Saturday, May 18, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (59)

To call Agur an obscure Old Testament character would not be out of line.

The first twenty-nine chapters of the book of Proverbs set out the compiled wisdom of Solomon. Obviously not all of it; we’re told he wrote 3,000 proverbs and an additional 1,005 songs, so this is the tip of a large iceberg. It’s a pretty impressive resume by any standard.

Agur son of Jakeh, on the other hand, rates a mere 33 verses, most of which he gives over to the making of lists of four items, often called quaternions or tetrastiches. While his portion of Proverbs is certainly the inspired word of God, I’m not sure the average observation attributed to Agur stacks up with those of the great king of Israel.

I will tell you this though: he had a few good lines in him.

The Oracle of Agur (Proverbs 30:1-4)

Who was Agur?

It’s not merely the fact that Agur is responsible for such a small number of recorded proverbs or my entirely subjective assessment of the quality of his work that make him enigmatic. For one thing, we have no real idea who he was. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopaedia gives two traditional explanations of his background. (Both possible explanations arise from the etymology of unusual Hebrew words employed in the first couple of sentences of the chapter.)

According to the first theory, Agur was not a Jew at all:
“The compiler of a collection of proverbs found in Prov. xxx. The text (ver. 1) seems to say that he was a ‘Massaite,’ the gentilic termination not being indicated in the traditional writing ‘Ha-Massa’ (compare Gen. xxv. 14). This place has been identified by some Assyriologists with the land of Mash, a district between Palestine and Babylonia.”
That wouldn’t make Agur the only Gentile to pronounce on the power and mystery of God, but it leaves us no wiser about his origins.

The second theory is even weirder, suggesting that Agur was actually a pen name for Solomon himself:
“ ‘Agur,’ and the enigmatical names and words which follow in Prov. xxx. 1, are interpreted by the Haggadah as epithets of Solomon, playing upon the words as follows: ‘Agur’ denotes ‘the compiler; the one who first gathered maxims together.’ ‘The son of Jakeh’ denotes ‘the one who spat out,’ that is, ‘despised’ (from [the Hebrew], ‘to spit’), le-Ithiel, ‘the words of God’ …”
As the encyclopedia well puts it, “The true explanation is still uncertain.”

Getting to the Good Stuff

As obscure as Agur remains, the words attributed to him in the first four verses of Proverbs 30 are as profound as anything we find in the Old Testament:
“The man declares,
I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and worn out.
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.

[1] Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
[2] Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
[3] Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
[4] Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
Surely you know!”
Before Agur gets to his lists, he has an oracle for us, and that oracle starts with the declaration that he is a man without a clue. (Note that this list is also technically his first of seven uses of the quaternion, though here the technique is not quite as obvious as in the six that follow it. The orange numbers are intended to draw attention to this pattern.) Because Agur speaks of lacking knowledge of God, Leo G. Perdue and others have raised the possibility that he was actually an intellectual predecessor of Richard Dawkins:
“Some of these alternative interpretations would suggest Agur advancing an atheistic viewpoint; Agur’s other words, then, could be read as Agur daring his listeners to produce proof of God’s existence.”
Even Wikipedia points out that such an interpretation is inconsistent with the larger message of Proverbs, and it certainly is. It is also inconsistent with the theology found in the later verses penned by Agur, which to me would rule it out entirely.

God and God’s Son

But whether we agree with Perdue’s rather implausible assertion or simply accept the more common explanation that Agur was indeed unusually dense and limited, just as he describes himself, the larger impact of his words is this: that even a man without understanding — even the dullest of the dull — is capable of grasping the concept that God has a Son.

