In Search of Wisdom

The Rev’d William F. Bellais[1] 

Being smart or even having a genius-sized brain is not the criteria for effective living. In fact, being effective is far more important than being efficient. I know people who can do all sorts of things or answer trivia questions one right after another but I do not trust them to be effective in meeting life’s challenges. Certainly, I wish my responses and pool of knowledge were sufficient to win me thousands of dollars on a TV quiz show but sadly, they are not. However, I have not striven for such skill. My main hope in life is to demonstrate wisdom.

During two years of the late 1970s, I taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding high school for Navajo young people of the Eastern Navajo Agency. Compared to other students of their age group in non-Indian high schools of New Mexico and Arizona the students I worked with had a difficult time competing in an academic environment. Of course, there many students were good at math and science, but the majority, because of the lack of exposure to the greater world, could not obtain scores on the SATs or ACTs that a college admissions officer would consider. Nonetheless, many of these students demonstrated wisdom not found among students of the same age in schools in Albuquerque or Flagstaff.

Wisdom is a word having a rich heritage in Scripture. Wisdom is a jewel or more valuable than gold. Thus, if wisdom is not necessarily knowledge or intelligence, what is it? I thought I would review the ancient Hebrew Scriptures to find what wisdom is and what it does for the person who possesses it.

What is Wisdom?

In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Job we find one of Job’s friends berating him for not understanding how much Job has contributed his current problems. The friend says (verses 3-6),

Should your babble put others to silence, and when you mock, shall no one shame you? For you say, ‘My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight.’ But O that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For wisdom is many-sided. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.

The person you hear and see babbling on lacks wisdom. Job’s friend alleges that Job is babbling. However in this speech we learn that wisdom is “many-sided;” that is, there is always another point of view requiring investigation.

The Source of Wisdom

In the apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as The Wisdom of Sirach ben Jesus, or simply Sirach, we learn two important things about wisdom in the book’s first chapter, verses 4-10.

Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent under-standing from eternity. The root of wisdom–to whom has it been revealed? Her subtleties–who knows them? There is but one who is wise, greatly to be feared, seated upon his throne–the Lord. It is he who created her; he saw her and took her measure; he poured her out upon all his works, upon all the living according to his gift; he lavished her upon those who love him.

Rightly, I think, Sirach believes that wisdom is in creation. According to Sirach, the Creator made all things wisely and the Creator imparts that wisdom to those who are ready to receive it. The second of the   characteristics we find in Sirach’s words are that wisdom has a female quality. Possibly, he really did not mean for us to take that quality seriously, it is only a form of speech found in Greek or Hebrew. However, in English I find the idea of wisdom a female fits my experience.

Wisdom does not necessarily come from the female part of humanity. The female intuitiveness, I suppose, is a manifestation of wisdom. Well then, what is the source of wisdom? The Psalmists and apparently King Solomon believed it a Divine gift. Sirach, who comes centuries later, confirmed this notion as I mentioned earlier. Psalm 111 teaches that when we greatly admire or awed by, Adonai, the Lord, we are in the process of learning wisdom. The Psalmist wrote in verse ten, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.” Solomon, believed to have written the Book of Provides, says knowledge begins with admiring of holding God in awe. In Chapter one he states, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (verse 3). We may by nature admire the works of the LORD but wisdom is mostly taught. In Psalm 51 David, then the repentant king, declares, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart” (verse 6).

Obtaining Wisdom

In the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, we find confirmation of the need to learn wisdom.

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? (Verses 20-22)

Wisdom is not some vague idea nor is it some distance goal. It is available in every phase of life and in every place where we live. Our task is only to be open to obtaining wisdom. But how? According to the ancient Hebrew prophets, we obtain wisdom through a simple act of humility. Solomon wrote in his Book of Wisdom (7:7), “Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” Sirach ben Jesus wrote in his book, titled in the Latin versions of the Scriptures Ecclesiasticus (4:24-25),

For wisdom becomes known through speech, and education through the words of the tongue. Never speak against the truth, but be ashamed of your ignorance.

