THE BOOK OF WISDOM – PART XV
GOD'S JUSTICE AND MERCY
I. Starting in chapter 11, verse 15, there is a long section that comments on God's mercy and justice and the source of idolatry in the context of the plagues on Egypt that involved animals (i.e. frogs, flies, gnats and locusts.)
A. The overall structure emphasizes the connection between the themes: (1) that the plagues were not random, but rather tailored to fit the sins of the Egyptians; (2) that God even in punishing seeks to bring about repentance because He wants to have mercy on all things; and (3) that idolatry comes from desires that have gone terribly astray and lead to corruptions.
- By mixing the
commentary on the four plagues involving animals with the other two
themes the author is emphasizing the interconnectedness between the
themes. God's justice and mercy are two sides of the same
coin, and in achieving the goals of God it is helpful to know where
this idolatry that He wants to overcome came from and what its dramatic
B. The overall structure has the themes about God's mercy and the causes of idolatry in the middle with the increasing comments on the plagues surrounding them.
1. Chapter 11,
verses 15 and 16 introduces the overall theme that God sent senseless
beasts to punish the Egyptians because they worship beasts.
2. Chapter 11,
verse 17 to chapter 12, verse 22 then emphasizes that God punishes but
does not destroy because He wants to bring about repentance, which works
for God's people, but not for all. It uses as an example the
Canaanites who occupied the Promised Land before the Israelites.
3. Chapter 12,
verses 23 to 27, describes the animal plagues as designed to mock idolatry,
a message that most people did not seem to get.
4. Chapters 13,
14, and 15, up to verse 17, then describe idolatry as coming from various
causes, such people's wonder at nature, the desire to receive outside
help from something, the mourning for the dead, the desire to honor
the images of kings and nobles, or simply the excessive focus on the
works of one's hands. It also describes in sharp terms to folly
of worshipping mere things and the terrible sins that can come from
5. Chapter 15,
verse 18 to chapter 16, verse 12 then returns to the plagues on Egypt
involving insects, but now with the contrast to the punishments of serpents
that God sent to the Israelites after one of the rebellions. See
Num. 21:4-20. The former was not healing, either physically or
spiritually, while the latter did lead to a physical cure and (temporarily
at least) to repentance.
6. The section
then concludes in chapter 16, verses 13 to 15, by contrasting God's
justice, which punishes but can lead back to life, with man's malice,
which is simply destructive.
II. This portion of the book begins with a quick introduction to the plagues involving beasts.
A. The author describes them as punishments for the animals that the Egyptians worshipped.
1. Except for the frogs, there is not a one for one relationship between the animals sent through plagues and the animals the Egyptians worshipped.
- The Egyptians
worshipped both natural things (the sun above all, and the river and
storms, subjects of other comments in the Book of Wisdom) and animals,
such as crocodiles, serpents, frogs, and scarab beetles.
2. The plagues mostly used other animals, possibly because plagues of such things as crocodiles, serpents, scarabs would be too devastating.
- The plague
of locusts may have been designed to destroy economic wealth, the desire
for which is a common form of idolatry.
B. This section sets up the overall theme that God punishes by the very thing that causes sins.
1. The book will
later explain that the reason for this parallel is not only justice
but teaching people the folly of idolatry.
2. Moses had
earlier said that people will receive what they choose, life or death
and the Book of Proverbs had earlier described Wisdom as saying that,
if people will ignore her, they will reap the fruits of their own folly.
See Duet. 30:14, 19; Prov. 1:31-33. This passage reiterates the
theme in the context of Egypt, but adds the notion of the guidance of
God through that balance as well.
III. The passage then discusses God's mercy even in punishments in general, before turning in chapter 12 to an application specifically to the Canaanites.
A. The argument begins by pointing out that God could have sent much worse punishments that would have caused utter destruction.
1. The passage introduces God with an anthropormorphism, referring to His "almighty hand."
- There may
be a recalling of the promise that the souls of the just are in the
hand of God from chapter 3. Here, the hand of God also punishes,
but it is the same God who wants to save all people.
- The hand
of God is a frequent image reflecting both the providence of God for
His people, and His judgment of the nations. See, e.g., Duet.
33:3; Ps. 89:14; Is. 51:16, 62:3; John 10:28.
- But, as
if to balance the anthropormorphism, the passage in the same breath
emphasizes that God's hand fashioned all things out of formless matter.
