The Proper View of Ourselves
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.” (3:18–20)
Much division in the church would be eliminated if individuals were not so impressed with their own wisdom. A person who thinks that he is wise in this age—that is, wise in contemporary human wisdom—does nothing but deceive himself. Anyone who is so self-deceived ought to become foolish (mōros), that is, identify with those who recognize that human wisdom, including our own, is mere foolishness (mōria) without God. Those two Greek terms are from the same root from which we get moron. Human wisdom is moronic in the Lord’s sight, before God. Unity in the church can never come without recognizing human wisdom to be what God declares it to be: foolish. And unity can never come without Christians becoming foolish in the world’s eyes by conforming to God’s wisdom.
The human wisdom that is foolish is in the area of spiritual truth. Paul is not talking about such things as business, mathematics, science, or mechanics. We can be quite knowledgeable about those things without any special enlightenment from God. Where human wisdom becomes foolish and useless is in matters concerning God, salvation, and spiritual truth. Human wisdom has no way of discovering and understanding divine things.
Even Christians, therefore, do not have a right to their own opinions about the things God has revealed. When Christians start expressing and following their own ideas about the gospel, the church, and Christian living, the saints cannot help becoming divided. Christians are no wiser in their flesh than are unbelievers. The first step in a Christian’s becoming truly wise is to recognize that his own human wisdom is foolishness, a reflection of the wisdom of this world, which is foolishness before God. It is the product of intellectual pride and is the enemy of God’s revelation.
The church must create an atmosphere in which the Word of God is honored and submitted to, in which human opinion is never used to judge or qualify revelation. As far as the things of God are concerned, Christians must be totally under the teaching of Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Only then can we be open to God’s wisdom and truly become wise. Common commitment to the Word of God is the basic unifier.
Where the Word of God is not set up as the supreme authority, division is inevitable. Such happens even in evangelical churches, when pastors and other leaders begin substituting their own ideas for the truths of Scripture. The substitution is seldom intentional, but it will always happen when the Bible is neglected. A Bible that is not studied carefully cannot be followed carefully. And where it is not followed there will be division, because there will be no common ground for beliefs and practices. When the truth of Scripture is not the sole authority, men’s varied opinions become the authority.
Some people are not satisfied unless they can express their opinion on virtually everything. Some are not happy unless they take the opposite side from the majority. Intellectual pride cannot be content to listen and admire; it must always speak up and criticize. By its very nature, it must always try to win out in an issue. It cannot stand opposition or contradiction. It must justify itself at any cost and is exclusive. It looks down its nose at all who disagree.
Pride is always at the heart of human wisdom, the wisdom of this world, which is foolishness before God. It is difficult to teach a person who thinks he knows everything. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian said of some of his students, “They would doubtlessly have become excellent scholars if they had not been so fully persuaded of their own scholarship.” A well-known Arab proverb goes: “He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool. Shun him. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is simple. Teach him.”
If a congregation were to have ten men with doctorates who were only nominal in their commitment to the Lord and to His Word, and ten other men who had only finished high school but who were completely sold out to the Lord and steeped in His Word, it should not be hard to decide which ten were most qualified to lead the church. By God’s standards it would be no contest. Having members who are highly talented and trained can be of considerable help to a church, but only if those who possess such abilities are submitted to the truths and standards of Scripture. Christ will rule and unify His church if He is given pure channels committed to His Word through whom to mediate that rule.
When believers look to psychology alone, instead of to God’s Word, for answers to personal or marital or moral problems, spiritual disaster results. When Christian businessmen look to popular methods of expediency alone, rather than to the principles of Scripture, to determine business ethics, their spiritual life and testimony are undermined. In science and technology men have made great advances, for which we should be glad and from which we can profit. But in regard to the things of God and His plan and will for men, human ideas and understanding stand completely empty and helpless.
