Bible Commentary: Proverbs 30:15-33

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Proverbs 30:15-33

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"There Are Three Things...Yes, Four"

Most of the numerical proverbs here list four items with the formula "three...yes, four." As noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on an earlier numerical proverb, Proverbs 6:16-19, this kind of numerical progression enhances the poetry of a given saying, serves as a memory aid, builds to a climax and implies that there are numerous examples of the subject that could be given—the ones listed being only a representative few (compare also Amos 1:3, Amos 1:6, Amos 1:9, Amos 1:11, Amos 1:13; Amos 2:1, Amos 2:4, Amos 2:6).

(6) The Bloodsucker's Two Daughters and Four Insatiable Things (Proverbs 30:15-16). "TYPE: NUMERICAL SAYING, RIDDLE....Verse 15a, although actually a separate numerical saying [using the number two] from vv. 15b-16 [listing four items with the formula "three...four"], is linked to it by the common theme of insatiability. Also the numerical pattern of the two sayings together is 2-3-4, and this also serves to hold the whole unit together" (NAC).

A leech ("horseleach" in the KJV) is literally a bloodsucking worm—though some, based on linguistics and Middle Eastern traditions, have thought that the word ‘alukah here could refer to a demonic ghoul or vampire. There are, of course, no real vampires as portrayed in folklore and horror stories. Yet there have been, and still are, demonically influenced people who act like vampires. On the other hand, the idea here could be one of using a popular myth to make a moral point (implying nothing about the reality of the mentioned creature).

For those who understand the word in question to mean the parasitic worm, the two "daughters"—either each named "Give" or each crying "Give!" (always wanting more)—are typically thought to be the leech's two suckers, one at each end. While "daughters" perhaps seems an odd figurative label for the mouths of a creature, we might consider this a reversed form of the modern metaphor of referring to children as mouths to feed. Accepting this interpretation, some see the verse as a simple observation about something in nature that is not satisfied—parallel to other items that follow.

Yet the word "leech" could probably refer figuratively to a type of person—just as it does today. Even if something like "vampire" is intended, the usage would still almost certainly be figurative in the same way the word leech could be—the reference in either case being to a "bloodsucking person," one who greedily abuses others in taking from them, or even a "bloodthirsty" person who would kill others. Indeed, note again the description in the previous verse of people "whose teeth are like swords, and whose fangs are like knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men." These could be the vampires or leeches in mind in verse 15 (and this would be a thematic advancement from verse 14, similar to catchword advancements elsewhere in the chapter). In line with this interpretation, "daughters" could refer to the circumstances leechlike or bloodsucking people give birth to—others giving and giving still more (as the demand is never satisfied).

The New American Commentary says that "verses 15b-16 comprise a riddle. Although it is fairly easy to establish in what sense each of the four things is insatiable, the real question is what might be the reason this list is here at all.... The most reasonable solution [this commentary concludes] is that all serve as metaphors for the insatiably greedy or parasitic people" (note on verses 15-16). Some have noted in this regard that the images of the grave (similar to Proverbs 27:20) and devouring fire portray the parasitic people as menacing, while the barren womb and parched ground make them look desperate. On the other hand, the list of four things that are never satisfied here—death, barrenness, lack and fiery destruction—could conceivably be presented as ironic judgments on the never-satisfied, greedy people. Either way, note the A-B-B-A chiastic arrangement of these four items.

"(7) The Fate of the Parent-Hater (Proverbs 30:17).... TYPE: INDIVIDUAL SAYING....This verse conspicuously looks back to v. 11 (as perhaps vv. 15-16 look back to v. 14)" (NAC). In this graphic warning, those who are disobedient to parents end up as carrion for birds. This could imply a violent death away from home, falling in the open, so that their bodies are not buried quickly or cared for. Or it might imply some sort of public punishment such as hanging or impalement, with the body left exposed in the open as an example and warning to others. Those who shun parental discipline, getting into all sorts of trouble, are more likely to meet with such consequences. Recall that obedience to parents is a prescription for long life (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16). Interestingly, the Bible elsewhere warned in similar terms of ancient and future destruction on rebellious generations defying God, their supreme Parent (see Jeremiah 7:33; Jeremiah 15:3; Jeremiah 16:4; Jeremiah 19:7; Jeremiah 34:20; Ezekiel 29:5; Ezekiel 32:4; Ezekiel 39:4, Ezekiel 39:17; Revelation 19:17, Revelation 19:21).

The mention of eagles in Proverbs 30:17 serves as a catchword link to the next segment (verses 18-20), which mentions an eagle.

(8) Four Awesome Ways and an Awful Way (Proverb 30:18-20)....TYPE: NUMERICAL SAYING, [Catchword,] RIDDLE" (NAC). The word in verse 18 translated "wonderful" in the NKJV is used in the sense of invoking wonder—“amazing" (NIV). The four aspects of nature to follow are very mysterious—beyond the author's comprehension. This perhaps ties back to Agur's opening prologue expressing the limits of his own human understanding when faced with God's greatness (verses 1-6).

As to what the four "ways" (courses of action) here have in common, The Expositor's Bible Commentary notes: "Suggestions for a common theme include the following: all four things are hidden from continued observation, for they are there in majestic form and then are gone, not leaving a trace [that is, none leaves a track that can be readily followed]; they all have a mysterious means of propulsion or motivation; they all describe the movement of one thing within the sphere or domain of another; or the first three serve as illustrations of the fourth and greatest wonder—it concerns human relations and is slightly different than the first three" (note on verses 18-19).

The NIV Application Commentary observes that the first three name the elements of creation (heavens, earth and sea) and points out that each named traveler makes its way through its part of the created order—the implication being that the last course listed is within the bounds of proper domain as well. There are those who see the male-female relationship here as an illicit one (a one-night stand leaving no trace) parallel to that in the verse that follows (verse 20), but it seems much more likely that the relationship at the end of verse 19 is meant in a positive sense—the course of true love (which is difficult to trace)—and that the one in verse 20 contrasts with it.

More specifically regarding the relations at the end of verse 19, which does seem to be the main focus in the list, "the term ‘almah (‘maiden' [NIV]) does not in and of itself mean ‘virgin' [as in the NKJV] but rather describes a young woman who is sexually ready for marriage. What is in view here is the wonder of human sexuality, for the [Hebrew] preposition be suggests that the ‘way of a man' is either 'with' or 'in' the ‘almah. This mystery might begin with the manner of obtaining the love of the woman but focuses on the most intimate part of human relationships. So the most intimate moments of love are at the heart of what the sage considers to be wonderful" (same note). The Zondervan NIV Study Bible says that the reference is probably to "the mystery of courting and how it leads to consummation" (note on verse 19). This theme is well illustrated in the Song of Solomon.

Verse 20 is related to the verses before, as it likewise uses the catchword "way" and concerns sexual relations—in this case out of step with the created order. As Expositor's comments: "Equally amazing is the insensitivity of the adulteress to sin. That this verse was placed here lends support to the idea that the previous verse is focusing on sexual intimacy in marriage; for just as that is incomprehensible (filling one with wonder), so is the way that human nature has distorted and ruined it....The portrayal is one of an amoral woman more than an immoral one....The act of adultery is as unremarkable to her as a meal.... [It could be pertinent that] the imagery of eating and wiping her mouth is euphemistic for sexual activity (see Proverbs 9:17). It is incredible that human beings can engage in sin and then so easily dismiss any sense of guilt or responsibility, perhaps by rationalizing the deeds or perhaps through a calloused indifference to what the will of the Lord is for sexuality" (note on verse 20). This attitude may well refer back to verse 12 concerning the generation pure in its own eyes while not washed from its filth.

