[W]hen we are fully conscious of our own foolishness, and have felt the helplessness and destitution of our reason, then through the counsels of Divine Wisdom we shall be initiated into the wisdom of God; setting no bounds to boundless majesty and power, nor tying the Lord of nature down to nature’s laws. – St. Hilary of Poitiers
American writer Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, which Vonnegut, held by the Nazis there as a prisoner of war, survived. Thousands of civilians died, and the Nazis made POWs like Vonnegut bury or burn the bodies before the Russians liberated the city.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Vonnegut reflected on his success as a writer in relation to Dresden: “The raid didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defense or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp. Only one person benefited—not two or five or ten. Just one.” The interviewer asks, “And who was that?” Vonnegut replies, “Me. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that.”
One might get the mistaken impression from reading the Prophets that divine justice works according to some kind of cosmic karma. When Israel sinned, they were punished. When they cried out for redemption, God saved them and punished those who oppressed them. When they were faithful to him, they prospered. And so on. But that wouldn’t explain Dresden to Vonnegut.
This impression would be mistaken because it does not take account of individual persons. Indeed, many prophets suffered unjustly and received no earthly redemption: “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:37-38). And often the wicked prospered for generations before any faced the Lord’s retribution.
The Old Testament Writings—those more poetic and philosophical books, often written by or attributed to king David or his wise son Solomon—more pronouncedly prevent us from jumping to that conclusion by adding a personal, existential, and deeply theological perspective. They point us to that divine Wisdom through which nature was made and the Law was given, and by which we have access to the unsearchable, unfathomable, and unknowable God. While in the Law we find God’s plan for Israel, and in the Prophets we see how well (or not) they lived according to the Law, the Writings offer another perspective, at once more mystical and practical.
On the one hand, the Writings differ from the Law in their focus on practical, heuristic, natural law instruction. For example: “It is honorable to refrain from strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3). This is just good advice. (Nota bene, Twitter.) It immediately resonates with our consciences, and our reason confirms the wisdom in it, because God has created our human nature with innate meaning, value, and purpose. Proverbs like this are matters of natural law, not special instructions for a particular people like some commands of the Law of Moses.
On the other hand, the Writings differ from the Prophets in their philosophical and existential character. The clearest example of this comes to us in the book of Job—an ancient dialogue on the problem of suffering. Job, we are told, was a rich and righteous man, apparently living in the time of Abraham, i.e., before Israel or the Mosaic Law. Satan, wishing to insult the Lord, claims that if Job lost all his wealth, his family, and his health, he would surely curse the Lord. The Lord disagrees but allows it all to happen. Job’s property is plundered and destroyed. His children die in a natural disaster. He falls ill with boils and lesions on his skin. And Job’s wife advises him to “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9) before walking out on him. But Job persists in his faith, stoically asking, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10)
Job’s friends come to comfort him, but they all quickly reveal that they think God works through karma. If Job suffers, they reason, it must be because he sinned. Thus, they remind him of the justice and power of God and urge him to repent. But assuming that all those who suffer deserve it, presumes unobtainable knowledge of God. Job does not fall into this error, nor does he, as Satan contended, ever curse God. But he also thinks God would vindicate him in this life, even, perhaps, that God owes him that much. This, too, presumes more than any human can know, and God doesn’t owe us anything.
After Job and his friends finish speaking, the Lord thunders out his reply, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2) God then challenges Job to explain all the vast wonders of creation that are beyond his understanding, such as, “Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?” (Job 38:37-38)
When the Lord finishes speaking, Job says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 5-6). The Lord then restores Job’s health and grants him greater wealth and a larger family than he had before. But the Lord gave Job something greater than all that. Job had known about God—“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear”—but through encountering the Lord in his transcendent glory, Job met God firsthand—“but now my eye sees you”—through what Dionysius the Areopagite called the “unknowing” of true Wisdom.
St. Ambrose of Milan discerned the following lesson in Job: “Therefore the blessedness of individuals must not be estimated at the value of their known wealth, but according to the voice of their conscience within them. For this, as a true and uncorrupted judge of punishments and rewards, decides between the deserts of the innocent and the guilty.” This, once again, calls to mind the natural law. But it also touches on something higher still: the source of nature itself, the Wisdom of God. Some Fathers call it the “spiritual law,” and St. Augustine called it the “eternal law,” which “is the divine order or will of God, which requires the preservation of natural order, and forbids the breach of it.”
The Writings often personify Wisdom, a grammatically feminine word in Hebrew and Greek, as God’s handmaid in creation. “[B]efore the beginning of the earth,” she says, “… I was there” (Proverbs 8:23, 27). God “poured her out upon all his works” (Ecclesiasticus 1:9). So also, “she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wisdom 7:26). Thus, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), and at the creation of the world, Wisdom was there, “delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:31).
Not only were we created after the image of God, but we are also microcosms of creation. Like the heavens and the earth, we bear the imprint of this divine Wisdom that “cannot be gotten for gold” (Job 28:15) on our being. In exploring the depths of nature, we see the marks of divine Wisdom, through which the world came to be, according to which God sustains it, and for which he created it.
Wisdom, then, can be found anywhere, from the heights of heaven to the most mundane occupations of this life. “I know,” says the Preacher, “that nothing is better for [people] than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13). The Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, and Wisdom of Solomon suffer no shortage of sayings about riches and poverty, often how the wise tend to prosper but folly leads to ruin. At the same time, they also acknowledge the dangers of both material success and privation: “Give me neither poverty nor riches—feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9). One learns that “almsgiving atones for sin” (Ecclesiasticus 3:30). But Wisdom warns, “Assist your neighbor to the best of your ability, but be careful not to fall yourself” (Ecclesiasticus 29:20). So too, the righteous person “does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent” (Psalm 15:5).
Yet Wisdom also remains elusive: “But where shall wisdom be found?” asks Job, “And where is the place of understanding? Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living” (Job 28:12-13). We can catch glimpses of Wisdom in the world and even, through its higher, spiritual level of meaning, in the Law of Moses. We also see its reflection in human nature, but through the Psalmist the Lord humbles us like Job: “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.’ But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes” (Psalm 82:6-7).
Through the ascetic practice of memento mori, meditation on our mortality, Wisdom directs our attention to the transitory aspect of material life, the inestimable value of virtue, the hope of the Resurrection, and the justice of God at the Day of Judgment. We see our deep need for God, and in the Psalms we find words to pray for every occasion. St. Athanasius the Great even remarked, “I believe that the whole of human existence, both the dispositions of the soul and the movements of the thoughts, have been measured out and encompassed in those very words of the Psalter.” And he encouraged others, as the Church has done in its liturgical tradition, to make the prayers of the Psalter their own.
Nevertheless, while individual men and women of old found consolation in their sorrows and fellowship with God through what wisdom and virtue they could obtain, humanity’s problem is not just personal but communal and, ultimately, cosmic: We all together—and, through us, the heavens and earth—need salvation from sin, death, corruption, and the devil. We need more than knowledge of Wisdom; we need true communion with it, the “tree of life”—that which we lost in Eden—“to those who take hold of her” (Proverbs 3:18).
In my next essay on the Gospels, we will see that hope first fully realized in our Lord Jesus Christ.