We have already seen how the unnamed final editor of this volume never saw fit to reduce duplication, but faithfully pieced together several collections as they were.
1. These are also proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out. We should hardly be surprised that periodic revivals of wisdom literature came and went in the history of Israel, particularly arising from the legendary reign of Solomon. King Hezekiah ruled almost two centuries after Solomon. His reign was characterized by a grand effort to recover the legacy of greatness, in part through a sincere and concerted search for oral and written records long neglected. Not just a catalog, but these were republished in fresh copies. Chapters 25-29 are the results of their efforts to ensure nothing from Solomon’s proverbs was lost. This collection offers the theme of calling for a sense of perspective and not taking oneself too seriously. We get the strong sense Hezekiah’s time saw a bad habit of self-indulgence among members of the ruling class.
2. The glory of God is to hide a thing; but the honor of kings is to search out a matter. God emanates a blinding glory from His Person. Among other things, His glory demands that we leave our fallen nature behind lest it devour us. The path out of destruction is His revelation, but it requires something of us to reach beyond our plane of existence into a boundary layer between Spirit and Flesh where we can explore His moral character. Thus, insofar as we can know Him, it is found with some effort, a measure of self-death undertaken through the various Law Covenants. It is “hidden” in that sense. The mission of a king is to lead the way in clarifying what can be known of God on our level through Covenant Law. A king who does not know God in that sense cannot rightly claim the honor God invested in the mission.
3. The heavens for height, and the earth for depth, but the heart of kings is without searching. This is a pragmatic statement following on the previous verse. Should a king take his mission seriously, he will be changed. You should expect to find him rather mysterious, full of surprises to the day he dies.
4-5. Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the refiner. Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be founded in righteousness. The first line reflects a common mistranslation. If you refine silver, you typically get an ingot, not a vessel. The ingot goes to a craftsman (“finer”) who makes it into things like vessels. The point is that these are two entirely separate skills at work. A king is still human and needs the support of genuine heart-led servants, not a bunch of courtesans seeking self-advantage, if he’s going to rule in wisdom and justice.
6-7. Do not put yourself forth in the presence of the king, and do not stand in the place of the great; for it is better that it should be said to you, “Come up here,” than that you should be put lower in the presence of a noble whom your eyes have seen. Most people will recognize that this is where Jesus got his comments for castigating rabbis who jockeyed over precise social rankings at dinners, as if the host had no say in the matter (Luke 14:7-14). Don’t presume; don’t take yourself so seriously or you will end up with even less social status than before. More broadly, play that part given you by those with higher authority, because they have to explain to God how they wasted His blessings.
8. Do not go forth quickly to fight, lest you know not what to do in the end of it, when your neighbor has put you to shame. Debate your cause with your neighbor; and do not uncover a secret to another, lest he who hears it put you to shame, and your evil report turn not away. It may not be obvious that this refers to dragging people into court simply because you are personally offended over some private incident. The effort to expose and shame someone else for petty grievances can backfire. When your mind runs in that direction, it’s very hard to estimate what you will expose of yourself that may be even more shameful.
11-12. A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. As a ring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon a hearing ear. Two nearly identical proverbs, the translation of the first is a little clumsy. The word “pictures” also refers to mounting or setting in fine craftsmanship. The image is a discrete warning to someone who might have forgotten, or never been quite aware, of the context as they prepare to act inappropriately. By the same token, don’t be a fool in assuming everyone is stupid and can’t make it without your supervision.
13. Like cold snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to his senders; for he makes return to his master’s soul. Scholars tell us this isn’t snow falling during harvest, something both disastrous and highly unlikely. Rather, it refers to a servant hustling down from the mountains a vessel of refreshing clean snow for everyone who is working so hard. Western culture would emphasize the thrill of being a recipient of this pleasure, but Hebrew culture points out what a blessing it is to receive back the gratitude of those who were blessed.
14. A man boasting himself in a false gift is like clouds and wind, but no rain. Contrasted against the previous parable, this image helps us understand the whole picture. What use is someone who makes all these warming promises and never delivers? It’s better to go unnoticed than to be remembered for something like that.
15. In being slow to anger a ruler is won over, and a soft tongue breaks the bone. Most Eastern potentates would engage in testing those who entered their presence; it was protocol in some contexts. Witness how Joseph handled his brothers when they visited Egypt during his time as viceroy (Genesis 42); Joseph’s behavior was entirely typical. Someone who handled pressure well was a candidate for promotion to court service. Even if you had no such ambition, having any hope of influence starts with acting noble, not like some entitled, spoiled brat. It was not a matter of steel will in denying your emotions, but a moral refinement of knowing when it was proper to show them.
