On the Wisdom of Solomon, Part 25: A Tale of Two Torments

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On the Wisdom of Solomon, Part 25: A Tale of Two Torments

One thing which we find most striking in Solomon’s descriptions of the origins and practice of idolatry here in Wisdom is that the general patterns of behavior which lead to idolatry do not change, and they have not changed even over the last three thousand years. In ancient times men, worshipping the works of their own hands, had created idols which they said to be gods. Then whether they were artificers seeking to make more money from their craft or whether they pretended to be priests of some god, for their own profit they deceived others into worshipping their idols while offering them vain hope in a dead object. Of course a third way is the idolatry of kings, who compelled men by threat of force to worship idols of their choosing.

So today men worship commercial icons such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, or perhaps some sports figures who endorse certain products. Men worship these idols by going out and engaging in commerce on account of those images which were created by others for the sake of their own profit. At the same time they teach their children to worship those images through the anticipation that they may receive things from them, and when the children find that they are not real, or that they are only mere men who often fail to live up to their expectations, and who cannot really do much beyond playing a game anyway, the children may wonder why their parents taught them lies.

So the love of money certainly is the The Root of All Evil, and as we saw at the end of Wisdom chapter 15, Yahweh God often punishes men with their own delusions. So here in Wisdom, Solomon made another analogy which should be one of the lessons of history, which is the fact that in the plagues of Egypt, the Egyptians were punished with some of the same beasts which they themselves had once worshipped. The Egyptians and other enemies of the ancient Israelites were punished for their destruction, but whenever Israel was punished for their disobedience, it was for their correction, and there was mercy in their punishment. So this is a tale of two torments, or at least, punishments inflicted upon different men for entirely different reasons.

So in turn, as we began Wisdom chapter 16, we saw that the the Israelites who demanded meat rather than manna were fed with “meat of a strange taste”, which were evidently the birds which the Greeks had called quail-mothers, and not actually quails, which the Bible translations based on the Masoretic Text would lead one to believe. Admittedly, the Greek version of the account as it was provided by Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities, Book 3, identified the birds as quails, so there was a difference of opinion as to the identity of these birds in early times. However as we had also discussed, quails themselves having long been a common food in Egypt, they could not have been birds of a “strange taste”, so we would prefer reading quail-mothers, as the Greek text reads here in Wisdom and as it also is in the Septuagint.

These quail-mothers will be mentioned once more by Solomon later on in this work, in Wisdom chapter 19 where he wrote that they were provided for their contentment, as the King James Version translated the word παραμυθία, which can also mean encouragement, exhortation or consolation, among other things. In any event, Solomon extended his lesson to a comparison which illustrates how Yahweh did not have mercy on the Egyptians, while He fed the children of Israel in spite of the fact that they were fed with “meat of a strange taste”, from which they should have learned to be content with the manna that He had initially provided them. So he wrote in verse 4 of Wisdom chapter 16, where we had left off with our own translation:

4 For it was necessary for them that while unmerciful poverty came upon those ruling as tyrants [the Egyptians] on the other hand to these alone [the Israelites] it was shown how their enemies had been tormented.

So Solomon implies that by having to eat “meat of a strange taste” the children of Israel were sustained in the desert, while also being reminded of the plagues of Egypt, that Yahweh God was actually having mercy on them which He had not extended to the Egyptians. The Israelites may have eaten quail-mothers, but the Egyptians had no such consolation in the plagues of blood, frogs, locusts and other things which they had suffered. Now, as we commence with Wisdom chapter 16, Solomon recounts some of the other punishments which came upon the children of Israel in their wanderings in the desert, while also continuing to compare the divergent fate which was suffered by the Egyptians:

Wisdom 16:5 For when the horrible fierceness of beasts came upon these, and they perished with the stings of crooked serpents, thy wrath endured not for ever:

Once again, at the risk of being tedious, and although the sense of the King James translation is acceptable, for the purpose of clarity, we will offer our own translation:

5 For even when [καὶ γὰρ ὅτε] a terrible wrath of beasts came upon them [αὐτοῖς δεινὸς ἐπῆλθεν θηρίων θυμὸς] and they were destroyed by the bites of crooked serpents [δήγμασίν τε σκολιῶν διεφθείροντο ὄφεων] Your wrath did not abide to an end [οὐ μέχρι τέλους ἔμεινεν ἡ ὀργή σου].

