Bible Commentary: Proverbs 25:1-27

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Proverbs 25:1-27

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First Part of Hezekiah's Collection Mostly Synonymous

1. Subheading (Proverbs 25:1)

We now come to the second Solomonic collection of proverbial sayings in the book (Proverbs 25–29)—this one copied by scribes working under King Hezekiah of Judah around 700 B.C. We don't know if Hezekiah had them add this second collection to Solomon's earlier book of Proverbs—or if he established this collection as a separate one and later compilers joined both as one book.

It is interesting to note that the earlier collection was arranged with mostly antithetical proverbs up front (Proverbs 10–15) followed by mostly synonymous proverbs (16:1–22:16), while this later collection is arranged with mostly synonymous proverbs up front (25–27) followed by mostly antithetical ones (28–29).

It is also interesting to note some repetitions in the second collection. Hassel Bullock's Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (1988, p. 158) lists proverbs repeated identically in both collections:

First Collection Second Collection
21:9 25:24
18:8 26:22
22:3 27:12
20:16 27:13
Identical meaning with altered expression
22:13 26:13
19:24 26:15
19:1 28:6
12:11 28:19
22:2 29:13
One line identical
17:3 27:21
15:18 29:22

2. On Dealing With Kings (Proverbs 25:2-7)

"TYPE: THEMATIC, PARALLEL (Proverbs 24:2-7). Verses 2-27 form a major division of Hezekiah [i.e., the Hezekiah collection of Solomon's proverbs], and v. 16 further divides this section into two parts (see the discussion on v. 27).

"The proverbs of vv. 2-7 are all bound by the subject of dealing with royalty. They may have been placed at the beginning of the Hezekiah collection as a gesture of respect for the two great patrons of Israelite wisdom, Solomon and Hezekiah. The tone here is highly deferential to the royalty. In addition these proverbs are set up as three parallel pairs (vv. 2-3, 4-5, 6-7)" (NAC).

No doubt Solomon had himself in mind when he spoke the words of verse 2. God is glorified in creating all the mysteries of the universe, while kings have the honor of seeking and finding answers. Of course, all people have this privilege to some degree, but not on the scale of rulers and governments. This was particularly true in ancient times, when academic and scientific inquiry was more closely linked to royalty—as they had the time and resources for such undertaking. Solomon himself studied the natural world of God's creation (1 Kings 4:33). He also studied spiritual and philosophical matters, seeking out all the proverbs and other wisdom that he did.

Proverbs 25:3 says that the heart of kings is unsearchable. Given the vast information that rulers are privy to, it is rather difficult to discern the motives for all they do.

Verses 6-7 tell us it's better to have humility rather than be humiliated. It is good to know one's place, but if we don't then we should humbly presume a lower station rather than a higher one and act accordingly. Jesus advised that the same deference be shown in other social settings, using the example of a wedding feast (Luke 14:7-11).

3. Settling Disputes Without Litigation (Proverbs 25:8-10)

"TYPE: THEMATIC" (NAC). It's best to deal with disputes outside of court in private or, if necessary, with an arbiter. Jesus similarly encouraged settling disputes out of court (Luke 12:57-59).

4. Fine Jewelry and Fine Counsel (Proverbs 25:11-12)

"TYPE: THEMATIC, CATCHWORD" (NAC). In verse 11, "the 'apples of gold' are not golden colored fruit but are some kind of jewelry or artwork." Besides the metaphor of jewelry and the importance of having the right words to say in both proverbs, we may also note the catchword "gold" in both.

5. Reliable and Unreliable People (Proverbs 25:13-14)

"TYPE: THEMATIC, PARALLEL....Both of these proverbs begin with some aspect of weather and its affects on an agrarian society; from that analogy they move on to the importance of personal reliability" (NAC). Verse 13 does not speak of actual snow at harvest time. That is incongruous (Proverbs 26:1) and could even prove disastrous. "The intention is the thought of snow's coolness in the intense heat of the harvest season and its refreshing effect if it were available" (Soncino, note on Proverbs 25:13). Just so, the person who carries out his duties reliably is pleasing to the one who assigned him. Compare misplaced confidence in an undependable person in verse 19 and sending a fool as a messenger in Proverbs 26:6 (see also Proverbs 10:26). In Proverbs 25:14, those who fail to back up their boasts of giving in whatever capacity are a great disappointment. Moreover, this is a serious spiritual matter, as it involves hypocritical deception. In the New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira, who brazenly lied to the Church make themselves look good, were punished by God with instant death as a stern witness about the gravity of this matter (see Acts 5:1-11).

6. Be Patient With the Authorities (Proverbs 25:15)

"TYPE: INDIVIDUAL PROVERB....This proverb, describing the importance of patience in dealing with an authority, answers Proverbs 25:2-7 (with its high regard for royal authority) in inclusio fashion and so serves to mark off Proverbs 25:2-15 as the first major section of Hezekiah. The bones are the most rigid body parts inside of a person, and fracturing the bones here refers to breaking down the deepest, most hardened resistance to an idea a person may possess" (NAC). This is best accomplished through gentle persuasion over time.

7. Exercising Caution With People (Proverbs 25:16-27)

"These proverbs are bound by the inclusio of proverbs on eating honey in excess (Proverbs 25:16, Proverbs 25:27). They generally concern dealing with friends, family, and others; several focus on actions that are either inappropriate or paradoxically appropriate" (NAC).

"(1) Enough Is Enough (Proverbs 25:16-17)....TYPE: PARALLEL" (NAC). The example of eating too much honey in verse 16 shows that overindulging in even a likable thing can cause revulsion. There is a parallel here with verse 17, where visiting a neighbor too much can cause him to despise you—or, put another way, you can wear out your welcome. The link between these proverbs is even clearer in the Hebrew. "The parallel of...'lest you have your fill of it [honey] and spew it out' [in verse 16]'lest he have his fill of you and hate you' [in verse 17] obvious, as the NIV translation indicates" (footnote on verses 16-17).

"(2) Beware of These People (Proverbs 25:18-20)...TYPE: THEMATIC....All three of these proverbs are similes (although the word for 'like' is not in the Hebrew text), and all concern people one should avoid (the perjurer, the undependable, and the tactless). The point of each is evident" (NAC). In the last one (verse 20), "soda" refers to "sodium carbonate, natural in Egypt (see also Jeremiah 2:22), which is neutralized with vinegar [—the effervescent reaction ruining the soda, which was otherwise useful for washing]. This would be counterproductive. It would be inappropriate and counterproductive to 'sing songs' a 'heavy heart' [as this could, in a jolting way, churn things up negatively and prove hurtful]....One needs to develop sensitivity to others; songs may only irritate the grief. However, see the example of David serenading Saul (1 Samuel 19:9); that was an exceptional case, but even there Saul's response was unpredictable" (Expositor's, note on Proverbs 25:20). Also, David's music in Saul's presence was probably of a soothing and inspirational nature.

(3) Overcome Evil With Good (Proverbs 25:21-22).TYPE: INDIVIDUAL, FOUR-LINE PROVERB. Many believe that no directive to treat enemies with kindness was given in the Bible until the New Testament. Yet here we see the principle made explicitly in the Old Testament book of Proverbs (see also Exodus 23:4). Jesus may have been alluding to this proverb when he said, "Do good to those who hate you" (Matthew 5:44, see also Matthew 5:43-48). The apostle Paul directly quoted from this proverb (Romans 12:20) and summed it up with the words "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (verse 21).

However, the exact meaning of the heaping of burning coals is disputed. Some take it to mean heaping future divine judgment on the person who won't be reconciled even after being treated well (compare Psalm 140:9-10). But the act of kindness in this case would not truly be kind. It would be a way of seeking vengeance—and some understand it that way. Others take an opposite view, seeing burning coals on the head as a metaphor for meeting a neighbor's need—the idea being that a neighbor would need coals for his fireplace to keep warm or for his oven to prepare food and that he would carry them home in a tray atop his head. Coals were indeed given in ancient times as a gift to the poor. Yet this seems an odd illustration of helping out a neighbor when feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty in the first part of the proverb makes that point quite well enough.

