Portraits of Wisdom

Portraits of Wisdom

The gallery begins with the patriarchs and a few digressions in their life stories that seem to be included only for the small examples of wisdom they afford. Abraham exhibited the wisdom of avoiding strife within his family and offered a solution that was more favorable to others than to himself when he divided territory with Lot (Gen. 13:5–11). His son Isaac learned the wisdom of peacemaking. When competitors quarreled with him over wells that belonged to his father, he moved along peacefully instead of pressing his rights, and the Lord blessed him for it (26:17–22). If the fool is known for his propensity to quarrel, the wise man is known for avoiding strife and stopping contention before it starts (Prov. 17:14; 20:3). To live peaceably with others, as much as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18), reflects the wisdom of “the God of peace” (15:33).

In the portrait of Joseph, diligence and foresight converge. While these traits can be motivated by self-interest, the godly man’s intention is the good of others (Eccl. 11:2). Joseph worked tirelessly to avert the devastation of a forthcoming famine (Gen. 41:46–49), knowing that the preservation of his family (45:7) and an entire nation (50:20) depended on the faithful exercise of the wisdom that God had given him. Even Pharaoh could see that such wisdom came from God alone (41:39). The stakes of wisdom may never be as high in our lives as they were in Joseph’s, but diligence and foresight exercised out of love for others may find a thousand small expressions in our daily lives.

In a backroom of this gallery of wisdom, we find the understated portrait of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. In contrast to the elaborate narrative of Joseph’s rise to power, Jethro’s story is less well known, which illustrates the Preacher’s warning that the wise should not expect wealth, favor, or fame in this world (Eccl. 9:16). But Jethro, a Midianite, had the true wealth of wisdom. He professed faith in the one true God and was received into the fellowship of Moses, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel (Ex. 18:10–12). He wisely observed that the shepherding of God’s people could be better accomplished with an “abundance of counselors” (Prov. 24:6) rather than through Moses alone. So his advice to his son-in-law was twofold: teach the people the Word of God, and place God-fearing and able men over the people to provide judgment and counsel (Ex. 18:19–23). Moses showed the wisdom of heeding good advice (Prov. 12:15), and the wise counsel of his father-in-law was later proved to be the will and the wisdom of God (Num. 11:16–17).

Few people will even recognize the next portrait, but Bezalel the son of Uri is among the few who are actually called “wise” in the Bible. Of the tribe of Judah, he was a master craftsman appointed by God for the construction of the tabernacle (Ex. 31:1–11; 35:30–36:1). He was said to have been filled with the Spirit of God, wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. Although he was gifted to teach (35:34), his wisdom was expressed in the work of his hands, as he gave glory to God through the practical skills that he had been given as a craftsman and artisan. Bezalel’s portrait reminds us that wisdom is not always a matter of the mind but is also a labor of the hands, using any skill or ability to the glory of God. Read Proverbs 31 and note how many times the “hands” of that wise and excellent woman are mentioned.

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