“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10; see also Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7). While there have been many insightful non-Christian teachers over the ages, all true wisdom ultimately comes “from above”—that is, from the triune God (Eph. 1:17; Col. 2:3; James 3:15, 17). Wisdom can only find its truest fulfillment in those who revere and worship the one true God.
Yet more needs to be said, because not all Christian believers display wisdom in their lives. In fact, Christian believers often act foolishly and irresponsibly, bringing shame on themselves and on the name of God (e.g., Ezek. 36:20; Rom. 2:24; 1 Cor. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:34). Scripture says that wisdom will be given to those who ask for it (James 1:5). In particular, the Holy Spirit has inspired diverse books of wisdom such as Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes precisely for this purpose. How should a Christian read the Wisdom Literature profitably?
1. Acknowledge how easy it is to become wise in our own eyes.
First, one should read Wisdom Literature with the acknowledgment of how easy it is for sinners to become “wise in their own eyes.” The book of Proverbs often speaks of this serious problem (Prov. 3:7; 12:15; 26:5; 28:11; also Isa. 5:21). Indeed, a person “wise in his own eyes” is worse off than a biblical “fool” (Prov. 26:12). Signs of this spiritual malady include refusing to listen to the counsel of godly advisors (Prov. 26:16)—particularly one’s parents (Prov. 1:8; 4:1; 23:22; 30:17)—and an insistence on winning every argument (Eccl. 7:15–16). One should beware of a knee-jerk “doubling down” on one’s point of view when challenged by spiritually mature believers. Rather, Christians should always display a teachable spirit.
2. Look for general patterns.
Second, one should read Wisdom Literature to learn general patterns for how the world typically works, and they should act accordingly. Generally speaking, those who walk in “the fear of the Lord” and who seek to practice God’s instruction experience degrees of flourishing “like a tree planted beside channels of water” (Ps. 1:3). The term conventional wisdom is sometimes treated as a term of reproach, but in fact, the Bible itself gathers a rich storehouse of such wisdom to pass on to successive generations of God’s people. Readers do well to heed such conventional wisdom rather than flaunt it and assume that they will be the exceptions to the general rules of how things operate. The Christian who thinks, for example, that he or she can flourish spiritually while avoiding the corporate gatherings of the church is ignoring not only the urging of Scripture but also the wisdom of countless believers over the ages who have experienced an inestimable blessing that can only be found when the church assembles in Christ’s name (Matt. 18:20).
3. Observe exceptions to “the rules.”
Third, one should read Wisdom Literature to observe striking “exceptions to the rules,” which reveals the need for discernment and a constant dependence on the Lord. The experience of Job, and the frequent teaching of the book of Ecclesiastes, testifies that there are times when the general patterns of life do not apply. Thus, at times, the righteous suffer rather than flourish, and fools enjoy success rather than hardship. To mention a New Testament example, under some dire circumstances the Bible recommends that believers refrain from marriage (1 Cor. 7:25–26), even though in general it expects that most believers will find a “suitable helper” with whom to have a family and exercise dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26–30; Gen. 2:18–25). By realizing that there are exceptions to general patterns, the believer has to face every situation on its own terms, in prayer, asking for the Lord’s wisdom and discernment to know how best to act for His glory.
4. Learn how to exercise discernment and dependence on the Lord.
Fourth, one should read Wisdom Literature to learn how to discern which are “better” or “best” options in a particular situation, not necessarily what is the only “right” or “wrong” course of action. Scripture indeed provides many absolute rules regarding what is right or wrong, or what is commanded or forbidden. Yet many decisions in life involve more than just the consideration of what is right or wrong. For example, the believer who accepts the biblical requirement to marry “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39; compare 2 Cor. 6:14) still has a lot of potential options for a spouse. A Christian will need wisdom and discernment in order to narrow down which potential matches are better suited to him or her. Many other decisions in life (education, career, place of residence, etc.) do not come down to straightforward choices between right or wrong alternatives, but between a variety of “good, better, or best” options. Thankfully, in Scripture, the Lord has provided believers with a great wealth of wisdom teaching, and has promised the Spirit’s blessing to those who humbly ask (Luke 11:13).