There are two collections remaining in the book of Proverbs, both we suspect were written by Gentile converts to the faith of Israel. Each has two parts with a total of four different genres represented. The first of these two collections is Proverbs 30 containing an autobiographical confession and then numbered sayings. The second of these two collections is Proverbs 31 containing royal instructions and then an alphabetic acrostic concerning the worthy wife. Both chapters claim divine authority for their wisdom and are very appropriate additions to the book, continuing prominent themes we have explored throughout the book.
The sixth part of Proverbs has at least the following subtitle: ”The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle” (Proverbs 30:1). Waltke notes however, that the subtitle continues according to the Hebrew text: ”The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh. An oracle. The inspired utterance of the man to Ithiel.” Looking at different translations and their footnotes reveals that there are a number of questions about the opening lines.
Nevertheless, Proverbs 30 reads like an autobiographical confession followed by his sayings. The autobiographical nature of the text should remind us of Ecclessiastes (Qoheleth), which we will explore later. His confession has two parts: the first half asserting that his sayings are inspired and the second containing two petitions.
Proverbs 30:2-6 give us Agur’s autobiographical explanation for why his sayings are inspired. The first couple lines are opening statements: ”Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.” In other words, if Agur is to have wisdom it is not as a human being but as one taught by God. He does not believe that he can use human reason to reach wisdom. Agur uses the same words that Solomon used back in the Proverbs 1 introduction: insight, wisdom, knowledge. But Agur has been unable to learn them from his teachers. We believe that Agur was a Gentile convert – he could not learn these things from his pagan teachers. Waltke suggests that we translate ”nor have I knowledge of the Holy One” instead as ”but I want to experience the knowledge of the Holy One.” Remember that knowledge is a relationship word and thus what Agur has discovered is that there is no wisdom apart from a relationship with the true God.
Agur then moves to two kinds of rhetorical questions: ”Who…” and ”What…” (Pro 30:4). These questions remind us of the wisdom that God taught Job. What is the name of the son of God? Israel is to be that son whom the Father teaches.
And then there are two concluding counterstatements (countering the opening statements) – ”Every word of God proves true; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6). The first quotes King David the poet: see Psalm 18:30-31. The second quotes from Moses: Deuteronomy 4:2 (cf. Deut 12:32, English). Agur’s argument thus far has been like that of Moses (cf. Deut 30:14).
Thus Agur is telling us that his words here are the word of God. His autobiographical confession agrees with the superscription of the book – it is an oracle.
The second part of the autobiographical confession (Proverbs 30:7-9) then has two petitions: Waltke describes these with the words truthfulness and modesty. What Agur wants is to have neither extreme of poverty or riches but to have something in the middle. Agur is concerned that if he was rich or if he was poor then he would be tempted to deny the Lord – stealing and lying both show a lack of knowing God.
Proverbs 30:10-31 then give us seven sayings that are organized in an alternating pattern that Waltke describes this way: ”Single-line saying proscribing overturning the social order” (Proverbs 30:10), ”Three verse-initial untitled sayings proscribing greed” (Proverbs 11-16), ”Single-line sayings proscribing overturning the social order” (Proverbs 30:17), Four verse-initial titled sayings proscribing breaking boundaries” (Proverbs 30:18-31). Proverbs 30:10 is a janus to this collection of seven sayings. Proverbs 30:17 is a rearing proverb – ”The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.”
The seven sayings are as follows: Proverbs 30:11-14, 15a, 15b-16, 18-20, 21-23, 24-28, and 29-31. Remember that these fall into two groups: the first group of three sayings and the second group of four sayings. Note then the common pattern noted in the verses of three…four (Proverbs 30:15b, 18, 21, 29). Note the escalation in the first three sayings. Also note the titles of the four sayings. Thus the pattern of three…four is a pattern of this entire section of numbered sayings.
Proverbs 30:32-33 then serves as a conclusion to the collection. ”If you have been foolish, exalting yourself, or if you have been devising evil, put your hand on your mouth, for pressing milk produces curds, pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife” (Proverbs 30:32-33).
The last collection of Proverbs begins with the superscription: ”The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him” (Proverbs 31:1). The collection consists of admonitions to the king and then an alphabetic acrostic of sayings. Like the previous collection having autobiographical confession followed by numerical sayings, this one has two genres side by side.
Waltke says that the worthy wife of the alphabetic acrostic is not to be understood as King Lemuel’s wife because her husband sits in the gate and not on a throne. However, in the context of the whole book and of Scripture as a whole, recall what we have said before about this.
Lemuel is unknown to us from historical sources, but we assume that he was a Gentile convert. In any case, the admonitions are similar to those found in royal instructions of ANE surrounding nations. The unusual thing is that the mother is the teacher, which is not all that surprising in the context of Proverbs. This is one way that Israel was different.
Waltke outlines the admonitions about the noble king as having an introductory admonition to hear (Proverbs 31:2), and then admonitions to show restraint (Proverbs 31:3-9). Proverbs 31:3 concerns restraint with regard to women in order to protect the kingdom and its king and Proverbs 31:4-7 with regard to alcohol in order to protect the poor. Then Proverbs 31:8-9 concern giving new edicts for the poor. Note the close relationship between the mother and her son working backwards – my son, son of my womb, son of my vows (Proverbs 31:2). The assumption would be that she made a vow that she would teach her son God’s wisdom if God gave her a son. Waltke tells us that it should not read, ”What…” but ”Listen…” as the word is borrowed from another language. Also the mention of women in Proverbs 31:3 does not mean that the king should avoid marriage. Perhaps this is why the poem about the worthy woman is next after all these admonitions. It means instead that the king should avoid the mistake of Solomon – having a harem and similar folly. And then after this one verse concerning such things all the rest really focus on protecting the poor.
Proverbs 31:10-31 then is an alphabetic acrostic in Hebrew. The primary purpose of an alphabetic acrostic is to communicate a sense of completeness (from ‘A to Z’ we would say). Walke divides the poem into three parts concerning her value (Proverbs 31:10-12), her activities (Proverbs 31:13-27), and then her praise (Proverbs 31:28-31). The first and last are the introduction and conclusion of the poem. One thing that the introduction and conclusion do is move from the wife’s value to her husband to the husband praising her. It is also worth noting that this poem is very different from the message of the surrounding culture. Greek culture focused on wisdom that was abstract theory whereas this poem shows her wisdom is practical. And ANE literature focused on the erotic, but this one does not (cf. Pro 31:30).
Waltke argues that the structure of the body of this poem is one of an alternating section (Proverbs 31:13-18), a janus verse that is linked chiastically with the one that follows (Proverbs 31:19), and a chiasm (Proverbs 31:20-27) centered on her husband as respected at the gate (Proverbs 31:23).
By far the most important point that I like to make about the ending poem of Proverbs is that the next book in the Hebrew Scriptures is Ruth and she is the worthy woman (Ruth 3:11) and then Song of Songs gives us another example of the worthy woman. These women, like the Proverbs 31 wife, are heroes in Israel.