Knowledge and Wisdom

Anyone reading the Book of Proverbs in a major English translation will encounter ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘understanding’. Sometimes in the Book of Proverbs these three words sound like they mean the same things—the parallelism, that is such an important part of wisdom literature, appears to indicate this. So, for example:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that knowledge is both wisdom and instruction. In addition, we can note that Proverbs later argues that:

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 2:6 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that wisdom is also knowledge and understanding.

It should be noted that these various terms belong to a wider group of what we might term cognitive processes that cluster as concepts. Other terms include prudence and shrewdness. Wider usage of these words in the Hebrew Bible indicates that these words have distinct meanings within this Hebraic cluster of concepts. In this way we need to ensure that any exploration of wisdom can account for the distinctiveness of these terms and at the same time their close relationship.

We have already seen that wisdom conveys the idea of making wise choices and often has a strong moral dynamic. Knowledge is theological in the sense that it comes from a relationship with the God who founded the world through knowledge, although again we should note the parallel use of wisdom and knowledge in the verses that affirm this most succinctly:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place;

by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

Proverbs 3:19–20 (NIVUK)

In the Hebrew Bible knowledge of God is all about right relationship with him. Such a right relationship will be characterised by love and trust. There is a semantic relationship between the relationships between human beings, as creatures, with their Creator and the intimate knowledge between man and woman in marriage. Such a strong relational meaning for knowledge, and hence wisdom, is a strong antidote to some conceptions of knowledge and wisdom centred on sterile abstract thought or a faith founded in dry propositions. It is wise to see knowledge as founded in prayer and worship as well as being the cognitive processes recognised in contemporary thought.


Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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