Commentary on Sir 1:1-10
Today we begin reading the book of Sirach. We are going to be with it for the coming two weeks.
It is one of the so-called deutero-canonical books and is not part of the Jewish canon and not recognised by many Protestant churches. In older bibles it is usually called the ‘Book of Ecclesiasticus’. In Greek it was known as the ‘Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach’ from which the current name derives. The book, which was originally written in Hebrew, dates from about 190 BC and was translated into Greek about 60 years later. It is the Greek version which we normally translate from nowadays.
It has been described as an encyclopaedia on good religion and wise living. In fact, it forms part of the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Testament. It was used so much by the Church over the centuries that it came to be called “Ecclesiasticus”, the ‘Church Book’ (from ecclesia, the Latin for ‘church’ and ekklesia, ‘ekklhsia, the Greek word used in the New Testament for the Christian assembly, literally, the ‘gathering of those who are called out’).
Today the author speaks of the mystery of wisdom. He speaks of true wisdom, namely, God’s external revelation of himself. (Later, in Jesus, we can see the incarnate Wisdom of God.) Throughout the book he describes in great detail just what wisdom is; sometimes it is divine; sometimes it is a synonym for God’s law; sometimes it is human. But the author makes clear that even human wisdom, properly understood, ultimately comes from God.
Today’s reading is a poem about personified wisdom as the creation of the Lord God. It combines both the hiddenness, the inaccessibility of wisdom on the one hand with its availability to humans, especially those whose lives are in harmony with God.
All wisdom, says the author, originates from “the Lord”, its ultimate source. The term ‘Lord’ (Kyrios, kurios) in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) is the normal translation of ‘Yahweh’, the unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. The author of Sirach uses the term constantly, even when translating other divine titles.
Only God can grasp the enormity of our universe from end to end. Its unfathomable immensity continues to boggle our minds as we penetrate deeper and deeper into it. Only the Creator knows the number of grains of sand by the sea, or can count the drops when rain falls, or the length of eternity. Here we have the aspect of total wisdom as something unattainable, a theme which goes through Sirach.
The implication is that only God possesses the fullness of Wisdom. Only Someone who can understand all these things can have complete Wisdom. Such Wisdom precedes all creation and has no beginning in time. Only one Person knows the root of Wisdom, only one Person can understand its subtlest elements. There is only One who is truly Wise and that is the Creator God, who reigns over all.
He is the Source of all Wisdom. “It is He who created her.” Here the author makes use of an architectural image. Wisdom is seen as a plan or model for creating the universe.
Here the author emphasises the uniqueness and sublime nature of God. Wisdom is a special attribute of God which is reflected in the whole of creation and is a special gift to humanity. Although it is personified with ‘she’ here and in other Wisdom literature, in this work it is clearly something created and not to be identified with God. For Sirach, it is in God, comes from God but is not God. For John, in the Prologue to his gospel, there is a somewhat different understanding: the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word existed from all eternity.
It is God who “poured her out on all his works”. It is He who has passed her on to us and “lavished her upon those who love Him”. He has shared his Wisdom with all creation. A deep study of nature reveals the Wisdom of God present everywhere, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”. And he shares it in a special with us and, most of all, with “those who love him”. There is a special wisdom for those who are deeply united with God in love and service. In fact, we can and do say that to love God is the beginning of wisdom.
Note that Wisdom here is personified as a ‘she’ and so some like to see the Spirit of God as feminine. God, of course, and the Trinity are above and inclusive of all gender and sex. The Father is not exclusively male nor is the ‘Son’ who proceeds from the ‘Father’. The Incarnate, Enfleshed Son in Jesus is male but many would see in Jesus’ character all the best characteristics of both the masculine and the feminine – an ideal for all men and women. (Our Creed says that the Second Person of the Trinity was made ‘human’ (homo) – which applies equally to male and female.)
Wisdom is not a question of knowledge although some knowledge must be a constituent element. Wisdom is the gift to be able to see the whole and to see the inter-relatedness of all the parts. It can only come from experience and applied insight. It is not normally a characteristic of the very young or the very superficial. It is a question of looking into not just looking at. The experts on the “Mastermind” programme were often dazzlingly knowledgeable and very clever but they may not have been wise.
Ultimately, to grow in Christ is to grow in wisdom. It is to grow into a deeper understanding of the meaning and direction of life. It is a gift God wishes us to have so let us ask him for it today.