Introduction to the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament
An Introduction to the Wisdom Books
of the Old Testament
by Bro. Thomas Mary Sennott
Finally, I would like to offer an addditional bonus for visiting
these web pages, a little booklet entitled An Introduction to
the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament.These seven brief articles
appeared several years ago in the short-lived Center Review.
They are available here for a free download either in
whole or in part. The booklet is 40 pages long, each chapter being
about 6 or 7 pages in length. I would especially recommend the first
chapter, The Book of Job , which is only 5 pages long.
are seven so-called "wisdom" books in the Old Testament. They are
the book of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of
Canticles, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus. The Jews, and the Protestants
who always follow their lead, do not consider Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus
as canonical. We will see why in the course of this little paper.
The first Wisdom book is the Book of Job. Job is a descendant of
Esau the twin brother of Jacob, also called Edom. The author of
this beautiful book is unknown; some thinking it is by Job himself,
others by Moses, or one of the patriarchs.
THE BOOK OF JOB
The Bible tells us of God's great love for man. It contains what
God inspired men to tell men about God and also about man. It shows
us how to pray and how to live. For someone who has a great deal
to suffer, the Book of Job might well be read first, for Job was
a man who lost everything he had - his ten children, his health,
his worldly possessions, his home. He lost the respect of his wife
who called him a fool, and his closest friends, who called him a
hypocrite. All these trials were permitted by God, as we are told
in the Bible, and God wants us to read this story, because sooner
or later He will send each one of us, one or several, or maybe all
of these trials. Why does God treat us like this? How are we supposed
to act when He does? Why do we suffer? Why do evils come upon us?
These are the questions that are asked and answered in the Book
The Book of Job is unique in the Bible. Actually, it is a play,
with dialogues and monologues in prose and poetry. There is little
action and only two scenes, the court of heaven, and the outskirts
of a small town. The book begins in prose with a brief introduction
to the main character: "There was a man from the Land of Hus, whose
name was Job, and that man was simple and upright, fearing God,
and avoiding evil."
The first scene opens in Heaven where God sits enthroned, surrounded
by His angels. Satan enters, and God asks him if he has seen his
servant Job, a man of virtue, above all men on earth. Satan sneeringly
replies that Job indeed fears God, but only because God has blessed
him; let him be afflicted and he will curse God. Satan is then given
permission to make a trial of Job's virtue, but ordered not to touch
Satan goes to earth, and in quick succession destroys all of Job's
possessions - his flocks and herds, and finally his ten children,
seven boys and three girls. "Then Job rose up and rent his garments
and having shaved his head fell down upon the ground and worshipped
and said: "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked I shall
return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: as
it has pleased the Lord so it is done: Blessed be the name of the
The scene shifts back to Heaven, where Satan enters once again.
For a second times God praises Job who has kept his innocence though
he has been afflicted without cause. But Satan now asks God for
permission to touch Job's person. God permits this too, but forbids
Satan to take Job's life.
The scene once more opens on earth. Satan afflicts Job with a loathsome
disease, and he is covered with open sores, from the top of his
head to the sole of his foot. He is forced to live as an outcast
at the edge of his own town. Job's wife says to him: "Dost thou
still continue in thy simplicity? Curse God and die." But Job answers:
"Thou hast spoken like one of the foolish women: if we have received
good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil?"
After Job has been abandoned by his wife, his three closest friends
enter; Eliphaz, Baldad and Sophar. They sit on the ground grieving
with Job, and wait for him to speak.
"And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights,
and no man spoke to him a word: for they saw his grief was very
The stage is now set for the main part of the play. As in a Greek
drama, we are in on the solution to the problem of the play, in
this case the problem of suffering. Job's sufferings were a test
of his virtue, for his increase in holiness, and for God's glory.
This solution, unknown to Job and his three friends will guide us
through the maze of discussion that follows.
The play continues in poetry, describing Job finally breaking under
his trials up to the point of near death and final despair:
"Let the day perish wherein I was born,
And the night in which it was said:
A man child is conceived...
Why is light given to him that is in misery
And life to them that are in bitterness of soul?
That look for death and it cometh not...
For the fear which I feared hath come upon me:
And that which I was afraid of hath befallen me."
Job's three friends then speak in turn, presenting their solution
to the problem of suffering. They tell Job that since God is obviously
punishing him, he must have sinned. They insist that the good are
rewarded in this life, and the wicked are punished. It logically
follows, concludes Baldad, that since Job's ten children died a
sudden and violent death, they too were punished by God, and are
now in hell. The three friends tell Job he has but to repent and
confess his sins, and God will restore him to his former prosperity
in this life. Job insists that his conscience does not accuse him
of any sin.
"For behold my witness is in heaven, and he that knoweth my conscience
is on High."
Job's friends, in yet stronger terms, claim that he must have sinned.
They paint in awful colors the fate of the wicked, now with no mention
of forgiveness or restoration.
Job - sick, broken hearted and near death - should have given in,
under this continual accusation of SINNER, SINNER, admitted his
guilt, for the sake of peace, and died in despair. But not only
does he persevere, he makes a magnificent rally, to rout these friends,
now become enemies. He replies with a beautiful profession of Faith
in the Messias to come, and in the resurrection of the body, even
of his own putrefying flesh.
"Have pity on me, have pity on me,
At least you my friends
Because the hand of the Lord hath touched me.
For I know that my Redeemer liveth,
And in the last day I shall rise out of the earth.
And I shall be clothed again with my skin,
And in my flesh I shall see,
And my eyes shall behold, and not another:
This my hope is laid up in my bosom."
This is the turning point of the drama, and from now on Job is in
control of himself, and of his terrible grief.
Job taking the offensive for the first time, proceeds to show that
the punitive solution to the problem of suffering (that is, that
suffering is necessarily a punishment sent by God) is false. The
wicked are not always punished in this life, but often prosper,
and the good are not always rewarded in this life, but often suffer.
Just look around. Ask any passerby. Job challenges them to prove
"Why do the wicked live,
And they advanced and strengthened with riches?
Their seed continueth before them, a multitude of kinsmen,
Their houses are secure and peaceable,
And the rod of God is not upon them...
Ask any of them that go by the way,
And you shall perceive that he knoweth these same things...
And if it be not so, who can convince me that I have lied
And set my words before God?"
Job's friends are unconvinced, but have run out of arguments and
remain silent. Job has vanquished these friends who came to comfort
him, but stayed to condemn him.
Job then appeals his case to God's tribunal , and asks God alone
to judge him.
At this point a young man named Elihu who had remained silent out
of deference to his elders, begins to speak. It is almost as if
he was put into the play for comic relief, for he is the classic
sophomore, the wise fool:
"Hear therefore, O Job my speeches,
And hearken to all my words.
Behold now I have opened my mouth,
Let my tongue speak within my jaws.
My words are from my upright heart,
And my lips shall speak a pure sentence.
The spirit of God made me,
And the breath of the almighty gave me life.
If thou canst, answer me, and stand up against my face.
Behold God hath made me as well as thee,
And of the same clay was I also formed
But let not my wonder terrify thee,
And let not my eloquence be burdensome to thee."
Elihu excoriates Job's three friends because they were unable to
silence him. He wants Job seized and bound immediately and tried
for blasphemy. He goes on and on, obviously in love with the sound
of his own voice. A sudden storm springs up with flashes of lightning
and peals of thunder. Elihu actually works it into his unbelievable
"At this my heart trembleth, and is moved out of its place.
Hear ye attentively the terror of his voice,
And the sound that cometh out of his mouth.
He beholdeth under all the heavens,
And his light is upon the ends of the earth.
After it a noise shall roar,
He shall thunder with the voice of his majesty,
And shall not be found out, when his voice shall be heard.
God shall thunder wonderfully with his voice,
He that doth great and unsearchable things."
God now speaks to Job from the midst of the storm. God is angry,
not because Job has committed any sin, but because he sought to
know the secrets of Divine Providence. Job wanted a preview of his
own particular judgment, and this God will only give at the moment
of death. God demands that we live out this life in Faith, and submission
to His Mysterious Will. This Will, then, is the ultimate solution
to the problem of suffering.
God asks Job if he can understand the workings of His Divine Providence
in Nature. Can he understand how He cares for the animals?
"Wilt thou take the prey for the lioness,
And satisfy the appetite of her whelps,
When they couch and lie in wait in holes?
Who provideth food for the raven,
When her young ones cry to God,
Wandering about because they have no meat?"
God challenges Job to answer. But he has no answer and replies:
"What can I say who hath spoken inconsiderately?
I will lay my hand on my mouth."
If Job cannot understand God's Divine Providence in the workings
of Nature, how much less His workings in the souls of men. God wants
men to trust Him in this life, and humbly submit to the sufferings
He sends, knowing that they are part of His Plan for salvation.
This is the practical solution to the problems of suffering, the
solution to which we must all finally come - simply FAITH.
Job then does what God wants him to do, and in a beautiful act of
Faith, casts himself in humble submission upon the Divine Providence:
"I know that thou canst do all things,
And no thought is hid from thee,...
Therefore I have spoken unwisely,
And things that above measure exceed my knowledge...
Therefore I reprehend myself,
And do penance in dust and ashes."
If this were the New Testament, the story would probably end here,
with the saint dying at this point, and getting his reward in the
next life. But because this is the Old Testament, the story has
a different ending. The Book returns to prose and God speaks angrily
"My wrath is kindled against thee and thy two friends, because you
have not spoken the thing that is right before me, as my servant
Job hath...Go to my servant Job, and offer for yourselves a holocaust:
and my servant Job shall pray for you: his face I will accept, that
folly be not imputed to you."
Job then forgives his enemies, a true type of Our Lord, and God
gives him back twofold of all his former possession of flocks and
herds, and gives him ten more children. God in exonerating Job,
has also exonerated his seven sons and three daughters for whom
Job prayed every day: They are rather in the Limbo of the Just,
and Job hasn't lost them, but will see them again one day. In an
especially tender touch we are told of Job's three new daughters
- "And there were not found in all the earth women so beautiful
as the daughters of Job."
Thus in the Book of Job the secret of suffering is revealed. The
good and the innocent will suffer in this life, and usually more
than the wicked. If they ask, "What have I done wrong?" the answer
is, "nothing." But if they continue to suffer with resignation to
God's Will, they will receive an abundant reward in the end - not
in this world perhaps, but assuredly in the next.
"And the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning."
The Psalms (Part I)
"And as the fat taken away from the flesh, so was David chosen
from among the children of Israel. He played with lions as with
lambs: and with bears he did in like manner as with the lambs of
the flock, in his youth. Did he not kill the giant, and take away
the reproach from his people? In lifting up his hand with the stone
in the sling he beat down the boasting of Goliath: For he called
upon the Lord the Almighty, and he gave strength to his right hand,
to take away the mighty warrior, and to set up the horn of his nation.
So in ten thousand did he glorify him, and praised him in the blessings
of the Lord, in offering to him a crown of glory: For he destroyed
the enemies on every side, and extirpated the Philistines the adversaries
unto this day: he broke their horn forever. In all his works he
gave thanks to the holy one, and to the most High, with words of
glory. With his whole heart he praised the Lord, and loved God that
made him: and he gave him power against his enemies: And he set
singers before the altar, and by their voices he made sweet melody.
And to the festivals he added beauty, and set in order the solemn
times even to the end of his life, that they should praise the holy
name of the Lord, and magnify the holiness of God in the morning.
The Lord took away his sins, and exalted his horn forever: and he
gave him a covenant of the kingdom, and a throne of glory in Israel."
The saints teach us that no one can be saved who does not pray.
In the Book of Psalms God Himself teaches us how to pray, providing
us with prayers that He Himself has inspired. St. Jerome says, "He
who takes up the study of Sacred Scripture should first of all learn
the Psalms, that he may learn how to pray."
