Bible Commentary: Proverbs 30:1-14

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Proverbs 30:1-14

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The Words of Agur the Son of Jakeh

1. Confession of Agur (Proverbs 30:1-14)

(1) Subheading (Proverbs 30:1a). Just who was Agur the son of Jakeh? We really have no way of knowing. Jewish tradition and various interpreters contend that Agur is a pseudonym for Solomon, but this seems unlikely, as we will see.

Favorable to this belief is that Agur is usually translated to mean "Gatherer," "Collector" or "Assembler"—thought to represent a teacher or perhaps the compiler of proverbs. However, the name could also denote "Gathered." Jewish tradition (in the Midrash Mishle—a post-Talmudic commentary on Proverbs) is weak in this regard, as the name is identified with Hebrew ogar—referring to Solomon supposedly having "girt his loins" (gathered up his skirt in a stance of preparedness) with wisdom (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 1). This seems a stretch. The later interpretation "Gatherer" fits the argument better. Jakeh is typically understood to mean "Fearing" in the sense of "Reverent" or "Pious," though a few other definitions have been put forward. Thus, Collector son Piety is thought to be Solomon the Pious—the Jewish source cited above even labeling him free from sin (at the time Proverbs was written). However, some suggest that son of Jakeh ("Pious") refers to Solomon being the son of righteous David. We might wonder in this case why Solomon would find it necessary to use figurative names, as other sections of Proverbs bear his name. Yet he does refer to himself figuratively in Ecclesiastes as the Preacher.

Evidence arguing against Agur being Solomon, besides the lack of explicit mention of his name as in the other sections of the book, is the prayer of Proverbs 30:7-9. Here Agur asks that God give him neither poverty nor riches because of the bad result each would lead to. This request makes little sense if it were coming from Solomon. He was the wealthiest king on earth—and God promised riches to him at the very outset of his reign. Indeed, by the time he was a wisdom teacher, Solomon was exceedingly rich.

If not Solomon, then, who was Agur Bin-Jakeh? Was this his real name? It certainly could have been. Yet it is also possible that it was a figurative pseudonym for another wisdom teacher besides Solomon.

Another word we should note in verse 1 is the one mentioned above translated "his utterance" in the NKJV and "an oracle" in the NIV. The Hebrew here is ha-massa, literally meaning "the burden." This word was often used by God's prophets in the Old Testament to designate a message from God that they bore—some think a weighty or heavy saying. Midrash Mishle proposes, probably in error, that the term is used here because Solomon bore the yoke of God (in generally serving and obeying Him). It is possible that Agur realized that he bore a message from God—or that later editors realized it and added the word. It is even possible that Agur was a prophet. However, the word massa is also used in reference to the message of King Lemuel from his mother in Proverbs 31:1. Yet there it occurs without the definite article (the), and some see in the term not a message but the name of the country of which Lemuel was king—especially as one of Ishmael's sons was named Massa (Genesis 25:13-16; 1 Chronicles 1:29-31) and Assyrian records refer to an Arabian tribe by this name. Some maintain that Agur was also from this land of Massa , as the word occurs in Proverbs 30:1. The lack of the definite article in Proverbs 31:1, however, does not necessitate massa being a national name there. It could still simply mean "burden," or message, as we will see when we come to it. Moreover, the fact that the definite article does occur with the word in 30:1 seems to argue against this being the name of a country.

• Subheading Continued or Opening Statement? (Proverbs 30:1b). What about the latter part of verse 1? The New King James Version, following the Masoretic Text, renders it: "This man declared to Ithiel—to Ithiel and Ucal." These are often regarded as Agur's pupils, about whom nothing else is known—just as with Agur himself. Ithiel is a name that occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament (see Nehemiah 11:7). It means "God Is With Me." Ucal is not attested to elsewhere, but it would mean "I Am Strong" or "I Will Prevail." Some, it should be noted see these as figurative names for Jesus Christ—related to the mention of God's Son in verse 4—and that the l'- here before Ithiel should be translated "of" rather than "to." But this seems to be reading too much into these words. The Greek Septuagint translation gives a variant reading of this sentence in which no names appear at all. If correct, it would mean that the vowel pointing of the Masoretic Text needs slight emending here. A number of scholars favor the variant rendering because the back-to-back repetition of Ithiel as a name would be unusual and because the variant fits the context of the verses that follow. This alternate reading is given in the margin of the NIV: "[This man] declared, 'I am weary, O God; / I am weary, O God, and faint"— reading la'ithi 'El instead of l'Ithi'el and reading va'ekel instead of v'Ukal (and reading 'ekel as coming from the root kalah, meaning "to be finished," "exhausted," "dying," "consumed").

