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Commentary On The Book Of Proverbs 5

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Proverbs Of Solomon Part 2 (15.22-22.16).

At this point there is a sudden switch from proverbs which contrast one thing with another, which have been predominant since 10.1, to proverbs where the second clause adds something to the first. Whilst we still find some contrasting proverbs, especially at the beginning, they are not so common. This may suggest a deliberate intention by Solomon to separate his proverbs into two parts.

Furthermore such a change at this point would also be in line with seeing verse 10.1 and 15.20 as some kind of inclusio. The first opened the collection with ‘a wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother’ (10.1), whilst 15.20 may be seen as closing it with the very similar ‘a wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish man despises his mother’. Verse 21 may then be seen as conjoined with verse 20 and as a kind of postscript summing up the fool and the wise who have been in mind throughout the proverbs up to this point.

Verse 22, in fact, provides a particularly suitable introduction to a new section with its emphasis on the need for a ‘multitude of counsellors’, who can partly be found in the authors of the proverbs which follow (Solomon and the wise men).

Introduction To Part 2 (15.22).

The first part of this collection of Solomon’s proverbs commenced with a reference to the father and the mother as being a young man’s guide (10.1). This second part may be seen as commencing with a reference to counsellors who have replaced the father and mother. This may be because in this second part the proverbs are aimed more at the more mature, and include those proverbs which are more political, although the fact that ‘my son’ is mentioned in 19.27 may be seen as militating against this. However, as we shall see that is a very specialised use of ‘my son’. An address to ‘my son’ by a wisdom teacher may be no more than a mentor’s address to his protégé, but its use in 19.27 probably refers back to the son mentioned in 19.26. (It is the only use of ‘my son’ in the proverbs of Solomon from 10.1-22.16). The inclusion of the more mature at some stage is required by 1.5.

The idea behind this proverb is that it is an admonition to heed wise advice. Without proper counsel aims will not be brought to fruition, whilst with plenty of good counsel each aim will be established and will come to fruition. It therefore underlines the need to listen to the wisdom of Solomon and the wise men (10.1; 22.17 and 24.13).

Once again, then, Solomon or the final editor is stressing the importance of wisdom, but now it is a wisdom received from experienced counsellors. In this regard it should be noted that in what follows, at least in the next chapter, there is an increased stress on the importance of YHWH’s involvement in people’s affairs, and an increased reference to the king’s role (a role which up to this point has only been mentioned twice in six chapters). However, as this stress is largely limited to 16.4-15 it must not be overpressed.

15.22

‘Where there is no counsel, aims are thwarted,
But in the multitude of counsellors each one is established.’

The clear message here is that no man is an island. Even the more mature need the assistance of others in living the life of true wisdom in accordance with God’s requirements. To stand alone with no counsel will be to have our aims thwarted. We will not walk in the way of true wisdom. But if we have a number of counsellors, discussing together and guiding us with their counsel, this will ensure that our aims are fulfilled. The writer may indeed have seen his ‘multitude of counsellors’ as including the wise men of 22.17 and 24.13, and, if this proverb is the work of the final editor, it could also include the men of Hezekiah (25.1); Azur (30.1), and Lemuel (31.1).

The general principle of the proverb is also clear and that is that if we act on our own in important matters, without advice, our aims will probably not succeed, and that in order to secure the satisfactory fulfilment of our aims, it is important to consult widely with wise counsellors.

The Counsel Of A Wise Man Is Carefully Considered, And Is Therefore A Joy And Useful. It Results In Men Finding Perpetual Life In Contrast With The Devastations Coming On The Unrighteous (15.23-28).

This subsection can be seen as contained within the inclusio of verses 23 and 28, which contrast the mouth of the righteous (verse 23) with that of the unrighteous (verse 28), with verse 23 also referring to the response of the mouth of the righteous, and verse 28 referring to the response of the righteous man’s heart. Thus the mouth of the righteous causes joy (verse 23), whilst the mouth of the unrighteous pours out evil things (verse 28). Furthermore the mouth of the righteous causes joy (verse 23) because the heart of the righteous thinks carefully before it answers (verse 28). And it causes joy because ‘pleasant words are pure’ (verse 26).

The consequence of what is described is that the righteous enjoy life beyond the grave (verse 24), and will live (verse 27), whilst the unrighteous will have their house rooted up (verse 25), and will bring trouble on their own house (verse 27) because their schemes are an abomination to YHWH (verse 26).

The subsection is constructed chiastically as follows:

  • A A man has joy in the ANSWER of his MOUTH, and a word in due season, how good it is (15.23).
  • B To the wise the way of LIFE goes upward, that he may depart from Sheol beneath (15.24).
  • C YHWH will root up the house of the proud, but he will establish the border of the widow (15.25).
  • C Evil devices are an abomination to YHWH, but pleasant words are pure (15.26)
  • B He who is greedy of gain troubles his own house, but he who hates bribes will LIVE (15.27).
  • A The heart of the righteous studies (thinks carefully) to ANSWER, but the MOUTH of the wicked pours out evil things (15.28).

Note that in A there is reference to the mouth (of the righteous) and its product (joy), whilst in the parallel we find reference to the mouth of the unrighteous and its product (evil things). In B there is reference to ‘life’ and in the parallel to ‘living’. In C and its parallel there is a reference to YHWH and His attitude towards pride and evil devices.

15.23

‘A man has joy in the answer of his mouth,
And a word in due season, how good it is!’

One again an emphasis is laid on the importance of what men say. ‘A man’ (any man) has joy in the response that comes from the mouth of a wise counsellor (‘his mouth’ referring back to the wise counsellors of verse 22; compare also verse 28). And this is because a word in season, a word given at the right time, is so valuable. It is especially so when it enables him to ensure the bringing about of (it establishes) his aims (verse 22).

The reference to joy connects back verbally with verses 20 (the glad father) and 21 (the joyful folly of the fool). The ‘answer of his mouth’ parallels the ‘carefully thought out response’ of the righteous man’s heart in verse 28, in other words the response of a wise counsellor.

15.24

‘To the wise the way of life goes upward,
That he may depart from Sheol beneath.’

There has been constant reference in the Book of Proverbs to ‘life’ as the destiny of the wise in contrast with ‘death’ as the destiny of the foolish. Here the significance of that is made clear. The righteous is on the upward way of life, and will therefore avoid permanent residence in the grave world. This is a clear reference to the hope of a future life (see introduction), something confirmed by the constant warnings that the grave world awaits the foolish (5.5; 7.27; 9.18). If Sheol (the grave world) permanently awaits both wise and foolish what is the point of the warnings to the foolish, for the same fate awaits both? The warnings thus suggest that there is something better for the righteous (compare 14.27; Psalm 16.11; 17.15; 23.6). This would give new meaning to the words in Ecclesiastes 12.7, ‘and the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit return to the God Who gave it’

15.25

‘YHWH will root up the house of the proud,
But he will establish the border of the widow.’

In contrast to the glorious hope of the wise (verse 24) is the destiny of ‘the proud’ (the worthless man - 6.17). For pride goes before destruction (16.18). In 16.19 the proud are those who seek spoil, in contrast with those who are lowly in spirit. Here we learn that their self-sufficiency will be taken away from them. Their house will be rooted up by YHWH. Their very security will be destroyed. In contrast is His concern for the weak and helpless, the lowly in spirit (16.19), as represented by the widow. Though evil men might move the boundary marks of her land surreptitiously in order to gradually take it over, seen as a heinous crime (22.28; Deuteronomy 19.14 27.17; Hosea 5.10) YHWH will restore them and establish them, ensuring the protection of her rights. Such protection of the rights of the needy by YHWH is regularly spoken of in the Torah (Exodus 22.21-24; Deuteronomy 10.18; 14.29; 16.11, 14; 24.17, 19-21; 26.12-13; 27.19). Righteousness will in the end prevail.

15.26

‘Evil devices are an abomination to YHWH,
But pleasant words are pure (to him).’

What is described in verse 25 will occur because evil plots and schemes are an abomination to YHWH. In the end, therefore, He will deal with them as such. But in contrast to the evil schemes of the unrighteous are the pleasant and honest words of the righteous. They are acceptable to Him because they are pure in His eyes. They are the words which bring joy to those who benefit by them (verse 23). They are the carefully thought out words of the righteous (verse 28).

15.27

‘He who is greedy of gain troubles his own house,
But he who hates bribes will live.’

The one who is greedy of gain is illustrated by the boundary mover of verse 25. But the term covers any dishonest method of obtaining wealth (compare 1.11 ff.), including in context the offering of bribes (gifts given in order to influences another, or obtain benefit for oneself). Compare 19.6; 21.14. This was something forbidden to Israelites (Exodus 23.8; Deuteronomy 16.19) and thoroughly disapproved of (Psalm 15.5; Ecclesiastes 7.7; Isaiah 1.23). By using such methods a man may obtain short term wealth, but he ‘troubles his own house’. He brings catastrophe on it, as both Ahab and Achan (Joshua 7), the ‘troublers’, did on Israel. Such a man will necessarily ‘inherit the wind’ (11.29).

In contrast to the dishonest man is the honest one. He hates both the receiving and the offering of bribes. And because he does so he will ‘live’. He will enjoy the wholesome and fruitful life described in 3.16-18. And he will enjoy the future life that is described in verse 24

15.28

‘The heart of the righteous studies (thinks carefully) to answer,
But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.’

The subsection closes with a contrast between the righteous and the unrighteous. Before he speaks the righteous man thinks carefully in his heart. He studies in his heart what he is going to say before he says it. Thus when he does speak his words bring him joy (15.23). He ensures that what he will say will do good and not harm, will help men rather than hindering them (see 15.2). He is ‘slow to speak’ (James 1.19), cautious in his words (compare 11.13). But in contrast the unrighteous man ‘pours out evil things’ without thought. He has no self-control and no feelings for others. He cannot be trusted to keep a confidence. He regularly hurts people by what he says.

A Call To Commitment To YHWH And To Recognise His Control Over Our Lives (15.29-16.3).

Commencing with a mention of YHWH in 15.29, YHWH is mentioned five times in this subsection. This includes the opening and closing proverbs which form an inclusio, and four references in the last four verses. He is mentioned a further six time in 16.4-11. Thus in sixteen consecutive proverbs He is mentioned eleven times. This may well be seen as confirming the opening of a new section, the intention being to bring home how closely YHWH is involved in wisdom in Israel, and to lay the foundation for what is to follow.

The first four verses in the subsection refer to ‘hearing’. Thus YHWH hears the prayer of the righteous (15.29); good tidings make the bones fat (15.30); the ear of the wise listens to reproof (15.31); to listen to reproof is to obtain understanding (15.32). And they connect together. It is because YHWH hears the prayer of the righteous (15.29) that their eyes are alight with good things and they hear good tidings (verse 30). As a consequence they heed His reproof (verse 31), and gain more understanding (verse 32). These verses are then followed by a minor chiasmus in which the activity of YHWH is enclosed within a ‘response to YHWH’ (fear of YHWH and commitment to YHWH) envelope.

The subsection is presented chiastically:

  • A YHWH is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous (15.29).
  • B The light of the EYES rejoices the heart, and good tidings make the bones fat (15.30).
  • C The ear which LISTENS TO THE REPROOF of life, will abide among the wise (15.31).
  • D He who REFUSES CORRECTION despises his own soul, but he who LISTENS TO REPROOF obtains understanding (15.32).
  • D The fear of YHWH is the DISCIPLINARY INSTRUCTION OF WISDOM, and before honour goes humility (15.33).
  • C The plans of the heart belong to man, but THE ANSWER OF THE TONGUE is from YHWH (16.1).
  • B All the ways of a man are clean in his own EYES, but YHWH weighs the spirits (16.2).
  • A Commit your works to YHWH, and your purposes will be established (16.3).

Note that in A YHWH hears the prayer of the righteous, and in the parallel they are to commit their works to YHWH, which will require prayer. In B the light of the EYES rejoices the heart, and in the parallel a man’s ways are clean in his own EYES. In C the ear listens to reproof, and in the parallel the answer of the tongue is from YHWH. Centrally in D there is one who refuses correction (discipline) and another who listens to reproof, while in the parallel we have the disciplinary instruction of wisdom, and deep humility.

15.29

‘YHWH is far from the wicked,
But he hears the prayer of the righteous.’

This does not, of course, mean ‘far from’ in distance, but rather ‘far from’ in spiritual experience. In the case of the unrighteous they have no contact with God and no assurance that He will hear their prayers. ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart YHWH will not hear me’ (Psalm 66.18). If they offer sacrifices they are an abomination to God (15.8). No doubt in those days they nearly all of them participated in religious ritual, and in family prayers at meals, but it was all formal. It meant nothing, either to God or to them. It did not, however, relieve them from responsibility. He still ‘weighed their spirits’ (16.2; compare Psalm 11.4). He still took note of their behaviour.

In stark contrast are the righteous, those who respond to God’s wisdom and seek to live by it. In their case God hears their prayers. He weighs their prayers up and responds as He sees fit. Their prayers are a delight to Him (15.8). He is concerned about their welfare (10.3, 22).

15.30

‘The light of the eyes rejoices the heart,
And good tidings make the bones fat.’

It is because the righteous have fellowship with YHWH and He hears their prayers (verse 29) that they see and hear good things. The ‘light of the eyes’, paralleling ‘good tidings’, seems to indicate good things that the eyes see, what comes in through the window of the eyes, and this agrees with the idea of ‘the ear which listens’ in the next verse. As Jesus said, ‘the light of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is single (fixed only on what is good and of God) your whole body will be full of light’ (Matthew 6.22).

The parallel with good tidings can be seen as confirming that it is good things which are in mind. Thus we could paraphrase ‘as righteous men look on good things it rejoices their hearts’. They see the heavens, and they speak to them of the glory of God. They see the sky and it speaks to them of His handywork (Psalm 19.1). They read His Law and delight in it (Psalm 1.2; 19.8b; 119.18, 47, 70). They mix with the righteous and delight in seeing their good deeds (Psalm 101.6). They refuse to look on evil things (Psalm 101.3). Whatever is good and honourable and true, they fix their eyes on such things and it brings them joy. In the context of the previous proverb they see YHWH answering their prayers and their heart’s rejoice. Indeed, their eyes are fixed on YHWH Himself and this fills them with rejoicing (Psalm 25.15; 123.1; 141.8). Consequently they walk in the fear of YHWH.

And in the same way when the righteous hear a good report or good news it has a wholesome effect on them. It gives them inward strength and inward joy (their bones are made fat). They realise that it signifies that YHWH’s eye is on the righteous (15.3). Good news is always welcome, but especially so when it concerns the prospering of God’s ways. From Solomon’s view point it is because YHWH reigns over the righteous, and imparts to them His wisdom, that such good things occur (15.33; 16.1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9). Because of this He does not allow the righteous to go hungry (10.3). He blesses them with riches both physical and spiritual (10.22). His way is a fortress to them (10.29). He shows His favour towards them (12.2). No wonder they rejoice.

Many, however, see ‘the light of the eyes’ as signifying the shining in the eyes of inner vitality and joy, in the same way as we would say ‘his eyes lit up’. But in our view that is not so good a parallel. In Psalm 13.3 the lightening of the eyes indicated recovery from a death situation. In Psalm 38.10 the Psalmist had lost ‘the light of his eyes’ because he was exhausted. In Ezra 9.8 it indicates a reviving of life. But all of these could indicate having hope revived by looking on life from a new perspective as a consequence of God’s reawakening, as seeing things in a new way.

15.31

‘The ear which listens to the reproof of life,
Will abide among the wise.’

In return His wise ones listen to the reproof which ensures that they will enjoy true life, to the reproof that results in life, to life-giving reproof. They respond to God’s chastening (3.11-12), and in consequence they themselves consort with the wise. They ‘walk with the wise’ (13.20). His people come together and exhort each other and help each other. They share in God’s life together.