The Psalms as Literature
The fundamental unit of Hebrew poetry, in which the Psalms were
inspired, is the line. It contains one complete idea. A verse consists
of two lines or a couplet, with occasionally a verse of three lines,
or triplet, being used.
The basic device of Hebrew poetry is known as parallelism, two related
lines balanced against each other. There are three types of parallelism.
The first is called similar parallelism. It is the most common type,
and most of the Psalms are written in this style. In it the couplet
balances two similar ideas.
He that dwells in Heaven shall laugh at them,
And the Lord shall deride them. (Ps. 2)
The second line of the couplet repeats the idea of the first. Our
poetry usually rhymes in sounds. The Semites, one could say, like
to rhyme ideas. This balancing of similar ideas, one against another,
can become delightful to the mind.
A second type of parallelism is called opposite parallelism. Here
the poet balances opposite ideas one against another.
For the Lord knoweth the way of the just,
And the way of the wicked shall perish. (Ps. 1)
The third type of parellelism is called progressive or climactic
parellelism. Here the lines gradually progress to a climax.
I cried to the Lord with my voice
And he hath heard me from his holy hill. (Ps. 3)
Hebrew poetry was meant to be sung, usually to the accompaniment
of a musical instrument. It has no definite length of line or fixed
rhythm. This providential arrangement has allowed the Psalms to
be translated into Greek, Latin, and even English, without losing
anything substantial in the process.
Knowing something about the literary background of the Psalms can
be an aid in their interpretation. Here is part of Psalm 46, which
is in similar parellelism:
Line - O clap your hands, all ye nations...
Couplet - For the Lord is high, terrible:
A great king over all the earth...
Triplet - For God is king over all the earth: sing ye wisely:
God shall reign over the nations
God sitteth on his holy throne.
Then comes a final couplet, which, though obscure, can be rather
easily interpreted if we understand the principles of parallelism:
The princes of the people are gathered together with the God of
For the strong gods of the earth are exceedingly exalted.
Since the Psalm is in similar parallelism, the line, "For the Lord
is high, terrible" and "a great king over all the earth," are both
conveying the same idea; as are the phrases, "gathered together
with the God of Abraham" and "exceedingly exalted." One line throws
light on another. Looking back through the psalm, we see that it
is about the Gentiles: "all you nations," "king over all the earth,"
"reign over the nations." Thus the phrases, "princes of the people"
and "strong gods of the earth," refer to the Gentiles: "gathered
together with the God of Abraham" and "are exceedingly exalted,"
refer to the conversion of the Gentiles. The psalm, then, is about
the uniting of all nations with the Jews in the worship of the true
God, the God of Abraham. The nations will be "exceedingly exalted"
- that is, lifted up out of the darkness of sin.
The Psalms and David
David is the principal author of the Psalms. His story is told in
the first and second books of Kings. Many of the psalms composed
by David are autobiographical, offered as prayers of thanksgiving
for the many favors God has granted him, from overcoming his foe
Goliath, to being delivered from his rebellious son Absalom. For
example, when King Saul drove David from his presence, he fled to
the desert of Ziph with a few faithful friends. When the men of
Ziph told Saul that David was hidden among them, Saul came with
a large army and surrounded David. But just then a messenger arrived
and announced to Saul that the Philistines had invaded the land,
Saul was forced to break off the pursuit, and David was delivered.
He composed Psalm 53 to express his thanksgiving. This psalm is
an excellent example of similar parallelism:
Save me, O God, by thy name
And judge me by thy strength.
O God hear my prayer:
Give ear to the words of my mouth...
I will freely sacrifice to thee,
And will give praise, O God, to thy name, because it is good.
For thou hast delivered me out of all trouble:
And my eye hath looked down upon my enemies.
When David committed adultery with Bathshabee, he attempted to cover
up his first sin by committing another; he had Bathshabee's husband
Urias, one of his faithful soldiers, sent into battle to be killed.
On being rebuked for these crimes by the prophet Nathan, David repented
and was forgiven by God. He subsequently wrote seven penitential
psalms to beg God to forgive his sins. They are psalms 6, 31, 37,
50, 101, 129, and 142.
David did not keep his gift of song and prayer for himself alone.
In the first book of Paralipomenon, we are told how David organized
the Levites into choirs of singers. He wrote many of his psalms
for them to use in the liturgy. His cycle of Paschal psalms (Psalms
112-117) were chanted by Our Lord at the Last Supper. Another cycle
of liturgical psalms, the Gradual psalms (Psalms 119-133) were written
by David to be sung by the pilgrims on the various stages of their
annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. David also wrote many processional
psalms. When he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, he
led the procession of the Levites singing and dancing before the
Ark. As the procession neared Jerusalem, another procession of Levites
welcomed them at the gate. They were actually carrying God into
the Holy City. David probably composed Psalm 23 for this occasion:
Choir in procession:
Lift up your gates, O ye princes,
And be ye lifted up, O eternal gates:
And the King of Glory shall enter in.
Choir at the gate:
Who is this King of Glory?
Choir in procession:
The Lord who is strong and mighty!
The Lord mighty in battle!
Lift up your gates, O ye princes,
And be ye lifted up, O eternal gates:
And the King of Glory shall enter in.
Choir at the gate:
Who is this King of Glory?
Choir in procession:
The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.
This Psalm is also a prophecy of Our Lord's Ascension into Heaven,
the new Jerusalem. Our Lord was accompanied by one choir of angels,
and was welcomed at the gate by another. This Messianic aspect of
the Psalms will be the subject of Part II.
THE PSALMS (Part II)
Our Lord and the Psalms
All the Psalms are Messianic, in the sense that they are all prophecies
of Our Lord. Some are so in a more striking manner than others,
but all are somehow prophetic, even the ones that deal with David's
life, since David was a prophetic type of Our Lord.
It would be possible to arrange all 150 psalms into the following
categories, dealing with different aspects of the Incarnation: 1)
The King; 2) The Queen; 3) The Kingdom; 4) The Son of Man; 5) The
Son of God; 6 The Priest; 7) The Suffering Messias; and 8) The Risen
Messias. Let us look at one Psalm from each category:
When David resolved to build a temple for God, God promised him
through the prophet Nathan that the Messias would be a king descended
from him, and that His Kingdom would last forever. This was fulfilled
in Our Lord, who was truly a King of David's line, and whose Kingdom,
the Church, will last forever.
I have made a covenant with my elect:
I have sworn to David my servant:
Thy seed I will settle forever
And I will build up thy throne unto generation and generation. (Ps.
David has many beautiful references to Our Lady Queen. In Psalm
44, after describing the beauty of the King of Heaven, he continues:
The queen stood on thy right hand,
In gilded clothing; surrounded with variety.
Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear:
And forget thy people and thy father's house
And the king shall greatly desire thy beauty.
The Jewish nation was born on Mount Sinai, on the Feast of Pentecost,
fifty days after the Pasch. The Catholic Church, its fulfillment,
was also born on Pentecost, fifty days after the fulfillment of
the Pasch, the institution of the Holy Eucharist, and the Crucifixion
of Our Lord. The Jewish nation was a theocracy, that is God was
their king. Even when they had their own human king, he was supposed
to be only the vicar of god. David was a perfect theocratic king,
a man after God's own heart.
But the privileges God granted to the Jews were not meant to be
for themselves alone. They were meant to guard God's revelation
for all men. When the time came to share these truths with all nations,
most of the Jews refused to give up their priviliged status, and
were consequently rejected by God. Psalm 95 shows clearly that the
Kingdom to be established by the Messias would not be for the Jews
alone but for all nations; that is, it would be the Catholic Church:
Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle:
Sing ye to the Lord all the earth...
Declare his glory among the Gentiles:
His wonders among all people...
The Son of Man
Our Lord loved to call himself the Son of Man. He meant by it that
He was the perfect man, the only man who never sinned, the only
man in whom the image of God ("Let us make man to our image and
likeness") was never defaced. He was Man as Adam was intended to
What is man that thou art mindful of him?
Or the son of man that thou visitest him?
Thou hast made him a little less than the angels,
Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor
And hast set him over the works of thy hands. (Ps. 8)
The Son of God
Our Lord was true man, but He was also true God. In Psalm 2, the
scene is Heaven. Standing at the right hand of God is the Christ,
the Messias. From below we hear the roaring of the nations who have
cast off God's yoke. Then the Messias speaks, saying that He has
been appointed by God to rule over the world.
The Lord hath said to me: Thou art my son,
This day have I begotten thee.
Ask of me and I will give thee the Gentiles for thy inheritance,
And the utmost parts of the earth for thy possession.
The Messias, then, was to be a king descended from David; He was
to have a queen; His kingdom would include all nations; He was to
be true man and true God. Psalm 109 begins: "The Lord said to my
Lord; sit thou at my right hand until I make thy enemies thy footstool."
The first Lord referred to God, Jahweh; the second Lord is the Messias.
Our Lord asked the Pharisees why David called the Messias his Lord,
since He was his son. They were unable or unwilling to give the
correct answer, that the Messias would be God incarnate. This psalm
tells of Our Lord's eternal generation: "From the womb before the
day star I begot thee." It also adds that the Messias will be a
priest, not according to the Levitical order, but according to the
order of Melchisedech, who offered God bread and wine:
The Lord hath sworn, and he will not repent:
Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech.
The Suffering Messias
The greatest stumbling block to the Jews was, and is, that the Messias
would suffer. In the greatest of the psalms, Psalm 21, Our Lord
is speaking from the Cross:
O God my God, look upon me:
Why hast thou forsaken me?...
But I am a worm and no man:
The reproach of men and the outcast of the people.
All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn:
They have spoken with the lips and wagged the head.
He hoped in the Lord let him deliver him:
Let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him...
They have dug my hands and my feet,
They have numbered all my bones.
And they have looked and stared upon me.
They parted my vestments amongst them;
and upon my vesture they cast lots.
The Risen Messias
Psalm 117 is the last of the five hymns in the paschal cycle. It
was sung by Our Lord at the Last Supper. In it, the Messias speaks
first of His death and then of His glorious Resurrection:
Being pushed I was overturned that I might fall:
But the Lord supported me...
I shall not die but live:
And shall declare the works of the Lord...
The stone which the builders rejected
The same is become the head of the corner.
This is the Lord's doing:
And it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day which the Lord hath made:
Let us be glad and rejoice therein.
It is wonderful to know that when Our Lord completed His last Pasch,
as He and His Apostles went out of the upper room across the torrent
Cedron to the garden of Gethsemani, they sang this hymn. Our Lord
went to His death singing of His Resurrection.
THE BOOK OF PROVERBS
The next four Wisdom books in the order which St. Jerome gives us
in the Vulgate are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles,
and Wisdom, are all, according to tradition, written by David's
son Solomon. Here is Jesus of Sirach, the author of the last Wisdom
book, Ecclesiasticus, speaking of Solomon:
After him [David] arose up a wise son, and for his sake he cast
down all the power of the enemies. Solomon reigned in the days of
peace, and God brought all his enemies under him, that he might
build a house in his name, and prepare a sanctuary forever: O how
wise wast thou in thy youth! And thou was filled as a river with
wisdom, and thy soul covered the earth. And thou didst multiply
riddles in parables: thy name went abroad to the islands far off,
and thou wast beloved in thy peace. The countries wondered at thee
for thy canticles, and proverbs and parables, and interpretations,
and at the name of the Lord God, whose surname is, God of Israel.
