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20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

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20. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? This expression of triumph is added for the purpose of illustrating the Prophet’s testimony. Paul has not taken this sentiment from Isaiah, as is commonly thought, but speaks in his own person. For the passage which they point to (Isaiah 33:18) has nothing corresponding to the subject in hand, or nearly approaching to it. For in that passage, while he promises to the Jews deliverance from the yoke of Sennacherib, that he may magnify the more this great blessing from God, he shows how miserable is the condition of those that are oppressed by the tyranny of foreigners. He says, that they are in a constant fever of anxiety, from thinking themselves beset with scribes or questors, treasurers, and counters of towers. Nay more, he says, that the Jews were involved in such difficulties, that they were stirred up to gratitude by the very remembrance of them. 8484     The passage referred to in Isaiah is happily rendered by Lowth:-Thine heart shall reflect on the past terror: Where is now the accomptant? where the weigher of tribute? where is he that numbered the towers? The last of these expressions Lowth explains to mean, “the commander of the enemy’s forces, who surveyed the fortifications of the city, and took an account of the height, strength, and situation of the walls and towers, that he might know where to make the assault with the greatest advantage.” — Ed. It is a mistake, therefore, to suppose that this sentence is taken from the Prophet. 8585     “The words of Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:20, ποῦ σοφός; ποῦ γραμματεύς; ποῦ συζητητὴς κ.τ.λ., are not, as some have imagined, a quotation of the words of this verse,” (Isaiah 33:18;) “the only points of agreement between them being merely the occurrence of γραμματεὺς, and the repetition of the interrogative τοῦ. It is not impossible, however, that the structure of the one passage may have suggested the other.” — Henderson on Isaiah. — Ed The term world, ought not to be taken in connection with the last term merely, but also with the other two. Now, by the wise of this world, he means those who do not derive their wisdom from illumination by the Spirit through means of the word of God, but, endowed with mere worldly sagacity, rest on the assurance which it affords.

It is generally agreed, that by the term scribes is meant teachers. For as ספר, saphar, among the Hebrews, means to relate or recount, and the noun derived from it, ספר, sepher,, is used by them to signify a book or volume, they employ the term סופרימ, sopherim, to denote learned men, and those that are conversant with books; and, for the same reason, too, sopher regis is often used to denote a chancellor or secretary The Greeks, following the etymology of the Hebrew term, have translated it γραμματεις, scribes 8686     The Hebrew phrase referred to occurs in 2 Kings 12:10 ספר המלך (the king’s scribe.) It is rendered by the Septuagint, ὁ γραμματεύς τοῦ βασιλέως The corresponding Greek term, γραμματεις is employed by the classical writers to denote a clerk or secretary, (Demosth. 269.19.) The γραμματεις (notaries) “had the custody of the laws and the public records, which it was their business to write, and to repeat to the people and senate when so required.” — Potters Grecian Antiquities, volume 1. — Ed He appropriately gives the name of investigators 8787     Calvin, here has manifestly in his eye the original meaning of συζητητης, which is derived from συν and ζητεω (to inquire together,) and comes very naturally to mean one that indulges in arguments or disputes. The term was applied to the subtle Sophists, or disputants in the Greek academies. — Ed to those that show off their acuteness by starting difficult points and involved questions. Thus in a general way he brings to nothing man’s entire intellect, so as to give it no standing in the kingdom of God. Nor is it without good reason that he inveighs so vehemently against the wisdom of men, for it is impossible to express how difficult a thing it is to eradicate from men’s minds a misdirected confidence in the flesh, that they may not claim for themselves more than is reasonable. Now there is more than ought to be, if, depending even in the slightest degree upon their own wisdom, they venture of themselves to form a judgment.

Hath not God made foolish, etc By wisdom here he means everything that man can comprehend either by the natural powers of his understanding, or as deriving aid from practice, from learning, or from a knowledge of the arts. For he contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of the Spirit. Hence, whatever knowledge a man may come to have without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, is included in the expression, the wisdom of this world This he says God has utterly made foolish, that is, He has convicted it of folly. This you may understand to be effected in two ways; for whatever a man knows and understands, is mere vanity, if it is not grounded in true wisdom; and it is in no degree better fitted for the apprehension of spiritual doctrine than the eye of a blind man is for discriminating colors. We must carefully notice these two things — that a knowledge of all the sciences is mere smoke, where the heavenly science of Christ is wanting; and man, with all his acuteness, is as stupid for obtaining of himself a knowledge of the mysteries of God, as an ass is unqualified for understanding musical harmonies. For in this way he reproves the destructive pride of those who glory in the wisdom of the world so as to despise Christ, and the entire doctrine of salvation, thinking themselves happy when they are taken up with creatures; and he beats down the arrogance of those who, trusting to their own understanding, attempt to scale heaven itself.

There is also a solution furnished at the same time to the question, how it happens that Paul in this way throws down upon the ground every kind of knowledge that is apart from Christ, and tramples, as it were, under foot what is manifestly one of the chief gifts of God in this world. For what is more noble than man’s reason, in which man excels the other animals? How richly deserving of honor are the liberal sciences, which polish man, so as to give him the dignity of true humanity! Besides this, what distinguished and choice fruits they produce! Who would not extol with the highest commendations civil prudence 8888     “La prudence civile, c’est a dire la science des lois;” — “Civil prudence, that is to say, the science of laws.” (not to speak of other things,) by which governments, principalities, and kingdoms are maintained? A solution of this question, I say, is opened up to view from the circumstance, that Paul does not expressly condemn either man’s natural perspicacity, or wisdom acquired from practice and experience, or cultivation of mind attained by learning; but declares that all this is of no avail for acquiring spiritual wisdom. And, certainly, it is madness for any one, confiding either in his own acuteness, or the assistance of learning, to attempt to fly up to heaven, or, in other words, to judge of the secret mysteries of the kingdom of God, 8989     See Institutes, volume 1. — Ed. or to break through (Exodus 19:21) to a discovery of them, for they are hid from human view. Let us, then, take notice, that we must restrict to the specialities of the case in hand what Paul here teaches respecting the vanity of the wisdom of this world — that it rests in the mere elements of the world, and does not reach to heaven. In other respects, too, it holds true, that without Christ sciences in every department are vain, and that the man who knows not God is vain, though he should be conversant with every branch of learning. Nay more, we may affirm this, too, with truth, that these choice gifts of God — expertness of mind, acuteness of judgment, liberal sciences, and acquaintance with languages, are in a manner profaned in every instance in which they fall to the lot of wicked men.