Old Testament Wisdom
This article covers Old Testament Wisdom.
The didactic books constitute the third group of writings in the Old Testament. They teach man to organize his personal, earthly life in such a way that it will be blessed by God and by men, and may give him prosperity and peace of soul. The wisdom which proceeds from God imparts such a life.
When Solomon, beginning his reign, offered up his prayers and burnt sacrifices, God appeared to him at night and said: “Ask, what am I to give thee” (cf. 1 Kings 3:5). And Solomon asked God only for wisdom and knowledge, in order that he might rule the people of God. And God said to Solomon, “Because thou hast not asked for riches, property, glory, victories, or long life, but hast asked for wisdom and knowledge, wisdom and knowledge shall be given thee; and I shall also give thee such riches, possessions and glory as former kings have never had, nor will have after thee” (cf. 1 Kings 3:11-13).
The didactic books are full of practical advice about how to establish one’s life and the life of one’s family intelligently, wisely, in the fear of God, in righteousness, honesty, labor and abstinence, and how to be a useful participant in society. These precepts are extremely instructive, apt, and true. In their expression there is much imagery, liveliness, and wit; although, of course, one encounters statements which accord with the requirements of distant times, and with customs which are foreign to us. Practical guidance for everyday life constitutes the characteristic feature of the Old Testament teaching on wisdom.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Biblical wisdom is the wisdom of earthly prosperity. The Bible sees true wisdom in humble devotion to God in the most severe sufferings and in recognizing the unfathomable nature of God’s ways when suffering innocently. I myself came forth naked from my mother’s womb, naked also shall I depart hence; the Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so hath it come to pass: blessed be the name of the Lord… If we have received good things from the hand of the Lord, shall we not endure evil things? (Job 1:21; 2:10). This is the wisdom of the righteous Job. But there is no true wisdom in the dialectical logic of his friends, for the very reason that they self-confidently consider that they understand God’s thoughts. In their arguments there is what could be called rationalism based on a religious foundation. They are told to ask forgiveness of God through Job.
However attractive prosperity, wealth, success, or glory may be, it is senseless to become attached to anything of this sort; such is the conclusion of Solomon’s wisdom. Death awaits everyone, and then it will appear that everything was only an outward show, only vanity, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” (Eccles. 1:2).
There is in life something higher, more valuable, more worthy of praise, which comes from wisdom. This is the striving to know the works of God, to study nature, and finally, the striving for pure knowledge: To know the composition of the world, and the operation of the elements; the beginning, end and midst of the times, the alterations of the turning of the sun, and changes of the seasons; the cycles of the years and the positions of stars; the natures of living creatures, and the tempers of wild beasts, the violence of winds and the reasonings of men; the diversities of plants, and the virtues of roots… And should a man desire much experience, she (wisdom) knoweth things of old, and doth portray what is to come; she knoweth the subtleties of speeches and can expound dark sentences; she foreknoweth signs and wonders, and the issue of seasons and times… And if one love righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teacheth temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in their life (Wis. 7:17-20; 8:8; 8:7). Here is a recognition of the degrees of knowledge in its many branches.
Possessing such wisdom is not due to personal merit; it is a gift of God. I prayed, testifies the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, and the spirit of wisdom came to me… And all such things as are either secret or manifest, them I know. For wisdom, which is the fashioner of all things, taught me, for she is a noetic spirit, holy, only-begotten, manifold, subtle, agile, clear, undefiled, harmless, loving of the good, penetrating, irresistible, beneficent, kind to man, steadfast, sure, free from care, almighty, overseeing all things, and spreading abroad through all noetic, pure, and most subtle spirits… For she is the effulgence of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the energy of God, and the image of his goodness. And though being but one, she can do all things; and remaining in herself, she maketh all things new, and in every generation, entering into holy souls, she maketh them friends of God, and prophets. For God loveth none save him that dwelleth with wisdom (Wis. 7:22-23; 26-28).
It is not surprising that such a perfect image of Wisdom, as is given in the didactic books of the Old Testament, demands the attention of the Christian, especially in those passages where she is represented as sitting beside God Himself. The Lord made me the beginning of His ways for His works, we read in Proverbs. He established me before time; in the beginning, before He made the earth, even before He made the depths, before the fountains of the waters came forth, before the mountains were established, and before all hills, He begat me. The Lord made lands and uninhabited tracts and the uttermost inhabited parts under heaven. When He prepared heaven, I was present with Him; and when He prepared His throne upon the winds, and when He made the clouds above mighty, and when He secured the fountains of the earth, and when He strengthened the foundations of the earth, I was by Him, arranging all things; I was that wherein He took delight, and daily I rejoiced in His presence continually. For He rejoiced when He had completed the world, and rejoiced in the children of men… For my outgoings are the outgoings of life, and in them is prepared favor from the Lord (Prov. 8:27-31; 35).
Here Wisdom is personified as if it were a divine being; there are other similar expressions in the passages about Wisdom. Under the influence of this image, in the Christian religious philosophy of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and of more recent times, there has arisen an attempt to introduce into theological thought the idea that Wisdom here refers to a special divine, personal force, or hypostasis, created, or uncreated, perhaps the soul of the world, the “Divine Sophia.” Within Russian religious thought, the doctrine of Sophia has been accepted and developed by Vladimir S. Soloviev, Fr. Paul Florensky, and Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov. It must, however, be realized that these thinkers develop their thoughts basing them on their own philosophical presuppositions. Wishing to justify them [presuppositions] by Scripture, they do not pay sufficient attention to the fact that personifying abstract concepts was a customary device in Old Testament writing. The writer of the book of Proverbs warns that, while reading the book, it will be necessary to understand a parable, and a dark speech, the saying of the wise also, and riddles (Prov. 1:5-6); i.e., do not take figurative expressions literally.
In those passages where Wisdom is depicted in an especially vivid way, as a personal being, as the hypostatic Wisdom, the New Testament accepts this as a reference to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God, as we read in Saint Paul (1 Cor. 1:24). Such an interpretation is given, for example, to the passage from Proverbs which is often read in church during Vespers, and which begins, Wisdom has built a house for herself, and setup seven pillars… (Prov. 9:1-6). Thus, the sacred author is transferring our thoughts directly into the New Testament, to the preaching of the Gospel, to the mystery of the Eucharist and the organization of the Church of Christ; here the Old Testament is already on the threshold of the New.