The Limitations of Wisdom
Proverbs 10–29 – Proverbs: Wisdom for Life
Third Sunday in Lent – March 24, 2019 (am)
Blessed Jesus, at your word we are gathered all to hear you. Let our hearts and souls be stirred now to seek and love and fear you. By your gospel pure and holy, teach us, Lord, to love you solely. Amen.[i]
Please open your Bibles to Prov 17:24. If you’re using the pew Bible, it’s on p. 540. Proverbs ch. 17, v. 24. This is what God’s word says:
The discerning sets his face toward wisdom,
but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.
I’ve chosen this obscure verse as our starting point because I think it serves as a useful entryway into an important larger concern in the book of Proverbs. But the meaning of the verse might not be immediately transparent. So let’s first try to clarify its basic point.
To begin, we can say that Prov 17:24 relates to the general notion of attention or focus, where one looks, as it were.[ii] It has to do with where a person “sets his face,” or directs her “eyes.” The discerning one “sets his face toward,” or pays special and habitual attention to, “wisdom.” Where are the fool’s “eyes” turned by way of direct contrast? The fool’s attention or focus is turned toward “the ends of the earth.” I understand that to mean that the foolish are constantly scanning the horizon. Their eyes—the eyes of their flesh, and the eyes of their heart especially—are on a hundred different things at once, all of which are distant from them. They are preoccupied with what the multiple possibilities “out there” might be like. The fool’s eyes are anywhere and everywhere but where the fool actually is.
An interesting question is, “Why are the fool’s eyes on the ends of the earth?” It might sound strange at first, but I’d say it’s because the fool is looking for wisdom. Fools have nothing against wisdom, per se. In fact, they quite like the thought of wisdom. Proverbs 26:4 counsels us to “answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Fools like to think of themselves as wise. We can go further and say that they eagerly search for wisdom, of a sort. Here in ch. 17, up in v. 16, we read, “Why should a fool have money in his hand to buy wisdom when he has no sense?” Apparently, fools are engaged in something of a search for wisdom,[iii] being under the impression that they can buy it with money (or, we might say, fools think they can secure for their kids the benefits of wisdom by getting their kids into elite colleges). Fools want wisdom because they think of “wisdom” as a kind of magic spell to guarantee the good life. Fools are looking for wisdom unto life. And they are scanning the hills to find it.
This understanding of the second line of Prov 17:24 clarifies the first line. It relates to what the discerning focuses on (or, as the ESV puts it, “sets his face toward”). But I think the author isn’t commenting only on what the discerning give their attention to, but also and especially on where wisdom can be found. The eyes of the fool are on the ends of the earth because they think wisdom unto life is somewhere out there, but “wisdom is in the presence of the discerning.” That’s how the NASB translates the first line.[iv] That more clearly highlights the full contrast being made. Wisdom is in the presence of the discerning. The language here (which the NASB translates as “in the presence of”) appears dozens of times in Scripture, consistently referring to proximity, nearness, relational presence.[v] Whereas the fool is convinced that wisdom and life are to be had anywhere but where he or she is, the discerning are those who find wisdom (and life) already in their presence, right where they are. The key assumption is that wisdom and life can be found in the specific place and the specific time you are in.
Think about how remarkably scandalous and also encouraging this is: wisdom coming down as a blessing from the Creator, and full and true life from God, can be experienced right where you are. It’s scandalous, because it is to say that the infinite God, who transcends time and space, condescends to meet us and bless us in time and space. It is encouraging, because every single person here is (I assume) necessarily and always bound to only one time and only one place; but that doesn’t cut any of us off from wisdom and life and God. We are limited, finite creatures, bounded always to wherever and whenever we find ourselves, and, according to Prov 17:24, that is no obstacle to finding God’s wisdom that leads to true life.
This verse wants us to be comfortable and hopeful in our own creaturely skin, with all our finitude and limitation.[vi] And it’s not alone. Proverbs 17:24 reflects the outlook of the book of Proverbs as a whole. Proverbs offers a world filled with limitations. The limitations of wisdom in today’s sermon title refers firstly to the limitations spoken of in this book of wisdom. Pick a chapter, any chapter, and you’ll likely find several limitations that Proverbs delights in.
To give a somewhat random list: There are physical and temporal limitations, as we’ve already seen in Prov 17:24. We can only be in one place at a time, and we cannot time travel.
But there are also intellectual limitations. Prov 27:1: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”[vii] None of us knows the future. In fact, there are all sorts of things we are ignorant about. There is a limit to what is knowable. What little we do know, we know partially, and it slips away from us in all sorts of ways because we’re forgetful or distracted or overcome by the decaying of our bodies.[viii] Intellectual limitations abound.
There are limitations of wealth and power. Prov 27:23–24: “Pay attention to your herds; for riches are not forever, nor does a crown endure to all generations.”[ix] Wealth runs out, is limited in its scope and value; political power does not endure but meets up against boundaries of time.
There are limitations to pleasure. Prov 25:16: “Have you found honey? Eat only what you need, that you not have it in excess and vomit it.” Some honey is good, a pleasure to the palate. Too much honey, and you’ll vomit. There’s a limit to our experience of bodily pleasure.
There are, of course, legal or moral limitations all over Proverbs. Prov 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law.”[x] Proverbs envisions a world where law restrains people, sets limits on what they should and should not do.
And there are even self-imposed limitations that Proverbs invites us to establish. For example, Prov 16:32: “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”[xi] Rule your spirit, Proverbs exhorts. Restrain it. Set limits around the “free and honest” expression of yourself. To do so is better than being a mighty conqueror who has a name written in history books for later generations to remember.
