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What might a “por­trait of wisdom” look like? Some may envision a learned scholar, a speculative philosopher, or an aged person full of life experience, but the Bible upends these notions of wisdom. True wisdom has its source in God, “who alone is wise” (1 Tim. 1:17, NKJV), and it is reflected in our lives only insofar as we reflect His character. Wisdom among men begins with the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10). This is the canvas on which the portrait is painted, and each hue and brushstroke of the wise man’s portrait will manifest, however dimly, something of the character of the One whom he fears. The Bible paints such portraits for us through the artistry of narrative, and these word-images are no less vibrant to our minds and hearts than a colorful painting might be to our eyes. The biblical portraits of wisdom that we will explore are not perfect or idealized; they are real men and women who walked by faith and struggled to be sanctified, but by the grace of God they left examples of wisdom in big ways and small.

The gallery begins with the patriarchs and a few digressions in their life stories that seem to be included only for the small examples of wisdom they afford. Abraham exhibited the wisdom of avoiding strife within his family and offered a solution that was more favorable to others than to himself when he divided territory with Lot (Gen. 13:5–11). His son Isaac learned the wisdom of peacemaking. When competitors quarreled with him over wells that belonged to his father, he moved along peacefully instead of pressing his rights, and the Lord blessed him for it (26:17–22). If the fool is known for his propensity to quarrel, the wise man is known for avoiding strife and stopping contention before it starts (Prov. 17:14; 20:3). To live peaceably with others, as much as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18), reflects the wisdom of “the God of peace” (15:33).

In the portrait of Joseph, diligence and foresight converge. While these traits can be motivated by self-interest, the godly man’s intention is the good of others (Eccl. 11:2). Joseph worked tirelessly to avert the devastation of a forthcoming famine (Gen. 41:46–49), knowing that the preservation of his family (45:7) and an entire nation (50:20) depended on the faithful exercise of the wisdom that God had given him. Even Pharaoh could see that such wisdom came from God alone (41:39). The stakes of wisdom may never be as high in our lives as they were in Joseph’s, but diligence and foresight exercised out of love for others may find a thousand small expressions in our daily lives.

In a backroom of this gallery of wisdom, we find the understated portrait of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. In contrast to the elaborate narrative of Joseph’s rise to power, Jethro’s story is less well known, which illustrates the Preacher’s warning that the wise should not expect wealth, favor, or fame in this world (Eccl. 9:16). But Jethro, a Midianite, had the true wealth of wisdom. He professed faith in the one true God and was received into the fellowship of Moses, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel (Ex. 18:10–12). He wisely observed that the shepherding of God’s people could be better accomplished with an “abundance of counselors” (Prov. 24:6) rather than through Moses alone. So his advice to his son-in-law was twofold: teach the people the Word of God, and place God-fearing and able men over the people to provide judgment and counsel (Ex. 18:19–23). Moses showed the wisdom of heeding good advice (Prov. 12:15), and the wise counsel of his father-in-law was later proved to be the will and the wisdom of God (Num. 11:16–17).

Few people will even recognize the next portrait, but Bezalel the son of Uri is among the few who are actually called “wise” in the Bible. Of the tribe of Judah, he was a master craftsman appointed by God for the construction of the tabernacle (Ex. 31:1–11; 35:30–36:1). He was said to have been filled with the Spirit of God, wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. Although he was gifted to teach (35:34), his wisdom was expressed in the work of his hands, as he gave glory to God through the practical skills that he had been given as a craftsman and artisan. Bezalel’s portrait reminds us that wisdom is not always a matter of the mind but is also a labor of the hands, using any skill or ability to the glory of God. Read Proverbs 31 and note how many times the “hands” of that wise and excellent woman are mentioned.

For one to die in the place of many reflects the wisdom and mercy of God.

