3 Jun 2011

Wisdom of Solomon: The Righteous Will Live Forever

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Exegesis, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Romans, Wisdom of Solomon

Page from Wisdom of Solomon in the Gutenberg Bible

Introduction

Though called the Wisdom of Solomon, Solomon is never mentioned in the book. Wisdom is a product of Alexandrian Judaism and promotes a wholehearted pursuit of wisdom which begins with reverence for God and his Word. The unknown author focuses on God’s judgment in order to demonstrate that forsaking the path of true wisdom is utter folly. Wisdom recalls God’s care and grace towards Israel throughout her history, especially the Exodus, and exposes the ignorance of idolatry that has duped most of humanity. Wisdom is perhaps the most important of the works of the Apocrypha in terms of impact upon the early church’s theology and self-understanding.

We can outline Wisdom of Solomon as follows:

I. Promises of Reward for the Righteous and Punishment for wicked (1.1- 5.23)
II. Praises Wisdom and describes Her nature and work (6.1-9.18)
III. Wisdom’s guidance and protection of Israel through the wilderness (10.1-12.27)
IV. Wisdom explains the origins and folly of idolatry (13.1-15.19)
V. God’s punishment on evil and grace towards his People (16.1-19.22)

Wisdom of Solomon was written sometime after 220 B.C. and likely was a Greek composition. This last point is not uncontested however. There are a large amount of Hebraisms in the book that suggest to some scholars it is translation Greek. Yet I agree with the opinion that Wisdom is an example of early Jewish theology written in Greek (one of the few Apocrypha that was probably composed in Greek).

Martin Luther on Wisdom of Solomon

Martin Luther translated Wisdom in 1529 for inclusion in his German Bible. He provided a lengthy preface to the book describing various theories of authorship in which he sides with various Church Fathers who thought the book might have been written by Philo. As with Tobit and Judith, Luther rejects the canonicity of Wisdom but places a very high value on the book itself for Christian growth. Here is a selection from his much more extensive preface.

“[T]here are many good things in this book, and it is well worth reading . . . It pleases me beyond measure that the author here extols the Word of God so highly, and ascribes to the Word all the wonders God has performed, both on enemies and in his saints.

From this it can be clearly seen that what the author here calls wisdom is not the clever or lofty thoughts of pagan teachers and human reason, but the holy and divine Word. . .

To refer to this book as the Wisdom of Solomon is as much to call it: A Book of Solomon about the Word of God. So the spirit of wisdom is nothing other than faith, our understanding of that same Word; this, however, the Holy Spirit imparts. Such faith or spirit can do all things, and does do all things, as this book glories in chapter 7 [v.27]. . .

This is the foremost reason why it is well to read this book: one may learn to fear and trust God. To that end may he graciously help us. Amen.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 35, pp. 343-345).

As can be seen Luther did not see Wisdom as a danger to the Christian faith but a real and present help.

Woodcut from the Geneva Bible illustrating Wisdom of Solomon

Woodcut from the Geneva Bible illustrating Wisdom of Solomon

Wisdom’s Critique of Idolatry

Wisdom continues the tradition of the prophets, and other writings in the Apocrypha, of attacking the idolatry of the pagan world. Wisdom though able to mock paganism is also quite sophisticated in its critique.

But most foolish, and more miserable than an infant, are all the enemies who oppressed your people. For they thought that all these have neither the use of their eyes to see with, nor nostrils with which to breath, nor ears with which to hear, nor fingers to feel with, and their feet are of no use for walking.

For a human being made them, and one whose spirit is borrowed formed them; for none can form gods that are like themselves. People are mortal, and what they make with lawless hands is dead; For they are better than the objects they worship, since they
have life, but the idols never had.” (Wisdom 15.14-17).

The author of Wisdom presents a very insightful theory as to how idolatry began and why it is so reprehensible.

Therefore there will be a visitation also upon the heathen idols,because, though part of what God created, they became an abomination, snares for human souls and a trap for the feet of the foolish. (Wisdom 14.11)

Idolaters use the material of God’s own good creation to promote a cult that dishonors the Creator, thus misusing the gifts of God’s creation. God’s good gifts should have aroused gratitude to him, not the worship of the created!

