The Father William Most Collection
Commentary on the Wisdom of Solomon
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
This book is the culmination of a long process of planning on the part of the wisdom and providence of God. We saw in the introduction to the Wisdom books that the Jews certainly did know survival after death in spite of their odd notion of a unitary character of man. We saw that at least by the time of the persecution of Antiochus IV of Syria, around 170 AD, many of the Jews came to know reward and punishment in the future life. Not all Jews took this up it seems. We know that in the time of our Lord himself, the Sadducees did not believe in survival at all. When St. Paul was in Jerusalem and was speaking to the crowd in Acts 23. 6ff, he noticed there were Pharisees and Sadducees and said, "I am on trial for the resurrection."
That started a furious debate, and they had to put Paul away under custody so they would not tear him apart. The Sadducees even that late did deny resurrection and survival. Also earlier they had tried to trap our Lord with an imaginary case of a women who had seven different husbands. But He very cleverly overthrew their argument. At any rate, at the time Paul spoke the Pharisees and their followers did know survival.
Previously we saw they Jews groping much of the time trying to find some things. But now in the Wisdom of Solomon there is no more groping; everything is right out in the open.
Solomon urges them to love righteousness. Wisdom is found by those who do not put it to the test, and shows herself to those who do not mistrust her. He says that perverse thoughts separate people from God, and when his power is tested it convicts the foolish. Wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul.
Farther down he says, "The spirit of the Lord has filled the world. And that which holds all things together knows what is said. Therefore no one who utters unrighteous things will escape unnoticed . There is no secret word that does not have a result.
And he says also in verse 11, "A lying mouth destroys the soul." Some people have misunderstood this as if the soul were not immortal. No, it refers to spiritually ruining the soul. Farther on in 16, "Ungodly men by their words and deeds brought on death, because God did not make anything naturally deadly. Everything is good in itself but evil men brought it on. Is he see thinking of original sin? The Jews in general in the Old Testament do not seem to speak of original sin.
He says, They reason unsoundly: "This life is short and sorrowful. There is no remedy when a man comes to his end. Nobody has ever been known to come back from the netherworld". It is true that they never saw anyone come out of his grave and resume his place in everyday life. So the wicked men then took the attitude -eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; they used the good things of creation to the full.
But then the thought goes on into something very strange - in verse 10: "The wicked say: Let us oppress the righteous poorman, and not spare the widow; and even it adds in verse 12, "Let us lie and wait for the righteous man. He reproaches us for our sins. Even if he doesn't say anything to them, the mere fact that he lives righteously is a reproach to them by the mere fact of comparison. The very sight of him is a burden to us." Then a strange things happens in verse 17. He says, "Let us test what will happen at the end of his life. If the righteous man is God's son, he will help him, so let us try him with insult and torture and see how he is," and then even, this is astounding in 20, "let us condemn him to a shameful death. According to what he says, he will be protected."
Now we wonder, how on earth did the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon go so far as this. It is true that good people are a living reproach to the wicked. But look how far they are going. They want to take a good man and take him to a shameful death. We have to wonder about something. We know the chief author of holy scripture is the Holy Spirit. We know too that it is not necessary that always the human writer should understand fully what the human writer has in mind. We see this very clearly in Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 55. It is talking about Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14, and it says this: "These primeval documents as they are read in the Church and are understood in the light and later and full revelation gradually bring before us the figure of the Mother of the Redeemer. She in this light is already prophetically foreshadowed in the promise given to our very first parents, fallen into sin, of a Redeemer (cf. Gen. 3:15 cf. Isaiah 7:14)."
We gather: the writer of Wisdom may not have seen all that the Spirit had in mind here. He may have had in mind Jesus, to whom the words so remarkably apply.
Their own wickedness blinded these wicked men They did not know the secret design of God: suffering was to bring redemption. (Cf. Isa 53). God did not create man to suffer: it was by the envy of the devil that death came into the world.
Yet no matter what the wicked may do, the souls of the just are in the hands of God. -- Here for the first time we have a clear statement of immortality, glorious at that.
Does this have to mean reward between death and resurrection? Not necessarily. In Jewish thought survival and resurrection are tied together. But it surely does teach glorious survival. v. 7 could favor the idea that this had in mind the state after resurrection.
Verse 14 shows an interesting shift compared to the old law in which eunuchs were not allowed to be part of the covenant community. Now they are, and they are considered specially blessed if they have done well.
v. 7ff are remarkable: God sometimes takes a man in death when young, so he may not be perverted. Now it is not just old age that is to be honored but virtue, or living by wisdom.
So v. 12 says in great wisdom: The magic spell of little things obscures good. Matt 6. 21 says: "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." In the narrow sense the treasure could be a box of coins buried under the floor If a man has such a stash it pulls his thoughts and heart to it. So it is just that much less easy for them to rise to God. But he can make his treasure many things--large meals, gourmet meals, sex, travel, even study of theology. All these are lower than God, some more than others.
There is a second factor: how strongly does a man let these pull him? To only imperfection, or occasional venial, or habitual venial sin? Or occasional or even habitual mortal sin? habitual venial sin, or to occasional or even habitual mortal sin?
