Proverbs 30
Expositor's Bible Commentary
The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, even the prophecy: the man spake unto Ithiel, even unto Ithiel and Ucal,


THE rendering of the first verse of this chapter is very uncertain. Without attempting to discuss the many conjectural emendations, we must briefly indicate the view which is here taken. A slight alteration in the pointing; instead of the Masoretic reading changes the proper name Ithiel into a significant verb; and another slight change gives us another verb in the place of Ucal. To remove the difficulty of the word "oracle," a difficulty which arises from the fact that the chapter which follows is not a prophetic utterance of the kind to which that word might be applied, it is necessary, with Gratz, to make a more serious change. And to explain the word which occurs in a similar connection in Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15, and 2 Samuel 23:1-39. I we must suppose that some relative clause defining the nature of "the man" has been dropped. The great uncertainty of the text is witnessed by the LXX, who place this passage after Proverbs 24:23, and give a rendering which has very little resemblance to our present Hebrew text. It is highly probable, both from the subject matter and from the numerical arrangements, which are thoroughly Rabbinical, that this chapter and chapter 31 are of late origin, and represent the last phase of the proverbial literature of Israel in the days after the return from the Exile. If this be so, the obscurity and uncertainty are characteristic of an artificial period of literature, and of a decay in literary taste. Adopting, then, the alterations which have been mentioned, we obtain the following result:-

"The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, the proverb-writer":

"The utterance of the man [who has questioned and thought]: I have wearied after God, I have wearied after God, and am faint, for I am too stupid for a man, and am without reason, and I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the All Holy," etc.

This chapter is full of curious interest. It is a collection of sayings which are apparently connected only by the circumstance that they were attributed to one person, Agur, the son of Jakeh. 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.

It may be well for us to glance at these picturesque groups, and then to return to the more philosophical and religious sentiments with which the chapter opens.

"Slander not a servant to his master," says Agur, "lest the servant curse thee, and thou be held guilty." Even underlings have their rights; the Lord makes their cause His own, and a curse from them falls with as much weight on a slanderer as the words of more influential people. It is one of the surest tests of a man’s character to see how he treats servants; if he is uniformly courteous, considerate, just, and generous in his treatment of them, we may safely infer that he is a noble character; if he is haughty, domineering, revengeful, and malicious to them, we need not attach much importance to his pleasing manners and plausible services to those whom he considers his equals.

Now follow two of these singular quatrains. There are four kinds of men pointed out, and held up, not to our abhorrence, that is unnecessary, but simply to our observation: the unfilial, the self-righteous, the haughty, and the rapacious who devour the poor and the needy. It is not necessary to say anything about these persons. Their doom is stamped on their brows; to name them is to condemn them; to describe them is to write out their sentence.

Again, there are four things which like the blood-sucking horse-leech are always insatiable. The vampire has her daughters in the earth; it is, as Professor Cheyne says, "a quasi-mythical expression." These daughters are two, nay, they are three, nay, they are four; and they are, as it were, the representatives of all creation: Sheol, the invisible world, which draws into itself the countless generations of the dead; the generative principle, which never wearies of producing new generations of the living; the earth, which is forever absorbing the cadent waters of heaven; and the fire, which will consume all the fuel that is given to it.

Now follows a further comment upon unfilial conduct: the eye is regarded as the instrument by which a son shows his feelings to his parents; he has not perhaps gone the length of uttering a curse against them, still less of raising his hand to ill-treat them, but his eye flashes derision upon his father, and by its haughty obstinacy declares that it will not obey his mother. The offending member shall be picked out by the clamorous ravens, and eaten by the young of the soaring eagle.

Next we have four more quatrains. First, there are the four wonders which baffle Agur’s understanding; wonders which are comprehensible only to God, as the Vedic hymn says, -

"The path of ships across the sea,

The soaring eagle’s flight he knows."

The wonder seems to be in the reality and power of impalpable things. How little of all that passes in the universe is open to observation, or leaves a track behind. The eagle mounts through the air as if he marched on a solid beaten road; the serpent, without limbs, glides over the smooth rock where feet would slip, and leaves no trace behind; the ship ploughs the deep, and over trackless waters follows her track which is invisible; a man and a maid meet, swift glances pass, hearts blend, and that is done which can never be undone; or on the evil side, the bad woman follows her illicit and bidden courses, while to all appearance she is a faithful wife and mother.

