The Idiot Genius
A holy kiss and healing hugs.
One thing I adore about the Bible is that it never stops shocking me with its wisdom. After thirty-one years of being born-again (this past April 11) and twenty-nine years in public ministry (this upcoming October), I still get surprised, exhilarated, broken, baffled, sometimes altogether shocked, at the philosophical wisdom and practical wisdom in the Scriptures. Sometimes those wisdoms are presented obviously. Sometimes, however, they are presented metaphorically, or folded into layers, or hinted at with the thinnest of subtleties, or woven into creative wordplays, or teased into cryptic riddles.
Which leads us to Proverbs 30:15-31, a set of extraordinarily cryptic riddles that have mystified Bible studiers for generations ever since Agur wrote them. Several years ago I wrote a two-part article giving the meaning of these riddles, The Riddles of Proverbs 30. If you would like to read it they can be found at the Daily Christian Life Catalog. This article, The Idiot Genius, zeroes in on one of the tetrad-riddles Agur presented. (A tetrad is a cluster of four.)
Before we begin, ponder Proverbs 1:6 for a few minutes with God (NKJV): To understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles.
Introduction: Proverbs 30:15-31
Proverbs 30:15-31 are some of the greatest enigmas in all of Holy Writing. Their perceptive nuance is astonishingly subtle, concealing their truths from the lazy, from the simpleton, from the impatient, from formula-driven thinkers, from those who assume. What could the Lord's purpose be in inspiring Agur son of Jakeh to contribute these words to Solomon's book?
Proverbs is not concerned with schoolbook science, but with real-life practicalities and mechanisms. Those practicalities and mechanisms are conveyed, Proverbs 1:6 tells us, in the form of proverbs, enigmas, wise words, and riddles.
Here are the headers to the riddles of Proverbs 30:15-31 (NIV). We will focus on tetrad #2, a particular aspect of it.
In 30:15,16, Agur says, ...three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, "Enough!"
In 30:18, he says, ...three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand.
In 30:21,22, he says, Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up.
In 30:24, he says, Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise.
In 30:29, he says, ...three things that are stately in their stride, four that move with stately bearing.
Four Hard-To-Obtain Qualities
Proverbs 30:18,19 (NIV): There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.
An Eagle In the Sky
Agur uses "an eagle in the sky" to represent altitude in life. Who doesn't want to soar on the heights of a successful life? Who doesn't want to soar high above the troubles and traumas of humanity? This is possible, but it is a quality of life that is hard to obtain. It requires an enormous amount of spiritual growth, maturity in multiple dimensions, and very good decision-making. This "eagle in the sky" riddle often reminds me of my dad, who has a recurring dream that he is flying high in the clouds and praising Jesus.
Isaiah 40:31 says (NKJV), But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles...
Shame on us for quoting this verse endlessly, but leaving out the context, verses 27-30. Verses 27-30 is what we have to go through to finally, eventually, after feeling ignored by God (v27), after much weakness and weariness (v29), after fainting and falling hard (v30), after waiting, waiting, and more waiting (v31), mount up with wings like eagles and soar. Acts 14:22 is a New Testament equivalent to Isaiah 40:27-31. Luke quotes Paul and Barnabas (NIV): ..."We must go through many hardships to enter [experience, actualize, manifest] the kingdom of God," they said.
A Snake On a Rock
Agur uses "a snake on a rock" to represent patient stealth. The longer I live the more I realize the need for composed calculation, especially when dealing with "a rock"--a hard or seemingly impenetrable person. If you hit the rock you will hurt your hand, badly. In fact, there is not much you can do with a rock except glide across it and around it with patient stealth until you find a crack. Perceive the riddle! But, as Agur noted, this was a hard-to-obtain quality for him. And for many, if not most, people. Hard to obtain does not mean impossible, though.
Jesus, also employing the snake illustration positively, said in Matthew 10:16 (NIV), ...be as shrewd as snakes...
Jesus' word hearkens back to Agur's snake-on-a-rock riddle, because, he compared the people of first-century Israel to rocks and stones (Mt 3:9, Lk 3:8). In Matthew 10, Jesus sent out twelve "snakes", i.e. the Twelve disciples, to glide across and around the rocks of Israel, searching for cracks in their hard hearts to pour the gospel into.
A Ship On the High Seas
Agur uses "a ship on the high seas" to represent buoyancy. Remaining emotionally buoyant--joyful and jovial--in the turbulent high seas of this world, a world with so many irritants and disappointments and things to hate, is an exceedingly hard-to-obtain quality. But it is possible.
How do we develop emotional buoyancy? Scripture answers that from several different angles. For now I'll have to give a simple macro answer. Joy is a fruit (Gal 5:22), and like any and all fruits, it must be cultivated proactively, cultivated over time, and cultivated within a Biblical value system. Becoming happy and staying happy is a far more profound project than we realize.
A Man With a Young Woman
Agur uses "a man with a young woman" to represent the art of persuasion, specifically conversational persuasion. Every relationship, or potential relationship, requires this art. It is most easily observed, though, in the conversational grace and calculation of a skilled suitor, which is why Agur chose the romantic dynamic for the riddle. This same art, however, can secure business deals, negotiate social conflicts, overcome relationship obstacles, win political races, and much more. All human interaction, in a sense, is romantic wooing, like a man with a young woman. As with Agur's previous three illustrations, this quality is hard to obtain for many, if not most, people.
