By: Haddon Robinson
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. Proverbs 30:24-28, NIV
Usually when we want models, we set before us men and women of God who have blazed a path
to glory–the heroes of the faith who have touched their times and influenced the course of history. But Agur, a little-known figure in the Old Testament and source of the proverbs above, gives a different view.
Agur “models down.” He chooses four creatures that are small, and though he doesn’t say it, they are not particularly appealing. There are not many people who have pet ants. Not many take coneys out for a walk on a leash. Find a locust or a lizard in your home, and you usually stomp it to death. Yet Agur turns to these simple creatures, small and unattractive, to give us wisdom for the living of our days.
What ants know about time 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.
A lot of people don’t know. They live in the past. They are the people who, when they travel, are so concerned about taking photos to show when they get home that they forget to pay attention to the sights in front of them. And when they do get home, they coerce their friends into evenings of bouncy home videos. It seems they enjoy the picture but not the journey. They drive through life looking in a rearview mirror.
Others live only in the present. Their Bible verse is “Now is the accepted time.” Now is the day to enjoy yourself. They live for today as though there were no tomorrow. Then there are those 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.” Their constant refrain is after-after I get married or graduate or get promoted or retire, then I’ll stumble across my bucket of gold.
The ant, in contrast, knows what time it is. It has developed an instinct to prepare itself in the present; it works in the summer to prepare for the winter.
One way we prepare has to do with the study of the Word of God, as Agur reminds us earlier in Proverbs 30. Agur speaks of this Word as a word that cannot be changed. And if you attack the Word, it, in turn, will attack you. Throughout the Book of Proverbs, wise teachers urge us to know the Word: to study it, memorize it, meditate up on it. We do so because that Word will guide, guard, and protect us in the days to come. Like the ant, we take advantage of the summer because winter lies ahead.
For some, that winter may be very personal. Perhaps a disease you always thought belonged to other people becomes part of your life or the life of someone you love. Perhaps it is a ministry that turns sour, dashing all your dreams. Perhaps it has to do with children you brought into the world with hope and joy and deep expectation, only to see them turn their backs on you and everything you value. However it happens, one thing is certain: For all of us, sometime, winter will come.
And winter has already set in when it comes to our culture. Men and women in the last decade of the twentieth century are living in a winter of discontent. All around us are broken hearts and broken dreams and broken lives and broken homes. Some of the people who scoff at the idea of confessing that Jesus is Lord are instead enslaved by their addiction to the drug lords of Colombia. Others care only about the money they can make today. But if they have the wisdom of the ant, they will become ready for winter.
Though the ant has little strength, it uses what it has to prepare for the future. Ants attend picnics, but they don’t relax. While you are 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 will be back for the potato chips as well. They are always at it, working, straining, carrying the load. Instinctively they know they must use the summer to prepare for the winter that is lying ahead.
That means we must be people of the Word, like Agur. 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 the text, and even more to understand how it applies to our lives. We like to think that when we study the Bible, it is like getting a shot of spiritual adrenaline. But studying the Bible is much more like taking vitamins. You gulp down a couple in the morning, but no wave of energy flows through your body. No, you take vitamins because they fortify you against disease. In the long run, they make you strong. Studying the Bible, knowing God’s truths, likewise can help us be ready for winter’s worst.
What coneys teach about security
Agur tells us also to learn something from the coney. “Coneys,” he says, “are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags.” The coney is a rock badger, a bit larger than our prairie dogs, and are gray, the color of the rocks. As long as the coney is on the rock sunning, it is 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 eagle wants to sweep down on the coney, it has to knock down a mountain to get at it.
Coneys know where their security lies. If a coney decides to go onto the prairie, venturing away from the rock, then it is vulnerable. It does not matter how brave the coney is. The most courageous falls victim to the smallest wolf or lion. When it wanders away from the rock, a coney is dead meat.
Many of Agur’s hearers would have immediately applied that truth to God. They would have said, “If you have the wisdom of the rock badger, you’ll know where your security is. And the security you must have is the security of God himself.”
But it is not enough to know about God. You can imagine coneys getting out there on the prairie having a religious convention. They decide they want to dialogue about the rock. One group of coneys say the important thing about the rock is how wide it is. Others say, “No, no! The significant thing about the rock is how tall, how exalted it is.” And, of course, the practical theologians argue that what really matters is the size of the holes in the rocks. They all can sit out on the prairie arguing about the rock, not knowing its security.
