The Way of an Eagle in the Air
"There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid." (Prov.30:18‑19)
This is one of the wise sayings of Agur the son of Jakeh. We know nothing else of Agur; he is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible; but there is some ground for thinking that he lived in the Arab lands at some time between Abraham and the Exodus, his words being preserved in Israel and added to the Book of Proverbs when King Solomon compiled that book.
What a strange little statement it is! Four everyday sights in the world, two connected with the lower creation, one in the air and one on the earth; two connected with man, one in the sea and one on the land. Four everyday sights, common enough, so common as probably not to excite any remark at all on the part of ninety‑nine out of a hundred witnesses—but Agur the son of Jakeh was the hundredth, a serious, reflective man, and as he watched, he confessed that in each of these four sights there resided a mystery, a something that went beyond his understanding, a something that stirred his emotions to their depths and left him with a feeling of quiet awe.
The eagle, winging its swift flight through the higher levels of the air, building its nest on high in the inaccessible crags of the highest rocks, swooping down upon the prey its keen sight had espied from far, cleansing the earth from the defiling presence of dead carcases: Agur gazed upon the spectacle with wonder. The serpent, slithering out from its den to sun itself upon the warm rock, its brilliantly coloured scaly skin scintillating and glistening in the sunlight as it twisted and darted after its prey: Agur must have stood enthralled as he watched it shed that skin and emerge clothed in an even more brilliant and showy one. He beheld the birds and small animals stand petrified with fear, held spellbound by the serpent’s malignant eyes, until it advanced upon them to their doom. The serpent, perhaps mused Agur, brings death to the earth—but the eagle cleanses death from the earth!
Then he lifted up his eyes, and away on the heaving billows of the great sea beheld a vessel, making its way with difficulty and labour through the mounting waves that threatened to submerge it. "The way of a ship in the midst of the sea" indicates that he had in mind a boat caught in a storm, tossing and straining in the trough of the waves, helpless in the grip of the elements. However could it get safe to land, Agur must have wondered; yet in the fulness of time the storm would abate and the crew arrive safely home with their cargo. "He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven." (Psa.107:29‑30) And in coming to the fourth subject of wonder there is no need to think other than that Agur conned over what Paul himself called a great mystery, the love of a man for the woman who is to be his wife. Perhaps the son of Jakeh caught some echo of those far‑off days when the Lord God brought the woman unto the man, and she became his wife. (Gen.2:22) In the impulse which drives a man to seek and win the woman of his choice Agur found mystery beyond his ability to solve.
But why are these homely allusions in the text of Scripture? What is there here of instruction or furnishing unto good works for the Christian? Agur may have spoken and written down these words in all sincerity and others may have recorded and preserved them to later generations, but why should they have been taken hold of by the Holy Spirit and granted that immortality which is the lot of every word "written in the Book"? In short, what is there here for us?
We may take it that Agur ben Jakeh had no idea of any deep significance in his words. He spoke as he felt and said exactly what he meant. He intended the application of no other than a strictly literal meaning to his sayings. But the fact that the Holy Spirit enshrined these words in a setting which presents them for the consideration of every succeeding generation of truth‑seekers does indicate that some deeper purpose is in fact intended to be served.
A great deal of Bible teaching is pictorial imagery. Everyday scenes and incidents are described, not for the merit or interest of the particular scene or incident itself, but because in the description of the scene or the relating of the incident parallel thoughts of spiritual things are suggested, and the mind is led to be exercised in the "things of the Spirit". An analogy between the natural illustration and some important spiritual truth is discernible, and although the illustration is at best but an illustration, it has served a valuable purpose in turning the mind more definitely and habitually to spiritual truths in which that mind has already been instructed, and familiarises it with the "things of the Spirit". The discerning of a likeness between the natural things of this world and what may be termed their spiritual counterparts brings more reality into our spiritual understanding and accustoms us to look at all things in life from the standpoint of the Spirit rather than the standpoint of the world.
The four "mysteries" of Agur ben Jakeh may be taken as illustrative of the four great mysteries in the Plan of Salvation—the power of Evil, the Redemption from evil, the call of the Church, and the hope for the World. And even if such an application be held to be no more than the use of the text to provide an illustration—well, it is by illustrations often that the deepest of truths are conveyed to our immature minds.
"The way of an eagle in the air." That downward swoop of the swift‑pinioned bird to the earth reminds one of the well‑known hymn "He saw men plunged in deep distress, and flew to their relief." The eagle makes its nest in the highest parts of the mountains from whence it can survey the world around. Wisdom, says the 8th chapter of Proverbs, stands at the head of the ways, the chief of the high places of the earth. (Prov.8:1‑2) The personified "Wisdom" of Prov.8 is thought to describe the Son of God, our Redeemer, prior to his coming to earth for our salvation. From that high place He surveyed the world, seeing death and corruption, and came down to the world to abolish death and cleanse the earth from the defiling influence of sin. The ‘eagles’ of the Bible were in reality great blessings to the land, for they disposed of animal carcases which otherwise would quickly putrefy in that tropical heat and pollute the land, spreading disease and further death. It is from this standpoint that we must use the illustration. Our Lord, coming to those who were dead in trespasses and sins, "as the way of an eagle in the air" descends to earth, takes to himself the burden of death and sin, and leaves the earth clean and free from defilement, corruption and death. "O death…I will be thy destruction." (Hos.13:14) He transmutes death and decay into life and immortality. Surely to us, as to Agur ben Jakeh, this "way of an eagle in the air" is too wonderful for our human understanding. "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the LORD alone did lead him." (Deut.32:11‑12) The protecting power of God the Father is shown in this picture of the eagle and its care for its young.
