Maps and Wisdom

First Testament Problems

One of the challenges posed by the wisdom literature of the First Testament is what we, as Christian disciples and pilgrims, should do with it. Many Christians I have spoken to simply don’t see Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes as a priority in their Bible reading and reflection. Their thinking boils down to the question: “Why should I read Wisdom when it is so obviously trumped by the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles?”. Even those Christians I know who have read these three books recently see Job and Ecclesiastes as problems that need to be addressed, rather than life-giving Scripture to be cherished. A disturbing view emerges—once Job has been ‘explained’, there is no need to read all those tedious dialogues once, let alone to return to them at a later point. To be fair much of the First Testament, not just Job and Ecclesiastes, can be challenging. This challenge should however be the start of something and not the end. How could rich Scripture be a quick fix? How can we even know the issues it aims to address? Are we not simply narrowing its potential as a source information rather than being open to its transformative potential?

Full of Wind or Full of the Spirit?

If we see the Wisdom Books as the distillation of wise people’s observations and reflections from across the ancient Near East, curated and edited to become Scripture by generations of the sages of Israel, how could we imagine that its appropriation would be either quick or easy? How could it be as simple as reading a paperback self-help book by a contemporary privileged author who hasn’t seen death first hand or struggled with day-to-day survival? Why would we expect a podcast or sermon to crystallise the Book of Job into a paragraph of propositional truth? Such a view is especially ironic when Job is read carefully—it shows us that distilled overly simplified wisdom is the way to becoming full of wind (ruach) rather than spirit (ruach), see Job 26:4.

A Map or a Compass?

We have seen that the ancient Near Eastern understanding of wisdom is ‘living well’ and that the biblical development of this is ‘living well in fear of the living God’. This can mean that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are seized upon for quick and precise answers. In short, these resources are incorrectly defined as maps for life. Both the testimony of Scripture and the experience of living the life of faith, reveal that God does not provide a map for our life. Indeed, such a map would be a denial of the very freedom and grace that Jesus Christ came to bestow upon his disciples. Despite the absurdity of God providing a map for our lives, time and again we seek the quick fix. Sometimes we hear those around us who claim to have received such instant guidance. And of course, God can choose to speak into our lives through dreams, circumstance and even in an audible voice. More often than not, however, having equipped us with Scripture, His Spirit and grace, he lets us make choices. We have a compass from him not a map. Our routine day-to-day choices come through walking with him in simple integrity. Less often, we face more complex choices. These are the choices that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes prepare us for. They can only prepare us if we read, reflect and question these books.

The City Gate: Wisdom in Community

Perhaps another reason we struggle with Wisdom Literature is that we make it reading it a solitary exercise; a part of our individualistic devotions. When we remember the societal and corporate experiences and effort that shaped these First Testament books our individualism looks foolish rather than wise. Biblical wisdom is corporate and communal in its richness. Why not find a way in which you can work on First Testament wisdom with some friends, and so discover God’s wisdom together in the twenty-first century? Our church has found that once a month over breakfast works well for us. Where is your equivalent of the city gate (see Proverbs 1:21 and 8:3)?

Advent 2018: Pointing to the Light

Readings

Job 28:1–28; John 1:1–18; Matthew 2:1–2

Introduction

At the start of chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel we find these words:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

Wise men from the East come in search of the king of the Jews—there is a little bit more to the story of course. But the short account leaves little information for us to work with, and so understand how this odd situation arose. Pagan wise men seeking a Jewish king raises a number of questions. However our imagination fills in the details, there is something timeless in this story. Since the dawn of history, it has been a natural thing for people to seek wisdom. The Wise Men presumably made it their vocation as did a number of groups in the Ancient Near-East.

And it seems to me that Wise Men from the east might well have been hoping for the king of the Jews to offer wisdom. They are likely to have heard of the earlier king of the Jews, King Solomon, famous for his wisdom. Knowing little of Judean politics, they perhaps expected to be greeted by a wise benevolent royal family. In any case, as seekers after wisdom they join the wider cry of humanity which still finds voice today:

“Where Shall Wisdom be Found?”

Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

The Book of Job lavishly and beautifully asks this question. It compares the quest for wisdom with that of the quest for precious stones and valuable minerals. Mining is an enterprise that most of us know little about. We can, however, all appreciate the difficulty and danger of going deep underground to use tools to extract rock in the hope of revealing something useful or something precious. Such a task has always been dangerous, especially in an age with no support from technology other than basic hand-held metal tools.

Looking for wisdom is by analogy hard work. It takes great effort. It is both an individual endeavour and a collective one. The Book of Job is itself a result of the quest for wisdom. It showcases the wrong way to go about wisdom (Job’s friends) versus the right way (Job). Chapter 28, in the heart of the Book, offers something of a prelude to the Book’s conclusion. Job will find that despite all his questions, invited by terrible suffering, the only wise answer is to fear God. Chapter 28 concludes this too:

And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:28)

It is wise for us to reflect soberly in the waiting time of Advent as to whether we have this fear of the Lord. As we see our lives in the perspective of God’s plan for his creation. As we stand between the First Advent of Christ and his Second, we must wait. Faithful waiting starts with the passivity of reflection. Reflection on the precious wisdom we have from God.

Reflection is not passive but rather generative as we open ourselves to God. It culminates in right action based on right orientation before the living God. If we are to share the gospel—the ultimate wisdom of God—we need to remember both its value and what it cost. We cannot hope to share this good news unless it is already quickened in our heart, mind and soul.

Where is the King?

The little we know of the Wise Men suggests that they were obedient and generous. Perhaps when they set out, they had little idea of the specific danger they would face from Herod. Though such a journey would have been fraught with the obvious dangers of travelling for many months. Their foreign appearance and the riches they carried would have made them likely targets for bandits.

Does our seeking after Jesus put us in danger? Compared to our brothers and sisters in cultures highly hostile to Christianity we are more likely to face mild inconvenience, or passing ridicule, than any real danger. If pagan kings feel the need to see this Jesus how much more should we his disciples fix or eyes on him?

The Wise Men not only made a bold time-consuming journey. The gifts they brought with them were precious costly things. In their earthly wisdom they recognised the preciousness of this new king of the Jews. Maybe they thought they would receive wisdom from their endeavour and in so doing they should offer something in return. Perhaps they were living out the proverb:

How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. (Proverbs 16:16)

Whatever their original motives they gave generously. What did they receive? Did they see their journey as worthwhile? I think they would have. They most likely never heard the end of the story that they were part of. But they could see God at work in dreams, in signs and in, let’s be frank, his mysterious ways. How else can we label God’s plan for a working-class Judean-born to be king of an oppressed and troubled nation.

What we give to God might be less than the Wise Men gave to Jesus’ family. What we receive, however, is so much more.

John Witnesses to the Light

Like precious stones glinting in the darkness of a mine, so God’s wisdom, Jesus, shines in this dark world. As John says in his prelude to his gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4–5)

John paints a profound picture of the Word become flesh. Part of the revelation that he testifies to is that Jesus is wisdom:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)

Describing Jesus as logos, also implies he is wisdom. The deep questions asked in the Book of Job and answered in part in wisdom literature, in the Law of Moses and sketched in the Prophets, are answered fully in Jesus Christ.  In the First Testament, God could not be seen because of the barrier of sin that humanity chose to build. The closest Job got to the living God, after asking Him some demanding questions, was a speech from a whirlwind. A speech of revelation that left him firmly put in his place as creature before his creator.

This story reminds me of an idea from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It makes reference to something called the Total Perspective Vortex. In the words of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

‘When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”‘

Douglas Adam’s imagination invents something much like Job’s experience before his maker. Unlike those that enter the vortex, insanity is not the result. Job’s response was to place his hand over his mouth. In Jesus, the Word, we have a fresh revelation. A perspective of a very different sort. As John puts it:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)

Pointing to the Light

Where is Jesus?

We would do well to ask this question. Yes, we know the answer with our heads. But reflective waiting on God is necessary for the reality to fill our very bones and refresh our souls. Advent is about waiting. Waiting is not about doing nothing. Waiting before God allows us to hear his precious voice. Waiting allows us to be in an age defined by doing. Waiting allows us to orientate ourselves. The season of Advent is a reminder that we live between Jesus’ first advent and his second. Where is Jesus? He is in the heavenly places with his Father. He will visit us again. We need to look to the light before we can point the light effectively.

Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

The people we work with, our friends, our neighbours, our family members are asking the question where can wisdom be found? They rarely state it that precisely of course. But it is the question that goes to the heart of being human. The question that all of us ask about meaning. The Wise Men gave up time, for God. How much more should we give our time to God? One way of offering our time to God, is to make time to listen to the people in our lives—to listen to how they ask the question, Where Shall Wisdom be Found? Jesus, God’s wisdom, is the answer to their question—but we can point them to the light most effectively when we understand where they are looking already.

Pointing to Jesus

The Wise Men point to Jesus; it was God who enabled them to do so. John the Baptist points to Jesus; it was God who sent him to do so. We too can point to Jesus, God has sent each of us to do this. Of course, we do this best when we do it together as church.