Stating the obvious, with some help from grace
Just now I am rereading the Book of Wisdom, or The Wisdom of Solomon, in the Old Testament. This is one of the deuterocanonical books—the second set of books affirmed by the Church as the true word of God. These books, probably owing primarily to their late composition, were not (or not entirely) part of the Hebrew Scriptures, but they were included in the Greek. Indeed, Greek was already the dominant cultural language by the time the Book of Wisdom was written in Alexandria in the first century BC (that is, the last century before Christ).
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Despite early debates about whether this book was Divinely inspired or merely highly edifying—a point on which even some of the greatest Fathers of the Church differed—the Divine character of the text was affirmed repeatedly by many local synods and all the ecumenical councils that dealt with the question. The most significant of these are the Council of Rome over which Pope Damasus I presided in 382, and two ecumenical councils—the Council of Florence under Pope Eugenius IV in 1442, and the Council of Trent under Pope Paul III in 1546.
What struck me most forcefully during my current re-reading is the advanced understanding reflected in the text of key matters which we regard as having been fully clarified only in the light of Christ. Yet here, even before Christ, we see an inspired Biblical text expressing the amazing depth of the Jewish understanding of the moral life and of the glorious destiny of the righteous for all eternity with God. It is fascinating to see a Jewish text from just before the time of Christ setting forth in such a concrete way the spiritual fruit of deep reflection on both God’s revelation through nature and His revelation specifically to Israel.
G. K. Chesterton, when he wrote his most brilliant book The Everlasting Man, reflected wisely on the incredible promise and impending ruin of the Roman world just at this time. As he described it, the achievements of Greece and Rome had risen like a great wave, carrying immense knowledge and wisdom, only to leave the world in a kind of despair. It was in effect a tidal wave which was beginning to curl and crash. Surely, Chesterton suggested, if there were any moment at which God would stoop and save the world, it would be this particular moment.
Something similar, of course, was going on in specifically Jewish thought, as reflected for example in the mystical Essene community, which seems to have embodied a combination of spiritual insight and Divine expectation. Active from the second century BC into the first century AD—again, a period leading up to and overlapping into the time of Christ Himself—the Essenes seemed (like the Book of Wisdom) to anticipate a well-founded but still somewhat obscure hope which only Christ could make clear and concrete.
Here, then, is Biblical literature perfect for its time and, apart from the work of genuine Christians now, far superior in human insight to anything we have today. Here we have deep understanding of nature and God, sin and virtue, death and life—an understanding so often denied to us today because of our short-sighted preoccupation with transient things. Or perhaps we should say, more frankly, transient delights. My purpose now is simply to let this rich Book speak for itself, by extracting some of the most eloquent portions of its first five chapters. It sounds very much like the reflections of a good Christian—or even of a sensible observer of reality in our own time, insofar as any remain.
My advice is never to pass over Scripture on the assumption that we already know it. Perhaps rereading these passages will have the same impact on you as it did on me.
Sound reasoning about reality (1:12-15)
Do not invite death by the error of your life,
nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
because God did not make death,
and he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things that they might exist,
and the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them;
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.
The faulty reasoning of the ungodly (1:16-2:5)
But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away,
and they made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his party.
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
Because we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been;
because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts.
When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.”
The resort to pleasure (2:6-9)
“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 by us.
Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.
Let none of us fail to share in our revelry,
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot.”
Immersion in evil and hatred of counter-witnesses (2:10-20)
“Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
nor regard the gray 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;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Why this is wrong (2:21-24)
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hope for the wages of holiness,
nor discern the prize for blameless souls;
for God created man for incorruption,
and made him in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his party experience it.
The life of the righteous properly understood (3:1-6)
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
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 an affliction,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of men 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.
Rewards and punishments (3:7-11)
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.
Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his elect,
and he watches over his holy ones.
But the ungodly will be punished as their reasoning deserves,
who disregarded the righteous man and rebelled against the Lord;
for whoever despises wisdom and instruction is miserable.
Their hope is vain, their labors are unprofitable,
and their works are useless.
A true understanding of life in this world and a glimpse of Christ (4:7-16)
But the righteous man, though he die early, will be at rest.
For old age is not honored for length of time,
nor measured by number of years;
but understanding is gray hair for men,
and a blameless life is ripe old age.
There was one who pleased God and was loved by him,
and while living among sinners he was taken up.
He was caught up lest evil change his understanding
or guile deceive his soul.
For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good,
and roving desire perverts the innocent mind.
Being perfected in a short time, he fulfilled long years;
for his soul was pleasing to the Lord,
therefore he took him quickly from the midst of wickedness.
Yet the peoples saw and did not understand,
nor take such a thing to heart,
that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect,
and he watches over his holy ones.
The righteous man who had died will condemn
the ungodly who are living,
and youth that is quickly perfected will condemn
the prolonged old age of the unrighteous man.
The obduracy and punishment of the wicked (4:17-20)
For they will see the end of the wise man,
and will not understand what the Lord purposed for him,
and for what he kept him safe.
They will see, and will have contempt for him,
but the Lord will laugh them to scorn.
After this they will become dishonored corpses,
and an outrage among the dead for ever;
because he will dash them speechless to the ground,
and shake them from the foundations;
they will be left utterly dry and barren,
and they will suffer anguish,
and the memory of them will perish.
They will come with dread when their sins are reckoned up,
and their lawless deeds will convict them to their face.
The wicked realize too late their folly, arrogance, and evil (5:1-13)
Then the righteous man will stand with great confidence
in the presence of those who have afflicted him,
and those who make light of his labors.
When they see him, they will be shaken with dreadful fear,
and they will be amazed at his unexpected salvation.
They will speak to one another in repentance,
and in anguish of spirit they will groan, and say,
“This is the man whom we once held in derision
and made a byword of reproach—we fools!
We thought that his life was madness
and that his end was without honor.
Why has he been numbered among the sons of God?
And why is his lot among the saints?
So it was we who strayed from the way of truth,
and the light of righteousness did not shine on us,
and the sun did not rise upon us.
We took our fill of the paths of lawlessness and destruction,
and we journeyed through trackless deserts,
but the way of the Lord we have not known.
What has our arrogance profited us?
And what good has our boasted wealth brought us?
“All those things have vanished like a shadow,
and like a rumor that passes by;
like a ship that sails through the billowy water,
and when it has passed no trace can be found,
nor track of its keel in the waves;
or as, when a bird flies through the air,
no evidence of its passage is found;
the light air, lashed by the beat of its pinions
and pierced by the force of its rushing flight,
is traversed by the movement of its wings,
and afterward no sign of its coming is found there;
or as, when an arrow is shot at a target,
the air, thus divided, comes together at once,
so that no one knows its pathway.
So we also, as soon as we were born, ceased to be,
and we had no sign of virtue to show,
but were consumed in our wickedness.”
Different destinies for the evil and the good (5:14-16)
Because the hope of the ungodly man is like
chaff carried by the wind,
and like a light hoarfrost driven away by a storm;
it is dispersed like smoke before the wind,
and it passes like the remembrance of a guest
who stays but a day.
But the righteous live for ever,
and their reward is with the Lord;
the Most High takes care of them.
Therefore they will receive a glorious crown
and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord,
because with his right hand he will cover them,
and with his arm he will shield them.
Surely the world which produced this writing was on the brink of readiness for what we now call the Good News. For this was written before the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, before Christ called disciples and established the Church, before He was crucified and raised from the dead, before the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and the Good News began to be preached, the New Testament was written, and Catholics began to have the courage to state the obvious to the whole world.
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Posted by: loumiamo4057 -
Nov. 17, 2021 5:58 AM ET USA
"and CATHOLICs began to have the courage to state the obvious to the whole world." Attaboy.
Posted by: margaretinvirginia -
Nov. 16, 2021 9:31 AM ET USA
Thank you for this, and for making it easy to read these passages in a time when I need to do so. There is hope!
Posted by: tenriverbend2769 -
Nov. 14, 2021 6:11 PM ET USA
Thank you, Jeff Mirus! Your thoughtfulness in putting this together for other eyes is no small gift. It now becomes a gift to e-mail to one friend for his consideration, and a gift, as photocopied, to present in person to another friend.
Posted by: AnthonyP -
Nov. 12, 2021 7:46 PM ET USA