Epilogue, Part 1: Oracles of Wisdom
Proverbs 30:1–31:9 – Proverbs: Wisdom for Life
Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 7, 2019 (am)
Today we have one of most challenging portions of Proverbs before us, but also an exceedingly rich one. I’ve really wrestled with how we can best get our arms around this text such that we appreciate the rich instruction it gives, and also the unique way in which it gives it. So, what I’ll do first is give a quick overview of what we’ll hear in 30:1-31:9. Then I’ll walk through it again a bit more slowly, using the outline in the bulletin. And finally, after all this, I’ll just read the passage and let you hear for yourselves, and bask in, the instruction of God’s Word toward attaining and using the wisdom that comes from Him.
I’ve mentioned to you before the four questions I address at the top of every set of sermon notes I prepare: 1) What is God’s intention in this book? 2) How does this passage contribute to that? 3) What do I pray it will move God’s people to do? And 4) How does Jesus alone enable this? The answer to question 2 is the theme of the passage: It gives final insights on the elusiveness, Source, impedances, essence, and purpose of wisdom, and how best to pursue it. So, that expresses the flow of thought in the passage. And the answer to question 3 is: Seek God alone to grow in wisdom, to nurture it with humble diligence, and to use it faithfully for others’ good. So, that will be our intended takeaway today.
Quick overview: this passage opens and closes with an oracle (30:1; 31:1), words from God through the human authors to whom they’re attributed: Agur (30:1) and King Lemuel (31:1), from his mother. We know nothing of these two men in Scripture aside from what we learn right here.
· In [Agur’s] oracle (30:1-9), we hear a confession of his utter lack of wisdom, but with a clear understanding of where it comes from and how it should be pursued.
· The next section (30:10-33) divides into two (10-17, 18-33. The first part exposes different expressions of selfish-ness and self-exaltation (cf.32) that rot out the roots and heart of wisdom. The second part primes our pump, whets our appetite, for wisdom using keen observation.
· Finally (31:1-9), King [Lemuel’s] mother instructs him on the purpose of wisdom—its aim/intended outcome.
Let’s walk through this using the outline.
Humbly Lacking Yet Seeking Wisdom – 30:1-9
Agur is aging (1), possibly even near death (cf.7). And from his confession (2-3) we discern not that he’s depressed or lacking self-esteem, rather he realizes that his weakness remains even at his advanced age. The humility which is all too rare (but so needed) in younger men is still present in Agur even though he’s old. The humility that allows us to realize how little we actually know, how lacking we are in discernment, how deficient not only in wisdom but even in our capacity to attain wisdom—that humility (recognition of deficiency, lack) is just as present in older men as it should be in younger ones. We never outgrow our humanity! The older we get, the more we see, the more we agree with [Agur’s] confession.
And that’s also what he’s saying here (4). What he’s just said about himself is true of every human being. When he poses his questions here: 4 Who has ascended 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! His intended answers here are not, God. His intended answers are, No one! (Fox 856) No one has ascended to heaven and come down. No one has gathered the wind in his fists or wrapped up the waters in a garment or established the ends of the earth. No human being has done any of these! So, no one in this world has any more understanding (2), wisdom, knowledge (3) that Agur has!
There’s only one place wisdom can come from: God Himself. And every single word from Him is reliable! It proves true (5) So: 6 Do not add to his words, lest… you be found a liar.
Agur gets this. And there’s nothing he desires more than to advance in the wisdom that comes from God. So: 7 Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: 8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying. [Don’t let me be one of those who adds to Your words (cf.6)]; and give me neither poverty nor riches…, 9 lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane [Your] name. Put another way: [Don’t let me do anything, and please don’t assign me anything, that will allow me stray from You. Because I know, I know, I’ll do that!]
Hindrance and Help in Pursuing Wisdom – 30:10-33
The hindrances come first in this section (10-17). The writer identifies things you can do, outlooks on life, ways you can treat people that work/war against wisdom, neutralize/nullify it. There are those who are disrespectful of parents (authority) (11), self-justifying, or maybe even self-deceiving (12)—and what an image we see here: 12 There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not washed of their filth—self-exalting (13, cf.32), merciless and cruel to people, especially those they view as lesser (10, 14)—they devour one another (cf. Gal.5:15). Self-serving, self-exalting, uncaring actions impede wisdom.
The remainder of c.30 (18-33) offers help. It gives us opportunity to test ourselves in light of instruction we heard back in 1:5-6 (Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.). How are we doing at understanding wisdom? As this collection draws near its end, are we getting it? Are we understanding, discerning the sense of [Agur’s] oracle, for one example?
In this section, the author scattered three pithy sayings (10, 15a, 17) among seven short poems (11-14, 15b-16, 18-20, 21-23, 24-28, 29-31, 32-33) presented mostly as numbered lists, often in an x, x+1 format: 15 … Three things are never satisfied; four never say, “Enough.” Often this structure draws attention to its final item, but not always. Here, it seems the cumulative intent is to urge the reader to look for other shared features, even to find additional features beyond the lowest common denominator (Fox 864) supplied by the author: e.g. to look for something common (18) to an eagle in the sky, a serpent on a rock, a ship on the high seas, and a man [wooing] a [woman] that is beyond the fact that they are wonderful and hard to understand—maybe the fact that each activity seems smooth, effortless, even though it relies on immensely complex mechanics and calculations for which each entity is uniquely designed!