15.32

‘He who refuses correction despises his own life,
But he who listens to reproof obtains understanding.’

And through listening to reproof they obtain understanding. They learn God’s wisdom and God’s ways. They gain true knowledge. They acquire good sense. Whilst those who refuse correction and reject discipline simply demonstrate by that that they despise their own lives. For they will not enjoy life, but rather death.

15.33

‘The fear of YHWH is the instruction of wisdom,
And before honour goes humility.’

Those who listen to reproof obtain understanding (verse 32). Either wisdom instructs them in the fear of YHWH, or the fear of YHWH causes them to be instructed in wisdom, an instruction which has intrinsic within it the idea of discipline. Either way the fear of YHWH makes them wise. They see things through His eyes, and from His perspective. Through reproof and instruction in wisdom the righteous learn to walk in a way which is pleasing to Him.

And those who would please Him, if they would be honoured by Him, must first approach Him in humility. In God’s way of working humility must always precede honour. It is he who humbles himself who can be exalted. For no man can be trusted with honour who has not first been humbled, otherwise the honour will go to his head and will do him more harm than good. David’s road to God-given kingship was along the hard road of persecution and humiliation. He learned obedience by what he suffered. Paul in his hugely successful ministry went through the sufferings, persecutions and humiliations that kept him humble. Even our Lord Jesus Christ ‘learned obedience by the things that He suffered’ (Hebrews 5.8). It was because of the hard road that He trod that He knew by experience the cost of obedience, and came through triumphantly. The fear of YHWH and humility go hand in hand. ‘Thus says the High and Lofty One, Who inhabits eternity, Whose Name is Holy, “I dwell in the high and holy place with him also who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, an to revive the heart of the contrite ones’ (Isaiah 57.15).

16.1

‘The plans of the heart belong to man,
But the answer of the tongue is from YHWH.’

We might summarise this as, ‘man can plan as much as he wants, but God always has the final word’, or ‘man proposes, but God disposes’. The idea behind the word for planning is ‘setting things in order, making arrangements’. All kinds of men are continually making all kinds of arrangements. That is their privilege as thinking beings. But in the end it is YHWH Who says what will be and what will not be. It is YHWH Who answers with His tongue. ‘So shall my word be which goes forth out of My Mouth, it will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and prosper in the way in which I send it’ (Isaiah 55.11). And one of the answers of His tongue is to speak to those who will listen to reproof, thereby gaining understanding (15.32).

And the most wonderful answer of His tongue was when He sent forth His Word (John 1.1-14), by Him bringing life to men and salvation from the guilt and power of sin, contrary to all man’s way of thinking.

16.2

‘All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes,
But YHWH weighs the spirits.’

The contrast between man’s planning, and YHWH’s response to it (16.1), now leads on to the idea that men always think that their own ideas are clean’ (right, justified, blameless). They think that what they are doing is right and justifiable. What they see with their eyes rejoices their hearts (15.30) because they are so confident in what they are doing. They see themselves as above criticism. They do not look underneath at their true motives.

But that is precisely what YHWH does do. He weighs their spirits. He considers the deepest thoughts of their hearts. The people in Noah’s day undoubtedly justified themselves, but YHWH saw that ‘every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually’ (Genesis 6.5). Man may express his innocence, ‘if you say, “behold we did not know it”. But the writer replies, ‘does not He Who weighs the hearts consider it? And He Who keeps the inner life, does He not know it? And will He not render to every man according to His works?’ (24.12). For man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16.7), and He continually assesses it.

The metaphor may have been derived from the ancient Egyptian belief that on death a man’s heart was weighed against truth. But if so it has been transformed into the idea of a continual assessment by God as He contemplates man’s behaviour and gets right to the root of the matter (the spirit within).

16.3

‘Commit your works to YHWH,
And your purposes will be established.’

So the answer is clear. If you would know that your plans are truly right, and that your way is truly pleasing, ‘commit what you do to YHWH, (literally ‘roll what you do on YHWH’), and your purposes will be established’ (confirmed, brought to fruition). This involves more than just a formal prayer of committal. Men have done such a thing and followed it by the most bestial of behaviour. It involves genuinely examining our ways before YHWH, and seeking His confirmation in our hearts when our hearts and minds are truly open to Him, before we proceed (compare 3.6). You cannot ‘roll on YHWH’ what is displeasing to Him. An illustration of the idea, (but not necessarily the way to go about it), is found in 2 Samuel 2.1.

All Is In Accordance With YHWH’s Purposes, With The Consequence That The Proud Will Be Punished, Whilst Those Who Fear YHWH Will Depart From Evil And Find That Both YHWH And Their Enemies Are At Peace With Them (16.4-7).

In s specific YHWH subsection, we learn that YHWH has made everything for a purpose, even the unrighteous for the time of calamity (verse 4); that the proud in heart are an abomination to Him and will be punished (verse 5); that the iniquity of those who turn to Him is atoned for through His compassion and faithfulness (verse 6a); that by the fear of YHWH men will depart from evil (verse 6b); and that YHWH will make even the enemies of the righteous man to be at peace with him (verse 7).

The subsection is presented chiastically as follows:

  • A YHWH has made everything for its own end, yes, even the wicked for the day of evil (16.4).
  • B Every one who is proud in heart is an abomination to YHWH, though hand join in hand, he will not be unpunished (16.5).
  • B By covenant love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of YHWH men depart from evil (16.6).
  • A When a man’s ways please YHWH, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him (16.7)

Note that in A everything has been determined and brought about by YHWH with His determined purpose in view, including the disposition of the unrighteous, and in the parallel that includes the attitude of the enemy of the righteous to the truly righteous. In B the proud in heart are an abomination to YHWH, and will be punished, whilst in contrast in the parallel men depart from evil by the fear of YHWH, and will find atonement through His (or their) covenant love and faithfulness.

16.4

YHWH has made everything for its own end,
Yes, even the wicked for the day of evil.’

We are reminded in this bold statement that God has made everything for a purpose, for ‘its answer’. There are no loose ends or exceptions. All that is has God’s aims in view, and will at some time be brought into the reckoning. And this would especially so of what we ‘roll on YHWH’ of all that we do, which is why our purposes will be established (will come to accomplishment) (verse 3). This is the kind of majestic statement that ties in Solomon’s vision of YHWH, when he says of Him, ‘even the heaven of heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built’ (1 Kings 8.27). It is a description of the universality of YHWH’s sovereignty.

‘For its own end, for its appropriate end’ is literally ‘for its answer’ connecting up with verse 1. In verse 1 men devised their own schemes, but it was the answer of YHWH’s word (tongue) that decided issues. Here in the same way everything will be determined by YHWH’s ‘answer’, that is, by His word, as He brings all things into His reckoning, including the activities of both the righteous and the unrighteous.

Thus there is even a purpose for the unrighteous, who are also His creations, and that purpose is that they might face the evil day, the day of calamity (1.26-27; 6.15). The indication would appear to be that in order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled the existence and punishment of the unrighteous was necessary.

16.5

‘Every one who is proud in heart is an abomination to YHWH,
Though hand join in hand, he will not be unpunished.’

And this included the ‘high of heart’ who are ‘an abomination to YHWH’. They see themselves as raised above others, as not having to take others into account, as superior beings. They are thus contrary to all that God, Who is a God of compassion Who lowers Himself in order to meet with man, is (see Genesis 11.1-9). His very nature revolts against them. Nothing could bring out more the situation of YHWH as Moral Governor of the Universe, not on the basis of some objective standard, but on the basis of what He is.

And they too were ‘made -- for the day of evil’ (verse 4), the day when calamity comes on men. They ‘will not be unpunished’. This reference to the proud, the high of heart, is a repetition of the thought in 6.16-19 where among those things which were an abomination to YHWH was ‘the proud (haughty) look’ (6.17), those who raised their heads or noses in order to express superiority. This indicates that God has no time for people who think themselves superior to others. As the writer will say elsewhere, ‘the rich and poor -- YHWH is the Maker of them all’ (22.2).

And whatever attempts such people might make in order to avoid their inevitable fate, even if they come to agreements among themselves, or join hands against YHWH, they will not go unpunished. For they have been made for the day of evil (verse 4). Others, however, see ‘hand to hand’ as an expression of the writer as meaning ‘let us be sure of this’.

16.6

‘By covenant love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for,
And by the fear of YHWH men depart from evil.’

The root for ‘atoned for’ is cpr. Some see this as the equivalent of the Arabic kafara = to cover up/over’. Others as derived from the Akkadian kuppuru = ‘to clear, to expiate, to wipe of, to ritually purify’. Even others see it as connected with koper = ransom. But whichever we choose its significance in Scripture appears to be to deal with sin in such a way that YHWH can be approached. The one who is ‘atoned for’ is put in the right with YHWH.

The next question is as to whose covenant love and faithfulness is in mind. Is it YHWH’s or man’s? The parallel with ‘the fear of YHWH’, which is the response of righteous men to YHWH, might at first sight suggest that ‘covenant love and faithfulness’ is the response of the righteous to God’s merciful covenant (compare 3.3), just as the fear of YHWH is man’s response to the awesome otherness (that quality which makes Him wholly different and fills men with awe) of YHWH. The thought is then that they respond with covenant love and faithfulness to the requirements of His covenant, and therefore, through His mercy and compassion as revealed in that covenant, find atonement from iniquity. In other words, just as the sacrifice of the unrighteous is an abomination to YHWH (15.8), so the sacrifice of the righteous, those who respond to Him in love and faithfulness, makes atonement.

On the other hand we could equally argue from the parallel (and from the whole YHWH context), that we should paraphrase it as;

‘By the covenant love and faithfulness of YHWH iniquity is atoned for,
But by the fear of YHWH men depart from evil.’

This would then indicate that both YHWH’s covenant love and faithfulness, and YHWH’s awesomeness, have an effect on men, the first to make atonement for them, the second to make them depart from evil.

And this suggestion is supported by the general impression that the whole context could be seen as suggesting that it is rather YHWH’s covenant love and faithfulness which is in mind, for it is YHWH and His activity which is central in the subsection. It is He Who has made everything for its purpose (verse 4). It is to Him that everyone who is proud is an abomination (verse 5). It is He Who makes the righteous man’s enemies to be at peace with Him (verse 7). Thus we would be justified in arguing that it is He Whose covenant love and faithfulness makes atonement for iniquity. Then the idea would be that it is His mercy and faithfulness, revealed through the covenant and the sacrificial system, that is the means by which iniquity is atoned for, by which He is made at peace with them.

Indeed with this in mind verses 7-8 might be seen as a minor chiasmus:

A ‘By covenant love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for,
B And by the fear of YHWH men depart from evil.
B When a man’s ways please YHWH,
A He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.’

This might then be seen as confirming that through His covenant love and faithfulness (as revealed through the covenant which provides a way of atonement) He makes Himself at peace with those who respond to Him, just as in the parallel He makes even their enemies to be at peace with them. As a consequence peace is seen to come to them from both Himself and from men. Departing from evil by the fear of YHWH then parallels a man’s ways being pleasing to YHWH.

But what we must not lose sight of in the end is the importance of both the covenant love and faithfulness of God, through which atonement is offered, and of the responsive covenant love and faithfulness of men, through which it is accepted.

16.7

‘When a man’s ways please YHWH,
He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.’

The central thought behind these words is that we should not allow outward circumstances to affect our loyalty to YHWH, that if we walk faithfully with Him we can look to Him to guard our ways. In other words, that pleasing YHWH should come before pleasing men. And as a consequence God’s promise is that if we do this, He Himself will ensure that our enemies are made to be at peace with us. For as we saw in 3.17, the ways of wisdom were pleasantness and peace, and we can see that as partially fulfilled here. When a man’s ways please YHWH (when he walks in God’s wisdom) YHWH makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. He lives in tranquillity and peace because YHWH watches over his ways, and also, of course because he behaves wisely towards his enemies (15.1, 18, 28).

YHWH Is Concerned About Injustice Whether At The Hands Of The King Or Of Men (16.8-12).

In this subsection men are urged to act justly and rightly in their business dealings, and kings are urged to act justly in their dealings with their people. In both cases we are assured that both men and kings are subject to His control. Verse 8 provides an important reminder that whilst those who follow wisdom are guaranteed future wellbeing, it does not necessarily come at once. There can be a time when the righteous only have ‘a little’. And in the same way, although the unrighteous will in the end lose their wealth, it does not necessarily happen quickly. For a time the unrighteous can be seen to prosper, and the righteous to have little.

The subsection is presented chiastically as follows:

  • A Better is a little, with righteousness, than great revenues with injustice (16.8).
  • B A man’s heart devises his way, but YHWH directs his steps (16.9).
  • B A divine sentence is in the lips of the king, his mouth will not transgress in judgment (16.10).
  • A A just balance and scales are YHWH’s, all the weights of the bag are his work (16.11).

Note that in A just dealings are more important than gaining great wealth, whilst in the parallel just weights and balances have YHWH’s approval. Centrally in B YHWH directs men in their steps, and in the parallel He direct kings in exercising judgment.

16.8

‘Better is a little, with righteousness,
Than great revenues with injustice.’

The point here is that just dealings are all important to YHWH. It is better to only gain a little while acting justly, than to gain great wealth by unjust means. And that can only be because such an attitude pleases YHWH, and it is more important to be acceptable in God’s eyes than it is to be wealthy. One reason that it is better is that YHWH will watch over the one who is pleasing to Him (compare verse 7), whilst another is that he will also enjoy a good conscience and be able to sleep at nights, and have the confidence that no one is out to get him because of his behaviour. In contrast the unjust man is under the wrath of God, and must constantly watch his back.

16.9

‘A man’s heart devises his way,
But (and) YHWH directs his step.’

This may be seen in two ways. Firstly (translating as ‘and’) as indicating that the righteous man devises his way looking to YHWH to direct each step. Or secondly (translating as ‘but’) as indicating that whatever a man schemes to do, His ways are in the end in the hands of YHWH. Both are true and are reminder that in life, whether we want Him to be or not, YHWH is in overall control of our lives.

In the light of the context it is probably the first which is mainly in view, for the context is about men pondering their ways. Men are to ponder their business dealings, kings are to ponder the ways in which they act in judgment, and if they look to Him YHWH will direct their steps. On the other hand, the use of ‘man’s’ in general may point to the second, for what is said elsewhere makes quite clear that YHWH does not assist the unrighteous.

16.10

‘A divine sentence (or divine wisdom) is in the lips of the king,
His mouth will not transgress in judgment.’

In 8.15-16 Wisdom assured us that, ‘by me kings reign, and princes decree justice, by me governors rule and nobles, even all the judges of the earth’. That is now turned into the expressed hope that a king, when acting as ‘a judge of the earth’, will do so recognising his responsibility before God. For that is why he has been made king. What is described as being in the mouth of the king is ‘divination’, the ability to speak as from a divine source. God’s wisdom will guide him (8.15).

Thus a king is to recognise that when pronouncing justice he is doing so in God’s Name, that ‘the powers that be are ordained of God’ (Romans 13.1), and if he does so recognise it he will be scrupulously fair and ensure that justice is done. He will not transgress in judgment, because YHWH will direct his steps (verse 9).

This is not, of course, saying that whatever decision a king comes to will automatically have divine approval. That will depend very much on his motive. It is rather saying that when he seeks to judge rightly he will have divine assistance. God will give him wisdom. Indeed the way in which he should judge is explained in Deuteronomy 17.18-20. It is only in that light that he can make this supreme claim to have the mind of God.

Solomon himself had good cause to think like this. YHWH had promised him wisdom above the ordinary in his dealings (1 Kings 3.11-12). It is questionable if a later writer could have spoken with such confidence in view of some of the kings who followed Solomon. It would, however, one day be true of the Messiah (Isaiah 11.1-4).

