The Wisdom of Solomon: Written for the 21st century?
Although I jumped into the Book of Sirach briefly to make a point about the abuse crisis, my intermittent series on the books of the Bible saw its last installment—on the Song of Solomon—back in July. It is time now for the Wisdom of Solomon, usually referred to simply as Wisdom.
Written in Greek, most probably in the first or second century before Christ, this book is considered apocryphal by some because it was not part of the Hebrew Canon. But its status as inspired Scripture is attested by both the Fathers and the authority of the Church. It is attributed to Solomon following the well-known custom of the time and, as its title suggests, it is one of a set of books designed to impart wisdom directly, while praising it as the pre-eminent work of God (ultimately perhaps even as another way of referring to God).
However, the type or level of wisdom discussed in each of these books, or contained in their collections of proverbs, can vary. As we have already seen, some sections of these writings focus on practical wisdom, others on the wisdom of God as displayed in the moral law and in Providence, and still others on the relationship between wisdom and love in God. The Wisdom of Solomon emphasizes Divine Providence to a very high degree, as a practical demonstration of wisdom at work. If the reader grasps the usual Biblical interplay between past history and the foreshadowing of the Messianic age, the text is fairly straightforward, requiring little interpretation.
The false wisdom produced by evil
The Book begins by exhorting the rulers of the earth to love righteousness and to seek the Lord with sincerity of heart:
He is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him. For perverse thoughts separate men from God, and when his power is tested, it convicts the foolish; because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin. [1:2-4]
Indeed, the contrast between the supposed wisdom of sinners and the Wisdom of God is the theme of this powerful book. The whole thesis is summarized in chapter 2—a brilliant portrayal of the diastrous thought process of the wicked, which begins with a fundamental error. It is rare in Scripture to find a particular chapter that provides the gist of a whole Book. In this case, it is hard to do better, in acquainting readers with the wisdom of Wisdom, than to to quote extensively from this chapter alone.
We begin with an exposition of the false wisdom of the wicked, which sounds like it was written deliberately for our culture today:
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves…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...come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist…. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment…. 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. [2:1-11]
Chapter 2 goes on to capture exactly how such “wisdom” leads to hatred of truth and goodness, looking forward even to the crucifixion of Christ:
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…. Let us test him with insult and torture…let us condemn him to a shameful death…. [2:12-20]
Finally, still in chapter two, we have the conclusion of the argument, demonstrating clearly the false premise on which the reasoning of the wicked is based:
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. [2:21-24]
Rulers must seek wisdom
The Book then proceeds to consider the differences in the ends of the wicked and the righteous (chapters 3 through 5). It is noteworthy that the afterlife is clearly recognized in this section: “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” (5:15-16).
Keeping all this in mind, the sacred author returns to the consideration of rulers with which he opened the book, warning that “your dominion was given you from the Lord…who will search out your works and inquire into your plans” (6:3). The weakest in this world will be pardoned in mercy but “mighty men” will be mightily punished. Therefore, rulers absolutely must learn wisdom. “To you, then, O monarchs, my words are directed, that you may learn wisdom and not transgress” (6:9).
This learning begins with the praise of wisdom, first in a long prayer attributed to Solomon (chapters 9 and 10) and then through a recounting of the history of the chosen people as an ongoing demonstration of the profound wisdom-in-action that is Divine Providence. This section includes an instructive spiritual interpretation of Israel’s trials and triumphs in the desert (chapter 16). The sacred author concudes that it is the great error of idolatry—the tendency to put things in the place of God—that lies at the root of both Israel’s woes and those of all mankind. Consider this extraordinary passage, which again seems to have been written for us today:
[I]t was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but they live in great strife due to ignorance, and they call such great evils peace. For…they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder…, confusion over what is good..., pollution of souls, sex perversion, disorder in marriage…and debauchery…. For it is not the power of the things by which men swear, but the just penalty for those who sin, that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous. [14:22-31]
Finally, regardless of how far the Jews—or we ourselves—have strayed, the last verse of the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that the Lord has never neglected to help his people “at all times and in all places”. The Book does not let its readers off lightly, but neither does it ever extinguish hope.
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