What you believe you see and experience is just shadow; ultimate reality is the moral truth behind it all. This chapter is full of short epigrams all getting at the same basic idea. They are not doctrinaire assertions of wishful thinking that we know aren’t always the way it turns out. Rather, they are assertions of moral truth teaching men of power how things should turn out under their reign. This collection warns the rulers: Let these things characterize your rule. See with the heart, not with the senses, and know the truth of God’s character.
1. The wicked flee when no man pursues; but the righteous are bold as a lion. This is more than a mere matter of clear conscience, though it includes that. Rather, those who know what God intended are willing to suffer when the whole world perverts His intent because they are driven by His Spirit. What can threaten a lion? Whatever threat we face from human perversion is simply not important.
2. Because of the transgression of a land, many are its rulers; but it is prolonged by a man of discernment who knows right. This is subtle and speaks on different levels. On the one hand, God has a tendency to provoke a frequent turnover on the throne of an evil nation. By the same token, an evil society surrenders itself to all kinds of petty masters and demonic forces. But the main point is for the ruler in training to realize that his best hope for a long and prosperous reign from God’s hand is to be morally discerning and never stop learning.
3. A poor man who crushes the poor is like a sweeping rain which leaves no food. A sense of moral wealth changes your attitude. Will you rule like a poor man, someone who is never satisfied? The second word for “poor” here a different term meaning “dependent.” A greedy king is like a torrential downpour, not just knocking down the crops in the field, but washing away the seed for future crops. It’s too easy to forget that your greatest asset is your people.
4. Those who forsake the law praise the wicked; but those who keep the law plead against them. In moral terms, this echoes the previous verse. If you stop paying attention to the Covenant Law, you will end up promoting some awful people because, in your lust for power, you can’t recognize moral depravity. A king who takes the Covenant seriously will tend to push back against folks who try to manipulate the throne.
5. Evil men do not understand judgment; but those who seek the LORD understand all things. One of the oldest forms of manipulation is appealing to concrete results based on mere human logic. These worldly-wise folks could be found even in the most mystical of cultures. You shall know them by their fruits. If you sincerely desire Jehovah’s favor, you will tend to see all things in terms of His divine justice. It makes it easy to spot evil men because they will emphasize some imaginary professional expertise.
6. Better is the poor who walks in his uprightness than he who is perverse in his ways, though he is rich. Don’t be fooled by apparent material wealth. If it requires perversion to be rich, then you can’t afford to be wealthy. Be a blessing to those who prefer moral purity at whatever material cost.
7. Whoever keeps the law is a wise son, but a companion of gluttons shames his father. Not the best translation, this proverb refers to establishing an early track record of high morals, contrary to the worldly wisdom of “sowing your wild oats.” We might better translate “gluttons” as “riotous fellows.” Hanging out with them is a good way to be passed over as heir to the throne. Passing note: In Hebrew the term “wise son” sounds like “bean bane” when spoken, the kind of thing that becomes a common expression.
8. He who increases his wealth by interest and unjust gain, he shall gather it for him who will pity the poor. The word for “interest” here is usury, illegal under Moses. Your fellow Israelis are family. It’s the image of someone amassing a large estate with the excuse of passing it to his direct heirs, but he does it by preying on his other relatives. This kind of thing was all too common, despite being a scandalous violation of ancient tribal custom. A just king will encourage a proper distribution of wealth across a man’s extended family, the stated reason why God blesses some with wealth.
9. He who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is a hateful thing. This is echoed all over the prophetic record. It’s the image of someone who can’t be bothered to even get to know his sovereign lord, but has the nerve to make requests contrary to stated policy. Among humans insulting, it’s blasphemous in dealing with God.
10. Whoever causes the righteous man to go astray in an evil way, he himself shall fall into his own pit; but the upright shall inherit good. This points directly at the ruler. The image is one of taking advantage of honest men who trust you. Do you think you are so slick? In the long run, you will be caught in your own trap. At the very least you will look like a complete ass while your victims will gain sympathy.
11. The rich man is wise in his own eyes; but the poor who has understanding searches him out. This is the essence of moral failure. Materialism was a significant problem even in ancient mystical cultures. If all you care about is your personal hedonistic comforts, then you won’t even notice when someone can see right through you. They live in two entirely different worlds.
12. When the righteous rejoice, there is great glory; but when the wicked rise, a man is hidden. This one is subtle: A king is discerned by how his righteous subjects act. If the men who walk proud and talk loud about how great is their nation are also the good guys, then your reign is probably just. If the good guys try to stay below the radar, you are a bad king. Look around king and see what you have wrought.
