The Pursuit of Wisdom, The Wise King and Lady Wisdom Herself:
A Brief Biblical Theology of Wisdom
This paper will trace three elements of the wisdom motif forward through the Scriptures, showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of each. The arc of each survey, however, will begin in the book of Proverbs in the middle of the Bible and then go backward and then forward. This back and forth approach stems from the centrality of the Biblical Wisdom Literature, which serves not only to highlight but also inscripturate the theme of wisdom. Proverbs in particular acts as a kind of molten core wherein the motif is found in greatest density and brightness.
Indeed the very presence of multiple books of “wisdom literature” within the canon of Scripture establishes wisdom as a central theme in Biblical thinking. In the Tanakh, these texts are included amongst the Khetuvim (Writings). Christian Bibles, however, have highlighted the wisdom literature by grouping the wisdom books together in sequence. The Protestant Bible contains a grouping of five wisdom books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. The Catholic and Orthodox Bibles add to this list the “apocryphal” books The Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. Before scanning the contributions of these texts we should first apprehend the sheer significance of the fact that numerous books devoted to the subject of wisdom have been canonized as the Holy Word of God. As we will soon see, this remarkable fact is actually a result of the Biblical development of God’s Word – and Scripture itself – as a manifestation of wisdom. The canonization of these books then forever cements the idea that divine wisdom is transmitted in the divine Word, and that wisdom itself is central to God’s revealed message.
Part 1: The Pursuit of Wisdom
"She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed."
- Proverbs 3:18, NIV
The book of Proverbs is an ode to wisdom and the hub of the biblical wisdom motif. Here though, the story of wisdom sends us back to the great beginning with a remarkable equivocation between wisdom and a tree of lifesuch as that in Eden (Gen. 2:9).
Wisdom indeed plays a complicated and much debated role in the story of Adam and Eve’s short life in the garden. Their fall began with Eve’s recognition – seemingly affirmed by the author – that the fruit of the prohibited tree was “desirable for gaining wisdom” (Hebrew skl) or for “making one wise” (Gen. 3:6). The nature of this wisdom and prohibition has befuddled interpreters for millennia and surpasses our present scope. Regardless, the primary consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedient pursuit of this wisdom from the prohibited tree is worldwide enmity (Gen 3:14-19) and exile from the tree of life, resulting in the tragic mortality of mankind (Gen. 3:22-23). Whatever the nature of this wisdom gained, it begat a kind of loss of childhood innocence (Gen. 3:7-12) and was construed as a newfound knowledge not only of the goodness of the garden but evil as well. This was deemed an utter threat to creation (Gen. 3: 5, 21). The unfolding stories of violence and cosmic war that follow in the Genesis narratives seem to say that this newfound wisdom was the root of violence and evil in the world.
How remarkable then for Proverbs to equate wisdom with the tree of life that is the very antithesis to the fruit of this world-corrupting tree. Indeed it seems that Proverbs speaks of wisdom in terms of a tale of two trees. One tree bore fruit to a certain kind of wisdom that ruined the world and led to the plague of death, but there is another kind of wisdom that is the very antidote and leads to eternal life.
Proverbs repeats this comparison three more times, focusing on redeeming aspects of wisdom such as righteousness (v11:30), hope (v13:12) and comforting words (v15:4). This linkage between the tree of life and the fruit of wisdom then carries forward from Genesis to Revelation, where John writes of the new creation in terms of re-gained access to “the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:4). The fruit and leaves of this tree will heal the nations (Rev. 22:2) and blessed are all those who have the right to eat of it (Rev. 22:14). This clearly echoes not only the central message of Proverbs that “blessed are those who acquire wisdom” (Prov. 3:13), but even the linkage verse of 3:18 that states “those who hold her (wisdom, the tree) fast will be blessed.” The linkage between Genesis 2-3, Proverbs 3:18 and Revelation 22 constitutes a cover-to-cover assertion of wisdom as the character and essence of that which grants eternal life.
