When Scripture Gets Weird: Understanding Agur in Proverbs 30

Editors’ note: 

Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year.

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.

20 Quotes from Jen Wilkin on the Ten Commandments

The following quotes caught my attention as I read Jen Wilkin’s insightful new book Ten Words to Live By: Delighting in and Doing What God Commands (Crossway, 2021). For a limited time, it is on sale for only $7.49 through the TGCW21 bookstore.

The first word [she uses this synonymously with “commandment”] serves as the umbrella statement for the other nine. If we obeyed the first word, we would automatically obey the others. (28)

The second word portrays idol worship as progressive: do not make, do not bow down, do not serve. The second word portrays idol worship as contagious, causing trouble for generation after generation. The second word portrays God as zealous for his glory: deeply committed to being worshiped as he deserves. His jealousy is right and righteous because it is inflamed by the denial of what is rightly his. (34)

Any time we take the attributes of the gods the world around us worships and apply them to God to make him more palatable and less threatening, more accommodating and less thunderous, we produce a graven image. We whittle down his transcendence, we paint over his sovereignty, we chisel away his omnipotence until he is a pet-like version of the terrible pagan god we would never be so foolish as to bow down to. (39)

To misuse the name of the Lord—to take his name in vain—is to misrepresent the character of God. . . . Doing so misuses his reputation to suit our own ends, speaks of or to him without accuracy or due respect, and miscredits him for self-serving actions done in his name. To misuse the name of God is to commit an act of defamation against Yahweh himself. (49–50)

More than the deliberate cessation of work for the purpose of decompressing, Sabbath is the deliberate cessation of any activity that might reinforce my belief in my own self-sufficiency. In contrast to cultural ideas of rest marked by self-care, Sabbath rest is marked by self-denial. (65)

There is no such thing as a noncommunal sin, and there is no such thing as a noncommunal obedience. . . . Personal sin always results in collateral damage. . . . Personal obedience always results in collateral benefit. (68)

We remember the letter of the Sabbath command by resting from labor. We remember the heart of the Sabbath command by laboring for the rest of others. (70)

The fifth word is the hinge point in the Decalogue at which the discussion of showing honoring moves from God (1–4) to human authorities (5) to one another (6–10). . . . The Ten Commandments deal with matters of heavenly submission, earthly submission, and mutual submission—in that order. (76, 77)

Because the church is the family of God, we need be at no loss for fathers and mothers to honor. Nor need we be at a loss for spiritual orphans to parent. If your family of origin was a painful one, the family of God can be a haven and a recompense. If your family of origin was a happy one, how much more so the family of God? (83)

It is not just the pace that changes with the sixth word, but the focus. Having given five exhortations to honor God and elders, the Ten Words now turn their attention to the business of honoring one another as fellow image bearers. We progress from discussion of how we relate to our heavenly Parent, to our earthly parents (human authorities), to our brothers and sisters (our neighbors). Essentially, the last five words will speak to the proper treatment of siblings. (89–90)

Contempt may win followers, but it is not pastoral. It masquerades as righteous anger, but it is, in fact, self-serving and self-elevating. It may make a point, but it always has a victim. (96)

Lust itself is an act of contempt, reducing someone to a source of sexual gratification and nothing more. If the sixth command prohibited regarding our neighbor as expendable, the seventh prohibits regarding our neighbor as consumable. (102)

Satan has succeeded in convincing believers that lust is just something to be managed instead of something to be slain. (105)

Our offending eyes and hands and feet and ears and lips and tongues and noses serve at the pleasure of our hearts. What our hearts delight to do, our members rush to accomplish. (106)

Delight yourself in lawlessness, and your disordered desires will govern you. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you new desires. (109)

There are two ways of living: as a taker or as a giver. When it comes to matters of wealth, do you perceive yourself as a terminus or a distribution point? If a terminus, you will labor without rest to acquire that which you cannot keep. If a distribution point, you will labor to give away that which was never truly yours to begin with. When we hear others praying for their daily bread, does it occur to us that we might be the means by which that bread is supplied? (120)

While flattery, silence, and misattribution are the subtle pickpockets of reputation, reviling stands in the lobby of First Reputation Bank spraying bullets and sacking the vault. In the modern church, perhaps nothing attests more to our current levels of biblical illiteracy than our casual, thoughtless, and frequent commission of the sin of reviling. (128)

