The Wisdom of Solomon

It’s Ash Wednesday again. But what’s all this fasting and prayer and almsgiving supposed to do for us? What’s the point of the Christian religion? Surely, it’s all about entering further into our covenant relationship with Christ, made upon the Cross. And what, if you were in an intimate relationship with somebody, would you try to do? Why, you would try to learn as much as you could about that person, not as some type of theological project or study, but as the very object of your affection. We, if we loved God as He loves us, should be trying to find out more about him. We should be seeking Wisdom, seeking understanding. This is what philo-sophy means: the love of wisdom. In our case, God Himself is Truth and Wisdom, the Way and the Life. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving is then about advancing in our knowledge of God. And that could serve as an introduction to Divine Wisdom, of which the short book called the Wisdom of Solomon is a small part. Please note that the protestants, misguidedly following the Hebrew Bible, have left this book out of their Bible, whereas the Church has retained it as an ancient inheritance. The Wisdom of Solomon is traditionally attributed to the king of that name, although Scripture scholars have attempted to throw doubt on that (as Scripture scholars are wont to do). But let’s use the traditional attribution to keep things simple. There are three great themes of the book: (i) the triumph of the Just (often used in Masses of the Dead, when we assume that the Deceased is numbered among the Just); (ii) the glory of personified Wisdom, usually given the aspect of a desirable woman, to be courted and embraced; and (iii) the action of Divine Wisdom in the history of the Israelite nation. Let’s go through the whole thing, in summary fashion.

First, there’s an introduction to Wisdom in chapter one, and then there is the introduction to the Just Man, who is hated by schemers and villains, who wish to destroy him and humiliate him. This terrifying chapter two is brought to life by the treatment of Christ by his tormentors, the Temple priests (the Sadducees):

“Where is he, the just man? We must plot to be rid of him; he will not lend himself to our purposes. Ever he must be thwarting our plans; transgress we the law, he is all reproof, depart we from the traditions of our race, he denounces us. What, would he claim knowledge of divine secrets, give himself out as the son of God? The touchstone, he, of our inmost thoughts; we cannot bear the very sight of him, his life so different from other men’s, the path he takes, so far removed from theirs! No better than false coin he counts us, holds aloof from our doings as though they would defile him; envies the just their future happiness, boasts of a divine parentage. Put we his claims, then, to the proof; let experience shew what his lot shall be, and what end awaits him. If to be just is to be God’s son indeed, then God will take up his cause, will save him from the power of his enemies. Outrage and torment, let these be the tests we use; let us see that gentleness of his in its true colours, find out what his patience is worth. Sentenced let him be to a shameful death; by his own way of it, he shall find deliverance.

Wisdom, 2: 12-20

But such Just people, who suffer patiently and treasure Wisdom in their hearts, have a great reward coming their way, because although they seem to have succumbed to weakness, suffering and death, their life is hidden with God in heaven. For about the first time in the Old Testament, we find hints of resurrection, a life beyond the grave and eternal beatitude. This is one of the readings at funeral Masses:

“But the souls of the just are in God’s hands, and no torment, in death itself, has power to reach them. Dead? Fools think so; think their end loss, their leaving us, annihilation; but all is well with them. The world sees nothing but the pains they endure; they themselves have eyes only for what is immortal; so light their suffering, so great the gain they win! God, all the while, did but test them, and testing them found them worthy of Him. His gold, tried in the crucible, His burnt-sacrifice, graciously accepted, they do but wait for the time of their deliverance; then they will shine out, these just souls, unconquerable as the sparks that break out, now here, now there, among the stubble. Theirs to sit in judgement on nations, to subdue whole peoples, under a Lord whose reign shall last for ever. Trust Him if thou wilt, true thou shalt find Him; faith waits for Him calmly and lovingly; who claims His gift, who shall attain peace, if not they, His chosen servants?

Wisdom, 3: 1-9

Of course, the men of this world do not understand all of this. For them, the death of the Just Man (or Woman), deprived as he is of worldly honours and worldly fortunes, is shameful and an object of contempt and derision. This was the curse that fell upon the Jewish priests after the Resurrection of Christ. Within forty years of the Ascension and the first Christian Pentecost (in AD 70), the Jerusalem Temple was no more and has never been rebuilt.

“Did they know it, the death of the just man, with its promise early achieved, is a reproach to the wicked that live yet in late old age. But what see they? Here is a man dead, and all his wisdom could not save him. That the Lord planned all this, and for the saving of him, does not enter their minds. What wonder if the sight fills them with contempt? And they themselves, all the while, are earning the Lord’s contempt; they themselves, doomed to lie there dishonoured among the dead, eternally a laughing-stock! How they will stand aghast, when he pricks the bubble of their pride! Ruins they shall be, overthrown from the foundation, land for ever parched dry; bitter torment shall be theirs, and their name shall perish irrecoverably.”

Wisdom, 4: 16-19

Chapter five goes further into the rewards of the Just, and we can see in this some of the rewards Christ Himself promises to his disciples and primarily to the Apostles. Wearing crowns and judging the tribes of Israel, receiving very much in return for the sacrifice of family and property, etc. 

