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Wisdom Is Gained Only from God (Job 28:12-18)

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Job 28:12-28

As Job reflects on the debate he had with his friends, he knows exactly what was missing: wisdom. The kind of wisdom that can answer "why?" cannot be found on earth -- it can only come from God. Are humans willing to trust God and submit to Him, believing that He will reveal the right wisdom at the right time?

“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom. And to turn from evil is understanding.” Job 28:28

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Are You a Collector?

If you have a collection, then you will be all over this discussion idea. If you don't, then this will be very weird and may even freak you out. I got these photos from two different websites (some of the collections are ... odd, and so are some of the ads). We have the world's largest supersoaker collection (gotta admit that's awesome), the world's largest tin box collection (yikes), a collection of 2,200 stuffed pandas, the world's largest Pez dispenser collection (more than 500), the world's largest Mario collection (more than 8,000 items!), and the world's largest Coke can collection (more than 10,000).

I collect Peanuts paraphernalia -- here are a few pix.

I love to search for Peanuts stuff. Every antique mall, every junk store -- I'm going in and looking. There's nothing quite like the thrill of finding something that's not in my collection. (And there's nothing like the inner turmoil of looking at its price tag.) I could go online and buy whatever from ebay, but that's not quite the same for me.

Anyway, what's my point? Well, some of you have pointed out how heavy our Job study has been, so here's a lighter fare to get things going. What do you collect? How hard do you look for your collectibles? How much are you willing to pay for it?

[Point of order: people who think they're a serious collector need to "reflect" at the "Precious Moments Chapel". Just saying.]

Idea 2: Where Do You Look for Wisdom?

Another approach would be a topic like this. When you really need to know something, where do you look? The library? The internet? A friend? How do you know when you have found a good answer? How do you keep track of your best resources?


This Week's Big Idea: Wisdom in Proverbs and Job

Would you believe that it's been a year since we studied the book of Proverbs? June 2020! I think that this week's lesson would make even more sense if we remembered what we learned in Proverbs. Here is a very brief recap of that intro lesson:

I defined "wisdom" as the ability to apply knowledge. When you think of the wise people you know, you know that they don't always "know more" than you do, but they're better at using what they do know. It's great to have wise friends.

I identified three basic kinds of wisdom:

  1. There's the wisdom of how to use a skill. Over the course of our lives, we learn many skills, but some people better understand how and where to use those skills. This is a kind of wisdom that can be learned (if you're willing to take the time).

  2. There's the wisdom of how to deal with people. Some people just seem to know the right thing to say and the right way to say it -- that's wisdom. We attempt to teach this kind of wisdom in ethics and psychology classes. Proverbs focuses on this kind of wisdom.

  3. Finally, there is the wisdom of life -- understanding the concepts of good and evil and heaven and hell and truth and justice. You know, the big questions. Job takes us into this category of wisdom.

Here's how I summarized it a year ago:

If you think of the first kind of wisdom as "what" (as in what to do and when) and the second kind of wisdom as "how" (how to live, how to treat people), then this third kind of wisdom is the "why". Why do those skills work the way they do? Why do we treat people that way? Why is life the way it is? A lifetime of observations will tell you what and how, but observation alone can never tell you why. Only God, the Author of life, can tell us why. And He has told us all that we need to know in the Bible.

When Job talks about "wisdom" in our passage this week, he's talking about that third kind of wisdom, which is why he is able to say that no one knows it. It's a wisdom that comes only from God.

[Note: this week's passage should hopefully clear up why Job has been so down on his friends. They are speaking to him about this kind of wisdom, and they have no idea what they're talking about!]

That said -- you'll note that both Solomon and Job say something incredibly similar:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline. Proverbs 1:7
“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom. And to turn from evil is understanding.” Job 28:28

In what ways do you think these two kinds of wisdom are comparable?

Chew on that question for a while. I think it will help you appreciate this week's lesson better.

Quick Summary of Proverbs

Strangely enough (to me, at least), my most popular post has been this second one on Proverbs. It's been viewed more than 1,200 times (without advertising from me). Very few of my posts are even close to that! That indicates to me that people are out there searching (on Google) for wisdom. They want to know how to "live well".