The phrase "fashioned the universe out of formless matter" is a
retelling of Genesis 1-2, but here using terms of form and matter from
Greek philosophy. In Greek philosophy, form is the essence of
the thing, while matter is the stuff of which it is made. However,
unlike Greek philosophy, the author presents a personal caring God behind
all of creation.
this passage there will be both a comparison of God to humans as with
the description of His fatherly care, or the call to recognize the might
of God through the glory of His creation. See, e.g., Wis. 7;12,
21, 13:3-4. But there will also be a sharp contrast between God's
reign and that of humans with God as all powerful, all just and all
merciful. See, e.g., Wis. 11:21, 12:12:11-14.
2. The author then describes how easily God could have destroyed the Egyptians.
- He begins
with thoughts about a plague of lions or bears. There may have
a reminder of the bears that God sent in response to the ridicule of
Elisha, see 1 Kings 59:11, and the lion sent to kill a false prophet
in Judah. See 1 Kings 13:24. God also frequently showed
His might through His heroes taming or conquering lions. See Judg.
14:6; 1 Sam. 17:34-36; Dan. 6:16-24.
mocking pagan mythology, the author then describes how God could have
created unknown beats that pour out fire and smoke from their mouth
and eyes or, like Medusa, can slay even by their looks. There
may be a contrast between the true God and the myths, which involved
such destructive wraths and caprices of nature. Or the reference
to beasts that breath out smoke and fire could be a reference to Leviathan,
the symbol of chaos, as described in Job 41:10-13. The message
is that God could have released the full force of chaos (or Leviathan)
onto the Egyptians, rather than just small amounts.
- The passage
then points out that even a quick single blast or a gradual destruction
condemnation would have destroyed the Egyptians. The passage invokes
another antropormorphism in describing the breath of God, which is creative
at the beginning of humanity and throughout history, see Gen. 2:7, Ps.
104:30, but also can shake the world, see Ps. 18:16, Is. 11:4; 2 Thess.
- The whole
passage gives the impression that the Egyptians were really in great
danger, if the almighty God had been a wrathful as humans or pagan gods.
B. But then the passage switches gears and describes how God is not like us, being both more powerful and more merciful.
1. It begins
by reminding the reader that God created all things carefully and in
an orderly fashion, by measure and number and weight. All of the
universe is God's careful handiwork. The implication is that
He has a purpose for all of it.
2. The passage
then describes the great power of God, beginning with another antropormorphism,
the powerful arm of God, but then challenging our imagination by saying
that the whole universe is as a grain on a balance or the morning dew
compared to God. A grain on a balance was a tiny pebble used for
fine measurements on scales.
3. But then the
passage describes how God, because He is all-powerful, can be merciful.
An earthly ruler may be afraid of showing mercy to enemies for fear
that they will rise up against him, or may be afraid of showing mercy
to an offender for fear of seeming weak or losing control. But
God has no such concerns.
4. The passage then says that, because God created all things, He loves all things and does not wish any to perish
- There is
an explicit refutation of dualism, the belief that there are good and
evil gods (or a good God and an evil God), who created different parts
of the world and Gnosticism, which involved the belief that the material
world is evil, and only the spirit is good.
God has a purpose for all things, and does not wish for any to fail
of its purpose. There is perhaps a reflection of Psalm 145, which
praises God's creative providence in general and in verse 8 proclaims
God's love for every creature.
- There is a point
here that God not only created all things, but continually sustains
them in being.
5. In the midst of this declaration of God's goodness, the passage then states that God "overlooks" people's sins that they may repent.
- The implication
is not that God does not punish sins, but rather that He sees beyond
them to the goodness of each person and in fact each thing. There
is harkening back to the declaration in Exodus that God's mercy is
greater than His punishment; God does not fail to punish sin, but His
punishments continue for three to four generations, while His mercy
continues for a thousand. See Ex. 34:6-7.
6. The declaration concludes by referring to God as the "lover of souls" whose spirit is in all things.
- There is
perhaps a reflection here of the declaration and prayer of Isaiah, who
spoke of how much God loved His wayward children and prayed that this
love be victorious. See Is. 63:9-19. Here that declaration
of love is extended to all people, even Israel's enemies.
creative abilities make Him love each soul, not seeing one as simply
a replacement for the other.
- The declaration
is that His spirit is not only in human beings, but at least to
some degree in all things. The author is recalling his theme from
chapter 1 that Wisdom is the spirit of God and fills all things on earth.
C. The passage then draws the conclusion that God rebukes sinners a little at a time, desiring that they come to repentance.
- The implication
is that, as indicated in the first five chapters, we have immortal souls
that can shine forever, and thus bringing people to repentance and thus
to this destiny is the greatest of all works and worthy any sacrifice.
wickedness is presented as allied to believing in God. Part of
the idea is that evil actions tend to darken the mind and make one less
desirous of knowing God. See, e.g., John 3:19-20. By contrast,
abandoning evil clears the mind and leads to a greater knowledge of
God. See Catechism 29-30.
IV. The Book of Wisdom then applies insights about the loving, but disciplining God to the situation of the Canaanites who lived in the Promised Land before the Chosen People came.
A. The passage begins with a ringing indictment of the horrors that were practiced in the land before the Chosen People came.
1. Before the
Chosen People entered the Promised Land, Moses had denounced the violent
and decadent practices of the people of that land, and warned Israel
against imitating them. See, e.g., Ex. 23:24; Lev. 18:21; Duet.
12:31, 18:9-14, 20:18; see also Gen. 15:16. They were killed or
driven out of the land so that they could not become a temptation to
the Israelites. Some of the tribes were allowed to remain, to
test the Israelites, and they often failed that test. See Josh.
2. Here, the
author is doing two things. First, he is stating why they had
to be driven out, i.e. because the land could not be holy as long as
they were there. Second, he is presenting them as an extreme example
of how God shows mercy even in the midst of punishment, and even to
the most wicked of people.
3. The author
here describes the Chosen People in what was then the Promised Land
as a "colony" of the Lord. The implications are: (1) that
even the Promised Land is not their true native land, for their native
land is in heaven, cf. Heb. 11:13-16; and (2) that the Lord intends
to establish more colonies now that that one has been firmly made, cf.
Ps. 87:4-7; Is. 66:18-21; Dan. 2:44-45.
B. The passage goes on to say that even to such a wicked people, God showed what mercy He could.
1. The author
says that the wicked people of the land "were but men," presumably
indicating that it was partially weakness of intellect and will that
led them into corruption, as opposed to demons, who are totally corrupt.
Psalm 78 has a similar passage that describes God's treatment of His
Chosen People. See Ps. 78:33-39.
2. Thus, the
passage points out, God sent 'hornets" ahead of them, as Moses promised.
The idea was to make the land unpleasant and get them to leave before
being defeated and then either killed or enslaved in battle. See
Ex. 23:28; Duet. 11:12; Josh. 24:12. The term hornets may have
been literal, or may have stood for troubles in general, for in Hebrew
the term could also mean discouragement in general.
3. As with the
earlier passage about the animals sent as a plague on Egypt the author
points out that God could have sent worse punishments.
C. The passage then explains that God was giving them, like the Egyptians, a chance to repent, although he indicates that it did not work.
1. The idea again
is that gradual punishment is meant to indicate to the sinner that he
is sinning and should turn back. Physical pain gives the same
indication that one is doing something physically harmful, and should
2. The passage does say, however, that they did not repent (probably referring to the nation as a whole, not to each and every individual.)
- The explanation
is that evil was in their nature. This reference could meant that
there was an evil start to the nation, and thus it was unredeemable.
See Gen. 9:25-27. Presumably the just among them would leave,
as Lot did for Sodom and Gomorrah.
3. The passage indicates that God knew they would not repent, but allowed them space anyway. This foreknowledge could be read in several ways.
- God may
have known that they nation would not repent, even though individuals
may, for the nation was not meant to last. For the whole nation,
thus His sending of punishments gradually was a show to the world that
their destruction was caused by their own refusal to repent, as the
Geresene demoniacs destroyed themselves when Jesus granted them the
favor of living in the bodies of swine. See Mark 5:11-20.
- To the
degree that God knows individuals will not repent, that knowledge is
in eternity. Thus, it is not that the individual's future is
determined while he is on earth, but rather God's knowledge, being
outside of time, encompasses past, present and future together.
4. This passage
leads to the theme of the next eight verses, which describe God's
motive as the mercy that is allied with His might and His justice.