What might foxes have to do with faith? I have been contemplating that strange question lately, and I believe the answer is “quite a bit.” All last week, no matter where I turned, it seemed that I was encountering foxes. For the most part, they were those “little foxes that spoil the vines,” as David’s son Solomon described them in verse 15 of the 2nd chapter the Song of Solomon.
Before I continue let me acknowledge that I realize I may be lifting that marvelous metaphor out of its literal context from within a magnificent love poem. My purpose is quite the opposite, however. I hope to rescue the image from its popular association with those mundane unpleasantries, as my mother would have called them, that we all confront periodically as we move through life. In its usual contemporary use, the expression in which this vulpine image appears is most often invoked in response to incidents like one I experienced last week that called to mind Solomon’s description. The water pipe that runs from the street into my house burst without warning and sent torrents of water cascading inside. That was just a single episode in what was beginning to feel like an endless series of increasingly distressing situations.
But let’s move back to context for a moment – figurative context – and to wise Solomon’s treatment of the “little foxes” line that many scholars think he may have lifted from the lyrics of a traditional ballad. Whether the words were familiar or original does not matter as much as the manner in which the Biblical poet utilized the figure of speech in his song. You see, Solomon’s foxes are not concerned with situations so much as with relationships. At least that is what a majority of exegetical commentators over the centuries have posited. The language of the passage supports that view, so I agree with it.
The vines, according to the strict meaning of the Hebrew text, are actually our vineyard– an image that is at once both more expansive and more intensely personal than the one conveyed in the conventional translation. To put it succinctly, the mischief that the little foxes were about in Solomon’s great epithalamium was not simply chewing stems and digging at roots under the grape arbor; their antics were keeping the young bride and her betrothed apart, at least temporarily. The pesky pups were disrupting their relationship, distracting them from their covenant of love.
Slogging through the standing water in my house I honestly was not giving much thought to relationships. And that was to my detriment. I was immersed (pardon the pun) in the problem immediately before me and working feverishly to make sure I got things under control. Although ankle deep in my trouble, I did realize that my emotional reaction was disproportionate to the inconvenience of the particular situation, and I actually chided myself aloud. I told myself that expressing gratitude for all I had was an attitude I should adopt even then, and that I needed to stop grousing about something I likely would not remember a year down the road. Not surprisingly, such a private chastening that I should reach deep into the well of my self(-discipline) and buck up did little to change my disposition.
There was nothing inherently wrong with my inclination to want to embrace gratitude in the midst of my “unpleasantries,” except that there was an important element missing. I was completely unaware of my omission until I walked outside in the early hours of the next morning. Seemingly out of nowhere, a small, breathtakingly handsome silver fox emerged from the shadows and trotted along the edge of the manicured grass of my yard right to the place where the natural foliage dissolves into woods. That tiny kit seemed oblivious to my presence, set as he probably was on getting back to the safety of the lair before day had fully broken. My reaction was entirely different. I stopped, transfixed on each deliberate step of the small creature’s easy stride, until I heard myself speaking aloud again. As light was beginning to dawn for me, this time I was saying “Thank You,” not to myself and not to the fox either. I was addressing the God of all creation, the Lord of man and of beast, the One who hears the cries of my heart and wants always to invite me back into our vineyard. Others may characterize the appearance of the elusive fox in the flesh before me as nothing more than coincidence, but the rarity of such a visitation there renders that explanation implausible. Arguing the point is fruitless. What drew the sleek kit to take that path is irrelevant. The message to me was clear: the Vineyard Owner was reminding me that in every situation my hope resides in the Giver.
In all likelihood, the recollection of my encounter with the little fox will ultimately be as fleeting as my experience with the buckets and mop. Certainly I will need to be reminded again that gratitude is good, appropriate, a right response. Perhaps that is the reason why Holy Writ is so full of instructions that we “give thanks.” In times of trial, misfortune, threat, fear, storm, conflagration, serious illness and deep sorrow (and even small unpleasantries) – some of which will do real, significant and permanent damage to our life’s journey on this earth– that mandate often seems impossible to fulfill. It always will be if our attentions are set on transitory gifts, or the withdrawal of them, rather than on the ever- and imminently-present Giver of all blessings — and on our relationship of dependence on Him. The destructive power of those diminutive but wily foxes hides in their ability to make us believe our burdens are light enough to carry on our own. That keeps our focus on self and situation and subtly gnaws away at our dependence on the Vineyard Owner and on the covenant relationship of love He invites us to share in His, and our, vineyard.
Such is the truth that the psalmist David knew, and surely conveyed to his famous son, and that he celebrates throughout the psalms. It is the fulcrum on which his cries of lament so regularly and genuinely turn first to gratitude — but then beyond that to unrestrained praise and profound faith. Gratitude often is rooted in the past and grounded in the present. Faith and hope look with certainty ahead. The psalmist entrusts his hope not to gifts or to experience– although he celebrates those with heartfelt thanksgiving and unparalleled eloquence – but to the enduring promises of the Giver, Whom he knows intimately and recognizes alone can and will give him safe harbor and keep him anchored through every tempest — and protected from the deception of foxes.