Therefore, we are to seek wisdom as the thing of utmost value, more precious than gold and rubies (Prov. 8:10-11, 19, Job 28:12-19). “Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell?” (Job 28:20). Proverbs repeatedly exhorts the reader to appreciate the value of wisdom and therefore seek it earnestly. But is it only in the following proverbs that wisdom is found? And what is the ultimate source of wisdom?
Tellingly, Psalm 19:10 parallels the statement about “more precious than gold” but replaces the subject of wisdom with Torah, God’s instruction and decrees (Ps. 19:7-9). God’s Law is deemed the purest manifestation of wisdom. In the words of the Torah divine wisdom is brought to life in literature, in Word. Blessed is the one, therefore, who acquires wisdom (Prov. 3:13) by means of delighting in Torah and meditating upon it day and night (Ps. 1:2). This idea is so foundational that it serves as an introduction to the entire book of Psalms. It is also the “canonical seem” which stitches the book of Joshua to the Pentateuch,, and both to the Khetuvim via Psalm 1: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Josh. 1:8).
The pursuit of wisdom that will lead to blessing and prosperity is enacted through a devotional obedience to the revealed Word of God found in the Torah. Indeed especially following the destruction of the temple, the way to engage the presence of God was to study Torah. Several rabbis mused that if two or more discussed or studied Torah together, then the presence of God was there with them.
It is remarkable then that the Gospel of Matthew record’s Jesus’ saying, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them” (Mt. 28:20). This is one way in which Jesus fulfilled the Law (Mt. 5:17): He is the new, better manifestation of God’s message in which we find wisdom (Jn. 1:1-4, Heb. 1:1-2). In other words, Jesus replaced Torah as the most pure and accessible source of dvine wisdom. Matthew especially highlights this idea by gathering Jesus’ foundational teachings, especially the Beatitudes, into one mountaintop sermon. Just as Moses had delivered the first divine words from Mt. Sinai, so Jesus is now giving a new Torah, a new set of divine instructions. Jesus taught as one with authority (Matt. 7:28-29, Mk. 1:27) and gave a new command to love one another ((Jn. 13:34).
In conclusion, Adam and Eve’s original rebellious pursuit of destructive wisdom brought about a worldwide downfall for which the antidote was the pursuit of an alternative life-giving wisdom. This wisdom, found in devotion to the Word of God, is ultimately found in the words of Jesus who is himself the incarnate Word (Jn. 1:14). The road to eternal life is itself the pursuit of wisdom, and both lead ultimately to Jesus. So we can echo Peter’s cry of faith, “Lord, to who else would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68).
Part 2, The Wise King
As noted above, pursuit of wisdom was deemed ultimately important, and therefore the good and blessed person is the one who seeks and finds wisdom. The coupling of Psalms 1 and 2 merge the idea of this blessed wise man who meditates on Torah with the future messianic king. This serves to rejuvenate the pre-exilic idea from Deuteronomy that Israel’s kings were to be devout students of Torah who wrote their own copy and studied it all the days of his life (Deut. 17:18-20). Just as Moses’ himself had transcribed and transmitted the divine decrees, so too were the future kings. In this, Joshua became the prototype as Moses’ direct descendant who added his own words to the Book of the Law of God and led the people in devotion to God (Josh. 24:14-29).
The following woeful history of Israel’s judges and kings can largely be read as a roller coaster of success and failure in obedience to this command. The prophet Samuel inaugurated Saul as Israel’s first king by reminding the people of this royal responsibility from Deuteronomy (1 Sam. 10:25). This precedent continued as future kings too were given (2 Ki. 11:12, 23:3). David becomes the second prototype of the ultimate Wise King who is anointed to lead and devotes himself to God’s word. For awhile, Solomon follows his footsteps. This is captured and incripturated by the attachment of the Psalms to David and Proverbs to Solomon. Indeed in at least one place, David praises God in a poetic psalm for how He has “provided “a broad path for my feet,” (2 Sam. 22:37), a direct allusion to the motif of wisdom as a lamp and a path in Proverbs 4:11. The high point of Israel’s history is the brief period of the dynasty marked by rulers who sought wisdom (1 Ki. 3:6-15), were themselves the wisest (1 Ki. 4:29-35) and most devout people in the land (1 Sam. 13:14). The most important result of this faithful leadership was that they ruled with justice (2 Sam. 23:2, Ps. 72:1-2).
Tragically, Solomon slipped into idolatry and injustice, and this was the norm throughout the rest of Israel’s history. Just as wisdom and faithful devotion to Torah marked the height of the dynasty, the low point is marked by the almost laughable event of the loss of the Book of the Law itself. Not only were the kings not faithfully adhering to the command to copy and mediate upon the Law but they lost it and forgot it even existed (2 Ki. 22:8-13). This bottoming out of Israel’s leadership led to injustice and idolatry and eventually the consequence of exile.
In exile, the prophets doubled down on the need for a Wise King anointed to rule justly. Hope for such a future king lay at the heart of Jewish messianism. The coming Davidic king would be a “Wonderful Counselor” and “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6) and would use his reign to establish righteousness and justice (Is. 9:7, 32:1). Indeed the foundational hope was that the Messiah would establish worldwide justice that would lead once and for all to peace (Is. 32:16-19. As the Wise Judge in the vein of Moses and Solomon par excellence, the anointed one would settle disputes between the nations and thereby end war (Is. 2:4, Mic. 4:3).
This persona of the ultra wise student of Torah who is anointed by God to lead in peace and justice is precisely what Jesus stepped into. The Gospel of Luke draws our attention to this in the childhood vignettes, noting that Jesus was “filled with wisdom” from childhood (Lk. 2:40, 52) and that even at twelve years old “everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” regarding Torah in the synagogue (Lk. 2:47). Later Matthew identifies Jesus’ healing ministry as a manifestation of those very prophecies about a wise and just king, quoting the Isaianic passage about not breaking s bruised reed or snuffing out a smothering wick until he has brought justice (Matt. 12:15-21, per Is. 42:1-4).
The good news was that the True King had arrived, inaugurating His kingdom (Mk. 1:14-15). In this scandalous story of the King and his arrival are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). But the good news and the inauguration of the wise and just kingdom didn’t end with the King. Jesus left in order to later impart His Spirit to the masses (Jn. 14, 16). After Pentecost, the entire community of disciples gained access to the same Spirit of Wisdom (Eph 1:17, Col. 1:9) that had empowered Jesus, enabling believers to enact the same kind of just wisdom displayed in Jesus. Apparently, “his intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 3:10).
Therefore, the church is the community who serves and worships the Wise King and is empowered by the King’s Spirit of Wisdom to become a community of blessed “wise ones”. This is why the life of the church has always been marked by the shared project of teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom (Col. 3:15) as we seek to live into Christ’s kingdom.
Part 3, Lady Wisdom Herself
"By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place"
- Proverbs 3:19, NIV
In yet another remarkable linkage back to the opening chapters of Genesis, the author of Proverbs here speaks of wisdom as with God at creation. While it first sounds as if this speaks merely of wisdom as a tool that God used, a closer look at both Proverbs and Genesis reveals the claim is much more theologically loaded.
