Lecture 23: The Sayings of Agur

Course: Proverbs

Lecture: The Sayings of Agur

I. Translation – Proverbs 30

‘These are the sayings of Agur son of Jakeh—an inspired utterance. This man’s utterance to Ithiel: I am weary, God, but I can prevail. Surely, I am only a brute, not a man; I do not have human understanding. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One. Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name? and what is the name of his son? Surely you know! Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.’ Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar. Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. Do not slander a servant to their master, or they will curse you, and you will pay for it. There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers; those who are pure in their own eyes and yet are not cleansed of their filth; those whose eyes are ever so haughty, whose glances are so disdainful; those whose teeth are swords and whose jaws are set with knives to devour the poor from the earth The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.

There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’ the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’ The eye that mocks a father, that scorns an aged mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures. There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin. This is the way of an adulterous woman: She eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’ Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up: an official who becomes king, a godless fool who gets plenty to eat, a contemptible woman who gets married, and a maid-servant who displaces her mistress. Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces. There are three things that are stately in their stride, four that move with stately bearing: a lion, mighty among beasts, who retreats before nothing; a strutting rooster, a he-goat, and a king secure against revolt. If you play the fool and exalt yourself, or if you plan evil, clap your hand over your mouth! and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.’

II. Introduction

A. Solomon and the Sage

Agur: We are now looking at another sage, namely Agur. We have noted that there are seven collections within the Book of Proverbs. There is the preamble and prologue, the 375 proverbs from 10:1-22:16 and then we have the 30 sayings of the wise at 22:17. And then we had more sayings of the wise at the end of 24:23-30 and then we had the 5th section which is the Proverbs of Solomon as collected by Hezekiah 25-29 and now the sixth section, namely the sayings of Agur. We have looked at chapter 31, the sayings of King Lemuel’s mother 31:10-31, the collection dealing with the noble woman. Agur is one of my most favorite characters in the Bible. He begins with an autobiography and he shows us his epistemology (science of how you know), namely how he knows anything with certainty and it is a great confession in his autobiography. Then he has seven numerical sayings that are very provocative and a final conclusion for his son. I will also deal with the Poetics of the chapter and how it is structured and what was in his mind when he composed this chapter, though many don’t agree on the chapter’s unity. We will then look at each verse closely in an exegesis.

The Proverbs are used only of Solomon and this word is not applied to the other sayings, the sages. We are not sure, perhaps an acronym of some sort or because the word Solomon and Proverb have the same numerical standing in Hebrew. Agur is the son of Jakeh, otherwise Agur is not known. Including in the first verse, ‘an inspired utterance’ is MasSa in Hebrew. The utterance is to Ithiel and again it is inspired. In the section, ‘I am weary, God, but I can prevail.’ The Masoretic text reads ‘an utterance to Ithiel and Ugo. There is some suggestion in verses 2 and 3, to be truly human, you must know the Holy One because by knowing the Holy One, you understand who you are. So the more you know about God, the more you know about yourself.

B. Agur’s Confessions

There is a superscript in 1a and then an autobiography in 1b-6 using the 1st person singular ‘I’. This is an autobiography in which he reasons his way in how you can have certain knowledge. Then we have a body of material that list seven numerical sayings, seven being the number of divine perfection and then we have a conclusion. The first part uses the pronoun ‘I’ and the second part is impersonal and then finally he has, ‘if you play the fool.’ The conclusion could be addressed to Ithiel. So Agur’s epistemology is broken down into the first person, second person and the third person as follows:

1st Confession in 1st person of inability to know wisdom

2-3

 

Confession # 1: ignorant

2

 

Confession # 2: must remain sub-human without knowing God

3

2nd Confession 2nd person of ability to know wisdom

 

 

Confession # 3: Must have absolute/comprehensive knowledge for certain knowledge

4a

 

Confession # 4: The Lord, Israel’s covenant keeping God, is omniscient

4b

 

Confession # 5: Israel is the Lord’s son/disciple

4c

3rd Confession in 3rd person

 

 

Confession # 6: God’s word is infallible

5-6

Verses 1b is a confession to God and admits that he is weary but acknowledges that he can prevail. This is the summary statement of his confession. So when he speaks to God he is speaking in the 1st person, but when he talks of God, it is in the 3rd person. Verses 7-9 includes petitions and their reasons which consists of being truthful and modest and the dangers of wealth and of poverty. He confesses that he must remain ignorant and sub-human in verses 2-3 without knowing God or less than human. So we have seen statements: a son being a real son and then a wife being a real wife and now a human being a real human and thus a real human knows God and anyone who doesn’t know God is less than human. Then he argues that to have absolute knowledge, you have to have comprehensive knowledge and the only one who has comprehensive knowledge is God who created and sustains everything and finally in confession six, every word of God is infallible. He then presents two petitions to God which is actually a Janus because he is going to ask for two things. This is a transition into the numerical sayings. The first thing that he be truthful and also modesty; don’t give me too much and don’t give me too little. All he wants is his daily quota of bread. He is concerns both about wealth and poverty and both is concerned with his relationship with God.

