Please explain Proverbs 30:21–23. I can’t make sense of this passage.
This passage in the Bible’s book of wisdom reads, “For three things the earth is perturbed, Yes, for four it cannot bear up: For a servant when he reigns, A fool when he is filled with food, A hateful woman when she is married, And a maidservant who succeeds her mistress.”
The verses are part of a whole subject in chapter 30 that deals with leadership and problematic aspects of it. You will note the word “king” or allusions to a ruler in several places. The chapter cites “the words of Agur” (30:1), and we do not know his identity. But there were many wise men in addition to Solomon during that time.
The first item that is unjust and intolerable to earth, which symbolizes people living upon earth, is “a servant when he reigns.” What is so bad about that? It is bad in the sense that a lowly servant here is assumed to be unprepared to step into the role of king. The maxim, in other words, is stating that a sudden rise to power or fame could be disastrous. There are warnings in Scripture of pride and the rise of a novice that can go along with this principle.
Second, we have “a fool when he is filled with food.” The word “fool” in Scripture depicts the one who lacks spiritual sense and direction. Thus the fool “filled with food” is speaking of one who thinks only of himself. He comes upon much food yet fails to see others around him who could use food too, others who have need. He may even be cocky and bully-like toward others because he has his plenty, and he knows it.
Third is “a hateful woman when she is married.” The word “hateful” might better be rendered “hated.” It depicts a woman who, because of her odious or repelling ways, is very aloof. Then unexpectedly she comes upon a man, and the two get married. Getting her man makes a bossy wife out of her, and she brings misery.
Finally, we have “a maidservant who succeeds her mistress.” This is somewhat like the first item. A lowly maidservant takes the place of the mistress. She is unprepared for the sudden fortune, not knowing how to lead others under her and probably not knowing how to handle increased wealth.
This article appeared in the “Q & A” column of the Baptist Bulletin (January 2001) by Norman A. Olson.