Proverbs 301 The words of Agur, the son of Jakeh; an oracle: ▼
▼ The title הַמַּשָּׂא (hammasa’) means “the burden,” a frequently used title in prophetic oracles. It may be that the word is a place name, although it is more likely that it describes what follows as an important revelation.
▼ The definite article is used here as a demonstrative, clarifying the reference to Agur.man says ▼
▼ The word translated “says” (נְאֻם, ne’um) is a verbal noun; it is also a term that describes an oracle. It is usually followed by the subjective genitive: “the oracle of this man to Ithiel.”to Ithiel, to Ithiel and to Ukal: ▼
▼ There have been numerous attempts to reinterpret the first two verses of the chapter. The Greek version translated the names “Ithiel” and “Ukal,” resulting in “I am weary, O God, I am weary and faint” (C. C. Torrey, “Proverbs Chapter 30,” JBL 73 : 93-96). The LXX’s approach is followed by some English versions (e.g., NRSV, NLT). The Midrash tried through a clever etymologizing translation to attribute the works to Solomon (explained by W. G. Plaut, Proverbs, 299). It is most likely that someone other than Solomon wrote these sayings; they have a different, almost non-proverbial, tone to them. See P. Franklyn, “The Sayings of Agur in Proverbs 30: Piety or Skepticism,” ZAW 95 (1983): 239-52.
2 Surely ▼
▼ The particle כִּי (ki) functions in an asseverative sense, “surely; indeed; truly” (R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 73, #449).I am more brutish ▼
▼ The noun בַּעַר (ba’ar) means “brutishness”; here it functions as a predicate adjective. It is followed by מֵאִישׁ (me’ish) expressing comparative degree: “more than a man” or “more than any man,” with “man” used in a generic sense. He is saying that he has fallen beneath the level of mankind. Cf. NRSV “I am too stupid to be human.”than any other human being, ▼
▼ Heb “than man.” The verse is using hyperbole; this individual feels as if he has no intelligence at all, that he is more brutish than any other human. Of course this is not true, or he would not be able to speculate on the God of the universe at all.
and I do not have human understanding; ▼
▼ Heb “the understanding of a man,” with “man” used attributively here.
3 I have not learned wisdom,
nor do I have knowledge ▼
▼ The construction uses repetition to make the point emphatically: “I do not know the knowledge of the Holy One.” Agur’s claim to being “brutish” is here clarified – he is not one of those who has knowledge or understanding of God. C. H. Toy thinks the speaker is being sarcastic in reference to others who may have claimed such knowledge (Proverbs [ICC], 521).of the Holy One. ▼
4 Who has ascended into heaven, and then descended? ▼
▼ To make his point Agur includes five questions. These, like Job 38–41, or Proverbs 8:24–29, focus on the divine acts to show that it is absurd for a mere mortal to think that he can explain God’s work or compare himself to God. These questions display mankind’s limitations and God’s incomparable nature. The first question could be open to include humans, but may refer to God alone (as the other questions do).
Who has gathered up the winds in his fists? ▼
▼ The questions are filled with anthropomorphic language. The questioner is asking what humans have ever done this, but the meaning is that only God has done this. “Gathering the wind in his fists” is a way of expressing absolute sovereign control over the forces of nature.
Who has bound up the waters in his cloak? ▼
Who has established all the ends of the earth? ▼
▼ The ends of the earth is an expression often used in scripture as a metonymy of subject referring to the people who live in the ends of the earth, the far off and remote lands and islands. While that is possible here as well, this may simply be a synecdoche saying that God created the whole world, even the most remote and distant places.
