Job 28 – Looking for wisdom
Introduction: Looking for wisdom
What is the one thing we need more than anything else in Australia, or even in the world, at the moment? Perhaps the answer is, wisdom. As we take stock of the damage from the fires, face new, profoundly troubling challenges like the coronavirus, enter into much more unsettled times in global politics, and beyond all this face an unrelenting, building pressure from the changing climate — what do we need most but wisdom?
For wisdom is about the ability to act well in the world, the knowledge that enables you to act in ways that work, that succeed, that give life. The person who knows a lot but cannot do anything, cannot help — whose knowledge is just evaluation, just intellectual analysis — he or she is not wise. Wisdom is about life and how we can do it well. And surely, today, that is what we need most — the ability somehow to navigate the many icebergs we’re sailing towards.
But, where shall wisdom be found? That’s what is really leading us to the brink of despair today, isn’t it? What is to be done? Where can we find the wisdom to make it through all these manifold difficulties? It does not seem like it’s at all obvious how we are going to manage to act well in the time ahead. Our leaders seem pretty bereft of the capacity to take decisive, intelligent, effective action. Which means, of course, that we as a people are having trouble doing that, too. Blaming your leaders is always attractive, and never entirely accurate. Leaders always, in one way or another, tell us something about ourselves. The problem is not just with our government — though I don’t really want to defend them; but the problem is also with us! We, as a people, lack wisdom! We don’t quite know how to handle the challenges that lie ahead.
Maybe you won’t agree with this. Actually, you’re thinking, that’s not right. We do know the right ways to go. The problem is just that we’re not doing it! Perhaps you feel less despondent, and more frustrated: you know where wisdom is to be found! The problem is just that it’s being ignored! We know what the solutions to climate change are, or at least some things that would help! We know the stance we should be taking as we enter the emerging new global order. We should be doing this, or that. The evidence is clear; the science is undeniable.
I don’t want for a second to deny that there are, indeed, many things that we do know about what we ought to do. Especially in relation to climate change, I think that there are things that are clear and that we obviously should be doing, and that it’s very frustrating this knowledge is being ignored.
But, let me challenge you: does this knowledge add up to wisdom? There are, I think, a couple of reasons to think it does not. The first is that what we are talking about is only knowledge of how to act in one area, not knowledge of how to act overall. It’s one thing to know what are some useful steps we might take in relation to climate change. It’s another thing to know how to take these steps given all the other challenges that face us. Wisdom is not about knowing just how to do one kind of thing well; it’s about knowing how to act well overall. And that is not as simple. What is really the right overall path for Australia to take through the coming, uncertain decades? What is really the right overall path for you to take through the coming years of your life?
The second reason to worry that despite the knowledge we do have, we may lack wisdom, is that our knowledge keeps creating new problems, even as we find solutions. Here we have to talk about science and technology. Think of major technological innovations we have all benefited from: antibiotics and other modern medicines, absolutely wonderful — they’ve saved my life I think — yet we now face a formidable problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria — some argue that drug resistant tuberculosis will be catastrophic in the coming decades; smartphones, so many good things would be impossible without them — and yet, they have also made pornography and other forms of addiction and exploitation widely available to children. I am not, of course, trying to argue that it all balances out and that maybe we should never have got into this technology business at all. That would be very silly. It’s hard to think of a downside to many forms of technology — indoor plumbing for instance. But what I think is abundantly clear is that technology is not an unmitigated good. Our drive for technological progress has brought many good things; and it’s also produced many evils — and helped us tear apart the world. We would not have climate change were it not for technological innovations.
So we should beware, I think, before imagining that this or that insight, this or that potential technological innovation, this or that body of knowledge, brings us in range of wisdom. With all our skill, all our brilliance, all our knowledge, it is still not clear that we are getting much closer to being able to act well overall.
Job 28: Looking for wisdom
That’s a pretty long introduction; and perhaps you’re not even persuaded by it. I’ve begun this way, though, because I’m hoping that considering these questions will at least help us to notice with greater interest our Scripture reading this morning. You see, we are not the first to think thoughts like these. Buried deep in Israel’s Scripture we find the remarkable poem of Job chapter 28; and it is a poem about wisdom, and about how difficult it is for human beings to find. Let me ask you to focus on it with me for a little bit.
Within the book of Job, chapter 28 comes a little out of the blue. It comes after a long speech by Job, the main character of the book; and after it, Job takes up his speech again, suggesting that chapter 28 is not his words but a kind of interlude. It’s a distinct poem, right in the middle of Job, that’s designed to capture one of the main themes of the book — I’ll come back to this point later.
It begins with a kind of celebration of human ingenuity, which, it’s worth noting, is also one of the world’s oldest descriptions of mining.
Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold to be refined.
Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted from ore.
Miners put an end to darkness,
and search out to the farthest bound
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
they are forgotten by travellers,
they sway suspended, remote from people.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and its dust contains gold.
That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
The proud wild animals have not trodden it;
the lion has not passed over it.
They put their hand to the flinty rock,
and overturn mountains by the roots.
They cut out channels in the rocks,
and their eyes see every precious thing.
The sources of the rivers they probe;
hidden things they bring to light.
The author of this poem was clearly impressed by the remarkable feats of which human beings are capable. We may take it that in his ancient context, this was cutting edge stuff: the capacity to search out the depths of the earth, hitherto entirely unexplored. It represents for him a striking illustration of the human capacity for exploration and discovery. Look what these people can do! he says in admiration. We might perhaps compare it to someone marvelling at the lunar landing, or the mapping of the human genome.
The enthusiastic tone here should be noticed. This is a thoroughly positive account of human ingenuity, of technological inventiveness and capacity, a celebration of what human beings, in all their restless creativity and inventiveness, can do. But then the poem goes on. There is something else to say about all of this human genius and ingenuity: it is not wisdom. Look from verse 12:
But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, “It is not in me,”
and the sea says, “It is not with me.”
It cannot be gotten for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.”
But where shall wisdom be found? Do you see how the contrast works? Look what human beings can do! And yet… where shall wisdom be found? Actually, we don’t know where it is, nor how to find it. No adventurous, bold searching will discover it. We cannot buy it, even for earth’s most precious treasures. We do not, the poet declares, even discover it in death. That’s what verse 22 is about: “Abaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears’.” A rumour, but only a rumour! That is a shock. We are used to thinking of age and death as giving wisdom. W. B. Yeats has a poem called “The Coming of Wisdom with Time”, in which the poet looks back on his foolish youth and then says, “Now I may wither into truth.” Perhaps we are often fools, but surely at the end, surely as we face death and the abyss, then we will learn wisdom. Not so, says Job 28. Not so; only a rumour.
It’s important to pause to take this in, I think. To take in the uncompromising, stark claim that is being made here. That we do not know the way to wisdom, that we fail to find it, even in death. It’s an offensive claim, I think. And yet, is it wrong? Actually, I think most of us know that we are not wise, in the sense that we are very conscious of our capacity for foolish mistakes, our ability to muck things up. Who among us can say that they have really found wisdom? That they have really nailed it, worked out how to tread through life in just the right way? And we know, too, that we cannot romanticise old age and death. For just as easily as giving wisdom, they can lead to a hardening of our follies, an entrenching of our mistakes and errors.
That, at least, is what Job 28 claims: that we mortals do not, in fact, know the way to wisdom, that it is hidden from us, that we cannot achieve or buy or force our way to it, that we will not discover it by our own resources even in the face of death. It’s a challenge to many ways we often begin to think in. It challenges, for example, our tendency to assume that technology will provide answers to our problems. If we can map the human genome, surely we will manage to find a wise way through the things that are facing us! Maybe, but not necessarily, says Job; for human genius is not the same as wisdom. It challenges, also, our tendency to assume that eventually people will learn wisdom. When they are confronted with the consequences of their actions, surely people will see the light, will see the error of their ways! Maybe, but not necessarily, says Job; for not even death is any guarantee of finding wisdom.