The book of Proverbs gives us instructions on how to live well. The first 9 chapters (the introduction) can be summarized like this:

  • Wisdom is the source of morality (chapter 2)

  • Wisdom leads to well-being (chapter 3)

  • Choose the right path (chapter 4)

  • Avoid adultery (chapters 5-7)

  • Listen to wisdom (chapters 8-9)

Here are how I summarize the two principles behind Proverbs:

  1. If you follow these rules, you will live a long, full, healthy life.

  2. If you focus on loyalty and faithfulness, you will be highly regarded.

This kind of wisdom is generally available to anyone who wants it. There is nothing terribly profound about saying "if you take care of your body and behave responsibly, you will live a long life" or "if you avoid adultery, your relationships will be more fulfilled". That why we say that anyone can learn the wisdom in Proverbs.

But . . .

Job clearly followed those rules for wisdom. He treated people well, he desired to be righteous, he was honorable and trustworthy. And look how that turned out for him.

The wisdom that can make sense of Job's circumstances cannot be found among people.

Where will you turn for that kind of wisdom?

As always, take advantage of the Bible Project resources:


Where We Are in Job

Cycle 3 is even more angry than last week's cycle. Bildad calls Job a worm. Zophar is so mad that he doesn't have anything else to say. Eliphaz now believes that Job is totally immoral. Thanks, friends!

  1. Cycle 1: Will God answer a righteous sufferer's questions? (chs 4-14)

  2. Cycle 2: Does the fate of the wicked prove God's justice? (chs 15-21)

  3. Cycle 3: Can a sufferer ever know God's will and way? (chs 22-28)

  4. Cycle 4: Job and Elihu (chs 29-37)

Cycle 3 (chs 22-31)

  1. Eliphaz: He just starts listing the sins he believes Job has committed. Absolutely nothing redeeming about this speech. (ch 22)

  2. Job replies: God knows my heart. He would acquit me. (chs 23-34)

  3. Bildad: Man cannot be righteous before God. (ch 25)

  4. Job replies: God is much wiser and more helpful than you. (ch 26)

  5. Job's three concluding speeches (chs 27-31)

Chapter 27 stands alone as a final speech to his friends in which Job says that his friends are wrong in what they say, and he maintains his innocence. And then we have this week's chapter, which is often called an "Interlude". In it, Job voices his reflections on what has happened -- namely, his friends have tried to give him wisdom, but they don't actually have wisdom. Finally, he gives one final "sum it all up" speech which isn't directed at his friends. He seems to be looking at the big picture:

  1. Chapter 29: I used to be respected; I thought my life was great

  2. Chapter 30: But then I lost everything, and now everyone despises me.

  3. Chapter 31: But I remain committed to righteousness; I am innocent.

Can we give Job credit for his steadfastness?


Part 1: Valued (Job 28:12-19)

12 But where can wisdom be found, and where is understanding located? 13 No one can know its value, since it cannot be found in the land of the living. 14 The ocean depths say, “It’s not in me,” while the sea declares, “I don’t have it.” 15 Gold cannot be exchanged for it, and silver cannot be weighed out for its price. 16 Wisdom cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or lapis lazuli. 17 Gold and glass do not compare with it, and articles of fine gold cannot be exchanged for it. 18 Coral and quartz are not worth mentioning. The price of wisdom is beyond pearls. 19 Topaz from Cush cannot compare with it, and it cannot be valued in pure gold.

This chapter is actually a valuable and unique look into ancient approaches to mining, and I'll talk more about that below (for those of you who are interested in Bible backgrounds).

Based on what I said above about the three kinds of wisdom ("what", "how", and "why"), this section is pretty straightforward. Think about the questions you would most want the answers for. What are they? I certainly have some factual questions I think I would like to ask God (like "how exactly did Noah's flood work?" "how old is the earth exactly and how do the dinosaurs fit in?" "is time travel possible?", stuff like that). But my biggest questions would be some sort of why -- "why did that happen like it did?"

If we do enough investigating, we can eventually answer most of our "what" and "how" questions. But we can never discover the reason why. That's why Job says it is so valuable and unobtainable.

Job believes he is innocent. Why won't God answer him? Why did these things happen? Job would give just about anything for those answers. Is it surprising how highly he speaks of this kind of wisdom?

