Wisdom and the Problem of Evil in Ecclesiastes and Job

According to Aristotle, “wisdom is the knowledge of certain principles and causes.”1 Therefore, St. Thomas Aquinas concludes that “he who knows the cause that is simply the highest, which is God, is said to be wise simply, because he is able to judge and set in order all things according to divine rules.”2 To paraphrase St. Paul, the wise man “judgeth all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15 DRA)3 according to the divine order which God has written into creation. The Biblical wisdom literature is concerned primarily with discerning this divine order inherent in creation and living in accordance with it, thus achieving “harmony in life.”4 The problem of evil, particularly the suffering of the innocent, however, remains a perennial stumbling block in the way of wisdom which calls into question the very existence of such a divine order.

It would seem that the wise and good must thrive, while the wicked, who spurn wisdom, never prosper. This is the basic theology presented by Job’s eldest friend Eliphaz:

Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished being innocent?
Or when were the just destroyed?
On the contrary I have seen those who work iniquity,
and sow sorrows, and reap the same,
Perishing by the blast of God,
and consumed by the spirit of his wrath.

(Job 4:7-9)

For Eliphaz, “it is a proven fact that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. If for a time this principle appears to be suspended, it is either only an apparent suspension or a temporary one.”5 There is no room in this theology for the suffering of a truly innocent man.

The whole testimony of Job, however, is a challenge to the very idea of “retributive justice.” The reader knows from the first verses of the book that Job is an exemplary man, “simple and upright … fearing God, and avoiding evil” (Job 1:1); God Himself confesses that “there is none like him in the earth” (1:8). Yet God permits the Adversary to test Job to the point of death! The book of Job thus introduces from the outset two important nuances to this theology: first, it reveals that “in some cases, suffering and death are caused by the malevolent actions of evil spirits like Satan,”6 not the direct action of God, while nevertheless being mysteriously permitted by Him; secondly, it suggests that God may make use of suffering “to test the faith of human beings, strengthen their holiness, and lead them to a love that is selfless.”7 This is the position taken by St. Gregory the Great as the overall skopos or hypothesisof the Book of Job: “Pain, indeed, is the test of the true love of any peaceful person. The enemy asked for Job so that he might trip him up; his petition was granted, but only so that he might make further progress.”8 

While an important development of the theological tradition exemplified by Eliphaz, innocent suffering understood as a divine test offers little consolation when one is face to face with its magnitude and brutality. Like Job, who at the height of his sufferings “opened his mouth, and cursed his day” (2:1), Ecclesiastes’ words at the sight of innocent suffering rise to our lips:

I saw the oppressions that are done under the sun, and the tears of the innocent, and they had no comforter … and I praised the dead rather than the living: and I judged him happier than them both, that is not yet born, nor hath seen the evils that are done under the sun.

(Eccl. 4:1-3)

The book of Ecclesiastes begins with the ringing denunciation of all things as vanity (Eccl. 1:2), including wisdom itself (Eccl 2:15 ff.). As one commentator notes, “the sages are powerless to overturn the evil experienced in this world,”9 for “there is no order to be discovered, no means by which a wise person can influence the outcome of his own life.”10 It is surprising, then, that Ecclesiastes ends with this final exhortation: “Let us all hear together the conclusion of the discourse. Fear God, and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13). 

Some commentators hold that the position taken by these final verses is so dramatically different from what has come before that it must have been a later addition by a different author. On the contrary, both the prior chapters of Ecclesiastes and this epilogue “are critical of the wisdom movement in their own ways. The fundamental difference between them is that [in prior chapters] Qoheleth admits knowledge of no alternative to the way of wisdom … once wisdom has shown itself inadequate for determining value in life.”11 The epilogue suggests one viable alternative. If human wisdom stumbles and collapses in the face of innocent suffering and death, then “sense can only be found in fearing God and keeping his commandments.”12

Job exemplifies this last counsel of Ecclesiastes, but he does not arrive there by rejecting wisdom. In his final chapter, he confesses to God, “I know that thou canst do all things, and no thought is hid from thee … Therefore I have spoken unwisely … I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-3, 6). This confession, however, springs from the immediate glimpse given him by God of the divine order which underlies and directs all things: Job has “seen God” (42:5). At last, he understands that, while “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God,” as illustrated by his theologically inept friends, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Corinthians 3:19; 1:25). This is no rejection of wisdom; it is its apogee!

Both the books of Job and Ecclesiastes leave the problem of evil, in some sense, unanswered. For Ecclesiastes, it is unanswerable in principle. All wisdom is folly; the best man can do is to follow the commandments. For Job, on the other hand, it is simply beyond us. Human wisdom is true but incomplete knowledge of the divine order; it must fall silent in the face of the mystery of innocent suffering. Nevertheless, Job gives the greatest expression of human wisdom in his humility and trust, even in immense tribulation, knowing that all things are contained within the providential ordering of divine wisdom. The ultimate answer to this problem is found only in the person of Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), who in His innocence takes upon Himself all the suffering due to human sin in order to restore man’s innocence before God. In this way, Job, who “in all these things did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10), becomes a type and a prefiguration of the suffering Christ, who “opened not his mouth … led as a sheep to the slaughter … lay[ing] down his life for sin” (Isaias 53:7, 10).


Footnotes

  1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, 1, trans. W. D. Ross, at the Internet Classics Archive, classics.mit.edu.
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 45, a. 1, respondeo, in Summa Theologiae: Secunda Secundae, 1-91, vol. 17 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay, WI: Aquinas Institute, 2018), 430.
  3. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  4. Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., Job, Ecclesiastes, vol. 18 in Old Testament Message: A Biblical-Theological Commentary, ed. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., and Martin McNamara, M.S.C. (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1982), 17.
  5. Bergant, Job, Ecclesiastes, 55.
  6. John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, The Old Testament, vol. 1 of A Catholic Introduction to the Bible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 550.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Gregory the Great, Moral Reflections on the Book of Job, Preface, III, 7, vol. 1, trans. Brian Kerns, OCSO (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 2014), 62.
  9. Martin A. Shields, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006),150
  10. Shields, The End of Wisdom, 107.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Shields, The End of Wisdom, 109.

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