In one episode of The Game of Thrones, Charles Dance’s incomparable Tywin Lannister quizzes his grandson on what it takes to be a good king. A good king must be holy, his grandson replies, but Tywin responds that a previous “holy” king fasted himself to death because his views became so extreme that he saw food as sinful. A good king must be just, his grandson tries again, but Tywin counters that one just king was too naive to anticipate his assassination. A good king must be strong, the grandson proposes, but Tywin talks about how Robert Baratheon was strong enough to rebel and take the crown but too drunk and stupid to rule the kingdom properly. What did these kings lack, Tywin asks? Then the grandson gets it: Wisdom. A good king must be wise. Of course, typical of Tywin, he pushes the conversation in a way that benefits him and leaves him in control, but his definition of wisdom is interesting: “A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t.” At any rate, whatever one thinks wisdom is, surely everyone will agree that a good king or leader should be wise.
For Christians and Jews, there is one king who exemplifies wisdom, and that is Solomon. Solomon is traditionally credited with writing many of the Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and most of Ecclesiastes, all part of what we call the “wisdom literature.” There is another apocryphal work that refers to him as well, aptly titled “The Wisdom of Solomon.” Disputes over authorship for any of these works isn’t my concern here; the fact is, Solomon is a figurehead for the concept of wisdom. Even the goofy DC superhero, Captain Marvel, who draws his powers from different mythological gods or demigods, gains his wisdom from the human Solomon, the first letter for his magic word “Shazam.”
Solomon’s story is well-known: Instead of asking God for wealth or long life, he asked God for wisdom, and therefore he became the wisest king the world had ever known. People traveled far and wide to come listen to him speak. Unfortunately, Solomon is also one of the most paradoxical figures in the entire Bible. This wise man, this son of David, who was called “Jedidiah” at his birth (meaning “loved by God”), eventually amassed seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. These women (did he even know all of their names?) turned his heart astray as he grew older, and he began worshiping other gods. As punishment, God ripped the kingdom away from Solomon’s descendants, refraining from doing so in Solomon’s lifetime only to honor David. Israel was divided, a split that would endure until the Babylonian captivity.
Essentially, this supposedly wise king, the wisest ever, fell into incredible foolishness. Was he not really wise? Did he stop being wise? If you accept Ecclesiastes as written by Solomon towards the end of his life, did he not still possess some measure of wisdom, albeit with a bucket full of bitterness? What is wisdom, exactly?
Wisdom’s elusive definition
Trying to define wisdom is difficult, and it seems we might resort ourselves to Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity, which can be paraphrased as, “I may not be able to define it fully, but I know it when I see it.” Philosophers themselves have a few theories of wisdom, which you can review here. All of these theories have something going for it, but what does Scripture say?
It may be difficult to boil everything down with a definition, but perhaps we can see some characteristics of wisdom in Scripture and also see that there are different types of wisdom. Here are some observations:
1. The beginning of wisdom stems from fearing God, which mostly naturally means obeying him (Psalm 111:10, Prov. 9:10). There is a deep, respectful, and submissive reverence.
2. Following from #1, wisdom and humility seem to go hand in hand (Prov. 15:33, James 3:13).
3. Wisdom and knowledge also go together, though the “knowledge” here seems to be conceived quite broadly. The fear of the Lord is also the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7), and wisdom itself possesses knowledge and discretion (Prov. 8:12).
4. Wisdom is the ability to make distinctions, most notably between right and wrong (Prov. 17:4, Prov. 14:33).
5. Wisdom can be construed narrowly to deep understanding of a certain task or subject. A possible example is Huram, who is described as having great wisdom and understanding when it comes to bronze work (1 Kings 7:14). It can also be an aid to, well, getting rich, though this kind of wisdom seems opposed to God’s (Ez. 28:24).
6. Wisdom is the practice of living rightly and consistently with God’s commands and character (James 3:17, Matt. 11:19).
There are many more passages to survey, but that will do for now. Godly wisdom seems to encompass two broad components: Knowledge and distinguishing of right and wrong and of the things of God and reverent obedience to God. This is why wisdom seems to be something that one learns intellectually but also something that one incorporates as an attitude (like James says, wisdom is peace-loving, full of mercy, etc.). This is similar to Aristotle’s distinction between theoretical and practical wisdom; theoretical wisdom is knowledge and understanding of first things and principles, and practical wisdom has to do with living well. Keep in mind that I’m not saying that wisdom is simply the application of knowledge; I am saying that one type of wisdom is insightful understanding (not just knowing bare facts but knowing the “why” and “how” questions and the like), and another is an attitude or way of life.
