The Hebraic Concept Of Wisdom

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.                                                                         Ecclesiastes 2:15


In “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by the poet Dylan Thomas, the narrator laments the “Useful Presents” that he received for Christmas when he was a small lad. In addition to all of the scarves and hats and mittens and galoshes he needed to survive the old winter, he was often given the kind of educational books that taught him, he said, “everything about the wasp, except why.”

The story reminded me of my youngest daughter when she was a little girl about four. As she interrupted me for the “hundredth” time asking me “why” this or that, I responded with “You are so curious. Don’t you know that curiosity killed the cat?” Without hesitation she said, “Daddy, what did the cat want to know?” Both she and Thomas’ character had inquiring minds. They loved to ask, “Why?” Most children are equally inquisitive – not just about insects or animals but about everything. Why do you do what you do? Why don’t you do it another way? Why is the universe this way rather than that way? Why? Why? Why?

Eventually most people, unfortunately, stop asking so many questions. We get enough answers we can live with, or else we learn to be content without knowing all the answers. But some people such as my daughter, never lose their intellectual curiosity. They never stop asking, “Why?”– especially when it comes to the big questions about God, the universe, and the meaning of human existence. They want to know the “why” about everything, including (but not limited to) the wasp.

The heart of biblical culture is Hebrew. The Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew with a little bit of Aramaic. And, even though the New Testament was written primarily in Greek, it was written almost entirely by Jews who knew much of the Old Testament by memory. It is filled with quotes from the Old Testament, and its commentary is full of Hebraic thinking. It is tremendously enriching to get into their minds by seeing how they framed their world in language.

We should be mindful of the Hebraic approach to wisdom. Westerners such as ourselves tend to see spirituality as otherworldly and abstract, about concepts like heaven, holiness and the nature of God. The Apostle Paul’s letters sound the most spiritual to us because they focus on these things, because Paul was writing to a Greek (Western-thinking) church. While eternal things are important, the Hebraic view is that true spiritual wisdom is the knowledge of God which comes from experiencing a life in relationship with Him. A Greek will discuss God with abstract terms like immutable, unchanging, steadfast, etc. But a Hebrew would tell the story of God’s care for Israel in the desert through 40 years of constant complaining. While the Greek form of spiritual wisdom can be abstract and divorced from relationship, the Hebrew form is experiential, coming from real interactions between God and people. That is why the Bible is a book of stories of God’s dealings with people, not just a theological treatise on the nature of God.

The man who wrote Ecclesiastes had this insatiable curiosity about life. He called himself Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12), which means “the Assembler,” because his calling in life was to gather God’s people for spiritual instruction. Today we would call him “the Preacher,” or maybe, since he also identifies himself as the king of Jerusalem, we would call him the Preacher-King. Although he never comes right out and mentions his name, from the way he describes his wealth and his wisdom, Qoheleth seems to identify himself with King Solomon.

Qoheleth loved to ask, “Why?” in order to make sense of his world, he went on a long and difficult quest to find meaning in life. When he failed to find the answers he was looking for, he did not give up but kept looking even harder

At first the Preacher thought that the pursuit of wisdom would give him all the answers (Ecclesiastes 1:12-15), but there were so many things in life that he couldn’t straighten out or that didn’t add up that his quest soon ended in failure. Information failed to bring transformation. So Qoheleth turned to morality. Perhaps knowing the difference between right and wrong would give him a sense of purpose (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18). Yet this only added to his sorrow and vexation.

Next the Preacher-King pursued pleasure (2:1-11). If wisdom ended in sorrow, maybe self-indulgence would lead to happiness. So he built magnificent buildings and created beautiful gardens. He savored the luxuries of wine, women, and song. Never abstaining from pleasure or restraining appetites, Solomon grabbed for all the gusto he could get. Yet even the greatest pleasures in life failed to satisfy his soul. If he said it once, he said it a thousand times: It was all vanity and a striving after wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Still he continued his quest. He couldn’t help it. The man wanted to know “why?” “Why?” So with persistence and perseverance, he kept looking for the meaning of life. Anyone who wants to know truth about things should follow his example. Do not shy away from difficult questions. Do not settle for easy explanations that will not hold up to careful scrutiny. Keep searching until you find your way to God.

The Hebraic approach to spirituality is that it assumes one cannot have a knowledge of God without walking with Him. To be spirituality wise encompasses all of life, including both beliefs about God and also how we do our jobs and raise our families.

The Hebrew word hokmah, describes the ability to function successfully in life, whether it is by having the right approach to a difficult situation, or the ability to weave cloth. It is practical and applicable to this world, not just otherworldly. Judaism has historically held manual labor in high regard, rather than disdaining it as unspiritual. They said that when a great rabbi entered a room, that people were to stop what they were doing and honor him. But a carpenter or other craftsman did not need to stop, because their work was just as honorable. This is part of the Hebraic affirmation of day-to-day life in this world.

We can learn a lot of wisdom from the Hebrew word for wisdom! As Westerners, we tend to believe that God is only involved in giving us the ability to do what we call “spiritual”, like Bible study or prayer. Biblically being spiritual included the “wisdom” to do our jobs well – in modern terms, to be able to use a photocopier, or program a computer, or run a lawn mower. A janitor can be using his spiritual gifts as much as a pastor. Our daily lives are of concern to the Lord. God cares about whether we are a good second-grade teacher, or systems analyst, or check-out clerk. God is practical and down-to-earth. He cares about our credit card debt, whether our house is a mess, how much we watch TV. His desire is that we have wisdom in all things in order to live the life He gave us to the very best. Let’s not make the mistake of believing that “eternal” life comes later – we are already into it – this is just the first part. The “wisdom” God has given us is meant to be used skillfully in this kingdom, prudently and for His glory.