Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 30, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Proverbs 22:29
An early immigrant to Boston from Northamptonshire, England, Josiah would often say to his son, "Seest thou a man diligent in his calling. He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men." When Josiah taught his youngest son his trade, how to craft the candles that they made, how to fill the mold with wax and how to trim back the wick, he would often remind him, "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve in the presence of kings and not for the obscure." When prominent people of Boston visited Josiah, consulting him on his opinion, showing great respect for his judgment and his advice, and he noticed his young son watching, he would later comment, "Do you see a man who excels in his calling? He will stand before kings." Josiah lived to be 89 years old, and he watched his young son grow up to be an apprentice printer, purchase his own newspaper company, be appointed as postmaster, establish a library, and become a successful inventor and author.
After Josiah died, the same son went on to be deputy postmaster general for all of North America, the governor of Philadelphia, an ambassador to France, and served on the committees that drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. And later, when Josiah's son, Benjamin Franklin, was an old man, he wrote an autobiography and reflected on those very words, the proverb of Solomon recorded in the book of Proverbs 22:29, as one modern translation puts it, "Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings and not before those of low rank." Franklin wrote that "Because of this proverb, I considered industry as a means for obtaining wealth and distinction, which encouraged me. Though I did not think I should ever literally stand before kings, which however has since happened, for I have stood before five kings, and I even had the honor of sitting down with one for dinner."
As with most proverbs, Proverbs 22:29 tells us something we already know: the cream rises to the top. That's how the world works much of the time. A good idea, a good person can't stay unnoticed for long. Take a restaurant for example, when the chef, the servers, the managers all consistently excel in their craft. Before you know it, they'll have a thousand five-star reviews on Yelp. Famous people will go and dine there; they'll autograph pictures of themselves, and the owner will proudly post them on the walls. The proverb isn't telling us anything we don't already know. It's how life goes for a lot of people, a lot of the time.
Earlier this month at graduation ceremonies, commencement speakers all across the land told the graduates to aim high, shoot for the stars, work hard, dream big. Just like Josiah Franklin told his son Benjamin 300 years ago, just like King Solomon told his 3,000 years ago, because it's still true enough to be a pattern that we all can recognize: people who excel in their calling will stand with the well-known, not the unknown. The ancient proverb is true enough to be a pattern. They apply often, but not always. The Bible itself recognizes that God's world doesn't always conform to the patterns that we perceive in it, and that's why when it comes to biblical wisdom, the necessary complement to the book of Proverbs is the book of Ecclesiastes.
Proverbs point out that in the world, there is much meritocracy. That is, there are times when talent and hard work brings success. But the book of Ecclesiastes states another truth: that the race isn't always won by the fastest person or the one who trained the hardest; the battle isn't always to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. That's a pattern that we can all recognize, too. Sometimes the most talented musician doesn't get the greatest gig; sometimes the neighborhood with the most potential gets the least in tax revenues; sometimes the most reliable doctor doesn't get the best pay; or sometimes you're stationed in a setting that just doesn't get much recognition at all.
Take Linda, for example. She's been a bus driver for 26 years. For 26 years she's operated buses, trolleys, and trains without incident, without accident. She's always on time; she's always friendly, always courteous to her riders. She is skilled when it comes to her calling. But she's never been known by anyone that we might think is especially important.
Using the language of Proverbs 22:29, everyone that she has served would classify as unknown, or obscure, or in the language of the King James version, people of "mean estate." It's like how it says in the old Christmas carol, "Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?" That's the kind of people that Linda deals with every day. There's Sam, the regular rider who's usually running late; there's Tanya, the small town girl who's moved to the big city; there's Ivy, the elderly woman in her 80s who lets other buses pass by just so she can ride on Linda's bus, because Linda will get up and help her with her bags of groceries.
Linda gets up at 2:30 a.m. in time to take the train into the city to be on time for her first bus, which departs promptly at 4:20 a.m. She makes change out of her own pocket for someone who doesn't have the exact fare. She reminds the mother with the baby stroller to set the break before they start. She calls out the stop to the guy in the back who fell asleep. She greets obscure people by name. No royalty, no celebrity has ever ridden her bus. Skilled though she is, she doesn't serve before kings. She serves the obscure, the nobodies, the unknown. Solomon's proverb doesn't seem to apply to her. We shouldn't be surprised if it didn't. If you've been riding this bus of life for any time, you've seen the pattern: some of those who are skilled are celebrated, by celebrities even, but others never rise above their mean estate. Proverbs aren't meant to be universal truths, even the proverbs of King Solomon in the Bible.
Consider King Solomon's most celebrated descendant, Jesus of Nazareth, a Man born in mean estate where ox and ass were feeding. He was raised in an obscure village. He was a small time construction worker, later became an unschooled self-taught teacher and as much as He excelled in everything He did, He mostly attracted the bottom of a barrel, not the cream of the crop.
There was one time when it was recorded that Jesus stood before an actual king. It was just before Jesus was crucified, and the king, called Herod, happened to be visiting Jerusalem, so he had Jesus stand before him. He heard that Jesus was some kind of sorcerer and he wanted Him to do some magic tricks, but Jesus didn't even answer this king. He just stood there silent. So the king and his soldiers scorned Jesus, mocked Him, dressed Him up like a fool, and sent Him back to the Roman governor, who crucified Him. So if King Solomon's proverb doesn't even apply to his greatest Descendant, then what good is it for you?
Well, that depends. It depends on what you believe about Jesus. If you believe that Jesus is who He says He is, if you believe that God, His Father, raised Him from the dead and made Him king of the universe, if you believe He suffered in obscurity to take the lowest place and the highest for kings and for commoners, for ambassadors and bus drivers, for you and for me, then Proverbs 22:29 has a deeper meaning. But, if you believe that Jesus was just another nobody who got chewed up and spit out by the world, then Solomon's proverb is no different than the witty wisdom of Benjamin Franklin.
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin explains how he became a deist. A deist is someone who believes that there is a deity that is a god and that this god made the world like a clockmaker makes a clock and then lets it run mostly on its own. The deity expects us to do good, has given us immortal souls that will live on somehow after we die, and has set rules so that our crimes will be punished and our virtues will be rewarded, if not here, then in the hereafter.
Now, there are a few vague similarities between deism and the historic biblical Christian faith, but not many. See, the Bible teaches that God is the Creator of a cosmos way more complex than the deists give Him credit for. See, not only is there a nature that we can see and measure, there's also an unseen, immeasurable, super-nature. And in this supernatural realm, there are powerful, spiritual beings that God created, but some have rebelled against their Creator. And these demonic beings have deceived the whole human race and enslaved us in our own rebellion.
Now, for a deist, this story's too messy because a deist believes in segregation of nature and super-nature, that heaven and earth don't intermix. But the Bible claims that creation is more complicated and more mysterious than that—that there are some patterns that we can recognize but not all of them, that there are some things that we can control but not everything, and there are evils around us and within us that we cannot contend with on our own. This is what you might expect if the world is the way the Bible says it is.
And the Bible has more to say, that God isn't a distant deity, but a loving Father who sent His Son, His eternal Wisdom, to become a human being and to defeat the spiritual forces of evil, to restore the fallen creation, to adopt us as His children, to make us co-rulers with Him in His kingdom that is coming on earth as it is in heaven.
So here's the difference between a deistic reading of the proverb and a reading centered on Jesus. For the deist, it just means that hard work will sometimes get you noticed by someone important. But for the follower of Jesus, it means that the King has noticed us before we did any work at all. And because King Jesus notices everyone, there are no unimportant people. There are only people loved by the King, a King who is present everywhere, uniting nature and super-nature, the seen and the unseen, heaven and earth.
For the followers of Jesus, Proverbs 22:29 is true on a deeper level, and it's this truth that motivates Linda, the bus driver that I told you about. And that regular rider, the one who was always late, the one she would wait for, he was a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He rode her bus for several months, and he noticed her, he observed her, he took notes. And something about her peaked his curiosity, and he wanted to hear her story. So Linda told him how she sees the world. She said, "You know what? I put God first. He's the start of my day. Some people start with coffee, well, I start off with Jesus Christ. Without Him, I couldn't do it. I couldn't have this attitude, I couldn't serve you, but I'm serving. I'm serving in Jesus' Name." And that reporter, he told Linda's story center page, full-color article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Linda served every day as a bus operator in the presence of King Jesus, serving everyone she meets because they're loved by her king.
Sometimes hard work results in distinction and recognition. And one day you might be featured on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, or even sit down to dine with a king. But Linda's faith in Jesus lets her see more. She sees heaven and earth desegregated and all mixed together. She see King Jesus everywhere. There are no people of mean estate, but only people bought by the blood of Jesus.
The other day I was talking with my friend Joe about this. Joe is an emergency medical doctor in Texas. He serves in military hospitals as well as civilian hospitals. He told me, "In my line of work, I see the greatest of extremes: soldiers who've sacrificed everything, drug addicts who I know will be back next week, the homeless, suicide attempts, gang members, the elderly, infants, teens making bad decisions, abusers and the abused." Many of them offer nothing of material value to society, yet standing before these people, Joe thinks of Jesus, his King, whispering to him, "Feed My sheep. Take care of My lambs." Doctor or bus driver, mother or father, whoever, whatever, wherever, you are called to serve with skill because you already stand by grace in the presence of the King. In His Name. Amen.
Reflections for May 30, 2021
Title: Before Kings
Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting with Dr. David Coe again, assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Concordia University in Nebraska, and the author of the book, Provoking Proverbs. Welcome back, David.
David Coe: Thank you, Michael.
Mike Zeigler: David, we've been discussing your book about God's wisdom and the Ten Commandments. You've developed a method for anyone to analyze, personalize, and memorize their top ten favorite biblical proverbs, one for each of the Ten Commandments. That's what your book is designed to help us do. So, I've started working on this myself. I appreciate what you're doing in the book. If you're listening, I encourage you to check out Dr. Coe's book, Provoking Proverbs. And he'll lead you through a process to pick your top ten proverbs and learn them by heart. And you can divide these up in between the two kinds of commandments that God gives. There's the love God commandments and the love your neighbor as yourself commandments. So, Dr. Coe as I've been going through your book on the love God side of things, the first commandment proverb that touched my heart was Proverbs 26:12, which it asks a question: "Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than him." And that one pokes me. That one provokes me because I want to be wise, and I so often see myself as wise when I compare my words and behavior to other people. But that proverb shows me just how much of a ... not even a fool, I'm worse than a fool when I'm wise in my own eyes. So it provokes me and pokes me in a good way to remember how needy I am. What about you? Do you have a favorite proverb from the love God side of things?
David Coe: A proverb that has been on my heart a lot lately is Proverbs 17:3, "The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold, and the Lord tests hearts."
Mike Zeigler: Ooh, that was my second choice in your list. Yeah, that one's good.
David Coe: Tell me about that.
Mike Zeigler: I love that one because you only do this kind of stuff for things you really value. So, gold is valuable, silver's valuable, and so you put it in the crucible and the furnace. And so we are valuable, so God's doing this to us. What about for you?
David Coe: Romans 5:3 says that Christians learn how to rejoice in their sufferings because suffering produces endurance, produces character, and produces hope, which doesn't put us to shame because God's love gets poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. And so this one reminds me in the ups and downs of Christian life, that it is okay for me to suffer. It is okay for me to be poked and pinched and for things to not be going my way, and that with the Holy Spirit's help, I'm learning a little bit more about how to rejoice in suffering. And so, just as gold is purified in the furnace, the crucible purifies the silver, I'm in a good place for the Lord, even when things aren't smooth sailing. And that we still have this wonderful opportunity to be together and for me to reach out to call upon Him in every trouble.
Mike Zeigler: My favorite Eighth Commandment proverb that you have there on your list is Proverbs 19:11, which says, "Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense." And that one also prods me because it reminds me how easily offended I can be sometimes, but it also reminds me how delightful it is to be around someone like that. That these are the kind of people I want to be around—people who are , people who overlook an offense. That's a pleasing proverb for me to remember. So, what about for you, on the love your neighbor side of things, which is a proverb that's been speaking to you lately?
David Coe: I'll piggyback on you with an Eighth Commandment proverb on using my words in a way that protects people's reputation. Proverbs 16:24 has always been important to me. "Gracious words are honeycomb, the sweetness to the soul, health to the body." I used to do some beekeeping as a side hobby, and it reminds me that when something has poked and provoked me, especially another person, I could react with anger and give full vent to my spirit, but the proverb here reminds me, "David, let's not react with rashness and anger. Let, let us respond with gracious words, with the Holy Spirit's help and His honey."
Mike Zeigler: Thank you again for visiting with us, giving us your time, Dr. Coe. Again, his book is titled, Provoking Proverbs, an excellent study to help you pick your top ten personalized proverbs, to reflect on them, hide them in your heart, and find how pleasing God's Word is—the God who forgives you, treasures you, and loves you in Jesus Christ.
David Coe: Amen.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)