Proverbs paints a portrait of a world full of boundaries and limits, some that we don’t choose and cannot escape, some that we’re invited to set up for ourselves or our communities. In either case, Proverbs as a whole, not just the single verse of 17:24, thinks that it’s possible to be comfortable and hopeful and happy in limitation and boundedness and finitude.
Proverbs’ disposition toward limitations and boundaries is rooted in its understanding of creation as made, in wisdom, by its Creator.[xii] “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth,” Prov 3:19 declares, “by understanding he established the heavens.” The world was created in accord with God’s wisdom, with a certain wise order and wise meaning.[xiii] Reality is the result of and reflects the wisdom of God.[xiv] And one of the most fundamental and inescapable facts about God-created reality is that it teems with limitations and boundaries. It might help to turn to Prov 8:27–30, where God’s work of creation is considered in more detail. In ch. 8, v. 27, we read,
27 When [God] established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.[xv]
In v. 27, God “drew a circle” around “the face of the deep”—that is, he marked off the horizon, the boundary, between the sky and the sea.[xvi] According to v. 29, God “assigned to the sea its limit”—it shall not go beyond his word of command.[xvii] God also “marked out the foundations of the earth”—that is, the Creator measured out the precise borders of the house of creation he was building. The work of creation is nothing if it is not an activity of establishing limits and boundaries.[xviii] And they all come from the Creator’s wisdom. Wisdom is the speaker here in Prov 8. Wisdom is the one in v. 30 who was “beside God, like a master workman.”[xix] This setting up of limits and boundaries is fundamentally an act of divine wisdom.
So a good many of the limitations we meet up against in reality are limitations of wisdom. They come from God’s wisdom. They are “very good” gifts given in his wisdom. And wisdom for us is to discern God-given limits, and to submit to them as humble, hopeful human creatures.[xx] Proverbs wants us to be comfortable in our own limited, finite creaturely skin.
It’s a word that comes to us none too soon, because ours is a society that is anything but comfortable in its creaturely, finite skin. Nearly twenty years ago now, Forbes Magazine published a special issue devoted to the topic of time. The opening editorial reads, “We’ve beaten, or at least stymied, most of humanity’s monsters: disease, climate, geography, and memory. But time still defeats us.”[xxi] Why might things like disease, climate, geography, memory, and time be regarded as “monsters”? I think it’s because they are all limiting powers. They expose or remind us of our finitude; they all constrain what we can be and know and accomplish. And the key assumption at work is that limitation is inherently undesirable. Whether it is temporal limits, or physical boundaries, or intellectual finitude, or vocational limitations, or prohibitions on self-discovery and self-expression, limitation is viewed in the modern world as at best an annoyance, and at worst a monster. And our human duty is to overcome it.
Advertisers are experts at putting their fingers on where a culture is at, what makes a culture tick, what a society desires and worships. So consider a few commercials airing on a television set near you. An Amazon ad showcases the FireTV’s voice command feature. The ad ends by asking, “Can your TV do that? Watch what you want, hands free.”[xxii] No longer are we limited by the vast expanse between our couches and our TVs, nor even the cumbersome and slow nature of our physical hands (typing show titles with our remote controls takes forever!). No, we can now, by a creative speech-act, speak what we want into existence.
The networking app Bumble bought airtime during the Super Bowl for an ad featuring Serena Williams. “Don’t wait to be told your place: take it,” we hear Williams saying: “Don’t wait for people to find you: find them—in work, in love, in life. And most of all, don’t wait to be given power.”[xxiii] Make the first move, Bumble tells us. Don’t limit yourself to the present, waiting for the future to come to you: make the future happen now. Break boundaries. Shake off the yoke of societal and traditional limits, or you’ll never stand out and make a difference.
“Life isn’t about finding your limits. It’s about realizing you have none,” Nike tells us.[xxiv] The world cannot limit a determined you. The world is malleable, limitless in its possibilities.[xxv] So be you, because the only limit worth submitting to is the limit of what you want and who you want to be. #maketheworldyouwant.[xxvi] Break or transcend every limitation in your way.
The general aversion to limits is reflected in the way we make decisions. I both love and hate getting Amazon gift-cards as presents for birthdays or at Christmas. I love it because it frees me to get something I really want; I hate it because it takes so long for me to figure out what I want. I can make instantly appear for my perusal all the books or red t-shirts or bird feeders or whatever that the world doth hold. But how do I choose? Getting Amazon gift-cards causes me to lose two, three, four-plus hours searching, browsing, reading online reviews of what I could purchase (getting distracted by hilarious trolls), reading more online reviews, deliberating over a decision. Hours of it (this is, I confess with shame, no exaggeration). But strangely, as others have also noted, it is in that browsing and possibility before the purchase that many of us find the greatest delight.[xxvii] There’s an exhilaration of having dozens and more possibilities open before us, and the excitement is drained out when we make a decision and seal the deal. Sometimes it’s buyer’s remorse; sometimes it’s fear that I missed the best option; sometimes it’s just a dull dread of going back to my mundane responsibilities. Strangely, the joy of the hunt is the often the greatest joy, while the finalization of a decision is often a letdown. Why is the moment of possibility before purchase the moment of maximum happiness?
