Proverbs 25 & 26
October 12, 2014 - Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
†††††††† You donít want to punt
too soon or too often. Though Iím pretty indifferent to football, I watched
enough of it in my misspent youth to know that a punt is how a football team
escapes a desperate fourth down situation when they are pressed back into a
poor field position. Rather than risk losing possession too close your own end
zone, your center snaps the ball back to a kicker who dropkicks it as far down
the field as he can. The other team takes possession, but youíre out of
†††††††† Beth and I have often
noted that some Christians will do a sort of mental punt whenever their
theology gets pressed. Questioned regarding the return of Christ, or how Jesus
can be both God and human, or about the relationship between faith and works,
they will punt. I mean they will say something like, ďYou know, thatís
just more than anyone can know. Itís a mystery.Ē And thatís where the
theological discussion stops. A punt to mystery drives any further questions
off the field.
†††††††† God and His ways and
even our own human lives are constantly baffling and mysterious.
Remarkably, verse 2 of Proverbs 25 tells us that is the glory of God, ďto
conceal thingsÖĒ And it makes sense. If God is truly the omnipotent,
all-knowing creator of our vast universe, He and His creations will be too
glorious to figure out by the time you are a sophomore in college or by reading
some spiritual best-seller. We may expect that many, many things about God and ourselves
will remain mysteries.
†††††††† Yet verse 2 doesnít
stop there. It goes on to say that while it is Godís glory to conceal things,
it is ďthe glory of kings to search things out.Ē This new section of Proverbs
begins back in verse 1 with the note that chapters 25 to 29 ďare other proverbs
of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied.Ē So the
proverbs before us are the diligent effort of at least two kings who searched
out ďthingsĒ and caused their knowledge to be written down. They delved into
the mysteries of God and the world and human life, and came up with wisdom to
write down and passed along. They didnít just punt and turn over the ball of
understanding to mystery. They carried it as far and as hard as they could.
†††††††† Verse 3 celebrates the
kingly mind, making it like Godís mind, unsearchably high as the heavens and as
deep as the earth. Verses 6 and 7 warn us to be humble in the presence of a
mind like that, not to put ourselves forward, but to wait for the invitation to
come up to that level. Jesus said the same in Luke 14:10, repeating the wisdom of Proverbs.
†††††††† All this may rub us
the wrong way, though. We donít usually think of kings or political leaders in
general as any smarter than the rest of us. In fact, we frequently feel quite
free to critique their intelligence, their morals, their leadership, their
dining habits, and any other personal traits we can find to pick on. In
American democracy weíre taught that everyone of us is the equal of any king.
So why should a king have more wisdom, more insight into the mysteries of God
and the universe than anyone else?
†††††††† Hereís the thing. As
Josef Pieper points out in his classic book, Leisure the Basis of Culture,
it takes time and energy and resources to develop wisdom, to ask questions and seek
answers, to sit down and just think. In ancient Israel and in many cultures there arenít a lot of people with that kind of time and
resources. Most people work all the time just to put food on the table
and survive. Even today, exploring wisdom takes leisure time, time when you
donít have to balance the checkbook or change the baby or get the leaves raked
up. Back then it was mostly kings who had that kind of time. So it was their
special prerogative to search out wisdom.
†††††††† It was a king who had
books to read, and materials on which to write, and other wise people around
with whom to speak and explore a subject, and, once again, time for it all. Yet
now you and I can go to the library and order books from Amazon and read all
kinds of news and science and literature on-line. We can pick up a phone or
pull over a keyboard and converse with people on the other side of the world.
We have the time and resources and connections to seek wisdom in a way Solomon
would have envied.
†††††††† Under the influence
and progress of a past Christian culture which taught us that we are a kingdom
in Christ, many of us have the leisure time to learn and explore the mysteries
of life. Like Adam and Eve, we are meant to rule and learn about this
world as well as about the God who made it. Itís no longer just the glory of
kings to search out that kind of wisdom. Itís anyoneís glory who will actually
take up the quest. Of course, thereís the point. Most of us, and I include
myself, donít use that time well.
