Tuesday, June 6th, 2023
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
The Pulpit Commentaries The Pulpit Commentaries
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Proverbs 30". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ tpc/ proverbs-30.html. 1897.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Proverbs 30". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
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Part VII. FIRST APPENDIX TO THE SECOND COLLECTION, containing "the words of Agur." A short introduction, teaching that the Word of God is the source of wisdom (Proverbs 30:1-6), is followed by apothegms on different subjects (Proverbs 30:7-33). Cornelius a Lapide offers the following opinion concerning this appendix, which no one can hesitate to say is well founded, if he attempts to give it a spiritual interpretation, and to discern mysteries under the literal meaning: "Quarta haec pars elegantissima est et pulcherrima, aeque ac difficillima et obscurissima: priores enim tres partes continent Proverbia et Paraemias claras, ac antithesibus et similitudinibus perspicuas et illustres; haec vero continet aenigmata et gryphos insignes, sed arcanos et perdifficiles, turn ex phrasi quae involute est et aenigmatica, tum ex sensu et materia, quae sublimis est et profunda."
The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, even the prophecy. This seems to be the correct rendering of the passage, though it has been made to bear very different interpretations. It is plainly the tide of the treatise which follows Wire Agur and Jakeh were is utterly unknown. The Jewish interpreters considered that "Agur son of Jakeh" was an allegorical designation of Solomon—Agur meaning "Gatherer," or "Convener" (see Ecclesiastes 1:1; Ecclesiastes 12:11); Jakeh, "Obedient," or "Pious," which thus would indicate David. St. Jerome somewhat countenances the alle gorical interpretation by translating, Verba Congregantis, filii Vomentis, "The words of the Collector, son of the Utterer." But what follows could not apply to Solomon; he could not say, "I have not learned wisdom" (Proverbs 30:3), or ask blindly after the Creator (Proverbs 30:4). Many have endeavoured to find Agur's nationality in the word that follows, translated "the prophecy" (חַמַשָּׂא, hamassa). Massa "burden," is usually applied to a solemn prophetical speech or oracle, a Divine utterance (Isaiah 13:1; Isaiah 15:1, etc.), and as this designation was deemed inappropriate to the character of this appendix, it has been thought that allusion is here made to a land of Massa, so called after a son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:14), who dwelt in the country of Edom or Seir, and whose inhabitants were among those children of the East whose wisdom had become proverbial (1 Kings 4:30). Others find Massa in the Hauran, or on the north of the Persian Gulf. The Venetian Version gives, Λόγοι Ἀγούρου υἱέως Ἰακέως τοῦ Μασάου. But we have no satisfactory account of a country thus called, and its existence is quite problematical; therefore the ingenious explanations founded on the reality of this terra ignota need not be specified. Gratz has suggested that in place of hamassa should be read hammoshel, "the proverb writer;" but this is a mere conjecture, unsupported by any ancient authority. If, as seems necessary, we are compelled to resign the rendering, "of Masse," or "the Massan," we must fall back on the Authorized Version, and consider the term "oracle" as applied loosely and abnormally to these utterances of wisdom which follow. That they are not of the nature of Divine communications can be seen at once by consideration of their contents, which are mainly of human, and not of the highest type, and, though capable of spiritual interpretation, do not possess that uniqueness of purpose, that religious character and elevation of subject, which one expects in the enunciations of an inspired prophet. This view does not militate against their claim to be regarded as Holy Scripture; their place in the canon is secured by other considerations, and is not affected by our suspicion of the inappropriateness of the term applied to them; and, indeed, it may be that the very human element in these utterances is meant to be unsatisfying, and to lead one to look for the deep spiritual truths which underlie the secular surroundings. Agur is some poet or moralist, well known in Solomon's time, probably one of the wise men referred to in Proverbs 24:23 (see below). The rest of the paragraph is of greater obscurity than the former portion. The man spake unto Ithiel, even unto Ithiel and Ucal. According to this rendering, the man is Agur, who is introduced as uttering what follows in Proverbs 24:2, etc; to Ithiel and Ucal, two of his sons, pupils, or companions. The name Ucal occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament; Ithiel is found once, in Nehemiah 11:7, as the name of a Benjamite. Wordsworth regards the names as symbolical of the moral character of those whom the author designs to address, explaining the former as equivalent to "God with me," and the latter as denoting "consumed" with zeal, or "strong," "perfect." It is as if the writer said, "You must have God with you; yea, you must have God with you, if you are to be strong. You must be Ithiels, if you are to be Ucals." He refers to 1 Corinthians 15:10; 2 Corinthians 3:5; Philippians 4:13. That the Masorites regarded these words as proper names is evident; אֻכָל, indeed, can have no other application. The Syriac takes this view of the words; to the same opinion lean, more or less, the Jewish translators Aquila and Theodotion, Aben Ezra, Vatablus, Pagninus, and others, and it is the simplest and easiest solution of the difficulties which have been seen in the clause. But many modern commentators have declared against it; e.g. Hitzig, Zockler, Detitzsch, Bottcher, Nowack. The repetition of Ithiel seems unmeaning; one sees no reason why it should be repeated more than Ucal. The second verse begins with כִּי, which, as Hebraists agree, cannot stand abruptly at the commencement of a discourse, but rather establishes something that has preceded. But if we take the words in dispute as proper names, no statement to be confirmed has been made. We are, then, constrained to take them in another sense. St. Jerome translates them, writing, Visio quam locutus est vir, cum quo est Deus, et qui Deo secum morante confortatus. The LXX. (which in troduces verses 1-14 of this chapter after Proverbs 24:23) gives, "Those things saith the man to those who believe God, and I cease;" τοῖς πιστεύουσι Θεῷ being the translation of the doubled Ithiel, equivalent to "God with me," and ואכל (παύομαι) being considered to be a formation from the root כלה. Ewald takes the two words to be the name of one man, equivalent to "God with me, so I am strong;" in his own language, Mitmirgott—sobinich stark; but his idea of a dialogue between the rich mocker (verses 2-4) and the humble believer (verse 5-14) is not well founded, though a late editor, Strack, agreeing, considers that the only possible interpretation of these verses (verses 2-4) is to make the speaker utter them as the outcome of his unbelief and scoffing, to which Agur answers in verse 5. Under all circumstances, it has seemed to many scholars best to surrender the notion of proper names, and, altering the vocalization, to interpret, "The oracle of the man, 'I have wearied myself, O God, I have wearied myself, O God,'" or, as others say, "about God." The utterance commences here, and not at verse 2. The repetition forcibly expresses the laborious and painful investigation of the seeker after truth. The final word, vocalized וָאֵכִל, is rendered, "And I have withdrawn;" or, as Bickell, quoted by Cheyne, gives, v'lo ukal, "I have not prevailed." We arrive thus at this interpretation: first comes the superscription, "The words of Agur," etc; "the oracle of the man;" then begins the utterance, which opens with the melancholy avowal that, though he had longed and striven to know God, his nature, his attributes, his working, he had failed in this object, and expended his labour in vain. Both Agur, and Lemuel who is named in Proverbs 31:1, seem to have been persons not of Israelitish nationality, but dwelling in the neighbourhood of Palestine, and acquainted with the religion and sacred literature of the chosen people (see Proverbs 31:5). It is by no means unlikely that they were of the race of Ishmael, from which stock many wise men had risen, and where wisdom was so cultivated as to have become proverbial (see Jeremiah 49:7; Obadiah 1:8). In what follows Agur shows himself as a philosopher and a critic, but at the same time a firm believer.
Proverbs 30:2, Proverbs 30:3
Confirms what is said in Proverbs 30:1 concerning the fruitlessness of the investigation there mentioned; the more he sought and studied, the more conscious he became of his own ignorance and of God's incomreprehensibility.
Surely I am more brutish than any man "Surely" (ki) should be "for" (see note on verse l). Cheyne, "I am too stupid for a man;" I am a mere irrational beast (comp. Proverbs 12:1; Psalms 73:22). And have not the understanding of a man. I am not worthy to be called a man, as I possess not the intellectual faculty which a man ought to have. This is not ironical, as if he did not desire the statement to be taken in its full sense, and meant to say, "Of course it is my own stupidity that is in fault;" but it is a genuine confession of incompetence to investigate the subject matter, which is too mysterious for his mental powers to penetrate. Thus Solomon acknowledges that he is but a little child, nod prays for an understanding heart (1 Kings 3:7, 1 Kings 3:9; comp. Wis. 9:5; Matthew 11:25).
I neither learned wisdom. With all my eager longing and striving I did not attain to such wisdom, that I should have the knowledge of the Holy One; k'doshim, plural of "excellence," like elohim (Proverbs 9:10; Hosea 12:1 (Hebrew); see note on Proverbs 1:20; and comp. Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 12:1). The knowledge of the all holy God was beyond his grasp (Job 11:7, etc.). Theology is a higher science than metaphysics, and cannot be reached by that ladder. The LXX. gives an affirmative sense to this verse, "God hath taught me wisdom, and I know the knowledge of the holy (ἁγίων)."
The questions contained in this verse are such as compelled Agur to acknowledge his ignorance and nothingness before the thought of the glory and power of the great Creator. We may compare Job 38:1-41, etc. Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? Who is he that hath his seat in heaven, and doeth works on earth? Who is he whose universal providence is felt and experienced? Where is this mysterious Being who hides himself from human ken? Christ has said something like this, "No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven" (John 3:13); and St. Paul (Ephesians 4:9). In biblical language God is said to come down from heaven in order to punish, to aid, to reveal his will, etc. (Genesis 11:7; Psalms 18:9, etc.); and he returns to heaven when this intervention is finished (Genesis 17:22; Genesis 35:13). Who hath gathered the wind in his fists? Who hath the control of the viewless wind, so as to restrain it or release it at his pleasure? (Psalms 135:7; Amos 4:13). Septuagint, "Who hath gathered the winds in his bosom (κόλῳ)?" Who hath bound the waters in a garment? The waters are the clouds which cover the vault of heaven, and are held, as it were, in a garment, so that, in spite of the weight which they contain, they fall not upon the earth. As Job says (Job 26:8), "He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the cloud is not rent under them." And again (Job 38:37), "Who can number the clouds by wisdom? or who can pour out the bottles of heaven?" So the psalmist, "Thou coveredst it [the earth] with the deep as with a vesture" (Psalms 104:6). (See above, Proverbs 8:27, etc.) Who hath established all the ends of the earth? Who hath consolidated the foundations, and defined the limits, of the remotest regions of the earth? (comp. Job 38:4, etc.). The answer to these four questions is "Almighty God." He alone can order and control the forces of nature. What is his name, and what is his son's name, if thou canst tell? or, if thou knowest. It is not enough to acknowledge the power and operation and providence of this mysterious Being; Agur longs to know more of his nature, his essence. He must have personality; he is not an abstraction, a force, a quality; he is a Person. What, then, is his name, the name which expresses what he is in himself? Men have different appellations for this Supreme Being, according as they regard one or other of his attributes: is there one name that comprehends all, which gives an adequate account of the incomprehensible Creator? The question cannot be answered affirmatively in this life. "We know that if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is" (1 John 3:2). The further question, "What is his son's name?" has given some difficulty. The LXX. has, "What is the name of his children (τοῖς τέκνοις αὐτοῦ)?" as if there was reference to Israel, the special children of God. But the original does not bear out this interpretation, which is also opposed to the idea of the enigma proposed. The inquiry might mean—Are we to apply to the Supreme Being the same notion of natural relationship with which we are familiar in the human family? But this seems a low and unworthy conception. Or the "son" might be primeval man (Job 15:7) or the sage; but the answer would not be satisfactory, and would not tend to solve the great question. There are two replies which can be made to Agur's interrogation. Looking to the marvellous description of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22, etc; we may consider Wisdom to be a denotation of the Son of God, and the inquirer desires to know the name and nature of this personage, of whose existence he was certified. Or he may have arrived at a knowledge of the only begotten Son of God, as the idea of the Logos is more or less developed in the Book of Wisdom, in Philo's treatises, and in the Alexandrian school; and longs for more perfect knowledge. This, indeed, is hidden: "He hath name written, which no one knoweth but he himself" (Revelation 19:12). It is useless to put such question to a fellow man; no human mind can fathom the nature of the Godhead, or trace out its operations (Ec Proverbs 18:4, etc.).
Proverbs 30:5, Proverbs 30:6
The following tetrastich is connected with what has preceded in this way: As the light of nature and metaphysical speculation are of no avail in obtaining the perfect knowledge of God which the seeker craves, he must be all the more thankful for the revealed Word of God, which teaches him as much as he is capable of learning.
