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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 18

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

Verses 1-2

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.

Verses 1-24

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 3-7

The Words Of The Wise Are A Wellspring Of Wisdom, But A Fool’s Words Result In Misery For Him, And Finally Bring About His Ruin (Proverbs 18:3-7 ).

As with the previous subsection, this subsection majors on the fool (the one who leaves God out of the reckoning). The subsection begins with a reference to ‘the wicked’ (the unrighteous), referred to twice (Proverbs 18:3 a, Proverbs 18:5 a) who is paralleled with two references to the fool (Proverbs 18:6-7). Possibly of significance is the fact that in the immediate context ‘the wicked’ has referred to the one who accepts a bribe to pervert justice (Proverbs 17:23), which helps to explain how he is seen to express contempt for society. So let the wicked approach and then comes contempt. But in the end all it brings on him is disgrace and the reproach of his community.

This is then followed by four proverbs, three of which specifically refer to speech. The words of a man’s mouth (as opposed to the mouth of the wise) are as deep waters (Proverbs 18:4); a fool’s lips enter into contention and his mouth calls for beatings (Proverbs 18:6); a fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare trapping his person (Proverbs 18:7). In contrast the mouth of the wise is called ‘the wellspring of wisdom’ (Proverbs 18:4). This may suggest that we are to see the wicked man in Proverbs 18:3 as expressing his contempt by his words, and especially by his lying and dishonest tongue (Proverbs 17:23), whilst the taking note of the person of the wicked and the turning aside of the person of the righteous in judgment might be seen as referring to a dishonest judge’s verdict. Both, in Solomon’s terms, are the work of a fool, or even worse, a worthless person.

The subsection is presented chiastically:

A When the WICKED comes, contempt comes as well, and with disgrace comes reproach (Proverbs 18:3).

B The words of a man’s MOUTH are as deep waters, the wellspring of wisdom is as a fast flowing river (a wadi) (Proverbs 18:4).

C To respect the person of the WICKED is not good (Proverbs 18:5 a).

C (Nor) to turn aside the righteous in judgment (Proverbs 18:5 b).

B A FOOL’S LIPS enter into contention, and his MOUTH calls for beatings (Proverbs 18:6).

A A FOOL’S MOUTH is his destruction, and his LIPS are the snare of his life (Proverbs 18:7).

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

Proverbs 18:3

‘When the wicked comes, contempt comes as well,

And with disgrace (ignominy) comes reproach.’

The approach of the unrighteous can only be viewed with foreboding, for he brings along with him his contempt for society. He sees their customs as too restrictive. You never know how he is going to behave. Thus he does not hesitate to manipulate justice for his own benefit (Proverbs 17:23), he engages in violence as a way of becoming wealthy (Proverbs 1:10-19; Proverbs 10:6; Proverbs 12:6), and he ignores society’s insistence on hard work (Proverbs 6:6; Proverbs 10:3-5), seeing it as unnecessary. He walks in the way of non-good (Proverbs 4:14).

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

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

Proverbs 18:4

‘ The words of a man’s mouth are as deep waters,

The wellspring of wisdom is as a fast flowing river (a wadi).’

In the light of Proverbs 18:3 we might see this as referring to the mouth of the unrighteous man, an interpretation which may be seen as supported by the parallel fact that the mouth of the righteous is a wellspring of wisdom. Further support is found in the contrast between the deep waters and the fast flowing river. To the Israelite deep waters were usually something mysterious, whereas the fast flowing wadi was welcomed as supplying water for the crops. This is to some extent backed up by Proverbs 20:5 where we read, ‘counsel in the heart of a man is like deep water, (unfathomable and difficult to extract), but a man of understanding will draw it out’. In Psalms 64:6 deep hearts belonged to those against whom God would act. Accepting this view would mean that the words of most men, including the unrighteous and the fool, were to be seen as something mysterious and unfathomable, which were at the best difficult to draw on, and at the worst sinful, whilst the words of the righteous, as a wellspring of wisdom, were to be accepted as welcome and fruitful. Elsewhere this wellspring is described as a wellspring (abundant source) of life (Proverbs 10:11; Proverbs 13:14; Proverbs 14:27; Proverbs 16:22).

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

Proverbs 18:5

‘To respect (show favour towards) the person of the wicked is not good,

(Nor) to turn aside the righteous in judgment.’

