Oh Where Wisdom? (Hint – Not in Science) (RJS)

The 28th chapter of the book of Job is a wisdom poem or hymn addressing the question “Where is wisdom found?”. This wisdom poem represents a significant departure from the cycle of dialog and speeches that circle around the cause of Job’s suffering. Job consistently insists on his righteousness and looks for justice he fears he will not find while the others insist that he must deserve his fate because God is just. If Job suffers he cannot be innocent. The wisdom hymn in chapter 28 steps back and reflects on wisdom, anticipating the end of the book in chapters 38-42 where God speaks to Job.

This is a hard chapter to place in the book and there is controversy as to the speaker. Tremper Longman III, in his commentary on Job, ultimately assigns the words to Job. John Walton disagrees, and in his commentary on Job assigns the words to the narrator, as an insert between the cycle of three dialogs Job has with his three friends and the rest of the book. Both agree that the decision is not clear cut and has to be held loosely. Whoever the speaker, this wisdom hymn is worth a post.

Human Achievements is not Enough. The poem can be divided into three segments. The first segment looks at mining – a marvelous technological achievement of the ancient world that opened up a world of new possibilities. The earth was made to yield treasures, silver, gold, iron, copper, precious gems. As usual I quote from Longman’s translation. The NIV used in Walton’s commentary is available here.

Indeed, there is a mine for silver,
     and a place where gold is refined.
Iron is taken from the dust,
     and copper is poured out from stone.
Putting an end to darkness,
     they investigate every limit,
     the ore in thick and deep darkness.
They breach a wadi far from human sojourning,
     a place that is forgotten by human feet.
     they are suspended; they wander far from people. 
                                                         (28:1-4, Longman)
They put their hand on the flint,
     upturning mountains from their root.
They cut channels in the rocks;
     their eyes see all the precious things.
They dam up the sources of the rivers.
     Hidden things come out into the light.
                                                         (28:9-11, Longman)

If we were to write this chapter today, rather than a focus on mining we might talk of quantum physics, the human genome, and space exploration. We sequence the gene, explore the inner workings of cells, and search for new medicines and cures. We search for the Higgs Boson, dark matter, and dark energy. We send probes to Mars and marvel over the images they send back. We develop faster and safer modes of communication and travel – the telegraph, telephone, satellite, and internet, …. train, car, airplane, and dreams of space travel coming true in small steps.  Humans are capable of great feats.

The first stanza ends however with a dose of reality (or the second begins with this in the NIV translation used in Walton’s commentary).

As for wisdom, where can it be found?
     The place of understanding, where is it?
                                                     (28:12, Longman)

Longman notes that “This powerful description of human ability and successful efforts at finding hidden treasures under the earth contrasts strongly with our inability to find wisdom.”  Nothing has changed. The marvels of human achievement in the three millenia or so since this hymn was originally penned have come no closer to wisdom than the wonders of mining did in the ancient Near East. The big questions raised in the book of Job have no better human answers today than they did so long ago.

Wisdom cannot be bought. The second stanza of the poem tells us that wisdom cannot be bought for any price.  It cannot be found on earth, even in those places that are hostile to humans.

No person knows its price.
     It cannot be found in the land of the living.
The Deep says, "It is not in me."
     The Sea says it is not with me."
It cannot be given for gold.
     Silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
                                                     (28:13-15, Longman)

Again, as true today as when originally penned.

God is the source of wisdom. The final stanza makes it clear that God is the source of all wisdom.

God understands its path,
     and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth;
     under all the heavens he sees,
in order to give weight to the wind,
     and measure out the waters in their measure.
When he made the decree for the rain,
     and the way for the thunderstorm,
then he saw it and declared it;
     he established it and investigated it.
                                                  (28:23-27, Longman)

This stanza again anticipates the final conversation (if we can call it that) between God and Job in chapters 38-42. God alone understands wisdom and God alone knows its path and place. The Creator, God, forms, sees, measures, weighs, decrees the rain.  The truth of this passage holds whether we have, as well, a “scientific” explanation for wind and rain. God looks into the atom and gave us the particles that hold it together. In creation God saw wisdom, declared it, established it, and investigated it.

And he said to humankind:
     'Behold, the fear of the Lord is wisdom,
      and turning aside from evil is understanding.'
                                                (28:28, Longman)

Longman suggests that the fear of the Lord is an emotion that removes pride and replaces it with the humility appropriate to the presence of the sovereign God – an emotion of awe and respect.

One may know a lot of facts without fear of the Lord, but not to know the most basic reality of all – God – renders someone a fool: “Fools say in their heart ‘There is no God'” (Ps. 14:1 NSRV)

Thus the fear of God is a presupposition of wisdom. Further, wisdom in the Bible is not a body of knowledge but rather a relationship. The wise must have a dependent relationship with God that makes them listen to him. All true knowledge has reference to God. (p. 334)

All of our achievements in mining, biology, architecture, engineering, information, particle physics, space exploration are nothing but wisps  of futility … without the fear of the Lord and a turning aside from evil.

The book of Job has many messages for us today – and as many corrections to our theology and expectations as it had for the original audience.

Where is wisdom found?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • Dan

    It is difficult to reconcile “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” with a definition of science that insists all things, without exception must be
    (1) guided by natural law; (2) explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) testable against the empirical world. God Himself is none of those things and His actions in the world can not be limited to such a definition.

    Since all causes not “natural” are excluded, even if God is allowed in the theology and philosophy departments He is excluded from the lab. That is not wise.

  • RJS4DQ

    Yeah Dan,

    But I really like Longman’s statement -wisdom is not a body of knowledge but rather a relationship. So I, like many other Christians who are scientists, do not deny the empirical conclusions of science, but it is the relationship with the creator that shapes the way that body of knowledge is viewed.

    By the way – I have a very hard time responding through Disqus except in the early morning or in the evening. So if you respond and I seem to ignore it, that is likely why.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I agree with RJS here. Wisdom found through God/Holy Spirir is a separate sphere to science and the scientific method. Science uncovers knowledge; wisdom is all about what you do with that knowledge.

  • I love the idea that wisdom is a relationship with the Creator. In that sense, wisdom was fully restored to us by Christ. Or at least, the opportunity for wisdom was restored.

  • Phil Miller

    I’d be curious to hear you expound a bit more on what you mean by”excluded from the lab”. Are you saying that if we exclude God from science completely, than science will lack an ethical compass? In that sense, I’d probably agree with your sentiment. Although, I think we need to be careful, because even atheist scientists and researchers operate with some sort of moral code.

    At it’s root, it seems to me that we’re saying that wisdom is something different than knowledge. Knowledge can be gained through different means – experimentation, inference and extrapolation, etc., but wisdom is something that is obtained through different means. This discussion reminds me a lot of Dallas Willard’s work. Where he saw the education system failing students was in its insistence that morality was something that existed totally outside the realm of knowledge, and therefore, it wasn’t really teachable in a university setting. He rejected that notion.

  • AHH

    That comment is a bit off the topic of the post, but at the risk of further diversion I’ll note that the 3 things you noted make perfect sense as methodological limitations on science. They only become a problem when they are treated not as limits on science but rather as limits on reality. A distinction that is, sadly, chronically missed by both the scientific atheists and their mirror images in certain Christian circles.

    And maybe that does connect to the points of the post. Knowledge gained through science is valid (all truth is God’s truth), but the wisdom to which we are commended is not found scientifically. So those who think the path to ultimate meaning must run through science (both scientific atheists and those who think science needs to prove God) are going to miss some vital stuff.

  • Dan

    Discus stinks. I tried responding several times and failed every time.

    “Relationship shapes the body of knowledge”? How? Relationship is experiential and subjective. Are you saying that faith is entirely in the realm of the subjective and science is in the objective? That “empirical science” can be affirmed in the physical realm as long as “relationship” stays in the “spiritual” realm and the two are kept separate?

    I have a hard time reconciling that with John testifying that the apostles proclaimed a risen Christ whom they had beheld with their eyes and touched with their hands.

    But the point I was making and have made and will continue to try to make is that the definition of science Judge Overton has given us must, if held consistently, rule that the virgin birth and the resurrection, to a true scientist, must be explained as the result of purely natural causes. In fact every miracle in the New Testament must, to the “scientist” as defined in the ruling, have a purely natural explanation.

    The definition of science is incompatible with any causes that are above or beyond nature, hence, God is excluded from the lab, no matter what one believes in the pew.

  • Dan

    See my response to RJS above. Yes, moral influence may be excluded, but that is not my point. My point is that the definition of science insists on natural causes to the extent that supernatural causes must be rejected out of hand. That excludes every miracle in the New Testament, it excludes miracles in the present, and excludes creation as having any supernatural causation. So even if a supernatural cause is the truth, the scientist in the lab or the field must find a natural mechanism to explain what is observed. To me this is an overreaction to a fear of invoking God or magic when we don’t understand something. It is possible to believe in natural causes without dismissing the possibility of causes outside of nature.

