The Starting Place for Wisdom - excerpt from FOOL

Mar 8, 2023 1:00 AM

The starting place for wisdom is knowing you don’t have any.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “The Beginning of Wisdom."

Surely I am more stupid than anyone,

and have not a man's understanding.

I have neither learned wisdom,

nor do I have knowledge of the Holy One.

Who has gone up into heaven and come down?

Who has gathered the wind in his fists?

Who has bound the waters in his garment?

Who has established all the ends of the earth?

What is his name, and what is his son’s name?

Surely you know!

Every word of God is tested.

He is a shield for those who take refuge in Him.

Add not to His words,

Lest He reprove you, and you be found a liar.

The verses above are attributed to a sage otherwise unknown to us, Agur ben Yakeh. His self-deprecating words notwithstanding, Agur's short collection shows him to be a shrewd observer of human nature who, like his Greek counterpart Socrates, was more inclined to ask questions than to offer answers. It also shows that, despite his self-deprecating confession, he is not without knowledge of the Holy One. Indeed, the words that immediately follow demonstrate that Agur knows much more than he is telling. What is then the point of his introductory statement? It is to affirm that there are boundaries to human wisdom and understanding. It is implicit advice to those who seek wisdom to avoid those teachers, first, who claim to have arrived at perfect understanding, and second, who find their source of authority outside of God's Word. At the same time, Agur also counsels against the arrogance of those who would try to manipulate God's Word to make it say what they wish it would say.

As a young pastor fresh out of seminary and soon to be fresh out of ideas, I began to learn theology from a widow who was a member of my church. Joy Lytle lived alone in a tired, 19th century two-story farm house at the end of a long gravel road. She was diabetic, nearly blind, often in poor health, and did not get to attend services with any regularity. But once I finally learned where she lived, I called on her with some frequency. It was not, I confess, so much to minister to her as to be ministered to. This elect lady who truly lived up to her name, "Joy," continued a ministry that she and her late husband had begun a generation before, of showing hospitality to young preachers, of refreshing their souls. I would sit at her table for hours, drinking iced tea and talking about the Lord. My wife says that whenever I was late coming in from making afternoon calls, if she needed to reach me she could call Mrs. Lytle and would find me there without fail.

And as I said, I learned theology from this woman whose education was mainly from the Bible. One day she looked at me across the table with her characteristic squint and said, "Maybe you can help me with a question that has bothered me for a long time. It's something I've really never understood." I perked up, of course. I love a knowledge challenge, and I was sure I could answer any doctrinal question she would put forward. "It’s that scripture that says, 'He changeth not.' I've never really understood that." Well, I launched into an exposition of the passage in Malachi where the words appear. She interrupted me—and her interruptions never came across as rude—"Yes, I know that. But how is it so, 'He changeth not'?" I backed up and tried again with a discourse on the immutability of God, again to no avail. Obviously I was missing the point. I did not even understand the question. I had always thought "He changeth not" to be an affirmation, not a problem.

But this precious woman, whose effectual prayers I valued far above my own, owned a vital faith forged in sickness and suffering that I had little understanding of. To her the concept of God's unchanging nature was a wonderful perplexity, a delicious paradox, the thing that she could not see but in which she believed. Like Elisha, who struck the river with the prophet's mantle, crying out, "Where is the God of Elijah," Joy Lytle did not ask her question out of disengaged curiosity on a point of doctrine, but out of the fight of faith in which she warred every day of her life. I don't know if I ever really "got it"—I am still working on her question—but I think I started to. She passed away after a terrible battle with cancer. My choice of texts for the sermon at her funeral was Mark 14:4, a question, "Why this waste?"—how the blessing and honor of Jesus abides on the life that is poured out in love without self-regard, even though the rest of the world and even fellow believers may not understand.

There are questions and problems to which there are no easy answers, and to which even the most sound and correct intellectual answers provide no satisfaction for the soul. Agur reminds us of that point, not to dissuade us from asking the hard questions, but rather to anchor our minds as well as our hearts in the fear of God.

Copyright © 2015 by Garry D. Nation.  All rights reserved.

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