C. Numerical Sayings

Next come seven impersonal numerical sayings in 10-31; verse 10 starts off with a single line saying that overturns the social order in not slandering a servant to their master. The word servant is actually ‘indentured slavery’, not kidnapped slavery which applies to the African American. The indentured slave was paying off a debt which only lasted for six years or less. Note that a slave is not his own property as a servant suggests. An official is called an ‘avid’ because he works for the king or his master. My own choice would be not to slander an official to their master, but this would confuse the idea of him being a slave. The other single line proverb is verse 15 where the leech has two daughters, give! Give! They cry. This is also a king and a Janus that is putting the two together, especially concerning the second part of the verse with the numerical sayings of four things that are never satisfied. There is no title to these sayings and the leech has no title but in 15b we get a title of 3 and 4 and that is preparing us for the sayings in 18-31; where it says that there are three things that are too amazing for me and four that I do not understand. We see this again in verse 21 under three things the earth trembles, under four and then in verse 24, four things on earth are small yet they are extremely wise and then in verse 29 there are three things that are stately in their stride, four that move with stately bearing. The real number is always four. In verse 17, we have another single line proverb. So a single line saying, proscribing overturning the social order of slander of an official to his master and he is being slandered in order that he might get fired or punished from his job.

Now we have three non-initial titled sayings about greed in verses 11-16. You have the generation who wants to get their inheritance early from their mother and their father and they are full of greed. Then there is the leech who is never satisfied. Then he talks about four things that are never satisfied and these are in competition to one another. There is the grave and it is never satisfied but on the other side you have barren womb that is craving to give life. So we have this struggle between death and life and neither one is ever satisfied and in between, you have land which never has enough water and you have fire. So you have the grave, death, barren womb, life and then land, water and life and then you have fire and death. They are in eternal competition with one another. And then you have this single line proverb of verse 17 which also prescribes the overturning the social order. Verse 10 pertains to the social order of the state, but verse 17 pertains to the social order in the home. We now have four initial proverbs, making seven altogether, three and then four. This is carefully thought through and planned out by Agur. So we have seven which is the numerical of divine perfection with the initial titled line of 3 things and 4 things. So the macro-structure sequence of three/four matches the micro-structured sequence of three untitled and four initial titled sayings. The three untitled pertain to greed that wants more and the four titled lines pertain to living within boundaries. These boundaries pertain to modesty of not having too much or too little. On one hand each proverb stands on its own but put together it makes its own picture. There is a semantic connection between greed (overstepping boundaries) and recognizing boundaries. At the very end in verses 32-33, there is an address to Ithiel to not to rebel.

The two single line proverbs of verses 10 and 17 are in parallel with one another. Verse 10 says not to slander and in verse 17 slander deals with the tongue and with the eye. That stands in parallel with one another in Psalm 101:5 where you can see that slander and the eye are parallel to one another. ‘Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and proud heart, him will I not endure.’ Perdue in Proverbs p 260 says that this expression has to do with arrogance, something that God will not tolerate. Haughty eyes symbolize arrogance. This parallelism between slandering tongue and haughty eyes in Psalm 101:5 suggest the single line proverbs not to overthrow authority in government or home match one another. And verse 17 is right in the middle of the chapter with verse 10 and 17 going together. The single line proverbs say that overstepping your boundary is death. So this gives us the overall structure of the passage.

III. Superscript and the Epistemology

The superscript tells us that Agur is a prophet. He is not only a sage but a prophet and speaks with the authority of a prophet. He calls himself an oracle and his utterance is inspired. The Hebrew word of prophetic burden is hammassa. This means a word of judgement in Jeramiah and this are those two single line proverbs. Agur’s burden is trying to save Ithiel from death and if he rebels playing the fool and trying to put yourself above one another, you need to be quiet. In saying inspired utterance, the most common word is the act of speaking. When you hear the word ‘declares the Lord’ you are hearing from God. This is used of David in 2nd Samuel 23:1.

