November 16, 2014 - Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
In grad school,
several of us had a Bible verse tacked up in our research carrels. Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of
the flesh.” We handled that weariness in different ways. Some of my philosophy
friends took breaks in “chariot races” held on the deserted upper floors of the
library tower. They would find two library carts and seat one student on top of
each. Then two others would push the carts in a breakneck race around the book
stacks, risking life and limb.
For half a year now,
we’ve been hearing Proverbs ask us to diligently seek wisdom. Now in this
chapter a new voice, with a non-Hebrew name, admits that the search for wisdom
can wear you out. It may feel like you are just going in a circle. We’ve heard
constant repetition in Proverbs, even of whole verses throughout this book.
It’s like we never really got anywhere new, just raced around and around,
chasing our tails.
Agur says it twice in
verse 1, “I am weary, O God, I am weary O God.” Then in verses 2 and 3 he talks
about how stupid he feels, despite all his learning. “I have not learned
wisdom,” he admits, and then, specifically, “nor have I knowledge of the Holy
Anyone who has
seriously attempted to understand God and His Word and what it means for us,
will sometimes feel like Agur does here. That is, unless you are taken in, as I
heard from a friend at Courtsports last Wednesday, by some easy way out which
imagines you can just simplify all the complex glory of God into a quick
formula like “God just loves everyone and that’s it.” It’s true that God loves
everyone, but that’s not just “it.”
No, any truly
thoughtful consideration of our Christian faith and our human life has to
reveal how little we really comprehend about it all. Verse 4 echoes God’s own
words to Job at the end of that book, asking four times the question “Who?” Who
goes where God is? Who can do what God does? The answer is “No one.” No one can
really grasp the whole of who God is and what He does or what happens to you
and me in this life.
As Socrates realized a
few hundred years after Proverbs was written, knowing that you don’t know, that
you don’t understand, is itself a part of wisdom. It’s why growing a little older
really can make you wiser. It’s not that you have more or better answers to all
the questions and problems we face. It’s that you’ve had opportunity to arrive
where Agur did, at the point where you are forced to admit, “I just don’t get
it. I don’t understand.”
We may arrive at that
kind of humble wisdom by growing weary from lots of study or by struggling with
a personal problem we can’t solve or by staring disappointment or even death in
the face when illness strikes us or someone we love. We end up having to say,
“I am weary, O God, I am weary, O God,” and “I just don’t understand.”
Part of why it is so
hard for us to learn the humble wisdom of knowing we are not all that wise is
that the spirit of our age keeps trying to tell us it’s not so. For all the
problems of our world, we can’t quite get over the wishful thinking that really
good science is going to fix things for us. After all, if human ingenuity and
science can land a two-hundred pound robot probe on a comet flying through
space 317 million miles away at 84,000 miles per hour, then why can’t we solve
almost any problem we face?
We have a sort of
faith that if we can think about it in terms of numbers, then we can solve it.
And we often think we can put numbers to anything. When I talked in
Sunday School about the “Slow Church” movement I said that it is in part a
reaction to a cultural phenomenon called the “McDonaldization” of culture. We
think everything, from businesses to families to churches, can operate like a
McDonald’s restaurant. Which means that it will all be predictable, efficient,
calculable, and controllable.
It’s that third part
of McDonaldization, calculability, which concerns us here, the idea that we can
look at everything in terms of numbers. You can calculate the exact thickness
your french fries should be and how many seconds you should cook them to
produce maximum customer appreciation and the greatest profit.
Most of us know
instinctively that much of what makes us human cannot be calculated, but we
still get sucked into that way of thinking when a physician starts telling us
the probability of successful surgery or when a psychologist speaks about the
probability of a good marriage or when an educator wants to base your child’s
future on standardized tests. But we know that while good arithmetic, good
math, may balance the checkbook or land a payload on a comet, it doesn’t
usually help with our deepest questions.
Why then does Proverbs 30 frame most of its message in terms of simple arithmetic, simple enumeration of
sets of four? Is Agur the ancient forebear of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc,
believing that the way to success is to calculate everything to perfection? No,
Agur, like Jesus in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, wants to show us that while arithmetic is not a golden road to a good life, it
can point us in the right direction.
My friend Jay pointed
out verses 7 through 9 to me a long time ago. “Look,” he said, “here’s the way
to live.” Ask God to give me “neither poverty nor riches,” but only what I
need. It’s what the philosopher Aristotle identified as a “golden mean,” that
sweet mathematical spot between extremes. Aristotle was thinking of character
and the virtues. Courage is in the middle between cowardice and recklessness.
