Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
VI. The Words of Agur. Chap. 30
The Collection of proverbs in this chapter is ascribed to a philosopher, or teacher, named Agur, the son of Jakeh, and is addressed by him to Ithiel and Ucal, presumably his scholars or disciples. The name Ithiel occurs again as that of a Benjamite in Nehemiah 11:7. Ucal as a proper name is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament. This and other considerations have led to a rearrangement of the Hebrew text, which gets rid of Ithiel and Ucal as proper names, and substitutes the reading (R.V. marg.): I have wearied myself, O God, I have wearied myself, O God, and am consumed. The wise Teacher is thus regarded as giving vent to the weariness and disappointment consequent upon the vain effort of “exercising himself in great matters which are too high for him,” and as turning in what follows, with relief, to the plain pursuit of practical wisdom and duty. He is echoing, so to speak, the words of Moses, in which so many a humble seeker after truth has found rest and satisfaction, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29.
But, interesting as this view is, it lies under the objection of having recourse to conjectural emendation, which is the last resort of sober criticism. The words as they stand in our present Hebrew text, and are retained in R.V. text, give a perfectly admissible meaning. All three names as here used may be those of foreigners. There is no more difficulty in supposing that a collection of proverbs by one of the wise “children of the East” (1 Kings 4:30), who though not an Israelite was a worshipper of the true God, should be added as an Appendix to this Book of Hebrew Wisdom, than that the Book of Job, which by many critics is ascribed to a non-Israelite author, or the prophecies of Balaam, should be admitted into the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The chapter, which is highly interesting and in some respects unique, on which account it may have been selected out of other similar literature for publication as an Appendix to this Book, consists of a Title, or note of authorship (Proverbs 30:1), followed by a prologue, in which in a spirit of deep abasement, which is the spirit of true wisdom, the author confesses his own utter ignorance in view of the great questions which offer themselves for solution. The study of nature makes it clear that there is a God; but who can tell Who and What He is? (Proverbs 30:2-4). Only by revelation can He be known; and in that revelation, held sacred from all admixture, man finds Him and is safe (Proverbs 30:5-6). To the God thus found and trusted the writer turns with a twofold prayer—a prayer that he may be in himself a real and true man; a prayer that in his earthly lot he may have the happy mean, removed from the temptations which belong to the extremes of poverty and riches (Proverbs 30:7-9). Then, after an isolated proverb of the familiar type (Proverbs 30:10), another peculiarity of this Collection, which may have been a further reason for its being appended to the Book of Proverbs, is introduced. A series of six “numerical proverbs,” or “quatrains,” as they have been called, groups of “four things,” with a single proverb inserted between the second and third groups (Proverbs 30:17), brings the Collection to a close with the exception of one final proverb at the end of the chapter (Proverbs 30:32-33).
“Whoever Agur was, he had a certain marked individuality; he combined meditation on lofty questions of theology with a sound theory of practical life. He was able to give valuable admonitions about conduct. But his characteristic delight was to group together in quatrains visible illustrations of selected qualities or ideas.” Horton.
The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, even the prophecy: the man spake unto Ithiel, even unto Ithiel and Ucal,1. the prophecy] Lit. the burden, as the word is frequently rendered (e.g. Zechariah 9:1; Malachi 1:1, where see notes in this Series). It may mean either burden from its weighty character, as a Divine announcement, or oracle, or prophecy, as being “taken up” (comp. Numbers 23:18) by the speaker.
The reading of R.V. marg. Jakeh of Massa, making Massa a proper name, is however preferred by some scholars. See Proverbs 31:1, note.
the man] a title of excellence (vir), used of himself as a prophet or teacher by Balaam, Numbers 24:3, and by David, 2 Samuel 23:1.
spake] or saith. The word is commonly used of Divine or oracular utterance, as in the frequent phrase, “saith, the Lord.”
lthiel and Ucal] He addresses himself to his favourite disciple, associating with him another scarcely less favoured, and through them to every one that has an ear to hear.
Surely I am more brutish than any man, and have not the understanding of a man.