A. Autobiography and Confessions

So we have the confession to God, a summary confession of inability and ability to know wisdom. His weariness is in not learning wisdom. He tried but he hasn’t succeeded. But he will prevail as he realizes that wisdom is the revelation from God. Many translations say ‘to Ithiel, to Ithiel and to Ukal,’ but this is very problematic. Here, the Hebrew word w’ukal’ means to prevail. He can step out of his epistemological human ignorance that can’t come to wisdom. This ignorance comes from the fact that we can never know anything for certain, it is impossible. You either go with reason which is also never certain or you go with revelation; this is the only answer. So Agur is doing this; he is going with revelation over anything else. Now he develops this in his epistemology through his confessions. He admits that he is only a brute, lacking wisdom and education. He needs understanding which he doesn’t have. He starts with an honest confession of the reality and that on his own, he is ignorant and on his own he can never obtain certain knowledge and wisdom. The 2nd confession is that he must remain ignorant without God. Agur seems to be a proselyte from outside the faith and had gone to teachers to understand wisdom but realized that he had no footing for his knowledge. He says, ‘I have not learned wisdom nor attained to the knowledge of the Holly One. He also says that he is less the human without wisdom and the knowledge of the Holly One. There is a relationship between wisdom and knowing God (Holly One) intimately. He realizes that he has to be related to God who is totally ‘other’. So how is he going to get there is the question. So Confession #1, he is ignorant and must remain ignorant unless he has relationship with the Holy One, who knows everything.

That leads to the 3rd confession which says that certain knowledge depends on the comprehensive knowledge of the Holly One and this is in verse 4a. ‘Who has gone up to heaven and come down’ matches ‘who has established all the ends of the earth.’ The first is the vertical in going up into heaven where God is. He knows everything as he was from the beginning. While the second is the horizontal is establishing the ends of the earth. In between, he deals with the creator and sustainer with both lines in the middle going together talking about wind and rain that sustains the earth. This equates to an A B B’ A’ pattern and the outer frame refers to God omniscience as creator and the inner frame or core refers to God’s omniscience as sustainer. God not only created it but is intimately involved in what he created. When we dealt with Proverbs 8, we saw that Woman Wisdom was there when he sat the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and securely fixed the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. (8:27-29) Here, we see that Woman Wisdom had comprehensive knowledge of knowing everything. She said that she was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep. You have the same Chiasm here as you had with the creator with the outer frame. The inner frame is the sustainer. Today we live in relativism in that if you don’t have God, you don’t have revelation and thus this leads into uncertainty. So Agur is saying that he doesn’t have this comprehensive knowledge on his own, but acknowledges God as having this knowledge. The fourth confession leads to acknowledging the Lord as omniscient and the God of Israel, the ‘I am’, the creator of heaven and earth. Agur identifies the One who knows everything and then challenges Ithiel to confess Israel’s faith which is like the Apostle’s Creed. So Agur makes that confession that God is the one that knows everything.

B. Israel as God’s Son and the Infallibility of God’s Word

The fifth step or confession is to identify the son. The son here is not Jesus. The son in Proverbs is always the disciple. Israel is called God’s son as her founding as a nation. Then say to Pharaoh, ‘this is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, let my son go, so he may worship me. But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ (Exodus 4:22, 23) Thus, his real son is the one who learns from his father who knows everything and speaks with authority. Now he is on a firm epistemological foundation because he now has the one who knows everything and the one son that he teaches. This conforms to the apocrypha Book of Baruch. Even though Baruch is not canonical, it has always been considered profitable reading as it gives us an illustration of how this material is being used. Here is Baruch: ‘Who has gone up to heaven and taken her wisdom and brought it down from the clouds? Who has gone over the sea and found her and will buy her for pure gold? No one knows the way to her or is concerned about the path to her. But the one who knows all things, know her. He found her by his understanding. The one who prepared the earth for all time filled it with four footed creatures; this is our God. No other can be compared to him. He found the whole way to knowledge and gave her to his servant Jacob and to Israel whom he loved.’ So that is the same sort of an idea in Baruch; this is similar to Job and his mediation in chapter 28. Job says the same thing. The confession is in the 3rd person; God understands the way to wisdom and he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. Job 28:12-28 reads, when he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters, when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderstorm, then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it. And he said to the human race, the fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’

In confession #6, we see that God’s word is infallible. Proverbs 30:5 cites David in Psalm 18:30 saying that ‘every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. The word of the Lord is flawless; he is a shield to all who take refuge in him.’ He goes back to David and builds on the revelation that is already given. This is sound epistemology because you can build on this. God doesn’t give his word to the fool but once you trust in him, you will understand it and know that his word is totally reliable. Now he says, ‘do not add to his word,’ which comes out of Deuteronomy 4:12 which is called the canonical formula, that add to the Book of the Law, nor to Proverbs. (Note that the Canon isn’t complete at this point) this is like the parable having a two-fold point: first it is to drive away the non-worshiping heart and to draw the worshiping heart near; and so we see that if you don’t commit yourself to God, you can’t make use of the comprehensive knowledge and be able to say anything with certainty. So Agur realizes now to base his wisdom on the fear of I Am.