When the good name of our neighbor is run through the mud, the silence of his friends can be as brutalizing as the reviling of his enemies. We must not use the command to be slow to speak as an excuse for never speaking (James 1:19). God help us if we claim to be wise in our silence, when in fact we are masking cowardice. . . . There are times when we are unsure whether to speak or remain silent. But if we know our words are needed and yet withhold them, we are as guilty of bearing false witness as the reviler who began the lie. . . . Who trades in sinful silence? Satan. He likes nothing better than the silence of those who know they should speak. When we silence truth-tellers, or remain silent ourselves when called to speak courageously, we conform to Satan’s image instead of to the image of Christ. When false witnesses speak  against our neighbor, we must speak up to bear true witness on their behalf. (131, 132–33)

Idol-making, Sabbath-breaking, dishonoring authority, murder, theft, adultery, and slander can all be identified by an onlooker, but not so covetousness. Covetousness hides in the heart. The Ten Words progress from “Don’t do it” to “Don’t say it” to “Don’t even think about it.” (139–40)

The Bible provides us a lengthy cautionary tale about comparison to our neighbor. We might title it “Keeping Up with the Canaanites.” It shows us that Israel as a whole soon forgot the tenth word in a rush to compare with her neighbors. In a scene that reads like a middle schooler asking for the latest pair of shoes, Israel asks God to give her a king like the other nations. God decides to teach his people contentment the hard way, by giving them what they want. (144)

The great loss of a covetous life is that it keeps love of self as our primary concern. . . . What is more like Satan than to want what belongs to another? (147)

Seeing Christ in the Shape of the Psalms

Editors’ note: 

Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year.

Luke 24 arguably contains the greatest Bible study ever. Jesus explains how the prophets spoke of him and how everything written about him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled (Luke 24:25–27, 44). (“Psalms” here most likely refers to Scripture’s poetry and wisdom literature). Nevertheless, the point is clear throughout Luke 24—in Jesus’s mind, the 150-part Psalter clearly testifies to him.

But we can be more specific about the Psalter. There is a growing consensus in Psalms scholarship that the Psalter has an intentional shape—that editors and compilers arranged the individual psalms in the order we have them for a particular purpose.

I want to give a glimpse of the Psalter’s five books, and in doing so show how the overall shape encourages its readers to hope for a new Davidic king. In doing so, it does exactly what Jesus says it did—it preaches him.

Book One: The Rise of the King (Pss. 1–41)

The first indication that the Psalter has been edited or compiled into a particular shape is the presence of a two-part introduction. A number of reasons suggest that Psalms 1–2 function this way, setting them apart from the rest of Book One:

  • Neither psalm possesses a title. This is in stark contrast to the rest of Book One.
  • The word “blessed” forms an inclusio (Pss. 1:1; 2:12).
  • Both psalms begin with the imagery of a group of people plotting or meditating (Pss. 1:2; 2:1).
  • Both psalms end with a mention of the “way” (Pss. 1:6; 2:12).

Moreover, these two psalms also seem to describe the same individual. Psalm 1 introduces him as the blessed man, who demonstrates his righteousness by meditating on God’s Word day and night. Arguably this individual is named in Psalm 2 as the king enthroned in Zion.

This link is further strengthened by recalling that Israel’s kings were to devote themselves to God’s Word (Deut. 17:14–20), and by comparing Psalm 1 with Joshua 1:8—where the prototypical king, Joshua, is instructed to meditate on God’s Word day and night.

There is a growing consensus in Psalms scholarship that the Psalter has an intentional shape.

Book One connects the nameless king of the introduction to David. It does so by attributing virtually every psalm to the Israelite king par excellence. It is consistently the voice of the Davidic king that is heard.

Related to David’s kingship is the battle between the righteous and the wicked. In the two-part introduction there is first a division between the righteous and the wicked (Ps. 1), which is then detailed as the king and the rebellious nations (Ps. 2). As a consequence, two expectations are established in Book One: the righteous will be protected by the Lord, and the Lord will establish his king in Zion.

In reality the two expectations go hand in hand, as David testifies (Ps. 41:11–12). From the beginning, the Psalter looks forward to the establishing of God’s anointed one in Zion.

Book Two: Rise of the Kingdom (Pss. 42–72)

In many ways Book Two continues the trajectory of Book One. However, there is a development. Immediately evident is a change in authorship, from (mostly) David to (mostly) the sons of Korah. Thus Book Two takes on a Levitical hue. There is also an increase in communal psalms, reflective of a worshiping community.

From the beginning the Psalter looks forward to the establishing of God’s anointed one in Zion.

Book Two has a Levitical zenith. Psalm 68 traces the journey of the Ark of the Covenant from Sinai to Jerusalem. God resides with his people, dwelling with them in their capital. This is matched by a royal zenith in Psalm 72. Here Davidic kingship morphs into Davidic dynasty as both David and Solomon are named together. Psalm 72 takes the form of a prayer for successive kings dwelling in Zion.

