Matisyahu’s “Happy Hanukkah,” the book of Proverbs, and Me

What I think I’m doing here: Another Song Notes post. The first one, which provides a little bit of explanation, is here (the tag provides other examples).

In December of 2012 I listened to this song approximately 87 times. Some of you are backing away slowly, trying to avoid eye contact, and others are nodding sagely as you remember strange song binges from your own past.

Why this song in particular? I’m not totally sure. At the time I lived in an apartment in the suburbs of Chicago and I was spending my nights writing a paper on the theology of the biblical book of Proverbs. It was … ambitious (“This paper approaches the invitation to pursue wisdom [Proverbs 4:5] by attempting to articulate a theology of the book of Proverbs as a whole”). And, it was not going well.

My wife was working night shifts so we could pay the rent while I pursued a graduate degree. This meant sitting alone in a little pool of light at my desk in the dark winter evenings, surrounded by a sort of cave formed by stacks of Old Testament commentaries, trying to justify the time and expense of my studies. I would be hunched over my laptop, staring at a project that resembled a lunch tray spilled on the cafeteria floor rather than a carefully composed theological meal and wonder what exactly I was doing. Me, my books, and this song. I remember writing lines about the order and structure of creation and feeling acutely the disorder of my moment: growing student loan debt, a vocational path that was dissolving with each step I took, a blooming sense of exhaustion. And yet I typed away, perhaps carried on by the slightly manic energy of Matisyahu’s ode to the one Jewish holiday everyone in America knows.

The final paper, “Participation in Creation: Wisdom as Harmony in the Book of Proverbs” was … fine? I guess? I used musical metaphors to try and trace my path through the various sections of the book. Proverbs tells us there is a deep order to the world we live in and invites us to respond to that order. Living well is learning how to harmonize with the deep melodies of God found in creation. In the way these things sometimes go, even if the paper itself was a bit of a mess, the ideas in it have stuck with me in the intervening years more than things I would have identified as more polished and successful at the time.

And so, I still find myself thinking of Proverbs pretty often, even if it is the nerd among the wisdom books. Cynical Ecclesiastes, tragic Job, sexy Song of Songs … and Proverbs: clean shaven, bespectacled, and dressed in a three piece suit. Pursue wisdom, work hard, says Proverbs, and you will be rewarded. Act foolishly, pursue evil, and things will go badly. Creation is good, and there is an order and a shape to it, determined by God, so pay attention.

In our contemporary moment, we gravitate much more towards the “cool” wisdom books (although I would argue they don’t actually make much sense without the background Proverbs provides). But, I find Proverbs to be a very hopeful book. The world may be chaotic, and it may be hard to hear through the cacophony, but if you are willing to pay attention, to “fear the Lord” as Proverbs puts it, you may be able to catch the strains of God’s deep creation song from time to time, a song that invites you to sing along. Sometimes it even sounds like reggae.