The Utterance of Agur (v. 1)
We cannot now tell who this Agur was, but it is sufficient for us to know that the Holy Spirit determined to preserve his writings for the church’s perpetual use. The identity of the human penman is far less important than our assurance that God gave him these words. His name means “gathered,” from which some have thought that he was only the collector of what is written here. This is clever rather than sound interpretation. The Jews thought “Agur” was a pseudonym for “Solomon,” but this is nowhere indicated by the text. His “utterances,” which are here translated “prophecy,” were given to two of his apparent disciples, Ithiel and Ucal. Their names may be a poetic device, for Ithiel means “God is with me,” and Ucal means “I am devoured.” Rather than proper names, the words may just as easily be intended as Agur’s basic confession of weakness: “I am weary and overcome, but I will prevail, for the Lord is with me.” Whichever interpretation one prefers does not materially impact the passage, but this is clearly Agur’s spirit throughout the opening lines. It must be ours. We are absolutely weak and helpless, even overcome by the troubles and perplexities of life, unless the Lord comes to our aid and teaches us by his word. Our only wisdom is to feel ourselves in need of God’s word, to fear him (1:7), and to turn from everything God has not plainly declared to be right and good.
Confession: I Am Utterly Overwhelmed by My Folly (vv. 2-3)
How differently Agur speaks than the reputed wise men of this and every past age of man! They stand on daises or in front of pulpits and proclaim their intelligence, wisdom, and promises. Even in the church, men speak as if wisdom reaches its climax with them, especially on lesser matters where godly men have disagreed. Do this; believe this; run your family this way; here is what you need: blah, blah, blah. Here is a truly wise man, made so by God’s Spirit, confessing with all the godly men of every age: I am a stupid beast before you, O Lord. Paul made this same confession (Rom. 7:14), as did Isaiah (6:5), Job (40:4; 42:6), and Asaph (Ps. 73:22). Agur makes this confession even though he has God’s word. Whatever others may think of us, this is what we must think of ourselves before God: poor unless he makes us rich in heavenly wisdom; blind unless the Lord Jesus restores our sight; naked unless he clothes us with his righteousness. True wisdom is to know and feel our utter vanity and beastliness before the living God. If our Savior became “no man,” so great were his sufferings and the cross he bore (Ps. 22:4), then our pride needs the strongest rebuke if we think ourselves to be something, would rather die than have our opinions challenged, and believe that we have understood everything about anything. We know nothing as we ought (Prov. 3:7; Rom. 12:16; 1 Cor. 8:2).
When we confess our weakness, never should we stop with a shallow sense of our vanity and weakness. Here is a wise man, whose words were given to him by God’s Spirit, confessing that he has not learned wisdom (v. 3). He does not treat God’s word meanly, but he is brutally honest before God and confesses his failure to grasp what he has received. Do we not often find the same spirit in the prophets? What of Daniel, whose heart was so overwhelmed by the revelation he received that he could collapsed under the sheer weight of it (7:15, 28; 10:9; 12:8)? The gift of God’s word does not make us little gods roaming the earth, thereafter sufficient to trust our understanding or experience. The more of God’s word he gives us, the more he helps us to understand, the more we shall be aware of the holy. Those closest to the majesty of God – Moses, Job, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, John – were the more cast down over their foolishness. They believe what God has said: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my says, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9). Claim no closeness to God, no understanding of him or of his word, unless you are utterly cast down from the high tower of human pride. And as nothing is more hideous and obnoxious than religious pride, for it is a denial of true religion, if God has given us his word, helped us to understand something of it by his Spirit, and empowered us to take some baby steps in obeying it, we ought to be humblest, most God-adoring, and most self-effacing of men. It is the “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY” with whom we have to do! We only see the beginning of his ways, the shadow of his footsteps. Self-distrust, “Woe is me,” and “He must increase, but I must decrease” are the only fitting responses that we can make in the presence of his Holiness. Everything we have is a gift from him (1 Cor. 4:7). To claim anything for ourselves is the height of impiety, ingratitude, and the most abominable pride.