This is the third reference to the king in the proverbs of Solomon (compare 14.28; 14.35) and it will be noted in each case that such a reference has always come in the context of a prominent mention of YHWH. The king’s authority is always seen in the light of YHWH’s authority (something made plain in this proverb).

16.11

A just balance and scales are YHWH’s,
All the weights of the bag are his work.’

The subsection closes with the thought that, whether used by kings or businessmen, the accurate balance and scales which ensure fair dealings are the only ones that have YHWH’s approval. They alone are His, and acknowledged by Him. Indeed, the very weights which the businessman keeps in a bag are His work if they are accurate and reliable. And if they are not then He repudiates them. They come under His disapproval. We can compare here 11.1 where we read, ‘a false balance is an abomination to YHWH, but a just weight is His delight’. Among other things this is a vivid way of saying that God is with a king or businessman in his endeavours when he deals honestly, but rejects him when he does not. It is also an important indication of the emphasis that God puts on honest dealings.

Just scales, balances and weights were, of course, a requirement of the Torah, where they were also associated with true justice. ‘You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measuring stick, in weight or in measure. Just balances, just weights, a just ephah and a just hin shall you have’ (Leviticus 19.35-36; compare Deuteronomy 25.13-15; Micah 6.11). Whilst the idea of men being weighed in terms of justice is found in Job 31.6; Isaiah 26.7; Daniel 5.27.

The Responsibility And Authority Of A King (16.12-15).

It is no coincidence that this subsection with its fourfold mention of the king comes after a series of subsections in which YHWH and His jurisdiction has been prominent. In Proverbs the king is always seen as being in the shadow of YHWH. And the importance of righteousness, both in a king and to a king, are now emphasised. It is an abomination to a king to commit unrighteousness, whilst righteousness will establish his throne (verse 12); and on the other hand the king delights in those who are righteous towards him (verse 13). Righteousness is shown to be important in both king and subject.

However, the supreme importance of the king as YHWH’s representative was not to be overlooked, and the possibility of his wrath or favour is then stressed. These can lead either to death or to life. Because of that the wise man will pacify the first when it arises (by his righteous lips and speaking rightly) and will encourage the second. The thought is not that he will toady to him, but that he will make himself pleasing by his righteous words. Good kings always acknowledged honourable men.

So the subsection is presented in two pairs:

  • It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness, for the throne is established by righteousness (16.12).
  • Righteous lips are the delight of kings, and they love him who speaks right (16.13).

In this pairing the righteousness which is required of the king is equally required of his subjects. Both are to be righteous.

  • The wrath of a king is as messengers of death, but a wise man will pacify it (16.14).
  • In the light of the king’s countenance is life, and his favour is as a cloud of the latter rain (16.15).

In this pairing the wrath of the king which can bring death is contrasted with the favour of the king which in its turn brings life and favour. The one is to be avoided by wise words, the other is to be enjoyed by those who walk truly.

The subsection can also be presented chiastically as follows:

  • A It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness, for the throne is established by righteousness (16.12).
  • B Righteous lips are the delight of kings, and they love him who speaks right (16.13).
  • B The wrath of a king is as messengers of death, but a wise man will pacify it (16.14).
  • A In the light of the king’s countenance is life, and his favour is as a cloud of the latter rain (16.15).

In A YHWH requires kings to be righteous, in order that their thrones may be established, and He abominates wickedness in kings, and in the parallel the righteous king is seen as a source of life and favour, (especially on the righteous). His favour is like a cloud of latter rain (which brings YHWH’s provision on man when man is walking rightly before Him - Deuteronomy 11.13-15; Jeremiah 5.24; Hosea 6.1-3). In B righteous lips are a delight to kings, and they love him who speaks right, and in the parallel the wise man pacifies the king when his wrath is aroused, presumably by means of his righteous lips which speak right.

16.12

‘It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness,
For the throne is established by righteousness.’

The first clause may mean that it is an abomination to sensible kings, because otherwise their thrones will not be established; or that it is an abomination to wise men in general when kings commit wickedness, because it would indicate foolish kingship; or that it is an abomination to YHWH, because He allows kings to be appointed on the expectation that they will rule righteously (Romans 11.1-6). That this third option must be included is suggested by the context in which this subsection is found (an emphasis on YHWH and His ways), and by the fact that elsewhere ‘abomination’ is regularly connected with the name of YHWH (11.1, 20; 12.22; 15.8, 9, 15.26; 16.5), but it is probable that it was also to be seen as an abomination to all sensible people (compare how abomination is used in 13.19). Whichever way it is the point is that for a king to behave unrighteously is for him to go against all that is expected of a king. It is a denial of what a king should truly be. And this is especially so as ‘the throne is established by righteousness’. A righteous king will be approved of and supported by all who love good government. A righteous king results in a sound and solid nation. And that it was generally agreed that this was so, although sadly often flouted, comes out in the history of kingship. Kings did seek to be approved of by their people, and loved to be thought of as the fathers and shepherds of their people. The throne of the Pharaoh had the Egyptian equivalent of righteousness inscribed on its base, something which Solomon may have noted and copied.

The thought does not only apply to kings. It applies to all who are in positions of public authority. Once a person is put in a position of public authority he has a similar responsibility to a king. For him to commit unrighteousness is equally an abomination both to YHWH and to men. His position too will be established by righteousness. And the principle can even be applied to people in any position of authority.

16.13

Righteous lips are the delight of kings,
And they love him who speaks right.’

Kingship is not easy and two things that a good king treasures are wise advice which is not self-serving, and honest officials who can be trusted. Both are a delight to him. (We can consider here Nehemiah and Mordecai). Righteous lips are those which speak honestly and truthfully, and without having any axe to grind. Thus kings love those who speak what is right and true. They know that what they say can be trusted and it therefore enables them to rule in righteousness. It was the advice of those whose lips were not righteous which resulted in Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, losing a large part of his kingdom, whilst sadly he ignored those who spoke with righteous lips whose advice could have saved his kingdom (1 Kings 12.8).

16.14

‘The wrath of a king is as messengers of death,
But a wise man will pacify it.’

This does not mean that a wise man will seek to pacify the king only if the king’s wrath is directed against him, although that is undoubtedly true. It rather signifies that the wise man will seek to direct a king away from venting his anger by giving him wise counsel. An angry king was dangerous because he had the power of life and death. But the wise man gently reminds the king of his obligations, and draws his attention to any ameliorating circumstances, thus preventing him from acting unjustly (which is why he is seen as a wise man). That is why the king so treasures men of righteous lips who speak what is right (verse 13). All kings had wise men around them in order to receive counsel from them. And a wise man could often prevent a king from acting foolishly by ‘pacifying’ him.

16.15

‘In the light of the king’s countenance is life,
And his favour is as a cloud of the latter rain.’

In contrast to the wrath of a king which is a messenger of death (verse 14) is the light of the king’s countenance which is life. Apart from those who came to face judgment, only those who were in favour with the king would be allowed to look on his face and see ‘the light of his countenance’. This metaphor is found in Babylonian, Ugaritic and Egyptian texts, and is possibly a comparison with the sun whose face shines on the world. Thus to look on his face was to know that you would enjoy wellbeing. That you would enjoy the benefit of his favour. And that favour was like the cloud of the latter rain. The sun and the latter rain together were an essential to the maturing of the grain harvest. The latter rain referred to the welcome showers that arrived in April/early May finishing off the rainy season, and prior to the summer drought. They helped to mature the growing crops. The idea is thus that the king’s beneficent face and favour guaranteed fruitfulness and wellbeing.

Wisdom Is To Be Sought And Pride Must Be Avoided By The One Who Would Walk In The Right Way With Trust In YHWH (16.16-21).

In this subsection the envelopes of wisdom (verse 16) - pride (verse 18) - pride (verse 19) - wisdom (verse 21) surround the call to the reader to walk in the way of the upright and guard his way (verse 17) and to give heed to the word and to trust in YHWH (verse 20).

The subsection is presented chiastically as follows:

  • A How much better is it to obtain wisdom than gold! Yes, to obtain shrewdness (binah) is rather to be chosen than silver (16.16)
  • B The highway of the upright is to depart from evil, he who keeps his way preserves his life (16.17).
  • C Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (16.18).
  • C Better it is to be of a lowly spirit with the poor, than to divide the spoil with the proud (16.19).
  • B He who gives heed to the word will find good, and whoever trusts in YHWH, happy is he (16.20).
  • A The wise in heart will be called shrewd (bin), and the sweetness of the lips increases learning (16.21).

Note that in A it is better to obtain wisdom than gold and to obtain shrewdness than silver, and in the parallel the wise in heart will be called shrewd and sweet lips increase learning. In B the upright departs from evil and preserves his life (thus enjoying good, wellbeing and happiness), and in the parallel the one who heeds the word (of wisdom) finds good, and whoever trusts in YHWH will be happy (filled with wellbeing). Centrally in C pride and haughtiness will result in judgment, and in the parallel it is better to be of lowly spirit and poor than to get involved with the proud.

16.16

‘How much better is it to obtain wisdom than gold!
Yes, to obtain shrewdness is rather to be chosen than silver.’

These words carry us back into the atmosphere of the Prologue. ‘My (Wisdom’s) fruit is better than gold, yes than fine gold, and my revenues than choice silver’ (8.19). Compare also 3.13-14; 8.10; 2.4. Wisdom and shrewdness (understanding - binah) are regularly connected (1.2; 2.2-3; 4.5, 7; 7.4)

So to obtain wisdom and shrewdness is far better than the obtaining of silver and gold. It is to obtain a treasure beyond price, an inner treasure that nothing can take away. For they lead man into the highway of the upright, so that he walks uprightly, and enable him to keep his way and preserve his inner life (verse 17). In verse 21 wisdom produces shrewdness, whilst sweet lips increase learning. Thus the wise seek nuggets of wisdom, rather than the outward trappings of wealth. They seek shrewdness and learning rather than ill-gotten wealth, for they do not seek to ‘divide the spoil with the proud’ (verse 19)

16.17

‘The highway of the upright is to depart from evil,
He who keeps his way preserves his inner life.’

Here the highway (beaten and smooth path) of the upright (the straight) into which wisdom leads men is defined as ‘to depart from evil’. So wisdom is highly moral. To depart from evil is an abomination to fools (13.19), but it is beloved by the wise. It is to choose the right way, the narrow way (Matthew 7.13-14). It is to walk in the fear of YHWH (3.7; 16.6). The world does not want this way, for to depart from evil (all that is not good) involves avoiding the illicit pleasures of the world. It involves avoiding self-seeking. But it is the wise way, for the one who so guards his way preserves his inner life, and ensures the building up of his spirit. He obtains something far better than gold (verse 16).

In Solomon’s days ‘highways’ provided relatively smooth roads throughout the land, and bypassed cities. To enter a city you turned aside from the highway and took a by-path which led into the city (compare Judges 19.11; Jeremiah 41.5-7). Thus the one who walked in the highway of the upright ignored the distractions of the city, and continued on his upward way. He walked in the path of the righteous which is as the shining light of day, getting ever brighter and brighter (4.18). This picture of life as a way was common in the Prologue (2.13, 15, 18-20; 3.6, 17; 4.11, 14, 18-19; etc.).

16.18

‘Pride goes before destruction (before being broken),
And a haughty spirit before a fall.’

In contrast the one who walks in the way of pride and of a haughty spirit will face destruction rather than life, and will finally stumble and fall. It is best not to walk along the highway (verse 17) with your nose in the air. For the way of pride and arrogance is one that God hates (8.13), and in 6.17 ‘haughty eyes’ are described as being an abomination to YHWH. This is, of course, because of what pride results in. It was man’s pride and self-seeking which led to man’s fall in the first place, as man sought to experience what was forbidden to him, rather than to obey God (Genesis 3). Such pride results in contention (13.10), whilst the proud sweep the humble out of their paths (Psalm 10.2). They have no time for them. They see themselves as above them. In their pride they think that they can even thrust God aside (Psalm 10.4). In their self-confidence they ignore His warnings (Isaiah 9.9-10).

And in verse 19 they are seen as those who ‘divide the spoil’. They are those who are ready to obtain wealth by any means, even if it means overriding the rights of others. In 1.10-19 they were exemplified by the young man’s contemporaries, who in total disregard for the wellbeing of others, sought to entice him into evil ways, encouraging him to obtain wealth by false means (1.10-19). They are men who are too proud to heed the wise words of authority (1.8).

There is an interesting contrast between those who are ‘upright’ (straight), and those who are ‘haughty’, (the word indicates high and lofty, with their noses in the air). The former walk securely, seeing the way ahead, the latter stumble and fall because their eyes are off the highway. The fact that pride leads to ‘destruction’ is a reminder of the broad way spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 7.13-14. That also led to destruction. The word for destruction means ‘broken’. The proud break others. They will themselves be broken.

16.19

‘Better it is to be of a humble spirit with the lowly,
Than to divide the spoil with the proud.’

The haughty spirit of verse 18 is now compared with ‘a humble spirit’ (compare Isaiah 57.15). It is better to be among the lowly and have a humble spirit, and thus to know God (Isaiah 57.15), than to obtain ill-gotten wealth by consorting with the proud, who disregard God. We can compare verse 8, ‘better a little with righteousness, than great revenues with injustice’.

The Scriptures lay great stress on lowliness of spirit, a genuine humility before God. The lowly in spirit are those who are aware of their own sinfulness, and who come to God seeking His forgiveness and compassion. They give careful heed to God’s wisdom (verse 20). They are of a humble and contrite heart (Isaiah 57.15). They are those who have been blessed by God, and have entered under the Kingly Rule of Heaven (Matthew 5.3). They will obtain honour (29.23; Luke 1.52), for men will recognise their worth.

16.20

‘He who gives heed to the word will find good,
And whoever trusts in YHWH, happy is he.’

This proverb might be seen as a definition of the one who is humble in spirit (verse 19). He is one who gives heed to ‘the word’ (the word of wisdom, compare 19.8), and who trusts in YHWH. In 13.13 ‘the word’ is paralleled with ‘the commandment’. Here is one who listens to the voice of God in order to obey Him. He walks in the highway of the upright (verse 17). And the consequence is that he will ‘find good’. He will be blessed in spirit, he will prosper (compare 3.16-18), he will preserve his inner life (verse 17).

And especially the one who gives heed to the word of wisdom will trust in YHWH (compare 3.5). He will look to God, and his dependence will be on God. He will not lean on his own understanding, but will know God in all his ways (compare 3.6). And the consequence will be that he will be blessed. he will be happy in his heart. He will enjoy the blessednesses of the Psalmist in Psalm 1. He will experience joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Peter 1.8).

16.21

‘The wise in heart will be called shrewd,
And the sweetness (or ‘pleasantness’) of the lips increases learning (or ‘persuasiveness’).’

The subsection is summed up in these words. Those who are wise in heart, and have demonstrated it by their humbleness of spirit (verse 19), by their heeding of the word (verse 20), and by their trust in YHWH (verse 20), will be called shrewd, that is, sensible, intelligent, men of understanding. They have received the wisdom that is better than gold, and the shrewdness which is better than silver (verse 16).

And such men will be capable teachers. Unlike the proud and haughty (verse 18) they will speak sweetly so that their words are persuasive (compare the use of ‘learning, fair speech’ in 7.21). For the wise in heart, who know the wisdom of God, will always seek to pass that wisdom on to others. And they will do it with sweet words, for thereby they will obtain a hearing.

The Wise Pass On Their Wisdom Persuasively But Fools Have Nothing To Pass On But Their Folly (16.22-25).

In this subsection the reference in verse 21 to the idea of possessing and sweetly passing on wisdom to others is now taken up and amplified. To its possessor understanding is a wellspring of life, both to himself and to others, whilst the only disciplinary instruction of fools is their folly. The wise allow their hearts to instruct their mouths, so that what they say is persuasive, and consequently their pleasant words are sweet to men’s taste, and thus to men’s inner man (their inner life and bones). In contrast the way of the fool might appear right to men, but its end are the ways of death.

