Friday, June 09, 2017

Apocryphal "Wisdom of Solomon" Speaks to Us

The Book of Common Prayer this spring assigned several passages from "The Wisdom of Solomon" for daily readings.  The Episcopal church sees the Apocrypha as good for teaching, just not so authoritative as the other canonical books. I'd not read in the Apocryphal books before, except for "Let us now praise famous men" from Ecclesiasticus.  Parts of "Wisdom" speak to me.

Though the author writes in the guise as Solomon, scholars conclude from internal evidence that our author is a Hellenistic Jew late in the first century B.C.  

For chapter 2, the author takes on the role of sophisticates looking down their noses at "him" who takes his religion too seriously.  "He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.... His ways are strange.  We are considered by him as something base...."  I've responded the same way to certain fundamentalists who attack the Episcopal church, and recognize the impulse to silence them: "Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is."  No doubt, our author anticipates the animus that took Jesus to Calvary.  "Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected." 

Chapter 3 is familiar from songs that our choir performs annually around All Souls' Day:
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...
But they are at peace...

Chapter 5 compiles image after wonderful image for the transience of human life, as spoken by those of no faith in God:  "What good has our boasted wealth brought us? All those things have vanished like a shadow... a rumor that passes by... a ship that sails through the billowy water, and when it has passed no trace can be found...."   Our lives are like the bird in flight, "The light air, lashed by the beat of its pinions and pierced by the force of its rushing flight, is traversed by the movement of its wings, and afterward no sign of its coming is found there."  I love that image of all that energy expended, leaving no trace.  Again, our lives' achievements pass "as when an arrow is shot at a target, the air, thus divided, comes together at once."     [Photo: from]

Chapter 13 considers those unbelievers who arrive at a sense of the Divine through perception of beauty -- 1800 years before Wordsworth, 2000 years before I felt the same things:
If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods,
    let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them.
...Yet these men are little to be blamed, for perhaps they go astray
    while seeking God and desiring to find him.
For as they live among his works they keep searching,
    and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful.
Yet again, not even they are to be excused,
    for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world,
 How did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things? 

The preface to the book in the Oxford Study Bible notes both "high lyrical quality" in the author's poetry and "plodding" prose passages that repeat old wisdom that good people get blessed and bad ones suffer - discredited in Job, Ecclesiastes, and, face it, the news. But that poetry --! I'm no judge of the Greek, but I know dramatic poetry when I see it, and this author gets into his roles as an ancient Shakespeare.

No comments: