“Three things are far too great for me, magnificent and grand; and there are four I do not know, and cannot understand: the way of snakes upon a rock, and eagles up above; the way of ships upon the sea, and those who fall in love.” (Proverbs 30:18-19)
This is the thirtieth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 30, preceded by a brief reflection.
Pat and I were returning from a walk several weeks ago when our eyes caught sight of a swarm of several hundred starlings flying in what is known as a murmuration. This is not simply a large flock of birds that one might observe during migration, or geese flying in V-shape formation. A starling murmuration occurs when hundreds, sometimes thousands of starlings fly in ever changing and seemingly coordinated patterns through the sky. Perhaps you have observed a starling murmuration at some time in your life? With swooping, pulsing and heaving, the aeronautic display appears as if it is being directed by an invisible conductor. And conductor might not be a bad word to use, because even the word ‘murmuration’ is the onomatopoetic sound of the fluttering of thousands of wings. We could only stand and marvel at this wonder of God’s creation.
The why’s and how’s of a murmuration are a mystery. There are, as you might expect, different theories postulated on the purpose of a murmuration. Some say that the large ever-changing patterns are to confuse erstwhile predators, while others suggest that it allows starlings to form smaller groups, which break off from the murmuration and roost together for warmth in the cold weather. As to the mechanics of a murmuration, it is believed that when one bird changes direction, it affects those immediately around it, which then cascades through the entire flock. But these are only theories – no one understands for certain. And even if correct, they don’t begin to explain the biological complexities of the phenomenon, much less its aesthetic pull on the soul of those with eyes to see.
In the current chapter of Proverbs, Agur the Seer identifies some things he doesn’t understand: “Three things are far too great for me, magnificent and grand; and there are four I do not know, and cannot understand: the way of snakes upon a rock, and eagles up above; the way of ships upon the sea, and those who fall in love.” (Proverbs 30:18-19) While acknowledging his lack of understanding, he is still able to marvel at their magnificence and grandeur. They are, as he writes, ‘far too great for me.’ Other translations use the words wonderful and amazing. Words that surely apply to a starling murmuration as well.
How do you suppose verses 18-19 relate to the stated purpose of the book of Proverbs, which is for gaining wisdom (Proverbs 1:2)? In an earlier post on Proverbs 4, I compared wisdom in the Bible with how it is generally understood in our culture. My conclusion is that Biblical wisdom is primarily a moral concept, whereas worldly wisdom is essentially a cognitive one. Biblical wisdom and worldly wisdom are not generally opposed to one another, they are simply different concepts. Both have their place. Indeed, wisdom as the world knows it is important for a Christian – even Jesus directed his disciples to be ‘as wise as serpents.’ In other words, to have ‘street smarts.’
At first glance, it is hard to see how verses 18-19 have anything to say about Biblical wisdom, particularly if the focus is on the Seer’s lack of understanding. Although there is wisdom in humility and admitting what one doesn’t understand, it is hardly worth our time to consider what this ancient Seer doesn’t know about how snakes, birds, and boats move about. On the other hand, there is much in these verses worth pondering; namely, how beauty and mystery are connected to Biblical wisdom.
In the book, “Anatomy of the Soul,” Christian author and psychiatrist Curt Thompson explores the connections between neuroscience and spirituality. In it, he compares the functions of our left and right brains. As is well known, the left brain is responsible for logical understanding reflected in reasoning, language, and numbers; and the right brain for intuitive understanding reflected in beauty, music, and the arts. Thompson writes, “The left hemisphere tends to be more dominant in situations in which we seek to ‘know’ things. It separates us from the objects we wish to examine and analyze, which is critical if we are to interpret what we are experiencing. When such analysis is the dominant mode by which we encounter other people or God, however, joy becomes merely a defined concept. Love is something we know about but do not know. However, the right mode of operation enables us to open ourselves to be touched by God and known by him in such a way as to become living expressions of love. The integration of the left and right systems is required to experience being known … .” (37)
What I take from this is that wisdom involves not just the left brain, but the right brain as well. We need both halves of our brain to follow Jesus’ command to, “Love the Lord your God with all your … mind.” (Matthew 22:37) If I am correct that wisdom emerges from our entire brain, then we need to cultivate the right side of our brain to pursue Biblical wisdom. While our left brain yearns for understanding of the why’s and how’s of a murmuration; our right brain is satisfied to soak in its beauty and mystery. What we see is a function of the lens through which we see it. When I read verses 18-19, the words great, magnificent, and grand stand out. Clearly the Seer is overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of snakes slithering, eagles soaring, boats sailing, and love sharing. His right brain is fully engaged, and his protest against lack of understanding only serves to accentuate the point.
It seems to me that the contuition of God in all that is wonderful and beautiful is the first step on the road to Biblical wisdom. In the opening verses of Proverbs we find, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7) The word ‘fear’ means to stand in awe of, or to revere, or respect. I am not sure how we come to the place of revering the Lord unless we have some felt experience of his presence in the world. And this, I believe, is only possible when we open the right side of our minds to see the hand behind all that is wonderful. The apostle Paul wrote, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) This is so, but it requires that we see it through the right brain eyes of beauty and mystery.
But how exactly do we open the eyes of our right brain? Even though it is factually correct that wonder and emotion come from the right hemisphere of our brain, for all intents and purposes the left brain/right brain dichotomy is a construct because we only have a single brain to absorb stimuli from the world around us and direct our response. The answer I believe involves slowing down and contemplating the God-markers in the world around us. As the Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.” (Psalm 19:1-3) Ours is a faith rooted in beauty and mystery. When we ponder and reflect on our God-bathed world, our right brain is necessarily engaged, which is the start of wisdom.
In the words of famed minister and hymnist John Newton, “There is a signature of wisdom and power impressed on the works of God, which evidently distinguishes them from the feeble imitations of men. Not only the splendor of the sun, but the glimmering light of the glowworm, proclaims his glory.”
1 These words of Agur, who’s the son,
of Jakeh, who’s the seer;
Are spoken so that Ithiel,
and Ucal both can hear.
2 O surely I’m more ignorant,
than any other man;
I guess I do not comprehend,
what others understand.
3 I have not learned of wisdom’s ways,
or even yet begun;
Nor is there anything I know,
about the Holy One.
4 Who’s gone to heaven and returned?
Who’s held both wind and sea?
Who’s made the earth; and do you know,
his name and son to be?
5 Each word of God is tried and true,
each utterance made known;
For he is like a shield to those,
who trust in him alone.
6 Don’t add a thing to what God says,
or any word revise;
For if you do, he’ll prove you wrong,
revealing all your lies.
7 O Lord, please hear these things I ask –
two things for which I pray;
Do not deny or hold them back,
before I pass away.
8 Don’t let deceit and lies come close –
but keep them far instead;
Don’t give me wealth or poverty –
but only daily bread.
9 For if I’m rich, I may deny,
that you alone are Lord;
And if I’m poor, then I may steal,
and make your name abhorred.
10 Don’t slander servants to their lord –
be careful what you say;
Or they will curse and threaten you,
and you will surely pay.
11 There’s some who curse their fathers’ lives,
thus causing them distress;
They treat their mothers just the same –
in ways that do not bless.
12 There’s some who think that they are clean,
and pure in their own eyes;
But they have not been washed from filth,
despite what they surmise.
13 There’s some whose eyes are arrogant,
and ever filled with pride;
With glances showing their disdain,
and silent looks that chide.
14 There’s some whose teeth are sharpened swords,
and jaws are set like knives;
They eat the poor and those in need,
and decimate their lives.
15 Two daughters of the leech exclaim,
‘O Give, O Give, your stuff;’
Three things are never satisfied,
and four won’t say, ‘Enough!’
16 The empty grave, the barren womb,
the thirsty land and bluff;
And fire burning uncontrolled,
which never says, ‘Enough!’
17 The eye that mocks a father and,
derides a mother’s way;
Will be pecked out and eaten up,
by countless birds of prey.
18 Three things are far too great for me,
magnificent and grand;
And there are four I do not know,
and cannot understand:
19 The way of snakes upon a rock,
and eagles up above;
The way of ships upon the sea,
and those who fall in love.
20 This is the way a faithless wife,
goes forward all day long:
She eats then wipes her mouth and says,
‘There’s nothing I’ve done wrong.’
21 Three things there are that cause the earth,
to tremble to its core;
And four there are that under which,
the earth cannot endure.
22 The first is one in servitude,
who rises to be king;
The second is a godless fool,
who eats up everything.
23 The third’s a woman filled with hate,
who marries a good lad;
The fourth’s a servant who supplants,
the mistress she once had.
24 Four things there are upon the earth,
extremely small in size;
And yet in many ways they are,
25 The first are ants without the strength,
to lift up anything;
And yet in summer they store food,
to last from fall to spring.
26 The second are the hyraxes –
their lives a paradox;
Though weak, they make their homes in cliffs,
among the crags and rocks.
27 The third are locusts on the move,
with no king who commands;
And yet they march in unison,
in perfect ranks and bands.
28 The fourth are lizards that one’s hand,
can pick and hold with ease;
But yet they’re found in palaces,
and anywhere they please.
29 Three things appear magnificent,
when treading here and there;
And four that seem to move about,
with proud and stately air.
30 The first one is a lion who’s,
the mightiest of beasts;
It does not turn and run away –
it’s not one that retreats.
31 The second is a rooster and,
the third’s a Billy goat;
The fourth’s a king whose fighting men,
surround him like a moat.
32 If you are one who plays the fool,
or lifts themselves up high;
Then put a hand across your mouth,
so no word goes awry.
33 As churned up cream makes butter chunks,
and noses pinched give blood;
So stirred up anger yields discord,
that rises like a flood.