Because “wisdom” is a feminine noun in Hebrew, the book of Proverbs often personifies wisdom as a woman who is godly, winsome, and inviting. But wisdom also meets us in feminine form quite often in real-life characters throughout the Bible, such as in the character of Abigail. She had the misfortune of being married to a man whose name matched his character. “Nabal” means “fool” (1 Sam. 25:25), and he suffered from all the symptoms. He was quick-tempered (Prov. 14:17), hasty in his speech (18:2), and miserly (28:25). In contrast, Abigail was “discerning” (1 Sam. 25:3). When a conflict arose between Nabal and David, she showed her discernment by defusing the situation with a humble and gracious appeal for David to relent from the conflict. Her greatest discernment was something that her foolish husband either ignored or dismissed—that God was with David, and that he was to be king according to God’s promise (1 Sam. 25:30). Abigail showed the wisdom of bringing strife to an end (Prov. 20:3). More importantly, she showed the wisdom of believing that God’s saving hand was at work through His promise to David. Like the wise woman of Proverbs 31, she was praised by her husband—not the fool but David—who blessed her for her wisdom and eventually married her after the death of Nabal (1 Sam. 25:33, 42). David, for his part, had the wisdom to see that “a prudent wife is from the Lord(Prov. 19:14).

There are a few portraits of wisdom that bear no names or have little detail, like anonymous paintings that hold a bit of mystery. One such character is an unnamed woman in 2 Samuel 20 who is called wise, peaceable, and faithful (2 Sam. 20:16, 19), but she is known for an act that is a bit shocking. When Joab cornered a rebel named Sheba in her town, Joab was prepared to destroy the city to put an end to the rebellion. This wise woman pleaded with Joab not to attack and then, “in her wisdom,” went to discuss the situation with the townspeople. In response to her advice, they threw the head of Sheba down to Joab and averted the destruction of the town (v. 22). Solomon would later reflect on how the wisdom of one person can save a city (Eccl. 9:13–15), and in a much greater context, Caiaphas would later prophesy that “it is expedient . . . that one man should die for the people” (John 11:49–52, NKJV). Perhaps this one wise woman’s advice reflects something of the “expedience” of our own salvation. For one to die in the place of many reflects the wisdom and mercy of God.

Next is a portrait that we are not surprised to see: that of Solomon, whose name is synonymous with wisdom. He received wisdom because he asked for it (1 Kings 3), which we are also encouraged to do (James 1:5). Although the Lord freely gives wisdom to those who ask, Solomon reminds us that it will take faithful effort on our part (Prov. 2:1–5). While his extraordinary wisdom extended even to the sciences (1 Kings 4:33), what truly made him wise was a characteristic that every believer is equipped to imitate. In the famous episode that began his kingship, Solomon did not exactly ask for wisdom but for, literally, “a hearing heart” (3:9), which is no small part of biblical wisdom. The ability to listen to others, process conversation in a biblical way, and respond with grace is at the heart of wise interaction with others. Solomon’s proverbs heavily emphasize the priority of listening as an essential part of gaining and exercising wisdom, along with the accompanying need to restrain and sanctify our speech. So many of his proverbs are summarized by James 1:19: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Despite Solomon’s sins and shortcomings, his inspired writings stand forever to teach us that the fear of the Lord is the whole duty of man (Eccl. 12:13) and the only source of true wisdom (Prov. 9:10).

Solomon crafted his own portrait of wisdom, personified as the eternal companion of God (Prov. 8:22–31) who cries out to all people as a public voice: “Beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud: ‘To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man’ ” (vv. 1–4). To seek after wisdom is not to embark on a mysterious journey into the hidden unknown but to answer an invitation from God to learn what He has clearly revealed by His works, in His Word, and through His Son.