Every word of God is pure. "Word" is here imrah, which does not occur elsewhere in our book, which is the case also with Eloah, the term used for "God." Every declaration of God in the inspired record, the Torah, is pure, as if refined in the fire (Psalms 18:30). Vulgate, Omnis sermo Dei est ignitus; Septuagint, "All the words of God are tried in the fire (πεπυρωμένοι)." God's words are true, sincere, with no mixture of error, certain of accomplishment (comp. Psalms 12:6; Psalms 119:140). He is a shield. He is perfect protection to all those who, relying on the word of revelation, fly to him for refuge (see on Proverbs 2:7). The knowledge of God is obtained in two ways—by his revelation in his Word, and by the experience of those who trust in him.
Add thou not unto his words. God's will, as announced in revelation, is to be simply accepted and acted upon, not watered down, not overstrained. This injunction had already been given in the old Law (Deuteronomy 4:2; Deuteronomy 12:32); it is repeated in the New Testament with awful emphasis (Revelation 22:18, Revelation 22:19). No human speculations or traditions may be mingled with God's words; the glosses and explanations and definitions, affixed by rabbinical ingenuity to plain enactments, and proved to be false in morality and fatal to vital religion, are a commentary on the succeeding sentence, Lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar. The reproof is found in the consequences of such additions; the results to which they lead are such as show that no who asserts that these things are contained in the Word of God is a liar.
A mashal ode, containing two requests, and a rationale of the latter. The matter of the two prayers connects it with Proverbs 30:6, whether we consider that the limitation of man's desire follows naturally the limitation of his knowledge (Plumptre). or that the warning against being reproved as a liar is corroborated by the prayer against vanity and lies (but see below, on Proverbs 30:9). It is the first of Agur's numerical proverbs.
Two things have I required of thee. The personal pronoun applies to God, who, according to our interpretation, has been invoked in Proverbs 30:1; otherwise it stands without reference to anything preceding. Deny me not before I die; i.e. grant me these two things for the rest of my life. Septuagint, "Take not grace (χάριν) from me before I die."
Here is the first request: Remove far from me vanity and lies. Shay, "vanity," is inward hollowness and worthlessness, and "lies" are the expression of this in words. The prayer might indeed be taken as an entreaty against being polluted with the companionship of the evil, like "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil;" but it is best taken subjectively, as a supplication for personal truthfulness and sincerity in all relations both towards God and man. Give me neither poverty nor riches. Both extremes are deprecated: the mean is the safest and the happiest, Horace, 'Carm.,' 3.16. 424
Desunt multa; bene est, cui deus obtulit
Parca, quod satis est, manu."
"The 'ever craving' is Want's slave and thrall;
The gods most wisely thus their gifts accord,
Giving 'enough,' they amply give to all."
Theognis, 'Patron.,' 1155—
Οὐκ ἔραμαι πλουτεῖν οὐδ εὔχομαι ἀλλὰ μοι εἴη
Ζῇν ἀπὸ τῶν ὀλίγων μηδὲν ἔχοντι κακόν
"I want not wealth; I only ask to live
On frugal means without corroding care."
Feed me with food convenient for me; literally, give me to eat the bread of my portion; that which by God s providence is determined for me (comp. Genesis 47:22, which speaks of the portion assigned for the support of the priests; Job 23:14; and below, Proverbs 31:15). It is natural to refer to τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν ἐπιούσιον of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:11); but the idea is not the same. In the latter, bread for the needs of the coming day is meant; in our passage it is more indefinite, a casting one's self on the Divine love, in readiness to take what that love assigns. "Having food and covering," says St. Paul (1 Timothy 6:8), "we shall be therewith content." Septuagint, "Appoint for me what is necessary and what is sufficient (τὰ δεόντα καὶ τὰ αὐτάρκη)."
The reason for the latter prayer follows, unless, as some consider, the prayer is one, as if Agur asked, "Take from me riches which lead to vanity, and poverty which leads to lying and deceit." In this case the ground of the request would embrace both parts of the petition. Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord (Jehovah)? Great wealth and temporal prosperity tempt to forgetfulness of God, to self-confidence and practical unbelief in Divine providence. Like Pharaoh, the haughty rich man asks with scorn, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?" (Exodus 5:2; comp. Deuteronomy 8:12, etc.; Job 21:14, etc.; Psalms 14:1). Septuagint, "Lest being filled I become false, and say, Who seeth me?" Or lest I be poor, and steal; lest my necessities lead to dishonesty. And take the name of my God in vain. The verb taphas means "to grasp at, seize violently, handle roughly," and the sin intended may be either false swearing in denial of his theft and to escape punishment, or the arraignment of God's providence which has allowed him to fall into such distress. Thus Isaiah 8:21, "They shall pass through it, hardly bestead and hungry; and it shall come to pass that, when they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, and curse their king and their God." In view of the proverbs that follow, the clause seems to be best taken of the blasphemy attending on impatience and want of resignation to God's will (comp. Proverbs 19:3).
Accuse not a servant unto his master. Calumniate, slander not; μὴ καταλαλήσης, Theodotion; μὴ διαβάλης, Symmachus. Do not secretly bring a charge against a man's slave, and make his master suspicious of him; have a kind feeling for those in lowly condition, and do not render their lot more unbearable by insinuating false or frivolous accusations against them. Ewald and others would render, "Entice not a servant to slander his master;" but there is no need so to take the expression, as the hiph. of the verb is used in post-biblical Hebrew in the sense of "to calumniate." The Septuagint has, "Deliver not a servant into the hands of his master," which seems to refer to the treatment of runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15). Lest he curse thee, and thou be found guilty, and have to atone for it. The slandered slave imprecates a curse on his slanderer, and, as the latter has incurred vengeance by his word or action, the curse will not fall harmless (Proverbs 26:2); God's righteous retribution will overtake him, and he shall suffer for it.
contain six groups of four sentences each, each quaternion having a certain connection in language and concinnity of idea. First (Proverbs 30:11-14) come four generations that are evil—four being taken as the symbol of universality. The sins herein specified had become so general that they affected the whole generation.
There is a generation that eurseth their father. The words, "there is," are not found in the Hebrew, and the four subjects are without a predicate. Delitzsch calls the group "a mutilated priamel," which is explained to be a kind of gnomic poetry containing a series of antecedents or subjects followed by an epigrammatic conclusion applicable to all the antecedents. In the present ease the conclusion is wanting, so that we are left in doubt whether the author meant merely to de. scribe classes of men in his own time or to affirm that such are abominable. Septuagint, "A wicked generation curseth its father (ἔκγονον κακόν)," which expression is repeated at each of the four verses. The first sin is that which offends against the commandment to honour and obey parents. This was judged worthy of death under the old Law (Exodus 21:17; see Proverbs 20:20, and note there). And doth not bless their mother. This is a litotes, "not to bless" being equivalent to "to curse."
A generation that are pure in their own eyes (Proverbs 20:9). The second characteristic is hypocrisy and Pharisaical self-righteousness (see Luke 18:11). And yet are not washed from their filthiness; have not cleansed their heart by complete repentance, either because they have not examined themselves and know nothing of the real state of their conscience, or because they care nothing about it and will not regard it in its true light. There is a similar expression in Isaiah 4:4. Septuagint, "A wicked generation judgeth themselves to be just, but have not washed themselves clean (τὴν ἔξοδον αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἀπένιψεν)."
A generation, oh, how lofty are their eyes! The third sin is pride and arrogance (see on Proverbs 6:17; Proverbs 21:4). "Lord," said the psalmist, "my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty" (Psalms 131:1). The prophet rebukes "the stout heart of the King of Assyria and the glory of his high looks" (Isaiah 10:12). Their eyelids are lifted up; in supercilious disdain. "Inde Proverbio dicimus," says Erasmus ('Adag.'), "attolli supercilium, fastidium indicantes" (s.v. "Arrogantia").
A generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives. The fourth evil is insatiable cupidity, which leads to oppression and injurious treatment of the helpless and poor, which makes men as cruel and remorseless in destroying others and despoiling them of their substance, as the very steel which they use in their operations. Similarly, the psalmist speaks of his enemies as men "whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword" (Psalms 57:4; comp. Isaiah 9:12; Jeremiah 5:17). To devour the poor from off the earth; i.e. so as to be no more seen in the world. Amos 8:4, "Hear this, O ye that would swallow up the needy, and cause the poor of the land to fail" (comp. Psalms 14:4).
Proverbs 30:15, Proverbs 30:16
Having spoken of insatiate cupidity, the writer now introduces four things which are insatiable. The form of the apothegm is climacteric, mounting from two to three, and thence to four, like the famous passage in Amos 1:3, etc. (comp. Proverbs 6:16, though there is no special stress there laid on the last member of the climax; Job 5:19; Job 33:29; Ecclesiastes 11:2).
The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give. The word "crying" is not in the Hebrew, which says, "The alukah hath two daughters: Give! Give!" The insatiable appetite of this creature is represented by two words, which are personified as daughters, whom the mother has produced and dearly loves. This word alukah is not found again in the Old Testament; but in later Hebrew and in Aramaic it means "leech" or "bloodsucker;" and so it is translated by the Septuagint, βδέλλα, and by St. Jerome sanguisuga. The word is derived from a root which in Arabic means "to adhere." There are several kinds of leeches common in Palestine, and their bloodthirsty nature is well known; as Horace says, 'Ars Poet.,' 476—
"Non missura cutem, nisi plena cruoris, hirudo."
It seems simple and quite satisfactory to accept the word thus, and to see in the voracity of the leech an example of the greed further developed in the following clauses; but commentators have not been contented with this explanation, and have offered various suggestions which are either unnecessary or inadmissible. Thus the Talmud considers alukah to be an appellation of hell, and the two daughters to be the Power of the world, and Heresy. Some of the Fathers regard it as a symbol of the devil and his dominion; others, as a personification of cupidity with its two offshoots avarice and ambition. Some moderns deem it to mean a vampire or blood thirsty demon, a ghoul, in accordance with Eastern myth. But, as we have said, such interpretations are unnecessary and unsupported by sufficient authority. The allusion to the tastes of the leech is found elsewhere. Thus Theocritus, 'Idyll.,' 2.55—
Αἲ αἲ ἔρως ἀνιαρέ τί μευ μέλαν ἐκ χροὸς αἵμα
Ἐμφὺς ὡς λιμνᾶτις ἅπαν ἐκ βδέλλα πέπωκας
And Plautus, 'Epidic.,' 2.2, 5—
"Jam ego me convortam in hirudinem atque
Eorum exsugebo sanguinem,
Senati qui columen cluent."
Ewald and others find traces of mutilation in this proverb, and endeavour to supply what is lost in various ways; but the text as it stands is intelligible, and needs no addition. The rest of the verse is an application of the truth first stated. The type of cupidity there enunciated is instanced and exemplified in four special cases. There are three things that are never satisfied. And then a corrective climax is addressed. Yea, four things say not, It is enough. The four in the following verse are divided into two plus two. Septuagint, "The leech had three daughters dearly beloved, and these three did not satisfy her, and the fourth was not contented to say, Enough."
The four insatiable things are now named: first, the grave, sheol (Proverbs 27:20), which can never be filled with its victims. Horace talks of a man as—
"Victima nil miserantis Orci."
('Carm.,' 2.3, 24.)
And Hesiod of Hades as—
Νηλεὲς ἧτορ ἔχων
"A heart possessing that no pity knows."
The second thing is the barren womb; "the closing of the womb," as Genesis 20:18; Isaiah 66:9. The burning desire for children, characteristic of an Israelitish wife, is here denoted, like the passionate cry of Rachel to Jacob, "Give me children, or else I die" (Genesis 30:1). The barren woman, says Corn. a Lapide, " concubitus magis est avida quam ceterae tum propter desiderium habendae prolis, tum quod foecundae et gravidae naturaliter non appetant concubitum." The third insatiable thing is the earth that is not filled (satisfied) with water; the parched and thirsty soil which no amount of water can satisfy, which drinks in all that is poured upon it and is not benefited, what Virgil ('Georg.,' 1:114) calls "bibula arena." The fourth is the fire that saith not, It is enough; the "devouring element," as the newspapers term it. The more you heap on fire, the more material you supply, the fiercer it rages. Septuagint, "Hades, and the love of woman, and earth not satisfied with water, and water, and fire, will not say, It sufficeth." Cheyne and others quote from the Sanscrit 'Hitopadesa,' "Fire is never satisfied with fuel; nor the ocean with rivers; nor death with all creatures; nor bright-eyed women with men."