It will not do to dismiss this rather jarring and unusual Old Testament reference to God’s Son by positing that Agur really means the nation of Israel, which is also sometimes called God’s “son” in scripture. To rhetorically request the name of God’s chosen people (which everyone in Israel took for granted) is to ask nothing meaningful. Making the “son” Israel tarnishes the grandeur of the preceding lines; their emotional impact is wasted if all they attest to is a well-worn reminder of God’s earthly agenda. Moreover, Agur has nothing to say about Israel in the rest of the chapter. Nothing at all. Perhaps he was a Gentile. If indeed his reference was to Israel, it went nowhere.

But it seems to me Agur’s point here is that God is holy, utterly set apart. No one but God may ascend to heaven and come down. Nobody but God has established the ends of the earth. He is without peer, without parallel, beyond any obligation to explain himself or to be explained by man.

What’s in a Name?

To ask the name of God is to ask a great deal more than the four letters often used to refer to him in Hebrew and Aramaic which Anglophones transliterate as Jehovah or Yahweh. Moses asked God for his name, and he got this:
“God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ ”
Whatever else may be said about the phrase “I am who I am,” the implication is surely that the identity of God — that by which he may be known to his people — is far too grand, too majestic and too complex to be contained in any single word in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, English, or for that matter any language in human history. It is almost as if God told Moses, “Don’t get me started.” There is a strong suggestion in those words that his name is to be identified with his character, which cannot change and therefore serves to identify him to all his people throughout all ages.

To ask the name of God’s Son is to inquire into something no less profound. Jesus too used the name “I am”, and his audience understood precisely what he meant by it — they accused him of blasphemy and tried to stone him. One conclusion it is reasonable to draw from Agur, I think, is that if you cannot, like God, wrap up the earth’s waters in a garment or gather the wind in your fists, you are not going to have a lot of luck reducing the character of the Son of God to any mere combination of letters.

Missing the Point

Now of course you may take five letters from our alphabet and put them on a bumper sticker, a t-shirt or a badge, as was often done in the ’60s. But you have not really communicated anything at all to those for whom the character of God’s son is an unknown. To employ the name “Jesus” casually is to transmit no information of any consequence. It is to miss the point entirely.

This is the sort of thing with which I associate its offhand usage:
“Never been a sinner, I never sinned. I got a friend in Jesus.
  So you know that when I die, he’s gonna set me up with the
     spirit in the sky.”
— Norman Greenbaum
You see what I mean by missing the point. Anyone who says he has never sinned and expects to be “set up” with the “spirit in the sky” is not speaking about any Jesus I know.

His disciples, on the other hand, never spoke of him casually. To them he was Master, Lord, Teacher. If they had a “friend in Jesus”, they were respectful enough to let him say it, not them. We would do well to follow their example.

When we speak of the name of Jesus, his character always comes into play. To pray — to ask “in the name of Jesus” — is to make our requests in accordance with his revealed will, cognizant and respectful of who he is by nature, and therefore of the sorts of things he loves and hates. If we truly pray “in his name”, there can be no question of asking wrongly or inappropriately because to ask in his name is to ask for the purpose “that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” His name is no mere invocation to be tacked on to the end of a prayer, but rather the entire criteria by which genuine prayer is to be judged.

The Limitations of Knowledge

But as much as the Lord wants us to know his name — to understand who he truly is — Agur’s sarcastic “Surely you know!” makes a very valid point that still applies today, despite the vastly superior revelation of the Lord Jesus through the New Testament scriptures and by his Spirit to our hearts.

We know something about him, yes, perhaps even quite a lot about him. And he has shown us the Father. But there is a sense in which we don’t, and never will, know everything about him. There are aspects to the character of God’s Son that are beyond human knowledge:
“His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself.”
So “what is his name, and what is his son’s name?” It’s an excellent question, Agur, one worthy of a lifetime of consideration. We will never fathom its depths. The implications of that name echo through time and creation, and we can pursue the knowledge of our Lord’s character and worth enthusiastically for all eternity without fear of ever exhausting it. It is in some senses beyond the best of us.

But it is not beyond even a man without a clue to recognize that God has a Son.

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