You’ve got to reckon with three central truths in order to navigate through life properly, according to Old Testament Proverbs.
First, the universe operates on the principle of cause and effect; or to apply the truth more directly to human action: the principle of action and consequence. This explains the Proverbs’ preoccupation with metaphors of development. “A man shall eat well by the fruit of his mouth.” “The root of the righteous bears fruit.” “The righteous will flourish like a green leaf.”
Seeds grow into fruit. Roots branch out. Things develop for better (“The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn which shines brighter and brighter until full day”) or worse (“The way of the wicked is like deep darkness”). Whatever the effect, Proverbs tells us that it did not eventuate in a vacuum, but only after a series of causes.
Not only do actions lead to consequences, but inactivity, also, leads to…nothing. Sometimes that nothing is good: “For lack of wood the fire goes out/ and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.” Sometimes that nothing feels unpleasant, as when the lazy person refuses to act: “The desire of the sluggard kills him/ for his hands refuse to labor.”
You should buy into this law. Accept it and don’t chafe under it. Life is, to a large degree, predictable. The diligent will have. The man who cultivates wise speech succeeds. The person who works on causes can (to a large degree) fashion particular effects.
Secondly, the universe functions this way because the Creator made it this way: “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth/ by understanding He established the heavens/ by his knowledge the deeps broke open/ and the clouds drop down the dew.”
So, behind (or in, or whatever preposition you want to use!) this principle of cause and effect is a Person, the God. There is no so-called spiritual world (where sometimes we wish God would stay) where the laws of cause and effect turn to mush and everything becomes unpredictable.
Truth # 2 renders things more complex. For example: Let’s say we buy into truth # 1, the rule of cause and effect. We like the fact that life has become predictable. We start to program the vast machine and come up with a list of winners and losers in life. And according to our programming, the fatherless (especially in the ancient Near Eastern world) will come out a loser. He has no protection against the strong; little opportunity to develop causes that will lead to success; little guidance.
But lo! “Do not move an ancient landmark/ or enter the fields of the fatherless/ for their Redeemer is strong/ He will plead their cause against you.” Some of understanding the universe of cause and effect is being told there is a God (here, the strong Redeemer) who takes up for the fatherless. Here is a Cause, or better, a Causer, that we didn’t reckon with! This truth of the Causer (pardon the awkward, unbiblical title) does not negate the law of cause and effect, but it does expand it and personalize it.
Part of the savvy and cunning of living well is factoring in a God who has declared His investments and opinions, and then making decisions accordingly. In other words, living well is not just doing the smart thing, it is also doing the good thing.
Thirdly, because of the combinations of truth # 1 and truth # 2, life is, to some degree, inexplicable. “It is the glory of God to conceal things.” You can never totally figure out life. First round draft picks are sometimes busts. The laboratory cannot simulate life. What’s that about “mice and men”?
But Proverbs is no house of cards that collapses with truth # 3. Life is still largely predictable. It is still wisdom to work the causes, to develop a work ethic, a pattern of speech, a self-control, qualities that comprise the righteous roots of the good life.
And how does the Proverb end? “It is the glory of God to conceal things/ but the glory of kings to search them out.” And again, “The eye for seeing/ the ear for hearing/ the LORD has made them both.” It is good to observe, to reverently question, to scratch below the surface of things.
And now, a Proverb for you: “The sluggard does not plow in autumn/ he will seek in harvest, and have nothing.” There it is, a good wall to lean against, something that we can stop wondering: The tedium of plowing must precede any harvest – in child rearing, prayer, personal wisdom, understanding God, vocation, etc.
According to truth # 1 we will plow. According to truth # 2 we will hope that the effort of our plowing will be outmatched by the harvest’s bounty, because there is a Redeemer. According to truth # 3, we will not busy ourselves with comparing the effects with the causes, but we will work the causes.
Let us believe in a process. Let us not be the sort of persons who are dissatisfied unless they meet with the spontaneous and unexplained. Let us not neglect the process and then hope for a miracle. Sometimes God works miracles but always He commands work. And our faith is neither in a miracle nor in a process but in the God who has spoken – yes, even in Proverbs.