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By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
Having A Good Wife Is A Boon, But We Need To Beware Of Whom We See As Friends, For Some Can Fail Us In The End (18.22-19.7).
This subsection looks at the essence of friendship and the contrast between the rich and the poor, especially as the two are related. It commences with what a boon it is to obtain a good wife (who is the best kind of friend), and then advises that some friends are reliable whilst others are totally unreliable. Thus on the one hand there is the wife who is the best friend of all (18.22), together with the friend who sticks closer than a brother (8.24), whilst in contrast are ‘casual friends’ (18.24; 19.4, 6, 7) who cannot be relied on, and who tend to be in the majority for the wealthy.
The second theme is the contrast between rich and poor. The rich deal abruptly with people, whilst the poor tend to be more conciliating (18.23). The rich man has many friends, but does not know whom he can trust (18.24;19.4, 6). The liberal man, who is presumably wealthy, has many friends, but is likely to lose them if he becomes poor (19.4, 6-7). On the other hand the poor man can be the best of friends if he walks in integrity (18.24b with 19.1a). But the man who becomes poor might find his friends difficult to retain, especially if it affects his behaviour (19.4, 7).
The subsection is presented chiastically:
Note that in A we have described the blessing of having a good wife and reliable companion, and in the parallel the sad state of the one who has no friends and reliable companions. In B a poor man uses entreaties (when approaching those higher than himself) and in the parallel many entreat the favour of a liberal man. In C we have mention of different kinds of friends, and of walking in integrity rather than with perverse lips, and in the parallel different kinds of friends are mentioned, and a warning is given against perverse lips. Centrally in D the inner person without knowledge parallels the foolishness of man, and the one who is in too much of a hurry parallels the one who frets against YHWH.
This subsection on friendship commences by describing the one who can be the best friend of all, a good wife (that bad wives are excluded is apparent in 14.1b; 21.9, and demanded by her being described as ‘what is good’). Her value is above jewels (31.10). To find such a wife is to obtain favour from YHWH (compare 8.35 where the same is said of Ms Wisdom). For she can be depended on at all times (e.g. 14.1a), and will not fail us if things go wrong (in contrast with the friends in 19.7). The ideal wife is portrayed in 31.10-31).
‘Finds what is good.’ Compare Genesis 2.18, ‘it is not good that the man should be alone’. God provided that man should have a helpmeet (one is who alongside him and supports and complements him) to be at his side. To find such a wife is to find ‘what is good’ indeed. It is to find a hidden treasure. And the man should be grateful to God, for thereby he has obtained great favour from YHWH.
The previous two verses had to do with winning people by words, and obtaining fruit from the use of the tongue. Here the man has seen the fulfilment of this. He has used his words wisely in wooing a good wife and obtaining the best of fruit.
The second theme of the subsection is now introduced, the contrast between poor and rich. The poor man approaches others humbly. He ‘seeks favour’. He comes with pleas to be accepted. And he regularly has to ask for assistance. He is very dependent on others, and his manner reveals this. (He tends to come in the same way to God). In contrast the rich man tends to come in a superior way. He assumes he will be accepted, as his many friends assure him. He feels he has no need for assistance (and if he has he simply calls on his servants). He is dependent on no one. As a consequence he is more abrupt with people. He can be curt and sometimes unfriendly. He answers as a superior to an inferior, and consequently may reply roughly. This is not, of course, true of all poor people or of all rich people. It expresses a tendency among the majority.
These two proverbs, and the proverbs in verses 4-5 are linked together by the chiasmus, suggesting that Solomon wanted them to be seen together. The words here form a minor chiasmus on their own. Thus the pseudo-friends, who can be quickly accumulated, are those who are twisted in their lips and are fools, whilst the friend who sticks closer than a brother is the poor man who walks in his integrity. He does not pretend friendship, but is a real friend.
It is not specifically stated in the proverb that the man who makes many friends is rich. A man may go about making ‘many friends’ in a number of ways. He may do it by courting popularity and by being ‘a good fellow’, but he should recognise that friends quickly gained are not reliable, and will let him down in the end if circumstances change. True friends are not so easily obtained.
On the other hand, in the wider context, the way in which the wealthy can accumulate friends is especially in mind. The rich have been mentioned in verse 23, there is the contrast with ‘the poor man’ in 19.1, and 19.4 also refers to rich men quickly accumulating friends. Thus we may see this as particularly applying to the wealthy.
It indicates that the wealthy rich man does not have everything in his favour. It is true that because he is wealthy he makes many friends (19.4). But most of them will be casual and self-serving. They will not be real friends. They will be friends with a view the benefits that they can obtain. And if the rich man relies on them he may have a shattering experience. He may trust them and discover that they will let him down in the end. (Or it may signify that such friendships are only made in order to break down. The Hebrew is literally, ‘A man of friends to be shattered’).
Such friends are described as those ‘with twisted (hypocritical) lips’. He purses his lips, proving that he is lacking in integrity and is a ‘fool’, a man who turns his back on God’s ways. An illustration of such a one is given in verse 5a in terms of a false witness. No one’s lips are more twisted that those of a false witness. Another is that of one who speaks lies generally (verse 5b).
However, Solomon wants us to know that we should not be totally disillusioned. It is, he says, possible to have good friends, for ‘there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother’. In those days blood ties were hugely important. Families supported each other through thick and thin. Thus for a friend to be closer than a brother indicated the closest of possible ties, and the strongest of brotherly-love. We can compare here David and Jonathan whose brotherly-love for each other was proverbial (2 Samuel 1.26). The problem lies in discerning who will be a friend like that. And the point is being stressed that whilst a poor man may not have many friends, (he toils hard and has little time for festivities), he may well have a true and reliable friend who is better than all the rich man’s friends put together, if he chooses his friends among the wise (12.26; 13.20).
This friend is described as one ‘who walks with integrity.’ In other words he is open and honest and walks in the way of wisdom. Thus in determining who is a true friend we must ask , ‘who is the one who reveals himself as dependable and reliable in all his ways? Who is the one who walks in the way of wisdom?’ and not ‘is he rich or poor?’ Such a friend is in complete contrast to the one who twists or purses his lips, proving him to be lacking in integrity and a fool.
Note the contrast between ‘integrity’ and ‘twisted’. One is open and honest, the other is surreptitious and bent. One can be wholly relied on, the other is a fair-weather friend. The one with twisted lips is seemingly not equated with the poor. There is nothing to be gained by being friends with the poor. To him friendship is a way of advancing himself and getting what he can. It is a reminder that the poor have some advantages which the wealthy do not have, and that those who are poor, as well as the wealthy, can walk in wisdom.
Parallel to the man with twisted lips is the person who is ‘without knowledge’ (without a true knowledge of God). Such a person ‘is not good’ (in contrast to the ‘good’ wife’ of verse 18.22). He is not dependable and reliable. He cannot be relied on in a crisis. In terms of the Prologue he is at the minimum ‘naive’, and he is tending towards being ‘a fool’. It is ‘fools’ who ‘hate knowledge’ (1.22). But if he is not good, much less is the one is the one who ‘runs’ (or who ‘forces himself’) with his feet towards folly ( (verse 3a) or towards ill-gotten riches. He ‘misses what he should be aiming at’ (a word often translated ‘sins). This may indicate that he misses the mark of knowledge. He is even more blameworthy than the naive man who is simply without knowledge. Or it may signify that he misses the way that he should be following. This latter ties in well with verse 3. Such a man is to be avoided (14.7).
The subsection continues to deal with the one who is twisted in his lips, the unreliable friend. Here he is the fool. In verse 2 he misses what he is aiming at (or should be aiming at), now he subverts his way. He ‘turns it upside down’. For he has chosen his own way. Furthermore his heart boils over against YHWH. He is furiously angry with Him for not allowing him to go his own way (compare Isaiah 53.6). He thinks he knows best and yet in his heart he is conscious that he is in the wrong, and thus he resents, and even gets angry with, God. In other words he is in rebellion against the Moral Governor of the Universe. There are many seemingly good people who are like that today.
We now come to a direct contrast between rich and poor. These four proverbs are cited together because they clearly relate to each other, apart, that is, from verse 5 which appears out of place (although we have already had good cause to see that Solomon has reasons for his placing of proverbs, and we must therefore ask why verse 5 is placed where it is, especially as it is virtually repeated in verse 9). We must therefore look at these proverbs together.
But when we do so they present us with a problem, for they appear to suggest that poor men do not have true friends, something which, as has already been made clear in 18.24-19.1, is palpably untrue. Indeed the opposite can be argued, that the poor tend to stick together against the more wealthy, partly because the more wealthy ‘answer roughly’ (18.23). We did, however, face a similar problem in 14.20, where it was stated that, ‘the poor is hated by his own neighbour, but the rich has many friends’, and there the suggested solution was that it referred to the one who was poor through indolence (the typical meaning of poverty up to that point). Such a man’s thorns, allowed to grow through neglect, would soon impinge on his neighbour’s strip of land whilst he himself would be a burden on the community, and could begin to look around for ways of getting rich without working. Little wonder then that his neighbour had little love for him (‘hate’ often means ‘loves little’).
Such an interpretation would certainly fit the situation here. It would explain why even his brothers hate him (verse 6), for as an indolent man he would leave all the work to them. Furthermore in 14.23 the one who worked hard was contrasted with the one who simply talked and did not work, the one leading to gain, the other to penury, and this would tie in here with the idea in verse 7 of someone who tried to win back his friends with words but failed to do so. What was needed was not words. What he rather needed to do was start working hard, then perhaps his friends would listen to him.
This interpretation could then be seen as bringing verse 5 into the equation. Why is the poor man separated from his boon companion? It is because being a talker, rather than a worker he has allowed himself to be bribed to act as a false witness. He has stood up in court and perjured himself, and has told lies against his neighbours. As a consequence he will face punishment, and will not escape. That could be why his friends, even his bosom friend, will desert him in disgust, and why no one will pay heed to him any more. He will have made himself a pariah.
In the light of this we will now view these proverbs individually.
On its own this proverb could be seen as saying, be wise and wealthy, for then you will have many friends, rather than being indolent and poor and finding that you lose even your boon companion. This would tie in with our interpretation of 14.20, and with the general message of the Prologue that the wise become rich, in both wisdom and possessions (1.23; 3.16; 8.10-11, 18; 9.5-6), whilst the indolent and naive become poor and deservedly lose their friends (5.9-10; 6.11; 10.4). Whether this interpretation is correct or not, there is clearly a warning against being ‘poor’.
However, in context we have already been warned of the danger of obtaining many ‘friends’ (18.24), and 19.1-3 have depicted the kind of people to be avoided as friends. We might therefore see this as a warning of the danger of false friends. Having wealth, he may be saying, will always ‘add friends’, it will result in many friends, but they are not necessarily to be seen as reliable friends. They may simply be friends for what they think they can get out of you, or in order to attain social position. Once there is nothing to be gained by it they may well cease to be friends.
In contrast is the poor man (the word signifies the needy, the destitute - 10.15; 14.31; 19.17; 21.13; 22.9, 16). He does not have many friends, and is even in danger of losing his boon companion. Indeed, he finishes up with no friends (19.7). The impression gained from the parallel clause is that we are to see this as signifying that just as wealth produces friends so poverty loses friends.
We can immediately see why wealth would ‘add friends’, and that the poor might not quickly obtain so many friends, but we must then ask, what would separate a poor man from his boon companion (or ‘his neighbour)? There are five possible explanations:
Whichever way we take it the general point comes over that rich men have many so-called friends, whilst destitute men gain few, if any.
Fitted into the context this could be suggesting that one reason why the poor man of verse 4 loses his bosom friend is because of despicable behaviour, here seen in terms of acting as a false witness and lying. The bribing of witnesses was a well known feature of life in Israel (compare 17.23), and it would inevitably be a temptation to someone who was destitute, if he was offered a bribe to act as a false witness in court, to agree, even though it was dangerous. He might feel that he had little to lose. Or he may be tempted to speak lies to his own advantage. We can see how this might lose him his bosom friend if his friend was in any way affected, or was a righteous man. But Solomon warns that such a man should recognise that he will not go unpunished, either by judges or by God. For the lying tongue and a false witness are both an abomination to God (6.17, 19).
Both the man who is in authority, and the one who gives freely, will also have many friends, who are seeking to make use of their influence, or benefit by their generosity. Many will ‘entreat them’, especially the poor (18.23). They too therefore need to beware of sycophants and scroungers. This could also connect with verse 5, for the nobleman might well find himself dealing with someone who was out to deceive him and ‘uttered lies’, or discover, when acting as a judge, that he had to beware of false witnesses..
This proverb is unusual in that it has three parts. But it raises similar problems to 19.4b. Why should all the brothers (here in contrast with friends and therefore meaning literal brothers) hate him? Clearly he must be doing something that is seen as impinging on family loyalty, and this may well suggest indolence, which would put more of a load on them and mean that the family land was not being fully utilised, or being deceitful and/or a false witness, which could impugn the family honour. Alternatively it could signify that he has suddenly and unexpectedly become poor, and therefore be written off as ‘the poor member of the family’. And if his behaviour breaches family loyalty, how much more would it lose him his friends who saw his behaviour as shameful and as hitting at the basis of community life.
‘He pursues them with words, but they are gone’ adds to the vivid picture, possibly indicating that they refuse to listen to his desperate pleas (18.23). Both indolence and acting as a false witness could cause such a situation in a community where hard work and justice were seen as pillars of society.
The subsection has thus dealt with the dangers posed by wealth, the problems of the poor, the intricacies of true friendship, and warning against indolence and injustice.
The Wise, The Fool, The State And The Family (19.8-16).
This subsection looks at the wisdom and understanding that undergirds life, especially family life. It is the wise who will live luxuriously (verse 10 a); will control his anger (verse 11a); will be forgiving (verse 11b); will enjoy the king’s favour (verse 12b);, will inherit family wealth (verse 14a), and will have a wise and prudent wife (verse 14b). He will find good (verse 8b) and guard his own wellbeing (verse 16a). In contrast the fool, especially the idle fool, will be a false witness and a liar (verse 9); will not live luxuriously (verse 10); will face the king’s wrath (verse 12a); will undermine family life (verse 13a); will have a contentious wife (verse 13b); and will sleep his life away and suffer hunger (verse 14). He will be punished and will perish (verse 9), and will go hungry (verse 15).
The subsection is presented chiastically:
Note that in A the one who obtains wisdom loves LIFE, and in the parallel the one who keep the commandment keeps his LIFE. In B the false witness and liar will be punished, and in the parallel the slothful and idle will be punished. Both refer to those who sought to become wealthy by other means than work. In C delicate living is not seemly for a fool, while in the parallel, houses, riches and a virtuous wife provide such delicate living. In D it is not seemly for a servant to have rule over princes, and in the parallel neither a foolish son nor a contentious wife (who should both be in submission to the head of the family) are seemly. Centrally in E a wise man is slow to anger, and his splendour is revealed by his forgiving nature, and in the parallel a king’s anger is like a roaring lion, whilst he too shows favour, which is like falling dew.
The parallel of wisdom and understanding takes us right back into the language of the Prologue (2.2, 6; 3.13, 19; 5.1; 8.1; 11.12). A man should do all that he can to obtain wisdom, indeed this is the very purpose of the whole book (1.2; 2.2; 4.5, 7), for by doing so he will understand the fear of YHWH and find the knowledge of God (2.5), which are YHWH’s gift to those who to those who receive it (2.6). And by receiving this gift he will obtain life (3.16-18; 4.13, 22; 8.35). Thus the one who obtains wisdom loves his inner life, and ensures that he preserves it. And in the same way he should apply his heart to understanding (2.2), guarding it carefully, for thereby he will ‘find good’ (wellbeing, spiritual and material wealth, happiness), one aspect of which is a prudent wife (18.22; compare verse 14). He will enjoy delicate living (verse 10).
Three things are now said to be not good, perjury and lying; a fool living luxuriously (verse 10a); and a servant ruling over a ruler. All three are damaging to the wellbeing of the community. This verse is almost a repetition of verse 5. Such a person is perverse in his lips and is a fool (verse 1), someone who is the very opposite of the one who obtains wisdom and guards understanding (verse 8), and as a consequence he often acts as a false witness and utters lies (the two are regularly connected - verse 5; 6.19; 14.5, 25). These things are seen as so heinous that, instead of leading to life and wellbeing, they will result in punishment and death, either at the hands of the judges or at the hands of YHWH. See for an example of such false witnesses 1 Kings 21. 10, 13. The one who set them up died a hideous death (1 Kings 21.23; 2 Kings 9.32-37).
The main reason that men acted as false witnesses was because they were bribed by unscrupulous men (17.23). It was a way of obtaining quick riches and would therefore be engaged in by the indolent, especially when hungry (verse 15). But it was to act as a fool because the consequences were both severe and certain, if not at the hands of men then at the hands of God, for it is an abomination to YHWH (6.19).
