Is wisdom more important than smartness

Did you know that people pass electricity through their brains (tDCS, “transcranial direct current stimulation”) in the hope of being more intelligent? They do this before IQ testing, hoping to gain an edge over others.

Intelligence is a valuable commodity. Higher intelligence opens the door to better university degrees at better universities. Better degrees open the door to more lucrative careers. More lucrative careers open the door to the Nirvana of homeownership, meals with top chefs, private schools for the kids, better medical and dental treatment, early retirement, travel, and all-important experiences.

Thus, intelligent people are the new rock stars. Jordan Peterson’s recent lecture tour in Australia was a sellout. The ubiquitous Stephen Fry—urbane, witty, mellifluous—hosts the British TV show QI and makes one feel that one could never fly at quite his own altitude.  

In this environment it is difficult not to measure and value ourselves according to our intelligence.

Wisdom is far more valuable than intelligence.

God’s Word does not rate intelligence this way. A quick concordance check of the NIV Bible shows that the word intelligent appears nine times, clever appears twice, and the words smart, intellectual, bright,and brainy not at all. But the words discern and discerning appear 34 times, understanding appears 115 times, and wise and wisdom 455 times. Know and knowledge appear 1,250 times. Think, thought, consider, meditate, reason, and ponder appear 405 times. We are commanded 14 times to “Wake up!” In the KJV, the command “Behold!” appears 1,326 times. The Bible highly rates wisdom, wisely alert thought, and wisely used knowledge. Bare intelligence is irrelevance.

The reason is this: there is no necessary correlation between intelligence and morality, or intelligence and wise conduct. You can be a fool with a very high IQ. You can be an evil genius. You can be dim, and good. You can be slow on the uptake, yet wise. You can be dull, and yet very skilled at the worthwhile thing that you do.  

At the end of the day, a person’s contribution to the world, their society, and their friends and family will be determined not by their intelligence per se, but by their wisdom and goodness.

Wisdom is about knowing how to act correctly in any given situation.

According to the New Bible Dictionary the Hebrew word ḥokmā, “is intensely practical, not theoretical.... wisdom is the art of being successful, of forming the correct plan to gain the desired results.” And so the craftsmen of the Tabernacle were given ḥokmā to undertake their highly skilled workmanship (Exod. 31:6). The Bible associates wisdom with skilled metalwork, woodwork, jewelry, embroidery, weaving, trading, politics, leadership, and military and nautical ability. Wisdom is not about being smart. Wisdom is about knowing how to act correctly in any given situation, to do a given task well. This is driven home by the startling observation of Proverbs 30:24-28:

Four things on earth are small,
but they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people not strong,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
the rock badgers are a people not mighty,
yet they make their homes in the cliffs;
the locusts have no king,
yet all of them march in rank;
the lizard you can take in your hands,
yet it is in kings' palaces.

Ants, badgers, locusts, and lizards frequently shame the sharp, clever, and intelligent. For whereas the latter so often misuse their intelligence to harm themselves and those around them, “dumb animals” act prudently, constructively, and well. (The lizard is my favorite: he lets men sweat and toil to build a great and luxurious palace, says “thanks for that” when it is done, and simply moves in.) 

While intelligence may be fixed, we can increase in wisdom.

The implication is that whereas IQ, like your height and eye color, may be relatively fixed, wisdom can be sought, learned, and increased. It should grow deeper and wider with age and experience (Job 32:7, Heb. 5:12). With every journey around the sun we should learn by experience how better to look after ourselves and those around us.  

That is why we will now hear, from Proverbs 8, Wisdom shouting out to us from the street corners, urging us to take hold of the gifts that she longs to lavish upon us all:

“To you, O men, I call,
and my cry is to the children of man.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
O fools, learn sense.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right,
for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.” (Prov. 8:4-8)

Wisdom calls aloud, passionately and urgently, “Wisdom is here for the taking! Be determined, take hold of it, it can be yours!” Notice Wisdom doesn’t stand in the university quadrangle. Notice that Wisdom doesn’t limit her call to those with a suitably high IQ. She stands at the entrance gate, the public place, where she can catch everyone’s ear. Derek Kidner comments: “A chapter which is to soar above time and space, opens at street-level, to make it clear, first, that the wisdom of God is as relevant to the shopping center as to heaven itself....  It is available to the veriest dunce” (Kidner, Proverbs[Intervarsity Press, 1984]). Everyone can become wise: it is a matter not of grey matter but of will. And wisdom is a good thing to get, because it is true, not false, and just, not crooked.

