James 1:5, Wisdom and Knowledge, is there a difference? By Jack Kettler
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5)
James is talking about wisdom, not knowledge. Is there a difference? This study will seek to answer that question. The word knowledge does not even appear in this text. From the Greek, wisdom, σοφίας sophias [4678 Strong’s] is the root of the English terms, “sophistication “and “philosophy” – literally (respectively), “the art of using wisdom,” “affection for wisdom.”
As in a previous study, I mentioned talking with some nice young people from a Utah based religion. In one discussion, these young people told me their church’s leader was a living prophet just like the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. I asked them why they believed that. I was told that they prayed about it and got a confirmation of a burning in the bosom that it was true. This struck me as a very subjective evaluation. I’ve heard of others who did not get an affirmative answer to this prayer. Who is correct? Is the methodology used by these young people, seeking this answer, flawed? Should we pray about the truthfulness of Mohammad’s religion, Hinduism, and any number of other religions?
In the case of the young people, they are putting forth an affirmative answer or testimony to this question. When asking about the legitimacy of this methodology, these young people referred me to James 1:5. This was the proof text for their claim that asking God for wisdom is the same as asking God for an answer to prayer. Without saying it, these young people seem to believe that wisdom was synonymous with knowledge in this passage of Scripture. It also may have been a case of word definition confusion. In any case, more familiarity with Scripture on their part would be prudent along with proper word definitions.
A short aside that is necessary to our study, regarding the methodology of seeking wisdom:
The burning in the bosom is clearly some type of experience. How do you authenticate experiences?
There are many that claim to have had spiritual experiences. It is seen under scrutiny that experiences have actually affected how certain individuals interpret Scripture. Scriptures are often reinterpreted in light of the experience. This approach is fraught with dangerous pitfalls. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 warns us of false workers who transform themselves into ministers of Christ. In Matthew 7:22, 23 we find that there are those who have even worked miracles, but in the end Christ says, “I never knew you”. Even miracle workers may be enemies of Christ. We are to be on guard against false doctrine. All organizations, whether secular or religious, offer testimonials.
How are experiential testimonials evaluated? Are there false testimonies? Many people do not grasp the potential for self-deception. Not only may we deceive ourselves, the apostle John tells us: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God…” I John 4:1. False spirits may deceive us. Numerous people pray about all kinds of things and get all kinds of varying answers. Many alleged prayers are contradicted by other people’s answers to their prayers. I am not downplaying prayer, but in certain contexts God expects us to use other means to determine answers to questions. With the case of contradictory prayers, you are in the realm of he said, she said. Scripture must always interpret experiences, not the other way around.
These young people insisted that prayer was a legitimate way to determine if someone was a prophet. As in the case with other passages referenced by these young people, looking at the passage in James, I could see nothing that suggested praying to determine if someone was or is a prophet. The text clearly was about asking God for wisdom. To determine what James is saying, it is always important to look at similar passages. To determine if someone is a prophet, you are asking for an answer, which is knowledge. James is talking about wisdom. Again, is there a difference? This study will answer that question. If you have the wisdom that the scripture is speaking of, you will have a biblical methodology to determine the question if someone is a true or false prophet. We will see what that methodology is in this study.
“So give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?” (1 Kings 3:9)
“For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6)
“In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:6)
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)
“It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men And knowledge to men of understanding.” (Daniel 2:21)
“But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.” (James 3:17)
The above list is not exhaustive, but what emerges is that there is a distinction between wisdom and knowledge. This is seen by way of contrast.
Many have heard that “knowledge without wisdom is folly.” Consider the following:
“Men can acquire knowledge, but not wisdom. Some of the greatest fools ever known were learned men.” – Spanish Proverb
“Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of an ass.” – Japanese Proverb
“Knowledge without wisdom is like water in the sand.” – Guinean proverb
“Wisdom is the daughter of experience.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson
“Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.” C. H. Spurgeon
“A man may store his mind with facts, Till knowledge from it overflows, But lacking wisdom from Above, He’s still a “fool” till Christ he knows.” – Bosch
“Surely the essence of wisdom is that before we begin to act at all, or attempt to please God, we should discover what it is that God has to say about the matter.” – D. Martyn Lloyd Jones
It is rather apparent from the above quotations, there is a distinction between wisdom and knowledge.
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers
(5) If any of you lack wisdom. —The Apostle passes on to the thought of heavenly wisdom; not the knowledge of the deep things of God, but that which is able to make us wise unto our latter end (Proverbs 19:20). Few may be able, save in self-conceit, to say with Isaiah (Isaiah 50:4), “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned;” and, on the other hand, the wisest and most gifted of men may truly be wanting in the wisdom descending from above.
