Stephen G. Alter, associate professor of history and recipient of the Junior Distinguished Faculty Award, addressed incoming and returning students at the Matriculation Chapel August 24. Dr. Alter, left, is pictured with Provost Mark Sargent.
As you already know, I make my living teaching history. And, because that's my job, you will not be surprised to hear that there are certain history-related books that I think everyone ought to read. One of those books is the famous autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; I assign this work regularly in one of my classes. People who write autobiographies usually have an agenda in mind, and Benjamin Franklin's agenda is fairly obvious. He told the story of his own life in order to provide an example to young people starting out in their careers. Franklin was saying: here are the lessons that I have learned; here are the keys to my success. This morning I want to look at one of those keys—a particular word of encouragement that Franklin took from the Bible, from a verse in the Old Testament. When Franklin was boy, his father would often quote to him the following proverb from Solomon:
"Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will stand before kings;
He will not stand before obscure men."
Writing in his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin recalled that he took seriously his father's admonition. From his youth onward, he said, he considered skilled work to be a pathway to fortune and fame. Now, he did not really expect that he would ever literally stand before kings. And yet, as he later pointed out, that was exactly what happened. As he said in his autobiography, "I have stood before five [kings], and even had the honor of sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, to dinner."
Unpacking A Proverb
This remark by Ben Franklin raises in my mind a basic question: what did it mean to "stand" before a king? Sometimes, a person would be invited to pay a personal visit to a king, and this clearly was the case with Franklin: he was a famous man and kings wanted to meet him. But, this was not the usual meaning of the words found in the Book of Proverbs: usually, you "stood before a king" in order to serve the king and his kingdom. That is what the verse from Proverbs really means! You were not there for a visit; you were there to do important work. Now I want to point out: we are talking here not about the divine king (that is, God) but rather about rulers here on earth. Here on earth, kings need helpers: rulers need people who can help them to do their job of running a kingdom.
Let me go ahead and give you my main point. In whatever calling you pursue in life, in order to do good service, you will need to be skilled; you will need to possess detailed knowledge. Sometimes, you hear someone draw a distinction between head knowledge and practical service, but this can be very misleading. In the real world you will need specialized knowledge in order to be of service. This is true especially if you aspire to 'stand before kings', that is, to serve in some high capacity. Often, we honor those people who have a heart for service, and it is right that we should do so.
But, in this world you will need more than a servant's heart: you will also need a servant's head. We need Christians who are learning in order to serve. Here let me give you three examples of recent Gordon graduates who are doing this kind of work. I'm sure that there are others like them; I know about these individuals only because they did part of their college studies in history. First, Lindsey Alexander graduated from Gordon last spring and now works as an analyst for the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation: eventually she hopes to do intelligence analysis related to fighting terrorism. Jessica Rodgers finished Gordon several years ago and now works as a legislative assistant for a U.S. Congressman. Finally, after graduating ten years ago, Stephanie Trombley went on to earn a Ph.D. in history and now teaches in the Global Security and Intelligence Studies Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. (This means, by the way, that Stephanie actually is training other people to "stand before kings," but this teaching role is important in its own right!)
If we look at scripture, we find further examples of skilled people who were called into special service. We see this particularly with ancient Israel's two most powerful kings: David and Solomon. These rulers were powerful, but they still needed help. David famously had his "mighty men," a group of skilled warriors. But David and Solomon had many other kinds of helpers as well. There were artists and craftsmen: skilled artisans, workers in wood and in precious metals, making things of beauty for the temple in Jerusalem. They also had skilled musicians for the temple service. To serve the king, God was calling upon highly trained individuals. Why would it be any different in our own generation?
Sons and Daughters of Isaachar
The rest of what I have to say will focus on a special category of workers who served King David. As he began to organize his kingly administration, David enlisted support from the various tribes of Israel. The text says this: "Day by day men came to David to help him, until there was a great army like the army of God." (I'm reading here from First Chronicles, chapter 12.)
Now it's true that the focus here is on military matters. But in addition to the men trained for war, there came a group known as the sons of Issachar, who are described as "men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do." Personally, I am fascinated by these Sons of Issachar: apparently these were military advisors, and this means that they were brain workers. They were men who "understood the times." In other words, they had special insight into the times in which they lived. And for this reason, it says, they had "knowledge of what Israel should do": they were able to recommend a good course of action.
There are two ideas here about what it means to be a Son of Issachar, and these give me my two final points. As you may suspect already, both points relate to the study of history. First, you cannot 'understand your own times' if they are the only times that you know about. [You want me to say that again, don't you? Well here it is: you cannot really understand your own times if they are the only times that you know.] In the same way, you don't really know your own country if you've never been anywhere else. Time spent in a foreign country broadens your perspective, and so does the study of history.
The second point is that the Sons of Issachar gave the king advice as to what Israel should do. In other words, their job was to help formulate public policy. In my own teaching, I emphasize whenever possible key policy debates from the past--and these include more things that you may realize. Maybe you are not interested in politics, but everyone is interested in some aspect of public policy. Policy means this: how should we run things, and according to what guidelines? How should things be run in this business, this church, this community, or in this country's relations with other countries? These are policy questions, and when you study the history of such questions, you listen to the thoughts of smart people who lived in the past.
Many of you, I hope, will become Christian policy wonks! That's really what we need: Christian policy wonks. This will make you useful both in the public arena and in the marketplace. We need Christians in journalism and in the media, in law and in governmental affairs, in science and medicine, in the fine arts. Why shouldn't Christians be making major contributions in all of these fields? For we carry the gospel with us as we go. Being skilled in your work will open doors for you and for the faith that you represent. It will help build a reputation for Christians as useful people.
You may not literally stand before kings, but you might work for the U.S. Congress. (And let's face it, they need help!) Why not aim for something like that? Aim as high as you can. Ultimately, aim to be a Son (or a Daughter) of Issachar. Seek to someday be a wise giver of advice, based on a deep knowledge of what has been done before. Be able to explain the pros and cons of a proposed course of action. Help the king to avoid reinventing the wheel. Know what was done in past times so that you can see the best options for today, all guided by the timeless principles of God's word.
This is a long-term process, not something done overnight. But why not begin this semester? May God bless each of you as you prepare for your life calling.
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