Only a fool takes himself too seriously. Your personal sense of identity and integrity should not rest on total control of outcomes. Self-cynicism is not the same as self-doubt; you can still forge ahead in your calling while keeping a firm grip on penitence. God’s grant of dominion in this life does not mean that the only people who care about you are those who submit to your fantasies. Your best friends will have their own sense of dominion. In many ways, the substance of the Fall was elevating our own individual reasoning power, our sense of order and what ought to be, to the place in our souls God made for Himself. A critical part of redemption is making room for God to speak through external sources, including other people, and learning to accept a context we don’t control.
Western minds struggle to grasp how an Eastern ruler would trust his nobles to handle things without a lot of detailed instructions. Nobles were considered adept at knowing the heart of the ruler, and talented at producing results that boosted his reputation, in part because they did not struggle with selfish ambition, but were held by a sense of calling to the welfare of the whole community. What follows are not direct quotes, but restatements of the ancient Eastern noble morals.
1. Do not boast yourself of tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth. This is the quintessential statement of trusting in God, who alone can see the future. You can assert only what you intend to do for now, and would look quite the fool if you insist on a course of action that does not match an unexpected change in context.
2. Let another man praise you, and not your mouth; a stranger, and not your lips. This is actually the other half of the previous verse. The Hebrew word for “praise” is the same as “boast.” What you think about yourself may not mean much to others. Wielding power is inherently political, meaning that you should never pretend to control the narrative finally told. Don’t worry about your reputation among humans; worry about your faithfulness to God’s call.
3-4. A stone is heavy, and sand is heavy; but a fool’s wrath is heavier than them both. Wrath is cruel, and anger is overwhelming; but who is able to stand before envy? Exercising authority is actually work. Sometimes you deal with people dumb as rocks, wholly unable to think for themselves. Even harder to deal with is someone who gets insulted at the smallest thing. But as bad as that may be, the worst is someone who cannot comprehend why you reward people as individuals. They will nag you to death and waste more time and resources than all the rest of your domain.
5-6. Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. The image here translates poorly into English. We all want to be loved and appreciated. The image of someone hiding their affection equates to staying out of your way. Contrast that with a friend who stops you when you are about to make a fool of yourself. At what cost do they protect us from some greater harm? False adulation is not really love, so avoid giving any place to a yes-man.
7. The full soul despises a honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet. Another gem tarnished in translation, this is more than a warning against surrendering to your appetites and trying to take your fill of things. This has nothing to do with the Western image of iron discipline and fake self-denial, nor some kind of golden moderation. Rather, you should work from the assumption that you cannot trust yourself to estimate how much is enough of anything, and expect that some part of you will always want more than you get. Don’t ignore the needs of the body, but try to cultivate a desire for moral truth, where even the harshest realities can still seem a blessing.
8. As a bird that wanders from her nest, so is a man who wanders from his place. The image of the bird is hopping and flitting aimlessly with no particular purpose, by degrees wandering too far from responsibilities. This compares favorably with a man who doesn’t keep his attention on his mission from God. His “place” is the domain God granted him through circumstances the man does not control.
9-10. Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart; so does the sweetness of one’s friend by advice from the heart. Your own friend, and your father’s friend, do not forsake them; nor go to your brother’s house in the day of your trouble; better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off. There’s nothing wrong with trusting the loyalty of your blood kin. The context here assumes typical arrangements among nobles who disperse their sons to reduce natural rivalries. The truest counsel comes from someone with no ambition to rule, but is driven to support those who do, and is already deeply involved in the local situation.
11. My son, be wise, and make my heart glad, so that I may answer him who shames me. The Hebrew word translated “shame” here is the image of stripping away vestments and armor to show the naked and vulnerable human under it all. This isn’t merely a periodic reminder inserted in the text a father writes for his sons, begging that they not make a fool of him. Rather, it reflects fundamental morality itself. It’s not a question of pampering the rulers, but independently seeking their best interest within your calling from God. Cover the human failures of your rulers with your own pursuit of holiness.
12-13. A sensible one foresees the evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished. Take his robe that is surety for a stranger, and take a pledge from him for a strange woman. This is a general reminder that choices are usually packaged with consequences. Therefore, as someone who exercises authority, it’s proper moral justice to let others suffer for folly. In Hebrew society, the ultimate expression of folly is binding your fortunes to people you don’t even know, aside from their seductive sales pitch.
14. He who blesses his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him. The cultural image of rising early in the morning expresses eagerness, excessive in this case. It feels like a curse to deal with airheads whose affection arises from having no identity of their own.
15-16. A never-ending dropping in a very rainy day and a quarrelsome woman are alike. Whoever hides her hides the wind, and his right hand encounters slippery oil. We will see a lot about good women later in this study, but we should be surprised how little Solomon says of bad ones. The quintessence of feminine moral failure is a woman who forgets that she is on the same team as her man. Thus, she disputes with him almost every decision he makes. How can a man provide moral covering to a woman whose presence is like the worst storms? It’s like trying to pick up oil with your hands: Not only is failure guaranteed, but you can’t hang on to anything else afterward.
17. Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the face of his friend. Rubbing two pieces of iron together does no real damage, but gives both a useful edge. Your best friends are those who remain firm in their convictions regardless of the sparks it might cause.
18. Whoever keeps the fig tree shall eat its fruit; so he who waits on his master shall be honored. Another of those Eastern feudal concepts is allowing a servant to share in the blessings of his hard work. It motivates him to do a better job. So if the job is boosting your reputation, the proper fruit is honoring them publicly.
19. As in water face answers to face, so the heart of man answers to man. This translation is a little archaic. You can see a good reflection of your face in a pool of water. Just so, you can discern the morals of someone in how they express their commitments.
20. Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied. Death is never satisfied and our fallen nature is always willing to see the next bit of visual stimulation. Our fallen nature offers no good filter for things we might see, even if it gives us nightmares or destroys our morals.
21. As the refining pot for silver and the furnace for gold, so is a man to his praise. To see how much actual precious metal there is in ore, we heat it to separate out the dross. The true test of a man’s moral character is how he reacts to praise. If it changes how he acts, there’s room for improvement.
22. Though you should pound a fool in a bowl with a bar in the midst of wheat, his foolishness will not depart from him. The image is more of a large mortar and pestle, a primitive means of grinding grain still used for small amounts in Solomon’s time. Flour is still wheat, but it’s easier to work with, unlike fools for whom no amount of effort makes any difference.
23-27. Know well the face of your flocks; set your heart on your herds. For riches are not forever; nor the crown from generation to generation? When the hay is removed, and the tender grass is seen, and mountain-plants are gathered, the lambs are for your clothing, and the goats are the price of the field. And you shall have goats’ milk enough for your food, for the food of your household, and a living for your young women. A marvelous paradox, this is a parable that warns against forgetting whence the symbols of parabolic language. If a king is shepherd to his subjects, let him not forget how to actually herd domestic animals, lest he fail to understand God’s calling on him. A real shepherd comes to genuine compassion for his flock. Do you understand that when hay is cut down, the roots sprout a fresh crop? Are you aware that life can be sustained without all the trappings of royal regalia? Don’t be a captive slave to the your position; distinguish yourself by moral discernment about the genuine redemptive needs of humanity.