Faith: Who is like unto God…and His Son? (v. 4)
In an exclamation reminiscent of Job’s confession (28:12-28) and anticipatory of the prophets’ frequent ascents to behold God’s majesty, Agur calls to mind the transcendent glory and greatness of the Yahweh. Whenever man looks into the abyss of his fallen nothingness, weakness, and dependence upon God, the answer he is given never diminishes his sense of creatureliness. God never says, “There, there; you are not that bad, that weak, that needy; there is a spark of goodness and strength in you, a firework of potential just waiting to be lit.” This is devil talk. When he brings us to sense a little of our true condition, he heightens our awareness of the great gulf between him and us. Consider how he answered Job out of the whirlwind: no lessening of the distance between the transcendent God and dust-creeping man; no diminishing of his holiness to make us feel better about ourselves. No. This is man’s answer to the troubles of his life, and we even hear the same in many preachers today. God’s answer is to bring our slight conviction of his majesty to a deep and dominating one, to make us feel with greater intensity our sinfulness and need of his mercy. Much today that passes for real preaching and real understanding is nothing but what the prophets used to condemn as false shepherds “lightly healing” the wound of the daughter of Zion (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). If there is any heavenly wisdom in us, if there be any hope for our restoration and peace, we must be brought to explain: “Woe is me for my hurt! My wound is grievous: but I said, Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it” (Jer. 10:18).
Since our vision is so earthbound, and we are filled with a pride that judges everything including God by our very shallow and faulty understanding, he must lift us much higher than any human reason or experience can mount. He must teach us, for example, that we have not ascended to heaven or descended back to earth with perfect wisdom. Up and down, back and forth, we are blind. Just as there is a chasm between heaven and earth, so there are vast heights and depths to our ignorance and weakness. And as for our power – can we gather the wind in our fists, the “hollows of our hand?” God can and does. Even ignoring our fallen corruption, we are so far beneath him. Nor can we “bind the waters in a garment.” The metaphor is intentionally absurd. A little water saturates our clothes or towels so that they can absorb no more. The omnipotence of the holy God defies our understanding. He has established “all the ends of the earth:” land and sea, men and nations, man and animals. He has fixed the boundaries of all (Acts 17:26). Can any man do these things? What is his name? Does he have a son? Surely, if there was such a man, we would know. Notice that verse two ends with “do not know,” while verse four with “you know.” There is a taunt here, to be sure: of all man’s pretense to understanding and wisdom. We can neither understand nor do the most basic words and works of the living God.
I cannot but help here, in the light of this verse, to think that our Savior had this in mind when he said: “No man hath ascended to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (John 3:13). In his public teaching, he and his apostles harkened back to this idea (John 1:18; 6:62; Rom. 10:6-7). The point Jesus made here is profound beyond all wonder. We can know nothing true and reliable about ourselves or God unless he reveals the Father to us. He seems to be answering Agur’s question. We cannot mount up to the living God, but the Son of God has come down to us to reveal the Father. In Jesus Christ, we know the name of God and of his Son. We are not left in the dark because “in Jesus Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Co. 2:8). We know this God and are delivered from our uncertainty, despair, and troubles only by coming to him through his Son, who has revealed the Father to us. Outside of his illuminating work, there is nothing for us but the blackest darkness. This is daily proven by all the mad schemes and delusions and pride of man. All the science and technology in the world cannot mask or undo our corruption and its destroying power in our lives. Forsaking the school of man, we must come to Agur’s school and face the truth about our weakness and ignorance. He leads us by the hand to Jesus Christ, if our merciful Father will but give us the heart and will to admit our sinful blindness and renew us to believe upon the name of his Son.
Light: In My Folly, I Must Turn to God’s Word (vv. 5-6)
Existential philosophers and authors at times seem to grasp something of Agur’s brutal honesty about man’s condition, but they only scratch the surface. It is true that they are thought to have delved more deeply than most other men into the “abyss of man’s nothingness,” but this only leads them deeper into the abyss. They say things like: “Affirm yourself” and “embrace the nothingness of your own existence.” They seek relief in the source of the problem: MAN. It has led many of them and their literary heroes and heroines to suicide, reckless hedonism, and bohemianism. According to them, since man is so weak and ignorant, there is nothing for him but to seek whatever escape he can find in his chosen method of self-destruction and forgetfulness. God shows his own a better way than existentialism’s bleak existence of ultimate pride and man-worship. Turn to my word. If Agur’s honesty about our true condition is compelling, his immediate turn to God’s word should seize our attention and enflame our gratitude. God does not leave us in the pit of sin’s despair. He does not leave his creatures to flounder in their ignorance. He has spoken. Yes, we are impure, but every one of his words is pure (v. 5). If we want true and certain knowledge, if we would understand something of the “other,” the Holy One, we cannot retreat into ourselves but rather seek to be led by God’s own voice. Above the din of human depravity and foolishness, we hear his voice in his word, the Scriptures he has given to us. Here is gold without alloy, wisdom to raise us above our foolishness, and light to illumine our dark way. Notice carefully how the Spirit leads us to repose upon God’s word alone: by thoroughly humbling our pride and exposing our sinful blindness. To our corruption, pride adds a willfulness that only the power of God can subdue. Subdued it must be, else we shall never feel our helplessness and call upon God to save us.
