In ancient times, when kings judged hard cases, two prostitutes stood before their king. I’ll call them Anna and Bella. Anna began their story. They shared a house, both became pregnant and in time gave birth to sons. One night, Bella’s baby died. Quietly Bella got up, took Anna’s baby and placed her dead child in his place. When morning came, Anna awoke and, to great distress, found her baby lifeless. But she looked closely, and realised it was not her baby. It was Bella’s.

Before the king could respond, Bella protested that Anna is lying – her baby is the one who died. The argument continued, but never got beyond ‘Her baby died; ‘No, her baby died’. There was no way to know who was telling the truth? Or was there?

The king had a large sword brought, and ordered that the living child should be cut in two so each woman could have half.

Anna wept. She loved her son and couldn’t let him die, so begged the king to give the child to Bella.

Bella, though, said the king was right that neither should have the child, so ‘Cut him in two!’

Then the king ruled: the child must go to Anna, the mother who so valued the child’s life she’d give him up in order that he would live. ‘Do not kill him; Anna is his mother’ he ordered.

Word of the ruling spread throughout the land. People were in awe of their king ‘because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice’.

The king was Solomon, ruler of Israel for 40 years from 962 BC. The case of the two women and one baby is described in the Old Testament, 1 Kings 3:16-28 (my quotations from New International Version).

Early in his time as king, Solomon sensed God speak to him in a dream asking what he wanted God to give him. His reply had nothing to do with riches or power over his enemies, but: ‘…give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong’ (1 Kings 3:9). And God gave him what he asked for.

Ever since the dispute over the baby, Solomon was seen as having the wisdom of God. Even some 3000 years later, people wish they had ‘the wisdom of Solomon’.

The title of this blog site is ‘Occasionally Wise’. I’d never claim to be all-wise about anything, hence the word ‘occasionally’ in that title. Wisdom is important, very important. Yet I realised I’d never written about it. Until now.

The dictionary I consulted for a definition of ‘wisdom’ used these words: experience, knowledge, and good judgment. I checked several others, and mostly they used the same or similar words.

To me, it seems hard to define wisdom, if we’re thinking of a ‘quality’ someone can possess. Do I know anyone who is so imbued with wisdom they are wise for every circumstance on every occasion? I don’t think I do, and I’m very sure I’m not like that. But if we can’t possess wisdom, I believe we can become people who mostly practise wisdom – train our minds and hearts so that generally we act wisely.

But it’s best to get away from definitions and, in this blog, I’ll write about what wisdom is not.

The writers of dictionary definitions won’t like some of this!

Wisdom is not knowledge    Knowledge is a great tool, but no guarantee of right decisions. Josef Mengele was a doctor and a Nazi SS officer. He had both a medical degree and a doctorate in anthropology. So he was exceedingly knowledgeable – a clever man but also an extremely wicked man. The name he acquired in the Auschwitz concentration camp was Angel of Death. He was happy to assess victims to die in gas chambers, because it gave him opportunity to select those on whom he would perform appalling and deadly medical experiments, especially on identical twins. He knew much, but applied it in ways so unwise he is remembered only for infamy.[1]

Wisdom is not experience    It’s wise to learn from experience. No question about that. But the problem is that many don’t learn from experience. They hold the same beliefs, same assumptions, same values, same goals, and therefore make the same mistakes. That explains the oft-quoted trite saying: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’. The sentence is simplistic, but often simply true.

I’ve counselled people on debt, who swore they’d change, and off they went to spend again because it made them feel better. I’ve counselled people on their marriages, about sharing, listening, nurturing, and each said they’d learned, but back they went to squabbling and hating each other, so much I thought they were happy that way. Except they weren’t. Experience had not brought them wisdom.

Wisdom is not authority    A strong leader – someone who points a clear way forward and motivates others to follow – is assumed to be wise. They know the direction to take. They know how to get there. They know how to take others with them. But authority by itself is not wisdom. Napoleon lacked nothing in the authority department, but in 1812  led almost half a million troops in an invasion of Russia. That campaign has been called one of the most lethal military operations in history. Within six weeks he’d lost half his men because of disease, hunger, and extreme weather. More followed when heavy snows fell. Only 120,000 survived, and Napoleon’s image of invincibility had gone.

Hitler – another heavily authoritarian leader – made a similar mistake. In 1941 he dispatched troops to conquer the Soviet Union. Battles lasted until 1945, by which time almost 40 per cent of all deaths in World War II had occurred on the Eastern Front. The battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942 trapped 300,000 German troops who froze and starved, and only 91,000 were left when they surrendered. Eighty per cent of all German military deaths occurred on the Eastern Front. It’s widely reported that Hitler thought himself a military genius and ignored his top generals. He used his authority, but his lack of wisdom cost millions of lives.

Wisdom is not taking the easy way    Perhaps one of the best known parables of Jesus is the story of two men and their house building. Probably they were equally good at designing houses. Both places were impressive. The issue that divided them was where they built. One took on the tough task of finding rock for his house’s foundation. The other took the easy way – there was plenty sand so ‘I’ll just build here,’ he decided. Then came the day of the Great Storm – rain fell for hours; the streams flooded; the wind was gale force. The house on the rock stood firm. The house on the sand collapsed with a great crash. That story of Jesus – recorded in Matthew 7:24-27 – is usually called the parable of the wise and foolish builders.

What was wise was the hard way – perhaps it cost more money, certainly it took more time. But the house lasted. The man who opted for the easy way – cheap and quick – lost everything. The easy way always looks… easy. And therefore attractive, because you can have it quickly and at little cost. But the easy way is nearly always the wrong way, not the way of wisdom.

I’ll stop here. After several long blogs, actually very long blogs, one of modest length may be particularly appreciated. A wise choice for me to make.

Next time I’ll write more positively about what it is to have wisdom. Hopefully I’ll find sufficient wisdom for that.


I realise there was a longer-than-usual gap before this blog appeared. My apologies for that, but I had another of these study pressure moments when my priorities temporarily had to shift. It was the right thing to do – the wise thing to do – but I’m still sorry for the delay. Thank you for your patience.

[1] When World War II ended, Mengele escaped to South America where he consistently eluded Nazi hunters. He eventually died in 1979 from drowning after suffering a stroke.