"(9) Four Unbearable People (Proverbs 30:21-23)....TYPE: NUMERICAL SAYING [WITH CATCHWORD]" (NAC). In this third of the "three-four" sayings, the Hebrew word tahat,meaning "under," is repeated four times. The NKJV translates this word as "for" in verses 21-22 and gives no word for it where it occurs at the beginning of verse 23. It is stated in these verses that the earth is perturbed and cannot bear up under what is listed here. "Just as the 'way of an adulteress' (Proverbs 30:20) is out of step with the created order of wisdom, so the four items listed threaten to overturn that order. In ancient Near Eastern thinking, the earth shakes when the natural order is disturbed" (NIV Application Commentary, note on verses 21-23). Observe the parallelism in that the first two items concern men and the last two concern women.

The first, second and fourth upheavals here in the proper order of things are fairly clear: "The servant, the fool, and the maidservant are all in unexpected positions of power" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 21-23). The first case is problematic because "a servant who gains authority over others has neither the training nor disposition to rule well" (New American Commentary, note on verses 21-23). He doesn't know what he's doing and may rush into abusing his authority. We saw this as a problem earlier in Proverbs 19:10. That same verse also cautioned against luxury for a fool (compare also Ecclesiastes 10:5-7)—similar to the second listed item in Proverbs 30:22. A fool who is well-fed has too much time on his hands—allowing him to be all the more insufferable to others. Compare also the danger even for a wise person of too much food and luxury in verses 8-9. The problem in a female servant succeeding her mistress (i.e., the woman she previously served) is thought to either mean her inability to properly handle her elevation in stature (as in the first example) or her displacing, in favor and position, one who is already the master's wife. Some point here to the gloating of Hagar when she became pregnant by Abraham, thereby upsetting Sarah and causing a household rift (see Genesis 16).

The third listed item is disputed. Note the word "hateful" in the New King James Version—following the King James Version "odious" (arousing or deserving of hatred). While some other versions translate the word similarly, various others translate the word as "hated" or, in paraphrase, "unloved." In the second interpretation (hated or unloved), the reference is thought to be to a married woman who is unloved to start with (such as Jacob's wife Leah) or one who is no longer loved—the upheaval being her constant mourning, bitterness or even rage, the latter perhaps evoking to us the modern proverb, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" (adapted from a line in a 17th-century play by William Congreve). Some who support this interpretation see the following chiastic arrangement in the four items here:

“A: Male servant becomes king.
            “B: Male fool is sated with food.
            “B′: Female is deprived of love.
“A′: Female servant becomes mistress” (NAC).

However, this is probably incorrect. Note that the two center items here are thematic opposites of one another. And recall the statement above that the first, second and fourth items all speak of people being raised to unexpected positions. If the word in the third item is translated "hateful" (as in the NKJV) or "loathsome" (as in the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh), then the four items would be arranged in straight four-line parallelism—since this woman getting married would be another surprising elevation:

1. Male servant becomes king. 
2. Male fool is sated with food. 
3. Female repugnant person becomes married. 
4. Female servant becomes mistress.

Note that there may be some chiasm here in that the outer two lines concern the elevation of a servant while the inner two concern the elevation of a fool or repugnant person (which may be equated). The upheaval in the case of a hateful woman marrying should be obvious, especially given other verses we've seen about the contentious wife (Proverbs 19:13; Proverbs 21:9, Proverbs 21:19; Proverbs 27:15). If a horrible woman manages to get married, husband and household look out (as well as extended family, neighbors and friends besides)—it's going to be a rough ride for all. Perhaps she is related in theme to the adulterous woman of the previous segment (verse 20) and the women who sap strength from kings and ruin them in the next chapter (Proverbs 31:3)—and serves as a contrast to the noble wife given later in the next chapter (Proverbs 31:10-31).

(10) Four Small but Wise Creatures (Proverbs 30:24-28). TYPE: NUMERICAL SAYING. This particular listing lacks the formula of "three-four"—only mentioning "four." The unit "is connected with the preceding by the catchwords 'four' and 'earth' in their title lines (vv. 21, 24), by 'food' in their second verses (vv. 22, 25), and by 'king' in vv. 22 [NIV], 27 and v. 28" (New International Commentary on the Old Testament, note on verses 24-28).

