Bible Commentary: Proverbs 16:9–17:1

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Proverbs 16:9–17:1

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Second Part of Main Collection Mostly Synonymous

Continuing in Solomon's core collection (10:1–22:16), we may observe that the second part (16:1–22:16) is made up mostly of synonymous proverbs.

33. Three Collections (Proverbs 16:9–17:1)

"TYPE: A-B ENVELOPE SERIES....[These] proverbs are in a three-fold A-B envelope series, as follows:

“A: Human plans and divine providence (16:9)
    “Nine proverbs (16:10-18)
“B: Better saying on humble circumstances (16:19)
“A′: Prosperity through careful decision making and faith in God (16:20)
     “Eleven proverbs (16:21-31)
“B′: Better saying on patience (16:32)
“A″: Casting lots and divine providence (16:33)
“B″: Better saying on humble circumstances (17:1)

"The verses marked 'A' (Proverbs 16:9, Proverbs 16:20, Proverbs 16:33) all concern divine providence over human affairs. The issue in these verses is wisdom in the decision-making process. Whether one makes detailed plans or resorts to casting lots, events and circumstances are all in God's control. As such the wise are cautious but above all put their faith in God and not in human plans.... The verses marked 'B' (Proverbs 16:19, Proverbs 16:32; Proverbs 17:1) all imply that a peaceable attitude makes the position that is apparently lower or less aggressive preferable to one of power. All are 'better' sayings. Set in context with the 'A' sayings, these texts imply that success is not necessarily to be measured by the size of one's bank account. The intervening verses in texts I and II do not correspond to one another (unlike Proverbs 15:1–16:8), but several discrete groups...are apparent in these collections. Collection III has no intervening verses at all" (NAC).

Verses 10-15 "concern righteousness in government and are organized as a thematic collection. Also the catchword 'king' occurs in every verse except 11, which nevertheless plainly deals with justice in government" (note on verses 10-15).

Expositor's notes on verse 10: "This first one teaches that kings must speak righteously in their official capacities.... The first part states that when the king speaks officially, it is as if it were 'an oracle' [NIV]. The word qesem is used throughout the Bible in the negative sense of 'divination' [as the NKJV renders it here]; here it seems merely to mean his words from an oracular sentence, as if he speaks for God (see Numbers 22:7; Numbers 23:23...). The effect of this is that his mouth 'should not betray'...justice."

Regarding Proverbs 16:11, mentioned above as the only proverb in verses 10-15 that doesn't include the word "king," Soncino notes: "This verse is misunderstood by the modern expositors who hold it to refer to honest weights and measures [as in Proverbs 11:1]. If so interpreted, it is out of place and has no connection with the group which deals with the subject of a king's obligations, and preference should be given to the Jewish commentaries which related the verse to the Divine origin of justice. [The phrase] a just balance and scales [is] an unlikely translation, since tsedek [righteous or fair] would have been used instead of mishpat [judgment] if the meaning were just balance (cf. Leviticus [19:]36). The correct rendering is: 'the balance and scales of justice are the Lord's,' i.e. they are not something arbitrary which each king can manufacture to suit his convenience. They are fixed by God and delivered into the kings keeping to administer fairly.... [Regarding] weights of the bag...the weights to be used on the scales, like the scales themselves, are made by God; the king may not provide his own" (note on Proverbs 16:11).

The "latter rain" in verse 15 refers to the spring rain in Israel. "The spring rain was essential for the full development of barley and wheat; it was therefore a sign of good things to come. Cf. the 'dew' of Proverbs 19:12" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Proverbs 16:15).

Verse 18 shows that pride and arrogance are short-lived. This should be an encouragement in the face of the apparent prosperity of the proud. But it is also meant as a warning to us against self-exaltation (compare 1 Corinthians 10:12).

Verse 21 says that "sweetness of the lips increases learning." The sweetness here corresponds to verse 24: "Pleasant words are like a honeycomb..." The point of verse 21 is that the wise will carefully choose appealing language in teaching others so as to promote learning (see also verse 23).

Verse 25 repeats Proverbs 14:12. We can't just go by what seems right. We must listen to what God has to say. Here "following the proverbs on teaching, this saying also states our need for an external reference point by which we set our course" (NIV Application Commentary, note on Proverbs 16:25).

"Verses 27-30 describe the man who has evil schemes and are another thematic unity. Verses 27-29 concern the evil machinations of the scoundrel, the perverse man, and the violent man, and v. 30 is a conclusion or commentary on those three descriptions. The winking eye and pursed lips of v. 30 may be taken either as signals among conspirators or as a general statement of shiftiness in the facial mannerisms of scheming people" (New American Commentary, note on verses 27-30)—or possibly "as friendly but deceptive signs; perhaps they are a form of the enticement mentioned in verse 29" (NIV Application Commentary, note on verse 30).

In verse 32, mastering the self, such as in controlling one's temper, is a far greater achievement than external conquest.

The "lot" of verse 33 is thought by some to refer to the use of the Urim and Thummim by the high priest. Yet it probably refers to the casting of lots in a more general sense, with appeal made to God to determine the outcome. The Zondervan NIV Study Bible comments: "Here the lot may have been several pebbles held in the fold of a garment and then drawn out or shaken to the ground. It was commonly used to make decisions" (note on verse 33). Jesus' disciples used the casting of lots to make an important decision prior to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:26).