Agur continues to describe aspects of wisdom through his lists of examples. If the previous section was about revolutions, mostly bad ones, it described recognizing the tumult the earth goes through when revolutions occur particularly in leadership (30:21-23). Here the theme is still various aspects of leadership that may not seem as important from the distance.
Notice that the “earth” was shaken/disturbed back in 30:21; it cannot stand when these revolutionary events take place. Here in contrast there are four creatures “on the earth” which lead apparently very stable lives and in that sense uphold the stability of earth itself. As opposed to overthrowing the earth, they uphold it. But the striking thing is that that though they are small, they are exceedingly wise.
The phrase “exceedingly wise” is form of the Hebrew superlative similar to “Song of Songs” or “Holy of Holies.” Here these little animals are the “wise men of the wise men,” the “sages of the sages.” If there is an allusion to the Holy of Holies, perhaps the stability and weakness themes connect. For Israel the tabernacle/temple was at the center of life. The stability of the nation depended upon their right relationship with God. Sacrifice and feasting before Yahweh may have seemed arbitrary or irrelevant to their political or economic or agricultural trials at times. But that “small” work was the stability of the nation.
Here, the emphasis is also on how these particular creatures exhibit traits of kings. The “sages of sages” will be kings, and the “Holy of Holies” is where Israel’s King is enthroned above the cherubim. The Israelites had rejected this weakness in Yahweh as their King when they asked Samuel to give them a king like the nations. They wanted a king who would go before them and fight their battles (1 Sam. 8:20), which is ironic since Yahweh was the God who had gone before them and fought their battles. The primary difference seems to be that they cannot see Him. They are embarrassed by how weak/small He seems.
The ants are a “people” or a “nation.” Here the parabolic sense of these examples is explicit. Abraham’s name was a promise to be the “father of nations” and likewise Sarah was given the same promise (Gen. 17:16). And this blessing is passed to Joseph’s son (Gen. 48:4). The covenant at Sinai was this offer to make Israel a “treasure above all nations” (Ex. 19:5). Here, this nation is “not strong,” but this does not stop them from being extremely effective. Their strength is not immediately their physical prowess but rather their foresight and planning. One thinks of a wise man like Joseph in Egypt whose wisdom urged the gathering of a food while there was plenty, and this became the strength of Egypt and the surrounding nations in the midst of a famine. It was also the point at which Joseph was exalted to the right hand of Pharaoh. Joseph’s ant-like wisdom became his strength.
Perhaps in this sense part of the wisdom and wise rule of kings is to be bread-providers. This is how Yahweh is the great King of Israel. When He brings His people out of Egypt, He provides bread for them in the wilderness. Being a king means working and planning for the provision of those entrusted to your care such that they don’t have to worry about it. This gives them rest literally and emotionally. Yahweh insists that Israelites not save up their Manna because Yahweh is their King. Jesus urges a similar carelessness as a sign of allegiance to our heavenly Father. This is also how we pray: “Give us this day our daily bread…” But even in the gathering of Manna there were instructions for sharing and making sure everyone was cared for and had enough. This is a small kingly task, distributing the bread and making sure everyone is fed.
In another sense, studying wisdom, the Scriptures, etc. is all a gathering of food for times of trial. Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This means taking advantage of faithful teaching and preaching and constantly seeking to grow in grace and understanding so that when the famines come we are prepared to not only survive but to also provide.
Jesus is the greater Joseph who provides bread for the world. Jesus does this by giving us His own flesh, His own life. This makes it even clearer how kings are to rule. They must embrace the way of weakness. They must become like ants, like Jesus who laid is own life down so that there would be enough bread for the world. And it is in that weakness that Jesus has been exalted and made strong. If we want to be great, we must become servants.
