Mesopotamian Wisdom Literature

I survived to the next year; the appointed time passed.
I turn around, but it is bad, very bad;
My ill luck increases and I cannot find what is right.
I called to my god, but he did not show his face,
I prayed to my goddess, but she did not raise her head.
Even the diviner with his divination could not make a prediction,
And the interpreter of dreams with his libation could not elucidate my case.
I sought the favor of the . . . spirit, but he would not enlighten me;
The exorcist with his ritual could not appease the divine wrath against me.
What strange conditions everywhere!
When I look behind (me), there is persecution, trouble.
Like one who has not made libations to his god,
Nor invoked his goddess when he ate,
Does not make prostrations nor recognize (the necessity of) bowing down,
In whose mouth supplication and prayer are lacking,
Who has even neglected holy days, and ignored festivals,
Who was negligent and did not observe the gods' rites,
Did not teach his people reverence and worship,
But has eaten his food without invoking his god,
And abandoned his goddess by not bringing a flour offering,
Like one who has gone crazy and forgotten his lord,
Has frivolously sworn a solemn oath by his god, (like such a one) do I appear.
For myself, I gave attention to supplication and prayer:
My prayer was discretion, sacrifice my rule.
The day for worshipping the god was a joy to my heart;
The day of the goddess's procession was profit and gain to me.
The king's blessing—that was my joy,
And the accompanying music became a delight for me.
I had my land keep the god's rites,
And brought my people to value the goddess's name.
I made the praise for the king like a god's,
And taught the people respect for the palace.
I wish I knew that these things would be pleasing to one's god!
What is good for oneself may be offense to one's god,
What in one's own heart seems despicable may be proper to one's god.
Who can know the will of the gods in heaven?
Who can understand the plans of the underworld gods?
Where have humans learned the way of a god?
He who was alive yesterday is dead today.
One moment he is worried, the next he is boisterous.
One moment he is singing a joyful song,
A moment later he wails like a professional mourner.
Their condition changes (as quickly as) opening and shutting (the eyes).
When starving they become like corpses,
When full they oppose their god.
In good times they speak of scaling heaven,
When they are troubled they talk of going down to hell.
I am perplexed at these things; I have not been able to understand their significance.
As for me, exhausted, a windstorm is driving me on!
Debilitating Disease is let loose upon me:
An Evil Wind has blown (from the) horizon,
Headache has sprung up from the surface of the underworld....
(They all joined in) and came on me together.
(They struck) my head, they enveloped my skull;
(My) face is gloomy, my eyes flow.
They have wrenched my neck muscles and made (my) neck limp.
They struck (my chest,) beat my breast.
They affected my flesh and made me shake,
(In) my epigastrium {abdomen} they kindled a fire.
They churned up my bowels, . . . (they) . . . my . . .
Causing the discharge of phlegm, they tired out my (lungs).
They tired out my limbs and made my fat quake.
My upright stance they knocked down like a wall,
My robust figure they laid down like a rush [a grasslike plant} ....
My eyes stare straight ahead, but cannot see,
My ears are open, but cannot hear.
Feebleness has overcome my whole body,
An attack of illness has fallen upon my flesh.
Stiffness has taken over my arms, Weakness has come upon my knees,
My feet forget their motion.
(A stroke) has got me; I choke like someone prostrate.
Death has (approached) and has covered my face.
If someone is concerned about me, I am not even able to answer the one who inquires.
(My . . .) weep, but I cannot control myself.
A snare is laid on my mouth, And a bolt keeps my lips barred....
My malady is indeed protracted.
Through not eating, my looks have become strange,
My flesh is flaccid, and my blood has ebbed away.
My bones look separated, and are covered (only) with my skin.
My flesh is inflamed, and the . . . -disease has afflicted me.
I have taken to a bed of bondage; going out is a pain;
My house has become my prison....
I spent the night in my dung like an ox,
And wallowed in my excrement like a sheep.
My symptoms are beyond the exorcist,
And my omens have confused the diviner.
The exorcist could not diagnose the nature of my sickness,
Nor could the diviner set a time limit on my illness.
My god has not come to the rescue nor taken me by the hand;
My goddess has not shown pity on me nor gone by my side.


Hymn to Rameses IV

(c. 1166 B.C.E.)

What a happy day! Heaven and earth rejoice, (for) thou art the great lord of Egypt.
They that had fled have come again to their towns, and they that were hidden have again come forth.
They that hungered are satisfied and happy, and they that thirsted are drunken.
They that were naked are clad in fine linen, and they that were dirty have white garments.
They that were in prison are set free, and he that was in bonds is full of joy.
They that were at strife in this land are reconciled. High Niles {beneficial floods} have come from their sources, that they may refresh the hearts of others.
Widows, their houses stand open, and they suffer travellers to enter.
Maidens rejoice and repeat their songs of gladness (?). They are arrayed in ornaments and say (?): "_______ he createth generation on generation. Thou ruler, thou wilt endure for ever."
The ships rejoice on the deep_______.
They come to land with wind or oars,
They are satisfied . . . when it is said:
"King Hekmaatre-Beloved-of-Amun again weareth the crown.

The son of [the sun-god} Re, Ramesses, hath received the office of his father."
All lands say unto him:
"Beautiful is Horus on the throne of Amun who sendeth him forth,
(Amun) the protector of the Prince, who bringeth every land."


Guidelines for the Ruler

(c. 2400 B.C.E.)

If thou art a leader and givest command to the multitude, strive after every excellence, until there be no fault in thy nature. Truth is good and its worth is lasting, and it hath not been disturbed since the day of its creator, whereas he that transgresseth its ordinances is punished. It lieth as a (right) path in front of him that knoweth nothing. Wrong-doing (?) hath never yet brought its venture to port. Evil indeed winneth wealth, but the strength of truth is that it endureth, and the (upright) man saith: "It is the property of my father."

[The following excerpts came from the instructions of Amenemhet I (1991-1962 B.C.E.), who prepared them for his son.]

I gave to the poor and nourished the orphan, I caused him that was nothing to reach the goal, even as him that was of account....

None hungered in my years, none thirsted in them. Men dwelt in (peace) through that which I wrought;... all that I commanded was as it should be....

[These instructions were prepared for King Merikare (c. 2050 B.C.E.) by his father.]

Be not evil, it is good to be kindly. Cause thy monument:: to endure through the love of thee.... Then men thank God on thine account, men praise thy goodness and pray for thine health.... But keep thine eyes open, one that is trusting will become one that is afflicted....

Do right so long as thou abidest on the earth. Calm the weeper, oppress no widow, expel no man from the possessions of his father.... Take heed lest thou punish wrongfully.

Exalt not the son of one of high degree more than him that is of lowly birth, but take to thyself a man because of his actions.


The Book of Isaiah

(ca. 8th - 6th century B.C.E.)

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and what comes from it who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: "I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to graven images.

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, who I formed and made"

Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, It is true. "You are my witnesses,' says the Lord, "and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses" says the Lord. "I am God, and also henceforth I am He; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work and who can hinder it?

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: "I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. Put me in remembrance, let us argue together; set forth your case, that you may be proved right. Your first father sinned, and your mediators transgressed against me. Therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary, I delivered Jacob to utter destruction and Israel to reviling.

"But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshu'-run whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like grass amid waters, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, 'I am the Lord's,' another will call himself by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand 'The Lord's', and surname himself by the name of Israel."

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it, let him declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any" Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and ungird the loins of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: "I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze, and cut asunder the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name, For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen. I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I gird you, though you do not know me, that men may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. Thus says the Lord: "The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia, and the Sabe'ans, men of stature, shall come over to you and be yours, they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying: 'God is with you only, and there is no other, no god besides him.'" Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Savior. All of them are put to shame and confounded, the makers of idols go in confusion together. But Israel is saved by the Lord with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity.

Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, "You are my servant...."

Thus says the Lord: "In a time of favor I have answered you, in a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, 'Come forth,' to those who are in darkness, 'Appear.' They shall feed along the ways, on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall smite them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from afar, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene." Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has com forted his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted.