Wisdom: Use your head!

by K.W. Leslie, 24 January 2020
WISDOM 'wɪz.dəm noun. Having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. Being wise.
2. The biblical genre which explains and teaches how to think and practice good judgment.

In the Old Testament, חָכְמָה/khokhmáh, “wisdom,” basically means the ability to think. To have a working brain. To use the sense God gave us, instead of passively letting stuff happen to us, and then blaming all the bad stuff on the government or the Republicans or the devil.

You know all those Christian ninnies whose lives are an utter mess, who complain all the time about Satan trying to steal their victory, and try to ward it off with incantations by claiming their blessings? Yeah, that’s not the devil; that’s them. Their own lack of wisdom will create all that chaos just fine without Satan lifting a finger.

Khokhmáh is the ability to understand cause and effect: When you do this, it produces that; when you don’t do this, it produces something else. You’ll notice a lot of biblical proverbs follow that format.

Proverbs 10.4-5 KWL
4 You create poverty with slack hands. Diligent hands create wealth.
5 The wise child gathers in summer. The embarrassing child sleeps through harvest.

The authors were trying to teach good sense: Human psychology, ethical behavior, clever planning, and all the stuff our culture typically associates with wise people. Actions have consequences, and all things being equal, these are the consequences, so bear them in mind. (And, because wisdom covers its bases, Ecclesiastes points out sometimes all things aren’t equal, and there are exceptions to these rules. Because life isn’t fair. Not that we should therefore be a dick about it and refuse to be fair either.)

Various bible commentators figure khokhmáh doesn’t just refer to good sense, but smarts of all sorts. For their proof text they point to when the LORD singled out Bechalel ben Uri and Oholiav ben Akhisamakh as the craftsmen who’d design all the stuff for his tabernacle. He told Moses he filled the both of ’em with khokhmáh, with wisdom. Ex 31.1-6 So these commentators figure, “Oh, wisdom also means skills and talents.” Nah. Wisdom is still wisdom. God gave Bechalel and Oholiav ability, but they needed the wisdom to use their ability well.

  • They needed time management. Israel needed these things built as soon as possible.
  • They needed people skills: They had to work with other artists, who built other things. And they’d have to deal with nitpicking people who thought they knew better what the tabernacle might need.
  • They needed the good sense to not obsess about getting their stuff “perfect”—as people do when they have a really important client to impress, and who’s more important than God?
  • Conversely they needed to not be so fixated on what they were doing, they forgot their work was meant to facilitate worship. Unlike certain music pastors… but let’s not go there today.
  • They needed to be appropriate: “Come on guys, don’t put penises on the cherubs!”

Artistry itself isn’t wisdom. But artists definitely need wisdom! Same as everyone.

However. There are plenty of folks, Christians included, who don’t care to be wise. Usually it’s because we figure we already know everything we need to know, and needn’t add any “useless trivia” to it. We figure we know best. Or that the laws of cause and effect don’t apply to us, ’cause “I claimed my victory.” Or we don’t like what someone’s saying, and figure it therefore can’t be true—as if truth is only gonna be what we like. (I run into this attitude all the time. Occasionally people claim it’s a recent trend, but it’s really not. Wishful thinking has always been hardwired into humanity.)

The writers of the scriptures have a lot of choice words for such people.

  • אֱוִיל/evýl, “silly” or “twisted.”
  • כָּסַל/kasál, “dense.” Literally “fat,” in reference to one’s heart (which they imagined we thought with), which they figured was too surrounded by fatty tissue for anyone to get through to.
  • נָבָל/navál, “empty.” Like a wineskin, deflated ’cause there’s nothing in it. Or like an empty brain, which is why Hebrew-speakers used it to indicate a moron.

Translators kindly render these words as “foolish” and “folly.” But let’s not sugar-coat things: The proper term for this thinking is stupid.

When I use the word “stupid,” a lot of young people flinch. A lot of ’em, unless they were raised by awful parents, were taught “stupid” is a bad word; that you never call somebody stupid. Because they assume (again, as they were taught) stupidity is a condition you can’t change. Some people were born without smarts, without intelligence, without the ability to use their commonsense. And can’t help it if they’re stupid. Likewise if you call someone stupid you’re sorta cursing them, and they’ll think they are stupid, and give up hope of ever doing better.

But anyone can do better. Stupidity is a choice. So’s wisdom.

That’s why the scriptures describe fools as getting punished for their stupidity:

Proverbs 26.3 KWL
You take a whip to a horse, a bridle to a donkey, and a cane to an idiot’s backside.

Because they choose to shun wisdom. They deliberately make bad choices and refuse to listen to reason or sense. It’s not just because they’re deficient, or because life is unfair. Stupid is a decision.

Throughout the bible’s wisdom writings, wisdom gets compared to stupidity. The scriptures teach it’s far better to be wise than dumb. Far better to know how the world works, than passively let things just happen, or to guess wrong and come to ruin. We see examples of this all the time: If you don’t care about gravity, your poorly-built house may cave in on you. If you don’t care about fairness, your neighbors and coworkers will avenge themselves upon you when they feel you’ve wronged them.

Wisdom is found all over the bible. Most of it is concentrated in the wisdom literature, and found in the form of proverbs, brief wisdom sayings which are usually true.

Usually true?

Proverbs and biblical wisdom regularly gets misinterpreted: People assume if something’s in the bible, it’s always true, never fails, works in every situation. These, they claim, are God’s promises.

