The Words of Agur
Text: Proverbs 30:1-33
Proverbs 30 is written by Agur. His name derives from a root word in Hebrew that means “hireling.” His father’s name, Jakeh, is believed to come from the Akkadian language, used in southern Arabia. It that language, his name means “to obey.”
The chapter is address to two males: Ithiel, which means “God is with me” in Hebrew, and Ucal, which has no known meaning in Hebrew. They are assumed to be brothers and sons of Agur. It is also possible that they were students of Agur.
After Agur’s father’s name appears the word hammassa. This can be translated several ways, depending on the context. It could mean that Jakeh is a descendant of Massa (Genesis 25:14; I Chronicles 1:30), who was a founder of one of the Arab tribes. Given that Jakeh is an Arabian name, this would be the most likely meaning. However, the Hebrew word massa also means a prophecy of doom and is usually translated as “a burden.” This doesn’t match the content of Agur’s writings, so many translations state “an oracle.” The problem is that this and Proverbs 31:1 would be the only instance of this word meaning “oracle.” There is a different Hebrew word that is usually translated as “oracle.” I suspect the reason that the more obvious translation is not typically used is that the translators assume that all prophets come from Israel or that only the words of Israelite prophet would be in the Bible. This overlooks that there have been writings concerning non-Israelites, such as Job, a prophet, who was from Uz in the area where Edom later arises (Job 1:1; Lamentations 4:21), and there was Balaam, who was from Pethor in upper Mesopotamia (Numbers 22:5). An Arab prophet from Massa would not be odd.
Given Agur and one of his son’s names having meaning in Hebrew, a likely supposition is that Jakeh’s wife was an Israelite.
It should also be noted that if the consonants are parsed slightly differently in the Hebrew text, instead of “to Ithiel, to Ithiel and Ucal” you would have “I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, but I will prevail.”
Who Knows More: the Student or the Teacher?
Assuming that Ithiel and Ucal are teenage boys, a typical problem is for young men to think they know more than the one trying to teach them. Agur starts out by declaring that he must be dumber than every other man. The reaction by his students or sons would be a denial, but it also would draw them in by desiring to disagree with Agur.
Think how many people will answer questions on any topic as if they are the world’s foremost authority. Think how many people are confident that they know what God desires or would approve of (I Corinthians 2:11; Psalms 73:22). Ithiel and Ucal are probably no different, so Agur turns the tables on his students and asks them to explain a series of questions to their teacher.
- Who has ascended into and descended from heaven?
- Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
- Who has wrapped the waters in his garments?
- Who has established all the boundaries of the earth?
- What is his name or his son’s name?
But there would not have been an answer to Agur’s questions. No one in their knowledge has gone to heaven and returned, so no one could claim they know what God wants. No man controls the elements. These are things only God can do. While God has revealed several titles or names for Himself (Genesis 17:1; Exodus 3:14; Deuteronomy 28:58), are we certain which is God’s name. And asking the name of God’s Son, who had not be revealed at this time would have totally confused Ithiel and Ucal. Thus, Agur proved that if he is stupid, then they know far less than he does and there is room for them to add to their knowledge. One of the first steps toward learning is admitting how little you know.
However, there are answers to Agur’s questions:
- God has on occasions come down to visit man (Genesis 3:8; 11:5). And in particular, the Son of God has both descended and ascended (John 3:13).
- The control of the winds and water refers to both the Father and the Son (Job 38:4-41; Psalms 104; Mark 4:41).
- The marking out of the boundaries (Proverbs 8:22-31; Job 38:8-11; Psalms 104:1-9).
- And like God, the Father, we have a variety of names or titles for the Son, Jesus (Isaiah 7:14).
Compared to the God Agur serves and learns from, Agur is ignorant – nearly to the level of a beast. In turn, Agur’s students know even less, so Agur’s first lesson is in humility.
This leads to a corollary: every man is a student of God. Further, every word of God is tested or pure. It is the real thing and contains no falsehoods. God protects everyone to puts their trust in Him (Psalms 18:30). But that also means if we put our own thoughts into God’s words, they will no longer be pure (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:31; Revelation 22:18-19). Instead of protection we will face God’s reproof and be proven to be liars.