Thou didst gather gold as copper, and didst multiply silver as lead,
and thou didst bow thy self to women: and by thy body thou wast
brought under subjecton. Thou has stained thy glory, and defiled
thy seed so as to bring wrath upon thy children, and to have thy
folly kindled, that thou shouldst make the kingdom to be divided,
and out of Ephraim a rebellious kingdom to rule. But God will not
leave off his mercy, and he will not destroy, nor abolish his own
works, neither will he cut up by the roots the offspring of his
elect: and he will not utterly take away the seed of him that loveth
the Lord. Wherefore he gave a remnant to Jacob, and to David of
the same stock. And Solomon had an end with his fathers. Ecclesiasticus
In the Third Book of Kings we read Solomon's beautiful prayer for
"And the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night saying: Ask
what thou wilt that I should give thee. And Solomon said: Thou hast
shewn great mercy to thy servant David my father, even as he walked
before thee in truth, and justice, and an upright heart with thee:
and thou hast kept thy great mercy for him, and hast given him a
son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. And now, O Lord God,
thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and
I am but a child, and know not how to go out and come in. And thy
servant is in the midst of the people which thou hast chosen, an
immense people, which cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude.
Give therefore to thy servant an understanding heart, to judge thy
people, and discern between good and evil. For who shall be able
to judge this people, thy people which is so numerous? And the word
was pleasing to the Lord that Solomon had asked such a thing. And
the Lord said to Solomon: Because thou hast asked for this thing,
and hast not asked for thy self long life or riches, nor the lives
of thy enemies, but hast asked for thy self wisdom to discern judgment,
Behold I have done for thee according to thy words, and given thee
a wise and understanding heart, insomuch that there hath been no
like thee a before thee, nor shall rise after thee." (III Kgs 3:5-12)
There immediately follows the most famous example of Solomon's practical
"Then there came two women that were harlots, to the king, and stood
before him: And one of them said: I beseech thee my lord, I and
this woman dwelt in one house, and I was delivered of a child with
her in the chamber. And the third day, after that I was delivered,
she also was delivered, and we were together, and no other person
with us in the house, only we two. And this woman's child died in
the night: for in her sleep she overlaid him. And rising in the
dead time of the night, she took my child from my side, while I
thy handmaid was asleep, and laid it in her bosom: and laid her
dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to give my
child suck, behold it was dead: but considering him more diligently
when it was clear day, I found that it was not mine which I bore.
And the other woman answered: It is not so as thou sayest, but thy
child is dead, and mine is alive. On the contrary she said: Thou
liest: for my child liveth, and thy child is dead. And in this manner
they strove before the king. Then said the king: The one saith,
My child is alive, and thy child is dead. And the other answereth:
Nay, but thy child is dead, and mine liveth. The king therefore
said: Bring me a sword. And when they had brought a sword before
the king, Divide, said he, the living child in two, and give half
to the one, and half to the other. But the woman whose child was
alive, said to the king (for her bowels were moved upon her child),
I beseech thee, my lord give her the child alive, and do not kill
it. But the other said: Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide
it. The king answered and said: Give the living child to this woman,
and let it not be killed, for she is the mother thereof. And all
Israel heard the judgment which the king had judged, and they feared
the king, seeing that the wisdom of God was in him to do judgment."
(III Kgs 3:16-28)
The Book of Proverbs, like all the Wisdom Books is written in Hebrew
poetry, the basic device of which is parallelism, the juxtaposition
of two similar ideas. Here is an example of similar or synonymous
parallelism, the repetition of the same idea over and over:
Go to the ant, O sluggard, and consider her ways and learn wisdom:
Which although she hath no guide, nor master, nor captain,
Provideth her meat for herself in the summer,
And gathereth her food in the harvest.
How will thou sleep, O sluggard?
When wilt thou rise out of thy sleep?
Thou wilt sleep a little, thou wilt slumber a little,
Thou wilt fold thy hands a little to sleep:
And want shall come upon thee as a traveler,
And poverty as a man armed.
But if thou be diligent, thy harvest shall come as a fountain,
And want shall flee far from thee. (6:6-11)
Solomon with his marvelous knowledge of Nature, loves to propose
something like the humble ant, for man's imitation. And here is
an example of opposite or antithetic parallelism:
A wise son maketh the father glad:
But a foolish son is the sorrow of his mother. (10:1)
This is probably the most common device in Proverbs, the comparison
of the wise man and the fool. And finally here is an example of
Six things there are which the Lord hateth,
And the seventh his soul detesteth:
Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,
A heart that deviseth wicked plots,
Feet that are swift to run into mischief,
A deceitful witness that uttereth lies,
And him that soweth discord among brethren.
You can see how the ideas gradually progress to the thing that God
detesteth, the sower of discord among brethren. All the Fathers
and Doctors greatly appreciated The Wisdom Books probably none more
than St. Louis Marie de Montfort in his beautiful treatise The
Love of the Eternal Wisdom:
"During the time that elapsed before His Incarnation, the Eternal
Wisdom gave to men in a thousand ways proof of His friendship for
them, and His great desire to grant them His favors and to converse
with them. 'My delight,' He said, 'is to be with the children of
men.' Deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum. (Proverbs VIII,
34.) 'He went about seeking such as were worthy of him.' Quoniam
dignos seipsa circuit quaerens (Wisdom VI, 17), that is to say,
those who were worthy of His friendship, worthy of His treasures,
worthy of Himself." (47:28)
Introduction: (Chapters 1-9)
The parables of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel.
To know wisdom and instruction:
To understand the words of prudence:
And to receive the instruction of doctrine, justice, judgment, and
To give subtility to little ones,
To the young man knowledge and understanding.
A wise man shall hear and be wiser;
And he that understandeth shall possess governments.
He shall understand a parable, and the interpretation,
The words of the wise and their mysterious sayings.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Fools despise wisdom and instruction. (1:1-7)
"The fear of the :Lord is the beginning of Wisdom," is a basic theme
of all the Wisdom Books. Solomon frequently personifies Wisdom,
making it easy for someone like St. Louis Marie de Montfort to apply
these passages to Our Lord or Our Lady:
Wisdom preacheth abroad, she uttereth her voice in the streets:
At the head of multitudes she crieth out,
In the entrance of the gates of the city she uttereth her words,
O children, how long will you love childishness,
And fools covet those things which are hurtful to themselves,
And the unwise hate knowledge?
Turn ye at my reproof: Behold I will utter my spirit to you,
And will shew you my words.
Because I called, and you refused:
I stretched out my hand, and there was none that regarded.
You have despised all my counsel, and have neglected my reprehensions.
But Solomon frequently goes beyond just personification, and actually
presents Wisdom as a Divine Person. The following verses are considered
one of the peaks of the Old Testament, and this passage is used
by the Church in the Mass of the Immaculate Conception:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways,
Before he made any thing from the beginning.
I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made.
The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived,
Neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out:
The mountains with their huge bulk had not as yet been established:
Before the hills I was brought forth:
He had not as yet made the earth,
Nor the rivers, nor the poles of the world.
When he prepared the heavens, I was present:
When with a certain law and compass he enclosed the depths:
When he established the sky above,
And poised the fountains of waters:
When he compassed the sea with its bounds,
And set a law to the waters that they should not pass their limits:
When he balanced the foundations of the earth;
I was with him forming all things:
And was delighted every day, playing before him at all times;
Playing in the world:
And my delights were to be with the children of men. (8:22-31)
Solomon also personifies Folly, and imagines both Wisdom and Folly
inviting a young man to follow her way: First the personification
Wisdom hath built herself a house,
She hath hewn her out seven pillars.
She hath slain her victims,
Mingled her wine, and set forth her table.
She hath sent her maids to invite to the tower
And to the walls of the city:
Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me.
And to the unwise she said:
Come, eat my bread,
And drink the wine which I have mingled for you. (9:1-5)
And here is the personification of Folly:
A foolish woman and clamorous, and full of allurements,
And knowing nothing at all,
Sat at the door of her house,
Upon a seat, in a high place of the city,
To call on them that pass by the way,
And go on their journey;
He that is a little one, let him turn to me.
And to the fool she said:
Stolen waters are sweeter,
And hidden bread is more pleasant.
And he did not know that giants are there,
And that her guests are in the depths of hell. (9:13-18)
The Parables of Solomon (Chapters 10-30)
We come now to the main section of the Book of Proverbs, about 400
proverbs, called also parables, because they contain more than just
the surface meaning. For the most part they are two line poems or
distichs, in opposite or antithetic parallelism. I have picked out
just twenty of them to illustrate the wide variety of topics covered.
A golden ring in a swine's snout,
A woman fair and foolish. (11:22)
He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the winds:
And the fool shall serve the wise. (11:29)
He that walketh with the wise, shall be wise:
A friend of fools shall become like to them. (13:20)
He that spareth the rod hateth his son:
But he that loveth him correcteth him betimes. (13:24)
A mild answer breaketh wrath:
But a harsh word stirreth up fury. (15:1)
It is better to be invited to herbs with love,
Than to a fatted calf with hatred. (15:17)
Pride goeth before destruction:
And the spirit is lifted up before a fall. (16:18)
The patient man is better than the valiant:
And he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh cities. (16:32)
Children's children are the crown of old men:
And glory of children are their fathers. (17:6)
It is better to meet a bear robbed of her whelps,
Than a fool trusting in his own folly. (17:12)
Even a fool, if he will hold his peace shall be counted wise:
And if he close his lips, a man of understanding. (17:28)
A brother that is helped by his brother, is like a strong city:
And judgments are like the bars of cities.(18:19)
House and riches are given by parents:
But a prudent wife is properly from the Lord. (19:14)
Say not: I will return evil:
Wait for the Lord and he will deliver thee. (20:22)
It is better to sit in a corner of the housetop,
Than with a brawling woman, and in a common house. (21:9)
Lift not up they eyes to riches which thou canst not have:
Because they shall make themselves wings like those of an eagle,
And shall fly towards heaven.
My son give me thy heart,
And let thy eyes keep my ways. (23:26)
Who hath woe? whose father hath woe?
Who hath contentions? who falls into pits?
Who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of the eyes?
Surely they that pass their time in wine,
And study to drink off their cups.
Look not on the wine when it is yellow,
When the color thereof shineth in the glass:
It goeth in pleasantly,
But in the end it will bite like a snake,
And will spread poison like a basilisk. (23:29-32)
As the door turneth on its hinges,
So doth the slothful on his bed. (26:14)
Three things are hard to me,
And fourth I am utterly ignorant of.
The way of an eagle in the air,
The way of a serpent upon a rock,
The way of a ship in the midst of the sea,
And the way of a man in youth. (30:18-19)
Conclusion (Chapter 31)
The Book of Proverbs closes with Solomon's famous acrostic or alphabetical
poem in praise of the Valiant Woman. The Church uses this beautiful
poem in the Mass and Office to praise her own "valiant women."
Who shall find a valiant woman?
Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.
The heart of her husband trusteth in her,
And she shall have no need of spoils.
She will render him good, and not evil,
All the days of her life.
She hath sought wool and flax,
And hath wrought by the counsel of her hands...
She hath opened her hand to the needy,
And stretched out her hands to the poor.
She shall not fear for her house in the cold of snow:
For all her domestics are clothed with double garments...
Her children rose up, and called her blessed:
Her husband, and he praised her...
Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain:
The woman that feareth the Lord she shall be praised. (31:10-30)
Ecclesiastes is a Greek word meaning preacher. It is from
the Greek word Ecclesia which means Church, from which we get our
word ecclesiastic. Ecclesiastes means then a preacher in a Church.
It is similar to the title of another one of the Wisdom books, Ecclesiasticus,
which means a Church book, that is a book to be used in Church.
Ecclesiastes, however, was written by Solomon, while Ecclesiasticus
was written much later by Jesus of Sirach.
Solomon was one of God's favored souls, and one of the greatest
men in the Old Testament. It is one of the great tragedies of Holy
Scripture that this chosen soul fell from God's grace in his old
age. The story of Solomon's tragic fall is told in the Third Book
"And king Solomon loved many strange women besides the daughter
of Pharao, and the women of Moab, and of Ammon, and of Edom, and
of Sidon, and of the Hethites. Of the nations concerning which the
Lord said to the children of Israel: You shall not go into them,
neither shall any of them come into yours: for they will most certainly
turn away your heart to follow their gods. And to these was Solomon
joined with a most ardent love. And he had seven hundred wives as
queens and three hundred concubines: and the women turned away his
heart. And when he was now old, his heart was turned away by women
to follow strange gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord
his God, as was the heart of David his father" (3K 11:1-4).
Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon after his fall, when he was
an old man. It is similar in many ways to the Confessions of St.
Augustine. The theme of the Confessions is… "Thou hast made us for
thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless, till they find rest
in thee." The theme of Ecclesiastes is: Man cannot find happiness
in this world; he can only find happiness in God.
The Book opens with Solomon stating the problem, the problem of
happiness. It is similar to the Book of Job, where the problem was
that of justice. Job thought that God had been unjust to him. It
is impossible to be happy where there is injustice. Thus Ecclesiastes
has a broader theme, but it includes the problem of Job, and ends
on a similar note.
The words of Ecclesiastes,
The son of David, King of Jerusalem.
Vanities of vanities, said Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity.
What hath a man more of all his labor,
That he taketh under the Sun? (1:1-2)
As Solomon, now an old man fallen from grace, looks around him,
all of God's world which once thrilled him, now seems a place of
emptiness and boredom.
One generation passeth away,
And another generation cometh:
The sun riseth, and goeth down,
And returneth to his place:
And there rising again,
Maketh his round by the south,
And turneth again to the north:...
All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea doth not overflow:
Unto the place from whence the rivers come,
They return to flow again.
All things are hard:
Man cannot explain them by word.
The eye is not filled with seeing,
Neither is the ear filled with hearing.
What is it that hath been?
The same thing that shall be.
Nothing under the sun is new,
Neither is any man able to say:
Behold this is new:
For it hath already gone before
In the days that were before us (1:4-10)
He proposes his first solution to the problem of happiness, wisdom.
Will great learning and wisdom make a man happy?
I Ecclesiastes was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
And I proposed in my mind to seek and search out wisely
Concerning all things that are done under the sun.
This painful occupation hath God given to the children of men,
To be exercised therein.
I have seen all things that are done under the sun,
And behold all is vanity, and vexation of spirit.
The perverse are hard to be corrected,
And the number of fools is infinite.
I have spoken in my heart saying:
Behold I am become great,
And have gone beyond all in wisdom,
That were before me in Jerusalem:
And my mind hath contemplated many things wisely,
And I have learned. And I have given my heart to know prudence,
And learning and errors, and folly:
And I have perceived that in these also
There was labor and vexation of spirit.
Because in much wisdom there is much indignation:
And he that addeth knowledge, addeth also labor (1:12-14).
He goes on to a second solution, pleasure, but quickly rejects it:
I said in my heart:
I will go and abound with delights,
And enjoy good things.
And I saw that this also was vanity (2:1).
A third solution, wealth:
I made me great works,
I built me houses, and planted vineyards,
I made gardens and orchards,
And set them with trees of all kinds,
And I made me ponds of water,
To water wherewith the wood of the young trees.
I got me menservants and maidservants,
And I had a great family:
And herds of oxen, and great flocks of sheep,
Above all that were before me in Jerusalem:
And I heaped together for myself silver and gold,
And the wealth of kings and provinces:
And I made me singing men and singing women,...
And whatsoever my eyes desired I refused them not:
And I withheld not my heart from enjoying every pleasure,
And delighting itself in the things I had prepared:
And esteemed this my portion, to make use of my own labor.
And when I turned myself to all the works which my hands had wrought,
I saw in all things vanity, and vexation of mind,
And that nothing was lasting under the sun (2:4-11).
As Solomon in his old age looked out over his vast empire, he saw
a kingdom on the verge of bankruptcy, and a people on the edge of
revolt. His extravagant building program and the luxuriousness of
his court, had led him to overtax his people, and force them to
labor on his many projects. He was about to leave this uneasy inheritance
to his son Roboam, who turned out to be a fool. Roboam on inheriting
his father's throne, by his own stupidity, would occasion the revolt
of the ten northern tribes, and would preside over the dissolution
of all his father's labor.
Again I hated all my application
Wherewith I earnestly labored under the sun,
Being like to have an heir after me,
Whom I know not whether he will be a wise man or a fool,
And he shall rule over all my labors
With which I have labored and been solicitous:
And is there anything so vain? (2:1819).
Solomon then sinks into despair and says cynically:
I said in my heart concerning the sons of men,
That God would prove them,
And shew them to be like beasts.
Therefore the death of man, and of beasts is one,
And the condition of them both is equal:
As man dieth, so they also die:
All things breathe alike,
And man hath nothing more than the beast:
All things are subject to vanity.
And all things go to one place:
Of earth they were made,
And into earth they return together.
Who knoweth if the spirit of the children of Adam ascend upward
And if the spirit of the beast descend downward? (3:18-21)
Holy Scripture is very innocent. It doesn't try to hide anything.
You would think that God would try to cover up such a statement.
Ecclesiastes, then, is a book that you have to be careful quoting.
This is true of much of Holy Scripture. If you quoted Baldad, for
instance, speaking in the Book of Job, you would be quoting some
bad theology. The Protestants are indeed rash in thinking they can
go to Holy Scripture on their own. Holy Scripture requires an authoritative
interpreter, the Catholic Church, to teach and explain its difficult
passages. There will be many things in Ecclesiastes that will seem
to us shocking at first. St. Bonaventure says that the Holy Spirit
in this book, is proceeding like a scholastic philosopher presenting
all the objections first, and then resolving them at the end.
Solomon then dreams of better days, when he was high in God's favor,
and when he wrote the great Book of Proverbs. He repeats some of
these earlier proverbs in almost the same words he had originally
written them. These sections of course are perfectly quotable and
full of hope:
A good name is better than precious ointments:
And the day of death than the day of one's birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
Than the house of feasting:
In that we are put in mind of the end of all,
And the living thinketh what is to come.
Anger is better than laughter:
Because by the sadness of the countenance
The mind of the offender is corrected.
The heart of the wise is where there is mourning,
And the heart of fools where there is mirth.
It is better to be rebuked by a wise man,
Than to be deceived by the flattery of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns burning under a pot,
So is the laughter of a fool:
Now this also is vanity.
Better is the end of a speech than the beginning.
Better is the patient man than the presumptuous.
Be not quickly angry:
For anger resteth in the bosom of a fool.
Say not: What thinkest thou
That former times were better than they are now?
For this manner of question is foolish (7:2-11).
But Solomon is not going to be satisfied with just dreaming about
the good old days. He courageously faces the painful present and
future; but his bitterness overwhelms him. He speaks of women who
were the occasion of his fall:
And I have found a woman more bitter than death,
Who is the hunter's snare.
And her heart is a net, and her hands are bands.
He that pleaseth God shall escape from her:
But he that is a sinner, shall be caught by her.
Lo this I have found, said Ecclesiastes,
Weighing one thing after another,
That I might find out the account,
Which yet my soul seeketh, and I have not found it.
One man among a thousand I have found,
A woman among them all I have not found (7:27-29).
Solomon proposes another solution to the problem of happiness. Happiness
is a passing thing, and man is made for work. Man should grasp every
transitory happiness as best he can, and be content with his work.
This is all there is to life. This is the solution of most Americans,
and indeed of most of the people in the world today. But it is a
mediocre solution, and although Solomon will return to it again,
he rejects it. Solomon, even in his disgrace, is a great man, and
he knows that life has a higher meaning, and man a greater destiny;
Go then and eat thy bread with joy,
And drink thy wine with gladness:
Because thy works please God.
At all times let thy garments be white,
And let not oil depart from thy head.
Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest,
All the days of thy unsteady life,
Which are given to thee under the sun,
All the time of thy vanity:
For this is thy portion in life,
And in thy labor wherewith thou laborest under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand is able to do, do it earnestly:
For neither work nor reason, nor wisdom, nor knowledge,
Shall be in hell whither thou art hastening (9:7-10).
Solomon is a great artist, and he is presenting himself to an imaginary
audience of young men. He now describes his old age, his failing
body, and speaks of his approaching death. He is building up to
the climax of the Book. He can then present his solution to the
problem of happiness, as a last will and testament of a dying man
to his children.
Solomon's final speech is a beautiful example of Hebrew poetry.
It uses a literary device called synthetic or progressive parallelism.
In this literary device, parallel ideas, in this case, expressions
of old age, progress to a climax, death. Within this overall progression,
there can be other forms of parallelism, in this case, synonymous
or similar parallelism. The progression closes with three distichs,
or couplets, repeating in one beautiful phrase after another, death:
Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth,
Before the time of affliction come,
And the days draw nigh of which thou shalt say:
They please me not:
Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars be darkened,
And the keepers of the house shall tremble, (the arms)
And the strong men shall stagger, (the legs)
And the grinders shall be idle in a small number, (the teeth)
And they that look through the holes shall be darkened: (the
And they shall shut the doors in the street, (the ears)
When the grinders voice shall be low, (voice weak and thin)
And they shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
And the daughters of music shall grow deaf, (words of a song)
And they shall fear high things,
And they shall be afraid in the way,
And the almond tree shall flourish, (the hair turns white)
And the locust shall be made fat, (awkward gait)
And the caper tree shall be destroyed: (seasoning useless)
Because man shall go into the house of his eternity,
And the mourners shall go round about in the streets,
Before the silver cord be broken, (death)
And golden filet shrunk back,
And the pitcher be crushed at the fountain,
And the wheel be broken at the cistern,
And the dust return into its earth from whence it was,
And the spirit return to God, who gave it (12:1-7).
Solomon is now ready to present the solution to the problem of happiness.
It is hard to believe that it is so short and so simple:
Let us all together hear the conclusion of the discourse.
Fear God and keep his commandments:
For this is all man (12:13).
It is the same solution as the Book of Job. All man can do is to
submit to God in humility and Faith, as did Job. God has put into
the heart of man a longing for happiness, that nothing on earth
can satisfy. There is no alternative but to submit in Faith to God.
He alone can fulfill this infinite longing that He has placed in
the soul of every man.
The Fathers of the Church have always wondered if Solomon saved
his soul. For example, St. Augustine and St. Jerome, as usual disagree.
St. Jerome surprisingly on the side of leniency, thinks he did.
St. Augustine surprisingly on the side of severity thinks he did
not. But I am sure that St. Augustine would say, that if Solomon
died in the sentiments we have just seen: "Fear God and keep his
commandments: for this is man's all," he probably saved his soul.
But we must leave it as Holy Scripture does, God's secret.
CANTICLE OF CANTICLES
Canticle of Canticles, like Holy of Holies, and King of Kings, is
a Hebrew superlative. It means "the most beautiful song." It was
the favorite book of many of the Doctors of the Church. St. Bernard
of Clairvaux wrote eighty-six sermons on its first two chapters.
St. John of the Cross wrote a commentary on it called The Spiritual
Canticle; he considered it the highest expression of mystical
love. St. Thomas Aquinas was working on a commentary on it at his
death. St. Louis Marie de Montfort wrote a commentary on the Wisdom
Books, called The Love of the Eternal Wisdom, which we will
follow here through the Canticle.
The Canticle of Canticles was written by Solomon in the form of
a dramatic poem. Its characters are a bride, a bridegroom, and a
chorus of bridesmaids. Its theme is the mutual love between the
Divine Wisdom, God, and the chosen soul. The story is told in the
form of an allegory, involving many Hebrew wedding customs. A little
background in these customs will be helpful. The bridegroom, wearing
a diadem, was carried on a litter to the house of the bride. He
was accompanied by his friends singing and playing on musical instruments.
At the bride's home, the bride and groom sat on thrones. The bride
was heavily veiled and accompanied by bridesmaids. Wedding songs
were sung in praise of the bride and groom. The wedding procession
then proceeded to the house of the groom amid general rejoicing.
The Canticle begins with the bride speaking:
I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
As the tents of Cedar, as the curtains of Solomon (1:4).
The "black," the Doctors tell us, refers to original sin.
Do not consider me that I am brown,
Because the sun hath altered my color:
The sons of my mother have fought against me,
They have made me the keeper in the vineyards:
My vineyard I have not kept (1:5).
The "sons of my mother" are the tendencies to actual sin, concupiscence.
Shew me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest,
Where thou liest in midday,
Lest I begin to wander after the flocks of thy companions (1:6).
The bride begs the Divine Wisdom, God, to quickly come in spite
of her original sin and concupiscence, lest she wander into actual
sins. St. Louis Marie in his little book, The Love of the Eternal
Wisdom, gives this as the first means to obtain Divine Wisdom,
an ardent desire.
The bridegroom comes and calls his bride. This is the vocation of
the chosen soul to the life of grace. The bride speaks:
The voce of my beloved,
Behold he cometh leaping upon the mountains,
Skipping over the hills.
My beloved is like a roe or a young hart.
Behold he standeth behind the wall,
Looking through the windows,
Looking through the lattices.
Behold my beloved speaketh to me: (The groom speaks)
Arise make haste, my love my dove,
My beautiful one, and come.
For winter is now past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers have appeared in our land,
The time of pruning is come:
The voice of the turtle is heard in our land:
The fig tree hath put forth her green figs:
The vines in flower yield their sweet smell.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come: (2:8-14)
The bride, the soul, continues to pray, that the groom, the Divine
Wisdom, will come and take her for His own:
In my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loveth:
I sought him, and found him not. (3:1)
She is praying continually to Him, even on her bed at night. St.
Louis Marie gives this as the second means to obtain Divine Wisdom,
perseverance in prayer:
I will rise, and will go about the city:
In the streets and the broad ways
I will seek him whom my soul loveth:
I sought him, and I found him not.
The watchmen who keep the city, found me:
Have you seen him whom my soul loveth?
When I had passed by them,
I found him whom my soul loveth:
I held him, and I will not let him go,
Till I bring him into my mother's house,
Into the chamber of her that bore me. (3:2-4)
The bride's love is ardent, but at this early stage, is still selfish.
"I held him and I will not let him go."
Solomon now presents himself as the personification of Wisdom and
describes his being borne on a litter to the house of his bride.
The daughters of Sion, the bridesmaids, run out to meet the procession.
Solomon's name means "peaceable, and the bride is called the "Sulamitess,"
the female form of Solomon's name.
King Solomon hath made himself a litter of the wood of Libanus:
The pillars thereof he made of silver,
The seat of gold, the going up of purple:
The midst he covered with charity for the daughters of Jerusalem.
Go forth ye daughters of Sion,
And see king Solomon in the diadem,
Wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals,
And in the day of the joy of his heart.. (3:9-11)
Solomon praises the beauty of his bride:
My sister, my spouse is a garden enclosed,
A garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.
Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates
With the fruits of the orchard. Cypress with spikenard.
Spikenard and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon,
Myrrh and aloes with all the chief perfumes.
The fountain of gardens: the well of living waters,
Which run with a strong stream from Libanus.
Arise, O north wind, and come O south wind,
Blow through my garden,
And let the aromatical spices thereof flow. (4:12-16)
Notice Solomon's wonderful knowledge of nature, and of all its herbs
and flowers. These flowers are figures of the virtues, that God
has planted in the soul of His bride. When the wind, the Holy Spirit,
blows through this garden, the delightful fragrance draws God to
His chosen soul.
But the bride is not yet perfectly prepared for her espousals. We
saw that her love was indeed ardent, but still selfish. St. Louis
Marie gives as the third means of obtaining Divine Wisdom, universal
mortification, or the Cross. God now sends the Cross to His beloved
I arose up to open to my beloved:
My hands dropped with myrrh,
And my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh.
I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved:
But he had turned aside and was gone.
My soul melted when he spoke:
I sought him, and found him not:
I called, and he did not answer me.
The keepers that go about the city found me:
They struck me: and wounded me:
The keepers of the walls took away my veil from me. (5:5-7)
The bride is now perfectly prepared for the divine espousals. Wedding
songs are sung in praise of the groom and of the bride. Here is
the song in praise of the groom:
My beloved is white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands.
His head is as the finest gold:
His locks as the branches of palm trees, black as a raven...
His hands are turned and as of gold, full of hyacinths.
His belly as of ivory, set with sapphires.
His legs as pillars of marble,
That are set upon bases of gold.
His form as of Libanus, excellent as the cedars.
His throat most sweet, and he is all lovely:
Such is my beloved, and he is my friend,
O ye daughters of Jerusalem. (5:10-16)
The bridesmaids, the daughters of Jerusalem, add a short refrain
Whither is my beloved gone, O thou most beautiful among women?
Whither is my beloved turned aside,
And we will seek him with thee? (5:17)
The imagery used in describing the groom is taken chiefly from the
Temple, the House of God in Jerusalem, the gold, the marble columns,
etc., while the imagery used in describing the bride, is taken from
the holy land itself, Mount Carmel, Galaad, etc. The Temple is a
figure of God, and the land of His people. This beautiful book then
celebrates the love of God for His people, the Church. It also celebrates
the love of Our Lord for each one of us, the chosen soul, and especially
His love for that most chosen soul, our Blessed Lady. Here is the
wedding song in praise of the Bride:
I to my beloved, and my beloved to me,
Who feedeth among the lilies.
Thou art beautiful, O my love, sweet and comely as Jerusalem:
Terrible as an army set in array...
Thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from Galaad.
Thy teeth as a flock of sheep,
Which come up from the washing, all with twins,
And there is none barren among them...
One is my dove, my perfect one is but one,
She is the only one of her mother,
The chosen of her that bore her.
The daughters saw her and declared her most blessed...
Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising,
Fair as the moon, bright as the sun,
Terrible as an army set in array? (6:2-9)
The Church uses this beautiful song to praise Our Lady, and St.
Louis Marie gives this as his fourth and final means of obtaining
Divine Wisdom, true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The wedding
procession then proceeds to the house of the groom, which is Heaven,
where the marriage will be consummated, and the love of the bride
and the groom will be eternal:
Who is this that cometh up from the dessert,
Flowing with delights, leaning upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree I raised thee up:
There thy mother was corrupted,
There she was deflowered that bore thee.
Put me as a seal upon thy heart,
As a seal upon thy arm,
For love is as strong as death,
Jealousy as hard as hell,
The lamps thereof are fire and flames.
The waters cannot quench charity,
Neither can the floods drown it: (8:5-7)
We have seen how the love of the bride was at first ardent, but
still selfish. Her love has now become generous and she urges God
to share His love with more souls. It is no accident that St. Therese,
God's bride, who loved Him so ardently, has been made the Patron
of the Foreign Missions. One who truly loves God is apostolic, and
wants to share this love with everyone possible. Thus the Canticle
of Canticles, the most beautiful song, ends:
Flee away my beloved,
And be like to the roe, and to the young hart,
Upon the mountains of aromatical spices. (8:14)
The Book of Wisdom
Solomon is the author of four of the Wisdom Books. The order we
now have them in the Vulgate and the Douay is from St. Jerome, but
is probably not the order in which they were originally written.
Solomon probably wrote the Canticle of Canticles first, at the time
of his espousals to the daughter of Pharao, then the Book of Wisdom
when he was still a young man, because it is a book full of joy,
optimism, and the high ideals of youth, Proverbs is a little more
staid, so it could properly be assigned to middle age, while Ecclesiastes
is the work of a disappointed old man.
The Book of Wisdom is the greatest of the Wisdom books, and Catholics
have it all to themselves, since it is rejected by the Jews, and
by the Protestants, who always follow their lead. The reason given
by the Jews is that the Hebrew original has been lost, and it has
only come down to us in Greek translation. But the more probable
reason is that the book maintains against the exclusive tendencies
of the Jews, that Wisdom is for all men including the pagans. Also
the book clearly implies the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity.
I Wisdom and the Just (Chapters 1-5)
This first section of the Book treats of the problem of evil, the
same problem that is the theme of the Book of Job. It asks the classic
question: "Why do the wicked prosper?" Here however, the mood is
much different than in the Book of Job. Solomon treats the problem
of evil in an almost cheerful manner, and is not crushed by the
burden of suffering, as was Job, or weighed down by unhappiness
as he would later be in Ecclesiastes.
The wicked speak:
For they have said, reasoning within themselves, but not right:
The time of our life is short and tedious,
And in the end of a man there is no remedy,
And no one hath been known to have returned from hell:
For we are born of nothing,
And after this we shall be as if we had not been:
For the breath of our nostrils is smoke:
And speech is a spark to move our heart. (2:1-2)
Notice the beautiful poetry even in the mouths of the wicked. God
can put their case better than they can themselves:
Which being put out, our body shall be ashes,
And our spirit shall be poured abroad as soft air,
And our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud,
And shall be dispersed as mist,
Which is driven away by the beams of the sun,
And overpowered with the heat thereof:
And our name in time shall be forgotten...
Come therefore, and let us enjoy the good things that are present,
And let us speedily use the creatures as in youth.
Let us fill ourselves with costly wine, and ointments:
And let not the flower of the time pass by us.
Let us crown ourselves with roses, before they be withered:
No meadow shall escape our riot.
Let none of us go without his part in luxury:
Let us everywhere leave tokens of joy:
For this is our portion, and this our lot. (2:3-9)
It appears that the only interest of the wicked is in pleasure,
but they soon turn in hatred against the just. The "just" here,
is any just man, but The Just Man, against whom the wicked will
ultimately turn, is Our Lord.
Let us oppress the poor just man,
And not spare the widow,
Nor honor the ancient gray hairs of the aged.
But let our strength be the law of justice:
For that which is feeble is found to be nothing worth.
Let us therefore lie in wait for the just,
Because he is not for our turn,
And he is contrary to our doings,
And upbraideth us with transgressions of the law,
And divulgeth against the sins of our way of life.
He boasteth that he hath the knowledge of God,
And calleth himself the son of God.
He is become a censurer of our thoughts.
He is grievous unto us, even to behold:
For his life is not like other men's
And his ways are very different.
We are esteemed by him as triflers,
And he abstaineth from our ways as from filthiness,
And he prefereth the latter end of the just,
And glorieth that he hath God for his father. (2:10-16)
The wicked then go on to mock the just one, in almost the very words
used by the Jews in mockery of Our Lord on the Cross:
Let us see then if his words be true,
And let us prove what shall happen to him,
And we shall know what his end shall be.
For if he be the true son of God, he will defend him,
And will deliver him from the hands of his enemies.
Let us examine him by outrages and tortures,
That we may know his meekness and try his patience.
Let us condemn him to a most shameful death: (2:17-20)
In the Book of Job, God spoke from the whirlwind, answering Job's
complaint about the injustice of his sufferings. God appealed to
His Divine Providence in the government of the world. God said in
effect: "If I can rule this vast mysterious universe for the good
of men, do I not rule your life for your own good?" Job immediately
submitted to God in Faith and trust. Solomon gives the same solution
But the souls of the just are in the hand of God,
And the torment of death shall not touch them. (3:1)
This is a most beautiful description of the Providence of God. "But
the souls of the just are in the hand of God." In the Prologue to
the Book of Job we saw a partial solution to the problem of suffering.
God permitted Satan to tempt Job as a trial of his virtue. This
is called the probative solution to the problem of suffering, and
Solomon repeats it here;
In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die:
And their departure was taken for misery:
And their going away from us, for utter destruction:
But they are in peace.
And though in the sight of men they suffered torments,
Their hope is full of immortality.
