The Book of Ecclesiasticus (aka. Sirach)

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I’ve just worked my way through the book of Ecclesiasticus, which is a rather long Wisdom book, seeking to teach young people the Jewish religion. Therefore, I have often pictured its origins in the tradition of the elders of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, and developed during those mostly quiet centuries between the restoration of the Temple in the fifth century BC and the cruel rule of the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus IV Ephiphanes, whose wickedness in his persecution of the Jewish people prompted the turmoil of the Maccabean rebellion and the change of fortunes that followed that. But, in the quiet period, Judaism was able to flourish and teaching systems were produced that would eventually result in the synagogues that were already established in the days of Christ in every Jewish community in the Holy Land and beyond.

So, then. This is a type of textbook for the instruction of youngsters. Let’s run through the whole. This book has a preface, providing an introduction and a reason for the book’s existence:

“…my own grandfather, Jesus, who had devoted himself to the careful study of the law, the prophets, and our other ancestral records, had a mind to put something in writing himself that should bear on this philosophical tradition, to claim the attention of eager students who had already mastered it, and to encourage their observance of the Law.

Ecclesiasticus, prologue

Then, as the first chapter begins properly, the basics of the study of wisdom and philosophy is given:

“All wisdom has one source; it dwelt with the Lord God before ever time began. Sand thou mayst count, or the rain-drops, or the days of the world’s abiding; heaven-height thou mayst measure, or the wide earth, or the depth of the world beneath, ere God’s wisdom thou canst trace to her origin, that was before all. First she is of all created things; time never was when the riddle of thought went unread. (What is wisdom’s fount? God’s word above. What is her course? His eternal commandments.) Buried her roots beyond all search, wise her counsels beyond all knowing; too high her teaching to be plainly revealed, too manifold her movements to be understood. There is but one God, high creator of all things; sitting on His throne to govern us, a great King, worthy of all dread; He it was that created her, through His Holy Spirit. His eye took in the whole range of her being; and He has poured her out upon all His creation, upon all living things, upon all the souls that love Him, in the measure of His gift to each. To fear the Lord is man’s pride and boast, is joy, is a prize proudly worn…

Ecclesiasticus, 1: 1-11

This is one of the basic elements of the Wisdom tradition of the Jews, which we have inherited – that reverence for God comes before everything else. That’s what the ‘fear of the Lord’ is primarily – reverence and devotion to the Creator. That last bit (which I have highlighted) is an ideal reading for these days of Pentecost – the great festival of the Spirit of God and of Holy Wisdom. The first part of the book is a general introduction to divine Wisdom and an encouragement to the book’s audience to acquire this Wisdom, in humility and submission to God.

“My son, if thy mind is to enter the Lord’s service, wait there in His presence, with honesty of purpose and with awe, and prepare thyself to be put to the test. Submissive be thy heart, and ready to bear all; to wise advice lend a ready ear, and be never hasty when ill times befall thee. Wait for God, cling to God and wait for Him; at the end of it, thy life shall blossom anew. Accept all that comes to thee, patient in sorrow, humiliation long enduring; for gold and silver the crucible, it is in the furnace of humiliation men shew themselves worthy of His acceptance. Trust in Him, and he will lift thee to thy feet again; go straight on thy way, and fix in him thy hope; hold fast thy fear of him, and in that fear to old age come thou. All you that fear the Lord, wait patiently for His mercies; lose sight of Him, and you shall fall by the way.”

Ecclesiasticus, 2: 1-7

One of the reasons I like Ecclesiasticus so very much is that it is practically Christian. Having been written not long before the time of Christ, it obviously influenced the Apostles and other early Christians very strongly and there are echoes of Ecclesiasticus in the letters we have in the New Testament, in particular the so-called Catholic Epistles of the Apostles James, Jude and Peter. So, honesty of purpose, extreme trust in God and the willingness to suffer for the sake of God, etc. – characteristics of the peace-loving Church of the Apostolic and patristic times. God/Christ always before us, and a great derision for sinful attitudes, especially dishonesty and maliciousness. The third chapter has a beautiful recommendation for the care of one’s parents, specifically one’s father in his strength and in his old age and dissipation.

