Chapter 30 is enclosed 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.
Verse 32 is a warning against self-exaltation. The verb “be foolish” is the verb form of the name Nabal, the self-exalted husband of the wise Abigail, who endangered his entire household with his coarse and rude treatment of David (1 Samuel 25). Don’t be a Nabal, Agur says. And one becomes a Nabal by lifting oneself, by making oneself the banner to which everyone will gather, by making oneself the battle standard. Again, this fits into the whole of Proverbs and this chapter in particular as advice to rulers, to kings and princes. Instead of puffing ourselves up, we should be humbling ourselves before God and before others, serving them rather than demanding their service.
What is foolish is self-exaltation that takes the form of plotting and conspiracy. The men of Babel “plotted” to unite all humanity rather than scattering and filling the earth (Genesis 11:6), and the law warns against brothers plotting against brothers (Deuteronomy 19:19). David was the object of plots (Psalm 31:13; 37:12), and of course Jesus was too. Agur is addressing those who, like the men of Babel, plot to make a name for themselves, or those who, like the plotters in the Psalms, want to bring David down so that they can take his place. Both the men of Babel and the conspirators of the Psalm were plotting to lift themselves up.
Few of us are tempted to hatch plots against the government, or to build a tower that reaches to heaven. Some in our day do make names for themselves by building tall towers: Can you say Donald Trump? Can you say Burj Khalifa? (I can’t.) Our ambitions tend to be smaller, but we do think of ways to make ourselves look good, or dream of ways to make ourselves famous. Scripture warns against this kind of ambition again and again; Adam’s sin was an act of ambition, reaching for a privilege rather than waiting and serving patiently until he was given that privilege. We need to resist the cultural pressure all around us to arrange our lives for self-glorification.
In Proverbs 30:32, there is a contrast between hatching a plan in the mind and speaking of it. Before the plot that forms in the mind is spoken, before the idea is shared with others so that a conspiracy can be formed, Agur urges us to slap our hand over our mouth. Elsewhere, the verb “set” is used in this idiom (Judges 18:19; Job 21:5; Micah 7:16), but here the phrase is simply “if you plot, hand to mouth.” The hand to the mouth should be automatic – as soon as you catch yourself plotting self-exaltation, your hand should be closing your mouth tight. Even if you have thoughts about how to plot for your self-exhortation, they should stop at the edge of your brain, and never be formed into words, never put out into the open public.
The reason given in verse 33 is that these plots for self-exaltation and self-glorification inevitably produce blood and strife. There is a right kind of churning, a proper way to press the world. We are given a world with milk, but no butter; grapes, but no wine; flour, but no bread or cakes. Israel in particular was given a fruitful land of milk and honey, fields and vineyards, and they were to “churn” that land so that its produce became even better – richer, tastier, more fattening (cf. Deuteronomy 32:14). This is the way of dominion, pressing and squeezing what God has given us to glorify it. That kind of labor is not the labor of self-exaltation.
In context, Agur is telling us that the labor of self-exaltation is like a squeeze of the nose, and the results are easy to predict. The structure of verse 33 is very repetitive. A squeeze/churn of something produces something else: Churned milk brings butter; churned nose brings blood; churned noses bring contention. Churning milk naturally leads to curdled milk or butter; churning ambition leads naturally to blood and strife because churning ambition is like squeezing or twisting the nose.
The nose is the center of the human face, and is very important in biblical anthropology. Wrath is concentrated on the nose: Nabal the fool insulted David, and David’s nose burned against him, and that nearly led to bloody combat. Yahweh’s “nose burns” when he gets angry. When He displays His patient mercy, He is said to be “long-nosed.” The curse on Adam is a curse on his nose: “By the sweat of your nose will you eat your bread.” Our sin is a stench in God’s nostrils, and so Israel had to offer God sweet aromas in sacrifice and incense to pacify His nose, and to keep him from being repulsed by the smell of the people among whom He lived. In the end, Christ is the sweet savor in His Father’s nostrils, and because we have His Spirit and eat Him, we give off the aroma of Christ, a savor to the Father, an aroma of life or death to those around us.
