Wisdom


Job 28:1-28

We began this series of sermons on Job by explaining that we had come to Job in order to complete a series on the “wisdom” books of the Old Testament. We had begun with a series of sermons on the book of Proverbs (some 20 sermons in fact) and I had decided that I might as well complete the Bible’s wisdom literature. So we went on from Proverbs to consider Ecclesiastes (4 sermons) and the Song of Songs (3 more). That left Job among what are called the “wisdom” books of the Bible, though, to be sure, there is wisdom material elsewhere. For example, there are some wisdom psalms and you find wisdom material in the NT in the book of James. In fact, if you have ever wondered why James makes no mention of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ or his coming again, it is because it is a book of wisdom and wisdom is not about that.

Wisdom, as we said at the outset, in the usage of the Bible refers to that skill of living artfully and effectively in the world. It is the art of navigating a world beset with temptations and difficulties of every kind so as to produce a life that is pleasing to God and useful to others. All four of these books of the Bible — Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job — deal with this very practical sort of instruction, the “how-to” of a godly life at the level of motivation, discrimination, insight, discernment, habit, and the spiritual culture of one’s life. Prof. Bruce Waltke, who has preached in this pulpit in years past and for a generation has been one of the world’s premier scholars of the Old Testament, offers a variety of definitions for wisdom (the Hebrew word hokmah): “masterful understanding,” “skill,” and “expertise.” [Old Testament Theology, 913]

Given that definition of wisdom we do not expect to find and we do not find in the wisdom literature accounts of God’s redemptive activity, we do not have the Ten Commandments rehearsed for us, and there is no appeal to Israel’s history with Yahweh. Wisdom deals with the finer points of godly living, those points, as one scholar put it, “too fine to be caught in the mesh of the Law.” Wisdom is the skill of coping with life in all of its complexity and challenges; it is the mastery of experience. [Waltke, 913] In wisdom the “Thou shalt not” of the Law is replaced by an appeal to reason and to observation, as we saw in our consideration of these books. However, in biblical wisdom, there is everywhere the assumption that one can only attain to wisdom by observing the world and by reasoning from those observations from the vantage point provided by God’s revelation. That is why from the beginning to the end the fundamental principle of biblical wisdom is that “The fear of the Lord — that is, the fear of Yahweh, Israel’s covenant God — is the beginning of wisdom.”

All of that explains why Job belongs among the wisdom books of the Bible. It deals with one of the most complex, confusing, and challenging aspects of human life and of believing life: viz. how to respond to and how to bear up under the shocks and disappointments of life. If your character is to be undone by trouble and trial then it is going to be undone, because there is for everyone trouble and trial in life and for many a great deal of it. The magisterial concentration on and the profound examination of this question that we find in Job is what makes it such an important book of the Bible and so significant a part of the wisdom corpus of the Old Testament, even though it is dealing with a subject that is dealt with in many other parts of the Bible and, for that matter, in Ecclesiastes, one of the other books of wisdom.

But, as Job is in its entirety a book of wisdom, it also contains a chapter dedicated to the theme of wisdom and it is with this chapter that we turn to conclude our sermons on biblical wisdom and on the book of Job.

Text Comment

Chapter 28 is something of an enigma in the book of Job. It stands by itself and is not obviously connected to what comes before and after. There is debate about who the speaker is, whether Job, one of the three friends, or someone else. There is much in the speech of Job and his three friends that is less than fully useful. By the end of their dialogue each of them has lost his temper, they are exasperated with one another and they have nothing more to say. By the end each of them has deserved to be rebuked in some way shape or form. The three friends are eventually rebuked by the Lord for having spoken things about God that were not true, and Job himself repents in dust and ashes for some of his outbursts. But after that contretemps up through chapter 27 we have the serene chapter 28. Its teaching perfectly agrees with everything else the Bible teaches us about true wisdom. It sounds like a chapter we might have read in Proverbs. Perhaps we should think of chapter 28 as a summary response to what has gone before it by the author of the book, whoever he was, an interlude before the last four sections of the book: Job’s final speech, the speeches of Elihu, God’s own response, and the epilogue. [Anderson, 223-224]