I neither learned wisdom, nor have the knowledge of the holy.3. the holy] Rather, the Holy One. See Proverbs 9:10 note.
Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? who hath gathered the wind in his fists? who hath bound the waters in a garment? who hath established all the ends of the earth? what is his name, and what is his son's name, if thou canst tell?4. ascended … descended] That he should go there and learn, and come back again to earth and tell what is done there. Comp. John 3:13 : “No man hath risen into the region of absolute and eternal truth, so as to look upon it face to face, and in the possession of that knowledge declare it to men.” Bp Westcott. It is something of this conviction that calls forth the deeply humble confession of Proverbs 30:2-3; but it leads not to agnosticism, but to the reverent yet trustful acknowledgement of “the Holy One” who knows all. Comp. for the following questions, Isaiah 40:12-17; Job 38:41.
a garment] “The wonder of the clouds, floating reservoirs of water, which do not burst underneath the weight of waters which they contain. Men bind up water in skins or bottles; God binds up the rain-floods in the thin, gauzy texture of the changing cloud, which yet by His power does not rend under its burden of waters.” Job 26:8, note in this Series.
his name … his son’s name] Can you describe Him, and can you tell whether He is absolutely alone, or has He imparted His nature and attributes to any other, who may in any sense be called His “Son”? The question is of deep interest, betokening the early yearnings, awakened by the Divine Spirit in the spirit of man, which were to find “when the fulness of the time came” their complete satisfaction in the great revelation of Sonship in the Gospel.
The wise Teacher “has meditated on the wonderful facts of the physical world; he has watched the great trees sway under the touch of the invisible wind, and the waves rise up in their might, lashing the shores, but vainly essaying to pass their appointed boundaries; he has considered the vast expanse of the earth, and enquired on what foundations does it rest, and where are its limits? He cannot question the ‘eternal power and divinity,’ which alone can account for this ordered universe. He has not, like many thinkers, ancient and modern, ‘dropped a plummet down the broad deep universe, and cried, No God.’ He knows that there is a God; there must be an intelligence able to conceive, coupled with a power able to realise, this mighty mechanism. But Who is it? What is His name, or His Son’s name? Here are the footsteps of the Creator; but where is the Creator Himself?” Horton.
Proverbs 30:5-6. From the uncertainty of human speculation he finds relief in the certainty of Divine revelation.
Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.5. pure] Heb. purified. The image “hinted at” here is “expanded” (Bp Perowne) on Psalm 12:6 [Hebrews 7]: “The words of the Lord are pure words, as silver tried (same Hebrew word as here) in a furnace of (or, on the) earth, purified seven times.”
Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.6. Add thou not] Do not mix with the pure silver of His words the dross of human speculations. “Noli investigare res quæ mentem humanam transcendunt (Proverbs 30:4), ut doctrinam divinitus patefactam inde compleas.” Maurer.
Proverbs 30:7-9. To the profitable reception of this word of God two things are necessary: first there must be “an honest and good heart,” and next there must be a lot removed from the dangerous extremes of wealth and poverty. For these two things therefore he prays earnestly.
Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die:
Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me:8. food convenient for me] Heb. the bread of my portion, i.e. that is needful for me. The Heb. word is used of an appointed portion of labour, or a task, Proverbs 31:15; Exodus 5:14. Comp. “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.9. take … in vain] use profanely, R.V. Lit. take hold of, or handle, sc. lightly or profanely. Lest I be moved in the bitterness of distress to blaspheme, or charge God foolishly. Comp. Job 1:22; Job 2:9; Isaiah 8:11.
Accuse not a servant unto his master, lest he curse thee, and thou be found guilty.10. Accuse not] Lit. tongue not; i.e. use not thy tongue against. Comp. Psalm 101:5, where the same Heb. word is used in the same sense.
lest he curse thee &c.] lest thy charge against him being not truth but “slander,” he imprecate upon thee a curse, which being not “causeless” (Proverbs 26:2) will come upon thee because thou art “held guilty.”
