THE BOOK OF WISDOM – SECTION III
THE UNJUST AND
THEIR PACT WITH DEATH
I. Chapter 1 ends with a dramatic switch over to the attitude of the wicked, who paradoxically seek death. Verse 16 describes with increasing intensity to deal of "ungodly" with death.
A. It first states that they themselves summoned death.
- The reference
could be to Adam and Eve, but they were not the paradigms of the ungodly
and, in fact, seem to have repented. See Gen. 4:1, 25.
- It seems more
that the wicked in general invite death into their lives and the world.
God had told the Chosen People long ago that they faced a choice between
prosperity with Him and destruction by disobeying Him. See Duet. 11:26-28,
30:19. The Book of Wisdom now says that the unjust in general
have made a choice of destruction. See also Sir. 15:16-27.
B. But the book then goes further and says that the ungodly considered death a friend.
- The reference
could be to two things. First, the ungodly use death as a means
to their ends, in this case considering the death of the just their
friend, as with the death of the prophets.
- But also there
is a notion that death itself is a friend of the unjust for it puts
a limit on things and thus at least appears to allow one to avoid any
notion of the timeless or the infinite. See Benedict XVI, Spes
Salvifici 11-12 (2007.)
C. The book even
says that the ungodly pine for death (or pine away with love for death.)
The idea is could be that, at the core of all sin is a certain sadness,
a self-destruction, and a hatred of the true self that God wishes to
bring forth, and thus a desire for its death.
D. Finally, the verse says that the wicked have made a covenant with death.
- There is a
dramatic contrast between this covenant with death and the live-giving
and glorifying covenant that God has made with the Chosen People.
See Gen. 15, 17, Ex. 19, 24; Joshua 24. Covenants were given to
Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David. The Covenant had been
broken by the Chosen People through infidelity, but God promised a new
and glorious covenant that would bring the peoples of the world before
God. See, e.g., Is. 42:1-9; 54:9-55:13; Jer. 31:31-40; Ez.
36-37. Jesus would establish this new and everlasting covenant
through His sacrifice on Calvery, His Resurrection, and the Eucharist.
See Matt 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 9.
- The glory of
this Covenant with God, which makes people His own, is paralleled by
the terrible effects of the covenant with death that the wicked make,
which makes them death's people.
E. The argument is
not that the wicked think about this effect, but rather that their words
and deeds bring about this effect and make them worthy of it.
II. The book then describes the attitude of the ungodly by quoting what the ungodly really mean, even if they do not say it.
A. The chapter is
quoting what the ungodly say to themselves, not to the world.
Thus, the author is saying that, while the ungodly may justify their
actions in many ways, their behavior is really based upon this notion
that life is meaningless.
B. The first five verses express this notion of the meaninglessness of life in different ways and through different images.
1. First, there is the overall statement that this life is short and sorrowful and that there is no cure for death.
- The assumption
is that, whether there is life after death, it has nothing to do with
- The author
emphasizes that we have no witnesses who have come back from death to
tell us what it is like (if anything) after this life. Reason
and Revelation as ways of knowing are rejected by the wicked.
- Job likewise
presents man's life as drudgery and temporality, but still places
his appeal before God. See Job 7, 14.
the Psalms generally did not express any particular hope of everlasting
life, but accepted death as inevitable and simply asked God for a sense
of His peace. Se Ps. 39, 90. There was also a sense that
God directed the whole nation and, through them and one's own descendants,
one's future was secured. See Ps. 102:27-28; 144.
the Book of Ecclesiastes describes issue of death and the author's
lack of knowledge of what would come. See, e.g., Eccl. 3:16-22,
8:5-9:6. The author recommends, however, innocent enjoyment of
the gifts God has given. See, e.g., Eccl. 9:7-10, 11:9-12:1.
2. Here, however,
the wicked attribute nothing to God, but rather say that all people
come about by mere chance, a view espoused by secular philosophies from
Epicurianism to the modern atheistic version of Darwinism.
the wicked say that their lives have no lasting impact. The Wisdom
literature would agree that the wicked have no lasting impact, but proclaim
also that God ensures the continuing influence of the just. See,
e.g., Sir. 44:9-Ps. 102:27-29; compare with Job 18; see also Obad 15-21.