Afflicted in a few things, in many they shall be well rewarded:
Because God hath tried them,
And found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace he hath proved them,
And as a victim of a holocaust he hath received them,
And in time there shall be respect had to them. (3:3-6)
A false solution to the problem of suffering was given by the three
friends of Job. They had maintained that suffering was sent by God
as a punishment of sin. God rewarded the just in this life, and
also punished the wicked in this life. This solution seems destined
to be always with us. It was the solution given in Our Lord's own
day by the Pharisees, who said of the man born blind: "Thou wast
wholly born in sins." (Jn 9:24) It is also the solution of the Calvinists
and other rigorists like the Jansenists, who believe that God rewards
them, the just, in this life with wealth and power. They have to
"demonstrate abundance" to prove their divine election. From this
false position many corollaries flow. Solomon digresses now to dispose
of three of these corollaries. The first is that childlessness,
was considered a punishment sent by God. St. Joachim, Our Lady's
father, would be put out of the synagogue because he was childless.
St. Elizabeth said, after she had conceived St. John the Baptist
in her old age, "the Lord...hath had regard to take away my reproach
among men." (Lk 1:25)
For happy is the barren:
And the undefiled, that hath not known bed in sin:
She shall have fruit in the visitation of holy souls.
And the eunuch that hath not wrought iniquity with his hands,
Nor thought wicked things against God:
For the precious gift of faith shall be given to him,
And a most acceptable lot in the temple of God. (3:11-14)
Solomon, or rather the Holy Ghost, is hinting here at the state
of virginity. It was unknown in the Old Testament, but Solomon is
almost showing it to be higher than the married state:
O how beautiful is the chaste generation with glory:
For the memory thereof is immortal:
Because it is known both with God and with men.
When it is present they imitate it:
And they desire it when it hath withdrawn itself,
And it triumpheth crowned forever,
Winning the reward of undefiled conflicts. (4:1-2)
The second corollary is that a large family then, is not necessarily
a sign of God's favor. The many children of the wicked are an evil
But the multiplied brood of the wicked shall not thrive,
And bastard slips shall not take deep root,
Nor any fast foundation.
And if they flourish in branches for a time,
Yet standing not fast, they shall be shaken with the wind,
And through the force of winds shall be rooted out. (4:3-4)
The third false corollary is that an early death is a punishment
from God. In the Book of Job, Baldad, one of Job's friends, said
that his ten children had died young because they were evil, and
were now in hell. Solomon replies, that an early death is not a
sign of God's displeasure, but rather a sign of his favor:
For venerable old age is not that of a long time,
Nor counted by the number of years:
But the understanding of a man is gray hairs.
And a spotless life is old age.
He pleased God and was beloved,
And living among sinners was translated.
He was taken away lest wickedness should alter his understanding,
Or deceit beguile his soul.
For the bewitching of vanity obscureth good things,
And the wandering of concupiscence overturneth the innocent mind.
Being made perfect in a short space,
He fulfilled a long time. (4:8-13)
The Church uses this beautiful passage in the liturgy for many of
its young saints. Solomon then goes back to his solution of the
problem of evil. The doctrine of divine retribution, the reward
of the just and the punishment of the wicked, is not true if it
is only applied in this life, as Job's friends applied it. But it
is true in the after life; the just will be eternally rewarded and
the wicked eternally punished in the life to come. This had only
been implied in the Book of Job, and Solomon develops it more fully
here. The wicked speak:
These seeing it, shall be troubled with a terrible fear,
And shall be amazed at the suddenness of their unexpected salvation.
Saying within themselves repenting,
And groaning for anguish of spirit,
These are they, whom we had some time in derision,
And for a parable of reproach.
We fools esteemed their life madness,
And their lot is among the saints.
Therefore we have erred from the way of truth,
And the light of justice hath not shined unto us,
And the sun of understanding hath not risen upon us.
We wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity and destruction,
And have walked through hard ways,
But the way of the Lord we have not known.
What hath pride profited us?
Or what advantage hath the boasting of riches brought us...
Such things as these the sinners said in hell. (5:3-8,14)
II Wisdom and Solomon (Chapters 6-9)
Solomon has just discussed wisdom and the just man, more or less
in the abstract. Now begins the second section, where Solomon speaks
of himself in particular, and how he obtained wisdom. This Book
is very unusual in the Old Testament, in that it is addressed to
all the kings of the world. It is almost like an Epistle of St.
Paul. Its message is universal, even apostolic. Solomon tells all
the kings of the earth, that wisdom is not just the exclusive possession
of the Jews, but that it is meant for all men:
Covet ye therefore my words, and love them,
And you shall have instruction.
Wisdom is glorious, and never fadeth away,
And is easily seen by them that love her,
And is found by them that seek her.
She preventeth them that covet her,
So she first sheweth herself unto them.
He that awaketh early to seek her, shall not labor:
For he shall find her sitting at his door.
To think therefore upon her, is perfect understanding:
He that watcheth for her, shall quickly be secure.
For she goeth about seeking such as are worthy of her,
And she sheweth herself to them cheerfully in the ways,
And meeteth them with all providence. (6:2-17)
St. Louis Marie de Montfort, in his little book The Love of the
Eternal Wisdom, says that the first means of obtaining Wisdom,
is to have an ardent desire for it. Solomon proceeds to say just
Wherefore I wished, and understanding was given me:
And I called upon God, and the spirit of Wisdom came upon me:
And I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones,
And esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her...
For this wisdom went before me,
And I know not that she was the mother of them all.
Which I learned without guile,
And communicate without envy,
And her riches I hide not.
For she is an infinite treasure to men!
Which they that use, become the friends of God. (7:7-14)
Solomon then goes on to explain just what he means by Wisdom. St.
Thomas Aquinas calls Wisdom, sapida scientia, delectable
knowledge, a taste for the things of God. (Pars I, Qu 45, Art 5)
Solomon in fine scholastic fashion distinguishes between Wisdom
as regards God's creatures, and Wisdom with regard to God the Creator.
The gift of Wisdom granted to Solomon by God, had endowed him with
an amazing knowledge of God's creatures. This knowledge was not
just speculative, but was eminently practical. The study of Wisdom
has been called the "practical philosophy" of the Old Testament.
For he hath given me the true knowledge of the things that are:
To know the disposition of the whole world,
And the virtue of the elements,
The beginning, and ending, and midst of the times,
The alterations of their courses, and the changes of the seasons,
The revolutions of the year, and the dispositions of the stars,
The nature of living creatures, and the rage of wild beasts,
The force of winds, and reasonings of men,
The diversities of plants, and the virtues of roots,
For all such things as are hid and not foreseen, I have learned:
For wisdom which is the worker of all things taught me.
For in her is the spirit of understanding:
Holy, one, manifold, subtile, eloquent, active, undefiled,
Sure, sweet, loving that which is good, quick which nothing hindereth,
Beneficent, gentle, kind, steadfast, assured, secure, having all
Overseeing all things, and containing all spirits,
Intelligible, pure, subtile.
For wisdom is more active than all active things:
And reacheth everywhere by reason of her purity. (7:17-24)
Solomon then turns to Wisdom Itself, to God. Wisdom is a divine
attribute of God, but Catholic theologians appropriate It to the
Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Solomon, or again rather the
Holy Ghost, is clearly implying that Wisdom, and God the Father
are distinct, hinting at the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity.
For she is a vapor of the power of God,
And a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God:
And therefore no defiled thing cometh unto her.
For she is the brightness of eternal light,
And the unspotted mirror of God's majesty,
And the image of his goodness. (7:25-26)
St. Paul develops this beautiful passage in his Epistle to the Hebrews
(1:3), and apples it to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
The Church uses St. Paul's beautiful exposition very appropriately
in the Christmas liturgy. (Epistle for the third Mass of Christmas.)
St. Louis Marie de Montfort has given as his second means of obtaining
Wisdom, persevering prayer. Solomon tells the kings of the earth,
how he had prayed for Wisdom, and how God had heard his prayer:
And as I knew that I could not otherwise be continent,
Except God gave it, and this also was a point of wisdom,
To know whose gift it was:
I went to the Lord, and besought him,
And said with my whole heart:
God of my fathers, and Lord of mercy,
Who hast made all things with thy word,
And by thy wisdom hast appointed man,
That he should have dominion over the creature that was made by
That he should order the world according to equity and justice,
And execute justice with an upright heart;
Give me wisdom that sitteth by thy throne. (8:21, 9:1-4)
Here again Solomon is speaking of Wisdom as something distinct from
God, and here is a passage similar to that of the opening chapter
of the Gospel of St. John (1:3)
And thy wisdom with thee, which knoweth thy works,
Which then also was present, when thou madest the world,
And knew what was agreeable to thy eyes,
And was right in thy commandments. (9:9)
And here is an echo of St. John's, "and the Word was made flesh,
and dwelt amongst us." (Jn 1:14):
Send her out of thy holy heaven,
And from the throne of thy majesty,
That she may be with me, and labor with me,
That I may know what is acceptable with thee. (9:10)
Solomon continues with his beautiful prayer, which is considered
one of the high points of the Old Testament in language similar
to that of St. Paul: "O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and
of the knowledge of God." (Rom 11:33). St. Paul is considered the
ultimate development of the Old Testament Wisdom:
For who among men is he that can know the counsel of God?
Or who can think of what the will of God is?
For the thoughts of mortal men are fearful,
And our counsels uncertain.
For the corruptible body is a load upon the soul,
And the earthly habitation presseth down the mind
That museth upon many things.
And hardly do we guess aright at things that are upon earth:
And with labor do we find the things that are before us.
But the things that are in heaven, who shall search out?
And who shall know thy thought, except thou give wisdom,
And send thy Holy Spirit from above. (9:13-17)
Solomon ends with a reference to the Holy Spirit. He has mentioned
in a veiled manner the three persons of the Blessed Trinity. The
Holy Trinity was revealed to the world for the first time by Our
Lord, but now it is a delight for us to go back and find it hidden
in the Old Testament.
III Wisdom and Israel (Chapters 10-19)
The first section, Wisdom and the Just, had been presented in a
somewhat abstract manner; but now Solomon gets down to practical
illustrations from history. He speaks of Noe in one short verse:
For whose cause when water destroyed the earth,
Wisdom healed it again,
Directing the course of the just by contemptible wood. (10:4)
The "contemptible wood" is the ark of Noe, but also a prophecy of
the wood of the Cross. Solomon repeats this point later for emphasis:
And from the beginning when the proud giants perished,
The hope of the world fleeing to a vessel,
Which was governed by thy hand,
Left to the world seed of generation.
For blessed is the wood, by which justice cometh. (14:6)
The wood of the Cross is indeed blessed because all our graces come
to us from it. We will now see some amazing types of the Sacraments.
Solomon concentrates on the ten plagues of Egypt. This Book was
addressed to the Egyptians among others, and Solomon seems especially
anxious to convert them, since Pharao was his father-in-law. He
presents seven antitheses showing how God blessed the just, Israel,
on the one hand, and punished the wicked, the Egyptians, on the
They were thirsty, and they called upon thee,
And water was given them out of the high rock,
And a refreshment of their thirst out of the hard stone. (11:4)
This wonderful miracle that God worked in favor of the just, is
a figure of the Sacrament of Baptism. Then follows the antitheses,
the opposite, the punishment of the wicked:
For instead of a fountain of an ever running river,
Thou gavest human blood to the unjust,
And whilst they were diminished for a manifest reproof
Of their murdering the infants,
Thou gavest them abundant water unlooked for: (11:7-8)
Why did God punish the Egyptians in ten progressive plagues? Why
did He not punish them all at once in one great plague? Solomon
answers, to give them time for repentance. God did not want just
to punish them, but to convert them. Solomon is wonderfully optimistic
about the nature of man. He does not think that man is depraved,
as for instance, the Lutherans do. He thinks that all men are innately
good, but desperately in need of God's grace and conversion.