Chapter 28 is built around the question that is found in both v. 12 and v. 20: “From where, then, does wisdom come?” The refrain divides the poem into three parts: the first, vv. 1-11, an argument to the effect that men cannot find out wisdom by searching for it; the second, vv. 13-19, a statement that wisdom cannot be bought because we have nothing sufficiently valuable with which to purchase it; and the last, vv. 20-28, a declaration that only God can give wisdom, a section that finishes where we began in Proverbs 1 with the statement, “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.”

v.1       The debate between Job and his friends is now over but nothing is settled. Where is the answer to be found? Bildad had ended the debate for the three friends in 25:6: “man is a maggot!” Not, perhaps, the best way to end a discussion of human suffering! We are now to read of man’s extraordinary powers and accomplishments, by which powers and accomplishments nevertheless man cannot discover wisdom.

v.4       Even in those ancient days men did extraordinary things to mine metals. Human achievement is real and impressive.

v.8       The falcon is known for its eyesight and the lion his courage, but neither animal is as observant or intrepid as man in man’s search for treasure. No falcon has dug tunnels deep into the earth to find and bring out its treasures; you’ll never find a lion smelting gold.

v.11     That first section of v. 11 is uncertain in its translation.        

v.12     Man’s great achievements in discovering things makes his failure to find wisdom the more striking and the more sad.

v.15     The idea is look for it as you might, even in the deepest deep; you won’t find it, but even if you did, you couldn’t buy it.

v.19     Some of those translations of the precious stones are informed guesses.

v.25     This verse and those that immediately follow it make the point that God exercised wisdom from the beginning. He is a God of art, a God of skill. He understands how things work and how to make them work. [Allen, 277] It is the point made in Proverbs 8:22-29.

v.28     In other words, this precious and elusive thing — wisdom the skill of living rightly in this world — can be found in God alone; we can get it only from him. God must reveal it to us. And the verse ends with the reminder that wisdom is not for the sake of contemplation, but for action. You acquire this skill, you have this art so that you can live skillfully and artfully. God gives men wisdom to use it in life! One cannot really fear the Lord and live in disobedience to him or live a useless and ineffective life! The connection between the fear of the Lord and wisdom is made at the beginning of Proverbs, at the end of Ecclesiastes, and here in the middle of Job. [Allen, 277]

It has always been amazing what men will do in the pursuit of progress (whether intellectual or cultural or economic) and especially in the pursuit of riches. Even in the ancient world men had learned to dig deep into the ground to find iron and copper ores, precious metals, and gemstones. My family’s summer place is near Cripple Creek, Colorado, the sight of the last great gold rush in American history. The Klondike gold rush started a bit later but ended before the Cripple Creek rush ended and was not nearly so lucrative. Those hard rock gold mines consisted of vertical shafts sunk most of a mile below the surface of the ground and then drifts, or horizontal shafts, off those vertical shafts in every direction. They were both looking for gold ore and following veins. And all of those passages were bored through mostly solid granite. It boggles the mind: blasting rock thousands of feet below ground, bringing tons of ore up every day, all to extract the gold, then valued at $35 per ounce.

But if you go to Cripple Creek today you will be no less impressed by the modern effort to extract gold from the nearby mountains. In effect mountains are being moved from one spot and put up in another so that in the process the gold can be extracted from the rock. First the rock — blasted from the mountain side — is crushed into the size of small gravel and spread in increasingly higher levels over an enormous leach pad which will eventually be the new shape of the old mountain. The leach pad is then soaked with a dilute cyanide solution that removes the valuable minerals from the crushed rock and carries them to a drain far below at the bottom of the pad. That solution is then collected and treated in various ways until molten gold and silver is all that is left and that is then poured into 50 pound “buttons.” The mine produces from 5 to 10 of those buttons each week. At today’s rate, fifty pounds of gold is worth over $14 million not the $28,000 dollars it would have been worth in the hard rock mining days! 