This is an independent proverb, only connected with the preceding by being founded on an allusion to an animal. The eye that mocketh at his father. The eye is named as the mind's instrument for expressing scorn and insubordination; it is the index to the inner feeling; and look may be as sinful as action. And despiseth to obey his mother; i.e. holds obedience to his mother to be a thing of no importance whatever. The word translated "to obey" (ליקהת) is rendered by St. Jerome partum; by others, "weakness," or "wrinkles," or "old age," as Septuagint, γῆρας. But etymology has led most modem commentators to give the sense of "obedience" (see Genesis 49:10). The ravens of the valley shall pick it out. Such an undutiful son shall die a violent death; his corpse shall lie unburied, and the birds of prey shall feed upon him. It is well known that ravens, vultures, and other birds that live on carrion first attack the eyes of their prey; and in our own islands we are told crows and birds of this sort will fix on the eyes of young or sickly animals. Corn. a Lapide quotes Catullus, 'Carm.,' 108.5—
"Effossos oculos voret atro gutture corvus,
Intestina canes, cetera membra lupi."
"His eyes, plucked out, let croaking ravens gorge,
His bowels dogs, his limbs the greedy wolves."
"The valley," or brook, reminds one of Elijah's miraculous support (1 Kings 17:4). Young eagles. The nesher must here mean one of the vulture tribe, as eagles do not feed on carrion (but see Job 39:30). St. Gregory ('Moral.,' 18.49) applies the proverb thus: "'The eye that sneereth at his father, and despiseth the travail of his mother, lo! the ravens from the torrents shall pick it out.' For bad men, while they find limit with the judgments of God, do 'sneer at their Father;' and heretics of all sorts, whilst in mocking they contemn the preaching of holy Church and her fruitfulness, what else is this but that they 'despise the travail of their mother'? whom we not unjustly call the mother of them as well, because from the same they come forth, who speak against the same."
A proverb concerning four inscrutable things, connected with the last by mention of the eagle.
There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not. The great point is the fourth, to which the three previous things lead up, all of them being alike in this, that they leave no trace. The facts are marvellous; Agur feels like Job, "I have uttered that which I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not" (Job 42:3).
The way of an eagle in the air. You cannot by any outward sign know that an eagle has passed this or that way. Wis. 5:11, "As when a bird hath flown through the air, there is no token of her way to be found," etc. The way of a serpent upon a rock. The snake's mode of progression by the lever-like motion of its ribs might well awake surprise, but the point is still the tracklessness of its course. On sand or soft ground its movements might be traced by the impression made. but this could not be done on hard rock; it could push itself along on such a surface without leaving any track. The way of a ship in the midst (heart) of the sea; i.e. in the open sea. You can trace a ship's course while she is near land or within sight, but when she reaches the open sea, you can follow her furrow no longer. Wis. 5:10, "As a ship that passeth over the waves of the water, which when it is gone by, the trace thereof cannot be found, neither the pathway of the keel in the waves." The way of a man (geber) with a maid (בְּעַלְמָה); Septuagint, "The ways of a man in youth (ἐν νεότητι)." So Vulgate, Viam viri in adolescentia. But this is feeble, and almah is without doubt rightly rendered "maid," "virgin." The proverb says that the sinful act to which it alludes leaves no outward sign by which it can generally be recognized; it escapes man's knowledge. This is exemplified and confirmed in the following verse. It is not sufficient to refer the saying to the insidious arts of the seducer, by which he saps the principles and inflames the passions of his victim. The sin of unchastity is signified, which demands secrecy and affords no token of its commission. Two of the above parallels, says Cheyne, are given in a quatrain of a Vedic hymn to Varuna—
"The path of ships across the sea,
The soaring eagle's flight he knows."
Some of the Fathers and earlier commentators, and among moderns, Bishop Wordsworth, have not been content with the literal sense of this gnonic, but have found in it, as in the others, deep spiritual mysteries. Christ is the great Eagle (Revelation 12:14), who ascended beyond human ken; the serpent is the devil, who works his wily way in secret, and who tried to pass into the mind of Christ, who is the Rock; the ship is the Church, which preserves its course amid the waves of this troublesome world, though we cannot mark its strength or whither it is guided; and the fourth mystery is the incarnation of Jesus Christ our Lord, when "the virgin (almah) conceived and bare a son" (Isaiah 7:14), when "a woman encompassed a man (geber)" (Jeremiah 31:22). We can see the greater or less appropriateness of such accommodation, but the proverb must have been received by contemporaries only in its literal sense, whatever were the inner mysteries which the Holy Spirit wished to communicate thereby.
This verse is a kind of gloss or illustration of the last thought of the preceding verse, and seems not to have formed an original part of the numerical proverb. It might well be placed in a parenthesis. Many commentators consider it to be an interpolation. Such is the way of an adulterous woman. What Agur had said of a man above, he now applies to the practised adulteress, whose sin cannot be traced. She eateth. This is a euphemism for the sin which she commits, "Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant" (Proverbs 9:17; comp. Proverbs 5:15). And wipeth her mouth, as if to leave no trace of her illicit repast. And saith, I have done no wickedness. As she has sinned in secret, and there is no outward proof of her guilt, she boldly denies it. Septuagint, "Such is the way of an adulterous woman, who, when she has committed the act, having washed herself, says she has done nothing amiss." She forgets him who seeth in secret, and is quite content to escape detection at man's eyes, and to assume the character of a virtuous wife, which popular report assigns to her.
Then follows a proverb concerning four things which are intolerable, examples of incongruous associations or positions—two in the case of men, two in the case of women.
For three things the earth is disquieted; better, under three things the earth doth tremble, as if oppressed by an overwhelming borden. The form of expression does not allow us to think of an earthquake. "The earth" is equivalent to "the inhabitants thereof." And for four which it cannot bear; or, under four it cannot stand (comp. Amos 7:10). These four evils destroy the comfort of social life, uproot the bonds of society, and endanger the safety of a nation.
For a servant when he reigneth; or, under a slave when he becometh king. This startling vicissitude was not uncommon in Eastern states; and even if the slave was not preferred to regal power, he was often advanced by unwise favouritism to high position, for which he was wholly unfitted, and which he used only to aggrandize himself at the expense and to the injury of others, This incongruity has been already noticed at Proverbs 19:10 (where see note). And a fool when he is filled with meat. "Fool" is here nabal, a low, profligate fellow, who is rich and without care. When such a one rises to high position, or has power over others, he becomes arrogant, selfish, unbearable (comp. Proverbs 19:9; Proverbs 28:12; Proverbs 29:2).
For an odious woman when she is married; or, under an unloved woman when she is married. The sentence does not refer to an unbeloved wife, a Leah, becoming the favourite, a Rachel; the expression, "when she is married," can hardly have this sense; but the gnome speaks of a woman who has passed much of her life without love, having nothing about her attractive either in looks, attainments, or manner, and is consequently soured and ill-tempered. If such a one does at last win a husband, she uses her new position to vex those who formerly depreciated her, and to make them as miserable as she cam And a handmaid that is heir to her mistress. The maidservant that obtains her mistress's property, either by supplanting her or by right of inheritance, is supposed to make a bad use of it, to become conceited, arrogant, and odious to all around her. The LXX. transposes the last two members of the comparison, placing the unloved woman in the fourth place as the most intolerable of all: "And if a maidservant should cast out (ἐκβάλη, Genesis 21:10) her own mistress, and a hateful woman should obtain a good husband."
Four things small and weak, and yet wise.
There be four things which are little upon the earth, in contrast with the intolerable pretensions of the last group. The Vulgate has minima; but the original is not superlative, which would not be true of some of the creatures named. But they are exceeding wise; "quick of wit, wise," the participle מְחֻכִּמִים meaning "rendered wise, cunning" (Delitzsch). The Septuagint and Vulgate translate in the comparatives. "These are wiser than the wise," the instincts of these animals being more marvellous than human wisdom.
The ants are a people not strong. The ant is proposed as an example to the sluggard (Proverbs 6:6, etc.). He calls the ants a people, am, because they live in a community, and have authorities which they obey, and their actions are regulated by certain definite laws. So Joel (Joel 1:6) calls the locusts a nation, and Homer ('Iliad,' 2.87) speaks of ἔθνεα μελισσάων ἀδινάων, "the tribes of thronging bees." Yet they prepare their meat in the summer. In countries where ants hybernate the object of this commended foresight is mistaken; but the statement, as that in Proverbs 6:6-8, is in accordance with the popular belief of the day, and serves well to point the moral intended. We know certainly that in Europe these insects fill their nests with heterogeneous articles—grain, seeds, husks, etc; not as stores to be consumed in the winter, but for warmth and comfort's sake. Scripture is not intended to teach science; it speaks of such matters phenomenally, with no attempt at a precision which would not have been understood or appreciated by contemporaries. But in the present case more careful observation has confirmed the correctness of the asset. tions in our proverbs. In countries where, ants do not hybernate, they do make granaries for themselves in the summer, and use these supplies as food in the winter months (see note on Proverbs 6:8).
The conies are but a feeble folk. The term "coney" (cuniculus) is applied to the rabbit, but this is not the animal here intended; and indeed rabbits are not found in Palestine. The word shaphan designates the Hyrax Syriacus, called by some the rock badger. The coney, says Dr. Geikie ('Holy Land and Bible,' 2.90), "abounds in the gorge of the Kedron, and along the foot of the mountains west of the Dead Sea. It is of the size of the rabbit, but belongs to a very different order of animals, being placed by naturalists between the hippopotamus and rhinoceros. Its soft fur is brownish-grey over the back, with long black hairs rising through this lighter coat, and is almost white on the stomach; the tail is very short. The Jews, who were not scientific, deceived by the motion of its jaws in eating, which is exactly like that of ruminant animals, fancied it chewed the cud, though it did not divide the hoof, and so they put its flesh amidst that which was forbidden. It lives in companies, and chooses a ready-made cleft in the rocks for its home, so that, though the conies are but a 'feeble folk,' their refuge in the rocks gives them a security beyond that of stronger creatures. They are, moreover, 'exceeding wise,' so that it is very hard to capture one. Indeed, they are said, on high authority, to have sentries regularly placed on the look out while the rest are feeding; a squeak from the watchman sufficing to send the flock scudding to their holes like rabbits. The coney is found in many parts of Palestine, from Lebanon to the Dead Sea." In the rocks. This fact is noticed in Psalms 104:18. The Septuagint calls them χοιρογρύλλιοι here and Psalms 104:18, also in Le Psalms 11:6 and Deuteronomy 14:7. This notion of the animal as a kind of little pig is not more accurate than that of St. Jerome, who renders the term by lepusculus.
The locusts have no king (Proverbs 6:7), yet they show discipline, guidance, and order. They go forth all of them by bands; so that Joel (Joel 2:7, Joel 2:8) speaks of them as a well-ordered army, as it were men of war, marching every one on his ways, not entangling their ranks, walking every one in his path. Septuagint, "The locusts are without a king, yet march at one command in good order."
The spider taketh hold with her hands. Semamith or shemamith is some sort of lizard, probably the gecko. Καλαβώτης, Septuagint; stellio, Vulgate. The Authorized Version alludes either to its fanlike foot, which enables it to run up walls and to cling to ceilings, or to its power of exuding from its feet a certain poisonous humour by which it catches flies and other insects. But the above translation, as well as that of the Septuagint and the Vulgate manibus nititur, is incorrect, The first line, in accordance with the method pursued in the three cases previously, ought to give some expression denoting weakness or littleness, whereas by the above rendering it is rather strength and activity that are signified. The translation therefore should run, as in the Revised Version margin, "The lizard thou canst seize with thy hand," and yet it is in king's palaces. Small as it is, and easy to catch and crush, it is agile and clever enough to make its way into the very palace of the king, and to dwell there. Septuagint, "And the lizard, supporting itself by its hands, and being easy to catch (εὐάλωτος), dwelleth in kings' strongholds." This combines the two interpretations given above. St. Gregory takes the lizard as the type of the simple, earnest man, who often succeeds better than the clever. "Many that are quick-witted, while they grow slack from carelessness, continue in bad practices, and the simple folk, which have no wing of ability to stand them in stead, the excellency of their practice bears up to attain to the walls of the eternal kingdom. Whereas, then, 'the lizard climbeth with his hands,' he 'is in kings' palaces;' in that the plain man, by earnestness of right practice, reaches that point whereunto the man of ability never mounts" ('Moral.,' 6.12, Oxford transl.). The ancient expositors see in these verses a presentation of the Church of God, weak on its human side and despised by men, yet exceeding wise (1 Corinthians 1:27)—like the ant, laying up treasure in heaven, providing for death and eternity; like the coney, making the Rock her refuge; like the locusts, moving forward a mighty army in battle array; like the lizard, active in movement, holding the truth tenaciously, and dwelling in the palace of the great King.
Four things of stately presence.
There be three things which go well (rob); are of stately and majestic carriage. Comely in going; "stately in going."
