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274. Job 28:20-28, God Knows the Way to Wisdom
20 “Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
21 Thus it is hidden from the eyes of all living
And concealed from the birds of the sky.
22 Abaddon and Death say,
‘With our ears we have heard a report of it.’
23 God understands its way,
And He knows its place.
24 For He looks to the ends of the earth
And sees everything under the heavens.
25 When He imparted weight to the wind
And meted out the waters by measure,
26 When He set a limit for the rain
And a course for the thunderbolt,
27 Then He saw it and declared it;
He established it and also searched it out.
28 And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
And to depart from evil is understanding.’”
Though one might simply summarize these last nine verses by saying, “God is the source of wisdom,” we would, by doing so, do a disservice to the beauty of the language and the vigor of the divine activity in making wisdom available to humans. After all, in a stunning catalogue of four verbs in verse 27, going from the simple and common to the more rare, we learn that God not only “saw” it (the common raah), and “numbered/declared” it (the relatively common saphar); but God also “established it” (the common kun) and “searched it out” (the less common and highly suggestive chaqar). That is, if humans felt they had to face enormous difficulties in finding the location of precious metals, God also had to labor intensively to establish wisdom as the foundational principle of the universe.
Yet we will find, when this principle is finally declared in verse 28, it partakes of a simplicity and clarity that at first takes us aback. With all the divine effort expended to make sure that wisdom is not only established in the universe but is accessible to humans, one might have thought that wisdom consisted of the most recondite or abstruse realities, only disclosed to a coterie of special worthies. Yet, the final word of this chapter will be that “the fear of the Lord is wisdom, and departing from evil is understanding” (v 28). These two characteristics (“fear” and “departing from evil”) are predicated of Job in Job 1:1. He instantiates the central values of the wisdom God creates. Thus, when we get to the end of Job 28, we not only will be ready to resume the long climb to the top (i.e., Job 29-42), but we will do so having gotten our “bearings”—that wisdom is indeed needed in this instance and that Job, and the rest of us, have access to it.
But before rushing to the end, some things should be said about the flow of the poetry in this section. It begins (verse 20) with a question that is nearly identical to the question of verse 12,
“Where does wisdom come from (bo) and where is the place of understanding?”
The fact that the question is almost precisely repeated from verse 12 means that a satisfactory answer wasn’t forthcoming in the intervening verses. Instead of finding the where of wisdom, we learned in verses 12-19 the incomparable value of it. But still the question of verse 12 haunts the author, and us. The participants in the discussion, no less than we, need wisdom to live our lives and to make wise decisions. Where can we get it? It seems so remote, so hidden. It is more valuable than all jewels of the earth, but it seems just as inaccessible.
Verse 21 just continues the thought of verse 20. Wisdom is seemingly hidden (alam, 28x) from the eyes of all living creatures, and hidden (satar, frequent) from the birds of the heaven. The phrase “birds of heaven” gives the hiddenness of wisdom a kind of majestic character to it; nowhere will we be able to find it. Verse 21 has an interesting chiastic construction—rather than clauses standing in simple parallelism, here we have the verbs in first and last place, thereby “encircling” the verse. Interesting too is that the “encircling” verbs are “to hide,” as if the seemingly inaccessible wisdom will remain that way, despite the efforts of humans.
Lest we lose heart, the hiddenness of this wisdom is only described in one more verse (v 22). Earlier we saw how the deep (tehom) and Sheol confessed it wasn’t with them; now we have Abaddon (root is from abad, meaning “to perish”) and “death” (maveth) saying, intriguingly, that “our ears have heard a report/rumor of it.” We ought to pause on the last three words of verses 22. Literally, they say, “In our ears we have heard a hearing/report.” Each of the three words relating to hearing is distinct and each refers to some aspect of hearing—either the organ of it, the process of it or the result of it (the report/rumor). Though this answer of verse 14 was discouraging, the similar answer in verse 22 piques our hopes. If even death and Abaddon, the place where God’s praise is not sung (cf Psalm 6:5; Isaiah 38:18), have heard a report, with the threefold “hearing” being a sign of authenticity, then this wisdom exists—somewhere.