Yea and without these they might have been slain with one blast,
Persecuted by their own deeds, and scattered by the breath of thy
But thou hast mercy on all, because thou canst do all things,
And overlooketh the sins of men for the sake of repentance.
For thou lovest all things that are,
And hatest none of the things which thou hast made:
For thou didst not appoint, or make anything hating it.
And how could anything endure, if thou wouldst not?
Or be preserved, if not called by thee.
But thou sparest all: because they are thine, O Lord, who lovest
There follows another antithesis, where Solomon again balances a
reward against a punishment. In the dessert the Jews sinned, and
were punished by God by means of serpents. But God punished them
only to convert them, and provided a healing remedy, the brazen
serpent that Moses raised up, another figure of the Cross. Whoever
looked upon it with Faith was healed. This is a figure of the Sacrament
For when the fierce rage of beasts came upon these,
They were destroyed with the bitings of crooked serpents.
But thy wrath endured not forever,
But they were troubled for a short time for their correction,
Having a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance
Of the commandment of thy law.
For he that turned to it was not healed by what he saw,
But by the Savior of all. (16:4-7)
Then follows the antithesis: the wicked were punished by even lesser
creatures than serpents, insects, and there was no remedy:
And in this thou didst shew to our enemies,
That thou art he who deliverest from all evil.
For the biting of locusts, and of flies killed them,
And there was fond no remedy for their life:
Because they were worthy to be destroyed by such things. (16:8-13)
Another of the plagues of Egypt was the hail and the lightning running
along the ground:
For the wicked that denied to know thee,
Were scourged by the strength of thy arm,
Being persecuted by strange waters, and hail,
And rain, and consumed by fire.
Which was wonderful in water,
Which extinguished all things, the fire had more force:
For the world fighteth for the just. (16:16-17)
St. Paul would put it, "For those who love God, all things work
together unto good." (Rom 8:26) Solomon would add, even nature.
And even nature acting against its own laws, that they might see
more clearly that the punishment was from God. Then comes the antithesis.
From the same heaven comes the reward of the just:
Instead of which things thou didst feed thy people with the food
And gavest them bread from heaven prepared without labor:
Having in it all that is delicious, and the sweetness of every taste.
This great miracle is a figure of the Blessed Eucharist. St. Thomas
Aquinas has taken his beautiful hymn, Panis Angelicus, from
this passage, and also for his Corpus Christi liturgy which
is used at Benediction: Panem de caelo praestitisti eis (you
have given them bread from heaven); Omnia delectamentum in se
habentem (having in it all delight). The final plague was the
destruction of the first born of the Egyptians:
Then first upon the destruction of the first born,
They acknowledged the people to be of God.
For while all things were in quiet silence,
And the night was in the midst of her course,
Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne,
As a fierce conqueror into the midst of a land of destruction. (18:13-15)
"Thy almighty word leaped down from heaven," notice again St. John's
doctrine of the Logos. Its first meaning here is of the destroying
angel, but the Church uses this beautiful passage in the Christmas
liturgy, to celebrate the birth of Our Lord. (Mass within the octave
Solomon again returns to his solution of the problem of evil, the
divine retribution in the after life. God will eternally punish
the wicked and eternally reward the just. He uses as a type of this
final judgment, the crossing of the Red Sea. The wicked attempted
to cross the Red Sea but were overwhelmed by the powers of nature,
which they had worshipped. God had patiently waited for their conversion
through the ten progressive plagues, but they did not respond to
God's grace, but hardened their hearts in final impenitence:
When Moses crossed the Red Sea, he was met by his sister Mary, and
a chorus of women with timbrels, dancing and singing, a type of
Our Lady and the angels welcoming the souls of the just into heaven.
The youthful Solomon is now so excited that the ending is almost
chaotic, like the finale of a great symphony. He ends with a wonderful
description of the joy of the just on reaching heaven:
For they fed on their food like horses,
And they skipped like lambs praising thee,
O Lord who hadst delivered them...
For in all things thou didst magnify thy people, O Lord,
And didst honor them, and didst not despise them,
But didst assist them, at all times, and in every place. (19:9,20)
The original name for the Book of Ecclesiasticus was the Wisdom
of Jesus of Sirach. It was St. Jerome who gave us the name Ecclesiasticus,
meaning a Church book, since it was used for the instruction of
catechumens in the early Church.
Jesus of Sirach was a priest and scribe who conducted a school for
young men in Jerusalem. He wrote his book in Hebrew around 200 B.C.
His grandson, also named Jesus of Sirach, translated it into Greek
around 150 B.C. The Hebrew original was lost, and it has come down
to us only in Greek translation. For this reason, supposedly, the
Jews, and the Protestants following them, reject this beautiful
book, and we Catholics have it all to ourselves.
Sirach wrote this book at a time of crisis for the Jewish people.
Alexander the Great had conquered the world, and in the wake of
his armies had followed the Hellenic culture. The glories of Greece,
the greatest natural culture that man has ever produced, proved
irresistible to many of the Jews to the detriment of their own revealed
Faith. The Second Book of Machabees gives us the spirit of these
"Now this was not the beginning but an increase, and progress of
heathenish and foreign manners, through the abominable and unheard
of wickedness of Jason, that impious wretch and no priest. Insomuch
that the priests were not now occupied about the sacrifices of the
altar, but despising the temple and neglecting the sacrifices, hastened
to be partakers of the games, and the unlawful allowance thereof,
and of the exercise of the discus. And setting naught by the honors
of their fathers, they esteemed the Grecian glories for the best."
(II Mach 4:13-15)
Jesus of Sirach wrote his Book to show the superiority of the glories
of Israel to those of Greece. In 175 B.C., under Antiochus Epiphanes,
on meeting resistance from a handful of faithful Jews, the peaceful
conquest of Greek culture, turned to an open persecution of the
Faith. It was in the midst of this persecution that Jesus of Sirach's
grandson translated this Book into Greek, and the Book achieved
its goal. It helped preserve the Faith of a handful of Jews, who
in turn were able to hand that Faith down to us.
Jesus of Sirach begins his Book by showing the young men of his
school, the necessary prerequisite for the obtaining of Wisdom,
a reverential fear of the Lord:
The fear of the Lord is honor, and glory,
And gladness, and a crown of joy.
The fear of the Lord shall delight the heart,
And shall give joy and gladness, and length of days.
With him that feareth the Lord,
It shall go well in the latter end,
And in the day of his death he shall be blessed...
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. (1:11-16)
In the first half of his Book, Jesus of Sirach sets down a large
collection of Proverbs similar to those of Solomon. The high point
of the Book is a beautiful lyric poem in praise of Wisdom. Jesus
of Sirach, like Solomon before him, speaks of Wisdom as if it was
something distinct in God. Wisdom is a divine attribute, but theologians
appropriate It to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and
Our Lord is called "Wisdom Incarnate." St. Louis Marie de Montfort
has a beautiful little book on this subject. The Mystery of the
Blessed Trinity was revealed to the world for the first time by
Our Blessed Lord, but the Holy Ghost has hidden this Mystery throughout
the Old Testament. It is a delight now for us to go back and find
these hiding places. The Church also accommodates these beautiful
passages on Wisdom to Our Blessed Lady. Wisdom speaks:
And he said to me: Let thy dwelling be in Jacob,
And thy inheritance in Israel,
And take root in my elect.
From the beginning, and before the world, I was created,
And unto the world to come I shall not cease to be,
And in the holy dwelling place I have ministered before him.
And so I was established in Sion,
And in the holy city likewise I rested,
And my power was in Jerusalem.
And I took root in an honorable people,
And in the portion of my God his inheritance,
And my abode is in the full assembly of the saints. (24:13-16)
Here we have the theme of the Book. Sirach is showing in a positive
way, the vast superiority of the glories of Israel to those of Greece.
The Church uses the following verses in praise of Our Blessed Lady:
I am the mother of fair love, and of fear,
And of knowledge, and of holy hope.
In me is all grace of the way and the truth,
In me is all hope of life and virtue.
Come over to me, all ye that desire me,
And be filled with my fruits.
For my spirit is sweet above honey and the honeycomb.
My memory is unto everlasting generations.
They that shall eat me shall yet hunger:
And they that drink me shall yet thirst.
He that hearkeneth to me shall not be confounded:
And they that work by me shall not sin.
They that explain me shall have life everlasting. (24:17-31)
But the next few verses distinguish Jesus of Sirach from Solomon:
All these things are the book of life,
And the covenant of the most High, and the knowledge of truth.
Moses commanded a law in the precepts of justices,
And an inheritance to the house of Jacob, and promises to Israel.
Jesus of Sirach thus identifies Wisdom with the Mosaic Law. It is
true that all the Books of Wisdom are based on the Mosaic Law, but
Solomon especially in the Book of Wisdom, had seemed almost to break
these bounds and approached the teaching of St. John in his Gospel.
Solomon in the Book of Wisdom had addressed all the pagan kings
of the world, and attempted to convert them. Wisdom he said was
not just for the Jews but for all men, and he enthusiastically invited
the pagans to ask God for this great gift. Sirach, however, is from
a different time, a time when a hostile pagan world seemed about
to overwhelm the tiny remnant of faithful Jews. He is more interested
in preserving the Faith than spreading it. Although the Book seems
like a step backward from the universality and optimism of the Book
of Wisdom, Jesus of Sirach did succeed in preserving the Faith for
a few faithful souls, who handed it on to Our Lady and St. Joseph
and a faithful remnant. It remained for Our Lord's Apostles to succeed,
where Solomon had failed, in the conversion of the pagan world.
There now follow a number of exhortations that Sirach addresses
to his students. These are short conferences on every subject imaginable,
and is probably the reason this Book was used for the instruction
of catechumens in the early Church. Here are ten of these exhortations,
again chosen to illustrate the variety of topics covered. He begins
with a wicked woman, but immediately contrasts her with a good woman:
There is no head worse than the head of a serpent:
And there is no anger above the anger of a woman.
It will be more agreeable to abide with a lion and a dragon,
Than to dwell with a wicked woman.
The wickedness of a woman changeth her face:
And she darkeneth her countenance as a bear:
And sheweth it like sackcloth.
In the midst of her neighbors her husband groaned,
And hearing he sighed a little.
All malice is short to the malice of a woman,
Let the lot of sinners fall upon her.
As the climbing of a sandy way is to the feet of an aged man,
So is a wife full of tongue to a quiet man. (25:22-27)
And here is the good woman:
The grace of a diligent woman shall be a delight to her husband,
And shall fat his bones.
Her discipline is the gift of God.
Such is a wise and silent woman,
And there is nothing so much worth as a well instructed soul.
A holy and shamefaced woman is grace upon grace.
And no price is worthy of a continent soul.
As the sun when it riseth to the world in the high places of God,
So is the beauty of a good wife for the ornament of her house.
As the lamp shining upon the holy candlestick,
So is the beauty of the face in a ripe age.
As golden pillars upon bases of silver,
So are the firm feet upon the soles of a steady woman.
As everlasting foundations upon a solid rock,
So the commandments of God in the heart of a holy woman. (26:16-24)
Wealth was considered a sign of divine favor, and poverty a sign
of God's displeasure. The Calvinists and their ilk, believe that
wealth is a proof of their divine election, They must "demonstrate
abundance" to display their election to their less fortunate fellow
men. Sirach launches a devastating attack on this hypocritical outlook:
Watching for riches consumeth the flesh,
And the thought thereof driveth away sleep.
The thinking beforehand turneth away the understanding,
And a grievous sickness maketh the soul sober.
The rich man hath labored in gathering riches together,
And when he resteth he shall be filled with his goods.
The poor man hath labored in his low way of life,
And in the end he is still poor.
He that loveth gold shall not be justified:
And he that followeth after corruption shall be filled with it.
Many have been brought to fall for gold,
And the beauty thereof hath been their ruin.