The words of a judge are in mind here. It would not be good if he showed undue favour towards (literally ‘lifted the face of’) the person of the unrighteous, or turned aside, without good reason, the righteous when giving his judgment. It would be a sign that justice was no longer fair and trustworthy. A judge has to be neutral and give his verdict on the basis of the facts, without respect of persons. We could add, if he does not he is unrighteous, and therefore, in Solomon’s terms, a fool (Proverbs 17:23).

The stress that YHWH laid on true justice can be found in Exodus 23:2-3; Exodus 23:6-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 25:1; 1 Kings 21:9-22; Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 10:2; Jeremiah 22:3; Ezekiel 22:12; Amos 5:12. Neither rich nor poor were to be favoured, and bribery was totally condemned.

Proverbs 18:6

‘A fool’s lips enter into contention,

And his mouth calls for beatings.’

The idea here may be of general contention, or of contention in court. The latter would more specifically explain why his mouth calls for beatings. It was court practise in Israel that if an accuser lost his case over a criminal charge he would receive the punishment that he had wished on his adversary (Deuteronomy 19:17-19). Thus the fool who made false charges would face a beating (compare Proverbs 19:29).

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

Proverbs 18:7

‘A fool’s mouth is his ruin (destruction),

And his lips are the snare of his life.’

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

Verses 8-13

The Fool Destroys Others And Is Therefore Himself Destroyed, But The Righteous Are Kept Safe (Proverbs 18:8-13 ).

In this subsection there is an emphasis on the way in which a fool destroys a community. He does it by whispering slander which is eagerly swallowed by others (Proverbs 18:8); by neglecting his land and thus reducing the stock of food available just as effectively as an invader would (Proverbs 18:9); by haughtiness which alienates him from others and leads to his own destruction (Proverbs 18:12); and by continually passing on rumours (Proverbs 18:13). But the righteous are kept safe because they shelter in the name and nature of YHWH, and are themselves humble. As a consequence He sets them on high (Proverbs 18:10; Proverbs 18:12).

The subsection is presented chiastically as follows:

A The words of a whisperer (talebearer, slanderer) are as delicacies, and they go down into the innermost parts (Proverbs 18:8).

B He also who is slack in his work, is brother to him who is a destroyer (Proverbs 18:9).

C The name of YHWH is a strong tower, the righteous runs into it, and is set on high (Proverbs 18:10).

C The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as a high wall in his own imagination (Proverbs 18:11).

B Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, and before honour goes humility (Proverbs 18:12).

A He who gives answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him (Proverbs 18:13).

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

Proverbs 18:8

‘The words of a whisperer are as delicacies,

And they go down into the innermost parts (the chambers of the belly).’

Here Solomon likens the fool to a whisperer, one who goes around spreading half truths and innuendoes, which foolish people see as ‘delicacies, tasty morsels’, and take right into their hearts, dividing up families, friends and communities. He is a destroyer of harmony among relatives and friends, and to be avoided (Proverbs 20:19). And sadly, only too often, ‘he gives answer before he hears’ (Proverbs 18:13). He does not wait to check up on his facts. After all, why spoil a good story? The proverb is warning about the insidiousness of whisperers and gossips.

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

The same proverb occurs in Proverbs 26:22 as a proverb of Solomon preserved by the men of Hezekiah, demonstrating how apt it was seen to be. Paul describes such when he speaks of those who ‘learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not’ (1 Timothy 5:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:11). They are those who ‘meddle in other men’s matters’ (1 Peter 4:15).

‘They go down into the chambers of the belly.’ Such slanders and innuendoes are dangerous, for they are only too often swallowed whole, and then absorbed totally. And the consequence is that ‘they split up bosom friends’ (Proverbs 16:28). Solomon warns us to keep away from such slanderers. ‘He who goes about gossiping reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with one who speaks foolishly’ (Proverbs 20:19). In contrast, ‘he who keeps his mouth and his tongue, keeps himself out of trouble’ (Proverbs 21:23).

Proverbs 18:9

‘He also who is slack in his work,

Is brother to him who is a destroyer.’

And the one who is slack in his speech also tends to be slack in his work. (Note how the ‘also’ combines the two proverbs). The busy man has no time for whispering and slandering. And here Solomon describes the one who is slack in his work as ‘brother to him who is a destroyer’. Whilst that would be an accurate description of the whisperer, for he destroys lives and reputations, that is probably not what Solomon means. He is referring rather to the importance of building up the community’s grain supply. By being indolent the fool does not work hard on his land, and it therefore produces very little except thorns and nettles (see the vivid description in Proverbs 24:30-31). And by doing this he is doing what those who invade the land and steal or destroy the crops also do. He is diminishing the supply of food that is available for the community. Compare for such invasions Judges 6:3-5.

