I agree that it would be good to visit the site and see the sculpture in person.

      1. UPDATE: I “crowd-sourced” the question and a helpful friend identified the location as the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington, 4000 15th Ave NE, Seattle, Washington. But the statue, created by Allan Clark in 1924, is actually supposed to represent Inspiration rather than Wisdom. I still haven’t been able to find out who took the picture I used for this post or how the figure came to be identified with Wisdom. But now you will at least be able to go and see it in person. The statue is found above the center portico of the main entrance to the library.

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