Formations 07.12.2015: The Value of Wisdom

Job 28:1-4, 12-13, 23-28

Robert Lewis Reid, Wisdom, 1896, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Robert Lewis Reid, Wisdom, 1896, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Canadian author and theologian Tom Harpur observes that otherwise brilliant high-profile celebrities can get themselves into some extraordinary messes. “If only wisdom were valued as highly as charisma is,” he says, “many would be spared humiliation on the public stage.”

True wisdom, however, is not a prized commodity in modern culture. Universities don’t teach it. Government programs do not subsidize or promote it. Harpur continues to say,

On our scale of values, wisdom isn’t on our screen of vision at all. Our culture is so entranced by technology, consumerism and bottom-line thinking that the pursuit of wisdom has been nearly obliterated from consciousness altogether. It’s no wonder many are finding that, deep down, life seems very shallow.

In today’s text, our protagonist cries out for wisdom with which to face his ongoing tragedies. In some ways, Job 28 is a turning point in the book. Job and his friends struggle to make sense of Job’s suffering. Job contends that the conventional theology, in which God rewards the faithful and punishes the wicked, is too simplistic to account for his experience.

In the midst of this debate, Job utters this hymn in praise of wisdom. God knows the way of wisdom, he says, but humans must struggle to find it. The search for wisdom, however, seems to offer Job what his friends’ pat theological answers cannot.

It is often the case that our beliefs and values are tested in times of suffering. Job’s crisis of faith led him to explore different answers from the ones his tradition had given him. Help participants acknowledge the importance—and the difficulty—of looking at their lives and their faith from a fresh perspective.

Tom Harpur, “Seeking Wisdom? Start Your Search with Reverence,” Owen Sound Sun Times, 16 June 2015


• What would you propose as a working definition of the word “wisdom”?
• How has wisdom helped you avoid problems in life?
• How has wisdom helped you get back on your feet after a tragedy?
• What is the relationship between suffering and growing in wisdom?

Reference Shelf

Wisdom’s Remoteness and Profundity

Access to wisdom was denied by some. The hymn about wisdom’s inaccessibility in Job 28 struck a note that resonated in many hearts. Only God has access to wisdom; humans, like Sheol and Abaddon, come no closer than capturing a rumor about her. The author of Ecclesiastes emphasizes wisdom’s remoteness and profundity: “I have tested all this by wisdom; I said, ‘I shall be wise,’ but it was far from me. Distant—whatever is—and extraordinarily deep; who can find it?” (7:23-24) The author of Baruch concurs with this sentiment: “Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? Who has gone over the sea, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold? No one knows the way to her, or is concerned about the path to her” (Bar 3:29-31). The echo of Deut 30:12-13 becomes audibly distinct as Baruch equates wisdom with the Mosaic Law (4:1).

James L. Crenshaw, “Wisdom in the Old Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 962.

The Drama Hangs in Suspension

C. Westermann has used the suggestive term “fermata” to describe the role this soliloquy [i.e., Job 28] plays. In musical terms, a fermata is a sign placed above the staff to indicate that a particular note should be held longer than its assigned value in order for the composition to maintain its intended rhythm and pace. Readers may think of Job 28 as playing an analogous role. In literary terms, it is a resting place within the book’s drama. The dialogues between Job and his friends have ended. Job’s last speech (chs. 29–31) has not yet begun. At this penultimate juncture in Job’s discourse, he has blessed and he has cursed…, but by neither of these means has he been able to obtain answers to the questions he raised from the ash heap at the outset of this journey. Now he appears to pause in consideration of another question, differently phrased than those first uttered in chapter 3 but similarly freighted: “Where shall wisdom be found?” (28:12; cf. v. 20). The closing verse of this second soliloquy suggests that Job is now ready to reconsider the answer that was posited for him by God at the very beginning of the story. Perhaps wisdom and understanding comes only by embracing the traditional model of piety that is defined by “fear of the Lord” and “departing from evil” (28:28; cf. 1:8; 2:3).

But if this is Job’s only recourse, then there should be little surprise that he would want to weigh this matter very carefully. God already knows that Job is the perfect example of this kind of piety. Moreover, Job now has more than enough reason to believe that this kind of piety only makes him a better target for destruction. Given this situation, what should Job do next? Should he return to a kind of piety that asks no questions, offers no complaints, expects no justice? Is such piety the “functional equivalent” of the only wisdom he can hope to obtain? Or should he press on with the search for something more and different, something beyond what either he or the friends have thus far been able to thrash out? The fermata that stands over the last word in chapter 28 suggests that the drama now hangs in suspension while Job considers out loud his next move.

Samuel E. Balentine, Job, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 417.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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