Thinking Biblically: Wisdom Literature

Thinking Biblically: Wisdom Literature

Primary Text: Job 28

1 "Surely there is a mine for silver,
    and a place for gold to be refined.
Iron is taken out of the earth,
    and copper is smelted from ore.
Miners put[a] an end to darkness,
    and search out to the farthest bound
    the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
    they are forgotten by travelers,
    they sway suspended, remote from people.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
    but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
    and its dust contains gold.
“That path no bird of prey knows,
    and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
The proud wild animals have not trodden it;
    the lion has not passed over it.
“They put their hand to the flinty rock,
    and overturn mountains by the roots.
10 They cut out channels in the rocks,
    and their eyes see every precious thing.
11 The sources of the rivers they probe;
    hidden things they bring to light.
12 “But where shall wisdom be found?
    And where is the place of understanding?
13 Mortals do not know the way to it,
    and it is not found in the land of the living.
14 The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
    and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
15 It cannot be gotten for gold,
    and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
16 It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
    in precious onyx or sapphire.
17 Gold and glass cannot equal it,
    nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
18 No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
    the price of wisdom is above pearls.
19 The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
    nor can it be valued in pure gold.
20 “Where then does wisdom come from?
    And where is the place of understanding?
21 It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
    and concealed from the birds of the air.
22 Abaddon and Death say,
    ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
23 “God understands the way to it,
    and he knows its place.
24 For he looks to the ends of the earth,
    and sees everything under the heavens.
25 When he gave to the wind its weight,
    and apportioned out the waters by measure;
26 when he made a decree for the rain,
    and a way for the thunderbolt;
27 then he saw it and declared it;
    he established it, and searched it out.
28 And he said to humankind,
‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
    and to depart from evil is understanding.’”
- Job 28

What is wisdom?  How do we attain it?  What does it mean to be wise, and how does one become wise?  Does it just happen, as you grow, or perhaps as you make mistakes, or is it something that must be sought, carefully, slowly, perhaps even agonizingly?  If so, where does the search begin?  These questions rest at the very heart of several books of the Bible, including Job.

 Job is many things, and stands almost unique in the cannon of scripture.  Part of the purpose of this sermon series is to explore just how diverse this sacred anthology of divinely inspired books,which we call The Bible, really is.  We’ve talked about The Gospels, which are themselves ancient biographies, which contain parables and proverbs, we’ve talked about letters, and there are many genre’s which we will not explore in this series like legal texts, and even an entire book of love poetry.  Now we come to Job, which is… a lot of different things.  Fundamentally, Job is wisdom literature.  Before I continue, I want to offer an apology in advance.  One of my bad habits as a preacher is that I talk very fast when I get excited.  I am going to try to refrain from that, but might fail in that endeavor, because, Job itself and the wisdom literature more broadly are, for lack of a better term, awesome.  They are simply great books, which anyone who loves ancient literature would enjoy reading, and then on top of that they are inspired by God and in their pages we meet the living God.

Wisdom literature is very diverse.  The most famous example of wisdom literature in scripture is The Psalms, which are liturgical poems and song lyrics, that show us how to worship.  One may ask why a book of wisdom literature is al about how to worship, and maybe there is a reason for that, which we will explore later. There is Proverbs, which contains descriptions of wisdom, and short sayings which are almost riddles, which describes wisdom in a way that helps the reader grow by deciphering the meaning of the sayings. There is Ecclesiastes, which is almost like a memoir or a thought journal of a wise person seeking to find meaning and grow in wisdom.  There is the aforementioned work of love poetry.  And then there is Job.

 Job is a book of poetry, book-ended by prose. The prose sections are the famous parts of the book, where we get expressions like “That person has the patience of Job” from.  They tell the story Satan coming before God and claiming that no one is righteous.  When God says that Job is, Satan brushes it off as superficial righteousness, only based on God’s blessings.  So God gives Satan permission to curse Job in any way at all except by taking his life.  Then in the end, Job does not curse God, and in the last prose section, God restores Job’s fortunes.  Although they are the most famous part of the book, they only make up a tiny fraction of the book itself.  Job has 42 chapters, and the prose sections only take up 2 1/2.  Overwhelmingly, the bulk of Job is the poetry section, and that is the heart of the heart of the book.  Kind of like the opening and closing greetings in the epistles, which we talked about last week, the prose is important, but the central message is found in the big middle section.

          This huge poetry piece is a dialogue between Job and some of his friends. The friends begin by simply standing by Job and mourning with him.  Then things quickly become a debate.  If you have ever taken a philosophy class, you probably had to read Plato.  When you read Job, it may remind you a bit of Plato’s dialogues.    The big difference, though, is that in Plato, all the people that Socrates (who is the main character in Plato’s dialogues) debates often tend to be a bit foolish.  They are designed to people whom Socrates can easily talk circles around, and then drop a truth bomb.  In Job, this is a real debate. 

