BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 24
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons
21. Under three things the earth quakes. And under four, it cannot bear up. 22. Under a slave when he becomes king, And a fool when he is satisfied with food, 23. Under an odious woman when she gets a husband, And a maidservant when she supplants her mistress.
The words of Agur the Sojourner, who is perhaps Jacob, concern humility and arrogance. Proverbs 30:21-23 point to the arrogance that often comes over a person of humble estate when he gets what he wants. It is the arrogance that often comes over a person who has been insecure, and who finally becomes secure.
The "earth" in verse 21 is society. The analogy seems to be this: When a giant stalks the land, the earth quakes from the impact of his heavy feet. Similarly, society quakes and shakes when a small person becomes great.
First, society is wrecked when a slave becomes a king. This may not seem very democratic, but the Bible is not democratic, and we should not be either. The Bible recognizes that every society has an elite, and that if a society is to be well governed, that elite must govern with justice and charity. People who are raised as aristocrats are raised with a sense of propriety, and in a Christian land they are often raised with a sense of restraint. They are, or should be, aware of the value of tradition and form as social cement.
Every aristocracy abuses its power sometimes, but the Bible teaches us here that when revolutionaries come to rule, they abuse power all the time. It is better to live with the traditional and occasional abuses of an aristocracy than to live with the unpredictable and continual abuses of revolutionaries.
History certainly bears this out. When the thugs came to power in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1917, society suffered far more than it had previously. What preserved the United States from something similar was the fact that the leaders of the American Revolution were themselves aristocrats: gentry, not slaves. When Cromwell came to power in England, he as a responsible member of the gentry had to contend constantly with irresponsible commoners in the New Model Army, and wound up being forced by their foolishness to make himself a benevolent despot, the last thing he ever intended.
It is not that slaves, serfs, and proletarians are worse in God’s eyes, or in the eyes of the Church, than aristocrats. Rather, it is that aristocrats are trained in the proper use of power, while serfs and proletarians are not.
The reason poor people don’t commit great crimes is often because they have no opportunity to do so. We think about all the adultery and fornication that takes place in Washington, D.C., among the leaders of our nation. The sad fact is that most people, if they had the money, security, and power to get away with such deeds, would do them also. Once a slave comes to power, he can get away with a great deal, and the restraints that constrain the nobility, minimal as they often are, do not operate in his case.
We have seen that Agur is probably Jacob. Jacob would be familiar with this principle from the history of his family. God, through Noah, had said that the Canaanites were slaves, but at this time in history, Canaanites were ruling in the land of promise. Canaanites had been kings in Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, and the land had certain quaked as a result of their rule! Check out Genesis 14:1-4, 21; and Genesis 19. Consider also the story recorded in Judges 9.
Second, when a fool becomes full of food (and drink), he becomes unbearable. He opens his mouth, and pours out all kinds of boasting and threats (cp. again Judges 9:27-29). He no longer feels insecure and threatened, and so what is in his heart comes out.
A fool is a man with no sense of the past or the future. He has no sense of heritage, and no sense of consequences. It does not occur to him that what he says has an impact on other people, and an impact on how he is perceived. When a man like this is released from constraint, such as the constraint of having to work for food, society suffers.
Jacob knew all about this, because Esau was a fool. Genesis 25:27-34 records the story of Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils. Esau cared for nothing but his immediate comfort, and thought nothing of the consequences of his foolish action. Though he sought for the blessing later on, with tears, he did not receive it. The only thing that saved the "earth" from trauma was that Godly Jacob took up the mantle Esau was so ready to discard.
Third, when an odious woman gets a husband, she becomes unbearable. "Odious" literally means "hated." It may imply that she is ugly, or that she has a nasty personality. Nobody wants to marry her. She may try to behave herself because of the censure of society, but when she finally gets a husband, she has no reason to restrain herself any longer.
Jacob regarded Leah as odious because her eyes were bad, and because she conspired with her father to trick him into marriage. We can imagine that she was pretty difficult to live with; Rachel certainly thought so. Yet, Genesis 29:31-35 shows us that in her misery Leah finally turned to the Lord, and found in Him a Husband who loved her and gave her many children.
Finally, when a maidservant supplants her mistress, she becomes arrogant. Hagar’s behavior toward Sarah is an example from Jacob’s own family background. Sarah could not have children, and so Hagar was given to Abraham to bear a child for Sarah to adopt. When the child was born, however, the adoption somehow never took place. Hagar lorded it over Sarah, until finally Sarah drove her out.
It is, of course, possible that a slave will become a good ruler, that a maidservant will not become arrogant when she ascends to glory, that an unloved woman will not become unbearable when she gets a husband — but such transformations are relatively rare.
Let us, in closing, consider the structure of this proverb. The first and last cases match each other. Both are instances of revolution, the first by a male in the world of politics and the last by a female in the world of the family. The wisdom of Agur is this: The status quo, with all its problems, is usually better than revolution. If revolution must come, then, as the Protestant Reformers insisted, it must be led by members of the nobility, "lesser magistrates."
The second and third cases also match each other. Both are instances of satisfaction, the first by a male in the realm of social life, and the second by a female in the realm of marriage. The wisdom of Agur is this: Be very careful about removing restraints from people who seem to need them, lest you bring about disorder and trauma in society.