First, notice that once again Solomon address Yahweh God directly, in the second person where he wrote “Your wrath”, and he shall do so several times in this chapter. As we have often mentioned since it began, these entire last eleven chapters of Wisdom were written to represent the prayer which Solomon had first made to Yahweh for wisdom, upon his having become king over His people Israel.

Of course, there is no record of such an event as this ever having befallen the Egyptians, but here the Israelites are the subject, as the focus changed to them at the end of verse 4. When the children of Israel had once again rebelled in the desert, as we read in Numbers chapter 21: “6… the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. 7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.” So, in regard of the result of this prayer by Moses, Solomon writes:

6 But they were troubled for a small season, that they might be admonished, having a sign of salvation, to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law.

Remaining more faithful to the original word order, we would also translate this verse to read more literally:

6 But for an admonishment [εἰς νουθεσίαν δὲ] they were troubled for awhile [πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐταράχθησαν] having a token of salvation [σύμβολον ἔχοντες σωτηρίας] for a reminder [εἰς ἀνάμνησιν] of the commandment of Your law [ἐντολῆς νόμου σου].

The sign, or token of salvation to which Solomon refers is the seraph, the serpent of brass which Moses fashioned in the wilderness where we read in the same chapter of Numbers that as a result of his prayer: “8… the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. 9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”

But the Greek word σύμβολον which was translated as sign, where we have token, has an even deeper meaning. Among ancient Greeks it was an object broken in half and divided between two parties, which when presented by one to another at some point in the future, proved the identity of each party. So the word was also used later to describe a seal, and then a guarantee which a seal may represent, and even, used in the plural, to describe a treaty between two states providing for the security of one another's citizens. Therefore the brazen serpent was a sign guaranteeing the safety of any Israelite who would follow the command of Yahweh to gaze upon it if they were bitten by a serpent, and showing their obedience to Him, He would assure their temporal salvation.

So we see a description of that same thing in Wisdom:

7 For he that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by thee, that art the Saviour of all. 8 And in this thou madest thine enemies confess, that it is thou who deliverest from all evil:

The pronoun ἡμῶν is our, not your, and therefore we would translate verse 8 more accurately to read:

8 Then also in this [καὶ ἐν τούτῳ δὲ], You had persuaded [ἔπεισας] our enemies [τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ἡμῶν] that You are the Deliverer [ὅτι σὺ εἶ ὁ ῥυόμενος] from every evil [ἐκ παντὸς κακοῦ].

While Solomon chose to use this event as an illustration of how Yahweh had persuaded the enemies of Israel that He was with His people, later in Numbers chapter 21 we read of the defeat of the Amorites, and then, in chapter 22 we read: “1 And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho. 2 And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3 And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.” So at this point Balak had hired the prophet Balaam to curse the people, hoping to overcome the blessings of God which were upon them, and that endeavor also ultimately failed.

The Book of Joshua also attests that Yahweh had indeed persuaded the enemies of ancient Israel that He was their Deliverer through the things which He had done on their account. This is found in Joshua chapter 2, in the words attributed to Rahab, the inn-keeper at Jericho who had preserved the spies: “9 And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. 10 For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. 11 And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.”

Now, in reference to the brazen serpent, as Solomon had written here, Christ Himself had likewise referred to this same event and said, as it is recorded in John chapter 3: “14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” In the wilderness, whoever had believed the Word of Yahweh through Moses to gaze upon the serpent in the desert had temporal life. But whoever would look upon Christ, allegorically referring to whoever of Israel who would look to Christ through His Gospel, has an assurance of eternal life. Only the children of Israel had need for the serpent of brass, and Christ came only for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” They alone having the promises, they alone have need of Him. That also explains the tale of two torments, why Yahweh would punish the Egyptians for their destruction, and the Israelites for their correction.