Personification of Wisdom

One of the critical developments in Wisdom is the concept of “wisdom” herself. With roots already in the Hebrew Bible (Proverbs 1.20-33 & 8.22-31) our author understands Wisdom to be an “emanation” from God himself rather than a created being:

She is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty  . . .  a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wisdom 7.25-26).

“Wisdom” is God’s companion, and agent, in creation and ongoing providence in the world (8.1 & 9.9). Some scholars even think the author thinks Wisdom is a “throne partner” of God (cf. 9.4). At the very least there is an intimate relationship.

Wisdom can only be obtained among humans through prayer,

Therefore, I prayed, and understanding was given me;
I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me
(Wisdom 7.7, cf. James 1.5; see also Wisdom 8.21-9.18).

Wisdom also advances doctrines about judgment and the afterlife. The righteous will have peace and glory forever in a “place of great delight in the temple of the Lord” (3.14). This is one of the first “windows” into the idea of heaven in Jewish literature.

In a passage of great beauty and comfort, our author encourages the faithful to be undaunted by even death:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seems to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope was full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself.
(Wisdom 3.1-5).

Wisdom of Solomon and Christianity

The early church made extensive use of Wisdom. A number of passages were interpreted messianically. For example, “Blessed is the wood through which righteousness comes” (14.7) was seized upon as a reference to the Cross. Another famous passage, which depicts the persecution of a righteous Jew, was seen as a clear description of the conspiracy against Christ by religious leaders. It is, in fact, an amazing passage:

Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his
life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
(Wisdom 2.12-20)

That is a moving, and a powerful, passage to say the least. I can understand why someone might believe it was describing Jesus and his enemies.

The NT writers demonstrate numerous times their dependence upon the book of Wisdom for their own words. The influence of Wisdom’s theology on John’s teaching of the “Logos” is plainly evident. Another passage that was interpreted by the church as a prophecy of Jesus can be understood as such in light of John. Wisdom says that “[Y]our all powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed . . .” (18.15).

The Hebrew’s Preacher uses many concepts from Wisdom to explicate the person of Jesus as well. Paul’s description of the pagan world in Romans 1.19-32 comes straight out of Wisdom (13.1-9; 14.22-27). For the sake of those unfamiliar with the book of Wisdom I will reproduce a couple of illustrative texts with a cross reference to Romans:

From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13.5, cf. Rom. 1.20)

Yet again, even they cannot be excused, for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things” (Wisdom 13.8, cf. Rom. 1.20-21)

For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works” (Wisdom 13.1)

Wisdom describes the pagan debauchery in these familiar terms in Romans …

They no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, pollution of souls, sex perversion, disorder in marriage, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of unspeakable idols is the beginning and cause and end of every evil” (Wisdom 14.24-27, cf. Rom. 1.26, 29-31).

Another connection with the NT is Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6.11-17) See my blog Eph 6.13 and the Panoplia of God.

The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor,
and will arm all creation to repel his enemies;
he will put on righteousness as a breastplate,
and wear impartial justice as a helmet;
he will take holiness as an invincible shield,
and sharpen stern wrath for a sword,
and creation will join with him to fight against his
frenzied foes.” (Wisdom 5. 17-21).

Concluding Thoughts

It is clear that the early church found the book of Wisdom to be a valuable Spiritual resource. After the NT period the church continued to appeal to the book. The book played a crucial role in providing vocabulary for the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology. Writers like Ignatius, Athenagoras, Augustine, Origen and many, many more quoted and used the book in their teaching and exposition. Why? Because they found in the book a “witness” to faith – just as we have seen in the previous Apocrypha.

One Response to “Wisdom of Solomon: The Righteous Will Live Forever”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    GW: Yes, an excellent book and worth reading. References to the apocrypha are one reason I enjoy Barclay’s commentaries. He involves references to statements and events in the apocrypha in addition to the 66 books.

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