Wisdom and foolishness

Wisdom, in biblical thinking, is not regarded as the same as common sense or intelligence. In the teaching of the Bible, it means being able to tell the difference between good and evil. According to the Bible, then, wisdom comes from God, while the ultimate folly is to say ‘there is no God' (Psalms 14:1). Two figures epitomize biblical concepts of wisdom: King Solomon in the Old Testament, and Jesus Christ in the New Testament.


King SolomonWhen Solomon succeeded his father David as king of Israel, God appeared to him in a dream and asked ‘What would you like me to give you?' (1 Kings 3:5-14). Solomon replied, ‘Give me the wisdom I need to rule your people with justice and to know the difference between good and evil.' The granting of this request gave rise to the legendary ‘wisdom of Solomon'. In the Book of Proverbs, which is classed as ‘wisdom literature' and attributed to him, Solomon tells his son, ‘To be wise, you must first have reverence for the Lord' (Proverbs 9:10). The book is full of pithy advice about how to live life wisely, and avoid foolish and self-destructive behaviour.


In Proverbs 8:10-18, Wisdom is personified as a woman, calling out in public places, appealing to human beings to listen,

‘Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her. I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behaviour and perverse speech. … By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just. … With me are riches and honour, enduring wealth and prosperity.'

Wisdom's house (Proverbs 9:1) gave T. E. Lawrence the title of his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Jesus, the ‘wisdom of God'

Wisdom also claims to have been present, at the creation of the world. Psalms 136:5 states, ‘By his wisdom God made the heavens'. This suggests a link with the New Testament model of wisdom, Jesus Christ. Colossians 1:16 claims ‘Through him God created everything in heaven and earth' and in 1 Corinthians 1:24 Paul describes Jesus as ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God.'

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 discusses the paradoxical nature of God's wisdom:

  • Paul claims that people do not get to know God through the power of their own intellect, but that they have to believe that the apparent foolishness of God, in becoming a man and dying on the Cross, has in fact opened the way to him
  • Paul recognises that this idea is offensive to many, but claims that ‘what seems to be God's foolishness is wiser than human reason.'
  • He develops this argument to illustrate why people who are disregarded by the world as ignorant, socially inferior and without influence often become followers of Jesus more readily than the powerful and learned.

Jesus himself told the famous parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). They are bridesmaids, and are distinguished by how ready they are to meet the bridegroom when he arrives. The purpose of this story is to teach people to be ready to meet Jesus when he returns in the ‘second coming'.

In his letter to the early church, James contrasts the selfish, competitive, destructive behaviour which stems from human ‘wisdom', i.e. ‘envy, selfish ambition, disorder and evil practice', with ‘wisdom from above' which enables people to be ‘pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.' (James 3:13-18)

Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress

John Bunyan, in his seventeenth century allegoryPilgrim's Progress', personifies the deceptive allure and eventual destructiveness of human ‘wisdom' in his character ‘Mr Worldly-Wiseman', who leads Christian astray on his journey to the Celestial City.

Related topics

Big ideas: Cross, crucifixion

Other Cultural references

Lawrence's, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Bunyan's, Pilgrim's Progress

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