Biblical Wisdom literature has parallels across the ancient Near East, including Egyptian texts that dwell upon issues of human suffering within an encyclopaedic view of nature. Examples include: ‘A Dispute over Suicide’, ‘The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant’, and ‘The Instruction of Amen-em-Opet’ (Pritchard 1969: 405–10, 421–4; Hartley 1988: 6–11). Like them, the book of Job acknowledges that worldly experiences can lead to spiritual insights.
Amidst a story of suffering, Job 28 starts with an overview of worldly knowledge and skill, celebrating the extraordinary powers of humans, who can even ‘overturn mountains by the roots’ (v.9). It conditionally validates what we might think of today as scientific enquiry into the world; ‘the thing that is hid he brings forth to light’ (v.11). Yet such enquiries are not sufficient: ‘where is the place of understanding? Man does not know the way to it’, because wisdom is not found ‘in the land of the living’ (vv.12–14). Verse 28 suggests that one has to be personally transformed, by ‘fear of the Lord’, in order to see beyond the mere stuff of the world. Such transformative experiences destroy the ‘objectifying’ detached observer, opening possibilities for participative knowledge.
The creation and appreciation of paintings necessarily involve participative knowledge. I have chosen three paintings for their capacity to elaborate Job 28:25—‘he gave to the wind its weight, and meted out the waters by measure’. Two of the paintings focus on the ‘measure’ of water. Ludolf Backhuysen’s painting is representational and full of contrast, whilst James McNeill Whistler’s verges on the abstract and is subtly modulated. These technically different ways of making paintings influence the way we read them, as challenging or relaxing.
Backhuysen depicts water naturally lit by the sky by day, whilst Whistler depicts water artificially lit by humans at night. In the Backhuysen, the tempestuous water is wild and envelops the sailors, whereas in the Whistler, the tranquil water seems tamed and is enveloped by city-dwellers. The contrasts between them reflect the contrasting states—wealth and poverty, sickness and health, etc.—in the story of Job’s afflictions. They also reflect the contrasts in Job 28, between that of which man is capable (vv.1–22) and that of which God is capable (vv.23–27). After all, Whistler’s Garden is London’s Cremorne, not Eden. The Whistler painting celebrates mankind’s apparent ability to channel water, whilst the Backhuysen reminds us of the limits of human power.
Backhuysen and Whistler both establish their moods with water; it is crashing waves that threatened the intrepid mariners and twinkling reflections that entrance the urban stroller. But, critically, in both, what lies below the horizon reflects what is above the horizon—what is happening in the world depends upon the heavens. In the paintings we see violent waves or gentle ripples, but the waters are animated by wind (Greek anemos) which is not seen.
John Constable’s picture, looking towards the heavens, therefore reminds us that ‘He gave to the wind its weight’ (Job 28:25). It also summons the primordial image of the spirit ‘moving over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1:2). Constable’s study has no dividing horizon line. It is a meditation upon the ceaseless actions above, which, invisibly, impact upon everyone below.
Of course, we can choose how to respond to what happens in the world. So, reflecting the relative powers of man and God contrasted in Job 28, our response to the world can also contrast—we can strive for silver and gold (v.1) or for wisdom that is beyond the price of silver and gold (v.15). Our motives can be superficial or profound, just as our means can be objectifying or participatory.
Waves can be objectively understood through mathematical modelling—this is how nautical engineers calculate the resilience of ships’ hulls and how software engineers make special effects for apocalyptic movies. Alternatively, waves can be known in the manner of the sailor or surfer—as one who joins in with creation: terrifying, exhilarating, or calming, but in every case awe-inspiring. The first approach involves filtering out those parts of the phenomenon that cannot be entered as computer data. The second approach involves complete immersion, whether by accident, as a thrill seeker, or vicariously by the exercise of empathy and imagination. The first treats the Book of Nature as a code to be cracked whilst the second enters into it as the Creator’s autobiography, feeling His wrath in one picture, His mercy in another, and the mystery of His ways in a third. In sailing or surfing terms, wisdom may involve having the courage to ride the wind and waves, wherever they may take us.
Hartley, John E. 1988. The Book of Job, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), pp. 6–11
Kelsey, David H. 2009. Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Westminster John Knox Press), p. 193
Pritchard, James B. (ed.). 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3 edn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)
28“Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold which they refine.
2Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted from the ore.
3Men put an end to darkness,
and search out to the farthest bound
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
4They open shafts in a valley away from where men live;
they are forgotten by travelers,
they hang afar from men, they swing to and fro.
5As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
6Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and it has dust of gold.
7“That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
8The proud beasts have not trodden it;
the lion has not passed over it.
9“Man puts his hand to the flinty rock,
and overturns mountains by the roots.
10He cuts out channels in the rocks,
and his eye sees every precious thing.
11He binds up the streams so that they do not trickle,
and the thing that is hid he brings forth to light.
12“But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
13Man does not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
14The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
15It cannot be gotten for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed as its price.
16It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
17Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
18No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
19The topaz of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
20“Whence then comes wisdom?
21It is hid from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
22Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
23“God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
24For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.
25When he gave to the wind its weight,
and meted out the waters by measure;
26when he made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the lightning of the thunder;
27then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
28And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.’ ”