Saturday, May 25, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (60)

We are still in the penultimate chapter of Proverbs, and while there are expositors who disagree, I believe we are now reading the words of Agur rather than the words of Solomon.

Unlike the great king of Israel who was granted exceptional wisdom by God, Agur seems to be nothing more impressive than an average devout man observing the world. All the same, by the Spirit of God, he has left us with a few useful reflections. After all, James tells us, you don’t need to be a king to be wise. All it takes is asking in faith.

The Oracle of Agur (Proverbs 30:5-9)

Oak or Balsa?
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.”
To say that every word of God proves true not the same as saying every word of God is true, though that too is … er … true. I think that’s the sense of the first line. The Hebrew word translated “proves true” in my ESV is tsaraph, meaning smelted or refined. It has the sense of being tried or tested in the real world, rather than existing out there somewhere in the realm of theory. As the psalmist put it, “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined [tsaraph] in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” Agur affirms that we can have confidence in what God says because it has been repeatedly demonstrated to be utterly reliable.

The second line is not unrelated to the first. God is certainly a physical protection to his people, there can be no doubt about that. But I think what’s being said here is that there is safety in sticking to the text; to the things God has actually said. Our defense against discouragement, despair, temptation and confusion is not our ability to rebut the arguments of the enemy persuasively, but the very words of God themselves. For the prime example of this, look at the Lord Jesus when he was tempted by the devil. His response to each of Satan’s overtures begins with the words “It is written.” Those who take refuge in the word of God find it is a shield that can withstand the most severe blows.

This being the case, Agur adds a stern warning: Do not add to God’s words. This is valuable advice, and necessary. Our own ideas will not protect us as God’s word does. We can certainly interpret and apply God’s words with the aid of his Spirit, but we must do so without introducing ideas that are not really there. Most of our difficulties with understanding scripture come when we import our own preconceptions into it rather than simply hearing what it is saying. Satan also used the words “It is written”, but Jesus quickly refuted him by pointing out that his application was faulty; it created a contradiction, and God never self-contradicts.

The fact is that people who misapply and egregiously supplement scripture with their own ideas are lying. They may not intend to lie. They may not have evil motives. But they are circulating falsehood all the same, and such half-baked human notions provide no spiritual protection. When we go beyond the word of God in his service, we are doing the spiritual equivalent of trying to win a battle with a shield that is half oak and half balsa. The result is bound to be painful, humiliating or worse.

Two Important Prayer Requests
“Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
This is one of those statements that makes me pretty sure Agur was not another name for Solomon. That the king of Israel could say such things sincerely seems most unlikely. These would seem to be the words of a perfectly ordinary, faithful believer in God.

Two things, then. The first is “Remove far from me falsehood and lying.” Here Agur could intend to say he would prefer not to be surrounded by lies and liars. If so, I empathize. Every time I walk past a TV with CNN on, I feel exactly the same way. But I think what he actually means is something more to do with the purification of his own character, along the lines of David’s “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” He’s looking for the Lord to reveal to him his own secret connivances so they can be rooted out of his life. That’s something to which we can all aspire, and if we come to that place in our experience before the end of our lives we’ll be the happier for it.

The second thing he mentions is this: “Give me neither poverty nor riches.” He goes on to explain why this is important: he does not want to deny his God with either his words or his conduct. He wants to live consistently.

This too is an important aspiration for the follower of Christ. As Paul tells Timothy, the desire to be rich is a temptation and a snare. Those who pursue wealth court ruin and destruction. And it is not necessary to get to the point where you actually say “Who is the Lord?” with your lips. Most people don’t. The rich fool in the Lord’s parable said nothing of the sort, but he was still in a very bad place. His error was in making grand plans without reference to God, which is always a danger when you are used to getting whatever you want by simply opening your wallet.

In the alternative, a man who is conscious of God can never comfortably resort to thievery, even if there seems to be no other options open to him. So Agur asks that he never be placed in that position.

In making both requests, Agur is almost anticipating the “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” of the Lord’s prayer. As Paul puts it, “If we have food and clothing, we will be content.”


  1. And this is where the difficulty comes in.

    I was talking to a Protestant once and he said "We can certainly interpret and apply God’s words with the aid of his Spirit, but we must do so without introducing ideas that are not really there."

    Then I was also talking to a Catholic once and he said "Most of our difficulties with understanding scripture come when we import our own preconceptions into it rather than simply hearing what it is saying."

    Now both of them thought that their perception and interpretation of the situation is the correct one.

    We all know the end result, which is, for most people, we'll follow whoever we think makes most sense to us and offers the best deal with regard to minimizing inconvenience. For example, the Center for Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which is evangelical Protestant
     estimates that there are currently 47,000 Protestant denominations on earth (which is probably an exaggeration).

    Nevertheless, it suggests that most people are not bent on spending time on working out the "correct" way to figure out the Bible but simply prefer to let someone else do it and then follow that. Put another way only few are willing to trade watching Games of Thrones for scholarly interpreting Bible contents, which may simply be a lack of aptitude (besides interest) to start with. If you think about it that does not make much sense and the main question here is why should there be any confusion or lack of clarity about what God has said and meant at all? I suspect that in the final analysis it always comes down again to free will.

    1. I had about 20 years I'd love to get back. It wasn't spent particularly sinfully, but it was certainly less profitable than it ought to have been.

      You're right: it comes down to choice. God does not force us to spend the necessary time and effort to make the connections he'd love to be able to show us.