In his better moments, Solomon was struck by the realization that much of what made life so sweet under his father’s reign was fading away. Some of it was buried under the wash of foreign influences his fame brought to Jerusalem, so he surely realized that his own hands shared in the guilt. Perhaps he saw the sorrows his own heir would cause many, because Rehoboam lacked the depth character that comes from facing life with only your moral sensibilities against very little physical comfort. Thus, the theme of this chapter is guarding the ancient treasures from loss.
1. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches; and loving favor rather than silver or gold. From the depths of the Ancient Near Eastern cultures, it was long regarded as the highest mark of divine favor that one should possess an established unique moral character. Perhaps it is God’s sense of humor that the Hebrew word for that (shem) is pronounced “shame.” It would be easy for someone in Solomon’s court to get lost in the material opulence and forget how it symbolized God’s rich blessings in granting him such a grand moral discernment.
2. The rich and poor meet together; the LORD is the maker of them all. This is connected to the previous verse. Whence the designations of rich and poor? Who decides what qualifies a man for either label? Everyone stands before the Creator as mere creature, so it is His regard that matters.
3. A prudent one foresees the evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished. Along the same lines as the previous, this is rather equivalent to realizing when to cut your losses based on what really matters. If you can discern the approach of sorrow, don’t waste time arguing with God and trying to negotiate over stuff He can replace, just take the obvious morally appropriate action. A fool by definition blunders through this world paying no attention to moral considerations. Will they recognize God’s wrath for what it is?
4. By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches and honor and life. The first word here — “by” — misses the rich flavor in the original term: the heel of something, the end result. We tend to read this English translation with the wrong cultural baggage holding us back. The last phrase is a figure of speech for shalom — the promised blessings of God’s moral law. They were symbolic; nice to have, but if you don’t seek God’s mercy and favorable regard, they won’t do much for you. The comforts God offers in this life take on the wrong meaning if they don’t arise as the end result of embracing His moral character.
5. Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; he who keeps his soul shall be far from them. We might not call it a pun, but the Hebrew imagery here is humorous, relying heavily on the wide concept of what is natural, what is built into this world by God’s design. In Creation, thorns serve to warn you off. Sin here is pictured as perversity, of twisting what God gave us, pushing against thorns and ripping your life to shreds as they hold you fast. To “keep” one’s soul arises from the Hebrew concept of a thorns as a protective hedge.
6. Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it. As usual, rich imagery here does not translate. Children in Hebrew culture represent raw talent and a wealth of natural urges that can get you into trouble. Beautiful, wild and free, but likely dead soon if you don’t help them discover God’s intentions for all those things. Thus, the Hebrew term for training is narrowing, cutting and pressing extraneous projections that will get caught on natural threats. The path of life requires we manage to fit ourselves through narrow portals with as little struggle as we can manage. Train them well and they won’t struggle, feeling lost at the end of life.
7. The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. This is one of those pithy reminders to consider the implications of your choices. Rather than impart some kind of moral condemnation on political power, this proverb simply notes how such power is gained, whether good or ill. In general, rich folks can buy influence. But when you borrow for any reason, you have sold some part of your future to the lender.
8. He who sows iniquity shall reap vanity; and the rod of his anger shall fail. This is a play on words about progeny. You cannot build a blessed future by taking moral shortcuts at the start. Pay your dues early and endure the discomfort and inconvenience of maintaining moral justice with an eye to social stability. Otherwise, you’ll be on the wrong track, and what you leave for your kids to inherit won’t be worth anything. You’ll end up frustrated and morally powerless. The word “rod” means both scepter as a symbol of authority and as a figure of speech for your heirs; it’s a general concept of one’s dominion, legacy and estate.
9. He who has a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he gives of his bread to the poor. Without the cultural context, this can lead to a false morality. In Solomon’s world, the fundamental frame of reference was Ancient Near Eastern feudal structure in human society. The “everyman” figure was someone who was head of his household, never mind how rich or poor his private dominion might be. Additionally, the eye was not just a matter of sight, but of perception. If your perception assumes that God has granted you a rich domain with the feudal expectation that you will use it to bring Him fame and glory, then you will have no trouble generosity and taking proper care of those who are dependent on you (“the poor”). In return, your divine Sheikh will show you great favor. Westerners are clueless about the moral frame of reference in which God decides who is your dependent.
10. Cast out the scorner, and fighting shall go out; yes, quarrels and shame shall cease. This rests on an ancient image of dispossession, rather like Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. The unjust squatter to drive out is someone who stirs up trouble, typically by bullying and mocking, someone who doesn’t understand the proper use of human speech. Thus, when they leave, a huge load of dissension and fighting goes with them. The image of “fighting” is lawsuits, complaints lodged against each other before some authority, along with the resulting shame of someone who cannot rule his own home in peace.
11. He who loves pureness of heart, grace is on his lips; the king shall be his friend. As a general principle of human politics, knowing how to say the right thing at the right time will keep you in favor with those in power. You can fake it, but that’s hard work and too easily fails at the worst moment. Better it is to gain it honestly, and the best way to do that is to genuinely love the moral guidance of a heart that suffers no confusion about who is God.