Throughout Proverbs, the author moves back and forth between discussing wisdom as a thing and as an active character. If you allow the author’s use of the Hebrew feminine pronoun to stand as she or her rather than it or its, this personification stands out even in the opening chapters. Wisdom is juxtaposed with “the adulterous woman” in Prov. 2:16 and it certainly feels as if the author speaks of both as living, active agents. But by the time this metaphor expands in chapters 7 and 8, wisdom has been fully personified as Lady Wisdom. She takes over center stage and speaks directly to the reader: “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me” (8:17), and, “whoever finds me finds life” (8:35). Here is the pinnacle, however:
“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth…
When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always"
- Proverbs 8:22-23, 27, 30, ESV (abridged only for space)
There are some complicated textual disagreements over verse 22 that have muddled the theological significance of this passage historically. It involves disagreement over the Hebrew verb qanahas well the Septuagint’s use of ektisen. The question at hand is whether the meaning is that wisdom was a created thing or rather something preceding creation that existed eternally with God. It is more than just a matter over the awkward idea of God without wisdom creating wisdom. Rather, the significance lies in how the New Testament repeatedly identifies this personified figure of Lady Wisdom with none other than Jesus himself.
This is most famously seen in the opening lines of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (Jn. 1:1-13). John gives a whole litany of additional allusions, however. Consider the proverbs quoted above where wisdom speaks of “seeking me” and “finding life in me.” We find startlingly similar lines in the mouth of Christ in John 5:40 and 14:21-24. Additionally, in Matthew 7:7-11 Jesus almost directly quotes the line of “those who seek me find me” from Proverbs 8:17. Further, the gospel of John makes Jesus as light a central theme of the gospel, apparently drawing on the language in Proverbs and Psalms of wisdom as light (for example, Jn. 8:12, Prov. 4:18, Ps. 119:105).
The links connecting Jesus to the person of Wisdom who was with God in the beginning and who is with Him in the end (Rev 21:23) is made even stronger if we look beyond the Protestant canon to those extra wisdom books of Sirach and The Wisdom of Solomon.
“O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy,
who have made all things by your word,
and by your wisdom have formed humankind
to have dominion over the creatures you have made,
and rule the world in holiness and righteousness,
and pronounce judgment in uprightness of soul,
give me the wisdom that sits by your throne,
and do not reject me from among your servants.
With you is wisdom, she who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
she understands what is pleasing in your sight
and what is right according to your commandments.
Send her forth from the holy heavens,
and from the throne of your glory send her,
that she may labor at my side,
and that I may learn what is pleasing to you."
- Wisdom of Solomon 9:1-4, 9-10 (emphasis added)
Similar language of Wisdom as with God in the heavenly throne room is found also in Sirach 24. The significance is not only the reinforcement of Wisdom as a heavenly figure with God since creation, set in parallel to God’s word, but here Wisdom is also enthroned and sent. It seems undeniable that in light of John’s other allusions to personified wisdom language that his emphasis on Jesus’ having been sent into the world is yet another intertextual assertion that Jesus isWisdom.
In conclusion, what at first appears as a mere grammatical quirk in Proverbs proves to be instead the centerpiece of the most shocking biblical development of all pertaining to wisdom. Jesus wasn’t just a new Mosaic source of wisdom, or even just the Wise King, but Jesus was the very wisdom of God made manifest. As the embodiment of Lady Wisdom, He “has become for us wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30). As even the earliest church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Athanasius all saw and admired, this motif of Wisdom personified as a woman with God since the beginning is one of the central vessels used by the New Testament writers to convey the utterly scandalous and mind-bending news about the Christ, at once human and divine.
We have explored three layers of the Biblical theme of wisdom, all of which find figural fulfillment in Christ. Each layer offers a unique contribution and a distinct call to response, and the church would be well served not only to re-assert wisdom itself as central to God’s revealed Word but also to consider application at each level.
otheSievers, Joseph; “’Where Two or Three…’: The Rabbinic Concept of Shekinah and Matthew 18:20,” (1984) http://www.notredamedesion.org/en/dialogue_docs.php?a=3b&id=425
Dowling, Maurice. “Proverbs 8:23-31 in the Christology of the Early Fathers” (Irish Baptist College, Belfast) http://www.emanuel.ro/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/P-8.1-2010-Maurice-Dowling-Proverbs-8.22-31.pdf