Agur’s proverbs continue here in sets of four. He comes as a climax to the book of Proverbs which frequently lays out wisdom in the black and white, sin and righteousness, wisdom and folly. Agus says he’s a fool and stupid, he second guesses himself. He agrees with the rest of Proverbs but encourages us to allow for exceptions.
30:21: For three things the earth is perturbed, yes, for four it cannot bear up
The word for “perturbed” may mean quarrel or trouble (Gen. 45:24, Job 3:26); it may also refer to trembling and fear (Ex. 15:14, Dt. 2:25). This same trembling is promised to Israel if they break covenant with the Lord (Dt. 28:65). This is the panic of a war camp under a surprise attack (1 Sam. 14:15, 28:15). It can also refer to an earth quake (2 Sam. 22:8, Job 9:6, Ps. 18:8, 77:18). The command to “be angry and do not sin” is the command to be “perturbed” but do not sin (Ps. 4:5). The word is only used one other time in Proverbs to refer to the “ragings” of a fool (Pr. 29:9).
The earth is not able to “bear up” because of this trouble, quaking, raging. The word for “bear up” is related to a very common word that means “lift up.” This form can mean “acceptable, bearable, or swelling.” Given the fact that the image here is of the “earth,” the translation “bear up” seems right. The image is of the earth on the verge of collapse. Given that these four things are people, the point is that these kinds of “ragings” have enormous consequences are not minor or little. These are acts of folly that can cause great trouble in the world.
30:22: For a servant when he reigns, a fool when he is filled with food.
Here the servant is probably a member of the king’s cabinet, another subordinate official who has usurped the crown (Gen. 24:2, 1 Sam. 27:12). If the king is supposed to be a rock, a steady leader for the stability of his people, a revolt causes great tumult in the earth. The seizing of glory and power is rarely a good sign, and rarely are those who do so prepared for the task. Frequently, rebels who oust tyrants merely establish more tyranny or worse. People who are not ready to rule, who are suddenly given great power and authority frequently abuse it.
A fool filled with bread is parallel to the first “trouble” in the sense that there is a situation that does not seem natural, does not seem just, or safe. Just as it is frequently unwise to allow hot headed captains to become the next king, a fool with a full belly is like a drunk with a full tank of gas. Instead of nourishing wisdom, instead of being a blessing (Pr. 3:10, 12:11, 14, 20:13), fullness here is a curse. Recall that previously Agur has referred to the curse of “fullness” (30:9, 15-16).
30:23: A hateful woman when she is married, and a maidservant who succeeds her mistress.
The theme of usurpation and events that are unsafe continues here with a “hated woman” when she becomes a “lady.” The masculine form for the word for “married” means “husband” or “lord” and can refer both to marriage and to rule or authority. And it seems likely that both are in view here. A hated woman is an unloved woman, and love exactly what she wants and needs. This is the opposite of a “virtuous woman” who is a crown to her husband (Pr. 12:4).
A maidservant succeeds her mistress by becoming one of the king’s concubines. This is the scene in Gen. 16 where it seemed like a good idea initially for Abram to conceive a child through Hagar, but Sarai knows that this is a mistake after Hagar has his child (Gen. 16:4). Whether intentionally or not, the crossing of loyalty and trust and intentions is too complicated to avoid even the appearance of usurpation. A more devious maidservant may seduce a husband in hopes of displacing the wife. And if that wife is the queen, the maidservant is not only grasping for security but also power (cf. 1 Kgs. 11:19, 2 Kgs. 10:13).
In all four of these instances there is a breach, some break with the usual process, order, etc. And they seem chiastically arranged:
A. A servant who reigns
B. A fool filled with bread
B’. A hated woman married
A’. A maid who becomes queen
In the first and last, power and authority are taken up by those without power and authority, and in the middle two, physical and emotional satisfaction is provided. The first and last perhaps represent psychological desire whereas the middle ones represent physical desires.
The earth is shaken when these things occur, and it seems safe to say that is usually a bad thing. However, it is striking how the gospel accomplishes all of these things. In the gospel, God has become a servant so that He might become Lord over all, and in Him all of His servants reign. In the gospel, fools are filled with bread. The church was a hated and scorned woman who has been loved by a faithful husband, and the maidservant has become a queen. And it is this gospel that has “turned the whole world upside down” (Acts 17:6). While these reversals can be terrifying and create great upheaval, by the working of the Spirit they can be for the blessing of the world.
In the context of Proverbs, Agur’s wisdom is perhaps a warning, a cautionary tale (e.g. watch out for servants, fools, hated women, and ambitious maid servants), but it may also be the wisdom of the gospel that recognizes how God works: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has given help to His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy. As He spoke to our fathers, Abraham and to his seed forever” (Lk. 1:52-55). Or Paul puts it this way: “If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor. 3:18-19). And this seems to be what Jesus is calling His disciples to in the gospel: “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:26).
In other words, grasping for power and authority and satisfaction is always dangerous and tumultuous, whether by kings or slaves, but God loves to show His glory and wisdom and power in the weak and foolish and unlikely.