Peculiar Passages: The Case of the Wise Ants

Katy Morgan | August 23rd 2019

It turns out there are ants in the Bible. But how can insects make you think about God? When you first read about the ants in Proverbs 30 v 24-28, you might not find them inspirational, exactly.

"Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks; a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces."

Small but wise, weak but well-organised. Got it. But what are we supposed to do with this list? What are we supposed to think? Reading these verses might feel like listening to someone at a party drone on about everything they’ve done that day. A vacant “Mm, that’s nice,” is the natural response. There’s no demand being made of you, nothing profound to think about. Ants are not very strong, but they store up food in the summer. Right. And?

But with a little bit of work I think we can uncover the “and”.

The punchline

Back in verses 18-19 the poet writes another list, this time of things that are too amazing for him to comprehend. “The way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.” It’s constructed like a joke: the punchline takes you by surprise, making you laugh then go back hurriedly to the previous lines to figure out what these things do and don’t have in common. Interpret the precise meaning as you will, the emphasis clearly lies on the final line.

In our passage the last couplet states, “a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces.” Here the final-line emphasis is more subtle, but it is there: this example is different from the first three. The small-but-mighty idea no longer seems like a self-contained observation but invades human spaces. And so it makes you think. 

Lizards can be caught with the hand, but how easy is it, really, to control them? 

Do we control our own environment at all? 

Maybe we are not as strong as we think. 

Maybe we are not as wise as we think. 

Maybe we are not wise at all.

It turns out these verses do ask questions and make demands. The ant lulls you into a false sense of boredom, but the sting is in the lizard’s tail.

I don’t think we should leave this proverb there, though, filled with shock and despondency as we realize that the human wisdom, strength and power we believed in are not great enough even to keep a little lizard out. Look back at the beginning of the chapter and you’ll notice that a foundation has been laid to help us realize something else, too.

Back to the beginning

Chapter 30 is the sayings of Agur son of Jakeh (v 1): it is one self-contained section, sandwiched between the sayings of others. So the first verses set the tone for the rest. Agur begins by acknowledging his own lack of wisdom and knowledge. Then he asks us some questions (v 4).

“Who has gone up to heaven and come down?

Whose hands have gathered up the wind?

Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak?

Who has established all the ends of the earth?”

To which the answer has to be an embarrassed “Um, not me.” The theme is the same: human weakness. But this time we are also looking to someone else, who is strong, and who is wise. The one who created the world.

Seen in that light, the apparently boring observations later in the chapter take on a different character. Every creature is specifically designed by the God who has established the ends of the earth. Read our verses with that in mind and it’s like we’re in a nature documentary with a breathless narrator unable to contain his excitement. “Many of these ants have never experienced winter before,” he wheezes. “Yet, extraordinarily, they know precisely what they must do to prepare for it.”

When Agur thinks of the wisdom and power of God, he finds himself in a creation that is charged with mystery: a world that humans can, in the end, neither control nor comprehend. Zoom in and the behaviour of the ant or lizard can be a reason for amazement. Zoom out and there is only one response: to worship the one who made it all.

Katy Morgan

Katy Morgan is an Editor at The Good Book Company. She is involved in Chessington Evangelical Church in Surrey, UK, where she lives. She holds a master's degree in classical Greek literature, and previously worked in a ministry role as part of a school chaplaincy.

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