Careful students of the world come to understand that truth is not always obvious. A superficial scanning of things and circumstances will produce a superficial understanding of them. There runs the herd. A herd provides lots of company, but it is usually mindless.
Although the proverbial anthology insists that the community is the best custodian of understanding—or, more accurately, that there is no wisdom without respectful attention paid to the community and its accrued wisdom—the Proverbs also commend a certain independence of mind. A recent comment on this blog came from a man whose personal motto (digitized, as we do these days), is ‘think hard, think well’.
He might have been summarizing one of the key commitments of biblical wisdom.
Such careful observers—call them independent if we must—know that one must look much deeper than appearances in order to mine the world for its well-hidden nuggets of understanding. Wisdom often turns the table on the casual observer, particularly when he is sure he knows what he thinks he knows. If the voice of the sage does not always address such a person roughly—’You fool!’—it at least offers him an exhortation: ‘Look again!’
Four are among the tiniest on earth, Yet they are the wisest of the wise: Ants are a folk without power, Yet they prepare food for themselves in summer; The badger is a folk without strength, Yet it makes its home in the rock; The locusts have no king, Yet they all march forth in formation; You can catch the lizard in your hand, Yet it is found in royal palaces. (Proverbs 30:24–28 JPS)
The key to this numbered proverb lies in the paradoxical description of its four little creatures. On the one hand, they are very small and, therefore, unlikely sources of understanding. On the other, these critters are presented as ‘the wisest of the wise’ or ‘exceptionally wise’. One might well live out one’s life without looking to such tiny creatures for qualities of character that often elude human beings.
That would be a wasted opportunity to learn. And to live.
Ants, badgers, locusts, lizards. These pull off feats of foresight, security, organization, and access that would be the envy of any thoughtful human being, to say nothing of his community.
Yet because they are small they pass unnoticed, unobserved, and so their lesson is lost.
Unless, by good fortune, one falls under the instruction of the sages, who remind us often and patiently not to be too sure that we know nor too confident that we can anticipate from what corner, person, or thing wisdom will next make itself available.
And then, by strenuously practiced discipline, to look again. More carefully, this time.