Paul again refers to such people when he says, ‘keep away from any brother who is living in idleness, if anyone will not work let him not eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:10)..

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

Proverbs 18:10

‘The name of YHWH is a strong tower,

The righteous runs into it, and is set on high.’

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

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

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

Proverbs 18:11

‘The rich man’s wealth is his strong city,

And as a high wall in his own imagination.’

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

Note that those mentioned in Proverbs 18:10-11 have all shown faith. Those in Proverbs 18:10 have trusted in the unseen but very real and powerful Lord of the Universe. And they will not be disappointed. The rich man has trusted in his earthly, visible wealth, and it is that which will prove illusory.

Proverbs 18:12

‘Before destruction the heart of man is haughty (literally ‘high’),

And before honour goes humility.’

The coming of the destroyer was mentioned in Proverbs 18:9. The ‘setting on high’ of God’s true people, providing safety from the destroyer (no matter what form he takes) for those humble enough to seek Him was mentioned in Proverbs 18:10. The vain attempt of the proud rich fool to protect himself by his wealth was mentioned in Proverbs 18:11. Now the destruction comes. And it comes on the proud and haughty (compare Proverbs 16:18). Thus this verse has in mind the humble who seek refuge in YHWH, and the proud who rely on their own riches.

Pride and haughtiness was one of the attributes of the ‘worthless man’ (Proverbs 6:17 a). It regularly signifies those who imagine that they can do without God (as the rich fool had). The proud see themselves as superior to their fellowmen, and are causers of division in society. They think that they can behave as they like (compare Proverbs 6:12-19) and that they are almost untouchable. But in the day when YHWH acts in judgment it will be against ‘all that is proud and lofty, all that is lifted up and high’ (Isaiah 2:12). In that day ‘the haughty looks of man will be brought low, and the pride of men will be humbled, and YHWH alone will be exalted in that day’ (Isaiah 2:11). He will be exalted along with the humble whom He has set on high, whom He will then honour.

So in contrast are the humble. They are those who humble themselves before God, and are therefore humble in heart because they have seen themselves as they really are. They are His true worshippers, and it is they whom God will finally honour. As God (as the High and Lofty One Who inhabits Eternity) made plain, ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, even with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite’ (Isaiah 57:15). That is why Jesus said, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ and ‘blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:5). It is the humble who will finally be honoured.

In the Hebrew there is a play on words in Proverbs 18:10-12. The righteous who humbly trust in YHWH are ‘set on high’ (Proverbs 18:10); the rich man, hiding behind his illusory ‘high’ wall (Proverbs 18:11), will be brought low; here in Proverbs 18:12 it is the haughty man who is ‘high’ (we would say he is ‘high in the instep’) who will experience destruction.

Proverbs 18:13

‘He who gives answer before he hears,

It is folly and shame to him.

The subsection ends with a warning that we should not say anything, or believe anything, until we are sure of the facts. It is a folly and shame to respond to something before we have learned the truth. But that is exactly what the whisperer of Proverbs 18:8 does. He passes on half truths, or downright lies, because they are more salacious. But it is an evidence of his folly, and something which brings great shame on him. And it is what the fool does when listening to the wisdom of the wise. He cannot wait until he has heard the truth, and so he constantly interrupts and argues, without having the full facts. This is one reason why, even if he went to the wise with a payment in his hand, he would learn nothing (Proverbs 17:16).

In a sense it was also true of the rich man of Proverbs 18:11. He had become convinced that his wealth would protect him from anything, but it was all illusion. If only he had waited until he had heard the truth he would not have been so foolish.

Verses 14-21

The Tongue Affects Man In Many Ways, Making Him Strong And Wise, And Giving Him Life, Or Causing Him Great Grief, Finally Resulting In Death (Proverbs 18:14-21 ).

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

The subsection is presented chiastically:

A A man’s spirit will endure his infirmity, but a broken spirit who can lift up? (Proverbs 18:14).

B The heart of the shrewd obtains knowledge, and the EAR of the wise seeks knowledge (Proverbs 18:15).

C A man’s gift makes room for him, and brings him before great men (Proverbs 18:16).

