This lecture was originally given as a convocation to students at the start of the school year, though I’ve found that the onset of the second quarter (which I imagine most of us have now begun) sometimes warrants a pep talk about maintaining the good goals we have set out for ourselves.
Too often, the school year is approached as a time of trial, as though a trial were necessarily an event which culminates in some kind of condemnation. For us, for Christians, however, our great hope is in trial. Trials of all kinds prove and improve our faith, and Christ taught his disciples to live in such a way that they looked forward to being judged, for in being judged they would receive their reward. On the day of Judgment, or simply “that day” as Christ sometimes says, our lives will be assessed and the consequences of that assessment will be everlasting. This is a great blessing, because it grants importance and significance to our lives, which echo in eternity. We are eternal beings, our lives bear out eternal consequences. This school year— the trial of this school year— will have both temporal and eternal consequences. This school year, like every other school year and every moment of your lives, is thus not something which can be circumnavigated or gotten around. There are no short cuts through eternity. Because we live with an eternal perspective, nothing in life can ever be merely endured and then permanently set behind us.
I have claimed that this year will be a trial, but that for the Christian, trials are a blessing. I would go further to say that trials are exciting, trials are an adventure, because they rely on both the past (what has been done) and the present (what we are doing) and eagerly look forward to the future and to reward. But not all trials are the same, and so what kind of trial is this school year to be? Why is it a blessing?
If a classical education merely resulted in knowledge, it would be carnal and worthless, and so teachers do not aim to graduate intelligent students but godly ones. Wise students. Knowledge can be an aid on the path to wisdom, but knowledge can also be a hindrance to reaching wisdom if knowledge seeks itself and loses sight of the goal of Christ. So, in what way ought we all use the knowledge that will come to us? What is our proper trajectory?
Proverbs begins, “The Proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, who reigned in Israel…” and then Solomon describes the purpose of this collection of proverbs.
“… to know wisdom and instruction, and to understand words of discernment; to receive both subtlety of words, and to understand true righteousness and upright judgment; so as to give astuteness to the simple, and both perception and understanding to a young man; for a wise man who hears these things will be wiser, and the man of understanding will gain direction. He will understand both a parable and a hidden saying, both wise words and riddles, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and there is good understanding in all you practice it; and godliness toward God is the beginning of perception, But the ungodly despise wisdom and instruction.”
As opposed to most contemporary understandings of the book, Proverbs is not a set of vitamin-like truths which pass seamlessly into a passive foolish body and magically render that body wise. Solomon tells us that his proverbs are “subtlety of words.” The wise man reading Proverbs becomes more wise, the man who already has understanding will gain direction. The proverbs give astuteness to the simple. For fools, however, little can be gained from Proverbs. In fact, in Proverbs 26:7, the wise are told to “remove a proverb from the mouth of men without discernment.” Proverbs 18 tells us that “A man lacking understanding has no need for wisdom.” Solomon characterizes the book of Proverbs as parables, hidden sayings, wise words and riddles. In this, Solomon is a type of Christ, who also speaks in wise words and riddles, parables and sayings hidden from the Pharisees, who are fools. The Pharisees do not use Christ’s words to gain wisdom, rather they arrogantly try to use the wise words of Christ to taunt and condemn Him.
So the wisdom of Solomon, like the wisdom of Christ, comes to us in parables and riddles. This means that in order to become wise, we must be a people who interprets and interacts and responds with wisdom. It is telling that in describing the Kingdom of God, Christ commonly likens the Christian to the laborer. To hear wisdom and then gain in wisdom requires active obedience and active submission, not passive ascent and head-nodding.
What exactly is a riddle, then? What is a parable? Well, let me give you a riddle, one of the more famous riddles in all of Proverbs.
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
In even our first moments after hearing this teaching, our minds begin to expand to make room for the two stories which are suggested. You might say that, quite often, the Proverbs of Solomon are like the first two minutes of a movie and the final two minutes of a movie. Based on what we see, we must discern what has come between the A part and the B part. In the aforementioned proverbs, Solomon gives us two concluding scenes to longer stories. Notice what we have to assume in each. We must assume a story.
We intuit that the wise man has met a fool and that the two are in the midst of a conversation. The wise man knows the fool to the extent that he has witnessed “his folly.” But the paradoxical teaching of Solomon demands much of us. We try to discern the conditions of each conversation which lead to the separate outcomes. In the first scenario, the wise man becomes a fool like the fool he is speaking with. For Solomon, such an outcome is nothing less than horrific, because we know that fools are murderers and adulterers. In the second scenario, the wise man answers the fool in such a way that the fool understands he is not wise. We are left to create a realistic back story for each, to understand the trajectory of that back story and why it concludes in two different ways.
In the first scenario, perhaps the folly of the fool is that he uses vulgar and obscene language which offends, and the wise man tries to show the fool how offensive that kind of talk is by using vulgar and obscene language that would offend even the fool so that he “gets a taste of his own medicine.” Now he has entered into the moral slums of the fool and become like him.
