Sirach – Ben Sira – is focused a great deal on the Law, and if we take this passage in light of this, we come to understand that Sirach sought students that would study the Law. We understand that he instructs his students to study the Law, and to learn every wit of it, but to refrain from going into the realms beyond the Law so that it is God that reveals His mysteries to us, and not we who reveals the mysteries to God.
It is possible that Sirach was part of the upper-class, which would have been expected given first his ability to write and teach. Further, he had students which he was instructing. In this portion, contrary to his position in life, Sirach is instructing humility, almost to the level of poverty.
(17) My child, conduct your affairs in gentleness and you will be loved by those whom the Lord accepts.
‘Lord’ is not in the original, which literally reads, ‘a giver of gifts’. One translation suggests,
Walk in your wealth humbly and you will be loved more than he who gives gifts
No matter the translation, the sense is still the same – real honor comes from real humility. This entire passage is devoted to giving a sense of humility to students, no doubt of the Law, before they can actually learn from God.
(18) The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find grace in the sight of the Lord.
In Philippians 2.3, the Apostle Paul admonishes that congregation to think more highly of others than they do ourselves. It is a common New Testament theme which was shared with other Jewish sects of the time. Perhaps this verse is a personal experience from Sirach, or a warning to the Sadducees in power. If this is a political verse – and it can be taken as such – the author could be warning those in power, perhaps even the Maccabeans, to not follow the same route that others in the past have.
(19a) Many are lofty and of repute, but to the meek he reveals his mysteries
This verse is wanting in the Greek and the Hebrew and most likely a variant of the following verse:
(19) For great is the might of the Lord; he is glorified by the humble.
The Hebrew reads:
For many are the mercies of God, and he reveals his secret to the humble.
(20) Seek not what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your strength.
I note Proverbs 25.2:
It is God’s privilege to conceal things and the king’s privilege to discover them. (Pro 25:2 NLT)
Can this be seen as a contradiction?
Paul calls this ‘the measure of faith’ (Romans 12.3) while others call it ‘knowing our place’. Sirach is counseling his students that they must not seek to be more than what God has ordained them to be – this is not to say that they cease from trying to grow in the Lord. Let the minister be a minister and the administrator the administrator.
I am drawn to the Pauline use of the word mystery when he is speaking to the New Testament church, and wondering if there is a connection between the thought here which is revealed to the humble, and the generally not well to do. Mystery for Paul would mean that those, such as the humble, know the answer, perhaps
(21) Reflect upon what has been commanded you, for you do not need what is hidden.
(22) Do not meddle in what is beyond your tasks, for matters too great for human understanding have been shown you.
The Hebrew here reads,
Meditate upon that which you are able to understand, and meddle not with that which is hid
(See Deut 29.29; Ps 131.1; Jer 45.5)
(23) For their speculations has led many astray, and evil suppositions have caused their minds to slip and fall.