There is an observation point from which one can observe the immense hole that has been dug in the earth — the top of the mountain was removed in earlier years — so deep that the enormous trucks — trucks created for this very task and capable of carrying 300 tons of rock — that’s 600,000 pounds in one load, that’s the weight of a 747 loaded with fuel! (these trucks are powered by what are effectively jet engines in their axles)  — from the blasting sites to the crushers and then to the leach pad — I say from that vantage point those immense trucks seem toy-like in your view they are so far below. What men will contrive to do to extract gold from the earth! It was impressive in Job’s day; it continues to be impressive in ours.

And, of course, man’s other achievements are equally or still more breathtaking, whether sending a man to the moon or peering into the interior of the atom and learning how to unleash its power. But all of man’s vaunted scientific research and engineering has not made him wise. Carl Sagan could calculate the number — the billions and billions — of stars and the distance between earth and the distant galaxies, he could persuade us to spend millions of tax dollars looking for intelligence in outer space, but he tried and failed to make his marriages work! This is the author’s simple point: for all of man’s genius and creativity, for all of his power, true wisdom has always eluded him. He imagines that he can discover it by scientific research, by the processes of engineering, or by the power of his reason, but it is not so; it’s never been so and it never will be so.

There is a dimension of wisdom that is built upon the sort of observation that anyone can make. Think of such axioms as “A penny saved is a penny earned” or “Early to bed, early to rise makes one healthy, wealthy and wise.” That explains why many biblical proverbs have similar or nearly identical counterparts in Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom collections from the ANE. But really to understand and really to attain the wisdom that, once embraced in the heart leads to a godly and faithful life, we need God and his truth for that! Otherwise we will continue to repeat the long, sad story of human life, in which people who know better continue to behave foolishly, selfishly, and destructively.

It is particularly important in our day to restate the lesson of Job 28 for the modern man and woman. Science has a vaunted reputation in our age. Its accomplishments are remarkable and seemingly endless, though, to be sure, we also live in an age of hype and media-generated enthusiasms and sometimes forget how bright and creative man has always been. Nothing we have built in the modern world quite compares with the pyramids of Egypt, created without the benefit of modern engineering or power equipment. The ancients knew the earth was a sphere traveling through space long before Christ and, in fact, had calculated with tolerable accuracy the measurement of its circumference. Rudolf Bultmann, the German New Testament scholar of the first half of the 20th century, proclaimed that we could no longer believe the miraculous accounts we read in the Gospels because we live in the age of the light bulb. Baloney. I could just as easily imagine a Roman skeptic in the first century saying precisely the same thing: “Well, in the age of the catapult and aqueducts that carry water for many miles, in the age of the Pantheon in Rome or the Parthenon in Athens, or the Great Pyramid at Giza, in a world where men built the lighthouse at Alexandria we can no longer believe in miracles.” What has that got to do with anything? Man is clever and can accomplish amazing things. The author of Job knew that centuries before the Lord Jesus Christ! But there are many things man can’t do and doesn’t know. Science has solved some problems, created many more, but, all in all, it has left man in largely the same condition, intellectually, morally, socially, politically, and, supremely, religiously, where it found him. The author of Job knew that would always be the case and every reasonably intelligent observer of human life ought to know it as well.

And so it was that the book of Job concluded with the speech of Yahweh himself. There were things that Job needed to know to put his troubles into perspective and to bear them as was right, things he needed to know for the sake of his own spiritual health and that of those around them. And, as we said, what Job needed to know more than anything else, was his place. He was a mere human being, a small creature. For all his amazing powers man is never more than that, one of God’s creatures. He is not God and has not God’s powers. He doesn’t know what God knows and so cannot explain for what reasons things happen as they do in the world. That realization is key! Faith in God is and must be the basis of our viewing and bearing our sorrows, our disappointments, and our trials in life or we are bound to go wrong. What faith? Faith that God is in control, that he knows what he is doing, that all his purposes are good and righteous altogether, and that while sorrow may last through the night joy will come in the morning. Only the Christian can know this, and the Christian who does know this must live and suffer accordingly. We must live, even in the darkness of life, looking up to the one who knows all, who rules over all, and whose ways, while past our finding out, are designed for our everlasting good! However mysterious, all things do work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose. You cannot know this by observation; only God can reveal this truth to us and he has.

