What is wisdom?

Having started on our quest for wisdom it is important that we have some idea what we are looking for, so that we recognize it when we see it and not overlook it when it stares us in the face.

How the world defines it

Despite the fact that the quest for wisdom is as old a mankind, there is no consensus among philosophers (who after all are lovers –philo– of wisdom –sophia) and religious people, who for centuries monopolized the domain of wisdom, about how to define wisdom.

The following is a sample of the definitions that are being used:

  • The ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting;  (The Free Dictionary)
    • The ability to make good decisions based on knowledge and experience. (Macmillan Dictionary)
    • The  ability to use knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments (Cambridge dictionary)
    • The ability or result of an ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight (Collins Dictionary)
    • The capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice of means and ends.” (1933 Oxford Unabridged Dictionary)
    • The capacity to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others. (Nicholas Maxwell)
    • The ability to understand the nature and behavior of things, people, or events. Dr. B. Legesse
    • The ability to judge correctly and to follow the best course of action, based on knowledge and understanding. (Lockyer).
    • An expertise in dealing with fundamental, that is, existential problems related to the meaning and conduct of life. (Kunzmann and Baltes)
    • The capacity to recognize the essentials of what we encounter and to respond well and fittingly to those circumstances. (Fowers)
    • The ability  to acknowledge uncertainty and the ability for dialectical thinking; the ability to remain emotional stable despite uncertainty; the ability to act in the face of uncertainty (Brugman)
    • The ability to understand a situation thoroughly, knowing the positive and negative aspects of human nature, awareness of life’s inherent uncertainty, and the ability to make decisions in spite of this; The ability and willingness to examine phenomena from multiple perspectives. (Ardelt)
    • The art of being successful, of forming the correct plan to gain the desired results. (The New Bible Dictionary)
    • The ability to devise perfect ends and to achieve those ends by the most perfect means. (A. W. Tozer)
    • The power of  judging tightly and following the soundest  course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 1997, p. 1533).
    • An Expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life (Baltes and Staudinger)

Included in the fundamental pragmatics of life are, for example, knowledge about the    conditions, variability, ontogenetic changes, and historicity of life development as well         as knowledge of life’s obligations and life goals; understanding of the socially and contextually intertwined nature of human life,  including its finitude, cultural conditioning, and incompleteness; and knowledge about  oneself and the limits of one’s own knowledge and the translation of knowledge into   overt behavior. Equally central to wisdom-related knowledge and judgment are the  “spiritual”incomprehensibilities of life, such as the mind-body dynamics or the  existence of a divine being. Wisdom A Metaheuristic (Pragmatic) to Orchestrate  Mind and Virtue Toward Excellence Paul B. Baltes and Ursula M. Staudinger Max  Planck Institute for Human Development January 2000 • American Psychologist Vol.  55, No. 1, 122-136

Trying to see a common denominator among the definitions above, most people consider wisdom an ability to understand, judge and discern thoroughly and correctly what is of value and essential in life and what is the best way of dealing with life’s problems and uncertainties and to act successfully on the basis of this knowledge.

One wonders whether there has ever been someone or ever will be a person who has mastered this ability to perfection.

Even the contemporary experts on wisdom admit that  “model exemplars of perfect wisdom are hard to find”(Ardelt, Where is wisdom to be found?) and that “individuals by themselves are only “weak” carriers of wisdom” [Baltes & Staudinger, 2000, p. 130]. They construct an ideal type of a wise person, an utopia, and realize that “very few people, even among those who are generally considered wise, might measure up to this ideal type” (Ardelt, Where is wisdom to be found?) They admit that ‘no one is wise all the time.’ (Sternberg)

If we can’t find a human being that demonstrates perfect wisdom all the time, we need to look elsewhere as J.I. Packer points out:

 “Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest  goal, together with the surest means of attaining it. Wisdom is, in fact, the practical side of moral goodness. As such, it is found in its fullness only in God. He alone is naturally and entirely and invariable wise.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 80.

Wisdom in the Bible

Before we look into this in more detail, let us learn what the Bible teaches us on the concept of wisdom.

