Christian academia and the wisdom (חכמה, chokmah) of Solomon

In this post I want to consider one word from the wisdom literature in the bible. It is the word for wisdom itself, transliterated into English as  chokmah. This word is used to describe what the fear of the LORD is the beginning of in psalm 111; it is what Bezalel and Oholiab are given when they make the tabernacle in Exodus 36; it is what God gives to Solomon; and it is what Job longs his comforters would show by shutting up (Job 13:5).

In Solomon’s proverbs he counsels his son:

Get chockmah, get understanding…. Do not forsake chockmah …. chockmah is supreme; therefore get chockmah. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding…. Accept what I say…. I guide you in the way of chockmah. (Proverbs 4:1-11)

So what is the wisdom that Solomon prizes so highly and wants his son to desire? In scripture it has many facets and it is built most fundamentally upon a fear of the LORD, but it also embraces what we would call “secular learning”. Listen to the description of Solomon’s own chokmah in 1 Kings 4:

 29 God gave Solomon wisdom (chokmah) and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s chokmah was greater than the chockmah of all the men of the East, and greater than all the chokmah of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s chokmah, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his chokmah. (1 Kings 4:29-34)

 The wisdom described in these verses that of a philosopher, poet, musician and natural scientist, and this wisdom seen as a wonderful thing, which the bible commends and commands us to seek.

In addition, according to Stephen in Acts 7:22 Moses was “educated in all the wisdom (sophia, the closest NT equivalent for chockmah) of the Egyptians”. Stephen does not condemn this pagan education as evil, but, as Dennis Johnson puts it, he “concurs with the Jewish tradition’s positive assessment of Moses’ intellectual engagement with pagan wisdom.”[1] And I have already written about Daniel’s professorship at the university of Central Babylon.

The book of Proverbs describes a man who both sought and taught wisdom, and the book’s seamless blending between what we would call “spiritual” and what we would call “practical” proverbs indicates that the wisdom literature in the bible does not draw as polarised a dichotomy as we tend to do.


[1]Dennis E. Johnson, “Spiritual Antithesis, Common Grace, and Practical Theology,” inaugural address, photocopied, accepted for publication in Westminster Theological Journal 64:1, Spring 2002, 74.