And God’s word is pure because he is pure; they are his words (Ps. 12:6; 119:140). Everything God has told us is absolutely pure and trustworthy: man’s origins, doctrine, practice, history, feelings, law, covenant, love, grace. Because his words are pure, they cannot deceive us. Therefore they are our shield (Ps. 91:4; Eph. 6:16): our only shield. O, how we need to be shielded from our ignorance and willfulness, as well as from all of Satan’s attacks through man’s skepticism: “Hath God said?” Each time a skeptic questions the truthfulness of God’s word, he is attacking God’s purity. Admittedly, our interpretations of it can be in error, but this admission does not impugn the reliability of God’s word itself. When men, families, nations, and especially professedly Christian churches and denominations question the reliability and sufficiency of God’s word, they are casting man’s only shield in the dust. It is no wonder that all manner of impurity, blindness, and the most brazen wickedness creeps in when the shield of God’s pure word is cast aside. And as we seek to hold fast to wisdom, let us ever move forward with this shield in front of us. No soldier goes to battle thinking that the shield in his tent is sufficient. He carries it with him, assures himself of its strength and integrity, and thus relies upon it. Our whole confidence in this life lies in the assurance we have that every word of God is pure. Without this, we have nothing but the delusions and imaginations of our own heart.
Never, then, must we add to God’s words (v. 7). The Jews did this (Mark 7:7-13), and they lost their place and nation (Matt. 21:43). They feared this more than anything else (John 11:48), and it happened to them because they forsook God’s word in place of their traditions. It would have been far better for them to tremble before God’s word (Isa. 66:2) rather than be obsessed with their place in this world. Now, it seems very pious to surround God’s word with a bunch of man-made hedges and fences, the traditions and practices that seemed to be drawn from his word but actually replace it. His word is near to us and thus protects us if we adopt a “hands off” attitude to it. We replace God’s word whenever our secondary applications are elevated to first principles as a standard of judgment and practice. This is one reason we must be very careful about our applications and “applications of applications.” What is necessary to be known and believed to be saved, as our Confession teaches, is plainly set down in Scripture. Yes, we want to move from these basics to the stronger meat, but this is a road that must be trod with the most abject humility before God, distrust of ourselves, calling upon him to be our guide, seeking many counselors, and suspicious of those who come to us and foster traditions and practices that somehow seem to touch upon Scripture principles, but take them farther than God would have us or such as he never intended for us to develop.
So critical is this that the Scriptures end with this same warning, promising the most severe curses upon those who either add to or take away from God’s pure word (Rev. 22:18-19). This is what he would have us live by and nothing else, trusting him to work out the details not specifically revealed in his word and always being wary of saying “thus saith the Lord,” unless we base our opinions and practices squarely upon direct commands, divinely authorized examples, or necessary consequences from clear statements. We add to God’s word when we make anything a sin or unwise that he has not specifically revealed and authorized. The temptation is great to add, subtract, and multiply God’s word to suit our individual tastes and preferences, as well as our fears. And the temptation is no less if we are sincerely devoted to the Lord and want to be led by him. Often our meditations upon Scripture and other readings lead us to draw certain conclusions that seem very wholesome and necessary, yet they lack the imprimatur of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Just as we may not take away from God’s word, so we must not run ahead of him. May God deliver us and lead us to confess our weakness, as Agur did, that unless the Lord takes us in hand, we shall quickly run astray into a swamp of errors.
Need: Two Things I Require from the Lord (vv. 7-9)
Dependence upon the Lord is not limited to spiritual matters. Just as we must walk by the Lord’s pure word alone, so must we trust that he knows what is best for us in the things of this life. Agur asked the Lord to give him wisdom; now he asks the Lord to provide for him only what is necessary. What a striking contrast to our covetousness! Lord, I only want to live by your word, for outside of this I will remain ignorant and blind. Lord Jesus, you alone have “ascended and descended;” you alone know and reveal the Father, so please share with me of your “fullness, grace unto grace” (John 1:16). He says the same about daily bread. His mention of “two” prepares us for the many numbers or sets of things he will discuss in the following lines. “Required” is “asked,” for true wisdom teaches us to look for nothing but what the Lord is pleased to give us, and to ask him for everything we need. If only we had this spirit of daily submission to God’s providence. Then, we should learn to ask and seek our daily bread from the Lord and be content with what he provides, much or little. We should overcome our covetousness and our fears if we valued the bread on the table as coming from God’s hand, and therefore his wise provision for us. We should also work more diligently, for we know that he provides for us not by dropping manna from the sky but by stirring us to be zealous in our callings and to use wisely what he gives.
