I offer this post in honor of Mr. Todd Rankin, who both knows and wonders.
Contrary to popular belief, the sages who stand behind the biblical anthology of proverbs do not flatter themselves for having an understanding of the world all sewn up.
The maker of proverbs is a student of the world who, for all the order and pattern he discerns, is left astonished by reality’s inscrutable mysteries. On balance the proverbialist stands more in awe of the world than in control of it.
Yet this capacity to marvel must usually be detected between the lines. One sees it, for example, in the juxtaposition of proverbs that on the surface seem to contradict each other. The anthologist knows that they do not, but rather that wisdom takes the shape of working out just which truth seems more pertinent for this moment of complex reality. There is always a bit of guessing, always the need for the ‘judgment call’.
One notes the capacity for wonder also as the counterpart to the sheer audacity of making proverbs. To state things as unequivocably as the proverbs do is, in the hands of a sensitive student of the world, a reckoning with the fact that they do not always turn out to be that way. It is a pointing in a safe direction, a description of 80% of a peeled-back onion. There are always contingencies. There is always the unknown. There remains at all times the possibility of exception. Any sympathetic reader of proverbs—or for that matter, any modern user of a proverb, whether ancient or recent—knows this and does not insist upon silly absolutisms.
Yet if this understated recognition of the world’s wonder lies below the surface, between the lines, barely visible amid warp and woof in the Bible’s proverbial anthology, it occasionally blossoms to the point of articulation. One such florescence occurs amid the ‘numerical proverbs’ of the thirtieth chapter:
Three things are too wonderful for me; four 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 girl.
Wisdom has its limits. Wonder abides at the seam where human understanding is joined to what cannot truly be known.
Eagles soar, the very picture of magnificent serendipity. A snake casts its curling line sideways and yet moves forward on a Spring morning’s sun-warmed rock. A ship, winds changing and sails flying, finds its way across a sea too wide for measuring and puts in to safe harbor. A man, full up with flow charts and deadlines and bills, looks into a woman’s eyes and says three words that throw it all into jeopardy.
There is no doubt that knowledge advances, explains, masters, and controls. The boundaries along which awe must make its home are shifting lines.
Yet the day when a man can no longer scribble his short list of ‘things too wonderful for me’ becomes, in a sense, the date of his death.