The vision of Book Two is one of Israelite religion and kingship functioning as they should. Yet this vision is more ideal than anything that was ever experienced in Israel’s history. Hence, the expectations established in Book One are sustained in Book Two.

Book Three: Exile (Pss. 73–89)

The expectations of the first two books come to an abrupt halt in Book Three. Several features suggest this interruption marks the devastation of the exile:

  • There is a Davidic absence. After being the dominant voice in the Psalter thus far, David is ascribed only one psalm (Ps. 86).
  • There are communal laments that clearly reference the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Ps. 74; 79).
  • The book opens with a psalm that addresses the issue of theodicy (Ps. 73)—there was perhaps no greater challenge to Israel’s trust in God than the exile.
  • Psalm 89 laments the apparent rejection of Davidic kingship by God (vv. 38–51).

Psalm 89 is a dark cloud hanging over the expectations raised earlier in the Psalter. It asks God a provocative question: Where is your faithfulness? (Ps. 89:49). Book Four begins to answer this question.

Book Four: Future Hope (Pss. 90–106)

Just as Moses led the Israelites through their first exile, so he will once more lead them through this wilderness experience. Outside the Promised Land, God will again be Israel’s refuge. Psalms 90–92 carry a variety of wilderness imagery—such as danger in the open (Ps. 91:3–5, 11–13) and imagery of a long journey (Ps. 90).

Book Four begins to answer a provocative question posed to God: Where is your faithfulness?

The repeated refrain of the following psalms is “the LORD reigns” (Pss. 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1), and the Bible’s testimony is that God’s reign is experienced through a Davidic king. The careful reader will note that David is not absent from Book Four (Pss. 101; 103). It’s striking that, following the lament for God’s rejection of the Davidic dynasty in Psalm 89, the reader now finds David mentioned again. Psalm 101 even idealizes the king as someone who maintains justice and righteousness—such a description matches the just, royal individual of Psalms 1–2.

Book Five: New David (Pss. 107–150)

The culmination of the Psalter’s storyline is Book Five. The reader cannot miss the plea for restoration: “Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations” (Ps. 106:47); and the affirmation of answered prayer: “he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands” (Ps. 107:2–3). The exile is no longer the dominant theme. Instead the reader is encouraged to look beyond circumstances to the future God promises.

The primary element of future hope in Book Five is a new David. Davidic psalms occur near the beginning (Pss. 108–110), in the middle (Pss. 131; 133), and toward the end (Pss. 138–145). The mere fact that David’s name is mentioned in a post-exilic context, when no Davidic king was enthroned, suggests that this is intended to foster hope for a new David.

Psalm 110 in particular speaks of David’s Lord, an enigmatic royal figure who defeats enemies and thus rules. Match this with Psalm 132’s recasting of the promises contained in 2 Samuel 7 and explicit mention of a Davidic dynasty once more sprouting (Ps. 132:11–12, 17–18). There is hope of a new Davidic king!

Psalm 110 in particular speaks of David’s Lord, an enigmatic royal figure who defeats enemies and thus rules.

Alongside the Davidic element, Zion is added. Book Three lamented the destruction of Zion, but in Book Five Zion is once more depicted as a place of peace, prosperity, and the home of the Davidic king. This is achieved particularly by placing the Songs of Ascents in the heart of Book Five (Ps. 120–134), in which worshipers moved “up to Zion.”

The Hebrew word “Hallelujah” is translated “praise the LORD.” It is present in response to the first Davidic collection of Book Five (Ps. 108–110 are followed by hallelujah themes in Ps. 111–118) and the celebration of Zion in the Songs of Ascents (Ps. 120–134 are followed by Ps. 135). The entire Psalter ends with a Hallelujah Conclusion (Ps. 146–150) in which each psalm both begins and ends with “praise the LORD.” Certain hope fosters global praise.

Leading Us to David’s Lord

As beneficial as it is to read each psalm as an independent unit, there is something larger occurring in the Psalter’s structure. Each book within the Psalter thrusts the reader onward, fostering hope for a new Davidic king.

Perhaps this is seen most clearly in Psalm 110, a passage Jesus wields against the Pharisees (Matt. 22:41–45), Peter proclaims at Pentecost (Acts 2:33–36), and the book of Hebrews majors on (Heb. 1:3, 13; 5:6; 7:17, 21; 8:1; 10:12–13; 12:2). Hebrews acknowledges that Psalm 110 is spoken by God to his Son (Heb. 1:5, 8, 13; 5:5–6), it implies that David possessed prophetic capacity (Heb. 1:5–14), and it understands Psalm 110:1 and 4 to be fulfilled in a single individual (Heb. 5:5–6).

