Wisdom Versus Law—What’s the Difference?

Photo by  Elijah Hail  on  Unsplash

Photo by Elijah Hail on Unsplash

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It is lawful, but is it wise? Is God’s wisdom simply a form of law? What are the differences between law and wisdom in the Bible, and what is their relationship to each other?

These are some of the questions to ponder when reading Scripture. Consider, for example, Psalm 119:97-98, which identifies God’s law making the psalmist wiser than his enemies; or Psalm 111:10 (repeated in Proverbs 9:10) that teaches the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Besides the fact that wisdom and law are closely related to each other because God is their source, there are differences between them.

Wisdom sayings and admonitions are not law commands per se, although keeping God’s law is surely wise. Mostly, we prefer laws since they tell us what to do. Wisdom, on the other hand, takes more effort, so we tend to shy away from learning how the world works and the reasons, benefits, and purposes of living wisely. The similarities and differences between law and wisdom are important, so let us begin with God’s law.

1. God’s Law: Moral, Ceremonial, and Judicial

God reveals his law to us in Scripture, beginning with Adam. The commands to Adam in Genesis 2, “bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.1).

  • God then delivered his moral law on Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments; they reveal our duty to God and to our fellow humans (Exod. 20: 1-17, Deut. 5:6-21).

  • God also gave to Israel ceremonial laws, but they have been abrogated under the new covenant (e.g., Col. 2:14-17, Heb. 9:10), since they pointed to Christ Jesus and were subsequently fulfilled by him.

  • Likewise, the judicial laws God gave to Israel expired with the Mosaic Covenant (e.g., Heb. 8:13), although the general purpose of justice that lay behind them remains.

  • The moral law of God, however, continues to bind all of us to obedience, but there is a difference in the use of the law between believers who are united to Christ Jesus by faith and unbelievers who reject Christ.

There are three uses of God’s moral law.

While God’s moral law is always in force, it has three specific uses for our benefit:

  • The first use of the moral law is to reveal human sin to all unregenerate persons by informing them of the holy will of God and convincing them of their inability to please him by keeping it (e.g., Rom. 3:20). It serves the purpose to humble the unregenerate by revealing their sin and misery and thereby drive them to Christ Jesus (e.g., Gal. 3:21-24).  

  • The second use of the moral law is for civil or political use. As God has also appointed government and its leaders (Rom. 13:1-7), he has given the moral law to serve as a means for providing the basic laws of society and to restrain some measure of sin.

  • The third use of the moral law is as a rule for living the Christian life. Although regenerate believers are no longer subject to and condemned by the law as a covenant of works (see Rom. 6:14; 7:4-6), the law does inform believers of God’s will, their duty, and especially how bound they are with thankfulness to Christ Jesus for perfectly fulfilling the law for them (e.g., Col. 1:12-14). It is the Spirit of Christ who works in our will, enabling us to freely and cheerfully do what God requires (see Rom. 7:22; Heb. 8:10).

Thus, the laws of God reveal our sin, help restrain our sin, and reveal God’s will for how we should live.

2. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes

Wisdom also reveals how the world works and how we ought to live in it, but in a different way than law. The wisdom of God given to us in Scripture may be found mainly in the Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, although wisdom sayings and admonitions are sprinkled throughout the Bible (for some examples see Matt. 7:24; Luke 16:10, Eph. 5:15-17). Yet, unlike the law given at Sinai to Israel as the chosen people of God, the Wisdom books deal with common human experience and are useful to everyone in the skills of daily living.

Like the law, wisdom begins with God (Prov. 9:10) and calls us to holy submission to him (Prov. 14:2). As Christ Jesus fulfilled the law of God, so Christ also embodies the wisdom of God for us (1 Cor. 1:24, 30). Ultimately, it is to Christ Jesus that we should look in order to know, understand, and apply God’s wisdom. Because the wisdom contained in the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes is common to all humans, it is helpful to consider some general principles.

Two main forms of wisdom are sayings and admonitions.

Knowing the two main forms of wisdom—sayings and admonitions—is also helpful when working to understand them.

Sayings are like aphorisms—they are short sayings that express a truth based on experience. For example, Proverbs 17:1 is a saying: “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife,” as well as Ecclesiastes 7:5: “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.”

Note in these examples (and other sayings) that the writer is not telling us how to act but is simply revealing the way the world works. This is an important distinction between law and wisdom. Law reveals duty and requires obedience; wisdom sayings observe life in this world and describe it. But what about admonitions, the second form?

Admonitions urge wise, moral conduct by using statements that teach rather than directly command. Proverbs 16:3 admonishes, “Commit your work to the Lord…” and then teaches the reason: “…and your plans will be established” (i.e., endure, succeed). Likewise, Ecclesiastes 7:9 admonishes, “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.”

Unlike direct commands (law), wisdom admonitions tend to emphasize reasons and motives for acting wisely. The result leads toward happiness. Life may simply be a little bit better if we heed God’s wisdom admonitions.

In reality, wisdom is not simple.

Consider Ecclesiastes 11:5:

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

Job 12:9-10 tells us:

Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.”

We ought to be humbled by both writers when they remind us how little we know about the wisdom of God. Roland Murphy writes, “True wisdom never lost sight of its own limitation” (p. 11). He then cites two verses in the book of Proverbs:

The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps. (Prov. 16:9)

A man’s steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way? (Prov. 20:24)

As much as we study and know wisdom, we cannot escape the sovereignty of God over his creation. We may know his Proverbs, sayings, and admonitions, but they are not simple formulas to be reduced to a list of to-dos. Wisdom takes effort to understand, especially to understand the context where we find ourselves and to be able to apply God’s wisdom in a particular situation. That takes work and humility. As Murphy goes on to say, “The one who is dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom can too easily deem oneself truly wise. The Bible warns about how perilous the pursuit of wisdom is: 

“Do you see one who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Prov. 26:12)

Christ is our wisdom.

After all was said by Job’s three apparently wise friends, God spoke to Job. Then, with the wisdom of God, Job concluded that he knew God can do all things and nothing of God’s purposes can be thwarted, so Job repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:1, 2, 6). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and as Qoheleth writes in Ecclesiastes,

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccles. 12:13)

Although Christians strive to keep God’s commands, doing so perfectly is beyond us as fallen sinful creatures. As knowledgeable about God’s laws and wisdom as we might be, our fallen, sinful, and guilty nature is just too much for us to overcome. But there is a man who perfectly kept God’s commands and submitted to him even to the point of death on behalf of all who confess and believe in him—the man Jesus Christ. He is our wisdom, our savior.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:27-30)

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Daniel Rowlands is content editor for Beautiful Christian Life.