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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Wisdom and Wise Men

An educated class of people responsible for preserving and transmitting the culture and learning of the society. Though wisdom and the wise men who perpetuated it have been around almost as long as have people, the study of wisdom in the Ancient Near East is a relatively new endeavor. This has been due, in part, to a lack of a clear definition of the term wisdom, as well as the difficult nature of the poetic language within which most of the wisdom material has been found. Sad to say, neither of these issues is completely solved today though much has been learned in recent years.

Real Wisdom Is the Fear of God Three basic definitions of wisdom summarize the status of the field of study very well. Note that the first two of these definitions are quite secular in nature while the third is religious.

First, wisdom is considered by many to be simply the art of learning how to succeed in life. Apparently, ancient persons learned very early that there was an orderliness to the world in which they lived. They also learned that success and happiness came from living in accordance with that orderliness (Proverbs 22:17-24:22 ). Second, wisdom is considered by some to be a philosophical study of the essence of life. Certainly, much of the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes seem to deal with just such existential issues of life (see particularly Job 30:29-31 ). Third, though the other definitions might include this, it seems that the real essence of wisdom is spiritual, for life is more than just living by a set of rules and being rewarded in some physical manner. Undoubtedly, in this sense wisdom comes from God (Proverbs 2:6 ). Thus, though it will involve observation and instruction, it really begins with God and one's faith in Him as Lord and Savior (Proverbs 1:7; Job 28:28 ).

The Wise Men Preserved This Wisdom Though at first such wisdom was probably the responsibility of the patriarch or head of the clan, it appears that every ancient culture developed a distinct class of people, the hakam or sages, who were responsible for the creating and preserving of their wisdom. No doubt these people were part of the more educated group of their societies who could read and write and had the economic freedom to do so.

Certainly Israel was no exception. The first clear reference to wise men in the biblical text is the one about Ahithophel and Hushai during the reign of David (2 Samuel 16:15-17:23 ). However, during Solomon's day, the wisdom movement took on a whole new significance, for Solomon and his court became world renowned for their wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34; 1 Kings 10:1 ). Certainly his reign became known as the “golden age” of Israelite culture (Luke 12:27 ).

Though the movement became less visible during the early part of the divided monarchy, it was still quite active, for Hezekiah's wise men were very concerned about preserving the wisdom tradition for future generations (Proverbs 25:1 ). Later still, Jeremiah's enemies even confronted him regarding his prophecy that the Law would perish from the priests, the prophets, and the sages (Jeremiah 18:18 ). Thus, clearly by the fall of Judah, the sage had taken his place as one of the key leaders in Israelite society.

No doubt, as the role of the prophet became less visible during the intertestamental period, the role of the sage and the priest became more prominent (see particularly Sirach 38:24-39:11 ). Apparently, this development continued right on into the New Testament era where the magi (or sage) announced the birth of Christ (Matthew 2:1-12 ) who became the greatest of all wisdom teachers (Matthew 12:42; Matthew 13:54; Mark 6:2 ).

Most Wisdom Is in Poetic Form Most of the Ancient Near Eastern wisdom material has been found in some type of poetic structure. Until recent years these structures have been a mystery because they did not seem to rhyme either in meter or sound as modern languages do. However, in A.D. 1753Bishop Robert Lowth unlocked the key to such poetic writing when he discovered that Hebrew poetry rhymed in thought. Moreover, he surmised that such thoughts were most commonly expressed in parallel patterns. Some of these patterns expressed the same thoughts (Proverbs 20:1 ), while others expressed opposing thoughts (Proverbs 10:1 ), or developed a given thought (Proverbs 31:10-31 ). In time, these parallel patterns were structured into specific forms such as the proverb, riddle, allegory, hymn, disputation, autobiographical narrative, didactic narrative, and lists. No doubt, such beautiful and intricate poetic structure was clearly a mark of the sage and the wisdom schools of his day and age. See Poetry .

Wisdom Became the Guide for Daily Living Though in recent years many parts of the sacred Scripture have been considered under wisdom's umbrella, no doubt the greatest contribution of Israel's sages has been the three books found in the “writings” (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). However, certain of the other “writings” such as the Psalms, the Song of Solomon, and Lamentations contain figures of speech and stylized forms reflective of the wisdom tradition. In addition to these, the intertestamental works of Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon continued the tradition and laid an excellent foundation for the ultimate revelation of wisdom in Christ Jesus (Matthew 11:19; Luke 11:49-51; Colossians 1:15-20; 1Corinthians 1:24,1 Corinthians 1:30; Revelation 5:12 ). See Intertestamental History; Apocrypha; Pseudepigrapha .

Certainly, biblical wisdom like that of other cultures emphasizes the success and well-being of the individual. This is visible not only in the topics it chooses to deal with, but also in the way it deals with them. Some of its major topics are: knowledge, the world, justice, virtue, family, and faith. The greatest of these may be faith which is constantly watching over wisdom and really all of life (Proverbs 1:7 ). See Ecclesiastes; Job; Proverbs.

Harry Hunt

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Wisdom and Wise Men'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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