On Reading Wisdom (Hokma) Literature
The Hebrew Scriptures are divided into three major sections: Torah, Prophets, and Writings.
Categorized under Writings are the wisdom books, also referred to as Hokma literature because of their extensive use of the various forms of the Hebrew root, hkm, meaning wisdom.
Wisdom literature varies within the Judeo-Christian traditions, but among them five books share the Hokma nomer: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (grouped together as Qoheleth in the Hebrew Scriptures) along with the Psalms and Song of Songs.
The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions also include the deuterocanonical books, The Book of Wisdom and Sirach (also called Ecclessiasticus).
Though these books share a common genre in taxonomy, scholars have found it rather difficult to qualify these books by any single definition of wisdom because of the broad spectrum of meaning the word conveys. The nuance of meaning in Job 28 is just one example of this difficulty.
In an essay titled, “What is Meant by the Biblical “Hokma” or Wisdom,” Edward Tallmadge Root rightly asserts that within the scope of biblical literature, the Hokma literature “presents the greatest contrast and variety in form and thought.”
Root goes on to explain that any definition that attempts to comprehend the whole of wisdom would be so general it would fail to give any “conception of character” to the writings under consideration. And yet, “there is such a unity of thought and purpose running through the whole” any attempt to classify these writings individually would be less than satisfactory.
The project here, then, is to offer at least a description of Hokma, if not an adequate means of defining the broader idea, one that will help the reader discern the authors’ intent when reading the wisdom literature.
The Lexham Theological Wordbook offers a simple definition, stating that Hokma “Refers generally to practical skill or special expertise ranging from technical skills to shrewdness, discernment, or understanding…[and]can refer to either practical skills of craftsmanship or the skills of sound judgment and discernment in navigating the situations of daily life.
Gleason Archer, Jr., in A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, says, “Most characteristic of the Semitic ḥoḵmâ are the practical precepts based upon a canny observation of the laws of human nature and of the rules for success in social, business, and political life.”
While these definitions are helpful in providing some snap shots of the scope of meaning of Hokma, it also serves to demonstrate the difficulty scholars have had finding a common definition that connects the books—one not so broad as to lose the significance of the meaning of wisdom, but not so narrow as to alienate any of the meanings encompassed in the Hebrew understanding of idea.
One approach that helps get us closer to a consensus is Root’s categorical description. He identifies three elements or ideas encompassed in the scriptural use of Hokma.
Wisdom as the Created Order
The first is what he refers to as World-plan, the Hebrew recognition of “the system of truths, laws and ideals, according to which the universe has been created.” This idea is captured in Proverbs 3:19-20.
“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.” (Proverbs 3:19–20, ESV)
The Hebrew acceptance of the created order as existing in the mind of God meant there need be no other philosophical pursuit of the meaning if life than what is revealed. This is one characteristic distinction between the Hebraic understanding of Hokma, and the Grecian understanding of Sophia.
Wisdom as Man’s Discernment
The second idea is virtuous discernment: “Man’s sympathetic discernment of his nature and capacities and the laws of the world in which he is placed, by which he is enabled to direct his actions so as to attain the end of his being and the blessing of God.”
This aspect of wisdom is the prevailing focus of the book of Proverbs, of which chapter 5 is one example.
“My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding, that you may keep discretion, and your lips may guard knowledge…Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” (Proverbs 5:1-2, 15–19, ESV)
Wisdom as Skill
The third idea of Hokma is that of practical skill: “the practical solution of the great problems of life.” This is the focus, for example of Proverbs chapters 10-22.
“A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” (Proverbs 10:4, ESV)
Reducing the definition of Hokma to any one of these three uses not only creates a significant crisis of hermeneutics, and fails to recognize the fluidity with which the writers seems to transition naturally from one usage to another in their own writings–again, Job 28 is illustrative of this; cross-reference verses 12 and 20 with verse 28–but it creates numerous problems in application as well.
For example, the problem with this last element, wisdom as skill, is that existing alone as a definition, it fails to satisfy man’s longing for answers the most important questions about his purpose for living. Wisdom understood simply as skills for life’s problems becomes utilitarian in nature. It becomes a wisdom of vanity, like those works of Ecclesiastes.
Perhaps, there is a single robust definition worth looking at that gets us closer, at least summarily.
In an interview with Ken Myers, Jeffry Davis of Wheaton College seemed to comprehensively summarize all that Root attempted to describe in his definitions, by saying, Hokma is “a notion that there is a right path and that path is to be skillfully traveled with a sense of righteousness.”
This definition not only captures all that Root, Nettelhorst, and Archer offered, but it gets to the heart of man’s purpose for living and how to accomplish that purpose–the very goal of wisdom literature. Further, it accurately affirms what David said of Hokma in the Psalms:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” (Psalm 111:10, ESV).
Archer, Gleason, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. 3rd. ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.
Nettelhorst, R. P. “Wisdom.” Edited by Douglas Mangum, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, and Rebekah Hurst. Lexham Theological Wordbook. Lexham Bible Reference Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.
Root, Edward Tallmadge. What Is Meant by the Biblical “Hokma” or Wisdom. The Old and New Testament Student, Vol. 9, No. 1 (University of Chicago Press. 1889), pp. 24-27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3157807. Accessed: 09-08-2016 18:15 UTC
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He shares valuable tips on writing and teaching, rich insights into theology and literature, and meaningful perspective on living a life of significance. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.