As a digression, the fulfillment of the destruction of ancient Egypt, which was an ongoing process, was announced in Isaiah 43:3 and is evident unto this very day. There we read: “3 For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. 4 Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life.” It is evident in the same manner which we see of the Ethiopian in Jeremiah chapter 13, which was written after that fulfillment: “23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba having been overrun with Nubians, they were forever destroyed.

Now, returning once again to the account of the brazen serpent, we must also note that there is one more element of symbolism here which should be mentioned. The high priests and adversaries of Christ being serpents themselves, as He had identified them, while the children of Israel in the desert were granted temporal salvation as Moses raised a brazen serpent, the children of Israel collectively were granted everlasting salvation when the serpents had raised Christ in that same manner. So we read in John chapter 8: “28 Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he…

Next, in reference to the mercy which the children of Israel were granted from the bite of the serpents, Solomon once again compares the torments of Egypt:

9 For them the bitings of grasshoppers and flies killed, neither was there found any remedy for their life: for they were worthy to be punished by such.

Ostensibly, they were worthy to be punished by such things as they had been idolaters who had worshipped such things, as Solomon had described earlier, in Wisdom chapter 12 where he wrote: “23 Wherefore, whereas men have lived dissolutely and unrighteously, thou hast tormented them with their own abominations.”

According to Liddell & Scott, the Greek word ἀκρίς may refer to a grasshopper, a locust or a cricket. Some species of orthoptera do occasionally bite even humans, but the bites are generally seen as harmless. They also become cannibalistic when they swarm. Yet the locusts which plagued Egypt were evidently not the usual locusts, as we read in Exodus chapter 10: “ 12 And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail hath left. 13 And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the LORD brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. 14 And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.” Yet even these locusts did not necessarily eat Egyptians, but rather they ate all the foliage remaining in the land, so perhaps from that sort of biting did they kill Egyptians, who then died of starvation.

As for the flies, which were not necessarily houseflies as we know them, but perhaps some other small flying insect which bites, they were one of the earlier of the plagues upon Egypt, as we read in Exodus chapter 8: “24 And the LORD did so; and there came a grievous swarm of flies into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants' houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies.”

Notice that the words “of flies” are in italics in the King James Version throughout the chapter, so the swarm may refer to any of the many types of flying insects. The word translated as swarm in Exodus chapter 8, which is arob (Strong’s # 6157) and in this context it implies an assortment of flying insects, a mixture and not a single species. The same word is translated with the phrase “diverse sorts of flies” in the 78th Psalm where we once again read of the plagues of Egypt and it says “45 He sent divers sorts of flies among them, which devoured them; and frogs, which destroyed them.” Then in the 105th Psalm: “ 31 He spake, and there came divers sorts of flies, and lice in all their coasts.”

Here in Florida we have been bitten by tiny yellow flies, one of several species which are sometimes also called deer flies, which inject numbing poisons into the skin and which leave large welts, swelling and bruises that sometimes last for days. So we can imagine the damage that dense swarms of such flies could incur upon a people, although the Exodus account itself does not elaborate beyond that passage on exactly what sort of flies these may be.

