Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #821 -- May 6, 2021
Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations.
In so far as situations are typical and recurrent in
a given social structure, people develop names
for them and strategies for handling them.

Kenneth Duva Burke [1897-1993]
The Philosophy of Literary Form

The Proverbs & Prayer of Agur
A Reflective Examination of Proverbs 30

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), an English Baron and noted economist, stated, "Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking." There are many ways to arrange words so as to convey one's thoughts to others, and the study of such can be quite productive, especially for those who have devoted themselves to seeking to provide enlightenment and guidance unto others. The use of various figures of speech can also be effective when seeking to break through the barrier of a closed mind and to challenge the perceptions of those who tend to be resistant to growing beyond their present understandings on certain matters. I dealt with this in some depth in a study titled "Figures of Speech and Thought: Creative Communicative Building Blocks" (Reflections #356).

One of those building blocks that is common to almost all cultures, regardless of place or time or societal advancement, is proverbs. A proverb is similar to a parable, but is generally more of a wise statement than an extended story. In the Hebrew language there is just one word signifying both a proverb and a parable, which leads some scholars to define a proverb as "a condensed parable" [Dr. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, p. 328]. "A proverb may be regarded as a short, pithy sentence, containing a complete and valuable thought" [Dr. D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures, p. 314]. Peter gives us a couple of memorable proverbs in 2 Peter 2:22, "It has happened to them according to the true proverb, 'A dog returns to its own vomit,' and 'A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire'."

Although we find a number of proverbial statements within the writings of the New Covenant, our minds nevertheless turn to the writings of the Old Covenant when we think of both psalms and proverbs, and we find a large collection of both in the OT books known as Psalms and Proverbs. Further, when we think of the former collection, David comes to mind; when we think of the latter, we immediately think of Solomon. Both of these kings most certainly contributed (and composed) most of the material in their respective collection. They were not, however, the sole contributors. David, for example, only wrote about 80 of the 150 preserved psalms. Other writers were Moses, Solomon, Asaph, the sons of Korah, Heman the Ezrahite, and Ethan the Ezrahite. Many are also anonymous. As for the Book of Proverbs, the vast majority were either composed by or collected by Solomon. Yet, the famous "worthy wife" section (chapter 31) consists of "the words of King Lemuel, which his mother taught him" (vs. 1). The chapter just before this (Proverbs 30) was also not from the pen of Solomon, but rather were "the words of Agur the son of Jakeh," and were written to be delivered to a couple of men named "Ithiel and Ucal" (vs. 1). In this present issue of Reflections we will take a closer look at the selected proverbs and the prayer of Agur. I think you will find some of them not only interesting, but intriguing as well.

I suppose the first question to ask is: Who was Agur? Although there are a good many theories and speculations out there, the simple answer is: We don't know! The only reference to him is found in Proverbs 30:1, which says, "The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, his utterance. This man declared to Ithiel - to Ithiel and Ucal" [New King James Version]. That's it. Nothing else is ever said either about him, or his father, or the two to whom this declaration is sent. "The sayings of Agur the son of Jakeh are of uncertain origin, inasmuch as we have no information whatever as to Jakeh's historical, geographical, or even ethnic background" [Dr. Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 468]. In fact, almost every word of Proverbs 30:1 has led to scholarly debated over the centuries. "The Midrash attempts to credit the section to Solomon through a clever but contrived etymology" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1119]. "Jewish interpreters have seen in these titles (but apparently without a shadow of reason) a designation of Solomon" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, p. 353]. Thus, Agur would be Solomon, and Jakeh would be David, according to this theory.

Not everyone agrees, however, that these names represent actual people. "The LXX (Septuagint) and the Vulgate renderings even suggest uncertainty that 'Agur' is a proper name" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 75]. Instead, some Bibles (and biblical scholars) translate the various names in this verse so as to give the meaning of the words (with the assumption that no actual person is in view). The Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, for example, reads, "The words of Gatherer, the son of Vomiter." The Wycliffe Bible says, "The words of him that gathereth, of the son spewing." Young's Literal Translation reads, "Words of a Gatherer, son of an obedient one." The International Standard Version says, "A discourse by the faithful collector." Also, the word translated "oracle" or "utterance" (which is also used in Proverbs 31:1) is "Massa," which some believe may be a place instead of a proclamation. Thus, King Lemuel of Massa, might be said to be kin to Agur and Jakeh of Massa (if we believe these names to be of real men). The two names to whom these declarations are sent can also, some say, be reduced from literal men to mere meaning: "I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and I am exhausted" [New American Bible, revised edition] or "I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and worn out" [English Standard Version]. The NIV [New International Version] does a bit of both: "The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh - an inspired utterance. This man's utterance to Ithiel: 'I am weary, God, but I can prevail'."

Confusing?! Just a bit. I would tend to agree with Adam Clarke on this: "From the introduction, from the names here used, and from the style of the book, it appears evident that Solomon was not the author of this chapter. ... I believe Agur, Jakeh, Ithiel, and Ucal, to be the names of persons who did exist, but of whom we know nothing" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 3, p. 785]. Verses 2-3 of this chapter, however, if Agur is referring to himself, may give us some additional insight into this man. "Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom nor have knowledge of the Holy One" [New King James Version]. Instead of the word "stupid," many translations use the word "brutish." Agur is being brutally honest in his self-evaluation (much as Paul did in Romans 7). As he looks at himself, compared with the holiness of God, he sees little more than a brute beast. "Agur confesses that he is ignorant of the ways of God. He laments that he has not learned wisdom, i.e., that he is not one of those who profess to understand the Holy One. 'Ignorant' refers to his intellectual dullness; he is like the lower animals" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1119]. I think we can all relate, right?! He sees himself as uneducated and unwise. "It is very probable that he was a rustic, without education, and without any human help. ... Never a scholar in any of the schools of the wise men" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 3, p. 785]. "Psalm 73:22 also uses the word 'brutish,' and it carries the idea of a low level of understanding" [Donald Hunt, Pondering the Proverbs, p. 413].

In a series of questions reminiscent of God's queries to Job (in Job 38f), Agur illustrates his previously confessed lack of knowledge of eternal/divine realities by posing several questions men have pondered and puzzled over for centuries: "Who has ascended into heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son's name, if you know?" (Proverbs 30:4, NKJV). There is clearly a Creator-Messiah flavor to this verse which has not been lost on believers over the centuries. It is doubtful Agur himself perceived this significance, but from our perspective today we would likely answer: The Son's name is JESUS, and, yes, it is HE who descended from and ascended into heaven, and it is "by HIM all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in HIM all things hold together" (Colossians 1:16-17; cf. John 1:3, 10; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2; etc.). In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter even alludes to this somewhat, thus also answering Agur's question (Acts 2:29-36).

Throughout Proverbs 30 we find a number of fascinating and powerful "stand alone" proverbs. We will not attempt a "deep dive" into each of these proverbs, but I would certainly encourage the reader to do so on his/her own at some point, for they have much wisdom and guidance to offer. Instead, let me notice with you just a couple of Agur's proverbs, as well as the prayer Agur prays. In Proverbs 30:15a we find this proverb: "The leech has two daughters: 'Give' and 'Give'" [New American Standard Bible]. Some translations use the word "horseleech" instead, and a few commentators suggest a "vampire" may be in mind here. John Wesley (1703-1791), in his "Notes on the Bible," referred to the leech as "an insatiable creature, sucking blood 'till it is ready to burst" [e-Sword]. This critter is so insatiable, and so devoid of any morality, that it puts its daughters (figuratively speaking) on the street soliciting passersby. I like the way The Message has rendered this proverb: "A freeloader has twin daughters named 'Gimme' and 'Gimme more'." The Contemporary English Version reads, "Greed has twins, each named 'Give me!'" Instead of "leech," the "New Life Version" has, "The one who lives by the blood of another." It is not hard for our thoughts to turn to human leeches and parasites who are a constant, insatiable drain on the life blood of our nation. They would rather prostitute their young to feed their greed than put in an honest day's work. Society owes absolutely nothing to such freeloaders and bloodsuckers. "If anyone is not willing to work, then neither let him eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Sounds like good advice to me, advice some of our misguided leaders need to hear and heed.

Another proverb from the hand of Agur is found in Proverbs 30:20, "This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, 'I have done no wrong'" [New American Standard Bible]. Notice how a few other versions render this proverb: "An unfaithful wife says, 'Sleeping with another man is as natural as eating'" [Contemporary English Version] ... "A woman who is not faithful to her husband acts innocent. She eats, wipes her mouth, and says she has done nothing wrong" [Easy-to-Read Version] ... "An adulterous woman consumes a man, then wipes her mouth and says, 'What's wrong with that?'" [New Living Translation] ... "Here is the deceptive way of the adulterous woman: she takes what she wants and then says, 'I've done nothing wrong'" [The Passion Translation] ... "This is how an unfaithful wife acts: she commits adultery, takes a bath, and says, 'But I haven't done anything wrong!'" [Good News Translation] ... "Here's how a prostitute operates: she has sex with her client, takes a bath, then asks, 'Who's next?!'" [The Message]. We humans have a tendency to "rationalize away" our sinful behaviors, seeking to make them as harmless and insignificant and "normal" as eating a meal and wiping our mouths afterward. Insensitivity to sin, whether sexual or otherwise, is an easily entered trap, and it can prove deadly. "The imagery of eating and wiping her mouth is euphemistic for sexual activity (see Proverbs 9:17). It is incredible that human beings can engage in sin and then so easily dismiss any sense of guilt or responsibility, perhaps by rationalizing the deeds or perhaps through a calloused indifference to what the will of the Lord is for sexuality" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1124]. Such women (such persons in general) fit well the description provided by Agur in verse 12 - "There is a generation that is pure in its own eyes, yet is not washed from its filthiness" [New King James Version]. "These are those who may observe all outer ritual but pay no attention to inner cleansing. Such hypocrisy is harmful in every walk of life" [ibid, p. 1121]. Jesus speaks of such pathetic pretenders in Matthew 23:25-28.

Though there are other proverbs by Agur in this chapter, let's leave them for another time and consider The Prayer of Agur, which is found in Proverbs 30:7-9. "Two things I ask of you, O 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" [New International Version]. Although this is clearly a prayer, yet it apparently is not recognized as such by some. Dr. Herbert Lockyer (1886-1984), a British Baptist minister and author of over 50 books, wrote, "Proverbs contains no recorded prayers" [All the Prayers of the Bible, p. 128]. I believe Lockyer got this wrong. As this prayer begins, Agur appeals to the Lord to grant him only two requests during the remainder of his days on earth. First, he prays, "Keep falsehood and lies far from me" (verse 8a). There are two ways in which this petition may be understood: It may be taken in the sense of the phrase found in The Lord's Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (or 'the evil one')," or, if taken subjectively, it may be "a supplication for personal truthfulness and sincerity in all relations both towards God and man" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 9, p. 573]. "Agur prays that God will prevent him from becoming deceitful. He wants to be honest in all his dealings" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1120]. Sadly, falsehood, deception, lies, and dishonesty surround us daily in our journey through life; there is no way to avoid being exposed to such. However, like Agur, I should pray that I myself do not engage in such in my interaction with others. The Contemporary English Version translates this first part of Agur's prayer: "Make me absolutely honest." The Expanded Bible says, "Keep me from lying and being dishonest." The Passion Translation has: "Empty out of my heart everything that is false: every lie, and every crooked thing." The Message combines both perspectives in its rendering: "Banish lies from my lips and liars from my presence."

Second, Agur prays, "Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread" (verse 8b). This man is asking for "a life of balanced material blessings" [The Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1120], often characterized as "the golden mean" (i.e., the mean between two extremes). I think most would agree that, as we observe the world about us, we find that people tend to be happier and more satisfied with life when they are among the great "middle class," rather than extremely wealthy or extremely impoverished. Agur, in his rationale for this request, says, "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" (verse 9). Great wealth can potentially cause one to become self-sufficient, leading one to feel he has no need of God's help or presence in his life. The other extreme, great poverty, can lead us to a place where we doubt God's love for us; we lose faith and trust in Him and His provision for us, and thus often seek solutions that lie outside of His will for our lives. Therefore, Agur wisely petitions God to deliver him from both these dangerous extremes. "The deepest atheism springs from self-sufficiency. Prospering in the flesh, men are often impoverished in the spirit" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 9, p. 587]. On the other hand, some regard themselves as "too poor to be honest" [ibid], an equally unsatisfactory state of being.

Time and again the Bible shows us the tragic results of those who fail to maintain their spiritual focus in times of prosperity as well as poverty, although the greater emphasis in Scripture is upon the dangers of the former. For example, of Israel it was stated that the nation "grew fat, thick, and sleek. Then he forsook God who made him, and scorned the Rock of his salvation" (Deuteronomy 32:15). "Beware, lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Deuteronomy 8:11-14). With regard to the provision of God during Israel's wilderness wanderings, Hosea 13:5-6 says, "I cared for you in the desert, in the land of burning heat. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot Me." Thus, Agur wants no part of either extreme (poverty or riches), but prays that God will create within him a pure heart satisfied with whatever daily provision God deems sufficient for him. Wisdom and experience would suggest this prayer of Agur should be ours as well.


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Readers' Reflections

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

Al, I have been thinking about the subject of cremation. I believe you wrote about this topic in one of your Reflections, but I don't remember what you had to say about it. Could you refresh my memory or point me to the right issue of Reflections? Thanks. I really appreciate all your writings! Grace and peace to you, brother.

From a Reader in Wyoming:

Thanks, Al, for your study titled "The Great Deliverance Dilemma: Are We Delivered from a What or a Whom?" (Reflections #820). I always enjoy the journey of reflecting upon your studies, and I deeply appreciate your endeavor of leaving no stone unturned. In addition, I want to shout a loud "AMEN" to your response to the reader from Georgia in the "Readers' Reflections" section of your last article. As you stated, "church" is who we ARE, and our "worship" is expressed "in various acts of LOVE on a daily basis." I truly appreciated the totality of your response! Keep pressing on for the Master.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, "The Great Deliverance Dilemma" is an excellent article!! I have been thinking about how effective your writings are in teaching what the Bible actually says versus what some think it says. I suppose if preachers weren't so determined to get people into the baptistery, they'd do a whole lot more teaching of divine truths instead of condemning human behavior. Keep stomping out ignorance, brother!

From a Minister in Maine:

I've astonished groups several times over the years by recounting where I first learned "The Lord's Prayer." It was in public school. Other octogenarians, and perhaps some septuagenarians, might also recall reciting it as part of the daily opening exercises each school day, along with reading a psalm from the Bible and pledging allegiance to the flag (only 48 stars at that time). I remember it was forbidden in those days to give this prayer any attention "in church" or Sunday school, because the "kingdom had come" -- "church" and "kingdom" were held to be synonymous, partly as a reaction to premillennial doctrine, as you mentioned in your introduction. Moreover, it was avoided because it wasn't prayed "in Jesus' name." I agree that this prayer our Lord gave His disciples can become "sacrilegious sacramentalism and futile formalism." But, I have used it on occasion "spoken in unison," including at funerals along with Romans 8:26. While we might not know what words to use to express feelings of the moment, it at least lets us pray something, and we can then let the Spirit intercede and "translate." Thanks, Al, for another good exposition on a curious Scripture!

From a Missionary in Peru:

Al, the same thoughts you examined in the "Lord's Prayer" are also found in our Lord's great "High Priestly Prayer" in John 17:15 ("...keep them from the evil" or "...from the evil one"). Both translations are possible, but Jesus had spoken of Satan with His disciples on various occasions days and hours before His death (Satan entered Judas; Satan desired to "sift" the disciples). Also, in 1 John 5:18 mention is made of "the wicked/evil one." It seems the threat is coming more from an external enemy than the corrupt nature of man. Paul states, "We are not ignorant of his devices." Satan's power is well beyond our own power to overcome. Therefore, I believe that in the "Lord's Prayer," as well as the Lord's prayer in John 17, Jesus was looking to and calling upon the Holy Spirit's power and wisdom to discern and overcome the many attacks of "the evil one."

From a Reader in Colorado:

Al, I appreciate your latest Reflections on "The Great Deliverance Dilemma." As always, you give your readers something to chew on. You do good work, and your work is a blessing to all of us. You are an encourager! God bless you.

From a Reader in Ottawa, Canada:

Al, let me make just a few comments on your last article. You wrote, "The word translated 'deliver' in this passage is the Greek verb 'hruomai,' which means, 'to rescue, deliver; to drag out of danger' [The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 360]." When I read those words, it immediately came to my mind how many times our God and Father has literally dragged us away from danger unseen and unknown by us at the time. It wasn't until later, when we reflected on what had happened, that we asked ourselves, "How in the world did that happen?! I could/should have been killed or severely injured!" I can look back on incidents that took place when I worked in the underground mines where things like that happened to me. I am sure you experienced the same when you were in Vietnam and afterward. You quoted Paul in Ephesians 6, where he said, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." Indeed, we struggle against unseen spiritual forces, as well as a world influenced by the prince of the power of the air (Satan) who influences all the people in this world as he tries to draw them away from belief and trust in the Lord. We struggle with the evil without and within, for we are still in the flesh. Yet, what amazing grace our God and Father has given us as He tabernacles within us, giving us the power to overcome every test and trial and influence of evil that comes our way! Thanks for your very insightful article, Al. As always, you bring to us a greater awareness of just how much we need to strive to enter into His kingdom. May He continue to guide you and direct you as you bring glory to His holy name!

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