[Note: Once again I am playing catch-up with posts. This discussion actually took place March 10, 2012 before the introduction to the book of Ecclesiastes.]
In Matthew 11 even some of John the Baptist’s disciples are among the people trying to figure Jesus out. They can’t tell if He is supposed to be their promised Messiah, “just” a prophet, or just another crackpot rabble-rouser who was going to get them into trouble with the Romans.
In spite of the doubts of John’s disciples, Jesus begins to testify very positively about John the Baptist for the benefit of the crowd. He calls John the greatest of all the prophets of Israel. He then tells the crowd that they are unable to discern the difference between the work of God and the works of the devil.
Remember that Jesus had come to His own people: a people who kept His own official religion. It doesn’t matter what a true prophet does or does not do, he or she will not meet the expectations of the majority – even a majority of believers. Because their expectations do not match the reality, they wouldn’t recognize their own God if he came up and talked to them face-to-face.
In the middle of His diatribe he states, “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” He then goes on to pronounce woe upon the different towns and cities in which He had performed miracles. Following this, He thanks the Father for hiding important spiritual truths from this world’s wise and yet opening the understanding of “babes.”
Because of this context, the likely meaning of “wisdom is justified by her works” is that people whose minds have been opened by the Holy Spirit can tell what real wisdom is by its results. While you cannot visibly see the working of the Holy Spirit, the results of the Spirit’s work are discernable to those whose eyes are opened by Him.
In ancient times God revealed otherwise unknowable things to wise men such as Joseph and Daniel through the dreams of monarchs who ruled over them. When Joseph heard Pharaoh’s dream, he first interpreted it, then offered unsolicited advice about what to do about the seven years of plenty to prepare for the seven years of drought. Pharaoh had only asked for an interpretation. It was generally considered a career-limiting move (and often life-limiting!) to offer unasked-for advice to a monarch in those times.
I don’t know if we will ever know for certain whether the advice about storing crops was revealed to Joseph along with the meaning of the dream or whether the advice came strictly from the logic of the interpretation.
Daniel offers more personal advice to King Nebuchadnezzar when God warns him in a dream that his overweening pride is about to lead to divine humiliation. He asks the king to repent and perhaps God will relent. Nothing in the dream or the interpretation suggested a way out of the punishment, but considering what happened when the entire city of Nineveh repented, it was good advice.
Is wisdom nothing more than straight-up divine inspiration? Is there also an element of figuring things out using reason and (un)common sense? And how can we tell the difference between merely human wisdom and God’s wisdom? These are subjects we hope to explore in occasional discussions by looking at various books and passages about wisdom in the Bible. We begin this series with a look at the book of Ecclesiastes.