“It is the just that will live for ever; the Lord has their recompense waiting for them, the most high God takes care of them. How glorious is that kingdom, how beautiful that crown, which the Lord will bestow on them! His right hand is there to protect them, His holy arm to be their shield.

Wisdom, 5: 16-17

Chapter six begins the picture of Wisdom personified as a desirable woman, to be embraced at all cost, particularly by kings and governors, those who have the care of the people, as King Solomon did.

“The bright beacon of wisdom, that never burns dim, how readily seen by eyes that long for it, how open to their search! Nay, she is beforehand with these her suitors, ready to make herself known to them; no toilsome quest is his, that is up betimes to greet her; she is there, waiting at his doors. Why, to entertain the very thought of her is maturity of the mind; one night’s vigil, and all thy cares are over. She goes her rounds, to find men worthy of her favours; in the open street unveils that smiling face of hers, comes deliberately to meet them.

Wisdom, 6: 13-17

It is in chapter seven that the author seems to identify himself as Solomon, hence the book’s attribution of authorship. This chapter points back to the beginning of the reign of King Solomon, when he had requested Wisdom from God as more desirable to him than anything worldly. The next two chapters and this one continues the glorification of Wisdom in the chapter six. Chapter ten begins the final phase of the book, which is an account of the history of the Israelite nation, from Abraham to Moses and the passage through the Red Sea and the period of wandering in the wilderness and being fed with manna, as being facilitated by divine Wisdom. I shall only put three quotes from this section down, but a complete reading would allow for a devotional meditation on the care of God for His people. First, we have Abraham and his nephew Lot:

“And when the nations went their several ways, banded in a single conspiracy of wickedness, of one man’s innocence she still took note; Abraham must be kept irreproachable in God’s service, and steeled against pity for his own child. Here was another innocent man, Lot, that owed his preservation to Wisdom, when godless folk were perishing all around him. Escape he should, when fire came down upon the Cities of the Plain; those five cities whose shame is yet unforgotten, while smoke issues from the barren soil, and never tree bears seasonable fruit, and the pillar of salt stands monument to an unbelieving soul. Fatal neglect of Wisdom’s guidance, that could blind their eyes to the claims of honour, and leave the world such a memorial of their folly, as should make the record of their sins unmistakable! But those who cherish her, Wisdom brings safely out of all their striving.”

Wisdom, 10: 5-9

The rest of the book is about the plagues that were inflicted upon the Egyptians before the flight of the Israelites into the wilderness. The Egyptians are excoriated for their idolatry, and this is not infrequently given to be the cause of their treatment, quite apart from their abuse of the Israelites – worship animals and animals will be used by divine Wisdom to inflict injury upon you. Idolatry is the great foe, the great villain, of the people of the Old Testament, as it is even for us today. It is all too easy to find other things to worship and trust in than the God Who stands above all.

For Israel, only a test of their faith; only a father’s correction; for Egypt, as from a king, stern scrutiny and stern doom. Tidings from far away, that racked the Egyptians no less than their own former sufferings; anguish redoubled, as they groaned over the memory of things past! That the same plague of thirst which had tortured themselves should be the source of Israel’s rejoicing! Then indeed they felt the Lord’s power, then indeed they wondered at the revenge time had brought; wondered at Moses, whom their insolence had long ago disinherited, when they exposed him with the other children. Thirst, that had been Egypt’s enemy, had no terrors for the just. So lost to piety were these Egyptians, such foolish reasonings led them astray, that they worshipped brute reptiles, and despicable vermin. And swarms of brute beasts thou didst send to execute thy vengeance, for the more proof that a man’s own sins are the instrument of his punishment. Thy power knows no restraint, the power that created an ordered world out of dark chaos. It had been easy to send a plague of bears upon them, or noble lions; or to form new creatures, of a ferocity hitherto unknown, breathing fiery breath, churning out foul fumes, terrible sparks darting from their eyes, so that men would die of fear at their very aspect, without waiting for proof of their power to do harm.”

Wisdom, 11: 11-20

Chapter sixteen has a beautiful and wonder-filled description of the gift of manna, the material which fell from the sky and was baked into cakes for the people for forty long years. But in chapter seventeen, the gaze of the author returns to the Egyptians, and the whole chapter is about the superstitious and fear-filled darkness that engulfed that idolatrous nation, even as (chapter eighteen now) light shone on the Israelites, being cared for by divine Wisdom:

“Brightest of all, that light shone on Thy chosen people. These neighbours of theirs, heard but not seen, the Egyptians must congratulate on their escape from the common doom, thank them for letting vengeance be, and ask forgiveness for past ill-will. To these Thou gavest, not darkness, but a pillar of burning fire, to be the guide of their unfamiliar journey, a sun, all gracious welcome, that brought no harm. A fitting punishment it was for the Egyptians, this loss of light; fitting that they should be imprisoned in darkness, who had kept Thy own sons in prison; Thy own sons, through whom that Law, which is light unfailing, was to be given to the world.”

Wisdom, 18: 1-4

And on that recommendation of the Torah – the Law of Moses – I shall end this post. What’s the lesson of this book? Treasure Wisdom, embrace Wisdom, and Wisdom will embrace you, protect you, grant you virtues, such as prudence and right judgement. These virtues will colour your life upon earth, and will bring you the reward of the Just – a light-filled future life beyond this world.

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