THE WISDOM BOOKS
The Wisdom literature of the Bible is a collection of books that include songs of praise and thanksgiving, prayers for help and protection, and advice on how to avoid trouble and live a holy life. Wisdom is praised as she who “knows and understands all things” (Wisdom 9:11a).
Suggested Readings: Job 1, Job 38-42
The Book of Job is one of the most famous books of the Bible and, indeed, one of the most famous books ever written. It tells the story of Job, a man who is faithful to God. However, Satan is convinced that Job is only a fair-weather friend of God’s, that he is only faithful to God because God has blessed him. Satan claims that were God to remove His blessings, Job would soon curse God. God gives permission to Satan to test Job. Satan causes Job to lose his wealth, his children and his physical health. But Job does not curse God. Job says,
“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb,/and naked shall I go back again./The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;/blessed be the name of the LORD!” Job 1:21
Job’s friends tell him that his sins must have caused God to punish him, but Job insists that he has been faithful. Job complains and questions why God is punishing him even though he has been faithful, while the wicked are untouched. Why do the innocent suffer, while the guilty seem to get off? He looks for God, but cannot find Him. Job believes God has abandoned him. Finally, God speaks. He questions Job regarding His Creation:
“Who is this that obscures divine plans/with words of ignorance?/Gird up your loins now, like a man;/I will question you, and you tell me the answers!/Where were you when I founded the earth?/Tell me, if you have understanding./Who determined its size; do you know?/Who stretched out the measuring line for it?” Job 38:2-5
Basically, God tells Job that He is God and Job is not. He does not apologize for Job’s suffering. He makes it clear that His wisdom is far above our poor ability to understand. He is God. We are not God. The sooner we learn that lesson, the more blessed we will be. In the end Job learns this, and praises God. God then blesses Job, twice as much as He had before.
WHAT TRUTHS DOES THE STORY OF JOB REVEAL ABOUT GOD?
- Suffering is not necessarily caused by our sins.
- We may complain to God about our circumstances, so long as we remain faithful even in our suffering.
- God is God. We are not God.
Suggested Readings: Psalm 1; Psalm 16; Psalm 23; Psalm 27; Psalm 51; Psalm 62; Psalm 77; Psalm 86; Psalm 91; Psalm 103; Psalm 121; Psalm 127; Psalm 130; Psalm 131; Psalm 139; Psalm 150
The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 songs and prayers. They include songs in praise of God’s glory and wisdom, songs of worship and thanksgiving, prayers for guidance and protection, crying out to God because of hardship, and even asking God to smite enemies! The Psalms are divided into five books: Psalm 1-41; Psalm 42-72; Psalm 73-89; Psalm 90-106; Psalm 107-150.
Each book ends with a doxology of praise to God. The first two books are attributed to King David. Perhaps the psalm most familiar to Catholics is the 23rd Pslam: “The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.” Psalm 23:1
Monks include the psalms in their daily prayers. At every Mass, Catholics sing a psalm after the first reading. The people of God have been singing these psalms for centuries. They truly are the prayers of the Church.
The Book of Proverbs is a collection of short, pithy, wise sayings that offer advice on holiness, relationships, behavior, and on almost every other conceivable subject. They are attributed to King Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom:
“The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel:/That men may appreciate wisdom and discipline …” Proverbs 1:1-2a
A few examples:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;/wisdom and instruction fools despise.” Proverbs 1:7
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart,/on your own intelligence rely not;/In all your ways be mindful of him,/and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6
“He who reviles his neighbor has no sense,/but the intelligent man keeps silent.” Proverbs 11:12
“Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD,/but those who are truthful are his delight.” Proverbs 12:22
“The fool takes no delight in understanding,/but rather in displaying what he thinks.” Proverbs 18:2
“He who has compassion on the poor/lends to the LORD,/and he will repay him for his good deed.” Proverbs 19:17
“Be not friendly with a hotheaded man,/nor the companion of a wrathful man,/Lest you learn his ways/and get yourself in a snare.” Proverbs 22:24-25
“Apply your heart to instruction,/and your ears to words of knowledge.” Proverbs 23:12 Ecclesiastes
Suggested Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-17; Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
There is no reason to sugarcoat it: Ecclesiastes is a downer of a book. It is attributed to “the Philosopher,” who is David’s son, an obvious reference to King Solomon. The book speaks of the uselessness of life. “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). We work, we toil, we struggle, we try to be good and, yet, everyone dies, the good as well as the wicked and, in the end, we have nothing to show for it. “This also is vanity and a chase after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:26). This guy definitely woke up on the wrong side of the bed! He goes on and on … and on. At the end, he concludes, “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandment, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). It seems the lesson of Ecclesiastes is: “You can’t take it with you!” So be good, love God, and strive for the things that last forever.
Song of Songs
Suggested Readings: Song 2:8-14; Song 8:6-7
In a dramatic break from the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs (which is a way of saying “the best of songs”), also attributed to King Solomon, speaks of the passionate, transforming love between a married man and woman as a symbol of the love between God and His people. The book is a series of songs between a married couple who are deeply in love, singing of each other’s beauty and calling to each other. Some of the loving compliments make sense given the ancient agricultural culture in which the book was written, though they are not exactly what we might say to our husband or wife today:
“Your hair is a flock of goats/streaming down the mountains of Gilead./Your teeth are like a flock of ewes to be shorn,/which come up from the washing,/All of them big with twins,/none of them thin and barren.” Song of Songs 4:1b-2
On the other hand, much of the poetry is very beautiful even by modern standards, and some of the language quite graphic. Maybe young people should let their parents read this book first! The image of marriage is used in the Old Testament as a symbol of the relationship between God and Israel (Hosea 2:18, 21-22), and in the New Testament as a symbol of the relationship between Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:21-33).
Suggested Readings: Wisdom 3:1-12; 7:7-12; Wisdom 9
The Book of Wisdom, attributed to (yes, you guessed it!) King Solomon, is a book of praise for the wisdom of God. Wisdom is portrayed as a lady, and Solomon prays that God will share His wisdom with the king:
“Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works/and was present when you made the world;/Who understands what is pleasing in your eyes/and what is conformable with your commands./Send her forth from your holy heavens/and from your glorious throne dispatch her/That she may be with me and work with me,/that I may know what is your pleasure./For she knows and understands all things,/and will guide me discreetly in my affairs/and safeguard me by her glory;/Thus my deeds will be acceptable,/and I shall judge your people justly/and be worthy of my father’s throne.” Wisdom 9:9-12
The book is also a caution to Israel to return to their traditions and a reminder that, while the good may suffer along with the wicked in this world, a glorious reward awaits them in the next. In a passage prophetic of the Passion of our Lord, the wicked plot against “the just one,” to test whether God will protect him.
“For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him/and deliver him from the hands of his foes./With revilement and torture let us put him to the test/that we may have proof of his gentleness/and try his patience./Let us condemn him to a shameful death;/for according to his own words, God will take care of him.” Wisdom 2:18-20
This passage reflects almost to the word the accusations thrown at Jesus from his enemies that stood below His cross (Matthew 27:41-44). The enemies of the just are blinded by their wickedness, for they fail to “discern the innocent souls’ reward” (Wisdom 2:22).
“But the souls of the just are in the hand of God,/and no torment shall touch them./They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;/and their passing away was thought an affliction/and their going forth from us, utter destruction./But they are in peace./For if before men, indeed, they be punished,/yet is their hope full of immortality;/Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them/and found them worthy of himself.” Wisdom 3:1-5
In the New Testament, Paul calls Jesus the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24).
Sirach was written by Jesus ben Sira (Jesus, son of Sirach), a Jewish teacher of the second century before Christ. It was translated into Greek by his grandson, “for the benefit of those living abroad who wish to acquire wisdom and are disposed to live their lives according to the standards of the law” (Foreward). It was written at a time when the Greek culture was dominant in the Mediterranean world and many Jews were tempted to adopt the Greek culture and religion as their own. Jesus ben Sira wanted to remind his people to keep to the true faith, to their own religious traditions, and to the wisdom of the Jewish people, lest they forget the God of their ancestors.
“All wisdom comes from the LORD,/and with him it remains forever.” Sirach 1:1
The book also includes prayers, songs and advice on everything from friendship to table manners:
“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;/he who finds one finds a treasure.” Sirach 6:14
“Say not: ‘It was God’s doing that I fell away’;/for what he hates he does not do./Say not: ‘It was he who set me astray’;/for he has no need of wicked man./Abominable wickedness the LORD hates,/he does not let it befall those who fear him./When God, in the beginning, created man,/he made him subject to his own free choice./If you choose you can keep his commandments;/it is loyalty to do his will./There are set before you fire and water;/to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand./Before man are life and death,/whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Sirach 15:11-17
“Let not your mouth become used to coarse talk, for in it lies sinful matter.” Sirach 23:13
“With three things I am delighted,/for they are pleasing to the LORD and to men:/Harmony among brethren, friendship among neighbors,/and the mutual love of husband and wife.” Sirach 25:1
“The lover of gold will not be free from sin,/for he who pursues wealth is led astray by it./Many have been ensnared by gold,/though destruction lay before their eyes;/It is a stumbling block to those who are avid for it,/a snare for every fool.” Sirach 31:5-7
“Behave at table like a favored guest,/and be not greedy, lest you be despised./Be the first to stop, as befits good manners;/gorge not yourself, lest you give offense.” Sirach 31:16-17.
The book ends with a song of praise for God’s glory in nature and in history, offering the patriarchs and ancestors as models of godly living. The Book of Sirach was also called Ecclesiasticus, which means “the book of the Church,” because it was often used to teach the faithful about morals.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.