Monday, January 12, 2009

“The Joys of Life” from Sirach & Hebrews

What is joy? It is the superior life--a life anyone can have, but it’s not a life that all get.

Some things in life are better than, or superior to, others. Some pursuits and activities are held to be more beneficial, more enjoyable, and more appropriate. And these ‘joys of [the better] life’ are found in life actually with Christ--purely and plainly.


It is a characteristic motif of the letter of Hebrews, also, that Christ’s superiority over the prophets, angels, Moses, Joshua and Aaron is advocated.[1] He is “better than” these. This reminded the Jews tempted of lapsing back into their old ways of Judaism that there was something better for them in remaining in Christ.

Sirach 40:18-27

In true wisdom tradition, this segment spells out good advice for the reader quite plainly. In particular, the message is focused on contrasting one thing superior with two things of good but lesser value i.e. ‘what is better/more/esteemed more than either [the other two].’

Again, consistent with general wisdom tradition, there doesn’t appear to be any extravagant hyperbole exaggerating the message.

Finding a treasure (a reason for joy) is better than wealth; finding wisdom and a ‘blameless wife (or husband)’ is better than anything we can build (family, livestock or estate) through life; friends are better than intoxification, and a pleasant voice, sweeter than music; growth seen is better than grace and beauty; a sensible spouse is better than a friend; being generous is better than help in times of trouble; good advice is better than silver or gold; lastly, the fear of the Lord is better (three times) than riches, strength, or confidence as there is ‘no want’ with the Lord.[2]

The ‘garden of blessing’ (from the fear of the Lord) referred to in verse 27 is superior to any glory and repeats the same conclusion made in verse 17, viz: “kindness is like a garden of blessings and almsgiving endures forever.” The joys of life in Sirach are those superior things of exact virtuous living.

The Message for Us

There are ways of living that a clearly superior. Finding Christ is simply the beginning, as is the reverent fear of God.[3] But there is so much more. We’re asked to ‘move on’ from the basic things,[4] and mature more fully, as far as we can go. This healthy greed and hunger for righteousness in our own lives is something that God blesses at every single turn, as seen from ahead looking back.

Sirach 40:18-27 is delightful for one reason: it places salient aspects of life in context, pointing us toward a truest sense of abounding joy that Christ promises and delivers.

Hebrews is the sermon to the backsliding[5] Jew back then and the backsliding Christian now. The core of the message seems to be, “Do not lose sight of life’s top priority! Don’t lose sight of what God has given you! Don’t lose sight of one another! Don’t lose sight of the honor and gratitude due to God’s Son!”[6]

For these are the things that give us the life of joy.

Copyright © 2009, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

The complete text of Sirach 40:18-27 (NRSV)

The Joys of Life
18 Wealth and wages make life sweet, but better than either is finding a treasure.
19 Children and the building of a city establish one’s name, but better than either is the one who finds wisdom. Cattle and orchards make one prosperous; but a blameless wife is accounted better than either.
20 Wine and music gladden the heart, but the love of friendsg is better than either.
21 The flute and the harp make sweet melody, but a pleasant voice is better than either.
22 The eye desires grace and beauty, but the green shoots of grain more than either.
23 A friend or companion is always welcome, but a sensible wifeh is better than either.
24 Kindred and helpers are for a time of trouble, but almsgiving rescues better than either.
25 Gold and silver make one stand firm, but good counsel is esteemed more than either.
26 Riches and strength build up confidence, but the fear of the Lord is better than either. There is no want in the fear of the Lord, and with it there is no need to seek for help.
27 The fear of the Lord is like a garden of blessing, and covers a person better than any glory.[7]
[1] Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, Fourth Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), p. 462-64.
[2] See Psalm 23, particularly verse 1 as it introduces the rest of the poem.
[3] See Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10.
[4] See, for instance, Hebrews 6:1-2, 1 Corinthians 3:2-3, James 1:2-4 and 1 Peter 2:1-2.
[5] The theology and approach of Jeremiah attends particularly to Judah’s backsliding. Jeremiah 15:1-9 reads quite damningly. See also 2:19; 3:22; 5:6; 14:7.
[6] David A. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), p. 810-12.
g Heb: Gk wisdom
h Heb Compare Syr: Gk wife with her husband
[7] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), c1989, S. Sir 40:18

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