Category Archives: Wisdom literature

A Tale of Two Roosevelts

Three famous Roosevelts entered into American history in the early 20th century: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. The Roosevelts were a wealthy and religious family, but were not keen on politics. They believed in serving the public and helping one’s neighbor, but until Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (Teddy’s father), they had tried to stay out of the political scene. However, it was TR, Sr. who served President Lincoln, and though he never encouraged Teddy to go into politics, he was inspirational to him.

That being said. . .Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. and Martha (Mittie) Bullock Roosevelt, had not one but two sons: Theodore, Jr. and Elliot (Eleanor Roosevelt’s father). Both Roosevelts had the same education. Both went on the same vacations through the Middle East and Europe. Both had the same opportunities. Both had their ailments; Theodore had horrible asthma while Elliot had seizures from time to time. Teddy however took to defeating his ailments through rigorous exercise and determination while Elliot, as Edmund Morris wrote, “when still adolescent discovered that alcohol was an effective depressant,” (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, New York: Balantine Books, 1979; pp 429-430.).

Theodore Roosevelt grew up to become an author, a New York Assemblyman, a New York city Police Commissioner, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a colonel in the army and a war hero with the Rough Riders, the Governor of New York, Vice-President of the United States, and President as well, along with seemingly endless accomplishments. Elliot literally drank himself to death, leaving behind a wife and a lonely daughter, a mistress, and a black mark upon his name. Now, if we were honest, no mere human would ever be able to live up to Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments. He is definitely one of a kind. But here is the point: two men reared by the same parents with the same opportunities went in completely different directions in life.

This is most difficult upon parents who see their children straying from what they were reared to be. It is painful to watch children abandon their upbringing for that which will be destructive. Parents hang on to Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it,” (ESV). They beat themselves up wondering if they failed to train them somewhere. Was there a moment in time that they missed an opportunity to say something or do something. Yet, in reality, no one can say for certain one way or the other. No one has an omniscient mind but God Himself.

I love what Bruce Waltke wrote about this verse.

The saying must be nuanced by others. It indicates that early, moral training has an effect on a person for good and conveys the truth that those directed or steered down the path of wisdom will be influenced by it through their life. But it does not assure that the child will embrace wisdom, because children make their own choices; they are not programmed robots. If it were otherwise, the parents’ and Lady Wisdom’s exhortation to accept wisdom would be pointless, (The NIV Zondervan Study Bible).

Over and over again, the one who reads the Proverbs will see a call for the authors’ children to heed warnings, advice, and encouragement. There are two options, personified as women: wisdom (Lady Wisdom) and foolishness (Lady Folly). Both of these women beckon for the life of every human being. Every human being has to decide which lady he shall follow. In the case of the Roosevelts, Theodore followed Wisdom while Elliot followed Folly.

Does this make watching a child wander from the truth any easier. No. That isn’t my objective. My objective is only to say that parents must consider that they may have done everything right, but the sin nature within a child led them to Folly’s door. You must consider that there was nothing more you could do. Yes, mistakes were made and perhaps opportunities missed, but we cannot change the past and we cannot control their thoughts, desires, or future. What we can do is pray, pray to the one who makes no mistakes and misses no opportunities. Pray to the one who is in control, and can change a stony heart to flesh, changing one’s desires for this wicked kingdom for the glorious kingdom of His Son. We can never presume upon God to know His thoughts or His doings.

Prayer seems like so little a thing, but it was through prayer that Israelites were saved from Pharaoh’s army. It was through prayer that the Israelites did not perish in the desert. It was through prayer that barren Hannah had a son. It was through prayer that the Apostles turned the world upside down with the gospel. Prayer does not guarantee the answer we want, but for the believer in Christ, it does guarantee that God will hear our sorrows and fears, our worries and our desperate cries. As Paul would say, “Pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, ESV).

 

 

Job and Ecclesiastes: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Both Job and Ecclesiastes are books pertaining to the same concept and both, in the end give the same answer, though they come at it from different angles. Job initially and traditionally has been read or taught of as though it is about human suffering. Ecclesiastes is traditionally read and taught as dealing with a similar subject: the meaning of life (which to the writer seems to be: there is no meaning). It is pointless, worthless, or absurd.[1] Yet these are secondary issues being addressed. The main issue with which both Job and Ecclesiastes are dealing is how the reader should respond to God when faced with these secondary issues. As J. H. Walton points out, “the book [of Job] is more interested in one’s view of God than in one’s understanding of suffering.”[2] This may seem like an insignificant difference, but it is indeed a great difference for it shifts the eyes from the sufferer/hopeless to God.

