The Wisdom of Small Creatures
Christians must learn to value the times, recognize the source of their security, prioritize community, and adopt God's seemingly incongruous perspective.
My task this evening is to tell you how to live wisely now and for the rest of your life. Quite frankly, I've run out of ideas of my own, so I am borrowing the wisdom of another man. The outline of what I have to say comes from his pen. He was a man by the name of Agur. He lived many years ago. I think you would've liked Agur. The reason I like Agur is that he is a wise man. Those folks are hard to find these days. Wiseguys come easy, but wise people—that's something else. Agur was so wise that the Spirit of God included the musings of Agur in the pages of Scripture. They are recorded for us in Proverbs. And there is one fragment of his thought that can help us live with wisdom and skill; it's in Proverbs 30:24–28: "Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; coneys are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks; a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings' palaces."
Usually when we model, we model upward. We place before us those men and women of God who have blazed a path to glory—the heroes of the faith who have not only touched their times, but have also influenced the course of history. Agur, on the other hand, models down. He chooses four creatures that are small, and though he doesn't say it, they're not particularly appealing. There aren't many people who have pet ants. Not many people take conies out for a walk on a leash. When you find a locust or a lizard in your home, you usually try to stomp it to death. Yet Agur chooses these simple creatures, small and unattractive, and as he models down, he gives us wisdom for the living of our days.
Learn from the ant.
Agur says the ant has little strength, yet it stores up its food in the summer. The ant works today for tomorrow. Putting it another way, the ant knows what time it is in life.
There are a lot of one-dimensional people in the world. There are some folks who live in the past. They are the kind of people who take slides of a trip, and when they get home, they watch their slides. What they enjoy is the picture and not the journey. They're the sorts of folks who drive through life looking in a rearview mirror. There are other folks who live in the present. Their Bible verse of choice is: Now is the accepted time. Now is the day to enjoy yourself. They live for today as though there were no tomorrow. There are other folks who live in the future. Their theme song is borrowed from Annie: "Tomorrow." Or they sing, with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"—after I get married or after I graduate or after I'm out in ministry or after I retire, then I'll stumble across my bucket of gold.
The ant knows what time it is. Out of the past it has developed an instinct to prepare itself. The ant works in the summer to prepare for the winter that lies ahead. If the biblical writers were applying that principle—that is, as you are now, so you will be then—they would have applied it, at least in part, to the study of the Word of God. Earlier in chapter 30, Agur speaks of this Word as a word that cannot be changed; if you attack the Word, it, in turn, will attack you. Throughout the Book of Proverbs, wise teachers speaking to men and women in the formative period of life urge them to know the Word: study it, memorize it, and meditate upon it. They are to do so because that Word will guide them and guard them and protect them in the days to come. Like the ant, they are to take advantage of the summer because winter lies ahead.
For some of us that winter may be very personal. Perhaps a disease that you always thought belonged to other people becomes part of your life or the life of somebody you love very deeply. Perhaps a ministry turns sour, and all your dreams are dashed. Perhaps the children you brought into the world with hope and joy and deep expectation turn their back on you and everything that you value. One thing is certain: for all of us, winter's coming. We are moving out into a culture in which winter has already set in. Men and women in the last part of the 20th century are living in the winter of their discontent. Cold winds have crossed our culture. Men and women today who scoff at the idea of confessing that Jesus is Lord are enslaved to the drug lords in Columbia. We live in a barren land where broken hearts and broken dreams and broken lives and broken homes are all over the landscape. Like the land of Narnia, this culture is always winter yet never Christmas.
You will take into winter the provisions you stored up in the summer. If you've got the wisdom of the ant, you'll take advantage of the times. Though the ant has little strength, it uses what strength it has to prepare for the future. Ants attend picnics, but they don't relax. While you're sitting back drinking a long, tall glass of iced tea and munching on a hamburger, the ants are carrying off the sugar one grain at a time. If you don't watch them, they'll be back for the potato chips as well. They're always at it, working, straining, and carrying the load. Instinctively, they know they must use the summer to prepare for the winter that is lying ahead.
For God's sake, and for your own, you must be people of the Word. You must do theological reflection to understand our times, to understand where God is working. That takes effort. It demands you love God with your strength and with your mind. The people involved in the public relations department of the church always make Bible study sound as though it is easy. It is not. It takes a great deal of effort to understand this text, and even more to understand how it applies to our lives. They like to think that when we study the Bible, it's like getting a shot of spiritual adrenaline; it gives a spiritual high. But studying the Bible is much more like taking vitamins. You gulp down a couple of vitamins in the morning, but no wave of energy flows through your body. You take the vitamins because they build you up. They protect you against diseases in the environment. In the longrun, they make you strong. Studying the Bible is hard work. You will never understand this book, and you'll never be able to apply it to life if you're going to be a couch potato. It demands everything you have in the summer of your life, for winter's coming. If you're not prepared, you'll find winter bleak and cold and spiritually dangerous. Agur says if you've got the brains of an ant, you'll know what time it is.