Two further things are seen to be ‘not seemly’. And the first is the fool living luxuriously. That is to go against the principle established in the Prologue that it is wisdom and understanding that lead to wealth (3.10, 16; 8.18). In Proverbs hard work and wisdom lead to wealth, indolence and folly lead to poverty (6.11). Thus delicate living is not seemly for a fool. And it is not good, for then he will be in a position to look around for what mischief he can do.
The principles are good ones and lay a basis for a sound society. But unfortunately there are other ways of becoming wealthy, including by inheritance (verse 14) and by deceit. Neither merits being able to live luxuriously. The one who inherits wealth will treat it lightly, and may well be hindered by it from coming to God (compare the rich young ruler who came to Jesus - Mark 10.22-23). On the other hand he can become a hard worker himself and thus remedy the situation. Not all who inherit wealth become indolent playboys. But the one who cheats and deceives, undermines the whole of society. It is not seemly that he is wealthy. With him there is no exception. But one day he will have to account to God, and his delicate living will cease.
The second further thing that is not seemly is for a servant to have rule over princes. The idea here is probably of the servant who exercises undue influence as a ‘favourite’. We can compare here Haman in the Book of Esther who, having been rapidly promoted and having take over affairs on behalf of the king, proceeded to act harshly and unwisely because he considered that he was not being given enough esteem. Such men usually use their influence for their own good and not for the good of society. Furthermore it demonstrates the inefficiency of the ruler who is clearly not ruling efficiently and wisely.
But a second way in which this can arise is by the servant rebelling against his master and taking over his kingdom. Solomon visualises such a situation in Ecclesiastes 10.5-7. It is to undermine society, and such rulers are generally themselves inefficient and unscrupulous. Furthermore such action regularly results in great misery for ordinary people, both during the rebellion through misery and bloodshed, and after the rebellion because of inefficient government. Indeed, one of the things which ‘disquiets the earth’ is ‘a servant when he reigns’ (30.22). He does not have the mind-set for the position. Solomon has in mind, of course, self-seekers, not those who genuinely do it for the good of the kingdom. Later he describes too further calamities, a foolish son and a continually contentious wife (verse 13). These have a similar effect on the household. And interestingly in the case of the foolish son, a ‘wise servant’ may be promoted to sonship in order to remedy his defects (17.2), suggesting that Solomon might well have been happy about a wise servant taking over a kingdom where the king was ‘a fool’.
The thought in the opening verse of the subsection (verse 8) is now reintroduced in terms of a man of ‘understanding, discretion, wisdom’. Such a man controls his temper and is slow to anger. He is better for society than a mighty warrior (16.32), because he is a man of moral strength who upholds the fabric of society. He is the kind of man who promotes harmony, and ensures sensible judgments. And his crowning glory is that he knows how to forgive. He does not pursue private vendettas. He is a loving man (10.12; 17.9). Furthermore he is a God-like man for God is supremely the One Who is ‘slow to anger and plenteous in mercy’ (Psalm 103.8).
Here the king’s wrath is described as being ‘as the roaring of a lion’. The lion roared as a reminder of his kingly presence. It was a warning that he was not to be tampered with and in order to stamp his authority on all around. That is why in 20.2 it was ‘the fear of the king’ which was ‘as the roaring of a lion’. It acted as a warning of what would happen to those who opposed him. Thus the thought here is probably not of a hot-tempered king, but of the king’s wrath (his responsibility to deal with wrongdoing) as something that needs to be taken into account. Like the roaring of the lion, so should the idea of the king’s wrath act as a warning not to challenge his authority and not to do wrong. Evildoers therefore needed to watch out. We can compare how YHWH, acting as judge of the world, was likened to a roaring lion (Jeremiah 25.30; Joel 3.16).
Verses 11 and 12 are clearly paired, and portray the two sides of what is needed by society, on the one hand the man of calm and wisdom, who does not act precipitately, calms things over, and does not call to account every minor infringement, and on the other ‘the wrath of the king’ as the one who is finally responsible for justice, and is the one who will judge those who break the law, or act against society. Both are necessary for a fair and well run society.
There is, however another side to the king, for to those to whom he dispenses favour he is ‘as the dew on vegetation’. He ensures that their lives flourish. During the hot summers it was the heavy morning dew that provided the moisture that ensured the continuing health of vegetation. So on the one hand the king is the one to be feared, and on the other he is the water of life, a fitting shadow of the Coming King, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who was to rule in righteousness, and smite the unrighteous (Isaiah 11.1-4).
These dual proverbs are combined in the chiasmus and clearly go together. They contrast the foolish son with those who receive their inheritance from their fathers (consider 17.2 which suggests that a shameful son might be excluded from the inheritance), and a contentious wife with a prudent wife.
A foolish son is a ruin, indeed a catastrophe, to his father. He will not be available to toil on the family land, and his father will have no one to lean on in his old age, and no one to whom to pass his inheritance. Furthermore, the family name might be brought into disrepute. Thus all that the father holds as of value could disappear. Elsewhere he has been a grief to his father (17.25), but that is now taken one step further. He could be the ruin of the family (verse 13). In contrast, however, are those to whom the father could leave his inheritance (verse 14).
The foolish son is illustrated in 1.10-19. He mixes with evil companions and becomes dishonest. Having started in the way of folly he might then act as surety for another in return for a commission (6.1-5; 11.15; 17.18), seek out enticing women (who will fleece him or take advantage of him (2.16-20; 5.3-23; 7.5-27; 9.13-18), accept bribes in order to give false witness (verse 9; 17.23), or be slothful and lazy (verse 15; 6.6-11; 12.24; 15.19; 18.9), or indeed all four. Sleeping at times of harvest was a characteristic of the shameful son (10.5). Not wishing to co-operate with the family he will need to find ways of obtaining wealth.
In parallel with the foolish son is the equally foolish wife. And she may well be one of the causes of the foolishness of the son. For she is contentious and constantly introducing quarrels into family life. Indeed her quarrelsomeness is like the constant dripping of a leaky roof (compare 27.15), a constant disruption and annoyance. There is no wonder that the son has gone off the rails, when the one who should have taught him the Torah behaves like this. The son might threaten to be the ruin of the family, the contentious wife constantly undermines it. She could be likened to the servant who had rule over rulers, someone who had usurped her place and as a consequence caused family problems. The Arabs had a proverb which said that there were three things that made a household intolerable, the trickling through of rain, the contention of a wife, and bugs.
A roof in those days would have been made of criss-crossed wooden beams on which would be laid a layer of clay, chalk and chaff. It would leak in wet weather, and would need constant repair.
On the other hand are the wise sons. They fulfil their family responsibilities and toil hard in the fields, and they will receive from their father a house and the family wealth, in accordance with the laws of inheritance which were basically that the inheritance would be divided equally among the sons, but with the firstborn receiving a double portion because he would take responsibility for his mother and sisters (see also Numbers 27.8-11; Deuteronomy 21.16-17). They will as a consequence of their wisdom ‘live luxuriously’ (verse 10). Compare the son in the parable, ‘son, you are ever with me, and all that I have is yours’ (Luke 15.31; the foolish son there had already received his inheritance). Their wisdom will make them ‘rich’.
And in stark contrast with the contentious wife is the prudent (wise) wife. She builds up the family (14.1). She maintains the peace. She is a help to her husband in every way. She is defined in 31.10-31. And she is described as ‘from YHWH’. Compare 18.22 where the one who found a wife, found ‘a good thing’ and obtained favour from YHWH. She is God’s gift to her husband.
We saw in 6.6-11 the vivid picture of the slothful man who sleeps his life away in idleness, and in 10.5 that sleeping at the time of harvest was a characteristic of a shameful son. Here he is described as constantly sleeping, and as liable to be hungry. He may well be the foolish son of verse 13. And he is liable to seek ways of making easy money by such activities as robbery (1.10-19) and accepting bribes to bear false testimony (verse 9).
Note the emphasis on ‘deep sleep’. It is more than just ordinary sleep. He is sleeping his life away. And the consequence for him can only be poverty and hunger (6.11). The close connection with verse 16 may suggest that the sleep was not only physical but spiritual. His spirit slept as well as his body with the consequence that he was careless in his ways.
This verse sums up the subsection. The wise man, who observes the commandment of God expressed in His wisdom, will guard his life and wellbeing, whilst the foolish man, who is careless in his ways, will die (verse 9). As always in Proverbs ‘life’ refers to quality of life as well as length of life, and offers a hope beyond. Death has in mind both being dead while they live (they do not enjoy the fruits of ‘life’) and eternal death, the final permanent end.
In 19.8 the one who obtains wisdom ‘loves his life’, in other words is ensuring its wellbeing, here the one who keeps the commandment (of Solomon and of YHWH) ‘guards his life’. In 19.8 the one who ‘keeps understanding’ will find good’, here the one who ‘keeps the commandment’ will equally find wellbeing.
If You Show Compassion On Others, And Heed The Counsel Of YHWH, You Will Thereby Become Loved (19.17-22).
This subsection commences by giving three examples of showing compassion, the first by lending or giving to the poor (verse 17), the second by disciplining a son when he goes astray (verse 18), and a third by having the courage to stand back and let a bad-tempered man face the consequences of his bad temper (verse 19). And these should be combined with listening to counsel and instruction (verse 20) and especially the counsel and instruction of YHWH (verse 21). For that counsel includes the command to love others as we love ourselves (Leviticus 19.18, 34), something which men desire from us above all else (verse 22). By doing so we will become the most desired of men (verse 22).
The subsection is presented chiastically:
Note that in A the man has compassion on the poor, and in the parallel kindness makes a man desired, and reference is made to a poor man. In B chastening gives a man hope, and in the parallel the counsel of YHWH, (enforced by chastening), will stand and is therefore sure. Centrally in C the man of great wrath, who never learns, has little hope of escaping punishment, whilst in the parallel the one who receives counsel and instruction will be wise in his latter end.
The reference to ‘keeping the commandment’ now leads on to an important part of that commandment, concern for the poor. In Israel the poor were catered for in a number of ways. When it was being observed they could partake of what grew wild in the fields in the Sabbatical year (Leviticus 25.6). They were allowed to follow the reapers and the fruit gatherers and collect leftovers (the gleanings) (Leviticus 19.9-10; 23.22). The tithe every third year was stored so as to meet the needs of the poor (Deuteronomy 14.28-29). Every seventh year there was a year of release when all debts between Israelites had to be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15.1-3). And of special concern with regard to this verse was the command to lend to the poor without interest, and without constraint, even though the lender could not be sure that he would have his loan reimbursed because of the year of release (Deuteronomy 15.7-11). As a consequence the lenders were promised YHWH’s blessing of prosperity.
So the one who has compassion on the poor and lends to YHWH is in fact the one who lends to the poor on YHWH’s instructions, as in Deuteronomy 15.7-11. And by doing so he is lending to YHWH because YHWH is the poor man’s Maker (14.31; 17.5; 22.2). Thus he does not count the cost but lends gladly because of the commandment, and because he is compassionate, and because he is lending to his brother Israelite, in remembrance of the deliverance from bondage in Egypt. And as YHWH has promised, YHWH Himself will repay him. As a consequence his kindness makes him desired by both man and God (verse 22) because he is following the counsel of YHWH (verse 21).
The word ‘have compassion on’ originally meant ‘to bend’, and then began to indicate helping someone of inferior status, and thus to ‘have pity on’. But that pity, if it is to be acceptable, must be out of compassion. No one likes just to be pitied. They do like to be loved. And God has pity on us precisely because of His compassion towards us.
This proverb is, unusually in this section, given as a direct command (compare 16.3), with no implied ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ to it. It is a straightforward instruction and commandment which is to be obeyed. ‘Discipline your children’.
In verse 17 a man had to have compassion on the poor. Here a man must also have compassion on his son. Knowing that there is hope that his son will walk in the way of God’s wisdom, he is to constantly discipline him, for to do otherwise would be the equivalent of setting his heart on killing him. He would know that without discipline his son might end up as a fool (verse 13), and die a fool’s death, and it would be his responsibility. Thus he is to train him in the counsel of YHWH (verse 21). The use of the blatant word ‘killing’, and therefore bringing about his death, brings out that by the alternative he will cause him to ‘live’. The ‘hope’ spoken of is the hope of life and wellbeing, and of final life with God.
In the same way we also should ensure that we discipline our children. ‘Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it’ (22.6). If we leave them just to go in their own way they will simply follow the worst ways of their contemporaries. They will be rudderless, and it may take them far from God. And we will be to blame.
In those days that discipline would mainly be by the rod (10.13; 22.15; 23.13-14; 26.3; 29.15), utilised in love (13.24). Life was hard, time was valuable, and there would be no luxuries to withhold, thus the rod was the accepted and only way. Today we can largely discipline without the rod, for we know of other and, to us, better ways. (The child may not always think so). However, there may be times when only ‘the rod’, or the threat of it, will be effective. But it has its dangers. For if used too often it can brutalise both the dispenser of punishment and the recipient.
The point here is that the man with a very bad and uncontrolled temper will, however much you try to help him, and are willing to cover for him, do the same wrong and foolish things again and again. Thus you will not only have to cover for him, or deliver him from the dilemma that he has fallen into, once, you will have to do it again and again. He lacks control over himself, so that whatever you do, in the end you will not be there to cover for him, or deliver him, and he will suffer the consequences for his actions.
Thus, however hard it may be, there comes a time when you have to step back and let him face the consequences for his bad-tempered actions, while those consequences are not too grave. If he will not respond in any other way, he has to learn the hard way. It is the only way in which he will learn. It is the only way in which he will gain self-control.
There are, however, two further aspects to this proverb. The first is that, before taking the drastic step described above, you should seek means of getting your friend or relative, possibly even your son, to control their tempers. This may be done by persuasion, discipline, or some other means, such as anger management courses. And it will require God’s help and wisdom, for in the end the only hope for deliverance for him, apart from facing the consequences of his actions, will be if he can be given a reason for controlling his temper which is more important than his temper. It is not enough to encourage a person to control their temper, you have to give them sufficient reason for doing so. Many a person has received that reason by coming to Christ, and beginning to walk with Him. Once a man begins to walk with Christ, he realises that his temper is displeasing to Him, and he thus has a more powerful motive for overcoming it. Furthermore he can obtain His help in overcoming it as they walk together.
The second is that it is a warning to bad tempered people to learn to control their tempers, lest one day their tempers rebound on them and they receive their full deserts. Note than in verse 17 a man had compassion on the poor man, in verse 18 he had compassion on his son, here he is to have compassion on his bad tempered friend. The hope for such a man is that he hear and respond to the counsel of YHWH (verse 20), growing in the knowledge of Him and seeking to please Him, so that control of the temper becomes something between Him and God, and in the end by this means he will find deliverance from it.
The man in verse 19 would not listen to counsel and advice. He was controlled by his bad temper. Here we are advised that we should listen to counsel, because it determines our future, both in later days and in eternity. This is the second straightforward commandment in this subsection, but whereas the previous one was to the father, this one is to the son. Here the command is to hear wise advice and receive instruction, and in context that counsel is the unchanging counsel of YHWH (verse 21), although of course communicated through his inspired servants and His word (2.6). In Proverbs such counsel and instruction has been said to be from both YHWH (verse 21), sometimes in the words of Wisdom (1.23 with 30; 8.14), and from wise men (12.15). And the reason given for it is so as to grow in wisdom so that in later days you will be ‘wise’. What we hear now will determine what we will become.
The phrase ‘in your latter end’ (literally ‘in your afterwards’) can signify the ultimate end (5.4, 11; 14.12; 16.25; 20.21), or it can mean ‘afterwards, in later days’ (14.13; 23.32; 25.8; 29.21). Thus this may indicate ‘later’, when you reach maturity, or it may signify being among the wise when you stand before God.
Listening to the counsel of YHWH is the most important thing, for whereas man has many plans, and schemes, and ideas, in his heart, only YHWH’s counsel is solid and permanent. YHWH does not, like man, plan things in the hope that they will come to fruition. He determines them and brings them about. His counsel alone is sure and permanent (compare 21.30-31; Psalm 33.11; Isaiah 14.24; 46.10; Romans 8.28-30), whilst men’s plans are dependent on His will (e.g. Genesis 11.1-9; 50.20; Isaiah 7.7; 10.13-19; etc).
In verse 18 the command was given to discipline our children because there was hope of their becoming wise, while the alternative was their destruction. In verse 20 their hope of becoming wise lay in receiving counsel and instruction. Here it is made plain that that wisdom is based on hearing the unchanging counsel of YHWH (verses 20-21).
The subsection ends with a summary of what has gone before. What men desire in another is ‘covenant love’, that is, compassion, concern and loyalty’ ( chesed=covenant love). It was to be shown to the poor man by lending or giving to him (verse 17). It was to be shown to a son by chastening him, when it would be so easy not to do so (verse 18). It was to be shown to a bad-tempered man by allowing him temporarily to suffer the consequences of his action, and being there to pick up the pieces (verse 19). It will be achieved by listening to the counsel and instruction of YHWH (verse 20-21).
We could paraphrase here as, ‘what people long for in a man is his kindness’. In other words what men most desire of someone is kindness, compassion, covenant love (chesed regularly means this), concern for others. It is this above all which will make a man ‘desired’. An example of it was given in verse 17. It is reminding us that if we would be loved we first must show love, and then people will respond with love.
The second clause reminds us that this applies to someone whether rich or poor. We should not exclude from this the poor man, just because he has no wealth to give. He may not be able to show his kindness and loyalty materially, by lending what is needed (verse 17), but he can lend himself in other ways by giving personal assistance and, if need be, a shoulder to cry on. In this regard he is a far better option than a liar.
When men think of generosity they can tend to think in terms of the wealthy. But what Solomon reminds us of here is that a poor man also has much to offer and can on other ways be equally generous. He should not be overlooked just because he is limited in what he can lend or give. In contrast, no one can expect anything from a liar. He is simply not to be trusted. If he gives you his shoulder to cry on you had better check your pockets afterwards.
The Fear Of YHWH, The Wrath Of The King And The Ways Of The Fool (19.23-20.2).
In this subsection we have, sandwiched between the ideas of the reverent fear of YHWH (verse 23) and the judicial wrath of the king (verse 27), a number of verses which deal with aspects of ‘a fool’ (verse 29). He is a sluggard; a scorner (verses 25, 29); a violent rebel against family authority (verse 26); one who is deaf morally and religiously (verse 27); a false witness (verse 28); and a drunkard (20.1).
But whereas the one who fears YHWH has life, these cause shame and bring reproach (verse 26); will experience judgment and beatings (verse 29); and are unwise (20.1), and may even be in danger of their lives (20.2).
The subsection is presented chiastically:
Note that in A the fear of YHWH tends to life, but in the parallel the king is feared because if he is offended against it tends to death. In B the sluggard is useless because he is too indolent to act, and in the parallel the drunkard errs in the same way. In C we have reference to the benefits arising from the smiting of the scorner, and in the parallel the scorner/fool will receive stripes in order to deal with iniquity. Centrally in D we have reference to a son who is violent and brings shame, and in the parallel we have reference to the son who, if he does not hear instruction, will err.
The consequence of the fear (reverent awe) of YHWH is life (there is no verb in the Hebrew text). For those who fear Him heed His wisdom, and that gives life and leads to life (3.16-18; 4.13, 23; 6.23; 8.35). It results in a life of peace and wellbeing (3.16-18), and hope of being with God in the future (15.24; 14.27; Psalm 16.11; 17.15; 23.6; Ecclesiastes 12.7).
The one who has the fear of YHWH in his heart will pass his time (literally ‘spend the night’, the time of danger) fully satisfied. He will not at all be visited with evil (such as the evil of an offended justice, or of poverty caused by indolence and negligence, or of sickness brought on him as a judgment). This in contrast with the one who faces the terror of the king, for the king will swiftly bring justice on the erring (20.2).
This verse commences a number of verses which deal with aspects of ‘a fool’ (verse 29), who may be a sluggard; a scorner (verses 25, 29); a violent rebel against family authority (verse 26); one who is deaf morally and religiously (verse 27); a false witness (verse 28); or a drunkard (20.1), and to some extent a combination of them.
The sluggard is characterised by extreme laziness. Having put his hand into the dish or pan (in those days the way of eating), he is too lazy to withdraw it again and bring it to his mouth. The effort is too much. He would rather go hungry. In other words the sluggard may make a start at providing for himself, but very soon he ceases any activity, making all kinds of excuses (he is tired (6.10; 20.13), its winter time (20.4), there is a lion outside (22.13)), and thus remains without provision. As a consequence he goes hungry and ends in poverty (6.11; 10.4; 19.15).
Here the scorner (the one who scorns God’s wisdom) is to be used as an example by being beaten, compare also verse 29. If the scorner is beaten the naive (those who have not yet thought out their position) will fear and learn shrewdness (compare 21.11). They will recognise that that could happen to them unless they sort themselves out. They will respond to God’s wisdom. The thought is not that scorners should be beaten simply in order to present an example, but that that is one of the consequences of him being beaten. He is beaten in accordance with the requirement of judges because of his misdemeanours as a punitive measure so that he too might learn (10.13; 19.29). In those days beatings were a regular form of punishment. The important lesson for us is that suitable punishment warns off others who have not yet gone quite so far, whilst lax punishment simply encourages them to folly.
And if ‘the one who has understanding’ (one who is an advance on the naive, having begun to respond to wisdom) is reproved (he does not need quite so harsh a lesson as the naive) he will understand knowledge (the knowledge of God). Reproof will be sufficient for him because he is wise enough to respond to it (15.31-32). So the unthinking naive man needs a sharp lesson, whilst the learner of wisdom simply needs a reproof from which he will learn where he is going wrong and what he should do.
The proverb leaves itself wide open to various interpretations (possibly deliberately). It could refer to attempts by the father and mother to seek the son out and remonstrate with him on his behaviour, which results in the son shaming them, by treating his father with violence (either because the father is old, or because the son calls on his companions to help him), and by chasing away his mother. By doing so he is breaking the fifth commandment to honour his father and mother, and the requirements of wisdom that he heed their instruction (e.g. 1.8-9).
Alternately the thought is that he despoils his father by violence or by arranging his death by some devious means, thereby taking over the family inheritance, and then refuses to honour his responsibility to provide for his mother. He thus brings the shame and reproach of the community on both himself and his family, something which clearly does not concern him. All the instruction that he has been given has not prevented him from erring from the words of knowledge (verse 27).
The former appears more likely as the consequences of the second would surely have been spelled out more vividly.
This would appear to be a plea to the son of verse 26. Nowhere else among the proverbs of Solomon (10.1-22.16) does he refer to the one whom he is instructing as ‘my son’. Thus it would here seem specifically to relate to the situation in verse 26. He is saying to the son, ‘my son, stop doing this; stop ignoring the instruction of your father and mother; stop listening to it only to rebel against it and wander from the ways of knowledge.’ This would serve to confirm that the son was not yet seen as being without hope, which would explain why the father had not carried out his right to approach the elders and have his son stoned for rebelling against authority (Deuteronomy 21.18-21).
It also stands as a warning to the children of Christian parents who come under sound preaching and refuse to let it affect their lives and their way of living. They too are hearing instruction, only to err from the ways of knowledge.
These next two proverbs, which need to be seen together, raise the question of the ‘worthless witness who mocks at/scorns justice’, either by giving false witness, or by acting as a worthless testifier in decrying the whole system of justice, in other words an anarchist or a rebel. He brings justice into disrepute. This is depicted also in terms of ‘the mouth of the unrighteous swallowing iniquity’ (they are the opposite of the mouth of the sluggard which failed to swallow food - verse 24). He and they can at justice by their attitude (he will not swallow justice) while at the same time swallowing iniquity. Making a mockery of justice does not bother him, nor does behaving iniquitously. Such people will swallow anything evil, for they are out for their own ends. They thereby scorn justice and behave as fools.
But they will not, and cannot be allowed, to get away with such an attitude. Thus judgments have been prepared for them as scorners and fools, (two of the categories of ‘unwise’ people in the Prologue, the third being the naive - 1.22), and these judgments will result in punitive lashings. These will be the consequences of the terror of the king against their treason ( 20.2), spoken of in 19.12 as the wrath of the king. In this case terror and wrath are identified in that both are ‘as the roaring of the lion’. And if the king is unable to bring them to justice, then they can be sure that YHWH will, for the whole subsection is sandwiched between the fear of YHWH as Moral Governor and righteous Judge (19.23), and the king as his representative (20.2). To a point the fear of YHWH parallels the terror of the kings, although one is a reverent awe, while the other comes from an awareness of stern justice, without the compassion which is a feature of YHWH.
The fool’s behaviour is caused by many things. Indolence (19.24), scorn of God’s wisdom (19.25), rejection of family (19.26); a despising of earthly and heavenly justice (19.28-29), and now another aspect is introduced, drunkenness. Surprisingly this is the first time that it has been specifically mentioned, although it has been hinted at in 4.17; compare also 5.8-9. It is all of a part with the fool’s behaviour.
Note that wine also is described as a ‘scorner (mocker)’, linking drunkenness with the scorners of 19.25, 28, 29. Wine too is a scorner, and by partaking of it men become scorners (verse 25). Strong drink is a brawler, and by partaking of it men become brawlers. We may well be intended to link this with the violence of the foolish son (verse 26). Both take away men’s wisdom. Once they have partaken they are no longer wise but fools, and as a consequence they err and wander from the true path, just as a drunkard cannot walk straight. They despise virtue, laugh at injustice, and behave violently. It was ‘wine’ that made Noah drunk so that he exposed himself in his tent (Genesis 9.21, 24). It was ‘wine’ that was used by the daughters of Lot in order to make their father drunk so that they could impregnate themselves (Genesis 19.32-35). It was not to be drunk by priest’s at such a time as to affect them when they went into the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10.9). It was forbidden to the Nazarite who dedicated himself to God (Numbers 6.3-4). It was thus seen as potent, and as preventing a man from coming too close to God. Strong drink (possibly strong beer) was equally potent so that the same would apply.
There were milder wines (so much depended on the level of fermentation) and these were no doubt mainly the wines mentioned elsewhere with approval, including the wine produced by Jesus at Cana (John 2; Jesus would hardly have produced a strong wine when men would already be well intoxicated), and the wine recommended to Timothy because the water at Ephesus caused him stomach problems (it was proverbially unwholesome water). Paul was recommending Timothy to drink wine instead of water and he hardly wanted him to become inebriated (1 Timothy 5.23; as he was drinking it instead of water the ‘little’ would not be so little).
As we come to the end of the subsection we see that as with the wrath of the king in 19.12, so here with the terror of the king, it is as the roaring of the young lion as it sets about on its hunt. The use of the term ‘terror’ of the king is almost certainly in order to compare and contrast with the ‘fear’ of YHWH in 19.23, with which the subsection opened. Together they form an inclusio. But whereas the fear of YHWH indicates reverent submission to a loving covenant God, although recognising that He can also be a stern judge, the terror of the king concentrates more on His being a judge to be feared. The lion roared in order to bring his prey into submission, and the king ‘roars’ for the same reason. He wants his subjects to be aware of his awesome majesty, and he want lawbreakers to shiver at the thought of him, indeed to be aware that he who transgresses against him, provoking him to anger, also transgresses against his own life. There was no thought of reaching out in loving compassion and forgiveness as there was with YHWH. His sole thought was of justice and punishment. He wants the sluggard, and the rebel against family authority, and the scorner, and the fool, and the drunkard, to remember that if to his knowledge they take one step outside the law, he will swiftly bring them to account. So the fear of YHWH results in life (19.23). The terror of the king threatens life (20.2).
Wise Men And Fools, And The Seeing Eye Of The King And The All-Seeing Eye Of God (20.3-14).
This subsection is made up of a number of moral assessments centred around the thought of the king seated on his throne of justice, and the verdict of God on humanity (verses 8-9). It follows immediately on the previous subsection which, within inclusios concerning the fear of the YHWH and the fear of the king, had looked at various types of unrighteous men, such as the sluggard, the scorner, the rebel against family authority, the worthless witness, fools and drunkards, all of whom might well be subject to courts of justice. This subsection, however, deals more with general morality, and the wisdom and folly of the more law-abiding (but not totally law-abiding). The sluggard appears in both subsections, but whereas in the previous subsection the emphasis was on his total indolence, the emphasis in this subsection is on the consequences of his indolence, which are going hungry and not having sufficient food (verses 4, 13).
On the one hand the man of honour abstains from strife (verse 3); he advises and guides people (verse 5); he is trustworthy in carrying out his responsibility of covenant love (verse 6); he walks in his integrity, and his children are blessed (verse 7). On the other the fool is always quarrelling (verse 3); as a sluggard he finds excuses for not ploughing (verse 4); he is confused (verse 5); and he makes more of his loyalty to the concept of covenant love than is justified (verse 6).
This is then followed by reference to the king as the righteous judge, who deals with all evil by winnowing men with his eye, and thus by a look separating the wheat from the chaff (which is how he wants his people to see him), and an indication of God’s verdict on all humanity (verse 8-9). After which we have reference to those who use false weights (verse 10); and a warning concerning the deceitful ways of the buyer of goods (verse 14), interspersed with which is the recognition that even a child’s ways are known for what they are morally (verse 11); a reminder that YHWH has provided the king and his servants with eyes that see and ears that hear (verse 12); and a call on the righteous not to sleep but to work hard (verse 13). Nothing escapes the eyes of God.
One central theme is that in the end none are pure before God, all reveal themselves as impure in His sight. This includes the fool (verse 3); the sluggard (verse 4); the smooth hypocrite (verse 6); the business man (verses 10, 14); and even the child (verse 11). And we can probably also add the man who walks in his integrity (verse 7). He may be satisfactory in the king’s eyes. He is not satisfactory in God’s eyes. For all have in one way or another transgressed.
The subsection is presented chiastically:
Note that in A it is an honour to keep aloof from strife, and in the parallel it is unwise to get involved in strife with a buyer because you will lose out. In B the sluggard will not plough, therefore he will not eat and will have nothing, and in the parallel we are advised not to be a sluggard lest we come to poverty. In C a man of understanding draws out deep counsel, and in the parallel YHWH has made all the ways by which men understand and receive deep counsel. In D a man proclaims his supposed qualities but finding a man who carries them out in practise is a problem, and in the parallel even a child makes himself known by his moral doings. In E a righteous man walks in his integrity, and in the parallel, to use differing weights is an abomination to YHWH. Centrally in F a king sitting as a judge winnows away evil with his eyes (separating the wheat from the chaff), and in the parallel all are seen as to some extent evil.
The subsection opens by contrasting the honourable man with the fool. The honourable man is seen as honourable because he abstains from strife and contention. He does not enter into needless arguments, or seek to set himself up against others. He is balanced in his thinking and willing to concede that others may be right. He seeks to keep the peace and maintain harmony. He is respected in the community. He is not taken in by the haggling of dishonest businessmen (verse 14).
In contrast the fool delights in quarrelling. He is always arguing, loves dissension, thinks himself always right, and is not concerned about maintaining harmony. He does not see the broader view. He rarely has social status. He haggles with dishonest buyers and always comes off worst (verse 14).
One aspect of the quarrelsome fool is indolence. He argues against working in the winter because the weather is bad, but really it is because he does not want to work. He loves arguing, he hates working. But as a consequence his arrogance will turn into servility, for when the harvest comes round he will enjoy no harvest. He will have nothing (compare 13.4) and will have to beg for food (compare 6.11; 19.15), going to the storehouses of the Levites to share in what had been retained for the poor and needy (Deuteronomy 14.28-29) and/or going out with those who gather up the gleanings (Leviticus 19.9-10). He will have no seed for sowing in readiness for the next year’s harvest. He is on the road to dire poverty (6.11).
Ploughing, which began with the coming of the rainy season, when the ground had been softened, was hard work. The plough was a wooden frame to which a metal point was attached for the purpose of breaking up the ground. Those who had oxen or donkeys would use them to drag the plough, but the poorest would have to drag it themselves. The indolent saw it as something to be avoided at all costs, and thus their strips of land would regularly be filled with thorn bushes (15.19). But to sow on unbroken or thorny ground was to guarantee a bad harvest. Proverbs lays a great stress on the importance of hard work and the dangers of being indolent. It is a theme which comes up again and again (6.6-11; 10.4-5, 26; 12.24; 13.4; 15.19; 18.9; 19.15, 24; 21.25; 22.13).
God calls on us to ‘break up our fallow ground’ (the contentment with sin in our hardened hearts) if we want to seek Him so that He will rain righteousness and deliverance on us (Hosea 10.12). There can be no blessing without our hearts being ‘broken up’, thus the spiritually lazy will be lacking in blessing..
In contrast to the quarrelsome fool is the honourable man, the man of understanding (note the inner chiasmus in verses 3-5, honourable man - quarrelsome fool - sluggard - man of understanding). The man of understanding acts as a counsellor. For those who are willing to hear he draws out from the deep waters of men’s hearts the wisdom that they need. This picture of deep water has in mind the murky depths of men’s hearts, unfathomable and hidden depths of which men are unaware which only the wise can bring to the surface (compare 18.4). The sluggard, who cannot be bothered to plough his ground, can also not be bothered with the counsel that lies deep in his heart. It is too much effort to ‘draw it out’. Thus it is left to the man of understanding to seek to do it for him. But he can only do it if the man is willing.
And the man of understanding is able to do this because YHWH has given him a seeing eye and a hearing ear (verse 12). It is because he has received wisdom as a gift from YHWH (2.6) that he is able to draw out wisdom from the depths of men’s hearts. There is a reminder in this that in men there is that which should bring them into a knowledge of God (Romans 1.18-20; 2.14-15), but it is hidden deep within them and has to be ‘drawn out’.
The contrast between the wise and the foolish, the righteous (verse 7) and the unrighteous, continues. Most men are good at talking about how faithful they are to the covenant, and how they love God and their neighbour, but those who are actually faithful and trustworthy in that regard are so few that they are difficult to find. Compare Jeremiah’s search in Jerusalem for such faithful men (Jeremiah 5.1). Talk is easy, but it is of no use without action. That is the lazy man’s way. For even a child makes himself known by his actions, and reveals whether what he claims for himself is actually true. It is his actions which reveal whether he is pure and upright (verse 11). And if that is true for a child, it is even moreso for an adult.
Indeed, Israel’s problem was always that they convinced themselves that they were being faithful to the covenant, even when they were in the greatest breach of it. The prophets were sent in order to demonstrate this, but in practise Israel as whole mainly ignored them, proclaiming their own virtues, and continually suffered the consequences.
The one who is truly faithful to his obligation of covenant love (verse 6), the righteous man, walks in his integrity. His actions suit his words. His life reveals covenant love in practise. And as a consequence his children are blessed after him. He passes on his integrity and righteousness of life to his children. If they do go astray the fault will not be his. They will also be safe from the eagle eye of the king as he winnows evil from society (verse 8). There is a warning in this to all parents. What they are tends to pass on to their children (as do the sinful ways of the unrighteous - Exodus 20.5).
We are now presented with the picture of the righteous king sat on his throne of judgment. As the representative of God (Romans 13.1-4) he has the responsibility for justice throughout the whole realm. His eyes are everywhere, and as a consequence he winnows away all evil by dealing with all evildoers. To winnow is to separate the wheat from the chaff. This would often be carried out by use of a threshing instrument drawn by oxen, a heavy wooden board with metal or stones attached underneath (see verse 26). The mixture obtained would then be tossed in the air so that the wind could carry away the chaff. It presented a vivid picture of the judicial activity of the king.
It is possible that ‘his eyes’ represent those whom he has appointed to act on his behalf (his own courtiers, the tribal and clan fathers, the local elders at the gate of the city, etc.). They are his eyes, and they carry out justice on his behalf. (Compare ‘For the eyes of YHWH run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is perfect towards Him’ (2 Chronicles 16.9)). Or it may include the thought that his piercing look makes evildoers tremble as they face his verdict.
But if the piercing eyes of the king were able to perform their function properly, and truly examine the human heart all would in the end be found guilty. We thus move on here to the piercing eye of God. Before God no man is innocent. No one can claim to have made himself clean, no one can claim to be pure from sin (offence). For we cannot make ourselves clean. There is only One Who can do that (Psalm 51.10; Jeremiah 33.8; Corinthians 6.11; 1 John 1.7-8). In the Old Testament water never ‘cleansed’. That was either accomplished by waiting before God or by the blood-sprinkled water of purification. Furthermore no one is pure from sin. Such a state can only be ours through the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5.21). Man’s hope in the final Day can only be based on the mercy and compassion of God, most fully revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Differing weight and measure are used here as a prime example of man’s impurity as mentioned in verse 9. They would rarely involve court action, for weights naturally differed (no two weights were exactly the same), and it would be difficult to prove the misuse of them. But dishonest merchants (and Levites) would have in their bags two weight purporting to be of the same weight, but with one smaller than the other. When buying (or measuring the tithe) he would use the larger one in order to obtain a larger quantity, when selling he would use the smaller one in order to have to give less. He did not thus ‘walk in integrity’ (verse 7). Like the sluggard in verse 4 he wants riches by slick methods rather than by honest toil. He is the opposite of the righteous man who walks in his integrity (verse 7). He is an unrighteous man who walks in deceit.
It is tempting to think that one thing that turned Solomon’s mind at this point to differing weights was the contrast in verses 8-9 between different levels of purity. On the one hand was the ‘purity’ demanded by the court of justice and the king, conformity to the laws, and on the other hand the total purity demanded by God, conformity to His righteousness (thus in 21.3 it is YHWH who weighs the hearts).
Differing weights, which would daily be used among His people, concerned God greatly. Every purchase from a merchant involved the use of weights. And certainly wherever different weights are mentioned they are always tied to the idea of God’s concern about them. Differing weights are one of the things that God abominates (compare 16.11; 20.23). What is meant by differing weights (in the Hebrew ‘weights weights’) is explained in Deuteronomy 25.13. It signified ‘a big and a small’, that is two weights carried in the merchant’s bag which purported to be of the same weight but did in fact differ. He would use one for buying and one for selling. He was thus continually deliberately defrauding people. It was not the differing weights themselves that YHWH abominated (weights were rarely exactly the same in those days even when standard weights were issued with the king’s seal on them) but the deliberate fraud involved in their use. They summed up all dishonest trading, and indeed could be used by dishonest Levites in order to obtain a larger tithe.
In verse 3 the fool made himself known by his behaviour. In verse 4 the sluggard made himself known by his behaviour. In verse 6 men as a whole made themselves known by their behaviour. In verse 7 the righteous man made himself known by his behaviour. In verse 10 the merchants made themselves known by their behaviour. Now we learn that even a child makes himself known by his moral behaviour, ‘whether his action be pure or whether it be right (note the parallel with ‘clean and pure’ in verse 10). The point is that some of his actions are not pure (compare Psalm 58.3). All are thus found to come short of God’s perfect measure of purity (verse 10).
In the light of verse 8 we must see the seeing eye as the king’s. Seated on his throne of justice his eyes winnow all evil. But in verse 9 we learned that there are some sins which are outside the king’s purview. They are sins which only God sees. And in verse 5 (in the chiastic parallel) we learned of the ‘man of understanding’ who can discern what is in men’s hearts. He both hears and sees as God has given him the ability. In consequence we are to see that whoever has a hearing ear and a seeing eye in order to observe wisdom and folly must recognise that it has come from YHWH. It is He Who has made/provided both of them. Through them He keeps His watch upon the world.
Thus the positive call now comes to men, not to love sleep like the sluggard does, but to open their eyes (awaken from sleep) and work hard. Then, instead of experiencing poverty, they will be satisfied with bread, they will have ample to eat, unlike the sluggard in the chiastic parallel who has nothing and has to beg.
But in contrast to the honest hard worker of verse 13 and the honourable man in verse 3 who avoids strife, is the deceitful business man who engages in strife so as to increase his profits. When he examines goods which people offer him for sale, he shakes his head and says, ‘it is bad, it is bad’ and points out all its defects. (Note how the ‘bad, bad’ parallels the ‘weight weight’ of verse 10. Both are involved in the practising of deceit). But as soon as he has gone away he boasts about how clever he has been, and how cheaply he has obtained the goods. Like the fool in verse 3 his words reveal his dishonour. In verse 3 the honourable man avoided strife. Here the dishonest man engages in it in bargaining.
A Man Is Known By His Words (20.15-22).
The final verse of the previous subsection in which the unscrupulous buyer used his lips in order to deceive the seller now leads into a series of verses to do with the mouth and lips, implicitly or explicitly. We could summarise these as referring to knowledgeable words (verse 15); foolish words (verse 16); false words (verse 17); wise words (verse 18); slanderous words (verse 19); cursing words (verse 20); hasty words (verse 21); and vengeful words (verse 22).
What is most precious to a man is to be able to speak with the lips of knowledge, the knowledge of God and His ways (2.5), and to avoid folly such as acting as a surety or being deceitful (verse 15-17). For the man of wisdom can guide men both in peace and in war (verse 18), whilst the one who is a tale-bearer should be avoided (verse 19), the one who curses father and mother should be put to death (verse 20), the one who deviously obtain his inheritance will not find it a blessing (verse 21), and it is better to wait on YHWH than to act vindictively (verse 22).
It can be presented chiastically as follows:
Note than in A the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel and in the parallel to have the knowledge of God and avoid vengeful words is to have confidence in YHWH. In B one who acts as surety for foreigners loses his rights under the Law, and in the parallel one who obtains an inheritance by devious means loses the blessing of YHWH. In C ‘eating’ falsehood results in severe punishment, and in the parallel cursing a parent leads to severe punishment. Centrally in D wise guidance is contrasted with revealing secrets.
The point here is that a better adornment for men and women than jewellery made of gold and red coral, is the ability to speak knowledgeably about God and His ways. In Proverbs ‘knowledge’ always mean the knowledge of God and His ways (2.5-9). Men may treasure gold and an abundance of red coral (highly treasured and found in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea), for with it they can make precious jewels for adornment, but what is a better adornment, and more valuable, than any jewellery that they can produce are the ‘lips of knowledge’, the ability to speak wisely and knowledgeably about God and His ways. In 3.14-15 it was wisdom and understanding which were better than gold, silver and red coral, here it is that wisdom put into words.
The word translated as red coral is, apart from in Proverbs, only otherwise used in Lamentations 4.7 where they were clearly red (rubies (and diamonds) appear to have been unknown in the Old Testament period). Whatever it is, it is not named among the lists of jewels found elsewhere outside Proverbs (Exodus 28.17-20; 39.10-11; Ezekiel 28.13), and as here there is an abundance of it, it suggests something not quite so valuable, but highly prized and widely used for jewellery.
Combined with the parallel in the chiasmus the point is further made that being able to speak knowledgeably about God and His ways, enables a man to wait for YHWH to act in the face of evil, rather than speaking and acting revengefully in response to evil. As it says in Deuteronomy 32.35, ‘vengeance is Mine, and recompense’. It is emphasising that wise words are better than vengeful words.
This is the first of two proverbs concerning words of folly, and the activities of the unwise who reject the wisdom of God. In this case they will result in losing all possessions. In verse 17 they will result in having gravel put in the mouth. Verses 16 and 17 are linked by the use of ‘rb, in the first case meaning ‘becomes surety’ in the second case meaning ‘being sweet’.
One way in which naive men used their lips was in acting as a surety in return for a commission. This would include loans made to non-Israelites in respect of smaller sums where the surety was in respect of the value of an outer garment. The lender (or an outside observer) is being advised that if a man is such a fool as to act as surety in such cases he should act quickly and seize the garment before the fool has lost it elsewhere (or even repledged it). Where the loan is a larger one he is advised to hold the surety to his pledge for a similar reason, (before the time comes for the loan to be redeemed the fool will have lost all his possessions) taking over whatever was pledged. As we do not know the terms under which a man acted as surety we cannot know whether this was legal (in any event, if it was the outer cloak it had to be returned to the surety each night so that he could sleep in it). However, Solomon is probably not really advising all lenders to foreigners to do this, but rather vividly bringing out the folly of suretyship and the consequent unreliability of the surety, something that he has emphasised elsewhere (6.1-5; 11.15; 17.18). This verse is almost paralleled in 27.13. It is a vivid way of saying, ‘only a fool becomes a surety for thereby he comes into the power of the lender’, and possibly also ‘do not be fool enough to accept surety from someone who has shown himself by his act of suretyship to be an unreliable fool’.
In mind here may be deceitful words used by the con man. The basic idea here is that whilst food obtained by fraudulent means is sweet at the time, it will eventually turn out to be very unpleasant indeed. In this case ‘bread of falsehood’ is being seen as food obtained by fraudulent means. But it may also be speaking of anything enjoyed by fraudulent means (‘what you partake of by falsehood’). These proceeds of fraud might seem pleasant for a time, but they will rebound on a man and result in broken teeth (the effect of having gravel put in the mouth - Lamentations 3.16). It is possible that this was actually the punishment inflicted for stealing food in times when food was short, such as during a siege, which is here being used as a warning of dire consequences for fraud.
The overall message is that the fruit of fraud and deceit may bring present enjoyment, but it will inevitably result in dire consequences, either at the hands of the king’s justices, or at the hands of God. Indeed, only one attitude is seen as worse, and that is the attitude of the man who curses his father and mother (verse 20), presumably for standing in his way. That is to rebel against society and the judicial process, For the father was the first step in the line of justice, which would then proceed upwards to father of the wider family, clan leader, tribal leader and chief justices, with the king at the head. The punishment for that was death.
This proverb now centrally emphasises the importance of continually heeding good counsel (compare 15.22). Those purposes of man which last are the ones established on the basis of constantly listening to wise advice, whether that of the wise or of God. Had the surety listened to advice he would not have become a surety (verse 16). Had the prospective con man listened to advice he would not have become a con man, with its dire consequences (verse 17). Had the son heeded wise advice he would not have cursed his father and his mother, with its even direr consequences (verse 20). All chose the quick way to wealth rather than the established way (honesty and hard work). It is wise (godly) advice that makes a project sure, both at its commencement, and then as it proceeds. And that is equally true in peace or in war. Today Solomon would have said, ‘don’t forget your planning and budgeting!’
For those responsible for the conducting of a war, which includes war ministers, generals and senior officers, should equally ensure that they receive wise and godly guidance (compare 11.14; 24.6). In those days war was sadly one of the chief functions of rulers. There were always those around who would make use of any sign of weakness, and it was necessary always to be on the alert. And Solomon is saying that wherever it occurred it must be well conducted, and conducted in accordance with God’s requirements as revealed by the wise men, otherwise YHWH would not be on their side. Due to the size of his empire Solomon would have had to leave the defence of the realm in the hands of others and so this warning was well needed.
One important aspect of the advice being sought was that it should not be sought from those who reveal secrets (verse 19). That could be fatal to the conduct of any enterprise, and especially the enterprise of war. Thus blabbermouths should not be numbered among the wise (verse 19), that is in this case, among those who are seen as suitable military advisers, and thus as privy to war secrets. It would equally be necessary in large business enterprises.
It is not accidental that in the chiasmus this is paralleled with verse 18. It is an essential part of advice for the conducting of any enterprise, and especially that of war. Espionage was a central plank of warfare. And tale-bearers and blabbermouths an essential element for obtaining information.
But it is equally true in daily life. The tale-bearer, forbidden to be such by the Law (Leviticus 19.16), stirred up dissension and division, in the community, among neighbours, and within the family. He was thus a ‘worthless man’ abominated by YHWH (6.12, 19). As a consequence the wise do not number among their friends those who cannot keep control of their mouths and tongues.
Compare Exodus 21.17; Leviticus 20.9. This does not, of course simply refer to a young man who under his breath swears at his father and mother because he is annoyed about something. It includes deriding them and seeking to undermine their authority by publicly demeaning them (1 Samuel 2.30; Isaiah 23.9). It includes the idea of lightly esteeming them in front of others (2 Samuel 6.22). It involved trying to bring down cursing on them rather than blessing (compare Genesis 12.3; Psalm 62.4). In other words it was a determined attempt to destroy their position in the community (as with the talebearer), to undermine their authority in the family, and to wish ill upon them. This may well have been, in some cases, because he wished to take over the family inheritance (verse 21). It was to rebel, not only against his parents who had been set over him by God (Deuteronomy 27.16), but also against the accepted norms of society. It was also rebellion against the king, for the father was the last in the line of authority that extended down from the king, and responsible to maintain justice in society, so that he was actually expected to report gross infringements to the elders (Deuteronomy 21.18-21). It was thus rebellion against both God and man.
His ‘lamp’ indicates his cognisant self, himself as a person who is aware of life and people, although in his case not of God. It is the ‘spirit’ within him (verse 27). Its snuffing out involves death. That it was in extreme darkness indicates the awfulness of his death. There was no light ahead.
This does not mean that the receipt of the inheritance was rushed through. It indicates rather the receiving of an inheritance in advance of when it should have been received. It might be brought about by the maligning of his mother and father in the eyes of the community so that they despair and hand over the inheritance. Or it might be by arranging the death of his father in some way or frightening him into submission, especially if he was an old man (compare 19.26). Or it could be by approaching his father and persuading him to hand over his share of the inheritance in advance (compare the prodigal son). But in none of these cases would the inheritance result in receiving blessing, that is blessing by prospering or bringing enjoyment and satisfaction. YHWH would see to that. (It would, of course be different if it was a voluntary arrangement suggested by, and overseen by, a willing father for the welfare of the whole family).
The subsection ends with a warning to the wise man in whose lips is knowledge (verse 20.15), not to seek vengeance against someone who has brought evil on him. This was a requirement of the Torah (Leviticus 19.18). It would not apply where duty demanded a certain course of action, such as reporting an extremely wayward son to the elders. But it might be seen as applying in the lesser examples of filial misbehaviour, or in the case of the malicious talebearer, or the con man. And it would apply to all attempts by people to bring evil against us.
The thought is not that no attempt should be made to remedy the situations. Legal redress and compensation could be sought, rumours could be scotched and the truth made known, an attempt could be made to avert the evil. The thought is rather that personal vengeance should not be sought. There should be no inter-family feuds. No attempt should be made to ‘get our own back’. We should not indulge in tit for tat (all of which could result in further retaliation). Rather vengeance should be left to YHWH, Who has promised, ‘vengeance and recompense belong to Me’ (Deuteronomy 32.35). Thus for revenge, as opposed to remedy, we should wait on YHWH Who has promised that He will deliver us. It is a fitting conclusion to the subsection.
Man May Think That He Chooses His Own Way, But YHWH Is Sovereign Over All (20.23-21.2).
The subsection commences with man’s use of false weights (20.23) as he does what is right in his own eyes (21.2), (something which reveals the wickedness of his heart and is an abomination to YHWH), and God’s use of weights in that He weighs men’s hearts (21.2). The two verse form an inclusio.
The subsection is an interplay between man living in accord with his own ideas, and the overall control of YHWH Who finally determines everything and weighs men’s hearts. Thus, man weigh things by his own false standards (20.23), whilst YHWH weighs man by His (21.2). Man thinks that he understands his way, not realising that it is YHWH who finally controls man’s steps, (and the king’s - 21.1), and the consequence is that men do not fully understand the way in which they go (20.24). That is why men should not vow rashly, thinking that they know the right way (20.25). Rather they should wait for YHWH’s leading. For YHWH has placed over men His righteous king, who will sift out their ways (21.26). And He has placed within man his spirit which is His lamp, laying open his innermost parts (20.27). The true glory of the king is to walk in covenant love and truth which will uphold his throne (20.28), the true glory of young men is their strength which enables them to work hard (20.29), the true glory of old men is their white hairs revealing their wisdom (20.29; see 16.31); but all, especially the young men, are subject to YHWH’s discipline, often through his representatives (20.30). Even the king’s heart is like a water-channel, directed in whatever way YHWH wills (21.1). Men do what is right in their own eyes, but they should remember that YHWH weighs their hearts (21.2).
The subsection can be presented chiastically:
Note that in A man weighs with false weights, whilst in the parallel YHWH weighs with true weights. Man’s goings are of YHWH and in the parallel the king’s goings are of YHWH. In C men reveal their lack of wisdom by hasty vows, and the king winnows the unrighteous, and in the parallel grey hairs reveal the wisdom of the old, whilst the king cleanses the unrighteous with beatings. In D the spirit of man is the lamp of YHWH within him, searching out his innermost being, and in the parallel what comes from the king’s spirit is covenant love and truth which preserve the king and his throne.
It will be noted that in each C two verses are cited This was necessary because the king clearly wanted verse 25 to be related to verse 24 (a man makes rash vows because he cannot understand YHWH’s ways) and with verse 26 (where the king punishes the false vow-maker). And he wanted verse 30, which speaks of chastening kept apart from verse 28, which speaks of the king’s covenant love and integrity, and following verse 29, for it demonstrates how the strong young man became the wise old man (through chastening). He thus had to partially break the smoothness of the chiasmus at this point.
This verse forms an inclusio with verse 21.2 where YHWH weighs the hearts of men. It thus contrasts unrighteous man, who uses false weights, with the One Who uses true weights. Man’s ways are revealed to be very different from God’s ways, and in this case to be an abomination to Him. Its message is that God positively hates all falsity, including false business practises.
Differing weights (a man carrying two weights in his bag purporting to be the same weight, but differing in weight) and a false balance (scales which gave false value) were a good way of depicting man’s sinfulness, for they were outward evidence of what was in man’s heart. They were continuing, indisputable material evidence of what was in men’s hearts. They were a tangible evidence of man’s ‘ways’ (20.24; 21.2).
In the light of verse 22 men could also probably infer from this that they were not to retaliate against false business practises by indulging in them themselves. Just because someone else used false weights and balances was no reason why others should retaliate by using them themselves. The wise businessman would, of course, carry his own weights and balances. He could soon check the weight of what was being sold to him. But he must not use smart practise back. Nor must he use them on others. Sadly the one who lost out with false weights and balances was the end customer who had no way of checking their accuracy, many of whom would be poor. This was no doubt one reason for God’s strength of feeling against them. As so often, in the final analysis it was the poor who were being constantly swindled.
This concern of YHWH with dishonest business practises and smart dealing has already been brought out in 20.10, 14 (see also 11.1) They are constantly described as an abomination to Him (11.1; 20.14), and are here seen to be in complete contrast with what He is and what He does. They are ‘not good’. They are not for the wellbeing of the community. On the other hand just weights and balances in a businessman’s bag are said to be specifically ‘His work’ (16.11). In that case God is seen to have had a part in their making and in the fashioning of the wise and honest businessman. ‘His goings are of YHWH’ (verse 24). This is all a reminder that God takes a personal interest in our business practises, and that we cannot keep business and religion in separate compartments. Our business practises actually express our religious beliefs. To say that ‘religion and business don’t mix’ is to deny God, for He is seen in Proverbs as directly concerned in all our business practises.
But the main aim of the proverb in context was to establish the difference between man’s ways and God’s ways, giving tangible evidence of man’s ways, and of God’s abomination of them. They establish that really man does not understand God’s ways. For if he did he would not use false weights and balances. (Of course, not all literally used false weights and balances. But all did in one way or another deceive others. For the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked which is why only YHWH can know it - Jeremiah 17.9).
We have here a firm statement of God’s sovereignty in the affairs of men. Man cannot understand his way, because without his knowing it his goings are under YHWH’s direction. In the words of 16.9, ‘a man’s heart plans his way, but YHWH directs his steps’ (see also 19.21). Man walks in his own wisdom (and thus uses false weights). But if only he was wise he would recognise that all a man’s goings are ‘of YHWH’. In the final analysis they are directed by Him. And if he realised that he would behave differently. Thus Proverbs is not a presentation of man’s wisdom, for man does not understand his way, it is a presentation of YHWH’s wisdom, which if men receive they will understand His way (2.5 ff.).
Indeed, YHWH involves Himself to such an extent in men’s ways that it leaves men puzzled. They do not understand why things do not quite seem to be going as they planned. They cannot understand their way. And the reason for that is given. It is due to YHWH’s direct involvement in their lives. And it is not surprising that man cannot understand God’s ways, for man weighs himself with false weights (verse 23), whilst YHWH weighs man with true weights (21.2).
Men may think that they manage without God. But what they fail to realise is that all their goings (the steps that they take) are of YHWH. That does not mean that He makes them behave in the way that they do, but that in His sovereignty He is in overall control of their lives, and directs as He pleases. That is why when men (adam - earthly men) view the course of their own lives they see things that they do not, and cannot, understand. They are puzzled that certain things have happened. And this is because of their failure to recognise that YHWH does involve Himself in the affairs of men, and specifically in their affairs. And that is why the wise man, the believer, can ‘wait on YHWH’ for Him to recompense men for what they do (verse 22), because he knows that both his and their ways are in His hands.
The mighty King of Assyria thought that he and his gods were determining the course of his life and his campaigns. He did not realise that YHWH was using him as ‘the rod of His anger’ (Isaiah 10.5-7, 15). King Nebuchadnezzar thought that he was in charge of his operations against the nations. He did not realise that he was YHWH’s ‘servant’ (Jeremiah 25.9).
One way in which a man reveals his lack of understanding of his own ways is in respect of hastily made vows from which he cannot retreat. He acts precipitately because he is not waiting on God (20.22). He thinks that he understands what his way will be when he makes his vow (verse 24) and suddenly he realises that he did not. If only he had waited on God for His prompting so that He could direct his goings it would have been different (20.24). But once he has made his vow there is no getting out of it. He is bound by it (Ecclesiastes 4.4-5). In the enthusiasm of the moment he has unthinkingly set something or someone apart and said, ‘this is holy (set apart as God’s)’, and he now possibly wishes he had not.
We can compare here Jephthah in Judges 11.31 who vowed rashly and lived to regret it. For when man starts to think about his rash vow he begins to ask himself questions as to whether he has been wise. But it is too late. He cannot change his mind. He is trapped. He cannot undo his vow. For if a contract made with man is binding, how much more a contract voluntarily entered into with God. He may have committed more than with hindsight he wants to give, or can afford to give. He has ensnared himself. Thus what should have been a continued blessing which he could enjoy, as he gladly fulfilled his vow, could become a snare which he regrets, trapping him in his course of action. And all because he was not sure of his ways and did not look to YHWH to determine his goings.
Standing on its own the proverb has an important message for us. It is saying, ‘do not make vows before God without due thought, Think first and then vow’. It is one thing to sing, ‘I surrender all’ in the emotion of a meeting, it is quite another to say it deliberately in the context of the home or workplace.
In the chiasmus this verse is joined with the previous one. A man who breaks his vow to YHWH will harm not only himself but the nation. He has revealed himself as unrighteous and deserving of just punishment, and brings down the wrath of YHWH. Thus the man who has made a broken vow has opened himself to being ‘winnowed’ (compare verse 8) and separated out as chaff (the useless part of the grain), something which the wise king will do. For the wise king is concerned about anything that might put the nation in the wrong with YHWH.
And this applies not only to broken vows but to all unrighteousness. For the proverb stresses the importance of the king as the one who, as YHWH’s representative, should exercise true justice and get rid of all unrighteousness. The wise king sifts out the unrighteous as a farmer sifts the wheat from the chaff by driving over the full grain a threshing cart, the wheels of which have metal or stone projections on them. Later he uses remedial corporal punishment if necessary with the hope that men may learn and become righteous (20.30). He recognises the importance of maintaining righteousness, because he knows that his throne is upheld by the proper exercise of covenant love (verse 28). .
It is not only the king who searches out men’s hearts. YHWH has placed within man His own ‘breath of life’ (Genesis 2.7), the spirit within a man, and this spirit is the lamp of YHWH within man lighting up what he is (compare the spirit of God’s wisdom in 1.23). It searches out his innermost parts. The neshamah is often paralleled with the ruach (spirit) and thus here basically indicates a man’s spirit. See for this Job 27.3; 34.14: Is 57.16, where neshamah=ruach. (see also Job 33.4). There is that within man which shows him to be whatever he is. Thus man is continually vetted both by God and by king.
Some would read from the neshamah the idea of words which men breathe out. But it is difficult to see how all men’s words are the lamp of YHWH. It may only have in mind the words of the wise (compare 1.23, although there they are breathed in to them), but ‘man (adam)’ usually means mankind as a whole. Wise words do certainly search out men’s hearts, but if that is what is meant it is an unusual way of expressing it. It might have been different if it had said the neshamah of YHWH.
Man should, of course, direct his way in accordance with the covenant. And the love that the covenant requires of both king and people as they live in accordance with that covenant (Deuteronomy 17.19-20; Leviticus 19.18), the love which binds YHWH’s people with the king in the covenant, and the truth inherent within it, are to be the king’s concern. By upholding these he upholds his throne, pleasing both YHWH and his people. While the king reigns supremely he is to reign benevolently and in accordance with the covenant love revealed in YHWH’s Torah.
Chesed so often means covenant love that that meaning becomes axiomatic. As with the name YHWH chesed is indissolubly linked with the covenant. And whilst the covenant is not prominent in Proverbs (it is simply assumed) it underlies all that is said (see 1.8; 2.17; 3.1; 7.14; 15.8; 20.9, 25; 21.27; and the constant reference to YHWH and to ‘commandments’ and to the ‘fear of YHWH’). All Israel were grounded in the Torah, and the instruction of children (22.6) was based on it. This makes apparent that Solomon has conformed wisdom to the covenant.
The glory of the king lies in his covenant love and grounding in truth (verse 28). But the glory of young men is in their strength. For this enables them to work hard and become prosperous, and to defend YHWH’s people. They are the backbone of the nation. They represent its future. And the glory of old men is their hoary head. For their hoary head is their crown of glory, which will be found in the way of righteousness (16.31). Covenant love, strength and wisdom, these are the basis of a successful society, and they are found in the king, the young men and the old men. The king rules within the covenant, the young man provides the strength and vigour (but needs to be advised and chastened, e.g. verse 30), the old men provide the advice and wisdom. They are the ones who most ‘fear YHWH’ (10.27).
It is not forgotten that young men especially require discipline in order to direct them in the right ways, and this is part of the responsibilities, both of the king and their fathers, and indeed also of YHWH (3.11-12). Lessons often need to be learned painfully. Note that here the chastening is remedial (compare 27.6). It is intended to cleanse away evil and reach the inner depths. The emphasis is probably more on chastisement by the state rather than by a father, which explains its severity. In those days court beatings were a normal feature of life. They were certainly better than being in the prisons. We must take it as a recommendation to discipline people by normal court procedure, described in the terms of those days, not as an indication as to how it should be done now. It is simply saying that strict discipline is necessary in order to direct people in the right way.
The subsection commenced with two YHWH proverbs (20.23-24). It now ends with two YHWH proverbs, firstly with reference to the activities of His representative the king, and then secondly with regard to His own activities. He is sovereign over the king (21.1). And He is sovereign over all (21.2). It was YHWH Who sent the rain and dew on the earth, both literally and spiritually, but that water then had to be channelled by farmers in the direction of their crops and fruit trees. For this purpose water channels were dug, diverting the water where it was required. They turned it wherever they would. And the king’s heart is such a water channel, established by YHWH and diverted by Him in whatever direction He required. Through the king, as a consequence of His word (Isaiah 55.10-13), He would bring blessing and fruitfulness to His people. For the king’s heart is directed by YHWH (as is man’s - 20.24). This does not mean that every action of the king is an action of YHWH (any more than 20.24 meant that every action of man was an action of YHWH). It means that even where a king was a bad king, he was still subject to YHWH’s sovereign control in matters of justice. For the king was established by God for the good of the people (Romans 13.1-6; Titus 3.1). A king’s rule was always better for common people than anarchy.
The subsection ends by comparing man’s freedom and limited worldly wisdom, with YHWH’s sovereignty over men’s hearts. Man in general does what he thinks is right for him, not necessarily what he sees as morally right. But YHWH weighs his actions and his motives, for He weighs his heart (mind, will and emotions), and brings him into accountability, and, as with the king (21.1), if necessary diverts him as He will. For in the end a man’s goings are of YHWH (20.24).
So the subsection which commenced with man’s deviousness as expressed in the use of false weights, and man’s perplexity about his ways in the light of YHWH’s overruling, ends with every man continuing on in the way that he thinks is best for him, although with having hanging over him the fact that YHWH weighs men’s hearts with His true weights. He therefore needs to consider his ways and learn YHWH’s wisdom.
A Comparison Of The Righteous And The Unrighteous (21.3-8).
This subsection has as an inclusio the doing of righteousness and justice (21.3), and in the parallel the doing of what is right and upright (21.8). In between come four proverbs which deal with the unrighteous. They have a high look and a proud heart which is sin (verse 4); they do what they do in too much of a hurry rather than being diligent, and consequently they end up in want (verse 5); they obtain wealth by deceit which turns out to be empty wind (verse 7); and they behave violently refusing to do justice (verse 8). Notice their downward path. They sin (verse 4); they become needy (verse 5); their wealth is like a dying breath (verse 6), they will be swept away (verse 7).
This can be presented chiastically as follows:
Note that in A to do righteousness and justice is acceptable to YHWH, whilst in the parallel the work of the pure is right. In B we have reference to the pride and arrogance of the WICKED which is sin, and in the parallel we have the violence of the WICKED who refuse to do what is right. Centrally in C diligence produces plenty, but hurried activity leads to want, and in the parallel wealth obtained by deceit is nothing more than the breath of a dying man carried away by the wind.
The subsection commences by establishing what is most satisfactory to YHWH, and that is righteousness and justice, which is to Him more satisfactory than offerings and sacrifices. There are in this echoes of 1 Samuel 15.22, ‘has YHWH as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of YHWH?’ Unlike man (and the gods of other nations), God is not to be bribed. He rather requires obedience. The ideas of righteousness and justice are parallel. We might put it that to do righteousness was to walk in the commands of the Torah as a loving response YHWH (not as a means of earning merit). To do justice was to do right by the laws of the community, which were, of course, based on the Torah. The standards were righteousness and justice in His eyes.
The second clause does not disparage sacrifice. But it does warn that they must be offered in righteousness and justice. God had no time for offerings and sacrifices offered from an unrepentant heart (see 15.8; 21.27). But He delighted in them when they were an offering of love coming from a righteous and obedient heart. Jesus even stressed that if a man brought an offering to God, and in the process remembered that someone had something against him, he was first to put that sin right, then he could bring his offering (Matthew 5.23-24). God does delight in our worship, but only when our hearts are right with Him.
In contrast with the one who did righteousness and justice, was the one who had a high look (he lifted up his nose at people) and a proud (large) heart was thus a heart that had a large opinion of itself. This demonstrated that his heart was hard and unreceptive like an unploughed field. Wisdom would have no chance of taking root there. It was an attitude that was an abomination to YHWH (6.17; 16.5). The concern of such a person was for himself. He felt that he was superior to others. He saw himself as self-sufficient. He did not have the broken and contrite heart which made men acceptable to God (Isaiah 57.15). But his attitude will bring him to destruction (16.18), for such an attitude is sin and is offensive to God.
The second type of unrighteous person is the sluggard. Those whose thoughts are to work hard will find that their thoughts result in their having plenty. They thoroughly prepare the ground, or prune the trees with the result that they enjoy much increase. But every one who tries to do everything in a hurry, and does not take time to think, hardly scratching the ground, and only pruning a few branches here and there, does so only for it to result in want. His production is limited by his casualness.
The third type of unrighteous person is the con man. He seeks to obtain wealth by lies, that is, by the lying tongue which is an abomination to YHWH (6.17). But such wealth is ‘a windblown breath of those who seek death’. In other words it is insubstantial and short lasting like the breath of a dying man carried away by the wind, with the implication that the con man is on the way to death.
The fourth type of unrighteous person is the ‘unrighteous man’ who practises violence. One example is such a person is found in 1.10-19. And there also his violence will rebound on him (1.18). For such people ‘eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence’ (4.17). The consequence of practising violence is to be swept away by violence (literally dragged away as by a dragnet), because such people refuse to do what is right. So those who take up violence will be swept away by violence, just as ‘all those take to the sword will perish by the sword’ (Matthew 26.52).
The fact that ‘they refuse to do justice’ is a reminder that such people continue in their way of violence in spite of YHWH’s attempts to face them up to their behaviour. He does not give up on people until they have become so hardened that there is no hope.
Solomon now sums up what has been said about the proud (verse 4), the sluggard (verse 5), the con man (verse 6) and the violent man (verse 7) by speaking of them as ‘him who is laden with guilt’. Their sinfulness is heavy upon them. They stand convicted of sin against YHWH and against men. And their way is exceedingly crooked. They walk the crooked way (compare 2.15), away from the straight path.
In contrast are ‘the pure’. Those who are righteous and just (verse 3). Unlike the unrighteous his work is straight, upright. He walks the straight path. Compare, ‘even a child is known by his doings, whether his work is pure and whether it is upright’ (20.11). He is thus acceptable and pleasing to God. He walks in the way of God’s wisdom (8.7-9).
The Fools And The Wise (21.9-19).
The stress in this subsection is again on various types of ‘fool’: The contentious woman who is best avoided (verses 9, 19); the wicked who desires evil on others (verse 10); the scorner who requires punishment (verse 11); the wicked (unrighteous) who are overthrown to their ruin (verse 12); those who stop their ears at the cries of the poor (verse 13); those who give secret bribes (verse 14); the workers of iniquity who are destroyed by justice (verse 15); the one who wanders out of the way of understanding who will rest in the assembly of the dead (verse 16); the one who loves pleasure whose end is to be poor (verse 17); and the wicked and the treacherous who suffer instead of the righteous and upright (verse 18). These all walk the crooked way of verse 8.
In contrast is the wise man who is instructed and receives knowledge (verse 11); the righteous man who sees the overthrow of the wicked (verse 12); and the righteous who do justice (verse 15). The work of all these is upright as with the pure in verse 8.
The subsection can be presented chiastically:
Note that in A it is better not to dwell with a contentious woman, and the same is true in the parallel. In B the way of the WICKED is described, and in the parallel what happens to the WICKED is described. In C when the wise are instructed they receive knowledge, and in contrast in the parallel the one who loves pleasure (and has no desire to be instructed) will be a poor man (he will not receive anything worthwhile). In D there is mention of the RIGHTEOUS, and the WICKED are overthrown to their ruin. and in the parallel we have reference to the RIGHTEOUS, whilst the WORKERS OF INIQUITY are destroyed, and will rest in the assembly of the dead. Centrally in E the one who ignores the cries of the poor will find that when he cries out he will not be heard, whilst in the parallel the one who gives secret gifts will be heard.
This rather amusing proverb (only amusing if you do not have a contentious wife) visualises a man who is so affected by his wife’s arguing and nagging that he makes himself a home in the corner of the flat roof, in all weathers, using the parapet for shelter, rather than living inside with her. The point being made, of course, is of how unbearable such a woman can make life. The house is noisy (or ‘shared’) and he has no other escape. (In the parallel even this was not enough and he had to escape into the scrubland - verse 19). The word for ‘woman’ is not limited to a wife, which was probably deliberate in order to bring the message home to all contentious women. Being the first and last (verse 19) in a long list of proverbs speaking of unrighteous people underlines even more how unbearable such a woman is. She is being highlighted as the most unbearable of all. (None of the others have to be endured all the time). Her introduction, following the summary about the four sinful men of the previous subsection, emphasises that we have here a new subsection. The proverb is repeated by the men of Hezekiah in 25.24.
Palestinian houses had flat roofs with parapets round them (Deuteronomy 22.8), often with grass grown on them (Psalm 129.6). They were approached through steps on the outside of the house. It was quite normal to use them as resting places, and even to sleep on them in the hot summers. But it would not be done in all weathers as here. For here the poor henpecked husband makes it his permanent home. His wife is making his life unbearable.
The Proverb provides a warning to parents to be careful of the kind of wife they chose for their son; to men to beware of what kind of wife they married; and to women not to be continuously nagging and quarrelling. In 19.13; 27.15 the annoyance such a woman causes is likened to that of a leaky roof, continual and difficult to avoid.
Next in line is the unpleasant neighbour. He is depicted as ‘unrighteous (wicked)’ and as such ‘desiring evil’. He enjoys being unpleasant to his neighbours, and looks for ways to make their lives unbearable. He has little regard for them at all, and never does anything nice to them or for them. He shows them no favour. (See 3.29). But he will receive his reward. In verse 12 the house of the unrighteous is overthrown, and in verse 18 he receives his reward by being called on to pay the price for his behaviour and attitude, not only for himself but also for the righteous, by bearing the punishment for the guilt of Israel.
Man is not just left to wallow in his sin. Whilst the scorner, the one who sneers at God and His ways, is virtually (although not totally) unreachable, there are many who are simply naive and wander on heedlessly, not recognising the downward path that they are on. For such people the treatment of the scorner comes as a vital lesson. The courts of justice recognise this and exact punitive fines. YHWH recognises this and punishes the scorner in His own way. As a consequence many naive people are ‘made wise’. They recognise that if they are to escape similar punishment they need to mend their ways. And they therefore begin to seek the wisdom of the wise, the wisdom of God.
We can compare here 19.25, ‘smite a scorner and the naive will learn shrewdness’. So the naive receives lessons through a variety of punishments inflicted on the scorner.
Having been wised up the naive then join the ranks of the wise who seek the knowledge of God. And the wise are open to God’s wisdom, and when instructed they receive true spiritual knowledge. Thus do some of the naive become one of the wise. And thus do the wise grow in wisdom.
In contrast those who love pleasure, and delight in oil and wine (beautifying themselves and carousing) have little time for wisdom. They remain poor, both literally and spiritually (verse 17). They have not learned a lesson from the punishment of the scorner.
Solomon then draws full attention to the fate of the unrighteous, by citing another proverb. When the righteous look on the house of the unrighteous they see how the unrighteous are overthrown, resulting in their ruin.
So the hen-pecking and quarrelsome wife (verse 9), and the unpleasant neighbour (verse 10) should take note of the punishment inflicted on the outright scorner (verse 11) and learn from it, joining the ranks of the wise (and thus ceasing to be hen-pecking and unpleasant). For if they do not they will have their part in the overthrowing of the unrighteous. to their ruin (verse 12). The overthrowing is clearly to be seen as the work of YHWH, although He may use natural disasters by which to do it.
Solomon now leads into two further examples of the unrighteous, the one who ignores the cry of the poor, and the one who obtains his way by bribery. They lack the righteousness and justice of the one mentioned in verse 3. The first clings on to his wealth, the second secretly passes some of it on, but in the wrong direction and only for his own benefit. A man is known by the way in which he uses his wealth.
The first example closes his ears when he hears the desperate cries of the poor. He ignores YHWH’s clear commandments to be concerned for the poor and assist them (e.g. Deuteronomy 15.7-11). He is not overly concerned that men and their families are starving. And thus he reacts negatively. He does not do anything positively wrong. But he fails to do what is good. ‘To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin’ (James 4.17). And because he does not respond, the same will happen to him. When he calls on YHWH at his own time of need he will not be heard. He is one of those who have rejected God’s wisdom (1.28). We are reminded here of the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.19-31).
In the previous example the unrighteous refused to give to the poor. Now we have an example of how the unrighteous gives. He gives for his own benefit. If he has offended someone who can do him harm in some way he gives him a secret gift in order to avert his anger. So the unrighteous can be generous when they want to be. The description of it as ‘secret’ brings out the wrongness of the motive. He is not concerned with justice and righteousness, but with gaining a wrong advantage. He is trying to gain advantage over others (otherwise why do it in secret?). A present ‘in the bosom’ is a present given secretly from the fold of the cloak that served as a pocket (compare 17.23 which would support the idea that the unrighteous man is giving the gift).
Alternately it may be the unrighteous who receives the bribe. Whilst being ungenerous to others he is not above receiving gifts to pacify his anger. He allows himself to be swayed, not by justice and righteousness, but by silver and gold.
In contrast to the skinflint who refused to help the poor, and the one involved in bribery, the righteous man delights to do justice. He wants to do what is right and in accordance with the requirements of YHWH in the Torah. It is a joy to him, for he knows that thereby he is pleasing YHWH, and that ‘justice is more acceptable to YHWH than sacrifice’ (verse 3). Thus he delights in giving to the poor as God has required, he rejects any taint of bribery, and he seeks to ensure the furtherance of justice in all circumstances, thereby ensuring the stability of society (in contrast to the unrighteous - verse 7).
But for the workers of iniquity justice is a destruction and a terror. At them it only points the finger. For once justice is brought about they will have come under its sentence, as the righteous noted in verse 11 when considering the house of the unrighteous. And then, as the next verse brings out they will find themselves in the assembly of the dead.
So the significance of their destruction and terror (verse 25) is that, having by their unrighteousness wandered out of the way of wisdom and understanding (which they were urged to follow in 1.3), they will ‘rest among the assembly of the dead’. They will join those spoken of in the Prologue (2.18; 7.27; 9.18; compare 11.19; 14.12). There may here be an ironic and deliberate contrast between the idea of continual wandering as he seeks independence from God and worldly pleasure, and his final cessation when he will have lost both God and pleasure.
The assembly of the living was the gathering of the men of Israel, especially at the three main feasts. Here all large decisions were made concerning Israel. This was the assembly of YHWH’s people, To rest in the assembly of the dead is therefore to be cast out from among YHWH’s people. It is to have lost the hope of Israel.
It thus does not just mean that they will die. For all die, both the righteous and the unrighteous. It means that their final destiny is death, (in contrast with life), among all those who have died without God’s mercy (Isaiah 26.14). In contrast the righteous do not finally die. For them death is not the end (10.2; 11.4, 19; 12.28; 13.14; 14.27, 32; 15.24; 19.16). Their hope is in God. See Psalm 16.11; 17.15; 23.6; a hope clarified in Isaiah 26.14; Daniel 12.2.
Paradoxically many of the unrighteous who ignore the cries of the poor will themselves become poor. For they will be seized by the love of pleasure, and a love for the pleasures of life, for the wine that makes men drunk (20.1), and the oils that beautify them. And this will lead to their ruin as it did the young man in 5.9-10. See the indictment against wine in 31.4-7. In a day when the way to success lay in working hard throughout the year, with always something to do, such diversions, if overindulged (20.1; 23.20, 30-31), resulted in indolence, with its inevitable end. Thus through their love of pleasure and luxury, rather than becoming richer, many would become poor (see verse 20).
This proverb is very applicable for Christians today. He who loves pleasure too much will be a poor man spiritually, and those who love expensive wines and jewellery are aiming at a lifestyle which is not in accord with the teaching of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2.9; 1 Peter 3.3) and will be squandering money that would be better given to the poor or to Christian work. It is a reminder that we need to sort out our priorities, lest when we have to give account we find that we have no continuing jewellery and what we have lived for has been burned up. Then we will be poor indeed (1 Corinthians 3.10-16).
The idea here, based on corporate responsibility, is that Israel as a whole has failed in the fulfilment of the covenant and is thus subject to the curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. As a consequence the just requirements of God demand a ransom which must be paid to satisfy the Law. If Israel were to be spared there must be substitution. This was, of course, partially paid through the offering of sacrifices by the righteous. But that left Israel as a whole far short of what was required, for the sacrifices of the unrighteous were an abomination to YHWH (verse 27) and thus did not fulfil their function. It left a big hole in the ransom. As a consequence Israel as a whole still owed a debt to God and came under condemnation as a nation. This was seen as paid by the deaths of the unrighteous, whose deaths meant that Israel was now in the clear as regards its debt. Their deaths were therefore a ransom for the whole of Israel, and therefore for the righteous. The upright go free because the treacherous have died to pay the lack of ransom caused by unavailing sacrifices. We can compare the situation with regard to Achan in Joshua 7. Achan’s sin had brought a curse on the whole of Israel, and therefore his death was a ransom for the whole of Israel. (It did not mean that they were assured of future salvation, only that they were restored as His covenant people).
This idea of a substitution and payment of a ransom (compare 11.6) was inherent in the continuing offerings on behalf of the firstborn of Israel, redeeming the firstborn (Exodus 13.13), and the ransom that had to be paid when the men of Israel were numbered, an indication of their need of redemption. This was the significance of some, at least, of the sacrifices as Exodus 13.13 makes clear. (That redemption = ransom is evident from Psalm 49.7). In the event, of course, the sacrifices were only shadows, which was why it was necessary for Jesus Christ to be offered up as ‘a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45), and why outside of Him there is no salvation.
The subsection opened with the idea that it was better to dwell in a corner of the rooftop than with a contentious woman (verse 9), but this has now changed to being better to dwell in a waste place away from civilisation, friendless and struggling to find food and water, rather than with a contentious woman.
But why should this whole subsection be enveloped in the idea of a contentious woman? It may be that it is suggesting that the contentious woman represents the whole of unrighteous Israel (in the same way as Wisdom and Folly were seen as women). As with separation from a contentious woman, so must righteous Israel separate herself from contentious Israel. ‘He’ must go back to the purity of wilderness days before he became affected by the sins of civilisation (Hosea 3.14-16).
In the commencement the separation was described as by separation within the house, something depicted by the hope of the righteous and the fate of the unrighteous expressed in the verses that followed. Note in this regard how the righteous man ‘considers the house of the wicked’ (verse 12). Is this the house surrendered to the contentious woman in verse 9? If so the thought is that righteous Israel, rather than loving pleasure (verse 17), and consorting with unrighteous Israel, must go back to how they were in the wilderness, if they are to escape the effects of the contentious woman (unrighteous Israel), and if the deaths of the unrighteous are to redeem them (compare the same idea in Hosea 3.14-16; 11.1-4). By this time life in the wilderness would have been idealised, as it is in the prophets. The idea would then be that they were to seek purity of life, rather than associating with unrighteous Israel.
The Wise And Righteous Are Contrasted With The Foolish And Unrighteous, But YHWH Is Supreme Over All (21.20-31).
This subsection contains ten proverbs contrasting the wise and righteous man with the foolish and unrighteous man, and ends with two final proverbs in which YHWH’s supremacy is revealed and his certain victory assured. In the first four of the ten the emphasis is on the wise and righteous man, in the second four it is on the foolish and unrighteous man, whilst the ninth and tenth evenly contrast the two.
Thus the wise man is well provisioned (verse 20); finds life, righteousness and honour through his faithfulness to the covenant (verse 21); defeats his enemies (verse 22); keeps his life from troubles through watching his words (verse 23); is generous (verse 26); speaks enduringly (verse 28); and establishes his ways (verse 29). In contrast the foolish man wastes his substance (verse 20); is full of arrogance and pride (verse 24); is a sluggard (verse 25); is filled with coveting (verse 26); sacrifices with an unrighteous mind (verse 27); is a false witness (verse 28); and hardens his face (verse 29).
The subsection then comes to its climax by proclaiming YHWH’s invincibility and certain victory in both peace and war.
The subsection may be presented chiastically as follows:
Note that in A the wise man is well provisioned in peace, and in the parallel he is well provisioned in war, but finds victory through YHWH. In B the one who is faithful to the covenant finds life righteousness and honour, and enjoys victory over his enemies, and in the parallel the upright establishes his way, and his victory is due to YHWH. In C the one who watches over his words keeps his life from troubles, and in the parallel a false witness will perish, but the hearing man will speak in such a way as to endure. In D the scorner is proud and haughty and his life is lived in pride and arrogance, and in the parallel he even brings his sacrifices with a wicked mind. In E the sluggard’s desire kills him and he refuses to give of his labour, and in the parallel we have the one who covets with desire all day long, while the righteous give generously.
21.20 ‘There is precious treasure and oil in the dwelling of the wise,
The continuing theme of Proverbs up to this point has been that on the whole (no proverb applies to every situation) those who follow wisdom will be prosperous, whilst the foolish will tend to poverty, although there have been reminders that this was not always so. Here again we learn that the wise man will be well provisioned, having abundance of wealth and olive oil in their homes. They will also have horses and be well provisioned for war (verse 31). In contrast the foolish live in profligacy and extravagancy (verse 17) and swallow up what wealth they have.
Both olive oil (a main export of Israel) and treasure are symbols of prosperity, as long as they are used wisely and not squandered in the search for pleasure (verse 17). Such oils could soothe the skin in the times of extreme heat (baths would be uncommon except for the very rich), and remove some of the body odours which inevitably arose, although they were more used to them than we are. They were therefore treasured.
For the linking of wisdom with prosperity see 3.15-16; 8.18-19; etc. and note that the treasures involved included the outstanding treasure of wisdom.
21.21 center ‘He who follows after righteousness and covenant love,
The wise man has his mind and heart set on righteousness and covenant love. He seeks to fulfil the Torah, and the words of wisdom of Proverbs, and to reveal love towards God and man in accordance with the covenant. As a consequence he finds life, righteousness and honour. He lives a long and pleasant life in peace and prosperity, with the confidence of continuing life in God (3.16-18); he enjoys the products of righteousness, prosperity and peace; and he is held in honour and respect both by God and in the community. His ways are established and sure (verse 29).
One way in which the wise fulfils his part in the covenant and finds righteousness and honour (verse 21) is in his defeat of the enemies of God’s people. The wise are successful both in peace and in war. War was a constant companion in those days, and a man could easily find himself drafted into the army when trouble arose. But for the wise man that was no problem. However strong the city, and however mighty its defenders, it could not hold out against the wise, for his dependence was in YHWH (verses 31-32). He would with confidence scale its walls, in spite of the arrows, stones and other missiles hurled down at him, and he would bring down the strength in which the citizens placed their confidence. His own confidence was in YHWH in the face of Whom nothing could stand (verses 31-32).
Whilst in view of verses 31-32 the context suggests that we take this literally as referring to physical warfare, it is, however, very probable that it was also intended to indicate that the wise surmount all obstacles, of which this was an example. Nothing can hold out against their wisdom. He ‘scales cities’ both in peace and in war. We can compare the Christian’s spiritual warfare as described in Ephesians 6.10-18 and the ‘casting down of strongholds’ in 2 Corinthians 10.4-5.
The wise man not only scales cities, both literally and figuratively, but he also guards his mouth and his tongue. This control of what a man says has been repeated again and again (compare 10.11, 13, 19, 21, 31, 32; 11.13; 12.6, 13; 13.3; and often), and is once more stressed here. As James says, if a man bridles his tongue he is able to bridle his whole body (James 3.2-3). And such guarding of his mouth and tongue keeps his life from troubles (compare 12.13; 22.5). By speaking wisely and in a controlled way, and sometimes by not speaking at all, he avoids unnecessary dissension, maintains peace, testifies honestly and leads others into the way of wisdom.
There now commences the list of the ‘foolish’: the proud, the sluggard, the greedy, the irreligious, the dishonest and the hard faced. This particular proverb is linked with the next by the word ‘work’. He ‘works’ in arrogance (behaves arrogantly), even while refusing to work literally.
The man who is a scorner, who scorns the knowledge of God and the ways of his fellow countrymen, demonstrates thereby that he is proud and haughty. And he reveals it by his behaviour. His works and actions are done in arrogance and pride (the arrogance of pride’ or ‘proud anger’). He thinks that he is superior to others and behaves in that way. But his attitude is an abomination to God and he will be punished accordingly (6.17; 8.13; 16.5; 21.4).
The sluggard desires nothing more than to be left in peace to sleep as long as he wishes. And when he is not asleep he is dreaming of what he could have (13.4). He even sleeps at harvest time (6.9-10; 10.5; 19.15; 24.33). As a result his hands refuse to labour. He hates hard work. Thus in the end he will end up in poverty and die prematurely. He is slowly killing himself. It is also killing him because it prevents him seeking God and finding life.
He refuses to labour. In verse 7 (the only other use of the word ‘refuse’ in this section of Proverbs), the unrighteous refuse to do justice. But this man refuses to do anything, including doing justice. In this last he contrasts with the righteous in verses 3 and 15.
The sluggard desires nothing but sleep and the avoidance of hard work, but there are other ‘fools’ whose desires are more positive. They ‘crave with desire’ all day long. They are covetous, and thus in breach of the tenth commandment. Their lives are possessed by greed and they will do almost anything in order to obtain what they want. In direct contrast is the righteous man. Rather than being greedy his attitude is more one of generosity. His thoughts are not on obtaining but on giving. He does not withhold help from those in need. He acknowledges that ‘it is better to give than to receive’.
When an unrighteous man, who has not repented of his unrighteousness, offers a sacrifice to God it is an abomination to Him (compare 15.8). It is denying the very purpose of sacrifice which is that it come from a humble and contrite heart. He is in effect trying (hopelessly) to deceive God. Of course the unrighteous did not see it in that way. Many of them hoped that somehow it would make everything right without them having to make any effort. But here they learn how foolish they are. Only the one whose heart is right with both God and men can offer sacrifices acceptably (Matthew 5.23-24). The same principle was applied to the bread and wine at the Lord’s Table (Holy Communion, Mass). See 1 Corinthians 11.27-29. Otherwise the offering is an abomination. It is the equivalent of idolatry, an attempt to buy off God.
But it is even moreso when he brings it with an unrighteous mind, with a mind which at the time is positively planning to do evil. It is an indication of how sinful man is that he can go through religious ritual as though his life was pure, whilst at the same time planning evil in his mind. It is to insult God even more than his act of meaningless sacrifice, which is insulting enough in itself.
Note the context in which this verse is placed. It follows the example of the generous giving of the righteous man, and precedes the false witness of the unrighteous. It is a pretence of generous giving to God, whilst in fact being an act of false witness, declaring of him something that is not true. He is coming in arrogant pride, confident that he is so superior that he can get away with it (verse 24).
But a false witness can be sure that he will perish. The prime thought is of a false witness in a Court of Justice. By lying in court he seeks the hurt of others, but will himself be hurt to the uttermost. It also includes any attempt at deceit which could harm others, including the offering of sacrifices under false pretences. For such an act not only brings him into disrepute with God, but also harms others because he is seen as part of the community (see Joshua 7). Deceit is contrary to all that God is, for ‘God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1.5).
In contrast is ‘the man who hears’, that is who hears the voice of God’s wisdom and responds to it, or alternately the one who genuinely listens and is therefore accurate. He will speak truly, and when he testifies in court will speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Whether in court or out of court his ‘yes’ is yes, and his ‘no’ is no (Matthew 5.37). As a consequence he speaks so as to endure. This may mean that because what he says is true what he says will always be true however scrutinised. His words will be successful. But in contrast to ‘will perish’ it more probably means that that rather than perishing he will enjoy continuing life. The Hebrew word is regularly translated as ‘for ever’, thus enduringly, continually, here therefore indicating permanence of life. Because he guards his mouth he keeps himself from troubles (verse 23). Whereas the speaking of the wicked will be cut off, the righteous will speak for ever. This is not referring to the length of sermons, but indicating that for ever nothing that will happen in the future will be able to stop him being able to speak. In other words he will live for ever.
The unrighteous man ‘makes strong’ his face. In 7.13 the word means ‘impudent’. It could also signify ‘setting his face against’. Both would fit in with his pride and arrogance (verse 24). Thus it either means that he puts on an impudent face towards God, or that he sets his face against God. Either way the idea is of refusing to listen to Him. He is arrogant and disobedient. He ignores the covenant. He is the opposite of the one who follows righteousness and covenant love (verse 21).
In contrast the upright (straight) man ‘establishes his ways’. He responds to the covenant, he walks in the way of wisdom. This translation, which is based on the ‘Kethib’ (the reading), the original consonantal reading of the text, is a good parallel to ‘makes strong’. His ways are determined, settled, stable and sure. The ‘Qere’ (what is read), which is an emendation based on the traditions handed down to the Massoretes, reads ‘discerns, gives thought to’. Either way the point is that he determines his way under the hand of God. He follows the ways of righteousness and covenant love (verse 21).
The preposition before YHWH (‘against’) probably has the meaning of ‘to stand against’ as in Numbers 22.32. The idea is that, whether in peace or war, men (whether the unrighteous or the enemy) can get together and use all their wisdom, understanding and counsel, but it will still not be sufficient to counter or combat YHWH’s wisdom, understanding and counsel. Men’s machinations are of no value against YHWH, for YHWH is the supreme thinker and the supreme general. That was one reason why the wise man could scale the walls of the city of the mighty with such confidence, knowing that YHWH would bring it down (verse 22). It is also why the unrighteous who stand against YHWH can only fail. Their worldly wisdom is no match for His wisdom. His wisdom, understanding and counsel are so much greater than that of all men, that even the idea of anyone standing to compete against Him is laughable.
Thus when His people prepare their horses in readiness for the day of battle they do so knowing that YHWH is with them, and that any victory will be due solely to Him. This is not, of course, a suggestion that His people should go into battle ill-prepared. Except when commanded by YHWH, as in the case of Gideon and his three hundred men, that would be presumptuous. All necessary preparations should be made. But all would be of no avail if YHWH was not on their side.
Chariot horses are probably in mind as the most significant weapon in any nations armoury. Solomon not only had large numbers of them, but also bought them from Egypt in order to trade them with other nations (1 Kings 10.26-29). In relatively flat country, and when the ground was dry, chariots gave their possessors immense superiority. They were a constant problem faced by Israel in the days of Joshua and the Judges, that only YHWH enabled them to overcome. Israel were constantly advised not to put their trust solely in chariots (Psalm 20.7; Deuteronomy 17.16; Isaiah 31.1-3; Hosea 1.7).
The subsection commenced by describing the possessions of the wise in terms of treasure and olive oil, it has now ended with an indication of their possessions in terms of warhorses and chariots, together with other weapons. But it is also with a reminder not to trust in such possessions. In both cases their dependence must be on YHWH. Thus the subsection finally ends with a note of YHWH’s sovereignty, acting as a warning to all who stood in opposition to Him, and as an encouragement to all those Who trust in Him.
The Attitudes Expected Of The Wise, And The Contrast With The Ways Of The Unrighteous (22.1-8).
In this subsection the first four verses refer to the wise. They are to choose a good name rather than riches (verse 1); they are to treat the poor on level terms (verse 2); they will have the wisdom to discern evil before it comes and prepare for it (verse 3); and through their humility and fear of YHWH they will be rewarded with riches, honour and life (verse 4). Thus having chosen a good name rather than riches (verse 1) they will be rewarded with riches (verse 4) but will know how to handle them (verse 2).
The second four verses then indicate what is to be avoided by training their children to be wise (verse 6). They will avoid the snares that will be encountered by the unrighteous (verse 5); they will avoid the arrogance towards the poor which is abhorrent to YHWH (verse 7 with verse 2); and they will avoid sowing iniquity and reaping its consequences (verse 8). For those are the attitudes of the unrighteous.
The subsection is presented chiastically as follows:
Note that in A the righteous choose a good name and reputation, and loving favour for themselves, whilst in contrast, in the parallel, the unrighteous ‘sow iniquity’ and reap calamity. In B the rich and poor are on common ground Godward because YHWH has made them all, but in the parallel, at the human level, there is a great distinction between rich and poor. In C the shrewd man acts wisely against evil and in the parallel children are to be trained up to know the way that they should take. Centrally in D the wise receive riches, honour and LIFE, whilst in contrast in the parallel the perverse experience thorns and snares in their way, whilst those who do have LIFE will avoid them.
In ancient days a name was seen as expressing the character and attributes of a person. To have a good name was therefore to have a good character and good attributes. And in Proverbs that arises because a person has responded to wisdom and understanding, ‘he who guards understanding will find good’ (19.7).
Thus the wise man, given the choice, would choose a good name over great riches, for having a good name would demonstrate that he was in YHWH’s favour (‘a good man obtains YHWH’s favour’ - 12.2) and that he was a truly good man. By choosing a good name, i.e. choosing to live in accordance with God’s wisdom, he would be choosing ‘loving favour’, primarily the loving favour of God, but secondarily the loving favour of his family and the community. And he would do this because ‘good men keep the path of the righteous’ (2.20), and ‘obtain favour from YHWH’ (12.2). Indeed to seek good is to seek favour (11.27). Thus good, and the favour especially of YHWH, and then of men, are seen as closely related. And it is the man of covenant love, the one who truly responds to God in the covenant, who does good (11.17).
The idea is not that they choose a good name in order to receive God’s favour. But that YHWH’s favour is a consequence of their having responded to God’s wisdom. They are not seen as having ‘earned’ His favour. When they first responded to wisdom that was not in their minds. But having responded to His wisdom, which He has given to them (2.6), His favour is an inevitable consequence.
Note that both their good name and YHWH’s loving favour are to be chosen in preference to great riches, and to silver and gold. In the Prologue this was true of wisdom (3.14-15; 8.10, 19; 16.16; 20.15). Solomon made this choice himself when he chose wisdom rather than riches (1 Kings 3.5-9). That he failed to fully benefit by that wisdom comes out in that it was his sumptuous living, which squeezed the common people (1 Kings 12.4), combined with his love of women (1 Kings 11.1), that brought about problems for his reign, and the break up of his kingdom on his death.
When it comes to having a good name both rich and poor are on the same level. All can follow wisdom (verse 1). And at the great feasts all meet together as members of ‘the assembly of Israel’. They share an equality under their leaders. They have the same value before YHWH (Exodus 30.15). And this is reinforced here by the fact that ‘YHWH is the Maker of them all’. Each man, whether rich or poor, is God’s creation. He is made in the image of God. And it is to YHWH that he looks as his final Overlord. It is clear therefore that the one who would have a good name must treat them equally, for otherwise he will not experience YHWH’s loving favour. For ‘YHWH will destroy the house of the proud, but will establish the border of the widow’ (15.25). Before Him what matters is not their comparative wealth, but whether they truly look to Him and respond to His wisdom.
‘The rich and the poor meet together.’ Israelite society was still largely tribal. All would meet together at the feasts and were seen as having a voice in the ‘assembly of Israel’ (see 1 Kings 8.1-2, 5, 14, 22). Many important decisions, even that of a king succeeding to his father’s throne, required their approval, under their tribal leaders (1 Kings 1.39-40; 12.1). The judges at the gates would, at least theoretically, act on behalf of rich and poor alike, and it was largely true in practise (17.15; Exodus 23.6; Leviticus 19.15). Strictly speaking equal justice was open to all. And all had received their land from YHWH. It passed on through the generations, and always reverted back to the family of its original owners. It was not allocated to them by the king. And it could not be permanently taken away from them. So Israel saw itself as a nation of ‘free men’ under YHWH, having been redeemed out of bondage in Egypt (Exodus 20.1-2). And the sense of freedom was strong. According to the Torah (often overlooked in practise) no Israelite could be permanently enslaved or treated as a slave (Leviticus 25.39-40). This was something that Solomon partially ignored in his search for forced labour for his building schemes, something clearly deeply resented, although even so he tried to give them the impression that they were not being treated like other nations. He wanted them to think that he was treating them as ‘free men’ (1 Kings 5.14; contrast 1 Kings 9.20-22).
On the other hand the distinction had to be recognised because wealth enabled the rich to lord it over the poor (verse 7), both because of his influence with his peers, because he was likely to be placed in positions of authority, and because he often employed the poor, or had means at his disposal to make life difficult for them. Thus even though the poor of Israel were ‘free men’, and had their voice in the running of Israel, economically speaking they were not. That verse 7 is speaking mainly of economic power is suggested by the parallel with the lender borrower relationship.
What distinguishes men is not whether they are rich or poor. but whether they are shrewd or naive. The shrewd man (the wise), who has been wisely trained (verse 6), looks ahead and sees evil coming, whether it takes the form of human invasion, physical catastrophes or the evil purposes of men. He takes precautions accordingly, and plans somewhere where he can take refuge from each of them, because he has used forethought, having been trained in wisdom (verse 6). But the naive, who are busy with their pleasures, carry on regardless, ignoring the dangers of life, and are thus caught unprepared and suffer for it. They ‘pay the penalty’. A penalty is exacted from them because of their carelessness. Such is the value of wisdom as against naivete.
Here ‘humility’ is paralleled with ‘the fear of YHWH’ (there is no ‘and’ in the Hebrew text). The latter, of course, arises from humility. The humble are the opposite of the proud who scorn YHWH (21.24) and are an abomination to Him (6.17). Because they are humble they fear YHWH (see Isaiah 57.15), responding to His covenant in obedience and seeking His wisdom. And the consequence for them is riches and honour and life. They grow wealthier through hard work (they cease to be poor), they are honoured by God and by the community, enjoying His favour (verse 1), and they experience true life (3.16-18).
The general idea of this proverb is clear. Life will be difficult for the perverse, for those who go against God’s wisdom. As the perverse go on in their perverse way they will come across all kinds of difficulties which hinder them and entrap them. Thus the wise man, the one who ‘guards his person (nephesh)’ will keep well away from them. He will walk humbly in the fear of YHWH (verse 4). So whilst the wise progress smoothly on their way to riches, honour and life (verse 4), the perverse are constantly hindered in the way that they take (see 7.23). Such snares, according to the Prologue, can include ill-gotten wealth and enticing women.
‘Thorns (tsinim), snares.’ The meaning of the first word is not certain. LXX translates as ‘prickly plants’ which may be a guess. It is also found in Job 5.5 (tsinim) and Amos 4.2 (tsinoth). In the latter case it is in parallel with fish hooks, and therefore in context seemingly refers to ‘hooks’ (which could be seen as connected with thorns). In Job 5.5 it is used alongside ‘snare’, but the hungry eat up the harvest of a fool, and take it out of tsinim (which is why ‘thorns’ is suggested in view of the fact that LXX translates 22.5 as ‘prickly plants’). What is quite clear is that it is some kind of hindrance to progress in the same way as snares are.
The first four verses in the subsection were wholly positive. In verse 5 we were warned that the perverse would, as they went on their way, meet up with unpleasant traps for the unwary, but with the assurance that the one who guarded his inner life would not be affected by them. Now we learn how a man can guard his inner life from his earliest days. It is by training which dedicates him to the wisdom of God.
The initial verb usually indicates ‘dedicate’ in Scripture. Here therefore the idea is presumably of committing him to God’s wisdom by the way that he is trained up. As a consequence he will know the way that he should go and will be able to discern evil (verse 3). An example of such training is given in Exodus 12.26-27, compare Deuteronomy 11.19. Such training as a child is considered important because it lasts for life, and should result in his still being wise in old age. It is an indication of the importance of committing our children to the right way, by the way in which we bring them up.
In contrast to the wise, who up until now have dominated the subsection, including those who recognise the full equality of rich and poor (verse 2), we are now introduced to those who do not follow the way of wisdom. To some extent this counteracts what was said in verse 2 and brings out that often the rich are not so accepting of the poor as they should be. The unrighteous rich lord it over the poor and seek to bring them into subjection. They want them as ‘servants’, not equals (an idea introduced from the second clause). They want them to be submissive and not get in the way of their own activities. At later times they would seek to grab their lands (Isaiah 5.8), and that may already have begun. And the same is true of lenders who do not observe YHWH’s requirements in the Torah. They treat those who have borrowed from them as servants, because they are having to work off their debt. In both cases they are treating the poor with contempt, and not seeing them as equals at all.
The subsection ends with the reminder to the wise that what a man sows he will reap. In contrast with the wise mentioned earlier the one who sows iniquity by, for example, the mistreatment of the poor (verse 7), will reap calamity (iniquity against him. The word ‘wn is regularly translated as ‘iniquity’ in Proverbs). Ill treatment can rebound. The fact that the rod of his anger will fail may suggest that those whom he has sought to whip into line will turn on him and gain their revenge. The rich very often believe that they can ‘whip people into line’, even if only metaphorically. Ironically this would be precisely what happened to Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). But Solomon had already seen something of this in his own life. Or it may simply be saying that the one who sows iniquity will fail in his ventures against his enemies, and will not be able to bring them into subjection to the rod of his anger, but will rather become the victim of the iniquities of others. Either way the failure to follow the way of God’s wisdom and God’s Torah leads to disaster.
Final Words Concerning The Wise And The Foolish (22.9-16).
The final subsection in the Proverbs of Solomon (10.1-22.16) divides into two halves, and is fashioned in a clear pattern.
The first four proverbs deal with the wise in various forms. These are the generous giver to the poor (verse 9); the pure of heart (verse 11); and the one who has knowledge (verse 12); with the proverb coming second referring to the expulsion of the scorner (verse 10).
The last four proverbs deal with the foolish in various forms. These are the sluggard (verse 13); the strange woman (verse 14); and the oppressor and self-seeker (verse 16); with the proverb coming second from last referring to the expulsion of folly (verse 15).
Note that the central four verses all relate to speech. The pure of heart have gracious lips (verse 11). The words of the treacherous will be overthrown (verse 12). The words of the sluggard are just excuses (verse 13). The mouth of the strange woman is a deep pit (verse 14). It will be noted that in order to understand verse 14 more fully we need the background of the Prologue where the strange woman (Folly) was so prominent. Indeed the scorner (verse 10; compare 1.22; 3.34; 9.7-12) and the strange woman (verse 14; compare 2.16-19; 5.3-23; 7.4-27; 9.13-18), both feature prominently at the end of the Prologue, whilst the sluggard (verse 13) is prominent in 6.6-11.
The subsection is presented chiastically as follows:
Note that in A those who are generous to the poor will be blessed, whereas in the parallel the one who oppresses the poor will come to want. In B if the scorner is cast out various problems will cease, and in the parallel if foolishness is driven out of a child his folly will cease. In C the one who has a pure heart and gracious lips, who will have the king as his friend, is contrasted in the parallel with the mouth of a strange woman, to which if a man responds he will be abhorred of YHWH. Centrally in D YHWH preserves the one who has knowledge, and overthrows the words of the treacherous, and in the parallel we have the sluggard who lacks knowledge (his knowledge is imagined), and who speaks deceitful words which refer to imagined situations from which he needs to be preserved.
In the previous subsection there were two references to the poor, the first indicating his equality with the rich in the eyes of YHWH (verse 2), and the second to his subjection by the unrighteous rich (verse 7). Now we see how the wise man treats the poor, and what the consequence for him will be. He has ‘a bountiful eye’. Or to translate literally he is ‘good of eye’. His eyes reflect his goodness, and thus, in context, his genuine generosity and willingness to give. This is in contrast with the ‘evil eye’, of the one who gives grudgingly to the poor (23.6). This latter gives, but his heart is not in it and his purpose is not good. The poor are better off not receiving his gifts, for they will rebound on them (23.7-8). They will find that he wants something in return.
The one who is ‘good of eye’ gives of his supplies of food to the poor, expecting nothing in return. He sees them as of equal importance in the eyes of God (verse 2), and as therefore worthy of his generosity. He is glad to give ungrudgingly. Rather than ruling over them (verse 7) he comes alongside to help them. He fulfils the covenant and the Torah (Deuteronomy 15.10). And the consequence is that he will be blessed.
Being ‘blessed’ means more than just being happy and content. It signifies that God positively acts generously towards him, in the same way as he has acted generously to the poor. He confers favour upon him. His house comes under the protection of YHWH (see 20.21). He positively intervenes on his behalf. See 3.16-18; 10.6-7; 11.24-26; Deuteronomy 15.10.
In contrast the one who oppresses the poor in order to squeeze out of him whatever he can, whilst giving generously to those who can benefit him, will not be blessed. He will rather himself become needy (verse 16).
We are familiar with the scorner from 1.22; 3.34; 9.7-12 in the Prologue. He is the most unlikely ever to listen to wisdom, for his attitude is one of scorning. ‘Scorners delight in their scorning’ (1.22) and find it difficult to learn true wisdom (the wisdom of God) (14.6). They are arrogant and proud (21.24). Furthermore they react strongly against any suggested rebuke (9.7-8; 13.1; 15.12). They are therefore a permanently bad example to the naive, and their being punished helps to put the naive on the right track (19.25; 21.11). We can be sure that they will pour scorn on the poor (verse 9). They will have no bread for them.
Here we learn that the scorner, the one who mocks at everything, is a source of contention, strife and ignominy. He disturbs the pattern of society and prevents harmony. He makes it difficult to come to wise decisions. Thus if he is driven out (as Adam was driven out of the Garden (Genesis 3.24), and Cain was driven out from among men (Genesis 4.14)) contention will go with him. The naive will then accept wisdom, and men will respond to the covenant (come to the knowledge of God), because those who attack it have been removed. We might paraphrase, ‘do not let the one who loves scorning in on your deliberations, he will simply pour cold water on everything’.
Once the scorner is removed, strife and ignominy will cease. Wisdom and the Torah will prevail. We have already seen why strife and contention will cease, but why should ignominy (shame, disgrace) cease? Part of the reason is because those who reprove him are subjected to ignominy by him (9.7). And the wider reason is because large numbers of people are subjected to his scorn, feeling shame and ignominy as a result. He is capable of being very cutting, and making things seem other than they are. Thus he makes them ashamed even of what is good. Many a potential believer has lost his faith, not because of sound argument but because of scorn. He did not want to be thought ‘unintelligent’ and was not well grounded enough to counter the scorn.
In direct contrast with the scorner is the one who loves pureness of heart and has gracious lips. Instead of him being driven out, the king will be his friend. Indeed all want to be his friend. Because he ‘loves purity of heart’, in other words desires it above all else, he will come to the One Who makes men’s hearts pure. He prays genuinely and fervently, ‘create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51.10). And his pureness of heart will then be revealed by the fact that he ‘sees God’ (Matthew 5.8) and lives purely (Matthew 12.33-35). He will be able to ascend with confidence into the hill of YHWH and stand in His holy place (Psalm 24.4), in other words his worship and prayers are acceptable to God.
And one of the consequences of a pure heart is that a man has gracious and honest lips. Unlike the scorner (verse 10) he seeks to speak well of others. He does not try to destroy other people’s reputations. He always has a good word to say. When he reproves others it will be in tenderness and compassion. He seeks to find what is good in everyone. Thus he will speak well of the king, and wisely to the king. The king will therefore be his friend. But this does not mean that he is a flatterer. Because he is pure in heart others will recognise that his words are genuine. He genuinely loves people. And the king will therefore know that he is reliable, and that he will not say something else behind his back. Such a man is totally trustworthy. ‘Righteous lips are the delight of kings, and they love him who speaks what is upright’ (16.13). Kings need nothing more than men like this who are reliable, trustworthy and honest. The fact that truly gracious lips even win the friendship of kings is the highest recommendation that a man like Solomon could give.
But it is not only the king who is a friend of the man with gracious lips. YHWH will also watch over him (note that as regularly in Proverbs the king is mentioned in the shadow of YHWH. Compare 8.15; 14.27-28; 16.1-15). The parallel clause referring to treacherous lips confirms that the first clause here includes the thought of contrasting honest lips as part of the make up of the man who has knowledge. Because he has true knowledge he will be pure in heart and will have gracious lips (verse 11).
Knowledge in Proverbs refers primarily to the knowledge of God and His ways (2.5-6). It has come from YHWH in words of YHWH (2.6). And to Solomon this would have included the Torah (the Law of Moses), and the earliest of what we call the historical books, and Israel called ‘the former prophets’. Solomon saw his wisdom as not only drawn from wisdom teachers, as transformed by his own thinking, but also from those books. Indeed, he linked the two together, for whilst not emphasising his sources, he happily drew on them when it was convenient. A number of his Proverbs assume the background of the Torah. (To assume that Solomon, who was so eager to build the Temple, totally ignored Israel’s culture of his time, would be absurd and a slight on him). And it is over those who enjoy that knowledge, and therefore walk in the covenant, that the eyes of YHWH are ever watching in order to preserve them. Having given them His knowledge He now watches over it.
In contrast is the one who speaks against that knowledge, ‘the treacherous man’. In that case YHWH’s eyes are over the treacherous man in order to overthrow him. He does not escape the eye of YHWH. And some of those words are presented in verses 13 and 14, the foolish words of the sluggard and the enticing words of the strange woman. Both are treacherous on the basis that they undermine the community. Societies are undermined by laziness, adultery and excessive pleasure seeking. Such things caused the collapse of both Solomon’s empire and the Roman Empire.
In total contrast to the man who ‘has knowledge’, that is the kind of knowledge portrayed in Proverbs, who thus works hard and builds up his family as part of the community, is the sluggard, who finds any excuse to avoid work. When asked, as he lies there dozing, why he does not go out and do something, he shudders and says, ‘there is a lion outside’, or ‘the streets are dangerous, I could be killed’. We at least have to laugh at his inventiveness. Compare 20.4 for another excuse. The parallel proverb in 26.13 confirms that we are probably to see the two statements as one. However, his laziness was not funny. It meant that he sponged on others, and failed to fulfil his part in the community, and it probably led on to his finding other more dishonest ways of obtaining wealth.
Lions abounded in the forests of Israel, and whilst they would not enter large fortified cities, hungry lions may well sometimes have entered unwalled towns and villages, keeping the residents safely in their houses. It is quite possible that learning of such an incident prompted the idea of the proverb. But such invasions of towns were not a common feature of life. They did, however, provide the lazy man with what he saw as a good excuse. Why risk being caught by a lion? And as for being killed in the streets. Being mugged was always a possibility. But less so for a poor man, and it would not happen very often in the day time.
There is, however, also an important spiritual lesson here for the spiritually lazy. Whilst we cannot blame lions, it is amazing what inexcusable excuses people come up with for not attending church, or bible study, or the prayer meeting, or for not doing some other service for God. They are often just as absurd when examined carefully as the ones provided by the sluggard here. And they come under the same condemnation.
The phrase ‘deep pit’ is found also in 23.27 (the only other reference outside the Prologue to the strange woman) where it is the prostitute herself who is the ‘deep pit’ into which men can fall. Here they fall into her mouth. The purpose of introducing her mouth here would appear to be to align this proverb with the other three proverbs in the subsection which in succession mention speech or speaking apparatus (lips in verse 11, words in verse 12, the sluggard’s actual words in verse 13, mouth here). This would then suggest that it is her enticing words which are seen as the pit into which the naive fall (2.16; 5.3; 6.24; 7.13-20; 9.16-17). Alternative suggestions are her kisses (7.13), or her mouth as a euphemism for her vagina. But the continual emphasis in the Prologue on her words would seem to confirm that that is what is in mind here.
The second clause refers to the one who falls for her words as being the abhorred of YHWH. He does not fall because he is abhorred. He is abhorred by YHWH because he falls, and thus proves his lack of wisdom. This emphasises God’s horror of prostitution and adultery. Note that by his action the man has joined the ranks of the foolish (compare verse 15) and the impure (compare verse 11).
As in 11.23 we have the indication that God does not ‘love all men equally’. 11.23 spoke of those who were an abomination to YHWH. Here we learn of those who are ‘abhorred of YHWH’. In Romans 9.13 Esau is seen as ‘hated’ by God. So whilst it is true that God’s benevolence reaches out to all, we can go no further than that if we are to be true to Scripture. It is true that God is love. But He is also light (1 John 1.5). Thus His love reaches out to those who come to that light and experience ‘the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, which cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1.7).
The foolishness which has been illustrated in the last two proverbs, the foolishness of indolence and sexual misbehaviour, together with all other examples of folly, come from the foolishness that is in every child. ‘The unrighteous are estranged from the womb, they go astray as soon as they are born speaking lies’ (Psalm 58.3). The Bible knows nothing of childish innocence. And here that is recognised by Solomon. Every child left to himself will grow up acting foolishly. He will not love pureness of heart (verse 11). Rather he will love wrongdoing. His hope therefore lies in being correctly disciplined.
The ‘rod of correction’, in the case of a parent applied in love, was the method of discipline in those days, and its application when necessary would drive the folly out of the child. We must not necessarily think of a sever beating. As now the punishment would be related to the crime. Today we must still exercise some form of discipline otherwise children will grow up without guidance, apart from what they see by our example. Good and loving discipline, together with rebuke and teaching, will enable them to grow up knowing the way in which they should go. The chastisement must be in a form that we think most suitable. In verse 10 the scorner was to be cast out. Now folly is to be cast out. By these means children will grow up in righteousness.
The subsection and section end with an injunction to consider the poor and needy, forming an inclusio with verse 9. But while verse 9 was dealing with the way in which the generous righteous positively provide food for the poor, this proverb brings out what will happen to the unrighteous, if, rather than being generous to the poor, they oppress them for their own gain. We are left to surmise how. It could be by overworking them while paying the minimum required, a common fault among employers today, or by saturating the market with their abundant harvest, leaving the poor unable to sell their grain and having to sell it to the rich at knock down prices. Or it could be by false weights.
Meanwhile at the same time the same unrighteous people give to the rich, hoping thereby to get something from them. It appears to be a good economic plan. Squeeze the poor, and win the favour of the rich. But the plan has one snag. It ignores YHWH’s watch over the poor. Thus both these attitudes will finally result in they themselves suffering want. ‘The prosperity of fools will destroy them’ (1.32).
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Back to Proverbs 15.22-18.21
Forward to Proverbs 22.17-24.34
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