The structure of the Protestant Old Testament places five books near the middle that are called Books of Wisdom. These five books close out the historical section of the Old Testament.
The Exodus from Egypt that lies at the heart of the Pentateuch is the most significant event in the life of Israel. Centuries later, after the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, the most significant disaster in the life of Israel occurred when the Babylonians overran Jerusalem and took away most of the Israelites in an effort to assimilate them. For seventy years, from 587 to 516 BCE, Jews were captives in a foreign land. Eventually, the Persians under Cyrus the Great in turn conquered the Babylonians. It was then that the Jewish people were allowed to return to a ruined Jerusalem and begin the long job of rebuilding.
I mention this historical background because it provides the setting for these Books of Wisdom. They are not historical accounts of these events, but rather they are Israel’s response to them. Some of these writings, in fact, date from well before the exile, but they were compiled and arranged around the time of Israel’s return. The Psalms and Lamentations are intended for use in religious services as well as on state occasions when they were used in the royal court. The Psalms are the hymns of the Jewish people and the central hymn book of Christians.
Lamentations is not actually one of the five books of wisdom, but its content is of the same literary type and so I included it this morning. The book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings, advice for living. It has echoes in other ancient writing, both Jewish and Egyptian. Unlike the Books of the Law, it does not set out commandments so much as offer a voice of experience and wisdom directed at building character and creating harmonious relationships. While it may better be described as a work of moral philosophy, its placement here reminds Israel and us that even after disaster, ordinary life will have to be lived and we will need to draw on the wisdom of the past for guidance in the present.
The Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon, as it’s also known, is a love poem. While it is attributed to Solomon, he did not write it. The song is a dialogue between two lovers and speaks in lyrical phrases about the longing of one person for physical intimacy with another as an expression of love. For Protestants religion is often associated with prudery and so we rarely read from this beautiful book. Some commentators have suggested this is merely an allegory depicting God’s love for humankind. That interpretation is, in my view, simply a way to avoid accepting that physical love is one of God’s gifts to humankind.
The Book of Job builds on a Middle Eastern story that has been adapted for post-exilic Israel to address the nature of God, and particularly how God and evil can co-exist. In the presence of evil, either by design or misfortune, where is God? Do we love God only if God is good to us, or can we, as Job does, love God when all is taken away? This question is not answered definitively, but the writer finally seeks comfort in the assertion that some things are beyond human understanding. We don’t need to know it all in order to know that God is God and God is with us in all things.
Ecclesiastes is, I think, a little like a journal of thoughts and reflections by an unknown teacher who ponders the futility of life. The expression “Vanity of Vanities” is another illustration of the Hebrew use of repetition for emphasis. The teacher is expressing the view that life is just smoke that will blow away with the slightest breeze. For him there seems to be no clear purpose. There is no word of assurance from God. What do provide comfort are the ordinary pleasures of life. Enjoy them when you can.
There is no clear narrative thread linking these books, but if we reflect on their origin after the exile, as the people return to find their beloved city and its temple in ruins, you can see that they provide some degree of comfort and encouragement, as well as a reflection on the mysteries and vicissitudes of life. There is no easy assurance that everything will be quickly restored to the glories of the past. Nor is there assurance that there will be no hardships or disasters in the future. All of these books, except the Song of Songs, speak in some detail of the hardships that befall us both as individuals and as communities. They wrestle with the tendency to hopelessness and despair.
What Israel is given here, and what we can take from these books even today, is the belief that God is with us even in the worst of times. It does us no good to pretend that nothing bad has happened or will happen. Rather, we are better to acknowledge the evil that has befallen us, and only then are we able to express our grief, anger and sorrow.
After all their hardships, the Israelites are given these stories and hymns, prayers and proverbs as resources to sustain them when life seems too painful to carry on or when it seems to have no purpose at all. In the end, these Books of Wisdom tell us that the joy of life, the simple pleasures of bread and wine, of companionship and love, these are the ways in which we are encouraged to celebrate God’s gift of life.
Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 9:7-10, Lamentations 1: 7-12, 3:25-33
Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2019.
You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.