In summarizing Israel’s epistemology, we refer to Roman 1:18-22. Humans have failed to find wisdom and without knowing God, they cannot establish absolute values. We know that only the Creator and sustainer of the universe is omniscient and thus the wise confess the Lord’s omniscient and furthermore, the wise confess themselves as sons of God and confess that God’s word is infallible. This is what is called ‘credo ut intelligm’.

IV. Seven Numerical Sayings:

A. A Janus

In verses 7-9, we look at the petitions for truthfulness and modesty. The introduction is the heading of numeral two and it is a Janus into seven numerical sayings:

7. Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die:

Introduction

8. The Janus – this is slander in keeping falsehood and lies

Two Negative Petitions

8A

Keep falsehood and lies far from me.

Not to lie

8Aa

give me neither poverty nor riches

Money: not too much, little

8Ab

but give me only daily bread

Positive Petition

9.

Reasons for Petitions

9A

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’

Danger of Wealth: desert God

9B

Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

Danger of poverty: desecrate God’s name

So we have two negative petitions of not lying and not to have too much money. We see that the danger of wealth is leaving God with the heart becoming depraved. Security in money takes away from our security in the Lord and a life of faith. Deuteronomy 8:11-14 (Moses) tells us to be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

B. About Greed - There is a transition in verse 11 where it says they will curse you. The person who is subject of the slander does not have a court of higher appeal and therefore he appeals to God for justice. It is true that he really did slander and furthermore, the slander is liable because it is penalized. If slander were not true the curse would not come to rest. So what he has in mind is a person who truly slanders by the use of his tongue to the official in order to demote the person and promote himself.

In verses 11-16 we have three non-initial titled sayings about greed. The first one is about the greedy generation represented as one subject but with four predicates. There is a Janus in verse 10 dealing with father and mother. There are those who curse their father and mother in verse 11. This is a capital offence in the Torah (Exodus 21:17). But there are those who murder their parents in order to obtain their inheritance faster and shirk responsibility of honoring their parents. The generation here is a Hebraism referring to a distinct sort of person. There are those who are deluded in thinking that they are pure of heart without God’s cleansing. They are proud and think they are better than others. They exploit the weak and defenseless poor. There is the leech in verse 15a, an undesirable parasite which must be eliminated immediately before it reproduces (2nd Thess 3:10). The leech refers back to the two daughters who are demanding things. There are four insatiable situations. Those who exploit their parents will exploit the needy. The common denominator in these three proverbs is greed. As Sheol refers to death which is the outside frame; the inner frame to life is the womb which is always trying to produce life. It is like the land yeans to produce crops and the fire yeans to destroy the crops. The point of these numerical sayings is to live within the reality that life and death are eternal insatiable situations that struggle against one another as long as this creation endures. Persistent evils are a given; God’s gift of life overcomes these.

C. About Boundaries

Verse 17 is a single line proverb proscribing overturning the social order of the home. ‘The eye that mocks a father, that scorns an aged mother will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley; will be eaten by the vultures. The connection to 11-14 is the words: eye, father, and mother and devour which makes it a Janus. The semantics of it is haughty children and a judgement where the unburied carcass symbolizes tragic and dishonorable end of greedy generation. The carcass is openly lying on the ground which indicates a curse. The Judgement will be from heaven and illustrated by the bird and the destruction will be total as shown by the plural of two birds in a wadi (an Arabic and Hebrew word meaning a wash out or a very small valley in the desert) where there is nothing else.

Now we have four initialed titled sayings about boundaries in verses 18-31. These are sayings of situations of accepting boundaries and of succeeding within them. The first two contrast four orders created by God and four social disorders. The second two escalate four wise creatures overcoming weakness to survive within the boundaries (24-28) to four wise creatures ruling their realms (29-31). So we have four boundaries created by God and four social disorders with sayings three and four escalate the four wise creatures. These creatures are small animals that normally can’t survive but they do. There are three things so amazing and wonderful that they evoke astonishment. It is beyond him to internalize such knowledge. These creatures, the eagle, one of Palestine’s heaviest birds, humble Agur and fill him with awe because of their artful, endless soaring in the sky. There is also the serpent with its gliding movement along the rocks. It too has a simpler motion to the eagle. The fourth is the sea and its remoteness with their trade routes with the ships that defy the ocean’s depths. It has the alma or virgin that symbolizes purity. Next you have the awful way of the adulteress with a number of sexual partners with no marriage boundary and she contrasts with virgin who represent the marriage boundary. There is no awe of sex or sense of shame for her greed and insubordination. She wrecks the home which in turn is against the foundation of society. Without awe she fails to recognize sexual boundaries. This is similar to Romans 1:22-32 where God just hands them over to evil.

