On my recent trip to the Eastern Sierra Nevada, I took reams of photos (you can see just a few here). On my last evening, I was strolling by a creekside looking for some fauna to add to my shots of flora, and saw this little fellow:
As you can see, he was having a fairly leisure look at me. And why shouldn't he? I'm sure I was an interesting study to him, and he could safely gaze on.
Why "safely"? He has no natural defenses against me, of any consequence. He's not large, he hasn't the bear's massive, devastating paws, nor the rattler's agonizing venom, nor the lion's crushing jaws. (Well, he does have my well-grounded fear that he might have some pestilential disease -- but he doesn't know that.)
Nor was he the only student I encountered. Here's one of his fellow-observers, gathering a few notes for his term-paper:
They and the others like them had one thing in common. When I advanced a bit closer, to get a better picture -- and how many good pictures have I lost, trying to get a better picture? -- they'd vanish. They'd disappear somewhere into their little rock fortress.
And that, of course, was their security, it was their deliverance, their defense. Nothing in themselves. Just the fact that they'd picked an impregnable place to make their abode.
As I reflected, my mind turned to the verse in Proverbs 30:26, quaintly rendered thus in the KJV: "The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks." Here are the comments of the great man himself, Charles Spurgeon, from his evening devotional for November 20:
Conscious of their own natural defencelessness, the conies resort to burrows in the rocks, and are secure from their enemies. My heart, be willing to gather a lesson from these feeble folk. Thou art as weak and as exposed to peril as the timid cony, be as wise to seek a shelter. My best security is within the munitions of an immutable Jehovah, where his unalterable promises stand like giant walls of rock. It will be well with thee, my heart, if thou canst always hide thyself in the bulwarks of his glorious attributes, all of which are guarantees of safety for those who put their trust in him. Blessed be the name of the Lord, I have so done, and have found myself like David in Adullam, safe from the cruelty of my enemy; I have not now to find out the blessedness of the man who puts his trust in the Lord, for long ago, when Satan and my sins pursued me, I fled to the cleft of the rock Christ Jesus, and in his riven side I found a delightful resting-place. My heart, run to him anew to-night, whatever thy present grief may be; Jesus feels for thee; Jesus consoles thee; Jesus will help thee. No monarch in his impregnable fortress is more secure than the cony in his rocky burrow. The master of ten thousand chariots is not one whit better protected than the little dweller in the mountain’s cleft. In Jesus the weak are strong, and the defenceless safe; they could not be more strong if they were giants, or more safe if they were in heaven. Faith gives to men on earth the protection of the God of heaven. More they cannot need, and need not wish. The conies cannot build a castle, but they avail themselves of what is there already: I cannot make myself a refuge, but Jesus has provided it, his Father has given it, his Spirit has revealed it, and lo, again to-night I enter it, and am safe from every foe.Those are some blessed, wonderful truths, are they not? And every word is true.
But Spurgeon's meditation also poses an example, both instructive and cautionary, of how to handle the Old Testament.
As an example of a kind of trope, it's a beauty. I am using trope here to indicate where one observes a thing, and turns from it to a tangential yet somehow-related truth. It treats something literal as a point of departure on the way to something larger. One is no longer commenting on the thing itself, the literal object or occurrence, but on the truth suggested by the thing. The result is neither a study nor interpretation of the thing-in-itself, but of that to which it is taken to point.
So here, Agur is treating of "Four things on earth" that "are small, but they are exceedingly wise" (Proverbs 30:24; cf. vv. 24-28). In verse 26, he mentions the "coney," or hyrax or rock badger. Koehler-Baumgartner identifies it as the Heterohyrax syriacus, a little creature ideally designed to make its living among the rocky outcroppings found in abundance from the Dead Sea valley to Mount Hermon (cf. Waltke's commentary on Proverbs).
Now, here's the interpretive issue: is Agur really writing about hyraxes, about rock badgers? Or is he really writing about Jesus, and the Christian church? Is it legitimate to do as Spurgeon does? If we were to preach on this passage, should we dress like Steve Irwin and give a bonzer nature talk, or should we wear our black robes and speak only of "spiritual" matters, because details of creation are un-spiritual and beneath the Christian's notice?
The latter approach would characterize perhaps the worst of that school of interpretation which advocates the "take any text, and make a bee-line for Christ" school. Though nobody bee-lines more profitably than he, I believe I've read Spurgeon say as much. The sorts of Scriptures cited to validate this approach include Luke 24:44-49 and the like.
As I don't mean this to be a fourteen-volume essay, let's cut right to what I see as a most problematic with this way of handling Scripture: it runs the risk of being more Platonic, or even borderline Gnostic, than Christian. The unspoken assumption is that speaking of something literal, something of this creation, is low and unspiritual and unworthy. It is "more Christian" to turn from the literal to Christ.
But what is wrong with creation qua creation? To my reading, literal rocks-and-branches/nails-and-fur creation itself does speak of Christ itself. It proclaims the reality and glory of God (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:20). All things -- including hyraxes -- are from Him, through Him, and unto Him (Romans 11:36). Every last atom and molecule of literal creation itself without exception was fashioned through the agency of Christ (John 1:3), all was created by Christ and for His sake (Colossians 1:16), all things now cohere in Him (v. 17), and He is carrying all things towards their designed end (Hebrews 1:3).
So, while the lilies, the birds and the grass may and do of themselves point to spiritual lessons (Matthew 6:26, 28, 30), they do not thereby cease being lilies, grass, and birds -- as if items of creation are evil or anti-spiritual in themselves. When we're warned not to love the world (1 John 2:15), it isn't God's good creation that is the danger, but our sinful corruptions of it (v. 16). Christ's resurrection body was a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44), but it was a spiritual body, as literal and physical as the words naturally indicate (Luke 24:37-43).
So in our reading, our interpretation, and our preaching, we dishonor God if we "go nuts" in either direction. If I preach on passages like Proverbs 30:26 in such a way as to give an impression that Agur himself was thinking and writing of Jesus Christ and New Covenant Christians, and not in any way of rock badgers, then I am heading off in the direction of trying to be more spiritual than God. The human author is destroyed, and we no longer have a man being carried by the Holy Spirit and speaking confluently from God (2 Peter 1:21). He is replaced by a disembodied echo, a pen floating in midair, writing ethereally "in code." I cripple my audience, because I convey to them (however unintentionally) that they cannot really read the Bible itself without my special help, without a decoder-ring. Nothing is as it seems, and the rules of grammar and context no longer apply.
Of course if I err in the other direction, I may give the impression that the Bible is little more than a field-book for naturalists or antiquarians, and a quaint and dated one at that. We would then read it as we would gaze at an item in the museum. It would saying something of itself, but nothing to us.
Down to brass tacks, then. Is Agur writing consciously of the safety of the Christian in Jesus Christ, crucified, buried, and risen? No. But is he writing merely of the safety of a rock badger in its craggy home? Again, no. He is writing of rock badgers, of ants, of lizards -- but they are specimens taken from the wise man's laboratory, which is God's creation. And that creation itself is instructive. It legitimately points away from itself to its Creator and, viewed rightly, it teaches of Him.
And so the little hyrax teaches us that even a brute animal is smart enough to know its own weakness, and rather than standing in that weakness, it finds a safe place to live, feed, and hide. Does this speak to us? Indeed it does, for we are weak, we are defenseless, we are vulnerable. It is our wisdom to flee from ourselves to the Rock that is higher than we (Psalm 61:2), to the name of Yahweh, which is a high tower to His people (Proverbs 18:10).
And from our perspective, with the advantage of the completed, inerrant, and sufficient written revelation of God, we know that rock to be Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4), in whom by God's sovereign grace we have all that we lack in ourselves, and all we most deeply need (1 Corinthians 1:30).
So Agur is speaking indeed of rock badgers; and rock badgers speak of Christ. For our thinking and preaching to honor our Creator God, we must reflect on, and reflect, both aspects.