Tuesday, December 19, 2023


So far in this study of virtue we have looked at faith, hope, love, and piety. The first three are grouped together by Paul and have traditionally been known as theological virtues. They are directed toward God. It is important that we have faith, not just in anything, but in God, that we not merely have optimism, but a hope fixed on God and his promises, and a love which is also for our neighbor, but above all with our whole being for God. Piety fits very well among these virtues, as something that is first and foremost directed towards God as well.

In the rest of this series, I want to look at four more virtues that have been called the cardinal virtues. Usually they have been known as prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (you might notice that those are all Latin-based names). I am going to use other words but cover the same areas: wisdom, righteousness, steadfastness, and self-control. 

What is Wisdom? 

The Bible says a lot about wisdom and contains a rich vocabulary of words that are related to wisdom: insight, prudence, knowledge, instruction, discretion, good sense, and understanding. I am thinking about this whole category of related terms concerning the right use of the mind for a good and godly life. 

What is contrary to wisdom? Folly and foolishness. What is wisdom? We might call it the right use and application of knowledge. We might use the word to refer to a sound mind. A professor of mine defined wisdom as skill in the art of godly living. Wisdom involves deliberation, understanding, and sound judgment. A wise person is able to take in the facts, figure out what the right thing is to do in a given situation, and then do it. 

Wisdom involves figuring out what is true and right and good. It also discerns what is the good and right thing to do in a particular situation. It also includes the ability to then fix upon that course of action. If you are always deliberating and get stuck there, you might have an active mind, but not wisdom. 

To be wise, you must have a thorough understanding of the principles of God’s law and godly goals, a perceptive understanding of the world and particular situations within it, and the ability to come to sound applications and conclusions, so that one acts wisely. A wise person perceives the principle behind the command so that he is able to apply it in other situations. A wise person perceives how the world works and the nature of his specific situation. What are the dynamics at work in this particular situation? What principles are relevant here? What course of action will be effectual in this case? Job's friends were not wise, despite knowing many things, misjudging his situation. The person who thinks everything is a nail because he has a hammer is not wise. We need an understanding of God's word, the world, the situation, and then the ability to come to a conclusion so that one acts wisely. 

Wisdom is important for all people and it is especially something that one should look for in decision makers. When the Bible speaks of appointing judges or rulers or elders or deacons, often one of the qualifications is that of wisdom. "Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads" (Deut. 1:13). Leaders like these need to be able to understand the cases that come before them and make the right decision.

Wisdom in Proverbs

Now there are several books in the Bible known as wisdom literature. Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are most commonly put into this category. All of them teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10, Job 28:28, Eccl. 12:13, see also Psalm 111:10). Jesus' teachings echo some of the wisdom literature as well and is wisdom himself. The book of James has been called "the Proverbs of the New Testament" and has many similar topics and emphases. But let us start with Proverbs. 

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). The fear of the Lord is fundamental to being wise. First of all, it is the height of folly to ignore God or rebel against him. He is the most fundamental thing to take into account in any decision that needs to be made. He is the most important factor in any equation. How can you ignore him who made heaven and earth, who will bring everything into judgment, who sees all things? Secondly, by the fear of the Lord, a person turns away from evil and the way of destruction, the way of folly and death (Prov. 16:6). By the fear of the Lord, one turns away from evil and to the way that is good. Thirdly, by the fear of the Lord, you are taught humility and teachableness before the Creator, the one who designed your world (Prov. 15:33). In Proverbs, there is a cycle where the fool rejects instruction but the wise person is teachable and grows in wisdom. So how does a person begin to be wise? How do you get started on the right track? The beginning is the fear of the Lord. Then you will begin to benefit from instruction and grow wiser through instruction and experience.

Proverbs teaches that wisdom must be prized and pursued to be obtained. “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Prov. 4:7). Wisdom must be sought out. A person must want it enough that he is willing to receive instruction and correction. Solomon, as a good teacher, spends nine chapters persuading his readers to love and seek wisdom before teaching it (read chapter two for an example of this). He describes its goodness and advantages and the danger of being without it. God made all things by his wisdom. It is wisdom that can preserve you from the strange woman and violent man and the ways of death. Wisdom is more valuable than silver and gold. Wisdom comes to those who seek it and no one else. In this way you will understand justice and righteousness and every good path and turn aside from the way that ends in destruction. Therefore, wisdom should be sought out from God, from his word, from parents, instructors, and friends, through instruction and correction and attentiveness. 

A God-fearing person will grow in wisdom through this training. This training is a combination of instruction, practice, and correction. A God-fearing person embraces this training. The old are expected to be wiser because they have had more opportunity for this training, although too many people neglect this opportunity. This is also why we expect there to be wisdom in tradition. Tradition is a repository of lessons learned over the generations, although it is not above critique or reform. 

One important tool of instruction in wisdom is that of the proverb. These short and pithy sentences make you think. Biblical proverbs usually use parallelism, saying something in two different ways or making a contrast between two things. They can be simply descriptive, observing how the world works, provoking you to think how you should live in light of this observation.  

Proverbs covers many areas in which wisdom should be applied. One big emphasis is that of speech. It takes much wisdom to communicate well. Words are small but powerful. They can be useful, but they can also be quite destructive. Proverbs also covers things like work, wealth, sex, marriage, child rearing, politics, and friendship.

Proverbs also teaches that virtue is wise. Righteousness, diligence, self-control, humility, and generosity are wise qualities. Diligence is wise, not sloth or theft. Self-control is wise, not sexual immorality or pugnacity. These wise virtues are home-building virtues, which we see especially in the last chapter of Proverbs. The vices that Proverbs describes are those that tear down homes, that tear down kingdoms, and leave destruction in their path. 

Wisdom in the New Testament 

We could also go to Ecclesiastes and Job and some of the complexities of living in a fallen world and the delay between now and the final resolution of all things in the judgment to come. But let us go to the New Testament. In Colossians 1:9-10, we have Paul's prayer for the saints in Colossae. “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God...” It should be our desire and prayer to know God's will in all wisdom and understanding, so that we can walk in a manner worthy to him. 

Not only does Paul pray for this, but he also works hard for it. In describing the work of Christ's ministers, he says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). 

In Colossians 2:2-3, Paul writes of the aim of his struggles, “…that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ. The Proverbs often talk about wisdom in a personified way and much of this language is picked up in the New Testament and applied to Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). As Proverbs describes wisdom being begotten of God before anything was created, so Jesus is eternally begotten of the Father before all ages. As all things were made through wisdom, so all things were made through Christ. Where do we find wisdom and take hold of wisdom? In Jesus Christ. It would be utter folly to reject him. But in him, we become truly wise and are reconciled with our Maker. 

In Colossians 3:10, Paul describes the image of God that is being renewed in the saints. We “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Compare this to the parallel passage in Ephesians 4:24 where he emphasizes holiness and righteousness. In Colossians, with it emphasis on wisdom, he brings out the fact that this divine image is being renewed in knowledge. 

How do we grow in this knowledge and wisdom? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). If Christ has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, we should want his word to dwell in us richly. This takes place through instruction in wisdom and also by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. 

Then Paul exhorts the saints in Colossians 4:5, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” Live wisely, redeeming the time, making good choices, especially before outsiders. Do not bring disgrace upon the gospel. Set a good example. Be a light to the world and refute the slander of the ungodly by your behavior. Be wise in how you speak to outsiders. "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (4:6). 

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus says, "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." The Greek word used here for wisdom is the more specific word for prudence, shrewdness, or sensibleness. Jesus does not want his people to be simpletons or naive. You are sheep among wolves, so beware of men. Look out for the danger that comes. You should be like children in humility and teachableness, but Scripture also says, "Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature" (1 Cor. 14:20).

On the other hand, does prudence sometimes get used as an excuse to compromise? Sometimes cowards and sluggards appeal to prudence to excuse their vices (Prov. 26:13). Sometimes well-meaning apologists foolishly think they might win over their opponents by giving up less important doctrines. Many errors and heresies have begun as misguided strategies for defending the faith. Sometimes sins and cruelties are excused under the pretense of prudence, as if the ends necessarily justify the means. It is with good reason that Jesus adds, "innocent as doves." The devil was crafty, but he was not innocent as a dove. He was using that wisdom to do harm. We ought to be as wise as serpents, but in such a way that we do not become like the wolves we dwell among. All the virtues need each other. 

Let me finish then with the epistle from James. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). This is what true wisdom looks like. It is contrary to contention and selfish ambition. It is open to reason and impartial with a readiness to understand the situation rather than stubbornly sticking to assumptions. This true wisdom comes from above, from God, and it leads to peace and harmony. 

How does one receive this wisdom from above? Not only by instruction and practice, but also through prayer. In James 1:5 he says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” So lift up your voice and call out for wisdom. Pray to God that he might give it to you. Seek wisdom from the Lord, in the fear of the Lord, for he gives generously to those who seek it.

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