Edgar Mitchell, the astronaut, provides us with a revelatory experience, ‘It began with the breathtaking experience of seeing planet earth floating in the immensity of space – the incredible beauty of a splendid blue and white jewel floating in the vast, black sky. I underwent a religious-like experience, in which the presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes. This knowledge, which came directly, intuitively, was not a matter of logical abstraction. It was not deduced from information perceptible by the sensory organs. The realization was subjective, but it was knowledge every bit as real and compelling as the objective data the navigational program or the communication s system was based on. Then my thoughts turned to daily life on the planet. With that my sense of wonderment gradually turned into something like anguish. I realized that at that very moment people were fighting wards; committing murder and other crimes; lying, cheating, and struggling for power and status; abusing the environment by polluting the water and air, wasting natural resources, and ravaging the land; acting out of lust and greed; and hurting others through intolerance, bigotry, prejudice, and all the other feelings that add up to man’s inhumanity to man. And as I survey the challenge facing humanity today, I see only one answer, a transformation of consciousness. And finally, the value-free, rational-objective-experimental mode of Western science, based on materialism, is not sufficient by itself for coping with the ever-increasing planter crises besetting civilization.

Now in verses 21-23, there are four upside down social situations with the key word being ‘under’. The earth trembles is a metonym for the society on the earth. The topsy-turvy social order refers to men and women. The lesson here is to govern wisely in order to forestall any unfit upstarts from replacing those fit to rule. The upstarts create a culture red with blood; those fit to rule crate a culture green with life. The godless fool in verse 22 is a sacrilegious fool that denies that God exists to uphold moral order. He is opposite of noble. He has plenty to eat, destroying order by being rewarded for vice; he should be starved and becomes more arrogant and more dangerous. The contemptible woman matches the outcast, an odious, quarrelsome, unlovable woman whom society rejects. When she marries, it is as foolish as feeding the fool. She is a person that should be rejected but now is in a position of leadership. The maidservant is equivalent to the slave and her first responsibility is loyalty to her mistress. So you have the official on the outside, you have the maidservant and in between you have the godless fool and the contemptible woman who gets married.

In 24-28 we come to the four wee but wise beasties. They are small with no offense or defense but they are aware. The creatures are actually people so these are parables. The ant makes prudent provisions while the badger finds prudent protection. The locusts have a prudent government and the lizard lives in a royal palace. The lizard doesn’t store up food or hide in the rocks and so there is no wisdom as such but this lower lizard that can be caught in the hands lives in a king’s palace. They all know where their security is and that is in God. They hide in God and God is their defense. We are like these animals, but we live in a great palace that belongs to God who protects us and feeds us and looks after us. This is marvelous grace and an amazing and wonderful metaphor. The lesson here says that there is no need to overthrow social boundaries. One can live in a royal palace by practicing within the created order the social skills of the sage. In 29-31, we have the four stately marchers who are wise people. The four wise people are escalated to four creatures that stride majestically in their realms without fear. These wise may be vulnerable and survive, but more than they rule. The mighty among the beasts represents a hero who represents people just like the creatures. So the lesson is to rule within the created boundaries with wisdom’s heroic strength to prevent revolution. Finally we have the address to Ithiel warning him not to rebel in verses 32-33. The ‘you’ here is an official like Ithiel and if you exalt yourself you will become the fool and become an outcast. The solution is to clap your hands with immediate and absolute silence. The strife will upset the divine order not peace.

V. Conclusion

The conclusion is the priority of the word of God. We see that provision and deliverance shows that greed will be punished, evil persists and Godly poet’s imagination perceives boundaries in life. We see that upstart will not endure but wisdom will empower the weak to survive along with empowering rulers to govern with strength and rebellion should be stopped immediately. The ungodly is blind to revelation of God, they just can’t see. The section by Agur began with a prayer: give me neither poverty nor riches. He is dependent on God not his self. Fear and awe of God is the correct ending of any story. So we see in these proverbs that Agur was a Godly man seeking wisdom from God.