A lion which is strongest among beasts. The word here used for "lion," laish, occurs elsewhere only in Job 4:11 and Isaiah 30:6. The LXX. renders it, "a lion's whelp." "Strongest" is gibbor, a mighty one, a hero. Turneth not away for any; Septuagint, "turneth not away, nor feareth any beast." So Job describes the war horse, "He mocketh at fear, and is not dismayed, neither turneth he back from the sword" (Job 39:22).
A greyhound; זַרְזִיר מָתְנַיִם (zarzir mothnayim), "girt in the loins" (περιεσφιγμένος τὴν ὀσφόν, Symmachus), an expression very vague, and, as the name of an animal, occurring nowhere else in the Old Testament. In post-biblical Hebrew zarzir is found as the name of some pugnacious bird, and the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Syriac call it here the cock. So also Aquila and Theodotion. But if the word is onomatopoetic, it would seem to apply with more propriety to one of the raven tribe; and then what is to be made of the allusion to the loins? And how comes it that amid the quadrupeds in the gnome a bird should suddenly be introduced, as one stately in going? It seems certain that some quadruped is here meant, but what? What animal has as characteristic tight-girded loins or slender or active loins? There are, indeed, many that might be so designated, but none that, as far as we know, appropriated this unique appellation. Hence various opinions are held by commentators concerning the identification. The zebra, say some, with its stripes, which may be thus denoted; the war horse, say others, comparing Job 39:19, Job 39:25, and considering the trappings with which, as we see in ancient sculptures, he was adorned; others, again, fix upon the leopard as the beast intended. But that of the Authorized Version seems, on the whole, to be the most likely rendering, the slender, agile make of the greyhound having given cause for the appropriation of the term used in the text. Delitzsch compares the German word windspiel, which designates the greyhound without the necessity of using the full term, wiadspielhund. The only points which may be considered adverse to this view are these two, viz. the ill repute in which dogs were held by the Hebrews, Scripture consistently disparaging and despising them; and the fact that, as far as we have information, the Jews did not use dogs for hunting purposes, though nowadays the Arabs keep a kind of Persian greyhound for sporting, and Assyrian monuments have familiarized us with the appearance of hounds employed in the chase of the lion and the wild ox. Agur may be referring to what he has seen elsewhere, but what was well known to these for whom he wrote. Gesenius suggests (253), "a warrior girt in the loins," which is adopted by Wordsworth, and gives a suitable idea. This would correspond with the king in the last line; but the interpretation is quite arbitrary, and supported by no ancient authority, resting on the fact that girding the loins is always spoken of human beings. The cock strutting among his hens is, as we have hinted, the idea which approves itself to many ancient translators. Thus the Septuagint, ἀλέκτωρ ἐμπεριπατῶν θηλείαις εὔψυχος. We are not disposed to adept this identification, more especially as common poultry were unknown in Palestine till long after Solomon's time. Certainly what we call cocks and hens, or barn door fowls, are never mentioned in the Old Testament. and seem to have been introduced from Persia after the rise of the Persian empire. The latest editors decide for the war horse; but the conflicting claims cannot be reconciled, and the matter must be left undetermined. An he goat also. This is a very natural comparison, as the stately manner in which the he goat (tay-ish, "the butter") heads the flock has been always observed. The LXX. expresses this, paraphrasing, "and the he goat leading the herd." "Flocks of goats are very numerous in Palestine at this day, as they were in former ages. We see them everywhere on the mountains, in smaller or larger numbers; at times also along with sheep, as one flock, in which ease it is usually a he goat that is the special leader of the whole, walking before it as gravely as a sexton before the white flock of a church choir" (Geikie, 'Holy Land,' 1:232). A king, against whom there is no rising up; Vulgate, nec est rex qui resistat ei, which ought to mean "and a king whom nothing resists," but can scarcely be compelled to produce this meaning without violence. The difficulty in the sentence arises from the word אַלקוּם, which in the above rendering is regarded as composed of the negative al, and kum, the infinitive, "to rise against, oppose." But this is contrary to grammatical usage, and would be a solecism. To some it has seemed that a proper name was intended, and they have invented a King Alkum or Alkimos, whom they suppose to have been celebrated in or after Solomon's time. Many modern commentators take the word to be an Arabic expression, consisting of al, the definite article, and kum, "people," and consider the meaning to be "a king with whom is the people," i.e. surrounded by his people or army. This is certainly a stately sight, and may well stand parallel to the hero lion among beasts, and the bold he goat at the head of the flock. Other Arabic expressions may probably be found elsewhere in this chapter; e.g. Job 39:15, Job 39:16, Job 39:17, aluka, etc. Septuagint, "a king haranguing before a nation (δημηγορῶν ἐν ἔθνει)." This passage, again, has been taken in a spiritual sense as referring to Christ, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Warrior girt with the sword, the Leader of the flock, the King of kings.
Proverbs 30:32, Proverbs 30:33
Agur's last proverb, exhorting to discreet demeanour.
If thou hast done foolishly in lifting up thyself (Numbers 16:3). If thou hast had the folly to be arrogant, proud, and overbearing in conduct. Or if thou hast thought evil, lay thine hand upon thy mouth. The verb zamam, though possibly used in a bad sense, "to devise evil," is more suitably rendered "to meditate," "purpose;" so here it is the thought of lifting up one's self that is censured, the act and the thought being contrasted. Hast thou acted arrogantly, or even only meditated doing so, restrain yourself, keep silence (Job 21:5; Job 40:4). St. Jerome gives a different rendering, enforcing another lesson, "There is one who shows himself a fool after he is raised to high position; if he had had understanding, he would have laid his hand on his mouth." Septuagint, "If thou give thyself up to mirth, and stretch forth thy hand in a quarrel, thou wilt be dishonoured." Insensate mirth and a quarrelsome disposition alike lead to disgrace. St. Gregory ('Moral.,' 30.10) applies the Vulgate rendering to antichrist, "For he in truth will be lifted up on high, when he will feign that he is God. But he will appear a fool when lifted up on high, because he will fail in his very loftiness through the coming of the true Judge. But if he had understood this, he would have laid his hand on his mouth; that is, if he had foreseen his punishment, when he began to be proud, having been once fashioned aright, he would not have been raised up to the boastfulness of such great pride" (Oxford transl.).
Surely the churning of milk bringeth forth butter. The same word, mits, is used for "churning," "wringing," and "forcing;" it means "pressure" in all the cases, though with a different application. At the present day milk is churned in the East by enclosing it in a leathern bottle, which is then suspended in the air and jerked to and fro till the butter is produced. This process could scarcely be called "pressure," though, possibly, the squeezing of the udder is meant, as the Septuagint and Vulgate take it. But most probably the reference is to cheese, the term used, chemah, being applied indifferently to curdled milk and cheese. To produce this substance, the curdled milk is put into little baskets of rush or palm leaves, tied closely, and then pressed under heavy stones. What the proverb says is that, as the pressure applied to milk produces cheese, and as pressure applied to the nose brings blood, so the pressure of wrath bringeth forth strife; the irritation and provocation of anger occasion quarrels and contentions. They say in Malabar, remarks Lane, "Anger is a stone cast into a wasp's nest." Septuagint, "Press out milk, and there shall be butter; and if thou violently squeeze the nostrils, blood will come forth; and if thou draw forth words, there will come forth quarrels and strifes." It is the third clause which is important, and to which the others lead up; and the verse must be taken in connection with the preceding, as enforcing the duty of self-restraint and silence under certain circumstances. Some of the Fathers, commenting on the Vulgate rendering (Qui fortiter premit ubera ad eliciendum lac, exprimit butyrum; et qui vehementer emungit, elicit sanguinem), apply the passage to the handling of the Word of God. Thus St Gregory ('Moral.,' 21.3), "Divine sentences require sometimes to be viewed externally, sometimes to be explored internally. For we 'press the udder strongly' when we weigh with minute understanding the word of sacred revelation, by which way of pressing whilst we seek milk, we find butter, because, whilst we seek to be fed with but a little insight, we are anointed with the abundance of interior richness. Which, nevertheless, we ought neither to do too much, nor at all times, lest, while milk is sought for from the udder, there should follow blood. For very often, persons, whilst they sift the words of sacred revelation more than they ought, fall into a carnal apprehension. For 'he draws forth blood who wringeth violently.' Since that is rendered carnal which is perceived by an overgreat sifting of the spirit" (Oxford transl.).
The weary search for God
If we read Proverbs 30:1 thus: "Words of Agur the son of the Princess of Masse. The man's saying, I have wearied myself about God, wearied myself about God—then did I withdraw!" we are led to the contemplation of one who has grown tired and despairing in a hopeless search for God.
I. IT IS NATURAL FOR MAN TO SEEK GOD. Agur appears to have lived far away from the borders of the favoured land of Israel. If he was a Jew, he was one in exile, separated from the home of his people. If he was an Ishmaelite, he was even outside the covenant of Israel, and in that case we have the striking picture of an Arab of antiquity anticipating Mahomet in breaking from the idolatry of his fathers. Like Balsam, like Job, this resident in a heathen land looks up to the true God. St. Paul spoke to the Athenians of those who could "seek God, if haply they might feel after him, and find him" (Acts 17:27); and St. Peter could acknowledge God's acceptance of all who look to him truly, no matter what race they might belong to (Acts 10:35). The natural search of the soul for God springs from certain great fundamental facts, viz.:
1. God is the Father of all men.
2. All men need God.
3. All men are separated from God by sin, and therefore must feel naturally at a distance.
The world needs God. But the world has lost God. Hence the natural search for God.
II. THE NATURAL SEARCH FOR GOD RESULTS IN WEARINESS. This is not the weariness of protracted thinking, the reaction from high mental tension. It is worse than that; it is the weariness of a long and apparently fruitless search. Man cannot by searching find out God. God does not appear to respond to the inquiry of the seeking mind. Even to the wisest of the Greeks he was "an Unknown God" (Acts 17:23). For God is not visible to the natural reason, nor is he ever seen excepting when he reveals himself. Now, there is no weariness like that of a long and hopeless search. The sickness of despair then begins to tire the soul. Such weariness drives men at last to abandon the vain pursuit. Agur said, "Then did I withdraw!" He gave up the inquiry. This is the refuge of agnosticism.
III. THE GREATNESS OF GOD'S WORKS MAKES THE SEARCH FOR HIM A WEARINESS. How vast is his created universe! No man can reach up to the starry altitudes of heaven, or dive into the deep mysteries of antiquity, to find the scope and range of the Divine activity. The tremendous energy of nature overwhelms us. Science can investigate its laws, and in a measure make use of its forces; but they come out of a terrible darkness, and they transcend the control of so feeble a creature as man. Agur did not simply distress himself with his own fruitless thinking. He knew something of the history of philosophy, and yet he had not been able to find one inquirer who had solved the terrible enigma over which his own heart was breaking.
IV. THE SEARCH FOR GOD Is SATISFIED IN THE REVELATION OF CHRIST. St. Paul said to the Athenians, "Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you" (Acts 17:23). This is not an authoritative declaration of a dogma of Divinity.
1. The revelation of Christ is such that we can see it and understand it for ourselves. We can see that God is in Christ by observing the stamp of the Divine on his countenance—the signs of God in his life and work. Then in knowing Christ we know God (John 14:9).
2. Moreover, this revelation of God in Christ flashes a light on the huge mystery of the universe, and helps us to find God in nature.
3. The reconciliation between man and God, effected by the cross of Christ, removes the dark barrier of sin, which is the greatest hindrance to the soul in its search for God, and brings us into the presence of God, where we can behold "the beatific vision."
Proverbs 30:5, Proverbs 30:6
The purity of God's words
I. THE REFUGE FROM VAIN SPECULATION IS PRACTICAL REVELATION. The search for God in thought and nature has ended in weariness. But Agur does not subside into agnosticism, much less does he renounce all higher thinking as "vanity of vanities," and plunge into Sadducean worldliness and Epicurean materialism. On the contrary, though he gives up his ambitious quest with a sigh of disappointment, he learns to take a humbler path, on which he finds that God has shed light. The mysteries of pure theology are wrapped in clouds, but the path of man's duty and the way of practical religion are illumined by the light of God's revealed truth. This truth consists in more than those "regulative ideas," which are all that Mansel would have us expect to know, for it corresponds to the actual; it is fact and law of God's real spiritual world. The Word of God is with us in the Bible and in Christ. In this Word the weary seeker after light may not find a star-spangled heaven, but he will see "a lamp to his feet" (Psalms 119:105).
II. THE REVELATION OF GOD IS PURE.
1. It is free from error. This is not a matter of the language of the Bible, which is but the case that enshrines the holy revelation. The frame is not the picture. When we crack the nut we find that the kernel is sound and flawless. The spiritual contents of revelation are infallible.