Secondly, there are four human conditions which are intolerable to society, viz., an essentially servile spirit put into the place of authority; a fool who, instead of being corrected, is confirmed in his folly by prosperity; a marriage where the wife is hated; and a slave girl in the position which Hagar occupied with relation to Sarah her mistress.

Thirdly, there are four kinds of animals which illustrate that size is not necessarily greatness, and that it is possible to be insignificant and yet wise. The tiny ants are a model of intelligent mutual co-operation and prudent thrift. The little jerboas seem helpless enough, but they are sensible in the choice of their homes, for they dwell securely in rocky fastnesses. The locusts seem as weak and inoffensive as insects can be, yet they form a mighty army, ordered in battle array; "they run like mighty men; they climb the wall like men of war; and they march everyone in his ways, and they break not their ranks." {Joel 2:7} The lizard seems but a plebeian creature; you can seize it with your hands; it is defenseless and devoid of natural capabilities; and yet with its swift crawlings and tireless dartings it will find its way into kings’ palaces, where greater and stronger creatures cannot enter.

Lastly, there are four things which impress one with their stateliness of motion; the lion, the creature that is girt in the loins, whether a war-horse or a greyhound, the he-goat, and-surely with a little touch of satire-the king when his army is with him.

Then the collection of Agur’s sayings ends with a wise and picturesque word of counsel to exercise a strong restraint over our rising passions.

But now we may turn back to the passage with which the chapter opens. Here is the cry of one who has sought to find out God. It is an old and a mournful cry. Many have emitted it from the beginning; many utter it now. But few have spoken with more pathetic humility, few have made us feel with so much force the solemnity and the difficulty of the question as this unknown Agur. We see a brow wrinkled with thought, eyes dimmed with long and close observation; it is not the boor or the sot that makes this humiliating confession; it is the earnest thinker, the eager enquirer. He 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 can alone 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 realize, 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? Here are the signs of His working on every hand. There is an invisible power that ascends and descends on the earth by stair-cases unseen. Who is He? These careering winds, before which we are powerless, obey some control: sometimes they are "up-gathered like sleeping flowers" who is it that holds them then? These great waters sway to and fro, or they pour in ceaseless currents from their fountains, or they gather in the quiet hollows of the hills; but who is it that appoints the ocean, and the river, and the lake? Who feeds them all, and restrains them all? Whose is the garment which holds them as a woman carries a pitcher lashed to her back in the fold of her dress? The earth is no phantom, no mirage, it is solid and established; but who gave to matter its reality, and in the ceaseless flux of the atoms fixed the abiding forms, and ordered the appropriate relations? Ah! what is His name? Has He a son? Is man, for instance, His son? Or does the idea of the Eternal and Invisible God imply also an Eternal Son, a Being one with Him, yet separable, the object of His love, the instrument of His working, the beginning of His creation? Who is He? That He is holy seems an inevitable conclusion from the fact that we know what holiness is, and recognize its sovereignty. For how, in thinking of the mighty Being who made all things, dare I give Him a lower attribute than that which I can give to my fellow-men? How dare I withhold from Him that which I know of the Highest and the Best? But though I know that He is holy, the All Holy One I do not know. My weak and sinful nature has glimpses of Him, but no steady visions. I lose Him in the confused welter of things. I catch the gleam of His face in the hues of the rainbow and in the glow of the eternal hills; but I lose it when I strive to follow among the angry gatherings of the storm clouds, in the threatening crash of the thunder, the roar of the avalanche, and the rent ruins of the earthquake.

And the man, considering all things, questioning, seeking, exclaims, "I am weary and faint." The splendors of God haunt his imagination, the sanctities of God fill his conscience with awe, the thoughts of God lie as presuppositions behind all his thinking. But he has not understanding; baffled and foiled and helpless, he says that he is too brutish to be a man. Surely a man would know God; surely he must be but one of the soulless creatures, dust of the dust, for he has not the knowledge of the Holy One.