Let him ask of God. —But whoever, learned or unlearned, feels in his heart the need of the knowledge of God, since to know Him “is eternal life” (John 17:3), “let him ask” for it in all purity of intention, simply, i.e., for His honour and service, “and it shall be given him.”
That giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not. — “Liberally” had better, perhaps, be changed to simply—i.e., God gives fully and directly, and reproacheth (or, “upbraideth”) not the utterance of such a prayer, in no way detracting from the graciousness of His gifts. How wide the difference from any generosity of man I “Yea,” wrote Dante, in exile at Verona,
“. . . thou shalt learn how salt his food, who fares
Upon another’s bread. —how steep his path,
Who treadeth up and down another’s stairs.”
“The fool,” said the wise son of Sirach, “giveth little, and upbraideth much . . ., and is hated of God and man” (Ecclesiasticus 20:15). (1)
“What, then, does James mean by ‘wisdom’? He means the sum of practical religion. With him, as with the psalmist, sin and folly are two names for the same thing, and so are religion and wisdom. He, and only he, has wisdom who knows God with a living heart-knowledge which gives a just insight into the facts of life and the bounds of right and wrong, and which regulates conduct and shapes the whole man with power far beyond that of knowledge however wide and deep, illuminating intellect however powerful. ‘Knowledge’ is poor and superficial in comparison with this wisdom, which may roughly be said to be equivalent to practical religion.” (2)
Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, James
2. Asking for Wisdom
Characteristically, James introduces a topic rather briefly and then returns to it later. In this particular section, he speaks about the need for wisdom; in chapter 3 he delineates two kinds of wisdom—one from heaven and the other from earth.
5. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
James demonstrates the art of writing by linking key words and phrases. In verse 3 he stresses the word perseverance; he puts it last in the sentence to give it emphasis. In verse 4, “perseverance” is the first expression he uses. The last phrase in verse 4 is “not lacking anything”; the first clause of the next phrase repeats this verb, “If any of you lacks wisdom.” The writer knows how to communicate effectively in simple, direct prose.
Note these points:
The clause if any of you lacks wisdom is the first part of a factual statement in a conditional sentence. The author is saying to the reader: “I know you will not admit it, but you need wisdom.” James tackles a delicate problem, for no person wants to hear that he is stupid, that he makes mistakes, and that he needs help. By nature man is independent. He wants to solve his own problems and make his own decisions. Eighteenth-century German theologian John Albert Bengel put it rather succinctly: “Patience is more in the power of a good man than wisdom; the former is to be exercised, the latter is to be asked for.” Man has to overcome pride to admit that he needs wisdom. But wisdom is not something he possesses. Wisdom belongs to God, for it is his divine virtue. Anyone who admits the need for wisdom must go to God and ask him. James appeals to the individual reader and hearer. He writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom” (italics added). This approach is tactful, for he could have said, “Everyone lacks wisdom.” But by saying “any of you,” James gives the reader a chance to examine himself, to come to the conclusion that he needs wisdom, and to follow James’s advice to ask God.
The believer must ask God for wisdom. James implies that God is the source of wisdom. It belongs to him.
What is wisdom? Both the Old and the New Testaments seek to explain this term. Solomon expresses it in typical Hebraic parallelism. Says he, “For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). Solomon equates wisdom with knowledge and understanding.
Also, the New Testament states that the Christian receives wisdom and that knowledge comes from God (see, for instance, 1Cor. 1:30). True, we make a distinction between wisdom and knowledge when we say that knowledge devoid of wisdom is of little value. Observes Donald Guthrie, “If wisdom is the right use of knowledge, perfect wisdom presupposes perfect knowledge.” To become mature and complete, the believer must go to God for wisdom. God is willing to impart wisdom to anyone who asks humbly. God’s storehouse of wisdom is infinite, and he will give this gift “generously to all without finding fault.”
God is not partial. He gives to everyone, no matter who he is, because God wants to give. Giving is a characteristic of God. He keeps on giving. Every time someone comes to him with a request, he opens his treasury and freely distributes wisdom. Just as the sun continues to give light, so God keeps on giving wisdom. We cannot imagine a sun that fails to give light; much less can we think of God failing to give wisdom. God’s gift is free, without interest, and without the request to pay it back. It is gratis.
Moreover, God gives “without finding fault.” When we ask God for wisdom, we need not be afraid that he will express displeasure or will utter reproach. When we come to him in childlike faith, he will never send us away empty. We have the assurance that when we ask for wisdom, it “will be given” to us. God never fails the one who asks in faith. (3)
So far, consulting cross reverence passages, exegetical commentary evidence and the proverbs of men it is indisputable there is a difference between wisdom and knowledge. The two should not be confused.
At this point we will look in more detail how wisdom and knowledge are defined in the modern vernacular:
Wisdom: Wisdom is the ability to discern and judge which aspects of knowledge are true. Wisdom also refers to the accumulated knowledge. Those with wisdom have the ability to discern or judge what is true.