“As thou wouldst have joy of thy own children, as thou wouldst be heard when thou fallest to praying, honour thy father still. A father honoured is long life won; a father well obeyed is a mother’s heart comforted. None that fears the Lord but honours the parents who gave him life, slave to master owes no greater service. Thy father honour, in deed and in word and in all manner of forbearance; so thou shalt have his blessing, a blessing that will endure to thy life’s end. What is the buttress of a man’s house? A father’s blessing. What tears up the foundations of it? A mother’s curse. Never make a boast of thy father’s ill name; what, should his discredit be thy renown? Nay, for a father’s good repute or ill, a son must go proudly, or hang his head. My son, when thy father grows old, take him to thyself; long as he lives, never be thou the cause of his repining. Grow he feeble of wit, make allowance for him, nor in thy manhood’s vigour despise him. The kindness shewn to thy father will not go forgotten; favour it shall bring thee in acquittal of thy mother’s guilt. Faithfully it shall be made good to thee, nor shalt thou be forgotten when the time of affliction comes; like ice in summer the record of thy sins shall melt away. Tarnished his name, that leaves his father forsaken; God’s curse rest on him, that earns a mother’s ill-will.”

Ecclesiasticus, 3: 6-18

Now, again, the heart of Jewish philosophy – love of God and love of neighbours (the most vulnerable of whom are widows and orphans) – mixed in with the call to humility.

“To the common sort of men give friendly welcome; before an elder abate thy pride; and to a man of eminence bow meekly thy head. If a poor man would speak to thee, lend him thy ear without grudging; give him his due, and let him have patient and friendly answer. If he is wronged by oppression, redress thou needs must win him, nor be vexed by his importunity. When thou sittest in judgement, be a father to the orphans, a husband to the widow that bore them; so the most High an obedient son shall reckon thee, and shew thee more than a mother’s kindness.

Ecclesiasticus, 4: 7-11

Almost every chapter in Ecclesiasticus has a new bit of relevant advice buried in a more general soup of Jewish Wisdom. For example, now there is a call to silence and listening that hearkens back to the Book of Proverb’s saying that the fool in keeping silence shows himself to be wise and discerning.

“True answer and wise answer none can give but he who listens patiently, and learns all. If discernment thou hast, give thy neighbour his answer; if none, tongue held is best, or some ill-advised word will shame thee; speech uttered was ever the wise man’s passport to fame, the fool’s undoing. Never win the name of back-biter, by thy own tongue entrapped into shame. A thief must blush and do penance, a hypocrite men will mark and avoid; the back-biter earns indignation and enmity and disgrace all at once.”

Ecclesiasticus, 5: 13-17

So, now, I shall fast-forward a little, or this post could be endless. Chapter six speaks of gentleness and true friendship. Chapter seven deals with human relationships of rich/poor, king/subject, brother/brother, husband/wife, father/children, children/parents. It’s all about duty, and even the duty of the general population to the priests is mentioned. Chapter eight begins a slew of proverbs, not unlike the book of Proverbs itself. Such as the warning to not write biographies until the subject is in the grave:

Never call a man happy until he is dead; his true epitaph is written in his children.

Ecclesiasticus, 11: 30

Chapter thirteen is about the rich and the poor and presents the warning to the poor to not mix with the rich, who would only aim to further impoverish them, while growing fat off it. Or anyhow to use them and then chuck them away.

“A heavy burden thou art shouldering, if thou wouldst consort with thy betters; not for thee the company of the rich. Pot and kettle are ill matched; it is the pot breaks when they come together; rich man, that has seized all he can, frets and fumes for more; poor man robbed may not so much as speak.”

Ecclesiasticus, 13: 2-4

Chapter fourteen and fifteen take up again the glories of divine Wisdom and the protection she offers to those who honestly seek her. Wisdom, as contained in the precepts of God. From chapter sixteen, we return to the subject of the fear of God, the reverence due to God’s majesty, especially as revealed to the Hebrews at the beginning of their history with the faithful patriarch Abraham and his nephew Lot, and then with the Law-giver Moses. 

Their eyes should see Him in visible majesty, their ears catch the echo of His majestic voice. Keep your hands clear, He told them, of all wrong-doing, and gave each man a duty towards his neighbour. Ever before His eyes their doings are; nothing is hidden from His scrutiny. To every Gentile people He has given a ruler of its own; Israel alone is exempt, marked down as God’s patrimony. Clear as the sun their acts shew under His eye; over their lives, untiring His scrutiny. Sin they as they will, His covenant is still on record; no misdeed of theirs but He is the witness of it.

Ecclesiasticus, 17: 11-17

As we can see, the writer of the book has gone beyond the short-lived kingships of Israel, returning to the older view of Israel as God’s patrimony, to be ruled over by God Himself. The chapter ends magnificently:

“Think not man is the centre of all things; no son of Adam is immortal, for all the delight men take in their sinful follies. Nought brighter than the sun, and yet its brightness shall fail; nought darker than the secret designs of flesh and blood, yet all shall be brought to light. God, that marshals the armies of high heaven, and man, all dust and ashes!

