Sermon for March 6th, 2016
Job 28:1-28. Wisdom in the Book of Job
Today is our final sermon on virtues in the Book of Job. We've talked about Love, Beauty, and Truth, but today we talk about wisdom. I have to confess, I feel just a little bit unqualified on this subject. Most of the times in my life when I have been called "wise" it has been followed by another three letter word that happens to be another name for a donkey.
Despite that fact (or perhaps because of it) the wisdom tradition of ancient cultures, particularly in the Bible, has fascinated me for many years, and is probably the aspect of the Bible I have spent the most time studying, both at Seminary and afterwards. The Book of Job is one of a handful of wisdom books in the Bible, and I believe that today's scripture passage, Chapter 28, forms the core of the author's message.
In just a moment, we're going to jump right into the scripture passage, but first we need to set the scene. Where are we in the book of Job, and who is speaking in this chapter? In the chapters up to this point, we've heard from God and Satan, we've heard from Job's wife. We've heard from Job's three friends, and we've heard a lot from Job himself. In the chapters after this one, Job concludes his argument, then we hear from Elihu, and then we hear again from God. But I don't think the voice we hear in chapter 28 is any of those voices.
I think it's actually the voice of the author himself. The NRSV translation calls this chapter an "interlude." And I think that's about right. The passionate argument between Job and his friends has reached an intense, feverish pitch. And right here, I think the author hits the pause button, does a freeze frame, and steps into the chaos of his own story, directly addressing the audience.
1 Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold to be refined.
2 Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted from ore.
Ok, that's odd. What does any of this have to do with Job and his misfortunes? We'll get to that in awhile. This is actually a classic Middle-eastern Wisdom tradition approach: The wise looked to nature and the natural world for understanding of how things worked. That's why wisdom literature (including Job) is full of lists of plants, animals, minerals, geographical features, and weather patterns. They were the early precursors of our modern-day biologists, geologists, meteorologists, and physicists.
3 Miners put an end to darkness,
and search out to the farthest bound
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
4 They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
they are forgotten by travelers,
they sway suspended, remote from people.
How many of you here are students, graduates, or even just fans of the University of Texas at El Paso? Job 28 is your special Bible chapter. It's the longest passage in the Bible about Miners. We shift now from nature itself--elements like silver, gold, iron, and copper--to the humans who interact with it. And there's an important aspect of wisdom literature here, too: Wisdom literature, unlike the rest of the Bible, is not about Kings, Princes, Prophets, or important people. Wisdom literature takes as its inspiration the common, blue collar, nameless, faceless professions. The miner who is remote from people, forgotten by travelers. But there's more to the metaphor: A miner, more than all others, must be dedicated to his task, must seek longer and harder and farther than others in order to be successful.
5 As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
6 Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and its dust contains gold.
7 That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
8 The proud wild animals have not trodden it;
the lion has not passed over it.
Here is a list of animals, typical for wisdom literature. The point here is that even wise animals--the lion with all its strength, the falcon with its sharp eye-sight, cannot see beneath the earth to what is truly beautiful, truly rare. But the miner can! Back to the miners:
Truly, if anyone in all humanity has the ability to seek out, find, and uncover what is precious and valuable, it is the Miner. And then the author drops his piercing question:
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."
Most people seem to think that the main question in the Book of Job is "Why do bad things happen to good people?" I think there's a bigger question, and it's this: In the face of the bad things that obviously happen to good people (and all people!) what is an appropriate response? Is it anger? Is it grief? Is it blame--blaming yourself, blaming others, blaming God?
What is Wisdom? It's actually hard to define, perhaps impossible. My father used to tell me that wisdom is knowledge rightly applied. And wisdom is often contrasted with knowledge. It has been said (I'm not sure by whom, but that is the case with most wisdom sayings!) that knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. Knowledge is realizing when a street is one-way; wisdom is looking both directions anyhow. Knowledge is knowing what to say; wisdom is knowing when (or even whether) to say it.
Knowledge, in most cultures (ancient and modern) is the realm of the elite few, the educated, the professionals: Professors, pastors, experts. Wisdom, by contrast, is the realm of the common people, the folks. Wisdom comes from your grandmother's kitchen, or from the old men at the barbershop. Knowledge also tends to be external--it comes from books, reports, scientifically collected data. Wisdom, however, tends to come internally, from personal experience, failure, observation, and time.
Sometimes people confuse "understanding" with wisdom. But you can know something, and even understand something, without being wise. That's why they are separate words, seperate concepts, in English as well as the Hebrew in which today's passage was originally written. In Hebrew, wisdom is חָכְמָה (chokmah) and understanding is בִּינָה (binah). Both concepts appear in today's scripture passage.