Several times Proverbs exhorts us to “get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:5, 7; 16:16). Regardless of what else we have to turn down to get it—riches, honor, wealth—we should get wisdom. That exhortation raises the question, How do we know we have wisdom? How do we know we have “gotten it?” In other words, What is wisdom? The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said wisdom was “common sense in an uncommon degree.” The British preacher Charles Spurgeon said it was “the right use of knowledge.” Another writer said, “wisdom is knowledge using its head.”
My favorite secular definition of wisdom is, “Doing the right thing without precedent.” That means you know what to do in a situation even though you’ve never experienced it before. You have built up such an understanding of life from God’s perspective that you have skills not from experience but from intuition. Because God is the source of all wisdom, knowing Him and His principles for living means we will know how to do “the right thing” instinctively.
In his book, Knowing God, J. I. Packer offers a helpful illustration for understanding wisdom using the metaphor of a railroad or subway system. He said some people think of wisdom as if they’re sitting in the control room looking at a giant board on which the movement of all the trains is tracked. You can see everything that’s going on in the city’s rail system at one time; you have a total picture of everything. Some people think the wiser they become the greater grasp they will have of the mysteries of God—how everything in the universe works and how all the pieces fit together. But that is not what biblical wisdom is all about.
I have found the opposite to be true. The more knowledge of God I get (that is, the wiser I become) the more I realize how much I don’t know, and will never know, about God and His ways. There are still many, many times in life when I cannot figure out the big picture, when I don’t understand why things are happening like they are. I agree with J. I. Packer—wisdom is not having it all together when it comes to a knowledge of God. I also agree with his understanding of what true wisdom is.
True wisdom is like driving one of the individual trains in the city—not sitting in front of the control panel showing all the trains. You are maneuvering one individual train (your life) through the maze of tracks and switches. You’re asking God to give you direction as you approach switch after switch. Which way should you turn? Which direction should you go? As you move from one decision to the next, you have confidence that God is giving you the insights and wisdom to choose. Wisdom is not knowing all the decisions you’ll need to make, but being able to make the right decision when each one presents itself.
That’s true biblical wisdom—receiving from God each day the wisdom (skill) you need to deal with life’s events and situations. It’s not having encyclopedic knowledge about everything, but it is having the right knowledge at the right time for the challenge you are facing. That’s what the reader of the book of Proverbs will get from diligent study of this practical book of the Bible.
David Jeremiah, Powerful Principles from Proverbs: Study Guide (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002), 12–14.
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