If they do not pull even to imperfection, they are harmless or even beneficial. Christianity does not call for lack of all feeling. It is no Stoicism. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. St. Francis de Sales told a married woman that as her devotion grew, her warmth to her husband should grow. (A matter of duties of state in life).
Then in 13 :Length of life is not the essential thing --growth in wisdom is. That may be done even in a short time.
So if the evil have afflicted a good man, at the end, they will find out the real truth. The righteous shall live forever.
He advises kings: Your power comes from God. He will demand a much more strict account from you than from the little man, who more readily is given mercy. So if kings want long and good rule let them follow wisdom.
I too am mortal man, with the same human formation as others. But I prayed for wisdom and she came, and all good things with her. Wisdom is pure emanation of God: this is part of the growing tendency to identify wisdom as divine. Finally St. Paul will tell the Corinthians that Christ is the wisdom of the Father.
Wisdom extends to all things, not in the sense the lifeless things have it, but divine wisdom ordered and arranged them.
Elders waited in silence to hear his wisdom.
The God of our Fathers in wisdom made man to have dominion over other creatures. There is debate over sense of Genesis saying God made man in His own image. This text favors saying it means sharing God's dominion.
In v. 7 the writer speaks in person of Solomon: God made him king, told him to build the temple as a copy of the holy tent prepared from the beginning as in 1 Chr 28. 11-19.
Solomon continues: the reasoning of men is worthless. This earthly tent, the body, burdens the thoughtful mind: cf. for this sense above notes on 4. 13.
Now the author begins a long review of history, starting with Adam: wisdom delivered him from his transgression. But then an unrighteous man, Cain, slew his brother Abel. When the flood came wisdom saved the righteous Noah on a little wood. Again wisdom delivered Lot when fire fell on the Five Cities. A pillar of salt, Lot's wife is a monument to an unbelieving soul.
Wisdom rescued a righteous man, Jacob, fleeing his brother's wrath and gave him victory in the contest with the angelic spirit in the night.
Another good man, Joseph, was sold into Egypt, but wisdom delivered him and gave him power in Egypt.
Wisdom delivered a blameless people - heavy Semitic exaggeration-- from Egypt and led Moses to withstand the Pharaoh. God guided that people by a pillar of cloud by day , a pillar of fire by night. Then they sang the praises of God.
Wisdom made their works to prosper through a holy prophet, Moses.
When they sinned, God sent saraph serpents. They saw that one is punished through the very things through which they sinned. God told Moses to set up a bronze serpent, so those who looked on would be healed. We note this did not violate God's command against making images, for it was not to worship it, but to foretell the redemption through Christ.
v. 20 says God has arranged all things in measure and number --in that they all are orderly and by their marvelous structure reflect His wisdom. The whole world in His eyes is as a speck on the scales.
God corrects people a bit at a time, hoping thus to provide for more chance for their salvation. The reference here is to Ex. 23. 28. (The word "wasps" follows the LXX. The sense of the Hebrew word is uncertain). But it is not only there that God uses all means to save. Please see the file "He Wants Intensely to Make Us Happy".
vv. 10-11 says their origin was evil. This seems to mean the people being led here, for the notion of original sin is not clear in any spot in the OT, though the account of the fall shows Adam lost grace/favor, and so did not pass it on to his descendants.
v. 19: God kindness in this case teaches us to be kind.
The thought here is like that at the start of Rom 1 which yet insists they could and should know God by His creation. Since so may did not actually do that, they went into worship of other things, and went lower and lower in an evil spiral. (The picture of Romans 1 is artificially focused, showing what man is like when on his own. See my book The Thought of St. Paul on this.
Continues the descent pictured in Romans 1. Making idols is the start of so many evils, even sacrificing their own children to them. It led to ritual fornication and to fornication in the broad sense of infidelity to God.
Even when we sin we belong to God and He tries bit by bit to rescue us, as we saw in chapter 12. We are like potter's clay in His hand. Yet we are free: for explanation please see notes on Proverbs 21.
Tells how God preserved His people while punishing the wicked. Even water He made to act like fire; and fire like water: not in Scripture, but cf. Philo, Life of Moses 1. 118.
For His people He gave to manna many different tastes. Men ate the bread of angels-- fanciful language: does not mean angels have bodies and use food.
In the plagues before the Exodus, He held captive by darkness those who thought they could hold God's people. In the darkness their fears conjured up specters.
Their enemies were in darkness, but for his people He led them by a pillar of fire. In silence and darkness His word came down and slew the firstborn. --VV 14-15 have been beautifully adapted by our liturgy for the incarnation. Death came to some of God' people in the desert, but a blameless man,
Aaron made propitiation with incense and the plague stopped. On his long robe the whole world was depicted.
But in Egypt the ungodly came again into pitiless anger, so that they pursued the Israelites who they had asked to go. Thus they filled up the measure of their sins. But God remade the whole creation: the waves came back on the pursuers.
In everything the Lord has exalted His people. He helps them at all times and places.