This is Part 5 of our Understanding the Bible series. You can catch up on Parts 1-4 by visiting our website or signing up for our podcast. In the first four lessons, we’ve followed a theme that is woven throughout the Bible: God creates a covenant with humankind, the covenant is broken when the people stray from God’s ways, but God forgives and renews the covenant, and our relationship with God can begin again.
I suspect that by now, some of you are thinking: ‘Ok, Adam, I get it. Covenant created, broken, and renewed. Follow God and things will go well. Stray from God and things fall apart. Here’s the problem, Pastor: A lot of the time, life doesn’t work that way. Let me give you some examples: my boss is a slimeball. So are many of the politicians and business and world leaders I see. Why do these people enjoy so much power, comfort, and influence? On the other hand, my neighbor is a saint—I’ve never met a kinder, more generous, more hardworking person. And yet her kid is sick; she struggles with her health too…and she got laid off—all these bad things keep happening to her. Did she ‘break the covenant,’ Adam? How do you explain this?’
Before I go any further, let me be clear that I don’t intend to explain suffering this morning. If ministers knew how to do that in 15 minutes, I’m sure they’d teach it on the first day of seminary, and we wouldn’t keep it a secret from you. What I am going to suggest is that this sense that the world isn’t fair and that things often don’t work out the way they should—this is not a new idea. We’ve all thought about it, and so did people in the ancient world. And the Bible speaks to this reality as well—and that’s where we’re going to spend this morning’s lesson.
Today’s topic is Wisdom Literature. Aside from the books of the Law and the books of the Prophets, this is the third main type of writing we find in the Old Testament. These books are filled with not only philosophical, but also emotional, and sometimes heart-wrenching reflections about God and life. Some of the books I’m talking about are Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, and Wisdom literature is found elsewhere as well.
Let’s begin with today’s first reading, from Psalm 1. Sometimes Wisdom Liturature says the conventional wisdom works out, so there are passages like this in the Bible that say things like this:
“Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked…
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
…the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Ps 1:1,2,6)
There’s wisdom here that we wouldn’t want to dismiss too quickly. This is still the kind of wisdom we teach to our children, that values like kindness, fair play, and generosity are important to live by, and that if you do, things will turn out in the end
But as we’ve said, life is more complicated than that, and the Bible reveals that wisdom as well. One place of note is the Book of Ecclesiastes. For most of us, the most familiar words from Ecclesiastes were sung by The Birds in their song “Turn, Turn, Turn…” But those aren’t the most troubling verses of Ecclesiastes. The author of this book has been around the block a few times, and starts right away in chapter 1, claiming, “Perfectly pointless…Everything is perfectly pointless.” The author goes on to tell about his life experience, the material things he’s built and seen, only to find that it is all “pointless,” and like “chasing after wind.” He talks about the wicked people of the world who prosper and the good ones who suffer, and the oppression that comes to so many who live in a world that is not fair, and he concludes, more than once, that sometimes the best we can do is to eat and drink and enjoy whatever blessings can be found in the day before us, because it may not last. Most of us have felt this way, at one time or another. There are no easy answers here, but in these pages of the Bible we find that these frustrated reflections are part of a life of faith; and that we are not alone in thinking these thoughts.
The Psalms are the Bible’s longest book of poetry, and these poems aren’t all about the happy justice found in Psalm 1. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has said that there are three kinds of Psalms: Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation. Psalm 1 is the first kind, it expresses the Psalmist (or poet)’s feelings about God when life is fair and things make sense. But some Psalms express disorientation when things seem to be falling apart, and the Psalmist writes words like we find in Psalm 74:
“God, why have you abandoned us forever?
Why does your anger smolder
at the sheep of your own pasture?” (Ps: 74:1)
You might also remember the words Jesus speaks when he feels most abandoned: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They come from Psalm 22.
Finally, there are Psalms of Reorientation, where the poet has come through a time of suffering to the other side and writes things like in Psalm 30:
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.[a]
…Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.”
What does this look like in real life? You might imagine a regular person like you or me, living through the natural stages of grief or loss. Before the loss happened, life seemed for the most part good and fair. But tragedy strikes, and in the midst of the worst times, all we can do—probably all we should do, is to feel the sadness, the rage, and the despondency that comes with being a human being who has experienced something horrible. God sees us through these dark nights of the soul, thanks to what we can only call grace. At some point, we can look back and see that when we lacked the strength to carry on, it was God who sustained us, and we are grateful. This new gratitude, though, is not like the naïve happiness before the suffering, it is a deeper joy born out of experience, and the knowledge that when life gives us too much to handle, our faith can see us through. The Psalms are poems of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation, and through them, we see that the Bible is not a book of naïve platitudes. The Psalm writers don’t ignore sadness, despair, or rage, they allow themselves to feel it. This is part of the biblical story. Incidentally, I’ve preached at greater length on this idea in the past, comparing the Book of Psalms to the experience of a Grateful Dead concert, and in the event that intrigues you, I’ll re-share that sermon this coming week.
Then there is the Book of Job, which I suspect is a bit more familiar to some of you, at least in concept. This is the story of a man Job, who is described as a righteous and good servant of God in every way, and then one day, his life falls apart. The Book of Job is his story. This book of Wisdom literature is widely considered to be drawn from a simple ancient folktale. The first and last chapters of Job recount the tale of a man who has it all and loses everything, but is faithful and gets it all back tenfold. The beauty of the book is found in the middle. There is a clear shift in voice, and from chapters 3-42, the author adds a long pouring out of emotion about the tremendous unfairness and inexplicable nature of this simple folktale. For 39 chapters, Job argues with his friends and with God about the inexplicable and unfair suffering of life.
Elaine Pagels is one of the most important biblical scholars of the last century. She is also someone who has known her share of suffering; she lost a young child to a heart defect, and her beloved husband in a climbing accident. You’ll remember, in previous sermons, how I talked about the tragic times in the history of Israel, the times when the covenant fell apart and suffering was all around. Pagels writes that books like Job voice the human feelings of these times: Job’s is… “the voice of an anguished, angry poet, who speaks for countless people devastated by war, driven as exiles into poverty, who’d seen their children die and buried them while living as refugees scrambling for scraps of their previous lives. This poet…mocks the [folktale’s] simple moralism…” (Pagels, Why Religion, 148-9) These biblical texts can be friends to people who are genuinely despairing and wonder if they even want to go on.
As I said near the start of this sermon, none of this serves the purpose of explaining suffering, and explaining suffering is not quite the point.
All of these books we’ve talked about this morning are the Bible’s own acknowledgment that sometimes life isn’t fair, and at times, the Covenant model doesn’t work out the way it should. This way of thinking is not only real and present in our own lives, it is present in the Bible. Screaming at God and talking about the fact that life isn’t fair—this is not the stuff of heresy, it is a thoroughly orthodox way of understanding the Bible. I will admit that in church these texts often don’t get the same amount of attention as more inspirational ones, and that is probably to our detriment. But it is not the fault of the Bible itself.
As we look forward to the last two sermons in this series, we’ll find that the New Testament voices these frustrations in its own way; we’ll start to take that up next time in Part 6.
As I imagine this sermon might have raised questions you may wish to talk about more, I want to remind you once again that every week there is a chance to go deeper with these sermons in a Bible study that happens on Wednesday nights from 6-7:30. And of course, I am always happy to talk with you more personally. I’ll see you next time when we turn to the books of the New Testament. Amen.