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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 17

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

Verses 1-7

Solomon Contrasts The Behaviour Of The Perverse And Worthless Man With The Life and Attitudes Of The Man Grown Old In Righteousness, Who Is An Exemplar Of All The Righteous (Proverbs 16:30 to Proverbs 17:7 ).

The subsection begins with a contrast between the perverse and worthless man who closes his eyes and purses his lips (compare Proverbs 6:12-13 a) in preparation for planning perverse things and bringing about evil (Proverbs 16:30), and the one whose hoary head is a crown of glory, as he walks in the way of righteousness (Proverbs 16:31). Perhaps included in this is the thought that as men grow older they grow wiser, but the main aim is to contrast folly with righteousness and wisdom. The old man personifies the wise. He is crowned with glory (compare Proverbs 4:9; Proverbs 1:9). It may also be an underlining of the fact that it is to the wise that long life is promised (Proverbs 3:2; Proverbs 3:16; Proverbs 4:10; Proverbs 9:11; Proverbs 10:27).

In the same way, it is the old, rather than hot-headed young men, who tend to be slow to anger and learn to rule their spirits, a task more difficult than conquering a city (Proverbs 16:32). Such men have learned that all is in YHWH’s hand and that they can safely leave it with Him (Proverbs 16:33). They pay less heed to lies and gossip (Proverbs 17:4), and live to see their grandchildren who glory in them (Proverbs 17:6). But again they are examples to all the righteous.

In contrast are the unrighteous. They devise perverse things, and bring evil (mischief) about (compare Proverbs 16:27). They may be strong and take cities, but they cannot rule themselves (Proverbs 16:32). They bring shame on sacrifices, quarrelling over them (Proverbs 17:1). They listen to rumours and lies (Proverbs 17:4). They mock the poor and celebrate the coming of calamity on others (Proverbs 17:5). Their talk is low level and they have lying lips (Proverbs 17:7). YHWH tries their hearts and they will not go unpunished (Proverbs 17:3; Proverbs 17:5).

The subsection is presented chiastically:

A He who shuts his eyes, it is to devise perverse things, he who compresses his lips brings evil about (Proverbs 16:30).

B The hoary head is a crown of glory, it will be found in the way of righteousness (Proverbs 16:31).

C He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who takes a city (Proverbs 16:32).

D The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing of it is of YHWH (Proverbs 16:32).

E Better is a dry bit of food, and quietness with it, than a house full of quarrelsome sacrifices (Proverbs 17:1).

E A servant who deals wisely will have rule over a son who causes shame, and will have part in the inheritance among the brothers (Proverbs 17:2).

D The refining pot is for silver, and the furnace for gold, but YHWH tries the hearts (Proverbs 17:3).

C An evildoer pays heed to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue. Whoever mocks the poor reproaches his Maker, and he who is glad at calamity will not be unpunished (Proverbs 17:4-5).

B Children’s children are the crown of old men, and the glory of children are their fathers (Proverbs 17:6).

A Excellent speech is not suitable for a fool, much less are lying lips to a prince (Proverbs 17:7).

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

Proverbs 16:30

‘He who closes (‘atsah) his eyes, it is to devise perverse things,

He who compresses his lips brings evil about.’

The verb ‘atsah is found only here but in Arabic means ‘to close’. Thus the idea may be of closing the eyes as an indication that he will not listen to advice, and then the pursing of the lips might indicate an unwillingness to say anything because he knows it would be unwelcome. (Compare Proverbs 17:7, ‘excellent words are not suitable for a fool’). In other words he is obstinate in evil. He ignores what others have to say. Or it may refer to winking the eye as in Proverbs 6:13 indicating that he is not to be trusted (but in that case why not use the same verb?), and in that case the pursing of the lips may have in mind the ‘perverse mouth’ of Proverbs 6:12. So either he is obstinate, or he is deceitful and perverse.

And the reason that he is so is because he is scheming to do perverse things, and is intending to bring ‘evil’ about. ‘Evil’ may indicate calamities (such as conquering a city (Proverbs 16:32), or may simply signify morally evil things. He is so worthless and foolish that he closes himself off by unspoken signs from considering the concerns of people.

Proverbs 16:31

‘The hoary head is a crown of glory,

It will be found in the way of righteousness.’

In contras to this obstinate and perverse man is the old, grey-haired, righteous man. His hair is to him like a crown of glory, the crown given by wisdom to those who heed her (compare Proverbs 4:9; Proverbs 1:9). For such a man is found in the way of righteousness. Not for him the closing of the eyes and the pursing of the lips. He is open and honest with all. He plans what is good, he does not devise what is perverse. He does not bring evil about. Rather his children are a credit to him, and they glory in him (Proverbs 17:6).

Proverbs 16:32

‘Better is he who is slow to anger than the mighty,

And he who rules his spirit, than he who takes a city.’

This may simply be saying that the one who is slow to anger and who is able to rule his spirit, in other words who conquers his emotions, shows such strength that he is more to be admired than a mighty warrior, or the conqueror of a city. He is able to be patient in the face of all that may come at him. He never acts in anger. Or it may be saying that he is morally superior. He has taken the better road. Indeed Solomon may in recent memory have been faced with just such a dilemma. Either way the sacking of the city may possibly be seen as one of the evils in the mind of the one who purses his lips (Proverbs 16:30). The grey-haired man of wisdom is seen to be a peacemaker who makes wise decisions, whilst the perverse man is seen to be a war-monger who is simply after spoil.

