Tag Archives: Wisdom

The Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

Note: As with my take on the Book of Samuel and the Book of Job, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.

I finished the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes, which along with the Book of Job make up the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament. The books have very distinct narrative styles. For most of his book, Job is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective” – downbeat, cosmic, anti-natalist. The Book of Proverbs reminds me of Dave Ramsey — upbeat, optimistic, and practical in a theological context.

Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter,
And like a bird from the hand of the fowler.

Go to the ant, you sluggard!
Consider her ways and be wise,

Which, having no captain,
Overseer or ruler,

Provides her supplies in the summer,
And gathers her food in the harvest.

How long will you slumber, O sluggard?
When will you rise from your sleep?
Proverbs 6:5-9

And Ecclesiastes… I hear Ecclesiastes the voice of John Derbyshire. The writer shares with Derbyshire a general pessimism and skepticism, a fear of chaos greater than a fear of arbitrary rule, and a rational take to maximizing enjoyment of life. “Eat, drink, and be merry” is one memorable line — “of making books there is no end” is another.

The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails,
given by one Shepherd.

And further, my son,
be admonished by these.

Of making many books there is no end,
and much study is wearisome to the flesh.
Ecclesiastes 12:11-12

You can see the difference in emphasis in how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes judge kings. They are the arbiters of justice:

The king’s favor is toward a wise servant,
But his wrath is against him who causes shame.
Proverbs 14:35

And the cause of censorship:

Do not curse the king, even in your thought;
Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
For a bird of the air may carry your voice,
And a bird in flight may tell the matter.
Ecclesiastes 10:20

Proverbs reminds me of the praise hymns and the sermons that we all kind of remember from childhood. Job is what happens when that world view encounters death. Ecclesiastes is after an even more challenging confrontation: the ups and down of a mostly successful life.

The Five Books of Moses (the lost world of Genesis, the Breaking Bad arc of Exodus-Numbers, the sacrifices of Leviticus, the true intentions of Deuteronomy) are more mysterious.

The Former Prophets (the war story of Joshua, the westerns of Judges, the Shakespeare + Game of Thrones * + House of Cards* intrigue of Samuel, the Battlestar Galactica destruction of Kings) are better stories.

But the Wisdom Books (the philosophical horror of Job, the cheery ministry of Proverbs, the skeptical and human theology of Ecclesiastes) are more thought provoking. They are the closest the Hebrews came to philosophy and, by emphasizing the human measure of all things, are in many ways superior.

The Book of Job

Note: As with my take on The Book of Samuel, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Job in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.

The Book of Job is about a wealth, respected, non-Jewish man who worships God and cares for his family. Disaster after disaster falls on him. He blames God, but never doubts in God’s existence.

Because he is implied Job is a Canaanite he would have believed that God is like a bull. He knew the Bull was real. The only question was whether the Bull is good..

Job is the man who spoke up.

Most artistic images of Job are of a broken man, a victim and a whiner, moaning the cruelty of the world. Job is more of a man than that. A better image is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective,” clinically explaining why consciousness is a mistake and life the worst fate that could befall us.

Job, the Horror Writer

The horror writer Thomas Ligotti has condemned giving birth as a violent and evil act. He is ripping off Job

Annul the day that I was born,
and the night that said, “A man is conceived…”
Why did I not die from the womb
from the belly come out, breathe my last?
Why did knees welcome me,
and why breasts, that I should suck?
For now I would lie and be still,
would sleep and know response
with kings and the councilors of earth,
who build ruins for themselves
Job 3:3, 3:11-14

In Ligotti’s fiction, he proposes a sort of pan-demonoism, a belief that the core of reality is an oozing malevolence against which man may — meaninglessly – rebel. Job would agree

For SHADDAI’s arrows are in me —
their venom my spirit drinks
the terrors of God beset me…

I would speak, and I will not fear Him
for that is not the way I am
Job 9:4, 35

Faced with the churchy bullshit his friends “console” him with, Job does them one better, referencing a Psalm

What is man that You should remember him
and the son of man that You pay him heed.
And you make him little less than the gods
with glory and grandeur You cloak him
Psalms 8:5-6

to make a dimmer point:

What is man that You make him great
and that You pay him to geed
You single him out every morning
every moment examine him.
How long till You turn away from me?
You don’t let me go while I swallow my spit
Job 7:17-19