  • Dan

    But that misses the point. The definition makes it a limit on reality. If science can only seek natural causes, and supernatural causes, though rare, may be real, then the definition excludes part of reality.

    And I think it a poor caricature you are making when you equate “mirror images” of scientific atheists with “certain Christians”. It is not the case that everything must be proven scientifically. But there are statements in scripture that seem to have to be taken as “real” events in history, else the spiritual meaning of the event is in fact altered.

    Does it matter that Christ was born of a virgin? Yes, if one sees the dual nature of Christ as fully God and fully man as an essential reality and not just a spiritual idea. Can the virgin birth be explained in Overton’s terms as the result of natural causes in accordance with natural law without stripping out the spiritual meaning of Christ as divinely conceived? Not for most people in the pew.

    It is the water tight absolutism of naturalism – both methodological and philosophical, that are the primary issue in all these debates. TE’s seem to think one can be a methodological naturalist in the science lab and still be a committed theist in the sanctuary, but the practical outworkings of that (theological schizophrenia, in my opinion) inevitably undermine everything supernatural in both the Old and the New Testaments. And plain ordinary folk see the contradiction more clearly than the average academic.

  • Ann F-R

    Thank you for this post, RJS! The wisdom of God has always struck me,
    too, as other than what so many of our educators are taught to teach –
    information, mostly, with less than I’d wish of knowledge. Over decades
    of near-daily reading in Psalms, Proverbs alongside other texts, it
    seems to me that “the fear of the Lord” is not “an emotion” so much as a
    posture of humble unknowing and powerlessness. God’s wisdom to us in
    manifest in ways of living, an askesis for a flourishing life within
    community, as it were. When we fail to acknowledge our lack of clear
    vision of self, others and reality, to recognize our inabilities to
    control ourselves, our environment and the people around us, we tread
    paths leading to death, where our own ways lead us. Without “fear” of
    God we naturally choose our own paths. Perhaps we might understand that
    phrase, “fear of God”, somewhat as an ongoing, active, daily
    acknowledgment of the truth that God’s
    sight/knowledge/understanding/discernment far, far surpass our own and
    only by trusting in Him will we begin to see reality in truth-filled
    light, not in our self-deception or according to others’ deceptions. Thus, when
    we choose to follow in the wisdom of God, to live according to his
    precepts and not according to self-will and self-interest, we “fear”

  • Dan

    The “separate sphere” notion is precisely what I oppose. The apostles saw spiritual meaning in realities that they saw, heard, witnessed, touched. The unity between spiritual meaning and real-time events, particularly the incarnation and resurrection are essential. And if the resurrection and incarnation can be explained as purely naturalistic events by “science” then there isn’t much wisdom in believing there is significance beyond them.

  • Phil Miller

    I kind of see what you’re saying, but I guess I don’t see a good alternative in defining what science is. A miracle, by definition, is something that happens because of causes outside of nature. It’s not something that can be repeated in a lab. So really, the question becomes whether scientists have to be materialists, or whether they can operate in the scientific realm as well as believe that there are things that are beyond their grasp.

  • AHH

    But that misses the point. The definition makes it a limit on reality. If science can only seek natural causes, and supernatural causes, though rare, may be real, then the definition excludes part of reality.

    No, it only excludes part of reality from being apprehended by science. Which is part of the point of the post; contra modern attitudes, there are many important things we need to apprehend (such as the virgin birth that you mention) for which science is not the right tool.

    As a semi-aside, I would note that this sort of rhetoric that pits the longstanding practice of science as being inevitably incompatible with Christian faith is a big contributor to pushing the scientific community away from Jesus.

  • RJS4DQ


    It isn’t really fair to bring Judge Overton’s ruling into this discussion. I’ve dealt with miracles, especially the NT miracles of Jesus, in a number of posts. “Miracles” are in relationship and for a purpose. God is in relationship with his creation and creatures.

    If, in the lab, I had some reason to believe that this relationship was coming into play I would look to God. But in general I do not think he stirs my sample in any supernatural fashion. I also don’t think he will suspend gravity if I jump off a cliff, although he could given a purpose for it. Walton uses the example of gravity in his commentary on Job 28.

  • DMH

    “…every miracle in the New Testament must, to the “scientist” as defined in the ruling, have a purely natural explanation.”- only if the scientist is a philosophical naturalist. The scientist who is a Christian can be be more open. She doesn’t have to use the words “every”, “must”, and “purely”. Reality is always more complex than any one statement about it or one perspective can do justice to.