D He who PLEADS HIS CAUSE first, seems just (appears to be in the right), (until) his neighbour comes and thoroughly EXAMINES him (Proverbs 18:17).

D The lot causes CONTENTIONS to cease, and separates the mighty (Proverbs 18:18)

C A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and such CONTENTIONS are like the bars of a castle (Proverbs 18:19).

B A man’s belly will be filled with the fruit of his MOUTH, he will be satisfied with the increase (revenue) of his LIPS (Proverbs 18:20).

A Death and life are in the power of the TONGUE, and they who love it, each will eat its fruit (Proverbs 18:21).

Note that in A a man’s spirit (if not broken) enables him to rise above his infirmity (and live), whilst no one can lift up a man with a broken spirit (a living death awaits him), and in the parallel the fruit of the tongue, the power of which determines death or life, gives each man the option to ‘eat’ life or death. In B the ear of the wise seeks knowledge, and in the parallel the fruit and profitability of a man’s mouth will satisfy him. In C a man’s gift will find that it makes room for him before great men, but in the parallel nothing will make room for him before a man whom he has offended (compare Proverbs 6:34-35). Centrally in D we have described contention in court, and in the parallel that that contention can often be settled by casting lots.

Proverbs 18:14

‘A man’s spirit will endure his infirmity,

But a broken spirit who can lift up?’

The point here is that where a man’s spirit is whole it will enable him to endure any bodily weakness and sickness that he faces. It will enable him to ‘live’, even through his troubles. But a man whose spirit is broken will not be able to do endure bodily weakness and sickness, because no one can ‘lift up’ a broken spirit. Thus such a man will die. He can no longer cope with life. If only he had listened to the voice of Wisdom she would have put her spirit within him (Proverbs 1:23), and thus his spirit would not have been broken.

We can compare Proverbs 18:12 where, when ‘a man’s heart’ is proud and haughty it will (like the broken spirit) result in destruction, but where it is humble it will receive honour from both God and men. It will ‘live’.

In the parallel verse in the chiasmus death and life are in the hand of the tongue. What men hear and listen to will determine whether they find life (by following wisdom) or death (by rejecting wisdom). Each man will eat the fruit of what he hears and listens to, whether the voice of wisdom (Proverbs 1:20-23; Proverbs 8:1-10; Proverbs 9:4-6), which will maintain his spirit (Proverbs 1:23) and give him life (Proverbs 3:18; Proverbs 3:22; Proverbs 4:13; Proverbs 4:22-23; Proverbs 6:23; Proverbs 8:35), or the voice of the enticer (Proverbs 1:10-19; Proverbs 5:3; Proverbs 7:5-21; Proverbs 9:14-17), which will in the end break his spirit (Proverbs 5:9-13) and give him death (Proverbs 5:5; Proverbs 7:22-23; Proverbs 7:27; Proverbs 9:18).

Proverbs 18:15

‘The heart of the shrewd obtains knowledge,

And the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.’

The man whose spirit enables him to endure is the man whose heart has obtained knowledge (the knowledge of God and His ways). A man reveals himself as shrewd by obtaining such knowledge. Indeed, the ear of the wise man seeks knowledge. It listens to the voice of Wisdom (which give knowledge - Proverbs 8:8-12), and the voice of Solomon, and the voice of the wise. And it listens to the wise man’s own voice as he proclaims wisdom to himself, giving him a bellyful of fruit and riches that satisfy (Proverbs 18:20). In those days much reading would be reading aloud, and men recited the Torah to themselves, and experienced blessing as they went through the liturgy at feasts. Thus they could ‘listen to themselves’ as they read aloud

Proverbs 18:16

‘A man’s gift makes room for him,

And brings him before great men.’

We can see this as meaning that Solomon is here bringing out the deceitfulness of human nature. A man who offers bribes, and bribes disguised as gifts, will obtain access to great men, men of political influence. (The world has changed very little). They will give him a hearing. It should not be so, of course. Influential men should give equal access to all. But that is what life is like. It can mean in terms of Proverbs 18:17 that a man by his gifts obtains the first hearing. But it certainly puts him at an advantage over those who cannot afford gifts.

We know from what we have seen previously that Israel saw this practise as wrong (Proverbs 15:27; Proverbs 17:8; Proverbs 17:23; Proverbs 18:5; Proverbs 25:14; Proverbs 29:4). Bribes were condemned in Israel (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. But they were specifically condemned.

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

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

There are times when gifts reveal our estimate of the recipient, or are an expression of gratitude (in this case in advance). And most men have shown their appreciation of a girl by giving her gifts, and vice versa. Consider Jacob’s gifts to Esau which were intended to reconcile him and thus save Jacob’s own followers from possible disaster (Genesis 32:7-20). See also 1 Samuel 16:20. The provision of a large dowry would often ensure a satisfactory marriage for a girl (Genesis 24:22; Genesis 24:30; Genesis 24:53). Thus in themselves gifts are not necessarily wrong. What matters is the motive.

Proverbs 18:17

‘He who pleads his cause first, seems just (seems to be in the right),

(Until) his neighbour comes and thoroughly examines him.’

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

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

Proverbs 18:18

‘The lot causes contentions to cease,

And separates the mighty.’

And yet, often when both sides of an argument have been put, and both lots of witnesses have been heard, it may be difficult to choose between the two. A position of stalemate might be reached. This is especially important when the two parties involved are powerful men, with the consequence that if one is seen to be favoured above the other it could have dire consequences. (The case is clearly once concerning property or possessions, and disagreement as to whom they belong to). Often in that case it is better to get each party to agree to the drawing of lots. Then if that is done fairly, both will hopefully accept the result with equanimity. Neither will have lost face by being declared the loser, and they will be kept apart (separated) from hostile activity. The use of the sacred lot was in those days seen as bringing God, Who clear knows the facts of the situation, into the controversy. The lot would reveal His final decision (thus the land of Canaan was mainly divided between the tribes on the basis of the lot - Joshua 14:2).

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

Proverbs 18:19

‘A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city,

And such contentions are like the bars of a castle.’

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

Such a situation can, of course, occur outside litigation. This is thus a warning to beware of giving offence, and an indication that if we do so we should seek to deal with the offending matter immediately, either by means of an apology, or by making concessions, possibly accompanied by the giving of gifts (Proverbs 18:16).

Sometimes the offence caused may be so great that there is no hope of reconciliation. We have an example of this in Proverbs 6:32-35. A cuckolded husband may never forgive under any circumstances, and no matter what recompense is offered. In such cases the only way to avoid a permanent breach is not to commit the action in the first place.

Proverbs 18:20

‘A man’s belly will be filled with the fruit of his mouth,

With the increase (revenue, produce) of his lips will he be satisfied.’

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

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

But in the final analysis our words also have an effect on our relationship with God. They can either please Him, and make Him favourably disposed towards us, or they can anger Him, and bring His judgment upon us. And this will especially be so at the last Judgment, for, as Jesus said, ‘for every idle word that a man shall speak he will give account of it at the day of judgment, for by your words you will be accounted righteous, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matthew 12:36-37)

Especially in mind here may be the fact that in those days men, when reading, would read aloud and listen to their own words. Thus as they read the Torah of Moses, or recited it aloud, or as they went through the liturgy at their feasts (consider Exodus 12:26-27), it would feed their inner man and give them deep spiritual satisfaction. By this means ‘the ear of the wise’ will seek knowledge, and the heart of the shrewd will obtain knowledge (Proverbs 18:15).

Proverbs 18:21

‘Death and life are in the power (literally ‘the hand’) of the tongue,

And those who love it, each will eat its fruit.’

In Proverbs the issues of ‘death and life’ have more in mind than just whether we die or live (see Proverbs 2:18-19; Proverbs 5:5-6; Proverbs 8:35-36; Proverbs 12:28; Proverbs 13:14). ‘Life’ is one of the aims of the book, and that means abundant life whilst living on this earth (John 10:10), as described for example in Proverbs 3:16-18, ‘length of days is in her (wisdom’s) right hand, and in her left hand riches (especially spiritual riches - Proverbs 3:14-15) and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and in her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her, and happy is everyone who retains her’. And this is then seen as in some way continuing after physical death (see on Proverbs 15:24).

In contrast death is a way in which a man walks as well as an end to which he must come. He can be dead while he lives (Proverbs 5:9-11; Proverbs 7:22-23; Proverbs 9:18; 1 Timothy 5:6; Revelation 3:1), although it is always emphasised that in the end he will finish up in the gloom and darkness of the grave world (Proverbs 2:18-19; Proverbs 5:11; Proverbs 7:27; Proverbs 9:18).

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

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

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Proverbs 18". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/proverbs-18.html. 2013.
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