The most common word in the Old Testament used for wisdom is the Hebrew word ‘hokma’ and this word generally means ‘masterful understanding’, or ‘skill’ , or expertise’, or ability.  Although the word ‘hokma’ is most often translated by ‘wisdom’, sometimes it is called ‘skill’ or ‘ability’.  The adjective ‘hakam’ is mostly translated as wise but sometimes also as  crafsman, skilled or skillful.

Hokma is used to describe  technical and artistic skill (craftsmen who made Aaron’s priestly garments -Ex.28:3; women weavers -Ex. 35: 25, 26 -; artisans who designed and constructed the tabernacle -Ex. 31:3, 35: 30-36:1; goldsmiths -Jer. 10:9) skill of making war (Is. 10:13):, skill to govern (Jer. 50:35); skill to sail (Ps. 107:27; Ez. 27:8); skill in leadership (Deut. 34:9; Is. 29:14); skill in farming (Is.28: 23-29); women skilled in lamentation (Jer. 9:17); skilled  magicians and soothsayers (Gen. 41:8; Is. 44:25); skilled military strategists and statesman (Is. 10:13; 29:14; Jer. 49:7);  skilled merchants (Ez. 28: 4,5); skilled woodsmen (1 Kings 5:6)

It is obvious then that the word ‘hokma’ refers to a skill of one sort or another. This can be  technical expertise and other professional capabilities of various types. A wise man is someone who has mastered something.  The wise person was highly practical, not merely theoretical. He or she was interested in being able to formulate the sorts of plans that would help produce the desired results in life for themselves and for the welfare of others. Hokma  wisdom is not primarily abstract, never merely a matter of knowing facts. It is knowing what to do with them, and consequently, doing it. Hokma refers to the practical ability to apply theory to practice.

Biblical wisdom to a large extent has to do with practical knowledge, with a know-       how regarding the whole spectrum of human skills and activities, all in tune with the           normative patterns and possibilities –and with the concrete givens- of creation.          Raymond Van Leeuwen Building God’s House –an exploration in Wisdom –In The way of wisdom-Packer, Soderlund (eds) 205, 206)

When we look at the book of Proverbs, we learn that hokma focuses on skill for living as God intends, the ability to get along successfully with God and with men.

This book claims to offer wisdom (Heb. hokmah) to the reader. The words “wise” and “wisdom” occur about 125 times in Proverbs.

 Hokmah, often refers to the mental and physical skills of craftsmen, singers and           musicians, sailors, counselors and others. But at other times, as in Proverbs, it focuses         on the application of moral and ethical principles to the living of life, so that one    might be said to ‘live skillfully, ‘ as compared to a sailor who might sail skillfully or a   metal worker who might craft metal skillfully. A person with wisdom has expertise in   living in a way that makes life go as well as possible for him. (Anders, Commentary on Proverbs, 19)

  In Proverbs, wisdom means being skillful and successful in one’s relationships and         responsibilities. It involves observing and following the Creator’s principles of order in        the moral universe. This order manifests God’s wisdom. To the extent man follows    this order, he is wise. (Roy B. Zuck, “A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs,” in A      Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 232)

 Wisdom is a rich concept that is not easy to summarise.  At its most basic level it means ‘skill in living’. It’s a practical knowledge that helps us to know how to act and  speak in different situations. Wisdom entails the ability to avoid problems and the skill  to handle them when they present themselves. Wisdom also includes the ability to interpret other people’s speech and writing in order to react correctly to what they  are saying to us. Wisdom is not intelligence pure and simple. It does not necessarily  exclude intelligence, but that is not the focus. Proverbs itself attributes wisdom to a     series of animals, not because they have great intelligence, but because they know  how to navigate life well. …..Biblical wisdom is much closer to the idea of emotional   intelligence than it is to Intelligence Quotient. Wisdom is a skill, a ‘knowing how’; it is   not raw intellect, a ‘knowing that’. …Wisdom is an ability to navigate life… (Tremper  Longman III, How to read Proverbs, 14-16)


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