The liberal Bible scholars and theologians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were brilliant men, highly learned in many areas. They often disagreed with one another on doctrines and interpretations, but the one belief in which they were unanimous was that the Bible was essentially a human book. Because they considered it to be primarily human, though perhaps influenced by divine guidance of some sort, they felt perfectly free to reject or modify whatever part of Scripture did not fit their own understanding. Because they did not believe that writing had been developed by Moses’ time, they concluded that he could not have written the Pentateuch. Because they did not believe in supernatural predictions, they did not believe that the man Daniel could possibly have written the book of Daniel, which tells of events hundreds of years after he lived. When Scripture reported that God said or did something that was contrary to their self-invented view of God, they denied that He said or did it. In the name of intellectualism they decimated God’s Word, leaving only that which suited their personal biases. They also decimated a great part of His church, causing unimaginable confusion, doubt, unbelief, and spiritual division. The legacy of those men is still polluting seminaries, colleges, and churches throughout the world.
The person who elevates his own wisdom will always have a low view of Scripture. But the more important truth is that God knows the value of that person’s own wisdom. It is foolishness, stupid, totally unreliable and useless. Eventually God will trip up those who oppose His Word. He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness. Like Haman, they hang on their own gallows (Esther 7:7–10). Their cunning plans turn to condemn them as God catches them in their own trap. He knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.
Human philosophy is totally inadequate to bring men to God, to show them how to be saved or how to live. It will always become entrapped in its own schemes, and entrap those who trust in it. The one who trusts in human understanding does not have the right understanding of himself. He does not see that his spiritual opinions, ideas, and reasonings are useless (mataios), vain and empty.
The proper view of ourselves, the godly and true view, is that apart from divine truth we are fools with empty thoughts. Recognizing this truth opens the door to true wisdom and closes the door to division.
19. For the wisdom of this world. This is an argument taken from things opposite. To maintain the one is to overturn the other. As, therefore, the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, it follows that we cannot be wise in the sight of God, unless we are fools in the view of the world. We have already explained (chap. 1:20) what he means by the wisdom of this world; for natural perspicacity is a gift of God, and the liberal arts, and all the sciences by which wisdom is acquired, are gifts of God. They are confined, however, within their own limits; for into God’s heavenly kingdom they cannot penetrate. Hence they must occupy the place of handmaid, not of mistress: nay more, they must be looked upon as empty and worthless, until they have become entirely subject to the word and Spirit of God. If, on the other hand, they set themselves in opposition to Christ, they must be looked upon as dangerous pests, and, if they strive to accomplish anything of themselves, as the worst of all hindrances. Hence the wisdom of the world, in Paul’s acceptation, is that which assumes to itself authority, and does not allow itself to be regulated by the word of God, or to be subdued, so as to yield itself up in entire subjection to him. Until, therefore, matters have come to this, that the individual acknowledges that he knows nothing but what he has learned from God, and, giving up his own understanding, resigns himself unreservedly to Christ’s guidance, he is wise in the world’s account, but he is foolish in the estimation of God.
For it is written, He taketh the wise. He confirms this from two Scripture proofs, the first of which is taken from Job 5:13, where the wisdom of God is extolled on this ground, that no wisdom of the world can stand before it. Now it is certain, that the Prophet speaks there of those that are cunning and crafty; but as the wisdom of man is invariably such without God, it is with good reason that Paul applies it in this sense,—that whatever wisdom men have of themselves is reckoned of no account in the sight of God. The second is from Psalm 94:11, where David, after claiming for God alone the office and authority of the Instructor of all, adds, that He knows the thoughts of all to be vain. Hence, in whatever estimation they are held by us, they are, in the judgment of God, vain. Here we have an admirable passage for bringing down the confidence of the flesh, while God from on high declares that everything that the mind of man conceives and contrives is mere vanity.
19a Note that when Paul says “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight,” he is reversing what he said in 1:25—“the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.” In other words, the apostle is setting up two sets of total opposites of wisdom and foolishness: Whatever the world considers wise, God calls foolish; and whatever God calls wise (especially his grand plan of salvation through Christ crucified and risen again), the world calls foolish. There is no middle ground; there is no third choice; there is no planting one foot firmly in the present age and one foot in the age to come. As Jesus himself pointed out, no one can serve two masters (Mt 6:24). When confronted with the gospel, all human beings face an either-or choice.