16. Have you found honey? Eat only as much as is enough for you, lest you be filled with it and vomit it. Stumbling across a hive with honey was common enough in ancient Palestine. If you lacked the time and patience to get more than a taste, that was sweet enough. If you manage to harvest the whole thing, can you keep in mind that this is a blessing from God meant to be shared? You should already have a fair idea how much is appropriate to eat at one time; that’s a critical part of gratitude to God for His blessings. Those without restraint will end up harming themselves in an attempt to hoover up the whole thing.
17. Withdraw your foot from your neighbor’s house, lest he be weary of you and hate you. This is the same as the previous verse, warning about being so wrapped up in yourself that you lack empathy. It’s not the Greek’s philosophy of moderation in all things, but the Eastern sensing with your heart what is morally appropriate in the context. A real man of God always leaves his audience wishing for more because he gives more than he takes, but is humble enough to imagine that he always received more than he gave.
18. A man who bears false witness against his neighbor is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow. This rests fully upon the image of shalom as the broader moral justice of seeking social stability. How long can you live in a community where you keep stirring up trouble? All the more so is this critical when most of your neighbors are kinfolks, as it would be in the Ancient Near East.
19. Trust in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth, and a foot out of joint. Again, a close corollary of the previous parable. Civil existence requires trust. The word “unfaithful” here is based on the idea of sneaky and covert. Everyday life around sneaky people seriously hinders normal social stability.
20. As he who takes away a garment in cold weather, as vinegar upon niter, so is he who sings songs to a heavy heart. This is a much more obvious warning about being self-absorbed. We’ve all dealt with people who cannot possibly imagine that folks around them might not feel the same about a situation. Whatever it is they feel is mandatory for others, which strips away the humanity of everyone else.
21-22. If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you shall heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward you. Paul quotes this directly in Romans 12:20 and the meaning is obvious to most people. Jesus referred to it in His Sermon on Mount in opposition to the false Jewish teaching of His day (Matthew 5:43-48). Your response to hatred must meet the test of moral necessity instead of nursing your bruised ego.
23. The north wind drives away rain; so does an angry face a backbiting tongue. The text here is ambiguous and the translation disputed. Our source probably gets it backward here. The big issue is not whence rainy weather comes, but the relationship between social habits. Backbiting is an ancient concept of going around behind someone’s back and disparaging them to others out of spite over some imagined offense. It’s petty social politicking. An angry countenance is a figure of speech for being out of someone’s favor. Thus, as easily as you can predict storms from the wind’s direction, you can predict that backbiting will get you in trouble with the powerful.
24. It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop than with a quarreling woman and to share a house. This is a repeat of previous proverbs, but in this context it takes on a new meaning that one should avoid political marriages. Take a consistent stand for divine moral justice and don’t jockey for influence by declaring alliances of convenience. Be willing to pay the price for embracing God’s character in a sinful world.
25. Like cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country. In context, the second phrase refers to report of a successful trade mission, or perhaps that some enemy is too busy with trouble elsewhere to bother you. There is a substantial sense of risk; this is no frivolous report of curiosities. Thus, a good messenger will push to the limits of human endurance to deliver such news.
26. A righteous man falling down before the wicked is like a troubled fountain and a rotten spring. Without a short course on the hydrology of Ancient Palestine, we simply note water was exceedingly precious and blocking access to others was unthinkable. Most springs were a leak through rock from some underground aquifer that rose periodically to overflow; the majority of natural springs were seasonal. People would dig back into the hillside to tap the aquifer lower in the water table for a more consistent supply. That meant also constructing a reservoir closer to the surface, but still protected inside a cave when possible. The terminology suggests a reservoir that was exposed and fouled by trampling, or the cave collapsed and made it inaccessible. Righteous men are few enough as it is; humbling them to serve the wicked represents a threat to life for everyone else.
27. It is not good to eat much honey; so for men to search their own glory is not glory. Here we have a more obvious restatement of verse 16 above. Glory is a by-product of something else. In moral terms, glory is properly reflected onto you from others, from God in particular.
28. He who has no rule over his own spirit is like a broken down city without a wall. The translation here suffers from English idioms. In Hebrew, first comes the image of a city deeply ashamed by the punishing hand of some greater military power pulling down their wall, rather like public humiliation of publicly stripping someone naked in ANE times. It proclaimed the victim a common harlot open to any man’s abuse, utterly unworthy and incapable of self-protection, and by implication unworthy of common human regard. Then follows the comparative image of nobleman who has no sense of self-restraint.