The Wisdom Books: Sound Advice for the Third Millennium

G.K. Chesterton once noted that the English writer Thomas Carlyle thought many people were fools. He added that Christianity, with even greater insight, says we are all fools. Seven biblical books, traditionally known as the Wisdom books, exist to help alleviate this perennial human predicament. They are Ecclesiastes, Job, the Song of Songs, Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom and Sirach. They proclaim to a humanity that is still capable of "achievements" like the Titanic and two world wars that we haven't changed any apart from God's help and that we still need to "get wisdom! Get understanding!" (Proverbs 4:5).

The reason the Church knows this is because Qoheleth, the Teacher, taught her so in the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is the most unsparing, relentless, nihilistic and hopeless book in all history. Its theme, repeated again and again, is "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (Eccl 1:1). Its author chronicles the futility of human life, turning first here and then there to look for meaning and finding instead that the just die right along with the wicked, that "What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun" (Eccl. 1:9). He finds, in a word, Nothing. Ecclesiastes relentlessly compels us to look at the little systems of order we construct and forces us to ask "What does it matter? What's the point of it all?" Ecclesiastes is, more than any other book in Scripture, the book that is the most modern in that it dares to ask the Ultimate Questions that we anesthetize ourselves from confronting with a vast tide of television, recreational chemicals, loud music and various political, cultural and metaphysical distractions. Ecclesiastes bids us look into the abyss of life without God. It is the Question to which the rest of Scripture is the Answer, a glimpse of the meaningless hell that is the only alternative to Heaven.

If Ecclesiastes is a taste of hell, Job is a whiff of Purgatory. It is the story of a man afflicted with terrible suffering, not because he is rejected by God, but because he is beloved by Him. God permits Satan to take away all Job's blessings in order to show the truth of Job's faithfulness. But Job does not forsake God.

The striking thing here is the fact that evil is treated by Job not so much as a problem but as a mystery. Job's friends are all quite certain that the resolution to the "problem" of Job's suffering is simple: Job must have sinned. Today Christians meet resistance on exactly the same basis in our proclamation of Christ Crucified. Yet neither Job nor Christ sinned. Still they suffer by the permission of a good God. What gives?

The answer is, we don't often know what gives when innocent people suffer, but we can see certain things emerging from the story as Job plods along in faith. The first thing we see is that faith does not mean you pretend all is rosy and simple. Faith means, today as back then, that you stay. Job stays with God. His friends, in contrast, talk endlessly about God but never once to Him as they accuse Job of imaginary sins. They do not stay with Job, much less God.

Faith is also not "nice feelings." Job says many shocking things to God's face in his anguish, things so shocking his pious friends try over and over to correct him. Yet at the end, Job is satisfied, for he sees God's face. Moreover, God says Job spoke truthfully while his friends did not. In fact, Job is commanded to offer sacrifice for them (implying they blasphemed). Again, what gives?

Job gave himself to God. In the end, Job not only bears out God's boasts to Satan about "my servant", he is even elevated by God to the status of a priest interceding so that his friends, who did Satan's work of accusation here on earth, are rescued from serving the Accuser. The love of God redeems not only Job, but even Job's friends.

The love of God is a central theme of Scripture, but one book above all others has been understood to portray that love under the metaphor of married love: the Song of Songs. The Song is a lengthy love poem that is unabashedly erotic in its imagery ("Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!" it begins in a most un-demure way). For this reason many modern people are a bit shocked that such a poem found its way into Scripture. But this is to forget that marriage is, after all, one of the sacraments of the Church and that both the Jewish and Christian traditions are chock full of imagery concerning "Christ and the Bride" and "Yahweh and the Daughter of Zion". The prophets continually compare the relationship of God and Israel to a marriage (sometimes a very rocky marriage) and the New Testament does likewise. So the passionate language of the Song is a splendid portrait of the love God intends to share with his Bride.

Another sort of song is the religious hymn and the book of Psalms is the great treasury of the Church. The Psalms are quoted constantly in the New Testament. They are frequently seen as prophetic (for instance, Psalms 2, 69, and 110 to name just a few). And they are the well from which both our Lord and his apostles draw in order to frame their prayers to God and their preaching to human beings. One of the many values the psalms have for us today is that they teach us the enormous worth of liturgical prayer. A wonderful thing about liturgical prayer is that it frees us from the need to be clever and creative in a moment of crisis. Small wonder then, that our Lord offered, not a spontaneous prayer, but Psalm 22 as he hung upon the cross (Matthew 27:46). In a modern age dominated by the notion that liturgical prayer is somehow inauthentic, the prayer of the Psalms shows us the way to pray in the words of another with our whole heart and soul.

Proverbs, similarly, shows us the way to rely on the wisdom of our ancestors rather than reinventing the wheel. Wisdom, for the Hebrew mind, encompasses both heavenly matters and the nuts and bolts questions of everyday life. Thus, Proverbs runs the gamut of "wise sayings" about everything from the relationship of God and man to counsel against being the neighborhood loudmouth when everybody is trying to get some shuteye (Proverbs 27:14). The sheer common sense (as well as the profundity) of Proverbs makes it as timely a book in the Third Millennium AD as it was in the First Millennium BC.

Likewise, Wisdom's remarkably insightful diagnosis of many of the ills that afflict modernity--and the striking prophetic linkage of these ills to a prophecy of the Crucifixion (Wisdom 2:12-20)--has not lost it poignancy with the passage of time. Wisdom locates the healing of our troubles not in some panacea about education or economics, but in the renunciation of idolatry which the author regards as the "source of wantonness" and the "corruption of life" (Wisdom 14:12). For the author of Wisdom, the central error of the human race is despair of faith in a real Transcendent God and the turning of the heart to hoping in creatures (it matters not which). Wisdom, in essence, teaches that the moment this turn is made, decay is inevitable. We progress from pleasure seekers whose focus is eating and drinking since tomorrow we die, (Wisdom 2:7-9) to power seekers to oppressors (Wisdom 2:10-11). And in so doing, we inevitably become enemies of God. In contrast, Wisdom also holds out the continual offer of hope from God, for wisdom is offered to anyone who will ask, and ready themselves, for it.

Sirach makes the same point about the availability of wisdom for us if we will only seek it by fearing God (Sirach 1). To illustrate this point, Sirach first ranges over a wide expanse of human experience (everything from lofty meditations on pride and humility to instructions on good table manners) and then leads us a merry chase through some of the giants of the Hebrew Bible. His point is as old and as current as today's headlines about gangs beating each other up on city streets: We don't have to live the way we do. There is a way that is better. "Fear of the Lord warms the heart, giving gladness and joy and length of days" (Sirach 1:10). Not that Jesus ben-Sirach imagines wisdom is a sure-fire guarantee against suffering, for he knows as well as Ecclesiastes that death comes to all. But he also knows that "He who fears the Lord will have a happy end; even on the day of his death he will be blessed" (Sirach 1:11).

That means that until modern medicine finds a cure for death, the Wisdom books will have something to offer us.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea