21 The earth shakes under three things; under four things it is not able to bear. 22 Under a court official that becomes king; and a fool that satisfies himself with bread. 23 Under a hated woman that is married; and a female slave that dispossesses her queen. 24 Four things are among the smallest things of the earth; and they are extremely wise. 25 The ants are a nation that is not strong, they still prepare their food in the summer. 26 The rock badgers are a nation that is not powerful, they still fashion their homes in the cliff. 27 There is no king for the locust, they all still march forth divided in groups. 28 The lizard is regularly caught by hands, but that animal is in the palaces of a king.
by Trevor Tarpinian
Are you familiar with Mickey Mouse’s performance as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” in Disney’s Fantasia? Do you remember the disastrous series of events that follow his attempt at playing sorcerer? Of course, Disney still manages to pull off its trademark happy ending (even to a Goethe poem!). No one can stay mad at Mickey Mouse. In fact, we might even sympathize with Mickey and applaud the cunning scheme that he devises to avoid doing his chores – until that terrible moment when he loses control. Everything falls apart because he was not yet ready to be the sorcerer or wield his power. Walt Disney saw the lesson to be learned in being discontent with one’s position or status, just as Goethe did centuries earlier, and the writer of Proverbs 30 before him.
Let’s observe a few select features of the passage:
Monarchies and empires in the ancient world operated by the divine right of kings. If God appointed a leader, anyone who usurped a king’s reign disrupted divine order. This explains David’s hesitancy to lay a hand on Saul, the “Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam 24:6). Prov 30:22 highlights the upheaval caused by a servant’s usurpation of his king’s throne. The Hebrew word translated “servant,” might be better read as “court official” here (cf. Neh 2:10, 19; 1 Kings 1:47; 2 Kings 24:10; 25:24.1 ). If so, it paints an even more sinister picture of a trusted official betraying his king. In either case, it demonstrates gross disrespect for the divine appointment of a king.
The word for “fool” in v.22b is found elsewhere in the OT. In 2 Sam 3:33–34 it means “lawless one” and is parallel to “sons of wickedness.” In Isa 32:5, the “fool” parallels “the rogue” or scoundrel” and next in v.6 describes one who occupies himself with evil, practices ungodliness, and spreads heresy. Jer 17:11 describes this person as one who gains wealth by injustice. Psa 14:1 describes this person as a vile evildoer. Prov 17:21 and Job 30:8 demonstrate that this person is a disgrace and a dishonor to their kin and community, possibly even divested from an inheritance. Given this character profile, the “fool” deserves physical punishment, disinheritance, and death. His consumption of food runs contrary to this in two ways. First, it reflects society’s permissiveness toward the fool. His ability to eat well demonstrates that society rewards rather than ostracizes him. Second, his nourishment gives him sustenance to continue his evil.
Examples of the “hated woman” in Prov 20:23 occur in other OT passages. Gen 29:31, 33 refer to Jacob hating Leah. Deut 21:15, 17 describe a married woman who is despised in comparison to another wife. These texts refer to women that were already married and lends support to understanding the woman in Prov 30:23 as already married (so the NIV; contra the KJV, NASB, ESV, NKJV, NRSV). Since this despised wife is in harmful competition with another, more favored wife, the “earthshaking” feature of this line is unrest in the sphere of the family. It negatively demonstrates that God intends tranquility in the sphere of the family. Anxiety, disfavor, and competition – all symptoms of a despised wife – metaphorically shake the world’s fundamental social institution to its core.
The use of the number four in Prov 30:21 and 30:24 provides us introductions to two separate, but related proverbs. It helps us structure two units of thought that we can summarize in the following:
Unit 1 Summary: Prov 30:21–23 observe four things that turn the world upside. They run against the grain of God’s intended social order. Usurping power because of disloyalty (servant) or seduction (maidservant), especially among public figures, corrodes polity and society. Further, an evil “fool’s” provision attests to society’s permissiveness toward unjust gain. A disfavored wife shows distress and upheaval at the family level, a place in which God intended tranquility and safety.
Unit 2 Summary: In contrast to four social upheavals that can cause headlines and commotion in the world, Prov 30:24–28 show four creatures that unceremoniously demonstrate wisdom in overcoming their limitations. Ants and rock badgers accomplish their self-preservation by storing food and building fortified shelter respectively, despite being small or weak. Locusts overcome their bulk by acting in solidarity. Lizards, although vulnerable to capture, have the ability to find safe residence in palaces.
In our first proverb (vv.21–23), we observe four people that act out of dissatisfaction and profoundly disrupt social order as God has ordained it. In our second proverb (vv.24–28), we observe four ordinary but wise creatures in the natural order that seem to get by just fine with the resources at their disposal. What significance does Prov 30:21–28 have to your business practice? Let me offer some suggestions for implementing two principles from these proverbs:
- Be respectful to the authorities in your realm of business because it helps maintain order and stability, especially for your clients.
Think your derisive comments about upper-management are inconsequential? You might set office precedent and subsequently become the object of similar hissing from your subordinates next week. If you are an independent professional who doesn’t report to anyone, think of how your attitude toward vendors, companies, regulators, and legislators might influence peers in your network of influence? A few words could sway them to change their business practices, ultimately affecting the products or services to their clients. Have you ever known better than an experienced superior, only to realize down the road how ignorant you must have sounded and how disastrous your ideas would have been if implemented? Consider writing one of these memories down (or better yet, submit it to FailDetroit) and reflecting on it the next time you’re dissatisfied with an authority. Their installation in a decision-making position might be harmful rather than orderly, but your involvement might be even worse.
- Find contentment in the rhythm and cycle of your work.
We shouldn’t expect a 3,000 year old proverb to be any less counter-cultural. We value constant upgrading and upsizing – our meals, phones, computers, cars, houses, careers. We like novelty and change (unless it’s Mr. Obama’s variety). We get bored quickly and most of us find routine to be a threatening tedium. In fact, this may be an implicit motivation for the earth-shaking actions of 30:21–23. Yet the sage points to four unremarkable creatures and illustrates how easily they flourish within the confines of their “routine.” Consider the challenge employee retention poses for many companies. You feel under-appreciated, under-paid, under-challenged? So does everyone else. What would it mean for your retention if you could model contentment to your employees? We all experience burnout and boredom. We go through the motions in any job. How valuable would your experience be to your employees if you could share the tricks that got you through their position for eight years? You’ll never be able to share it if you haven’t done it. What message do you communicate to your colleagues and customers if you change jobs every three years? What does it tell them if you have established yourself in a single industry for two decades, despite recessions, markets swings, and legislative challenges? It doesn’t take a sage to know your clients want long term consistency and stability from the people with whom they work. Identify aspects of your work that offer you fulfillment. Use them to get yourself and others through the dry seasons so you can ensure long term benefits to your clients and yourself.
It could always be worse. You could be pointlessly carrying water buckets for a sorcerer.
Trevor Tarpinian is a financial representative for all things insurance at TFI Insurance & Benefits, a Michigan native, and a beer league hockey player. When he’s not watching the Detroit Red Wings, he’s helping professionals and business owners manage risk, minimize tax exposure, and strategize succession planning. You can contact him via e-mail at Trevor.firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @FerrisBueller66 (Personal) or @TFIInsuranceBen (Business).
1 So Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15–31, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 494.