This is quite evident at the very beginning of Job. After introducing Job and his righteous character, the writer immediately turns his focus to God and the angelic assembly. Satan joins the assembly and through conversation accuses God of injustice.

Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the works of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face,” (Job 1:9-11, ESV).

These verses are the point of Job. God does not seem to be playing by the rules. He is bribing people into being righteous by protecting them and giving them good gifts. Who would not want to live righteously if God promised them such wondrous gifts? Yet the opposite would be true for those who do not receive protection and gifts. Why would they want to be righteous before a God who treats them like dirt and ignores their plight in life?

Then again, Ecclesiastes sets its sights on the worthlessness of everything! “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” (Ecc 1:2, ESV). Everything one does in life amounts to nothing. There is no value in it. One can work hard all his life earning millions of dollars yet die just like everyone else. Like the poorest of the poor he dies and carries none of his riches with him. In a couple of generations, he is forgotten and his money is gone. It’s not just treasures though, but wisdom. The wise end up in the same boat as the foolish. The worker and the slothful are not that much different after all. What is the point of it all? Why is God playing such a cruel joke on everyone?

Both Job and Ecclesiastes then are speaking toward the same subject: theodicy. According to John Davies, “Theodicy is discourse about the justice of God in the face of indications to the contrary—the presence in the world of evil in all its forms.”[3] In other words, if God is just why is there suffering and evil, which tends to lend itself to many an atheist’s rejection of there being a God at all. Neither Job nor Ecclesiastes seek to answer the question of suffering and evil, but they do seek to answer the indictment that because of suffering and evil God must be unjust or that God simply does not exist.

Job’s argument, while it can be misunderstood, is much clearer than Ecclesiastes’ argument. Yet both become a bit clearer when one remembers the type of literature that these two scriptural works are: wisdom literature. Keeping that these are works of wisdom will help keep the mind focused upon the wisdom within each book. Yet not all wisdom is equally good or equally valid. Both Job and Ecclesiastes end with the main point: only God’s wisdom is good and right.

To get to this point, Job takes us through wrong wisdom first. At first one will find Job’s wife coming to him wanting him to curse God and die (2:9). Notice Job’s response, “But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak,” (Job 2:10, ESV; italics mine). This is bad wisdom coming from the wife’s mouth. She is being foolish. Then come the three older friends of Job along with Elihu who is much younger. Each of these three older friends have taken upon themselves worldly wisdom. This is what Walton calls the “retribution principle.”[4] This basically states that God rewards the faithful and punishes the unfaithful. That’s how things work in this world. Therefore, since Job is suffering, he must have been unfaithful in some way. The only way to stop the suffering is for Job to offer sacrifices and/or confess his sins, open or hidden. This line of thinking is not much different than worldly wisdom today. The idea that God will strike one down with lightening or that they are suffering because one hasn’t said their prayers or gone to church lately. So they return to church for a week or two hoping that God will be appeased and their marriage will be fixed or that job will be found or life will simply be easier than before. It is such a small view of God and this world whether in modern times or in Job’s day. “In this way, Job’s friends can be seen as those who are advancing the case that the adversary asserted.”[5] God simply does not play by the rules; He is cheating the system.

Job comes back against such attacks on his character claiming that there is no hidden sin and no blatant sin either. He has lived the righteous life. He refused to admit to something he did not find himself guilty of. If he must suffer for living righteously then he will suffer. He will not give up living the upright life. “Whatever doubts he harbors and whatever accusations he hurls against the Almighty, as inappropriate and inaccurate as they may be, what is important for the book is that he retains the integrity of believing that righteousness is more important than rewards.”[6] Never does Job doubt the importance of being righteous.

Elihu, the youngest of the friends, finally speaks to Job. Though he is young, he gets much closer to godly wisdom than the older, more experienced men. Yet, he does not go far enough. Elihu, who may be the world first true theologian,[7] seeks to explain God’s actions synchretistically. He still utilizes the “retribution principle,” but according to Walton, “He expands the retribution principle so that it not only describes the remedial consequences of past actions (reward for righteousness, punishment or suffering for wickedness) but also now allows that suffering may be disciplinary and thereby preventative as it functions to restrain someone from following an unacceptable course of action.”[8] This is much closer to what pastors and church-goers lean toward. Why do bad things happen? It’s either a punishment on the unbeliever or its discipline on the believer. Yet through it all, God gave a different answer.

