Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
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 girl.

(Proverbs 30:18-19)

This is one of several interesting comparisons in this chapter of Proverbs from the Old Testament, where the same formula is used to dramatize the point and make it easy to remember. In each of them (verses 15-16, the passage printed above, verses 21-23, verses 24-28, verses 29-31), three things are mentioned, then a fourth added. In most of these, it’s clear that the fourth is the most important and is the point of the whole set of comparisons.

In the natural phenomena mentioned in the passage above, all are “too wonderful,” which means mysterious, hard to understand. You can watch an eagle soar, but you can’t follow its “way” — that is, it leaves no trail. Similarly, a snake on a rock doesn’t leave a slime trail as a worm or a salamander would. And you can’t follow a ship at sea by tracing the wake it leaves behind. Well, “the way of a man with a girl” is just as elusive and mysterious. A couple of young adults may meet in their line of work, or in a college class, or in the church where they both worship. They may seem to have one or two other “innocent” contacts that don’t seem worth your noticing. Then, all of a sudden it dawns on you that they’re an item!

Of course, lots more has been going on. There have been phone calls, on-line “friending” and, sooner or later, some secret meetings. But as with the soaring eagle, the snake on a rock and the ship at sea, they leave no trail.

We shouldn’t be misled by the English translation, “man,” “maid,” into picturing an older man seducing an innocent young girl. The Hebrew words behind both of these denote persons, male or female, in their marriageable prime. Both of them are capable of following the intriguing timeless strategies of establishing and cultivating a romantic connection with a person of the opposite sex.

Now, what’s interesting is that, even though it may be impossible to trace the “way” of the eagle, the snake, the ship or the courting couple, none of these activities are arbitrary, haphazard or purposeless. The eagle has his eye out for prey on the ground, and when he sees it, he beams down with a precision strike. The snake’s slithery way of traveling is really exquisitely choreographed to get him to his den, legless though he is, in a surprisingly short time. The ship’s captain has the charts, the instruments and the crew to keep his vessel on the straightest course to his destination port. Even more amazing, our young couple are able to navigate the treacherous waters of courtship with no charts, instruments or crew to aid them.

I believe this leads us to the point of this series of comparisons. Behind the mystery of the course followed by the eagle, the snake and the ship, which seems “too wonderful” to understand, there is really a powerful and effective logic underlying their activities that has been developed through the experience of hundreds of generations of eagles, snakes and sailors. And there is no need for our young couple to fumble through the episodes of their developing relationship without understanding what’s going on and how to make sure they have a safe trip that leads to a happy destination. Hundreds of generations of other young couples have made the same voyage, and some of them have discovered where dangerous reefs lie, such as choosing someone with unhealthy needs, becoming pregnant outside of marriage and before you’re ready, trying too hard to please and becoming a kind of slave, etc. There are “charts and instruments” available, such as Biblical principles, Christian values, good books about love and romance. Our couple can even find a “crew” to help with the navigation, if they’re willing to confide in family members, friends, pastors or counselors.

An eagle who ignores instincts developed by previous generations would go hungry. A snake on a rock might be the eagle’s meal if he forgot how to slither. And a ship’s captain who threw the charts overboard and followed an imagined “short cut” would probably doom all those on board.

Many people have spent years recovering from youthful shipwrecks. Learn from them.

Pastor George Van Alstine