THE BOOK OF WISDOM – PART XVI
MERCY, AND MYSTERY OF GOD
I. Chapter 12, verses 12-22 describe God's justice and mercy as above human questioning, but still orderly and thus, to some degree, comprehensible.
A. This section is largely arranged in three parts.
1. Verses 12
to 14 present the mystery of God, above all human questioning.
2. But then verses
15 to 18 then presents God's mercy, justice and might as all unified
and showing forth His divine plan. Although we have no right to
demand an explanation from God, we can understand His plans, at least
to some degree.
3. Verses 19
to 22 apply these principles to God's treatment of His people and
also of their enemies and oppressors.
4. The passage is
warning against three errors: (1) a pagan view that God (or the gods)
somehow need us and thus feel compelled to explain themselves to us;
(2) an overly rationalist view of God as entirely explainable; or (3)
an overly pietistic notion that God cannot be understood at al.
B. The passage begins by dismissing the notion that God withheld His full wrath because He needed to justify Himself before the people.
1. The author begins by saying that no one can threaten God, and thus He does not need to justify Himself. There is a contrast here with the pagan notions of God as needing human worship and of humans as able to negotiate with God.
- The author
may be responding to a view that God did not destroy the Egyptians,
Canaanites and other enemies because He would need them later.
2. Continuing a theme common in Wisdom literature, the author goes further and says that no one is in a position to question God's ways. Cf. Job 9, 38-41; Ps. 139:2-6, 17-18; Rom 9:19-23.
- The author
begins with four rhetorical questions that emphasize God's power over
all things and all nations and human inadequacy to defend the nations
or overcome God's judgment.
- In answer
to the questions, the passage points out that there is no one above
God who can judge Him. In order to judge something or someone,
one must refer to a standard or person above it. The author here
points out that there is no standard above God by which to judge His
- There is
perhaps here a reflection of the Book of Job in which Job realizes that
he cannot resist God, but demands and answer from Him all the same.
See Job 9:1-24, 31:34-37. God responds not with an explanation
but rather by referring to the mystery of all creation and thus even
more the mystery of His plans, although He does later refer to Job's
justice and restores him. See Job 38-41.
- St. Paul
likewise warns in the letter to the Romans against judging God's actions
in showing more mercy to one person than another. See Rom. 9:14-24.
also speaks of God's unquestionable majesty in terms of a potter and
the piece of pottery he makes, saying that we cannot question God's
ways any more that an object of clay can question its maker. See
Jer. 18:1-12. But here Jeremiah nevertheless explains why God
sometimes does not punish evil or reward good, namely, because the people
change, thus averting punishment or forfeiting reward.
C. The author then begins to explain God's justice and mercy as based upon His very self. God does not owe it to us to be just and merciful but rather simply is just and merciful of Himself.
1. God does not condemn the innocent because it is unjust and thus contrary to Himself. And He is consistent with Himself.
- This justice
Abraham understood at the very beginning of his relationship with God,
even as He accepted the mystery of God in calling for the sacrifice
of His son. See Gen. 19:22-32, 22:1-19.
2. Verse 16 presents the might and power of God as the source of both His justice and mercy. The two forces are not contradictory, but rather both flow from the same source and, in different ways, reflect the wisdom of God.
- In contrast
to the wicked, who make their strength the norm of justice, see Wis.
2:11, here justice and mercy spring from God's might.
3. Verses 17 and 18 then comment on God's justice and mercy as both directed toward the truth of God's majesty.
a. First, even the punishments of God are meant to draw people closer to Him.
response to doubt, God shows strength, which could be in punishing enemies
or providing for the just. Those who doubt God should look to
how He has brought about justice by his might.
those who know God, but still disobey Him, His punishments can be seen
as rebukes to bring them back.
b. Second, precisely because He is sovereign in majesty, He can show forth mercy.
might allows Him to be merciful without fear of losing control or having
to justify His actions to another. Thus, paradoxically, the majesty
of God can, if accepted, give an assurance of forgiveness.
D. The author then applies these principles to God's actions in history and reflection upon the right response.
1. First, one
conclusion is that, if one is to imitate God, one must be both just
and merciful. Jesus picks up on this theme, calling for His disciples
to be like God in justice and mercy. See, e.g., Matt. 5:43-48;
Luke 6:27-36, 15:1-32.
2. Second, there
is the call to place hope in God, confident that repentance is possible,
and that even God's punishments are a call to reconciliation.
3. God treats friends and enemies differently, although He punishes both.
enemies receive more the destructive punishments leading to death, but
even here granting time for repentance.
people, by contrast, are His sons, whom He delivers blows to in order
that they may find time for repentance. He is more exacting on
them, for He does such things as call for them to fulfill a detailed
law and be tested in the desert, while the pagans are called simply
to free the Israelites and (eventually) cease from pagan worship.
But repentance and restoration also seem more likely from those called
to a higher level for they have the covenant and can more easily see
the hand of God at work. Jesus will say elsewhere that to those
who have more will be given. See, e.g., Luke 8:18, 19:26.
E. Overall, the author
is at the same time saying that God's ways are above human understanding,
but also that we can, with His help, to some degree comprehend them.
God is reasonable and orderly, but we cannot fully comprehend this reason
and order. Cf. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio18.
II. The passage then applies these principles to the plagues that involved animals.
A. Reiterating the principle from chapter 11, verse 23 states again that God punishes people through the very things they sin.