Agur’s prayer is beautiful in its simplicity and humility. He begs of God two favors before his life ends.
The first request is to keep all lies far from him. He does not want to be deceived by others and thereby be led astray. Nor would Agur wish to be a liar by adding to God’s word (Proverbs 30:6).
His second request is to have neither poverty nor riches. Many focus on getting richer in this world, but Agur knew there was a danger. Those who are rich often become complacent (Deuteronomy 31:20; 32:15; Hosea 13:6). At times you’ll also find people who argue that poverty is the way to serve God better. They believe that holiness is found in giving away everything they have. But here there is also danger – becoming so needy that you are tempted to sin or to blame God for your situation.
Agur’s focus is on serving God in this life so as to be with God in the next. His requests are aimed to keep him faithful to God throughout life. If we weren’t certain before about Agur’s wisdom, this prayer alone shows a man with deep understanding of life.
Cruelty to the Downtrodden
Unfortunately, there are people who think it is funny to pick on people who are weaker than themselves. They will cause problems for someone in a lowly position, believing that he cannot defend himself. But such people forget that God is concerned about the downtrodden (Psalms 101:5). The slave may complain to God, and God, who knows the truth of all matters, will find them guilty (Romans 14:4).
In every generation there arises some who
- Have no respect or gratitude for their parents
- Are hypocrites – thinking they are pure when they are not (Romans 2:1-3). In truth, they are lying to themselves (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
- Are proud
- And are cruel in their speech, especially the less fortunate.
This list begins a series of lists of four things. It explains where disrespect comes from: a lack of respect for authority, and inability to see one’s own flaws, and arrogance in thinking you are better than other people. All of these lead to verbal cruelty.
Notice that this becomes an application of “keep lies far from me” (Proverbs 30:8).
Agur gives another list of four dealing with things that are never satisfied and are always demanding more.
- A leech
- Has two daughters named “Give” and “Give”
- There are three things which will not be satisfied
- There are four things which will not say “Enough.”
Notice the memorization technique: one, two, three, four, which are always increasing in demand.
The first of these this is the grave. No matter how many die, there is always room for another person in the grave (Proverbs 27:20; Habakkuk 2:5).
The second is a childless woman, who wants a child. This is well illustrated by Rachel who blamed Jacob for her lack of children and who was constantly trying to find ways to become pregnant Genesis 30). Sarai wanted a child so badly that she was willing to have her husband marry her maid, so she could claim the child (Genesis 16:1-5). Hannah is another example of a barren woman desperate for a child (I Samuel 1:5-16).
The third is the ground. While you can add too much water too quickly, in general the ground always needs more water to be productive. It doesn’t take long for a lack of water to cause a drought.
Finally, fire will consume everything it has. Giving it more only makes the fire bigger. It is only when nothing more is given that a fire dies. The same is true for greed. The more you give someone who is greedy, the greater becomes the demands. Also, giving it anything else will not stop the demands for what it truly wants.
Notice that this becomes an application of Agur’s second request, that he did not want too much (Proverbs 30:8).
Our Relationship with Our Parents
In both of the prior lists, the command to honor your father and mother becomes a key point. Cruelty begins with disrespect for your parents. Discontent is learned when children demand more and more from their parents. Now we look at another problem: thinking you can’t learn from your parents, which brings us right back to the starting point (Proverbs 30:2).
The command to honor our parents comes with a promise of a long life (Ephesians 6:1-3). But a son who mocks his parents by look, action, or words will find himself dead (Proverbs 20:20). The imagery is of a person killed in battle or killed by violent men, but whose body is left unburied and the carrion birds feast on his remains. No one will care that he died.
Everything Isn’t Comprehensible
There are fascinating things in our world that are difficult to understand, but that difficulty doesn’t make them any less interesting to ponder. Agur gives a list of three things within a list of four things. The first three are fascinating because of the physical properties of God’s world:
- How an eagle can float in the air for long periods of time without beating its wings.
- How a serpent is able to move on hard ground without any legs.
- How a sailing ship can move through water, especially being able to tack against the wind.