Let’s be clear: The scriptures are infallible. But that’s when we use them correctly. When we misinterpret them of course they’re not gonna work the way we claim. If you think Psalm 91 means we can jump off tall buildings and angels will catch you, man are you stupid. The devil’s temptation of Jesus would’ve totally worked on you, and it’s gonna have a lot of fun tripping you up. But obviously that’s not what that psalm’s about! As Jesus knew when Satan misquoted it. Lk 4.9-12

When the LORD commands something, when Jesus teaches something, when the apostles give their interpretations, these are absolute statements. They’re always true; circumstances don’t change ’em; take ’em to the bank. And in the case of prophecies these are conditional statements: If you meet the conditions, they’ll happen, otherwise not. If Jerusalem stops sinning, God’ll bless them; if Jerusalem keeps sinning, God won’t. Prophecies have catches, and they’re based on how we humans respond to the prophecies. God stays consistent, but we’re the variable. Fill in the correct variables, get the correct answers.

And proverbs are circumstantial statements: For them to be true, the circumstances have to be right. Circumstances change things. Generally God permits the wise and righteous to prosper, and the foolish and lawless to come to ruin. But not always. There are, like Ecclesiastes points out, cases where that’s not so. The proverbs are what tend to be true, all things being equal. But life and nature aren’t consistent. Circumstances change things.

How can I claim proverbs aren’t absolute statements? Simple: Some proverbs contradict one another. Deliberately so. I like to use this pair of proverbs on answering a fool as an example:

Proverbs 26.4-5 KWL
4 Don’t respond to a fool’s stupidity, lest you be compared to them.
5 Respond to a fool’s stupidity, lest they become wise in their own eyes.

If you were raised to believe the bible never, ever contradicts itself, are you in for a rude awakening. It’s much of the reason Christians tend to ignore Ecclesiastes. In Proverbs we’re taught wisdom pays off and stupidity doesn’t; in Ecclesiastes we’re taught the stupid might prosper, the wise might go without, and none of this means a thing. Those who love to quote Proverbs with impunity, absolutely hate how Ecclesiastes undermines it. So they either pretend Jesus undoes Ecclesiastes, or imply Solomon wrote it after he started to dabble in idolatry. Or otherwise illegitimately impugn its wisdom.

And yet we see a contradiction smack dab in mid-Proverbs. Its editor intentionally put 26.4-5 next to one another. Both proverbs are credited to Solomon. And both were composed to fit different circumstances. With some fools, follow verse 4, ’cause they’re too stupid to take correction. With other fools, correct ’em as verse 5 instructs, ’cause they’re still able to receive it. Sometimes verse 4 is true, sometimes verse 5.

Same with every other contradictory proverb. Like these.

Wisdom will make you happy. Pr 3.13 Wisdom will make you miserable. Ec 1.18
Discipline is wasted on fools. Pr 16.22 Discipline fools. Pr 19.29
The godly have food and the wicked go hungry. Pr 13.25 The godly have treasure and the wicked have trouble. Pr 15.6 Sometimes the wise go hungry. Sometimes the skillful aren’t rich. Ec 9.11
The wise inherit honor. Pr 3.35 Qohelet watched wicked people get buried with honor. Ec 8.10

How do you sort out which one applies to your circumstances? Duh: Wisdom.

You need wisdom to study wisdom.

I know. There are Christians who teach, “If the bible ever contradicts itself, we’ll have to throw the entire thing out, because we can’t trust it anymore.” The Fundamentalists who taught my childhood Sunday school classes never tired of saying this.

And they’d be fools. Because anybody who seriously studies the wisdom portions of the bible knows there are contradictions in there. That’s what happens when you teach ethics! Life is messy and complicated, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to some problems—as Ecclesiastes regularly points out. Sometimes you gotta answer fools in their folly, and sometimes you’re the fool if you don’t keep your mouth shut.

So those who wanna turn off their brains and just quote Proverbs in every situation, are being the very sort of fools Proverbs warns against. We’re not to read the bible’s wisdom so we can stop thinking and quote proof texts. We’re to read it so we can learn: Okay, in these circumstances it’s best to think like so. In other circumstances it’s best to think another way. In life there’s a time for this, and a time for that. Ec 3.1 So we gotta judge which circumstance we’re in. We gotta think. It’s why God gave us our brains.

True, our motives are corrupted by our selfishness. This doesn’t mean, as many brain-dead Christians presume, we can’t be trusted, so stop thinking and just quote bible. We humans might be flawed, but we’re learning better, and growing good fruit. We’re learning to recognize our biases and undo them. It’s why we’re encouraged to pray for wisdom. Jm 1.5 It’s why we’re instructed to judge righteously. Jn 7.24 Grow wisdom.

Honestly, some Christians don’t wanna do this. They’re really bugged by the idea we get to deduce right and wrong; humans aren’t trustworthy! They don’t trust themselves to do it right. They certainly don’t trust others. It’s way more comfortable to not think at all, and follow blind basic instructions from the bible.

Which is why such people tend to treat Proverbs as if it’s not just situational guidelines, but biblical commands. Which is why they invent “biblical principles” based on Proverbs, and foolishly treat the wisdom as if one size does fit all. In so doing they utterly miss wisdom. We’re to grapple with wise sayings, not just swallow ’em whole. Pr 1.5-6 We’re to understand, not just accept. We’re to see beyond the proverbs, and grow to understand the God who inspired them.

This is why foolish Christians misquote proverbs as if they’re commands or promises. Whereas wise Christians recognize ordinarily the race is to the swift, and the battle to the strong. But sometimes it’s not. Ec 9.11 It’s stupid to treat proverbs as always, universally true. (And particularly stupid to quote certain friends of Job, considering how the LORD stated nothing they said about him was correct. Jb 42.7 Context, folks.)