Generosity is in the middle between stinginess and wastefulness.
Life is better if we
learn to moderate our emotions and our actions toward that blessed midpoint of
just what is needed. When we trust in God, that’s what we ask of Him, enough so
that we’re not tempted to get what we need the wrong way, and not so much that
we think we can do without God. Honestly, I think that’s why God lets our
church and so many churches run behind our budgets for awhile year after year.
So that we won’t forget we depend on His provision and not on our arithmetic
and budget planning.
The mathematics of the
mean point us to God and so do other kinds of calculation. Verses 11 to 31 are
six groups of four, four kinds of evil people, four appetites that are never
satisfied, four wonders beyond understanding, four upsets in human society,
four small creatures that do well, and four animals that walk proudly. The
point of these is to count off attitudes we want to have and attitudes we
That first group starting
in verse 11 warns us against dishonoring father and mother, against hypocrisy
that ignores our own sins, against pride, and against those who speak words
that exploit the poor and needy. It’s no accident the next group then is about
insatiable appetites, like the two daughters of the leech which keep calling
out “Give, give.” Sheol, the place of the dead, is never filled up. The empty
womb, the heart of someone who wants but can’t have children, is always aching.
The dry earth keeps soaking up water, and as we’ve seen all too well in recent
summers, fire keeps burning whatever it can find to burn. They’re all pictures
of the human spirit not living in God’s golden mean, always wanting more than
we need, always hurting when we don’t have what we need.
Verse 17 slips in here
to warn us again not to dishonor parents, and then verses 18 and 19 show us the
sort of wisdom Agur began with, the wonder to acknowledge what we don’t
understand like the flight of a bird or the life of a reptile or the winds which
blow a ship on the ocean, and especially the course of human love. Let us be
humbled by God’s wonderful creation, most of all by our own strange and complex
Then verse 20 is
inserted in to show us a woman who does not understand love, who thinks sex is
just like eating. You clean yourself up when you’re done and that’s all there
is to it. But we know that’s a mistake, that our human interactions with each
other mean more than that. That’s why verses 21 to 23 show us four topsy-turvy
social situations, a man promoted beyond his ability, a man with no
self-control handed too much to eat, a woman who wants nothing but a husband
and gets her wish, and a woman being promoted over someone who deserves it
more. They’ve all stepped out of that golden mean, seeking more, or less, than
the good God has for them.
Verses 24 to 28
switches back to positive examples in the form of little animals making good in
spite of their size. Ants tells us you don’t have to be strong to have enough
to eat. The badger teaches us we don’t need power in order to be secure. The
locusts show that even without supervision we can cooperate with each other.
And the lizard reminds us that God has a place in His kingdom for the smallest
and most insignificant person.
The last group of four
in verses 29 to 31 uses animals and humans to show us what not to be,
lions who prowl around living off others, strutting roosters or goats making
more of ourselves than we really are, and proud kings showing off in front of
our subjects. It all goes back to that humble acknowledgement that we are not
wise, we are not great, we are not all winners ready to do our little victory
dance in the end zone. We need God.
So the last couple
verses warn us not to be foolish, not to keep trying to make ourselves great
and powerful. If that’s what we’ve been talking about, let’s put our hand over
our mouth and stop any more nonsense from coming out. And let’s not get angry
about it, says the last verse. Anger isn’t going to help. It’s only going to
push us out to the extreme of strife and conflict with other people.
All the arithmetic
here, all the math says “Trust God, believe in Him, rely on His help, not on
your own understanding,” just like we read back at the beginning of Proverbs in
chapter 3, verse 5. And just like Jesus taught in that parable of investment,
trusting God is good arithmetic. The numbers work out. Do the math and it makes
I’m reading some work
by a Christian philosopher named Lara Buchak. Like Christian thinkers down
through the ages, she wants to show that faith is rational. It’s not stupid or
careless or unwise to believe and trust in God. Her new twist on that old
conversation is to argue that the mathematics of decision theory, what some
might call game theory, makes it rational to have faith.
Buchak says that faith is believing something and being willing to act on it, usually
believing something about another person. So you have faith in a person when
you believe something about that person, like that she’s trustworthy, and you
are willing to act on that belief, maybe by telling her your secrets. You have
faith in God when you believe in Him and what He says and are willing to act on
those beliefs by worshiping and giving and serving and so on.