- This theme
has been the controlling principle of the commentary on the animal plagues,
beginning each section that describes them. See Wis. 11:16, 16:1.
B. This section takes the theme further by ridiculing the worship, not only of animals, but of the most worthless and disgusting among them.
- It is noteworthy
that the most noble of the animals, such as horses and eagles, and the
most useful, such as donkeys and dogs, generally were not worshipped.
It seems that, when people saw the natural goodness of an animal, they
were not as tempted to idolatry.
- Thus, for example,
among animals, the Egyptians tended to worship gods in the form of such
things as scarabs, crocodiles, and serpents.
- In the Book of Job, God points to a strange beast (possibly the hippopotamus) and the chaos if the sea (possibly symbolized by a crocodile) as an indication of the mystery of His plans. See Job 40:1-41:26. It appears that people see in odd animals a mystery, know that the divine is mysterious, and fashion gods in the shape of these creatures.
C. God begins by punishing in small ways (referred to here as child's play) because at first the pagans are erring more out or ignorance, like children.
- There is a
possibly implication that these pagans can, by reforming become children
- The child's
play may refer to earlier, milder punishments that predate the plagues.
Or it could mean the earlier plagues (the river turning to blood, and
the plagues of frogs, gnats and flies) that were not as devastating
as the later ones, the pestilence, boils, crops destroyed by hail and
finally the death of the first born. The darkness is the second
to last plague both because it reflected the defeat of Egypt's national
god, Ra, who was worshipped as connected to the sun, and because of
the terrifying fear that it brought.
- The passage
says that the pagans did not repent, and so the worse animal plagues
came through other things the Egyptians worshipped. Even the death
of the first born can be counted among the things the Egyptians worshipped
for they focused very heavily on the dead, through such means as pyramids
and consulting of the dead great figures, with Osiris, the king of the
dead, being central in worship.
D. Interestingly, the passage concludes that the pagans did come to know God, but that final condemnation came with this knowledge.
1. The idea seems to be that the plagues and God's providence for His people perhaps did bring about (with the Egyptians, the Canaanites, or others) a certain belief in the one true God.
does say that the Egyptians became favorable to the Israelites.
See Ex. 11:3, 12:36. There may also be a memory of the Pharaoh
Amenhotep IV, who during his reign from 1375 to 1366, tried to bring
about a monotheistic religion. His son Tutankhamen (King Tut)
reversed the move and the brief move away from paganism ended.
2. But the condemnation would come from the fact that this knowledge was only transient and did not lead to real repentance.
- Jesus would
say later that the people's failure to repent was worse because they
saw the wonders that He performed. See, e.g., Matt. 11:20-24;
- Final condemnation
could have been the death of the first-born, or the ultimate exile from
III. In chapter 13, the author then turns to the explanations of idolatry, beginning with the most understandable (but still foolish) worship of the forces of nature.
A. The argument begins and ends, in verses 1 and 9, with a description of the failure to proceed from knowing the power and beauty of nature to appreciating the majesty of her creator.
- The worship
of gods in the forms of natural powers (e.g., the sun, the rain, storms,
etc.) would have been more common in Canaanite and Greek religion that
Egyptian. But, after the time of Alexander the Great, there begins
to be a mixing of religious beliefs.
- Near the beginning
of his final discourse Moses first warned the Israelites about the "degradation"
of animal worship, and then turned the perhaps more subtle form of idolatry
regarding natural forces, near the beginning of his final discourse.
See Ex. 4:19.
B. On this point, the author says that the pagans who worshipped nature gods began rightly, recognizing the glory of nature, but were blind to the God who made them all.
1. The Psalmist
and the prophets certainly knew of the glory of nature, but saw nature
as glorifying God. See, e.g., Ps. 8:4, 104:5-30, 148:1-10; Dan.
2. Here, the
author is arguing that, if these things have might and beauty, there
must be a source, and that source is God.
3. The author invites the question from where the might of the mightiest forces come, or from where do beautiful things receive their beauty. His answer is that such things can only come from God.
may now explain what the forces of nature are, but how they came to
be remains mysterious without a reference to their creator.
there may be theories of what beauty is, but the question of where the
beauty of all things, including and especially those of nature, leads
back to God. See Catechism 2500-2501; cf. St. Augustine, Confessions
C. The author, on the one hand, describes the desire for God that this nature worship is based upon, but also refuses to pardon the idolaters.
1. On the one hand, he says that their blame is less than that of other pagans because their natural desire to find the source of power in beauty is good. It is unlike those who simply worship beasts, or the creation of their hands, or who make their desires the measure of all things.
author describes them as "distracted" in their search for the source
of all things by the allure of created things. Similarly, in Acts,
St. Paul argues to the people of Lystra that the natural forces were
signs of God's goodness and that they should now turn to the worship
of the true God. See Acts 17:14-17. He also later refers
to nature as groaning in travail waiting with us for redemption from
God. See Rom. 8:19-23.
2. But the author also argues that they are not entirely innocent because they should have completed the process of tracing the source of goodness and beauty back to God.
Paul will pick up on this theme, indicating that the false nature worship
cannot stay simply at that level, but will decline to the level of animal
worship and finally to unnatural vice. See Rom. 1:18-32.
Likewise, the Book of Wisdom will describe how the worship of animals
leads to terrible sins. See Wis. 14:12, 22-29.
- St. Paul does hold out some hope that an understanding of natural moral law may lead people back to God. See Rom. 2:14-16.