Week 8 Wisdom Literature
Against Empiricism: Divine Transcendence and Divine Revelation (Job 28:1–28; Wisdom of Solomon 6:1–9:18)
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
The early Hebrew sages were prudentialists, moral optimists, and empiricists. It is the inadequacy of their empiricism, at least in the eyes of the later wisdom tradition, that concerns us today. We have repeatedly seen that the early sages believed that God rewarded those who obeyed his moral laws, and punished those who did not. They inferred from this that those who were doing well in life must be doing good in God’s eyes.
And they concluded that by closely observing those who are doing well, one can arrive at a fine-grained understanding of the laws by which God governs the universe. In the past two weeks, we’ve seen how this traditional reward/retribution scheme came under assault by later sages — by Job, because of his terrible experience of undeserved suffering, and by Ecclesiastes, because of his oppressive experience of life’s “vanity.”
But it’s noteworthy that these two critics of wisdom orthodoxy both still appealed to personal experience. It was by the fearless use of their predecessors’ empirical methods that they were able to refute their predecessors’ religious dogmas. Daily experience was supposed to confirm official dogma, but their experience contradicted it — and so much the worse for the dogma!
What if the problem lay, however, not with the dogma itself, but with the manner in which, and the schedule according to which, human experience was expected to confirm it? Perhaps the belief that God wisely and justly governs the universe is true after all, but in ways that are inscrutable to human beings unless and until, and only to the extent that, God chooses to reveal them to us.
Perhaps God’s law can’t be “read off” our experience. In that case, so much the worse for our experience! The way of wisdom would then become not the observation and analysis of human conduct and character, but the ever-deeper penetration into the mystery of God. Today we shall look at two late Wisdom texts that take this line of thought.
An “Interlude” (Job 28:1–28)
Our first text is something of a conundrum to scholars. We saw in Week 6 that Chapters 3–27 and 29–31 are a long dialogue between Job and his three comforters, and that Chapters 32–37 are a kind of addendum to that dialogue, a long diatribe by a fourth comforter who has hitherto been silent. But what are we to make of Chapter 28, a magnificent hymn in praise of divine Wisdom?
At first glance it looks like part of Job’s final discourse, but a closer look reveals that this can’t be true. Both in tone and content it differs from what Job says just before and just after it. And an editorial note in 29:1 indicates that Job is now resuming his previous speech after briefly yielding the floor to whoever delivered Chapter 28. But who was that? The poem’s lyricism is just as different from the pious admonitions of the four comforters as from the fierce lamentations of Job, so it seems pretty clear it wasn’t one of them.
Modern scholars therefore regard the hymn as an “interlude,” or “editorial interpolation” [Author’s Note 1] — that is, as a freestanding literary work, one that didn’t belong to the original text of the book of Job, but was stuck into its present place in the story by a later scribe.
However awkward its placement may be in the plotline, the beauty and power of this hymn can’t be overestimated, and we are deeply indebted to that hypothetical scribe for preserving it, even if we might wish he’d put it somewhere else! Like the protagonist of the book of Job and the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, the poet who wrote this hymn rejects the prudentialism and moral optimism of the earlier wisdom tradition.
But he makes two strikingly new moves. First, he rejects the empiricism to which Job and Ecclesiastes still clung, and underscores the limitations of human experience when seeking knowledge of God. But, second, he confidently affirms that wisdom is of absolute value and dazzling beauty, though largely veiled from human eyes in the secret counsels of a mysterious, transcendent Deity.
The poem begins by describing the efforts of a group of prospectors who journey far out into the badlands in quest of precious metals and rare gemstones: “They put their hand to the flinty rock, and overturn mountains by the roots. They cut out channels in the rocks, and their eyes see every precious thing. The sources of the rivers they probe; hidden things they bring to light” (28:9–11). “But where,” we are suddenly asked, “shall wisdom be found?” (28:12).
Wisdom, it turns out, is infinitely more valuable than silver and gold, and yet completely inaccessible to human effort. But it is there, for “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place” (28:23).
Does this mean that the most precious thing of all must forever elude our grasp, and if so, that our lives are not only more toilsome than a mining expedition, but ultimately a wasted effort? No, for this poem ends with an affirmation that sounds, in one respect, like the conventional piety of Proverbs, but, in another respect, like the words of the God who finally answered Job out of the whirlwind: “[God] said to humankind, ‘Truly the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding’” (28:28).
What God says is conventional — or almost. The earlier sages said that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but here the fear of God simply is wisdom. The restless pursuit of understanding, to which sages are dedicated, comes to a halt in the practice of righteous conduct and in the cultivation of an upright character. God’s wisdom is ultimately inscrutable, and one can go no further than to bow humbly, and yet walk uprightly, before him. Yet the very fact that God speaks to us at all — and here is the linkage with the mighty discourses of Chapters 38–41 — is astonishing, and immensely comforting. God has revealed nothing about himself: but he has made his presence known. Isn’t that enough?
The Wisdom of Solomon: A Return to Orthodoxy
No, it isn’t enough. Or at least it wasn’t enough for the author of the Wisdom of Solomon. This author, who writes under the pen name of Solomon, the great sage-king of Israel [Author’s Note 2], insists that human beings must seek wisdom — must seek divine Wisdom — with all their might. But he also insists that divine Wisdom — whom he personifies in feminine terms, as the book of Proverbs had done — is eagerly seeking us. God is not simply there, terrifying in his overwhelming power and mysterious otherness. God, a la Lady Wisdom, is there as our companion, benefactor, and intimate friend.
The first five chapters of the Wisdom of Solomon return to the prudentialism and moral optimism of wisdom orthodoxy: they exhort us to upright living in expectation of divine reward (Wisdom of Solomon 1:1–15) and warn us against the self-deception and self-destructiveness of ungodliness (1:16–2:24).
But their marked emphasis on the long-term future is new. They offer an extended comparison of the respective eschatological destinies of the righteous and the unrighteous (3:1–13a; 4:16–5:3), and assure us both that the godly will never be forgotten and that a time of reckoning awaits the wicked, however prosperous they may seem at present (3:13b–4:15).
In short, the familiar reward/retribution scheme is here reiterated, although the time horizon within which divine justice operates is extended rather far into the future. Indeed, these chapters hint that the righteous may need to await the next life before enjoying the just recompense for their faithfulness to God’s laws.
Orthodoxy Transcendentalized (Wisdom of Solomon 6:1–9:18)
But in the block of text assigned for today we find a still more striking way in which the Wisdom of Solomon both draws upon the precedents of early wisdom and yet pushes much further — namely, in the way in which divine Wisdom is said to be both the proper object of human aspiration and the agent of divine revelation. In 6:1–11, “Solomon” exhorts the kings of other nations to “learn wisdom and not transgress” (6:9b) and to “set [their] desire” on his own sagacious instructions (6:11).
Then, suddenly, he bursts into a hymn of praise for Lady Wisdom herself, and underscores that she reaches down to those who rise up to meet her:
Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and is easily discerned by those who live here,
and is found by those who see her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her ….
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought (6:12–13, 15–16).
“Solomon” is careful to insist to his royal colleagues that he, whose wisdom is reputed to exceed that of all other people, is nevertheless “mortal like everyone else” (7:1), and that whatever wisdom he does possess, though surely the result of his own earnest desire and diligent search, is finally an answer to prayer and a divine gift of surpassing worth:
Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
I called to God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepters and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
Because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
And silver will be accounted as clay before her (7:7–9).
There are striking similarities, and equally striking differences, between what is said about divine Wisdom in Job 28 and what is said in these passages from Wisdom of Solomon 6–9. Both indicate that divine Wisdom is a far more valuable treasure than precious metals and gemstones. But whereas the hymn in Job 28:20 stresses that wisdom “remains hidden from the eyes of all living,” Wisdom of Solomon 6:12 affirms that “she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.”
It is crucial to understand the reason for the markedly different assessments about the discoverability of wisdom in these two texts. For Job 28, divine Wisdom is concealed from human sight because God himself infinitely transcends creation, and grants human beings only fleeting glimpses of his numinous presence.
For the Wisdom of Solomon, in contrast, divine Wisdom is accessible precisely because she takes the initiative. It is she who teaches the sage that she is truly worth seeking — and who enables the sage to find her. She is a “spirit” (7:22b), even a “holy spirit from on high” (9:17), who is sent to inhabit and purify the souls of the righteous. A synergistic relationship, amounting almost to a mystical union, thus takes place between the human sage and the divine Lady. The seeker learns that he has already been sought. The human quest ends in a divine bequest — where, in fact, it had originally begun:
Education? Transformation? Conversation?
How do today’s texts square with our series’ theme, according to which education aimed at transformation requires conversation? Certainly we are far from the situation envisaged in the book of Proverbs, in which a sage and a pupil, perhaps strolling together down a palace corridor, or seated beside the campfire, engage in intimate dialogue, with the elder delivering memorable maxims for the youngster’s edification.
Job 28 is a hymn, apparently sung by no one in particular to everyone in general about the elusiveness of the very thing we are supposed to seek! And the Wisdom of Solomon is purportedly an address by the sage-king of Israel to his counterparts in other nations (Wisdom of Solomon 1:1; 6:1), in which he imparts very few nuggets of his own knowledge, but, instead, exhorts them to open themselves to divine inspiration.
Yet, despite these radical differences, both Job 28 and Wisdom of Solomon 6–9 retain the characteristic stamp of all Israelite sapiential literature. Through direct address, someone undertakes the spiritual formation of someone else through interpersonal encounter. What is new is that education has become inspiration, and interpersonal dialogue includes ecstatic prayer and devout hymnody.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Both of today’s texts include references to the value of wisdom, and affirm that it surpasses the value of precious metals and rare jewels, of bodily health and physical beauty, of power and fame. Is that just pious hyperbole — or is it really true? What is it about wisdom that makes it worth the time and effort we must invest to attain it?
- According to the Lectio writer, “Solomon” affirms that “whatever wisdom he does possess, though surely the result of his own earnest desire and diligent search, is finally an answer to prayer and a divine gift.” Ponder this paradox. Divine wisdom, like divine grace, seems to require both effortful striving and empty-handed receptivity. Why?
- How does the emphasis on divine transcendence and divine revelation that we see in Job 28 and in Wisdom of Solomon 6–9 correct the “empiricism” the early sages? Why is it potentially dangerous to our faith to believe that God’s ways can simply be “read off” daily experience?
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