This example begins similarly to the last one: the “rock badgers” are a “people/nation” like the ants. They are a model for Israel, and they too are not strong. Here the word is the same root as the last verse, but it may also have numerical connotations. Regardless, they have various vulnerabilities, and so they likewise make preparations to make up for their weakness. They build their houses in the rocks. These rocks provide refuge from predators. They are fortresses, safe places. The Psalmist notes this same phenomenon in Ps. 104:18, particularly referring to the rock badger’s home in the rocks as a “refuge” – this and numerous other parts of creation display God’s wisdom (Ps. 104:24).
While the proud can build such fortresses in defense against Yahweh (e.g. Jer. 49:16, Obad. 3), Yahweh used a “rock” to provide water in the wilderness (Num. 20:8-11), and Dt. 32:13 says that this was like Yahweh suckling Israel with honey like a mother or a wet nurse. David sings that Yahweh is his “rock” (Ps. 18:3, 31:4, 42:10, 71:3, ), and Yahweh’s salvation is being brought out of a pit full of mud and set on a rock (Ps. 40:3).
Solomon uses the same word in Song of Songs to in the mouth of the Shulamite who calls to her beloved to meet her in the clefts of the rock secretly as a trysting place (Song 2:14). It’s hard not to think that Solomon is picturing Mt. Sinai as the place of the covenant, the place where Yahweh met His bride Israel on the mountain. And more generally, Yahweh repeatedly meets His people on or near mountains. This reminds us of the “sages of sages” connection with the “holy of holies” which was the trysting place of God with His people. And that is the safest place for God’s people to be, covered and protected by His love.
Jesus teaches and feeds and communes with His people on mountains, and by the Spirit we have been brought to Mt. Zion, the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem (Heb. 12). But Jesus was also killed on a mountain, on a rock. But it was that death that sealed the love of God for His people. It is by the cross that we have been rescued from all our enemies, and the cross is our refuge, our fortress from all evil. If Israel was invited to become a kingdom of priests at Mt. Sinai, then it makes complete sense that in Christ and by the anointing of His Spirit we have become Kings and Priests in Him (Rev. 1). Again, the call is to become wise kings in our King of Kings. Wisdom is preparing for future by building our house on the rock that is Christ so that we will be able to withstand the storms. Just as God provides this protection and care for His people, imitation would include being a similar protector and provider, calling others into the fortress in the rocks.
Again the proverb points out an apparent weakness and shows how this particular creature overcomes that weakness. Here the apparent weakness is the locust’ lack of a king. While this proverb doesn’t refer to the locusts as a nation like Israel, the parallel is already implied, and the fact that the locusts have no king is perhaps a reminder of Israel’s rebellion under Samuel when they asked for one.
This is also perhaps a cautionary reminder to princes and those in authority: here is an example of a nation that needs no king.
Here the parable is also militaristic. Locusts are frequently associated with the iron strength of invading armies (Jdg. 6:5, 7:12, Jer. 46:23, Joel 1-2, Nah. 3:15). These creatures are unified and well coordinated and organized. This is similar to the previous two creatures as well. The apparent weakness is overcome with appropriate planning and organization. But here the picture is less defensive and more offensive. Locusts are conquering armies, which makes the point all the more remarkable since they have no apparent leader.
But the wisdom here still points to Yahweh as the “invisible King” as the one who leads His people into battle and to victory over all their enemies. His Spirit presence in the OT was to unite people into a body around the tabernacle and temple which would coordinate and prepare them to invade the world.
This was true in the Old Testament, and though we have now seen Jesus, He is ascended into heaven and His Spirit has been poured out on all flesh to unite us into His army.
While my translation says “spider” Waltke suggests that “lizard” is actually a better translation of this word that occurs nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. He says that there is a middle eastern gecko which has little suction cups on his four feet which allow him to walk up walls and across ceilings. Waltke suggests that the line should be translated as “a wall lizard may be caught with two hands…”
This provides the apparent weakness that the other proverbs in this section also have. Here the apparent weakness is displaced by the fact that these small creatures live in the “palaces of a king.” Again, the emphasis seems to be on the fact that Israel is called to live as a people dependent on Yahweh. They are to live as though they are in the “palaces of a king” because this world is the garden-sanctuary of their King.