In any case, either component can individually be construed as “wisdom,” and it seems possible to have one without the other, or at least, without having the other in a large degree. Therefore, we can call someone “wise” in a real sense even though that person may also have a large amount of foolishness. For example, a well-trained theologian could have vast knowledge of the things of God and can make wise distinctions between right and wrong, but he can be foolish if he fails to obey God and actually do the things he understands. On the other side, someone may approach God with full reverence and humility but be sorely lacking, for whatever reason, in a deep understanding of Scripture and theology. I would tend to think that the latter is better than the former, but it would still be true that the latter person would lack a certain type of wisdom.
The Lesson of Solomon
Going back to Solomon, let’s look at his request to God:
So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” – 1 Kings 3:9
Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” – 1 Chronicles 1:10
I think looking at what kind of wisdom Solomon asks for can help us reconcile why he is simultaneously the wisest man ever (outside of Jesus, of course) and a great fool. Solomon in both accounts asks for the wisdom in order to govern well, which is enabled by a sharp faculty of discernment. God’s gift of wisdom here seems purely on the side of intellectual insight: Solomon gains vast knowledge and an amazing talent for making distinctions between right and wrong. Of course, it is noble to ask for such a gift, and it certainly makes actually living a godly life a lot easier when you know what you’re supposed to do. For that reason, Solomon actually did display a great deal of “practical” wisdom for most of his life because his unparalleled intellectual wisdom afforded him the resources to do so.
However, to become wise, through and through, in the sense that Psalms 111:10 and James 3 describe, seems to require daily commitment and habituation, particularly with regards to one’s own relationship with God. This is not something you just “study.” It’s something you commit to, you submit to, and ultimately live day to day. Fearing God stems from an intellectual understanding about God but is borne out of an attitude of submission. This is probably why the Teacher in Ecclesiastes could complain that wisdom is meaningless: He studied by wisdom the things under the sun, but he realized that this vast understanding he gained was a chasing after the wind. It was truly wisdom, but also an ultimately empty sort.
Thus, towards the end of his life, Solomon, despite his great wisdom in one sense, rejected the far greater wisdom of actually fearing and obeying God. In fact, one could even argue that the greater one’s intellectual wisdom, the more foolish one’s act is if it fails to cohere with that wisdom, so Solomon was one of the greatest fools the world has ever known. Again, if you take Ecclesiastes as written by Solomon, it is clear that his intellectual faculties did not dull. However, he seemed to finally realize in that book how vacuous his pursuits were outside of God. As I read 1 Kings 11, where Solomon falls away, I do not see him actually being deceived; I do not think God’s gift of discernment left him. I see him simply having a vice, a lust for women, that he did not deal with in his life and it eventually consumed him. The text says he followed these foreign gods, but it strikes me as something he did to appease his many wives, not because he actually thought these gods were superior to Yahweh. He knew the truth, but it seems that he stopped caring about it so that he could enjoy his harem.
Solomon in many ways exemplifies the internal paradox of Christians who still struggle with sin, as reflected upon by Paul in Romans 7. We know what to do, but we do the opposite. Small wonder why so many pastors, who know the Bible well, fall into sexual sin, gambling, stealing, etc. Perhaps Solomon also helps us understand why the life of wisdom, as a whole, cannot be merely given to us at a moment’s notice even by God: If it is something relational and something we submit to everyday, then we have to experience it and internalize it. We obviously do not do this alone and are guided by the Holy Spirit, but while God may grant us enormous understanding, this wisdom is incomplete without the wisdom of actually fearing God and living for him. In one real sense, Solomon was much wiser than someone like Peter and could probably explain more about the world, morality, and theology in a more eloquent, precise, and even convincing manner. However, Peter, a simple fisherman, followed Christ at great cost to the grave. His wisdom was “complete.” I like to think that Solomon, too, finally repented as Ecclesiastes seems to indicate, but he sure wasted a ton of time and brought about some awful consequences because he became a wise fool.
I may be way off on these reflections, but it’s something I’m mulling over as I think about this famous king.