Surely, everyone would like to have wisdom, but it is also obvious that many people lack wisdom, at least from a secular point of view. Our focus will be on whether or not all of God’s people can have the type of wisdom that comes from God.
When we use the term God’s people, we are referring to both Christians and Hebrews, because the people in both of these groups profess belief in the God of the Bible. Another reason for including Hebrews, as well as Christians, in our discussion is that the New Testament Book of James, from which we subsequently quote two scriptures regarding wisdom, was written specifically to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (i.e., the 12 tribes of Israel; aka, the Hebrews), and probably many of them were not Christians.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the term wisdom as the “power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.; good judgment.” And, with regard to the scriptures upon which we will be focusing, Strong’s Concordance says the Greek word can refer to either worldly (i.e., secular) wisdom or spiritual (i.e., godly) wisdom.
We will now consider scriptures that may shed light on whether or not all of God’s people can have wisdom and, if so, the nature of that wisdom. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
The Word of Wisdom
First Corinthians 12:7-11, which was written to Christians, states,
[T]he manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
With regard to this scripture passage, we want to focus on the word of wisdom, which is one of a number of spiritual gifts that are allocated by the Holy Spirit to Christians. [For a discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, click on “Gifts of the Holy Spirit.”]
Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible mentions the following definitions that different Bible scholars use to explain the meaning of the word of wisdom in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11:
It is most probable, that he meaneth by it what we ordinarily understand by wisdom, viz. a faculty, from a good judgment of the circumstances of actions, to do them at the best time, and in the best manner, wherein they may be serviceable to their ends.
Somewhat similarly, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible indicates that some Bible scholars say the meaning of the word of wisdom in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 is “a knowledge of the mysteries of the gospel, and ability to explain them, an exact understanding of the design, nature, and doctrines, of the Christian religion. Others say an uttering of grave sentences, like Solomon’s proverbs. Some confine this word of wisdom to the revelations made to and by the apostles.”
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible states that the word of wisdom “indicates divine illumination in understanding about Him Who is the wisdom from God . . ., and in having power from the Spirit in proclaiming the message revealing the fullness of Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God . . ., causing the light to shine in men’s hearts as they come to know Him as He is, so that all may have true wisdom.”
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible says the word of wisdom pertains to those Christians whom the Spirit “has endowed with wisdom, or has made distinguished for wise, and prudent, and comprehensive views of the scheme of redemption, and with a faculty of clearly explaining it to the apprehension of people.”
And, David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible defines the word of wisdom simply as “the unique ability to speak forth the wisdom of God, especially in an important situation. . . .”
Although the preceding definitions of the word of wisdom are somewhat helpful, we think Hershel H. Hobbs’ definition is the most succinct. According to Hobbs, the word of wisdom is “speech filled with God’s wisdom, used under the impulse of the Holy Spirit . . . and the practical action in accord with it.” In other words, the word of wisdom refers to the ability given by the Holy Spirit to speak with spiritual wisdom and to act appropriately.
Wisdom in General
Whereas 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 mentions only one specific type of spiritual wisdom (i.e., the word of wisdom, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is not given to every Christian), James 1:5-6 and James 3:13-17 pertain to wisdom that apparently is available to every Christian.
James 1:5-6 declares, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.”
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible provides the following explanation of this scripture:
God . . . tells [the Hebrews] that if they need wisdom in the light of trials they should ask it of Him and He promises that He will give it to them, for He is the One Who gives to all men liberally. . . . If we are to have true wisdom it must come from Him, and especially so when that wisdom comes through the Holy Spirit as ‘wisdom from God’ which is found in Christ. . . .
No one is so unimportant that God will begrudge enlightening his heart and life. Indeed in matters like needing spiritual wisdom He declares, ‘ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you — how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him’ (Matthew 7:7-11). And His promise is that He will bring home to them the truths that will enable them to overcome. ‘For the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of testings’ (2 Peter 2:9). And He does it by giving spiritual discernment in the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:5-16).
[James] wants God’s people to know that God will freely give His true wisdom to those who ask Him and will enlighten them with spiritual truth (1 Corinthians 2:11-16). . . . This wisdom is found through ‘the implanted word which is able to save your souls’ (James 1:21). It is ‘from above’ (James 3:17), and is real and genuine, resulting in hearts that are at peace (James 3:18).