The little animals here provide important lessons for human beings about surviving wisely despite severe limitations. The repetition in verses 25-26 of "people" or "folk"—each a translation of the same Hebrew word ‘am—and "king" in verses 27-28 "signals that these small creatures teach great lessons about being a people, asking ancient readers: ‘What kind of people do you want to be—strong, led by a king? (cf. Proverbs 30:29-31). You don't need that as much as you need wisdom" (NIV Application Commentary, note on verses 24-28). Perhaps this is addressing the wayward generation or generations Agur refers to in verses 11-14—or is meant as a contrast.

As to the specific lessons, the ants, disciplined and industrious, prudently prepare in good times for the hard times (compare Proverbs 6:6-8). The rock badgers (hyraxes or conies) choose wise shelter, providing for personal security. The locusts, with no king, succeed through unity, organization and cooperation.

The last creature is disputed. Some say a spider is meant—others a lizard. The KJV and NKJV are probably incorrect in saying that this creature grasps with its hands as the implied means of its success (allowing it to walk on walls and ceilings), as that does not follow the pattern of the other listed items wherein the initial colon concerns a weakness. Other translations (such as the NIV) say that the creature can be caught (or crushed) with the hands—of human beings, that is—this being the disadvantage it overcomes in nevertheless managing to evade even royal defenses and live in palaces. In reality, such a dwelling holds no meaning for a spider or lizard. The lesson is meant for us. The New International Commentary notes: "This conclusion points to wisdom's reward of living in a luxurious royal palace. If the son [or student of wisdom], whom wicked men and women want to capture, exercises caution, though as vulnerable as a lizard [or spider], he too will live in the chief residence of the realm (cf. Psalm 45). Paradoxically, the people of God who are foolish by the world's standards live in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1)" (note on Proverbs 30:28).

(11) Four That Proceed Majestically (Proverbs 30:29-31). NUMERICAL SAYING. This saying is the last of the "three-four" proverbs. The catchword "king" is used to advance from the previous unit to this one. Thematically, this unit appears to be a counterpoint to the previous one. The previous unit used small creatures to show that despite powerlessness and lack of kingship, success could come through wisdom. Here, on the other hand, through the illustration of more powerful creatures, we see that there is certain value in power and authority—a grandeur that should be respected. As the animals are used to analogize human reality, the king's royal power is the focus of the text. The word rendered "greyhound" in the KJV and NKJV is of uncertain translation. Other alternatives offered include rooster, war horse and starling. The point of the passage remains the same.

(12) Cease From Pride and Troublemaking (Proverbs 30:32-33). TYPE: ADMONITION, CATCHWORD. In the face of the obvious grandeur and power of royalty in verses 29-31, in this concluding unit the author (apparently still Agur) tells those who are guilty of exalting themselves and troublemaking to put their hand on their mouth, meaning stop it right then and there—before things get worse. As noted before, this may hark back to the generation lifted up with pride in verse 13, along with the other problems listed in verses 11-14. Verse 33 warns of the consequences of pride and evildoing. Though this closing admonition is not a numerical saying, it is given in a threefold formula. Each of the three lines says "churning...produces"—as the same Hebrew word is translated "churning," "wringing" and "forcing" in the KJV and NKJV. We should also note a play on the words rendered "nose" and "wrath," which come from the same root. The first two lines are figurative illustrations of the producing of strife in the last line. Consider that the churning of milk, initially a yielding liquid, causes a thickening that becomes harder and harder to push through—perhaps illustrating people ending up at loggerheads. And the wringing of the nose producing blood may imply that the strife of the last verse can involve bloody noses or, worse, bloodshed generally.

While this concludes chapter 30, we should recall from our opening comments on this chapter that it was likely intended to be read in conjunction with chapter 31.