What is his name, and what is his son’s name? ▼
▼ The reference to “son” in this passage has prompted many suggestions down through the years: It was identified as Israel in the Jewish Midrashim, the Logos or demiurge by some of the philosophers and allegorical writers, as simple poetic parallelism without a separate identity by some critical scholars, and as Jesus by Christian commentators. Parallels with Ugaritic are interesting, because Baal is referred to as a son; but that is bound up within the pantheon where there was a father god. Some of the Jewish commentators exhibit a strange logic in expressing what Christians would say is only their blindness to the full revelation: There is little cogency in this being a reference to Jesus because if there had been such a person at any time in the past he would have left some tradition about it through his descendants (J. H. Greenstone, Proverbs, 317). But Judaism has taught from the earliest times that Messiah was preexistent (especially in view of Micah 5 and Daniel 7); and the claims of Jesus in the Gospels bear this out. It seems best to say that there is a hint here of the nature of the Messiah as Son, a hint that will later be revealed in full through the incarnation.– if you know!
5 Every word of God is purified; ▼
▼ The text here uses an implied comparison (a figure of speech known as hypocatastasis): It compares the perfection of every word from God with some precious metal that has been refined and purified (e.g., Ps 12:6). The point is that God’s word is trustworthy; it has no defects and flaws, nothing false or misleading. The second half of the verse explains the significance of this point – it is safe to trust the Lord.
he is like ▼
▼ The comparative “like” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is implied by the metaphor; it is supplied in the translation for the sake of clarity.a shield for those who take refuge in him. ▼
▼ The line uses two more figures of speech to declare that God can be trusted for security and salvation. “Shield” is a simple metaphor – God protects. “Take refuge” is another implied comparison (hypocatastasis) – God provides spiritual rest and security for those who put their trust in him.
6 Do not add to his words,
lest he reprove you, and prove you to be a liar. ▼
▼ The form of the verb is a Niphal perfect tense with a vav consecutive from the root כָּזַב (kazav, “to lie”). In this stem it has the ideas of “been made deceptive,” or “shown to be false” or “proved to be a liar.” One who adds to or changes the word of the Lord will be seen as a liar.
7 Two things ▼ I ask from you; ▼
do not refuse me before I die:
8 Remove falsehood and lies ▼
▼ The two words might form a hendiadys: “falsehood and lies” being equivalent to “complete deception.” The word שָׁוְא means “false; empty; vain; to a false purpose.” The second word means “word of lying,” thus “a lying word.” Taken separately they might refer to false intentions and false words.far from me;
do not give me poverty or riches,
feed me with my allotted portion ▼ of bread, ▼
9 lest I become satisfied and act deceptively ▼
▼ The verb כָּחַשׁ (kakhash) means “to be disappointing; to deceive; to fail; to grow lean.” In the Piel stem it means “to deceive; to act deceptively; to cringe; to disappoint.” The idea of acting deceptively is illustrated in Hos 9:2 where it has the connotation of “disowning” or “refusing to acknowledge” (a meaning very close to its meaning here).
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I become poor and steal
and demean ▼
▼ The Hebrew verb literally means “to take hold of; to seize”; this produces the idea of doing violence to the reputation of God.the name of my God.
10 Do not slander ▼
▼ The form תַּלְשֵׁן (talshen) is the Hiphil jussive (with the negative אַל, ’al); it is a denominative verb from the noun “tongue” (Heb “wag the tongue”). It means “to defame; to slander,” if the accusation is untrue. Some have suggested that the word might have the force of “denouncing” a slave to his master, accusing him before authorities (e.g., Deut 23:15–16). This proverb would then be a warning against meddling in the affairs of someone else.a servant to his master,
lest he curse you, and you are found guilty. ▼
▼ If what was said were true, then there would be no culpability. But the implication here is that it was slander. And the effect of that will be a curse – the person who is the target of the slander will “curse” the person who slandered him (קָלַל [qalal] in the Piel means “to treat lightly [or, with contempt]; to curse”), and culpability will result (the verb וֹשׁם means “to be guilty; to make a guilt offering [or, reparation offering]”). This word for guilt suggests a connection to the Levitical teaching that the guilty had to make reparation for damages done (Lev 5). Cf. NAB “you will have to pay the penalty”; NIV, NLT “you will pay for it.”
