17. He who loves pleasure shall be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil shall not be rich. It should be obvious from the context, but the Hebrew word translated “love” here typically refers to mere sexual desire, not an honest affection. Wine and oil become symbols for a luxurious and carefree life here.
18. The wicked shall be a ransom for the righteous, and the transgressor for the upright. This is obviously not meant literally. The Hebrew word translated here as “ransom” is a complex image based on the idea of protection against the random sorrows of this life. Sinners generally fail to grasp the moral fabric of reality in the first place, so might not notice how they tend to absorb a bigger share of human suffering in a way that protects those who do operate from the heart.
19. It is better to dwell in the wilderness than with a quarrelsome and angry woman. Echoing verse 9 above, this emphasizes home life. Perhaps here we sense a note of wistfulness, the wise words of someone who has lived too long with a woman who did not admire the man she married, and lived from her nesting instinct instead of from her heart. Then again, Hebrew culture bears an affinity for the simple life, though often romanticized. They knew it was easier to be faithful to God when there were no expectations for soft living.
20. A desirable treasure and oil are in the home of the wise; but a foolish man swallows it up. The imagery translates poorly, because “treasure” covers the whole range of durable goods normally collected in a household, while “oil” represents consumables. It’s not that you are wise to collect these things, but that wise people tend to avoid wasteful living, while fools too quickly trade tomorrow for today’s pleasure. The modern images that come to mind are “consumer debt” and living beyond one’s means.
21. He who follows after righteousness and mercy finds life, righteousness, and honor. In the first phrase, Hebrew thinking equates righteousness and mercy. It’s neither having nor finding so much as embracing the fundamental nature of life itself. If you live a heart-led existence that keeps trying to see moral justice in everything, you’ll find it. Word order matter matters in the second phrase, because moral justice is always in the company of a vigorous “life” and genuine meaning (“honor” as in substantial).
22. A wise one scales the city of the mighty and brings down the strength of its hope. Another that suffers some in translation, this proverb paints the image of a fortified city run by a very able military tyrant. Genuine wisdom will always find the vulnerability in ordinary human security; wisdom is stronger than strength.
23. Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps his soul from troubles. This echoes of 13:3, but refers to much more than merely what you say. The wording here addresses what you eat and your whole sense of taste, as well. Don’t trust your flesh, which includes your intellect.
24. Proud, haughty scorner is his name, he who deals in proud wrath. Western culture has a perverted idea about niceness, and doesn’t understand the moral justice in being firm and fierce at times. This verse refers to insufferable arrogance that presumes a far larger dominion than God has delivered into one’s hands. Some people treat everyone else like trash and this is what’s wrong, particularly in an ancient culture that placed such a high value on not taking yourself too seriously. Who wants the reputation for being a complete ass?
25-26. The desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands have refused to work. He covets greedily all the day long; but the righteous gives and spares not. These two verses are a single proverb offering a rich contrast. The fundamental nature of indolence is a sense of entitlement — having what you want shouldn’t be so much work. This is what’s deadly about laziness, and it’s an affliction on everyone around you. The lazy man obsesses about suffering this false sense of injustice, while the righteous man obsesses about making things just for others. The righteous don’t whine about what should be, but strives to make it so. Moral justice is its own reward.
27. The sacrifice of the wicked is hateful to God; how much more when he brings it with a wicked mind? It’s bad enough that some will engage covenant rituals simply to avoid social pressures. Empty gestures an insult to God. How much worse it is when they use symbols of moral justice as the cover for an evil plot.
28. A false witness shall perish, but the man who hears speaks on and on. This suffers in translation. If you tend to deceive, the ultimate exposure of your lies is morality itself; you’ll be a forgotten nobody. The image is a flood deceptive blather, a symbol of too busy lying to hear or give room for anyone else to get a word in edgewise. The contrast is someone who pays attention and doesn’t have to have everything his way. Their expression of truth will outlast their human existence.
29. A wicked man hardens his face, but the upright establishes his way. The subtle humor here is the contrast between struggling to keep up a hard shell versus investing carefully in a strong foundation. Immorality is built on deception, so it requires a lot of trouble keeping up a solid appearance. Moral justice doesn’t worry about the storms of life because what really matters can’t be washed away.
30. There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the LORD. The Hebrew word translated “against” here is much broader in its root meaning. It paints the image of coming into God’s Presence with opposition. It’s not a mere question of failure as in, “this isn’t too wise.” Rather, it simply doesn’t happen. If come into God’s Presence at all, it’s crawling on your face, humble and penitent. Thus, the proverb means you can’t argue with God’s revelation because that’s arguing against fundamental reality itself.
31. The horse is prepared for the day of battle; but safety is from the LORD. About the only use for a horse in the Ancient Near East was in battle or ceremonies that referenced martial power. It meant a very high investment in resources and time. If you anticipate human conflict, you wisely prepare for the worst. However, whether your resources are much or little, victory comes from the hand of God. If He means to bring you down, nothing you do will save you, but if He wants to defeat whole armies of enemies with just a choir, He can do it.