These poetic lists (18-33) almost seem to function like a term-ending exam to see how well we’re mastering the material, or even like a wisdom IQ test to see if we’re perceiving the connections between things in this glorious universe—eyes turned outward to discern all the wonders God has made! Or, are we tangled up in foolish, self-centered blindness? (32)
Refresher Course on the Right Use of Wisdom – 31:1-9
Our passage finishes with a second oracle: 31:1 The words of King Lemuel… that his mother taught him. And they read like a mother deeply concerned for her son! 2 What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb? What are you doing, son of my vows? 3 Do not give your strength to women! … [And don’t dull your senses with] wine! [That’s not kingly!] (4-5) [You’ve risen to this role for better things than self-indulgence! Let] strong drink [soften the pain of those trapped in] misery (6-7).
[As for you, don’t] open your mouth for wine! 8 Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. 9 Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. Wisdom had been given to King Lemuel for the good of his people. It was given to Solomon for the same purpose (2Ki.3:1-15). And so it is always when the wisdom of God is given to His image-bearing creatures. The blessing of God is always supposed to be used for the good of others, and especially for those in need—here, the mute, destitute (8), poor and needy (9). We hear echoes of this same message in the prophets.
Jeremiah wrote to Shallum, the son of Josiah, king of Judah (22:15-17): 15 Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. 16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the Lord. 17 But you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.”
And it’s not just kings, Isaiah wrote to all Judah (1:15-17): 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Job mentioned his heart for the needy (c.29) as evidence of having God’s heart. And James, writing wisdom for NT believers, said (1:27): 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. And more (3:17): 17 … [T]he wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
So, what are you and I supposed to do with all this? How are we supposed to hear this reminder that the wisdom of God really does come only from Him. It’s not an entitlement, and we can surely get in our own way in our pursuit of it. We can also reduce it to something less than it is: enthralling insights into the beauty of life in this created world, and the glory of God that is reflected in that beauty. And even when we begin to see such captivating connections between things, we can still be tempted to keep such treasures to ourselves, and celebrate only in the privacy of our own hearts or in the closed circles of our comfortable relationships. We can fail to see that perception of such beauty, discernment of such insight, is meant to ease the suffering of the poor and needy in this world. It shows itself best as undiluted love of neighbor in imitation of the wisest, most compassionate King ever known!
The qualities of this King are reborn in His subject as they recognize their own status as spiritually destitute, utterly poor and needy before Him, so easily distracted by other, lesser pleasures in this life that something as simple as a full stomach can cause them to forget Him. And they can so quickly become self-important that they feel increasingly free to add to or take away from what He has written to them in His [Word] regarding the way of His wisdom. What we need most is the very prayer Agur prayed: [Heavenly Father, don’t allow me to do anything, and please don’t assign me anything, that will allow me to stray from You, turn my eyes away from You. For, if either of these happen, I will surely forget You.]
Let us listen now to the oracles of wisdom that draw this glorious collection of Proverbs to a conclusion, and let us be edified, strengthened, guided, delivered, motivated—let us be saturated with the wisdom of God in full measure as He intended in giving us these words.
The Words of Agur
30 The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle.
The man declares, I am weary, O God;
I am weary, O God, and worn out.
2 Surely I am too stupid to be a man.
I have not the understanding of a man.
3 I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
4 Who has ascended 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!
5 Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
6 Do not add to his words,
lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.
7 Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
9 lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
10 Do not slander a servant to his master,
lest he curse you, and you be held guilty.
11 There are those who curse their fathers
and do not bless their mothers.
12 There are those who are clean in their own eyes
but are not washed of their filth.
13 There are those—how lofty are their eyes,
how high their eyelids lift!
14 There are those whose teeth are swords,
whose fangs are knives,
to devour the poor from off the earth,
the needy from among mankind.
15 The leech has two daughters:
Give and Give.
Three things are never satisfied;
four never say, “Enough”:
16 Sheol, the barren womb,
the land never satisfied with water,
and the fire that never says, “Enough.”
17 The eye that mocks a father
and scorns to obey a mother
will be picked out by the ravens of the valley
and eaten by the vultures.
18 Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
19 the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a virgin.
20 This is the way of an adulteress:
she eats and wipes her mouth
and says, “I have done no wrong.”
21 Under three things the earth trembles;
under four it cannot bear up:
22 a slave when he becomes king,
and a fool when he is filled with food;
23 an unloved woman when she gets a husband,
and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress.
24 Four things on earth are small,
but they are exceedingly wise:
25 the ants are a people not strong,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
26 the rock badgers are a people not mighty,
yet they make their homes in the cliffs;
27 the locusts have no king,
yet all of them march in rank;
28 the lizard you can take in your hands,
yet it is in kings’ palaces.
29 Three things are stately in their tread;
four are stately in their stride:
30 the lion, which is mightiest among beasts
and does not turn back before any;
31 the strutting rooster, the he-goat,
and a king whose army is with him.
32 If you have been foolish, exalting yourself,
or if you have been devising evil,
put your hand on your mouth.
33 For pressing milk produces curds,
pressing the nose produces blood,
and pressing anger produces strife.
The Words of King Lemuel
31 The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
2 What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb?
What are you doing, son of my vows?
3 Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to take strong drink,
5 lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
6 Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
7 let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
8 Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.