13. He who covers his sins shall not be blessed; but whoever confesses and leaves them shall have mercy. The people worth your time don’t expect perfection; they’ll give you room to make mistakes. Repay their mercy by your honesty and sincerity, and work to improve. Arrogance will darken your reign.
14. Blessed is the man dreading God, but he who hardens his heart shall fall into mischief. This is a close correlation to the previous verse. Humility before God wins His favor. Losing that favor is begging for trouble because it blinds you to the pure moral vision of your heart.
15. Like a roaring lion and a ranging bear, so is a wicked ruler over the helpless people. The animals are depicted in their predatory hunger. From our Western mythology this isn’t much discouragement from evil. In Hebrew culture, the predator was a bad guy and the shepherd was the essence of manhood. A good shepherd would handle lions and bears and keep them from the flock.
16. A ruler lacking understanding even adds oppressions; he who hates unjust gain shall prolong his days. This echoes the previous verse. It’s the image of a balance beam: Light on moral wisdom means heavy on oppression. By contrast, someone who has no use for plunder but prefers social stability is the kind of king who draws fearsome support from his people.
17-18. A man who is pressed down with the blood of a soul shall flee to the pit; do not let them uphold him. Whoever walks uprightly shall be saved; but he who is perverse in his ways shall fall at once. The imagery suffers in translation here. The Hebrew language is a little ambiguous, but it begins with the picture of someone who rushes though life seizing what they want without a moment’s consideration of what is good and morally just. They tend to violence along the way as they slide quickly into the moral swamps. There’s little you can do for such people so let them go. Contrast this with someone who keeps their feet on the solid paths. He has little in common with the guy who prefers frolicking around sinkholes.
19-20. He who tills his land shall have plenty of bread, but he pursuing vanities shall have poverty enough. A faithful man shall overflow with blessings, but he who makes haste to be rich shall not be innocent. The fundamental image is a feudal grant. If you stick with what God has placed in your hands, He will prosper you. Don’t envy what God gives others. Chasing your hedonistic fantasies will be “sated” with sorrow. What will you feed your household? What will your children inherit from you?
21-22. To have respect of persons is not good; yea, for a piece of bread a man will transgress. He who hastens to be rich has an evil eye, and does not know that poverty will come upon him. It’s an ancient figure of speech to be a sucker for pretense and appearances. Will you be a king cheaply bribed to save someone’s fake reputation? It’s not that such kings are blind, but that they see the world through a perverted lens (“evil eye”). He knows the value of nothing.
23. He who rebukes a man shall afterwards find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue. The word translated here as “rebuke” means specifically to stand up for what is just and right. Even if such defense of moral truth comes sharply spoken, it’s easier to accept that compared to the sorrows of flattering words that lead you astray.
24. Whoever robs his father or his mother and says, “It is no sin,” he shall be a companion to a destroyer. As always, the context is a tribal society; all your neighbors are likely to be relatives. One would politely call any community elder “father” or “mother.” The word for “rob” is not that specific; the Hebrew term implies snatching or plucking in any sense. Thus, it’s the image of someone who thinks it’s just a game to prey on older people in their own clan. It doesn’t matter if what you take doesn’t seem like much; it makes you an ally of anything that threatens social stability. Righteous kings won’t tolerate that kind of thing.
25-26. He who is of a proud heart stirs up fighting; but he who puts his trust in the LORD shall be made fat. He who trusts in his own heart is a fool; but whoever walks wisely, he shall be delivered. Translation loses the play on words here. The Hebrew image is a “fat heart” — someone committed to serving his own pride. Trusting in the lord conjures the image of humility, a “hungry heart” committed to penitence before the Lord. The penitent will have a fat soul, instead, well fed on God’s truth. The second sentence merely restates it in different words, but uses a figure of speech that we easily miss: Trusting in one’s own heart is equivalent to making yourself your own god.
27. He who gives to the poor shall not lack, but he who hides his eyes shall have many a curse. This is not a question of giving what someone asks or yielding to scolding demands made by professional charity operators. This is a matter of a king who is blind to human need. Even if the Law of Moses protects the king from being cursed by the people, refusing to acknowledge the suffering of those you rule will bring God’s disfavor.
28. When the wicked rise, a man hides himself, but when they perish, the righteous increase. This repeats verse 12 above, but in a slightly different context referring to the peasants. Who will weep, and who will rejoice, when you die, King?