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Proverbs 30 is one of the more puzzling passages in Scripture. Not because we find its truths hard to accept, or its statements bottomless and profound, or its portrait of God unsettling or offensive. No, Proverbs 30 is just plain weird. It offers enigmatic claims, non sequiturs, and material that has no obvious theological or ethical application for our lives.
If you encounter this text on an annual reading plan, it might draw you into a few minutes of bemused contemplation, but then—look at the clock—it’s time to start breakfast, wake the kids, and head for the (home) office. And Proverbs 30 lodges somewhere in a mental junk drawer with a Post-it: What am I supposed to do with this? How is this Scripture? How does this connect to Christ?
The key to reading such a strange passage might be to step back and adopt a reflective stance. What key themes or ideas seem to hold all this together? Where do I see the brokenness of humanity? Where do I see the character and the grace of God? When read this way, Proverbs 30 yields a central concern: Agur mocks and reviles pride and greed, while also vindicating and commending humility and contentment.
Mocking Pride and Greed
Right from the start, Agur dramatically rejects the idea that he is wise (vv. 2–3). There may well be a touch of hyperbole here. Although he will teach us wisdom, he considers himself stupid enough to be subhuman (cf. Ps. 22:6; Job 25:6).
His withering rhetorical questions humble everyone, similar to the way God rebukes Job from the whirlwind (v. 4; cf. Job 38–40). By rejecting human knowledge, Agur clings entirely to God’s Word (vv. 5–6). This leads him to offer a short prayer that asks for contentment in order to safeguard his relationship with God (vv. 7–9).
His withering rhetorical questions humble everyone, similar to the way God rebukes Job from the whirlwind.
Agur turns next to lambast pride and greed. Young people without respect for their elders (v. 11) are pictured as ravening beasts, deluded by their sense of grandeur (v. 13) so that they exploit the vulnerable (v. 14). But like barnyard animals, they are caked in their own excrement (v. 12). Like the leech that follows, this portrait is mockery that should shock and disgust us (v. 15).
Pointing out how revolting and incongruous this is might leave us with a wry smile. The strange numerical sayings are a rhetorical device that reframes how we see our world by asking us to puzzle over clever and unexpected lists. We’re drawn in to muse on the mysterious movement of an eagle, snake, and ship—and the sexual pairing of man and woman (vv. 18–19).
If at first we’re not sure what to make of this, verse 20 interprets it: just like you can’t trace the path of an eagle, snake, or ship after it passes by, those committed to adultery think that because they can wipe away the evidence they can absolve themselves of wrong. Sin, in other words, is stupid.
Agur packages his message in the absurd and wraps it in irony. Like a low-budget horror movie or Quentin Tarantino film, the imagery is so graphic and over the top that we are expected to cringe and laugh simultaneously. But Agur’s dark humor is deadly serious.
Agur packages his message in the absurd and wraps it in irony. But his dark humor is deadly serious.
We will come to a horrific end if we don’t learn to feel the right kind of horror and revulsion when we see pride and greed. In verse 17, the disrespectful youths of verses 11–14 lie unburied and are devoured by carrion birds. We might simultaneously cheer and turn away in disgust.
Humility and Contentment Vindicated
Bursting through all the images, Agur states his moral for the whole collection directly in verse 32: “If you have been foolish, exalting yourself . . . put your hand on your mouth.” His application echoes the stance of extreme humility that he adopted in the beginning (vv. 2–3). By considering ourselves “less than human,” we gain perspective.
We will come to a horrific end if we do not learn to feel the right kind of horror and revulsion when we see pride and greed.
Agur invites you to imagine yourself as an animal, to find yourself in this parade of beasts. When are you devouring the poor and needy (vv. 11–15)? When are you strutting toward absurdity (vv. 29–31)? The natural world presents a mirror for human behavior and we see ourselves in the potent contrasts these animals present.
Through all of this Agur makes a subtle and profound point about wisdom. True wisdom isn’t held by those who appear to have the strongest claim, but by those who appear weak or foolish. Rather than the absurd pomp of the lion, rooster, he-goat, and king, we should imitate the animals that are exceedingly wise despite being small (vv. 24–28).
The ants, rock badgers, locusts, and lizards have no claim to divine knowledge or delusions of grandeur. They work within their creaturely limits, and yet each has found a way to turn these limits into strengths. True wisdom is found in humility and contentment (Prov. 25:6–7; Luke 14:8–10; 1 Cor. 10:12; James 4:6).
The Son’s Humility
There is a portrait of Jesus in Agur’s vindication of humility. Paul is clear: the wisdom of the cross subverts human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18–19). What looks like foolishness is God exercising a strength in weakness that dwarfs our comprehension.
In the profound dialogue of John 3, Jesus explains this to Nicodemus. The first thing he tells this ruler and teacher of the Jews is that he must radically humble himself to be born again—he must become a spiritual infant (John 3:3). Nicodemus responds with incomprehension bordering on sarcasm (John 3:4).
But Jesus persists: the spiritual are born spiritually through water and wind (or “Spirit,” John 3:6). When Nicodemus still can’t wrap his mind around it, Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:12–13).
Jesus may well be alluding to Proverbs 30:4:
Who has gone up to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up 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?
Surely you know!
The only answer to these pummeling rhetorical questions is “Yahweh.” And yet, when did Yahweh ascend to heaven and come down? Who exactly is Yahweh’s son? There is no one clear answer to these questions in the Old Testament, but through this allusion, Jesus reveals that he is the resolution to the mystery. Spiritual rebirth—ascension to heaven—is only available through the humility of the Son and the humility of belief in this mystery.
In order to accomplish our redemption, Jesus embodied what Agur commends. Though he was God, he humbled himself in order to become a man and was exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2:5–11). Agur might say that though you are a human, humble yourself so that in becoming like one of the animals, you might learn wisdom and ascend to God with Christ.