Wisdom brings great blessings.

Proverbs 8:12-21 goes on to tell us the good things that wisdom brings: wisdom is a magnet that attracts prudence, knowledge, and discretion. Wisdom repels evil, pride, arrogance, and perverse speech. Wisdom is not amoral. To be wise is to be good, to be good is to be wise. Wisdom makes kings rule fairly and well, so that their people enjoy happy prosperity. Wisdom brings riches and honor. As we put Proverbs in its Bible context, we remember that riches are not always monetary, that health is not always bodily, and that honor is not always in the eyes of community. A person can be poor, sick, and despised, and yet possess “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3), a healthy and eternally alive soul, and honor and favor with God (Luke 12:5). Wisdom “is better than fine gold” for it brings the riches of heaven, the wealth that truly matters (Matt. 6:19-20).  

Wisdom works well, because wisdom is built into the very fabric of Creation:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.” (Prov. 8:22-23)

A recent National Geographic lists some fifteen qualities that the earth possesses that make it suitable for life. Ever so slightly change just one of these “Goldilocks Conditions,” and life cannot exist. As Stephen Hawking wrote in A Brief History of Time: “The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron.... The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life”, 129). 

God created the world with wisdom.

Wisdom explains why. She was there before creation, older than light. God created with her. Creation works because it was wisely engineered. Creation is a ravishing symphony because it was wisely composed. Creation is lavish and beautiful because Wisdom made her so. To have wisdom is to have the very quality that made this universe the masterpiece that it is. God did nothing without wisdom. Who are we to try to do otherwise?

The one who finds wisdom finds life.

And we find the fourth and final exhortation in this proverb:

“And now, O sons, listen to me
blessed are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
Blessed is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord,
but he who fails to find me injures himself;
all who hate me love death.” (Prov. 8:32-36)

Those who take hold of Wisdom will be blessed. Blessed translates asher, “fortunate,” “happy.” In the Septuagint it is translated makarios, the word used by Jesus in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are those who mourn... Blessed are the meek... These are the truly happy ones. These are the ones to be congratulated and envied. Before creation, wisdom was “rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” Wisdom says: “You will find this happiness when you carefully guard your walk according to my ways. You will be blessed when you disregard the godless cacophony of the world, and keenly listen ‘at the doorposts of my gates.’” 

Thus “the one who finds Wisdom finds life.” The one who fails to find wisdom harms their nephesh: their very soul. “If you hate me, you love death.”

Attaining wisdom is essential.

We think of wisdom as an optional extra. You can buy a car without velour seats, Bose speakers, a heated steering wheel, and an inbuilt Gaggia espresso machine. It will get you from W to X, but unluxuriously. You may think the same about a life without wisdom: “It won’t be a Lamborghini, but it will work.” 

This is not true. Wisdom is life and death, make or break, do or die.  It is not desirable that we attain wisdom, but essential.

The thing is, wisdom does not come naturally. Our heart bias away from “the Only Wise God” is a bias away from wisdom. Gold has to be mined at great cost, skill, and effort. Mastery of a skill comes only after at least 10,000 hours of practice. The well-formed adult is the product of highly skilled and diligent parenting. And wisdom for the natively godless comes only by searching long and hard for it.  

It is essential nonetheless. We must get it, or die in the attempt.    

When we think about Wisdom’s true identity, we can see why. Wisdom is the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ the Son of God. He created the universe (John 1:3, Col. 1:16, Heb. 1:2). Creation in its astounding design, complexity, and beauty mirrors his wisdom.

And so we end the way Proverbs begins: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7). Wisdom can be sought, learned, and increased. But the seeking begins with Jesus Christ and Him alone. Without Christ, without submitting to Him, we are forever condemned to the foolish harm of our souls, and the souls of those around us.

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