Learn from the coney.
You can also learn something from the coney. "Coneys," Agur says, "are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags." The coney is a rock badger, a bit larger than a prairie dog. Coneys are gray, the color of the rocks. As long as the coney is on the rock sunning itself, it's almost impossible to see. When a predator comes to attack, the coney will run into a hole, the crag in the rock. If a vulture or an eagle wants to sweep down on the coney, it has to knock down a mountain to get at it. One thing about coneys, they know where their security lies. If a coney decides to go off on the prairie, venturing away from the rock, then it's vulnerable. It doesn't matter how courageous the coney is. It doesn't matter whether or not it's been taking bodybuilding lessons at the local gym. The most courageous coney falls victim to the smallest wolf or lion. When it wanders away from the rock, a coney is dead meat.
Biblical writers would have taken that truth and applied it to God. They would have said: If you have the wisdom of a badger, you'll know where your security is. And the security you must have is the security of God himself.
I would not for a moment disparage the exegesis of the Scriptures. I would not for an instant reject the need for serious theological reflection. But you've got to know that knowledge about God is not the same as knowledge of God. Knowing Jesus Christ is not the same thing as knowing a mathematical formula. To know God is to have a relationship with a person. Too often we confuse that. It's easy to think that because you know theology you know God. But theology is like a road sign that says the city is 51 miles that way. A lot of folks are standing around the road sign thinking they've found the city. They stand there arguing about the size of the letters or whether it's 51 or 51½ miles to the city. The sign simply says you'll find the city that way. Knowing the sign is not the same thing as being in the city.
You can imagine coneys getting out there on the prairie, holding a religious convention. They decide they want to dialogue about the rock. There's a whole group of coneys that say the important thing about the rock is how wide it is. There are others who say, "No, no! The important thing about the rock is how tall, how exalted it is." Of course there are the practical coney theologians who say what really matters is the size of the holes in the rocks. So coneys, like people, end up forming denominations. Some are the wide-rock conies, and others the tall-rock conies. They can sit out on the prairie arguing about the rock, not knowing its security.
Two things you learn from the coney: he's got sense enough to know his weakness and sense enough to know his strength. You've got to know both. There are people who know God and know about God, but don't know their weaknesses. They are vulnerable philosophers or theologians; in knowing God and not knowing their weaknesses, they become careless and arrogant. There are other folks who know their weaknesses but don't know God. The atheists, at least those who are thoughtful about life, realize how weak they are. Because they have no rock, they end up in despair. If you have the wisdom of a coney or the rock badger, you know where your security lies. It lies in a relationship to God. Without that, like a coney, you have no security at all.
Learn something from the ant: the ant knows what time it is in life.
Learn something from the rock badger: the badger knows where to find his security.
Learn from the locust.
Then Agur says, "The locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks." A locust or a grasshopper by itself isn't particularly formidable. If you find one in your kitchen, and he jumps suddenly, you may be startled, but one grasshopper isn't much of a threat. Yet if that grasshopper joins a league of grasshoppers, it could do all kinds of damage. When you think of locusts, the next word that pops into your mind is "plague." What the locust and grasshopper cannot do alone, it can do in community with others.
Back at the turn of the 20th century, there was a plague of locusts in the Plains of the United States. In a matter of a few days, that swarm of locusts swept over the states of Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. In less than a week, they did over 500 million dollars' worth of damage.
Locusts don't have a king to get them organized. They don't have a draft board to call them into ranks. By instinct, the locust knows it has to be in community with other locusts. When that occurs, they are able to topple kingdoms. The wisdom of the locust is the wisdom that tells us we must have community. That is a theme throughout the entire Bible. The Old Testament speaks of the covenant people of God. The New Testament speaks about the church. And what it tells us is that while you must have a personal faith, you can never have an individual faith. You cannot be a Christian alone. You must have other Christians.
A man went to an asylum for the criminally insane. He was a bit surprised to find there were three guards to take care of 100 inmates. He said to one of the guards, "Aren't you afraid that the inmates will unite, overcome you, and escape?" The guard said, "Lunatics never unite." Locusts do. Christians should. If we don't, we don't know where our power is.
When Jesus sent out his disciples, he sent them out two-by-two. If you live life by yourself, you will fall into perils that you would not fall into if you were surrounded by people with a common commitment and cause. Think of the mark the apostle Paul made on history. Paul didn't do it alone. He had those splendid men and women he lists in Romans 16. Flip through the pages of the New Testament, and you see his comrades-in-arms: Epaphroditus, Onesimus, Silas, Barnabas, Titus, and Timothy. When you come to those last hours of Paul's life, he sits in a dungeon in the city of Rome, facing execution. In the final letter in his correspondence with Timothy, he writes, "Demas has left me, and Crescens is gone. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you. He's profitable to me for the ministry." All Paul had in that last hour was Luke, his physician friend. He was glad for his companionship, but Paul still felt alone. He was used to having a band of buddies around him—men with whom he could share a life and a faith.
The Bible is filled with community. If you don't know where your power is, if you don't understand that other Christians need you and you need other Christians, you're not going to make it. You will make no real imprint for God alone. If you have the instinct of a locust, you know you can't go it alone. You need other Christians. They need you. Without community, you are not going to make any impression upon this culture. Sometimes you hear someone talk about "my ministry." It almost seems to me those two words together are wretched spiritual grammar. Call it "His ministry" or "our ministry," but not "my ministry." God doesn't call you to a ministry that you do by yourself. That's what the Scriptures are talking about when they say we are a body. We are a community. You cannot go it alone. If you don't understand that, you don't have the good sense of a locust.
So, four things on earth are small, but they are extremely wise. From the ant, you need to know the times. From the coney, you need to know where your security is. From the locust, you need to know where your power is.
Learn from the lizard.
Finally, "a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings' palaces." Of these four creatures that Agur mentions, this last one I find most difficult. What I do know is when you read that a lizard can be caught with the hand and yet it's in the king's palace, there's an incongruity to that. You can hold it in your hand, but you probably wouldn't want to. It's kind of small and ugly, yet there it is in the presence of the king. You can think about it and recognize that image is an image of grace. Grace is incongruous.
A while ago, I was trying to fix our garage door. I came to that one screw I had to get loose, and the more I worked to loosen that screw, the tighter it seemed to get. A neighbor came over and saw my plight. He looked for a moment or two and said, "Oh, this has a left-handed thread. It's a reverse screw. You have to tighten or loosen it going in the opposite direction." It took me 50 years to find out how screws work, and now they change the rules.
There's a sense in which the entire Bible is somewhat like a reverse screw. Everything in the culture that seems right, in the Bible, it comes out wrong. The way up is the way down. The way to spiritual wealth is to acknowledge your spiritual poverty. The way to live is to die. The way to rule is to serve. I mean the screw just doesn't work right. It's like a lizard in the king's palace. It's just incongruous. But unless you understand the reverse nature of the screw, you never do anything. The more you try to work it according to the values of the culture, the tighter the screw gets and the less you accomplish.
The whole Bible is that way. Everything is upside down. When you come with the values of the culture and read the New Testament, it seems crazy. You spent 50 years learning how to play the game and now they change the rules. God's always doing that. Paul says, "You know your calling, brothers." Not many Donald Trumps are called. Not many full professors in the great universities are called. He calls the nobodies and the nothings. You'd better mark that. He elects those kinds of people. It's no big deal that the ordinary and the outcasts choose him. He chooses them. Ultimately by his grace, they will be in kings' palaces and join fellowship with the king.
Do you know what that means? C. S. Lewis put it well when he said, "There are no ordinary Christians." Every Christian you meet bears the weight of glory. Think of the most ordinary person you know: the kind of person you tend to bypass; the kind of person you tend to mock behind his or her back. If that person who knows God were to come back as he one day will be, bearing all of the glory of Jesus Christ, and walk into the room, you would be tempted to kneel down and worship him. There are no ordinary Christians. When you live with these people in community, you dare not despise them, because one day when God is through with them, he will make them exactly like Jesus Christ—they will become God's daughters and sons. It seems incongruous, but that person sitting next to you or in front of you will be in the presence of God, enjoying fellowship with him. It seems incongruous that people, small and frail and not particularly attractive, will one day be in kings' palaces.
Four things on earth are very small. If you could sit at their feet—if you could find their feet—you could learn some lessons. From the ant, you learn the value of knowing the times—knowing that today is summer and winter's coming. From the coney, you learn the need to know where your security is—not in yourself but in the rock. From the locust, you discover your power is in community—rather than being a rugged individualist who does it yourself, not needing to call on God, able to take care of it. Finally, if you have the perspective of a lizard, you see God's incongruity—as you look at other people you realize that these men and women with whom you will share life are destined to live in the presence of the King of Heaven.
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.