Proverbs 16:33

‘The lot is cast into the lap,

But the whole disposing of it is of YHWH.’

Both men in Proverbs 16:32 could have been seen as ‘tempting fate’, unsure of what the outcome would be. But the writer assures us that it was not so for it is YHWH Who determines all things. (Shall evil be in a city and YHWH has not done it?’ - Amos 3:6). The implication may be that the grey-haired man was aware of this, which explains why he was so wise. He was prepared to leave things in the hands of YHWH ‘who tries the hearts’ (Proverbs 17:3). Note the parallel. YHWH disposes of the lot as He wills, YHWH tries the hearts. All is in His hands.

In general the proverb is an indication that nothing happens by chance. Even when a lot is cast, what it reveals is determined by YHWH. For YHWH is in control of all things. He determines how the lot falls. He determines our destinies. (But it does not guarantee that God will reveal His will in this way. This is not an indication that this is a useful way of discovering God’s will. It is rather seen in Proverbs 18:18 as a way of settling a dispute where there is little to choose between options or where all have to be agreed about a decision. While being used by the Apostles before the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:24-26) and only then after they had come down to a final choice between two, it was never so used afterwards).

The ‘lot’ would probably be a small stone, or a piece of wood, or a number of them, tossed into the lap in order to ‘determine YHWH’s will’. They may have had markings on them to assist the decision. For example Urim and Thummim in the High Priest’s breastpouch may have been ‘lots’. But they were only used on solemn occasions. Examples of their use may b given in Joshua 7:16-19; 1Sa 14:41-42 ; 1 Samuel 23:9-13; 2 Samuel 2:1. But we have no details of how they were used.

Proverbs 17:1

‘Better is a dry bit of bread, and quietness with it,

Than a house full of quarrelsome sacrifices.’

For this proverb we can compare Proverbs 15:17, ‘better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a sacrificed ox and hatred with it’. But here there is a closer connection between the quarrelsomeness and the sacrifice. To partake of peace offerings, which would be slain at the Temple with their meat then being brought home for a sacrificial meal, and to do it while engaging in a family quarrel, was a contradiction in terms. It demonstrated a total disregard for YHWH. Far better then to have a bit of bread which had not been dipped in any kind of sauce (and was therefore dry), and be at peace, which would be more likely what was eaten by the servants. To them sauce would have been a luxury.

Note the deliberate contrast between the dry bit of bread, and a houseful of sacrificial meat. But in a quarrelsome household someone would be better off eating among the servants than shaming their family by quarrelling while partaking of a peace offering. The comparison of peace with strife connects this proverb to Proverbs 16:32 where the one who rules his spirit (and is thus at peace) is contrasted with one who takes a city (and is thus engaging in a quarrel).

Proverbs 17:2

‘A servant who deals wisely will have rule over a son who causes shame,

And will have part in the inheritance among the brothers.’

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

This then leads on to the idea that the servant, who is clearly of the wise for ‘he deals wisely’, will have rule over the one who causes shame, either by his irreligious and foolish behaviour, or by any other means. The wise will triumph over the fool. And what is more, he may well so prosper that he will be adopted by the father of the family and have his part in the family inheritance along with the brothers. Solomon may well have had some example in mind. He would certainly know of cases where a wise, and therefore beloved servant, had been adopted as a son as a consequence of his ‘wise dealing’ (compareGenesis 15:2-4; Genesis 15:2-4).

Proverbs 17:3

‘The refining pot is for silver, and the furnace for gold,

But YHWH tries the hearts.

The testing, and if necessary, refining, of silver and gold was carried out in special smelting pots or ovens, heated by furnaces. The pots or ovens would be heated up, with bellows often being used to intensify the heat. Smaller ones would be made of clay. A smelting oven would have one or more openings through which to use the bellows to fan the flames and another opening or openings through which the impurities could be siphoned off. In exceptional cases such furnaces could be large enough to hold three men (Daniel 4:19-25). The metals would be heated up and melted, releasing their impurities which would be siphoned off leaving the purified silver or gold.

The idea is used metaphorically for God’s activities in testing and trying men and women through circumstances (see Psalms 66:10; Isaiah 1:25; Isaiah 48:10; Jeremiah 6:29; Jeremiah 9:7; Zechariah 13:9; 1 Corinthians 3:13). It is through such chastening that men learn wisdom (Proverbs 3:11-12). Here YHWH is figuratively depicted as so testing the hearts of men. ‘Nor is there any creature which is not manifest in His sight, but all things are naked and opened to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4:13). It is a reminder that God constantly tests the hearts of men, including our own.

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

Proverbs 17:4-5

‘An evildoer pays heed to wicked lips,

And a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue.’

‘Whoever mocks the poor reproaches his Maker,

And he who is glad at calamity will not be unpunished.’

In Proverbs 16:32 we learned of the one who was slow to anger and who ruled his spirit, controlled and thoughtful in all that he did. Now we have described those who reveal the opposite traits. They do not control themselves. They hear and react unwisely. They listen to unrighteous lips and do evil, because they are evildoers. (The righteous man would not have done it). They listen to mischievous gossip and slander, and, with some relish, pass on the lies, thereby revealing themselves as themselves liars. They see a man’s poverty and deride him, not realising that thereby they are reproaching the One Who made him. They see calamity coming on men and are even glad at it, revealing themselves as callous and uncaring. But none of them will be unpunished, for in each case what they are doing is reproaching the One Who made their victims, and the One Who tries the hearts (Proverbs 17:3) will see and will repay.

And this is especially so in the case of their derision of the poor. YHWH made all men, both rich and poor (Proverbs 22:2). They were made in His image. And so to deride the poor is to deride YHWH. It may be that their poverty is due to their own slothfulness and refusal to listen to advice (Proverbs 6:11; Proverbs 10:4), for it is in parallel with calamity, which comes on those who refuse to hear wisdom (Proverbs 1:26-27; Proverbs 6:15). Thus both may be getting their deserts. But that is no reason why others deride them for it or be glad at what comes on them. For YHWH is the Maker of all men, and especially of the poor, and we should weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).

Proverbs 17:6

‘Children’s children are the crown of old men,

And the glory of children are their fathers.’

In stark contrast with the evildoers and liars are the children of the righteous. Just as the grey head was a crown of splendour, found in the way of righteousness, so will his children’s children be righteous, for they too will be a crown to him. They too will be found in the way of righteousness. They too will be slow to anger and rule their spirits (Proverbs 16:32). They too will rely wholly on YHWH and His sovereignty (Proverbs 16:33). They too will love quietness and peace (Proverbs 17:1). They too will deal wisely (Proverbs 17:2). When their hearts are tested they will come out as pure gold (Proverbs 17:3). They will not pay heed to unrighteous lips, or mischievous tongues (Proverbs 17:4), nor will they mock the poor or be glad at the sufferings of others (Proverbs 17:5).

And in turn their splendour lies in their fathers. It is to their fathers that they owe the upbringing and disciplinary instruction that has made them what they are (Proverbs 1:8; Proverbs 4:1-9). And any credit that they have is due to him. The whole family reveal their splendour, and the splendour of each generation. And all stems from the righteous grandfather.

Proverbs 17:7

‘Excellent speech is not suitable for a fool,

Much less are lying lips to a ruler.’

The subsection commenced with ‘he who purses his lips brings evil about’ (Proverbs 16:30), and it now closes with two clauses referring to the speech of fools and rulers (nobles, those in authority). ‘Excellent speech’ probably refers to wise and sensible words. The idea is that fools, and wise and sensible words, do not go together. Nor do lying words and a prince (someone in authority). Indeed, the opposite should be the case. We would expect wise and sensible words from one in authority, and lying lips from a fool.

This word for ‘fool’ (nabal occurs only here and in Proverbs 16:21 in the Solomon section, but also occurs in the words of Agur in Proverbs 30:22, where the verbal form is also found (Proverbs 30:32). It is the word used in Psalms 14:1. Here the nabal lacks wise and sensible speech, in Proverbs 16:21 his father has no joy in him, and there the nabal is the equivalent of the kesil (the normal word for ‘fool’ in Proverbs). But we can gather its emphasis from elsewhere.

We should expect nothing agreeable from a fool (nabal). He says in his heart that there is no God (Psalms 14:1), and he behaves in that way. He disapproves of God all day long (Psalms 74:22); he deals corruptly with God and is not one of His children (Deuteronomy 32:6); he obtains wealth dishonestly (Jeremiah 17:11); and if a woman she is sexually immoral (2 Samuel 13:13). Because he is bullheaded he behaves foolishly and with ingratitude (1 Samuel 25:25). These are the things that we expect of a nabal. But of someone in authority we expect much better. For they judge others, and should therefore live as those who will be judged (Matthew 7:2). And this is especially so with regard to truth and honesty. An untruthful man does not make a good ruler.

Verses 1-28

Proverbs Of Solomon Part 2 (Proverbs 15:22 to Proverbs 22:16 ).

At this point there is a sudden switch from proverbs which contrast one thing with another, which have been predominant since Proverbs 10:1, to proverbs where the second clause adds something to the first. Whilst we still find some contrasting proverbs, especially at the beginning, they are not so common. This may suggest a deliberate intention by Solomon to separate his proverbs into two parts.

Furthermore such a change at this point would also be in line with seeing verse Proverbs 10:1 and Proverbs 15:20 as some kind of inclusio. The first opened the collection with ‘a wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother’ (Proverbs 10:1), whilst Proverbs 15:20 may be seen as closing it with the very similar ‘a wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish man despises his mother’. Proverbs 15:21 may then be seen as conjoined with Proverbs 15:20 and as a kind of postscript summing up the fool and the wise who have been in mind throughout the proverbs up to this point.

Proverbs 15:22, in fact, provides a particularly suitable introduction to a new section with its emphasis on the need for a ‘multitude of counsellors’, who can partly be found in the authors of the proverbs which follow (Solomon and the wise men).

Verses 8-16

The Follies Of The Fool (Proverbs 17:8-16 ).

The previous subsection ended with reference to the nabal (fool), and this now leads on to consideration of the activities of fools (kesil) (Proverbs 17:21 virtually equates the two).

In this subsection we find an emphasis on the activities of ‘the fool’ (Proverbs 17:10; Proverbs 17:12; Proverbs 17:16) and his equivalent. Basically he interferes with the stability and smooth running of society. He thinks that he can buy men’s favour (Proverbs 17:8); he harps on things and loses friends (Proverbs 17:9); he will not listen to rebuke (Proverbs 17:10); he wants nothing more than to rebel (Proverbs 17:11); acquaintance with him is dangerous (Proverbs 17:12); he rewards evil for good (Proverbs 17:13); he can’t stop quarrelling (Proverbs 17:14); and he justifies the unrighteous and condemns the righteous (Proverbs 17:15).

In contrast the righteous man seeks to build up society. He is gentle in dealing with the transgression of others because he is trying to build up love (Proverbs 17:9); he listens carefully to rebuke (Proverbs 17:10); he avoids letting contention build up into a wholesale quarrel (Proverbs 17:14), and it is implied that he is concerned for justice (Proverbs 17:15).

The subsection can be presented chiastically as follows:

A A bribe is as a stone of favour in the eyes of him who has it, to whoever he turns, it succeeds (Proverbs 17:8).

B He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who harps on a matter separates (disenchants) a boon companion (Proverbs 17:9).

C A rebuke enters deeper into one who has understanding, than a hundred stripes into a FOOL (Proverbs 17:10).

D An evil man only looks for rebellion, therefore a cruel envoy will be sent against him (Proverbs 17:11).

D Let a bear robbed of her whelps meet a man, rather than a FOOL in his folly (Proverbs 17:12).

C He who rewards evil for good, evil will not depart from his house (Proverbs 17:13).

B The beginning of strife is as when one releases water, therefore leave off contention, before there is quarrelling (Proverbs 17:14).

A He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to YHWH (Proverbs 17:15).

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

Proverbs 17:8

‘A bribe is as a stone of favour in the eyes of him who has it,

To whoever he turns, it succeeds.’

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

The briber is seeking to get his way at the cost of others by unfair and hidden means, often to the disadvantage of the other. He is thus destabilising society. It is the equivalent of theft, and it is often at the expense of the poor (Psalms 15:5; Isaiah 1:23). It was apparently common practise in Israel, and even moreso in surrounding nations where it was not even disapproved of apart from in the courts of justice. But it is forbidden by YHWH as resulting in dishonesty and injustice (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19; Deuteronomy 27:25). It comes under His condemnation (Proverbs 17:15; Job 15:34; Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 5:23). Where it has the effect of resulting in the death of an innocent person it brings men under His curse (Deuteronomy 27:25).

Bribes were condemned in Israel (Proverbs 17:23; Proverbs 15:27; Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19; Deuteronomy 27:25; 1 Samuel 8:3; Job 15:34; Psalms 15:5; Psalms 26:10; Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 5:23; Isaiah 33:15). Other nations were less stringent, for while they were frowned on if they affected justice, they were otherwise seen as acceptable and the only penalties were on those who failed to pay the promised bribe. That they did occur in Israel and were specifically seen as encouraging injustice is evidenced in Proverbs 17:23; Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19; Deuteronomy 27:25; 1 Samuel 8:3; Psalms 15:5; Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 5:23; Micah 3:11. As Isaiah 5:23 says, ‘they justify the unrighteous for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous’, words which parallel the idea in Proverbs 17:15 exactly.

YHWH, unlike the gods of other nations, is distinguished as being unbribeable. He is ‘the God of Gods and the Lord of Lords, the mighty and terrible God, Who is not partial and takes no bribes’ (Deuteronomy 10:17), indicating just how wrong bribes were seen to be.

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

Proverbs 17:9

‘He who covers a transgression seeks love,

But he who harps on a matter separates (disenchants) a boon companion.’

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

The point here, as brought out by the parallel clause, is that, in order to obtain or retain friendships and be loved, and even bring harmony to society, we often have to be willing to overlook another’s transgressions. We have to ‘cover’ them in our own minds so that they are not seen. We have to make sure that we do not repeat the matter. We have to avoid seeking vengeance (Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:17-19).

Indeed if we keep harping on about something, or even repeat it, we may lose our friends, even our boon companion. ‘Seeking love’ is a good thing. But it has a cost, the cost of recognising that people, even our friends are not perfect. As it says in the parallel Proverbs 17:14 we have to recognise that if we remain in contention it could soon lead to a bigger quarrel, and even an irremediable breakdown in friendship.

Proverbs 17:10

‘A rebuke enters deeper into one who has understanding,

Than a hundred stripes into a fool.’

On the other hand the wise man does not seek to cover his own transgression. Rather he welcomes reproof. Because he is a man of understanding he takes careful note of what is said to him, and responds to it. He even learns from being caned (Proverbs 22:15; Proverbs 23:13), and is thankful for it. He is unlike the fool who takes little notice even if he receives a hundred lashes. This is, of course deliberate exaggeration. The highest number of lashes that an Israelite could receive was forty, and that only for very serious offences (Deuteronomy 25:13). But ‘a hundred’ is regularly used simply to indicate a large number. The point is that the fool shrugs off reproof, and does not let it improve him. It is ineffective to remove the evil from his house (Proverbs 17:13).

Proverbs 17:11

‘An evil man seeks only rebellion,

Therefore a cruel envoy will be sent against him.’

The ultimate truth about a fool is that he rebels against society because he is evil. He sets out to destabilise society by violent means. He constantly seeks to destroy harmony. He does not like the status quo. He wants to change it, and change it for the bad. It is his main purpose. And he does not mind who gets hurt in the process. He has refused to respond to the compassionate overtures of the righteous (Proverbs 17:9). He has refused to respond to the ‘hundred lashes’ (Proverbs 17:10). He has demonstrated that nothing can change him. We can compare here Pharaoh who constantly hardened his heart the more that God lashed him (Exodus 3:0 onwards).

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

Proverbs 17:12

‘Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her whelps,

Rather than a fool in his folly.’

Solomon now emphasises that a fool acting in his folly is more dangerous than a bear robbed of her cubs, which is outside of itself in grief and desire for revenge. This is the fool of Proverbs 17:11. He is uncontrolled and violent. He plans only evil. He has refused to let the folly be driven out of him by the lash. He is without restraint.

David slew ‘a lion and a bear’ (1 Samuel 17:34), and the young men who derided Elisha were mauled by two she-bears (2 Kings 2:24). They were found in the hilly wooded parts of Palestine, and while they became more and more scarce there were still some there in the first part of the twentieth century AD (in the centuries before that Palestine had been mainly deserted. There was no Palestinian state).

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

Proverbs 17:13

He who rewards evil for good,

Evil will not depart from his house.’

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

Proverbs 17:14

‘The beginning of strife is as when one releases water,

Therefore leave off contention, before there is quarrelling.’

In Proverbs 17:9 we had the peacemaker who sought to bring harmony by not being too judgmental, and who in Proverbs 17:10 listened carefully to reproof. He was contrasted with the fool who gradually grew in evil. Now, having centred on the fool’s growth in evil, the chiasmus brings us back to the peacemaker. Disagreement is sometimes inevitable, but the wise man recognises that it can be like water released from a dam. It can grow in pressure until it becomes a flood. Thus he seeks to stop any contention at its source. He seeks to prevent it growing.

Dams in those days, often just made of mud, were not the stable things we think of today (compare Ecclesiastes 2:6). Releasing water from a dam could result in a flow which grew and grew uncontrollably, resulting in damage to the crops and trees, and even a death or two. The commencement of strife is likened to this release. If not immediately staunched it could very quickly grow into a major quarrel. Thus the wise man will cease being contentious in order to prevent this happening.

Proverbs 17:15

‘He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous,

Both of them alike are an abomination to YHWH.’

The subsection then closes as it began (Proverbs 17:8) with the misuse of justice. As we saw above one of the main use of bribes was in order to pervert justice. Now YHWH makes His opinion of those who accept such bribes people clear. Those who arrange by bribery, coercion or lying witnesses for a guilty man to be let off (and therefore be declared as innocent) are an abomination to YHWH. As are those who by such means bring about the condemnation of the innocent. They are both seen by Him in the same way. For they strike at the very roots of society. Compare Proverbs 17:23; Proverbs 17:26; Pro 18:25; Proverbs 24:23-25. They are the forebears of those who found Jesus Christ guilty.

Verses 16-23

The Ways Of The Fool (Proverbs 17:16-23 ).

The main emphasis in this subsection is on the ways of the fool (Proverbs 17:16; Proverbs 17:21), the man void of mind (heart) (Proverbs 17:16; Proverbs 17:18; Proverbs 17:20), the unrighteous man (Proverbs 17:23). He thinks he can buy wisdom, but cannot for he has no mind for it (Proverbs 17:16); because he is void of mind he becomes a surety, putting himself in danger of ruin (Proverbs 17:18); he loves transgression bringing strife on himself (Proverbs 17:19 a); he exalts himself above his neighbours (Proverbs 17:19 b): he has a wayward mind and perverse tongue which bring bad consequences (Proverbs 17:20); he brings distress on his family (Proverbs 17:21); and he perverts justice for a secret bribe (Proverbs 17:23).

One of his follies is that he falls for quick fixes. He thinks he can obtain wisdom without effort (Proverbs 17:16); and he thinks he can become wealthy without effort (Proverbs 17:18; Proverbs 17:23).

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

The subsection is presented chiastically:

A Why is there a PAYMENT in the hand of a FOOL to buy wisdom, seeing he has no MIND (heart) for it? (Proverbs 17:16)’

B A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity (Proverbs 17:17).

C A man void of understanding MIND (heart) strikes hands, and becomes surety in the presence of his neighbour (Proverbs 17:18).

D He loves transgression who loves strife, he who raises high his gate seeks destruction (Proverbs 17:19).

D He who has a wayward MIND (heart) finds no good, and he who has a perverse tongue falls into mischief (Proverbs 17:20).

C He who begets a FOOL does it to his sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy (Proverbs 17:21).

B A cheerful HEART is a good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22).

A A wicked man receives a BRIBE out of the bosom, to pervert the ways of justice (Proverbs 17:23).

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

Proverbs 17:16

‘Why is there a payment in the hand of a fool to buy (obtain) wisdom,

Seeing he has no mind (heart) for it?’

In Proverbs 17:8 the fool thought that by using bribes he could obtain anything that he wanted. But here he learns how wrong he was. He comes along payment in hand to obtain wisdom, but he is unable to do so. For however much wealth he has he could not obtain wisdom, because the obtaining of wisdom requires a receptive heart. As Jesus said to Peter, ‘flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but My Father Who is in Heaven’ (Matthew 16:17). The problem that the people of Isaiah’s day had was not that they had no wealth, it was that their eyes were blinded and their hearts were hardened (Isaiah 6:18). And the problem that the fool has here is that any attempts to use wealth in order to buy wisdom would be useless, because his heart and mind had no desire for it.

We could paraphrase this as, ‘what is the point of a fool having wealth with which to buy wisdom when he is so spiritually blind that it can do him no good?’ To put it another way, the fool does not deserve wealth because he will always use it in order to obtain the wrong things. Such waste is illustrated in Proverbs 5:10 where the young man who went with the seductress lost all his money to her wayward friends.

Note that this fool had wealth in his hand, but was unable to obtain the true wealth because his heart was closed to it. He was like the people spoken of by Isaiah, ‘why do you spend your money for that which is not (spiritual) food, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? -- bend your ear and come to me, hear that your inner man might live ---’ (Isaiah 55:2-3). What was required was not to spend money, but to hear and respond. But the fool would not bend his ear, nor would he truly seek wisdom (otherwise he would not have been a fool). If he wanted wisdom at all it was on easy terms. And indeed, a fool can be conned into buying quick-fix wisdom, even though he has no heart or mind for it, but it will not do him any good.

Solomon had earlier told his ‘son’ to ‘buy/obtain wisdom’ in Proverbs 1:5; Proverbs 4:5-7, but there it was by hearing God’s words and commandments. By that means he would obtain what was better than silver and more valuable than gold (Proverbs 3:13-14; Proverbs 8:10-11). It was, in fact, far too valuable to be obtainable by simply making a payment.

But let us not be mistaken. There are many ‘fools’ in our own day who think that they can obtain wisdom by expending money, for they do not distinguish between wisdom and knowledge. Outwardly they can learn all about God, but it does not bring them any closer to Him. For the things of God are spiritually discerned (John 6:63; 1 Corinthians 2:9-16), and only open to those who seek with a true heart. Payments can close men’s minds (Proverbs 17:23), but they cannot open them.

Proverbs 17:17

‘A friend (harea) loves at all times,

And a brother is born for adversity.’

Another thing that money cannot buy is true friends. The wealthy man will always have his hangers-on (Proverbs 14:20; Proverbs 18:24 a; Proverbs 19:4; Proverbs 19:6) but he will not find them reliable when he really needs them. However, a true friend loves ‘at all times’ (this comes first in the Hebrew for emphasis). He loves when times are good, and he loves when times are hard. And a true brother (one who is not so much a blood relative but one who acts as a true brother should) is ‘born for adversity’, in other words is there when he is needed and things have become difficult. These are friends who ‘stick closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24 b).

It is not likely that this is intended to indicate that a true friend is better than a brother by birth, in that one is there at all times but the other only appears at times of adversity, even though there may be truth in that. For a brother may be close all the time, and some brothers would not be bothered anyway. If anything we could read it is as meaning that when things are really difficult only a brother can be relied on. But it is probably best to see it as signifying that a true friend and a true brother are those who are equally reliable when they are needed. For they come with a cheerful heart (a ready willingness) as good medicine to their friend (Proverbs 17:22).

Proverbs 17:18

‘A man void of understanding strikes hands,

And becomes surety in the presence of his neighbour (harea).’

The same word is used for neighbour here as was used for friend in Proverbs 17:17, thus linking the two proverbs together. But the thought is very different. It is NOT that the man who acts as surety is a true friend, for he is depicted as a ‘man void of heart/mind/understanding’, and as acting, not on behalf of his neighbour but in the presence of his neighbour. The point is more that he should not have involved his neighbour as a witness to the transaction. For to Solomon, acting as a surety was the act of a naive man who was heading for disaster (see Proverbs 6:1-5), and it may be that it even involved his neighbour in some measure of liability.

Whilst the details of the transaction is not clear, what is clear is that the surety was gambling his future, probably for the sake of a commission (just as he thought he could obtain wisdom without effort, so does he think that he can become wealthy without effort). If the loan was called in he could lose everything and find himself sold of as a bond-slave in order to pay off as much of the debt as possible. This would be a great grief to his father (Proverbs 17:21), not only because his father would not like to see him sold off as a bond-slave, but also because it would then be his duty, if at all possible, to redeem him, thus depleting the family finances.

Proverbs 17:19

‘He loves transgression who loves strife,

He who raises high his gate seeks destruction.’

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

‘Loving transgression/rebellion’ and ‘loving strife’ are seen as the same thing. The one who loves the one will love the other. He is thus either a sower of discord (abominated by YHWH - Proverbs 6:19), having a perverse tongue, or an open rebel, having a wayward heart (Proverbs 17:20). And this last would be supported by the fact that he ‘raises high his gate’. He wants his gate to be higher than that of his neighbours, and even possibly above the Temple, thus expressing his superiority and strength against both God and his neighbours. But by so challenging God and by so challenging others he is inviting destruction. All who raise themselves above their neighbours are there to be shot at. And as a consequence he is seeking destruction, both by God and his neighbours. So he started by trying to get wisdom on the cheap, and ends up in destruction. Such is the lot of the fool.

We can compare him with Shebna who built his tomb high above the others, and would as a consequence be brought down (Isaiah 22:15-19), or Haman who set himself above others, had a wayward heart and a perverse tongue in his behaviour towards Mordecai, and as a consequence perished (Esther 3:1 to Esther 8:1).

Proverbs 17:20

‘He who has a wayward heart finds no good,

And he who has a perverse tongue falls into mischief.

In a verse parallel to Proverbs 17:19 we learn that the one who loves transgression does so because he has a wayward heart. He had had no heart for wisdom (Proverbs 17:16), and this is therefore not surprising. It is what we would expect. And the consequence is that he ‘finds no good’. Nothing good comes from his life, only evil (non-good). And as a result he finds no good for himself. His wayward heart has led him into wayward activity. ‘Finding good’ is limited to the righteous (Proverbs 11:23).

In the same way the one who has a perverse tongue ‘falls into mischief’, not so much because of what he does, but because of what he says. He is a rabble-rouser. He stirs up trouble in others. And he brings trouble on himself. See Proverbs 1:11-14; Proverbs 2:12; Proverbs 2:14; Proverbs 8:13; Proverbs 10:31-32.

Proverbs 17:21

‘He who begets a fool does it to his sorrow,

And the father of a fool has no joy.’

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

Proverbs 17:22

‘A cheerful heart is a good medicine,

But a broken spirit dries up the bones.’

In contrast to the non-joy of the father, and in line with his deep sorrow, we have a proverb concerning joy and sorrow. The righteous man is to cultivate a cheerful heart, cheerful because he looks to YHWH and His wisdom (Proverbs 3:13; Proverbs 3:18; Proverbs 16:20). And this will be a good medicine for him (Proverbs 12:25; Proverbs 18:14), because it will enable him to overcome the downturns in life, and will be good medicine for others because he will be able to support his friends and brothers when they face adversity (Proverbs 17:17).

In contrast is the broken spirit of the man who does not trust in YHWH. When things go wrong (like an errant son, or some catastrophe in life) his broken spirit dries him up inside. He becomes listless and loses any zest for life (Proverbs 18:14). How important it is that we find our joy in God, so that when trouble comes we have a refuge (Proverbs 18:10) and a sustainer. For the way to ensure ‘healthy bones’ is to fear YHWH and depart from evil (Proverbs 3:7-8).

Proverbs 17:23

‘A wicked man receives a bribe out of the bosom,

To pervert the ways of justice.’

The subsection ends with this proverb concerning the perverting of justice as a consequence of the receipt of secret bribes, something which undermines the very fabric of society. The ‘unrighteous (wicked) man’ is the equivalent of the fool in his folly. Being unable to buy wisdom (Proverbs 17:16), the unrighteous man (the wicked, the fool, the worthless man) is himself bought. Unable to obtain wisdom without effort, he determines to obtain wealth without effort. He falls back on opening himself to receiving secret bribes, bribes ‘out of the bosom’, which refers to a fold in a man’s cloak which was similar to a pocket. The picture is vivid as we see the briber take gold from his secret pocket and slip it to the judge or the false witness. Both are confident that no one will see. But because they are both fools they forget that YHWH can see, and declares His woes upon them (Isaiah 5:23). The horror with which such injustice was viewed by the generality of people comes out in Proverbs 24:24.

This man illustrates much of the subsection. He is the opposite of the friend who loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17), and is similar in motive to the man who acts as a surety for payment (Proverbs 17:18), he wants quick silver and gold to his own destruction. He has a wayward heart and a perverse tongue (Proverbs 17:20), and he is a grief to his godly father (Proverbs 17:21). Here, unlike in Proverbs 17:8, the bribe is specifically related to justice. He receives a secret bribe so that he will pervert the ways of justice, either because he is a judge in a position to influence the decision, who twists the facts of a case in order to benefit his briber, or because he is a false witness testifying falsely against the innocent. Either way he has a perverse tongue (Proverbs 17:20). Such men are an abomination to YHWH (Proverbs 6:19), for what they do is not hidden from Him (Proverbs 15:11; Proverbs 16:2; Proverbs 17:3). Evil behaviour like this came to its head in the so-called trials of Jesus. There too there were false witnesses and perverted judgments. It is no wonder that Jerusalem was destroyed.

Verses 24-28

In The Face Of Wisdom And Understanding The Fool Soon Reveals Himself For What He Is (Proverbs 17:24 to Proverbs 18:2 ).

In this subsection the fool is prominent. Unlike the wise whose eyes are always on wisdom (Proverbs 17:24), and who behave discreetly (Proverbs 17:27), the fool’s eyes are anywhere but on wisdom (Proverbs 17:24); he is a grief to his parents (Proverbs 17:25); he perverts justice (Proverbs 17:26); he only appears wise when he keeps his mouth shut (Proverbs 17:28); he is an isolationist and rages against wisdom (Proverbs 18:1); and he has no delight in understanding but quickly reveals himself for what he is (Proverbs 18:2).

The subsection is presented chiastically:

A Wisdom is before the face of him who has SHREWDNESS, but the eyes of a FOOL are in the ends of the earth (Proverbs 17:24).

B A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her who bore him. Even to punish the righteous is not good, to flog the nobles for their uprightness (Proverbs 17:25-26).

C He who spares his words has knowledge, and he who is of a cool spirit is a man of UNDERSTANDING (Proverbs 17:27).

C Even a FOOL, when he holds his peace, is counted wise, when he closes his lips, he is esteemed as SHREWD (Proverbs 17:28).

B He who separates himself seeks his own desire, and rages against all sound wisdom (Proverbs 18:1).

A A FOOL has no delight in UNDERSTANDING, but only that his heart may expose itself (Proverbs 18:2).

Note that in A wisdom is before the face of him who has shrewdness (he delights in it), whilst the fool is looking anywhere else than at wisdom, and in the parallel the fool has no delight in understanding. In B the foolish son, who among other things perverts justice (compare Proverbs 17:21 with Proverbs 17:23), grieves his father and mother, and in the parallel the one who separates himself (including from his own family) seeks only his own desire (seeking to get rich by quick-fix methods - 17. 8, 16, 18, 23) and rages against all wisdom (including by perverting justice - Proverbs 17:23; Proverbs 17:26). Centrally in C the one who is sparing in his words reveals his intelligence, whilst in the parallel even a fool is counted wise if he keeps his mouth shut.

Proverbs 17:24

‘Wisdom is before the face of him who has shrewdness,

But the eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth.’

This opening verse of the subsection prepares the way for the exposure of the fool. Whilst the wise and shrewd man constantly has wisdom in front of his eyes (before his face), the eyes of the fool turn anywhere but on wisdom. His restless eyes are ‘in the ends of the earth’. He lives in a dream world of get-rich-quick schemes (Proverbs 17:8; Proverbs 17:16; Proverbs 17:18; Proverbs 17:23; Proverbs 17:26), with little thought about how others will see him (Proverbs 18:2), and little concern for morality (Proverbs 18:1).

We can almost see the two students sitting there. The one with his eyes firmly fixed on his teacher of wisdom soaking in every word, whilst the eyes of the other are looking anywhere than at the teacher, while his mind roves the world weaving fantastic schemes. He has no time for wisdom, indeed he is unable to appreciate it (Proverbs 17:16).

But the idea possibly goes a little deeper. ‘The ends of the earth’ elsewhere indicates being outside the covenant land (Deuteronomy 13:7; Deuteronomy 28:49; Deuteronomy 28:64). Thus this may further indicate that the fool has no interest in the covenant, which is dear to the heart of the wise. He does not want to be bound by YHWH’s wisdom.

Proverbs 17:25-26

A foolish son is a grief to his father,

And bitterness to her who bore him.

Even to fine the righteous is not good,

To flog the nobles for their uprightness.’

As with Proverbs 17:27-28 these two verses are connected by the word ‘even’ (gam), bringing the ideas together. The foolish son partly reveals his folly by his unjust behaviour towards social inferiors, including nobles (here we see a king speaking).

Because of his attitude towards wisdom and towards life, the foolish son is a grief to his father (compare Proverbs 17:21), and even causes bitterness to the one who bore him in such pain, and brought him up so tenderly (Proverbs 4:3; compare Proverbs 10:1 b). He throws off all authority, and refuses to listen to his father’s stern words and his mother’s instruction in the Torah (Proverbs 1:8). For as the parallel verse in the chiasmus reveals he makes himself an isolationist, something necessary because of his way of life (Proverbs 18:1).

And he even takes advantage of his position and stoops to fining the righteous, and flogging nobles because they behave uprightly to his own disadvantage. He not only declares the innocent to be guilty, but also punishes them severely. Solomon sternly adds that doing such things ‘is not good’. In other words the foolish son perverts justice (compare Proverbs 17:23). We see here the mind and circumstances of a king, who thinks in terms of court intrigues. Note the ‘even’ which connects this verse with the previous one. The father and mother whom he grieves by his perverting of justice are clearly of high status (compare Proverbs 4:3-4).

Proverbs 17:27-28

‘He who spares his words has knowledge,

And he who is of a cool spirit is a man of understanding.’

Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise,

When he closes his lips, he is esteemed as shrewd.’

Taking a brief respite from his diatribe against the fool Solomon points out that even the fool can sometimes appear wise and shrewd. The wise man, who is sparing with his words, thinking before he speaks (compare Proverbs 10:19; Proverbs 13:3; Proverbs 15:2; Proverbs 15:28), and who is cool of spirit, reveals himself as a man of understanding. And when the fool imitates him and keeps quiet, even he can for a moment appear wise. When he closes his lips even he can appear as shrewd. But it does not last long. He soon reveals himself for what he is (Proverbs 18:1-2). Notice the ideas repeated from the Prologue, ‘knowledge’, ‘understanding’, ‘shrewdness’, things which the wise man enjoys and the fool usually reveals as lacking.

Proverbs 18:1

‘He who separates himself seeks his own desire,

And rages against all sound wisdom.’

But the fool soon exposes himself (Proverbs 12:16 a). Having separated himself from his father and mother, and from all authority, he seeks his own desire. He is a selfish and self-motivated isolationist. He has no concern for others. He rejects the demands of the community. And instead of having the cool head of the wise (Proverbs 17:27), he rages against all sound wisdom. He isolates himself from that as well. He has no time for it, indeed hates it, and pursues his own foolish course. He turns his back on the ways of God.

Proverbs 18:2

‘A fool has no delight in understanding,

But only that his heart may expose itself.’

This proverb summarises what is in the subsection. The fool has no delight in understanding. Compare Proverbs 17:24 where he would rather think of anything else other than wisdom. He does not have the cool spirit required for it (Proverbs 17:27). And he reveals the fact by the way in which he behaves. Indeed he gives the appearance of delighting in ‘exposing’ his folly (Proverbs 12:23; Proverbs 13:16). The same verb is used of Noah exposing himself (and his folly) in Genesis 9:21. But the fool does not see it as ‘exposing himself’ because he is wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 26:12) and lacking in understanding.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Proverbs 17". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/proverbs-17.html. 2013.
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