I think it’s because to make a decision is necessarily to limit ourselves. By virtue of our decision, we limit our course of action to the single decision, cut ourselves off from all other potentialities and are limited to one. And we feel trapped and pine for the possible. This is why if you ask young adults their plans for Friday night, even if it’s Friday afternoon, they will tell you, “I don’t know,” but be able to give you a dozen options, possibilities that are open to them.[xxviii] It’s why easily the number one RSVP to events these days is not “yes” or “no” but “maybe” (or “interested” on Facebook). We never want to lock ourselves in, but to always, always, always keep our options open. When we make the actual decision, it feels like a letdown. FOMO reigns after every decision to be somewhere, to attend something, to be present at a place. Far preferable to making a limiting decision is keeping our possibilities open.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.[xxix] The postures and practices and technological habits[xxx] of our culture consistently manifest the same sensibility when it comes to limits and boundaries: they are problems to be solved, monsters to be defeated, obstacles to happiness and life.[xxxi]
And into our culture, God still speaks Prov 17:24, making the outlandish claim that within the limitations of our specific time and place, wisdom and goodness and life can be found. We tend to think that limitations restrict or constrain our flourishing and life (which is because we tend to define flourishing and life as self-discovery and self-expression and self-preservation). But according to Proverbs, the limitations of wisdom are not constraints of our flourishing and life; rather, they are constraints for our flourishing and good and life.
Recall how Prov 29:18 puts it: “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law.” Being restrained by the law is for the sake of being happy. And so it is with all God-given limitations. We have many creaturely limitations: we are limited geographically (we can only be in one place at a time), intellectually (our knowledge is not infinite; and it’s often impotent), biologically (we are male or female, limited to that sexual experience and responsibility[xxxii]), temporally (we can’t jump to the future, or revert to the past), morally (we receive many “thou shalt nots”). All of these limitations are gifts given to us by our wise and kind God for our happiness. “Have you found honey?,” Prov 25:16 asks. Then “eat only what you need, that you not have it in excess and vomit it.” God doesn’t put a limit on our honey eating because he wants to prevent or restrict our pleasure, or because honey is bad. He does so because honey is so good, and he wants to maximize our pleasure in the eating.[xxxiii] He knows our creaturely capacities (he’s our Creator, after all). His constraints are the wisdom we need to discover the fields within which grows our creaturely pleasure and flourishing.[xxxiv]
In the early 1900s, G. K. Chesterton spoke of a high, narrow plateau, with sheer drop-offs on every side, and some children who were left on that plateau to play. There was a wall around the edge of the plateau. As long as the wall remained standing, the children played with a kind of reckless joy, chasing after soccer balls, playing tag, rolling through the grassy yard. But then someone knocked down the walls around the edges. When the adults returned later, the kids were safe and sound, none had fallen off the cliff. But neither were they playing anymore. Rather, Chesterton says, “they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased.”[xxxv] With no boundary protecting them from the cliff’s edge, no limitations marking off where safe but wild “play,” energetic delight, true life could be found, the best route was simply to hole up in the middle and take no risks. We live in a day and age where the reflex is to transcend and throw off all manner of social and physical boundaries and limitations. It’s probably no mere coincidence that we also live in a society dominated by distrust and anxiety and fear.[xxxvi] Why wouldn’t we be fearful? There are no more cultural railings to mark off and protect us from the many cliff edges in life.[xxxvii]
But our God wants us to play. God wants us to actually live a full and earnest life, not simply to wait on the sidelines continually calculating about what might be the “safest” route. So God gives us limitations and boundaries, puts us in specific times and specific places, sets up many good and wise guardrails as if to say, “This is where goodness and joy, where wisdom unto life, where indeed I myself, your truest joy and truest life, may be found.”
So, to return to Prov 17:24, “the eyes of the fool are on the ends of the earth.” We can say that the fool thinks that he needs to break out of the shackles of his limitations to the wide world of the possible, to the always-greener pastures “out there.” The fool is constantly thinking of a better place—geographically, socially, economically, relationally, emotionally, and more.[xxxviii] If I could only get to a place where I had a stable job, or where the taxes were lower, or where the right person was in governmental office; or if I could only get to a place where I was in a romantic relationship, or had kids, or maybe didn’t have kids anymore; if I could only find myself in the right church, or at the right school, or with the right friends … then I would be happy, then I would flourish, then I would have the good life. But it’s always just out of my reach, always somewhere other than where I am, and so my eyes are constantly roaming, scanning the hills and horizons, wandering to and fro to the ends of the earth.
It can happen temporally, too. Eyes can wander to the ends of the earth in the sense of a preoccupation with some hypothetical, ideal future, which distracts us from attending to what actually is in the present. We use the present as a mere tool to set up the hypothetical future: I’m involved in twelve extracurricular activities to get into the right school in the future; I quintuple major to keep my options open in the future; I anxiously watch my portfolio to make sure that in the future, in my retirement, I will not dependent on others (horror of horrors!). We make our ten-year plan for the future, we use the present as a tool to shape history according to our plan, but when (as often happens) it doesn’t come about we blame others (often God).
Sadly, much of my everyday life is lived in a kind of anxious stockpiling of manna so that I have a storehouse ready for tomorrow and the day after that. Rather, than receiving in gratefulness and engaging with attentive hope in my present responsibility, I’m preoccupied with “getting ahead” of schedule. Some of it is laziness—wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have to work as hard next week! Some of it is fear and anxiety—what if I can’t get through everything tomorrow! Pretty much all of it is faith-less—not trusting God that the worries of tomorrow are for tomorrow and that he will give me grace sufficient for today. Our eyes can roam “the ends of the earth,” temporally as well. That, too, is foolishness.[xxxix]
The eyes of the fool are on the ends of the earth. But what does the wise one do? She gives her attention and focus and energy to the time and place that she is limited to. It’s not that the wise person chooses physically to be in one place and time while the fool does not; the wise and the fool alike are both always and necessarily physically in one place and time. The difference is that the wise person gladly submits to her boundedness. A wise person intentionally gives his focus and attention and energy to that specific time and place. He commits to being fully present there and laboring there. Wise people make the decision to be invested here and now.
