I find Wisdom literature hard for a number of reasons. The collections of sayings can be a bit mind-numbing, and often the content is repetitive. Much of it also seems self-evident - why bang on about what is so obvious? How to write about literature that doesn't hold my interest very well? Yet here it is, in the Jewish sacred writings as well as in the writings of other traditions, so perhaps I've been missing something.
Then it occurred to me that a good way of thinking about the Wisdom tradition is to see it in the context of the Law. The five books of Moses are, in a sense, the primary source documents for Jewish faith. They provide a set of laws by which the nation of Israel was supposed to be governed as the people of God. They cover the whole range - the procedures and rituals for temple worship, rules about ritual purity, and more mundane matters like sexual morality, marriage laws, criminal proceedings, rules about boundaries, welfare and debt laws, regulation of slavery and so forth. They also contain some things that are simply baffling. What's wrong with eating shellfish, cutting the corners of your hair or using composite fabrics?
It's unlikely that these laws were ever implemented in their entirety. They represent an aspiration, an ideal for the nation, rather than its reality at any point in its history. However their implementation, even in an imperfect form, clearly required the existence of a Jewish nation. Of course some things could be maintained in exile - like food laws, dress codes and so on - but Israelis in exile had to live under the laws of the nation in which they found themselves. How were they to conduct themselves in these circumstances? This is where the books of Wisdom come in.
Just as Moses is the foundational figure of the Law, Solomon is the presiding genius of Wisdom. 1 Kings 3 tells the tale of Solomon asking the Lord for wisdom, in what is itself a kind of wisdom story.
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’
Solomon could have asked for anything, but instead of asking for riches, power or long life he asks for wisdom to rule well. As a result, God gives him wisdom and promises him the things he has not asked for as well - because of course these come with the application of wisdom.
The two Old Testament books of Wisdom - Proverbs and Ecclesiastes - are traditionally attributed to Solomon (at least, most of Proverbs is) and there is also an Apocryphal book called The Wisdom of Solomon. It is unlikely that any of these works were actually written by King Solomon himself - their literary form and language suggest that all are written in the post-exilic period - but they bear his name as a way of marking his status as the founder of wisdom thinking. The Apocrypha also includes a long collection of wisdom sayings entitled Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, generally known by its abbreviated name, 'Sirach'. Other Apocryphal books contain wisdom writing. Tobit includes lengthy passages of wisdom material placed in the mouth of Tobit as advice to his son Tobias and the prophetic book of Baruch includes a song in praise of wisdom.
In contrast to the Law, Wisdom is universal and portable. Indeed, much of the material contained in the Wisdom writings is cross-cultural, found in different forms in the writings of other ancient Middle Eastern societies. It presumes the Law as a basis but instead of reiterating it, it focuses on universal ideals of conduct that are applicable in any situation. Honour your parents and elders, work hard, be honest and chaste, be generous to the poor, stay away from evildoers, don't gossip, stay sober, respect the king, if you are a king rule fairly, value friendship and doing right over riches and worldly success, marry well and so forth.
All of this seems fair enough, but why should you do it? When you live in the midst of the Gentiles, or indeed the apostates of your own people, and you see them living ungodly lives, lying and cheating their way to success, why should you not follow suit? The Law envisages a set of objective punishments for wrongdoing enforced by the rulers of God's holy nation. If these rulers fail to uphold the Law, God will himself intervene to punish them. On the other hand, if they follow the law faithfully, God will bless their nation and make it prosperous. Now that they are in exile, living among a people who don't know God, what motivation do they have to continue? The set of motivations encoded in the Law no longer apply. What is to take their place?
The Wisdom literature has two answers to this question. The first comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it has mystified preachers and interpreters for centuries. Ecclesiastes is a meditation on the brevity of life and the futility of so much of our human striving. This brevity and futility makes the author despair.
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
The wise have eyes in their head,but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, 'What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?' And I said to myself that this also is vanity.
What is the point of continuing? What is the point of anything? Here is his answer.
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.
It may seem that everything is stupid and pointless, but God has put everything in its place. We should get on with our lives and enjoy ourselves, accepting our limitations and doing the things that are there for us to do.
The Wisdom of Solomon develops this idea further. It starts out with a kind of parody of the reasoning of Ecclesiastes, placed into the mouth of the wicked.
'Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been,
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts...
‘Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass us by....
Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
or regard the grey hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions...
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions...
This is not what Ecclesiastes is saying, but it's often interpreted this way. If there's no point, why not just do what we want? Here is how the author answers.
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.
Goodness, in other words, is in tune with the way God has made the universe. In the short-term it may seem that the wicked prosper, but in the long-term God will vindicate the righteous. In support of this idea, the author makes use of an idea which, as I have pointed out previously, makes its first appearance in the Apocryphal books.
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them for ever.
This idea that death is not the end, that the righteous will receive their reward in the next life when God returns to vindicate his people, seems commonplace to us. However, it was virtually unknown to the Old Testament writers. For them, vindication was in this life, through God restoring his people to their inheritance. For the writers of the post-exilic period, living in Persia or Egypt or as a minority in their own country, this vindication seemed a long way off. They had watched many die without seeing it.
Yet they didn't give up hope. They continued to trust that God would vindicate them, that the universe was a place which rewarded virtue and punished vice, even if most of the time that looked untrue. The faithful among them kept their virtue even at great cost to themselves, they kept on working and toiling to make God's promise a reality. Can we say the same of ourselves?