The message is fairly straightforward, though: Pride and self-exaltation, in a king or anyone else, leads to pain and strife. The strife in view is specifically legal strife (Heb. rib ). If we are foolish enough to seek our own glory, we’re going to spend most of our lives in court. But if we humble ourselves, and agree quickly with our adversaries, we will avoid strife and blood. It is possible that the nose that the self-exaltant fool squeezes is Yahweh’s Himself. The churning ambition to be above everyone else provokes God’s nose, and He will bring His case against us.PROVERBS 31:1-9
With Proverbs 31, the speaker changes. Instead of Agur, we have the words of King Lemuel, whose name means something like “Dedicated to God.” This could be a variation of one of the names of Solomon – Jedidiah, “beloved of Yah” (2 Samuel 12:25). But no one knows who this is. We do know that he speaks as a king, and that he is passing on the wisdom that his mother taught him. Lemuel’s mother is an embodiment of Lady Wisdom, who in the final chapter of Proverbs gives instruction to kings and to wives. At the end of the book, we return to the beginning, with the words of a woman and the endorsement of marriage to Lady Wisdom. Lemuel’s mother represents Israel, the mother of the king, who instructs him.
The Bible is often condemned these days as a chauvinist book, and Israel as a masculinist society where women were voiceless property. From beginning to end, Proverbs 31 makes it clear that this is false. Not only does Lemuel pass on the wisdom of his mother, but he passes on the political wisdom of his mother. This mother’s insight is not reserved for the “domestic” sphere, but she guides her son into justice and faithfulness in public life. This is not a new emphasis in Proverbs. From the very beginning, Solomon and all the other writers of Proverbs emphasize that both father and mother instruct the prince. The mother has a torah , and the same “shema” command applies to her as to the father (1:8). The prince is supposed to cleave to his mother’s torah just as he guards his father’s commandment (6:20). Fools despise their mothers (15:20); shameful sons chase away their mothers (19:26); curses against both father and mother lead to darkness (20:20); ravens are at the ready to eat out the eyes of the man who mocks his father and despises his mother (30:17). Solomon the king and his queen both instruct; Jesus the King and the Queen Church both deliver torah to the royal children of the Father.
Verse 2 stands somewhat outside the structure of these verses. “Wha
t? What? What?” says Lemuel’s mother. The tone is excited, almost exasperated: “What are you doing?” It might also be a call to attention, equivalent to “Listen to me! Listen! Listen!” Lemuel’s mother states her claims on him. He is “my son” and “the son of my womb” and “son of my vows.” The first two are obvious, but the last reminds us of Hannah, who received a son by making a vow to Yahweh. That would explain Lemuel’s name: He is the son of a vow, a Hannah’s child, dedicated to the Lord by his mother.
Verses 3-9 are arranged in four sections:
A. Avoid the adulteress, v 3
B. Kings and drink, vv. 4-5
C. Drink for the afflicted, vv. 6-7
D. Speak for the dumb and needy, vv. 8-9
If we combine this with the last section of the chapter, we can see an overall chiasm in the chapter, one that brings out the implicit contrast between the excellent wife and the destructive woman of verse 3.
A. Avoid the adulteress, v. 3
B. Kings drink and forget poor, vv. 4-5
C. Drink for the afflicted, vv. 6-7
B’. Kings open mouths for afflicted (not for wine!), vv. 8-9
A’. An excellent wife, vv. 10-31
As is common in the Proverbs, the warning about loose women is framed in terms of loss of strength, wealth, and power. Kings who indulge themselves with harems, Presidents who keep an intern tucked under their desks, they are self-indulgent and lack sexual restraint. But the Proverbs are more interested in the waste of energy and resources that the adulterous woman brings. Kings depend on strength to rule (the Hebrew chayil can mean “wealth” or “army” as well as “strength”). But when they pursue women, their capacity to rule is destroyed. He is not just destroyed as a person, but as a king. They become open to manipulation and blackmail; they pursue a way that leads to destruction.
Indulgence in drink is also incompatible with rule. In some places in Scripture, kings are pictured with wine, a sign of their victory, rest, and Sabbatical enthronement. With wine in his hand, the king is like King Yahweh Himself, who has a cup that he pours out upon the nations. But Proverbs 31:4-5 is speaking more literally. Just as rulers lose their capacity for judgment when they pursue women, they lose their capacity to do justice when they indulge in drink.
If we take the whole biblical picture into account, the message is: When kings sit to judge, they are in battle, not in the rest of victory; that is the time for alert sobriety, not for Sabbath. Passing judgment is war against the wicked, on behalf of the afflicted and oppressed. While sitting in judgment, he should be opening his mouth for those who cannot speak, defending the rights of the marginal, judging righteously. He should be waging war with the rod of his mouth and the breath of his lips, not filling his mouth with wine and strong drink.