Many take heaping coals of fire to represent causing the recipient of kindness great pain—not in future judgment but presently in making him feel burning shame and remorse for his former mistreatment of the one now showing him kindness. This would hopefully lead to repentance. Interestingly, there was "an Egyptian ritual in which a man gave public evidence of his penitence by carrying a pan of burning charcoal on his head" (F.F. Bruce, quoted in Minister To Your Enemies article). On the other hand, besides "coals placed in a tray...carried as a gift to the poor or a sign of repentance...burning coals were also placed directly on the head to punish, to heal wounds, or to relieve suffering for a person dying of rabies!" (NIV Application Commentary, note on Proverbs 25:21-22). If such therapeutic treatment is in view in the proverb, the idea would be either something good being painful (the kindness causing shame and remorse) or something painful being good (the shame and remorse leading to repentance and reconciliation).

Yet another view is that the metaphor concerns the melting of metals with burning coals. As a hard metal is melted and made to flow by the application of burning coals, so kindness melts the hardness of an enemy. This would be somewhat similar to verse 15: "a gentle tongue breaks a bone."

Whatever the exact meaning, the response to an enemy's dilemma is the reversal of what would perhaps be expected—we are to lend a hand, as paradoxical as that might seem. The clear point of the proverb is that we are to treat enemies with kindness, doing what we can to bring peace and reconciliation, expecting a positive outcome (later if not now) and trusting God to reward us for obeying Him with the proper attitude and behavior in such circumstances.

"(4) Cold Rain and Cold Looks (Proverbs 25:23)....TYPE: INDIVIDUAL PROVERB" (NAC)—though there may be a thematic pairing with the next proverb. "Two sayings about anger and quarreling imply that paying attention to how one speaks can make a difference" (NIV Application Commentary, note on verses 23-24). Verse 23 contains interpretive difficulties: "The first is that the north wind does not bring rain in Israel [that coming more typically from the west]; the second is that the phrase 'brings rain' is literally 'has the birth pangs of rain' (which is subject to various interpretations), and the third is that the Hebrew does not make clear whether the 'sly tongue brings angry looks' or whether it is the other way around. Yet one could interpret it, with paraphrase, as follows: 'As a cold wind gives birth to rains, so cold looks give birth to a storm of slander'" (NAC). Others see significance in the unexpected nature of cold rain from the north—paralleled with malicious talk getting an unexpected icy reception. Still others read the verse as referring to the north wind delivering up rain in the sense of stopping or repelling it—and that backbiting speech is stopped by angry looks.

"(5) A Nagging Wife (Proverbs 25:24)....TYPE: INDIVIDUAL PROVERB" (NAC)—though, again, this could possibly be thematically paired with the preceding proverb. Verse 24 is the first proverb in Hezekiah's Solomonic collection identical to one in the major Solomonic collection (see Proverbs 21:9).

"(6) Good Water and Bad Water (Proverbs 25:25-26)....TYPE: THEMATIC....These two proverbs are linked by the implied idea of drinking water" (NAC). Good news coming "from a far country" in verse 25 may correspond to our modern English expression "from out of the blue"—meaning that it's totally unexpected. Or it could denote good news about faraway relatives and friends after not hearing about them for an extended period.

(7) No Glory in Self-Indulgence (Proverbs 25:27). "TYPE: INDIVIDUAL PROVERB....Verse 27 closes off the first major division [of the Hezekiah collection]" (NAC). Overindulgence in honey is not good. As we saw in verse 16, too much honey can make one sick. A parallel is drawn here with those who enjoy the sweetness of being honored and respected so much that they inordinately pursue the honor of themselves. There is no real glory in this—only dishonor and, as we saw in verses 6-7, the likelihood of humiliation. The double mention of glory in verse 27 (about what is not glory) parallels the double mention of glory in verse 2 (about true glory). "The chiastic structure of the whole is as follows: glory (v. 2)/honey (v. 16)/honey (v. 27a)/glory (v. 27b)" (NAC).