There is a generation that curseth their father, and doth not bless their mother.11. generation] i.e. a class, or company, as the word is used in Psalm 14:5; Psalm 24:6.
11–14. Four generations, or classes of men that are detestable.
There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness.
There is a generation, O how lofty are their eyes! and their eyelids are lifted up.
There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men.14. Comp. Psalm 57:4.
The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give. There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough:15. The horseleach] βδέλλα, LXX.; sanguisuga, Vulg. The Heb. word occurs only here, and its derivation is doubtful, but as Maurer points out, the rendering leach has the sanction of the ancient interpreters, and accords with the sense of cognate Arabic and Aramaic roots. It gives moreover an excellent meaning, and is after the manner of this chapter and of the Book of Proverbs generally, in drawing an illustration of the subject in hand from the animal world. There seems no reason therefore for seeing in the word a mythical or “quasi-mythical expression,” denoting a vampire, or Ghoul.
two daughters … three things … yea, four] The climax is reached gradually. As the children of the leach, twice as many as herself, are each of them like herself insatiable, so are there, not two things only in creation, but three, yea four, of like character. Comp. for this typical use of numbers, Amos 1:3, and note there in this Series.
crying] The word is supplied. The Heb. is two daughters, Give, give. Some therefore would supply, called (R.V. marg.) instead of crying.
Dean Plumptre quotes Hor. de Art. Poet. 476:
“Non missura cutem, nisi plena cruoris, hirudo.”
15, 16. Four things that are insatiable.
The grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water; and the fire that saith not, It is enough.16. the grave] Sheol or Hades. See Proverbs 27:20.
The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.17. the valley] Or, brook. It is implied that his corpse will lie unburied and exposed.
Maurer and others quote here, in illustration of the fact that birds of prey attack principally the eyes, Catullus 107, 3:
“Effossos oculos voret atro gutture corvus.”
There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:18. too wonderful] The wonder consists in these things leaving no trace behind them. Two of the four are used as illustrations of the transitoriness of a vicious life in Wis 5:10-11 (R.V.):
“As a ship passing through the billowy water,
Whereof, when it is gone by, there is no trace to be found,
Neither pathway of its keel in the billows:
Or as when a bird flieth through the air,
No token of her passage is found,
But the light wind, lashed with the stroke of her pinions,
And rent asunder with the violent rush of the moving wings, is passed through,
And afterwards no sign of her coming is found therein.”
18–20. Four things that are inscrutable.
The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness.20. The “four things” of the two preceding verses find their moral in this verse. So lightly does the abandoned woman think of the consequences of her sin; so does it pass away when committed and leave no mark behind. It is but to eat and wipe the lips, and all trace of the food is gone.
For three things the earth is disquieted, and for four which it cannot bear:21. For] “or Under,” R.V. marg.
21–23. Four things that are intolerable.
Two of them are drawn from each sex, and in each case they are unbearable because they are out of place, in a false position.
For a servant when he reigneth; and a fool when he is filled with meat;22. reigneth] Better, is, or becomes king.
filled with meat] i.e. is rich and prosperous. See Proverbs 30:8-9 above.
For an odious woman when she is married; and an handmaid that is heir to her mistress.23. odious] Lit. hated, as in Deuteronomy 21:15; Isaiah 60:15. Her disposition is such as always to secure for her aversion and dislike.
when she is married] and so has both power and opportunity, which she lacked before, to display her true character, and cause misery. See Proverbs 21:9; Proverbs 21:19, Proverbs 27:15.
There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise:24–28. Four things which though little are wise.
The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer;25. the ants] See Proverbs 6:6-8 notes.
a people] Comp. Joel 1:6, where the locusts are called a “nation.” So we have in Homer, ἔθνεα χηνῶν, μελισσάων, χοίρων, flocks of geese, swarms of bees, herds of pigs; and in Virgil, gentes equorum, droves of horses; lit. in each case “nations.”
The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks;26. The conies] The Heb. word means the hiders, so called from their “making their houses,” hiding themselves, “in the rocks.”
