An Overview of Wisdom 1:1-6:21

Wisdom 1:1-6:21 constitutes a highly stylized address to rulers and it has the following five part concentric parallel structure:

A1) An Exhortation to “Rulers of the Earth” to Seek the Lord and His Justice Which Will Bring Immortality (Wis 1:1-15).

 B1). The Wicked Speak, Summoning Their “Friend” Death (Wis 1:16-2:24).

C). Reward and Retribution: A Contrast Between the End of the Just and the End of the Wicked (Wis 3:1-4:19).

B2). The Wicked Speak, Realizing What Their Sins Have Wrought for Them; “But the Righteous Live Forever” (Wis 4:20-5:23).

A2). An Exhortation to “Kings,” “Judges of the Ends of the Earth” to Seek Wisdom Which Brings Immortality (Wis 6:1-21). 

A1. Read Wis 1:1-15. The A1 section begins with an exhortation addressed to rulers of the earth to love righteousness and to seek the Lord (Wis 1:1), but then, beginning in 1:2, the language becomes general and could be taken as addressed to anyone. The reference to rulers [kings/judges] returns at the beginning of the A2 section (Wis 6:1-21).   According to some scholars, because the whole address opens and close with reference to rulers, the addressees are the ruling class of Ptolemaic Egypt who were oppressing Jewish refugees.  Others hold that the author is actually addressing Jews teetering on the verge of apostasy. This latter view is based upon the fact that the Jews considered themselves a kingly people (Gen 17:6, Ex 19:6). Bolstering this position (which is the one I accept) is the fact that the triumphant faithful and righteous of God’s people are promised rule over nations and peoples (Wis 3:8). They will receive  a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord (Wis 5:16). Thus the exhortations and warnings to rulers, kings and monarchs (Wis 1:1; 6:1-2, 9) were directed towards waffling Jews in danger of losing their destiny because they have adopted Greek and Egyptian religious and philosophical ideas (the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt were Greek). How (or if) they live their kingship in this world determines how (or if) they will enjoy an eternal rule.

The A1 section opens with an exhortation (Wis 1:1), followed by a reason for it (Wis 1:2). There follows a series of 4 motives for fulfilling the exhortation, each introduced by for (Wis 1:3, 5, 6, 9). Several of these are bolstered by  because clauses (Wis 1:4, 6, 7, 10). Wis 1:11 and Wis 1:12 are warnings, and each is also bolstered by a because clause. These two warning, both of which are concerned with avoiding destruction, have two for motives attached (Wis 1:14-15).

Finally, note should be taken of references to thoughts (Wis 1:3, 5) and various allusions to what might be called sins of speech (e.g., deceit, words, tongue, etc, Wis 1:4-11). Such things will lead to conviction, culpability, punishment, destruction, death (Wis 1:3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12). The key to this first section and, indeed, to the entire literary unit (Wis 1:1-6:21) is found in the first and last verses of the section: love righteousness…righteousness is immortal (Wis 1:1, 15). Understanding this is wisdom by which a person may reign forever (Wis 6:21).

B1. Read Wis 1:16-2:24. This section opens on the warning themes which closed out the A1 section. The sage warned, beware of useless murmuring…a lying mouth destroys the soul…do not invite deathnor bring on destruction by the work of your hands, but ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death as a friend (compare Wis 1:11-12 with Wis 1:16). Though the kingly dominion of Hades (abode of the dead) is not upon the earth,these men have made a covenant with death, as if it were a king. The fact that they reasoned unsoundly and their lengthy speech take up themes from A1 as well (Wis 2:1-20. Recall what I wrote in the previous paragraph). They have no concept of immortality or an afterlife, and think death is the finale of all things (Wis 2:1-5). Because they think of life as transitory, having an ultimate end in nothingness, they embrace the transitory and enjoy it. They crown themselves with rosebuds before they wither (Wis 2:6-9), thus the only kingship they enjoy is fading. They describe what is transitory as our lot…our portion (Wis 2:9), important covenant terms in the bible, often designating the people’s relationship to God or his gifts (Ps 16:5; 73:26, 119:57; Jer 10:16; Lam 3:24), but here recalling the covenant with him (i.e., death personified as if it were a king. Note Wis 1:16 speaks of death as “him,” not “it”).

Their corrupt philosophy of existence leads to a corrupt philosophy of action: let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless (Wis 2:11). This is why they persecute others (Wis 2:10), especially the righteous whose very existence is a condemnation of unrighteousness (Wis 2:12-20). the section ends by returning to the theme of erroneous reasoning with which it began (Wis 1:16; 2:21). The reference to the secret purpose of God in creating man for incorruption, and to the devil’s envy by which death entered the world (Wis 2:22-24) take us back to the end of the A1 section (Wis 1:12-15), thus bracketing the bulk of the B2 section between these themes.

