This chapter is a collection of shorter and simpler proverbs, the kind of thing you might hear among the peasants. It’s as if Solomon asks his sons to consider: What will the common man think of you? What sort of proverbs will they say out there in the streets, the roads between little villages and in the fields of labor? What will it be like at the bottom of the political ladder during your reign?
1. A man who hardens his neck when reproved shall be suddenly broken, and there will be no healing. A more literal rendering refers to “a man of reproofs” — someone whose life is characterized by receiving frequent correction from those in authority. If he allows calluses to build up on the back of his neck so that he is indifferent to such education, at some point will come a strike that breaks his neck. Wise kings don’t ignore the little people, lest they suddenly realize they stand alone against whatever God allows to rise against them.
2-3. When the righteous increase, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people mourn. Whoever loves wisdom rejoices his father; but a companion of harlots wastes wealth. Were a king to go among his subjects in disguise, would he see people generally relaxed and pleasant, or will he find them deep sorrow at the heavy burden of his reign? The second sentence uses very much the same wording; brighten the people and you’ll brighten your father’s countenance. The Hebrew figure of speech comes out more like “shepherd to harlots” as the image of fat and sassy women who always get what they want. Such is not the image of righteous royal court. God grants wealth so you can rise in reputation when you share it with your family, not your cronies.
4. The king establishes the land by judgment; but he taking bribes tears it down. A king can make or break his own domain. The literal image of a just king’s domain is “standing strong.” The opposite is “beating it down.” What a king does in private affects his entire realm of authority.
5. A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet. The image is subtle and hard to translate here. Flattery derives from the image of someone noisily running ahead to remove all the least impediments so that the king never sees so much as a grain of sand changing the elevation of the bottoms of his shoes. In its place, he spreads a net to trap the king in a false sense of dependence.
6. In the sin of an evil man there is a snare; but the righteous sings and rejoices. Again, the richness of the imagery is lost in translation. If a king tolerates rebellion, he gains the punishment of the rebel for himself. So in the minds of the common people, those who rebel against moral justice should hang, choking noisily. But those who seek moral purity should be singing and dancing.
7. The righteous knows the plea of the poor; the wicked cares not to know it. Most English translations partly miss the point here. The focus is on the word “know” — the just heart guides the mind to a full grasp of reality. They give an honest hearing to a suit filed by those with no money or power because moral justice is its own reward. The righteous judge wants to be a part of that. The immoral judge has no concept for any of this, only his own personal comfort. He won’t even permit the poor to bring a claim into his court.
8. Scornful men bring a city into a snare, but the wise turn away wrath. Another bad translation: This proverb begins with a term that means scornful, but it’s also an old pun about someone trying to inflate their reputation pretending to translate a foreign tongue. They miss the whole point of the conversation. It’s derisive term for self-important big-shot ambassadors. Letting such people have authority will kindle a fire (“puff” is not snare) on the nation as symbolized by the image of a capital city. The word for “wise” here is someone who knows when to keep his mouth shut because he lacks that inflated ego. Instead, he seeks a way to defuse tension from behind the scenes.
9. If a wise man contends with a foolish man, whether he rages or laughs, there is no rest. A better translation: A wise king will have no peace in his court if he has to put up with the constant intrusions of someone lacking moral discernment. Every hour it’s either raging fury or uproarious mocking. The image of a fool is someone utterly foreign to contemplation and facing his own humanity; he’s always grousing about or making fun of others and insists the most powerful person present hears him out.
10. Men of blood hate the upright; but the just seek his soul. Bloodthirsty people are maniacally driven to prey on the man of good character; they’d kill him on sight. But the morally just folks will do their best to emulate that man, driven to spend time with him.
11. A fool speaks all his mind; but a wise one keeps it in until afterwards. This is a blunt statement echoed often in the background of ancient wisdom literature as a whole. Even in our time, we recognize civility as the tendency of not blasting out every thought that crosses your mind. The image here is someone who has no sense of social stability because they are too self-absorbed.
12. If a ruler listens to lies, all his servants are wicked. A king is known by his counselors. If they don’t hasten to correct false information, what kind of king must he be to have them around?
13. The poor and the deceitful man meet together; the LORD gives light to the eyes of both. This requires a little context. Being poor doesn’t mean you are stupid. Being a predator (typically a loan shark) doesn’t mean you don’t know what is evil. The two encounter each other in the business of daily life and recognize each other for what they are, despite a great difference in what they make of it. Sometimes we don’t get to see how things turn out in the end, but God gives everyone an opportunity to choose His ways and reject the deception of how things seem to be from a mere materialistic perspective.