  • AHH

    Science (as opposed to scientISM) most definitely does NOT insist that purported miracles “must have a purely natural explanation”. It just says that such natural explanations are all that science has the capability of finding.
    If faced with a real miracle, the proper finding of science would be to say “we are unable to find a natural explanation for this.” And that’s all we can say as scientists — but as human beings we have more tools in our kit than just science and bringing in those other tools we can more fully apprehend the miraculous and other things that science is incapable of determining.

  • Dan

    So would the miraculous turning of water to wine be something that you would say cannot be apprehended by science? Does science observe physical change and document that sample A – water, now has become sample B – wine in a moment of time? Does science throw up its hands at that point and say “this cannot be explained within the framework of natural processes that we observe day in and day out?” and say science is ruined because now winemaking has become an utter mystery of chaos?

    Or does a “wise” person of science who believes in an orderly creator acknowledge that a) science can observe the effect and document it but b) science cannot determine a cause within natural law in this rare instance, the best explanation lies outside of natural law?

    I do not see why the simple acknowledgement that some rare causes may be outside of nature would drive a scientist from the Jesus who walked on water, healed men born blind and raised men dead four days. This is not a denial of science, it is a rejection of a very narrow and restrictive definition of science, one that sequesters “wisdom” from “knowledge” in an unhealthy way.

    And the post is about “wisdom”. I simply think it unwise

  • Dan

    That is good if a scientist does not use those absolute terms. That is the point I was trying to make. Now give me examples of cases where modern science actually allows for exceptions, particularly in the origins debate.

  • Dan

    Nor do I think gravity will be suspended if I jump off a cliff. But is it possible that walking on water really happened, could have been observed by a scientific mind, and would be an example of something caused by something outside of nature?

    As to the fairness issue, my question is this – if a scientist observed an actual miracle and acknowledged it as such, would his faith be made stronger or weakened as a result?

    The point of the post is “wisdom”. You are saying science has limits, areas that can’t be probed by scientific methods. I agree. But I simply would extend that limitation on science to observable effects in the material world that have causes that may not be confined to nature. That is, it seems, essential to the Biblical narrative.

    Saying “miracles are in relationship” seems a sentence without meaning. What exactly does that mean? If the resurrection is a miracle, does that mean it is a personal miracle only perceived by me as a result of a subjective relationship? Or was the resurrection an historical fact, intended for all, but rejected by most? Was its purpose “relational” or was its purpose cosmic and universal?

    I bring in Overton because the “fear of the Lord” is not to be found in the consensus definition of science, hence your point that science leads to knowledge but not necessarily wisdom is highlighted. I agree with your point, but it simply does not go far enough. Those who reject Overton’s definition are described as “anti-science” when in reality they are practicing “wisdom” in recognizing the limitations of science and seeking a definition that allows for the “fear of the Lord”.

  • Dan

    Yes. Causes outside of nature. That is my point. Now, if one believes that there are causes outside of nature, does one cease to be a scientist? I say no. Yet when an ID advocate simply suggests “natural selection plus unguided variation cannot explain the Cambrian explosion”, he is blasted as “anti-science”.

  • Phil Miller

    Well, Francis Collins is the head of the NIH, and the former head of the of the Human Genome Project, and he’s a Christian. I can assure you there are plenty of scientists who maintain a belief in God and the supernatural, but yet they are still passionate about science.

    I’m not sure where you’re trying to go with your line of argument, really. Sure, there are scientists who reject the possibility of anything supernatural outright. But they all don’t.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Well, that’s where we’d disagree. We had centuries of mixing literal belief of supernatural intermingling with what could be called the ‘science’ of the day. It was called the Dark Ages.

  • Dan

    Yup. But are they really allowed to operate that way in the secular science academy? One of the criticisms of Stephen Meyer’s last book on ID was that he critiqued the natural mechanisms of the origin of life and said they were inadequate, but failed to propose another mechanism. Since he did not suggest an alternative “natural” cause, he was not practicing science. He made no religious arguments, only suggested that “intelligence” is a better explanation than “non-intelligence”, and was roundly trashed. The “fear of the Lord” was not welcome in the scientific sphere.

    What I don’t get, given the New Testament accounts, is why science would not be able to at least observe the effects of non-natural causes. After all, we can’t repeat the big bang in the lab, nor can we observe multiverses, yet those are considered “science”. If CS Lewis’ wife was supposedly beyond a cure yet went into remission for several years, is it unscientific for a doctor to say “she should not be doing this well” – observing the effect of something that flies in the face of “normal” cause and effect?

  • Dan

    The same dark ages that birthed Universities, Beowolf, Canterbury tales, the Magna Carta, musical notation, gothic cathedrals and Thomas Aquinas and made science possible?