It was C. S. Lewis who wrote: “Evil comes from the abuse of free will.”[i] There is a moral order and when we violate that order by our human rebellion, it creates chaos, confusion, and calamity. With so much perversity and evil in our world, and yes found within the human heart, how can we move forward? Where is the right path to restoration and order? What truly ought to be the proper approach to living life? In the biblical book of Proverbs we find this path in the knowledge of God and his ways. This is the path of wisdom. So, how can we secure it and continue to walk in it? What are some of the things we should consider and observe?
Proverbs 30 moves away from both the words of Solomon and the copies of wisdom words in the times of King Hezekiah and we are introduced to a new personage in which we know nothing. Agur, son of Jakeh gives us these inspired utterances. This chapter is a word, an oracle, which are wisdom sayings to help us in our life’s journey, helping us find our way home.
Here we find two categories of sayings in order to live wisely.
THE FIRST CATEGORY OF SAYINGS TO LIVE WISELY IS HAVING THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
How do we secure this knowledge of God and where is this discovered? This knowledge comes from God, Himself. Even though we have these words given to us, it takes the work of God’s Spirit to make them knowable to us.
A. Wisdom can only come through divine revelation.
Proverbs 30:1 is one of the most difficult verses in the book of Proverbs to understand because of its language. So, what is the issue? The actual words are nouns. To understand the original Hebrew and translate it to English causes translators difficulties. Are they just actual names, or are they to be interpreted in light of the meaning of those names? One of the words is Massa, which could be a place or, as many scholars interpret, could mean ‘oracle,’ an inspired utterance from God. Another problem is who is Agur? “He is not mentioned in biblical or extrabiblical texts.”[ii] “The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh – an inspired utterance to Ithiel: ‘I am weary, God, but I can prevail (Proverbs 30:1).” While the New International Version of the Bible translates this expression as being weary, other translations translate this literally from the Hebrew as
the man says to Ithiel, to Ithiel and Ucal’ in the RSV sounds a lot different in TEV [Today’s English Version] where Ithiel is translated as ‘God is not with me,’ and ‘I am not God’ in the NAB [New American Bible]. …Ucal could mean ‘I am helpless,’ (Today’s English Version) or ‘I am weary’ (Smith-Goodspeed).[iii]
So what is the point of the opening few verses of Proverbs 30? The context is dealing with the issue of knowing God.
Surely I am a brute, not a man; I do not have human understanding.
I have not learned wisdom, nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One.
Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know![iv]
A number of ideas flow from this self-depreciation of the speaker. The first is that the knowledge of God is only from God. It is a revelation that God gives to humanity. It is not attained by human knowledge alone. The second idea is that the wise recognize their lack of understanding.
Those who are truly wise must first acknowledge their ignorance, Agur is obviously not someone who is ‘wise in his own eyes.’ People must first recognize their own ignorance before they can turn to God for true insight. …Those who think they are wise do not think they have to put any effort into the acquisition of insight.[v]
In verse 4 we see the question, who has gone up to heaven and come down? The answer is that no human being apart from the God has done that. We know from the New Testament, that this very question is answered in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the One who left heaven, came to earth, and then returned back to heaven. Jesus in his discussion with Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, makes this point:
I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven -the Son of Man.[vi]
We know that this designation ‘Son of Man,’ is one used by Jesus in speaking of himself. We move from the acknowledgment of God’s help in knowing him to the value of God’s word or message. Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar (Proverbs 30:5-6).
The reference to ‘word’ in Prov. 30:5 brings the movement full circle from Agur’s opening statement of exhaustion and ignorance to the word of God. Agur dramatically states that only God can give him heavenly knowledge, and that knowledge is contained in reliable words from God.[vii]
With the deep recognition of God’s knowledge coming from his word, we hear the specific cry for a life of wisdom. Here is the right response to God’s message.
B. We hear the specific prayers to live a life of moderation which throughout the book of Proverbs is perceived to be living wisely.
