Proverbs and the Playfulness of God

Hebrew Scroll of the
Book of Proverbs

The Book of Proverbs is surely the most down-to-earth book in the Bible. It’s full of what one might call glorified common-sense on just the kind of subject that over two thousand years later people still want their children to get right, even if they didn’t get them right themselves—what sort of friends to choose, how important is money, how to behave in company, what’s the proper way to treat your elders, when to speak up and when to shut up, and so on.

Beyond that, in the midst of all this common sense, there is a recurring refrain, almost one might say a golden thread, running through much of it to the effect that when all is said and done it is not this common sense but the fear of God that is the beginning and foundation of all true wisdom and knowledge (1.7, 2.5, 2.6, 9.10, 15.33, 21.30). And beyond even that, once, in chapter 8, this refrain itself blossoms out into a passage of extraordinarily powerful theological imagination, wherein the Divine Wisdom herself, personified, calls to those who will hear her, and speaks of her part in the creation of the world.

Let us file by certain title things that must be said. This is Israel’s Scripture not pagan mythology, so Wisdom is not a goddess and she is not a rival to the LORD. She is, indeed, the LORD’s creation. That granted, there is much about her that speaks of a special closeness with God. She was, she tells us, with God in the beginning, for God created her beyond and before all things (8:22-29). Not only that, but “then,” she says, at the creation of everything else,

I was beside him as his darling;[i]
and I was daily his delight,
playing before him always,
playing in his inhabited earth
and my delights were with humankind. (8:30-31)

In other words, the sage and poet of Proverbs, having used powerful poetic imagination to speak of the Divine Wisdom’s part in creation, now goes on to suggest that in and through that Divine Wisdom God has chosen from the beginning of creation to have a relationship with us His creatures, that is all about delight, and is even playful. This Divine Wisdom, God’s first creation, was, in the words of Gerhard von Rad, “playing in the world like a child; like a ‘favourite’, she was the delight of God and, even from the very beginning, she was turned toward humankind in cheerful and playful disposition.”[ii]

Michelangelo Creation in the Sistine Chapel: detail

This is something that (as I have occasionally noticed with other theological truths) artists and poets have sometimes perceived and portrayed more easily and accurately than theologians. In C. S. Lewis’s in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe I recall the scene where Lucy and Susan play with Aslan, the Christ figure in Narnia, and He with themindeed, they romp together, in pure fun and delight.[iii] Or, more subtly, there is Michelangelo’s vision of Genesis and creation in the Sistine Chapel. We generally pay a lot of attention to the image of the hands, and the spark of life passing from God to Adam, and that is indeed a stunning image. But just as striking in my view is the young woman on God’s left. She is definitely feminine, and beautiful: but beautiful in a special way. She is small, perky and alert. She looks as though she’d be fun to be with, and God has His arm protectively around her. Some have suggested that she is a portrait of Eve, but if so, she is not at all like Eve as Michelangelo portrays her elsewhere (generally big and brawny). Personally, I don’t at all think she is Eve. I’m quite sure Michelangelo means us to see her as God’s darling, God’s favourite, the firstborn of all Creation, the Divine Wisdom.

This image of Divine Wisdom in the act of creation playing joyfully and even, we might even say (given the language) frivolously and dizzily before God is an important theological statement, and especially so for theologians and priests and religious people like myself, who are inclined to take ourselves and everything else rather seriously. This image reminds us that the creation is God’s free act. It is not something God has to do, it is God’s delight. But it surely goes further even than that. It implies that there is, and there is intended to be, something playful, frivolous, even slightly dizzy in God’s fundamental relationship with creation—a striking amplification of what God means by the declaration in Genesis that what has been made is “very good” (1.31)! It as if God were to have said, as we might say after any particularly delightful and joyful experience, “that was great!” or even “you were wonderful!” Which in turn may remind us that at least one book of the Bible, the Song of Songs, as interpreted in both rabbinic and patristic traditions, presents God’s relationship with God’s people as a happy love affair in which each side says to the other with delight, “I love you!” and the reply is, “I love you, too!”[iv]

There are, of course, elements of this playful element elsewhere in Scripture. Think what we are saying when we recite Psalm 104:

There go the ships,

and there is that Leviathan,

which you made for the sport of it. (Ps 104:27)

Throughout ancient tradition, including biblical, Leviathan, the Canaanite monster, is a figure of terror, certainly no use to humanity, rather, a threat: but here the psalmist suggests, God created it for fun![v]  Which leads me on to think of all those other beasts that God celebrates in Job 39 to 41—none of them, apart from the warhorse, is of the slightest apparent use to human beings, and many of them are very dangerous. What they have in common, however, including the warhorse, is that they are all, in their different ways, spectacular. Apparently, as Amy Dillard puts it, “the creator loves pizzazz.”[vi] And pizzazz, of course, is fun. Pizzazz means play!