The plagues of Egypt have a deeper meaning than one may suspect, as the idolatry of the Egyptians was taken to the extent of making many common elements of nature into gods to be worshipped for one reason or another. The god of the Nile River was named Hapi, and Yahweh turned the Nile into blood to torment the Egyptians. Heket was the Egyptian goddess of birth and fertility and she was pictured as a frog or as a woman with the head of a frog, and a plague of frogs also tormented the Egyptians. Then there is a sort of flying insect which does bite and feed off of human and animal flesh, and which the Egyptians did worship, and that is the scarab or dung beetle. According to an article titled Scarab Beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabaeoidea) found in an Encyclopedia of Entomology published by Springer Netherlands in 2008, “Scarab beetles are adapted to most habitats, and they can be fungivores, herbivores, necrophages, coprophages, saprophages, and sometimes carnivores.” So they eat mushrooms, live plants, dead decomposing plants or animals, and dung as well as living flesh, and they were worshipped by the Egyptians. There are sufficient other parallels between the plagues of Egypt and the idols of the ancient Egyptians to understand that Solomon is correct where he had written that Yahweh God had indeed “tormented them with their own abominations.” They were tormented with the creatures that they worshipped in idolatry.

Now, about to complete his comparison of these events, Solomon once again turns back to discuss the biting snakes in the desert:

10 But thy sons not the very teeth of venomous dragons overcame: for thy mercy was ever by them, and healed them.

The Greek word translated as “was ever by them” is a form of the verb ἀντιπαρέρχομαι, which is literally to “pass by on the opposite side”, meaning that the mercy of God was on the side opposite the venomous dragons, which would be the side of the Israelites. Of course, the analogy which Solomon had made is that the Egyptians were destroyed by the slightest of creatures, such as beetles and locusts, which would not be expected to harm men to such an extent, while the Israelites survived a much greater and more imminent threat on account of Yahweh their God. So he continues in regard to them:

11 For they were pricked, that they should remember thy words; and were quickly saved, that not falling into deep forgetfulness, they might be continually mindful of thy goodness.

Here there is a play on words which is wanting in English. The word for pricked, the verb ἐγκεντρίζω, is accompanied in the clause which follows with the adverb ὀξέως, which in this context is quickly, but which is literally sharply or pointedly. Then the last clause of the verse we would more literally render: “… they might not be distracted from Your goodness.”

By the time of the account of Numbers chapter 21, it had been quite some time since the children of Israel had received the law at Sinai, and had agreed to keep it. Doing that, they also received the words announcing the punishments which would come upon them if they did not keep that to which they had agreed. So being punished by Yahweh, but receiving His mercy before He actually did away with them as He had a right to do under the law, that alone should have reminded them of His goodness. So once again, that is the tale of two torments: that Yahweh destroys the enemies of His people, even while He must also often punish His Own people for their correction. Now Solomon continues in respect of this later torment, and says:

12 For it was neither herb, nor mollifying [or medicinal] plaister, that restored them to health: but thy word, O Lord, which healeth all things.

While herbs and medicinal plasters may help to heal many illnesses, they are not necessary to heal any illness, even if Yahweh Himself had advised men to do certain things in order to be healed. For example, upon the sickness of Hezekiah he had repented, and Yahweh God promised to add fifteen years to his life. So we read in 2 Kings chapter 20 that the prophet Isaiah brought him that message from God, “7 And Isaiah said, Take a lump of figs. And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered.” But in any event, as Solomon now attests:

13 For thou hast power of life and death: thou leadest to the gates of hell, and bringest up again.

The word for hell here is the Greek word ἅδης, Hades, which was more than just the grave, and was perceived by the Greeks as being the underworld abode of the spirits of the dead. In Matthew chapter 16 Yahshua Christ is recorded as having used the same phrase, πύλαι ᾅδου or gates of Hades, where He said, as it is in the King James Version, that “… upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Unfortunately, that Bible version translated two different words with different meanings as hell, thereby causing much confusion.

In the Old Testament there are other declarations of the possibility of resurrection from the dead. First, in the 16th Psalm, where David had written “10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [LXX: ἅδης]; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” Then again in the 49th Psalm: “15 But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave [LXX: ἅδης]: for he shall receive me.” there are other examples of resurrection in the prophets, such as Isaiah, but we will offer only one more, from Solomon, from Proverbs chapter 15: “23 A man hath joy by the answer of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good is it! 24 The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from hell beneath [LXX: ἅδης].” The Hebrew word Sheol bearing the same meaning as Hades, it is also a source of confusion as it is translated alternately as either grave or hell in the King James Version.

