How to Define Wisdom
As a rule, if someone asks you to define a word, you should respond by saying, “According to whom? In what setting? In what book? In what chapter or verse?” Because definitions vary according to speakers in context and time even within the Bible. So in general, be wary of doing what I am about to do.
I’m going to venture a definition of wisdom, which I think, in general, covers most of the uses in the Bible. I do this because we have to speak to each other. And we can’t pause every time we do in order to define precisely all the words we are using. Communication would be impossible if we tried to do that. So when we speak to each other, we have to assume, and hope for, a shared meaning for hundreds of words we are using, without pausing to define each one.
So I’m going to propose a definition for wisdom first in a general sense, and then, in a few minutes, get a little more specific.
Knowledge, Insight, Resolve
So, most generally I would put it like this: The greatest human wisdom is the factual knowledge and the situational insight and the necessary resolve that together have the greatest likelihood of success in achieving the intended, righteous goal.
For example, in a military battle, with justice on your side, the intended, righteous goal will be victory. And to that end, a wise general will have the factual knowledgehe needs about the terrain, and the weather, and the strength of the opposing army, and where they are located, and how they fight, and how skilled his own troops are, and how weary they are, and much other factual knowledge.
And, as the battle engages, he will have the situational insight to discern in the critical moment that the way the enemy is slowing on the right flank is a sign that one more thrust from his elite troops at that weak spot will send the entire enemy force fleeing.
And he has the necessary resolve to command the charge, knowing that failure here would be the loss of the battle. In a sinful and dangerous world, almost all acts of wisdom require some measure of courage.
So, wisdom always combines (1) general knowledge of the facts about reality with (2) the more specific and the immediate discernment, or insight, or intuition into the less perceptible, but crucial, dynamics of the situation, with (3) the necessary resolve to act on that knowledge and that insight. We won’t act as wisely as we could, if we are ignorant of relevant reality, or if we are undiscerning of the immediate dynamics of the situation, or if we simply don’t have the resolve to act, because we are lazy or afraid.
God Never Fails
The reason I say that the greatest human wisdom has the greatest likelihood of success in achieving the intended, righteous goal, is that only God never fails in the achievement of his intended goals. The wisdom of God — his general knowledge of reality, his situational insight, his necessary resolve — always succeeds in achieving his intended goals.
That’s not true of finite human beings — believing or unbelieving. The greatest human wisdom — with all its factual knowledge, and all its situational insight, and all its necessary resolve — will sometimes be thwarted in achieving its intended, righteous goals, because only God has the power to guarantee the success of his wisdom.
God’s Ways Are Unsearchable
So, we can define God’s wisdom without any qualification. We can say: Divine wisdom is the perfect factual knowledge and the perfect situational insight and the omnipotent resolve that together will succeed in achieving his intended, righteous goals.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)
Nobody can fathom them or thwart them.
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36)
Wisdom That Won’t Fail
Now, I said a few minutes ago that I would try to define wisdom first most generally, and then get more specific. So, here’s my more specific definition: The greatest human wisdom is the factual knowledge and the situational insight and the necessary resolve that together will succeed in attaining full and everlasting happiness.
And you notice, I don’t qualify it by saying it “has the greatest likelihood of success in attaining happiness.” Because God has ordained that no power in the universe can keep his redeemed people, acting in his Spirit-given wisdom, from attaining full and everlasting happiness in his presence. This wisdom cannot be thwarted.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:7, “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God [that is, he imparts it to believers], which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” That divine wisdom, planned for his people before creation, cannot fail. When that wisdom is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit in the new birth, and we walk according to that wisdom in faith, we cannot fail to attain the glory and joy that God decreed for us before the ages.
So, my more specific definition of the best human wisdom — the kind we want, the kind we can have, as a blood-bought gift of Jesus, by the Spirit, through faith — that wisdom is the factual knowledge and the situational insight and the necessary resolve that together succeeds in attaining full and everlasting happiness.
Wisdom Works for a Greater Goal
Now, consider just a few passages of Scripture that point to the definition I have just unfolded. Consider, for example, 2 Timothy 3:15: “The sacred writings [the Scriptures] are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Notice how wisdom functions. It is a means to a goal. Wisdom is always a good means to a good goal. The Scriptures make you wise untosalvation.
Wisdom is the mental, attitudinal, volitional capacity to get somewhere. So what Paul is implying is this: that the Scriptures impart to you, by the Spirit, the knowledge of reality and the situational discernment and the necessary resolve unto salvation. They impart to you what you will need to walk on the narrow road of faith and obedience that leads to final salvation — to full and everlasting happiness in the presence of God.
Or consider Proverbs 3:13, “Happy is the one who finds wisdom.” Biblical wisdom is not a dead-end street leading to a cul-de-sac of misery. It is the path to deep and lasting happiness. Or consider Proverbs 24:13–14:
My son, eat honey, for it is good,
and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
Know that wisdom is such to your soul;
if you find it, there will be a future [a honey-sweet future!],
and your hope will not be cut off [honey-sweet forever].
If you find true wisdom, it will lead you infallibly to a happy future. And that future will last forever.
So Proverbs 19:8 says, “He who gets wisdom loves himself.” Not meaning: finds himself lovely, but embraces for himself a glorious future. Proverbs 8:32–36 sums it up beautifully. Here wisdom herself is speaking and she says,
And now, O sons, listen to me [wisdom]:
blessed are those who keep my ways [the ways of wisdom]. . . .
Blessed is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me [finds wisdom] finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord,
but he who fails to find me injures himself;
all who hate me love death.
Could it be clearer that wisdom is the knowledge and insight and resolve that successfully lead to full and everlasting joy?
Better Than Gold
Therefore, as Proverbs 16:16 says, “To get wisdom is better than gold.” Why? Because gold can buy almost anything in this world. But it cannot buy everlasting life and joy.
Oh, it can buy all kinds of earthly pleasures and turn men into idiots. “Folly is a joy to him who has no sense” (Proverbs 15:21). But it cannot buy what we want and need most: full and everlasting happiness. But wisdom — true wisdom — can do that. Those who find wisdom find life. And those who hate her love death.
Outside my study at home hanging on the wall in the hall that I must pass every day is this beautiful calligraphy that a wise friend sent me 17 years ago. The top coin is made of silver. The bottom coin of gold. It says,
Choose my instruction instead of silver,
knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 8:10–11, NIV)
Because only she leads to the fulfilment of all your desires.
How to Get Wisdom
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever you get, get insight. (Proverbs 4:7)
I have in mind one main path to wisdom that I want to focus on here in our setting at Bethlehem College & Seminary, but it would be so lopsided to deal only with this that I am going to mention several other paths that I see in Scripture.
Get wisdom by prizing her.
Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her. (Proverbs 4:8)
Don’t be neutral toward wisdom. Prize her. Esteem her. Desire her. Cherish her. And she will honor you with her presence.
Get wisdom by praying — by asking God for her.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5)
Get wisdom by pursuing her.
If you make your ear attentive to wisdom . . .
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:2, 4–5)
Don’t be passive. Listen, seek, pursue. She is found by those who prize her and pray for her and pursue her.
This is an excerpt from a message from John Piper. For the full message, click here.
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including “Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist,” and most recently “Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.”
A version of this article appeared on the desiringGod website.
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