“Get wisdom, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5). It’s a favorite admonition, not just in Solomon’s day but one that many of us have probably heard. But what is wisdom? And where and how are we to get it? Knowledge, prudence, discernment, reason, good judgment…all of these are ways I’ve heard wisdom described. But in the biblical account in Proverbs, those things are products rather than the source of wisdom.
In lengthy discussions found in the book of Proverbs, wisdom is more than just a form of human intelligence or prudent, conservative behavior. In fact, wisdom existed before mankind was created. Wisdom speaks of itself in Proverbs 8:22-27:
The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no watery depths, I was given birth … I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep.
So, wisdom is not something that only arises out of the function of the human brain or even the guidance of his conscience or soul. Yet, it is tied into the workings of the heart and mind, as it is built into the framework of creation. “By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place” (Proverbs 3:19).
Furthermore, wisdom exists apart from man; it comes from an outside source. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). What’s more, one can choose to accept or refuse wisdom, like a guest whom one may invite in or bar from his or her home. Most are familiar with wisdom’s opening dialogue in Proverbs 1: “Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square.” But those who hear her call may disregard or turn aside from her instruction. On the other hand, they may choose to listen, embrace it, and always keep it in their sight. But wisdom is there; it is present and still calling out, whether one welcomes it in or not.
And so wisdom must involve more than just a mantra of “make good decisions.” It seems that Solomon’s “wisdom” in Proverbs Chapters 1-9 is in fact moral law – or at least closely associated with it. Thus, we are repeatedly told that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding,” and we keep returning to a charge to “fear the Lord and shun evil” (Proverbs 9:10; 3:7). It is wisdom that rules the moral divide – the absolute that determines right and wrong. Wisdom guides the order of the created world, and whether embraced or rejected, all must eventually answer to its judgment.
Thus, wisdom is very much more a spiritual thing than a behavioral thing. It has to do with knowledge and fear of God, relationship and eager obedience to Him. Wisdom, as a moral guide, reflects something of God’s nature, bringing His character closer to earth and close to men’s hearts to help lead them toward Him. But alone, wisdom or morality is not enough to save man. It looks something like the attributes of God, but it was created by Him and to serve Him and cannot stand in as a god for man.
Solomon was allowed the ability to gain the most wisdom of any man, and he failed to pursue it to its utmost pinnacle. Adam and Eve were created perfect and had wisdom in place to guide them from the very first breath. And they failed to follow through with that potential. Wisdom, moral rule, only ever points us to what we still need: We need God, Jesus, to save us and set us free from the inevitable failure of our own best efforts.