What does Proverbs 30:21 mean?
ESV: Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up:
NIV: "Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up:
NASB: Under three things the earth quakes, And under four, it cannot endure:
CSB: The earth trembles under three things; it cannot bear up under four:
NLT: There are three things that make the earth tremble — no, four it cannot endure:
KJV: For three things the earth is disquieted, and for four which it cannot bear:
NKJV: For three things the earth is perturbed, Yes, for four it cannot bear up:
Verse Commentary:
Agur (Proverbs 30:1) once again uses the poetic "number plus one" structure for his teaching (Proverbs 30:15, 18, 24, 29). This is a technique used often in the Bible (Proverbs 6:16; Job 5:19; Amos 1:3). He implies that these four items are disruptive: they are said to shake the earth. Poetically, this implies the people of a land, more so than the physical terrain itself. The deliberate exaggeration shows the seriousness of the concerns. All four issues (Proverbs 30:22–23) involve instability caused by something being moved out of its "proper" place. The implication is not that the persons—a slave, a fool, an unloved woman, and a female servant—are destined for their roles and should never improve them. Rather, the point is that suddenly transposing an unqualified person to authority brings unwanted consequences.

Next come descriptions of these four situations which cause people to tremble and collapse. In any era, people are troubled by perilous situations that seem to threaten stability. No one is comfortable in a civilization on the verge of collapse. Both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah eventually collapsed under invasions by Assyria and Babylonia.
Verse Context:
In Proverbs 30:15–31 Agur (Proverbs 30:1) gives several numerical observations. He lists four things which never lead to satisfaction, only increased desire. Another four ideas are said to be "wonderful," here meant in the sense of being hard to grasp. Next are four examples of the dangers of putting people in sudden positions of power. Then, four seemingly humble animals who achieve great tasks. The last is a series of examples showing the "stately" nature of confidence.
Chapter Summary:
This chapter contains the teachings of Agur, who is only known through this passage. Humility and a sense of one's own limitations are key themes in this section. Agur prays for God's providence and warns about the sins of arrogance, greed, and rebelliousness. He marvels at how the ungodly can sin without care, not realizing their fate. He then notes the way some insignificant animals accomplish great things and comments on the effects of confidence. The chapter ends with a reminder that stirring up anger leads to trouble.
Chapter Context:
This chapter falls between a collection of Solomon's wise sayings (Proverbs 25—29) and King Lemuel's proverbs (Proverbs 31). Chapter 30 contains the wise sayings of Agur, who is otherwise unknown. He may have been the son of Jakeh. His teachings are called an oracle: a weighty message from God. Humility and warnings about arrogance are recurring themes in this chapter.
Book Summary:
Proverbs is best understood in context with the books of Ecclesiastes and Job. In Proverbs, “wisdom” is given in short, simple, general terms. Ecclesiastes represents wisdom based on observation and experience. This often shows how the general principles of the book of Proverbs don’t apply in absolutely every circumstance. Job represents wisdom based on the experience of suffering and injustice. All three come to the conclusion that God does indeed know best, and the most sensible course of action is to follow His will.
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