The book of Hebrews therefore claims that Jesus is the anticipated king-priest of Psalm 110. Given that Psalm 110 is located in Book Five of the Psalter, such a reading appears justified.

You and I weren’t present at that greatest of all Bible studies in Luke 24. But if we want to know what Jesus taught them, we need only read the apostolic writings, especially the book of Hebrews. Jesus was right—the psalter points to him.

Why did God allow this to happen to us?

(Photo: Unsplash/Prateek Gautam)

The Christmas card read: “In a moment…everything changed”. Down through the centuries worldwide this has been acknowledged by billions of Christians.

During another moment in time everything changed for Jane and Keith (not their real names). Such happenings often prompt difficult questions like: Why did God allow this to happen to us? The notoriously difficult exercise of trying to interpret silence.

A momentous moment

In their senior years this loving couple retired for the night as they had done thousands of times before during a long and happy marriage…but this night was different. Unknowingly, somewhere between about 1- 4 a.m. whilst asleep Jane suffered a stroke the effect of which was not discovered until morning.

If a stroke occurs during waking hours apparently an emergency dash to hospital can make all the difference to the long-term outcome, but this time significant change had occurred.

In different ways they are both victims of that unexpected, uninvited and unwanted moment, now having to adapt like anyone who has to live with the result of chronic illness. A sixty three year old lady friend of mine is effectively a quadriplegic, the devastating result of slowly advancing crippling multiple sclerosis, a personal tragedy also not of her wanting.

How to explain?

Hence the perplexing issue of what some call the permissive will of God. A severe event (perhaps with irreversible consequences) is said to be within His permissive will in that God did not prevent it from happening.

We know that He is not distantly indifferent to personal suffering and encourages us to: Cast all your anxiety on Him [why?] because He cares for you. (1 Peter chapter 5 verse 7). Nor does He cause bad things to happen to us. Natural disasters, birth defects and chronic illnesses are agonisingly difficult issues, whilst some situations involve divinely preventable abhorrent behaviour such as the brutal actions of dictators.

The obvious go-to book of the Bible for seeking insight, an answer or at least some guidance or solace is the book of Job. The personal devastation that befell him was as extreme as it could get but Job never received from God an explanation or answer. Instead, towards the end of the book God asked Job seventy questions some of which appear below.


Would you discredit My justice? (Job chapter 40 verse 8)

Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? (40:2)

Who is this that darkens My counsel with words without knowledge? (38:2)

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? (38:4)

Who shut up the sea behind doors when I said: This far you may come and no farther? (38:11)

Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn? (39:1)

Do you know the laws of the heavens? (38:33)

Afterwards Job said to God: I know that You can do all things…Surely I spoke of things I do not understand…My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I…repent in dust and ashes. (Job chapter 42 verses 5,6). Graciously he was restored as: The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first…And so he died old and full of years. (Job chapter 42 verses 12 & 17).

Can any mortal question or cross-examine God and expect an answer? One may come promptly or not at all, maybe not yet but later or perhaps in a way least expected.

And the answer is…

Tantalisingly, the Bible does not give one. As excruciatingly difficult as that must be in the face of prolonged suffering (I have not yet experienced this), one may never come. Whilst not an answer to ‘why’, God tells us what we can do in response. He: comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we have received from Him. (2 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 4).

Further, it records that: in all things God works for the good of [who?] those who love Him. (Romans chapter 8 verse 28). And Jesus says He is: with us always. (Matthew chapter 28 verse 20).

A preacher said the correct question is not ‘why’ but ‘where’ is God in suffering – such as at Jesus’ brutal crucifixion, the Holocaust insanity, and at 9/11. He was at Jane’s bedside that night.

Fundamentally important

One of the fundamental issues that has become so profoundly important to me as I reflect on my 73 years which bring me ever closer to the one event that every human being must face whether we are an atheist, dictator, king or president, butcher or grandmother is…how did it all begin.

This is crucially relevant to the necessity of Jesus’ rescue mission. It is no literary mistake that our Creator commenced His book saying “In the beginning God created…”, making the Old Testament (OT) critical to understanding the NT.

Back to the Christmas card

“In a moment…everything changed”, even our calendar. Instead of counting down from higher numbers as B.C. changed to A.D, we now live in the year 2021: from what? The world-changing moment happened when God lovingly entered world history through the birth of Jesus so that reconciliation between Himself and us could occur.

He alone decided when the time was right. God loved so much the world He had created that He gave Jesus to us so that whoever believes in Him will not suffer solitary confinement in hell forever separated from Him, but instead will enjoy life forever in heaven with Him surrounded by: a multitude that no one could count. (John chapter 3 verse 16 & Revelation 6:9).

We need to make the next move.

Courtesy of Press Service International