But faith also
involves something that is part of every personal relationship. We can’t always
be absolutely sure about what we believe when another person is involved. We
can’t see into each other’s hearts and minds. You seem trustworthy, but I can’t
know that with hundred percent certainty. We learn from Scripture that God is
good and powerful and loving, but there’s no way to completely verify that. So
faith is being willing to act on those beliefs even though we can’t be certain.
There’s no absolute guarantee that my wife won’t blab my secrets to the world,
but I have faith and tell her my secrets anyway. There’s no irrefutable proof
that God will save me and give me eternal life, but I believe it and worship
and give and trust Him anyway. That’s faith.
And Buchak explains
that the math shows faith like that is rational, reasonable. If what you’ve got
to lose by not acting on beliefs about someone else is large, you would be
foolish not to have faith and trust your spouse or to trust in God. If you wait
to get married until you are totally, completely, hundred percent confident in
that other person, you will never do it and you will lose out. If you wait to
commit your life to Jesus and get baptized and follow Him until you’ve seen
concrete evidence that He’s who He says He is, you will never take that step
and you will miss all the blessings.
So good arithmetic,
good math, says the step of faith makes sense. It doesn’t say take it blind or
against what you know to be true. You don’t marry someone you met yesterday or
who other people tell you is a loser or abuser. You don’t give your life to the
Lord just because you heard a radio preacher or when you see Christians acting
like jerks. You have faith when you see and experience some good reasons to
believe and trust and to keep on believing and trusting even though you can’t
During my seminary
training, Beth and I lived out in the country, 13 miles from the school,
because the rent was cheap. One day in the winter I got the flu and was running
a high fever. I stayed home while Beth went to work at the seminary library.
She came home that evening and immediately realized she had left her purse back
at the seminary. In her anxiety about it, she decided she needed to immediately
drive back and retrieve it before some dishonest seminarian made off with it.
My fevered brain was
not working brilliantly either, so I told her to take my driver’s
license along so she would at least have that with her. So she went off as the
light was fading and it was starting to snow. She got to the seminary, got the
purse and started home. By then it was dark and snow was coming down fast.
About two miles from our house the road curved. but our little car didn’t. Beth
slid down the bank and out into a snow-covered cornfield where the car got
As hard as it is to
imagine, there were no cell phones then. So I got a frantic call from Beth who
had crawled out, walked through the field and up the bank, across the road to
the only house nearby. I was so sick I could hardly move and I had no driver’s license,
so I told her to stay there and I would find somebody to come get her. She
said, “I can’t.” I said, “Why not?” She just said, “I can’t. I can’t talk about
it. I’ll be in the car.” And she hung up.
I found out later that
the guy who let her use the phone just creeped Beth out and she didn’t want to
stay in his house a moment longer than necessary. She would rather hike back
out to our stranded car and sit there. While she sat, someone came up in the
dark and knocked on her window. She looked out and saw a man bundled up a dark
coat and hat and motioning her to roll down the window. Already frightened, she
refused, until he took something out of his pocket and held it up. She rolled
down her window a crack, he slipped it in and she saw that it was a law
enforcement badge. He told her he was the sheriff and he would give her a ride
wherever she needed.
She couldn’t see the
police car up on the road. She couldn’t see this guy’s uniform. All she had to
go on was a badge and a reassuring voice. But she knew she had too much to lose
if she didn’t trust this man. It was really cold. She had to go to the
bathroom. She couldn’t sit there much longer. So she got out and hiked behind
that guy up to the road where she found a sheriff’s cruiser, got in, and he brought
That’s like our faith
in God. That’s like putting your life and talents and time into service for
Jesus Christ. You have some reasons to trust Him. The people who wrote the
Bible, and Christians down through the centuries, tell you He is trustworthy
and true and that He will save you and make your faith pay off. You can’t be
sure, though. As Agur says, there is lots and lots you don’t understand and
cannot see. But the cost of waiting until you know, until you see for sure, is
just too great. The time for faith, the time to put your life to work for Jesus
is now, not later.
Our psalm, Psalm 90 verse 12, said, “teach us to count our days.” Do the math that counts how brief
your time here may be, that counts how much you have to gain by putting
yourself in God’s hands, by trusting Jesus Christ with everything you have. Do
it now, do the good arithmetic that means you will live by faith and give
yourself and your time and your skills and your resources to Jesus. As Proverbs
tells you, it’s the only wise thing to do.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj