Oh Where Wisdom? (Hint – Not in Science)

JobThe 28th chapter of the book of Job is a wisdom poem or hymn addressing the question “Where is wisdom found?”. This wisdom poem represents a significant departure from the cycle of dialog and speeches that circle around the cause of Job’s suffering. Job consistently insists on his righteousness and looks for justice he fears he will not find while the others insist that he must deserve his fate because God is just. If Job suffers he cannot be innocent. The wisdom hymn in chapter 28 steps back and reflects on wisdom, anticipating the end of the book in chapters 38-42 where God speaks to Job.

This is a hard chapter to place in the book and there is controversy as to the speaker. Tremper Longman III, in his commentary on Job, ultimately assigns the words to Job. John Walton disagrees, and in his commentary on Job assigns the words to the narrator, as an insert between the cycle of three dialogs Job has with his three friends and the rest of the book. Both agree that the decision is not clear cut and has to be held loosely. Whoever the speaker, this wisdom hymn is worth a post.

Human Achievements is not Enough. The poem can be divided into three segments. The first segment looks at mining – a marvelous technological achievement of the ancient world that opened up a world of new possibilities. The earth was made to yield treasures, silver, gold, iron, copper, precious gems. As usual I quote from Longman’s translation. The NIV used in Walton’s commentary is available here.

Indeed, there is a mine for silver,
     and a place where gold is refined.
Iron is taken from the dust,
     and copper is poured out from stone.
Putting an end to darkness,
     they investigate every limit,
     the ore in thick and deep darkness.
They breach a wadi far from human sojourning,
     a place that is forgotten by human feet.
     they are suspended; they wander far from people. 
                                                         (28:1-4, Longman)
They put their hand on the flint,
     upturning mountains from their root.
They cut channels in the rocks;
     their eyes see all the precious things.
They dam up the sources of the rivers.
     Hidden things come out into the light.
                                                         (28:9-11, Longman)

If we were to write this chapter today, rather than a focus on mining we might talk of quantum physics, the human genome, and space exploration. We sequence the gene, explore the inner workings of cells, and search for new medicines and cures. We search for the Higgs Boson, dark matter, and dark energy. We send probes to Mars and marvel over the images they send back. We develop faster and safer modes of communication and travel – the telegraph, telephone, satellite, and internet, …. train, car, airplane, and dreams of space travel coming true in small steps. Humans are capable of great feats.

The first stanza ends however with a dose of reality (or the second begins with this in the NIV translation used in Walton’s commentary).

As for wisdom, where can it be found?
     The place of understanding, where is it?
                                                     (28:12, Longman)

Longman notes that “This powerful description of human ability and successful efforts at finding hidden treasures under the earth contrasts strongly with our inability to find wisdom.” Nothing has changed. The marvels of human achievement in the three millenia or so since this hymn was originally penned have come no closer to wisdom than the wonders of mining did in the ancient Near East. The big questions raised in the book of Job have no better human answers today than they did so long ago.

Wisdom cannot be bought. The second stanza of the poem tells us that wisdom cannot be bought for any price. It cannot be found on earth, even in those places that are hostile to humans.

No person knows its price.
     It cannot be found in the land of the living.
The Deep says, "It is not in me."
     The Sea says it is not with me."
It cannot be given for gold.
     Silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
                                                     (28:13-15, Longman)

Again, as true today as when originally penned.

God is the source of wisdom. The final stanza makes it clear that God is the source of all wisdom.

God understands its path,
     and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth;
     under all the heavens he sees,
in order to give weight to the wind,
     and measure out the waters in their measure.
When he made the decree for the rain,
     and the way for the thunderstorm,
then he saw it and declared it;
     he established it and investigated it.
                                                  (28:23-27, Longman)

This stanza again anticipates the final conversation (if we can call it that) between God and Job in chapters 38-42. God alone understands wisdom and God alone knows its path and place. The Creator, God, forms, sees, measures, weighs, decrees the rain. The truth of this passage holds whether we have, as well, a “scientific” explanation for wind and rain. God looks into the atom and gave us the particles that hold it together. In creation God saw wisdom, declared it, established it, and investigated it.

And he said to humankind:
     'Behold, the fear of the Lord is wisdom,
      and turning aside from evil is understanding.'
                                                (28:28, Longman)

Longman suggests that the fear of the Lord is an emotion that removes pride and replaces it with the humility appropriate to the presence of the sovereign God – an emotion of awe and respect.

One may know a lot of facts without fear of the Lord, but not to know the most basic reality of all – God – renders someone a fool: “Fools say in their heart ‘There is no God'” (Ps. 14:1 NSRV)

Thus the fear of God is a presupposition of wisdom. Further, wisdom in the Bible is not a body of knowledge but rather a relationship. The wise must have a dependent relationship with God that makes them listen to him. All true knowledge has reference to God. (p. 334)

All of our achievements in mining, biology, architecture, engineering, information, particle physics, space exploration are nothing but wisps of futility … without the fear of the Lord and a turning aside from evil.

The book of Job has many messages for us today – and as many corrections to our theology and expectations as it had for the original audience.

Where is wisdom found?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you would like to comment please see Oh Where Wisdom? (Hint – Not in Science) at Jesus Creed.

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