I mentioned earlier the anxiety that many of us feel when it comes to decision-making and commitment.[xl] It’s precisely this that Prov 17:24 invites us to—the glad acceptance of a limiting decision, the limitation of commitment to our God-given time and place. We hesitate. We’re fearful of missing out, so we’re only half-heartedly present wherever we are, constantly checking in elsewhere with our phones and smart watches.[xli] We’re fearful that there’s a better option “out there,” so we never fully commit to a place or a people or an endeavor; our only firm (but unspoken) commitment is that we can jump ship on this job, this friendship, this church whenever we want.[xlii] Or we attempt something like “unlimited” commitment, or better overcommitment, which is really just a lack of commitment in disguise, an unwillingness to say no to this or that because we have actually said yes to another definite commitment (think of what saying “yes” in marriage to every woman I know would say about my “commitment” to Jen). We’re fearful of missing out, fearful that there’s a better option “out there.” We might also be fearful of the actual place and time and people in front of us. It’s often difficult to interact with the actual people God throws in your path (and not just the friends we choose to notice). It’s a risk to interact with them and give our care to them—what if they mistreat us, or use us, or fail to return our care? In any case, it’s awkward and ambiguous to have to talk with the real people in front of us, awkward to undergo the strange silences that often accompany the presence of others. It’s way easier to pull out our phones and check out.
But Proverbs invites us to attend to the difficulty, to face the awkwardness, to commit to working in and with and through the ambiguity and challenge of our boundedness in time and place. We don’t need to sit on the fence forever in a fearful attempt to “keep our options open,” which ironically is not to forestall making a decision but is to make a decision. It’s a decision in favor of perpetually entertaining the “possibility of a life well lived” and against actually living life well. The limitations of where and when and with whom we are are not constraints of our life but constraints for our life. So we can with hope and expectation commit to where we are, commit to a church, commit to Christ in baptism, commit to some specific calling or endeavor, commit to the particular place we’re in and with the particular people right in front of us. We can give our attention to them, seek to engage them in conversation, seek their good with servant-heartedness, with both eyes, as it were, rather than always with one eye on our phones or on the future. We can do so with hope and expectation, because God promises to meet us and bless us and work for our good right where and when we are.
God wants us to be comfortable in our creaturely skin. He wants us to receive the limitations of wisdom with gladness and gratitude and hope. He wants so greatly for us to do this that he has done more than teach us about limitations and boundaries in this book of wisdom. The wisdom given to us in Proverbs itself has a limitation. The limitation of wisdom, in this sense, is that it can only invite us to submit to God-given limitations; Proverbs cannot itself prove that the infinite God actually does meet and bless us in our limitation and finitude.
Long ago God spoke through Proverbs, but now, in these last days, he has spoken definitively in his Son. What has he said to us in his Son? What has he proven in Christ? He’s said and proven that our finite flesh, with all its boundedness and limitations is not inherently bad and is no obstacle to knowing God and living true life. The Son of God took on flesh, with all its limitations and boundedness. Jesus did not have an unlimited, but a limited, particular human experience.[xliii] For example, he was (and is) a Jewish male. He did not experience menstruation or pregnancy. He did not know by experience what it’s like to be a Frenchman, or a banker, or a parent. He was limited to one time and place, the dusty streets of first-century Galilee and Judea. He even, in obedience to and trust in his Father, submitted to the ultimate limitation and boundary of death on a cross. Yet he lived a full and perfect life, if ever there was one. And he didn’t need to take a gap year traversing the ends of the earth to discover that fullness. Nothing in Jesus’ finite human experience, none of the limitations of his life, cut him off for one second from the true and full human joy set before him. God in Christ has proven that human finiteness, God-given boundaries and limitations, are no final obstacle to full and true human life and joy. God in Christ has freed us from fear of missing out in our limitations. By taking on finite flesh, the Son of God finally proves that limitation is no monster, that our finiteness is no ultimate barrier between us and God.[xliv]
You don’t have to get out of your human, creaturely skin to know fullness of life and joy in God, to live full and true and meaningful and purposeful and satisfying human lives. You do need to fear God; you need to trust God; you need to cry out to God and give thanks to God; you need to join hands with brothers and sisters in Christ who are doing the same thing; you need to respond to God, committing to your particular time and place and relationships and responsibilities to do the work God has for you. But you don’t need to transcend your creaturely limitations to know the life that is life indeed, the life that is our to have in God through Christ. This is good news indeed.
Almighty God and Father, who sent your only Son to be the pioneer and perfecter of our faith: open our eyes to recognize that we do not have to perform super-human feats of strength or intellect or spiritual ecstasy to wrestle you down from heaven. Help us to rest in the Word made flesh—you have already come down, are already present, are already at work for our good, are already offering us life and joy and fullness and hope right where we are. Grant that we, by your Spirit, may lay hold of you and your promise. And help us to grow into the happy, hopeful, humble, Christ-honoring, and neighbor-loving people you have made us to be. This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[i] Tobias Chlausnitzer, “Blessed Jesus, at Your Word,” 1663; tr. Catherine Winkworth, 1858.
[ii] As Bruce Waltke puts it, it is about “direction and orientation” (Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004–2005], 2:62). But we need to be more specific or nuanced concerning how “direction and orientation” functions in the contrast between the two lines (see below).
[iii] This is noted, with reference to 17:16, by Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10–31, AB 18B (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 636.
[iv] The waw-conjunction clearly functions to introduce an antithesis in this context, but a lot depends on the nature of the antithesis (or what exactly is being contrasted). As Waltke notes, the two halves of the verse form “imprecise antithetical parallels” (Proverbs, 2:62). Whereas “the eyes of the fool” is the grammatical subject of 24b, it is “wisdom” that is the proper subject of 24a. Hence, I prefer the more wooden rendering of the NASB rather than the ESV cited above. The NASB also more properly highlights the notion of presence which is what binds the two lines together and is at the center of the conceptual contrast (see below).
