10 Key Bible Verses on Wisdom and Discernment

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

Be Not Wise in Your Own Eyes

Wisdom is, first and foremost, from the Lord. When you desire wisdom, go to him and his word in prayer, and be encouraged with these verses and commentary adapted from the ESV Study Bible.

Proverbs 1:7

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

This is the core maxim of the book: the quest for wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord (cf. Ps. 9:10 and Ps. 111:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”). “Knowledge” and “wisdom” are closely tied together in Proverbs: “knowledge” tends to focus on correct understanding of the world and oneself as creatures of the magnificent and loving God, while “wisdom” is the acquired skill of applying that knowledge rightly, or “skill in the art of godly living”. On the fear of the Lord, see notes on Acts 5:5; 9:31; Rom. 3:18; Phil. 2:12–13; 1 Pet. 1:17; 1 John 4:18. The reason that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both knowledge and wisdom is that the moral life begins with reverence and humility before the Maker and Redeemer. The idea of a quest for knowledge sets biblical wisdom in the broad context of the ancient Near Eastern quest for truth, and this verse also validates such a quest as legitimate and good. Thus it affirms a kind of “creational revelation,” the idea that one can find moral and theological truth through observing the world.

At the same time, it distinguishes the biblical pursuit of knowledge and wisdom from those of the surrounding cultures, for it asserts that submission to the Lord is foundational to the attainment of real understanding (cf. Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10). By using the covenant name “the LORD” in preference to the more generic “God,” this verse makes the point that truth is found through Israel’s God. In addition, the verse asserts that fools despise wisdom and instruction, thus setting up the alternative between the two ways of wisdom and folly. This contrast dominates the entire book, as the way of wisdom, righteousness, and the fear of the Lord is set against the way of folly, evil, and scoffing.

Proverbs 3:5–6

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.*

Subordinating one’s own understanding to the Lord is in keeping with the major thesis of Proverbs, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Trust in the LORD is necessary for fulfilling any of the wise ways of life taught in Proverbs; trusting the Lord is closely connected to “fearing” him (cf. Prov. 1:7; 2:5; Prov. 9:10; Prov. 15:33; Prov. 19:23; etc.). “With all your heart” indicates that trust goes beyond intellectual assent to a deep reliance on the Lord, a settled confidence in his care and his faithfulness to his word. “Do not lean on your own understanding” further explains trusting in the Lord. One’s “understanding” in Proverbs is his perception of the right course of action. The wise will govern themselves by what the Lord himself declares, and will not set their own finite and often-mistaken understanding against his.

To make straight a person’s paths means to make the course of the person’s life one that continually progresses toward a goal. In Proverbs, the emphasis is on the moral quality of one’s life path (here, its moral “straightness”).

James 1:5

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

Believers are to have an undivided faith, asking for wisdom from their ever-wise and all-generous God. James addresses the believer who lacks wisdom in handling trials. Wisdom, as in the Old Testament, is a God-given and God-centered discernment regarding the practical issues in life. Wisdom comes from prayer for God’s help. God gives generously (with “single-minded” liberality) and without reproach (he does not want anyone to hesitate to come to him).

Ephesians 5:6–10

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.

Paul is not telling Christians to avoid all contact with nonbelievers but to avoid joining with them in their sin. The Bible gives general principles for life, but followers of Christ must use wisdom to discern how to apply those principles to the concrete issues of their lives. The book of Proverbs is of great help in this regard. Such wisdom may be defined as “the skill of godly living,” which one must thoughtfully discern, apply, and practice in order to live in a way that is pleasing to the Lord.

1 John 4:1

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Christian faith is not spiritual gullibility. “test the spirits.” The unseen spiritual influences that guide people’s speech and actions can be “tested” by observing their doctrine and conduct as well as by the gift of spiritual discernment (cf. 1 Cor. 12:10; 14:29). False prophets are people who claim to speak for God but are actually speaking by demonic influence (1 John 4:3–4). In today’s age of “tolerance,” discriminating discernment can be viewed as being judgmental (cf. “Judge not,” Matt. 7:1). Yet Jesus also taught, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).

Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The present evil age still threatens those who belong to Christ, so they must resist its pressure. Their lives are changed as their minds are made new (contrast Rom. 1:28), so that they are able to “discern” God’s will. By testing you may discern translates Greek dokimazō, which often has the sense of finding out the worth of something by putting it to use or testing it in actual practice (cf. Luke 14:19; 1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 8:22; 1 Tim. 3:10).

James 3:13–18

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

These verses could be called “the tale of two cities”—the realm of wisdom (framing the passage in James 3:13, 17) contrasted with that of selfish ambition. The one “from above” leads to “peace,” while the “earthly” one leads to “disorder.”

Wisdom for James is not merely intellectual but also behavioral. Meekness (Gk. prautēs, translated “gentleness” in Gal. 5:23) was considered weakness by the Greeks, but Jesus elevated it to a primary Christian virtue (Matt. 5:5; 11:29). Meekness comes not from cowardice or passivity but rather from trusting God and therefore being set free from anxious self-promotion.

Matthew 7:24

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

A parable brings the Sermon on the Mount to a close as Jesus calls for his audience to decide between himself and the religious establishment, drawing a dividing line between himself and any other foundation for life. The evidence of whether one is truly a believer is in whether one does the words of Jesus (cf. James 1:22–23 and James 2:20–22). Disciples who build their lives on the bedrock of Jesus and his message of the kingdom of heaven are truly wise, regardless of the shifting cultural or religious fashions.

Philippians 1:9–10

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

The first petition in Paul’s prayer is that God would cause the cardinal Christian virtue of love to abound more and more, and that it would be accompanied by knowledge and all discernment, so that the Philippians’ love would find expression in wise actions that would truly benefit others and glorify God. As Christians grow in their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, they will increasingly be able to affirm and practice what is excellent. Such joyful obedience to God will give them the confidence of being found pure and blameless when Jesus returns. This does not imply instantaneous spiritual perfection but rather an increasing likeness to Christ. But fruit of righteousness is not produced in the believer’s own power. Because that fruit comes through Jesus Christ, it will result in the glory and praise of God.

Romans 11:33–35

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

As he concludes his setting forth of God’s great plan in the history of salvation (Rom. 1–11), Paul breaks forth into praise. God’s wisdom and ways are far beyond the understanding of human beings, and hence he deserves all the glory.

The words of Isaiah 40:13 teach that no human being knows the mind of the Lord apart from revelation, and no one can serve as God’s adviser. Likewise the majestic words of Job 41:11 are a reminder that no one ultimately gives anything to God. Instead, everything humans have is a gift from God (1 Cor. 4:7).

Since all things are from God, and through God, and for God, it follows that he deserves all the glory forever. God’s saving plan brings him great honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

All commentary sections adapted from the ESV Study Bible.


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