Knowledge: Knowledge is a noun that refers to the information. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts and because of this, knowledge deals with facts. It can be said, knowledge is information gained through experience.
Consider the New Testament definitions from a respected and popular dictionary:
Noun: σοφία (sophia), GK 5053 (S 4678), 51x. sophia is a word meaning “wisdom.” It denotes the capacity to not only understand something (Acts 7:22) but also to act accordingly (Col. 1:9; 4,5). It is the latter that separates wisdom from knowledge.
Noun: γνῶσις (gnōsis), GK 1194 (S 1108), 29x. gnōsis means “knowledge,” and it has a rich meaning in the NT. All but six of its occurrences are in the letters of Paul (though see also ginōskō, “to know,” for more on the biblical message about this word group). (4)
We can agree with:
“Knowledge is not the same as wisdom. You can know all the facts and still not be able to act wisely. But without knowledge, it is harder to be wise –– even if what wisdom tells us is that knowledge is very often provisional and that we cannot wait to have certainty about every fact before we act.” – Dan Smith, The State of the World Atlas
Humility of Wisdom:
“I have heard of a young man who went to college; and, when he had been there one year, his parent said to him, “What do you know? Do you know more than when you went?” “Oh, yes!” said he; “I do.” Then he went the second year, and was asked the same question. “Do you know more than when you went?” “Oh, no!” said he; “I know a great deal less.” “Well,” said the father, “you are getting on.” Then he went the third year, and was asked the same question, “What do you know now?” “Oh!” said he, “I don’t think I know anything.” “That is right,” said the father; “you have now learned to profit, since you say you know nothing.” He who is convinced that he knows nothing of himself, as he ought to know, gives up steering his ship, and lets God put His hand on the rudder. He lays aside his own wisdom, and cries, “O God! my little wisdom is cast at Thy feet: my little judgment is given to Thee.” (5)
If you have wisdom, you would never pray to God to see if a man was a prophet. Determining if a man is a prophet is a case of seeking knowledge. Knowledge in a case like this would unjustifiably proceed wisdom.
As seen, James 1:5 is talking about wisdom and not knowledge. How would someone biblically determine if a man is a prophet?
Consider Deuteronomy 18:20-22:
“But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die. And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)
The question from Deuteronomy is: “How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken?” God does not say anything about praying for an answer. God does say; “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken…”
The answer is simple, examine the prophetic claims by checking the prophetic predictions of the individual making the claims. Did the prophetic claims prove to be true base on fulfilled prophesies? If not, you have the answer. You do not prayer about something when there are clear instructions in God’s Word on how to find the answer.
To illustrate this point further, I’ve asked a number of these young people from the Utah based religion is they would pray with me about robbing a bank so we could give the money away to poor people. I’ve also asked, if they would pray about committing adultery. In both cases, the young people said almost embarrassingly said no because both actions were wrong based upon God’s commandments in the Bible. The point is, you do not pray about things that are clearly defined in God’s Word. We have in the Ten Commandments that say; not to steal and not to commit adultery. God expects us to know His Word and then be obedient.
The Wisdom of Solomon:
“Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people? And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing. And God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment; Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee.” (1 Kings 3:9-12)
We should handle the Word of God with great care, by not distorting or twisting it or by reading things into it. We should not substitute God’s methodology with man’s. The young people representing the Utah based religion’s citing of James 1:5 as a proof text for seeking wisdom as an equivalent to praying about determining if someone is a prophet has no merit. Why” Because it is coming to God’s Holy Word with a preconceived idea, and then trying to find a passage in the Bible to support the idea and excluding others. This is called “stacking the deck.” In this fallacy, the person “stacks the deck” in their favor by ignoring examples that disprove the point and listing only those examples that support their case. This flawed approach frequently involves outright ignorance of a biblical text in question.
God would never give a personal testimony to a person that contradicted Scripture? More importantly, Scriptures clearly delineate the difference between wisdom and knowledge. The proof text (James 1:5) used by the young people from the Utah based religion does not prove their point and their understanding of the passage is in error.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, James, Vol.3, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p.356.
2. Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Volume 16, James, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Publishing Group), p. 489.
3. Simon J. Kestemaker, New Testament Commentary, James, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1986), pp. 36-38.
4. William D. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan Electronic Bible study app from Olive Tree), no page entry.
5. C. H. Spurgeon, Humility of Wisdom, The Teachers’ treasury and storehouse of material for working Sunday-school teachers, Volume 1, (England, Oxford University, 1876), p. 153.
“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5)
“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more Study:
The Holy Wisdom of God by Gordon H. Clark
Knowledge by Gordon H. Clark