An Aside: The LORD in the Flesh

In Job’s speeches, there are two breaks that grab a reader’s attention. The first is quick, and is jarring because Job appears to be a contemporary of Abraham. While both the Book of Genesis and the Book of Job occasionally refer to God as “SHADDAI” and feature men who wrestle with God’s messages, in Genesis the LORD is flesh and blood, and even joins Abraham and Sarah for a meal (Genesis 18), but Job seems unaware of this:

Do you have the eyes of mortal flesh
do You see as a man would see?
Are Your days like a mortal’s days
Your years like the years of a man
Job 10:4-5

Of course, the LORD had dinner with other men and women: Peter, Mary, Martha, and others.

What, then, did Job know of that?

Would then, that my words were written
that they were inscribed in a book,
with an iron pen and lead
to be hewed in rock forever.
But I know my redeemer lives,
and in the end he will stand up on earth
and after they flay my skin,
from my flesh I shall behold God
For I myself shall behond
my eyes will see– no stranger’s
my heart is harried within me.
Should you say, “How more can we hound him?
The root of the thing rests in him”
Fear the sword, for wrath is a sword-worthy crime,
so you may know there is judgement.”
Job 19:23-29

The Man That Feeds the Mouths That Tear the Flesh

In The Gospel According to Matthew, the Lord asks us to consider birds

“Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store aware in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Matthew 6:26

Job considers birds very well indeed

“Yet asks of the beasts, they will teach you,
the fowl of heavens will tell you,
or speak to the earth, it will teach you,
the fish of the sea will inform you.
Who has not known in all these
that the LORD’s hands has done this
In Whose hand is the breath of each living thing,
and the spirit of all human flesh.
Does not the ear make out the words,
the palate taste food:
Job 12:7-11

Eventually God puts an end to the back-and-forths between Job and his friends (and even more thankfully, the rambling punk kid of one of Job’s friends), states that his friends’ churchy bullshit makes Him look bad and them look stupid, and even picks up the bird metaphor

“Does the hawk soar by your wisdom,
spread his wings to fly away South?
By your word does the eagle mount
and set his nest on high?
On the crag he dwells and beds down
on the crest of the crag his stronghold.
From there he seeks out food,
from afar his eyes look down.
His chicks lap up blood,
where the slain are, there he is.”
Job 39:27-30


Throughout the book, Job remembers his suffering and injustice, and returns again and again to the random brutality of the world.

Job’s churchy friends try to tell him that justice always wins out in our lives.

God tells those friends to stfu, tells Job that he’s at least half right (unlike his friends, who are simply wrong), but that there’s awe-inspiring and exciting parts of the universe too.

The heart of the Book of Job is in these dialogues, and there’s a fairy-tale-like story surrounding it. That story is wrapped up too. Job gets really rich, and Job’s wife (who was acting bitchy during the disasters) presumably becomes jealous of their has three hot daughters, named (in Hebrew) Dove, Cinnamon, and Eyeshadow.

But like in Ezekiel something is wrong with the narrative. Job doesn’t end where it begins, there’s no follow-up to the bet between God and Satan. What was the point of it all? Who won? Why did any of this happen?

Why did any of this happen?

The Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach

There are two two “wisdom” books of the Deuterocanon, The Wisdom of Solomon (commonly called Wisdom) and the Wisdom of Sirach (common called Sirach). Throughout both, Wisdom is repeatedly described as the first female creature. Sirach makes clear that if you have Wisdom, you will never thirst again.

Well, maybe unless you’re the lowest of the low.

If you have Wisdom, you will never be thirsty again if you are part of her “people.”

Wisdom will praise herself,
and will glory in the midst of her people.

In the assembly of the Most High she will open her mouth,
and in the presence of his host she will glory…

“Those who eat me will hunger for more,
and those who drink me will thirst for more.”
Sirach 24:1-2,21

The worst people in the world are the non-people of the Samaritans, with their petty capital in Shechem, the site of Jacob’s well

With two nations my soul is vexed,
and the third is no nation:
Those who live on Mount Se’ir, and the Philistines,
and the foolish people that dwell in Shechem.
Sirach 50:25-26

Of types of people, women are worse than men. A shameful man is better than a virtuous woman for company, a shameful woman is the worst of all

Do not look upon any one for beauty,
and do not sit in the midst of women;
for from garments comes the moth,
and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness.
Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good;
and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace.
Sirach 42:12-14

It’s obvious the last person in the world who have this drink would be a shameful Samaritan woman.

