Walter Brueggemann: Divine Arithmetic

Now that I have just turned 89, it is inescapable that I think, from time to time, of my ending. Sometimes I think of my longevity and am amazed. Sometimes—not often—I think of my death. I am mostly content to leave that in God’s good hands. I am aware that this thinking might well change for me if I face a long disability or some form of long-term suffering. Mostly I think of “fullness of days,” a phrase used to characterize Job’s ending (Job 42:17). This phrase does not specify age or longevity, but refers to the quality or content of one’s life. “Fullness of days” might be used, variously, to refer to the completion of one’s bucket list, or a sense of having been useful and made a difference, or having lived in sync with one’s creator. None of that is specified for Job. And I specify none of it yet for me, except to notice that in my “fullness of days” I have been remarkably blessed, and I have so much for which to give great thanks.

My thought about “fullness of days” is enough for you to see why I was drawn to this report on Queen Elizabeth I. In her old age, reports Edith Weir Perry, Under the Tudors: Being the Story of Matthew Parker Sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, 256), that the Bishop of St. David preached to the queen on the text, “Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” The Queen cried out angrily, that

“He might have kept his arithmetic to himself.” 

Perry does not specify the pronouns in the queen’s statement, “he, himself,” whether the queen intended that the Bishop of St. David should keep his arithmetic to himself, or whether God, in the Psalm quoted, has God’s own arithmetic. I choose to think it is the latter, thus a reference to “divine arithmetic.” If we take that reading of it, then the queen did not want to know of the ways in which God reckons human longevity, and certainly not the way God may have reckoned the lifespan of the aging queen, a lady who was quite accustomed to having her own say and her own way. Either way, the statement of the queen set me to thinking about my own “fullness of days,” and the “divine arithmetic” that pertains to my life.

The Psalm that the Bishop of St. David quotes is Psalm 90, surely a poem/prayer preoccupied with God’s arithmetic. The Psalm voices the mighty contrast between the reality of God who is “from everlasting to everlasting” (v. 2) and human life that is brief and faces limits set by the ordering of the creator God. (Of course one can say that human life is “short” without following Thomas Hobbes to say “nasty, brutish, short.”) The Psalm concerns how the brevity of our human life is to be computed in the context of divine durability. In verse 10 the Psalm recognizes the inescapable durability and limit of human possibility:

The days of our life are seventy years,

or perhaps eighty, if we are strong (v. 10).

Of course these numbers can be amended according to our scientific advances that may extend human longevity, but such human gains do not change the elemental difference between God’s eternity and human transience. The verse recognizes, moreover, that however human life may indeed be extended, it is a venue for restlessness and trouble that are intrinsically “the human predicament”:

Even then their span is only toil and trouble;

they are soon gone, and we fly away (v. 10).

The Psalm acknowledges that human longevity has uncrossable limitation and any pretense of durable autonomy is an alienating illusion.

Verse 12 advances from verse 10 to recognize that an honest awareness of that uncrossable limitation is an act of wisdom. Conversely, a refusal to recognize that reality of limit is an act of supreme foolishness. Once there is wisdom enough to recognize and accept that reality, the Psalmist can move on in verses 13-14 to count on God’s compassion and steadfast love that may bring gladness. The Psalm pivots on the double “turn.” In verse 3, human persons are summoned to “turn” back from autonomy to accept in verse 4 the ultimacy of God’s reckoning of time. In verse 13 the Psalmist bids God to “turn” towards compassion.  Thus the Psalm anticipates a recalibration of full covenantal interaction in which the reality and gift of divine governance are operative and embraced, and in which the realities of human limit and contingency are honestly faced. Thus the Psalmist, in the end, gladly submits to divine arithmetic. On that basis the Psalmist can hope for and trust in the “prospering” of human achievement (v. 17). The Psalm itself invites us into the process of recalibrating our lives according to the non-negotiable reality of divine governance and human transience. Once that reality is embraced, there is ample reason for trust and gladness. Or in our phrasing, one may accept one’s “fullness of days.”

In light of this process, I thought some more about “divine arithmetic” that so irritated the queen. I could think of three instances in scripture of “divine arithmetic” that confounds our otherwise normal calculation. The reader may think of other instances as well.

In the Book of Judges, Israel was mightily beset by the Midianites, so much so that Gideon (Jerubbaal) recruited a mighty army to oppose the Midianites. Before the battle can be mounted, however, YHWH objects to the size of Gideon’s army, and requires that Gideon send many of his troops home. YHWH explains the requirement to Gideon:

The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, “My own hand has delivered me.”

The narrative reports that Gideon sent 22,000 soldiers home, and kept 10,000 fighting men. But again YHWH objects:

The troops are still too many; take them down to the water and I will sift them out for you there (v. 4).

YHWH’s method of “sifting” out” soldiers to retain is to test them by having them drink water from a pool. The majority lapped water out of the pool like a dog, with their heads down so that they are exposed and vulnerable, and so are rejected. The ones who drank water from their hands and kept their heads up in vigilance were the ones retained for the battle. The three hundred who were retained were sufficient to win a mighty victory for Israel. YHWH had calculated that 300 soldiers were enough for the battle when they were the right three hundred. There was no need for a bigger number, even though conventional military wisdom may have thought they were needed. YHWH knew otherwise and better, and so confounded conventional military wisdom (see Proverbs 21:30-31).

In II Kings 6:8-23 Israel, as usual, was at war with Syria. The unnamed king of Syria had become convinced that Elisha was a spy for Israel who must be eliminated. To that end he surrounded Elisha’s house with “an army with horses and chariots,” a mighty force. Elisha’s aid observes that threatening force and is appropriately frightened. By contrast Elisha remains calm and unconcerned. He comforts his aid by saying,

Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them (v. 16).

