Proverbs 30:1-9

Proverbs 30:1-9 November 5, 2010

INTRODUCTION: STRUCTURE

There are five identified collections of Proverbs in the book. The choices are set up in the opening section, identified as “proverbs of Solomon, the son of David” (chapter 1-9). Chapter 10 begins another section, also identified as “proverbs of Solomon.” That section lasts until the beginning of chapter 25, which begins a collection of “proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah the king of Judah, transcribed (25:1). Chapter 30 is the fourth collection, and chapter 31 the fifth. Five is the number of military formation in Scripture, the number of fingers on the hand that grasps weapons of war and musical instruments for battles against principalities and powers.

Bruce Waltke, alternatively, has suggested that the book breaks down into seven collections: 1:1-9:18; 10:1-22:16 (Solomon); 22:17-24:22 (thirty “sayings of the wise”); 24:23-34 (further “sayings of the wise”); 25:1-29:27 (Solomon); 30:1-33; 31-31. This heptamerous arrangement suggests at least a numerical connection with the creation account. As Yahweh created the world by His wisdom, so He has revealed His wisdom to form us into faithful subcreators. If we can press the arrangement a bit more, then Proverbs 30 is in the “Day 6” slot of Proverbs, the day of man’s creation. Proverbs 30 describes Adamic life and the way of wisdom for new Adams.

Proverbs 30 is a distinct section of the book of Proverbs. It contains the words of someone identified as “Agur the son of Yaqeh” (v. 1). Chapter 31 introduces a new author, “King Lemuel.” Thus, chapter 30 stands alone. It differs in style from much of Proverbs as well. Instead of pithy two-line proverbs, we have more extended meditations, including a number of annotated lists. Agur asks “two things” of Yahweh (v. 7), lists four different “generations” (Heb. dor ; vv 11-14), describes the two/three daughters of the leech (vv. 15-17), lists three/four things that are beyond his understanding (vv. 18-20), three/four things that shake the earth (vv. 21-23), four things that are small but strong (vv. 24-28), and three/four things that are stately in their march (vv. 29-31). The whole chapter is surrounded by exhortations to humility, warnings against self-exaltation. “I am more stupid than any man, and I do not have the understanding of a man,” Agur begins (v. 2), and he ends with a warning to puffed-up fools to stop their mouths before problems arise.

There are seven lists, which are punctuated with shorter proverbs. It might be outlined as follows:

A. Agur: Stupider than any man, vv 2-4

B. The word of God, vv 5-6

1. Two requests, vv 7-9

-don’t slander a slave, v 10

2. Four generations, vv 11-14

3. Two/three daughters of leech, vv 15-16

-eye that mocks father, v 17

4. Three/four wonderful things, vv 18-19

-way of adulterous woman, v 20

5. Three/four things that make earth shake, vv 21-23

6. Four small wise things, vv 24-28

7. Three/four stately things, vv 29-31

A’. Stop foolish self-exaltation, vv 32-33

The internal structure of the seven lists subdivides the list into four groups that are arranged with a kind of rhythm: 1, 2, 1, 3. Further, the one-verse proverbs divide the whole sequence into a 4 + 3 pattern, like the creation week itself (where the last three days are distinguished as days of “blessing,” Genesis 1:22, 28; 2:3).

INTRODUCTION: AGUR

Who wrote this collection of Proverbs? The name “Agur” is never used elsewhere in the Bible, so there is little to go on. Some have suggested it’s a name for Solomon, others that it is the name of an unknown sage in Solomon’s court, others that it is an Edomite sage.

Since Agur is never mentioned elsewhere, we are left with speculations based on the meaning of the name and the surrounding names. Agur might be based on a root that means “gather,” as in gathering a harvest (cf. Deuteronomy 28:39; Proverbs 6:8; 10:5), a root that might also be reflected in the word ‘agurah , used once in the Hebrew Bible (1 Samuel 2:36) to mean “payment.” Agur’s name might thus be a reference to his task of gathering proverbs or people, much like Qohelet means “the Assembler.”

Some have suggested instead that Agur comes from the word ger , meaning “sojourner” or stranger. Israel was a nation of strangers in Egypt (Genesis 15:13; cf. Exodus 6:4) and Abraham recognized himself as a stranger in the land of promise (Genesis 23:4). Jacob used a form of the word ( magur ) to describe his entire life as a life of sojourning (Genesis 47:9; cf. Genesis 17:8; 28:4; 36:7), and Moses named his son Gershom as a memorial of his status as a stranger in a strange land (Exodus 2:22). Because Israel had been a nation of aliens, they were to treat the aliens with justice – offering them the possibility of circumcision and participation in Passover (Exodus 12:49), giving Sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10), avoiding oppression and vexation, avoiding setting up obstacles to frustrate them (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Jeremiah 7:1-7; Ezekiel 22:29; Zechariah 7:10), leaving grain and grapes for gleaning strangers (Deuteronomy 24:19). Sojourning is the shape of Israel’s early life, and was to leave a lasting impression on the way Israel was organized after she ceased her sojourning and inherited a land of her own. Even when Israel was settled and was ready to build a temple, David confessed that Israel was a nation of strangers and sojourners, since “our days on the earth are as a shadow and there is none abiding” (1 Chronicles 29:15; cf. Psalm 39:12; 119:19). The social status of stranger has been metaphorically elevated into a perspective on regarding human life in general, and this wisdom is an essential part of the wisdom of Agur. James Jordan suggests that Agur is a coded name for Jacob the sojourner. That is certainly possible, but we should also notice that if Jacob speaks here, he speaks as Israel, the father of a nation of aliens.

Drawing on the work of P.W. Skehan, Jordan also suggests that the name of Agur’s father is a riddle. Yaqeh is not, Skehan argues, a proper name, but an abbreviation for the phrase “Yahweh, holy is he” (Heb. Y ahweh q adosh h u ). This possibility is strengthened somewhat by the fact that Agur’s first reference to Yahweh describes him as the “Holy One” (v. 3; Heb. qedosh ). Whoever Agur is, then, he is describing himself as a son of the Yahweh the Holy. That could describe Jacob, who is Israel, Yahweh’s son; it could equally describe the king. It also hints at an Adamic connection, since Adam was made in the image and likeness of his Holy Father. If Skehan is right, then the proverbs of chapter 30 describe the demeanor of a son of the Holy One, the world as it appears to a son of God.

Agur describes his proverbs as a “burden” (Heb. massa’ ). The word is sometimes used literally for burdens borne by animals (Exodus 23:5) or by human beings (Numbers 4:15, 19, 24, 27, 31, 32). In the latter passages, the word takes on a somewhat metaphorical sense; though the Levites do bear actual burdens, the word also describes the task that the Levites “bear” as representatives of Israel. Closer to Agur’s usage are the uses of the word found in the prophets. Prophecies, especially heavy prophesies of judgment, are described as “burdens” (Isaiah 13:1; 14:28; 15:1; 17:1; 19:1; 21:1; 23:1; Nahum 1:1; Habakkuk 1:1; Zechariah 9:1; 12:1; Malachi 1:1). The image may be of “heavy”
words, but it could also simply refer to the fact that the prophet “lifts up” and “carries” the words of the prophecy. In any case, Agur’s use suggests that his proverbs can be read as in some sense prophecies.

One final introductory matter: Verse 1b seems to mention two people to whom Agur addresses his words, Ithiel and Ucal. Many scholars, however, have translated the verse differently, making it an address to God (“el”) and translating the names as verbs. It might be translated, “I am weary, O God, I am weary, O God, and I have brought to completion (or to an end).” This declaration seems to indicate that Agur is an old man, reflecting on the lessons he has learned from life. He is weary of life, and yet he is hopeful of bringing life to conclusion. These are the reflections of a sojourner, and more specifically of a mature sojourner.

PROVERBS 30:2-4

Verse 2 begins with the Hebrew particle ki , which typically means “for” or “because.” Tghat is a preferable translation to the NASB’s “surely.” Verses 1-2 go together and read, “I am weary, O God . . . for I am more brutish than a man and the discernment of adam is not with me.” Verse 2 gives the explanation for Agur’s weariness. It is not merely a matter of age, but of age and a recognition of his own lack of knowledge.

Agur calls himself “brutish,” using a word typically reserved for fools and those who hate instruction (Psalm 49:10; 73:22; 92:6; Proverbs 12:1). It is related to (or puns with) a verb that means “consume,” which is sometimes used to describe the consuming power of a fire and sometimes to describe an animal depasturing a field (Exodus 22:5). Jeremiah uses various forms of the verb to describe pagan sages, idolaters, and Israel’s kings (Jeremiah 10:8-22). When Agur calls himself brutish, he not only means that he lacks knowledge, but also saying that he, like a stubborn animal, has resisted knowledge. This is not only an acknowledgement that he lacks knowledge, but an acknowledgement of his culpable resistance to knowledge. He doesn’t have the discernment of adam, and he acknowledges that he has not learned wisdom.