Let me give you a beautiful illustration of the importance of this perspective on the troubles of life, this perspective founded on the absolute sovereignty and the perfect goodness and the mighty love of God for his people. It is that perspective we ought always to carry with us, the perspective justified for us, of course, by the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, on the cross for our salvation. “He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, how shall he not, together with him, freely give us all things?”  This is what it means to be wise in respect to the troubles and disappointments and fears and heartbreaks of life.

Here is Elizabeth Elliot.

You know "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want," which means I shall not lack anything that I need. Since He is my shepherd I can rest assured that He knows exactly what is best for me. I don’t need to worry about myself at all.

And that takes me back to a number of years ago when I visited a sheepherder high in the mountains of North Wales. A place called Llanymawddwy [given the pronunciation of Welsh names, the place is probably pronounced “Tacoma”] owned by John Jones whose wife’s name was Mari and whose dog was Mack. I’m told that almost all the North Wales sheepherders were named John Jones, their wives were Mari, and their dogs are named Mack.

One summer morning I stood in the window with Mari watching the sheep moving across a dewy meadow toward the pens. A few cows were quietly chewing their cud in a nearby corner while perhaps a hundred sheep were moving across that dewy meadow toward the pens where they were to be dipped that day.

Mack, a champion Scottish Collie, was in his glory. He came from a long line of working dogs and he had sheep in his blood. This was what he was made for; this was what he had been trained to do. And it was a marvelous thing to see him circling to the right, circling to the left, barking, crouching, racing along, herding a stray sheep here, nipping at a stubborn one there, his eyes always glued to the sheep, his ears listening for the tiny metal whistle from his master, which I couldn’t hear.

Mari took me to the pens to watch what John had to do there. When all the animals had been shut inside the gates, Mack tore around the outside of the pens and took up his position at the dipping trough frantic with excitement and expectation, waiting for the chance to leap into action again.

One by one John seized the rams by their curled horns and flung them into the antiseptic, a stinking black liquid. They would struggle to climb out the side and Mack would snarl and snap at their faces to force them back in. Just as they were about to climb up the ramp at the far end, John caught them by the horns with a wooden implement, spun them around, forced them under again, and held them–ears, eyes and nose submerged for a few seconds.

I’ve had some experiences in my life which have made me feel very sympathetic to those poor rams–I couldn’t figure out any reason for the treatment that I was getting from the Shepherd that I trusted. The Shepherd is my Lord Jesus, of course. He didn’t give me a hint of explanation.

As I watched the struggling sheep, I thought, If only there was some way to explain to these poor animals what was being done to them. Such knowledge is too wonderful for them. It is high. They cannot attain unto it. So far as they could see, there was no point whatsoever.

When the rams had been dipped, John rode out again on his horse to herd the ewes which were in a different pasture. Again I watched with Mari as John and Mack went to work, the one in charge and the other obedient. Sometimes tearing at top speed around the flock Mack would jam on his four-wheel brakes, his eyes blazing but still on the sheep; his body tense and quivering, but obedient to the command to stop [he had received from the whistle]. What the shepherd saw the dog couldn’t see–the weak ewe that lagged behind, the one caught in a bush, or the danger that lay ahead for the flock.

Do the sheep have any idea what’s happening I asked Mari? "Not a clue," she said. "How about Mack," I asked? I can’t forget Mari’s answer. "The dog doesn’t understand the pattern, only obedience."

