The call of wisdom is surprisingly joyful

Published: November 14, 2009

This is the fourth column in a six-part series

By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

What is the difference between wisdom and knowledge? Knowledge tells us the “what” and “how” of things. Wisdom teaches us to ponder the “why” of things, knowing that all things are meant to serve their Creator.

While knowledge might tell us what paths there are in life, wisdom teaches us to choose the better way. Knowledge might tell us what direction a path leads; wisdom teaches us to mind the way while seeking the goal.

Living VoiceThere are a number of books in the Old Testament that are regarded as wisdom writings, literature intended to help the reader appreciate God’s wise ordering of creation and also to dedicate oneself to observing God’s commandments.

There is, however, a surprising variety of styles and content in these books. Ecclesiastes seems to teach the wisdom of humility through cynicism. “I have seen all things that are done under the sun,” says the writer, “and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind” (1:14). Contrast that with what we find in Proverbs: “Happy the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding! For her profit is better than profit in silver, and better than gold is her revenue” (3:13-14).

Notice also that wisdom, here and throughout the wisdom writings, is female. The wise seem to understand this instinctively! The Psalms are traditionally defined as wisdom literature, and there are a number of Psalms that truly reflect the wisdom tradition.

We read this at the beginning of the very first Psalm: “Happy are those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked, nor go the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the Lord is their joy; God’s law they study day and night” (1:1-2). Wisdom offers us the way to happiness, and it is a joy that arises from attending to the Word of God.

In addition to the Psalms, wisdom writings found in all Christian and Jewish Bibles include Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and the Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon). Catholic Bibles have an even greater trove of wisdom literature because the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) are included in the Deuterocanon (the official Catholic list of books in the Old Testament, as established at the Council of Trent in the 16th century).

In Proverbs (as well as in Wisdom) we read some very bold claims concerning wisdom. Wisdom is not simply some abstract formulation meant to convey the value of studying God’s word or of contemplating God’s presence within creation. Wisdom is a person who speaks through Scripture; she has been with God since the very beginning of creation.

God has created nothing without her as a constant companion. “The Lord begot me, the first-born of his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago; From of old I was poured forth, at the first, before the earth. … When he established the heavens I was there” (8:22-23, 27a).

A little further along in this same section of Proverbs (8:30-31), wisdom reveals herself as God's “amown.” This can be translated in two ways, as either God’s craftsman or favorite daughter. They seem to be two very different things, yet here in Proverbs it is obvious that the word means both.

Not only is wisdom a favorite daughter whom God proudly watches as she plays before him, she is the craftsman that constructs the earth according to God’s intention. “I was beside him as his craftsman (or favorite daughter), and I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of his earth; and I found delight in the sons of men.”

God delights in daughter wisdom, and her play is something she does both in God’s presence and here on earth among humans who enjoy her company. This is a very merry picture of a daughter bringing mirth to her father while at the same time bringing delight to all her companions at play. Here is a dance that invites us all to join in!

What happened to this stream of theology? Did any of it flow into the New Testament? Scholars today note that Jesus is portrayed as a wisdom teacher in the Gospels and Paul proclaims Jesus as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). The New Testament also has its own book of wisdom, the Letter of James. But it is in the Gospel of John that we see how the personification of wisdom gained its ultimate expression: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

Study Questions

1. What differences can you see between knowledge and wisdom?
2. Why do you think wisdom is so often depicted in the Bible as a woman?
3. What does Proverbs 8:22-23, 27a say about the origins of wisdom?
4. Scripture stresses the value of seeking wisdom. What in your experience has helped you find wisdom?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Nov. 14, 2009. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.