2. It is free from moral corruption. Prurient minds have affected to be shocked at immoral stories in the Bible. But what is most wonderful about the Scripture writers in respect to such matters is that, though they are bold enough to touch the most repulsive subjects, they never soil their fingers, nor do they ever soil the minds of their readers. Only impure minds draw impure suggestions from the Bible, and such minds may find them anywhere. The Bible reveals man to himself, and declares God's estimate of sin. It cannot cover over the foulest evil with a cloak of social propriety. The horrible things must be exposed in the interest of purity, that they may be denounced, and the doers of them put to shame.
III. THE PURITY OF GOD'S WORD SHOULD INSPIRE TRUST AND REVERENCE.
1. It should inspire trust. For "he is a Shield to them that put their trust in him." We cannot understand all mysteries; the deep counsels of God must ever lie beneath our most searching inquiry; but we have light in God's words for our help and guidance. The purity of this light is a security against danger. It will not allure us into error, and it will not permit us to live in sin unrebuked and unwarned. Therefore the light is guiding, healing, saving. With such a revelation we can afford to endure the insoluble character of great mysteries of theology. When vexed, perplexed, and wearied out, we can turn to the God who has thus made himself known to us, and quietly rest in his sheltering care.
2. It should also inspire reverere. "And not thou unto his words." The truth of God is too sacred for man to be permitted to tamper with it. This is a great warning that men have rarely heeded. We may think and utter our thoughts. But the fatal mistake is when we put forth our speculations as though they were a part of God's revelation. This is a common sin of authoritative theology. Men's opinions—harmless enough in themselves, perhaps—have been added to the Scripture truths, and set before the world as unquestionable and Divine. The interpretation of Scripture has been made as sacred as the text. Church dogma has claimed Divine authority. This is adding to God's words, and the danger of it is
(1) Divine disapproval—"lest he reprove thee;" and
(2) human disloyalty to truth—"and thou be found a liar."
Proverbs 30:8, Proverbs 30:9
Neither poverty nor riches.
A wise man here points out the danger of the two extremes of poverty and riches, and seeks for himself the happier middle position. In the present day the enormous wealth of one class and the hard penury of another suggest serious social questions, and raise alarms as to great possible dangers unless the terrible anomaly of this artificial condition is not remedied.
I. THE EVIL OF POVERTY. The thought is of extreme poverty, of absolute destitution, or. at least, of that precarious livelihood that is always on the verge of want, and is therefore oppressed with an ever-haunting fear of the distress which can never be quire out of sight. Now, what is to be remarked here is that the great evil of excessive poverty pointed out in the passage before us is moral in character. The sufferings of perjury are sad to contemplate. Those of us who have never known what it is to be really hungry cannot understand the pangs of the starving. More tearful must be the trouble of parents who see their children crying for bread and cannot satisfy them. Yet the worst evil is not this suffering; it is the moral degradation that follows it. Wolf-like hunger assimilates its victims to the nature of the wolf. It is hard to be honest when in want of food. The temptations of the poor are frightful to contemplate. It is wonderful that there is so little crime, seeing that there is so much poverty. The grinding cares of poverty tend to wear the soul out, and blind its vision to spiritual truth. The patience and good behaviour of the dumb, suffering multitudes of the distressed is indeed a sight to move our sympathy and excite our admiration.
II. THE EVIL OF WEALTH. The temptation of riches is not very unlike that of poverty in its character, but more deadly. Both extremes tempt to worldliness—poverty to worldly care, riches to worldly satisfaction. The "care of this world" and "the deceitfulness of riches" stand together as the thorns that choke the good seed (Matthew 12:22). But riches goes further. It tempts a man to dispense with God. Poverty tempts to theft, often, indeed, with extenuating circumstances. But riches tempts to scornful atheism. Christ saw this danger when he said, "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of Grail" (Mark 10:23). On the other hand, when we see rich men who have conquered the exceptional temptations of their position, and who live a humble and useful Christian life, devoting their talents to the service of Christ, we should acknowledge that such victors over the world are deserving of especial honour.
III. THE CHOICE OF A MIDDLE COURSE. We are here reminded of Aristotle's doctrine of "the mean." There are circumstances in which the true mean is not just the middle way between two diverse policies. The lowering of the standard of right and wrong that comes from the peace-loving tendency to accept a compromise is disastrous to all conscientious conduct. But now we have to do with a middle course between two external states, both of which are dangerous. If Christian people understood their mission in the world aright, in its breath and humanity, they would know that the call to preach the gospel of the kingdom includes the inculcation of those social principles which tens to blot out the present ugly picture of extreme poverty set off by extreme wealth. A life that is neither crushed by care nor intoxicated by riches is the life in which it is least difficult to serve God and do right. Therefore we should labour to help on a state of society in which more of such lives will be possible.
Proverbs 30:12, Proverbs 30:13
Self-deception in regard to the guilt of sin is the most common delusion of minds that have not been spiritually enlightened. However much men may know and acknowledge about themselves in other respects, on this vital point they are most tempted to go astray.
I. LET US CONSIDER THE TEMPTATION TO SELF-DECEPTION. People have strong motives to think well of themselves.
1. Conscience is so powerful and urgent that few men are able to brave a confession of sin before its awful bar, and yet continue in the practice of sin with equanimity. For the sake of the peace of his mind, everybody naturally desires to stand well with his own conscience. Therefore there is a strong motive to lie to it, hoodwink it, cajole it; or, if these measures fail, to gag it, drown it, brand, or crush, or stamp it out—if possible to murder it.
2. Pride also makes a man desire his own self-approval. The "lofty eyes" are disinclined to see any evil within. It is inwardly humbling to hear, amidst the plaudits of a bamboozled world, a keen inner voice exclaiming, "Thou art a hypocrite, a liar, a knave!"
3. Fear of coming judgment drives a man into a refuge of lies rather than to remain out in the open, exposed to the pitiless storm. It is absurd, ostrich-like to hide one's head in the sand; but men are not always logical in their conduct. The feeling of danger disappears when a man persuades himself that he is innocent.
II. LET US INQUIRE INTO THE CAUSES OF THIS SELF-DECEPTION.
1. It springs from inclination. The temptation to flatter one's self helps to produce the delusion. Thus "the wish is father to the thought."
2. It is aided by a low standard of morals. Only when such a standard is prevalent and accepted will any sinful generation be capable of appearing pure in its own eyes. The higher the standard, the greater the feeling of guilt. Therefore the most holy men, being also the most spiritually enlightened, have the deepest consciousness of sin.
3. It is further encouraged by the example of others. There is a whole "generation" of these self-deluded people. Each man finds his neighbour as bad as himself. A single black sheep in the fold is marked by contrast with its fellows, and cannot but acknowledge its abnormal colour, but a whole flock of black sheep may readily forget that it is not white.
III. LET US OBSERVE THE EVIL OF THIS SELF-DECEPTION. The generation is pure in its own eyes, but it is not washed from its filthiness.
1. Self-deception does not cleanse. It only asserts what is false; it goes no way to make its assertion true. It rather tends the other way, because there can be no effectual cleansing of the soul without confession and repentance.
2. It does not hide sin. It is not even a cloak thrown over what remains as foul as ever, though no longer visible. The generation may walk with lofty eyes, but its pride only deludes itself. Others can see the shame in spite of all the guilty people's loud protestations. Self-deception does not lead to a deluding of God.
3. Self-deception must be exposed and punished. It is itself sinful. For the sinner to walk with a lofty gait is for him to court his doom. The safer course is to follow the example of the publican, who would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven while he smote his breast and cried, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" (Luke 18:13).
Proverbs 30:18, Proverbs 30:19
The mystery of love
Agur sees four things that cannot be traced out.
1. "The way of an eagle in the air." No track is followed by the king of birds as it cleaves the invisible fluid and takes its own wild course from crag to crag.
2. "The way of a serpent upon a rock." Creeping out of a dark cranny, the reptile lies and basks on the hot stone, and then at the approach of an intruder darts into another cranny—its course unknown.
3. "The way of a ship in the midst of the sea." We talk of the ocean highway, but there is no beaten track, no worn course. The ship cuts the surface for a moment, and then the waves roll over its path, and in a short time every trace of its passage is lost in the wash of the waters. So it is with the fourth mystery. The course of human love cannot be predicted or explained. It cannot be made to follow rule and precedent or to correspond to fond parental wishes. Love will go its own way free as the eagle in the air, unsuspected as the serpent on the rock, untracked as the ship in the sea. The three earlier wonders lead on to the fourth, and help to give colour and weight to it. The whole sentence thus gathers up its force into a climax. Nothing is so wonderful in the natural world as the great mystery of love. This may take three forms—
I. THE WILD FREEDOM OF THE EAGLE'S FLIGHT. Love can never be coerced. A forced marriage cannot be a love match. It is natural that man and maid should learn to love one another of their own accord, by the drawing of mutual sympathy. Friends may guide, warn, encourage, or hinder. But a matter which concerns the lifelong happiness of two souls cannot be well arranged by worldly contrivances. Nevertheless, love that is untamed and utterly uncontrolled may lead to frightful mistakes, to folly and sin and shame. The eagle is a wild and dangerous bird—a terror to the helpless lamb. Love becomes a cursed thing, near to hatred, when it is no better than a wild, unfettered passion.
II. THE SUBTLE SECRET OF THE SERPENT'S TRAIL. This is a very ugly picture, from which we start back shuddering and in horror. There is a snake-like cunning in selfish lust that wickedly usurps the sacred name of love, when it is really the very incarnation of hellish venom, seeking to allure its prey to destruction. All low, carnal lust is of the type of the serpent. The wild passion that follows the eagle's flight may be dangerous, but the cold, loveless course of deliberate vice is deadly as that of a viper.
III. THE UNCERTAIN VOYAGE OF THE SHIP. The ship is a home on the waters. She carries freight and passengers—wealth and life. She sails from one port and she seeks another in a far-off land. But she cannot see her distant haven; she knows not what fierce tempests she may have to encounter; her way is uncertain and dangerous. Married life is a voyage over unknown waters. But where there is true love the vessel is well ballasted; she carries a cargo richer than untold ingots of gold; her crew work peacefully without fear of mutiny. Under such circumstances, though there is mystery, hearts that trust in God need fear no shipwreck of love and happiness.
Four weak things, and the greatness of them
The four little creatures that are here mentioned all illustrate the wonderful way in which the disadvantages of weakness may be overcome by some countervailing quality. In the spiritual world Christianity teaches us to look for the triumph of weakness—the weak things of the world confounding the things which are mighty (1 Corinthians 1:27). Now, we have illustrations from nature for the same principle. Each of the four creatures teaches us its own special lesson, as each conquers its weakness by some separate and distinctive quality. The ant succeeds by foresight, the coney by finding shelter, the locust by organization, and the lizard by quiet persistency.
I. THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF FORESIGHT.
1. This is a triumph of wind. The ant is in some respects the most wonderful creature in the world; for it seems to be about equal in intelligence to the elephant, which is not only the greatest, but also the most intelligent of the larger animals. A bull, so immensely greater than an ant in body, is far smaller in mind. Similarly, man's lordship over the animal world is a triumph of mental power. The driver is weaker in body than the horse he drives, but he has a stronger mind. We shall triumph in the world just in proportion as we develop our inner life.
2. This is a triumph of industry. The ant rebukes the sluggard (Proverbs 6:6).
3. It is a triumph of patience. The ant toils for the future. Herein is its true strength. Men who care only for the passing moment are shallow and weak. We are strong in proportion as we live in the future.
II. THE SAFETY OF A SOUND SHELTER. "The conies are but a feeble folk," and they have not the compensating intelligence of the ants. But their instinct leads them to live among the rocks, and hide themselves in dark caves and inaccessible crevices. Thus the strength of the hills is theirs. When there is no hope of holding our ground in the open field, we may find shelter in the Rock of Ages. If souls have their instincts in a healthy condition, these will drive them to the true shelter, and there weakness will be safe.
III. THE TRIUMPH OF ORGANIZATION. Though the locusts have no king, they are able to make successful marches over miles of country, and to completely devastate the lands they visit. They do not waste their time by flying hither and thither, and by opposing one another. They all move on in solid phalanx. This instinctive order secures success. It teaches us that the welfare of the individual must be subordinate to that of the community. If a small stream has to be crossed, the myriads of locusts who are so unfortunate as to be in the van of the mighty army fall in and fill up the bed till they make a causeway that can be used by their fellows. The victory of man is got through the suffering and death of many self-sacrificing heroes. In the Church the cause of Christ will best triumph when all Christians move together in harmony, all seeking to win the world for the kingdom of heaven.
IV. THE SUCCESS OF PERSISTENCY. The little lizard is found in king's palaces because he can stick to the walls, and so run into unlooked for places out of the way of men. It is a great thing to be able to hold on. Quiet perseverance wins many a victory. Patient endurance is crowned in the end with glorious success. In the highest things, "he that endureth unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Mark 13:13).
