My NIV breaks this chapter into 15 paragraphs of varying lengths -- from five verses (24-28) down to a half verse (two paragraphs comprising the first verse). The Hebrew text makes eight paragraphs. I will divide it up somewhat differently for pedagogical purposes [read v.1-3]
1 The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh -- an oracle:Like King Lemuel in chapter 31, we know nothing at all about the person Agur except what is here in verse 1. The same spelling of the word occurs in Deut.32:27, where the NIV translates it "I dreaded..." but the primary meaning of the verb is to "sojourn" (live as a foreigner). My dictionary says the root of this name actually means to "collect" and is used for letters (collected thoughts) and (collections of) small coins, which might therefore a descriptor of the chapter, a collection of sayings of the son of Jakeh. 'Jakeh' is Hebrew and Arabic for "venerate" or "pious" (worthy of veneration). For what it's worth.
This man declared to Ithiel, to Ithiel and to Ucal:
2 "I am the most ignorant of men; I do not have a man's understanding.
3 I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
The Hebrew root of the word 'massa' translated here as "oracle" means to "lift" and often gets translated as "carry" so this is what is carried, a burden. It's often used of what this or that prophet has to say in the sense that a preacher might say "the burden of my heart is..." like God has laid on him this heavy load, and he must "get it off his chest" by delivering the message. Perhaps Agur or the son of Jakeh feels burdened by this message because he feels ignorant and unqualified (verses 2-3) to say such "heavy" stuff.
Ithiel, according to my dictionary means "there is a God," not all that different in style from other Hebrew names, except this occurs only here. The preposition translated "to" in the NIV can mean a variety of things, most generally "with reference to," as in "belonging to" (many Psalms are attributed to David or Asaph or the Sons of Korah using this preposition) or direction of speaking (and the NIV translators assumed here) or even simply "somehow relevant."
Finally "Ucal" means "and eaten or consumed" (there is no preposition "to" in the Hebrew, the NIV translators assumed it here), so this second line might credibly also be translated "this guy (warrior) declared that God exists, and was consumed" [perhaps "the idea ate him up"]. It doesn't make a lot more sense than the usual translation, but that doesn't make much sense either.
Sowhat does he have to tell us? [read v.4-6]
4 Who has gone up to heaven and come down?Back in the 60s or 70s I had a hippie friend who was the hardware tech I worked with. He would use the word "Heavy!" in a stand-alone sentence like that to express his opinion that it was a deep subject, perhaps beyond his ability to fully understand it. That's the flavor of verse 4. All this is what God alone does -- except the first question (Who has gone up to heaven?) has the going up before the coming down, but Jesus did it the other way around. But Agur wrote this hundredsof years before that happened, he couldn't know (except by the revelation of God, which (I suppose) is easily garbled.
Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hands?
Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and the name of his son? Tell me if you know!
5 Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
6 Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
Verse 5 repeats two ideas we find elsewhre in Scripture, the perfection of God's Word [for example, Matt.5:18] and God as a protector ("shield") multiple times in the Psalms [for example, 3:3].
Verse 6 is interesting, because this warning occurs three times in the Bible, with the additional warning not to delete anything twice near the beginning [Deut.4:2, 12:32] and again once at the end [Rev.22:19], and then here alone in the middle. God does not take kindly to people messing with His Words. Don't leave anything out, and especially don't add anything to it.
So much for the "Heavy!" stuff. Now we have some things that read more like pithy sayings (proverbs) [read v.7-10]
7 Two things I ask of you, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die:God is a God of Truth, He cannot lie [Heb.6:18], and He won't be allowing liars into His Heaven [Rev.21:8], so Agur's first request is quite reasonable. The second is rather more subtle, so he gives us reasons for not wanting to be either poor (duh!) or rich. Notice the reasons are not his own comfort, as it might be if you or I made that request, but these are about the Honor of God. It's all about God, always was, always will be. Agur gets it, we often do not.
8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.
9 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.
10 Do not slander a servant to his master, or he will curse you, and you will pay for it.
Verse 10 looks like a stand-alone, but actually I think it's part of
the Truth thing. Slander is saying false and defamatory things about somebody.
A servant is particularly unable to defend himself -- he must do what his
master has paid him to do (which probably does not include self-defense)
-- and slander could get him fired. What can he do? Cry out to God! And
God listens in those cases! You don't want to be the guy God has an issue
11 There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers;Compare Ex.20:12 for verse 11, Matt.23:25 for verse 12, Prov.8:13 for verse 13, and Psa.35:10 for verse 14. Each of these opposes the way God wants things done.
12 those who are pure in their own eyes and yet are not cleansed of their filth;
13 those whose eyes are ever so haughty, whose glances are so disdainful;
14 those whose teeth are swords and whose jaws are set with knives to devour
the poor from the earth, the needy from among mankind.
I'm not sure how the leech or the ravens fit into this, but between them in a verse and a half, a numbered list of four things that never stop [read v.15-17]
15 The leech has two daughters. "Give! Give!" they cry.
There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, "Enough!":
16 the grave, the barren womb, land which is never satisfied with water,
and fire, which never says, "Enough!"
17 The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother,Then four things Agur does not understand, followed by another verse that doesn't fit [read v.18-20]
will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures.
18 There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand:
19 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 maiden.
20 This is the way of an adulteress: She eats and wipes her mouth and says, "I've done nothing wrong."I guess the next four could be the category "Bad Things Happen" [read v.21-23]
21 Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up:This next list of four small but smart things doesn't start out as three [read v.24-28]
22 a servant who becomes king, a fool who is full of food,
23 an unloved woman who is married, and a maidservant who displaces her mistress.
24 Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise:The last of the three-becomes-four each make a good parade [read v.29-31]
25 Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer;
26 coneys are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags;
27 locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks;
28 a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings' palaces.
29 There are three things that are stately in their stride, four that move with stately bearing:Finally, one last list of three that is not numbered, following another verse that doesn't fit thepattern (but still good advice) [read v.32-33]
30 a lion, mighty among beasts, who retreats before nothing;
31 a strutting rooster, a he-goat, and a king with his army around him.
32 If you have played the fool and exalted yourself, or if you have planned evil,So what do you think is the unifying category for the three ideas in verse 33?
clap your hand over your mouth!
33 For as churning the milk produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood,
so stirring up anger produces strife.
We have a modern proverb (less than 250 years old, compared to the age of what we just read, more than ten times that) "Better to keep silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." I think there's a verse in the Bible about the same, but I didn't find it. Verse 32 is more about clamming up after you said or did something stupid, still a good idea.
Next time: (some of) The Proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah collected.
2022 November 2