Job 28: Listening for wisdom
But that is not the only thing Job 28 has to say; because all of this is meant to prepare us to register the significance of the thing that comes next in the poem, namely, that God, unlike us, does know where wisdom may be found. Listen to how the poem concludes, from verse 23:
God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he gave to the wind its weight,
and apportioned out the waters by measure;
when he made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt;
then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
And he said to humankind,
“Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.”
God knows where wisdom is to be found, because he is the one who made the world by wisdom. He is the Creator. He holds the earth in being, and when he formed it in the beginning, he determined its shape, not just its “natural” shape, its structure and weather, its physical laws, but its moral shape as well: he determined the kind of world it would be, and the kind of possibilities it would hold out to human life. He “saw” and “declared” the reality of wisdom, he “established” it and “searched it out”.
And then, he told us about it. The last verse: “he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding’.” God knows the place of wisdom, and he has not kept this knowledge to himself. He has told us. He has spoken. “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”
Wisdom, God has told us, is found in an approach to life, an attitude to God and a resolution to turn away from what is evil. We could talk more about the idea of the fear of the Lord, but essentially I think it means a sense of reverence and respect for God and the reality of who he is — which means a deep consciousness that from one point of view he is actually terrifying. God is God, the invisible, holy, infinite, utterly other One, before whom the earth shakes, who holds us in existence at every moment. “Tremble before him all the earth,” says the Psalm (96.9). Wisdom is found in the fear of him and in turning away from evil, we are told. That is the path in which you, and I, may find wisdom.
If you find this hard to believe, there is a reason for that: the reason is that it is not obvious and cannot be obvious. The whole poem to this point has been about how we cannot, by our own abilities, find wisdom. It is not self-evident. And that means that even when we are told about it, it is not obvious to us. Here is where the theme of this poem intersects with the book of Job. The book of Job is a story about how even this wisdom is not easy for us to see. The very first verse of the book of Job describes Job in just these terms: he was a man who “feared God and turned away from evil.” He embodied Job 28.28. And yet his life completely falls apart. It falls apart in a way that makes a mockery of the way of life he has taken up to that point. At the end of the book, however, he is vindicated. God restores him and exalts him. He is proven to have been wise after all.
Job’s story is meant to show us that the fear of the Lord really is wisdom, it really is the best way to go through life, for in the end, Job’s life is the blessed life, the one that turns out well. But the story also shows us that that did not look at all obvious along the way. No one could see it before it happened. Along the way, Job looked anything but wise; he looked like a fool.
That’s because, you see, wisdom is never discovered by us. We never get to say, “oh yeah, that’s it, I see now.” No; we only get to be told, and to choose whether we will trust what we are told, or will not. We hear the Lord say that wisdom lies in the fear of him and turning away from evil; and we don’t get to get confirmation of this; we have simply to decide whether we will trust him, whether we will take him at his word.
Friends, will you trust him? Will you trust him when he tells you that this is the way of wisdom: to put him first in your heart, to give him the right to command, to let his word be your guide, to reject the way of evil? It will never be obvious that this is the wise way to go through life. But can you find wisdom anywhere else? Or are you willing to trust God that he knows what he is talking about?
Let me finish, though, by noting one other important thing. When I said we don’t get to get confirmation of what God says here, actually, that’s not quite right. For what we do get is the Lord Jesus. And he is actually the fullest imaginable confirmation that this really is where wisdom is to be found. For he, even more than Job, was the one who feared God and turned away from evil. And he did so not just to the edge of death, but right into it. And he was raised again from the dead. And now, living forever, seated at God’s right hand, he is the guarantee, once and for all, of what we have been told here: that “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” This is the wisdom our world needs; this is the wisdom each of us need. It will never seem obvious that that is true, but it is true nonetheless, as surely as Christ has been raised from the dead.
Canberra Baptist Church
23 February, 2020