To this impetuous hail of questions an answer comes. For indeed in the fact that the questions are put already the answer lies. In the humble cry that he is too stupid to be a man is already the clearest proof that he is raised incalculably above the brute.

But who is it that offers the answer in Proverbs 30:5-9? It would seem as if Agur himself has suggested the question-a question borrowed probably from some noble heathen thinker; and now he proceeds to meet the wild and despairing outcry with the results of his own reflection. He does not attempt the answer on the lines of natural religion. His answer in effect is this: You cannot know God, you cannot by searching find Him unless he reveals Himself; His revelation must come as an articulate and intelligible word. As the Psalm says-for it seems to be a quotation from Psalm 18:30 -"Every word of God is tried: He is a shield unto them that trust in Him." Agur appeals to a written revelation, a revelation which is complete and rounded, and to which no further addition may be made (Proverbs 30:6). It was probably the time when Ezra the scribe had gathered together the Law and the Psalms and the Prophets, and had formed the first scriptural canon.

Since then a great deal has been added to the canon, these words of Agur among the rest, but the assertion remains essentially true. Our knowledge of God depends on His self-revelation, and the method of that revelation is to speak, through the lips of God-possessed men, words which are tried by experience and proved by the living faith of those who trust in God. "I am that I am" has spoken to men, and to Him, the Eternally-existent, have they ascribed the visible universe. "The God of Israel" has spoken to men, and they have learnt therefore to trace His hand in history and in the development of human affairs. The Holy One has in prophets and poets spoken to men, and they have become aware that all goodness comes from Him, and all evil is hateful to Him. And lastly, His Son has spoken to men, and has declared Him in a way that never could have been dreamed, has shown them the Father, has revealed that new unutterable Name.

The answer to the great cry of the human heart, the wearied, fainting human heart, is given only in revelation, in the tried word of God, and completely only in the Word of God that was made flesh. The proof of that revelation is furnished to all those who trust in the God so revealed, for He becomes a shield to them; they abide under the shadow of His realized presence. It is not possible to add unto the words of God; our speculations lead us farther, but they only lead us into error; and by them we incur His reproof, and our fictions become disastrously exposed. The answer to philosophy is in revelation, and they who do not accept the revealed answer are left asking eternally the same weary and hopeless question, "What is his name, and what is his son’s name?"

And now, with a quaint and practical homeliness which is very suggestive, Agur notices two conditions, which he has evidently observed to be necessary if we are to find the answer which revelation gives to the enquiry of the human heart after God. First of all we must be rid of vanity and lies. How true this is! We may hold the Bible in our hands, but while our hearts are void of seriousness and sincerity we can find nothing in it, certainly no word of God. A vain person and an untruthful person can receive no genuine revelation; they may believe, or think that they believe, the current religious dogmas, and they may be able to give a verbal answer to the question which we have been considering, but they cannot have the knowledge of the Holy One. More than half the godlessness of men is due simply to want of earnestness; they are triflers on the earth, they are painted bubbles, which burst if any solid thing touches them; they are drifting vapors and exhalations, which pass away and leave not a wrack behind. But there are many men who are serious enough in their search for knowledge, and yet are vitiated through and through by a radical want of truthfulness. They are prepared for facts, but only facts of a certain sort. They want to know God, but only on condition that He shall not be supernatural. They want to study the truths of the spiritual world, but only on condition that the spiritual shall be material. O remove far from me vanities and lies!

Then there is a second condition desirable for the due appreciation of religious truth, a social and economical condition. Agur might have known our modern world with its terrible extremes of wealth and poverty. He perceived how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven; and, on the other hand, how probable it is that hungry men will be seduced into stealing and betrayed into blasphemy. That there is much truth in this view we may easily satisfy ourselves by considering the wealthy classes in England, whose question, urged through all their pomp and ceremonial of heartless worship, is practically, "Who is the Lord?" and by then looking at the eight hundred thousand paupers of England, amongst whom religion is practically unknown except as a device for securing food.

And when we have duly weighed this saying of Agur’s, we may come to see that among all the pressing religious and spiritual problems of our day, this also must be entertained and solved, How to secure a more equable distribution of wealth, so that the extremes of wealth and poverty should disappear, and all should be fed with the food that is needful for them.

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