Two things I ask of you, LORD; do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.[viii]
Two dangers or temptations are addressed in this prayer. The first is falsehood and the second is trying to find satisfaction in the temporal of this life. It is the temptation that Jesus was faced with in the wilderness; when he was asked to turn stones into bread, and then later shown the kingdoms of this world and was told that to acquire them by worshiping the prince of darkness and serve him. One of the subtle temptations of evil is the price we pay to acquire what we think will satisfy our souls. The answer is found in Jesus’ response to put the eternal above the temporal. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).
Throughout the book of Proverbs we are urged to practice honesty, to speak the truth and to see lying as an evil.
1. Regarding lies and falsehoods. This is not just speaking lies, or being kept from the lies and falsehoods of others, which can deceive us; but more importantly, the deceptions of our own hearts.
Both the Psalmist and the prophets understood the nature of the human heart as living in self-deception. This is a critical problem in all of our lives. The Psalmist prays inPsalm 139:23-24,
Search me, God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
The prophet, Jeremiah reminds us: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind (Jeremiah 17:9-10a).”
Here in the wisdom literature we are challenged to take responsibility for what is transpiring within us and flows from us. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips (Proverbs 4:23-24).”
2. The second danger mentioned here is having more than we can handle. Riches can easily corrupt us from trusting God. When we are full we tend to forget God. Moses warned against this human tendency to depend upon God’s blessings, rather than to depend upon the One who provides it. Moses warned that when the people would enter the land of promise and experience God’s blessings, the temptation would come to forget God. To forget God means that we stop trusting him and begin to trust ourselves and act in disobedience in regard to what he instructs us.
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you [expression gratitude to God].
Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.
Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down,
and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.
If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.[ix]
The prayer then goes to the opposite issue of wealth’s temptation and addresses the lack of provisions. The temptation then is to take what belongs to others – in other words, steal – which will dishonor God’s name.
C. This is followed by warnings against examples of foolish or sinful behavior.
1. Warning against slander of others.
“Do not slander a servant to their master, or they will curse you, and you will pay for it (Proverbs 30:10).” Slander is to speak lies in order to destroy another’s wellbeing. Are we ever guilty of slandering others? It is interesting that the apostle Paul picks this concept up in the book of Romans.
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will be able to stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.[x]
We need to understand that in the church of God we are all serving one master, the Lord Jesus Christ and we must allow Him to determine the way in which He will discipline each of us. Let us be careful that we are not upbraiding fellow believers because we may not agree with some aspects of their ministry. In the essence of Christianity we need to agree, but there must be more grace given to those who may understand the non-essentials differently than we do. Jesus, himself warned against having a sectarian attitude.
Teacher, said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.
Do not stop him, Jesus said. ‘For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.[xi]
2. Another area of warning is ingratitude for parents and disdain toward others.
These reflect a haughty or proud attitude which is condemned by the wisdom writers. This is not the healthy pride of valuing accomplishment and others, but the evil aspect of self-importance, often at the expense or indifference toward others.
There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers; those who are pure in their own eyes and yet are not cleansed of their filth; those whose eyes are ever so haughty, whose glances are so disdainful; those whose teeth are swords and whose jaws are set with knives to devour the poor from the earth and the needy from among mankind.[xii]
As mentioned, these behaviors flow from a haughty or proud attitude. Here is one of the core characteristics of people who oppose all that has gone on before them. They are in a spirit of rebellion and its primary manifestation is seen in how they treat their parents and the needy in their lives. One of the key components of a healthy society is our attitude toward the past and the elderly. When we do not honor and show respect for those who raised us and dismiss the past as without merit we will discover terrible outcomes. The apostle Paul in describing the last days regarding people who profess faith, makes these observation which are in keeping with the text we are reading here in Proverbs.
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.
People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God-having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.[xiii]
How we treat people is critical to what is happening within our hearts. If God’s love is truly within us, we will be respectful, caring, generous, forgiving, filled with gratitude, humble, and lovers of God and his word. We will want to associate with people who manifest these qualities in their lives.