In ancient Greek the underworld, or netherworld, was called Tartarus, and the god who ruled over it was named Hades. In early England and in Germanic mythology, Hela was the goddess who ruled over Niflheim, the underworld abode of the dead. Among both Greeks and Germans, it is evident that the name of the idol which they perceived had ruled over the abode of the dead ultimately became synonymous with the place itself. But where Christ and the apostles had used the term Hades, they were not commiting idolatry. Rather, they were speaking in terms that ordinary Greek speakers or readers could understand, and therefore Hades must represent what those same Greek speakers or readers imagined it to mean, which was not merely the grave, but the abode of the spirits of the dead.

14 A man indeed killeth through his malice: and the spirit, when it is gone forth, returneth not; neither the soul received up cometh again.

For the sake of clarity, we would translate this verse more literally to read:

And indeed, a man kills in his wickedness [ἄνθρωπος δὲ ἀποκτέννει μὲν τῇ κακίᾳ αὐτοῦ] but he is not able to return the departed spirit [ἐξελθὸν δὲ πνεῦμα οὐκ ἀναστρέφει] nor restore the life taken [οὐδὲ ἀναλύει ψυχὴν παραλημφθεῖσαν].

Here Wisdom distinguishes between words which are actually close synonyms, πνεῦμα and ψυχή, and while the distinction is not apparent everywhere that these words appear in Scripture, we generally find that it is upheld. It is πνεῦμα which is always used to describe the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, and therefore also the eternal spirit imparted to man. Yet ψυχή much more often denotes the human life, the force which is perceived to animate all creatures, including man. So here this Greek version of Wisdom also distinguishes between the spirit of a man and his temporal life, in that same manner.

So when a man’s ψυχή is taken, his πνεῦμα merely departs, and therefore Solomon concludes:

15 But it is not possible to escape thine hand.

As Christ had said, as it is recorded in John chapter 6, “It is the spirit that quickeneth,” using another term, the verb ζῳοποιέω, which means to make alive. Paul used the same words, πνεῦμα and ζῳοποιέω, in 2 Corinthians 3:6 where he wrote “… but the spirit giveth life.” Likewise, Paul had written in Romans chapter 8: “10 And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” In those cases the word for spirit is πνεῦμα, and in other places where we see phrases such as “spirit of life” the word is also πνεῦμα. In Hebrew, the same distinction between πνεῦμα and ψυχή usually holds true with the words ruwach (Strong’s # 7307) and nephesh (Strong’s # 5315), which are also synonums although even in the King James Version the word nephesh is often translated as soul, a reference to the life of either man or beast.

The πνεῦμα of a man, living and departing a body after the ψυχή, or life, has been destroyed, it is the πνεῦμα which gives life, and therefore even a dead man cannot escape the hand of God. Thusly Christ had also professed, as it is recorded in John chapter 10: “27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. 29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. 30 I and my Father are one.”

Now Solomon turns again to describe another aspect of the torment of the enemies of Israel:

16 For the ungodly, that denied to know thee, were scourged by the strength of thine arm: with strange rains, hails, and showers, were they persecuted, that they could not avoid, and through fire were they consumed.

The word for ungodly is ἀσεβής, which is impious. The phrase “that they could not avoid” is from the Greek adjective ἀπαραίτητος, which is not to be moved by prayer or inexorable, which is something impossible to stop or prevent. Here I would translate the Adjective as an Adverb and translate the last half of the verse to read:

16… being persecuted unavoidably [διωκόμενοι ἀπαραιτήτοις] then in fire were they consumed [καὶ πυρὶ καταναλισκόμενοι].

The fire to which Solomon refers must be the pillar of fire, or, during the daytime, the pillar of smoke which represented the presence of Yahweh leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, as we read in Exodus chapter 13: “18 But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. 19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you. 20 And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness. 21 And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: 22 He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.”

