The Wisdom of Solomon

One of the readings we have just heard was from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book which does not appear in the Bibles on your pews! What are we doing having a reading which is not in the Bible? Let me explain.  

The Wisdom of Solomon is one of those books which appears in something called the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha refers to a collection of scriptural texts which falls outside the canon. Canon means those Biblical books which are considered to be authoritative as scripture by a particular religious community. The terms Apocrypha was first coined by the fifth century Biblical scholar St Jerome. In terms of our Bible, it refers specifically to those Biblical books which were included as part of the Septuagint - that is the Greek translation of the Old Testament - but not included in the Hebrew Bible.  

In other words, the number of book of Scripture which were translated into Greek was more than the number of books which appeared in the original Hebrew (or Jewish) Bible. It was those books which were left over which became the books of the Apocrypha.  

Interestingly, different denominations have different ideas about what should be in the Apocrypha, of which there are several different versions - and different versions have variously been included and omitted from Bibles over the course of the centuries. Protestant churches generally exclude the books of the Apocrypha, hence that is why the Wisdom of Solomon is not in our Bibles, although it was included in the original King James Bible of 1611 with many other book of the Apochrypa - books like Tobit; parts of the book of Esther missing from our Bible; the books of Maccabes and so on.  

Is any of this important and, if so, why is it important?  

I think the Wisdom of Solomon is important for four reasons. First, the 39 Articles of the Church of England - essentially the beliefs on which the church (our church; this church) is founded, dating from 1562 - say “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation, so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be delivered as an article of faith or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testaments (of whose authority was never any doubt) and the other books the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine, such as these following…”. It then goes on to list fourteen books commonly found in the Apocrypha.  

Reference to the 39 Articles is something which is included in the Oath of Assent for every Bishop, Priest and Deacon in the Church of England - they all have to proclaim that when they take up office. So for all Clergy, “example of life and instruction of manners” does not stop with the books in our Bible, it starts with them. So I say let us embrace this other material and see what we can learn from it.  

My second point is that Jesus himself knew the Scriptures - not just those books which in the fourth century AD it was decided should be in our Bibles but the wider Scriptures. In fact some scholars feel that Jesus not only knew these other books but perhaps had a particular affinity with the Wisdom of Solomon and the other books of the so called Wisdom Tradition; books like Ecclesiastes, Job, Proverbs, Daniel (which are in our Bibles), the book of Sirach, which is in the Apocrypha and the book of Enoch, which is not in either (but it is still a good read!). Scholars point to the fact that Jesus uses the term “Father” when referring to God and the phrase “Kingdom of God”. These are not characteristic of much that is in the Old Testament but they are frequently found in the Wisdom materials. Also, in a totally male dominated society, Jesus’ attitude towards women; their roles in his teachings and his use of female imagery may be related to the personification of wisdom as female (in our reading wisdom was described as “she” throughout).  

What I am saying is that if the Wisdom of Solomon was good enough for Jesus it ought to be good enough for us.  

Thirdly, I think the book is worth studying just in itself. We have heard from the reading this morning a reference to “a reflection of eternal light; a spotless mirror of the working of God and an image of his goodness”. That is seen by many as a pretty appropriate description of Jesus. There are even, in the book, echoes of Christ’s Passion - the suffering of a righteous man - and there are some interesting parallels between the Wisdom of Solomon and the Gospel of Matthew.  

Like so much literature, just because it is not in the canonical Bible does not mean that it is not relevant to faith. If that were the case we would not have our church library and the wealth of knowledge which can be gleaned from everything that is written within the covers of all those books.  

That brings me on to my fourth and final point. One of the reasons I am saying all this is to help expand our knowledge. Hopefully you have discovered something from what I have said this morning that you did not know before - certainly I did not know some of this before I started preparing this talk. So we have all acquired knowledge and knowledge leads to wisdom. Remember the reading this morning: “God loves nothing so much as a person who lives with wisdom”. That is not to say that knowledge and wisdom are the same thing. I have the knowledge that an electric hedge trimmer is dangerous but I did not have the wisdom to wear gloves, hence I stand before you this morning with almost one fewer digit than I had last time!

The acquisition of knowledge is something we can all choose to do - or choose not to do - yet wisdom seems to be something outside us. Many would say it comes from God. Again, remember the words from this morning’s reading: “She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other and she orders all things well. Against wisdom, evil does not prevail”.  

I have said that the Wisdom of Solomon is not in the Bible - at least not in the editions we have here in this church - but the story of how Solomon gained his wisdom is: it appears in 1 Kings Chapter 3 where we have Solomon specifically asking God for wisdom. What was God’s response? He was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. In verse 11 God says to him: “Since you have asked for this and not for long life, or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies, I will give you a wide and discerning heart so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for; both riches and honour, so that in your lifetime you will have no equal amongst Kings”.  

Perhaps we too should pray for wisdom and perhaps, like Solomon, we may be surprised. Not if we are given what we ask for but if we are rewarded in addition with the things we have not asked for.

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire July 2016

This sermon was originally delivered in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Maulden, Bedfordshire on 13 September, 2009