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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


WISDOM . The great literary landmarks of the ‘wisdom’ teaching are the Books of Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon. This literature, in its present form at least, belongs to the latter half of the Persian period and to the Greek period of Jewish history. But behind this latest and finest product of the Hebrew mind there lay a long process of germination. In the pre-exilic history there are traces of the presence of the ‘wisdom’ element from early times. This primitive ‘wisdom’ was not regarded as an exclusively Israelitish possession, but was shared with other nations ( 1 Kings 4:30-31 , Genesis 41:8 , Judges 5:29 , Jeremiah 10:7 , Ezekiel 27:8 ). In Israel it was confined neither to rank ( 1 Kings 10:28 , Deuteronomy 16:19 , Job 32:9 ) nor to sex ( 2 Samuel 14:1 ff; 2 Samuel 20:22 ); but it was particularly characteristic of ‘the elders’ ( Deuteronomy 1:16 , Job 12:12; Job 32:7 ), and in course of time seems to have given rise to a special class of teachers known as ‘ the Wise ’ ( Jeremiah 18:18 ).

Early ‘Wisdom’ was varied in character and of as wide a scope as the range of human activities. It thus included the most heterogeneous elements: e.g . mechanical skill ( 1 Kings 7:14 ), statecraft ( 1 Kings 5:12 ), financial and commercial ability ( Ezekiel 28:1-26 ), political trickery ( 1 Kings 2:6 ), common sense and tact ( 2 Samuel 14:1-33; 2 Samuel 20:14-22 ), learning ( 1 Kings 3:16-28 ), military skill and administrative ability ( Isaiah 10:13 ), piety ( Deuteronomy 4:6 ), and the creative energy of God ( Jeremiah 10:12 ). In short, any capacity possessed in an exceptional degree was recognized as ‘wisdom,’ and was regarded as the gift of God. But there was already manifest a marked tendency to magnify the ethical and religious elements of ‘wisdom,’ which later came to their full recognition.

In pre-exilic Israel, however, ‘wisdom’ played a relatively small part in religion. The vital, progressive religious spirit exhausted itself in prophecy . Here was laid the foundation of all the later ‘wisdom.’ Not only laid the prophets hand down the literary forms through which the sages expressed themselves, e.g . riddle ( Judges 14:14-18 ), fable ( Judges 9:3-15 ), parable ( 2 Samuel 12:1-3 , Isaiah 5:1-5 ), proverb ( 1 Samuel 10:12 , Jeremiah 31:29 ), essay ( Isaiah 28:23-29 ), lyric, address, etc., but they also wrought out certain great ideas that were presupposed in all the later ‘wisdom.’ These were: ( a ) monotheism, which found free course in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah; ( b ) individualism, or the responsibility of the individual before God for his own sins and for the sins of no one else the great message of Ezekiel; and ( c ) the insistence of God upon right character as the only passport to His favour a truth proclaimed by all the great prophets. With the fall of Jerusalem, however, and the destruction of the Jewish State, the knell of prophecy was sounded; the responsibility for shaping the religious destiny of Israel now fell into the hands of the priests and sages.

The priest responded to the call first, but sought to heal the wounds of Israel lightly, by purification and elaboration of the ritual. The true heir of the prophet was the sage. He found himself confronted with a new world; it was his to interpret it religiously. The old world-view of the prophet was no longer tenable. New problems were calling for solution and old problems becoming ever more pressing. The task of the sage was to adjust the truths left to him by the prophets to the new situation. It was his to find the place of religion in that situation and to make it the dominant element therein. The greatest sources of danger to true religion were:” ( a ) an orthodoxy which held the ancient traditions inviolable and refused to see the facts of the present ( b ) the scepticism and discouragement arising out of the miseries of the time which seemed to deny the justice and goodness of God; and ( c ) the inroads of Greek civilization which seemed to threaten the whole fabric of Judaism. Indeed, the sages themselves did not wholly escape being influenced by these tendencies: witness the orthodoxy of the bulk of the Book of Proverbs, the scepticism of Ecclesiastes, and the Greek elements in the Wisdom of Solomon. To these conditions the sages, each in his own way, addressed their message.

The writers of Proverbs, for the most part, stand firmly upon the old paths; in the midst of mental and moral chaos and flux they insist upon adherence to the old standards of truth and goodness, and they promise success to all who heed their instruction. For them prosperity is the proof of piety. This is the old prophetic recipe for national success made operative in the lives of individuals. Through it the sages inform all the ordinary processes of common everyday life with religious meaning. Their philosophy of life is simple, but shallow. They fail to realize that the reward of piety is not in the market-place, but in the soul.

The weakness of this traditional position is exposed by the Book of Job, which points out the fact that the righteous man is often the most sorely afflicted, and seeks to reconcile this fact with belief in the justice and goodness of God. But no solution of the age-long problem of suffering is provided: the sufferer is rather bidden to take refuge in his faith in God’s goodness and wisdom, and to realize that, just as the mysteries of God’s visible universe elude his knowledge, so also is it futile for him to attempt to penetrate the greater mysteries of God’s providence. Let him be content with God Himself as his portion.