Now Solomon elaborates on the fire, while clarifying his meaning:

17 For, which is most to be wondered at, the fire had more force in the water, that quencheth all things: for the world fighteth for the righteous.

The word for fighteth is a noun, ὑπέρμαχος, which is a defender. The last clause is more literally translated:

17:… for the world is a defender of the righteous.

Here Solomon is making an allegory in his profession that the natural elements of creation, which is the κόσμος here, would defend the righteous, when it was actually Yahweh God Himself who used those elements to signify His presence as He had defended Israel. For that reason, contrary to expectation, the pillar of fire was victorious even in the waters which would be expected to extinguish the fire.

The event to which Solomon refers is attested in Exodus chapter 14: “19 And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: 20 And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. 21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. 23 And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. 24 And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, 25 And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians. 26 And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. 27 And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. 28 And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.”

So in reference to fire Solomon now makes an analogy:

18 For sometime the flame was mitigated, that it might not burn up the beasts that were sent against the ungodly; but themselves might see and perceive that they were persecuted with the judgment of God.

For the sake of clarity we shall also translate this verse:

18 For indeed at times the flame was softened [ποτὲ μὲν γὰρ ἡμεροῦτο φλόξ] in order that it would not consume [ἵνα μὴ καταφλέξῃ] the creatures sent against the impious [τὰ ἐπ᾽ ἀσεβεῖς ἀπεσταλμένα ζῷα] but those seeing [ἀλλ᾽ αὐτοὶ βλέποντες], they know that they were attacked by the judgment of God [εἰδῶσιν ὅτι θεοῦ κρίσει ἐλαύνονται].

Solomon is making a general statement concerning the pillar of fire, in reference to things which happened after the escape from Egypt. This we see in Numbers chapter 14, where after one of the several rebellions of the children of Israel we read: “11 And the LORD said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them? 12 I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they. 13 And Moses said unto the LORD, Then the Egyptians shall hear it, (for thou broughtest up this people in thy might from among them;) 14 And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou LORD art among this people, that thou LORD art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if thou shalt kill all this people as one man, then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying, 16 Because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness. 17 And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying, 18 The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. 19 Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now. 20 And the LORD said, I have pardoned according to thy word: 21 But as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD. 22 Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; 23 Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it:”

So Yahweh remained with Israel through at least most of the time recorded in the book of Numbers. Then in Deuteronomy 1:33 it seems to be recounting this event from Numbers chapter 14 in hindsight, where Moses makes a recollection and speaks of Yahweh “33 Who went in the way before you, to search you out a place to pitch your tents in, in fire by night, to shew you by what way ye should go, and in a cloud by day.” So the pillar of smoke and fire must have departed by that time. But then in Deuteronomy 31:15 we see yet another mention where it says: “14 And the LORD said unto Moses, Behold, thy days approach that thou must die: call Joshua, and present yourselves in the tabernacle of the congregation, that I may give him a charge. And Moses and Joshua went, and presented themselves in the tabernacle of the congregation. 15 And the LORD appeared in the tabernacle in a pillar of a cloud: and the pillar of the cloud stood over the door of the tabernacle.”

So while the pillar of fire remained with Israel throughout many of the events recorded in the Book of Numbers, it must have been present whenever Israel encountered their enemies in those early years, which accounts for Solomon’s statement here in verse 18. But now in verse 19 he once again contrasts the experience of the Egyptians:

19 And at another time it burneth even in the midst of water above the power of fire, that it might destroy the fruits of an unjust land.

By “the fruits of an unjust land” Solomon seems to be referring allegorically to the Egyptian army which was destroyed in the converging waters of the Red Sea. Now, in comparison of his allegory of the “fruits of the land” of Egypt, Solomon draws a portrait of the manna that the children of Israel had eaten in the desert which is much more favorable than we find in the books of Moses:

20 Instead whereof thou feddest thine own people with angels' food, and didst send them from heaven bread prepared without their labour, able to content every man's delight, and agreeing to every taste.