In the second scenario, perhaps the fool has claimed that unborn children are less than human because developmental psychologists have proven it true and the wise man answers him in the same rationale, teasingly saying that the Jews were less than human according to many German scientists of the 1940s. Now, perhaps, the fool questions the wisdom of his approach to scientific proclamations.
In each scenario, we must discern the story which comes before the conclusion. Take another example.
“Seldom visit your own friend’s house, lest he become fed up with your company and hate you.”
This parable likely calls to our minds two very different kinds of stories. Doubtless, some people, upon hearing this, immediately think back to a friend you once had who insisted on coming over to your house every day after school, tried to stay as long as possible, and, in general, prevented you from spending time with your parents, your siblings or your other friends. After six months of this kind of behavior, you didn’t really want to be that person’s friend anymore.
There are also some of you here, at least I hope there are, who share meals together all the time and live in very close community with one another. I think of the Acts 4 community where we are told, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul, neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” Are we really to believe that in such a tightly knit community, Christians were “seldom” visiting the homes of their friends? This is a riddle and we must solve it. We must solve it creatively, interpretively. We must discern what kind of friend is being spoken of in Proverbs and what it is he or she does on these visits. We must discern the personality for this friend. When the past lives of characters in Proverbs are unknown, we must dig into other passages of Scripture to discover them, but we must also dig into our own experiences, our own pasts, and discover them. Scripture interprets Scripture, but our own lives aid in this. Scripture tells us about proper use of knives and parapets and phylacteries, but as my old pastor Peter Leithart has noted, Scripture does not give us definitions of knives or parapets or phylacteries. Scripture assumes that we know, and if we do not know, we must dig into the past, into the tradition of weapons and Jewish architecture and fashion. The command to put parapets around the roofs of our houses does us little good if we don’t know what parapets are and assume them to be decorative linings.
So, some of you are thinking right now, what exactly does all of this talk about riddles have to do with the world outside of a theology class? Isn’t this all just hermeneutics, and what has hermeneutics to do with biology and math?
To put it simply, the entirety of our lives is a riddle. We are Christians and we affirm belief in a God who is outside of time, Who knows the end from the beginning. And yet, as human beings, we exist inside of time. Our perspective is limited and as far as we can see, every new moment of our lives is a kind of limited culmination of the history of the world. Every new second in which we are alive is the final moment of the story. This means that, in a certain sense, we are born into the conclusion of the story, and it is up to us to discern what the trajectory of that story is if we want to be wise.
While the examples I could draw from are nearly endless, let me suggest a few to you. When you are young, you come to understand that there is a traditional posture of prayer, and that posture involves folding your hands and closing your eyes. This is the conclusion of the riddle. Your parents speak Proverbs to you, like Solomon. They say, “When we pray, we close our eyes and fold our hands.” But as you mature and grow older, you begin to wonder, Why? Why do we do this? How long have we been doing this? My parents have told me to do this, but who told them? And who told their grandparents? Or when you are younger, you see that your church is a Presbyterian church but some of your friends go to a Baptist church. Why do these churches have different names? You inquire and find that different names signify slight differences in theology. Why are there differences in theology, you ask? And where did these differences come from? Such a person has encountered the riddle, identified the riddle as a riddle, and sought to solve it. Or perhaps a more mundane example. You see that the sky is blue and wonder why. Has it always been blue? How long has this been going on? How long has the fourth day of the week been called Wednesday? There are no Wednesdays in Homer’s Illiad. You read a Jane Austen story and find a character who buys a mansion for a thousand dollars. The guy selling the mansion didn’t seem to be insane. How is this possible, you wonder? These examples might not seem like they have anything to do with wisdom. Why is the sky blue? That’s just a question kids ask.
Let me suggest a different way of looking at these questions. The man or woman who appreciates the riddle-like nature of the world is— if they committed their soul to the Triune God—a humble person. This is a person who recognizes their own inadequacy to understand the world and, in meekness, seeks out others, and by others I do not mean merely those who live here and now, but those who lived long ago. The humble and meek man seeks out others, others who know God and human nature and human history and physics and science and the order of the earth, and in doing so (in seeking out the earth and the history of the earth and every good man and thing which has ever inhabited the earth) the meek man inherits the earth. He makes himself subject to others, dependant on others, and the man or woman who is dependent on others is also the servant of others, and in being their servant, the Lord raises that person up. The trial which you undergo over the school year is this seeking out of Jesus Christ, the seeking out of others, the wisdom and testimony of the living and the dead, the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.
And how could we think of this as anything other than an adventure? An adventure is a journey over space and time filled by encounters with new people, new places and ideas, new colors and new words and new virtues learned, old vices sloughed off. If you come into school with a willingness to dig, to admit you don’t know and the humility to seek out answers, this odyssey will be yours. But don’t think of it merely as an encounter with these people in books. I am not merely offering you an odyssey of the mind. Not at all. Your education is a collaborative effort not only between you and your books, but between you and your teachers and your peers and your siblings, the people in your own church you befriend because of new shared interests. Flesh and blood, real human beings created in God’s image, who are Other than you and whom God invites you to know and love and respect in new and grander ways. This is yet another opportunity for you to enter deeper into the Triune life, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit modeled here on earth in our love and humble respect for one another.
In Proverbs 25, Solomon tells us that “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” It is commonly regarded within Christian thought that our Lord Jesus Christ occupied three distinct offices, all of which were prophetically spoken of throughout the Old Testament. He was, is and will always be King, Priest and Prophet. St. Paul teaches us that we have been made co-inheritors with Christ, which means that we need to understand ourselves within Christ occupying these same offices. The glory of kings is to “search out” the matters which God has concealed, and in Jesus Christ, all Christians have been made kings and queens.
Many Christians make the mistake of believing that if they merely show up in church often enough, wisdom and discernment will simply fall from heaven into their brains like apples from a tree under which they have stretched out to nap. This could not be further from the truth. St. Paul writes in Colossians that “…all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are” hidden” in Christ Jesus. Hidden. Hidden like many sayings of Solomon and Jesus are hidden. St. Paul has not said that “…all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are right on the surface of Jesus Christ so you can grab them at your leisure.” They are hidden and they require digging.
Or to think of it with a different metaphor, the things hidden in Christ require ascent. Climbing. The kind of ascent that Moses knew, when he climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the commandments of God. The kind of ascent Abraham knew when he climbed Mt. Moriah and God delivered Isaac and blessed Abraham and declared to him a forthcoming galaxy of children. The kind of ascent Elijah knew when he climbed Mt Carmel and witnessed the power of God to deliver Israel from the demonic prophets of Baal. The kind of ascent poor Galilean disciples of Christ knew when they ascended a mountain near Capernaum to hear the consolation taught in the Beatitudes . The kind of ascent that Peter, James and John knew when they climbed Mt. Tabor to receive a vision of the Transfigured Christ. The kind of ascent that Jesus Himself knew when he was taken up on Mt. Golgotha to rescue man from sin and teach us how to love one another. The ascent the apostles knew when they climbed the Mount of Olives to be blessed by Christ, to receive the calling to go out into the world and preach, and to witness the Son’s glorious and triumphant return to the Father. To bear witness to these miracles, to participate in them and be blessed by them, climbing was required. Movement, courage, dedication and a resistance to distraction.
In Christ, you are kings and queens, which means that you must learn from the wise kings of Scripture and follow their examples, and you must learn from their folly, as well. You see, Israel was unique within the world of ancient religion. Israel was the only nation wherein the king was a member of the laity, not a member of the clergy. The king of Israel has no prescribed liturgical role within Hebraic law. This is an anomaly. In nearly all ancient religions, the king was a cultic figure. In Israel, kings were not specially charged as shepherds of souls like priests and prophets were. This meant that kings of Israel had a special kind of dedication to the things of this earth. This was their purpose. But for many kings, their dedication to organizing and ordering the things of this earth got them entangled in the things of this earth. They became distracted, fascinated by trendy pagan practices, overcome by romantic intrigues that distracted them from their true glory, which was searching out and revealing the matters which God had concealed for them. Some kings were still interested in searching out matters, but they were not the matters which God had concealed from them for their discovery, as Solomon describes.
So, too, as kings and queens, you may be tempted in a similar fashion over the course of this year. The matters which God has called you to search out have been made known to you by your church and by your parents. Your teachers are working with your parents in helping you seek these things out. However, the World has also laid out things for you to discover. The World is not some distant thing, it is the Egypt from which you have escaped into the trials of the unknown, ultimately to be delivered into the rest of Christ Jesus. In the midst of your trial, you will be tempted to long for the things of Egypt, the things of this world, just as was Israel. You will be tempted toward trendy and fashionable secular culture, needless romantic intrigues and laziness, self-contentment, self-reliance and doubt that any of what you have been called to do at school really matters. These kind of temptations are human and are only to be expected, but that means you should be doubly ready to respond to them righteously when they arise.
The things of this world are passing, carnal— the kinds of things destroyed by fire, not refined by fire. The things of this world direct you to yourself, away from others, away from the adventure and the odyssey of solving riddles, uncovering mysteries, reveling in the beauty of the Triune life, creating things of beauty out of adoration for the Divine Fiat which sung the cosmos into being, shepherding the weak.
The world offers no odyssey like Christ does, so embrace the life of righteous kings and queens, dig deep into the wisdom hidden in Christ and ascend high to receive the deliverance, the blessing, the teaching, the peace, the relief, the compassion and the calling of our God.