Wisdom is the principal thing. Get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding.Psalm 4:7
Asaph unleashed upon the making of scripture, a combined arsenal of gifts, calling and office to an enduring effect. He was a Levite of a priestly pedigree, a musician in the temple and a prophet and sweet Psalmist of Israel. He was of the company summonsed by David to prophesy with musical instruments in the tabernacle that David established in Jerusalem. He it was who often implored God to treat covenant infractions by the people with covenant grace.
In one of his prophetic rhapsodies, he was possessed by the Holy Spirit to reveal the heart of God, moving seamlessly between first, second and third person narratives. As God, he revealed the strength of the covenant between God and David, and as the prophet, he interceded for the people who were suffering because they violated the terms of the covenant.Psalm 89:20-52
His legend is interred in the Jewish imagination in a folklore that has him celebrating as the temple is being razed. In the ensuing pandemonium, Asaph, swaying to the sound of the harp he’s playing is interrupted by colleagues who wonder why he is celebrating in the face of devastation. Asaph sums up the episode in a metaphor. A king returns from a long journey to discover that his children have been profligate with his treasure. Rather than take out his anger on his children, he sets fire to the curtains of the Palace. Should the children not give thanks and celebrate? Beat that.
Asaph’s insightful retort put him on a plain well beyond the playing field of his generation. In him and others like him we get the hang of what it means to possess the spirit of ‘Understanding’.
‘Understanding’ in the biblical sense speaks to how the earth decodes the schemes of heaven. It gives us the key to an appropriate response to divine actions and prerogatives and it births wisdom. It’s a precious treasure of extremely consequential power without which a transaction between heaven and earth breaks down. As Confucius wrote, “If what is said is not what is understood, what should be done will remain undone”.
Take the example of Nicodemus as a case in point. The Lord told Nicodemus that except one were born again, he couldn’t enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus understood the literal meaning of being ‘born again’, and, considering the biological complexities it would entail, wondered the heck Jesus was talking about.
Nicodemus was a biblical scholar and a leader in the Sinaitic Church. However, he demonstrated that membership of a church, any church, did not guarantee the power to decode the mysteries of heaven. It requires an ability that is not learned or studied. It is the preserve of those blessed with the capacity to straddle both heavenly and earthly places at the same time. That was the reason many of Jesus’ disciples deserted him when he invited them to eat his flesh and drink his blood.John 6:51-66
In his epistle to the Ephesians, St Paul articulated how critical understanding is to our relationship with God. He prayed that God would enlighten the eyes of the understanding of the church,Ephesians 1:18 that the church might not be as those whose understanding is darkened and therefore alienated from communion with God.Ephesians 4:18
In other words, St Paul says that it is not possible to have a functional relationship with God without the spirit of understanding. As it’s written:
“Can two walk together except they be agreed?”Amos 3:3
I think not. But we may do well to ask: why might two who hoped to walk together not agree in the first place? God says it’s for the simple reason that:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”Isaiah 55:8-9
How often have we wondered where God’s at when the righteous suffered and the self-obsessed prospered?
A Jewish folklore on the legend of Prophet Elijah goes a long way to putting Isaiah’s simile into a sharp relief. The legend, a story by Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi, Prophet Elijah’s friend, goes as follows:
Elijah asked what favour Rabbi Ben Levi might wish. The Rabbi answered only that he be able to join Elijah in his wanderings. Elijah granted his wish only if he refrained from asking any questions about any of the prophet’s actions. He agreed and they began their journey. The first place they came to was the house of an elderly couple who were so poor they had only one old cow. The old couple gave of their hospitality as best they could. The next morning, as the travellers left, Elijah prayed that the old cow would die and it died. The second place they came to was the home of a wealthy man. He had no patience for his visitors and chased them away with the admonition that they should get jobs and not beg from honest people. As they were leaving, they passed the man’s wall and saw that it was crumbling. Elijah prayed that the wall be repaired and it was so.
At this Rabbi Joshua could no longer hold back. He demanded of Elijah an explanation of his actions. At the house of the old couple, Elijah knew that the Angel of Death was coming for the old woman. So he prayed that God might have the angel take the cow instead. At the house of the wealthy man, there was a great treasure hidden in the crumbling wall. Elijah prayed that the wall be restored thus keeping the treasure away from the miser.
“Know then, that if thou seest an evil-doer prosper, it is not always unto his advantage, and if a righteous man suffers need and distress, think not God is unjust.”
It’s one thing to be a spectator in Rabbi Ben Levi’s theatre on the mysteries of divine plotting, it’s another to be the main character in these didactic tales. How do we react when we lose precious treasures or are unjustly vilified, when family and friends betray us or when we’re overlooked for much deserved promotion, when tsunamis ravage already impoverished communities or when buildings collapse on sleeping families?
We celebrate the faith of Paul and Silas who praise and dance their way through a period of unjust incarceration.Acts 16:25-26 We use their experience to teach ourselves about the value of praise worship and steadfastness in the face of spiritual persecution, but we do not reflect on their stories, history and calling as a people.Isaiah 53:1-10 What Paul and Silas did is not a definite vehicle out of a logjam. There are those who have tried unsuccessfully to praise their ways out of sticky spots.
Paul and Silas’ worship is grounded in the culture of a people who have suffered repeated genocide and survived attempts at total annihilation. Their response is founded on the understanding that whatever their trials and tribulations, there’s something transcendent in every experience of the children of God. Asaph is their muse, for as the Psalmist prophesied in Psalm 84:
“Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them. Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.”Psalm 84:5-7
Asaph is here extolling the virtue of those who have a mindset that turns their experience in the valley of weeping into a place and a period of nourishing. He goes on to say folks with such a mindset get to stand before God and God turns their weeping into a refreshing.
Our desire as people of the faith is to be possessed of the spirit of understanding. Faith without understanding is stunted and deprived of the strength required to own the twists and turns of our sojourn in this realm and the cosmic significance of the smallest details of our experiences.
Wisdom may be the principal thing but one without understanding cannot express wisdom, as scripture says:
“Wisdom resteth in the heart of him that hath understanding”Proverbs 14:33
The question therefore is how do we gain understanding? For an exploration of this question proceed to the next post.