The aide of course can see and can count. He sees that there are exactly two of them (he and his master), opposed by a great enemy force. For an instant he imagines that Elisha has miscounted. But then Elisha prays that his aide may have other eyes to see more clearly; and he saw!

The mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (v. 17).

It turned out that Elisha knew and saw what his aide had not seen; he had counted correctly! The horses and chariots of fire dispatched by YHWH were more than that of the Syrian forces. As a consequence, the Syrians were struck blind, easily defeated, and led into the city where Elisha commanded the unnamed Israelite king to host a great feast for the erstwhile enemy. For a time, in the wake of the feast, the war subsided. Everything, it turns out, depended on divine arithmetic. Everything depended on the resources of YHWH being larger than those of the Syrians. So it was, even though neither the Syrians nor the aide of Elisha could, on their own, see the reality of this alternative arithmetic.

In the parable of Jesus in Matthew 20:1-16, the ordinary assumptions of labor and capital are upended. The parable teems with numbers:

Nine o’clock (v. 3).

Three o’clock (v. 5).

Five o’clock (v. 6).

One hour (v. 12).

The point is unmistakable. The vineyard workers were not paid according to the amount of work they did. They were all paid the same because of the inexplicable generosity of the owner who counted working hours differently. It is no wonder that the ones who worked the longest grumbled:

These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat (v. 12).

The workers had arithmetic on their side: so much work…so much pay! They were grounded in a common sense appeal to normal arithmetic that was beyond dispute. The counter-theme of the owner, to the contrary, is introduced inside the parable in verse 8, where the workers who came last are paid first. In the reflective commentary of Jesus in verse 16, the point is reiterated, now beyond the parable to the larger reality of divine arithmetic:

So the last will be first, and the first will be last (v. 16).

 John Donahue can write of this parable:

Hardly any parable in the Gospels seems to upset the basic structure of an orderly society as does this one…Though Matthew is in debt to his Jewish heritage in his understanding of justice, he redefines justice in terms of God’s generous and saving intervention on behalf of those whom others might see as outside the pale of God’s care. God’s justice is different from human justice. It forgives unpayable debts and summons disciples to live a life of forgiveness to others as an expression of gratitude (John Donahue, The Gospel in Parables 81, 84).

Donahue concludes:

God’s ways are not human ways. Those categories of worth and value which people erect to separate themselves from others are reversed in God’s eyes. If divine freedom is limited by human conceptions of God’s goodness, men and women may never be able to experience unmerited goodness (85).

When we consider these three instances of divine arithmetic, the common claim of the three is breathtaking. It turns out that the ordinary calculation of the world is overturned:

…Gideon needed only a small number of soldiers who are allied with the force of God.

…Elisha and his aide are kept safe by horses and chariots of fire about which the Syrians did not know and could not see.

…The Lord of the vineyard pays in generosity well beyond any conventional quid pro quo.

In every case, the divine arithmetic outruns human calculation. The old Queen Elizabeth did not want to know about the divine arithmetic of “three score and ten, or four score.” She did not want to count her days because she could recognize that there were only a few left to her. But divine arithmetic does its calculation in spite of us. It does not count by our preferred numbers. It relies on “fullness of days,” however many there may be. Our most familiar rendition of divine arithmetic, I suppose, is the great hymn of Isaac Watts:

A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone,

short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all our years away;

they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.

(Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Glory to God, 687).

Notice the strange arithmetic:

A thousand ages = an evening gone!

The hymn concerns the eternal abiding of the Holy One of Israel, contra the feeble, fearful calculus of human longevity. The hymn itself is an exercise of yielding our transience to the reliability of God’s abiding faithfulness that keeps us safe beyond all times.

No doubt we will continue to utilize our human arithmetic whereby we do our best measurements:

…We will measure our productivity in whatever line of work we have…the number of pastoral calls, the number of published articles, or whatever.

…We will continue to measure our intelligence by various IQ tests of all kinds, even continuing after we notice how biased they surely are.

…We will continue to measure our enormous wealth, whereby the billionaires strut and posture among us, listing the 400 richest women in the world, etc.

…We will continue to value excessively the measure of our Gross National Product.

…We will continue to measure our military capacity, comparing our arsenal of bombs and tanks to that of our adversaries.

…We will continue to urge our children to excel at the best grades, or the best performance, or the best shot putt.

But then, in an instant of sober honesty and realism, we may come to see, from time to time, how flimsy and unimportant are our measurements. We may notice that our arithmetic amounts to very little of significance in the face of our long-term life with God. Such sober reality tends to come upon us in our moments of vulnerability and helplessness when we notice that our “big numbers” of productivity, wealth, intelligence or power are of no use to us. We might even withdraw from the rat race of measurement for an alternative life. When we withdraw from the rat race we may stop our intense passion for our big numbers. This is exactly the invitation of Jeremiah who invites us away from the measurable categories of wisdom, might and wealth:

Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

We can measure our wisdom, might, and wealth. But when we stop these eager calculations, we may fall, as the prophet intends, into the practice of steadfast love, justice, and righteousness. But of course our usual arithmetic does not work in these categories. We have to take up a different set of calculations. This may be exactly what Jesus had in mind when he listed the elements for entry into a different future:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:35-36).

Thus as I pursue my 90th year, on my best days I imagine that my longevity is of little import. Much more crucial is “fullness of days.” The Torah, and Jesus after the Torah, has in mind exactly “full of days” of neighborly covenantalism. It turns out that the God who is “our hope for years to come” is not a scorekeeper, but a neighborhood administrator who is quite uninterested in our best measurements. Methinks the good queen did not get it. And most of us, most of the time, do not get it. But sometimes some of us do.  And then there is rejoicing in “our eternal home.”

Walter Brueggemann

May 9, 2022