Each of the four here brought before us excites admiration for a successful course. As in former illustrations, the images rise up to a climax, and what is exhibited separately in the earlier ones is united and completed in the final image.
I. A TRIUMPHANT COURSE EXCITES EMULATION.
1. True success is good. There are various forms of success. Some are more disgraceful than failure. A low end easily won, or a desirable goal reached by foul means, gives a worthless and even a detestable victory. But when both means and end are good, there is something admirable in success.
2. This success is continuous. The most worthy triumph is not that of a sudden victory snatched at the end of a long, doubtful contest, but the carrying out of a course that is good throughout—a constant series of small daily victories over danger. Thus the lion is admired, not merely because he can bring down his prey by means of a long chase, or after patiently waiting for it in ambush, but because "he turneth not away for any," and of all four the excellence is that they "go well." With every man the true note of triumph is that he "goes well" day by day along the path of duty.
3. This success is measured by the difficulties overcome. We gauge strength by what it can do, and the best standard may not give visible results in acquisition. The proof may be seen more in triumph over obstacles. He who persists through all hardship and danger enduring to the end, and faithful unto death, is the true soldier of Christ.
II. A TRIUMPHANT COURSE MAY BE VARIOUSLY RUN. The good and admirable may be of different forms. Success of the highest kind will be got by each using his own talents, not by any vainly imitating those of another. The lion cannot copy the goat's agility, nor the greyhound the lion's strength. Four methods of success are here suggested.
1. Success may be won by indomitable energy. This is the characteristic of the lion. He is strong, and he "turneth not away for any."
2. It may be got by swiftness. The greyhound is a feeble creature compared to the lion. Its glory is in its speed. There is a victory for nimbleness of mind as well as of body.
3. It may be reached by agility, The hound can fly like the wind over the plain; and the he goat can pick its way among the crags of the precipice and climb to dizzy heights. They are not like the eagle that soars on its wings, for the quadruped must always have some foothold, but with this it can stand without fear in the most precarious positions. Skilful agility will enable one to triumph over difficulties, escape snares and pitfalls, and rise to daring heights.
4. It may be attained by human qualities. Man is feeble as a coney compared to the lion, slow as a tortoise in the presence of the greyhound, lame and timorous beside that audacious mountaineer the goat. But he can master and outdo all these creatures by the use of mental and spiritual powers.
III. A TRIUMPHANT COURSE WILL DEVELOP UNIQUE CHARACTERISTICS. Each of the four is known by its success, as none would be known if the animals were caged in a menagerie, and the king left to enjoy empty pageantry. The kingly faculty is not only recognized on a throne. As the power to govern, it is witnessed in business, in society, and in intellectual regions. There are born kings. We see how stirring times bring such men to the front as the Civil Wars revealed Cromwell. The noblest earthly career is to be a true leader of men. He who stands at the head of the great human family was and is a Divine King, and his triumph is in his ruling even through shame and death.
I. WHEN SELF-SUPPRESSION IS NEEDED. It is not always equally demanded of us. There are times for expression, times when we should break reserve and give forth freely the thoughts and purposes of our souls. But other times demand peculiar self-suppression.
1. In rebuke of foolish vanity. "If thou hast done foolishly in lifting up thyself." A magnified image of self needs to be reduced. Too much pretension must be humbled. Selfish ambition must be cast down.
2. In restraint of evil thinking. "Or if thou hast thought evil." Jesus Christ has taught us that evil thinking is sin (Matthew 5:28). But the sooner the sin is checked the better, and it can be best checked before it has emerged in word or deed. Expression emphasizes an evil thought. A publication of it makes it hurtful to others. The viper brood should be scotched in the nest.
II. WHAT SELF-SUPPRESSION WILL EFFECT.
1. It will prevent future evil. We cannot undo the past; we cannot deny our inner self. But at least we may seek for grace that the sin may proceed no further.
2. It will prepare for better conduct. In itself it is but negative. It has the merit of silence, it is a "masterly inactivity." We must stop before we can turn back. There is therefore a moment of silence, cessation, even death, in the act of conversion. We cannot proceed at once from evil living to good service. St. Paul had his period of silence in Arabia. It would be an immense gain in this noisy age if we could practise more of the golden virtue.
III. HOW SELF-SUPPRESSION MAY BE ATTAINED. "Lay thine hand upon thy mouth." To the noisy and expressive this is no more easy than it is for the glutton to "put a knife to" his "throat" when he is eating "with a ruler" (Proverbs 23:1, Proverbs 23:2). Frank and open natures are not able readily to recognize the merits of reticence, while, on the other hand, reserved and secretive natures shrink from a requisite confession.
1. There must be a perception of the evil of giving unrestrained went to one's thoughts and desires. Many people do not perceive the dangers of speech. They blurt out the most unseemly things where the sensitive shrink into silence. But a horror of the harm that may be done by heedless words will assist in the cultivation of a habit of self-restraint.
2. There must be energy of will. The unrestrained nature that is a victim to every rousing impression is no better than an unwalled city open to the invasion of the first chance foe (Proverbs 25:28). Now, it is a work of Divine grace to strengthen the will so that the weak may acquire more control over themselves. At the first blush of it there seems to be more energy in noisy, bustling restlessness, while quiet self-restraint appears inert. But this results from a very superficial view of life. Nothing less than Heaven-sent grace can make us strong enough to keep silent under great provocation or to be still when the heart is boiling over with passion.
HOMILIES BY E. JOHNSON
Agur's sayings: God's Word the fountain of all wisdom
These are the words, probably, of a believer in Jehovah who was a stranger in a foreign land. Among the sworn foes of Israel and her faith, we have in him an example of Puritan rectitude, of unflinching fidelity to conscience, that is highly instructive. The purity of God's eternal truth, and the safety of all believers in him (Proverbs 30:5),—this is his simple and sublime leading theme.
I. THE BEING OF GOD AN UNUTTERABLE MYSTERY. (Proverbs 30:1.) In vain had he sought to explore the unfathomable secret of his essence, by searching to find out the Almighty unto perfection. It was higher than heaven—what could he do? deeper than Hades—what could he know? This was substantially the confession, expressed in different forms, of all the great prophets. Compare the accounts of Isaiah's consecration, Jeremiah's and Ezekiel's. True religion is rooted in this sense of the Divine mystery. All piety is shallow without it. In every conscious feeling, thought, aspiration, we are but travelling on the edge of a great abyss, moving towards an horizon which still recedes. In our deeper moments we are all mystics, and there are times when all talk about God seems babble, and we would fain take refuge in the "sacred silence of the mind."
II. THE INTELLIGENCE OF MAN DULL AND INADEQUATE IN RELATION TO DIVINE THINGS. (Verses 2, 3.) No words are too self-contemptuous to express the sense of the immense gulf which separates our thought from God. Applied to definable objects, our intelligence scents bright and piercing; applied to the Infinite Might and Wisdom and Purity, no better than the vacant gaze of the ox in the pasture. Look into those beautiful brown eyes; there is a depth of pathos in them, but no "speculation," no power to grasp the unity and law of things that print themselves in pictures on the retina. And what are we, though raised above the "creatures that lead a blind life within the brain," but helpless gazers into infinity? Well did Sir Isaac Newton and all the great seers of science realize this feeling. Their consummate knowledge was, viewed on another side, consummate ignorance. They had not thereby attained absolute wisdom, nor "won the knowledge of the Holy." There have been, indeed, modern philosophers who have proposed an "absolute philosophy;" but time has discovered the idleness of their "o'er-vaulting ambition," and made a fable of their folly.
III. THE INACCESSIBLE IN NATURE RECOGNIZED. (Verse 4.) One of the first principles laid down by the great Goethe was—Learn to distinguish between the accessible and the inaccessible in nature to your thought. For want of this, theologians on the one hand, scientists on the other, have rushed into presumption in seeking to wrest the inscrutable secrets of nature from the hand of God. The unknowableness of the first beginnings of things was recognized by the ancient thinker. The height of heaven, the movements of winds and waves, the changes of the earth's surface,—all may be brought under law; but the word "law" conceals the greater mystery—the nature of the Lawgiver himself. God is not identical with law, any more than we are identical with speech. Law is but the partially understood speech of God to our intelligence. Examine all the sublime names which have been given to God in the course of revelation, in the process of religious thought; behind them all ties the unutterable and unthinkable Somewhat.
IV. THE SELF-REVELATION OF GOD RECOGNIZED. (Verse 5.)
1. To say that God is utterly unknowable is as great an error as to say that he is perfectly knowable by the human understanding: Such an admission must cut at the root of religion. On the contrary, religion implies revelation. Because God has spoken to us, we may speak to him; because he has stooped to us, we may rise towards him. In manifold ways—through nature, through inspired men, through the Son, through the conscience—God "has spoken to the world." If this be denied, religion is an entire illusion.
2. The quality of his oral revelation. The writer is thinking of the oral and written Law. Because definite, articulate, it may be spoken of as the Word of God par excellence; but by no means are the indefinable and inarticulate revelations through nature to our spirit excluded. From every sight of beauty and every sound of music in the world we may derive unspoken messages of him "whose nature and whose name is Love." And God's Word is pure. The refined silver of the furnace is a favourite image of this, its quality. From the alloy of duplicity, flattery, hypocrisy, it is free. God deals sincerely with us. And, therefore, it is purifying. We behold the true life of the soul in its mirror.
3. The practical blessing of trust in him. He who speaks to us is to be trusted. And in this trust in One who is eternal and infallible, pure arid true, we have security. The Law or Word which declares his will is like a broad hand stretched above us to command, and, in commanding, to protect, reward, and bless.
4. The duty of strict reverence and loyalty towards his words. (Verse 6.) Much they leave unsaid, which it is not for us to supply. The general lesson seems to be respect for that element of reserve and mystery which lies behind all that is or may be known. We may "lie" against God by saying more than he has actually said to us by any channel of knowledge. To exceed or exaggerate seems ever a readier temptation than to keep within the modest bounds of positive declaration. And certain penalties await all distortions of the truth of every kind; they work themselves out in the conscience and the course of history.—J.
The golden mean
I. THE WAY OF LIFE: TRUTH IS THE MEAN BETWEEN TWO EXTREMES. (Proverbs 30:8.) Extremes exist in logic; life shows that extremes meet, and that the path of sense in opinion and of safety in conduct lies intermediate between them.
II. GREAT INCHES ARE NOT IN THEMSELVES DESIRABLE. Not by the wise and religious man. They bring perils to the soul. Full of his gifts, it is tempted to deny the Giver. The deepest atheism springs from self-sufficiency. Prospering in the flesh, men are often impoverished in the spirit. "How deep a knowledge of the heart is implied in the petition of the Litany, 'In all time of our wealth, good Lord deliver us'!" (Bridges).
III. EXTREME POVERTY MAY BE EQUALLY INJURIOUS TO THE SPIRITUAL LIFE. It tempts to dishonesty, even to perjury. "Too poor to be honest" is a cynical saying which points out a real danger. The old proverb, "It is hard for an empty sack to stand on end," points the same way. More stinging still is the word, "Poor men have no souls."
IV. THE GOLDEN MEAN IS THEREFORE TO BE DESIRED AND SOUGHT. (Comp. Philippians 4:11, Philippians 4:12; 1 Timothy 6:6-10.) Horace says, "Whoever loves the golden mediocrity is safe, free from the sordid misery of the tumble down dwelling, free from the envied hall in his sobriety" ('Carm.,'Proverbs 2:10; Proverbs 2:10). But let us be careful to note that the true state is to be found in the spirit itself—the inward, not the outward sufficiency. "I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." Rich in estate, yet poor in spirit; poor in estate, yet rich in grace;—this is the true solution of the problem, the true object of pious prayers.—J.
Caution in the use of the tongue
I. THE THOUGHTS ONE FEARS EXPRESS HIMSELF ONE MAY BE TEMPTED TO ELICIT FROM ANOTHER.
II. IT IS BASE TO TEMPT AN HONEST HEART TO THOUGHTS AND WORDS OF DISCONTENT. One of the most active forms of evil consists in the "putting into the head" of others feelings towards their employers or superiors which would not otherwise have arisen.
III. THE BITER MAY THUS BE BIT; THE TEMPTER THUS BRING A RECOIL UPON HIMSELF. (Comp. Proverbs 26:2)—J.
Detestable phases of human character
I. THOSE UNGRATEFUL TO PARENTS. (Proverbs 30:11.) "Without natural affection." Solon, asked why he had made no law against parricides, said that he could not conceive of any one so impious and cruel. In the Law of Moses the cursing of a parent was visited with the same punishment as the blaspheming of God (Le Proverbs 20:9; Proverbs 24:11-16; comp. Isaiah 45:9, Isaiah 45:10; 2 Timothy 3:2).