11 There is a generation ▼
▼ The next four verses all start with the Hebrew expression translated “There is a generation.” This is a series of denunciations of things that are dangerous in society without mentioning specific punishments or proscriptions. The word “generation” as used in this passage refers to a class or group of people.who curse their fathers
and do not bless their mothers. ▼
▼ The first observation is that there is a segment in society that lacks respect for parents. This uses the antonyms “curse” and [not] “bless” to make the point. To “curse” a parent could include treating them lightly, defaming them, or showing disrespect in general. To “bless” would mean to honor, respect, or enrich in some way, which is what should be done (e.g., Exod 21:17; Prov 20:20).
12 There is a generation who are pure in their own eyes
and yet are not washed ▼
▼ The verb רָחַץ (rakhats) means “to wash; to wash off; to wash away; to bathe.” It is used of physical washing, ceremonial washings, and hence figuratively of removing sin and guilt through confession (e.g., Isa 1:16). Here the form is the Pual perfect (unless it is a rare old Qal passive, since there is no Piel and no apparent change of meaning from the Qal).▼ from their filthiness. ▼
13 There is a generation whose eyes are so lofty, ▼
▼ Heb “how high are its eyes!” This is a use of the interrogative pronoun in exclamatory sentences (R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 25, #127).
and whose eyelids are lifted up disdainfully. ▼
▼ Heb “its eyelids are lifted up,” a gesture indicating arrogance and contempt or disdain for others. To make this clear, the present translation supplies the adverb “disdainfully” at the end of the verse.▼
14 There is a generation whose teeth are like ▼
▼ The comparative “like” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is implied by the metaphor; it is supplied in the translation for the sake of clarity.swords ▼
▼ There are two figures used in each of these lines: teeth/great teeth and “swords/knives.” The term “teeth” is a metonymy for the process of chewing and eating. This goes with the figure of the second half of the verse that speaks about “devouring” the poor – so the whole image of eating and chewing refers to destroying the poor (an implied comparison). The figures of “swords/knives” are metaphors within this image. Comparing teeth to swords means that they are sharp and powerful. The imagery captures the rapacity of their power.
and whose molars ▼
▼ Heb “teeth” (so NRSV) or “jaw teeth” (so KJV, ASV, NASB) or perhaps “jawbone.” This is a different Hebrew word for “teeth” than the one in the previous line; if it refers to “jaw teeth” then a translation like “molars” would be appropriate, although this image might not fit with the metaphor (“like knives”) unless the other teeth, the incisors or front teeth, are pictured as being even longer (“like swords”).are like knives
to devour ▼
▼ The Hebrew form לֶאֱכֹל (le’ekhol) is the Qal infinitive construct; it indicates the purpose of this generation’s ruthless power – it is destructive. The figure is an implied comparison (known as hypocatastasis) between “devouring” and “destroying.”the poor from the earth
and the needy from among the human race.
15 The leech ▼
▼ The next two verses describe insatiable things, things that are problematic to normal life. The meaning of v. 15a and its relationship to 15b is debated. But the “leech” seems to have been selected to begin the section because it was symbolic of greed – it sucks blood through its two suckers. This may be what the reference to two daughters calling “Give! Give!” might signify (if so, this is an implied comparison, a figure known as hypocatastasis).has two daughters: ▼
▼ As one might expect, there have been various attempts to identify the “two daughters.” In the Rabbinic literature some identified Alukah (the “leech”) with Sheol, and the two daughters with paradise and hell, one claiming the righteous and the other the unrighteous; others identified Alukah with Gehenna, and the two daughters with heresy and government, neither of which is ever satisfied (Midrash Tehillim quoted by Rashi, a Jewish scholar who lived a.d. 1040–1105, and in the Talmud, b. Avodah Zarah 17a). J. J. Glueck suggests that what is in view is erotic passion (and not a leech) with its two maidens of burning desire crying for more (“Proverbs 30:15a, ” VT 14 : 367-70). F. S. North rightly criticizes this view as gratuitous; he argues for the view of a leech with two suckers (“The Four Insatiables,” VT 15 : 281-82).
“Give! Give!” ▼
▼ The two imperatives הַב הַב (hav hav, “give, give,” from יָהַב, yahav) correspond to the two daughters, and form their appeal. This would then be a personification – it is as if the leech is crying out, “Give! Give!”
There are three things that are never satisfied,
▼ There is a noticeable rhetorical sequence here: two daughters, three things, four (see W. M. Roth, “The Numerical Sequence x / x +1 in the Old Testament,” VT 12 : 300-311, and “Numerical Sayings in the Old Testament,” VT 13 : 86). W. McKane thinks the series builds to a climax with the four, and in the four the barren woman is the focal point, the other three being metaphors for her sexual desire (Proverbs [OTL], 656). This interpretation is a minority view, however, and has not won widespread support.that never say, “Enough” ▼
▼ Throughout the book of Proverbs הוֹן (hon) means “wealth”; but here it has the nuance of “sufficiency” (cf. TEV, CEV, NLT “satisfied”) or “enough” (BDB 223 s.v.).–
16 the grave, ▼
▼ The term שְׁאוֹל (she’ol, “Sheol”) refers here to the realm of the dead: “the grave” (so KJV, NIV, NLT); cf. TEV, CEV “the world of the dead”; NAB “the nether world.”the barren womb, ▼
land that is not satisfied with water,
and fire that never says, “Enough!” ▼
▼ There is no clear lesson made from these observations. But one point that could be made is that greed, symbolized by the leech, is as insatiable as all these other things. If that is the case, the proverb would constitute a warning against the insatiable nature of greed.
17 The eye ▼ that mocks at a father
and despises obeying ▼
▼ The Hebrew word לִיקֲּהַת (liqqahat, “obeying”) occurs only here and in Gen 49:10; it seems to mean “to receive” in the sense of “receiving instruction” or “obeying.” C. H. Toy suggests emending to “to old age” (לְזִקְנַת, leziqnat) of the mother (Proverbs [ICC], 530). The LXX with γῆρας (gēras, “old age”) suggests that a root lhq had something to do with “white hair.” D. W. Thomas suggests a corruption from lhyqt to lyqht; it would have read, “The eye that mocks a father and despises an aged mother” (“A Note on לִיקֲּהַת in Proverbs 30:17, ” JTS 42 : 154-55); this is followed by NAB “or scorns an aged mother.”a mother –
the ravens of the valley will peck it out
and the young vultures will eat it. ▼
▼ The sternest punishment is for the evil eye. The punishment is talionic – eye for eye. The reference to “the valley” may indicate a place where people are not be given decent burials and the birds of prey pick the corpses clean. It is an image the prophets use in judgment passages.
18 There are three things that are too wonderful for me, ▼
▼ The form נִפְלְאוּ (nifle’u) is the Niphal perfect from פָּלָא (pala’); the verb means “to be wonderful; to be extraordinary; to be surpassing”; cf. NIV “too amazing.” The things mentioned are things that the sage finds incomprehensible (e.g., Gen 18:14; Judg 13:18; Ps 139:6; and Isa 9:6). The sage can only admire these wonders – he is at a loss to explain them.
four that I do not understand:
19 the way ▼
▼ It is difficult to know for certain what these four things had in common for the sage. They are all linked by the word “way” (meaning “a course of action”) and by a sense of mystery in each area. Suggestions for the connections between the four include: (1) all four things are hidden from continued observation, for they are in majestic form and then gone; (2) they all have a mysterious means of propulsion or motivation; (3) they all describe the movement of one thing within the sphere or domain of another; or (4) the first three serve as illustrations of the fourth and greatest wonder, which concerns human relationships and is slightly different than the first three.of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship in the sea,
and the way of a man with a woman. ▼
▼ This last item in the series is the most difficult to understand. The MT reads וְדֶּרֶךְ גֶּבֶר בְּעַלְמָה (vederekh gever be’almah, “and the way of a man with a maid,” so KJV, NASB). The last term does not in and of itself mean “virgin” but rather describes a young woman who is sexually ready for marriage. What is probably in view here is the wonder of human sexuality, for the preposition בְּ (bet) in this sequence indicates that the “way of the man” is “with” the woman. This mystery might begin with the manner of obtaining the love of the young woman, but focuses on the most intimate part of human relationships. And all of this was amazing to the sage. All of it is part of God’s creative plan and therefore can be enjoyed and appreciated without fully comprehending it.
20 This is the way ▼
▼ Equally amazing is the insensitivity of the adulterous woman to the sin. The use of the word “way” clearly connects this and the preceding material. Its presence here also supports the interpretation of the final clause in v. 19 as referring to sexual intimacy. While that is a wonder of God’s creation, so is the way that human nature has distorted it and ruined it.of an adulterous ▼
▼ The word clearly indicates that the woman is married and unchaste; but the text describes her as amoral as much as immoral – she sees nothing wrong with what she does.woman:
she eats and wipes her mouth ▼
and says, “I have not done wrong.” ▼
▼ This is the amazing part of the observation. It is one thing to sin, for everyone sins, but to dismiss the act of adultery so easily, as if it were no more significant than a meal, is incredibly brazen.
21 Under three things the earth trembles, ▼
▼ The Hebrew verb means “to rage; to quake; to be in tumult.” The sage is using humorous and satirical hyperbole to say that the changes described in the following verses shake up the whole order of life. The sayings assume that the new, elevated status of the individuals was not accompanied by a change in nature. For example, it was not completely unknown in the ancient world for a servant to become king, and in the process begin to behave like a king.
and under four things it cannot bear up:
22 under a servant ▼
▼ A servant coming to power could become a tyrant if he is unaccustomed to the use of such power, or he might retain the attitude of a servant and be useless as a leader.who becomes king,
under a fool who is stuffed with food, ▼
▼ Heb “filled with food” (so ASV); NASB “satisfied with food”; NAB, NRSV “glutted with food”; CEV “who eats too much”; NLT “who prospers.”▼
▼ The expression stuffed with food probably represents prosperity in general. So the line portrays someone who suddenly comes into wealth, but continues to be boorish and irreligious.
23 under an unloved ▼
▼ The Hebrew term means “hated,” from שָׂנֵא (sane’), a feminine passive participle. The text does not say why she is hated; some have speculated that she might be odious (cf. KJV, ASV, NAB) or unattractive, but perhaps she is married to someone incapable of showing love (e.g., Gen 29:31, 33; Deut 21:15; Isa 60:5). Perhaps the strange situation of Jacob was in the mind of the sage, for Leah was described as “hated” (Gen 29:31).woman who is married,
and under a female servant who dispossesses ▼ her mistress.
24 There are four things on earth that are small, ▼
▼ Heb “Four are the small things of the earth.” TEV has “four animals,” though in the list of four that follows, two are insects and one is a reptile.
but they are exceedingly wise: ▼
▼ The construction uses the Pual participle with the plural adjective as an intensive; these four creatures are the very embodiment of wisdom (BDB 314 s.v. חָכַם Pu).
25 ants are creatures with little strength,
but they prepare ▼
▼ The wisdom of the ants is found in their diligent preparation (כּוּן, kun) of food supplies in the summer for times in the winter when food is scarce. See S. P. Toperoff, “The Ant in the Bible and Midrash,” Dor le Dor 13 (1985): 179-83. According to this, being prepared ahead of time is a mark of true wisdom.their food in the summer;
26 rock badgers ▼
▼ Or “hyraxes.” This is the Syrian Hyrax, also known as the rock badger. KJV, ASV has “conies” (alternately spelled “coneys” by NIV), a term usually associated with the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) but which can also refer to the pika or the hyrax. Scholars today generally agree that the Hebrew term used here refers to a type of hyrax, a small ungulate mammal of the family Procaviidae native to Africa and the Middle East which has a thick body, short legs and ears and a rudimentary tail. The simple “badger” (so NASB, NRSV, CEV) could lead to confusion with the badger, an entirely unrelated species of burrowing mammal related to weasels.▼
▼ Modern scholars identify this creature with the rock badger (the Syrian hyrax), a small mammal that lives in the crevices of the rock. Its wisdom consists in its ingenuity to find a place of security.are creatures with little power,
but they make their homes in the crags;
27 locusts have no king,
but they all go forward by ranks; ▼
28 a lizard ▼ ▼
▼ The point of this saying is that a weak creature like a lizard, that is so easily caught, cannot be prevented from getting into the most significant places.you can catch with the hand,
but it gets into the palaces of the king. ▼
▼ Although the Hebrew noun translated “king” is singular here, it is traditionally translated as plural: “kings’ palaces” (so KJV, NASB, NIV, NRSV).
29 There are three things that are magnificent ▼
▼ The form מֵיטִיבֵי (metibe) is the Hiphil participle, plural construct. It has the idea of “doing good [in] their step.” They move about well, i.e., magnificently. The genitive would be a genitive of specification.in their step,
four things that move about magnificently: ▼
▼ The construction uses the Hiphil participle again (as in the previous line) followed by the infinitive construct of הָלַךְ (halakh). This forms a verbal hendiadys, the infinitive becoming the main verb and the participle before it the adverb.
30 a lion, mightiest ▼
▼ Heb “mighty among the beasts,” but referring to a superlative degree (“mightiest”).of the beasts,
who does not retreat from anything;
31 a strutting rooster, ▼
▼ The Hebrew term זַרְזִיר (zarzir) means “girt”; it occurs only here with “loins” in the Bible: “that which is girt in the loins” (BDB 267 s.v.). Some have interpreted this to be the “greyhound” because it is narrow in the flanks (J. H. Greenstone, Proverbs, 327); so KJV, ASV. Others have suggested the warhorse, zebra, raven, or starling. Tg. Prov 30:31 has it as the large fighting cock that struts around among the hens. There is no clear referent that is convincing, although most modern English versions use “strutting rooster” or something similar (cf. CEV “proud roosters”).a male goat,
and a king with his army around him. ▼
▼ This last line has inspired many suggestions. The MT has “with his army around him” (אַלְקוּם עִמּוֹ, ’alqum ’immo); so NIV. This has been emended to read “against whom there is no rising up” (so KJV, ASV) or “standing over his people.” The LXX has “a king haranguing his people.” Tg. Prov 30:31 has, “a king who stands up before his people and addresses them.” Some have attempted to identify this with Alcimus, the high priest who aspired to kingship (1 Macc 7:5–22), but such a suggestion is quite remote. Another interpretation sees the word for “God” in the line: “a king with whom God is.” Furthermore, C. H. Toy thinks the text is corrupt and must have at one time referred to some majestic animal (Proverbs [ICC], 537). While all these suggestions are fascinating, they have not improved or corrected the Hebrew text. At least one can say the focus is on the stately appearance of the king at some auspicious moment. The word occurs only here; but if it is interpreted with its Arabic cognate in mind, then it refers to a band of soldiers (BDB 39 s.v. אַלְקוּם).
32 If you have done foolishly by exalting yourself ▼
▼ The construction has the בְּ (bet) preposition with the Hitpael infinitive construct, forming a temporal clause. This clause explains the way in which the person has acted foolishly.
or if you have planned evil,
put ▼ your hand over your mouth!
33 For as the churning ▼
▼ This line provides the explanation for the instruction to keep silent in the previous verse. It uses two images to make the point, and in so doing repeats two words throughout. The first is the word מִיץ (mits), which is translated (in sequence) “churning,” “punching,” and “stirring up.” The form is a noun, and BDB 568 s.v. suggests translating it as “squeezing” in all three places, even in the last where it describes the pressure or the insistence on strife. This noun occurs only here. The second repeated word, the verb יוֹצִיא (yotsir), also occurs three times; it is the Hiphil imperfect, meaning “produces” (i.e., causes to go out).of milk produces butter
and as punching the nose produces blood,
so stirring up anger ▼
▼ There is a subtle wordplay here with the word for anger: It is related to the word for nose in the preceding colon.produces strife. ▼
▼ The analogy indicates that continuously pressing certain things will yield results, some good, some bad. So pressing anger produces strife. The proverb advises people to strive for peace and harmony through humility and righteousness. To do that will require “letting up” on anger.
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