For a few minor differences we would also translate this passage for clarity:

Instead of which [ἀνθ᾽ ὧν] feeding Your people the food of angels [ἀγγέλων τροφὴν ἐψώμισας τὸν λαόν σου] then You provided bread prepared from heaven [καὶ ἕτοιμον ἄρτον ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ παρέσχες] for them without labor [αὐτοῖς ἀκοπιάτως], able for all pleasure [πᾶσαν ἡδονὴν ἰσχύοντα] and every agreeable taste [καὶ πρὸς πᾶσαν ἁρμόνιον γεῦσιν].

The initial reaction of the children of Israel to the manna is depicted quite differently, but perhaps it was at least in part due to the influence of the aliens among them, where we read in Numbers chapter 11: “4 And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? 5 We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: 6 But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. 7 And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium. 8 And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil. 9 And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.”

Regardless of this difference in perspective, Solomon continues and says:

21 For thy sustenance declared thy sweetness unto thy children, and serving to the appetite of the eater [literally, the taker], tempered [or transformed] itself to every man's liking.

Twice in Deuteronomy chapter 8 it is explained that the children of Israel ate manna for forty years so that they would be humbled. There they were told that it was Yahweh “16 Who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end…”

So perhaps we can imagine that being humbled in that manner, they became accustomed to the manna and realized that it was not so bad after all. So it is written in the 78th Psalm, where it speaks of the anger of Yahweh towards Israel because of their rebellion: “21 Therefore the LORD heard this, and was wroth: so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel; 22 Because they believed not in God, and trusted not in his salvation: 23 Though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven, 24 And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn [grain] of heaven. 25 Man did eat angels' food: he sent them meat [food, not flesh] to the full.” The Psalm was written by Asaph, who, like Solomon here, evidently had heard a more pleasant memory of the manna than the experience which the Book of Numbers evokes.

Now Solomon has been making an allegory of the fire of Yahweh, and particularly of the pillar of fire which led the children of Israel through the wilderness, whereby the fire was strong even in the water when it was meant to destroy the enemies of Israel, but more tolerable, or softer, so that it could be withstood by the beasts which were sent against those enemies. But now he returns to the torments of Egypt once again, extending the same allegory to the fire mixed with hail in the plagues of Egypt:

22 But snow and ice endured the fire, and melted not, that they might know that fire burning in the hail, and sparkling in the rain, did destroy the fruits of the enemies.

This we see in Exodus chapter 9: “22 And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch forth thine hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, upon man, and upon beast, and upon every herb of the field, throughout the land of Egypt. 23 And Moses stretched forth his rod toward heaven: and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground; and the LORD rained hail upon the land of Egypt. 24 So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. 25 And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field.”

Now Solomon adds:

23 But this again did even forget his own strength, that the righteous might be nourished.

This seems to be an allusion to what we read in the very next verse of Exodus chapter 9, where it says: “26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail.”

Now, as Solomon had already exclaimed that the κόσμος would defend the righteous, referring to elements of nature, he makes a similar statement about the elements of nature, using the word κτίσις which is the creature or creation, as the weapon of God, once again illustrating the tale of two torments:

24 For the creature that serveth thee, who art the Maker increaseth his strength against the unrighteous for their punishment, and abateth his strength for the benefit of such as put their trust in thee.

Here Solomon is drawing a conclusion, as he has made allegories illustrating this in the plagues of Egypt as opposed to the eating of quails, or quail-mothers by the Israelites, and then in the pillar of fire that destroyed the Egyptian army in the water, and also in the hailstorms which rained down upon the Egyptians. Thus continuing his conclusion he says of the κτίσις, or creation:

25 Therefore even then was it altered into all fashions, and was obedient to thy grace, that nourisheth all things, according to the desire of them that had need:

Once again, we would more literally translate this verse to read:

25 On which account at that time also [διὰ τοῦτο καὶ τότε] for transforming all things within Your all-nourishing gift [εἰς πάντα μεταλλευομένη τῇ παντοτρόφῳ σου δωρεᾷ], served for the favor of those in want [ὑπηρέτει πρὸς τὴν τῶν δεομένων θέλησιν].

