These last two chapters of the Book of Proverbs come from unknown sources. And the information we have about these two differs depending on the translation of the Bible you are reading. For example, in the NIV translation chapter 30 begins with “The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh…an Oracle.” This man declared to Ithiel and Ucal. That this translation describes this as an oracle means a claim of divine inspiration. But many scholars believe it should be Agur son of Jakeh…of Massa. Agur was most likely a non-Israelite wise man like Job and his friends. The NLT translation begins with “The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh contain this message”. Apart from this reference Agur and Jakeh are unknown. If ‘from Massa’ is the correct reading, then Agur was a non-Israelite. The tribe of Massa is known from Assyrian texts however. Lastly the NKJV begins “The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, his utterance. This man declared to Ithiel…Ithiel and Ucal.” He was a non-Hebrew contributor to the Book of Proverbs. Some believe he came to faith in the God of Israel while in a foreign land. We know nothing about his father Jakeh. However, Ithiel and Ucal may have been the students of Agur. The fact that Ithiel’s name is said back to back is unusual. There are some scholars who rearrange the letters in his name and translate this “I have wearied myself O God, I have wearied myself O God and am consumed.” This then fits with the rest of the verses.
Agur begins by saying he is the most ignorant of men, that he is too stupid to be human, and he has no understanding. This means he was at a loss and his denial of knowledge of the Holy One is a rhetorical flourish as well. He was stating with dramatic irony that he could not explain the puzzle in front of him. The first step toward wisdom is acknowledging what we do not know. Verse 4 presents the riddle that is in front of him, perplexing him, and the questions bring to mind some that we read in the Book of Job. The questions culminate in “What Is His name, and what is His Son’s name, if you know?” At this point the riddle has no answer. The Old Testament would answer that His name is the Lord God, but the Old Testament did not have a name for His Son at this point. We will see in the Book of Isaiah that he prophesies that the Son’s name is wonderful, counselor, almighty God, the everlasting Father, prince of peace. The riddle was to remain unsolved until Jesus solved it for Nicodemus (John 3:13). In direct contrast to Agur’s ignorance and powerlessness stands the strength and wisdom of God. This is good news for Agur who does understand that God is a shield to all who come to Him for protection.
Agur requested two things from God. That was all he needed. First Agur asked that God would help him not to lie. And second, he asked that God not give him too much or too little. It is not sinful to be either but Agur wanted to avoid the pitfalls of both. Verse 10 is unique in that Agur cautions people not to slander their servants. Slaves and servants in ancient times were often treated as less than human. In verses 11-14 Agur wrote about a generation that was plagued by social ills such as the lack of respect for parents, self righteousness, greed, and selfishness. Ironically, such evils have plagued every generation, not just Agur’s! These verses summarize the character traits that wise people despise. Fools dishonor their parents, deceive themselves, think they are pure when they are filthy, and proud. They wound others with their words…their teeth being like swords, and they harm the poor.
The number parallelism, three, no four, is a device for presenting a list of poetic examples. These lists present powers that are insatiable and often dangerous. The grave, which stands for death itself, never seems to have enough. People keep dying. Women who are unable to have children often long to have them. We see this in Sarah and then she gave birth to Isaac. Rebekah gave birth to Jacob and Esau and Hannah bore Samuel. Even today there is sometimes shame among women who have not been given the gift of bearing children. Agur says the thirsty desert and fire will consume anything in their path. Verse 17 ties back to verse 11. People who are callous towards their parents will meet a violent end. The lack of parental respect spoken of in verse 11 leads to this curse in verse 17. The language is strong and it is violent, as is the punishment of one who abuses his or her parents. The loss of an eye was considered a terrible curse and the reference to Vultures meant that the body of a disgraceful son would lie unburied and exposed. This was a horror to people in the ancient Near East. We continue on and see that Agur is amazed at how one thing moves in to another. This proverb lists four things that make the earth tremble because they overturn the order of things. There are four wonderful things listed in verses 18-19 and that are followed by four that are grievous. Three are clear: the servant, the fool, and the maidservant are all unexpected positions of power and the hateful woman describes the sorry lot of a woman whose husband hates her. An unloved woman who was married was most likely one of several wives. And if the cause was her failure to have children she would be replaced by a maidservant, like Sarah and Hagar. The one who prospers can be translated as one who is full of bread. Having adequate food was and is a sign of prosperity. There is one more list of four things here, creatures that are small in size but amazing in behavior. Each of these small creatures has a behavioral trait from which wise people can learn. Here, Agur teaches that small, insignificant creatures are surprisingly powerful and resourceful. Agur ends by warning people about boasting and troublemaking. The phrase ‘put your hand on your mouth’ means stop it. The idea is that if you are in the middle of making trouble and suddenly realize your foolishness, stop right then and there before things get worse.
The last chapter was written by King Lemuel, an Oracle, or utterance his mother taught him. Lemuel, like Agur was an unknown. He may have also been from Massa. But there are some scholars who look at Lemuel’s name and its meaning…belonging to God…and they believe this is a pseudonym for Solomon. His mother advised him to control his lusts. He was not to give his strength to women, and this echos other earlier warnings (chapter 5, 6:20-35, 7:1-27). Often in the ancient world a king would amass a large harem or involve himself sexually with countless women. Solomon was reported to have 700 wives and 300 concubines. The wisdom of Lemuel’s mother was that such behavior destroys rulers. She also advised him to avoid intoxicating drink altogether so he would have a clear head to rule justly. Total abstinence from alcohol was rare in the ancient world, even while the problems of addiction were recognized. Behind the recommendation to offer alcohol lay a concern for the least powerful members of the kingdom. The king was to offer wine to comfort those who were hurting.
The duty of a king in the ancient world was to defend the weak and uphold the helpless. These ideals were rarely upheld in that age or even in our own. But one day a King who is the Defender of the helpless will establish His righteous reign. Verses 10-31 are an acrostic poem. Over the years this poem has taken on a life of its own. In Jewish tradition it is recited by a husband to his wife on sabbath evenings and many Christians read it on Mother’s Day. This poem celebrates the virtuous wife. That this is an acrostic gives the impression of completeness and it provides the student with an aid for learning. Some believe this continues the teachings of King Lemuel’s mother but it could also be an independent, concluding unit. The Book of Proverbs begins with a prologue which gives the goals of wisdom in general terms. Now it concludes with this epilogue. Verse 10 begins with a question…who can find. This positions the woman as an ideal. A virtuous woman speaks of excellence, moral worth, ability, and nobility, not just marital fidelity. Such a woman is the ideal of wisdom in action. No one can find such a virtuous and capable wife without God’s help. Such a woman, like wisdom, is more precious than rubies.
We see that this woman works hard and has many skills. She works to provide food and clothing for her family. That she rises early describes her concern for others. She is willing to give of herself to care for family and friends. She buys, sells and builds her own resources. This is remarkable given the restrictions on women in the ancient world. But here is the thing; she works not to get rich but to be able to help the poor. She can be concerned for others because she has provided for her family already. What is even more amazing is that her husband has a place at the city gate where men of influence gather. But one of the reasons for his influence is because of his wife’s reputation. She is wise, and cool headed as she faces uncertainties. She also gives advice in a winsome way. Her clothing is far richer than linen or silk. She is dressed in strength and honor. Those most important to the woman testify to her character, abilities, and achievements. Any woman who opens her mouth with wisdom deserves praise. James 3:2 says “A virtuous women takes care to speak well.” She is blessed by her family, her children as well as her husband. This book concludes where it began, by affirming the ultimate importance of the fear of the Lord.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W