Job is known primarily for his patience, but his portrait has its place in this gallery of wisdom. Although he sat in the dust and ashes of unspeakable affliction, he appears to us as if in a pulpit, delivering a sermon about wisdom, in Job 28. He begins his sermon, “Where shall wisdom be found?” (v. 12) and concludes, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (v. 28). We again see the heart of wisdom as the fear of the Lord, and like Solomon in his proverbs, Job sees wisdom as a practical rather than a speculative way of life—it is to “turn away from evil.” Job complements Solomon in that wisdom, whether viewed from the heights of power and fame or the depths of grief and suffering, never changes in its definition and always begins with the fear of the Lord.

Ezra was “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), and a single key verse captures the wisdom that was exhibited in his life and ministry: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (v. 10). There is an important sequence here in the verbs “study,” “do,” and “teach.” Wisdom begins with a heart full of God’s Word (Prov. 7:3), which flows into a life of practical obedience (James 3:13) and results in being equipped to teach it to others (Prov. 13:14). These three things, each in its proper order, gave Ezra such wisdom that “all who trembled at the words of God” gathered around him when wise advice was needed most (Ezra 9:4).

A few of the first characters we meet in the New Testament are “wise men,” and whatever or whoever else these “magi” were, they exhibited the undeniable wisdom of seeking out Christ, rejoicing to find Him, and worshiping Him (Matt. 2:1–11). This is what makes wise men wise.

The new covenant would bring with it other vivid portraits of wisdom, such as Barnabas. This “Son of Encouragement” no doubt encouraged others with his example of peaceable wisdom. He was instrumental in convincing the church at Jerusalem to receive the newly converted Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:27). He welcomed with open arms the first gentiles who believed in the gospel at Antioch (11:19–24). He also played a part in the Jerusalem council, forging a peaceful understanding between the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch (15:2, 22, 25). In these instances, he exemplified the wisdom from above, which is “first pure, then peaceable” (James 3:17).

But it is no doubt Paul who gives the face to Apostolic wisdom, eschewing the wisdom of men for the power of God in his preaching (1 Cor. 2:4–5). To be wise, according to Paul, is to understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5:17). Thus, the fallen world will always turn the definition of true wisdom on its head and mistake folly for wisdom (Rom. 1:22). Paul teaches us neither to fear being thought a fool nor to desire to be thought wise by the world (1 Cor. 1:18–31). His example to us is to aspire to no other knowledge than that of Jesus Christ and Him crucified (2:1–2).

There are many other portraits to see in this “Hall of Wisdom,” but even as in the “Hall of Faith,” we have come to this point: “What more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of . . .” (Heb. 11:32). Time would fail us to observe all the portraits of the patriarchs, prophets, and Apostles who each left a unique example of wisdom, but each is only a faint reflection of the true wisdom of God. All these “portraits of wisdom” point to Him.

Christ alone is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), and since He is the eternal Son of God, “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are found in Him (Col. 2:3). But as a true man, Christ had the experience of growing in wisdom (Luke 2:52). That may be hard for us to fathom, but it means that we can look to Him to see what true wisdom looks like in a true man and find a perfect example. He relied on the Word of God alone (Matt. 4:4). He kept the Father’s commands and abided in His love (John 15:10). He submitted to the Father’s will (Matt. 26:42). He came as a servant, humbling Himself in love for His people, and sacrificed Himself for our good. This is the mind of Christ that is to be in us (Phil. 2:5–8). He also gave us His own portraits of wisdom in His parables. The wise man is the one who hears Christ’s words and does them, like a wise man who builds his house on the rock (Matt. 7:24–27). The wise are those who eagerly await, and are ready to greet, the Bridegroom for the wedding feast, like the five wise virgins who kept their lamps lit (25:1–13). It is our wisdom in life to hear and keep the words of our Savior and to joyfully prepare for His glorious return.

Our own calling, as the image bearers of our Savior, is to be a portrait of His wisdom in the sight of those around us. By living in and following the wisdom of Christ, we may, amazingly, be faint but true reflections of the depth and riches of something that is otherwise past finding out (Rom. 11:33).

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From the October 2023 Issue
Oct 2023 Issue