Proverbs 20 (Part 2)

(Recall that the context here is contrasting human justice against God’s divine moral character.)

16. Take the garment of him who is surety for a stranger; and take a pledge from him for strangers. Making loans on these terms are not a good bet, but divine justice is not measured that way. The Law of Moses specifically requires that you be willing to lend things to your neighbors, and that you further be ready to absorb a loss on such loans. In Hebrew society, your neighbors will typically be relatives in the first place. If nothing else, the whole nation of Israel was one big family, so there’s no excuse for failing to treat any fellow citizen as a brother or sister. Don’t fret that your cousin wants to be generous to some outsider. The limitation is in what God places in your hands to offer. You can’t magically translate this into Western society, but the idea is to stop scalping folks and playing loan shark, because profit is not your god.

17. Bread of deceit is sweet to a man, but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel. The word translated “deceit” here specifically means it was intentional, not harmless, but meant to defraud. Nobody takes this proverb literally, of course. It’s not our concern how or under what terms God turns stolen bread into gravel, but that we know He doesn’t ignore these things.

18. Purposes are established by counsel; and with good advice make war. Simply living is a war; conflict is hard-wired into our fallen human nature. Stop whimpering about it and make sure you understand what’s involved. Both in terms of crafty tactics and in long-term strategy, seek to shed your personal blindness by cultivating folks who see through your personal biases and help you make just choices.

19. A gossip is a revealer of secrets; so do not mix with him who flatters with his lips. Perhaps the first phrase would better read, “A scandal-monger strips away your privacy.” It’s not a question of losing any advantage, but of losing your identity and sense of personal integrity. This is the simple wisdom of not trusting humans, including the person in the mirror. Wise people have no use for an ego massage.

20. Whoever curses his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in deep darkness. Translation destroys the play on words here. The specific term for cursing is making something thinner and lighter, and sometimes by implication, falsely shiny. It doesn’t require a direct affront to make fools of your parents. Don’t try to look so smart at the expense of those who love you. A lamp wick flares brightly just before the fire consumes it when the oil runs out.

21. An inheritance gotten hastily in the beginning, even the end of it shall not be blessed. This echoes the previous verse. It reflects on a fundamental flaw in human nature: Instant gratification destroys the soul. A true sense of moral discernment requires the full awareness of our fallen nature, gained in part by consciously embracing time-space limitations. This becomes paramount in seeking the blessings of shalom. Far more than merely your personal property inheritance, this affects the entire fabric of social stability under the Covenant that arises from living according to how Creation actually works.

22. Do not say, I will repay evil; wait on the LORD, and He will save you. Do not concern yourself with fixing other people’s sin. Even if you are the king, justice is confined to acting in your best discernment to protect your mission from God. Thus, it is never a question of what someone deserves; that’s God’s domain alone.

23. Different kinds of weights are hateful to the LORD, and a false balance is not good. This echoes verse 10 above, but in a slightly different context. Following upon the previous proverb here is the warning not to weigh a response based on improper factors. Don’t take it personally even if it was spiteful, but consider what will actually stop the harm.

24. Man’s steps are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way? Westerners tend to misread the rhetorical question here. Broadly, we are to regard the net behavior of humanity as steered by God. Do you want to understand where your personal pathway will take you? The obvious answer is to rely on the same God who is running all the rest of Creation.

25. It is a snare to a man to say rashly, “A holy thing,” and afterward vows to ask about it. This requires we understand that the common Hebrew expression of declaring something holy means that it is set aside as an offering to God. It occurs commonly in moments of high emotion, and too often in front of witnesses to impress them. The typical English translation confuses things a bit here, because the second phrase implies that the man goes to inquire of the Lord whether He took the vow seriously.

26. A wise king scatters the wicked and brings the wheel over them. This is more a matter of effects, in that royal wisdom typically makes it difficult for people to plot against the throne. Cynicism expects a certain flavor of trouble based on the context and prepares for it as with all the other routine business. The image is that of threshing a harvest of grain; spread it out and crush it with a grinding wheel.

27. The spirit of man is the lamp of the LORD, searching all the inward parts of the belly. In the Hebrew culture, the belly was the seat of emotions. However, it is not limited to the Western concept of emotions, but more like the broader collection of animal impulses natural to life in this realm of existence. Not necessarily evil, but weak; they are what they are and generally help keep us alive. Not fit to rule, but not to be ignored. The word for “spirit” here is well above the mind; the latter was merely the chief of staff, as it were. The spirit was a far higher faculty directly linked to God’s Person, and it is this that rightly rules what is appropriate for the appetites in various contexts.

28. Mercy and truth preserve the king; and his throne is upheld by mercy. In the Ancient Near East, a king was just the family chief over a really big family, like a tribe. What kept such a ruler on the throne was a combination of two things. Kindness (“mercy”) is necessary when dealing with your family, because if you don’t love them, you have no business ruling them. Truth is the quality of being morally consistent and trustworthy. However, the nature of his position rests entirely on mercy, not merely playing at Truth Police. In other words, you must rule from the heart, not merely from reason and logic.

29. The glory of young men is their strength; and the beauty of old men is the gray head. The ancients seldom stated it in blunt terms, but they knew instinctively that gray hair was not merely a sign of aging, but a result of having lived through a lot of sorrow. Thus, youth is aflame with physical vigor, but living long enough to talk about it wisely is more precious. Take advantage of vigor while you can, but consult with elders how to do it well.

30. The stripes of a wound cleanses away evil, and strokes the inward parts of the belly. Figures of speech here translate poorly into English. Within the Covenant context, most of your troubles arise from paying too much attention to your appetites and not enough to what’s necessary for social stability. Truly just punishment doesn’t aim at the pain, but at what pain produces in terms of moral adjustments.

About Ed Hurst

Avid cyclist, Disabled Veteran, Bible History teacher, and wannabe writer; retired.
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