C. Read Wis 3:1-4:19.
What God has in store for the righteous contradicts the thoughts and actions of the philosophers of death as given in Wis 2:10-20. The torment inflicted upon the righteous by the philosophers of death have proven the philosophers wrong. They tested the righteous through torment to see if what the righteous said and believed was true; the problem with this testing is that it considered only the present life (see Wis 2:17, 20). But the souls of those victimized by the death dealing philosophers  are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them (Wis 3:1). They merely seem to be dead, but they are at peace (Wis 3:2-3). Their hope is full of immortality (Wis 3:4). Ultimately it was God who was behind the testing (Wis 3:5-6), having allowed it for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28; Heb 12:5-13). The wicked said let our might be our law of right (Wis 2:11), but it is the righteous who will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever (Wis 3:8. Recall the king/ruler theme earlier in this post). The ungodly reasoned no one will remember our works (Wis 2:4), but the sage insists: The ungodly will be punished as their reasoning deserves, who disregarded the righteous man and rebelled against the Lord (Wis 3:10). Their reasonings and their hopes (Wis 3:11), and their wives and children (Wis 3:12-13a) will avail them nothing.

The familial reference in verses 12-13a may strike the reader as odd, but the dissolute lifestyle of the wicked, expressed in Wis 2:6-9 (especially 9) may contain allusions to sexual promiscuity as the NABRE translation suggests~Let no meadow be free from our wantonness; everywhere let us leave tokens of our merriment, for this is our portion, and this our lot. It was thought that children (whether legitimate or not) provided a certain immortality to their parents (see Plato’s Symposium, 208E) It also prepares for the series of contrasts which focus upon fertility and family in Wis 3:13b-4:6. It is better to be sterile or a eunuch and bear the fruit of virtue than to bear children by wantonness (Wis 3:13-15). The children born as the result of a wicked philosophy of life, even if they live to a ripe old age, will be of no account. Even if they die young they will have no hope and consolation on the day of judgement (Wis 3:16-19). They will come to nothing for their parents (Wis 4:3-5), and, indeed, they will provide a witness against them on the day of judgement (Wis 4:6). The ultimate point of these contrasts is given in these words~Better than this is childlessness with virtue, for in the memory of virtue is immortality, because it is known both by God and by men (Wis 4:1).

In contrast to both the early death or the long life of the wicked (Wis 3:15-18) is the early death of the righteous (Wis 4:7-9). Such a one is compared to Blessed Enoch (Wis 4:10-15, and see Gen 5:24).  He will condemn the unrighteous (Wis 4:16-19).

B2. Read Wis 4:20-5:23.  Like the B1 where the wicked proclaimed the philosophy of life, this section consists primarily of the speech of the wicked; but here they speak of the doom their philosophy has brought upon them.

Having mentioned at the end of the C section that the righteous will condemn the unrighteous (Wis 4:16), the sage now proceeds to note that the unrighteous will come with dread when their sins are reckoned up, but the righteous man will stand with great confidence before them (Wis 4:20-5:2). The philosophy of might as the law of right which was enunciated by the wicked in the B1 section (Wis 2:11) will end on the day of judgement; and the seeming weakness of the just will have its reward.  

They will speak to one another (not to God!) in repentance (Wis 5:3. A Judas repentance! Matt 27:3-4). Those who once thought the way of life led by the righteous was madness will have the conclusion forced upon them that they themselves are the fools (Wis 5:4). They will realize that their philosophy of life was all wrong and has brought them no profit (Wis 5:6-8). The transitory things they set their this worldly hopes on (recall Wis 2:6-11) have vanished (Wis 5:9-12). These signs (literally, “tokens”) of enjoyment (Wis 2:9) were no substitute for signs (tokens) of virtue (Wis 5:13) which, as we saw, is immortal (Wis 4:1). Here, in 5:13, the speech of the wicked ends and  what follows comes from the sage.

The hope the wicked placed in worldly things is as transitory as the things themselves (Wis 5:14). The righteous live forever, their reward is with the Lord and the Most High takes care of them…with His arm He will shield them (Wis 5:15-16), statements that stands in contrast to the philosophy of the ungodly (Wis 2:1-5), and the actions it gives rise to (Wis 2:18-20). God Himself and creation will battle against the wicked (Wis 5:17-23).

 A2. Read Wis 6:1-21. This section, like the A1 section, is an exhortation to those of regal status (Wis 6:1-2). As noted earlier the addressees are Jews thinking of betraying their kingly destiny by compromise with worldly rulers, politics, values, etc. They must understand that their greater destiny and gifts from God entail greater responsibilities and, therefore, a more stringent judgment than others might be subject to (Wis 6:3-8). We are thus reminded of the judgement theme in Wisdom 1:6-11). They must change their way of life and heed the sage’s instructions (Wis 6:9-11). If they love and seek Wisdom she will easily be found, for she herself seeks out those who desire her (Wis 6:12-16). Here recall that wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul…a holy and disciplined spirit (i.e., wisdom) will flee from deceit…depart from foolish thoughts…be ashamed at the approach of unrighteousness (Wis 1:4-5). Wisdom begins with a sincere desire for instruction, this manifests a love of wisdom which in turn manifests itself as the keeping of her laws which gives an assurance of immortality, bringing one near to God, so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom (Wis 6:17-20).

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