†††††††† Like the lazy person
Proverbs constantly warns us about and who shows up again in chapter 26, verses
13 to 16, we like to think with all our information and resources we are
already wise. So we spend our leisure watching television or playing video
games or just snoozing in the recliner, and again I totally include myself in
all those activities. But itís not all our fault. We may have ďleisureĒ time,
but the pressures and demands of work have robbed us of the mental and physical
energy it takes to think seriously before we ever get there. We have time, but
weíre exhausted. So we click up Netflix and zone out in front of our favorite
show or sports event.
†††††††† We have this royal
privilege and Christian calling to seek wisdom, but it takes a royal effort to
guard the time for it, whether itís a few minutes a day to read Scripture or a
couple hours a week to discuss a book with friends, or a week of vacation where
you allow yourself unscheduled time just to quietly contemplate where you stand
with God and the world around you.
†††††††† Even when we give it time,
there is one more hindrance to finding wisdom today. Itís our modern notion of
what wisdom is. For a few hundred years, we have soaked up and been saturated
with the idea that the only solid, real wisdom comes from what we now call
ďscience.Ē Even Christians are pretty convinced that the only knowledge worth
having comes in the form of facts solidly grounded in evidence gathered by
careful observation and experiment. Real understanding can always be stated in
clear, literal, evidence-based statements of fact.
understanding works very well. We want the FDA to test the medicine we take and
prove it effective. We want our cars to use proven, safe technology. We want
phones and microwaves and pacemakers to have been designed by people who gathered
facts and run the numbers and made sure it all functions. What we donít always
get is that there are other kinds of wisdom and knowledge about this world and
about God and that it wonít all reduce to the theorems and numbers of science.
Science can tell us a lot about our universe, but it cannot tell us the purpose
of our universe or our own purpose in it.
†††††††† Thatís why a great
deal of human wisdom is couched in non-scientific language. Itís why reading
and telling stories or listening to poetry or even watching plays and films can
teach us a great deal of wisdom. Because God and His universe and our own
hearts and minds are deep and mysterious, we often learn and speak about them
in language that is not literal and factual, but is full of images and metaphor.
†††††††† Thomas Aquinas
explained that, because God is so much greater than we are, even the words we
use to talk about Him will have different meanings than they usually do. They
will take images we do understand and help us to grasp mysteries we canít completely
understand. We say God is our Father, but we know that Heís not exactly like
our biological, human father. We say God is our Creator, but we know He didnít
make us in the same way that a woodworker makes a chair. In the 23rd Psalm this morning we said ďThe Lord is my shepherd,Ē but we donít go looking
for his shepherd staff to reach down and grab us. Thomas said that the things
we say about God are analogies. They are word pictures which say
something totally true about God or about His creation, but not literally.
†††††††† Scripture is filled
with analogies that let us grasp deep and mysterious truths about God and about
ourselves. These couple chapters of Proverbs, 25 and 26, happen to be chock
full of similes or metaphors or, I would say, analogies (and Iíd be happy to
hear an English major give me some clear explanation of the difference) which
offer us insights into the mysterious business of human life and interaction.
†††††††† Many of these proverbs
fit the dictionary definition of a simile because in English they use the word
ďlikeĒ to make their comparisons. But not all of them use the preposition which
signals ďlikeĒ in Hebrew, so perhaps theyíre just metaphors. But they all use
the fundamental characteristic of analogy. They teach us with a picture that corresponds
to the truth and reality of things, of life.
†††††††† These analogies are
often entertaining. Remember I said last week that the verse in chapter 24
which directed us to eat honey is balanced out by chapter 25ís verse 16 which
warns that eating too much honey will make you vomit. The point is not about
eating too many carbs. Itís verse 17 which compares the sweetness of honey to
visiting your neighbor. She may enjoy your company in small doses, but too much
is going to make her hate you.
†††††††† Analogical wisdom is
abundant in these couple chapters. Verse 19 compares a bad tooth or a lame foot
to the pain of trusting someone who is not trustworthy when you need them. And
verse 20 aptly says that trying to cheer up a person with heavy sorrows by
singing them happy songs is like pouring vinegar on an open wound. It just
makes them hurt more.
†††††††† What weíve got here is
all about finding ways to say truth about human relations in a way that will
motivate us to change. You can hear a psychology lecture about the grieving
process and an explanation of how cheery songs or platitudes will only
aggravate a personís pain at certain stages of grief, but that seemingly plain
scientific talk wonít help you get whatís needed as much as the wince you feel
when you imagine the sting of vinegar in a cut.