[v] The phrase אֶת־פְּנֵי occurs 32 other times in the MT. See generally Gen 27:30; 33:18 Exod 10:11; 1 Sam 22:4; 1 Kgs 12:6; cf. Gen 43:34; Lev 10:4; 2 Kgs 16:14. In the majority of instances, the phrase אֶת־פְּנֵי has to do with the presence/nearness of the Lord God (see Gen 19:13, 17; 34:23–24; Deut 16:16 [2x]; 31:11; 1 Sam 1:22; 2:11; Ps 16:11; 140:13; Job 2:7; cf. Lev 4:6, 17; ) or with the verb חלה with reference to approaching the Lord God through prayer/entreaty (Exod 32:11; 1 Kgs 13:6; 2 Kgs 13:4; Jer 26:19; Zech 7:2; 8:21–22; Dan 9:13; 2 Chr 33:12). Therefore, the basic meaning or dominant usage of the words in Prov 17:24a indicates that the point, or bound up in the antithesis, is not only or really focus or attentiveness strictly speaking but proximity (rightly noted by Fox, Proverbs 10–31, 636; cf. Waltke, Proverbs, 2:62). Others (e.g., Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs, WBC 22 [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998], 131; cf. ESV, NIV) focus only on the the concentration side of things. Translations such as the ESV’s can be salvaged if, after “The discerning sets his face toward wisdom,” we supply an elided “and wisdom is right in his presence.” Clifford, Proverbs, 167, rightly discerns that “distance” is at issue, but is slightly off target in thinking that the point is that the fool is far from the source of wisdom.
[vi] We could say, in the terms of systematic theology, that Proverbs offers teaching related to basic anthropology.
[vii] Our knowledge even of ourselves and our neighbors is extremely limited as well. What Prov 25:3 says of our knowledge of kings is equally true of our knowledge of anyone: “As the heavens for height and the earth for depth, so the heart of kings is unsearchable.” In Lenny Abrahamson’s 2016 film Room, the lead character, “Ma,” bitterly tells her mother who is trying to help her daughter be a bit more positive in outlook, “You have no idea what’s going on in my head!” (For a thoughtful and piercing review of the film, emphasizing precisely this point, see Lauren Wilford, “I am Jack’s Loving Eye: Suffering and Renewal in Room,” Medium, July 11, 2016, https://medium.com/@lauren_wilford/i-am-jacks-loving-eye-suffering-and-renewal-in-room-c2a153530e56.) We really can’t know (with univocal knowledge) another person. We have no “direct” relation to others through our knowledge. In human relation, as in all things, Christ is our mediator (see Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. J. W. Doberstein [New York: Harper & Row, 1954], 23–24). And so, as Eugene Peterson wryly notes, “Communication is a good but a minor good. Knowing about things [including, we can here add, knowing ‘about’ people] never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal” (The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 46).
[viii] Furthermore, it’s not only that our knowledge is limited, but what knowledge we might possess is only of limited value: every day people with a lot of knowledge are still overcome by their circumstances, powerless before forces larger than their knowledge, triumphed over by death. Wendell Berry puts it more simply by way of a concrete example—namely, the role of “information” to deciding to marry this or that person. The “condition of marriage,” Berry observes, “reveals the insufficiency of knowledge, and as an institution it suggests the possibility that decisions can be informed in another way that is sufficient, or approximately so. I take it as an axiom that one cannot know enough to get married, any more than one can predict a surprise. The only people who possess information sufficient to their vows are widows and widowers—who do not know enough to remarry.” In today’s context, in which being “well-informed” is one of the highest (most pious) ideals, paying attention to the matter-of-fact of everyday experience ought to make abundantly clear that “It is simply true that we do not and cannot know enough to make any important decision” (Wendell Berry, “People, Land, and Community,” in Standing by Words [Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1983], 64–79, at 66, emphasis original). The so-called “well-informed person” is a chimera not only because of abiding ignorance but also because of the impotence of mere information and education in the face of powers far greater than our knowing (but the possibility and desirability of being “a well-informed person” is the condition necessary for propaganda to work, as noted long ago by Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, trans. K. Kellen and J. Lerner [New York: Knopf, 1965], 112–16). We can go further: the so-called “well-informed person” is to modern idolatries what the pious and godly person was in previous eras of the Christian faith (cf. Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity [Garden City: Doubleday, 1985], 290–93).
[ix] The passage (27:23–27) would seem to promote the greater value of what we might call “natural resources” (not the best term), and opens up a way forward in thinking about the care and preservation of such things (which are equally not “unlimited”). It is possible that reference to a “crown” is not incidental, but a clue to the more direct royal concern (and royal address) throughout the poem in 27:23–27. See, e.g., Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25–27, SBLDS 96 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 131–43; Christopher B. Ansberry, Be Wise, My Son, and Make My Heart Glad: An Exploration of the Courtly Nature of the Book of Proverbs, BZAW 422 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 152–55. Roland Murphy is skeptical of pressing the entirety of the passage in a royal direction, preferring the “obvious sense” of “straightforward advice concerning the life of a farmer” (seeMurphy, Proverbs, 209–11).
[x] The striking but contextually enigmatic terms חָזוֹן and תּוֹרָה in 29:18 are matters of much debate. Are they references to prophetic visions and the Law (Torah), or something else? For discussion, see Fox, Proverbs 10–31, 840–42; Waltke, Proverbs, 445–47. We need not press the matter here, but can take the basic, unspecified reference to be “ordinary means of guidance” in line with usage of the terms in Ezek 7:26; Lam 2:9 (Clifford, Proverbs, 254).
[xi] A similar point could be made in 25:28. Cf. 10:19; 15:28; 17:27, all with respect to speech.
[xii] In systematic theology terms, what we have to do with here is part of a robust theology of creation. More literarily specific to the book of Proverbs, one of the fundamental intentions of the book is to give us what we could call a “wisdom worldview.” It’s written to help us understand how the world works, as it were. Proverb means for us to know how the creation works according to the Creator’s purposes and designs. This is part of the point to the praising of God’s work of creation that occurs in Prov 3 and 8, for example.
[xiii] The “wisdom” and “understanding” which Prov 3:19 speaks of must, in Gerhard von Rad’s words, “signify something like the ‘meaning’ implanted by God in creation, the divine mystery of creation” (Wisdom in Israel, trans. J. D. Martin [Nashville/New York: Abingdon, 1972], 148).
[xiv] Wisdom for us, his creatures, is truthful understanding of and skillful “know-how” in living into and in harmony with that order and meaning. The identification of the “content” of wisdom, as it were, with truthful understanding of what God has made is underlined by attending to the narratives about the wisest person in the OT. In 1 Kgs 4, we read of God giving to Solomon very great wisdom, so that he was wiser than all other people. And what did his wisdom consist of? According 1 Kgs 4:33, Solomon was “wise” because he had a truthful understanding and a skillful “know-how” with respect to, of all things, trees, animals, birds, creeping things, and fish. Wisdom, for Solomon, was a matter of knowing what God has created, knowing its shape and rhythm, its order and its meaning and its purpose. To say it differently, wisdom, for Solomon, was a matter of being a new Adam, who was created to be the first gardener and zoo-keeper.
[xv] For those keeping careful score at home, the cosmic-spatial boundaries that I here note in Prov 8:27–31, when added to the six kinds of limitations and boundaries listed above (from Prov 17:24; 27:1, 23–24; 25:16; 29:18; 16:32), comes to a total of seven (the number of creational completion) representative kinds of limitation and boundary.
[xvi] Murphy, Proverbs, 52, cites as parallel ideas Isa 40:22; Job 26:10; 22:14.
[xvii] Fox highlights the striking legal language used by the author here (“boundary” or “statute” [חֹק], “transgress” [עבר], “his command” [lit. “his mouth,” פִיו]). Torah, or the logic of Torah, is inscribed into the material creation (Proverbs 1–9, 285).
[xviii] The same fact is plain in Gen 1, or at least it is plain and abundant when we begin to look for it: light will only rule this much of the day, darkness is limited to another portion; water is bounded up into bodies, and dry land is given a set space; plants and animals are divided up into kinds and given to reproduce only after their kinds. Boundary after boundary, limit and limitation galore. Fox is, thus, right to comment, “The essence of creation is separation and the marking of boundaries” (Proverbs 1–9, 284). And all of this boundary marking is declared at the end of Gen 1 to be “very good” (we will turn to this point presently).
[xix] Fox objects strongly to identifying any active role in creation for Wisdom in Prov 8 (see Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 287–89, 353–55). Fox may have a point when it comes to Prov 8, but Prov 3:19–20 is sufficient to my mind to identify Wisdom as God’s instrument in creation.
[xx] Raymond Van Leeuwen’s summary of the outlook of Prov 1–9 is apropos for the book as a whole: “Proverbs 1–9 presents our world as one of boundaries and limits, shown most powerfully by the division of sea and dry land (8:29; cf. Job 38:8–10; Ps. 104:9; Jer. 5:22). The waves of the sea may play within that limit, but when they flood dry land, death and destruction result. This cosmic principle has its cultural aspect as well, symbolized in the sexual teaching of 1–9. The ‘waters’ of sexuality are good within the limits of marriage, but destructive outside of it (5:15–20). The worldview of Prov. 1–9 insists on freedom within form, life within law, and love within limits. Practically, this means that wise persons are constantly aware of the boundaries and limits that separate wise from foolish behavior and excess from enough” (Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” in Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey, ed. K. J. Vanhoozer [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008], 171–78, at 176; see further idem, “Liminality and Worldview in Proverbs 1–9,” Semeia 50 : 111–44).
[xxi] I first heard the following excerpt from Forbes in Ken Myers, “Dorothy Bass on the need to restore form to our experience of time,” interview with Dorothy Bass, Mars Hill Audio Journal 42.6 (2000). In quoting the passage, Myers retains the focus on the topic of time, but acknowledges the general attitude towards limits that I will focus on.
[xxii] See https://www.ispot.tv/ad/dUR4/amazon-fire-tv-drama-rama-ray-donovan.
[xxiii] See https://www.ispot.tv/ad/IS16/bumble-super-bowl-2019-the-ball-is-in-her-court-feat-serena-williams-song-by-rita-ora.
[xxiv] See https://www.facebook.com/nike/videos/10154036782873445/?v=10154036782873445 (the tagline is below the video).
[xxv] See, e.g., https://www.ispot.tv/ad/Iypd/godaddy-ayesha-curry-is-making-the-world-she-wants#. I used to quote from a 2010 AT&T Canada commercial to make many of the above points, though because it is now dated, I have chosen some more recent the examples. The old 2010 AT&T commercial was spot on, though, when it opined that, with AT&T’s services, you can “do what you want, be what you want, get what you want from life.” The commercial tells us: “It’s not about phones, or faxes, or the worldwide web. They’re just the tools for you to do what you want, be what you want, get what you want from life. Life—you get out of it what you put into it. Introducing AT&T Canada long-distance services. Your world without limits.” The commercial can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXzEqFSlTDc. One of the things I especially like about this commercial is that it waxes not only eloquently but also evangelically: perhaps the defining evangelical posture to media technologies is summed up in the phrase “It’s just a tool” (usually stated confidently as if it were a conversation stopper, rather than begging the questions, “What is a tool? What are tools for? What are these tool for?”).
[xxvi] See, e.g., https://www.ispot.tv/ad/Iypd/godaddy-ayesha-curry-is-making-the-world-she-wants#.
[xxvii] I am tempted here to quote one of my all-time favorite essays, which I try to cram into as many different contexts as I can, and which much of this paragraph is inspired by (or, arguably, steals from): Mark Edmundson, “Dwelling in Possibilities,” Chronicle of Higher Education 54.27, March 14, 2008, B7–B11, http://chronicle.com/article/Dwelling-in-Possibilities/7083. Edmundson described his students (over a decade ago!) as “possibility junkies.” I love Edmundson’s essay in part because it is so humorous, and in part because it is so uncomfortably humorous (i.e., it hits all too uncomfortably close to home).
[xxviii] See ibid.
[xxix] There’s much more in the deeper, darker waters. What we’ve been describing is the same sensibility that exacerbates the division between gendered “identity”/responsibility and embodied sex (the limitations of our given body are not a guide to our “identity” and responsibility). The impulse to distrust and combat limitation also greatly complicates the debate over gene-editing and other “medical” technological procedures (for an early but still immensely important theological engagement with medical ethics, particular with respect to IVF technology, see Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984]). Much more boldly, the desire to transcend the limitations of “humanity 1.0” drives the transhumanism movement (it also goes by the names H+, techno-humanism, and posthumanism; one of the most culturally visible contemporary transhumanists is Raymond Kurzweil, a Director of Engineering at Google; for introductory essays on transhumanism, see Max More and Natasha Vita-More, eds., The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future [West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013]).
[xxx] The point at issue here is not so much the inert tools/technologies that we use, but the “technological mindset” that drives the use and promotion of such tools/technologies (the phrase “technological mindset” comes from a perceptive essay by Matthew Dickerson, “Wendell Berry, C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the Dangers of a Technological Mindset,” Flourish, Fall 2010). As Oliver O’Donovan comments, our culture “is not ‘technological’ because its instruments of making are extraordinarily sophisticated (though that is evidently the case), but because it thinks of everything it does as a form of instrumental making,” because everything we encounter is to be mastered (submitted to our wishes) by technique (Begotten or Made?, 3).
[xxxi] In an oft-cited passage, C. S. Lewis points out that, by way of “magic” and “applied sciences,” the modern age would seek to submit all external limitation to the sovereign human will: “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious” (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man [London: Oxford University Press, 1943; repr., New York: HarperCollins, 2001], 77). As Lewis also perceptively notes, it is, in fact, not that in modernity by technique and application of scientific discovery we seek to “subdue reality to the wishes of men” in general, but it is the wishes of some men that are imposed upon most other people, upon “nature,” and upon the “environment.”
[xxxii] I do not want to ignore or deny the sad and difficult (and rare—estimates range from roughly .5% to 1.5%) matter of intersex conditions. Much more rigorous biblical, theological, and pastoral reflections are needed in this challenging area. But here I refer to what we might call “normal circumstances.”
[xxxiii] As Clifford comments, “The restraint safeguards the pleasure” (Proverbs, 225). Clifford notes, additionally, that 25:16 should be linked with 25:17 as “vehicle” (25:16) to “tenor” (25:17). It is not only the eating of honey or constraints on the pursuit of physical pleasure that the sage would teach about (cf. Murphy, Proverbs, 192). The point can be made in a different way by noting that the warning against honey in excess appears again in 25:27 (which Waltke, Proverbs, 325, takes as an inclusio with 25:16), but with restraint on honey consumption paired immediately with לֹא־טוֹב וְחֵקֶר כְּבֹדָם כָּבוֹד in the second verset (“nor is it glory to search out one’s own glory,” NASB). In this verse, counsel about honey consumption is directly establishing a paradigm for other matters, though unfortunately what those other matter are is hard to specify since the second half of 25:27 is obscure and contested. For a survey of proposals, see Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs xxv 27 Once Again,” VT 36 (1986): 105–14. Van Leeuwen argues, in part by way of appeal to the parallel with 25:2 and to the renderings of the Peshitta and Targum, that what 25:27b warns against is transgressing the limits of one’s capabilities or responsibilities, whether intellectual or social; I find his argument attractive. But whatever the case may be, more generally Van Leeuwen is exactly right to identify honey as “a liminal symbol for boundaries which must not be transgressed” (ibid., 107–8).
[xxxiv] George Scialabba rightly names the morally strengthening function of cultural boundaries (“interdicts”): “Muscular strength is built gradually, for example by overcoming the resistance of progressively heavier weights. Moral and psychological strength also require resistance—the pressure of cultural interdicts, dictating what is not to be done or even thought of. Such discipline simplifies our lives and economizes our energies. Without an unquestioned moral demand system, based on guilt, fear, and faith and generating obedience, trust, and dependence, there can be no spiritual hygiene, no communal purpose” (“The Curse of Modernity: Philip Rieff’s Problem with Freedom,” Boston Review, July 1, 2007, http://www.bostonreview.net/scialabba-the-curse-of-modernity). More generally, on creational limits (which, ideally, cultural limits are meant to honor, explore, develop, and fulfill), Wendell Berry comments, “Our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning … We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. If we always have a theoretically better substitute available from somebody or someplace else, we will never make the most of anything. It is hard to make the most of one life. If we each had two lives, we would not make much of either. Or as one of my best teachers said of people in general: ‘They’ll never be worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices’” (Wendell Berry, “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits,” Harper’s Magazine, May 2008, 35–42, http://harpers.org/archive/2008/05/faustian-economics/, emphasis original).
[xxxv] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: John Lane Co., 1908; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), 141.