Job is vindicated in the end, and his friends are not, but they aren’t stupid.  They, at times, make very good, but still flawed, points.  A great example of this is in chapter 37.  At this point, Elihu who is a young man who has stayed silent out of deference to his elders, has gotten up to speak.  After condemning Job,  and insisting that Job must be guilty, in Chapter 37, verses 14-18, Elihu says this.

14 “Hear this, O Job;
    stop and consider the wondrous works of God.
15 Do you know how God lays his command upon them,
    and causes the lightning of his cloud to shine?
16 Do you know the balancings of the clouds,
    the wondrous works of the one whose knowledge is perfect,
17 you whose garments are hot
    when the earth is still because of the south wind?
18 Can you, like him, spread out the skies,
    hard as a molten mirror?" - Job 37:14-18

This is a good point.  It is very similar to what God will say when God shows up.  Yet, Elihu’s conclusion is not “God is beyond our ability to comprehend and therefore, we all must be humble before God.”; it’s “God is grand and mysterious, and thus you, Job, must be humble before God and admit that I am right.”  When God shows up in Chapter 38 and gives this grand, beautiful, monologue that goes on for several chapters, God’s point is that God is mysterious and human beings are finite and thus all people must be humble.  Job’s response is “I have been proud.  I have failed to see the grandeur of God, and must learn to be humble.” 

This is Job’s response:

1 Then Job answered the Lord:

‘I know that you can do all things,

    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

‘Hear, and I will speak;

    I will question you, and you declare to me.’

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

    but now my eye sees you;

therefore I despise myself,

    and repent in dust and ashes.'”

Job 42: 1-6

God never settles the debate; God never reveals to them why Job suffered.  While does say Job has spoken of God rightly, it’s only after this, despite the fact that Job has been right about his innocence this entire time. Yet, it’s only after Job stood in awe before the gory of God and is humbled, that he is vindicated.  That is why Job is vindicated, why he is the example of wisdom.  It’s not because he was right and they were wrong about his innocence.  It’s not about what they thought,but how they thought.  With all of this in mind let’s turn to the chapter we read at the beginning.

1 “Surely there is a mine for silver,
    and a place for gold to be refined.
Iron is taken out of the earth,
    and copper is smelted from ore.
Miners put an end to darkness,
    and search out to the farthest bound
    the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
    they are forgotten by travelers,
    they sway suspended, remote from people.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
    but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
    and its dust contains gold.
“That path no bird of prey knows,
    and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
The proud wild animals have not trodden it;
    the lion has not passed over it.
“They put their hand to the flinty rock,
    and overturn mountains by the roots.
10 They cut out channels in the rocks,
    and their eyes see every precious thing.
11 The sources of the rivers they probe;
    hidden things they bring to light.
12 “But where shall wisdom be found?
    And where is the place of understanding?
13 Mortals do not know the way to it,
    and it is not found in the land of the living.
14 The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
    and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
15 It cannot be gotten for gold,
    and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
16 It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
    in precious onyx or sapphire.
17 Gold and glass cannot equal it,
    nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
18 No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
    the price of wisdom is above pearls.
19 The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
    nor can it be valued in pure gold.
20 “Where then does wisdom come from?
    And where is the place of understanding?
21 It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
    and concealed from the birds of the air.
22 Abaddon and Death say,
    ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
23 “God understands the way to it,
    and he knows its place.
24 For he looks to the ends of the earth,
    and sees everything under the heavens.
25 When he gave to the wind its weight,
    and apportioned out the waters by measure;
26 when he made a decree for the rain,
    and a way for the thunderbolt;
27 then he saw it and declared it;
    he established it, and searched it out.
28 And he said to humankind,
‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
    and to depart from evil is understanding.’”
- Job 28

There is debate whether this is Job or the a narrator speaking.  Personally, I think that it’s the narrator, but whether it is the narrator showing their hand or Job expressing something which he hasn’t fully come to grips with yet, the questions it asks and the answers it gives are still the same.  How do we attain wisdom?  Does it just happen as we grow or as we make mistakes?  No.  It must be sought, carefully, slowly, agonizingly, like digging for precious minerals.  How does one begin this search?  If it is to bear any fruit, we must begin by standing in reverent awe before the glory and majesty of God and beautiful, heartbreaking, awareness of our own finitude.  Pride and haughtiness are the enemies of wisdom, and humility is the genesis of wisdom.  Wisdom requires both mind and heart: the acceptance of the fact that God is is grand and mysterious and we are small and limited, and the reverent wonder before the glory of God whose very existence shows us just how small we are.

We must all be careful, lest we confuse pride for confidence, confuse haughtiness with zeal for truth, and confuse standing up for ourselves with standing up for God.  Remember our friend Elihu, in whom truth and falsity stood side by side and even when he was speaking truth was still blinded by his prideful heart.  May you have the faith to be humble and the humility to be wise.  Although the way ahead is difficult, although we do not have all the answers, our God does.  God, who is grander and more mysterious than we can imagine, whose very existence shows us how small we are, will make away through the darkness.  The One who is mystery beyond mystery, wonder beyond wonder loves us and will see us through.

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