There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”

Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”

The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”
John 4:7-16

I suspect Luther and Calvin’s rejection of Sirach had more than a little to do with this: it appears to be directly rejected by the Gospel According to John. But I think that is a mistake, and ignores the importance of Jesus meeting that woman. Point by point, John uses the next verses to respond and expand on Sirach.

For the woman identifies Jesus as a prophet

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.
John 4:17

Christ is a Prophet. Even greater than Moses, the greatest of the Prophets

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Deuteronomy 34:10-12

More comforting than the Twelve Minor Prophets‘ role in providing comfort

May the bones of the twelve prophets
revive from where they lie,
for they comforted the people of Jacob
and delivered them with confident hope.
Sirach 49:10

To Samuel, who worked in the spirit after death

Before the time of his eternal sleep,
Samuel called men to witness before the Lord and his anointed:
“I have not taken any one’s property,
not so much as a pair of shoes.”
And no man accused him.

Even after he had fallen asleep he prophesied
and revealed to the king his death,
and lifted up his voice out of the earth in prophecy,
to blot out the wickedness of the people.
Sirach 46:19-20

To Elisha, who worked in the body after death

Nothing was too hard for him,
and when he was dead his body prophesied.
As in his life he did wonders,
so in death his deeds were marvelous
Sirach 48:13-14

And in between the hitherto greatest of the prophets, Elijah, who could raise the dead

How glorious you were, O Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
And who has the right to boast which you have?
You who raised a corpse from death
and from Hades, by the word of the Most High;
Sirach 48:4-5

And intercede between the Father and the Son

you who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the heart of the father to the son,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
Sirach 48:10

The Transfiguration is the central element of the Gospel According to Matthew, and to Jews may be the most shocking event of the Gospel.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Matthew 17:1-5

Western readers assume that Jesus is chatting with Moses and Elijah, but that not the only way to read this. Moses already saved Israel once, by convincing God not to destroy his people. Elijah, even after being taken up, would do the same thing. The visible intercession of the two greatest saviors, speaking (preparing?) another, cannot be understated its importance.

It is this what the woman references, when she calls Jesus a “Prophet.” It is the Gospel emphasizes, when this annunciation of the Savior of the Saviors is given to the lowest of the low, a shamed Samaritan woman.

But that is not all

Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father
John 4:20-21

Wisdom is not just for Jerusalem. Indeed, Sirach points out the famous gentile prophets, those who were not circumcised, or were circumcised late in life

Peoples will declare their wisdom,
and the congregation proclaims their praise.

Enoch pleased the Lord, and was taken up;
he was an example of repentance to all generations.

Noah was found perfect and righteous;
in the time of wrath he was taken in exchange;
therefore a remnant was left to the earth
when the flood came.

Everlasting covenants were made with him
that all flesh should not be blotted out by a flood.

Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations,
and no one has been found like him in glory;
Sirach 44:15-19

The future of worship is international, for all nations will be called to Him

Many will praise his understanding,
and it will never be blotted out;
his memory will not disappear,
and his name will live through all generations.
Nations will declare his wisdom,
and the congregation will proclaim his praise;
if he lives long, he will leave a name greater than a thousand,
and if he goes to rest, it is enough for him.

I have yet more to say, which I have thought upon,
and I am filled, like the moon at the full.
Sirach 39:9-12

It’s worth thinking about that last sentence, the one immediately following the nations, and the greatness of going to rest in the LORD. It is echoed elsewhere

I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
John 16:12-14

Jesus of Nazareth may have been more patient with the lowly Samaritan woman than the author of Sirach had expected, but certainly he agreed that the Jews were a chosen people, and chosen to bring forth salvation

You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
John 4:22

Year before Christ would teach his students the Lord’s Prayer

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
Matthew 6:10-13

Sirach taught a similar prayer to his own readers

O Lord, Father and Ruler of my life,
do not abandon me to their counsel,
and let me not fall because of them!
O that whips were set over my thoughts,
and the discipline of wisdom over my mind!
That they may not spare me in my errors,
and that it may not pass by my sins;
in order that my mistakes may not be multiplied,
and my sins may not abound;
then I will not fall before my adversaries,
and my enemy will not rejoice over me.