Ecclesiasticus, 17: 29-31

Is there not an echo of that in the Gospels…? where Christ declares that what is spoken of in secret will be one day shouted from the rooftops, when the secrets of men’s hearts will one day be revealed? Chapter eighteen speaks of the passing of fortunes and how quickly such can take place, urging readers to work well in times of plenty, remembering that times of drought may be around the corner. With chapter nineteen there begins another collection of proverbs. There is a nice little condemnation of the exploitation of the poor in chapter twenty-one. Keep it mind that reserving the justly-earned pay of the workman is still considered by the Church to be one of the sins that cries out to Heaven for vengeance.

“Browbeat and oppress the poor, thy own wealth shall dwindle; riches that are grown too great the proud cannot long enjoy; pride shrivels wealth. Swiftly comes their doom, because the poor man’s plea reached their ears, but never their hearts. Where reproof is unregarded, there goes the sinner; no God-fearing man but will come to a better mind. To the glib speaker, fame comes from far and wide; only the wise man knows the slips of his own heart. Wouldst thou build thy fortunes on earnings that are none of thine? As well mightest thou lay in stones for winter fuel.

Ecclesiasticus, 21: 5-9

So Wisdom is knowing one’s imperfections and making amends for them. The proverbs continue into chapter twenty-three, where the writer prays for custody of the lips, not just keeping oneself from oath-taking, but also from lewd language and even rash speech made in anger.

“Oaths a many, sins a many; punishment shall be still at thy doors. Forswear thyself, thou shalt be held to account for it; forget the oath, it is at thy double peril; and though it were lightly taken, thou shalt find no excuse in that; plague shall light on all thou hast, in amends for it. Sin of speech there is, too, that has death for its counterpart; God send it be not found in Jacob’s chosen race; from men of tender conscience every such thought is far away, not theirs to wallow in evil-doing. Beware of habituating thy tongue to lewd talk; therein is matter of offence. Not thine to bring shame on father and mother. There are great ones all around thee; what if thyself God should disregard, when thou art in their company? Then shall this ill custom of thine strike thee dumb and bring thee to great dishonour; thou wilt wish thou hadst never been, and rue the day of thy birth. Let a man grow into a habit of railing speech, all his days there is no amending him.

Ecclesiasticus, 23: 12-20

Chapter twenty-four takes up the song of divine Wisdom once more in a beautiful passage comparable with chapter eight of the book of Proverbs. After this comes the description of the plight of the man who suffers the ill-will of his wife, whom this translation calls a ‘scold.’ It is curious that there is never mention of the plight of the long-suffering wife, who has a nasty husband. I could turn both ways the words presented here

Better climb sandy cliff with the feet of old age, than be a peace-loving man mated with a scold. Let not thy eye be caught by a woman’s beauty; not for her beauty desire her; think of woman’s rage, her shamelessness, the dishonour she can do thee, how hard it goes with a man if his wife will have the uppermost. Crushed spirits, a clouded brow, a heavy heart, all this is an ill woman’s work; faint hand and flagging knee betoken one unblessed in his marriage.”

Ecclesiasticus, 25: 27-32

But there follows praise for the faithful wife, and this could also go both ways: happy the woman with a faithful husband, etc.

Happy the man that has a faithful wife; his span of days is doubled. A wife industrious is the joy of her husband, and crowns all his years with peace. He best thrives that best wives; where men fear God, this is the reward of their service, good cheer given to rich and poor alike; day in, day out, never a mournful look.”

Ecclesiasticus, 26: 1-4

There follows now another stream of proverbs, again with the common themes of prudent conversation, false friendships, making return on loans, performing acts of charity towards those who cannot make return (virtue its own reward?), disciplining one’s children for their own good, tempering one’s appetite, the prudent consumption of alcohol, etc. Then, chapter thirty-three returns to the subject of the fear of God, part of the ongoing pattern of the book, which wheels between this and the glory of divine Wisdom, peppering the spaces between with proverbs. Here, we find a meditation on the order of relationships between people, an order seemingly placed there by God:

“To some He would assign high dignity; others should be lost in the common rabble of days. So it is that all men are built of the same clay; son of Adam is son of earth; yet the Lord, in the plenitude of His wisdom, has marked them off from one another, not giving the same destiny to each. For some, His blessing; he will advance them, will set them apart and claim them as His own. For some, His ban; he will bring them low, and single them out no more. Clay we are in the potter’s hands; it is for Him who made us to dispose of us; clay is what potter wills it to be, and we are in our Maker’s hands, to be dealt with at His pleasure. Evil matched with good, life matched with death, sinner matched with man of piety; so everywhere in God’s works thou wilt find pairs matched, one against the other.

Ecclesiasticus, 33: 10-15

This, we may notice, is the conclusion of Job, who could not understand his afflictions, for he knew himself to be in God’s favour. His friends were convinced that he had sinned and so merited punishment. But Job discovered that God disposes as God pleases, and we may not dare to defend our own innocence before God – this is also a conclusion of Ecclesiasticus. In chapter thirty-five, we find the great honour given to the perfect observance of the Law, as part of the requirement for divine worship, something lost on many self-confessed Christians today. Christ no less than Moses required that his people keep His commandments and so remain in His love. Keeping the Law of God is giving Him due reverence and worship.

Live true to the Law, and thou hast richly endowed the altar. Let this be thy welcome-offering, to heed God’s word and keep clear of all wickedness; this thy sacrifice of amends for wrong done, of atonement for fault, to shun wrong-doing. Bloodless offering wouldst thou make, give thanks; victim wouldst thou immolate, shew mercy. Wickedness and wrong-doing to shun is to win God’s favour, and pardon for thy faults. Yet do not appear in the Lord’s presence empty-handed; due observance must be paid, because God has commanded it. If thy heart is right, thy offering shall enrich the altar; its fragrance shall reach the presence of the most High; a just man’s sacrifice the Lord accepts, and will not pass over his claim to be remembered.”

Ecclesiasticus, 35: 1-9

Chapter thirty six provides us with the cry of Israel to God to retain the nation in His favour, a passage that has found expression in the liturgy of the Church, which of course inherits the old promises made to Israel. Here there is some hope that the Gentiles may learn to fear God also and acclaim His wonders, especially those who actively persecuted the Jews when they had a chance. But this was always Israel’s hope, although the later Jews rejected Christ and the Church for bringing this hope to fruition on different terms.

God of all men, have mercy on us; look down, and let us see the smile of Thy favour. Teach them to fear Thee, those other nations that have never looked to find Thee; let them learn to recognize Thee as the only God, and to acclaim Thy wonders. Lift up Thy hand, to shew these aliens Thy power; let us see them, as they have seen us, humbled before Thee; let them learn, as we have learnt, that there is no other God but Thou. Shew new marvels, and portents stranger still; win renown for that strength, that valiant arm of Thine; rouse Thyself to vengeance, give Thy anger free play; away with the oppressors, down with Thy enemies! Hasten on the time, do not forget Thy purpose; make them acclaim Thy wonders. Let none of them escape their doom, the oppressors of Thy people; let there be a raging fire ready to devour them; heavy let the blow fall on the heads of those tyrants, that no other power will recognize but their own. Gather anew all the tribes of Jacob; be it theirs to know that Thou alone art God, to acclaim Thy wonders; make them Thy loved possession as of old. Have compassion on the people that is called by Thy own Name, on Israel, owned Thy first-born; have compassion on Jerusalem, the city Thou hast set apart for Thy resting-place; fill Sion’s walls, fill the hearts of Thy people, with wonders beyond all telling come true, with Thy glory made manifest.”

Ecclesiasticus, 36: 1-16

Coming towards the end of the book, following another handful of proverbs, we find the commendation of medical professionals – physicians – in chapter thirty-eight. It’s nice to see this treatment of a vital human science, which includes a knowledge of natural remedies.

“Deny not a physician his due for thy need’s sake; his task is of divine appointment, since from God all healing comes, and kings themselves must needs bring gifts to him. High rank his skill gives him; of great men he is the honoured guest. Medicines the most High has made for us out of earth’s bounty, and shall prudence shrink from the use of them? Were not the waters of Mara made wholesome by the touch of wood? Well for us men, that the secret virtue of such remedies has been revealed; skill the most High would impart to us, and for His marvels win renown. Thus it is that the physician cures our pain, and the apothecary makes, not only perfumes to charm the sense, but unguents remedial; so inexhaustible is God’s creation, such health comes of His gift, all the world over. Son, when thou fallest sick, do not neglect thy own needs; pray to the Lord, and thou shalt win recovery.”

Ecclesiasticus, 38, 1-9

The chapter goes on to engineers, fabricators and artisans, all of whose professions are superceded by that of the professional sage or wise man (or philosopher), who samples the world and learns through his experience of human behaviour, becoming a master of the traditions of the nation and summoned as an expert even to the councils of princes. All this magnification of the wise man is in chapter thirty-nine. On the contrary, workmen…

“All these look to their own hands for a living, skilful each in his own craft; and without them, there is no building up a commonwealth. For them no travels abroad, no journeyings from home; they will not pass beyond their bounds to swell the assembly, or to sit in the judgement-seat. Not theirs to understand the law’s awards, not theirs to impart learning or to give judgement; they will not be known for uttering wise sayings. Theirs it is to support this unchanging world of God’s creation; they ply their craft and ask for nothing better; … lending themselves freely and making their study in the law of the most High.

Ecclesiasticus, 38: 35-39

Now, after a few more proverbs, chapter forty-three brings us a meditation upon the sun, the moon and creation in general, all of them held in being by the Creator Himself, Who is within them.

“Say we as much as we will, of what needs to be said our words come short; be this the sum of all our saying, He is in all things. To what end is all our boasting? He, the Almighty, is high above all that He has made; He, the Lord, is terrible, and great beyond compare, and His power is wonderful. Glorify Him as best you may, glory is still lacking, such is the marvel of His greatness; praise Him and extol Him as you will, He is beyond all praising; summon all your strength, the better to exalt His name, untiring still, and you shall not reach your goal.”

Ecclesiasticus, 43: 29-34

Again the call to worship, to do what we can when we can never do enough. From this panegyric, the writer now comes to a summary of the history of the heroes of Israel. So, chapter forty-four tells us of Enoch and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Chapter forty-five tells us of Moses and Aaron, and the Aaronic priesthood, and finally of King David. This introduces the twin authorities of the Jewish community in the time of the writer of Ecclesiasticus: the government of the descendants of David and their eventual successors and the ongoing high-priesthood of the family of Aaron. Chapter forty-six tells us of Josue (aka. Joshua) and Caleb, both defenders of Moses against his detractors, and then of Samuel, the last of the Judges of Israel and a great prophet. Chapter forty-seven tells of King David and the prophet Nathan, who had been David’s counsellor, and then of King Solomon, a great king who had fallen into dissipation in later life, and then of the unfortunate Roboam son of Solomon, who oversaw the schism of the kingdom left him by his father, and of the wicked Jeroboam, who introduced an Egyptian religion into the northern kingdom of Israel and doomed that people to centuries of idolatry. Chapter forty-eight tells us of the prophet Elias (aka. Elijah) and his successor, the prophet Eliseus (aka. Elisha), and then of the prophet Isaias, who had acted as counsellor to the good king Ezechias (aka. Hezekiah) of Juda. Chapter forty-nine tells of the good king Josias of Juda and of the prophet Ezechiel, who worked among the exiled Hebrews in Babylonia, and then of the successor of David, Zorobabel, who had led one of several return journeys of exiled Jews back to Juda and Jerusalem. Zorobabel, with Josue son of Josedec, had rebuilt Jerusalem and restored the Temple, after its decades of utter ruin. Note is also made here of Nehemias, the Jewish governor of Juda who had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and so restored to her citizens security after many decades. 

Chapter fifty introduces a high-priest of the Temple called Simon son of Onias, who cannot be identified with certainty, but must have been a memorable name in the time of the writing of this book, some two or three hundred years before Christ. This chapter is worth mentioning because of its eulogy of this priest Simon, the words of which have been used by the Church in her liturgies for the feast days of Saints who were confessor bishops and sometimes for the high Masses offered by bishops, in the famous antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus. This chapter is also the end of the book, the last chapter being separate, and perhaps added later on. So, I shall put in the last lines, which are practically a signature of the author.

The lessons of discernment and of true knowledge in this book contained were written down by Jesus, the son of Sirach, of Jerusalem; his heart ever a fountain of true wisdom. Blessed is he who lingers in these pleasant haunts, and treasures the memory of them; wisdom he shall never lack; and if by these precepts he live, nothing shall avail to daunt him; God’s beacon-light shews the track he shall tread.”

Ecclesiasticus, 50: 29-31

Jesus is the Greek form of the old Hebrew name Joshua (also Josue). The last chapter of the book is a prayer composed by this wise man Joshua ben Sirach. It is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a nice extract to end this post with, for it speaks of the quest for Wisdom:

“Further and further yet I travelled, thanks be to the God that all wisdom bestows. Good use to make of her was all my love and longing; never was that hope disappointed. Hardily I strove to win her, put force on myself to keep her rule; I stretched out my hands towards heaven, and grieved for the want of her. Kept I but true to the search for her, I found and recognized her still. Long since trained by her discipline, I shall never be left forsaken. Much heart-burning I had in the quest for her, but a rich dowry she brought me. Never shall this tongue, with utterance divinely rewarded, be negligent of praise.”

Ecclesiasticus, 51: 23-30