Bible Commentary: Proverbs 17:2-18:4

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Proverbs 17:2-18:4

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Second Part of Major Solomonic Collection

34. Remarks on Behavior (Proverbs 17:2-8)

"TYPE: RANDOM PROVERBS....Although these verses contain the hint of an inclusio [as 'wise' in verse 2 and 'prospers' in verse 8 are both translated from the Hebrew word skal, referring to wise perception and dealing leading to success] and repeat certain themes and terms [family matters (verses 2, 6), divine judgment (verses 3, 5), the lips (verses 4, 7)], no specific pattern is apparent" (NAC).

Verse 2 shows that "ability and character can overcome the disadvantages of birth. At the same time, those born to advantage can forfeit their birthright through immorality and incompetence" (note on verse 2). We don't have to stay where we are in life. Through wisdom we can rise above our circumstances. Conversely, through foolish disgrace, we can lose what we have.

Verse 8 apparently says that a gift given to others is very valuable to the one giving it—as it leads him to success. This is not the same as Christ's general maxim that "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). The point in Proverbs 17:8 is not altruistic giving generally but a strategy of using gifts for gain. This could be a mere observation about the power of bribes (compare NIV), but it need not be so. While bribery to pervert justice is condemned (verse 23), other proverbs note that there is a proper social context for giving gifts to promote good relations and open doors (see Proverbs 18:16; Proverbs 19:6; Luke 16:9). It was proper in ancient times to come before kings with gifts—and perhaps more mundane occasions called for this as well. Also recall Jacob's giving of gifts to Esau to placate him and reconcile with him (Genesis 32:13-21).

35. Four Conjoined Collections (Proverbs 17:9-26)

"The proverbs of vv. 9-16 have many interconnections, but it is difficult to tell if any specific pattern is intended. It appears, however, that these verses divide into four inclusio or chiasmus collections (vv. 9-13, vv. 14-19, vv. 20-22, and vv. 23-26) on the basis of thematic parallels or catchwords. The connections among the proverbs are as follows:

“A: Gracious forgiveness (v. 9)
  “B: The irrationality of a fool (v. 10)
    “C: Just punishment carried out (v. 11)
  “B: The behavior of a fool (v. 12)
“A: Irrational retaliation (v. 13)
“A: Quarrels (v. 14)
    “C: Perversion of justice (v. 15)
      “D: Poor use of money (v. 16)
      “D: A friend in adversity (v. 17)
      “D: Poor use of money (v. 18)
“A: Quarrels (v. 19)
        “E: Heart and tongue (v. 20)
  “B: Foolish son (v. 21)
        “E: Heart and spirit (v. 22)
    “C: Perversion of justice (v. 23)
  “B: The eyes of a fool (v. 24)

• "THE SOCIAL AND ANTISOCIAL. Type: Chiasmus (Proverbs 17:9-13). This section describes those who are or are not sociable and easy to live with. The implied warning is that one should beware of antisocial, incorrigible, or vindictive behavior in oneself or others" (NAC).

Verse 9 on covering a transgression recalls Proverbs 10:12.

Verse 11, as The Expositor's Bible Commentary notes, shows that "those bent on rebellion will surely meet with severe retribution.... That retribution will be sent in the form of a ['cruel messenger']...(mal'ak 'akzari). This expression could refer to a pitiless messenger that the king would send; but it also could refer to storms, pestilence, or any misfortune that was God's messenger of retribution."

• "QUICK TO QUARREL. Type: Inclusio (Proverbs 17:14-19). The boundaries of this text are set by the inclusio on quarreling in vv. 14, 19" (NAC).

Regarding verse 16, The NIV Application Commentary states: "The point of this satiric proverb is two-sided: It is folly to think one can buy wisdom since it is a gift of God and must be acquired through study (Proverbs 2:1-6), and even if wisdom could be bought, the fools lacks the sense (lit[erally], 'heart') to know what to do with it. The sharp juxtaposition of having money and lacking sense makes it clear that heart, both as 'desire' and 'mind' (NRSV), is the prerequisite for learning wisdom. Some see a dunce showing up at the door of a teacher with fee in hand, but evidence for this in Israel is lacking. Rather, we see a fool who does not know what to do with good things like money, responsibility, or even a proverb (:Proverbs 26:6-9)!" (note on Proverbs 17:16).