The art of persuasion, specifically conversational persuasion, has nothing to do with manipulation or slimy and shady communication games. Not at all. There is such a thing as healthy, godly persuasiveness in Scripture. Here are a few scriptures. All underlines mine.
Proverbs 25:15 (ESV): With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.
Jeremiah 20:7 (Young's Literal Translation): Thou hast persuaded me, O Jehovah, and I am persuaded...
Acts 13:43 (YLT): ...Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were persuading them to remain in the grace of God.
Acts 16:15 (NKJV): And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." So she persuaded us.
Acts 17:4 (ESV): And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.
Acts 18:4 (ESV): And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.
Acts 28:23,24 (NASB): ...trying to persuade them concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, from morning until evening. Some were being persuaded by the things said by Paul, but others would not believe.
2Corinthians 5:11 (ESV): Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others...
The Idiot Genius
Agur begins his second tetrad riddle with a confession. He says (v18, Young's Literal Translation):
Three things have been too wonderful for me, Yea, four that I have not known...
Agur humbly confessed the aforementioned four qualities were "too wonderful" for him. He also said, "I have not known them." The Hebrew word he used for "wonderful" is pala, which can also be translated "extraordinary, hard, beyond one's powers, separate and unreachable". When God said to Abraham and Sarah, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" in Genesis 18:14, the word "hard" is pala. When Jeremiah said to God, "Nothing is too hard for you" in Jeremiah 32:17, the word "hard" is pala. When God replied to Jeremiah, "Is anything too hard for me?" in verse 27, the word "hard" is pala.
In Proverbs 30:18, Agur is literally saying, "These four things have been too hard for me. I have not obtained them yet, I do not know them experientially."
Agur did not consider his life to be soaring on the heights, at least not consistently. He lacked patient stealth, at least more often than not. He was not emotionally buoyant, at least not consistently. He struggled to woo and win over others, perhaps even a wife. We have to admire his humility. Agur is a philosophical and perceptive genius, but in these four practical qualities, he confessed, "I am an idiot, a beginner, simply not there."
Smart Intellectually, Stupid Practically
Every intellectual person needs to take Agur's humble confession to heart. Cerebral intelligence, good discernment, and philosophical wisdom are not enough to create a life of soaring (consistent success), stealth (consistent cunning), buoyancy (consistent happiness), and persuasiveness (consistent influence). These and other practical character traits must be developed deliberately and pragmatically, with daily practice and many rounds of trial and error. I know Christian and secular leaders who are nearly geniuses, who are stunningly insightful, but who are facepalm idiots in certain areas of practical life. In other words, it is possible to be phenomenally smart and phenomenally stupid at the same time. Life is not an IQ test, it is a practical test.
If It's Hard, You Need It
The born-again life is not supposed to be hard or suffering all the time, however, there are certain aspects and seasons that most definitely are hard or cause us great suffering. Ecclesiastes 7:14 is a fabulous scripture balancing the full spectrum of our life experience (NASB): On the day of prosperity be happy, but on the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other...
One aspect of life in God that is awfully difficult is when He makes us develop practical character traits our parents never taught us. These personality amendments may seem like small pimples to you, but to God and to those around us, they are the most annoying and self-sabotaging parts of us. To many, personal sins are simply "flaws" or "not a big deal"--an indication of how much Lucifer-like pride still lives in their heart. If something about you is keeping you from flying like an eagle, moving with composed calculation like a snake, staying buoyant like a ship on the high seas, and consistently influencing others like a man woos a woman, it is a major problem. It is sin. If the practical character traits we need to develop are hard or pala, that tells us just how bad we need it.
God indicates to us what practical character traits we need by organizing providential circumstances. This means we keep bumping into situations and dynamics where those character traits (the lack of) are brought to our attention. It could be a person, or multiple persons, bringing those things to our attention, tenderly or aggressively. It could be a consequence, or series of consequences, directly resulting from our lack of those character traits. Church, God does not always have to say something with words. If you keep bumping into the same situations, the same dynamics, the same outcomes, the same redundancies...He is trying to reveal specific practical character traits you need. Recognize that and change.
Deuteronomy 2:3 (NASB): You have circled this mountain long enough. Now turn north. You have circled this character trait long enough, now turn north into God and get it.
God indicates to us what practical character traits we need by organizing providential coaches for us. This means He steers into our life orbit those who already have the particular trait(s) we need. You do not need Jan Hus or Watchman Nee or Billy Graham to disciple you, you simply need the coach in your environment that is ahead of you in that particular area. He/she does not have to disciple you in every detail of your life, only what God says you need. That may be one thing and one thing only, or it may be the vast majority of your spiritual development. Matthew 23:34 (ESV): Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes... Luke 11:49 (ESV): Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, "I will send them prophets and apostles..."
We do not get to custom-select our providential coaches. God steers them into your life, illuminates where they are ahead of you, illuminates that you need them for those purposes, and the responsibility falls 100% on you to cooperate with the setup. If you ignore, shun, disdain, flog, or crucify who God sends and illuminates, you alone suffer the consequences. You stay stuck at your current level of redundancy. Evil spirits have legal ground to afflict and harm you. Promise lands get delayed another season. Soaring, stealth, buoyancy, and influence get delayed another season.