(2) Prologue: "The Limits of Human Understanding (Proverbs 30:1b-6)....TYPE: WISDOM TEXT Prologue" (NAC). The author's declaration of ignorance in verses 2-3 is literary hyperbole. It should not be taken too literally or else this work should not have been included in the book of Proverbs. Furthermore, Agur shows in verses 5-6 and other verses to follow that he does have knowledge of God and His words. His statement, then, must mean that he is at a loss. He is stumped. "With the suggested reading for v. 1b above [about being weary], the meaning is that he has struggled to come to an understanding of the truth, and he must confess that he has reached his limit.... It is...both an acknowledgment of the limits of human understanding and a humble confession that only God is truly wise" (New American Commentary, note on verses 2-3).

In verse 4, Agur presents a series of rhetorical questions. Some see these as a poetic way of referring to God and His greatness—this being what has left Agur at a loss. Yet it should not be so hard to come up with God's name, as it is revealed throughout Scripture (the name YHWH, meaning the Eternal or Self-Existent One, is even used by Agur in verse 9). The Son's name is, of course, a different matter, and this has been explained in various ways. The Jewish Misrashic interpretation was that it referred to Israel . Christian interpreters have often argued that it refers explicitly to Jesus Christ. Some have said that it refers to any disciple of God's wisdom.

Yet there may be another way to look at these verses. Some contend that the passage is meant not merely to show God's greatness as an explanation for what has stumped Agur, but to point out that Agur's difficulty is not unique since no human being has the full wisdom and understanding to comprehend God, as no one but Him has experienced the breadth of the universe or harnessed the full power of nature. In this interpretation, the rhetorical challenge to the reader is to come up with some person who has: "What is his name...if you know?" Clearly, only God fits the bill here—yet the idea might be, "Who, besides God, fits this description?" But, in that case, what is the point of saying, "...and what is his son's name...?" Some see the whole question this way in context: "All right, let's hear it. Come up with some all-wise, all-powerful wisdom teacher. Who is he? Prove there is such a person by naming his son (his student who is a product of his teachings)." Seen this way, the idea appears to be that no such person or son exists.

However, there could well be more implied. After all, if the "who" here is a hypothetical person being measured against God, then would not the comparison include the matter of having a son? God Himself does have children who are His disciples. Agur himself was a student of God's wisdom—yet he lamented his own lack of understanding. That brings us to the fact that God has a perfect Son, Jesus Christ, who also has the wisdom and power described here. The terminology of ascending into heaven and descending was even used of Christ in the Gospel of John (John 3:13, John 3:31-33). Through God's inspiration, Agur could well have been referring to Christ even if he did not understand the matter himself. Interestingly, Christ bears the name "Word of God," and God's Word (His revelation to man) is the subject of the next verse in Proverbs 30.

Verse 5 shows that God's Word, rather than limited human wisdom, is perfect and reliable as a source of truth and help. And verse 6 warns against adding to God's words (compare Deuteronomy 12:32; Revelation 22:18). As verse 6 of Proverbs 30 is Agur's first imperative (words spoken in the form of a command), some see a new segment here, albeit one connected to verse 5 through the catchword "words." In any case, verse 6 can imply more than just making up prophetic messages or false Scripture. The warning includes the danger of dogmatic pronouncements about what God says when these are based on stretched interpretations of revelation from Him—for instance, claiming Scripture means specific things that go far beyond what is written. We are not to put words in God's mouth, as it were; these may turn out to be false, making us liars.