The final chapters of Job are filled with question after question that Job cannot answer. And one reads, “Then Job answered the LORD and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth,” (Job 40:3-4, ESV). Still more questions, though Job had gone mute. The point of God’s questions? It was not that God is so big and so great, how dare Job ever question Him! Rather it was to show Job that only God can do what God does. All that God does He does from His wisdom. The question that Job kept asking was, is God just? But the question is not, “Is God just?” but “Is God wise?” For a wise God must be just. If we can trust God’s wisdom and live accordingly (Prov 3:5-6), then we can trust God’s justice. Even when we do not understand why He does it, we can be confident that He does it in good and right wisdom.

Ecclesiastes is not much different, though it reads quite differently than Job. Is it right for God to expect people to live righteously only to die just as those who lived rebelliously? Is it just for a wise man to die like the foolish man? “Everything is absurd because there is no payoff for anything we do. The main reason why this is so is that death cancels out any such potential of profit.”[9] The writer initially compares life to the stream running into the sea, but the sea never fills up. It is like striving after wind which can never be caught. It is all pointless and hopeless because, as the “No Fear” T-shirt of the 90s said, “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”

Yet there are indications within Ecclesiastes that Solomon has a focus. He is headed in a very clear direction, but one must be astute to that. It does not help that translations, which are by necessity interpretations by the translators, do not explicitly show this, translating the same phrase one way in certain passages and another way in the final passage. “I perceive that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man,” (Ecc. 3:12-13, ESV). The word “everyone” in verse 13 is kol-ha’adam in the Hebrew, kol meaning all (encompassing), ha-adam meaning the man. It is easy to see it being translated as everyone (all the man/men). It is done this way in 2:13, 5:19, and again a very similar translation in 7:2: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart,” (ESV; italics mine). Yet, it is translated differently in 12:13: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” (ESV; italics mine).

Peter Enns points out that when one understands kol-ha’adam the same way in each passage as being the whole duty of man, one begins to see how the book ties together. The whole of man (the very goal of man) is to enjoy the food and drink of his toil. The whole of man (the very goal of man) is to die. Yet the Preacher bemoans both of these goals. As if, is this really all there is to life? Yet when one reads Ecclesiastes 12:13, one ought to get a different feel. Indeed, there is more emphasis in this verse than in the other kol-ha’adam verses (3:13, 5:19, 7:2). Solomon emphasized the word “this” as if he has reached the pinnacle and understands now “this is the whole duty of man!” Those other “duties” are under the umbrella of this duty. What would that duty be? “Fear God and keep his commandments.”[10] “Qohelet [Preacher in Hebrew] is wise, to be sure. As he says, pleasure and death are real and are portion of everyone [kol-ha’adam]. But there is a deeper, more fundamental obligation upon this earth, which is to fear God and keep his commandments. This is truly for everyone. . .”[11]

Fearing God, if one remembers is “the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7, ESV), and “the beginning of wisdom,” (Prov 9:10, ESV). As with Job, so with Ecclesiastes, one ends with the wisdom of God. That is the answer to suffering and hopelessness, understanding that God is wise in all He does even when one does not understand why He is doing what He does. Incidentally, Habakkuk attests to the negative end of this, but delivers the same truth. “Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? [sounds like Ecclesiastes] For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the seas,” (Hab 2:13-14). Immediately he states however that the nations are refusing the glory and instead would rather have their shame (cf. Hab 2:16). As one reads through this short prophetic book, he cannot help but get an understanding that while Habakkuk did not know what God was doing and thought Him to be unjust (like Job and Ecclesiastes), as God revealed to him His plan, Habakkuk’s complaints turned to praise.

In the end, the believer cannot help but think of all of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. Why did God do such and such and allow this and that? It seems wrong and unjust. Yet one sees then that God is wise. His plan is intricately woven into the fabric of this universe and humanity. In the end, one must admit as Job did, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth,” (Job 40:4, ESV). Since God is wise, He is just. One need not fear though He suffers or sees all life to be pointless. For this reason one can, “know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Rom 8:28, ESV). So again, these books—particularly Job and Ecclesiastes—are about our response to God: the trusting and fearing of God and His wisdom.

[1] Peter Enns, “Ecclesiastes, the Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 129.

[2] J. H. Walton, “Job, the Book of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 339.

[3] John Davies, “Theodicy” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 808.

[4] Walton, “Job, the Book of,” in DOT: Wisdom, 340.

[5] Ibid., 337.

[6] Ibid., 338.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 338-339.

[9] Enns, “Ecclesiastes, The Book of,” in DOT: Wisdom, 129-130.

[10] Ibid., 125-129.

[11] Ibid., 129.