Gold is a stumbling block to them that sacrifice to it:
Woe to them that eagerly follow after it,
And every fool shall perish by it. (31:1-7)
The Church uses the close of this conference to praise her confessors:
Blessed is the rich man that is found without blemish:
And that hath not gone after gold,
Nor put his trust in money nor in treasures.
Who is he, and we will praise him?
For he hath done wonderful things in his life. (31:8-9)
It might seem hard to believe that the Holy Ghost would to descend
to discuss the subject of table manners, but since God would day
become man, nothing human is alien to Him.
Be not hasty in a feast.
Judge of the disposition of thy neighbor by thyself.
Use as a frugal man the things that are set before thee:
Lest if thou eastest much, thou be hated.
Leave off first, for manners sake:
And exceed not, lest thou offend.
And if thou sittest among many,
Reach not thy hand out first of all:
And be not the first to ask for drink.
How sufficient is a little wine for a man well taught,
And in sleeping thou shalt not be uneasy with it,
And thou shalt feel no pain.
Watching, and choler, and gripes,
Are with an intemperate man:
Sound and wholesome sleep with a moderate man:
He shall sleep till morning,
And his soul shall be delighted with him. (31:7-24)
Here is Jesus of Sirach humorously urging his young students to
respect their elders.
Young men, scarcely speak in thy own cause.
If thou be asked twice, let thy answer be short.
In many things be as if thou wert ignorant,
And hear in silence and withal seeking.
In the company of great men take not upon thee:
And when the ancients are present, speak not much.
Before a storm goeth lightning:
And before shamefacedness goeth favor:
And for thy reverence good grace shall come to thee.
And at the time of rising be not slack:
But be the first to run home to thy house,
And there withdraw thyself, and take thy pastime. (32:10-15)
Here is a conference that every Doctor should hang on the wall of
Honor the physician for the need thou hast of him:
For the most High hath created him.
For all healing is from God,
And he shall receive gifts of the king.
The skill of the physician shall lift up his head,
And in the sight of great men he shall be praised. (381-3)
And the following belongs on the wall of every pharmacy:
The most High hath created medicines out of the earth,
And a wise man will not abhor them.
Was not bitter water made sweet with wood?
The virtue of these things is come to the knowledge of men,
And the most High hath given knowledge to men,
That he may be honored in his wonders.
By these he shall cure and allay their pains,
And of these the apothecary shall make sweet confections,
And shall make up ointments of health,
And of his works there shall be no end.
For the peace of God is over all the face of the earth. (30:4-8)
The Christian Scientists say, ask God to heal you, and don't go
to the doctor. Jesus of Sirach says, of course ask God to heal you,
and then go to the doctor:
My son in thy sickness neglect not thyself,
But pray to the Lord and he shall heal thee.
Turn away from sin and order thy hands aright,
And cleanse thy heart from all offense.
Give a sweet savor, and a memorial of fine flour,
And make a fat offering, and then give place to the physician.
For the Lord created him: and let him not depart from thee,
For his works are necessary.
For there is a time when thou must fall into their hands. (38:9-13)
It sounds like Sirach had just fallen into their hands. There follows
a wonderfully humorous satire on tradesmen. He will satirize a farmer,
an engraver, a blacksmith and a potter. He does not do this meanly
but with great good humor. His point is, that these men can never
become wise. A wise man of necessity, has to be a man of leisure.
The wisdom of a scribe cometh by his time of leisure:
And he that is less in action, shall receive wisdom.
The farmer will never be a wise man because he has no leisure, no
time to think or study.
With what wisdom shall he be furnished that holdeth the plough,
And that glorieth in the goad,
That driveth the oxen therewith, and is occupied in their labors,
And his whole talk is about the offspring of bulls?
He shall give his mind to turn up furrows,
And his care is to give the kine fodder. (38:26-27)
Nor will the engraver or the blacksmith or the potter ever become
wise, and for the same reasons:
So every craftsman and workmaster that laboreth night and day,
He who maketh graven seals,
And by his continual diligence varieth the figure:
He shall give his mind to the resemblance of the picture,
And by his watching shall finish the work.
So doth the smith sitting by the anvil and considering the iron
The vapor of the fire wasteth his flesh,
And he fighteth with the heat of the furnace.
The noise of the hammer is always in his ears,
And his eye is upon the pattern of the vessel he maketh.
He setteth his mind to finish his work,
And his watching to polish them to perfection.
So doth the potter sitting at his work,
Turning the wheel about with his feet,
Who is always carefully set to his work,
And maketh all of his work by number:
He fashioneth the clay with his arm,
And boweth down his strength before his feet:
He shall give his mind to finish the glazing,
And his watching to make clean the furnace.
All these trust to their hands,
And everyone is wise in his own art. (38:28-35)
The tradesman are wise only in their own art, but without them the
city could not be built, nor the world go on. But they will never
become rulers or judges, because they do not have wisdom. Every
great culture has understood this. Even the Protestant British drew
their rulers and statesmen from a leisure class, the gentleman class.
Because of this they ruled the world for hundreds of years.
Without these a city is not built.
And they shall not dwell, nor walk about therein,
And they shall not go up into the assembly.
Upon the judges seat they shall not sit,
And the ordinance of judgment they shall not understand,
Neither shall they declare discipline and judgment,
And they shall not be found where parables are spoken;
But they shall strengthen the state of the world,
And their prayer shall be in the work of their craft,
Applying their soul, and searching in the law of the most High.
The tradesmen must work so hard that they have no time, even for
prayer, but their work is their prayer, and is accepted as such
by God. This is very Benedictine: Laborare est Orare, to
work is to pray. Sirach then goes on to contrast the vocations of
these Marthas, with those who have chosen the better part, the part
of Wisdom, the vocation of his young students, his sons:
The wise man will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients,
And will be occupied in the prophets. He will keep the sayings of
And will enter withal into the subtilities of parables.
He will search out the hidden meanings of proverbs,
And will be conversant with the secrets of parables.
He shall serve great men and appear before the governor.
He shall pass into strange countries:
For he shall try good and evil among men.
He will give his heart early to resort to the Lord that made him,
And he will pray in the sight of the most High.
He will open his mouth in prayer,
And will make supplication for his sins.
For if it shall please the great Lord,
He will fill him with the spirit of understanding:
And in his prayer he will confess to the Lord.
And he shall direct his counsel, and his knowledge,
And in his secrets shall he meditate.
He shall show forth the discipline he hath learned,
And shall glory in the covenant of the Lord.
Many shall praise his wisdom, and it shall never be forgotten.
The memory of him shall not depart away,
And his name shall be in request from generation to generation.
There now follows a beautiful section of lyric poetry similar to
some of the psalms, in which Jesus of Sirach praises God's Wisdom
in Nature. He begins with praise for God's creature, the sun, in
a spirit similar to that of St. Francis of Assisi in his Canticle
to the Sun:
The firmament on high is his beauty,
The beauty of heaven with its glorious shew.
The sun when he appeareth shewing forth at his rising,
And admirable instrument, the work of the most High.
At noon he burneth the earth,
And who can abide his burning heat?
As one keeping a furnace in the works of heat:
The sun three times as much burneth the mountains,
Breathing out firey vapors, and shining with his beams,
He blindeth the eyes.
Great is the Lord that made him,
And at his words he hasteneth his course. (43:1-5)
He continues with praise of all Nature, the moon, the stars, the
And the moon in all her season,
Is for a declaration of times and a sign of the world.
From the moon is the sign of the festival day,
A light that decreaseth in her perfection.
The month is called after her name,
Increasing wonderfully in her perfection.
Being an instrument of the armies on high,
Shining gloriously in the firmament of heaven;
The Lord enlighteneth the world on high.
By the words of the holy one they stand in judgment,
And never fail in their watches.
Look upon the rainbow, and bless him that made it:
It is very beautiful in its brightness.
It encompasseth the heaven about with the circle of its glory,
The hands of the most High have displayed it. (43:6-14)
Sirach then goes on to show God's Wisdom in His Saints:
Let us now praise men of renown,
And our fathers in their generation. (44:1)
Beginning with Adam through all the great men of Israel's history
down to his own day, he describes God's saints, beside whom the
great heroes of the Greek world are pale shadows. He passes quickly
over the kings, mentioning only David, Solomon, Ezechias and Josias,
and concentrating mainly on the priests, because the Davidic dynasty
has fallen, and Israel was now ruled by its priests. The continuity
of the theocracy down to its Messianic fulfillment depended mainly
on them. Jesus gives his greatest praise to the High Priest Simon,
who had recently died, probably a close personal friend, since Jesus
of Sirach was himself a priest:
Simon the high priest, the son of Onias,
Who in his life propped up the house,
And in his days fortified the temple.
By him also the height of the temple was founded,
The double building and the high wall of the temple.
In his days the wells of water flowed out,
And they were filled with the sea above measure.
He took care of his nation, and delivered it from destruction.
He prevailed to enlarge the city,
And obtained glory in his conversation with the people: (50:1-5)
Jesus of Sirach goes on to contrast Simon with God's creatures,
whom he had just so beautifully described, the sun, the stars, the
rainbow, etc. All of these creatures praise God as best they can,
but who can praise Him more than a priest, who offers to God an
acceptable sacrifice? This is the ultimate Wisdom.
When he put on the robe of glory,
And was clothed with the perfection of power.
When he went up to the holy altar,
He honored the vessel of holiness.
And when he took portions out of the hands of the priests,
He himself stood by the altar.
And about him was the ring of his brethren:
And as the cedar planted in mount Libanus,
And as branches of palm trees, they stood round about him,
All the sons of Aaron in their glory. (50:10-14)
Sirach goes on to describe a liturgical service in a way that only
a priest could. It is a Levitical service of course, but between
the lines we can see the Sacrifice of the Mass. This is probably
the most beautiful part of this beautiful Book:
And the oblation of the Lord was in their hands,
Before all the congregation of Israel:
And finishing his service on the altar,
To honor the offering of the most high King,
He stretched out his hand to make a libation,
And offered the blood of the grape.
He poured out at the foot of the altar
A divine odor to the most high Prince.
The sons of Aaron shouted,
They sounded with beaten trumpets,
And made a great noise to be heard for a remembrance before God.
Then all the people made haste,
And fell down to the earth on their faces,
To adore the Lord their God,
And to pray to the most High.
And the singers lifted up their voices,
And in the great house the sound of sweet melody was increased.
And the people in prayer besought the Lord the most High,
Until the worship of the Lord was perfected,
And they had finished their office.
Then coming down, he lifted up his hands
Over all the congregation of the children of Israel,
To give glory to God with his lips, and to glory in his name:
And he repeated his prayer, willing to show the power of God. (50:15-22)
This is the climax and the Book should have ended here, but because
the Book of Proverbs is Sirach's model, he has to end in the same
way. The Book of Proverbs ends with an acrostic poem in praise of
Wisdom. Each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet,
Aleph, Beth, Ghimel, etc., so through the twenty two letters
of the alphabet. This literary device is unfortunately lost in translation.
So Jesus of Sirach ends with his own acrostic poem, a postscript
you might say, a touching description of his own life in pursuit
of Wisdom. He invites his students, whom he considers his sons,
to follow him in this glorious adventure:
When I was young before I wandered about,
I sought for Wisdom openly in my prayer.
I prayed for her before the temple,
And unto the very end I will seek after her,
And she flourished as a grape soon ripe.
My heart delighted in her, my foot walked in the right way,
From my youth I sought after her,
I bowed down my ear a little and received her...
Draw near to me, ye unlearned,
And gather yourselves together into the house of discipline.
Why are ye slow? and what do you say of these things?
Your souls are exceeding thirsty.
I have opened my mouth, and have spoken:
Buy her for yourself without silver,
And submit your neck to the yoke,
And let your soul receive discipline:
For she is near at hand to be found. (51:18-34)