The imagery should make a lot more sense with that in mind. Today, archeologists literally search in the land and sea for answers to questions (how were the pyramids built? how old is Jericho? where did the Jews cross the Red Sea?), but no one can "find" answers to the deeper questions of why.

You can look for it on land and not find it. You can look in the sea and not find it. (I love how Job personifies the sea -- "Nope, not here!"). You can't buy it with precious metals.

  • Gold: long a medium of exchange in the ancient world for its beauty, its sustainability, and its workability. "Ophir" is mentioned 12 times in the Bible, each time in reference to its highly valued gold (probably more pure than from other mines). We do not know where Ophir was for certain.

  • Silver: you might be surprised that in some places, silver was more valued than gold; it's all about the arbitrary value placed on it.

  • Onyx: a translucent form of quartz.

  • Lapis lazuli: ("sapphire" in other versions) a blue corundum. True sapphires did not appear until Roman times, so lapis lazuli is more appropriate.

  • Glass: ("crystal" in other version) you can probably imagine the value of glass in the ancient world. Though it was probably opaque, it could be fashioned into intricate jewelry and vessels. Egypt was the focal point of glassmaking (see below).

  • Coral: if you've seen beautiful coral, you understand why it was so highly valued as ornament or jewelry, particularly inland.

  • Quartz: this word only appears here in the Old Testament, which is why other versions translate it as "pearls" or "crystal" or "jasper" -- we just don't know.

  • Pearls: another rare word sometimes translated "rubies"; without losing sleep over its exact identification, we can understand Job's point that it is valuable.

  • Topaz: one of the stones in the high priest's breastplate (Ex 28:17) -- it must have been rare and beautiful. Cush (south of Egypt) was a rich source of topaz.

The pictures are of a glass vessel from pre-Jesus Egypt (the largest such vessel still in existence), an onyx ring from Paul-era Rome, a lapis lazuli necklace that I think is a replica from ancient Egypt, and a coral necklace that is a replica of something that would have been found in pre-Jesus Mesopotamia.

Again, Job's point is simply that wisdom is invaluable.

Plant a seed at this point in the lesson: if wisdom is so valuable, and we have access to God's wisdom in the Bible, why don't we spent more time studying the Bible?


Aside: Mining in the Ancient Near East

Remember how we said that the remnants of ancient Jericho date back to 10,000 BC? That implies that tools were already being used for stoneworking (to build the walls). The earliest tools were probably crafted from obsidian (volcanic rock) and flint that were exposed on the ground. Those tools were used to do the earliest mining of copper and iron ore. The Bible says that Tubal-cain (Gen 4:22) was the father of copper and iron forging, and we have evidence of such work as early as 6,500 BC in Asia Minor. They would have started with above-ground deposits, but would have started digging mines as they discovered the value of copper and iron, namely how much stronger they were than stone tools. In time, they developed techniques for smelting and even alloy-making. In 3,200 BC, bronze (nine parts copper to one part tin) was "invented" and quickly became the most widely-used metal.

Israel did not have much in terms of copper or tin ore (the biggest one at Timna was controlled by the Egyptians). The most important deposits were found in modern-day Afghanistan and Spain. Israel (and Egypt) had to import most of these materials, which is partly why the Israelites regularly found themselves behind in the technological arms race. (Plus, the Philistines were the first to master ironwork in the region, but more on that below.)

Iron came on the scene much later because its very high melting point demanded many technological advancements before it could be worked easily. But as copper supplies became scarce, necessity drove those innovations. And because iron deposits were close to the surface, once it became usable it changed the world. By 900 BC, iron had replaced bronze as the dominant metal; whoever controlled its trade controlled the region.

But that is long after Job's time. My point is that in Job's time (~2,000 BC), mining (albeit close to the surface) was a widespread activity. They had developed the tools and technologies to extract many different metals from the earth. Very few of the highest quality mines were located near Palestine, which made the material Job spoke of even more valuable to the people in the region.

Bonus Aside: Glass in Ancient Egypt

A naturally occurring glass is obsidian. Manufactured glass appeared by 2,500 BC, but the industry did not reach it's highest points until ~1,400 BC in Egypt. In fact, it is argued that glass vessel did not appear until 1,500 BC, long after Job's day. Glass objects in Job's day would have been beads (and their earliest manufacturing process is still a matter of debate).

