A sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s Iffley on 1 July 2018 about the Book of Wisdom
This morning I’d like to take a very brief look at the book of the Wisdom of Solomon as a whole. Although this book is rarely preached on it comes to us from Greek and forms a high point not only in ancient Jewish literature, but also in Greek literature as a whole. It belongs to a long and profound strand of sapiential Jewish biblical writing. In a way it crowns the earlier wisdom books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiasticus. In the early church it was closely linked with Solomon, and with Proverbs and the Song of Songs. Its authorship is uncertain: some think that Solomon may have written or at least influenced a few parts of it, hundreds of years before the book was compiled, probably in the first century BC. Some have attributed the book to the author of Ecclesiasticus, or to Philo of Alexandria, or an unknown Hellenistic Jew also living in Alexandria, the largest centre of the diaspora, where Jews no longer living in Israel gathered. The link with Solomon is found in two passages where, by implication, Solomon is appealing for wisdom. The book is written in an exhortatory style. It has clear origins in Greek culture, such as in the mention of the four cardinal virtues: self-control, prudence, justice and courage (8.7) and the philosophical treatment of the knowledge of God (13.1-9). The vocabulary is richly Greek but the style is very Jewish. Furthermore the book contains the phraseology of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible that would have been known by the author’s associates.
The first five chapters deal with the subject of immortality. We have heard that righteousness is a quality that is undying. When a wicked person beholds a just person before the throne of God, he or she will realise their mistake. The just person is numbered among the children of God, and comes to be among the holy ones in the heavenly court. In chapters 6-9 the pseudo-Solomon speaks to the judges of the earth (that is to say, the Jews) about wisdom, which is seen as a personified spirit, and her qualities. Unlike other wisdom books, which do not mention sacred history, wisdom is shown here as the saviour of Israel’s ancestors. Then in chapters 9-11 we find an elaborate system of contrasts between God’s treatment of the Israelites and the Egyptians at the time of the plagues. Israel benefitted by the very things that punished its enemies (water from the rock instead of the plague of the Nile, for example). And we read also that one is punished by the very things by which one sins. Among these chapters are various passages about God’s power, God’s mercy, as well as about false worship.
To the Jews of the dispersion the Wisdom of Solomon gave strength and consolation. They believed that theirs was a true wisdom, surpassing the wisdom of the Greeks. And they understood that it contained an immortality which came from God as a gift to them because of their righteousness, and not because of an immortal soul. Furthermore, they understood that God was the author of beauty. To know God was to be righteous, and to know God’s power was the root of immortality, for God’s spirit was in all things.
This book accepts that death is the inevitable end to biological life, but sees death in a deeper way. God did not make and does not desire death in the sense of life lived in opposition to, or in ignorance of wisdom, which is life-giving. Thus in this book life and death are about more than mere physical existence. Existence is to do with quality of life as well as a mere physical fact. Furthermore we understand that God created things to be enjoyed. And God created a world for humans beyond physical death, arousing the envy of the devil through whom death, in the sense of belonging to the realm of evil, entered the world.
The overall message of today’s verses is that what is seen is not necessarily the clue to what is real. It underlines the goodness of God, and God’s desire to enjoy harmony and fellowship with us. This desire of God is such that evil and death will ultimately lose their power to harm and spoil our human lives. Though written in pre-Christian times this book clearly makes points about the qualities of God and our relationship with God, which are at the heart of the Christian gospel. May we be granted the grace to receive God’s wisdom and to act upon it now and always. Amen.