It is now generally agreed that the animal in question is not, as the name coney, by which it is called also in Leviticus 11:5; Psalm 104:18, implies, a rabbit, but belongs to a different species, being “in its anatomy a true pachyderm, allied to the rhinoceros and the tapir, inferior to them as it is in size.” “It is about the size of a well-grown rabbit, with short ears, round head, long plantigrade feet, no tail, and nails instead of claws. With its weak teeth and short incisors, there seem few animals so entirely without the means of self-defence. But the strong rocks are a refuge for the conies (Proverbs 30:26, Psalm 104:18), and tolerably secure they are in such rocks as these (near Ain Feshkah) on the shore of the Dead Sea. No animal ever gave us so much trouble to secure.” Tristram, Land of Israel, p. 250. Speaker’s Comm. on Leviticus 11:5. See also Smith’s Dict. of Bible, Art. Coney.
The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands;27. by bands] Lit. divided, i.e. not jostling one another like an unorganised rabble, but arranged in well-ordered ranks. Comp. the description of the ordered march of the locusts: “They break not their ranks, neither doth one thrust another.” Joel 2:7-8.
The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings' palaces.28. the spider] Rather, the lizard. The Heb. word occurs here only.
taketh hold with her hands] If this rendering be retained, the reference may be to the animal “taking hold of,” catching its prey (“Quid, cum me domi sedentem stellio, muscas captans vel araneas retibus suis implicans, sæpe intentum fecit?” August. Confess, 10. 35). But it is better to understand it of the marvellous power of “taking hold of,” adhering to, the surfaces over which it glides. “Many members of this family of Saura are characterised by a peculiar lamellated structure on the under surface of the toes, by means of which they are enabled to run over the smoothest surfaces, and even in an inverted position, like house-flies on a cieling.” Smiths Dict. of Bible, Art. Lizard.
The alternative rendering, thou canst seize with thy hands (R.V. marg.) brings out, as in the other three examples in this quatrain, the weak point as a foil to the wisdom exhibited: you can catch the lizard with your hands, and yet she makes her way into king’s palaces. But this is done sufficiently by the former rendering: the lizard has nothing better to rely on than its agility, and yet it gains an entry by it into kings’ palaces.
There be three things which go well, yea, four are comely in going:29. go well … are comely in going] Lit. do well in marching … do well in going, i.e. are stately in march, and stately in going.
29–31. Four things that are stately.
A lion which is strongest among beasts, and turneth not away for any;
A greyhound; an he goat also; and a king, against whom there is no rising up.31. A greyhound] The Heb. word, which occurs nowhere else, and means literally, well-girt (or, well-knit) in the loins (R.V. marg.), has been variously rendered, war-horse, cock (ἀλέκτωρ ἐμπεριπατῶν θηλείαις εὔψυχος, LXX.; gallus succinctus lumbos, Vulg.), wrestler, Maurer. The R.V. retains greyhound in the text, with “or, war-horse,” in the margin.
against whom there is no rising up] The rendering of R.V. marg., when his army is with him, accords better perhaps with the ruling idea of the quatrain, being “stately in march;” though the king on his royal progress, before whom all prostrate themselves, in outward token that “there is no rising up against him,” satisfies well the conditions.
If thou hast done foolishly in lifting up thyself, or if thou hast thought evil, lay thine hand upon thy mouth.32. done foolishly … thought evil] Whether the evil has passed already into outward exhibition, or is still only in thought, check it promptly.
Lay thine hand upon thy mouth] Comp. Job 21:5; Job 29:9; Job 40:4, in all which places it denotes “a gesture of awe-struck silence.” Here it rather denotes severe self-restraint.
32, 33. The oracle of the sage closes with a practical admonition against strife and contention.
Surely the churning of milk bringeth forth butter, and the wringing of the nose bringeth forth blood: so the forcing of wrath bringeth forth strife.33. churning … wringing … forcing] The Heb. word, pressing, is the same in each case, but its shade of meaning varies with the process described.