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No. 4: Advice From a Sojourner, Part 1

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 4
May, 1989
Copyright 1989, Biblical Horizons

1. The words of Agur, the son of Jakeh, the burden. The man declares to Ithiel, to Ithiel and Ucal:
2. Surely I am more stupid than any other man, And I do not have the understanding of a man.
3. And I have not learned wisdom, But I have knowledge of the Holy One.
4. Who has ascended into heaven and descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped the waters in His garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name or His son’s name? Surely you know!

Proverbs 30 contains the words of Agur the son of Jakeh. Agur’s proverbs are longer than those in most of the rest of the book, and give us a bit more to chew on. Before we can start in, however, we need to try and find out who Agur was.

There are three contending views. The first is that Agur was one of Solomon’s wise men who had a hand in helping Solomon put the book of Proverbs together. This section of Proverbs, then, consists of the ones he collected.

The second view takes notice of the word "burden" in verse 1: "The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, the burden." The word "burden" can also be read as Massa, the name of an Ishmaelite town (Gen. 25:14; 1 Chron. 1:30). The Ishmaelites were supposed to have a repository of wisdom, and it is assumed that Proverbs 30 comes from Agur of Massa. Those who take this view also translate "burden" in 31:1 as Massa, so that King Lemuel was King of Massa.

The most interesting, and I think most compelling, identification of Agur was put forth by P.W. Skehan, in his Studies in Israelite Poetry and Wisdom (1971). He suggests that verse 4 is a riddle designed to point us to the identification of Agur. It is clear that verse 4 describes God, and then we are asked to give the name of the son of God, which we surely know. As Christians, we can apply this to Christ, but that is not the first meaning of this question in its context.

As Skehan points out, this question in verse 4 points back to verse 1. That is because Jakeh is a contraction of Yhwh qadosh hu, which means "The Lord, blessed is He." Thus, the name of the God in verse 4 is Jakeh, and His son’s name is Agur.

Agur literally means "I am an sojourner." Both Moses and Jacob were famous sojourners (Gen. 47:9; Ex. 2:22). The phrase "who has ascended into heaven and descended" could refer to Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:12-13), or it could be a reference to Moses’ question in Deuteronomy 30:12. Skehan favors Jacob, because the phrase "ascending and descending" is closer to Genesis 28 than to Deuteronomy 30. Also, the proverbs in this chapter can more easily be seen to grow out of Jacob’s experience than Moses’.

Remember that Proverbs are often puzzles to be figured out. "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter" (25:2). Thus, we should not be surprised to find a riddle here in Proverbs 30.

The true son of God — or daughter of God — is a sojourner. That was true of Christ Jesus, and it is also true of us. For this reason, the proverbs of Agur the Sojourner are most relevant to us. These Sojourning Proverbs have a common theme, and that theme, announced in the opening paragraph, is humility. These are the proverbs of a man who learned wisdom by practising humility.

Most scholars agree that the second half of verse 1 does not contain two personal names, Ithiel and Ucal, but needs to be translated as a phrase. The commentary by Franz Delitzsch, in the Keil and Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary, can be consulted for a lengthy discussion of this. The most commonly agreed upon translation for verse 1b is this: "The man declares, `I have troubled myself, O God! I have troubled myself, O God, and I have come to an end.’" Derek Kidner (Proverbs, 1964) concurs.

There is one more translation mistake. The first word in verse 2 cannot be "surely" but has to be "for." The Hebrew word (ki) never opens a discourse, but always continues one.

Now we can pull it all together:

1. The words of the Sojourner (Jacob?) the son of Yahweh, blessed is He, the burden: The man declares, "I have wearied myself, O God! I have wearied myself, O God, and I have come to an end!
2. For I am more stupid than any man, and I do not have the understanding of a man."

Compare this with what Jacob said to Pharaoh: "The days of the years of my sojourning are 130; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, nor have they reached the days of the years of the life of my fathers during the days of their sojourning" (Genesis 47:9).

I’m going to assume in these studies that these proverbs were written by Jacob. They were written at the end of his life, when he had "come to an end." It is possible that there is a better solution to the puzzle of the opening verses of Proverbs 30, and if that is indeed the case, it will not change very much of what we shall find in the rest of the chapter. Whether Jacob wrote this chapter or not, it is certainly the case that Jacob’s life illustrates what we find here. The applications to us today will be the same in any event.

Notice Jacob’s remarkable humility at the end of his life. Age and experience have not made him arrogant and proud. Rather, as Jacob considers things he says that he is stupider than anyone he knows. He does not have the understanding that we can expect of any ordinary person. He has not learned wisdom (v. 3).

Have you ever felt this way? I believe that "the more you know, the more you don’t know." The word "sophomore" means "wise fool," or "sophisticated moron." It is used of young people who think they have learned wisdom, but who obviously have not. In fact, the wiser we become, the more aware we are of how little we know. The more we learn about God, the greater is our awareness of the tremendous depth of His infinity. The older we grow in Christ, the more child-like we become — not childish in the sense of irresponsibility, but child-like in the sense of wonder and humility. Remember, the book of Proverbs is addressed to children (Prov. 1:8).

But Jacob the Sojourner knows one thing that changes everything: "But I have knowledge of the Holy One" (v. 3; compare the old man’s knowledge in 1 John 2:13, 14). Jacob may be worn out with living. He may feel defeated in his attempts to "exercise dominion." He may be overwhelmed by his lack of personal wisdom; but there is one thing he does know: He knows God. And he knows that knowing God is the beginning of true wisdom (Prov. 1:7).

Knowing God makes for humility. Job 38-42 expand on what we find in verse 4 here. The questions Agur asks, such as "Who has gathered the wind in His fist?" are just like the questions God asks Job. As God humbled Job by revealing Himself, so Agur expresses humility before the knowledge of the God who created and reigns in heaven and earth.

What Job realized and what Agur realized, and what we must realize, is that we don’t need to understand everything. We don’t need to understand everything because we have God as our Father and He understands everything. Moreover, we don’t have to do everything. If we are tired, and can’t go any farther, it’s all right, because God is our Father, and He can do everything. The tired Sojourner can rest in the comfort of God’s Omnipotence.