Four “wonderful” or amazing things are linked in these verses. To emphasize this principle of functioning within the divinely appointed sphere, consider some of the “alternate” situations. The eagle would not function in the water; the ship would be destroyed trying to maneuver on the rock; the serpent cannot move suspended in air. Yet, when the ship is in the midst of the sea, its movement and usefulness are maximized. When the eagle is in the air, it soars with majesty and beauty. When the serpent is moving on the rock, it makes progress.
Each achieves its highest usefulness when it functions in the element for which it was designed. To move out of its element, for the ship to try and assume a place in the heavens is folly. Agur has stressed that recognizing our ignorance is the beginning of wisdom (vv1-6), that contentment is not found in having all desires met but in having God’s honor before us (vv7-17). He is stressing that to submit to divine appointment and to reach my “personal best” within that sphere, is the pathway to greatest liberty.
What of the expression “The way of a man with a maid”? Does it refer to the romantic overtures of a young man toward a virgin? Is it the intimacy of marriage which is in view? Since it stands in contrast to verse 20 and is linked with the three wonderful things of verse 19, it stands to reason that it refers to the normal, God-ordained relationships between a husband and wife. It maintains its beauty when it is enjoyed within the confines which God has ordained – that of marriage.
As intimated, verse 20 contrasts with what has preceded. Here is something which is not wonderful but hideous. The adulteress views each encounter with the same mind-set as she would a meal. When she has finished her encounter, she merely “wipes her mouth” and moves on to her next “meal.” She has exchanged the wonderful for the loathsome, the majestic for the routine and base.
Four more things cause the earth to be “disquieted” or shaken. The metaphor may seem extreme but it is meant to imply a shaking of the moral order of a culture or people. Here are four things which are out of place; four things which have crossed boundaries and are out of divine order.
We are not told how the servant came to reign or the handmaid became heir to her mistress. It may have been through intrigue, rebellion, or through accident or appointment. The issue is that here are four instances where people have crossed a boundary and are like a ship on the rocks or an eagle in the sea.
A servant reigning shakes the entire fabric of a nation. Here is promotion without character to sustain it. He has responsibility without the preparation to bear it.
It must be stressed that Agur, or the sage, is not thinking of the exceptions such as a Joseph who came out of the dungeon to become second ruler in the kingdom. God had prepared him both morally and administratively for his task. He is referring to the man who usurps authority or comes to the throne in some way other than God’s way and time. Ruling for God in any sphere must never be something which a man takes to himself. Whether in a nation or in a local company of believers, to assume or to seize a place for which God has not fitted is to invite the earth to be “disquieted.”
“A fool filled with meat” suggests a man being rewarded for his folly. Paul addressed this in 2 Thessalonians when he commanded the believers not to become enablers for the non-working members of the assembly. To have supported them in their indolence would be to encourage and strengthen them in their resolve and sin. While mercy and kindness are always needed in dealing with those in need, great wisdom is needed to avoid rewarding behavior which is dishonoring to the testimony of God.
An “odious woman” may have reference to either an unattractive or unpleasant woman who was without hopes of marriage. Instead of appreciating the mercy of God that has brought her into a relationship, she maintains her haughty and unpleasant nature. You can envision her looking down on other single women and pompously demeaning them.
Finally, another servant is introduced. This time it is a handmaid, a servant girl, who dispossesses her mistress. Hagar-like, she moves into the house and removes her mistress. The manner in which she accomplishes this can be imagined. But she is out of her element.
In each instance, individuals are seen out of the sphere they should occupy. Rather than gaining liberty, they court disaster for themselves and for others. Notice:
Servant who reigns – A responsibility – power and position – for which he was not fitted.
Filled fool – A reward that he did not deserve.
Odious woman – A relationship for which she is not thankful.
Handmaid who is heir – A recognition not rightly hers.
Notice the spheres which are involved: government, society, marriage, and the home. All the pillars of society are shaken by “out-of-bounds” people.