Saturday, July 06, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (66)

Everybody loves an underdog.

Ask any sports fan. We are always delighted to cheer the overcomer, the up-and-comer, and the unexpected victory from the team that wasn’t expected to get it done. It’s called bandwagoneering, and it happens regularly in cities whose teams haven’t won in years. People with no previous interest in basketball, baseball or football suddenly start talking about the home squad as if they are family members.

But underdogs are not just a regular feature of professional sports. Creation has plenty of them on display. The best thing is that these natural examples of overcoming were not cobbled together at last minute with millions of dollars at the trade deadline; rather, they were designed by God to teach us all lessons of enduring value.

The Oracle of Agur (Proverbs 30:24-28)

Exceeding Wisdom on Display

Agur’s fifth quaternion of lists follows directly on his fourth:
“Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise:
the [1] ants are a people not strong,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
the [2] rock badgers are a people not mighty,
yet they make their homes in the cliffs;
the [3] locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank;
the [4] lizard you can take in your hands, yet it is in kings’ palaces.”
This time, rather than drawing lessons from the domestic or political spheres, he looks to the natural world for inspiration. His style continues to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, but there are still lessons to be observed in nature which, when applied to the human experience, make for better and more profitable lives.

As best we are able to understand it, the “wisdom” of beasts and insects is uncomplicated by apathy, despair, fatalism or other more complex human emotions that tend to interfere with our performance from time to time. It is the appearance of wisdom, not the thing itself. Nature is acting as God has directed it, not calculating, analyzing or assessing probabilities. Nevertheless, the apparent shrewdness of creatures serves as an example to those who wish to live wisely.

[1] Proactivity

First, Agur notes that ants store up food when there is food to be had. Without clocks or calendars, they take advantage of good times to provide for the bad ones. Many of the higher animals don’t need to do this. They have the natural strength and speed to simply take what they need when they need it. Why store food when you can just overpower and consume other creatures when calories are required? Weaker and smaller beings, however, are obliged to make do without those advantages. God has given them other ways to get by.

For average humans, neither choosing to work harder than absolutely necessary in the short term, nor depriving ourselves in the here-and-now to increase the chances of a better future are habits that come naturally. Most people have to be taught them, and some of us require positive or negative incentives to get us to play ball. It took a miraculous dream interpretation provided by God to persuade Pharoah to adopt Joseph’s grain and produce tax reforms. Even then, if human nature is any indication, it probably took the implicit threat of force from the Egyptian state to ensure all of its citizens got with the program. Once Pharaoh was convinced, however, Egypt became the envy of all the nations experiencing famine and the place to go if you hoped to survive.

For Christians, trusting the Lord to provide our daily needs is normal. That does not preclude prudently handling the resources he commits to us. Paul instructed the Corinthians to put something aside each week whenever they had it to spare, so that it could be quickly accessed to meet the needs of others when required.

For most people, that’s not instinctive.

[2] Security

I have to confess I’d never seen a rock badger until I googled the little guys just now. Also called rock hyraxes or rock rabbits, these African and Middle Eastern mammals are wired for self-preservation. Agur says they are “not mighty”, but make their homes in the cliffs, which is exactly right. They live in cracks in rock faces where most larger animals cannot easily climb and cannot get close enough to attack even if they could.

Here again, the contrast is with animals strong or large enough to wander freely without fear of attack. If you’ve got nothing more than acute paranoia and a fur coat to work with, you’ve got to find a different strategy, and rock badgers do just that. Like ants, one of their greatest strengths is community. They are “a people”, as Agur puts it, not merely a collection of self-interested individuals. They forage close to home in packs of 10-80, and have been observed to post sentries who sound the alarm when predators move in. This strategy is very effective. As Infogalactic puts it, hyrax remains are “almost absent from the droppings of wolves in the Judean Desert.” I am reminded of the unity of the early church, among whom not a needy person was to be found. That’s community.

