Sermon for March 6th, 2016
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 a 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, so that's an odd place to start. What does any of this have to do with Job and his misfortunes? We'll get to that in time. This is actually a classic Middle-eastern Wisdom tradition approach: The wise (those ancients who composed and compiled wisdom literature) looked to nature and the natural world for understanding of how things worked. That's why wisdom literature (including Job) is full of plants, insects, animals, minerals, geographical features, and weather patterns. They were the early precursors of our modern-day biologists, geologists, meteorologists, and physicists. But the key word in those first two verses is "mine." It's a metaphor for a place where things are hidden, things of great value.
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. In this passage, we shift from nature itself--elements like silver, gold, iron, and copper--to the humans who interact with nature. 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 people and common professions (what we would call blue collar). The miner is remote from people, forgotten by travelers. But there's more to this metaphor: A miner must be dedicated to his task, must seek longer and harder and farther than all others in order to be successful at his task.
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.
Bread (which is common) comes out of the earth, but jewels (which are uncommon) are further down and harder to get. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for Sapphire is סַפִּיר. This is one of those rare English words that comes from Hebrew. In verse 7 and 8, we find a list of animals, again 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:
9 They put their hand to the flinty rock,
and overturn mountains by the roots.
10 They cut out channels in the rocks,
and their eyes see every precious thing.
11 The sources of the rivers they probe;
hidden things they bring to light.
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 in verse 12 the author drops his piercing question:
12 But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of 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!) how do we respond? Do we grieve? Do we get angry? Do we blame ourselves? Do we blame God? What is the wise response? Or, Where can wisdom be found? Note there are actually two questions in this verse. Often in Hebrew poetry, one line states an idea and the next line states the same idea in a different way. But here, I think the author is actually asking two separate questions: Where can wisdom be found, and WHAT is the place of understanding? More on that later. But first we work our way backwards, through humans and nature, to try to find our answer:
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."
Nothing living on land or in the sea holds the answer. Even the Miner runs out of luck.
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.
The entire first half of the chapter was a set-up, to say whatever thing you think is the most valuable, beautiful, rare thing in all creation--be it gold, silver, diamonds or pearls--wisdom is worth fare more than all that...and (more importantly) it's more rare and difficult to find than all that.
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."
By the way, this word, "Abaddon" only shows up in wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Psalms). We often interpret it as another way of saying "Hell" but the concept of a differentiated afterlife (heaven/hell, etc.) is a much later development. Taken literally (as it should be here) it means "place of ruin." Notice the subtle difference here: Nothing living knows where wisdom can be found, but death and ruin have at least heard a rumor of it. One explanation of this could be that true wisdom only comes at the point of death and total ruin, when our experience is finally complete.
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.
On the surface, this looks like an answer to both questions. God understands the way to wisdom, and he knows the place for understanding. But wait...that's not really an answer, is it? If you asked me the square root of 28, and I told you that the Math teacher probably knows...did I really answer your question? But perhaps we're closer.
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.
Wind, water, rain, and thunderbolt. Another list from the natural world, supporting the idea that God knows where to find wisdom, and indeed established it. But there's something deeper to this list. Wind, water, rain, and thunderbolt. These are powerful, uncontrollable, unpredictable forces of nature. They all have the capability of causing catastrophe--those bad things that happen to good people. Those things for which we seek a wise response. Where can wisdom be found, and what is the place of understanding?
28 And he said to humankind,
"Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding."
As it turns out, we've been asking the wrong question. Instead of "where" is wisdom, we should have been asking "what" is wisdom? And how is it different from understanding?
Sometimes people confuse the two, or assume they are just synonymns. But in English, as in Hebrew, they are separate words, distinct concepts. In Hebrew, wisdom is חָכְמָה (chokmah) and understanding is בִּינָה (binah). Incidentally, there's also a Hebrew word for knowledge, מַדָּע (madah). Together, the three form a progression. You can know something but not understand it. And you can understand something without acting wisely. But being wise encompasses the other two--it assumes both knowledge and understanding.
I've said in previous sermons that the Book of Proverbs (also wisdom literature) teaches a very simple approach to life: Do good things, and you will be rewarded, do bad things and you will be punished. The problem comes when we try to flip that around--does that mean that if good things happen to you, you must be good, and that if bad things happen to you, it must be because you have done something wrong? The author of the Book of Job would disagree, hence the whole story of Job. But here, in this one chapter (28) in this one verse (also 28) I think he gives a subtle hint of his own, personal answer:
Let's start with the second question: What is the place of understanding? It is to depart from evil, and (implied) to embrace what is good. Proverbs in a nutshell. But the author of Job is saying, that's okay, it's a good start, it's understanding...but wisdom is something more.
Where can wisdom be found? I don't know. God alone knows. But here's where it starts, here's what it IS: The fear of the Lord. In modern English, fear means primarily being afraid, but in Hebrew, יִרְאָה (yirah) it has a wider range. It can mean awe, reverence, honor, or just a healthy respect: To fear the Lord means to accept that God is God, the wind is the wind, the thunderbolt is the thunderbolt. We do what we do, and they do what they do. There are things in life we can control, but many we can't. There are things we can grasp, but many that are beyond our comprehension. Wisdom is accepting that there are limits to what we know, and what we understand.
And here, the author of Job "unpauses" the scene, and the story comes back to life. Job continues for a few more chapters to rage against God and his friends, protesting his innocence. And that's okay. In the end, God does not fault him for this. Given the circumstances, Job's response to all he has suffered seems understandable, even if it may not exactly qualify as "wise." And eventually, he gets there with a little help from God, who shows up and shows Job some of the wonders of his creation. Eventually, Job begins to accept that God is God, Job is Job, and there's not always a good answer--at least not one that makes sense to us or seems fair to us.
But when we can simply accept the wind, the waters, the rain, and the thunderbolt for what they are...
We can also, like Job, begin to see other things, too: The gentle wind and the cool, refreshing water on a hot day; the soft and lifegiving rainfall in spring; the multicolored lighting that lights up the entire night sky; the birds of the air, the proud animals and the spine-tingling roar of the lion; the simple, dignified farmer working hard to bring bread from the ground, the lonely miner searching the hidden depths of the earth for that rare, priceless treasure.
I am not a wise person, not by a longshot. But maybe that's why I like the Book of Job so much. It reminds me that there is great beauty all around us in this world, even in the midst of suffering and pain. There is profound truth around us and within us, even if we can't always embrace or fathom it. There is love all around us, even when we think we are all alone. And there is wisdom all around us, even if we don't always see it, or know where to look. Like the God who established them, these things--love, beauty, truth, and wisdom--are always near. Thanks be to God.