Song of Songs illustrates the humanity of the sages. It concerns itself with the greatest of all human passions love. Whether to be interpreted as a drama or as a collection of lyrics such as were sung at weddings in Syria, it extols the nobility and loyalty of true love. In a period when the licentious customs of the pagan world were finding eager acceptance in Judah, such a powerful and beautiful vindication of the character of unselfish love was urgently needed, and was calculated to play an important part in the preservation of true religion.

Ecclesiastes is the product of many minds, with more or less conflicting views. But they are all concerned with the problem of practical scepticism: Does God care for truth and goodness? Is there any religious meaning in the universe? The heart of the book meets this question fairly and squarely. The iron has entered the author’s own soul. He desires to help those in the same situation with himself. He would give doubting, faltering souls a basis for faith. Recognizing and giving full weight to the many difficulties that beset the religious point of view and tend to drive men to despair, he holds fast to his belief in God’s loving care, and therefore counsels his fellows to put on a cheerful courage and perform their allotted tasks with joy. This is the only way to make life worth living, and worth living to the full.

Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon are both products of the life and death struggle between Judaism and Greek thought. The author of the former is hospitable to Greek social life, but rigid in his adherence to the old Hebrew ideals of morals and religion. He seeks to arouse loyalty to and enthusiasm for these in the hearts of the Jews, who are in constant danger of yielding to the seductive and powerful influences of Greece. The same purpose animates the author of the Wisdom of Solomon. But he is more liberal in his attitude to foreign influences. He welcomes truth from any direction, and therefore does not hesitate to incorporate Greek elements in his fundamentally Hebraic view of life and duty. He thus enriches the conception of ‘wisdom’ from every source, and seeks to show that this Hebrew ideal is immeasurably superior to the boasted Greek sophia .

Hebrew ‘wisdom’ by its very nature could have no fellowship with philosophy. The aims and methods of the two were fundamentally different. In the words of Bishop Westcott, ‘the axioms of the one are the conclusions of the other.’ For philosophy, God is the conclusion; for ‘wisdom,’ He is the major premise. Philosophers have ever been seeking after God ‘if haply they might find him.’ The mind of the sage was saturated with the thought of God. Philosophy starts with the world as it is, and seeks to find room for God in it; ‘wisdom’ started with God and sought to explain the world in terms of God. ‘Wisdom, ‘furthermore, was practical and moral; philosophy was speculative and metaphysical. The interests of ‘wisdom’ were intensely human. They were concerned with living questions and concrete issues. The problems of the sage were surcharged with emotion; they were the outcome of troubled feelings and perturbed will; only in slight measure were they the product of the intellect. It is not surprising, therefore, that ‘wisdom’ presents no carefully developed system of thought. The heart knows no logic. ‘Wisdom’ cares little for a plan of the universe; It leaves all such matters to God. It seeks only to enable men to love and trust God and to walk in His ways.

The Hebrew conception of ‘wisdom’ developed along two lines. ‘Wisdom’ had its human and its Divine aspects. In so far as it was human, it devoted itself to the consideration of the great problems of life. It was identified with knowledge of the laws and principles, observance of which leads to the successful life. These were all summarized in the formula, ‘the fear of the Lord.’ Later in the history of the idea, this subjective experience was externalized and objectified and, under the growing influence of the priestly ritual, ‘wisdom’ came to be defined as observance of the Mosaic Law ( Sir 19:20-24; Sir 24:23 ).

On its Divine side, ‘wisdom’ was at first conceived of as an attribute of God which He generously shared with men. Then, as the conception of God grew broader and deeper, large areas of ‘wisdom’ were marked off as inaccessible to man, and known only to God (Job 28:1-28 ). Still further, ‘wisdom’ was personified and represented as the companion of God in all His creative activities ( Proverbs 8:22-31 ); and was, at last, under the influence of Greek thought, personalized, or hypostatized, and made to function as an intermediary between man and God, carrying out His beneficent purposes towards the righteous ( Wis 8:1; Wis 8:3-4; Wis 9:4; Wis 9:9; Wis 9:11; Wis 9:18; Wis 10:1; Wis 10:4 ).

Upon the whole, the ‘wisdom’ element must be considered the noblest expression of the Hebrew spirit. It was in large part the response of Judaism to the influx of Western civilization. It demonstrated irrefutably the vitality of the Hebrew religion. When the forms and institutions in which Hebrew idealism had clothed itself were shattered beyond restoration, ‘wisdom’ furnished new channels for the expression of the ideal, and kept the passion for righteousness and truth burning. When Judaism was brought face to face with the Gentile world on every hand, ‘wisdom’ furnished it with a cosmopolitan message. Nationalistic, particularistic, transitory elements were discarded, and emphasis was laid upon the great fundamental concepts of religion adapted to the needs of all men everywhere. ‘Wisdom’ thus became of the greatest importance in the preparation for Christianity, the universal religion.

John Merlin Powis Smith.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Wisdom'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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