But those who would receive God’s wisdom must come to God with full confidence in His willingness to respond. They must ‘ask in faith, nothing doubting’. They must thus set their minds to experience this wisdom with hearts full of faith.
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible says with regard to James 1:5-6,
If any of you lack wisdom. [M]en want wisdom to conduct them in the common affairs of life, and especially the people of God. . . . Saints have need of wisdom in things spiritual; they want more grace, which is the truest wisdom, and a larger knowledge of the Gospel, which is the wisdom of God, the hidden wisdom of God. . . .
let him ask of God wisdom; of God the Father, who is the only wise God. . . .
But let him ask in faith. Not only in the faith of the divine Being that God is; but in the faith of the promises he has made; and in the faith of his power and faithfulness to perform them; and in the faith of this, that whatever is asked, according to the will of God, and is for his glory, and his people’s good, shall be given.
In reference to the same scripture, Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible states,
If any of you lack wisdom – Probably this refers particularly to the kind of wisdom which they would need in their trials, to enable them to bear them in a proper manner . . .; but the language employed is so general, that what is here said may be applied to the need of wisdom in all respects.
Let him ask of God – That is, for the specific wisdom which he needs; the very wisdom which is necessary for him in the particular case.
That giveth to all men liberally – [T]he promise should be regarded as restricted to those who ask. The object of the writer was to encourage those who felt their need of wisdom, to go and ask it of God.
And it shall be given him – This promise in regard to the wisdom that may be necessary for us, is absolute; and we may be sure that if it be asked in a proper manner it will be granted us. There can be no doubt that it is one of the things which God is able to impart; which will be for our own good; and which, therefore, he is ever ready to bestow.
But let him ask in faith – We cannot hope to obtain any favor from God if there is not faith; and where, as in regard to the wisdom necessary to guide us, we are sure that it is in accordance with his will to grant it to us, we may come to him with the utmost confidence, the most entire assurance, that it will be granted.
Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible explains James 1:5-6, as follows:
If any of you lack wisdom; if, doth not imply a doubt, but supposeth something which they themselves would grant; viz. that they did lack wisdom, either in whole or in part.
Let him ask of God; by believing, fervent prayer.
That giveth to all men; either to all sorts of men, Jew or Gentile, bond or free, &c., or to all that so ask. . . .
And it shall be given him:. The promise is here added to encourage faith in asking.
But let him ask in faith; with confidence of God’s hearing, grounded on the Divine attributes and promises. . . .
With regard to the same scripture, John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible says,
If any of you lack wisdom. [H]e bids us to ask of the Lord to give us wisdom.
That giveth to all men liberally. By all, he means those who ask; for they who seek no remedy for their wants, deserve to pine away in them. However, this universal declaration, by which every one of us is invited to ask, without exception. . . .
But let him ask in faith. He shews here, first the right way of praying; for as we cannot pray without the word, as it were, leading the way, so we must believe before we pray. . .
And, Adam Clarke Commentary states in reference to James 1:5-6,
If any of you lack wisdom – Wisdom signifies in general knowledge of the best end, and the best means of attaining it; but in Scripture it signifies the same as true religion, the thorough practical knowledge of God, of one’s self, and of a Savior.
Let him ask of God – Because God is the only teacher of this wisdom.
That giveth to all men liberally – Who has all good, and gives all necessary good to every one that asks fervently.
Let him ask in faith – Believing that God IS; that he has all good; and that he is ever ready to impart to his creatures whatever they need.
We believe it is sufficiently clear that James 1:5-6 pertains to spiritual wisdom in general. However, it is not clear if this scripture is also applicable to secular wisdom and, if so, whether or not this includes all, or just some, types of true secular wisdom. In any case, although the Book of James is written specifically to Hebrews, this scripture can be construed to mean that God will give wisdom to anyone who sincerely believes in Him (i.e., not just to Hebrews), who asks Him for wisdom, and who has sufficient faith that He will bestow him (or her) with wisdom.
Now, we will focus on James 3:13-17, which says,
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.
Poole explains this scripture passage, as follows:
But the wisdom that is from above; true wisdom, which is of God, opposed to that which descendeth not from above. . . .
Is first pure; either excluding mixture, and then it is opposed to hypocritical; or rather excluding filthiness, and then it is opposed to sensual . . . and implies freedom from the defilement of sin and error, it being the property of true wisdom to make men adhere both to truth and holiness.
Then peaceable; disposeth men to peace, both as to the making and keeping it, in opposition to strife and contention, which is the fruit of the earthly wisdom.
Gentle; or equal, or moderate It implies that gentleness . . . whereby we bear with others’ infirmities, forgive injuries, interpret all things for the best, recede from our own right for peace sake.
Easy to be entreated; easily persuadable. True wisdom makes men yield to good admonitions, good counsel, good reason. This is opposed to implacableness, pride, and obstinacy in evil.
Full of mercy; a grace whereby we pity others that are afflicted, or that offend, and is opposed to inhumanity and inexorableness.
And good fruits; beneficence, liberality, and all other offices of humanity, which proceed from mercy.
Without partiality; or, without judging, i.e. either a curious inquiring into the faults of others, to find matter for censures, which many times infers wrangling, as our margin renders it; or a discerning between person and person, upon carnal accounts. . . .
And without hypocrisy; or, counterfeiting, as they do that judge others, being guilty of the same things, or as bad, themselves . . . .
Gill says with regard to James 3:13-17,
Who is a wise man. Meaning, not in things natural and civil, or merely moral, but in things spiritual: and he is a wise man, who is both wise to do good, and wise unto salvation; . . . he is a wise man who considers his latter end, thinks of a future state, and what will become of him in another world; and who builds his faith and hope of eternal salvation on the sure and only foundation, the rock Christ Jesus; and who takes up a profession of religion upon principles of grace, and with views to the glory of God. . . .
But the wisdom that is from above. Which has God for its author; which is infused heavenly things; and which only is true wisdom and knowledge. . . .
is first pure. [I]t is pure in itself, it is free from everything that is earthly, carnal, or sensual, or devilish; it produces purity of heart, of life, and conversation; and is the means of keeping persons pure and chaste, and free from impure lusts, lusts of uncleanness, pride, envy, wrath, &c. which prevail in carnal and unregenerate men:
and then peaceable. [I]t inclines and engages those who have it to live in peace with the saints, and even with all men; . . . it is also “gentle”; or makes men gentle, moderate, and humane, so as that they bear, and forbear; they bear with the infirmities of the weak; readily forgive injuries done them; do not rigidly exact what is their due, but recede from their just right for the sake of peace and love; and do not bear hard upon others for their failings, but cover them with the mantle of love: and it is
easy to be entreated, or those who have it readily yield to the superior judgments and stronger reasonings of others; and are easily induced to hope and believe all things, and entertain a good opinion of men, and their conduct; and are far from being proud, arrogant, obstinate, and overbearing:
full of mercy and good fruits, of compassion and beneficence to the poor; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the widows and fatherless in their affliction; and doing all other good works and duties, both with respect to God and man, as fruits of grace, and of the Spirit:
without partiality: to one another, or making a difference between them; showing no respect to persons; bestowing upon the poor and indigent, without any distinction: and
without hypocrisy, either with respect to God or man; not making show of that which they have not, or do not intend.
Pett states in reference to the same scripture passage,
[T]hose whose wisdom is from above . . . are wise and understanding. They reveal the fruit of their lives in wise humility and gentleness, living ‘good lives’, that is, lives that reveal goodness in their behavior . . . .
‘Meekness of wisdom.’ This is probably a Hebraism signifying ‘wise meekness’, or meekness that arises out of wisdom. . . . [Meekness] is subjection to the Master and therefore the opposite of arrogance, of discord, of thrusting oneself forward, and of a desire to lord it over others. It is seeing the truth about oneself. It is being ‘meek and lowly in heart’, gentle, self-controlled, considerate, humble, peaceable, aware of spiritual inadequacy . . ., and thoughtful for the needs of others. . . .
In total contrast to [earthly wisdom] is the wisdom that has come from above, in those who have been born from above . . . . This wisdom is pure . . . and free from all defilement, besmirchment [sic] and divisiveness, for its eyes are fixed on God and it seeks only to know His thoughts and His will . . . .
- It is ‘peaceable. . ., encouraging peace and ensuring it . . . . [W]hen it is used of men its basic meaning is of right relationships between man and man, and between man and God.
- It is ‘gentle . . . [which] means ‘befitting, suitable, equitable, fair, mild, gentle. . . . It is the ability to extend to others the kindly consideration we would wish to receive ourselves.
- It is ‘forbearing’ . . ., thoughtful and considerate, and ever willing to understand. It is compliant, approachable and responsive.
- It is ‘merciful’ . . . and compassionate . . ., as God is merciful and compassionate, to both the worthy and the unworthy, and it produces good fruits.
- It is . . . undivided. That means that ‘it is not wavering and vacillating. . . . It is without discord and dissimulation, and not divided in mind . . . .
- It is genuine and without pretence [sic] and show. . . . It is aiming at genuine perfection . . . .
- And finally it is itself the fruit of righteousness, and also produces the fruit of righteousness in the godly living, behaviour and right attitude of those who receive that wisdom . . . The ‘fruit of righteousness’ may be the fruit that results from righteousness, or the fruit that results in righteousness, or indeed both.
Clarke’s perspective regarding James 3:13-17 is as follows:
Who is a wise man – One truly religious; who, although he can neither bridle nor tame other men’s tongues, can restrain his own.
Let him show – Let him by a holy life and chaste conversation show, through meekness and gentleness, joined to his Divine information, that he is a Christian indeed; his works and his spirit proving that God is in him of a truth. . . .
The wisdom that is from above – The pure religion of the Lord Jesus, bought by his blood, and infused by his Spirit.
Is first pure – Chaste, holy, and clean.
Peaceable – Living in peace with others, and promoting peace among men.
Gentle – Meek, modest, of an equal mind, taking every thing in good part, and putting the best construction upon all the actions of others.
Easy to be entreated – Not stubborn nor obstinate; of a yielding disposition in all indifferent things; obsequious, docile.
Full of mercy – Ready to pass by a transgression, and to grant forgiveness to those who offend, and performing every possible act of kindness.
Good fruits – Each temper and disposition producing fruits suited to and descriptive of its nature.
Without partiality – Without making a difference – rendering to every man his due; and being never swayed by self-interest, worldly honor, or the fear of man; knowing no man after the flesh.
Without hypocrisy – Without dissimulation; without pretending to be what it is not; acting always in its own character; never working under a mask. Seeking nothing but God’s glory, and using no other means to attain it than those of his own prescribing.
Although the Bible indicates that spiritual wisdom is generally more desirable than secular wisdom, we believe that, when secular wisdom is in agreement with spiritual wisdom, it is true wisdom and, therefore, it is desirable. Conversely, if what is generally regarded as secular wisdom is not in agreement with spiritual wisdom, it probably should be perceived as false wisdom or foolishness.
An example of false secular wisdom is the belief that we should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” Such a philosophy for life is short-term oriented, causing those who are adherents to this belief to do little or no planning for the future. And, because this philosophy focuses on constant self-gratification, God and other people are often regarded as having little real significance. As a result, the person who follows this philosophy is likely to live a life that is lacking in a truly meaningful relationship with either God or other people. Thus, such a philosophy is not really wisdom.
In contrast, an example of true secular wisdom is the belief that people should maintain a financial budget. Having a financial budget can help people to clarify their financial priorities, which should facilitate their ability to allocate their income so that their highest priorities are more likely to be achieved than if they did not have a budget. [To assess whether or not you may benefit from budgeting and financial planning, click on “Who Needs a Budget?” and/or “Are You Likely to Benefit from Financial Planning?”]
It is our belief that the Bible indicates that, if a person sincerely believes in God, asks Him for wisdom, and has sufficient faith that God will affirmatively answer his (or her) request, that person can confidently expect to receive spiritual wisdom from God. However, such spiritual wisdom does not necessarily include the word of wisdom, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit that, like each of the other gifts of the Spirit, is given to only some Christians, not to every Christian, including all those who ask for this gift.
As for secular wisdom, it is not clear if the Bible supports the belief that God will give true secular wisdom to everyone who asks Him for it and has faith that God will provide it. If a person is aware that they lack secular wisdom or if they are unsure, perhaps the wisest thing that person can do is consult with someone who has proven to have secular wisdom and get their insights regarding how to deal with important secular matters.