O Lord, Father and God of my life,
do not give me haughty eyes,
and remove from me evil desire.
Let neither gluttony nor lust overcome me,
and do not surrender me to a shameless soul.
Sirach 23:1-6

From the Father, salvation comes

For he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw,
but by thee, the Savior of all.
And by this also thou didst convince our enemies
that it is thou who deliverest from every evil.
Wisdom 16:7-8

In the future, be better.

But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
John 4:23-24

It is to another woman, another prostitute, that Jesus says go, and sin no more

Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

This echoes Sirach, both who urged the renunciation of sins

Have you sinned, my son? Do so no more,
but pray about your former sins.

Flee from sin as from a snake;
for if you approach sin, it will bite you.
Its teeth are lion’s teeth,
and destroy the souls of men.
Sirach 21:1-2

And urged us not to condemn those who were trying to turn from sin

Do not reproach a man who is turning away from sin;
remember that we all deserve punishment.
Sirach 8:5

It is of course not the weakest and the lowliest who are at the most risk

For the lowliest man may be pardoned in mercy,
but mighty men will be mightily tested.
Wisdom 6:6

But the mighty

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Matthew 20:15

It is at the end of their dialogue with the woman (who had identified him as a prophet before), that Jesus reveals he is the Messiah. She had seen part of the truth, He told her another part.

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.”

Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
John 4:25

I couldn’t help but think of this when reading Sirach‘s poem to the High Priest, which felt like a poem of the Crucifixion

When he put on his glorious robe
and clothed himself with superb perfection
and went up to the holy altar,
he made the court of the sanctuary glorious.

And when he received the portions from the hands of the priests,
as he stood by the hearth of the altar
with a garland of brethren around him,
he was like a young cedar on Lebanon;
and they surrounded him like the trunks of palm trees,

all the sons of Aaron in their splendor
with the Lord’s offering in their hands,
before the whole congregation of Israel.

Finishing the service at the altars,
and arranging the offering to the Most High, the Almighty,

He reached out his hand to the cup
and poured a libation of the blood of the grape;
he poured it out at the foot of the altar,
a pleasing odor to the Most High, the King of all.

Then the sons of Aaron shouted,
they sounded the trumpets of hammered work,
they made a great noise to be heard
for remembrance before the Most High.

Then all the people together made haste
and fell to the ground upon their faces
to worship their Lord,
the Almighty, God Most High.

And the singers praised him with their voices
in sweet and full-toned melody.[f]

And the people besought the Lord Most High
in prayer before him who is merciful,
till the order of worship of the Lord was ended;
so they completed his service.
Sirach 50:11-19

A blessed altar, indeed

For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes.
Wisdom 14:7

Sirach identifies wisdom as the drink that will forever satisfy, and identifies a Samaritan whore as the lowliest creature on the earth. It is to such a woman, such a personification of Jewish distaste, that the salvation from the Jews was provided. From the greatest to the meekest, the last became first.

Christ was the first born of all Creation, begotten not made

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Colossians 1:15

But it is Wisdom, made not begotten, which was the First Creature that was not the creator

Wisdom was created before all things,
and prudent understanding from eternity.[c]
Sirach 1:4

And at the end of time, it is the First Born which shares this First Creature, so even the lowly woman at the well will never thirst again

These opposites, these extremes, are ordained by God

All things are twofold, one opposite the other,
and he has made nothing incomplete.
Sirach 42:24

So in that spirit, two-fold advice, a proverb from this blog

Have a drink
But not too much
(But if your friend has too much… let it slide)

Wine is like life to men,
if you drink it in moderation.
What is life to a man who is without wine?
It has been created to make men glad.

Wine drunk in season and temperately
is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul.

Wine drunk to excess is bitterness of soul,
with provocation and stumbling.

Drunkenness increases the anger of a fool to his injury,
reducing his strength and adding wounds.

Do not reprove your neighbor at a banquet of wine,
and do not despise him in his merrymaking;
speak no word of reproach to him,
and do not afflict him by making demands of him.
Sirach 31:27-31