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The Book of Wisdom

This book, which the Vulgate calls Wisdom and the Septuagint Greek calls the Wisdom of Solomon, is one of the most typical books of wisdom literature. Its literary beauty and particularly its depth of doctrine brings us to the threshold of New Testament revelation.

Although the book itself claims that it was written by Solomon, it must be pointed out that here as in the case of Ecclesiastes we have an example of recourse to pseudonymity, a device often used in the ancient world to highlight the importance of a literary work; here the author used the prestige of Solomon, the greatest of the wise men of Israel.

The inspired writer wrote the entire book in Greek, including the first five chapters, which were once taken to have been originally in Hebrew. This is demonstrated by the language used, which is elegant and cultured, by its thematic unity, and even by its consistency of style. We can therefore say that he was a Hellenist Jew who wrote out of his great faith in God (9:1). He abominates any kind of polytheism and is proud to belong to a “holy and blameless race” (10:15). In view of his many references to Egypt, he probably wrote in Alexandria, the capital of Hellenism in the Ptolemy period and the cultural focus of the Jews in the Diaspora.

We do not know exactly when the book was written, but we can say that it was written later than the Septuagint translation of the Bible and before Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.-54 B.C.), with whom the author is not acquainted. The references to the persecution undergone by the Jews (2:1-20, 15:14) lead us to suggest that the most likely date of composition was around the last years of the reign of Ptolemy Dionysius (80-52 B.C.), very close to the Christian period but before the Roman conquest, to which no reference is made.

The book can be divided into three parts. The first part (chap. 1-5) is prophetic in style and somewhat Hebraic in the concepts it uses. It exhorts people to practice righteousness and sincerely seek God. As a first step toward this it stresses the need for a pure and upright heart and for avoidance of all sin. Against this background it contrasts the reward that ultimately awaits those who are faithful to God with the punishment that evildoers will receive and their unhappy fate after death.

The second part (chap. 6-9) concentrates on the source of wisdom and the need to obtain wisdom. Speaking as Solomon, the sacred writer explains what he means by wisdom:

“For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, everseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” (Wis. 7:22-25).

It is this wisdom that lies at the basis of all other good things. The author stresses that it is something to be sought through prayer, because we cannot attain it by our own efforts:

“O God of my fathers and Lord of mercy, who has made all things by thy word and by thy wisdom hast formed man to have dominion over the creatures thou hast made, and rule the world in holiness and righteousness, and pronounce judgment in uprightness of soul, give me the wisdom that sits by thy throne, and do not reject me from among thy servants. . . . For even if one is perfect among the sons of men, yet without the wisdom that comes from thee he will be regarded as nothing” (Wis. 9:1-6).

The third part (chap. 10-19), written in a very original style, speaks of the magnificence of wisdom as demonstrated by the history of the chosen people. In contrast to this it describes the origin of polytheism and the moral consequences of idolatry:

“For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works, but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the luminaries of heaven were the god that rule the world. . . . Afterward it was nor enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but they live in great strife due to ignorance, and they call such great evils peace…They no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another or grieve one another by adultery. . . . For the worship of idols that should not even be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil” (13:1-3, 14:22-27).

By natural reason they could have discovered that the universe is not the result of chance; it could not cause its own existence or keep itself in being, because it needs—as pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle realized—a first principle or cause which would give every existing thing its being and which does not depend on any other cause for its own being or activity. But they, who considered themselves to be so wise, failed to grasp the truth because of their moral corruption, which led them finally to idolatry. This is true not only of pagans, but also of members of the chosen people and of many Christians when they idolize created things. Immediate consequences follow:

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, in the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:24-25).

It is easy to conclude, as the writer does, that revealed wisdom is far superior to pagan wisdom—which is what he is trying to do in the three parts of the book which we have outlined. In each he deals with wisdom from a different angle: In the first he shows wisdom as a moral virtue, identifying it with the pursuit of righteousness; in the second, as the mother of all virtues, personifying it as a divine attribute; in the third he emphasizes the objective character of wisdom, which is the source of riches for those who attain it.

The whole background of this book is profoundly religious. God wished to put the Jews of the first century B.C. on their guard against the temptation they might experience in Egyptian culture—an attractive culture, but one which inevitably deflected man from his ultimate goal. Instead of giving them genuine knowledge, it would woo them away from the faith and from true wisdom. Therefore, the sacred text is continually exhorting the reader to search for higher knowledge which comes from God, not from man; God is the source of all good things. Wisdom, as we have seen, is a “reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (7:25-26). It is God himself who, in an act of his mercy, gives wisdom to men, made in his image and likeness.

With Daniel and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom provides an adequate answer to the problem of the reward of the righteous. All the pains and sufferings a man experiences in this life find their explanation in the revelation of the immortality of the soul:

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever” (Wis. 3:1-8).

This is the answer to the great questions posed in Job and Ecclesiastes. On the one hand it explains why the just man suffers; on the other, it points up the inadequacy of earthly things to satisfy man’s yearnings for happiness. In other words, everything that happens to man in this life needs to be seen through the prism of eternal life, where the just man will be forever happy, whereas the ungodly will suffer the punishment their sins deserve (3:9-10).

Wisdom, then, brings us to the threshold of the gospel message. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to find the apostles quoting it often in their preaching. To describe the work of the Word of God incarnate, Paul refers to wisdom as a divine attribute (Wis. 9:11-19, 1 Cor. 2:7-16), as does John in the prologue to his Gospel (John 1:1ff). The same thing happens in other places in the New Testament dealing with the eternal life of the just (Rom. 8:18, 1 Cor. 6:2). The New Testament asserts that man, by the use of natural reason alone, can from evidence of created things come to discover the existence of God (Rom. 1:20, Wis. 13:4-9) and of divine mercy and providence (Rom. 9:19-23, Wis. 12:12-15).

In view of all this and because of the ground it lays for the revelation of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, the book of Wisdom offers the Christian spiritual and doctrinal material of the first order, which the Church in its liturgy uses as an unequivocal announcement of the messianic era, which from this point onward was seen as imminent.

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