Biblical Wisdom: A New Blog Series
It’s no accident that the Bible gives us multiple types of ethical exhortation. Not everything is a command. God doesn’t just give us “thou shalt nots;” in fact, since the beginning, those have been the minority. God had plenty for Adam to do in the garden, and only one don’t. The rest of the Bible follows suit: a number of prohibitions, to be sure, and plenty of commands as well, but also encouragements, suggestions, visions, advice, riddles, and wisdom.
What is Wisdom?
Where does wisdom fit within this ethical smorgasbord? How does a proverb differ from a command? There are plenty of ways, and I’m desperately trying to resist being exhaustive in these blog posts (after all, it’s just a blog), but here’s a short list.
- Wisdom isn’t “always and everywhere.” God’s commands are always commands: murder is always wrong; the Sabbath must be kept holy despite the fact that the football game conflicts with Sunday worship. Of course, no law can cover every circumstance, and so we get things like “case law,” which we find throughout Torah. But case law is still law, and law is designed to be as precise as possible. Wisdom isn’t that way. In fact, it’s often in conflict with itself. “Look before you leap;” “he who hesitates is lost.” “Answer not a fool according to his folly;” “answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4-5). It takes wisdom to know when and where and how to apply wisdom.
- Relatedly, then, wisdom is situational. At it’s best, it’s earthy and broken in, like Red Wing boots; you can’t trust them unless they’ve been through… life. Wisdom is the kind of thing one learns through experience, through mistakes, through abnormal pressure and pain and perseverance. It’s contingent, but no less important or significant as a result. The obedient fool can do as much damage as the wise rebel. The key is to be both at the same time. To obey God, and to do so with understanding, sympathy, and awareness of ones surroundings.
- Wisdom isn’t always clear. Law is designed to be as clear and un-misunderstandable as possible, but there’s a riddle to wisdom. Should I do this or that? The answer to that question is easy when the decision is “should I steal or not steal.” The stakes are high on this exam; should I cheat or should I fail? No contest: you fail. Not all questions are that easy, however. My girls and I just watched The Sound of Music. Should I steal the distributor cap on the Nazi cars, allowing my friends to escape, or not? It’s war, and they’re evil; steal now, confess later.
- Wisdom is unsettling. The law says “yes” and “no”; the laws says “you’re on the right path” or “you’re headed for trouble.” Wisdom says “it depends.” What’s more, it says “it depends” precisely in order to get you to think (rather than to “hedge” on right and wrong). “The words of the wise are like goads” (Ecc. 12:11). The wisdom of the wise forces your to consider, reconsider, and then to decide amidst lingering doubts.
- Wisdom is personal. Related to all this, wisdom forces you to consider your relationship with God, and your relationship with your neighbor. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). Wisdom is relational, and relationships are personal. Did you obey? Yes. Did you love? Maybe. Wisdom will point out the difference between the two.
What should I expect from this series?
I just announced a series called “You Stole that From Us;” why a new series so soon? Well, honestly, this one is easier! I’ve got several drafts of the former series in the works, but I’m finding that it requires more research to do it in the way I would like. Wisdom requires more reflection than research. Research and reflection both take time, but research also requires footnotes.
Proverbs, James, and Ecclesiastes—the wisdom books of the Christian Bible—are books I spend much time in, and two of them I have preached through (Proverbs and James). So a series on wisdom provides a more “exploring together” mode of thinking, as opposed to a “here are the results of my research” approach. A goad, rather than a finished product.
Here are some ideas for the next couple of posts in this series. I’ve titled them in a manner directly contradictory to the characteristics of wisdom described above—that is, as commands. Suggestions for future posts are welcome!
- Don’t Buy Fancy Ketchup (but mustard is OK)
- Keep Your Shoes on until Bedtime
- Avoid Wealth (and Poverty, but Especially Wealth)
- Success is Secondary
- You’re Not Important
- People around You Should Be Kinda Weirded Out By Things You Do
So an encouraging series! Let me know what you think.