The subsection is presented chiastically:

  • A Understanding is a wellspring of life to him who has it, but the correction of fools is their folly (16.22).
  • B The heart of the wise instructs his mouth, and adds learning (or ‘persuasiveness’) to his lips (16.23).
  • B Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones (16.24).
  • A There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end of it are the ways of death (16.25).

Note that in A true understanding is a wellspring of life to its possessor, whilst in the parallel what seems right to men has as its end the ways of death. In B the lips of the wise are persuasive, whilst in the parallel pleasant words are sweet to the taste.

16.22

‘Understanding is a wellspring of life to him who has it,
But the correction of fools is their folly.’

The word translated ‘understanding’ is not the usual word, but indicates understanding, knowledge, wisdom. It is basically understanding about God and the things of God. And to those who have this understanding it is like a ‘wellspring of life’, a plentiful source of thirst-quenching and life-giving water which gives live to those who enjoy it. Furthermore it is a wellspring of life to all to whom they impart their understanding.

In 10.11 it was ‘the mouth of the righteous’ which was a wellspring of life; in 13.14 it was ‘the law of the wise’ which was a wellspring of life; and in 14.27 it was ‘the fear of YHWH’ which was a wellspring of life; here it is true understanding which is the wellspring of life to the one who possesses it. The idea behind a wellspring was of an abundant water source which satisfied the thirst continually and was a continual source of life for vegetation. Thus wisdom and understanding in the things of God, which were based on the fear of YHWH, will satisfy men’s spiritual thirst and give them life. And as Jesus Christ made clear, He is the wellspring supreme. ‘He who drinks of this water (from the wellspring of Jacob) will thirst again, but he who drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst, for the water that I shall give him will be in him a wellspring of water, springing up to eternal life’ (John 4.13-14).

In stark contrast is the fool. In order to parallel it we could paraphrase the second clause as ‘folly is the disciplinary instruction of fools’. For the wise, understanding. For the fool, folly. The fool’s way may seem right to a man, but the end of it is the ways of death (verse 25).

16.23

‘The heart of the wise instructs his mouth,
And adds learning (or ‘persuasiveness’) to his lips.’

The one who has understanding, the truly wise, will also speak truly. His heart will instruct his mouth so that what he says is acceptable, instructive and persuasive. He will woo people by his wisdom. Indeed, the assumption in Proverbs is that the wise will seek to pass on their wisdom, so that others too might enjoy the wellspring of life (10.11, 21, 31; 13.17, 20; 15.2, 4, 7). And the assumption is that when he does so his heart (will, mind and emotions) will instruct his mouth, enabling him to speak with clarity. It will add persuasiveness to his lips. It will give him teaching as to what to say, both with regard to his own ways and with regard to the knowledge of God.

16.24

‘Pleasant words are as a honeycomb,
Sweet to the inner life, and health to the bones.’

Indeed, the wise remembers that pleasant words are like a honeycomb. They are the source of sweetness, healing and life. They are pure (15.26). Honey was thought of as life-reviving (1 Samuel 14.27) and as having healing properties. So what they impart gives sweetness to a man’s inner life (his nephesh), and health to the whole man (his bones). In Israel the whole man was thought of in terms of ‘breath’ (nephesh) and bones (compare Ezekiel 37.4-7).

So wisdom is not to be presented as some harsh requirement on behalf of God, but with pleasantness and sweetness so that it will attract the hearer. Men are to be wooed into truth, not battered into it. Although they are warned of what the consequences will be of refusing it (1.24-31; 6.15).

16.25

‘There is a way which seems right to a man,
But the end of it are the ways of death.’

We have here a repetition of the proverb in 14.12. The proverb is repeated here so as to act as a suitable end to the subsection. True understanding is a wellspring of life, but men’s ideas about their own way (which are not true understanding) end in the ways of death. Note the plural. There is only one way to life, through true understanding, but there are many ways to death. This is why men need to be wooed with persuasive and pleasant words.

The Hard-Working Person, The Worthless Man, the Perverse Man And The Man Of Violence (16.26-29).

This subsection is based on the idea of ‘a man’ (ish) which is repeated in each proverb apart from the first, and connects back to the use of ‘a man’ in verse 25. In each case the ish is a worldly, godless man. In contrast we have the ‘person’ (nephesh) of the hardworking, righteous man. So the ‘person (nephesh) of the hard worker’ is contrasted with the ‘man of worthlessness’ (6.12), the ‘man of perverseness’ (2.12, 14; 6.14) and the ‘man of violence’ (3.31; compare 1.10-19), the contrast possibly bringing out a similar contrast to that of spirit and flesh in the New Testament. The spiritual man (nephesh) contrasts with the fleshly men (ish).

The ‘person’ of the hard-worker, who satisfies his own cravings by hard work, and is self-contained, especially parallels and contrasts strongly with the ‘man’ of violence who, because he does not want to work hard, chooses easier ways of satisfying his cravings by highway robbery, and draws others into it (1.10-19).

Notice how all are involved in words. The hardworker’s mouth urges him to work harder. In stark contrast the worthless man’s lips are like a scorching fire, the perverse man’s lips produce strife and division, and the violent man entices men into his own ways. There is a further interesting contrast in that the hardworking person ‘labours’, the worthless man ‘digs (usually a pit or a well)’, the perverse man ‘sows’, all verbs indicating hard work, whilst the violent man ‘entices’. Not for him the stigma of labour.

The subsection is presented chiastically as follows:

  • A The person (‘appetite’) of the hardworking man labours for him, for his mouth urges him to it (16.26).
  • B A worthless man devises (digs up) mischief, and in his lips there is as a scorching fire (16.27).
  • B A perverse man scatters abroad (sows) strife, and a whisperer (or ‘talebearer’) separates chief friends (16.28).
  • A A man of violence entices his neighbour, and leads him in a way that is not good (16.29).

In A we have the person who works hard for himself and satisfies his own appetites, whilst in the contrasting parallel we have the violent and enticing man (1.10-19), who shuns hard work, and takes the easy way out, drawing others into his schemes. Centrally in B we have the worthless man whose lips are a scorching fire, who compares with the perverse man whose lips sow discord.

16.26

‘The person (or ‘appetite’) of the hardworking man labours for him,
For his mouth urges him to it.’

There is probably a double significance to the use of nephesh (person, appetite) here. In the first place it contrasts with ish and indicates the worthy man, even the spiritual man, for the nephesh was what God breathed into man in Genesis 2.7, making him distinct from the animals, and therefore in the image of God (Genesis 1.27). This ties in with the nearby reference to the nephesh in 16.24 where pleasant words are sweet to the inward man (nephesh). See also 16.17.

In the second place it can signify ‘appetite’ and therefore as paralleling the mouth which urges him to work hard so that it can be satisfied. He is thus both spiritual and yet very much down to earth. But it would be degrading its use here to make the second the dominant thought, and would lose the deliberate contrast between nephesh and ish. Indeed the mouth here can rather be seen as contrasted with the lips in verse 27 in which is a scorching fire; with the whisperer/talebearer in verse 28; and with the enticing words of the violent man in verse 29. In contrast to these the mouth of the hardworking man urges him to hard work.

In Proverbs the hardworking man, in contrast to the sluggard (6.6), is seen as the righteous man, the wise man, the man whom wisdom rewards with wealth and status (10.4, 5; 12.24). As here, he contrasts will all other men, with the man who wrongly thinks that his way is right (verse 25), and with the worthless, the perverse, the talebearer and the violent (verses 27-29).

16.27

‘A worthless man devises mischief,
And in his lips there is as a scorching fire.’

The worthless man (compare 6.12) is also hardworking. He ‘digs up’ mischief. He constantly schemes and plans evil. But his lips, rather than encouraging him to hard work (verse 26), are used to scorch others. Metaphorically he gives them multiple burns. As we learn in 6.12-19 he has a perverse (crooked) mouth, he perjures himself and he sows discord among brothers.

16.28

‘A perverse man scatters abroad strife,
And a whisperer separates chief friends.’

The perverse man (2.12, 14, 15; 6.14), the one who is at loggerheads with wisdom, is also busy. He also sows, but he ‘sows’ strife, scattering it to all sides and causing division and disharmony. With his whispered lies and distorted tales he even separates close friends. No one is more dangerous than the whisperer.

16.29

‘A man of violence entices his neighbour,
And leads him in a way that is not good.’

The last of the false trio, all taken from the Prologue, is the man of forceful character (violent character. Compare 10.6). He is not to be envied, and his ways are not to be chosen (3.31). He entices his neighbour into ways that are not good. He is well illustrated in 1.10-19. He draws him into the way which is right in his own eyes, but which ends in death (verse 25).

Solomon Contrasts The Behaviour Of The Perverse And Worthless Man With The Life and Attitudes Of The Man Grown Old In Righteousness, Who Is An Exemplar Of All The Righteous (16.30-17.7).

The subsection begins with a contrast between the perverse and worthless man who closes his eyes and purses his lips (compare 6.12b-13a) in preparation for planning perverse things and bringing about evil (16.30), and the one whose hoary head is a crown of glory, as he walks in the way of righteousness (16.31). Perhaps included in this is the thought that as men grow older they grow wiser, but the main aim is to contrast folly with righteousness and wisdom. The old man personifies the wise. He is crowned with glory (compare 4.9; 1.9). It may also be an underlining of the fact that it is to the wise that long life is promised (3.2, 16; 4.10; 9.11; 10.27).

In the same way, it is the old, rather than hot-headed young men, who tend to be slow to anger and learn to rule their spirits, a task more difficult than conquering a city (16.32). Such men have learned that all is in YHWH’s hand and that they can safely leave it with Him (16.33). They pay less heed to lies and gossip (17.4), and live to see their grandchildren who glory in them (17.6). But again they are examples to all the righteous.

In contrast are the unrighteous. They devise perverse things, and bring evil (mischief) about (compare 16.27). They may be strong and take cities, but they cannot rule themselves (16.32). They bring shame on sacrifices, quarrelling over them (17.1). They listen to rumours and lies (17.4). They mock the poor and celebrate the coming of calamity on others (17.5). Their talk is low level and they have lying lips (17.7). YHWH tries their hearts and they will not go unpunished (17.3, 5).

The subsection is presented chiastically:

  • A He who shuts his eyes, it is to devise perverse things, he who compresses his lips brings evil about (16.30).
  • B The hoary head is a crown of glory, it will be found in the way of righteousness (16.31).
  • C He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who takes a city (16.32).
  • D The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing of it is of YHWH (16.32).
  • E Better is a dry bit of food, and quietness with it, than a house full of quarrelsome sacrifices (17.1).
  • E A servant who deals wisely will have rule over a son who causes shame, and will have part in the inheritance among the brothers (17.2).
  • D The refining pot is for silver, and the furnace for gold, but YHWH tries the hearts (17.3).
  • C An evildoer pays heed to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue. Whoever mocks the poor reproaches his Maker, and he who is glad at calamity will not be unpunished (17.4-5).
  • B Children’s children are the crown of old men, and the glory of children are their fathers (17.6).
  • A Excellent speech is not suitable for a fool, much less are lying lips to a prince (17.7).

Note that in A the one who compresses his lips bring evil about, whilst in the parallel lying lips are not suitable for a prince. In B the hoary head is a crown of glory, and in the parallel a man’s grandchildren are his crown, while he is a glory to them. In C the one who is slow to anger and rules his spirit (conquers himself) is better than the conqueror of a city, whilst in the parallel in contrast the evildoer and liar allow themselves to be aroused, and they mock the poor, and are glad at calamity (at cities being conquered). In D YHWH decides the disposing of the lot, thus deciding the future for men, and in the parallel He tests out their hearts, also determining their futures. Centrally in E a dry bit of food with quietness is better than shameful quarrelling over sacrificial food, whilst in the parallel being a servant is better than being a shameful son.

16.30

‘He who closes (‘atsah) his eyes, it is to devise perverse things,
He who compresses his lips brings evil about.’

The verb ‘atsah is found only here but in Arabic means ‘to close’. Thus the idea may be of closing the eyes as an indication that he will not listen to advice, and then the pursing of the lips might indicate an unwillingness to say anything because he knows it would be unwelcome. (Compare 17.7, ‘excellent words are not suitable for a fool’). In other words he is obstinate in evil. He ignores what others have to say. Or it may refer to winking the eye as in 6.13 indicating that he is not to be trusted (but in that case why not use the same verb?), and in that case the pursing of the lips may have in mind the ‘perverse mouth’ of 6.12. So either he is obstinate, or he is deceitful and perverse.

And the reason that he is so is because he is scheming to do perverse things, and is intending to bring ‘evil’ about. ‘Evil’ may indicate calamities (such as conquering a city (16.32), or may simply signify morally evil things. He is so worthless and foolish that he closes himself off by unspoken signs from considering the concerns of people.

16.31

‘The hoary head is a crown of glory,
It will be found in the way of righteousness.’

In contras to this obstinate and perverse man is the old, grey-haired, righteous man. His hair is to him like a crown of glory, the crown given by wisdom to those who heed her (compare 4.9; 1.9). For such a man is found in the way of righteousness. Not for him the closing of the eyes and the pursing of the lips. He is open and honest with all. He plans what is good, he does not devise what is perverse. He does not bring evil about. Rather his children are a credit to him, and they glory in him (17.6).

16.32

‘Better is he who is slow to anger than the mighty,
And he who rules his spirit, than he who takes a city.’

This may simply be saying that the one who is slow to anger and who is able to rule his spirit, in other words who conquers his emotions, shows such strength that he is more to be admired than a mighty warrior, or the conqueror of a city. He is able to be patient in the face of all that may come at him. He never acts in anger. Or it may be saying that he is morally superior. He has taken the better road. Indeed Solomon may in recent memory have been faced with just such a dilemma. Either way the sacking of the city may possibly be seen as one of the evils in the mind of the one who purses his lips (16.30). The grey-haired man of wisdom is seen to be a peacemaker who makes wise decisions, whilst the perverse man is seen to be a war-monger who is simply after spoil.

16.33

‘The lot is cast into the lap,
But the whole disposing of it is of YHWH.’

Both men in verse 32 could have been seen as ‘tempting fate’, unsure of what the outcome would be. But the writer assures us that it was not so for it is YHWH Who determines all things. (Shall evil be in a city and YHWH has not done it?’ - Amos 3.6). The implication may be that the grey-haired man was aware of this, which explains why he was so wise. He was prepared to leave things in the hands of YHWH ‘who tries the hearts’ (17.3). Note the parallel. YHWH disposes of the lot as He wills, YHWH tries the hearts. All is in His hands.

In general the proverb is an indication that nothing happens by chance. Even when a lot is cast, what it reveals is determined by YHWH. For YHWH is in control of all things. He determines how the lot falls. He determines our destinies. (But it does not guarantee that God will reveal His will in this way. This is not an indication that this is a useful way of discovering God’s will. It is rather seen in 18.18 as a way of settling a dispute where there is little to choose between options or where all have to be agreed about a decision. While being used by the Apostles before the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.24-26) and only then after they had come down to a final choice between two, it was never so used afterwards).

The ‘lot’ would probably be a small stone, or a piece of wood, or a number of them, tossed into the lap in order to ‘determine YHWH’s will’. They may have had markings on them to assist the decision. For example Urim and Thummim in the High Priest’s breastpouch may have been ‘lots’. But they were only used on solemn occasions. Examples of their use may b given in Joshua 7.16-19; 1 Samuel 14.41-42; 23.9-13; 2 Samuel 2.1. But we have no details of how they were used.

17.1

‘Better is a dry bit of bread, and quietness with it,
Than a house full of quarrelsome sacrifices.’

For this proverb we can compare 15.17, ‘better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a sacrificed ox and hatred with it’. But here there is a closer connection between the quarrelsomeness and the sacrifice. To partake of peace offerings, which would be slain at the Temple with their meat then being brought home for a sacrificial meal, and to do it while engaging in a family quarrel, was a contradiction in terms. It demonstrated a total disregard for YHWH. Far better then to have a bit of bread which had not been dipped in any kind of sauce (and was therefore dry), and be at peace, which would be more likely what was eaten by the servants. To them sauce would have been a luxury.

Note the deliberate contrast between the dry bit of bread, and a houseful of sacrificial meat. But in a quarrelsome household someone would be better off eating among the servants than shaming their family by quarrelling while partaking of a peace offering. The comparison of peace with strife connects this proverb to 16.32 where the one who rules his spirit (and is thus at peace) is contrasted with one who takes a city (and is thus engaging in a quarrel).

17.2

‘A servant who deals wisely will have rule over a son who causes shame,
And will have part in the inheritance among the brothers.’

The quarrelsome sacrifices of the previous proverb explain the ‘son who causes shame’. Indeed, all who had participated in the sacrifices in a quarrelsome mood had brought shame on the family, while it may well have been the servants who had to be satisfied with undipped bread. And yet such a servant would have been better off religiously because he did so at peace.

This then leads on to the idea that the servant, who is clearly of the wise for ‘he deals wisely’, will have rule over the one who causes shame, either by his irreligious and foolish behaviour, or by any other means. The wise will triumph over the fool. And what is more, he may well so prosper that he will be adopted by the father of the family and have his part in the family inheritance along with the brothers. Solomon may well have had some example in mind. He would certainly know of cases where a wise, and therefore beloved servant, had been adopted as a son as a consequence of his ‘wise dealing’ (compare Genesis 15.2-4).

17.3

‘The refining pot is for silver, and the furnace for gold,
But YHWH tries the hearts.

The testing, and if necessary, refining, of silver and gold was carried out in special smelting pots or ovens, heated by furnaces. The pots or ovens would be heated up, with bellows often being used to intensify the heat. Smaller ones would be made of clay. A smelting oven would have one or more openings through which to use the bellows to fan the flames and another opening or openings through which the impurities could be siphoned off. In exceptional cases such furnaces could be large enough to hold three men (Daniel 4.19-25). The metals would be heated up and melted, releasing their impurities which would be siphoned off leaving the purified silver or gold.

The idea is used metaphorically for God’s activities in testing and trying men and women through circumstances (see Psalm 66.10; Isaiah 1.25; 48.10; Jeremiah 6.29; 9.7; Zechariah 13.9; 1 Corinthians 3.13). It is through such chastening that men learn wisdom (3.11-12). Here YHWH is figuratively depicted as so testing the hearts of men. ‘Nor is there any creature which is not manifest in His sight, but all things are naked and opened to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4.13). It is a reminder that God constantly tests the hearts of men, including our own.

The testing of the silver and gold parallels the ‘testing’ of the servant of the previous proverb who had proved himself worthy to be a son (the verdict from the testing was that he ‘dealt wisely’). But in this case the testing is of all men, and YHWH is the tester. This parallels the casting of the lot which tested options, and came out as YHWH determined.

17.4-5

‘An evildoer pays heed to wicked lips,
And a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue.’
‘Whoever mocks the poor reproaches his Maker,
And he who is glad at calamity will not be unpunished.’

In 16.32 we learned of the one who was slow to anger and who ruled his spirit, controlled and thoughtful in all that he did. Now we have described those who reveal the opposite traits. They do not control themselves. They hear and react unwisely. They listen to unrighteous lips and do evil, because they are evildoers. (The righteous man would not have done it). They listen to mischievous gossip and slander, and, with some relish, pass on the lies, thereby revealing themselves as themselves liars. They see a man’s poverty and deride him, not realising that thereby they are reproaching the One Who made him. They see calamity coming on men and are even glad at it, revealing themselves as callous and uncaring. But none of them will be unpunished, for in each case what they are doing is reproaching the One Who made their victims, and the One Who tries the hearts (17.3) will see and will repay.

And this is especially so in the case of their derision of the poor. YHWH made all men, both rich and poor (22.2). They were made in His image. And so to deride the poor is to deride YHWH. It may be that their poverty is due to their own slothfulness and refusal to listen to advice (6.11; 10.4), for it is in parallel with calamity, which comes on those who refuse to hear wisdom (1.26-27; 6.15). Thus both may be getting their deserts. But that is no reason why others deride them for it or be glad at what comes on them. For YHWH is the Maker of all men, and especially of the poor, and we should weep with those who weep (Romans 12.15).

17.6

‘Children’s children are the crown of old men,
And the glory of children are their fathers.’

In stark contrast with the evildoers and liars are the children of the righteous. Just as the grey head was a crown of splendour, found in the way of righteousness, so will his children’s children be righteous, for they too will be a crown to him. They too will be found in the way of righteousness. They too will be slow to anger and rule their spirits (16.32). They too will rely wholly on YHWH and His sovereignty (16.33). They too will love quietness and peace (17.1). They too will deal wisely (17.2). When their hearts are tested they will come out as pure gold (17.3). They will not pay heed to unrighteous lips, or mischievous tongues (17.4), nor will they mock the poor or be glad at the sufferings of others (17.5).

And in turn their splendour lies in their fathers. It is to their fathers that they owe the upbringing and disciplinary instruction that has made them what they are (1.8; 4.1-9). And any credit that they have is due to him. The whole family reveal their splendour, and the splendour of each generation. And all stems from the righteous grandfather.

17.7

‘Excellent speech is not suitable for a fool,
Much less are lying lips to a ruler.’

The subsection commenced with ‘he who purses his lips brings evil about’ (16.30), and it now closes with two clauses referring to the speech of fools and rulers (nobles, those in authority). ‘Excellent speech’ probably refers to wise and sensible words. The idea is that fools, and wise and sensible words, do not go together. Nor do lying words and a prince (someone in authority). Indeed, the opposite should be the case. We would expect wise and sensible words from one in authority, and lying lips from a fool.

This word for ‘fool’ (nabal occurs only here and in verse 21 in the Solomon section, but also occurs in the words of Agur in 30.22, where the verbal form is also found (30.32). It is the word used in Psalm 14.1. Here the nabal lacks wise and sensible speech, in verse 21 his father has no joy in him, and there the nabal is the equivalent of the kesil (the normal word for ‘fool’ in Proverbs). But we can gather its emphasis from elsewhere.

We should expect nothing agreeable from a fool (nabal). He says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14.1), and he behaves in that way. He disapproves of God all day long (Psalm 74.22); he deals corruptly with God and is not one of His children (Deuteronomy 32.6); he obtains wealth dishonestly (Jeremiah 17.11); and if a woman she is sexually immoral (2 Samuel 13.13). Because he is bullheaded he behaves foolishly and with ingratitude (1 Samuel 25.25). These are the things that we expect of a nabal. But of someone in authority we expect much better. For they judge others, and should therefore live as those who will be judged (Matthew 7.2). And this is especially so with regard to truth and honesty. An untruthful man does not make a good ruler.

The Follies Of The Fool (17.8-16).

The previous subsection ended with reference to the nabal (fool), and this now leads on to consideration of the activities of fools (kesil) (verse 21 virtually equates the two).

In this subsection we find an emphasis on the activities of ‘the fool’ (verses 10, 12, 16) and his equivalent. Basically he interferes with the stability and smooth running of society. He thinks that he can buy men’s favour (verse 8); he harps on things and loses friends (verse 9); he will not listen to rebuke (verse 10); he wants nothing more than to rebel (verse 11); acquaintance with him is dangerous (verse 12); he rewards evil for good (verse 13); he can’t stop quarrelling (verse 14); and he justifies the unrighteous and condemns the righteous (verse 15).

In contrast the righteous man seeks to build up society. He is gentle in dealing with the transgression of others because he is trying to build up love (verse 9); he listens carefully to rebuke (verse 10); he avoids letting contention build up into a wholesale quarrel (verse 14), and it is implied that he is concerned for justice (verse 15).

The subsection can be presented chiastically as follows:

  • A A bribe is as a stone of favour in the eyes of him who has it, to whoever he turns, it succeeds (17.8).
  • B He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who harps on a matter separates (disenchants) a boon companion (17.9).
  • C A rebuke enters deeper into one who has understanding, than a hundred stripes into a FOOL (17.10).
  • D An evil man only looks for rebellion, therefore a cruel envoy will be sent against him (17.11).
  • D Let a bear robbed of her whelps meet a man, rather than a FOOL in his folly (17.12).
  • C He who rewards evil for good, evil will not depart from his house (17.13).
  • B The beginning of strife is as when one releases water, therefore leave off contention, before there is quarrelling (17.14).
  • A He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to YHWH (17.15).

Note that in A a bribe is offered in order that a man may get his own way by wrong means, and in the parallel the wicked are justified (often by bribes). In B the righteous covers transgression, while the fool harps on a matter, and in the parallel the righteous hold back from increasing contention, while the unrighteous cannot hold back from turning it into a quarrel. In C the fool does not listen to rebuke, and in the parallel he returns evil for good. Centrally in D the evil man is out for a fight, and a cruel envoy is sent against him, and in the parallel a bear robbed of its cubs is out for a fight, and it is better to meet him than to meet a fool engaged in folly. We can also parallel the bear with the cruel envoy.

17.8

‘A bribe is as a stone of favour in the eyes of him who has it,
To whoever he turns, it succeeds.’

This proverb describes more how the fool thinks than the actual reality. He thinks that all men can be bought. He is confident that he holds in his hand the means of obtaining what he wants, and is sure that a bribe will enable him to succeed in his endeavours wherever, and to whoever he turns. And, of course, he is largely right, until he comes across the godly man. Few can resist a bribe if it is large enough. ‘In the eyes of him who has it’ probably refers to how the briber sees his bribe.

The briber is seeking to get his way at the cost of others by unfair and hidden means, often to the disadvantage of the other. He is thus destabilising society. It is the equivalent of theft, and it is often at the expense of the poor (Psalm 15.5; Isaiah 1.23). It was apparently common practise in Israel, and even moreso in surrounding nations where it was not even disapproved of apart from in the courts of justice. But it is forbidden by YHWH as resulting in dishonesty and injustice (Exodus 23.8; Deuteronomy 16.19; 27.25). It comes under His condemnation (verse 15; Job 15.34; Isaiah 1.23; 5.23). Where it has the effect of resulting in the death of an innocent person it brings men under His curse (Deuteronomy 27.25).

Bribes were condemned in Israel (verse 23; 15.27; Exodus 23.8; Deuteronomy 16.19; 27.25; 1 Samuel 8.3; Job 15.34; Psalm 15.5; 26.10; Isaiah 1.23; 5.23; 33.15). Other nations were less stringent, for while they were frowned on if they affected justice, they were otherwise seen as acceptable and the only penalties were on those who failed to pay the promised bribe. That they did occur in Israel and were specifically seen as encouraging injustice is evidenced in verse 23; Exodus 23.8; Deuteronomy 16.19; 27.25; 1 Samuel 8.3; Psalm 15.5; Isaiah 1.23; 5.23; Micah 3.11. As Isaiah 5.23 says, ‘they justify the unrighteous for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous’, words which parallel the idea in verse 15 exactly.

YHWH, unlike the gods of other nations, is distinguished as being unbribeable. He is ‘the God of Gods and the Lord of Lords, the mighty and terrible God, Who is not partial and takes no bribes’ (Deuteronomy 10.17), indicating just how wrong bribes were seen to be.

The ‘stone of favour’ is nowhere explained. It may indicate a token given by a king in order to authorise a servant to act on his behalf, or in order to enable him to benefit by his patronage; or it has been suggested that it has in mind a ‘magic stone’ which obtains favour from the gods and brings luck, or terrifies people into doing what is wanted. Whichever it is, the point is that a briber sees his bribe as having the same persuasive force.

17.9

‘He who covers a transgression seeks love,
But he who harps on a matter separates (disenchants) a boon companion.’

The man who depended on bribes disharmonised society. In contrast the wise man seeks to harmonise society, and one of the ways in which he does it is by not faultfinding. He wants to be loved, and he wants men to love one another, and so he does not draw attention to minor misdemeanours.

The point here, as brought out by the parallel clause, is that, in order to obtain or retain friendships and be loved, and even bring harmony to society, we often have to be willing to overlook another’s transgressions. We have to ‘cover’ them in our own minds so that they are not seen. We have to make sure that we do not repeat the matter. We have to avoid seeking vengeance (Leviticus 19.18; Deuteronomy 32.35; Romans 12.17-19).

Indeed if we keep harping on about something, or even repeat it, we may lose our friends, even our boon companion. ‘Seeking love’ is a good thing. But it has a cost, the cost of recognising that people, even our friends are not perfect. As it says in the parallel verse 14 we have to recognise that if we remain in contention it could soon lead to a bigger quarrel, and even an irremediable breakdown in friendship.

17.10

‘A rebuke enters deeper into one who has understanding,
Than a hundred stripes into a fool.’

On the other hand the wise man does not seek to cover his own transgression. Rather he welcomes reproof. Because he is a man of understanding he takes careful note of what is said to him, and responds to it. He even learns from being caned (22.15; 23.13), and is thankful for it. He is unlike the fool who takes little notice even if he receives a hundred lashes. This is, of course deliberate exaggeration. The highest number of lashes that an Israelite could receive was forty, and that only for very serious offences (Deuteronomy 25.13). But ‘a hundred’ is regularly used simply to indicate a large number. The point is that the fool shrugs off reproof, and does not let it improve him. It is ineffective to remove the evil from his house (verse 13).

17.11

‘An evil man seeks only rebellion,
Therefore a cruel envoy will be sent against him.’

The ultimate truth about a fool is that he rebels against society because he is evil. He sets out to destabilise society by violent means. He constantly seeks to destroy harmony. He does not like the status quo. He wants to change it, and change it for the bad. It is his main purpose. And he does not mind who gets hurt in the process. He has refused to respond to the compassionate overtures of the righteous (verse 9). He has refused to respond to the ‘hundred lashes’ (verse 10). He has demonstrated that nothing can change him. We can compare here Pharaoh who constantly hardened his heart the more that God lashed him (Exodus 3 onwards).

But he needs to recognise that such an attitude has consequences. A ‘cruel envoy’ will be sent against him. The Hebrew word is the one for messenger but this man is clearly more than just a messenger. He comes in the king’s name, to act on the king’s behalf, and deliver a practical message. He is necessarily unrelenting and severe (‘cruel’). He is dealing with someone in continual rebellion. Thus the evil man’s end is certain. He will receive his due reward. He will be dealt with without mercy. In the end, of course, the judgment that comes against him is God’s.

17.12

‘Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her whelps,
Rather than a fool in his folly.’

Solomon now emphasises that a fool acting in his folly is more dangerous than a bear robbed of her cubs, which is outside of itself in grief and desire for revenge. This is the fool of verse 11. He is uncontrolled and violent. He plans only evil. He has refused to let the folly be driven out of him by the lash. He is without restraint.

David slew ‘a lion and a bear’ (1 Samuel 17.34), and the young men who derided Elisha were mauled by two she-bears (2 Kings 2.24). They were found in the hilly wooded parts of Palestine, and while they became more and more scarce there were still some there in the first part of the twentieth century AD (in the centuries before that Palestine had been mainly deserted. There was no Palestinian state).

There may be an intended parallel between the she-bear and the cruel envoy. Both are seeking to obtain revenge. Thus the fool in his folly who is worse than the she-bear is simply reaping what he has sown.

17.13

’ He who rewards evil for good,
Evil will not depart from his house.’

Indeed he has become so evil that he rewards evil for good. Even those who show him kindness and compassion will find that he responds with evil. This is what happens when a man grows in evil, and it affects not only him but his house. Evil will not depart from his house. His children will grow up evil like he is. But it will also rebound on him, for evil will not depart from his house in another way. What a man sows he reaps. He and his family will experience evil. In both cases ‘evil’ includes physical evils (storms, earthquakes, hurricanes, invasion) and moral evil. What he has become returns on him and his family.

17.14

‘The beginning of strife is as when one releases water,
Therefore leave off contention, before there is quarrelling.’

In verse 9 we had the peacemaker who sought to bring harmony by not being too judgmental, and who in verse 10 listened carefully to reproof. He was contrasted with the fool who gradually grew in evil. Now, having centred on the fool’s growth in evil, the chiasmus brings us back to the peacemaker. Disagreement is sometimes inevitable, but the wise man recognises that it can be like water released from a dam. It can grow in pressure until it becomes a flood. Thus he seeks to stop any contention at its source. He seeks to prevent it growing.

Dams in those days, often just made of mud, were not the stable things we think of today (compare Ecclesiastes 2.6). Releasing water from a dam could result in a flow which grew and grew uncontrollably, resulting in damage to the crops and trees, and even a death or two. The commencement of strife is likened to this release. If not immediately staunched it could very quickly grow into a major quarrel. Thus the wise man will cease being contentious in order to prevent this happening.

17.15

‘He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous,
Both of them alike are an abomination to YHWH.’

The subsection then closes as it began (verse 8) with the misuse of justice. As we saw above one of the main use of bribes was in order to pervert justice. Now YHWH makes His opinion of those who accept such bribes people clear. Those who arrange by bribery, coercion or lying witnesses for a guilty man to be let off (and therefore be declared as innocent) are an abomination to YHWH. As are those who by such means bring about the condemnation of the innocent. They are both seen by Him in the same way. For they strike at the very roots of society. Compare 17.23, 26; 18.25; 24.23b-25. They are the forebears of those who found Jesus Christ guilty.

The Ways Of The Fool (17.16-23).

The main emphasis in this subsection is on the ways of the fool (verses 16, 21), the man void of mind (heart) (verses 16, 18, 20), the unrighteous man (verse 23). He thinks he can buy wisdom, but cannot for he has no mind for it (verse 16); because he is void of mind he becomes a surety, putting himself in danger of ruin (verse 18); he loves transgression bringing strife on himself (verse 19a); he exalts himself above his neighbours (verse 19b): he has a wayward mind and perverse tongue which bring bad consequences (verse 20); he brings distress on his family (verse 21); and he perverts justice for a secret bribe (verse 23).

One of his follies is that he falls for quick fixes. He thinks he can obtain wisdom without effort (verse 16); and he thinks he can become wealthy without effort (verses 18, 23).

In contrast is the wise man who has companions in adversity (verse 17) and is therefore cheerful of heart, something which is a good medicine and therefore sustains him in adversity (verse 22).

The subsection is presented chiastically:

  • A Why is there a PAYMENT in the hand of a FOOL to buy wisdom, seeing he has no MIND (heart) for it? (17.16)’
  • B A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity (17.17).
  • C A man void of understanding MIND (heart) strikes hands, and becomes surety in the presence of his neighbour (17.18).
  • D He loves transgression who loves strife, he who raises high his gate seeks destruction (17.19).
  • D He who has a wayward MIND (heart) finds no good, and he who has a perverse tongue falls into mischief (17.20).
  • C He who begets a FOOL does it to his sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy (17.21).
  • B A cheerful HEART is a good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones (17.22).
  • A A wicked man receives a BRIBE out of the bosom, to pervert the ways of justice (17.23).

Note that in A the fool thinks that he can buy wisdom for a payment without effort, and in the parallel he himself (as the unrighteous) can be bought with a secret payment to commit folly. In B a loving friend and a brother are a support in adversity, and in the parallel a cheerful heart is a good medicine. In C a man without understanding (and therefore a fool) puts himself in danger of being sold off as a bondsman, and in the parallel he brings sorrow and distress on his father (who will watch his fall and have to redeem him). Centrally in D the one who loves transgression brings strife on himself, whilst in the parallel the one with a wayward heart and perverse tongue finds no good and falls into mischief.

17.16

‘Why is there a payment in the hand of a fool to buy (obtain) wisdom,
Seeing he has no mind (heart) for it?’

In 17.8 the fool thought that by using bribes he could obtain anything that he wanted. But here he learns how wrong he was. He comes along payment in hand to obtain wisdom, but he is unable to do so. For however much wealth he has he could not obtain wisdom, because the obtaining of wisdom requires a receptive heart. As Jesus said to Peter, ‘flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but My Father Who is in Heaven’ (Matthew 16.17). The problem that the people of Isaiah’s day had was not that they had no wealth, it was that their eyes were blinded and their hearts were hardened (Isaiah 6.18). And the problem that the fool has here is that any attempts to use wealth in order to buy wisdom would be useless, because his heart and mind had no desire for it.

We could paraphrase this as, ‘what is the point of a fool having wealth with which to buy wisdom when he is so spiritually blind that it can do him no good?’ To put it another way, the fool does not deserve wealth because he will always use it in order to obtain the wrong things. Such waste is illustrated in 5.10 where the young man who went with the seductress lost all his money to her wayward friends.

Note that this fool had wealth in his hand, but was unable to obtain the true wealth because his heart was closed to it. He was like the people spoken of by Isaiah, ‘why do you spend your money for that which is not (spiritual) food, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? -- bend your ear and come to me, hear that your inner man might live ---’ (Isaiah 55.2-3). What was required was not to spend money, but to hear and respond. But the fool would not bend his ear, nor would he truly seek wisdom (otherwise he would not have been a fool). If he wanted wisdom at all it was on easy terms. And indeed, a fool can be conned into buying quick-fix wisdom, even though he has no heart or mind for it, but it will not do him any good.

Solomon had earlier told his ‘son’ to ‘buy/obtain wisdom’ in 1.5; 4.5-7, but there it was by hearing God’s words and commandments. By that means he would obtain what was better than silver and more valuable than gold (3.13-14; 8.10-11). It was, in fact, far too valuable to be obtainable by simply making a payment.

But let us not be mistaken. There are many ‘fools’ in our own day who think that they can obtain wisdom by expending money, for they do not distinguish between wisdom and knowledge. Outwardly they can learn all about God, but it does not bring them any closer to Him. For the things of God are spiritually discerned (John 6.63; 1 Corinthians 2.9-18), and only open to those who seek with a true heart. Payments can close men’s minds (17.23), but they cannot open them.

17.17

‘A friend (harea) loves at all times,
And a brother is born for adversity.’

Another thing that money cannot buy is true friends. The wealthy man will always have his hangers-on (14.20; 18.24a; 19.4, 6) but he will not find them reliable when he really needs them. However, a true friend loves ‘at all times’ (this comes first in the Hebrew for emphasis). He loves when times are good, and he loves when times are hard. And a true brother (one who is not so much a blood relative but one who acts as a true brother should) is ‘born for adversity’, in other words is there when he is needed and things have become difficult. These are friends who ‘stick closer than a brother’ (18.24b).

It is not likely that this is intended to indicate that a true friend is better than a brother by birth, in that one is there at all times but the other only appears at times of adversity, even though there may be truth in that. For a brother may be close all the time, and some brothers would not be bothered anyway. If anything we could read it is as meaning that when things are really difficult only a brother can be relied on. But it is probably best to see it as signifying that a true friend and a true brother are those who are equally reliable when they are needed. For they come with a cheerful heart (a ready willingness) as good medicine to their friend (17.22).

17.18

‘A man void of understanding strikes hands,
And becomes surety in the presence of his neighbour (harea).’

The same word is used for neighbour here as was used for friend in verse 17, thus linking the two proverbs together. But the thought is very different. It is NOT that the man who acts as surety is a true friend, for he is depicted as a ‘man void of heart/mind/understanding’, and as acting, not on behalf of his neighbour but in the presence of his neighbour. The point is more that he should not have involved his neighbour as a witness to the transaction. For to Solomon, acting as a surety was the act of a naive man who was heading for disaster (see 6.1-5), and it may be that it even involved his neighbour in some measure of liability.

Whilst the details of the transaction is not clear, what is clear is that the surety was gambling his future, probably for the sake of a commission (just as he thought he could obtain wisdom without effort, so does he think that he can become wealthy without effort). If the loan was called in he could lose everything and find himself sold of as a bond-slave in order to pay off as much of the debt as possible. This would be a great grief to his father (verse 21), not only because his father would not like to see him sold off as a bond-slave, but also because it would then be his duty, if at all possible, to redeem him, thus depleting the family finances.

17.19

‘He loves transgression who loves strife,
He who raises high his gate seeks destruction.’

Note the move forward. In verse 16 the fool thought that he could buy wisdom and make himself wise. But he had no ‘heart’ for it. In verse 18 he proved himself to be a man without ‘understanding/heart’, a fool, because he acts as surety outside the family. Now he reveals that he is a rebel at heart (the word for ‘transgression’ also means ‘rebellion’) and ‘loves strife’ (in contrast to the righteous who love their friends (verse 17)). In verse 20 he will reveal that he has a wayward ‘heart’ and a perverse tongue that produce no good.

‘Loving transgression/rebellion’ and ‘loving strife’ are seen as the same thing. The one who loves the one will love the other. He is thus either a sower of discord (abominated by YHWH - 6.19), having a perverse tongue, or an open rebel, having a wayward heart (verse 20). And this last would be supported by the fact that he ‘raises high his gate’. He wants his gate to be higher than that of his neighbours, and even possibly above the Temple, thus expressing his superiority and strength against both God and his neighbours. But by so challenging God and by so challenging others he is inviting destruction. All who raise themselves above their neighbours are there to be shot at. And as a consequence he is seeking destruction, both by God and his neighbours. So he started by trying to get wisdom on the cheap, and ends up in destruction. Such is the lot of the fool.

We can compare him with Shebna who built his tomb high above the others, and would as a consequence be brought down (Isaiah 22.15-19), or Haman who set himself above others, had a wayward heart and a perverse tongue in his behaviour towards Mordecai, and as a consequence perished (Esther 3.1-8.1).

17.20

‘He who has a wayward heart finds no good,
And he who has a perverse tongue falls into mischief.

In a verse parallel to verse 19 we learn that the one who loves transgression does so because he has a wayward heart. He had had no heart for wisdom (verse 16), and this is therefore not surprising. It is what we would expect. And the consequence is that he ‘finds no good’. Nothing good comes from his life, only evil (non-good). And as a result he finds no good for himself. His wayward heart has led him into wayward activity. ‘Finding good’ is limited to the righteous (11.23).

In the same way the one who has a perverse tongue ‘falls into mischief’, not so much because of what he does, but because of what he says. He is a rabble-rouser. He stirs up trouble in others. And he brings trouble on himself. See 1.11-14; 2.12, 14; 8.13; 10.31-32.

17.21

‘He who begets a fool does it to his sorrow,
And the father of a fool has no joy.’

We can now understand why a fool’s natural father has begotten him ‘to his sorrow’, and why he ‘has no joy’. He sees his son chasing pseudo-wisdom. He sees him ruined by acting as a surety, and is himself called on to step in, to the depletion of the family wealth. And he sees him involving himself in rebellion and causing dissension. He can have no doubt where it will all lead. When his son is a fool a father’s lot is not a happy one.

17.22

‘A cheerful heart is a good medicine,
But a broken spirit dries up the bones.’

In contrast to the non-joy of the father, and in line with his deep sorrow, we have a proverb concerning joy and sorrow. The righteous man is to cultivate a cheerful heart, cheerful because he looks to YHWH and His wisdom (3.13, 18; 16.20). And this will be a good medicine for him (12.25; 18.14), because it will enable him to overcome the downturns in life, and will be good medicine for others because he will be able to support his friends and brothers when they face adversity (verse 17).

In contrast is the broken spirit of the man who does not trust in YHWH. When things go wrong (like an errant son, or some catastrophe in life) his broken spirit dries him up inside. He becomes listless and loses any zest for life (18.14). How important it is that we find our joy in God, so that when trouble comes we have a refuge (18.10) and a sustainer. For the way to ensure ‘healthy bones’ is to fear YHWH and depart from evil (3.7-8).

17.23

‘A wicked man receives a bribe out of the bosom,
To pervert the ways of justice.’

The subsection ends with this proverb concerning the perverting of justice as a consequence of the receipt of secret bribes, something which undermines the very fabric of society. The ‘unrighteous (wicked) man’ is the equivalent of the fool in his folly. Being unable to buy wisdom (verse 16), the unrighteous man (the wicked, the fool, the worthless man) is himself bought. Unable to obtain wisdom without effort, he determines to obtain wealth without effort. He falls back on opening himself to receiving secret bribes, bribes ‘out of the bosom’, which refers to a fold in a man’s cloak which was similar to a pocket. The picture is vivid as we see the briber take gold from his secret pocket and slip it to the judge or the false witness. Both are confident that no one will see. But because they are both fools they forget that YHWH can see, and declares His woes upon them (Isaiah 5.23). The horror with which such injustice was viewed by the generality of people comes out in 24.24.

This man illustrates much of the subsection. He is the opposite of the friend who loves at all times (verse 17), and is similar in motive to the man who acts as a surety for payment (verse 18), he wants quick silver and gold to his own destruction. He has a wayward heart and a perverse tongue (verse 20), and he is a grief to his godly father (verse 21). Here, unlike in verse 8, the bribe is specifically related to justice. He receives a secret bribe so that he will pervert the ways of justice, either because he is a judge in a position to influence the decision, who twists the facts of a case in order to benefit his briber, or because he is a false witness testifying falsely against the innocent. Either way he has a perverse tongue (verse 20). Such men are an abomination to YHWH (6.19), for what they do is not hidden from Him (15.11; 16.2; 17.3). Evil behaviour like this came to its head in the so-called trials of Jesus. There too there were false witnesses and perverted judgments. It is no wonder that Jerusalem was destroyed.

In The Face Of Wisdom And Understanding The Fool Soon Reveals Himself For What He Is (17.24-18.2).

In this subsection the fool is prominent. Unlike the wise whose eyes are always on wisdom (17.24), and who behave discreetly (17.27), the fool’s eyes are anywhere but on wisdom (71.24); he is a grief to his parents (17.25); he perverts justice (17.26); he only appears wise when he keeps his mouth shut (17.28); he is an isolationist and rages against wisdom (18.1); and he has no delight in understanding but quickly reveals himself for what he is (18.2).

The subsection is presented chiastically:

  • A Wisdom is before the face of him who has SHREWDNESS, but the eyes of a FOOL are in the ends of the earth (17.24).
  • B A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her who bore him. Even to punish the righteous is not good, to flog the nobles for their uprightness (17.25-26).
  • C He who spares his words has knowledge, and he who is of a cool spirit is a man of UNDERSTANDING (17.27).
  • C Even a FOOL, when he holds his peace, is counted wise, when he closes his lips, he is esteemed as SHREWD (17.28).
  • B He who separates himself seeks his own desire, and rages against all sound wisdom (18.1).
  • A A FOOL has no delight in UNDERSTANDING, but only that his heart may expose itself (18.2).

Note that in A wisdom is before the face of him who has shrewdness (he delights in it), whilst the fool is looking anywhere else than at wisdom, and in the parallel the fool has no delight in understanding. In B the foolish son, who among other things perverts justice (compare 17.21 with 17.23), grieves his father and mother, and in the parallel the one who separates himself (including from his own family) seeks only his own desire (seeking to get rich by quick-fix methods - 17. 8, 16, 18, 23) and rages against all wisdom (including by perverting justice - 17.23, 26). Centrally in C the one who is sparing in his words reveals his intelligence, whilst in the parallel even a fool is counted wise if he keeps his mouth shut.

17.24

‘Wisdom is before the face of him who has shrewdness,
But the eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth.’

This opening verse of the subsection prepares the way for the exposure of the fool. Whilst the wise and shrewd man constantly has wisdom in front of his eyes (before his face), the eyes of the fool turn anywhere but on wisdom. His restless eyes are ‘in the ends of the earth’. He lives in a dream world of get-rich-quick schemes (17.8, 16, 18, 23, 26), with little thought about how others will see him (18.2), and little concern for morality (18.1).

