‘Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold to be refined. Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from ore. Miners put an end to darkness, and search out to the farthest bound the ore in gloom and deep darkness. They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation; they are forgotten by travellers, they sway suspended, remote from people. As for the earth, out of it comes bread; but underneath it is turned up as by fire. Its stones are the place of sapphires, and its dust contains gold.‘That path no bird of prey knows, and the falcon’s eye has not seen it. The proud wild animals have not trodden it; the lion has not passed over it.
‘They put their hand to the flinty rock, and overturn mountains by the roots. They cut out channels in the rocks, and their eyes see every precious thing. The sources of the rivers they probe; hidden things they bring to light.
‘But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, “It is not in me”, and the sea says, “It is not with me.” It cannot be bought for gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal; the price of wisdom is above pearls. The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it, nor can it be valued in pure gold.
‘Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living, and concealed from the birds of the air. Abaddon and Death say, “We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.”
‘God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight, and apportioned out the waters by measure; when he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt; then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out. And he said to humankind, “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”’
This chapter is a breath of fresh air after all the words of protestation. It makes no reference to Job, the friends, nor to the issue of divine justice; it is a superb poem about the location of wisdom (vv.12 and 20), as though it was a tangible commodity. It is questioning the source of wisdom, how it can be acquired and who, if anyone can possess it.The knowledge displayed in this poem about the mineral resources of the world (Israel produces no such metals and stones in any quantity) and the technical skills required to mine them is remarkable. It describes the ingenuity and effort employed by humans to extract these precious things; and the superiority of humankind over the greatest creatures among the birds and animals, which lack such abilities.
The poet contrasts this knowledge and apparent mastery over the physical world with wisdom that still remains elusive. Verses 13-22 catalogue all the places on the earth, under the earth, even in the land of the dead, where our search for wisdom might take us; and implies that this would be a futile pursuit. Nor can wisdom be bought, irrespective of the wealth we may have amassed and be willing to pay for it, declares the poet. It is beyond price. Wisdom is the most desirable thing imaginable and yet it remains inaccessible if we try to gain it through our own endeavours.
The questions of vv.12 and 20 are answered in the concluding stanza: God knows the ‘way’ to wisdom. God, who created the heavens and the earth, who directs the forces of nature and weather patterns, has established wisdom. The poet is saying that true wisdom is a fundamental principle of order in the universe, a facet of God’s creative activity; and therefore not something that any human can hope to possess.
The final verse refers to human ‘wisdom’, using the word in a different sense. Here it means ‘insight’ or ‘discernment’, in contrast to factual information or skills that can be learned. This kind of wisdom can be attained but only as a gift of God, as the outcome of living in right relationship with God. Too frequently the acquisition of mineral deposits has led to human conflict around the world. So let us pray for an increase in human wisdom and commit ourselves to seeking a deeper relationship with God above all else.
Eternal God, your wisdom underlies all that exists and we marvel at the rich resources deep within the earth. Grant that the nations of the world might learn to use these wisely and to turn away from the evils of greed and war. Help us to grow in wisdom as we focus on you; and to learn from Jesus about the things of real value in life. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.