[Aside: all of the earliest manufacturing processes are a matter of debate because they were carefully-guarded secrets. Glass objects from the Egyptian era of Israelite slavery are astonishingly beautiful, and we can only guess how they made them.]

Glass beads from Job's day, while not as valuable as the later glass vessels, still would have been highly sought after for their unique beauty. It is not necessary to translate this word as "crystal" to accommodate the rarity of glass in Job's day. (Note: the word translated "glass" means "clear", which is why "crystal" is still an appropriate guess.) Though, you might have guessed that this is one reason people give for a later date of the writing of Job.


Part 2: Hidden (Job 28:20-22)

20 Where then does wisdom come from, and where is understanding located? 21 It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing and concealed from the birds of the sky. 22 Abaddon and Death say, “We have heard news of it with our ears.”

Really, this passage just says the same thing as the previous one (literally, in the case of vv. 12 and 20). You can't find wisdom by digging in the earth or diving into the sea. You also can't find wisdom by looking everywhere like a bird.

In fact, you can't even find it in death!

So, where does wisdom come from? (Note that "wisdom" is paralleled with "understanding", reinforcing how we have been using the term.)


Aside: Abaddon

This is one of those words that is so obscure that we don't try to translate it into English. "Abaddon" is a transliteration of the Hebrew word (meaning we just swapped Hebrew letters with their equivalent English ones). It appears 7 times in the Bible, three of them in Job. It is paired with "Sheol" three times, and in this passage with "Death", and in Psalm 88 with "the grave". It has something to do with death (natch) or destruction.

Its one New Testament appearance is helpful:

They had as their king the angel of the abyss; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he has the name Apollyon. Rev 9:11

Of course, there's no guarantee that the word was used the same way in John's day as in Job's, but the idea that "Abaddon" is connected with death and destruction is validated.

Whatever its precise meaning, Job's intent -- nothing in life or death knows where to find wisdom -- is clear.


Part 3: Found (Job 28:23-27)

23 But God understands the way to wisdom, and he knows its location. 24 For he looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. 25 When God fixed the weight of the wind and distributed the water by measure, 26 when he established a limit for the rain and a path for the lightning, 27 he considered wisdom and evaluated it; he established it and examined it.

Where can we find wisdom? God alone knows where it is.

Now, that might sound strange. If you're like me, you expected Job to say something like "God has wisdom", not "God knows the way to wisdom". But this is exactly the sort of twist Jesus threw at His disciples in John 14:

"If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also. You know the way to where I am going.” “Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:3-6

God alone knows the "way" to wisdom because He's the one who "put" it there. This is actually a very clever phrasing by Job. In other ancient cultures, "wisdom" was one of the gods (Thoth and Isis were Egyptian gods of wisdom; Aas was the Hittite god of wisdom; Enki was the Sumerian god of intelligence; Nabu was the Babylonian god of wisdom). By wording it this way, Job both made clear that "wisdom" was not a god like God and also that God was responsible for wisdom.

Now -- remember how I said that the first two kinds of wisdom ("what" and "how") could be found through investigation, but Job's kind of wisdom ("why") could only come from God. So why does it sound like God is "finding" wisdom in the world around us?

Well, that's not what Job is saying. Just as God created the world exactly how He wanted it, and it follows careful rules that He established, so also God established wisdom. I think that "wisdom" here refers to all kinds of wisdom, including practical wisdom such as "don't plant crops where they will be washed out" and "don't build a house on an unstable foundation" and "take care of the animals that help you with labor". All of it comes from God. Just because humans can discover some answers on our own doesn't mean that God did not originally establish that wisdom.

But let me geek out for a little bit . . .


Aside: The "Fine-Tuned Universe"

In addition to being beautifully poetic, Job's words are incredibly profound. Let's go through each example he gives:

  • The weight of the wind. In other words, God created the air to have a certain density, and He created a certain amount of energy in the atmosphere to move it around. Wind is a function of temperature differences (between the equator and the poles) as well as the rotation of the earth. Wind enables the distribution of seeds and the migration of insects and birds. It also redistributes dust, encouraging the continued fertilization of farmland. If the air were just a little more dense, or if storms came with the intensity we find in places like Jupiter, wind would routinely strip all plants barren, wipe out human structures, and kill all but the most "armored" of insects. Flip that around, and reproduction and migration wouldn't be so effective. God created the wind to be exactly what the earth needed it to be.

