A Word for Today: Wisdom, Skill, Aptitude (Heb. Hokmah)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The story is told that on one occasion a prayer was delivered in Crathie Kirk, near Balmoral (to Queen Victoria’s amusement) ‘that the Almighty would send down His wisdom on the Queen’s Ministers, who sorely need it!’ All of us, of course, need God’s wisdom, not just ministers of state, but the sentiment of the prayer reflects the fact that real wisdom can only be obtained from God, Prov. 2. 6; Jas. 3. 17.
The Hebrew word for wisdom hokmah is used in the Old Testament to refer to ‘knowledge coupled with an inner quality that embodies a heart and life in conformity with the purposes and character of God’, Prov. 1. 2-6.1 Wisdom is not simply a theoretical concept or an intellectual pursuit, but underpins an individual’s behaviour and conduct. As Whybray states on the book of Proverbs, ‘But in Proverbs hokmah is always life-skill: the ability of the individual to conduct his life in the best possible way and to the best possible effect’.2 On some occasions, the word hokmah can simply describe a particular talent or gift given to an individual by God, as, for example, to Bezaleel et al., who are endowed by God with special skill to enable them to build the tabernacle, Exod. 31. 1-5. Similarly, of sailors and shipbuilders in Ezekiel chapter 27 verses 8-9. And just to square our original circle, it is also applied to political pragmatism in 1 Kings chapter 2 verse 6, where David advises Solomon on how to secure his throne by eliminating Joab and Shimei.3 Later, we read that ‘Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt’, 1 Kgs. 4. 30 ESV.
There are three books in the Old Testament (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) where the different forms of the Hebrew lexeme4 hkm, which includes the word hokmah, occur more frequently than anywhere else. Hence, these texts are normally viewed together as wisdom literature.5 In Job chapter 28, the writer explains how human beings extract precious minerals from the earth, even though these are invariably hidden, and difficult to find. Since wisdom is far more precious than any of these minerals, the question then arises as to where wisdom ultimately is to be found, Job. 28. 12, 20? It is not found in the material world, or in distant places, and even death has no knowledge of its whereabouts, vv. 12-22. The answer is beyond doubt as far as Job is concerned. Only the Creator of the universe knows its source, and He gives it to those who fear Him, vv. 23-28. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs chapters 1 to 9, where hokmah expresses the attractiveness of wisdom, and the need to embrace it for oneself. It is available without restraint, cp. Jas. 1. 5, and, unlike a written text, it speaks powerfully to individuals, cp. Luke 11. 49. Proverbs chapter 8 is the classic commentary on such wisdom. Ecclesiastes flags up the futility of seeking after wisdom by human means, Eccles. 1. 12-18, and ‘However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it’, 8. 17 ESV. The wisdom in this particular context is the wisdom necessary to understand divine activity in the world.
In the Septuagint (LXX), hokmah is translated mainly by the Greek word sofia. Greek culture revelled in the idea of wisdom, cp. 1 Cor. 1. 22, hence the impact that Hellenistic literature had on the LXX translators. For example, in Daniel chapter 1 verse 17 LXX, we read that as far as the four children were concerned, ‘God gave them understanding (sunesin) and prudence (phronesin) in all learning and wisdom (sofia). Notice the clear distinction being made here between three forms of (Greek) discipline. Understanding, which has to do with general intelligence, prudence, which has to do with sound judgment, and wisdom, which Augustine once said ‘pertains to the knowledge of eternal things’.6
Again, this Greek cultural influence is more than evident in the New Testament where sofia is used extensively to describe both human and divine wisdom. Human wisdom is often set in juxtaposition with the wisdom of God. Paul highlights the fact that human wisdom is seen as folly in God’s eyes, because it could not reveal God, 1 Cor. 1. 20-21. God demonstrates His wisdom, however, turning human wisdom on its head by choosing those things that in the world’s eyes are foolish to put to shame those who profess themselves to be wise, v. 27. Preaching that is effective, according to Paul, does not fit with human wisdom, but is fixed in wisdom that has been revealed by God in Christ, 2. 1-8. During our Lord’s ministry, He claimed, by implication, that He possessed greater wisdom than that of Solomon, Matt. 12. 42, and Paul describes Him as the repository of the treasures of wisdom – the Greek word literally meaning ‘a place of safe keeping’ – cp. English ‘thesaurus’ – in Colossians chapter 2 verse 3. Since it is only God, the Creator of the universe, who knows the source of all true wisdom, then our Lord is, unequivocally, the wisdom of God incarnate. How then do we respond to His majesty? How can we continue to be wise? By asking God for wisdom to enable us to live before men, 4. 5, and by totally embracing that wisdom from above, which is ‘pure . . . peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’, Jas. 3. 17 NRSV.
For further reading/study
Ernest Lucas, Wisdom and Wisdom Literature – Chapter 3 Exploring the Old Testament.
John Day, Robert P. Gordon, H. G. M. Williamson, (Eds.), Wisdom in Ancient Israel.
1. Stephen D. Renn, (Ed), Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, pg. 1050.
2. R. N. Whybray, Wealth and Poverty in the Book of Proverbs, pg. 4.
3. Joab and Shimei are both later assassinated by Benaiah on the orders of Solomon, 1 Kgs. 2. 29-34, 39-46.
4. ‘A lexeme is a unit of lexical meaning, which exists regardless of any inflectional endings it may have or the number of words it may contain. Thus, fibrillate, rain cats and dogs, and come in are all lexemes, as are elephant, jog, cholesterol, happiness, put up with, face the music, and hundreds of thousands of other meaningful items in English. The headwords in a dictionary are all lexemes’, David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
5. The theme of wisdom is not, however, restricted to these three books.
6. De Div. Quaest. 2.2.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.