Some of the wisdom literature did question whether future generations
would remember the just. See Eccl. 1:11, 2:16. But even
here again the solution is to accept all the good God does give and
rejoice in it. See Eccl. 2:24-26
4. The wicked take the image of the human soul as fire, giving smoke (the image for human breath) as evidence of itself to the world. That fire has a certain time to burn, until the human life, its fuel, is exhausted. And then, the wicked believe, it vanishes.
- The wicked
are picking up upon a common image of the human spirit to fire, which
rises from the earth to heaven, but here in a very pessimistic way.
- The Psalms
also portrayed man's breath as like that of smoke, but there drew
the conclusion that as a result, we should put our trust in God alone.
See, e.g., Ps. 39:6, 62:10, 144:4; See also James 4:14 (drawing the
conclusion that this life must be offered to God and that we should
rely on Him alone.)
the wicked portray this life as like the clouds or the mist that vanishes
in the day and the light of time. The second letter of Peter and the
Letter of Jude use similar analogies for the wicked, those that are
controlled by passing desires, but in the context of awaiting a greater
homeland. See 1 Peter 2:17, 3:8-10, 12; Jude 13.
5. Oddly, the wicked seem to take a certain comfort in this pessimism, thinking that there is no consequence to their actions either.
C. Thus, the second part of the speech calls for the enjoyment of good things. But unlike Ecclesiastes, there is a sense here of excess, having the fill of costly wines and perfumes, and enjoying every springtime blossom and leaving no place free from signs of wantonness. One is not, as the Psalmist recommends, enjoying the work of one's hands, but rather looking for opportunities for enjoyment at every opportunity, apparently in idleness. Compare with Ps. 128:2
- The wanton
treatment of the meadows and lands contrasts with the more idyllic scenes
of the fruitful fields, mountains, or city of the messianic kingdom.
See Ps. 23; Is. 11:6-11, 65:21-25; Ez. 47:8-12; Mic. 4:4; Zec. 3:10;
- The unjust
here have no sense of the lands as a gift or an entrustment, or having
a value in itself; and there is certainly no sense of an enjoyment of
the lands by other peoples. Rather, all its value is measured
by the enjoyment people gain from it for a certain time. This
view contrasts with the more objective view of the city of God, or the
green pastures of the Messianic kingdom, which have a value in themselves
that is to be enjoyed by all of God's people. Cf. Spes Salvifici
III. In the second half of their speech, the ungodly then turn against the innocent because they are in the way and the just man because he bothers their conscience.
A. First, the unjust state that they will have no problem oppressing the poor, the widow, and the aged, because they act in accordance with the principle that might is the law.
- The wicked
here are using the reasoning of Thrasymachus is his debate with Socrates
as described by Plato in The Republic. Thrasymachus basically
adopts the Sophist principle that justice is nothing more or less than
the laws that the strong establish for their own advantage. Thus,
he argues as do the unjust here, might makes right. See Plato,
The Republic Book I 338c-339a. Such reasoning has also been
taken up by the likes of nominalists, Social Darwinists, and utilitarianism.
It is based upon a principle that there is no law not created by humans.
- The statements
of the unjust are in direct opposition to the law given during the Exodus.
See Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:32, 25:35-37.
B. Then the unjust plot against the just man because he represents righteousness and thus opposes them.
1. These statements
are an elaboration of the plans of the unjust in Proverbs, see Prov.
1:10, and a general reflection of the plots against the prophets.
See, e.g., Jer. 20:1-16, 26:1-19; Amos 7:112-13; Matt. 23:37.
And it is a first hint of the opposition that will develop against.
2. First, the unjust say they are infuriated that the just man is obnoxious to them and opposes them. Then, they specifically say that the just man accuses them of opposing both the law in general and their own background.
- The opposition
could be a direct attempt to stop them by force or by persuading others
not to join. Or it could be that the just man simply reminds them
of their own injustice, as the discourse will soon describe.
3. They state that the just man calls himself a child of God. In an older time, angels, the kings or the whole country of Israel could be called a child of God. See, e.g., Ex. 4:22; Duet. 14:1, 32:5-6; 2 Sam. 7:8-16; Job 1:6, 2:1; Ps. 2; Is. 30:1, 9; Hos. 11:1. Here, however, as with Sirach, the just man in general is a child of God. See Sir. 23:4, 51:10.
- The Book
of Wisdom thus reflects a beginning understanding that we are each called
to be children of God. Jesus will pick up on that theme, allowing
us adopted sonship. See, e.g., Matt. 5:16, 48, 16:4, 8, 15, 18,
32; John 1:12; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:4-7.
4. The speech of the wicked indicates that the example of the just man bothers their own conscience.
of the law of God, the wish to establish their own law of decadent behavior,
and punish the just because they are not like everyone else.
- The implication
is that evil cannot tolerate the very existence of the just. They
wish to establish evil as their own norm.
- There is
a reflection of the persecution of the Chosen People, and later the
Christians, by the pagans, on the grounds that the Christians are not
like other peoples. See Eth. 3:8; Dan. 6.
5. The wicked are also angry at the fact that the just will not associate with them. One would think, given what they have just said, that the unjust would not like the company of the just anyway. But there is a desire on the part of the ungodly for a sense of approval by the just.
- The argument
that the "last end of the righteous is happy" bothers the unjust,
for it constitutes a nagging doubt about their end.
6. The unjust thus say to themselves that, if the just man really is favored by God, God will protect him.
- These words
reflect the torment of the just by the unjust in Psalm 22, and especially
verses 8 and 9. Psalm 109 also recounts the plea of the
just that God show the unjust that He is supporting the just man.
Both psalms will end in a note of triumph, as the Book of Wisdom will
show the triumph of the just.
- And again
on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22, and the crowds jeer Him in a similar
fashion as the unjust jeer the just man in this speech. See Matt.
27:41-46; Mk. 1531-34; Luke 24:35-37.
7. Overall, the
unjust are plotting against the just, who seems very much to be in the
image of the suffering servant Isaiah describes. Se Is. 42:1-7,
8. The unjust are seeking to justify themselves and their persecution of the just by presenting it as a test of righteousness. They reason to themselves that, if the just man is right, their persecution will not harm him. And, if he is not right, there will be no consequences to they the wicked.
all of the reasoning is that unease, however, there is a vague feeling
that somewhere there is a retribution after all.
IV. The chapter concludes by describing that flaw in their reasoning.
A. The chapter begins
by saying that it was the very wickedness of the unjust that led them
astray. Thus, the ignorance is not an excuse, nor is it without
effect. It is not God's fault, it is the result of their own
choice to live in darkness. See Job 24:13-17; John 3:19-21; see
also Eph. 5:6-14.
B. The book describes this blindness in three ways.
1. First, the unjust, because they have chosen the darkness, cannot know the secret purposes of God.
- The author
is beginning to indicate that God has a reason for allowing the just
to suffer for a time, a plan he will begin to describe in chapter 3.
God reveals the mystery of God to His People, but the wicked are left
in ignorance. See Matt 13:11; Mk. 4:11; Luke 8:10; 1 Cor. 2:6-16.
2. These purposes
involve paying "the wages of holiness." The idea is that all
of the innocent suffering in this life can in a sense be considered
earning an everlasting prize. St. Paul will later say that the
wages of sin is death. But he will describe everlasting life as
the "gift of God." Rom. 6:23. Part of the idea is that
we cannot really earn holiness or everlasting life on our own, but Jesus,
by His free grace, allows us to do so by living as His disciples.
the passage describes the prize for blameless souls. It was only
the blameless who could enter God's presence. See Ps. 15; Ps.
119:1-4. The problem is that no one is really blameless.
See Ps. 14. It is Jesus who allows us to attain to that
purity of heart and soul that allows us to win this contest of earthly
life and thus win that prize. See 1 Cor. 9:25; James 1:12; Rev.
C. The book then wraps us this section by referring to the theme it introduced at the beginning, the choice between life and death.
1. The author
says that God has from the very beginning given us everlasting life,
for we are in His image, and He is immortal. Se Gen. 1:26.
The question is whether we forfeit this gift.
2. The passage
then presents envy as the motive that the devil had, and by extension
tempters in general have, for causing sin, that in turn brings about
3. In referring
to the creation and Fall, which are not particularly common subjects
in the Old Testament, the author is calling for the reader to go back
to the beginning of all wisdom and all creation, getting a picture of
the whole of human history. The rest of the book will describe
a way of viewing that history.
D. The passage concludes dramatically by presenting the alternative between being in the part of the devil, which leads to death, or being in the hands of God, leading to the everlasting life of which the next chapter will speak.