Speaking of both quarrelling and money, we may note that money can lie at the root of tension between friends, as verse 18 warns about. The caution about becoming surety for a friend, such as in cosigning a loan, recalls Proverbs 6:1-5 (and Proverbs 11:15 warned against becoming surety as well, there in the case of a stranger as well as generally). The proverb does not mean you should never help out a friend in this way if you are well off and the friend defaulting would not hurt you or the friendship. But you had better know what you're getting into. And odds are that this is generally an unwise course.

Verse 19 speaks of one who "exalts his gate" seeking or inviting destruction. The Soncino Commentary notes on verse 19 that "his gate" is literally "'his opening' which the Jewish commentators apply to the mouth (cf. Ps [119:]130), understanding the phrase as 'talking big, in loud and arrogant language.' Another explanation is: living in an ostentatious manner which attracts envious attention and can easily be the cause of ruin" (note on Proverbs 17:19).

• "HEART AND FAMILY. Type: Inclusio (Proverbs 17:20-22)" (NAC). The foolish and scoffing son of verse 21 is probably one with a deceitful heart and perverse tongue as in verse 20—a source of great sorrow to parents, in line with verse 25 and the opening proverb of Solomon's core collection (10:1).

Proverbs 17:22 shows, in contrast, that a happy heart is the key to a full and healthy life. We may observe, too, that this proverb indirectly speaks well of the use of medicine. For consider that it does not say that a merry heart does good like a medicine poisons you. Rather, it implies that a merry heart does good like a medicine does good. This is not to say that everything labeled medicine is good for you, but clearly the use of some medicines promotes the wellness of the body—as does staying happy.

• "JUSTICE AND FAMILY. Type: Chiasmus (Proverbs 17:23-26).... Verse 25 would appear to have nothing to do with bribery and the miscarriage of justice [making it an exception to the other proverbs in this short section], but with v. 21 it provides a link to the previous text [see again the chart on the four conjoined collections here]. The 'foolish son grieves his father' verses in the contexts of vv. 20-22 and vv. 23-26 thus serve a didactic [teaching] purpose; they urge the reader (the implied 'son') not to become the evil man described in these verses [of all four conjoined collections] and thus not to grieve either his real father or the implied father behind the Book of Proverbs" (NAC).

36. Appropriate Use of Words (17:27–18:4)

"TYPE: INCLUSIO AND PARALLEL....Sometimes the Book of Proverbs seems to value nothing so much as appropriate words. This is because it views words as the index to the soul. By paying attention to what a person says (and indeed to how much he or she says), one can determine whether a person is wise or a fool. Words are the fruit that show the quality of the heart. A parallel structure (17:28–18:3) is imbedded in an inclusio (Proverbs 17:27; Proverbs 18:4). The structure of the whole is as follows:

“A: The wise person’s restrained use of words (17:27)
  “B: A silent fool appears wise (17:28)
    “C: A schismatic person is irrational (18:1)
  “B′:  A fool cannot remain silent (18:2)
    “C′: A base person is shameful (18:3)
“A′: The wise person’s words are profound (18:4)” (NAC).

The value of being reserved in speech (Proverbs 17:27) is bolstered by the fact that "even an imbecile can appear intelligent if he can avoid putting his foot in his mouth, but this is all but impossible for a fool (17:28:18:2 [compare 15:2])" (note on 17:27–18:4).

In Proverbs 18:1, the person who "isolates" or, literally, "separates" himself is not here a quiet recluse or hermit. Rather, the latter part of the verse makes clear that this individual is one who "rages" at other people. The NIV translates the Hebrew term here as merely "defies," but the literal sense is "breaks out," the word also being used in Proverbs 17:14 and Proverbs 20:3 in the sense of engaging in quarreling. The person identified in Proverbs 18:1 is therefore contrary and schismatic, one who is divisive, setting himself against others and bringing strife. The proverb thus fits well with the next one in verse 2.