The verb μεταλλεύω is literally to get by mining, and generally to explore. But as Liddell & Scott also noted, in Wisdom 4:12 it is to undermine, in the context where it reads: “and the wandering of desire undermines the innocent mind.” However here in this context, where it is in the passive voice, Liddell & Scott suggest converted. But since it is describing the elements of creation, we would prefer transformed, that Yahweh may transform the elements of Creation, His all-nourishing gift, to suit and to serve His purposes.

Here we also interpreted θέλησις not as will, but as goodwill, or favor, as it is used in another work by Solomon, in Proverbs 8:35 where the meaning is close to the intention here, and it says “For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour [θέλησις] of the LORD”, or the goodwill of Yahweh.

The illustrations Solomon had made here inform us that the Creation of God can be whatever He wants it to be, as to whether men should be punished by its elements or being granted mercy would be able to tolerate or withstand its elements. So if man does not survive the elements of creation, that also is a judgment from God. And now he gives the reason for the transformation:

26 That thy children [literally sons], O Lord, whom thou lovest, might know [or learn], that it is not the growing [literally types or kinds] of fruits that nourisheth man: but that it is thy word, which preserveth [literally maintain] them that put their trust in thee.

Going back to Deuteronomy chapter 8, we will read the other passage which speaks of the children of Israel eating manna for sake of being humbled, and Christ Himself had cited a portion of this passage when He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for forty days: “2 And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. 3 And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.”

Now making an illustration of the different degrees of fire by which something may be destroyed:

27 For that which was not destroyed of the fire, being warmed with a little sunbeam, soon melted away:

Once again we will offer our own translation of this passage:

27 For that which by fire is not destroyed [τὸ γὰρ ὑπὸ πυρὸς μὴ φθειρόμενον], simply by a little [ἁπλῶς ὑπὸ βραχείας] ray of the sun [ἀκτῖνος ἡλίου] being warmed was melted [θερμαινόμενον ἐτήκετο].

As the account reads in Exodus chapter 9, the hailstones which were mixed with fire were not destroyed, but rather had managed to withstand the fire, contrary to expectation. But then, as we do not read in the account of Exodus but which Solomon must have inferred, the hail ultimately melted in the warmth of the sun, which he illustrates as being trivial compared with the fire in which it had originally been mingled. So now he concludes:

28 That it might be known, that we must prevent the sun to give thee thanks, and at the dayspring pray unto thee.

We would translate this passage more literally to read:

28 So that it may be known [ὅπως γνωστὸν ᾖ] that it is necessary to rise before the sun [ὅτι δεῖ φθάνειν τὸν ἥλιον] to give You thanks [ἐπ᾽ εὐχαριστίαν σου] and to entreat You at the dawning of light [καὶ πρὸς ἀνατολὴν φωτὸς ἐντυγχάνειν σοι].

It seems to have been a custom, but not a requirement, among the ancient Israelites to pray first at dawn, as we read in the 113th Psalm, “3 From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the LORD'S name is to be praised.” However this and other passages which read “from the rising of the sun” are more likely references to the East.

Now for the final verse of the chapter:

29 For the hope of the unthankful shall melt away as the winter's hoar frost, and shall run away as unprofitable water.

So Solomon compares the hope of the unthankful, or ungrateful, to that of the ice that melts at the light of day, which is an apt description of those who hate Yahweh God. In John chapter 3 we read: “19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” So here, concerning these same men, Solomon writes in chapter 17, in the verses which follow, that “No power of the fire might give them light”, so of course we shall continue with that as we discuss chapter 17 of Wisdom.

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