14. A king who truly judges the weak, his throne shall be established forever. Clumsy translation: A king who exercises strong moral judgment with those who are weak will stand in God’s favor. Never mind what God plans in terms of earthly events, such a king will be blessed within the context.
15. The rod and rebuke give wisdom, but a boy sent off causes shame to his mother. This is the image of a mother who can’t be bothered to actually be a mother helping to form the character of her children. When he gets of hand at home, instead of taking the time to discern the moral issue and correcting the child’s false ideas, she just runs them out of the house for the sake of her own convenience. Only by a miracle would such a child grow up to care about others; all the more so if he is king.
16. When the wicked are multiplied, sin increases; but the righteous shall see their fall. Mistranslation here: When the wicked are elevated in power, a general level of moral decline sets in. Eventually this will run it’s course and their predations will rot the system from the inside. Maybe not within a single lifetime, but those with a high moral character will recognize why a government collapses. Morality is reality.
17. Correct your son, and he shall give you rest; yea, he shall give delight to your soul. Why does Solomon invest so much effort in these books he writes? It’s because he wants to die seeing his kingdom a happy place and his sons worthy of celebration. As they take up the tasks of running the kingdom, they must understand the moral truth of how things work, and that giving the people a life worth living is their whole mission.
18. Where there is no wisdom, the people perish; but he who keeps the law, he is blessed. The KJV is a bad translation of this, and has been quoted abusively in English speaking religion. The word for “wisdom” means insight, a clear moral understanding of what God says about the world He created. Without out that, you might as well slaughter the common folk with your own hands. But investing resources and time into making the Covenant everyone’s “common sense” will stand you in God’s favor.
19. A servant will not be corrected by words, for though he understands, he will not answer. Most people in the East became slaves while pursuing other plans. You should hardly be surprised when they aren’t eager to please. They might know what you want but feel disinclined to respond appropriately. This is why slave owners are prepared to use physical force. However, the contextual implication is the image of a king who does not want to serve the moral truth of God. What should he expect his kingdom will do if he is unresponsive to their real needs?
20. Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him. Again we return to that quintessential image of a wise man: He waits until his moral authority gains him a hearing. Sure, some few have minds like a steel trap, but they usually get there from long patient study. The image of “hasty” is an impetuous child crowding you and demanding your attention without any regard for anyone else. In an adult, this isn’t mere folly; this is a serious threat to life and limb and you rightly treat them with defensive violence.
21. He pampering his servant from youth, that one in his after days shall his successor. There are better English translations, but the ambiguity is in the Hebrew thinking. It hardly matters what someone’s legal status is; if you treat them as family, they are family. That could be good or bad, so be cautious whom you welcome into your inheritance. Consider the end of every matter as best you can and act accordingly from the start.
22. An angry man stirs up fighting, and a furious man abounds in sin. Talent means little if moral character is lacking. When kings consider whom to commission as servants, they should avoid the genius who grates on everyone’s nerves.
23. A man’s pride shall bring him low; but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit. The contrast here in Hebrew imagery is rich. On the one hand is a man with an inflated ego; he’s up there where he could fall at any moment. The other is someone who isn’t full of hot air, but actually substantial, and he stays close to the ground in the first place. Massive cornerstones that keep buildings from falling down a slope aren’t known for drifting off into every gust of wind.
24. He who shares with a thief hates his own soul; he hears an oath and does not tell. This translation misses the point. The first part is clear enough about being a partner with someone who takes what isn’t his. The second part is not about keeping promises, but about hiding curses. If you become aware of a conspiracy of evil, you are part of the evil if you don’t report it to the affected parties. It matters not whether you can do anything about it, but that you are obliged to turn on the lights so everyone can see.
25-26. The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever puts his trust in the LORD shall be safe. Many seek the ruler’s favor; but each man’s judgment comes from the LORD. Anxiety over what men can do to you is a trap. Trust in God and embrace His revelation at whatever cost, because after men have done all they can, you still have to face the Creator. It makes no difference if the man is a king.
27. An unjust man is a hateful thing to the just; and he who is upright in the way is hateful to the wicked. Nothing does more for a king’s reputation than making the right enemies.