Where rock badgers are smart enough to make their home in a genuinely safe place, human beings are often fooled by the appearance of security. But money, proximity to power and numbers are all sources of false confidence. Solomon said, “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall.” The psalmist said, “Put not your trust in princes, in whom there is no salvation.” And God saved Israel from Midian with 300 men who blew trumpets and broke jars.

Perhaps a rock is the safest place to make your home after all.

[3] Knowing Your Place

“The locusts have no king,” says Agur, but “all of them march in rank.” This sort of arrangement works when everyone knows their place in the group and the responsibilities that fall to them, but fails miserably when they don’t. It works for locusts because even if there is no visible individual locust-king organizing the troops, they follow the mysterious and instinctive order God put right into their DNA.

Like the locusts, the nation of Israel was conceived as an organized unity without a visible king. God was their King, and they rejected him in favor of following the orders of a man. Too bad. While it had lasted, Israel was a marvel of organization without a visible, earthly monarch. Taken up by the Spirit of God, Balaam cried, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel!” Something made Israel an existential threat to all the evil nations of Canaan, and it wasn’t the direction of a human king.

Like Israel, the church has no visible Head on this earth. Our marching orders are delivered to each part of the Body individually, or at least they should be. God arranges the members, not man. It is God who has “composed the Body”. Unlike a human body, each part of Christ’s Body was individually intended to to “hold fast to the Head.” Our directions were never intended to be mediated to us through clergy. No king is required but Jesus Christ himself.

For that to work, every member of the Body must know his or her place and not try to assume functions for which we are not designed.

[4] Size Doesn’t Matter

“The lizard you can take in your hands, yet it is in kings’ palaces.” I marvel at what you can find perched on the other side of a fifty-first story window. Man builds his impressive edifices and the smallest beings in God’s creation promptly swarm all over them.

But size has never been an issue with God. Need I mention David and Goliath? But the principle holds throughout history. The people he chose for his treasured possession were “the fewest of all peoples.” He stage-managed the kidnapping and enslavement of a single youth to redirect the course of Egyptian politics and preserve the nation of Israel during a famine. He transformed the first century world with eleven very average men.

In bringing his church into the world, Jesus Christ devised something meek, lowly ... and tremendously mobile and efficient. Persecuted in one location, first century Christians simply moved to others, taking the gospel wherever they went and spreading it like wildfire. Never has the church been less effective and operated less as designed than when it institutionalizes and builds huge monuments to itself. That was never the plan. Size is what the world looks for and is impressed by, but God is doing something else entirely.

It’s almost like the Head of the Church expected his people to be as shrewd as serpents ... or other reptiles.


  1. "Our directions were never intended to be mediated to us through clergy (and/or through contemporaries with a personal bent and interest in overanalyzing scripture). No king is required but Jesus Christ himself."

    I would say this applies to many situations and is somewhat oversimplification since it ignores the very attributes given by the King to select subjects for the perfectly natural (and required) trait to provide NEEDED leadership and example. One can take issue with the way leadership is executed, it's level of competence, etc., but it is a fallacy to call leadership and example itself a flawed concept. By that criterion the queen bee or ant would be nothing but a flawed aberration when it is actually part of the natural order of things.

  2. 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 gives us a picture of the way the church relates to Christ, as the human body relates to its head. Colossians 2:17-19 picks up the metaphor and describes the importance of each member individually "holding fast to the Head".

    So leadership in the church, certainly. The New Testament order absolutely includes leadership in both church and home. But these men do not mediate Christ to us in the way the Old Testament priests served as a human interface between God and man, "for there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5).

    No other man is required.

    1. Correct by your definition and world view where this type of leadership is not required. What differentiates the case is if course that the Catholic beliefs in the reality of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It would be absurd to assume that that should NOT be mediated by the Catholic priest. This was discussed here before. It once more comes down to different belief systems. Also, this type of leadership was always there from the beginning since the Eucharist has always been dealt with that way until the totally unqualified (morally and otherwise) person of Luther provided a basically political alternative to the worldly powers.