Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6, 11, 10; Romans 11:33-36; Mark 6:1-6
A lecture presented to the CREEDS Scripture Study group, kicking off their study of Wisdom Literature and the Chronicler.
I. What is Wisdom Literature?
You’ll be treated this year in CREEDS to an introduction to Hebrew Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Wisdom literature is a general literary genre quite popular in the Ancient Near East. This type of literature is characterized by sayings that praise God and teach heroic virtue.
A. Wisdom in the Ancient Near East
Wisdom literature a controversial tradition that needs some explanation, but it is a tradition that I think you will find edifying, challenging and uplifting. Much of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is omitted from the Bibles used in the Protestant churches, and even in some Jewish Scriptures. The main reason for that, at least among Hebrew scholars, was that the books were not found in Hebrew but only in Greek, and so they dated these books in the Hellenistic period which was thought to be too recent to be divinely inspired Scripture. Since then, however, many of the books have been found, at least partially, in Hebrew.
Before we launch into a whole preview of the Old Testament Wisdom tradition, I wanted to take a look at the whole idea of wisdom literature in the generic sense, or at least at wisdom literature in the ancient near east culture. Because what we know is that wisdom literature didn’t begin or end in ancient Israel, but rather part of the whole wisdom movement of that time and place. Lawrence Boadt tells us that there are known collections of proverbs from Sumeria and Babylon that date before 2000 B.C. and look quite a bit like counterparts found in the book of Proverbs. One example is the Sumerian proverb that says “A chattering scribe-his guilt is great” which corresponds to Proverbs 18:13 which reads “He who answers before listening-that is folly and shame.”
Now the wisdom tradition in Babylon appears to have been well established long before Israel ever existed as a nation, so it seems reasonable to expect that Israel borrowed much of its wisdom tradition from Babylon. Another great source of wisdom literature is found in Egypt, although it is not clear whether Israel borrowed from Egypt, or if both Israel and Egypt were using an ancient source that they both knew. In any case, wisdom literature was well-established in the ancient near east, and Israel’s wisdom tradition was a part of it.
While the content of Israel’s wisdom tradition appears to draw on the same questions and topics as other traditions, we should note, as Boadt does, that the answers are not the same. Even if the concerns of wisdom were universal, Israel’s answers to those concerns were uniquely their own. The uniqueness came of course from Israel’s finding the roots of all wisdom in the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 9:10). For Israel the source and summit of wisdom was to be found in right relationship (h?esed) with YHWH.
B. Wisdom in Ancient Israel
In Israel, the sources for wisdom have come from two places. The first is family. The proverbs especially tend to dwell on the right relationships between various members of the family. The right relationship of parents and children mirrors the right relationship between the people Israel and YHWH. Proverbs additionally prescribe relationships that make possible education of the young and moral instruction. These pearls of wisdom were passed on from generation to generation. Proverbs 4:3 tells us, “When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender and my mother’s only child, he taught me and said, ‘Take my words to heart!'”
The second source of wisdom literature would be formal education. There was great value in a professional class of wise men and women for the royal court. These people could be counted on for wise advice that enabled the king to rule effectively. So while there was undoubtedly an informal wisdom education that took place within the family, a formal school for the study of wisdom was required. The Babylonian and Sumerian societies had such schools available, and these taught young boys to be scribes and prepared them for careers in the royal court. Scriptures indicate that Israel also had professional scribes, and a professional class of wise counselors that served as advisors to the king.
But the king himself was seen as the great source of wisdom. David was considered wise, and his wisdom contributed greatly to the Scriptures in the form of the many Psalms attributed to him. But perhaps the greatest wisdom figure in the ruling class was wise King Solomon, and we’ll hear more about him in a moment.
First, it’s important I think to take a look at the way the wisdom literature was transmitted. Wisdom literature in general used several distinctive forms, such as the proverb, the riddle and fables. But in Hebrew, it is mostly the proverb that is common. The proverb could distill the wisdom of the ages into a practical, memorable, pithy line or two that had a bit of sermon in it as well. The proverbs had to be memorable because it was by memory that most of them were handed down across the generations and perpetuated in the society.
Some of the proverbs, however, were in a more narrative form. Think of the book of Job, filled with the wisdom to be distilled from suffering. Here there is narration, dialogue and intrigue. Questions and answers are exchanged, and life’s lessons are learned. Proverbs had the ability to take the most difficult questions of life and make them seem somehow approachable by bringing them to the ordinariness of life.
II. Three Wisdom Figures
That is a bit of an introduction to the idea of wisdom literature and what it is, and how it came to be formed in the Hebrew community. You’ll read much more about that from Boadt and others and you study wisdom this year. So at this point, I would like to take a look at three wisdom figures which will bring us from ancient Israel to the present day. The first is wise King Solomon in all his glory. Secondly, I want to look at the wisdom of Jesus, which takes the wisdom of the Old Testament and grounds it in God’s plan for salvation. And lastly, I want to explore wisdom and the Christian Disciple which takes the abstract study of wisdom and brings it to our own faith response.
A. Wise King Solomon
Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba. He becomes king by choice not by right, because that right should go to David’s first-born, Adonijah. But David had promised Bathsheba that Solomon would succeed him as king, and he does so, despite the interference of a bit of intrigue from Adonijah. At David’s decree, Zadok the priest anoints Solomon king of Israel and David is able to rest in peace.
After Solomon secured the kingdom and began his rule, his wisdom became apparent to all around him. After sacrificing to the Lord at Gibeon, the Lord offered Solomon whatever he wanted, all he had to do was make the request. And despite the many things he could have requested, he made just this one: “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” (1 Kings 3:9) Humility in the service of the LORD is what Proverbs means when it says that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and Solomon had that figured out. And the LORD is pleased to grant Solomon’s request: “I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.” (1 Kings 3:12)
Shortly after he is gifted with wisdom, he gets the chance to show it. You all know this story, I’m sure. Two harlots come to Solomon, arguing over the custody of a child. It seems they both lived in the same house, and both gave birth within a day of one another. But the first woman’s child died during the night, having been smothered by his mother lying on him. So she tries to pull the old switcheroo, taking the other woman’s live child and putting her dead child in its place. Nice. She protested to Solomon that she had done no such thing, and so it was a case of she-said, she-said. So, the king in his great wisdom, declares, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other.” (I Kings 3:25) The real mother, of course, gave in immediately. She would rather give the child up than have him cut in half. By this, Solomon knew for sure that she was the real mother and awarded custody of the child to her. You can read all about that at the end of chapter 3 of First Kings.
Solomon’s reputation for wisdom is what led many traditions to call him the author of several wisdom books of the Old Testament. A legend of the Talmud guessed that Solomon crafted the Song of Songs in his lusty youth, Proverbs in middle age, and Ecclesiastes as a skeptical old man. His authorship of these books is debatable, but his reputation as a wise ruler and king is not.
Solomon’s wisdom was so great, that he was able to build and complete the Temple, dedicating it with great joy. But, Solomon was human, and chapter 11 of First Kings describes his many sins, especially the sin of intermarrying with foreign women who began to turn his heart to strange gods. One would think wisdom would have protected him from that, but it didn’t. The greatest wise king in all of Israel was also tragically flawed, just as his father David was before him, and just as pretty much every king who followed him would be.
B. The Wisdom of Jesus
We could beat up Solomon, the kings of Israel, and pretty much everyone because of their being flawed, but that’s really the wrong direction to go, and not the direction that God required. Instead, God noted that our fallenness was evidence of our need for a Savior.
And so, in his great wisdom, God our Father noted that there was a vast chasm of sin and death separating us from him. To close up that chasm, he sent his only Son into our world. He was born among us, he lived our life and died our death. But his death was not the last word for him or for us, because God raised him up. As God raised him up, he canceled the power of sin and death to keep us from God, and gave us the possibility of new life that lasts forever. That’s the Gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s our heritage.
Wisdom is often personified as the nebulous figure that was with God at the beginning of creation. The presence of Wisdom in that time explains the Genesis account of creation being spoken in the first person plural. “Through him, all things were made,” is the part of the Creed that speaks this truth. Thus, this Wisdom is often equated with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Word. Wisdom personified is often portrayed as a female image, and sometimes even thought to be the female side of God’s human face.
St. Paul speaks of Jesus as the true wisdom of God. Listen to this reading from his first letter to the Corinthians:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,
so that, as it is written, “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:22-31)
Because it really would seem wiser to send a savior who could overcome death without being subject to it, right? But how would that close that gap between God and us? God’s wisdom, which is so far superior to anything we can muster, says that a Savior who walks our walk and talks our talk and suffers pain and sorrow and death is so much more likely to appeal to fallen human creatures who are subject to all those same things. It might appear to the world to be a foolish way to save us, but to God it is wiser than wisdom itself.
C. Wisdom and the Christian Disciple
Which brings us to me and you. What difference does our study of wisdom make to us disciples? For an exploration of wisdom and the Christian Disciple, I am going to turn to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In his treatise, “On Loving God,” he says, “Man must seek in his own higher nature for the highest gifts; and these are dignity, wisdom and virtue. By dignity I mean free-will, whereby he not only excels all other earthly creatures, but has dominion over them. Wisdom is the power whereby he recognizes this dignity, and perceives also that it is no accomplishment of his own. And virtue impels man to seek eagerly for Him who is man’s Source, and to lay fast hold on Him when He has been found.”
St. Bernard makes two points here. First, wisdom directs us to look for the dignity that we have over every other created thing. As beautiful and complex and glorious as all of creation is, humanity has a dignity which holds humanity above and beyond all of it. Our ability to breathe puts us higher than the loftiest mountain. Our ability to sense the world around us puts us above the noblest sycamore tree. Our ability to reason and to love puts us beyond the noblest beast of the jungle. Moreover, we have been given dominion over all of them, to encourage their growth and flourishing, and to direct their living in the world.
Bernard’s second point is crucial. Here wisdom, directs us to realize with great humility that none of this dignity is of our own making. We have been given the dignity that we have as a free gift of the One whose dignity surpasses all of us. As high as we are above all of creation, God is higher than us to an infinite degree. Wisdom tells us that it’s not about us, that the beauty that is us is a gift of and is intended for the glory of our Creator God who breathed that dignity into us as he breathed life into us. We are created in the image and likeness of our God.
But St. Bernard teaches that wisdom looks like something. He says, “Clearly, you pour forth wisdom or understanding from your lips in three ways: if on your lips there is the admission of your own sinfulness, thanksgiving and the voice of praise, and words that encourage.” So we pour forth the wisdom that is ours by creation when we acknowledge that we are a sinful, broken people in need of a Savior. We sing wisdom when we cry out in thanksgiving for our many blessings and praise God for his goodness. And we exude wisdom when we encourage the downtrodden, the broken, the lost, the poor and needy, and help them to find the God who has gifted them with great dignity and worth.
If wisdom is right relationship with God, then we disciples must model that right relationship in the things we do, the words we say, the songs we sing, the prayers we offer and the sacrifices we make.
III. Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament
At this point, I want to take a look at the five books of Scripture commonly thought of as wisdom literature. This is going to be a quick rundown and is not intended as an exhaustive lecture on each of these books, because that’s coming at a later time. Think of this as a preview.
Ecclesiastes may be the most skeptical book of the Bible. Ecclesiastes is the Greek name for the central character in the narrative, whose name in Hebrew is Qoheleth. The refrain of this book is the author’s cry of “vanity of vanities, all things are vanity-and a striving after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 et. al.) The author decries the futility of striving for greatness in this world, only to reach the point of our own finiteness and come to a literal dead end. In the end, though, Qoheleth’s message is basically encouraging, and brings us back to the God who made us. At the end of his book, which is not part of today’s reading, he says: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
Proverbs is the book we most often think about in this kind of wisdom literature. The structure of the proverb gives clear direction to life’s basic questions. Many of the proverbs were probably borrowed from other ancient civilizations including the Sumerians and Babylonians, but there are some that are clearly later additions, giving evidence that they came from Hebrew culture itself. Labels within the book itself attribute chapters 1-22 to Solomon, 22:17-24:34 to “sayings of the wise,” chapters 25-29 to Solomon again, chapter 30 to Agur, Son of Jakeh and chapter 31 to King Lemuel. We don’t know who Agur and Lemuel are, but that section of sayings of the wise appears to be an adaptation of Egyptian proverbs. The content of the book ranges from pragmatic secular advice to reflections on the role of God in Israel.
Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, mixes proverbs with lengthy essays on common wisdom themes. These themes include “use of speech, self-control, evil friends, the value of work, death, (and) sickness.” Contrary to the way Proverbs is arranged, Sirach tends to group sayings and essays thematically. The entire book is like a hymn in praise of wisdom. The alternate name of the book, Ecclesiasticus, is translated as “the church book.” Because of this, and because it was not from the time of Ezra or before, most Jews were not comfortable including Sirach in their canon of Scripture. But because it speaks to the ethical aspects of everyday life, Sirach is a book which makes wisdom accessible to all of us.
Wisdom is written as a narrative in the voice of Solomon. It is known only in Greek and may have been the last book of the Old Testament to be written. The audience is Israel in exile in Egypt, and the major focus of the author is to reassure the Jewish community that keeping their faith, despite their many hardships, is worthwhile. Here, the reader can learn wisdom from the study of salvation history, and can hope for immortality as a reward for suffering.
Job is familiar to most of us. Job is a treatise on the meaning of suffering. The book can be divided into five major sections, with the first and last section comprising a religious folktale. In the first section, God tests Job who proves faithful. In the last section, God restores Job to his former greatness and way of life as a reward for his just actions. In between, there are three sections that seem to be a later addition. There is a dialogue between Job and three friends about the meaning of divine justice, the appearance of a fourth friend who challenges Job and the other three, demanding that they bow to God’s greatness and sovereignty, and section four, in which God appears and condemns Job’s demands for justice as arrogant, with Job submitting to God twice. The additions of sections two through four are a move beyond a simple folk tale into a complex treatise of suffering, justice and divine sovereignty. Eventually out of the book’s doubt and questioning, emerges a steadfast trust in God.
In your study of the wisdom literature, you’ll find some wonderful little gifts. Those include:
1. The importance of order for understanding creation and our role within it.
2. The importance of cause and effect, that actions have consequences and good deeds reap rewards.
3. That God is revealed in creation: beauty and order in the world around us can lead us to a greater understanding and appreciation of God in our lives.
4. That in suffering, we can find some meaning. Whether suffering is the result of evil done, as correction or discipline, or as a test of faith, all of it is part the plan of our loving and merciful God.
5. That life is positive. The world and creation are orderly, and there is hope all around us.
6. That we are responsible as stewards and co-creators of the world and all its wonders.
7. The divine plan is known by wisdom to be a gift that is beyond the human capacity to control or understand. We must be faithful to revelation and look to God for true wisdom.
8. Finally, wisdom knows its limits. If God’s thoughts are far beyond our understanding, then we must submit to that and let God be God.
These wonderful little gifts are like treasures waiting to be opened as you delve into the wisdom of God in the Scriptures. Along the way, you will undoubtedly find little lines that you can post on the refrigerator or jot down in a journal. And undoubtedly, as you meditate on them, they will bring you closer to the One who is wisdom itself.
IV. Meeting the Chronicler
Now before you get to your study of Wisdom literature, you’re going to spend some time delving into the books of First and Second Chronicles. So, you know, God help you! You could find the Chronicles a bit dry, so with that in mind I wanted to give you a pastoral tool. Should you find yourself nodding off in the midst of the Chronicles, here are my top ten things you could say if you’re caught sleeping in your CREEDS group:
10. “They told me at the blood bank this might happen.”
9. “I think that coffee is decaf after all.”
8. “I wasn’t sleeping! I was meditating on Second Chronicles!”
7. “I was up all night thinking about the implications of Fr. Pat’s Sunday homily.
6. “Darn! Why did you interrupt me? I had almost figured out the meaning of life.”
5. “Boy, that cold medicine I took last night just won’t wear off!”
4. “Sorry. I just spent the last four hours reading the Sunday bulletin.”
3. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was trying to pick up my contact lens without my hands.”
2. “Praise God! I think I just figured out the mystery of the Holy Trinity.”
And the number one thing you should say if you get caught sleeping at CREEDS…
1. “We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen!”
All kidding aside, you will find that the Chronicles closely mirror the books of Samuel and Kings. These were originally joined with Ezra and Nehemiah as one single historical work. The Greek name for the Chronicles is paraleipomena, or “things omitted,” ostensibly omitted from narratives found in the books of Samuel and Kings. The primary objective of the author, referred to as “the Chronicler,” was not simply to fix problems with those books, however. The Chronicler realized that the greatness of Israel as a political power, such as it was, was over, and the nation would now be a nation under God or nothing.
Given that new paradigm, it was important for the Chronicler to portray an accurate picture of the nation’s history so that it could learn from its past mistakes and survive. But that accurate history was to be told through a religious, rather than a political, lens. You’ll find the main themes in Chronicles to be a defense of the legitimate claims of the Davidic monarchy in the nation’s history, and a celebration of the greatness of Jerusalem and its temple worship as the center of the religious life of the Jewish community. The Chronicler then is less interested in the political importance of David and Jerusalem than he is in their religious importance. You will perhaps find that as a difference in comparing Samuel/Kings with Chronicles.
One example of this is that the Chronicler leaves out of his narrative of David’s life the painful and humiliating encounter with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to cover up the affair. While the book of First Kings found that an important detail to explain the transition of the monarchy from David to Solomon instead of Adonijah, the Chronicler would see that as a major character flaw for the king who was for him primarily a cultic figure.
The philosopher/theologian Walter Brueggemann said, “Historical persons are never ‘historical’ but always constructions and portraits, partly done for us and to us, and partly done by ourselves, as we are always busily constructing ourselves for the sake of appearance and for the sake of self-understanding.” History has a way of painting the truth into a whatever canvas a culture might need for survival at a given time and place. That may explain for us the difference between the Samuel/Kings history and that of the Chronicler.
So please find in your study of the Chronicles a David that is a great cultic figure who is capable of crafting and singing a book of Psalms, and a Jerusalem that is the place where God himself dwells. And may that study lead you to the song in your own heart, and the place within you where true worship happens.
V. Closing Prayer
As we close today, the best wisdom prayer that I could think of was that of Reinhold Niebuhr, commonly called the “Serenity Prayer.” You may or may not be familiar with the full version of the prayer, but it is really quite beautiful and a great way to sum up what we will be learning about wisdom in the weeks ahead. So let us pray.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.