There are those who would call it nothing more than a conditioned reflex, or at best blind obedience. In that Welsh pasture in the cool of that summer morning, I saw two creatures who were in the fullest sense in their glory–a man who had given his life to sheep, who loved them and loved his dog; and a dog whose trust in that man was absolute, whose obedience was instant and unconditional, and whose very meat and drink was to do the will of his master. "I delight to do Thy will," was what Mack said, "Yea, Thy law is within my heart" (Ps. 40:8).

What’s the pattern of your life? Of course I know nothing about your background, your education, your personality, your marriage, your singleness, your geography, your present situation, your needs, your bewilderments, affliction, or losses. Have you learned to see Christ as your husband? Or if you are married, have you learned to see Christ in your husband?

Before Jim Elliot and I were married back in 1953, he wrote exhorting to me to lay aside all anxieties and to remember that I had bargained with Him who bore a cross. It was a word I needed then. It’s a word I need now, nearly 50 years later. Every day there are distractions that easily make me forget that bargain.

If things upset or irritate or even momentarily bother me, let me think of what Christ endured for me. And the contrast will put my troubles in perspective. If I wonder why God deals with me as He does–repeating many times the lessons of love, self-abandonment, acceptance of loss or certainty, for example–the only answer I need is that I accepted His invitation to take up my cross and follow.

And what comes following that? Restoration. Restoration comes through acceptance of the Shepherd’s will for you or me.

I’ve told the story of how my brother Tommy had left all the paper bags in the kitchen on the floor. [This is Thomas Howard, formerly of Wheaton College, now emeritus professor at St. John’s Seminary in Boston; the product of the godly evangelical Howard home, he converted to Roman Catholicism in the middle of his life.] He was allowed to do that [playing with the bags], but he was always told he had to put them away before he left the kitchen. This time my mother came and found he was not in the kitchen, but he was standing beside the piano where my father was playing some hymns.

My mother said, "Tommy, I want you to come put away the paper bags." Tommy looked up at mother with those beautiful eyelashes of his, he was about 3 years old I guess, and he said, "But I want to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me,’" whereupon my father took it upon himself then to press home a very important lesson. "It’s no good being disobedient to your mother while you are singing the praises of God."

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? The Bible says in 1 Samuel 15:22, "To obey is better than sacrifice." So of course little Tommy had to leave the piano and go to the kitchen and put those paper bags back where they belonged in the drawer–a very good lesson for all of us.”

So far, Elizabeth Elliot.

I love those stories and their application to our theme for a variety of reasons. The dog, Mack, reminds us that God has given “wisdom” to animals as well. Remember the locusts and the lizards and the coneys from Proverbs 30. Because God made both us and the animals and because he gave to them a form of wisdom — the Bible calls their life skills “wisdom” (hokmah)— they can serve as examples for us. When in Proverbs we read, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise,” we are being told to imitate the ant in its industriousness. Well, in the same way, we should imitate this dog in Elizabeth Elliot’s anecdote.The dog’s obedience,  though not understanding the reason for all the commandments he was given, is a perfect illustration of our situation: in the dark in so many ways, yet being given commandments to obey, which he obeyed without question and with alacrity even though he didn’t understand the whys or wherefores. We are to be as Mack!

Our welfare and happiness and that of others around us depend not upon our understanding why, but upon our doing what we are told. This is a key insight of biblical wisdom. The sheep, of course, terrified, struggling to escape what seems to them to be drowning, have no idea that the dip is to keep them free of parasites that are not only dangerous to their health but make them miserable. How like us in the trials of our lives. We fear we are drowning when all the while we are being rescued from the greatest dangers we face in life.

And, finally, what is the proper result of this all. Obedience! “It’s no use being disobedient to your mother while you are singing the praises of God.” Or, as we have it here in Job 28:

“Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is  understanding.”

Remember the Welsh sheep when you wonder what is happening to you and why in the world life has become so hard; remember the sheep struggling and terrified under the surface of the pool and then remember the shepherd who all the while knew exactly what he was doing and why.