(3) A Prayer for Truth and Sufficient Blessing (Proverbs 30:7-9)... “TYPE: NUMERICAL SAYING, Prayer" (NAC). Agur now turns in prayer to God—"lies" in this unit (see verse 7) being the catchword in advancing from the previous unit (see verse 6). The NIV Application Commentary says: "God's words are true, but human words can prove false. So the speaker offers the first prayer recorded in the book, making two requests of God: to keep falsehood and lies [whether from others or oneself] at bay and to provide daily bread (Proverbs 30:8; cf. Exodus 16:1-36). If there is too much, one can forget God in pride (cf. Deuteronomy 8:10-18); if there is too little, one may forget God's commands and steal (cf. Proverbs 6:30-31)" (note on Proverbs 30:6-10). Verse 9 shows concern for God's reputation, instead of merely personal need, as the main reason for the requests here.

(4) Don't Impugn a Servant to His Master (Proverbs 30:10)… “TYPE: INDIVIDUAL PROVERB" (NAC). The meaning of this proverb rests mostly on the definition of the word translated "malign" in the New King James Version. It may follow thematically (like an advancing catchword) from "profane" in verse 9, where the idea is to use God's name unwarrantably. The word used in verse 10 means to speak bad about—to accuse. But an accusation can be true or false. Many take it here to specifically mean saying something false—slander. The Jewish Soncino commentary says, "Whereas slandering any person is a reprehensible act, it is especially vile when the victim is a slave, who is helpless and will not be believed when he denies the accusation" (note on verse 10). In this interpretation, the rest of the verse is understood to mean that one is then subject to a deserved curse called forth of God by the victimized person—or somehow the lie is exposed and the liar is found guilty (or will be in the end).

However, others take the verse as a warning against telling a master anything negative about his servant even if it's true. The thought here is that the servant, who has his master's ear, can verbally retaliate against the accuser and lead to the accuser being found guilty in some way. In biblical times, a servant would have worked in a master's home or in his fields. So the caution, it is thought in this case, is against meddling in someone else's domestic situation—though it could perhaps apply today in not interfering in an employer-employee work relationship (compare Proverbs 26:17). If this is intended, it would be, as with other proverbs, a general principle rather than a hard and fast rule. For there could well be circumstances where the overriding law of love for neighbor might require you to inform an employer about some problem with an employee.

Yet there could be another interpretation of the words here in context. Consider the parallel construction of verse 6. In parallel, the "he" who might curse in verse 10 would be the master—just as God would rebuke in verse 6. Also note that in Agur's prayer (verses 7-9), he is concerned to not "profane the name of my God." Agur is here bearing a "burden" (verse 1), a weighty message—as the servant of God, it would seem. It may be that Agur is in verse 10 using a general proverb in a more specific sense of warning people against maligning him, God's servant, lest God curse them. Note that he follows in succeeding verses with issues of societal guilt. The point of verse 10 in context could be that people had better not accuse him before God over what he is about to pronounce, since he is bearing God's message.

(5) Four Evils in Society (Proverbs 30:11-14)."TYPE: THEMATIC, CATCHWORD" (NAC). The word "curses" in verse 11 shows a link with verse 10. There is some debate over the meaning of the repeated word "generation" in verses 11-14—whether it refers to everyone living at a given time, to a particular age group or to a class of people. Four dangerous social ills are listed here: dishonoring of parents (verse 11); self-righteous hypocrisy (verse 12); arrogant pride (verse 13); and plundering of the poor and needy (verse 14). Perhaps this is simply a group of sayings about how evil society is. The words may have been leveled at the people of Agur's own day, yet some have labeled the message a prophecy of the last days in line with 2 Timothy 3:1-7. Of course, these conditions have existed throughout human history—but they will sink to their lowest point in the last generation before Christ's return. It is interesting to note that there are four items here, since the next section in Proverbs 30, the numerical sayings, contains five lists of four. It may be that this list of societal ills is meant to introduce the numerical sayings—to point out the need of the society to hear the wisdom teaching that follows. Indeed, some of the things addressed in the next section are closely related to problems listed here—such as dishonoring of parents in verse 17 and pride in verse 32 (we will also note verses 15 and 20 in this regard in comments below).