19b–20 Paul backs up what he has been saying by quoting two texts from the OT: Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11. Although the first text is a quotation from Eliphaz (and is the only direct quote from Job in the NT), the sentiment Paul expresses—namely, that God knows what is going on in the world and that no one (here labeled “the wise”) can hide from God the shenanigans he or she is doing—is part of the common framework for all the characters in Job; in fact, it is a common theme in many places of the OT (cf., e.g., Ps 139). The quotation from Psalm 94:11 says essentially the same thing, namely, that God knows the thoughts of every person (though Paul substitutes “the wise” for “man” in Ps 94) and that apart from him, human thoughts are futile.
19–20 Paul now gives the theological basis for the preceding exhortation, plus its scriptural support. The way of stating it is the reverse of what was said at the beginning (1:18–25). There he set out to demonstrate that “the wisdom of God [Christ crucified] is foolishness to the world.” Here he says, “The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” Exactly the same point is made, but now in terms of the divine perspective, which ultimately is the only one that counts. If before they were being shown the foolishness of their “wisdom”—because God and God’s ways stand in contradiction to it—now they are being urged to adopt God’s perspective altogether, since their “wisdom,” after all, is folly.
And how do we know? Because once again, as earlier (1:19), there is sufficient evidence from what “is written” that God has always so regarded human efforts to understand God’s ways. In this case two texts are cited, Job 5:13 and Ps. 94:11 (LXX 93:11), brought together under the keyword “the wise,” along with God’s attitude toward such. The citations together illustrate the utter futility of “the wise,” hence the fact that their “wisdom is foolishness in God’s sight.” The first text is expressed in the imagery of hunting, in which the hunter uses the very craftiness, or cunning, of the prey as the means of capture.450 The ultimate irony is that people are cunningly avoiding the God with whom they have to do; but God has used that very cunning to ensnare them. Thinking themselves to be wise, they are in fact fools. The second text emphasizes their ultimate futility. God knows their reasonings, that they are futile. The obvious point for Paul, therefore, is that the Corinthians are themselves fools if they do not take seriously this divine view of things.
3:19–20 / The initial word, For, indicates that Paul is offering an explanation for the command and advice he gave in verse 18. Although the niv leaves the word untranslated, “for” reoccurs in 3:19b in the introduction to the first scriptural citation. As it is written literally reads, “For it is written.” Thus, the line For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight is a modified inversion of what Paul said in 1:18a, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” By inverting the dynamics of the controversy, Paul gives a theological explanation for his insistence that any Corinthian wishing to be wise must first become a fool, and he describes the wisdom of this world from God’s point of view: it is foolishness. Paul’s explanation itself requires supporting arguments (in 3:19b-20) and further explanation (in 3:21–23).
Paul offers a combination of explication, precedent, and proof by citing two passages of Scripture in support of his argument, Job 5:13 and then Psalm 94:11 (93:11 lxx). The citation from Job seems very loosely related to the original text, for the lxx refers to God literally as “the one who takes the wise ones in [their] prudence,” whereas Paul names God as “the one who catches the wise ones in their craftiness.” Paul comes closer to the psalm text in 3:20, simply altering the word “humans” in the psalm to read wise. These passages present vivid images. The verb “catch” in Job comes from the language of hunting, so that Paul’s employment of this particular verse presents a divine irony. As people craftily try to avoid God’s will and work through their involvement with “wisdom,” God uses their very craftiness to capture them; for as they posture themselves before God and humanity as the wise, such persons turn out to be real fools. Given the existence of this kind of foolishness in Corinth, Paul cites the psalm to verify and give weight to what is obvious in his argument, The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile. The introductory formula to this citation is simply stated, and again, showing that Paul’s thoughts are connected to the initial “for,” so that in this citation he is still offering words of explanation.
Ver. 19.—The wisdom of this world. Here the word for “world” is kosmos, in the last verse it was aion. Kosmos is the world regarded objectively; aion the world regarded in its moral and intellectual aspect. He that taketh the wise in their craftiness. This is one of the few references to the Book of Job in the New Testament. It comes from the speech of Eliphaz in Job 5:13, but St. Paul substitutes the words “clutching” (drassomenos) and “craftiness” (panourgia for the milder katalabōn and phronēsei of the LXX.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 1, pp. 145–146). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 288). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Fee, G. D. (2014). The First Epistle to the Corinthians. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Revised Edition, pp. 164–165). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.