And that is surely a part of what our Lord is saying when he reminds us, “whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God as a child, shall by no means enter it!” (Mark 10:15). What, after all, are children definitely better at than adults? Playing, of course—until we train it out of them, and insist that they pay attention to what we call “the real world”. Proverbs and Our Lord suggest that on the contrary, the really real world is something that can only be attended to in freedom, in the joy of play. When one thinks about it joy, real joy, always has an element of fun in it.

A lovely illustration of this is, I believe, offered by the book of Job, especially at its conclusion. Job has been a good man throughout, and he has discovered (as many have) that bad things happen to good people, including him. He has complained to God, and has received a revelation which, while justifying his action in complaining, has also led him to “recant” or “dissolve” the complaint itself (42.6).[vii]  (I think the word we would use would be “withdraw”). At the end of the story, all Job’s good things are restored, and far more. But things do not go on entirely as before, for Job himself has changed. The old Job, before the catastrophe, was very serious, and very pious. He even offered sacrifices for his sons just in case they had sinned! (1.5). The new Job has as many children as the old —seven sons and three daughters—something which in itself surely shows a generous measure of faith and hope, since he is living in a universe in which, as he now knows, even piety cannot protect him or his family. Surprisingly, we are told his daughters’ names, although we are not told the names of his sons. His daughters are all named after cosmetics: Dove, Cinnamon, and Eye-Shadow. What is more, they are to inherit equally with Job’s sons—something contrary to Israelite law, according to which daughters could only inherit if there were no sons (Num. 27:1-8). Why? We are offered no explanation, beyond the fact that the daughters are gorgeous: “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters” (42:15). What shall we say to this frivolous ending to a book whose overall content cannot at all be described as frivolous? We might be struck by an increasing sense of justice in this man who was treated with horrible injustice. And that might explain the girls’ inheritances. But it hardly explains the frivolity of their names. The only explanation I can see is that Job’s experience has taught him how to have fun—how to play.

There is no joy without fun. And surely our seriousness, which leads us to try imagining joy without fun is one reason why most of our pictures of heaven are boring. God forbid we should joke with God or play with God! God forbid that in heaven we should play! Fortunately for us (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the devil Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters has it right: God is

a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore’. Ugh![viii]

Freedom and delight, the essence of play, belong together for God and for us. God’s playfulness with us inevitably means divine closeness to us, even intimacy with us, for how can anyone, even God, play with someone from whom one is distant? There is therefore, I would argue, a clear line to be drawn from Proverbs’ awareness of the playfulness of the Divine Wisdom to Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I’m going to end this little note with a story.

Once upon a time there was  a man called George. In the fullness of time, George died. When he arrived in the after life, the first thing that happened was that his dog Gracie, whom he’d loved very much and who’d died some years earlier, came bounding up to him, tail wagging. That was a joyful reunion!

“I suppose,” George said to Gracie after a bit, “we ought to look for Heaven, and see if they’ll let me in.”

Gracie wagged her tail.

So they set off down the road.

After a bit, they saw off at the side of the road a great glittering city, all golden walls and jewelled gates, with wonderful organ music coming from it.

“That must be heaven,” George said. “Let’s try our luck!”

They got there and banged on the gate, and after a while it was opened by a tall and dignified person in a magnificent robe.

“Is this heaven, and can we can come in?” the man asked.

“This is indeed heaven, the Celestial City,” the dignified person in the magnificent robe said. “And you are welcome to enter. But you cannot bring that dog. Dogs are messy and untidy.”

“Well, yes, but—“

“NO DOGS!” the dignified person said firmly. “And especially not a mongrel like that. It’s not even a proper breed. Come again when you’ve got rid of it.”

Which said, the dignified person closed the gate.

George looked at Gracie. “Well Gracie, I suppose that means that heaven is not for us.”

Gracie wagged her tail, and the two of them set off again, away from the great golden city.

After a while, the sunshine began to get hot, and George could see that Gracie was getting thirsty. So he was pleased to notice a cottage by the road—and old cottage that looked as if it could do with a lick of paint, though it was clean and tidy and there was a nice garden with roses. An old man wearing a battered sports coat with leather patches on the sleeves was sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, reading the paper.

They went up to him.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but my dog Gracie is getting a bit thirsty with walking, and I wondered whether perhaps she could have a drink of water?”

The old man looked up. His eyes twinkled and he smiled cheerfully.

“Of course she can!” he said. “Look, there’s a full water bowl over there in the shade. Let Gracie drink as much as she likes. There’s plenty more. And take a seat yourself.” He pointed to the other rocking chair. “Would you like some lemonade? I’m going to have some.”

“I would actually. Thank you very much.” For of course Gracie wasn’t the only one who was getting thirsty.

“So,” said the old man when they were all nicely settled with their drinks, “where are you two staying?”

“Well, I don’t know,” George said. “You see, I was hoping we might be accepted into Heaven, but we just tried at the Celestial City, and they won’t take dogs.”

The old man looked puzzled. “Where exactly have you been? Where is this city?”

“Just over there,”—he pointed the way that they’d come – “all golden towers and organ music.”

“Oh, that!” The old man laughed. “Did they say that was Heaven? Dear Lord, they are such awful liars! No, no, this is heaven. A bit scruffy and down-at-heel for some tastes, I fear, but dogs and all other pets welcome! Not to mention repentant sinners!“

“So what’s that other place?”

“The other place? Where they won’t take pets?” The old man sighed, and for the briefest minute the twinkle went out of his eyes.

“That place,” he said finally, “is hell.”

 

The rabbis said that God created the beasts to be our jesters and playfellows, and though I don’t think this is the only reason God created them—the beasts have their own mystery, and it is surely a great piece of human arrogance to suppose that we are the only creatures in the universe that God cares about or is interested in—still, these are roles that some beasts seem content to play for us, and I am sure God meant it so.

Our jesters and playfellows…

Jesters help us to laugh—sometimes at their jokes and antics, but very often, if they are good jesters, at ourselves.

Playfellows teach us to play, which Johan Huizinga has taught us is the foundation of all human civilization and civilized behaviour,[ix] and the Bible tells us is necessary if we are to know God.

Beware of any group where they don’t like pets and disapprove of play and laughter. They will certainly turn out to have other bad habits.

[i] The NRSV rendering of the Hebrew as “master workman” (connecting it with Akkadian unmanu = craftsman) though it has ancient support (i.e. the LXX) seems ill to fit the context, which rather emphasizes on playfulness and delight. Hence I prefer Aquila’s choice to point the Hebrew as āmūn (= pet, nursling, or darling), which he rendered in Greek by τιθηνουμενη (= ward, or darling): see Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972) 152-57.

[ii] von Rad, Wisdom in Israel 157.

[iii] Lewis actually uses the word “romp”. See C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1950) 133. There have been many editions since, on both sides of the Atlantic.

[iv] Some will regard this theological view of the Song of Songs as dated or contrary to modern scholarly investigation. I see no contradiction, and I refer them to Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Songs of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 231-38, which I find very persuasive; cf. also Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., The Song of Songs (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) esp. 103-105.

[v] I here cite the Episcopal BCP 1979 Psalter rather than the more staid “to sport in it” of the NRSV. While the Hebrew is in itself somewhat ambiguous, so that the NRSV rendering is not impossible, God’s ironic question to Job, “will you sport with him [i.e. Leviathan] as with a bird?” (Job 40.29), surely leaves very little doubt as to what is intended here in the psalm (cf. Mitchel Dahood S.J, Psalms III [New York: Doubleday] 45; similarly Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984] 32; Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs 68).

[vi] Amy Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) 137.

[vii] Pace the NRSV, but following NAB and JPS, this is probably the correct interpretation of Job 42:6. See Rabbi Dr Victor E. Reichert, Job (Hindhead, Surrey: Socino, 1946) 220; Marvin H. Pope, Job (New York: Doubleday, 1965) 348; E. Dhorme, A Commentary on the Book of Job, Harold Knight, transl. (London: Nelson, 1967 [1926]) 646-47.

[viii] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942) Letter XXII: there have been many editions since 1942, published in both Great Britain and the United States.

[ix] I refer of course to Johan Huizinga’s remarkable book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (London: Palladin, 1970): but again, there are numerous editions.

 

Thoughts about Pentecost for 2018

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:1-4a)

I was still thinking about the image of love as fire, which the Presiding Bishop built on so powerfully yesterday in his sermon before Prince Harry and Meghan. And I dare say it was because I was thinking of that that I was struck, as I looked at the proper for today, by St Luke’s use of the image of fire as he describes the apostles’ and the holy women’s experience of the Holy Spirit that first Pentecost.

In one way, of course, Luke was simply doing what the Bible had always done. Again and again in the Scriptures, where they speak of God’s presence in grace, redemptive power and glory—for example in the stories of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah—again and again they use the image of fire.

Think for a minute of that most remarkable of stories, Moses at the Burning Bush! (Exod. 3:1-10) Or, to be more precise, the story of Moses at the Bush that Burns but is not Burnt Up. It’s remarkable in several ways. For one thing, it tells us what Moses was thinking. Only very rarely do stories in the Bible tell us what anyone thought. As a rule they tell us what people said and what they did. As for what they thought, we have to decide that for ourselves. But the story of Moses at the Bush is an exception. Even then, the writer doesn’t actually say, “Moses thought”. The writer says, “Moses said”—but it’s clearly Moses thinking aloud, for there’s no one else there.

Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not consumed.’

Did I say there was no one else there? Well, of course there was someone else there, but it was evidently a surprise, even to Moses. God was there.

“Put off your shoes Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.”

God calls to Moses out of the bush. Again, let’s be more precise: as God often does to those who turn aside to take a closer look at something, God reveals God’s self to Moses, calling to him from the very thing to which he has chosen to pay attention. And indeed, it turns out in this revelation that God also has seen something, and God, too, has turned aside

“ Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

And so to Moses in this moment is revealed the Name of God and God’s gracious good will to have mercy on God’s people.

We Christians, of course, believe also in a second and even greater revelation—that wherein the Word became flesh by way of blessed Mary, she whom we call theotokos, “God bearer”—or as our more homely English idiom has it, “Mother of God.” Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century speaks of her too, witness as she is to the grace of God turning aside and coming down to God’s people—she too is a burning bush—like the first, burning but not burnt up.

And that is one of the abiding truths of God’s breath, God’s dynamic, God’s life in us—for those things are all elements of what “the Holy Spirit” is—the abiding truth is that if only we are willing to be open to God’s breath, God’s life, it takes hold of us as it took hold of Jesus’ followers that first Pentecost. It takes hold of us “in tongues as of flame”—so that we too are on fire but not burnt up. For the effect of God’s fire is never to destroy us if we open ourselves to it, but rather to enable us to be ever more truly ourselves, the individuals God actually created us to be.

Does this really have anything to do with the Presiding Bishop’s sermon to their Royal Highnesses yesterday, or was what I experienced a mere co-incidence of words without serious implication? Of course it has everything to do with it! For Bishop Michael was quoting from the Song of Songs:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame. (8:6)

—the Song of Songs, which is—as the Old Testament scholar Ellen Davies reminds us in her wonderful little book Getting Involved with God—which is the only place in the Bible where there is a dialogue of love: the only place in this entire literature of the relationship between God and God’s people where we hear “one partner say, ‘I love you,’ and the other answer right back, ‘Yes, yes; I love you too.’”[1] And yet, if our faith is true, then coming to this mutual love—we for God and God for us, and on that basis we for others and others for us—is entirely what our life is really meant to be about.

Love means ecstasy—that is, standing outside of ourselves. And that may be costly and painful. Indeed, it often is.

Loves means intimacy—intimacy with God, intimacy with each other, intimacy with the whole creation. And that means being vulnerable: vulnerable to another. And that too can be painful, and often is.

And yet that ecstasy and that intimacy are the qualities of life for which we were made. The rest—even all those wonderful gifts and talents and clevernesses on which we pride ourselves so much—even the good things—they are transient. As Ecclesiastes and St Paul remind us, they will vanish away.

“הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל,” says Ecclesiastes (Eccl. 1:2). “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” is how we usually translate it—the only problem being that “vanity”, at least as we normally use the word, is not really a very good translation of the Hebrew הָבֶל—which literally means “vapour”. For what the preacher is saying is not that everything is “vain” or “vanity”, but that all things, even good things, are transitory, ephemeral. Only love, together with the faith and the hope that invariably accompany love, will actually last. Love alone is the true fire that the Spirit, the breath, the life of God, will light in us if we will let it, and it will not destroy us. Love alone is the true fire that will burn in us and yet not burn us up.

In one sense we do not need to pray for this gift, for God offers it to us all the time: that is the message of Pentecost. Rather, let us ask God for grace that we may open our stubborn and cowardly hearts to it: for that is always the problem.

And now let us confess our faith…

[1] Ellen F. Davis, “The One Whom My Soul Loves” in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Lanham, Maryland and Plymouth, UK: Cowley, 2001).

Easter 6, Year B: Text of a Sermon preached at the Convent of Saint Mary in Sewanee, 2018.

For the Gospel: John 15:7-17

Our gospel passage this morning comes from Our Lord’s discourses at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It follows directly on from what we heard last week, Our Lord’s parable in which he spoke of himself as the true vine, and his disciples as the branches. As the branch cannot flourish apart from the vine, he said, so we, his disciples, cannot flourish without him.

Jesus now continues, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you”—he speaks, I believe, of our communion with him through prayer: if the words of Jesus, that is, the things he says and the things he does—if these abide in us, then, he says, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). This will happen because if Jesus’ words and deeds are in our hearts and minds, then our petitions will be echoes of His words and deeds. As He speaks, so we will speak. Our prayers will be fragments of his teaching, transformed into supplications, and so will necessarily be heard, as He is heard. Let us be clear what this means: our Lord’s promise of the absolute fulfillment of our prayers is inseparably linked to our personal fellowship with Him. “Ask for whatever you wish,” he says, emphasizing the freedom of our choice given the union of our wills with that of Christ, “and it will be done for you.” So Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “Dilige, et quod vis fac”—“Love, and do what you like” (Homilies on First John 7.8). Precisely. Because if we abide in Jesus’ fellowship, then what we like will be what God likes. And even if there is something we would dearly prefer that cannot be—as Our Lord himself would have preferred not to endure the agony of the  cross and prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” but it could not be—even then the final movement and basis of our prayer will be, as was his, “nevertheless, not what I will but what you will”(Mark 14:36). This is something to which we bear witness every time we pray His prayer, as we shall pray it in a few minutes, putting our hand into the hand of God and being so bold as to say, “Our Father… thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Our Lord continues: ”My Father is glorified by this”—that is, by your abiding in me and the consequent fulfillment of your prayers—in order that “you bear much fruit” (in the fruitfulness of the vine lies the joy of the husbandman) and so “become my disciples” (15:8). We may well ask, “Are we not disciples already?” And of course we are! But we mustn’t forget that the Hebrew and Greek words for “disciple” mean “learner”, “student,” or “pupil”—and so by definition a true disciple is someone who is in a process of “becoming”, always growing and learning, always being transformed into Christ’s image, as Saint Paul has it, “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). That is our calling now, in this life, and it will be our calling even in the life to come, even in the resurrection life—to ascend, as He did, to the Father.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9) Christ’s love is the atmosphere in which we must seek to live: not something sought in a moment of crisis, but breathed in, day by day, hour by hour. All else, whether good or ill, is, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, “הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים”—“vanity of vanities” as it is usually translated—which is actually somewhat misleading. For the word הֲבֵל—“mist”, “vapour” or “breath”—is used metaphorically in Qoheleth’s Hebrew, as its equivalents often are in English, to refer not so much what we normally regard as “vain”—that is, useless, or empty—but rather to what is ephemeral, fragile, passing away. Ecclesiastes is not saying that nothing is of any value, but rather that everything in this life—even good things, even things that God has given us for our joy, everything is transitory. And of course we know that is true. It is true of the universe itself, and it is certainly true for us. We all strive to do things—for good or evil, for ourselves or for others, in generosity or in selfishness—but whatever we do, life passes. Carpe diem! we say, following Horace: “Seize the day!” But there will certainly come for all of us a day that we cannot seize, a day when we cannot finish what we have started, a day when we must entrust even what we hold most precious to the mercy of God. What then is our hope? “Abide in my love,” says Our Lord.

And so we come finally to his promise: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). Love ensures obedience, obedience ensures love. That is something that even our as yet imperfect human loves can show us. When we are, as we say, “in love,” then to please the beloved is not a burden but our desire and delight. If that is true—and it is—of our merely human loves, how much more is it true of the One who IS Love, and the source of all love! No wonder our Lord concludes, “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (15:11). May God give us grace to seek that joy, as the saints have sought it throughout history, and there perhaps find that although all things in this life are transitory and fragile, passing away like a breath, yet there, in God’s joy, all things, having come from God, find also their permanence and their fulfillment.

In that thought we may dare perhaps hope that Gustav Mahler was right:

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:

‘Es geht dir nichts verloren![2]

‘O believe, my heart, O believe:

‘Nothing to you is lost!’

And that, in a sense, is the Easter message.

Amen.

[1] For rich commentary on this text, and indeed on Ecclesiastes—which she describes as “the most diffident book of the Bible”—see Ellen E. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 166-69.

[2] Gustav Mahler, “Auferstehung” Symphony no. 2, no. 5.