He asks for these things before he dies. This seems rather an odd remark, but each one of us should want to continue in God’s school all our days, and if some lessons be hard to learn at the first attempt, we should persevere in them throughout our course until the Lord gives us grace. First, he wants vanity and lies to be removed far from him. The more progress we make in God’s school, the more we come to realize that so much this world offers is just that: vanity and lies. Windy, dusty man makes many promises and hatches many schemes. Vapor determines this or that. Lies are told to secure power and wealth. The child of God wants nothing to do with this madness. He loves God’s pure word; he is learning at the same time to hate the world’s vanity, which is impure, whatever its expression. He loves truth; he hates lies: those he tells to himself and once believed, or those he hears from others. The more we seek the knowledge of the holy through his word, the less our hearts will be at home in this world. It is hard for a reborn soul to breathe the putrid air of this life. God’s shining, eternal city looms ever larger before him, beckoning him to forsake all to seek it. It begins to dwarf all the towers man builds. The closer we walk with God, the more we identify with Abraham’s faith. Here we have no continuing city; we seek the one to come (Heb. 13:14).
The second thing he wants is “neither poverty nor riches” (v. 8). This is more than the happy mean of philosophers. Agur encourages us to have a decidedly spiritual, God-centered approach to food and drink, houses and goods, everything connected with this life. He wants the “prescribed limit” that God has determined will promote his true, eternal good. Here we have our Lord’s “daily bread” spelled out for us with such vividness that we ought to be ashamed of our gluttony, covetousness, and intemperate craving after the things of this life. If we are full, having everything heart could wish and more, we shall be tempted to deny the Lord. “Who is the Lord?” is the spirit of one who feels self-satisfied. Did not our Lord say: “How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:24)? This holds as much today as when he first said it, as when God taught Agur to say it. Now, rich men may learn dependence upon the Lord and overcome the temptation to feel themselves above any need of God, but this is due to God’s very special grace. We are so sluggish and prone to pride and self-trust that we normally need the pinch of hunger or some sense of earthly dependence upon the Lord before we will truly seek him. Stuffed bellies and luxurious homes, while they can be blessings from the Lord, are more often temptations to love and pamper oneself, as well as to live as if we should always have everything we want. As God does promises prosperity to his people, it is not that plenty is intrinsically evil, but that we do not know how to handle it unless God places us so firmly in his school that the more we have, the more we are cast down by his goodness, thank him with broken, sincere hearts, and determine to serve him with greater zeal because he has been so good to us.
The pinch of hunger, however, is not necessarily a virtue. Wise men are not sentimental about poverty or the poor any more than they crave wealth. Both extremes have their intrinsic dangers, their particular temptations. If the rich are tempted to push God far away and think he sits idly in their pocket to do their bidding, then the poor man is tempted to steal to obtain what he needs and to curse God for his hard lot. Here is an odd thing. Rich and poor alike can be very empty. The rich can be surrounded with everything good, yet failing to seek their true good in God, nothing satisfies. The poor can have nothing, yet rather than turning to God in their emptiness, shake their fist at heaven and want nothing of the riches of faith (James 2:5). Like Agur, this prayer must be ours. Lord, give me my daily bread. Make me content with your providences in my life. I leave my outward condition to you, only please, Lord, consider how weak I am. If you give me too much, will I pray and seek your wisdom as my only security? Will I hold to your word as my only shield? But Lord, if I am poor and must forage like a wild dog, I am too weak to bear this. I fear I may curse you. Yet, I leave my circumstances to you, for you know what is best for me. Rich or poor, you are all my life. Always be my life, Father. Lord Jesus, whatever you want me to have or not have, please shine the glory of God in my heart and reveal the Father to me. If I do not possess him as my joy, it does not matter what else I have. If I have the knowledge of the Holy, I can do without just about everything but sufficient bread and water to keep me alive so that I may serve you.
As our age continues to descend into the pit of covetousness and theft – illegal and legal through government tyranny – make this confession yours, child of God. We know not what the future holds. God may yet bless us with much in this life and withhold the worse judgments we deserve. Still, if we do not turn to him, it would have been better for us to be homeless and hungry than to be full without him. And if he does intend for us to suffer again for our faith, how can we “take joyfully the spoiling of our goods” unless we are persuaded that in Jesus Christ we have an “enduring substance” that far surpasses anything this world has to offer (Heb. 10:34)? Our golden mean is our Savior’s daily bread: his faithfulness and love, his presence and power, his blood and righteousness. Only in him can we enjoy God’s gifts without abusing and setting our hearts upon them (1 Cor. 7:31). Only in him can we be poor and yet feel ourselves the richest men who ever lived – all because the Son of God loves us, gave himself for us on the cross, and upholds our every step until we cross the threshold of his eternal city and meet his smiling face and hear his “Well done.” Nothing in this life compares to this, to him.