Fifty years before the birth of Jesus, an anonymous member of the Jewish community at Alexandria wrote The Book of Wisdom. Now part of the Old Testament, Wisdom (W) claims for its inspiration the teachings of King Solomon, David’s son, 900 years earlier.
Early on we read, “For the spirit of the Lord fills the world, is all-embracing, and knows whatever is said.” (W)
This simple sentence contains three bold assertions:
- The spirit of the Lord fills the world. The world, therefore, enfolds it.
- The spirit of the Lord is all-embracing; therefore, it enfolds the world.
- The spirit of the Lord knows whatever is said, and by extension, whatever is done. It contains a perfect copy of all that has been, is, or ever will be.
Ordinarily, we would think it impossible that something that enfolds something else could in turn be enfolded by it. But the spirit of the Lord both enfolds and is enfolded by the world.
“…God is the witness of the inmost self and the sure observer of the heart and the listener to the tongue.” (W)
Further, it includes a perfect likeness of everything that occurs in that world. In other words, the spirit not only enfolds and is enfolded by the world as a whole, but apparently it enfolds and is enfolded by every single ‘actual entity’ or ‘event’ that constitutes that world.
This is not pantheism: God is distinct from the world and from the entities that comprise it. This panentheism: God is in all things and all things are in God. Roman Catholics proclaim this every time they celebrate Eucharist. At communion, the worshiper takes the body of Christ into his own body and by that act is simultaneously incorporated into Christ’s body.
Wisdom includes some other important ideas as well on the nature of God:
“Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being, and the creatures of the world are wholesome; there is not a destructive drug among them nor any domain of Hades on earth…” (W)
First, as elaborated by Augustine, God is the author only of good works. To the extent that something is called ‘bad’, we simply refer to a certain absence or attenuation of the good. Nothing is evil per se. (“There’s no such thing as a bad boy.”)
Therefore, we refer to Good in the absolute sense as God’s essence. We refer to good in a relative sense as a characteristic common in varying degrees to all the world’s entities and events. In this later sense, good and evil are not opposites but comparatives.
Second, God is righteous; in fact, he is righteousness per se. Therefore, in one sense at least, God is the source of all righteousness in the world. Entities are righteous to the extent that they participate in God’s righteousness.
Wisdom begins with the words, “Love righteousness…”
God is also undying. In fact; he is eternity per se (the permanent present, the eternal now). Therefore, every actual entity, to the extent that it is righteous, participates both in God’s righteousness and in God’s eternity.
“…Righteousness is undying.” (W)
“It was the wicked who with hands and words invented death… For not thinking rightly, they said among themselves: ‘Brief and troubled is our lifetime, there is no remedy for our dying, nor is anyone known to come back from Hades. For by mere chance we were born and hereafter we shall be as though we had not been…our body will be ashes and our spirit will be poured abroad like empty air. Even our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will recall our deeds. So our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud…our lifetime is the passing of a shadow.” (W)
As an analysis of life without God’s grace, this is spot on! Note how much this reads like a contemporary document. With a few vocabulary substitutions, it could easily pass for the work of some 20th century existentialist or analytic philosopher.
Wisdom continues: “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are here, and make use of creation with youthful zest. Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no springtime blossom pass us by; let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.”
This ethic is consistent with views of 20th century writers like Camus, Ayer and Wittgenstein. It is also consistent with another book of wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes:
“Here is what I see as good: It is appropriate to eat and drink and prosper from all the toil one toils under the sun during the limited days of life God gives us; for this is our lot…This is a gift from God… Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favors your works. At all times let your garments be white, and spare not the perfume for your head. Enjoy life with the wife you love, all the days of the vain life granted you under the sun. This is your lot in life, for the toil of your labors under the sun.”
But then the argument in Wisdom takes a very dark turn:
“Let no meadow be free from our wantonness… Let us oppress the righteous poor; let us neither spare the widow nor revere the aged for hair grown white with time. But let our strength be our norm of righteousness; for weakness proves itself useless. Let us lie in wait for the righteous one… To us he is the censure of our thoughts…” (W)
Analysis of the human condition has led to nihilism and nihilism has led to despair:
“…The sun did not rise for us.” (W)
And despair has led to evil.
Of course, there is something circular about this argument. If the wicked invented death, how did they know enough about it beforehand to pull together their line of reasoning? Perhaps we need to go to Genesis 2 for this answer but that would take us beyond the scope of this essay.
Unfortunately, the argument of ‘the wicked’ focuses entirely on the human condition, sans God; it ignores the impact of the divine:
“But the righteous live forever, and the Lord is their recompense, and the thought of them is with the Most High.” (W)
“For God formed us to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made us… The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed in the view of the foolish to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.” (W)
Death, in fact, is an illusion but the wicked are led by that illusion to waste the lives that they’ve been given.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sin for the sake of repentance. For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate. How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved had it not been called forth by you? But you spare all things because they are yours, O Ruler and Lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things.” (W)
“But neither is there any god besides you who have the care of all… But as you are righteous, you govern all things righteously… Your might is the source of righteousness; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all… You taught your people by these deeds that those who are righteous must be kind.” (W)
Although God’s power is unlimited, God tolerates everything that the world brings forth for the sake of the good, no matter how minimal, in each thing.
But what about judgment? What about the wicked? According to Wisdom, human beings are punished, not by God, but by the idols (gods) they have fashioned with their own hands:
“Hence those unrighteous who lived a life of folly, you tormented through their own abominations…being tortured by the very things they deemed god.” (W)
Traditional Roman Catholic theology teaches that the principal torment of Hell is eternal separation from God. Similarly, Wisdom teaches that humans who were given a chance to live eternal lives in communion with God and, for the most part at least squandered that chance, are tormented principally by the realization of their poor decision making.
“Foolish by nature were all who were in ignorance of God, and who from good things seen did not succeed in knowing the one who is…” (W)
The spirit of the Lord fills the world. It is manifest in all of the entities that make up that world. To live in that world and not to see manifestations of the spirit everywhere is to be “foolish” in the extreme.
Sadly, we live in an era when, in developed Western countries at least, most men and women are behaving foolishly. They have analyzed the human condition without reference to God and they have failed to glimpse the Creator of all through the gossamer curtain of his creations.
Our reflections confirm an insight of a 6th century Irish poet, St. Dallan: “Naught is all else to me save that Thou art!”
Despite all our sophistication, it all comes down to Deuteronomy: “I set before you life and death; therefore choose life.”