  • The water by measure. In other words, God put the exact amount of water on the earth and put it in exactly the right place. Human civilization spread around the world due to the presence of water. Crops and herds depend on water. Remove just a little water from the earth, and droughts would become more common and extensive. Add just a little water, and there would be more flooding and greater storms. We can look through our own histories to see the distribution of wet and dry seasons -- shift those just a little bit, and the impact on civilization would be catastrophic.

  • A limit for the rain and a path for lightning. You might say that this is about God allowing just the right number of storms -- enough to circulate the atmosphere, but not too many to wipe out humanity. But I think it's even more than that. When you see a picture of lightning, it looks like it follows a kind of path, right? Well, it does. It's way too complex for us to model, but we kind of get how it works. It's the discharge of energy from cloud to ground. Understanding that has enabled us to live somewhat safely through thunderstorms. How much damage would be done to society if lightning struck "out of the blue"? God has kept the incredible, awesome power of the natural world in front of us, and yet also in check.

You might say that we have the technology to survive those kinds of shifts in wind and wave, and you might be right. But what about the thousands of years of human development that preceded us? How would they have fared?

Job's awareness is astounding.

What are other ways you can observe the earth to be exactly the way it needs to be?

(Note: I've done an entire lesson on "the fine-tuned universe" that's still buried on my computer. That lesson includes more classic things like the distance of the earth from the sun, the distance of the moon from the earth, etc. If the universe were put together infinitesimally differently than it is, life as we know it could not exist. But Job's examples also demonstrate how our world is exactly the way it needs to be for humans to exist.)


Part 4: Offered (Job 28:28)

He said to mankind, “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom. And to turn from evil is understanding.”

Finally, let's get back to the question I asked above. Compare this verse with Proverbs 1:7:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.

They say almost exactly the same thing (except Solomon takes the negative approach -- those who do not turn from evil lack wisdom). And yet, I believe that Solomon focuses on the "how" wisdom and Job focuses on the "why" wisdom. So, how can these two statements be so similar?

Don't make it too hard. It's because God created all wisdom.

"The fear of the Lord" is our humble submission before God. When we acknowledge that God created all people, then we will submit to the guidelines He gives us for dealing with people. When we acknowledge that God created the earth, then we will go to Him for the answers to the ultimate questions.

And if we do not get the answers we want in the timeliness we want, because we are submitted to God, we will accept His answers/delays and trust His reasons.

Without the fear of the Lord, we have no chance of truly obtaining wisdom.

Go back through everything Job has said in this book. What are examples of how he has demonstrated "fear of the Lord"? Remember how I said that you can express doubts and anger without sinning against God? Well, that's the fear of the Lord. Job believes that God has His reasons for everything that has happened -- he just wants to know what they are.

[Spoilers: you have probably thought, as I have, that Job sure is harping on this point pretty loudly. And indeed, after God speaks, Job has this to say:

Surely I spoke about things I did not understand, things too wondrous for me to know. (42:3)
Therefore, I reject my words and am sorry for them; I am dust and ashes. (42:6)

So, yes, when it was all said and done, Job decided that he had gotten inappropriately bold before God. But that's the very definition of the fear of the Lord -- repenting when you believe you have crossed a line with God.]

But look closer: God is the One speaking here. And if God said this to Job, don't you think He has said this to everyone else who has related His wisdom? . . . like Solomon?

A number of scholars have said that this chapter really should have been at the very end -- it was copied out of place. I understand why they say that -- it makes just as good of an epilogue as interlude -- but it's unnecessary. It works just as well here.

The conclusion to this lesson is simple: no matter your question, God has the best answer. You have to humble yourself before Him and trust Him, but it's worth it. Job will find that out soon!


Closing Thoughts: Sharing the Gospel with "Wise Men"

Job had his hands full with his friends who thought they were so wise. They didn't listen to him at all. So, what do we do when we're trying to talk about Jesus with someone who thinks they already have the answers?

It's tough, but it's to be expected.

Paul explained it like this:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? 21 For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of what is preached. 22 For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. 24 Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, 25 because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Cor 1:20-25

Basically, don't try to "out-wise" them. You don't have the answers -- God does.

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