[xxxvi] The point is developed strikingly by a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story, in which Kate Julian noted with amazement the “sex recession” in the modern West (Kate Julian, “The Sex Recession: Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/the-sex-recession/573949/). “These should be boom times for sex,” Julian begins. We are post-sexual revolution, where the cultural interdicts against “free” sexual expression and engagement have been removed; we now have a slew of medical technologies to protect us from the dangers of “unlimited” and “uninhibited sex”; and we have all sorts of tools to help us “hook up” (such as hook-up apps). Yet the data is very clear and consistent: since the 1990s, people are actually having less sex than earlier generations. It is a strange irony, but at least part of what’s going on is fear and ambiguity in real human interaction, which manifests itself in various ways in Julian’s essay. While societal relational fear is surely rooted in a variety of things, surely part of the fear is owing to losing all cultural-theological guide-rails, as it were, for knowing “how to do it” and “how to do it right.”
[xxxvii] Culture is necessarily a matter of passing on/receiving/encoding in institutions a society’s traditions and boundaries and interdicts. Contemporary culture is, what we might call, and anti-culture, a “culture” where the only limit is the will of the sovereign self (so long as it doesn’t infringe on the “freedoms” of other sovereign selves). What binds us together culturally is our insistence that we are not bound together but individual pursuers of individual happiness. We sometimes call it “popular culture,” but, as Ken Meyers has pointed out, this is neither “popular” since it is driven by the few gatekeepers of the market, nor “culture” since it ostensibly denies any received tradition but allows for only individual consumer preference and will (Kenneth A. Myers, “Is ‘Popular Culture’ Either?,” Modern Reformation 6.1, January/February 1997, 9–12). Since cultural boundaries are for flourishing life, contemporary culture (“anti-culture,” “pop culture”) may even more properly be called a “deathworks” (Philip Rieff’s name for our present cultural hegemony in the West; see Philip Rieff, My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, vol. 1 of Sacred Order/Social Order, ed. K. S. Piver [Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006]).
[xxxviii] As the title character of Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter muses, “Most people now are looking for ‘a better place,’ which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one … There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven” (Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter [Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004], 83, emphasis original). By contrast, Hannah Coulter muses of the “membership” of her Port William community, “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace” (ibid., 67). Dennis Okholm has stated bluntly what is at stake here: “if we believe that by divine providence we have been placed in a community for the nurturing of our souls, then not to persevere but to flee that ‘cell’ in a fit of restless acedia is also to flee God” (Dennis Okholm, “Staying Put to Get Somewhere,” Christian Reflection 49 : 19–25, at 24).
[xxxix] James 4:13–17 more precisely names it foolish arrogance.
[xl] That wasn’t (only) a cathartic confession of personal struggle.
[xli] Sometimes we are not very subtle about this, but often we try to do this subtly with phones held somewhat to the side near the hip (as if that were less noticeable). The point is, apparently, to try to look respectful to those with whom we are, while we are giving our real attention to those with whom we aren’t. Perhaps smartwatches may gives us greater skill and facility at appearing to be in one place with one people while, in spirit and truth, being any number of other “places” (it’s remarkable how commercials for smartwatches don’t even try to hide this fact but display it boldly and make it a point of marketing strategy!).
[xlii] Proverbs would call this foolishness. The Apostle Paul would call it immaturity. It is striking that in Eph 4:14, in the context of calling for growth into “a mature man” (4:13; in context, I do not think “mature man” refers to a mature individual, but to the maturity of the church as the “new man/humanity” in Christ), Paul contrasts this maturity with “children, tossed here and there by waves.” For Paul, the childish are those whose lived life is characterized by being blown to and fro, moving in no particular direction at all. Immaturity, in this context, is a matter of having no direction or purpose. It’s living life not on a path to somewhere, but experimenting with as many paths as possible (because, after all, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters). Immaturity is marked by a frantic flitting about to any and every well in search of fulfilling waters, which is pointedly described by Will Willimon and Stan Hauerwas: “Getting ‘what I want’ is … a matter of not having the resources to know for sure what it is I want. So we lurch from this experience to that, try on this mask or that one, switch friends, grope for new thrills, buy this, drink that, all in a frantic, never-ending attempt to ‘Get what I want,’ fearful that we might miss the one experience that would really make our lives worth living” (William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 66). Immaturity is the commitment-less search for self-definition (or the lack of commitment to anything but one’s own self-discovery—indeed, to think of the “self” apart from one’s necessary commitments is already to be in a black hole out of which only a miracle will deliver us). As Thomas Bergler describes in his recent and compelling book The Juvenilization of American Christianity, “Because juvenilized Christians are still figuring out who they will be, they are free to experiment with new ways to live out their faith … On the other hand, without a settled sense of identity, they find it hard to make strong commitments to particular beliefs, people, or religious institutions. Indeed, they may see institutions and commitments as impediments to personal spiritual growth. Even if they like church, such Christians are tempted to see it as a tool for personal fulfillment” (Thomas E. Berger, The Juvenilization of American Christianity [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 11). Immaturity is moving about in no particular direction at all, whether that means waffling about some direction or living the chimera of trying out every one of them at once; it’s aimlessness (and the sense of apathy and malaise that often accompanies it).
[xliii] Though I won’t mention it expressly here, because of how easily misunderstood and thus how easily distracting it can be, it is also worth noting that Jesus experienced real human limitation in knowledge. Scripture is clear that Jesus had to grow in wisdom (Luke 2:40, 52) and to learn obedience (Heb 5:8) and experience human ignorance (Mark 13:32).
[xliv] In systematic theology terms, we can say that pressing the outlook of the book of Proverbs at a whole-canon level causes us to fill out the rudiments of the doctrine of the Incarnation.