Golden threads of Wisdom in the Book of Sirach
In late August, I examined one of the difficult passages in the Book of Sirach (see Did the Book of Sirach pinpoint the Church’s abuse crisis?). Now it is time to give Sirach its place in my series on the books of the Bible.
Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) is part of the Wisdom literature, written originally in Hebrew by Ben Sira in the early second century before Christ, and translated into Greek by his grandson about fifty years later. The Hebrew was lost for a time, and it is the Greek text that the Church accepted as canonical. During the second century BC, the Seleucid kings persecuted the Jews and forced them to accept Greek customs. Therefore, as might be expected, this Biblical book reinforces an authentic Jewish understanding of wisdom and goodness.
The first ten chapters tend to be somewhat axiomatic or proverbial, but the sayings are carefully grouped into themes: The praise of wisdom; duties toward God, parents, friends and others; precepts for everyday life; rules of right conduct; and prudence. As the book progresses, the themes broaden out into prolonged discussions, with less concern about creating a series of linked proverbs. Important themes include the use of wealth, freedom of choice, God’s gifts, and much more. Sirach is a long book of 51 chapters, and I found the middle chapters of greatest personal interest. The last eight chapters cover more conventional themes, praising the great leaders and prophets of Israel, highlighting the right celebration of the liturgy, and summarizing the value of wisdom as the book is brought to a close.
But brilliant insights can be found everywhere. For example, chapter 4 offers a remarkable commentary on how we all fear wisdom initially, and each human person must respond to wisdom properly in order to grow:
For she will walk with him in disguise, and at first she will put him to the test; she will bring fear and cowardice upon him, and will torment him by her discipline until he holds her in his thoughts, and she trusts him. Then she will come straight back to him and strengthen him, she will gladden him and will reveal her secrets to him, and store up for him knowledge and the discernment of what is right. But if he goes astray she will forsake him, and give him over into the hands of his foe. [Sir 4:17-19]
I would say that “the hands of his foe” may be taken to signify the Evil One. For those who initially refuse the Divine wisdom are frequently held captive, semi-deliberately refusing to be enlightened, for a long time.
In chapter 10, we find a striking statement of the glory and the degradation of mankind: “What race is worthy of honor? The human race. What race is worthy of honor? Those who fear the Lord. What race is unworthy of honor? The human race. What race is unworthy of honor? Those who transgress the commandments” (Sir 10:19).
In chapter 11, we are therefore wisely cautioned: “[F]or it is easy in the sight of the Lord to reward a man on the day of death according to his conduct…. Call no man happy before his death” (11:26-28). And in Chapter 12, we find a clue to future happiness which is later developed by Christ himself. Compare:
Sirach 12:2: “Do good to a godly man, and you will be repaid—if not by him, certainly by the Most High.”
Mt 10:41: “He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.”
In chapter 13, there are telling verses (21-23) on the differences between how the rich and the poor are received by others, verses that we should all take to heart. Chapter 17 offers a brilliant exposition of how we have been made, the gifts we have received, and what we perceive of all this as compared with what we do not. Chapter 19 neatly explores the difference between wisdom and mere cleverness. And in chapter 21, we get this wonderful wordplay: “The mind of fools is in their mouth; but the mouth of wise men is in their mind” (v. 26).
There is also much in the Book of Sirach that anticipates a wisdom that will be fully disclosed only by Christ in the New Covenant (think especially of the Prologue to the Gospel of John). Consider the following from chapter 24:
I came forth [says Wisdom] from the mouth of the Most High, the first-born before all creatures… I ordained that an unfailing light should arise in the heavens…. Then the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and the one who created me assigned a place for my tent. And he said, “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance, and among my chosen put down your roots.” From eternity, in the beginning, he created me, and for eternity I shall not cease to exist. [24:1-9, and continuing]
Our Lord’s doctrine of forgiveness is also anticipated in chapter 28, where we learn that we must forgive others if we wish to be forgiven ourselves.
In Chapter 34, we are challenged in ways that are particularly apt for our own cultural situation: “He who fears the Lord will not be timid, nor play the coward, for he is his hope” (v. 14). Moreover, God does not accept offerings that have been wrongfully obtained: “Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the man who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor” (cf. vv. 18-21). For truly, “To take away a neighbor’s living is to murder him; to deprive an employee of his wages is to shed blood” (v. 22).
Though I am, I must suppose, “an intellectual”, I found particularly beautiful the reflection in chapter 38 on those who work with their hands. It is a fitting conclusion to my “learned disquisition” on another remarkable book of the Bible. It might also be an important clue to wisdom for our so-called “best and brightest”. And surely it is an argument for intellectuals to seek the surprising patronage of the foster father of the Lord. In any case, those who share my tendency to pontificate—and all who propose to offer instruction—should keep very much in mind Sirach’s perspective on how tradesmen and craftsmen also participate in wisdom:
All these rely upon their hands, and each is skillful in his own work. Without them a city cannot be established, and men can neither sojourn nor live there. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. They do not sit in the judge’s seat, nor do they understand the sentence of judgment; they cannot expound discipline or judgment, and they are not found using proverbs. But they keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade. [38:31-34]
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