II. CRASS SELF-CONCEIT AND PRIDE. (Proverbs 30:12, Proverbs 30:13.) The Pharisees in the gospel (Matthew 23:25-27), the Laodicean Church (Revelation 3:17, Revelation 3:18), are examples. But the character is a constant one, and reappears in every age as a foil to genuine Christianity. Compare Mozley's powerful sermon on the Pharisees. But it was a noble Pharisee who learned, in the humility of Christ, to "have no confidence in the flesh" (Philippians 3:3).
III. PITILESS CRUELTY AND OPPRESSION. (Proverbs 30:14.) Wolves in human guise or in sheep's clothing. Similar pictures are to be found in Psalms 57:5; Psalms 58:7; Isaiah 9:12; Jeremiah 5:17; Jeremiah 30:16, Jeremiah 30:17. These pictures of the heart, its exceeding deceitfulness and desperate wickedness, should lead us to examine our own. The germs of all the world's evil are to be found in these microcosmi—these "little worlds." When we know ourselves truly, the prayer will the more sincerely arise to him to whom all hearts are open, that he will cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit.—J.
Proverbs 30:15, Proverbs 30:16
Reflections on the insatiable
I. THE EXTERNAL LIFE IS THE MIRROR OF THE INTERNAL. Our spirit finds analogies to itself in the objects of nature, of history, and in the general course of human life. And all that we observe there, in the great world, may serve as a light to reveal to us what passes here, in the world of each man's heart.
II. IMAGES OF INSATIABLE APPETITE. Hades; the barren womb; the thirsty earth; the all-devouring fire. The vampire, or bloodsucker, seems to be intended in the first example; it is supposed to suck the blood of the sleeping by night.
III. THE SPIRIT OF MAN IS INSATIABLE. And whether this appetite is rightly or wrongly directed, upon this depends his weal or woe. It may be directed to what is perishable or pernicious—to gold, power, pleasure, etc. Drunkenness is the commonest illustration of the insatiety of man's nature. Or it may be directed to righteousness, to the. knowledge of the truth, to the enjoyment of the good; and then it carries the power and promise of the "endless life"—J.
The punishment of unfilial conduct
I. THE DENUNCIATION IS IN FIGURATIVE FORM.
II. ITS FULFILMENT LITERALLY HAD BEEN A MATTER OF ACTUAL OBSERVATION.
III. THE GENERAL TRUTH MUST BE CARRIED INTO THE LIGHT OF CONSCIENCE. On the whole, as Bishop Butler soundly taught, the constitution of things tends to punish evil and reward good conduct.—J.
The mystery of actions
I. THERE ARE ACTIONS WHICH, LIKE THE FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE, OR THE PASSAGE OF THE SHIP, LEAVE NO VISIBLE TRACE BEHIND. What seems to strike the mind of the simple-hearted Agur is the fact that criminal deeds may be committed and, seemingly, leave as little trace behind.
II. BUT THE MYSTERY AND SECRECY OF ALL ACTIONS ARE KNOWN TO GOD. We are naked and open to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. And God shall bring every secret work into judgment. Every act leaves its trace in the world of spirit.—J.
I. THE EXAMPLES.
1. The slave in authority. (Proverbs 30:22.) The inversion of objects is intolerable to the trained eye; things standing upside down, etc. So in social relations and in political Government belongs to the wise and the strong; the feeble in mind and the narrow in heart are emphatically the wrong men in the wrong place, in seats of power.
2. The self-satisfied fool. His fatuous smile is a satire upon himself and upon the condition of things which permits him to bask in so fantastic a paradise. Those are sights to make the "angels weep."
3. The ill-tempered wife. (Proverbs 30:23.) She, again, is emphatically "out of place." For home, in any sweet sense, is the place which woman's presence makes a delight.
4. The ambitious maidservant. The effort to supplant, to grasp a place beyond one's rights and deserts, hurts our intuitive perceptions of what is right. An Oriental proverb says, "Sit in your place, and none shall make you rise," on which we have a pointed commentary from Christ in Luke 14:11, "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
II. THE GENERAL LESSONS. Order and rank are Divine institutions. To overturn this is no work of the true reformer or friend of the social weal. Rule rests ultimately upon ability to rule; government, upon power; authority, upon wisdom. When these relations are actually reversed, society is disturbed, matters are unhappy. When they only seem to be reversed, there will be distress and discomfort in right minds, until the just order and the nominal state of things shall be restored.—J.
The significance of little things
1. The ant (Proverbs 30:25); tiny in frame, yet full of providence, making wise provision against the rainy day.
2. The hedgehog ("coney," Proverbs 30:26); though feeble, finds compensation in the strength of the dwelling it selects.
3. The locust (Proverbs 30:27); a creature, as an individual, easily crushed, yet gaining immense force by union with others. Joel
(2) gives a splendid description of the raid of locusts under the figure of an invading army, with which the accounts of travellers in tropical lands may be closely compared.
4. The lizard (verse 28); another tender and feeble creature, nevertheless penetrates human dwellings, and makes itself at home in the palaces of kings.
II. LESSONS. The lower creatures show unconscious mind. What they do, apparently with blind mechanical impulse, is exemplary in many respects to us who have reason and will. The profoundest lessons may be derived from the lowliest things. Mr. Darwin's work on 'Worms' shows how the most despised of creatures, by the very law of its being, labours for others and blesses a world. It is folly to seek to explore the heights of wisdom until we are familiar with what it teaches us in the little and ¢he low. The "little flower in the crannied wall" contains in its life the secret and mystery of all existence.—J.
Grandeur in natural objects
Our aesthetic as well as our teleological perceptions are appealed to in the objects of nature. Certain creatures express grandeur, sublimity, or beauty in their form and carriage.
1. The lion. (Proverbs 30:30.) He is in nature and for art the very symbol of strength and prowess. Literally, he is the "hero among beasts," and turns his magnificent front from the face of no foe.
2. The greyhound (Proverbs 30:31), with its slender form, is the very type of swiftness, which is another idea lying close to the sublime. His name (in German, Windspiel, or Windhund) compares him with the wind.
3. The goat; in its active capability, its nimble movement, and secure footing in dangerous places, gives another variety of the same idea.
II. A PARALLEL IN HUMAN LIFE. The king in his majesty should combine in his person and bearing the fearless brow of the lion, the swiftness of decision and action of the other animals. The ideal majesty of man includes in itself all lower perfections in the thought of the Creator. And every man should be taught to realize the royal dignity of his being in Christ. He is made a "little lower than the angels;" and God's purpose cannot be fulfilled until we men rise to claim the glorious heritage of the ideal manhood.—J.
Proverbs 30:32, Proverbs 30:33
I. IT TEACHES THE CONTROL OF THE TONGUE. The folly and pride of the heart may be choked, if expression is denied them on the tongue. No evil or foolish thought is full born till it is clothed in words. Give no formula to the momentary impulse of wrath or other passion, and the soul of evil will perish if it find no body to inhabit.
II. IT POINTS TO CONSEQUENCES. The quaint illustrations of Agur exhibit the certainty of evil consequences to evil thoughts and desires. As certain as any of the physical sequences mentioned, is the metaphysical sequence, the moral or immoral consequences of passion. Therefore, obsta principiis, resist the beginnings, "seal up the avenues of ill."—J.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Reverence and docility
Whoever Agur may have been, it is certain that he was a sage who could express his thoughts in strong and trenchant language. If, as seems probable, these opening words had reference to the compliments or the questions of his disciples, we may glean, before we proceed further, three lessons by the way.
1. That rightful acknowledgment too easily passes into adulation.
2. That it is a very easy thing for the uninstructed to ask questions which the most enlightened cannot answer.
3. That true genius is modest, and knows well the hounds of its capacity. The main lessons are—
I. OUR DUTY TO DISCLAIM WHAT IS NOT TRUE CONCERNING US. Agur, using the language of hyperbole, energetically disclaims any such elevation as he was imagined to have attained (Proverbs 30:2, Proverbs 30:3). Men will sometimes deny us the virtue or the wisdom which we may claim; but they will often offer us an honour which is not our due. We may be taken to be wealthier, or wiser, or stronger, or more generous, or more devout than we know ourselves to be. We should then distinctly and determinately decline to receive what does not belong to us. To accept it
(1) is dishonest, and any kind of dishonesty is sinful;
(2) is likely to inflate our minds with fond and vain conceptions, hurtful if not fatal to our humility;
(3) will sooner or later end in exposure and humiliation.
II. THE GREAT OBLIGATION TO REVERENCE. (Proverbs 30:4.) We may know many things, but, when it is all told, what an infinitesimal fraction is this when compared with all that is unknown! What vast, what inexhaustible treasures of truth and wisdom are hidden, and must remain hidden, in the air, in the earth, in the sea! How little, then, can we understand of him, the Eternal and Infinite One, who reigns in the heavens! How unfathomable the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God" (Romans 11:33)!
1. How foolish to expect to understand his purpose, whilst he is outworking it, either concerning our individual life or the destiny of our race!
2. How prepared we should be to accept what God has taught us respecting our nature, or our duty, or our prospects, or respecting his own nature and his will!
3. How unwise to attempt to add to his teaching by any inventions of our own! Not, indeed, that we are not to make new applications, and find out truer interpretations of his Word; but that we are not to think and speak as if we had sources of wisdom apart from his Divine communication.
III. THE REWARD OF DOCILITY. (Proverbs 30:5.) To learn of God is:
1. To repair to the fountain of purity. Everything God has said to us tends to purity, to Freedom from a degrading selfishness, from a corrupting worldliness, and from an enslaving and a shameful sensuality. To fill our minds and hearts with his holy truth lifts us up into an atmosphere where our whole nature is elevated and refined, where we are capacitated for the vision and fitted for the presence and the home of God (Matthew 5:8; Hebrews 12:14).
2. To learn of God and to connect ourselves with him by faith in Jesus Christ is to be well shielded in the battle of our life. For it is to have
(1) strong, sustaining principles within us, and
(2) the active and efficient guardianship of God around us as we pass through the sorrows of our life, and mingle in its many conflicts, and discharge its varied and weighty duties.—C.
A new year's prayer
We have in these most instructive words a wise and good man—
I. CALMLY CONFRONTING THE FUTURE. Whether we read "before I die" or "until I die" (Wardlaw), we have a good man deliberately facing the future of his life. He realizes that before him stretches out a tract of time which he has to cross; he knows that he must keep steadily, incessantly, moving forward; that he will meet with difficulties and dangers on his way; that he will want all and more than all the power and the wisdom he has at his command; and he is sobered and solemnized by the thought. In view of this serious aspect of things, we find him—
II. EARNESTLY ADDRESSING HIMSELF TO GOD. "Two things have I required of thee." To whom, thus situated, should we go? Surely unto him who is:
1. The Lord of the future, who holds all time in his sovereign hand, who alone "can set new time upon our score."
2. The Father of our spirits, who is deeply interested in our highest welfare, and cares more about our well-being than does any human relative or friend.
3. The Lord of our life, who traces the path our feet will tread, who can and will hedge that path with his protecting care, who can and will lead us along the road we travel. And what better "requirement" or request could he prefer than that of—
III. ASKING FOR DELIVERANCE FROM DELUSION? From "vanity and lies." Whatever may have been the form which this evil took in the land and time of Agur, we know what withering and wasting delusions we need to be preserved from now.
1. From under-estimating the value of our life. There are many—are there not many more than there once were?—that say, "Who will show us any good?" Their name is legion who are discussing and even denying the worth of human life. Indifference, ennui, weariness and dreariness of spirit, disgust—leading down to a pessimistic philosophy in theory, and to suicide in action—this is the strain and spirit, and this is the current of our time. It is a delusion, both sorrowful and sinful. For it is a virtual abandonment of a noble heritage, and it is a rejection of a good and a great gift from the hand of God. A life of holy service, of unselfish devotion, of spiritual growth, of filial gratitude and joy, of Christian hopefulness, is a blessing of simply inestimable value.
2. From over-estimating the value of the sensuous and the material. Always and everywhere men have been in the gravest danger of supposing that "a man's life does consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses," or the number and sweetness of his bodily gratifications. This also is vanity; it is a falsehood which sin sows freely and which quickly takes root in the minds of men. What we need to know, what we may well ask God to teach us so that we shall not only accept but realize it, is that all the rivers of earthly good and of sensuous satisfaction may run into the sea of an immortal spirit, made for God and for goodness, and they will not fill it.
IV. PRAYING TO BE EXEMPT FROM THE EXTREMES OF CIRCUMSTANTIAL TRIAL. Give me neither poverty nor riches."
1. The trial of poverty. This we can all understand, and it takes but little wisdom or sanctity to pray for exemption from its evil.