But you learn two things from the coney. He has sense enough not to waste time arguing arcane points about God’s protection. He is too aware of his weakness. And he has sense enough to know where his strength is daily found. You have to know both to experience God’s care.
There are people who know God, know about God, but don’t know their failings and blind spots. They are like some philosophers or theologians who become vulnerable because in not knowing their weaknesses they become careless and arrogant.
Others fall into another trap. They know their weaknesses but don’t know God. The atheists-at least those who are thoughtful about life-realize how weak they are. And because they have no rock, they end up in despair.
If you have the wisdom of a coney, the rock badger, you know where your security lies. It lies in a living relationship to God. Without that, like a coney, you have no security at all.
What locusts can tell us
Then Agur says, “The locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks.” A locust or a grasshopper by itself is not particularly formidable. If you come across one in your yard, and it jumps suddenly, you may be startled; but one grasshopper is not much of a threat.
Yet if the 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 probably plague. What the locust or grasshopper cannot do alone, it can do in community with others. Indeed, at the turn of the century, a plague of locusts wreaked havoc in Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. In less than a week, they did over 500 million dollars worth of damage (in the purchasing power of that time).
Locusts have no king to get them organized. They do not have a draft board to call them into ranks. By instinct, locusts know they have 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 Bible. The Old Testament speaks of the covenant people of God. The New Testament speaks about the church. And it all tells us that while you must have a personal faith, you can never have a merely individual faith. You cannot be a Christian alone.
A man visited an asylum for the criminally insane. He was a bit surprised to find that only three guards were assigned to take care of a hundred 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.
After all, when Jesus sent out his disciples, he sent them out two by two. Whatever mark the apostle Paul made on history, he did not 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 deserted me, . . . and Crescens is gone. . . . Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry (2 Tim. 4:10-11, NIV). All Paul had in that last hour was Luke, his
physician friend. He was glad for the companionship, but Paul felt alone. He was used to having people around him-people with whom he could share a life and a faith.
Without community you are not going to make any impression upon this culture. Sometimes you hear folks talk about my ministry. Using those two words together is wretched spiritual grammar. God calls us to no service or ministry that we do by ourselves. That is what the Scriptures mean when they say we are a body-a community. We cannot go it alone. If we don’t understand that, we don’t have the good sense of a locust.
What we learn from lizards
Of the four creatures Agur mentions, the last is the one I find most difficult to understand. A lizard can be caught with the hand, Agur says, yet it is found in kings’ palaces. You can hold it, but probably wouldn’t want to. It is small and ugly, but there it is, in the presence of the king. Embedded in that incongruous image is a suggestion of grace.
A while ago I was trying to fix our garage door. I came to 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 by going in the opposite direction.” It took me 50 years to find out how screws
work, and now they change the rules!
There is a sense in which all the Bible is kind of a reverse screw. Everything in the culture that seems right comes out wrong in the Bible. 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. It is like the reverse screw. It is like a lizard in the king’s palace–incongruous.
But unless you understand the reverse nature of the screw, you never do anything. The more you try lo work by the values of the culture, the tighter the screw gets and the less you accomplish.
Keep in mind your calling, Paul tells us in the New Testament. Not many Billy Grahams are called. Not many full professors in great universities are called. He calls the nobodies and the nothings. “Not many of you were wise by human standards,” Paul wrote; not many were influential, not many were of noble birth. But God chose . . . the weak things of the world to shame the strong . . . so that no one may boast before him ‘ (1 Cor. 1:26b-29, NIV). It is not a big deal that the ordinary and the outcasts choose him; the big deal is that he chooses them. Ultimately, by his grace, they will be in kings’ palaces and join the fellowship with the king.
There are no ordinary Christians, C. S. Lewis reminds us. When you live with people in community, you dare not despise them, because one day when God is through with them, he will make them like Jesus Christ–they will become God’s daughters and sons. It is as incongruous as thinking that a crab could have interaction with Albert Einstein. Small, frail, and not particularly attractive people will, one day, through God’s grace, be in the kings’ palaces.
Four creatures on earth, then, are very small. If you sit at their feet–if you can find their feet-you can learn some big lessons. You can become wise.
(The above material appeared in the April 27, 1992 issue of the Christianity Today Magazine.)
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