As with a good many scriptures in what are usually called ‘The Poetic Books’, Agur, in Proverbs 30, moves readily between talking about himself, vv. 2, 3, giving advice to his readers, vv. 5, 6, and addressing God directly, vv. 7, 9. It is from the latter verses that the above title is taken.
Agur is asking God for just two things, but they are both long-running and to be meaningful are required on an ongoing basis. The first, ‘Remove far from me vanities and lies’, is probably something we would like to ask for ourselves. It is certainly true that ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’, 1 John 1. 8, but probably no one else. That does not mean however that we should accept such a verdict in a fatalistic attitude.. Paul was only too well aware of his own state, and not just as a theory or dogma but as a practical reality. He says, ‘I delight in the law of God after the inward man’. I know that God’s commandments, His purposes, are good and right. But he still has to lament, ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’, i.e. from my sinful nature, the old irreparable me. There is an answer to the question and Paul knows it and goes on to give it, ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord’, Rom. 7. 22-25.
You have not yourself experienced that deliverance yet, though you know about it? Then you are in the same position as was the apostle. It is something God can well do but, from an experimental perspective, on a progressive basis. Agur took the longterm view, ‘Deny me them not before I die’, v. 7. Paul takes the same line, ‘Not as though I had already attained – I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do – I press toward the mark’, Phil. 3. 12-14. We may often feel that our progress toward that mark is very slow. So did Gideon and his three hundred, but it could be said of them that they were ‘faint, yet pursuing’, Judges 8. 4. They were heading in the right direction, and as a result, when the victory was subsequently achieved, ‘the country was in quietness’, Judges 8. 28, and that meant positive and active peace, not a mere cessation of hostilities, accompanied by lethargy.
Poverty not Riches
The second matter concerning Agur, and this is the main concern of these notes, is viewed from two aspects. It impinges on the first because it fills what would otherwise be a vacuum as and when that part of the prayer is answered. But he wants to make sure that when the full answer comes, it comes in away which he can handle. ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches’. I can’t cope with extremes or absolutes. I know what my natural reactions to either of those things would be, see v. 9, and I don’t want such repercussions to take place. So instead of either of those two conditions, ‘feed me with food convenient for me’. Give me just what is necessary, what you know I can handle. As far as food is concerned, what my condition allows me to digest, assimilate, convert into worthwhile energy and which, hopefully, I can still enjoy.
Agur is looking to God to supply his physical needs, not his wants; and it is no use our looking anywhere else for our inner-felt spiritual needs to be satisfied. But the day-today meeting of those kind of needs is usually through individuals given as gifts to the church for just that purpose, see Eph. 4. 11 -1 6. It is largely, but not exclusively, to such gifted individuals that the remainder of this consideration is addressed.
Feed my Sheep
When the Lord Jesus spoke to Peter on the shore of Tiberias, soon after the resurrection, he gave him two instructions. First, ‘Feed my lambs’; and then the repeated ‘Feed my sheep’. Accepting that the word translated ‘feed’ covers taking care of the flock, rather than just giving food, it is significant that a difference is made between lambs and sheep. They both needed the care, of a shepherd, in the widest sense, but the way that care was given, the need met, varied according to the maturity of the different recipients. If Peter, as one of the pillars of the early church, see Gal. 2. 9, needed to be made aware of differing levels of need, so do ‘evangelists, pastors, teachers’, Eph. 4. 11, today.
To feed, or shepherd, the people of God in a local church requires spiritual discernment and discretion. It may be frustrating to find that churches, or church members, who were assumed to be well taught, are either ignorant of fairly basic doctrines, or hold them in a legalistic way or in some twisted form, see 2 Pet. 3. 16. The Hebrews writer was conscious of such a situation amongst those to whom he wrote, ‘We have many things to say and hard to be uttered’. He found it difficult to put some things across to them. Why, because they were deep and mysterious? No, it was because ‘ye are dull of hearing’, Heb. 5. 11. And see 2 Tim. 4. 3-4. What was to be his response, ‘Well, if you won’t listen be it on your own head’? No, ‘When for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat’, Heb. 5. 12. He saw need, the low spiritual state they were all in, that they couldn’t grasp truths above a certain level, and was ready, able and willing to provide teaching that they could take in. He obviously wished that hadn’t been the case, but he was prepared to act in line with circumstances as they were, rather than how he would have liked them to be, and indeed how they should have been.
Peter does not say that his readers were necessarily in that same condition, but is prepared to deal with basics: ‘Wherefore I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and be established in the present truth’, 2 Pet. 1. 12. There are teachings which bear repetition, even to those who appear to be well aware of them; and of course there may very often be mixed congregations with some present who really do need the fundamentals brought to them in a simple but faithful manner. Although lambs sometimes just cannot take the same food as sheep, sheep can virtually always take what lambs receive, even if they would really prefer, and benefit from, something stronger. Not only should shepherds adjust their provisions to suit all needs, but the more mature sheep must learn to bear with the younger.
Milk and Meat
Peter’s often quoted words, ‘As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word’, may be understood in two ways. It is generally assumed that he is actually referring to new converts, and encouraging them to commence their born-again existence by availing themselves fully of spiritual nourishment, i.e. the word of God. Some have suggested however that he is talking to all believers and saying in fact, ‘See just how hungry for immediate food a newborn baby is, how it makes its needs known and responds with such positive appreciation when food is made available. All of you, whoever you are, should have that sort of attitude and approach to God’s word, should show your enthusiasm for it, that all of you ‘may grow thereby’, 1 Pet. 2. 2.
Paul was certainly not taking the latter approach when writing to the Corinthians. He wished he didn’t have to say so, but he must, ‘I, brethren could not speak unto you as spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ’. You show little or no signs of spiritual growth but that does not mean that I am giving upon you. ‘I have fed you with milk, and not with meat’. Why? Because mi!k is good for you but meat is not? No, because ‘hitherto ye were not able to bear it’, which was understandable when you were first converted, but, ‘neither yet now are ye able’, 1 Cor. 3. 1-2. The point being made here is that he did continue to feed them but had to be careful as to what kind of food was suitable for their state. For pastors and teachers now, that means being able to provide the variety of spiritual food such as will meet the differing stages of Christian growth of all members of the church. One does not get such a variable stock without working at it for oneself; if you don’t work at it you will have nothing to share with those who can’t, or perhaps just don’t, work for it themselves. Pastors and teachers are not however left alone in their gathering of food for redistribution. Ruth was gleaning both for herself and Naomi because the latter was incapable, probably for physical reasons, of collecting for herself. It is important to remember at this point though, that Ruth had to eat as well, or she would be unable to continue working for two, see Ruth 2. 18.
No one should spend all his time preparing massages for others. We should make sure that what we preach or teach has been effectively imbibed by ourselves before we try to pass it on. But however hard Ruth worked, Boaz, the owner of the field, made sure that she had help in what she was doing, although she may not have been aware herself of exactly what was happening. He arranged for ‘handfuls of purpose’, Ruth 2. 16, to be left conveniently for her to find, so making her work more satisfying to her.
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