The beginning of Proverbs 30, this evening’s Old Testament lesson in the Daily Office lectionary of the 2019 Prayer Book, has surprisingly familiar-sounding feel to it.
The man declares, I am weary, O God;
I am weary, O God, and worn out.
Surely I am too stupid to be a man.
I have not the understanding of a man.
I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
Surely you know!
Those even with cursory familiarity with the Bible will probably find this text striking a chord, whether you can put your finger on it or not. Indeed, without mentioning that it’s from Proverbs, where might you think this is actually from?
It’s Job. These four verses sound just like they’re summarizing the Book of Job. The man, Job, declares his weariness before God and his inability to understand God’s ways. “Who has ascended to heaven” or gathered the wind or wrapped up the waters or established the ends of the earth? These are the rhetorical questions God throws back at foolish and presumptuous man at the end of the book of Job. “Surely you know!”
So what’s the deal here? Well, most of the book of Proverbs contains what’s called prudential wisdom. This is an advice-based approach to teaching wisdom; memorize these lines, take them to heart, and these “good and godly sayings” will pop up in your mind at the prudent moment. But what we have here is more akin to the style of Job and Ecclesiastes: speculative wisdom. This is an approach based on asking questions. “Why me, God?” or more specifically “why do bad things happen to good people?” is the biggest underlying question in Job. “What’s the point of anything?” is the big question in Ecclesiastes. Speculative wisdom thus explores these sorts of questions, often walking down many dead-ends along the way to teach the student of wisdom by negative examples, not only positive assertions and explanations. Often the biggest mysteries of life are actually better explored by identifying what isn’t true than by what is.
Proverbs 30:1-4, then, is a step in that sort of direction. You want to be wise? You want to grow in godly character an understand the mysteries of the divine? Well, who do you think you are? After much striving after wisdom you’ll eventually just wear yourself out. “I am weary, O God.” Only God is omnipotent and omniscient. Some mysteries will always be mysteries to us, and we can never presume to comprehend (that is, overcome, or fully grasp) the Wisdom of God.
Fortunately, as we read in the early chapters of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom (prefiguring Christ) calls to us and invites us to receive the fruit of her words. We will never own or control or become her, but we can learn from her and feast on her bounty for all eternity. And honestly, that’s much more believable and encouraging than the (false) hope of attaining perfect knowledge an comprehension. Otherwise, eternity would be unbearable, wouldn’t it?