We can almost see the two students sitting there. The one with his eyes firmly fixed on his teacher of wisdom soaking in every word, whilst the eyes of the other are looking anywhere than at the teacher, while his mind roves the world weaving fantastic schemes. He has no time for wisdom, indeed he is unable to appreciate it (17.16).

But the idea possibly goes a little deeper. ‘The ends of the earth’ elsewhere indicates being outside the covenant land (Deuteronomy 13.7; 28.49, 64). Thus this may further indicate that the fool has no interest in the covenant, which is dear to the heart of the wise. He does not want to be bound by YHWH’s wisdom.

17.25-26

A foolish son is a grief to his father,
And bitterness to her who bore him.
Even to fine the righteous is not good,
To flog the nobles for their uprightness.’

As with verses 27-28 these two verses are connected by the word ‘even’ (gam), bringing the ideas together. The foolish son partly reveals his folly by his unjust behaviour towards social inferiors, including nobles (here we see a king speaking).

Because of his attitude towards wisdom and towards life, the foolish son is a grief to his father (compare 17.21), and even causes bitterness to the one who bore him in such pain, and brought him up so tenderly (4.3; compare 10.1b). He throws off all authority, and refuses to listen to his father’s stern words and his mother’s instruction in the Torah (1.8). For as the parallel verse in the chiasmus reveals he makes himself an isolationist, something necessary because of his way of life (18.1).

And he even takes advantage of his position and stoops to fining the righteous, and flogging nobles because they behave uprightly to his own disadvantage. He not only declares the innocent to be guilty, but also punishes them severely. Solomon sternly adds that doing such things ‘is not good’. In other words the foolish son perverts justice (compare verse 23). We see here the mind and circumstances of a king, who thinks in terms of court intrigues. Note the ‘even’ which connects this verse with the previous one. The father and mother whom he grieves by his perverting of justice are clearly of high status (compare 4.3-4).

17.27-28

‘He who spares his words has knowledge,
And he who is of a cool spirit is a man of understanding.’
Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise,
When he closes his lips, he is esteemed as shrewd.’

Taking a brief respite from his diatribe against the fool Solomon points out that even the fool can sometimes appear wise and shrewd. The wise man, who is sparing with his words, thinking before he speaks (compare 10.19; 13.3; 15.2, 28), and who is cool of spirit, reveals himself as a man of understanding. And when the fool imitates him and keeps quiet, even he can for a moment appear wise. When he closes his lips even he can appear as shrewd. But it does not last long. He soon reveals himself for what he is (18.1a-2). Notice the ideas repeated from the Prologue, ‘knowledge’, ‘understanding’, ‘shrewdness’, things which the wise man enjoys and the fool usually reveals as lacking.

18.1

‘He who separates himself seeks his own desire,
And rages against all sound wisdom.’

But the fool soon exposes himself (12.16a). Having separated himself from his father and mother, and from all authority, he seeks his own desire. He is a selfish and self-motivated isolationist. He has no concern for others. He rejects the demands of the community. And instead of having the cool head of the wise (17.27), he rages against all sound wisdom. He isolates himself from that as well. He has no time for it, indeed hates it, and pursues his own foolish course. He turns his back on the ways of God.

18.2

‘A fool has no delight in understanding,
But only that his heart may expose itself.’

This proverb summarises what is in the subsection. The fool has no delight in understanding. Compare verse 24 where he would rather think of anything else other than wisdom. He does not have the cool spirit required for it (verse 27). And he reveals the fact by the way in which he behaves. Indeed he gives the appearance of delighting in ‘exposing’ his folly (12.23;13.16). The same verb is used of Noah exposing himself (and his folly) in Genesis 9.21. But the fool does not see it as ‘exposing himself’ because he is wise in his own eyes (26.12) and lacking in understanding.

The Words Of The Wise Are A Wellspring Of Wisdom, But A Fool’s Words Result In Misery For Him, And Finally Bring About His Ruin (18.3-7).

As with the previous subsection, this subsection majors on the fool (the one who leaves God out of the reckoning). The subsection begins with a reference to ‘the wicked’ (the unrighteous), referred to twice (verse 3a, 5a) who is paralleled with two references to the fool (verses 6, 7). Possibly of significance is the fact that in the immediate context ‘the wicked’ has referred to the one who accepts a bribe to pervert justice (17.23), which helps to explain how he is seen to express contempt for society. So let the wicked approach and then comes contempt. But in the end all it brings on him is disgrace and the reproach of his community.

This is then followed by four proverbs, three of which specifically refer to speech. The words of a man’s mouth (as opposed to the mouth of the wise) are as deep waters (verse 4); a fool’s lips enter into contention and his mouth calls for beatings (verse 6); a fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare trapping his person (verse 7). In contrast the mouth of the wise is called ‘the wellspring of wisdom’ (verse 4). This may suggest that we are to see the wicked man in verse 3 as expressing his contempt by his words, and especially by his lying and dishonest tongue (17.23), whilst the taking note of the person of the wicked and the turning aside of the person of the righteous in judgment might be seen as referring to a dishonest judge’s verdict. Both, in Solomon’s terms, are the work of a fool, or even worse, a worthless person.

The subsection is presented chiastically:

  • A When the WICKED comes, contempt comes as well, and with disgrace comes reproach (18.3).
  • B The words of a man’s MOUTH are as deep waters, the wellspring of wisdom is as a fast flowing river (a wadi) (18.4).
  • C To respect the person of the WICKED is not good (18.5a).
  • C (Nor) to turn aside the righteous in judgment (18.5b).
  • B A FOOL’S LIPS enter into contention, and his MOUTH calls for beatings (18.6).
  • A A FOOL’S MOUTH is his destruction, and his LIPS are the snare of his life (18.7).

Note that in A the unrighteous man comes, bringing his contempt of society with him, only to be disgraced resulting in the reproach of the community, whilst in the parallel what the fool says brings ruin on him, and his lips act like a snare for him. In B the words of a man (other than the wise) are as deep waters, and in the parallel they result in contention and in him being beaten. Centrally in C it is not good to show favour towards the person of the unrighteous, or in the parallel to dismiss the righteous.

18.3

‘When the wicked comes, contempt comes as well,
And with disgrace (ignominy) comes reproach.’

The approach of the unrighteous can only be viewed with foreboding, for he brings along with him his contempt for society. He sees their customs as too restrictive. You never know how he is going to behave. Thus he does not hesitate to manipulate justice for his own benefit (17.23), he engages in violence as a way of becoming wealthy (1.10-19; 10.6; 12.6), and he ignores society’s insistence on hard work (6.6; 10.3-5), seeing it as unnecessary. He walks in the way of non-good (4.14).

But he does not get away with it. He soon finds himself in disgrace with society and comes under their reproach. Society does not like those who rock the boat.

Some would translate as ‘when wickedness comes, contempt comes as well’ which involves repointing the original consonantal text. This might signify that the contempt is that of the community to wickedness, signifying that they see it as a disgrace, and cover it with reproach.

18.4

‘ The words of a man’s mouth are as deep waters,
The wellspring of wisdom is as a fast flowing river (a wadi).’

In the light of verse 3 we might see this as referring to the mouth of the unrighteous man, an interpretation which may be seen as supported by the parallel fact that the mouth of the righteous is a wellspring of wisdom. Further support is found in the contrast between the deep waters and the fast flowing river. To the Israelite deep waters were usually something mysterious, whereas the fast flowing wadi was welcomed as supplying water for the crops. This is to some extent backed up by 20.5 where we read, ‘counsel in the heart of a man is like deep water, (unfathomable and difficult to extract), but a man of understanding will draw it out’. In Psalm 64.6 deep hearts belonged to those against whom God would act. Accepting this view would mean that the words of most men, including the unrighteous and the fool, were to be seen as something mysterious and unfathomable, which were at the best difficult to draw on, and at the worst sinful, whilst the words of the righteous, as a wellspring of wisdom, were to be accepted as welcome and fruitful. Elsewhere this wellspring is described as a wellspring (abundant source) of life (10.11; 13.14; 14.27; 16.22).

An alternative is to see ‘deep waters’ as being neutral, the idea being that some men’s words (those of the righteous) are thirst quenching and fruitbearing, whilst other men’s words (those of the unrighteous) can overflow men and drown them, the emphasis then here being turned onto the words of the righteous in terms of a fast-flowing river.

18.5

‘To respect (show favour towards) the person of the wicked is not good,
(Nor) to turn aside the righteous in judgment.’

The words of a judge are in mind here. It would not be good if he showed undue favour towards (literally ‘lifted the face of’) the person of the unrighteous, or turned aside, without good reason, the righteous when giving his judgment. It would be a sign that justice was no longer fair and trustworthy. A judge has to be neutral and give his verdict on the basis of the facts, without respect of persons. We could add, if he does not he is unrighteous, and therefore, in Solomon’s terms, a fool (17.23).

The stress that YHWH laid on true justice can be found in Exodus 23.2-3, 6-8; Leviticus 19.15; Deuteronomy 25.1; 1 Kings 21.9-22; Isaiah 1.23; 10.2; Jeremiah 22.3; Ezekiel 22.12; Amos 5.12. Neither rich nor poor were to be favoured, and bribery was totally condemned.

18.6

‘A fool’s lips enter into contention,
And his mouth calls for beatings.’

The idea here may be of general contention, or of contention in court. The latter would more specifically explain why his mouth calls for beatings. It was court practise in Israel that if an accuser lost his case over a criminal charge he would receive the punishment that he had wished on his adversary (Deuteronomy 19.17-19). Thus the fool who made false charges would face a beating (compare 19.29).

On the other hand Solomon may simply be using that idea as illustrative, and saying that a fool is always so contentious that he calls for beatings, (even if he does not get them), simply because he is usually unjust in his contention (which is what demonstrates that he is a fool). Either way Solomon is expressing his condemnation of the contentious fool.

18.7

‘A fool’s mouth is his ruin (destruction),
And his lips are the snare of his life.’

He ends the subsection by pointing out that the fool’s mouth gives him away and will thus result in his ruin, for his lips are like the jaws of a trap which ensnare his life. Thus he has moved from being in disgrace and subject to reproach, to deserving to be beaten, and to ultimate ruin and death.

The Fool Destroys Others And Is Therefore Himself Destroyed, But The Righteous Are Kept Safe (18.8-13).

In this subsection there is an emphasis on the way in which a fool destroys a community. He does it by whispering slander which is eagerly swallowed by others (verse 8); by neglecting his land and thus reducing the stock of food available just as effectively as an invader would (verse 9); by haughtiness which alienates him from others and leads to his own destruction (verse 12); and by continually passing on rumours (verse 13). But the righteous are kept safe because they shelter in the name and nature of YHWH, and are themselves humble. As a consequence He sets them on high (verses 10, 12).

The subsection is presented chiastically as follows:

  • A The words of a whisperer (talebearer, slanderer) are as delicacies, and they go down into the innermost parts (18.8).
  • B He also who is slack in his work, is brother to him who is a destroyer (18.9).
  • C The name of YHWH is a strong tower, the righteous runs into it, and is set on high (18.10).
  • C The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as a high wall in his own imagination (18.11).
  • B Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, and before honour goes humility (18.12).
  • A He who gives answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him (18.13).

Note that in A we have the words of the whisperer (the talebearer, the slanderer) and in the parallel the one who gives answer before he hears, which is typical of the slanderer. In B we have reference to the sluggard as the destroyer, and in the parallel reference to the destruction of the haughty man. Centrally in C YHWH is a secure tower for the righteous, but in the parallel the rich man’s riches, which appear to him as a secure fortified city, are in fact an illusory place of safety.

18.8

‘The words of a whisperer are as delicacies,
And they go down into the innermost parts (the chambers of the belly).’

Here Solomon likens the fool to a whisperer, one who goes around spreading half truths and innuendoes, which foolish people see as ‘delicacies, tasty morsels’, and take right into their hearts, dividing up families, friends and communities. He is a destroyer of harmony among relatives and friends, and to be avoided (20.19). And sadly, only too often, ‘he gives answer before he hears’ (verse 13). He does not wait to check up on his facts. After all, why spoil a good story? The proverb is warning about the insidiousness of whisperers and gossips.

Sadly both the whisperer and those who listen to him are only too common. There are those who love to whisper and gossip, passing on the latest titbit. And there are those who love to listen to such whispered slander and innuendo which blackens others. They are never happier than when someone whispers to them, ‘have you heard about --?’ To them the words of the slanderer are like delicacies, which they savour and then swallow, taking them into their innermost hearts.

The same proverb occurs in 26.22 as a proverb of Solomon preserved by the men of Hezekiah, demonstrating how apt it was seen to be. Paul describes such when he speaks of those who ‘learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not’ (1 Timothy 5.13; 2 Thessalonians 3.11). They are those who ‘meddle in other men’s matters’ (1 Peter 4.15).

‘They go down into the chambers of the belly.’ Such slanders and innuendoes are dangerous, for they are only too often swallowed whole, and then absorbed totally. And the consequence is that ‘they split up bosom friends’ (16.28). Solomon warns us to keep away from such slanderers. ‘He who goes about gossiping reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with one who speaks foolishly’ (20.19). In contrast, ‘he who keeps his mouth and his tongue, keeps himself out of trouble’ (21.23).

18.9

‘He also who is slack in his work,
Is brother to him who is a destroyer.’

And the one who is slack in his speech also tends to be slack in his work. (Note how the ‘also’ combines the two proverbs). The busy man has no time for whispering and slandering. And here Solomon describes the one who is slack in his work as ‘brother to him who is a destroyer’. Whilst that would be an accurate description of the whisperer, for he destroys lives and reputations, that is probably not what Solomon means. He is referring rather to the importance of building up the community’s grain supply. By being indolent the fool does not work hard on his land, and it therefore produces very little except thorns and nettles (see the vivid description in 24.30-31). And by doing this he is doing what those who invade the land and steal or destroy the crops also do. He is diminishing the supply of food that is available for the community. Compare for such invasions Judges 6.3-5.

Paul again refers to such people when he says, ‘keep away from any brother who is living in idleness, if anyone will not work let him not eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3.6, 10)..

So the fool undermines the community in two ways, by slander and rumour, and by laziness. That is why he can be likened to an enemy of his people (‘the destroyer’).

18.10

‘The name of YHWH is a strong tower,
The righteous runs into it, and is set on high.’

The mention of ‘the destroyer’ leads into this next proverb which likens YHWH to a fortified tower into which the righteous can run and be ‘set on high’, out of harm’s way. There they can find refuge both from the slanders and innuendoes of the fool, and from the depredations of the destroyer. For His people He provides shelter from all that can assail them.

The fact that the righteous ‘runs into it’ is probably intended as a contrast to the indolent fool. The righteous are not slack in their behaviour, but move with alacrity. It may also indicate that they were busy out in their fields when the destroyer came. Fortified towers were scattered throughout the land, available as places in which people could take shelter in such circumstances.

The Name of YHWH refers to His very Being and nature. To shelter in His Name is to shelter in Him, and Who and What He is.

18.11

‘The rich man’s wealth is his strong city,
And as a high wall in his own imagination.’

In contrast the rich fool takes shelter in his wealth. He sees it as providing him with a fortified city which will protect him, and as a high wall behind which he will be safe. He does not see himself as needing YHWH. But his high wall is a delusion, and his trust is folly. For whilst wealth can protect him against many of life’s problems, it cannot protect him from calamity when it comes. Nor can it protect him from the judgment of YHWH. He is not as secure as he thinks.

Note that those mentioned in verses 10 and 11 have all shown faith. Those in verse 10 have trusted in the unseen but very real and powerful Lord of the Universe. And they will not be disappointed. The rich man has trusted in his earthly, visible wealth, and it is that which will prove illusory.