Each of these we know the science behind how these things work, but they are no less interesting. They deal with the air, land and sea. But the fourth is different, it deals with the spirit: What causes a man and woman to fall in love? Why that particular man or woman? Young people have been asking this for years. What do I need to do to get this other person to fall in love with me? As if there was a step-by-step manual for falling in love. Still, it is fascinating to watch, even if we don’t know why it happens.
Of further interest: all four ways leave no tracks behind.
But there is a fifth puzzle, but in a different way. An adulterous woman can have sex with a guy, wipe away the evidence that you have already seen, and then claim that she has done nothing wrong. The shear callousness and self-deception is shocking. Yet, this is how sinners function when dealing with sin; otherwise, the guilt would get to them (I Timothy 4:1-2). Notice that in this path, the trail of evidence is clear, unlike the four prior ways, but the person refuses to look at it.
Situations that Are Unstable
When a slave somehow manages to gain the kingship, the country becomes unstable (Ecclesiastes 10:7). Usually such a thing happens due to assassination or coups. Yet, the servant has no training in ruling and is apt to make many mistakes. Jeroboam is an example of a servant who became a king through rebellion (I Kings 11:26,40; 12:20). Zimri assassinated the former king and managed to last all of seven days (I Kings 16:9-15). It isn’t surprising the northern Israel was unstable.
When a fool has what he wants, he lacks any restraint on his behavior, since his focus is on the immediate (Proverbs 19:10). He ends up causing mischief.
An unloved or hated woman does not gain a marriage for her own sake. She is someone used to gain her dowry or used for her potential to bear children. Leah is an example of this (Genesis 29:26). Such women, in their attempts to gain what they know is lacking, end up destabilizing their own marriages. Too often they become bitter, hateful, and overbearing.
A maid who replaces her former mistress also has difficulty bringing stability to a family because all remember who she once was. Worse is when a maid gains her position by seducing her master or a master replacing his wife with her maid.
In every case, the normal social order is upset and it leads to instability. Change is not always good.
Ants are not strong, but they survive through preparation during times when other people tend to relax (Proverbs 6:6).
Rock badgers (or conies) survive by making strong homes (Psalms 104:18). They too prepare in advance of a need.
Locust have no leader, but are able to survive by working in mass. For others they cause destruction and are hard to stop.
Spiders (or lizards) survive by populating hidden places. Even the king’s palace has them present. They too are hard to stop because of their numbers.
In each case, the creatures use abilities that they do have to overcome what they lack.
In the Hebrew text, verses 27-28 are book-ended by the word “king,” which hints that these particular examples are applicable to leadership. A king needs to remember that common folk are more numerous than those in the noble class and are found everywhere, even in palaces because someone has to take care of the place. Even without leadership, if the masses get stirred up, they can cause a lot of trouble and there is no place that they cannot access. Even a king may not be as powerful as he thinks.
A lion has a stately walk because its strength puts it at the top of the food chain. It does not need to fear. Other animals also strut and show no fear, such as a rooster (meaning is a guess by translators, it literally means “pressed in the loins”). The third example is a male goat, which when attacked will turn to face down predators. All three animals have grace and majesty in the way they move. A king also struts when he has his army behind him to back him up. Unlike the animals who are majestic in their nature, a king pulls his confidence from those surrounding him.
Yet, despite their pride, each can be killed. If you have been speaking arrogant words, you need to put a hand over your mouth because such words are foolish. The plotting of evil is just another form of arrogance and should not be expressed.
Just as you know that churning milk is going to produce butter or a punch in the nose is going to cause a nosebleed, so you are guaranteed that stirring up anger is going to produce conflicts (Proverbs 29:22). In the Hebrew, Proverbs 30:33 forms a list:
For pressing milk yields curds,
And pressing a nose yields blood,
And pressing anger yields strife.
The Hebrew word for “nose” and “anger” are the same word in this text. The point is that arrogance and forcing your way will lead to strife and ultimately bloodshed.
- How many lists of four things are there? How many lists are three things and 4 things?
- In each of the lists, the purpose is to learn by examining what is in common. You could find other examples, but how do you apply the lesson from each list to your own life?
- Go back through Agur’s writing and notice how numbers form an integral part. What would be the purpose?