THE SECOND CATEGORY IN LIVING WISELY IS TO LIVE WITH UNDERSTANDING BEFORE GOD
To live wisely is reflected in the number of sayings expressed in the numerical proverbs found from verses 15-31. Here we discover that there are some things which are never satisfied, absolutely amazing, incredibly challenging, apparently small yet extremely wise and ultimately majestic in their station in life. They begin with the introduction of the leech which is never satisfied and keeps looking for more of the life from its donor. Leeches suck the blood from its victim. “The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry. There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough’ (Proverbs 30:15).”
A. Things which are never satisfied.
Here we see the list: the grave, the barren womb, land in a time of drought and fire.
“The grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, enough (Proverbs 30:16).”
People are constantly dying so this is seen as a constant in life. The ‘barren womb,’ needs to be understood in the O. T. concept that most ancient Jewish people had an underdeveloped understanding of the afterlife and thought of their lives being extended through their children. So, barrenness was seen as a curse.
The idea of land here is one under duress from drought and in the need of relief. Much of Palestine is arid and wilderness. A trip to Qumran today shows the challenges of flash flooding and the ingenious systems that the ancient Essenes used to trap water so that during most of the dry season water was still available to them.
Regarding fire, we realize that as long as there is fuel, fire will be perpetrated. What is the point of the proverb as stated? Contentment is not attained by getting more, for the more we have the more we desire; rather it comes by accepting what we have and being grateful. The apostle Paul came to this wonderful secret of life.
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
I can do all this through him who gives me strength.[xiv]
B. Things that are amazing and mysterious (instinctual).
There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.[xv]
Here we see in the riddle, that in each of them there is a certain way of behaving. Each of them moves in a certain manner in its environment. The eagle soars in the sky, the snake slithers upon the rock, the ship glides through the waters, but in the four example we have the way of relating properly and in a God-designed manner reflecting God’s wisdom.
Each of these wise travelers knows how to make its way in its part of the created order: Eagles don’t try and swim, snakes don’t try and fly, and ships that go on rocks are destroyed. Therefore men and women who despise the mystery of love and sex and move outside of its boundaries are like those who step out of their place in created order and cause the earth to tremble (30:21-23).[xvi]
This is in contrast to the next Proverb 30:20; where the boundary has been violated without any thought of the negative consequences. “This is the way of an adulterous woman [or man]: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’ (Proverbs 30:20).”
The idea of eating is consuming. Here she [he] has been consuming an illicit relationships and sees nothing unhealthy about what they have done, which introduces the next set of four proverbs speaking of that which is destructive and difficult to bear.
C. Things that are destructive and difficult to bare.
‘Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up: a servant who becomes a king, a godless fool who gets plenty to eat, a contemptible woman who gets married, and a servant who displaces her mistress (Proverbs 30:21-22).” “In ancient Near Eastern thinking, the earth shakes when the natural order is disturbed.”[xvii] Here the wisdom writers give us two male and two female examples from that world that are distressing. People who are given leadership responsibilities but have neither the abilities and character to understand their responsibilities can easily become tyrants and abusive towards those they govern. Their actions are often irresponsible, and short-sighted and cause great heartache and pain to those they are leaders of. Then there are those who has been given much, but do not realize that they have been given a stewardship and they consume everything upon themselves without thought for others (cf. Luke 12:16-21).
The third example is the woman who has been deprived of love. The Hebrew language literally states that she has been hated. When this person finally marries, the neediness of that person often puts undue weight and pressure upon their household. Harry Ironside describes her as “Unamiable and vindictive in her disposition, she destroys the peace and happiness of her husband and her children.”[xviii]
The fourth picture is of a servant girl, who displaces her mistress. We see an example of this in the story of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar. It states that once she became pregnant she began to despise her mistress (cf. Gen. 16:4). While we may not relate to that example, but many can relate to being rejected by a husband having left them for a younger woman. This is extremely painful.
D. The fourth set of fours are those things that are extremely small but wise.
Here we move to some incredible examples of what appears insignificant but are extremely wise.
‘Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise:
Ants are creatures of little strength, yet the store up their food in summer; Hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their homes in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks; a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces.[xix]
Here the wisdom writer applauded these small but wise creatures because of their instinctual skill in survival. The ants work at the opportune time and therefore prepare for the future. The hyraxes, or rock badgers, build their homes in the rocks in order to protect themselves from predators and develop an elaborate network of tunnels and warning systems within their community. The locusts instinctively work and consume in an organized manner without a leader, and finally the lizard (our modern gecko) can be found in the most opulent surroundings. All of these insignificant creatures are able to govern themselves and find safety and provision.
E. Finally, things that are majestic in their manner.
There are three things that are stately in their stride, four that move with stately bearing:
a lion, mighty among beasts, who retreats before nothing; a strutting rooster, a he-goat, and a king secure against revolt.[xx]
These are all examples of power, strength, and the absence of fear. While the previous examples of the wise were without strength, these are examples of strength in their own realm. We are reminded of an earlier proverb of the value of walking in wisdom, or in the fear of the Lord which empowers and emboldens. “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion (Proverbs 28:1).” Wisdom breeds this courage; yet we find a closing warning against walking in self-exaltation. “If you play the fool and exalt yourself, or if you plan evil, clap your hand over your mouth! (Proverbs 30:32).”
Paul Koptak makes this suggested application of the text:
So also the picture of four beings that strut carries a note of satire. A king with an army may be great, but there may be one even greater. If there were a ‘better-than’ saying at the end of all this, it might be, ‘better to be humble and wise than a fool who pretends to greatness.’ Humility is a virtue of which the church and the watching world never says, ‘Enough!’[xxi]
If we lacked wisdom and played the fool by stirring up conflict by what we have said, we cannot undo the remark, but a change of mind and an apology is a good beginning toward moving in wisdom. “A mark of a wise person is to make peace and avoid strife.”[xxii]
Robert Alden summarizes the final two verses so well.
Quarrels often begin when fools hold greedy or stupid positions. The problem could end quickly if they would just ‘clap their hands over their mouths [stop talking]’ but the more tenaciously they hold on, the more belligerent they become. It begins when they fall in love with themselves and their ideas and it ends in a bloody battle in which righteousness rarely triumphs.[xxiii]
So how does evil come into our lives? Self-will and pride. Pride is far more subtle than most of us realize. Peter Kreeft reminds us of the nature of pride.
Pride is not first of all thinking too highly of yourself, because it isn’t thinking first of all but willing, just as humility isn’t thinking about yourself in a low way but not thinking of yourself at all. It’s thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself. Pride is willful arrogance, arrogating to yourself what is really God’s.[xxiv]
In Proverbs 30, we see the images of pride: the grasping, the strutting and the destructive patterns of evil that emerges from them. The only way to deal with this sin that moves us away from God and people is to come to the cross of Jesus where pride is dealt a crushing blow. God’s word is a wisdom that leads us home – home to the One who is our Creator and the One who has redeemed us from the power of sin. What keeps us from this path is pride. What leads us to God is a deep realization of our need for help in overcoming this great evil within our own soul.
[i] C. S. Lewis, as quoted in Wayne Martindale & Jerry Root, Eds. The Quotable Lewis, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, Inc., 1990), 224.
[ii] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 517.
[iii] Robert Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary On An Ancient Book Of Timeless Advice, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 207.
[iv] Proverbs 30:2-4, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[v] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 520-21.
[vi] John 3:12-13.
[vii] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 262.
[viii] Proverbs 30:7-9.
[ix] Deuteronomy 8:10-14, 17, 19.
[x] Romans 14:4.
[xi] Mark 9:38-40.
[xii] Proverbs 30:11-14.
[xiii] 2 Timothy 3:1-5.
[xiv] Philippians 4:11-13.
[xv] Proverbs 30:18-19.
[xvi] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 661.
[xviii] Harry A. Ironside, Proverbs and Song and Solomon, An Ironside Expository Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 274.
[xix] Proverbs 30:24-28.
[xx] Proverbs 30:29-31.
[xxi] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, 666.
[xxii] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs,268.
[xxiii] Robert Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary On An Ancient Book Of Timeless Advice, 212.
[xxiv] Peter Kreeft, For Heaven’s Sake, (Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson, 1986), 98 as quoted in Paul Koptak, Proverbs, 667.