"The way of a serpent upon a rock." From the very commencement of the sacred history the serpent has been the symbol of Satan and of sin. The seed of the woman is one day to bruise the serpent’s head and righteousness will then be supreme for ever, but in the meantime evil reigns, and that fact is a great mystery not only to the natural man who knows not the things of the Spirit of God, but also in large measure to those to whom have been revealed much of the Divine counsels and the Divine Plan. The way of evil through world history is like the way of a serpent upon a rock, tortuous and sinuous, a stealthiness of progress, first in this direction and then in that, seeking out opportunities for entrance into the good and pure and holy, that it might befoul with its corrupting influence. "Your adversary the devil...walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." (1 Pet.5:8) From "whence comest thou?" asks the Most High of the Adversary in the story of Job. "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it" answers the Adversary glibly. (Job 1:7) That has ever been the way of Satan, like the way of a serpent upon a rock; and why such a thing has been permitted for so long has been a matter of wonder to men just as the natural case was to Agur ben Jakeh. But evil and the Spirit of evil is earthbound, as is the serpent. Jesus saw Satan fall as lightning from heaven and although he appears to men as an angel of light it is but an earthbound glory; it reflects no radiance to heaven. The serpent cannot follow the eagle into the air; it must forever twist and writhe upon the rock, its sinister beauty dazzling to mortal sight but having nothing in common with the graceful denizens (dwellers) of the air. It emerges from its hole; it suns itself upon the rock and fascinates by its fatal beauty even while it repels; it hypnotises its victims by its baleful stare and strikes death to them before ever they are aware; but its latter end is that it perishes in the dust and is no more. In the new earth which is to be, the nobler animals are to live in peace and concord one with another, but "dust shall be the serpent’s meat" (Isa.65:25)—a metaphorical allusion to everlasting death—for "they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain". (Isa.11:9)
"The way of a ship in the heart of the sea." (YLT) The ancient peoples looked upon a sea voyage as a hazardous undertaking—as indeed it usually was in those far‑off days. The frail ship, with its load of human lives, so utterly at the mercy of the elements, so dependent upon the saving power of God when storm or other danger threatened, very easily became to them a symbol of the uncertainty and difficulty of human life. That symbol is a more than usually apt one. The world of mankind, pursuing its normal course, very generally heedless of God whilst times are calm, becomes transformed into a frightened world when danger and disaster threatens, as it does today. And like the mariners in Jonah’s ship, men then begin to call upon God for salvation. But, through calm and storm, through fair weather and foul weather, alternating between unbelief and faith, indifference and supplication, the world of man, like a ship in the heart of the sea, goes on its way, forging onward to an unknown land, in imminent danger from the towering waves and yet after each burst of the element’s fury is seen to be still afloat, battered and shaken perhaps, but still limping on its way toward the unseen land of promise. That was the wonder to Agur ben Jakeh, that the ship survived at all, that it could still be seen in the far distance until at length, the conflicts and tumults over, it was lost in the calm glory of the far horizon. A fitting symbol, surely, of the way of mankind during this time of sin and death! Not because of their own righteousness, but because of his great mercies, does God save them and bring them at the end into his "afterward of peace". Zechariah, his spiritual vision quickened to perceive the details of that final ending to the ship’s voyage, said "at evening time it shall be light." (Zech.14:7) The way of the ship in the sea, with all the vicissitudes it experiences, is a great wonder, but it ends in the light of the far horizon, the light of the "land of far distances". (Isa.33:17 marg.)
"The way of a man with a maid." There are several words for "man" in the Old Testament, each having its especial significance. There is adam, and "ish", man as an individual, an ordinary being; "enosh", man as a mortal, dying creature; "ben", man as related to his surroundings (as "a man of the city") but in this passage the word is the supreme one of them all, "geber", a "mighty man", a man indeed, a man head and shoulders above his fellows. That takes us at once to the glorious description in the Song of Solomon (5:10,16). "My beloved is...the chiefest among ten thousand…he is (the one) altogether lovely." The last and greatest mystery of the four wonders must surely be the mystery of Christ and his Church. "Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house; so shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him." (Psa.45:10‑11) That is the "way of a man with a maid", the coming of the Lord from heaven to seek and win his Bride, that He might take her away and present her faultless before the presence of his Father with exceeding joy. We have heard that call and responded to it; we trust that we are of those who "follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth" (Rev.14:4); we talk together, as did Paul to the Ephesians, of the love of Christ for his Church, but, like Agur ben Jakeh of old, we still stand in wonderment before this great mystery. We look forward to the "marriage of the Lamb" when the Bride has been made ready; we hear in anticipation the words that are one day to be uttered by the Bride to all the world, "Come…take (of the fountain of) the water of life freely" (Rev.22:17) but still we do not approach to the depths of understanding that must one day be ours when, in the splendour of that marriage feast, and in the overwhelming glory of the Father’s presence we look back upon the long story of sin and redemption and perceive the evidences of Divine love and wisdom in every step of the way. Then, perhaps as never before, we shall understand why, long ages ago, a man of God was inspired to look upon the world he knew and speak of four things too wonderful for him to understand: the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid!