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May 25, 2020

The Beginning of Wisdom (3): Knowing that You DON’T Know

Winding down this short series on the beginning of wisdom, I want to reflect for a few minutes on the lessons of the Book of Job.

Sometimes Scripture illustrates wisdom with what has been described as an “act-consequence” dynamic. Two prominent examples are:

He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son,
    but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful so
n. – Proverbs 10:5

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city,
    but poverty is the ruin of the poor.
– Proverbs 10:15

Simple pairings like these, drawn originally, no doubt, from close observation of the norms and happenings in agrarian life, seem to indicate that the theory and practice of wisdom is relatively uncomplicated, perhaps even a matter only of “common sense.” And in truth, sometimes it is precisely this way. In many aspects of life, there is a “givenness” to the world as God made it and as we encounter it, an observable and knowable “way things are” that only the dullest of the dull – or else the willfullest of the willful! – can fail to see. Yet to realize the scope of wisdom, and far we all always have to go in our search for it, we must probe deeper in light of the whole of Israel’s story.

The conflict of the book of Job reveals a complex picture of the relationship of divine providence and human suffering. We should attentively note that the pattern of act-consequence does not play out in Job’s life: his suffering has nothing to do with the way he has lived, and none of the traditional and “common sense” explanations for his suffering given by his friends turns out to be correct.

Consider Job’s initial assessment of his trials, “Shall we accept good from God and shall not we receive evil?” (2:10), about which we read “Job did not sin with his lips.” At first glance, we may think it proper to derive from this the idea that we may not question God’s sovereign decisions, but must merely submit so as to avoid sinning by impious speech. There follows on this declaration thirty-six chapters of eloquent speeches, attempting to theologically explain what has happened to Job. But at the end, both Job and his friends are forced to realize that all their “wisdom” is actually foolishness, for only God has wisdom and only God actually knows where it is.

Attend to the different ways God deals with Job and Job’s friends. Job gets a four chapter recitation of seemingly endless items about the world that he does not know and cannot explain, after which he confesses, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things to wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3), and, despising himself, repents in dust and ashes. Job’s friends, however, hear God say to them, “…you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:10).

We should ask: what did Job speak about God that was right? What did his friends speak about God that was wrong? The difference between them is that whereas both Job and his friends entered into lengthy theological explanations of Job’s sufferings and God’s purposes, only Job at last came to realize that for all his supposed “learning,” he was profoundly ignorant and could not give an explanation.

There’s just something about having wisdom that makes one want, seemingly bizarrely, to say, “Actually, I don’t have any wisdom, but I’m really busy looking for it!” In the final installment of this series, I’ll draw these threads together.