Meditating prayer and thoughtful and well-developed ideas heard in what we say demonstrate to the world that we have obtained wisdom.

The Value of Wisdom

The Hebrew Scriptures provides to Wisdom a personal characteristic. For example, in the Book of Proverbs (7:4) teaches that we can speak to wisdom and invite her into our life. She is our sister and intimate friend.  This sister friend rewards us with instruction more valuable than precious metals and jewels. In fact, “…all that you may desire cannot compare with her (Proverbs 8:10-11).

Obtaining wisdom is a sign of self-love (not conceit). Solomon wrote in his Proverbs (19:8), “To get wisdom is to love oneself; to keep understanding is to prosper…” Christians believe Jesus instructed them to love God and love neighbor as one loves self. Self-love is a respect and love for the life given to each person. Despite existentialists’ question, “Should not we all commit suicide?” wisdom teaches that life itself is valuable and the living must not squander the gift of life.

Probably, in my estimation, the greatest value of wisdom is a sense of kindness. The social environment we live in today rejects kindness. The reactionary element of our politics tells us that taking care of the poor and the defenseless through the communal actions of government is repulsive. They ask, “Why do our taxes take care of the indolent poor?” Certainly, there are indolent poor, but most of the poor do not choose to be poor and most are not indolent. A wise view of the social environment that places people in poverty would result in the words found in the apocryphal Book of the Wisdom of Solomon. Solomon wrote, “For wisdom is a kindly spirit…” (1:6).

Wisdom is Insight

The ancient writers taught “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown” (Proverbs 4:7-9). These words remind us that with wisdom comes self-confidence. Although we may not know everything there is to know, we do know that we have the capacity to learn, to adapt, and to receive understanding.

The beginning of self-confidence is the love of Wisdom. She is a holy element or sanctified aspect of life. In the Greek, she is Hagia[2]Sophia, in Latin Sancta Sophia, and given a personality to love and cherish as St.Sophia or St.Sophie. When we love the person of wisdom, we begin to learn what it means to love self. Wisdom is a quality of life worth loving and one we must long for. Solomon understood this concept when he wrote in his Book of Wisdom (6:12-16),

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.

Several years ago, I decided to contemplate the idea and personality of wisdom and in the process wrote this poem.

Wisdom has Built Her a House[3]

A commentary on Proverbs 9:1-6

To King Solomon, mentioned

          in the Bible,

 Wisdom was his love.

He was true to her and he fought,

struggled, and strove

To let her be his guide, but alas

it came to naught.

“How’s that?” You say. 

“Wasn’t Solomon the wisest

of the ancient kings?”

Yes, with wisdom he would often lay

          to soak in her beauty and her charm

In a futile hope to be like her and fly on her   

            wings of ecstasy.

How could he have gone wrong?

He knew that wisdom had built

             her house of seven pillars

             and she then called everyone: 

The thieves, the merchants, and the millers

          to come to drink her wine and

feast among the seven pillars.

 She called the simple and the stupid

          to her party. But, alas,

          they were not to his liking,

          the king did not wish to be amid

Those with whom he did not mingle,

He thought he was so very clever, and his

cleverness made him tingle.

Yes, Solomon was clever, but he

        was neither wise nor intelligent.

He kept three hundred women

In his palace; some were wives,

        many were concubines

       there only for his pleasure.

Others were there to be a palatial ornament.

All together they were so much wiser

        than he could ever be.

Numbers alone were not what counted.

He faltered because he failed to account

        for the fact that

In their number they became a giant WE

         and that Wisdom, after all, is a   

                                                she.


[1] The Rev’d WilliamF.Bellais, Ed.D., retired Rector, Grace Episcopal Church, Chillicothe, Missouri

[2] Pronounced ha-ya meaning holy.

[3] 180th Meridian and Other Poems and Reflections, WilliamFrankBellais, The Owl Press, 2012.

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