18.12

‘Before destruction the heart of man is haughty (literally ‘high’),
And before honour goes humility.’

The coming of the destroyer was mentioned in verse 9. The ‘setting on high’ of God’s true people, providing safety from the destroyer (no matter what form he takes) for those humble enough to seek Him was mentioned in verse 10. The vain attempt of the proud rich fool to protect himself by his wealth was mentioned in verse 11. Now the destruction comes. And it comes on the proud and haughty (compare 16.18). Thus this verse has in mind the humble who seek refuge in YHWH, and the proud who rely on their own riches.

Pride and haughtiness was one of the attributes of the ‘worthless man’ (6.17a). It regularly signifies those who imagine that they can do without God (as the rich fool had). The proud see themselves as superior to their fellowmen, and are causers of division in society. They think that they can behave as they like (compare 6.12-19) and that they are almost untouchable. But in the day when YHWH acts in judgment it will be against ‘all that is proud and lofty, all that is lifted up and high’ (Isaiah 2.12). In that day ‘the haughty looks of man will be brought low, and the pride of men will be humbled, and YHWH alone will be exalted in that day’ (Isaiah 2.11). He will be exalted along with the humble whom He has set on high, whom He will then honour.

So in contrast are the humble. They are those who humble themselves before God, and are therefore humble in heart because they have seen themselves as they really are. They are His true worshippers, and it is they whom God will finally honour. As God (as the High and Lofty One Who inhabits Eternity) made plain, ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, even with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite’ (Isaiah 57.15). That is why Jesus said, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ and ‘blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5.3, 5). It is the humble who will finally be honoured.

In the Hebrew there is a play on words in verses 10-12. The righteous who humbly trust in YHWH are ‘set on high’ (verse 10); the rich man, hiding behind his illusory ‘high’ wall (verse 11), will be brought low; here in verse 12 it is the haughty man who is ‘high’ (we would say he is ‘high in the instep’) who will experience destruction.

18.13

‘He who gives answer before he hears,
It is folly and shame to him.

The subsection ends with a warning that we should not say anything, or believe anything, until we are sure of the facts. It is a folly and shame to respond to something before we have learned the truth. But that is exactly what the whisperer of verse 8 does. He passes on half truths, or downright lies, because they are more salacious. But it is an evidence of his folly, and something which brings great shame on him. And it is what the fool does when listening to the wisdom of the wise. He cannot wait until he has heard the truth, and so he constantly interrupts and argues, without having the full facts. This is one reason why, even if he went to the wise with a payment in his hand, he would learn nothing (17.16).

In a sense it was also true of the rich man of verse 11. He had become convinced that his wealth would protect him from anything, but it was all illusion. If only he had waited until he had heard the truth he would not have been so foolish.

The Tongue Affects Man In Many Ways, Making Him Strong And Wise, And Giving Him Life, Or Causing Him Great Grief, Finally Resulting In Death (18.14-21).

In this subsection we have an emphasis on the different ways in which the tongue, both our own and the tongues of others, can affect our lives. They can make us strong (verses 14, 20, 21) and produce harmony and abundant life, or they can bring us down, and finally destroy us. Thus the ear of the wise hears words which give him wisdom and spiritual knowledge (verse 15); a man can speak through his wisely given gifts (verse 16); the tongue can decide issues in court (verse 17); God can speak through the lot (verse 18); the tongue can cause offence and destroy close friendships (verse 19); what a man says will have repercussions on him for good or bad (verse 20); and the tongues of men can decide issues of living and dying (verse 21).

The subsection is presented chiastically:

  • A A man’s spirit will endure his infirmity, but a broken spirit who can lift up? (18.14).
  • B The heart of the shrewd obtains knowledge, and the EAR of the wise seeks knowledge (18.15).
  • C A man’s gift makes room for him, and brings him before great men (18.16).
  • D He who PLEADS HIS CAUSE first, seems just (appears to be in the right), (until) his neighbour comes and thoroughly EXAMINES him (18.17).
  • D The lot causes CONTENTIONS to cease, and separates the mighty (18.18)
  • C A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and such CONTENTIONS are like the bars of a castle (18.19).
  • B A man’s belly will be filled with the fruit of his MOUTH, he will be satisfied with the increase (revenue) of his LIPS (18.20).
  • A Death and life are in the power of the TONGUE, and they who love it, each will eat its fruit (18.21).

Note that in A a man’s spirit (if not broken) enables him to rise above his infirmity (and live), whilst no one can lift up a man with a broken spirit (a living death awaits him), and in the parallel the fruit of the tongue, the power of which determines death or life, gives each man the option to ‘eat’ life or death. In B the ear of the wise seeks knowledge, and in the parallel the fruit and profitability of a man’s mouth will satisfy him. In C a man’s gift will find that it makes room for him before great men, but in the parallel nothing will make room for him before a man whom he has offended (compare 6.34-35). Centrally in D we have described contention in court, and in the parallel that that contention can often be settled by casting lots.

18.14

‘A man’s spirit will endure his infirmity,
But a broken spirit who can lift up?’

The point here is that where a man’s spirit is whole it will enable him to endure any bodily weakness and sickness that he faces. It will enable him to ‘live’, even through his troubles. But a man whose spirit is broken will not be able to do endure bodily weakness and sickness, because no one can ‘lift up’ a broken spirit. Thus such a man will die. He can no longer cope with life. If only he had listened to the voice of Wisdom she would have put her spirit within him (1.23), and thus his spirit would not have been broken.

We can compare verse 12 where, when ‘a man’s heart’ is proud and haughty it will (like the broken spirit) result in destruction, but where it is humble it will receive honour from both God and men. It will ‘live’.

In the parallel verse in the chiasmus death and life are in the hand of the tongue. What men hear and listen to will determine whether they find life (by following wisdom) or death (by rejecting wisdom). Each man will eat the fruit of what he hears and listens to, whether the voice of wisdom (1.20-23; 8.1-10; 9.4-6), which will maintain his spirit (1.23) and give him life (3.18, 22; 4.13, 22-23; 6.23; 8.35), or the voice of the enticer (1.10-19; 5.3; 7.5-21; 9.14-17), which will in the end break his spirit (5.9-13) and give him death (5.5; 7.22-23, 27; 9.18).

18.15

‘The heart of the shrewd obtains knowledge,
And the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.’

The man whose spirit enables him to endure is the man whose heart has obtained knowledge (the knowledge of God and His ways). A man reveals himself as shrewd by obtaining such knowledge. Indeed, the ear of the wise man seeks knowledge. It listens to the voice of Wisdom (which give knowledge - 8.8-12), and the voice of Solomon, and the voice of the wise. And it listens to the wise man’s own voice as he proclaims wisdom to himself, giving him a bellyful of fruit and riches that satisfy (verse 20). In those days much reading would be reading aloud, and men recited the Torah to themselves, and experienced blessing as they went through the liturgy at feasts. Thus they could ‘listen to themselves’ as they read aloud

18.16

‘A man’s gift makes room for him,
And brings him before great men.’

We can see this as meaning that Solomon is here bringing out the deceitfulness of human nature. A man who offers bribes, and bribes disguised as gifts, will obtain access to great men, men of political influence. (The world has changed very little). They will give him a hearing. It should not be so, of course. Influential men should give equal access to all. But that is what life is like. It can mean in terms of verse 17 that a man by his gifts obtains the first hearing. But it certainly puts him at an advantage over those who cannot afford gifts.

We know from what we have seen previously that Israel saw this practise as wrong (15.27; 17.8, 23; 18.5; 25.14; 29.4). Bribes were condemned in Israel (Exodus 23.8; Deuteronomy 16.19; 27.25; 1 Samuel 8.3; Job 15.34; Psalm 15.5; 26.10; Isaiah 1.23; 5.23; 33.15). Other nations were less stringent, for while they were frowned on if they affected justice, they were otherwise seen as acceptable and the only penalties were on those who failed to pay the promised bribe. That they did occur in Israel and were specifically seen as encouraging injustice is evidenced in 17.23; Exodus 23.8; Deuteronomy 16.19; 27.25; 1 Samuel 8.3; Psalm 15.5; Isaiah 1.23; 5.23; Micah 3.11. As Isaiah 5.23 says, ‘they justify the unrighteous for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous’, words which parallel the idea in 17.15 exactly. But they were specifically condemned.

YHWH, unlike the gods of other nations, is distinguished as being unbribeable. He is ‘the God of Gods and the Lord of Lords, the mighty and terrible God, Who is not partial and takes no bribes’ (Deuteronomy 10.17), indicating just how wrong bribes were seen to be. They are contrary to what God is.

On the other hand the word used here is not the usual one for a bribe, and there is no mention of court proceedings. Thus it may be that Solomon, in the world in which he lived, did not see a wisely given gift as wrong, as long as its purpose was not to pervert justice (he himself would have given many such gifts). He would not have approved of bribing the justices, but he may well have recognised that a wisely given gift could enable someone to present their case against injustice in the right and proper quarters, and here be giving his people advice on how to obtain a hearing. Indeed, the next two proverbs make clear that he expects men to have a fair hearing, and is not suggesting that the gift will influence a judicial decision.

There are times when gifts reveal our estimate of the recipient, or are an expression of gratitude (in this case in advance). And most men have shown their appreciation of a girl by giving her gifts, and vice versa. Consider Jacob’s gifts to Esau which were intended to reconcile him and thus save Jacob’s own followers from possible disaster (Genesis 32.7-20). See also 1 Samuel 16.20. The provision of a large dowry would often ensure a satisfactory marriage for a girl (Genesis 24.22, 30, 53). Thus in themselves gifts are not necessarily wrong. What matters is the motive.

18.17

‘He who pleads his cause first, seems just (seems to be in the right),
(Until) his neighbour comes and thoroughly examines him.’

These two proverbs (verse 17-18), which are central in the chiasmus, relate to judicial proceedings. In this one we have the evidence that Solomon saw justice in Israel as mainly fair. The one who puts his case first makes the first impression, and may well give the impression that his case is cast iron. But once his adversary comes and cross-examines him the situation can easily change. His carefully prepared case may begin to look as if it has holes in it, and the court may begin to think differently. Indeed, sometimes it might be better to have the last word before the decision is reached.

As a general principle it gives the warning not to accept what people say too quickly. It is necessary not to jump to a quick conclusion, but to wait until you have heard both sides of the argument. Then you will be in a better position to judge.

18.18

‘The lot causes contentions to cease,
And separates the mighty.’

And yet, often when both sides of an argument have been put, and both lots of witnesses have been heard, it may be difficult to choose between the two. A position of stalemate might be reached. This is especially important when the two parties involved are powerful men, with the consequence that if one is seen to be favoured above the other it could have dire consequences. (The case is clearly once concerning property or possessions, and disagreement as to whom they belong to). Often in that case it is better to get each party to agree to the drawing of lots. Then if that is done fairly, both will hopefully accept the result with equanimity. Neither will have lost face by being declared the loser, and they will be kept apart (separated) from hostile activity. The use of the sacred lot was in those days seen as bringing God, Who clear knows the facts of the situation, into the controversy. The lot would reveal His final decision (thus the land of Canaan was mainly divided between the tribes on the basis of the lot - Joshua 14.2).

As Christians we may resolve issues by praying together, which can have a similar effect, and in certain circumstances we may even combine that with an agreed prayerful use of ‘the lot’ by ‘tossing up’ a coin. When the referee tosses up a coin in order to decide which team enjoys a certain benefit (such as batting first or deciding which end to play from) it prevents dissension between the teams. Both sides agree that it was fair.

18.19

‘A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city,
And such contentions are like the bars of a castle.’

One grounds for using the lot (verse 18) is emphasised here. The alternative might be to cause great offence because a person does not think that he has been justly treated. And once the situation is left like that the brother (someone once very close) may become irreconcilable, and a barrier built up that can never be broken down. The one time ‘brother’ might become as unapproachable as a powerful fortified city, and the causes of contention might become like the huge bolts on the gates of a city or fortress, effectively preventing entry.

Such a situation can, of course, occur outside litigation. This is thus a warning to beware of giving offence, and an indication that if we do so we should seek to deal with the offending matter immediately, either by means of an apology, or by making concessions, possibly accompanied by the giving of gifts (verse 16).

Sometimes the offence caused may be so great that there is no hope of reconciliation. We have an example of this in 6.32-35. A cuckolded husband may never forgive under any circumstances, and no matter what recompense is offered. In such cases the only way to avoid a permanent breach is not to commit the action in the first place.

18.20

‘A man’s belly will be filled with the fruit of his mouth,
With the increase (revenue, produce) of his lips will he be satisfied.’

Here an agricultural metaphor is used to describe how a man can benefit himself (or otherwise) by his own words. What he says with his mouth and lips can be to him like fruit which fills his belly (his inner man), or like the produce of his land (his ‘increase’) which satisfies him, first because of its quantity, and second because it feeds him and his family. In the same way a man can feed himself with his words, either because they directly affect him as he speaks them, or because they cause a reaction in others which then rebounds on him himself, whether for good or ill.

The general principle is that what we say affects not only others, but in the end, ourselves as well. If our words are sweet and reasonable, we will become sweet and reasonable. If our words are contentious it will arouse more contention within us. Thus what we say not only reveals what we are, but actually helps to shape us. But what is more, our words have an effect on others, and this will often come back on us. Thus the ‘fruit’ of which we partake, and the ‘produce’ that we enjoy will be the repercussions, for good or bad, of our own words. At some stage we will enjoy the fruit of our words.

But in the final analysis our words also have an effect on our relationship with God. They can either please Him, and make Him favourably disposed towards us, or they can anger Him, and bring His judgment upon us. And this will especially be so at the last Judgment, for, as Jesus said, ‘for every idle word that a man shall speak he will give account of it at the day of judgment, for by your words you will be accounted righteous, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matthew 12.36-37)

Especially in mind here may be the fact that in those days men, when reading, would read aloud and listen to their own words. Thus as they read the Torah of Moses, or recited it aloud, or as they went through the liturgy at their feasts (consider Exodus 12.26-27), it would feed their inner man and give them deep spiritual satisfaction. By this means ‘the ear of the wise’ will seek knowledge, and the heart of the shrewd will obtain knowledge (18.15).

18.21

‘Death and life are in the power (literally ‘the hand’) of the tongue,
And those who love it, each will eat its fruit.’

In Proverbs the issues of ‘death and life’ have more in mind than just whether we die or live (see 2.18-19; 5.5-6; 8.35-36; 12.28; 13.14). ‘Life’ is one of the aims of the book, and that means abundant life whilst living on this earth (John 10.10), as described for example in 3.16-18, ‘length of days is in her (wisdom’s) right hand, and in her left hand riches (especially spiritual riches - 3.14-15) and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and in her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her, and happy is everyone who retains her’. And this is then seen as in some way continuing after physical death (see on 15.24).

In contrast death is a way in which a man walks as well as an end to which he must come. He can be dead while he lives (5.9-11; 7.22-23; 9.18; 1 Timothy 5.6; Revelation 3.1), although it is always emphasised that in the end he will finish up in the gloom and darkness of the grave world (2.18-19; 5.11; 7.27; 9.18).

Thus Solomon is saying here that the whole of a man’s life, as well as his final destiny, is ‘in the hand of the tongue’. We have seen in the previous verse how our own tongues can affect us, but now the thought goes wider and includes the effects of other tongues. What we say, and what we listen to, affects our lives both now and in the hereafter. ‘Those who love the tongue will each one eat its fruit’. We become what we listen to most assiduously.

Those who seek God’s wisdom (and God’s word) will reap its fruits. It will be to them better than silver or gold, or precious jewels. It will sustain their spirits and make them strong against all adversity (verse 14). Those who seek their own wisdom and the wisdom of the world will receive their due reward, in missing out on true life, and on God and all that He offers. For as the subsection has brought out, the effects of the tongue can be many (verses 17, 18, 19, 20).

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