Verses 2-3 are constructed with four clauses:

I am brutish more than a man

(I) do not have the discernment of adam

I have not learned wisdom

Knowledge of the holy ones [or Holy One] I know

The structure is significant at the beginning of a chapter that has five lists of four. A number of those are introduced by a “three, even four” formula, distinguishing the fourth from the last. Verses 2-3 are structured in the same way. The first clause is clearly negative – he admits his brutishness. The second and third clauses explicitly employ the negative particle lo . The final clause does not, even though many translations carry over the negative from the third clause (NASB: “Neither . . . nor”). It’s better, though, to take the fourth clause as a contrast to the previous clauses; the waw that begins the clause is disjunctive – “but.” Waltke translates the fourth clause more positively: “but I want to experience the knowledge of the Holy One.” The Hebrew is more straightforward, not expressing a wish but expressing a reality: For all my brutishness and lack of discernment and wisdom, I know knowledge of the holy ones.

Qedoshim is plural. That may be an honorific, referring to Yahweh as the Holy One. One thinks of analogies with elohim, also a plural but a normal word for the God of Israel who is One. The most common use of the plural of qadash , however, is with reference to the “most holy” things, places, foods, and people who are claimed by God and who are brought near to Him. The holy of holies is the qodesh-qadashim , and most holy foods and objects are given the same description. The knowledge that Agur claims to have is knowledge of the Holy God that is perhaps connected with the holy places and things of which Israel was caretaker.

Who . . . who? Verse 4 reminds us of the Song of Moses: “Who is like you among the gods, Yahweh? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders” (Exodus 15:11). Agur’s questions are a taunt. He is speaking to the wise, to the discerning who claim to know: “You know! You can tell me! Can’t you?” Again Agur uses a four-clause structure, asking a series of questions that all have the same answer. Only the Holy One ascends to heaven and descends, gathers wind or spirit in his fists, wraps himself with a watery garment of cloud, establishes the ends of the earth. What is his name? Agur doesn’t expect his assumed interlocutors to be able to answer, but he knows the answer. “Knowledge of the Holy I know,” and the Holy is the One who can do all this. Yahweh, Holy is He – that is his name. And His son? Why, of course, Agur, the son of Yaqeh!

If Agur is the son of this Holy One, then he must learn to imitate Him – like Father, like son. Only Yahweh has linked heaven and earth, only he can grasp the wind, only He can wrap waters round Himself and establish the ends of the earth. But the brutish Agur is his son, and so he too is learning to do what the Father does.

PROVERBS 30:5-6

Agur claims a knowledge of the Holy One who is Creator of Heaven and Earth, and in verses 5-6 he describes the source of His knowledge: He knows the Holy One because He has listened to the word of God. That word is pure, that is, tested in the fire, so that all the base metals have been purged from it (cf. Psalm 12:6; 18:30). Because the word is tried and purified by the fire of the Spirit, the word is a shield to those who trust in Him, those who cling to God with steadfast loyalty and find refuge and protection in Him. With God’s word, Agur is sure that he can enter any battle and be unscathed.

God’s word is not only a pure word, a strong and protective shield, but is also a sufficient shield. God wants us to talk back to Him. He wants us to search out and discover what He has revealed. But what He has revealed, He has revealed; what He has spoken, He has spoken, and adding something to His word as if it were His word is dangerous. He will reprove us, and we will be exposed as liars. If we say “Thus says Yahweh” when it’s only “Thus says me,” it will eventually be clear that we are putting words in the mouth of the One who cannot lie.

PROVERBS 30:7-9

Verse 7 introduces a double petition to Yahweh. Old Agur sees death looming, and wants these things before he comes to the end. The requests are chiastically arranged:

A. Request #1: Remove vanity and lies, v 8a

B. Request #2: Give neither poverty, v 8b

C. nor riches, v 8b

D. Feed me with my apportioned food, v 8c

C’. Lest I be full and deny, v 9a

B’. Let I be poor and steal, v 9b

A’. Lest I take the name of Yahweh, v 9c

The whole is surrounded by worry about vanity and lies. It begins with an explicit reference to “vanity,” the same word that is found in the third commandment (Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:11), and the passage ends with a reference to the name of Yahweh, whose name we are forbidden to take in vain. The worry about wealth and poverty is nestled within the worry about bearing the Lord’s name lightly. The poor are tempted to steal and deny God’s name in that way; the rich are tempted by their fullness to deny Yahweh. The double request amounts to one request, the request to be given the portion of bread that the Lord tears off. The verb translated as “feed” is “tear, rend (Genesis 37:33; 44:28; Exodus 22:13), and

the image is of a host tearing bread in pieces and apportioning those pieces to his guest. What Agur wants is to be at Yahweh’s table, to receive the bread of life that He gives, in the portion that He gives it.

Poverty and wealth come in many forms – money and houses and clothes, but also social or political influence, fame, education, skills. In all of these, our prayer should be that of Agur: Give me neither poverty so as to envy and steal, nor a surfeit that would lead me to deny God; tear off what you are pleased to give me, so that vanity will be removed from me.


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