2. The trial of wealth. We think we could endure this without, suffering. Nearly all those who have not experienced it are inclined to slight the danger of being rich. Those who have never walked on the ice imagine that they could do so without slipping; those who have never gambled indulge the idea that they could stop at the moment of prudential retirement. We do not know ourselves. He who "knew what was in man" knew how great is the peril of worldly wealth: We do well to strive and to toil for an honourable maintenance; but we do not well to sacrifice health or usefulness—how much less our self-respect and the love of Christ!—in order to be rich We do wisely to ask God to save us from the temptation—the real, the strong, the frequently whelming temptation—of great worldly success.
V. ASKING FOR THE GOOD WHICH WILL PROVE TO BE A BLESSING. "Feed me with food convenient for me;" i.e. which thou knowest to be suited to my need. God only knows what we want—what we want; what will be really and abidingly food for us, considered in all our relations. God knows what will nourish our spiritual nature, what will supply us as citizens of this life, what is our bodily need for those few years which he is about to give us here before he translates us to a heavenly sphere. Let us ask him to grant us what he knows is best, surely believing that what he gives in answer to our prayer is the best for us to receive—that, whatever the measure be, and not something sweeter, or finer, or more enduring. But let us, understanding what it is we ask—as they who first used the words did not—say continually, "Lord, evermore give us this bread."—C.
From cruelty to kindness
To those who are even ordinarily humane, the accounts which are sometimes given of horrible cruelty seem to be barely credible; it is difficult to understand how a heart that is anywise human can hold such fearful feelings as are thus expressed. On the other hand, to those who have been brutalized by the long practice of cruelty, it is often found almost incredible that men and women can be capable of great generosity either of heart or hand. From the lowest depth of cruelty to the noblest height of kindness there is a very large ascent.
I. THE MORAL SCALE. At the very bottom of this scale is:
1. An absolute and even a keen delight in inflicting and in witnessing pain: this is nothing short of fiendish. Then comes, perhaps:
2. A hard indifference; an utter unconcern when suffering is beheld; a perfect readiness that it should be inflicted and endured. Less iniquitous, perhaps, than this is:
3. The steeling of the heart against the appeal which is made by suffering, and which is not altogether unfelt; the presence of some sensibility, but the endeavour, for some reason, to suppress the emotion that is excited.
4. The inward acknowledgment that interposition is due and should be rendered, but the careful and ingenious avoidance of the duty; the passing by on the other side.
5. The compounding of a felt obligation to help by tendering some almost worthless contribution. Then, moving upward, we arrive at:
6. The act of practical kindness to the sorrowful or the needy.
7. The act of generous succour, wherein that which is given is really felt.
8. The summit of self-sacrificing love, on which we "lay down our lives for the brethren," even as our Lord laid down his life for us all.
II. OUR PLACE IN THIS SCALE. The question for us to answer is—Where do we stand? How far from the height? how near to the depth? Must we stand condemned? or may we hope that it is well with us in this most serious feature of human character?
III. THE WAY UPWARD. We shall probably conclude that, although our spirit is far from that of the "generation whose teeth are as swords," etc; it is not as truly and as thoroughly the spirit of Christ, the pitiful, the merciful, the magnanimous One, as we would that it were. And we want to know what we can do to leave all cruelty, all unkindness, and even all inconsiderateness, far below us, and to rise to the exalted altitude of pure and noble beneficence. Our best plan will be to make an earnest endeavour:
1. To realize the essential brotherhood of man as being based upon that great fact of the Fatherhood of God.
2. To dwell upon the great and almost boundless capacities of mankind, on the extent to which we can suffer both in body and in spirit, and the degree of joy and excellency to which we may be raised.
3. To study with devout diligence the life and the language, the spirit and the will, of Jesus Christ.
4. To move freely and frequently, both in actual life and in the paths of literature, amongst the gracious and the generous, the kind-hearted and the noble-minded.
5. To address ourselves seriously to the work of showing kindness in every open way to those whom we can reach. Whom we help we pity, whom we serve we love.—C.
Proverbs 30:15, Proverbs 30:16
The unsatisfied human heart
There are many things in nature which are not satisfied; but there is one thing in that which is above nature which is much less easily satisfied—an intelligent, responsible, immortal spirit.
I. THE INSATIABLE IN NATURE. Agur specifies four things; in these we find three features which supply a contrast to the craving of the human soul. The insatiable:
1. Limited by consciousness. The grave never says, "It is enough;" though millions have descended into its dark void, and though many ages have witnessed its consumption, it is as recipient as ever; it is, and it will remain, unfilled. But it is unconscious of its reception; it is only in iron, nation that it can be said to crave or to cry, "Give! give!"
2. Limited by time. Childless womanhood is not unconscious; its craving is real and keen enough; but it is not lasting; it only extends over a few years of life; there is a large proportion of life, before and after, when no such longing is cherished.
3. Limited by quantity. The parched earth drinks in the rain hour after hour, and even day after day, as if it would not be satisfied with any quantity; but there is a measure of moisture which saturates and suffices; beyond that, anything that falls or flows is redundant.
II. THE UNSATISFIED HUMAN HEART. Here there are practically no limitations. The human heart:
1. Is painfully conscious of its deep craving. Unlike the grave, unlike the fire, which seems animated indeed, but is actually unconscious, the human soul is profoundly moved as it yearns for something more and better than anything it holds; down to its depths it is disturbed, troubled, agitated. Its voice, crying, "Give! Give!" is not merely poetical, it is pathetic and even passionate.
2. Is unlimited by time. Unlike childless womanhood, its yearning for what it has not is not confined to a few years of its existence; it extends through life; it reaches on to old age, to the very hour of departure. It does not grow, thrive, fade, and die; it lasts; it is often found to be as keen and vigorous at the end as at the beginning, in the near neighbourhood of death as in the prime of life.
3. Is unlimited by quantity. Nothing that is human or earthly does satisfy the human heart. All affection, all honour, all power, all occupation, all pleasures, run into it, but they do not fill it (see Ecclesiastes 1:7; Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). The heart of man, created for that which is highest and best, is not satisfied with anything that falls short of that. It is profoundly conscious that something is wanting of which it is not possessed. It says, blindly perhaps, but earnestly and sometimes passionately, "Give! give! I have not enough. I eat, but am still an hungered; I drink, but am still athirst."
III. THE SATISFIED HUMAN SOUL. There is one source of satisfaction; it is found in God himself. "O Lord, thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart findeth no rest until it resteth in thee;" but in him, "who is our home," we do find rest and peace. To us to whom the Son of God and Saviour of mankind has spoken, the voice of cheer and hope is ever calling, "Come unto me … I will give you rest." In
(1) the friendship,
(2) the service,
(3) the likeness, of Jesus Christ, and in
(4) the good hope through his grace of eternal life, we find the supreme and the lasting satisfaction of the soul.
He is the Bread of life, and eating of him we do not hunger more.—C.
Success within success
Many things go to make a man successful, in a true and large sense of that word. A man may have many elements of success, and yet, for want of one more, he may fail. The best part of our succeeding is this—that if we are labouring for some present and visible reward, we are, whilst so doing and in the very act, securing a deeper and a larger good, as the schoolboy seeking the prize is really storing up knowledge and power. We may learn from some of the least and humblest of God's creatures what are the elements of success in the ordering of our life and, at the same time, in the construction of our character.
I. THE ORDERING OF OUR LIFE. If we would live such a life before men as is most honourable and gratifying, we must show the qualities which are manifested by those little creatures of our text.
1. Forethought. (Proverbs 30:25.) The man who does not look forward and prepare for the day and the hour when some special demand will be made upon him, must go down. A wise provision made in the time of leisure or abundance is essential to outward and visible success. We must "buy up the opportunity ['redeem the time']" (Colossians 4:5); otherwise, "when the occasion comes, we shall not be equal to the occasion;" e.g. the apprentice, the student, etc.
2. Securing a retreat, or having a reserve (Proverbs 30:26). To be able to run to the rocks or fastnesses is necessary for the feeble. And in the ordering of our life it is necessary to count on our being sometimes defeated. He is but a poor captain who conducts his campaign without "securing his base;" and he does not know the practical wisdom of life who does not provide for himself a retreat, a reserve, when fortune goes against him, as it sometimes will, in "the battle of life."
3. Cooperation. (Proverbs 30:27.) It is an essential part of personal equipment that a man be able to cooperate with others. And in the great majority of cases this means readiness to take an inferior place, to obey instructions, to fall in with the suggestions of other people, to forego our own preference and adopt another man's method. It means listening and learning, conciliation and concession, punctuality and politeness.
4. Aspiration and patient. (Proverbs 30:28.) For the little and unwelcome spider (or lizard) to establish itself in king's palaces there is demanded this twofold virtue. And for our success we need this also—ambition to attempt and assiduity to win our way, in spite of all the obstacles that may intervene. He that has no heart for enterprise will certainly achieve nothing; and he who lacks patience to wait his time, perseverance to renew his efforts as often as he is fooled, or as often as one success opens the way to another, will reach no king's palace, no place of honour or of influence.
II. THE CONSTRUCTION OF OUR CHARACTER. God has so ordered all things with us and for us that. as we are striving for one thing, we do gain another. As we seek an honourable position in life, we are building up our character. All these elements of success are features of human character, so that while we are "making our way," we are making ourselves also. Much that is most valuable in our moral and spiritual constitution is constructed by us in ways and at times when we think not of it; it is like the seed that grows secretly, night and day, the farmer "knoweth not how" (Mark 4:27). Hence the very great importance that we should be always and everywhere acting on sound, Christian principles; for it is not so much by the direct endeavours we put forth for the purpose, as it is by the constantly and silently operating influence of our daily and hourly actions, that we become what we do become in the sight of God. Beyond and within the success of which men take notice, and on which they congratulate us, is a success which is deeper and truer, for which we may well give to God our heartier thanksgiving.—C.
Agur mentions four things which are "comely" (Authorized Version) or are "stately" (Revised Version) in their going; their movement is regarded with pleasure, with admiration, by those who observe it. Such demeanour on their part is suggestive of moral and spiritual attractiveness on ours.
I. WE MUST SECURE THAT WHICH IS NECESSARY. We cannot truly live without the favour of God, without entering his service, without possessing something of his likeness, without cherishing a hope of future blessedness. To miss all this is to forfeit the heritage of our manhood. We can by no means do without it. This we must gain or be undone. But we should go beyond that.
II. WE SHOULD AIM AT THE ADMIRABLE. We ought not to be at all satisfied with ourselves unless our "walk" (1 Thessalonians 4:1; 1 John 2:6), the manner of "our going," is such as to please God, and is such also as to win men. Our daily lives should not only be consistent enough to save us from self-reproach and from condemnation; they should be excellent enough, admirable enough, to attract, to call favourable attention to the Divine source of all that we are and have. We should not only worship, but live and work in "the beauty of holiness;" we should aim to add the things that are "lovely" to those which are true, honest, just, and pure; we should endeavour to "adorn the doctrine of Christ our Saviour in all things" (see Philippians 4:8; Titus 2:10).
III. THREE ELEMENTS OF THE SPIRITUALLY ADMIRABLE. Beginning with that illustration with which Agur ends, which may come first as the most honorable, we have:
1. The power of command. "A king against whom is no rising up" (Authorized Version); "a king when his army is with him"; or, a king "at the head of his army." Either way, the idea is that of a man in command. There is something very attractive and even fascinating in this exercise of authority; it elicits not only notice, but admiration. There is one sphere in which it is open to all of us to exercise and to exhibit command—over our own spirit. There is nothing more worth our admiring regard than the sight of a man maintaining a perfect control of his spirit under circumstances of great trial or provocation (Proverbs 16:32). To exercise a sovereign control over our fear, or our anger, or our affection, or our curiosity, or our sorrow; of our impulses, or our emotions;—this is excellent and admirable indeed: then are we "comely [or, 'stately'] in our going."
2. The possession of strength. "A lion which is strongest among beasts." It is the conscious possession of power which gives such dignity to the "king of beasts." To this also we should attain:
(1) intrinsic power, by the devout and diligent cultivation of all our God-given faculties;
(2) communicated power, by the indwelling of the Spirit of God, being of those who are "strong, in the Lord, and in the power of his might." Self-sufficiency and conceit are indeed ugly enough; but conscious power, associated, as it may be and. should be, with humility and kindness, is admirable and attractive. It is well to walk on our way as those who know that they have no need to fear, because God is for us and with us and in us.
3. Moral symmetry. The greyhound and the he goat are pleasing because they are well proportioned throughout their frame. To be spiritually beautiful, our character must be symmetrical. Each quality must be balanced by its opposite virtue—firmness by gentleness, thoughtfulness by readiness for action, courage by caution, generosity by conscientiousness, etc. Thus will our character and (consequently) our demeanour be comely in the view of man as well as acceptable in the sight of God.—C.