The Riddles of Proverbs 30 (P1)
Proverbs 30:15-31 are some of the most enigmatic words in all of Holy Writing. Their perceptive nuance is astonishingly subtle, concealing their truths from the lazy, from the simple, from the impatient, from formula-driven thinkers, from those who assume. What could the Lord's purpose be in inspiring Agur son of Jakeh to contribute these words to Solomon's book?
Proverbs is not concerned with schoolbook science, but real-life practicalities and mechanisms. These practicalities and mechanisms, however, are often conveyed in the form of savvy riddles, Proverbs 1:6 tells us. This article focuses on the riddles of Proverbs 30.
In Proverbs 30:15,16, Agur says, "...three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, 'Enough!'"
In 30:18, he says, "...three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand."
In 30:21,22, he says, "Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up."
In 30:24, he says, "Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise."
In 30:29, he says, "...three things that are stately in their stride, four that move with stately bearing."
I will simply decode these numerical parallelisms and their deeper meaning, I will not include responses or applications sections. You find them with the Holy Spirit.
Four Incessantly Unsatisfiable Realities
30:15,16 (NIV): There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, 'Enough!': the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, 'Enough!'
In his first numerical parallelism, Agur writes with anointed agitation about four unsatisfiable realities: the grave, the barren womb, land, and fire. Is it really Sheol that Agur is concerned with? Or barren wombs across Israel? Or thirsty Middle Eastern land always needing water? Or ancient garbage fires that burn perpetually? Oh no. Solomon and the Holy Spirit gave Agur his own chapter for a reason.
Agur uses "the grave" as a cryptic representation of anything that continually embraces and safeguards death. Contemporary examples would be the abortion industry, poverty, the drug epidemic, or Islamic terrorism. On a spiritual or psychological level, think of the incessant grave that is Christian legalism, or a person's deep fears, or pornography.
Agur uses "the barren womb" as a cryptic representation of anything that continually refuses to produce: a business that will not prosper, a relationship that never changes, a frustratingly stubborn or lazy Christian, or any (seemingly) hopelessly unproductive situation.
Agur uses "land never satisfied with water" as a cryptic representation of a need that is insatiable and incessant: the need for attention, or excitement, or drama, or new experiences, or more money, or sex, whatever. Solomon commented on this often. See Proverbs 27:20, Ecclesiastes 1:8, 5:10, 6:7.
Agur uses "fire that never has enough" as a cryptic representation of people's constant garbage, i.e., their sinful behaviors and dysfunctional issues they refuse to address. In the ancient world, perpetual fires burned outside of the city to eliminate the public's garbage, which included worthless materials, cadavers, even child sacrifices, etc. The most famous of these garbage fires was Topheth, from which Jesus drew analogies for another fire that burns perpetually--Gehenna or hell.
Four Hard-To-Obtain Qualities
30:18,19 (NIV): 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.
In his second numerical parallelism, Agur shifts from anointed agitation to anointed bewilderment at four hard-to-obtain qualities: an eagle's altitude, a snake's stealth, a ship's buoyancy, and a suitor's persuasiveness. Is it the science or physics of these phenomena that baffles Agur? Nope. Proverbs is not concerned with schoolbook science, but real-life practicalities and mechanisms, often illustrated in savvy riddles.
Agur uses "an eagle in the sky" as a representation for altitude in life. Who doesn't want to soar on the heights of a successful life? Who doesn't want to soar high above the troubles and traumas of humanity? This is possible, but it is a quality of life that is hard to obtain. It requires an enormous amount of spiritual growth, maturity in multiple dimensions, and very good decision-making. This "eagle in the sky" riddle often reminds me of my dad, who has a recurring dream that he is flying high in the clouds and praising Jesus.
Agur uses "a snake on a rock" to represent patient stealth. The longer I live the more I realize the need for composed calculation, especially when dealing with "a rock"--a hardened or seemingly impenetrable person. If you hit the rock you will hurt your hand, badly. If you hit the rock you will hurt your hand, badly. In fact, there is not much you can do with a rock except glide across it and around it with patient stealth until you find a crack. Perceive the riddle! But, as Agur noted, this was a hard-to-obtain quality for him. And for many, if not most, people. Hard to obtain does not mean impossible, though.
Agur uses "a ship on the high seas" to represent buoyancy. Remaining emotionally buoyant--joyful and jovial--in the turbulent high seas of this world, a world with so many irritants and disappointments and things to hate, is an exceedingly hard-to-obtain quality. But it is possible.
Agur uses "a man with a young woman" to represent the art of persuasion, specifically conversational persuasion. Every relationship, or potential relationship, requires this art. It is most easily observed, though, in the conversational grace and calculation of a skilled suitor, which is why Agur chose the romantic dynamic for the riddle. This same art, however, can secure business deals, negotiate social conflicts, overcome relationship obstacles, win political races, and much more. All human interaction, in a sense, is romantic wooing, like "a man with a young woman". Like Agur's previous three illustrations, this quality is hard to obtain for many, if not most, people.
The Idiot Genius
Agur begins this particular parallelism with a confession. He says (Young's Literal Translation):
Three things have been too wonderful for me, Yea, four that I have not known...
Agur humbly confessed the aforementioned four qualities were "too wonderful" for him. He also said, "I have not known them." The Hebrew word he used for "wonderful" is pala, which can also be translated "extraordinary, hard, beyond one's powers, separate and unreachable". When God said to Abraham and Sarah, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" in Genesis 18:14, the word "hard" is pala. When Jeremiah said to God, "Nothing is too hard for you" in Jeremiah 32:17, the word "hard" is pala. When God replied to Jeremiah, "Is anything too hard for me?" in verse 27, the word "hard" is pala.
In Proverbs 30:18, Agur is literally saying, "These four things have been too hard for me. I have not obtained them yet, I do not know them experientially."
Agur did not consider his life to be soaring on the heights, at least not consistently. He lacked patient stealth, at least more often than not. He was not emotionally buoyant, at least not consistently. He struggled to woo and win over others, perhaps even a wife. We have to admire his humility. Agur is a philosophical and perceptive genius, but in these four practical qualities, he confessed, "I am an idiot, a beginner, simply not there."
Every intellectual person needs to take Agur's humble confession to heart. Cerebral intelligence, good discernment, and philosophical wisdom are not enough to create a life of soaring (consistent success), stealth (consistent cunning), buoyancy (consistent happiness), and persuasiveness (consistent influence). These and other practical character traits must be developed deliberately and pragmatically, with daily practice and many rounds of trial and error. I know Christian and secular leaders who are nearly geniuses, who are stunningly insightful, but who are facepalm idiots in certain areas of practical life. In other words, Agur confesses, it is possible to be phenomenally smart and phenomenally stupid at the same time.
Four Unbearable Dilemmas
30:21-23 (NIV): Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up: a servant who becomes king, a godless fool who gets plenty to eat, a contemptible woman who gets married, and a servant who displaces her mistress.
In his third numerical parallelism, Agur writes about four unbearable or overwhelming dilemmas. He even says, using hyperbole, the earth cannot hold up under these situations.
Agur begins with "a servant who becomes king". This refers to an unprepared leader ("servant" is used here in a negative or pejorative sense). Solomon, perhaps reflecting on Agur's words in his book, speaks identically in Ecclesiastes 10:16 (NKJV): Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child...
Yeesh. I have worked with many churches, ministries, or organizations where "the king" was actually a child or a servant, meaning, the leader was quite immature, or at the very least, unprepared for the position. Boy did it become unbearable, just as Agur said.
Agur then mentions "a godless fool who gets plenty to eat". This refers to a prosperous fool. Solomon, again, perhaps reflecting on Agur's words in his book, writes Ecclesiastes 7:12 (NIV): Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it. A prosperous fool can use his/her prosperity to shelter their sin and bad choices. Think of a troubled celebrity who, in Agur's words, keeps getting "plenty to eat". Prosperous fools are unbearable. All that money and visibility and potential influence and they keep hurting themselves, hurting others, and causing problems. A godless fool with resources...unbearable.
Agur then mentions "an unloved woman when she marries" (HCSB). He is reminiscing Leah and the many women like her. The concept in this riddle is that of a trapped individual. In ancient Israel an unloved wife could not just up and leave; she was largely trapped. Whether it be an unloved wife or an abused teenager or an emasculated male or a person in poverty, things become unbearable very fast when a person feels trapped.
Lastly, Agur mentions "a maidservant when she supplants her mistress" (AMP). He is reminiscing the story of Hagar and Sarah and the deeper storyline of replacement and jealousy and how it makes life unbearable for everyone involved. Think of David replacing Saul, Isaac replacing Ishmael, the highest Morning Star (Jesus) replacing the lesser Morning Star (Lucifer). (See Isaiah 14:12 and Revelation 22:16.) Think of the recent drama among the executives of Men's Warehouse (at the time this article was written). Think of how power is bitterly supplanted among mideastern regimes, like Egypt's Mohamed Morsi and Abdel el-Sisi.
In the final riddle of this tetrad, Agur is telling us how unbearable things become when one person, being, or entity is supplanted and replaced by another. There is often hell to pay.
In Part 2 we will decode Agur's last two parallelisms and their meanings. Also in Part 2 I will provide practical responses or applications, I feel the nature of those last two tetrads require it.