†††††††† John 1:1 tells us Jesus Christ our Lord is the Word and that world was made by that Word.
So it fits really well that the spoken and written word is still how God
reveals truth to us, both about Him and about our lives. If you want a key
verse itís there in Proverbs 25:11, ďA word fitly spoken is like apples of gold
in a setting of silver.Ē When we find the right words to say a thing, weíve
gone a long way toward searching it out, toward understanding it. And the right
word at the right time in the right place is like the perfect setting for a
piece of jewelry, like a diamond in the perfect engagement ring.
†††††††† Jesus taught us to
love our enemies and He told us stories like the Good Samaritan to help us
understand what that means. And when it came time for Paul to pass along that
teaching he borrowed the analogy here in chapter 25 verses 21 and 22, that
image of feeding and caring for your enemies being like coals on their heads.
The analogy helps us get hold of the true power of Christian love.
†††††††† The pictures, the
analogies are not really optional. We need them to really get it. We need to
see, we need to feel the truth of it all. We could talk all day here about the
work of the Eugene Mission and you might get some idea of whatís going on
there. But when a dozen of us actually walked around the place yesterday and
saw the clean beds and smelled the good food and heard the greetings of people
being served there it was entirely different. That was a literal picture which
helped us grasp Godís work. And we need word pictures, analogies, as well, if
we want to know and understand God and ourselves.
†††††††† There is not enough
time this morning to work through each of these funny, beautiful, powerful and
convicting analogies. There are many images in the first half of chapter 26
about the frustrations of dealing with people who are foolish. Unseasonable
snow, the flitting around of a bird, and even a little corporal punishment all
†††††††† Then verses 4 and 5
give contradictory advice about how to answer foolishness, but they are only
exploring this business of finding fitting words, making us think about each
situation carefully. Whether or not you try to talk a person out of foolishness
depends on choosing the right words for the circumstances. But verse 11 is a
classic and disgusting image to remind us that even if we get a fool
straightened out, such person will often go back to foolishness like a dog goes
back and eats its vomit.
†††††††† Iíve already mentioned
the verses about laziness which follow the verses about foolishness. Then
starting in verse 17 there some analogies about the human vice of quarreling
with each other. That verse is a truly apt ďapple of gold,Ē a vivid image of
taking a stray dog by its ears as a warning against meddling in other peopleís
quarrels. As a pastor I wish I could take that more to heart sometimes.
†††††††† The last few verses
use more images, like a glazed pot in verse 23, to warn us against hidden
wickedness in others. But then we get several verses of reassurance that evil
will have consequences for those who do it. God is just and justice will be the
end of the story.
†††††††† Jesusí story in our
Gospel lesson from Matthew 22 starts out with an analogy about the consequences
of declining an invitation from a king. When a king invites you to a family
party like a wedding, itís smart to go, because you donít want to be on the bad
side of someone who has life-and-death power over you.
†††††††† We could say here as
we read Proverbs that our King and Savior is inviting us to a feast of wisdom,
a feast of those golden apples by which He teaches us to love Him and love each
other. Itís a foolish move to decline His feast and ignore all these analogies
teaching us how to love and relate to each other.
†††††††† The wedding feast in
Jesusí story is more than just advice for getting along with each other. Itís
Godís offer of saving grace through the death and resurrection of His Son. Itís
an invitation to receive His forgiveness and accept new life in His kingdom.
The wedding feast is an analogy of that invitation, and Jesus told us to act
out that analogy all the time by sharing a feast together which itself is a
picture and analogy of how He saved us. We come together to share bread which
shows us the broken body of Jesus and a cup which tells us His blood was shed.
And that best of all analogies keeps inviting us to come to Him, to receive, to
learn His deep and mysterious wisdom by which the universe is run.
†††††††† So letís not ignore
the similes and metaphors and analogies by which God speaks to us, by which He
invites us to learn His deep things. Itís in and through those words, those
pictures, that He comes to us, that He calls us back to reality and the truth.
And itís in the living and visible Word who is Jesus Christ that we will live
†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj