Proverbs 20

The drinks are wine and barley beer (e.g., Lev 10:9; Deut 14:26; Isa 28:7). These terms here could be understood as personifications, but better as metonymies for those who drink wine and beer. The inebriated person mocks and brawls.
is a mocker
The two participles לֵץ (lets, “mocker”) and הֹמֶה (homeh, “brawler”) are substantives; they function as predicates in the sentence. Excessive use of intoxicants excites the drinker to boisterous behavior and aggressive attitudes – it turns them into mockers and brawlers.
and strong drink is a brawler;
whoever goes astray by them is not wise.
The proverb does not prohibit the use of wine or beer; in fact, strong drink was used at festivals and celebrations. But intoxication was considered out of bounds for a member of the covenant community (e.g., 23:20–21, 29–35; 31:4–7). To be led astray by their use is not wise.

The king’s terrifying anger
Heb “the terror of a king” (so ASV, NASB); The term “terror” is a metonymy of effect for cause: the anger of a king that causes terror among the people. The term “king” functions as a possessive genitive: “a king’s anger” (cf. NIV “A king’s wrath”; NLT “The king’s fury”).
is like the roar of a lion;
whoever provokes him
The verb מִתְעַבְּרוֹ (mitabbero) is problematic; in the MT the form is the Hitpael participle with a pronominal suffix, which is unusual, for the direct object of this verb usually takes a preposition first: “is angry with.” The LXX rendered it “angers [or, irritates].”
sins against himself.
The expression “sins against himself” has been taken by some to mean “forfeits his life” (so NAB, NASB, NIV, NRSV) or “endangers his life” (cf. NCV, NLT). That may be the implication of getting oneself in trouble with an angry king (cf. TEV “making him angry is suicide”).

It is an honor for a person
Heb “man.”
to cease
Heb “cessation” (שֶׁבֶת, shevet); NAB “to shun strife”; NRSV “refrain from strife.”
One cannot avoid conflict altogether; but the proverb is instructing that at the first sign of conflict the honorable thing to do is to find a way to end it.
from strife,
but every fool quarrels.
Heb “breaks out.” The Hitpael of the verb גָּלַע (gala’, “to expose; to lay bare”) means “to break out; to disclose oneself,” and so the idea of flaring up in a quarrel is clear. But there are also cognate connections to the idea of “showing the teeth; snarling” and so quarreling viciously.

The sluggard will not plow
The act of plowing is put for the whole process of planting a crop.
during the planting season,
Heb “in the autumn”; ASV “by reason of the winter.” The noun means “autumn, harvest time.” The right time for planting was after the harvest and the rainy season of autumn and winter began.

so at harvest time he looks
The Piel of the verb שָׁאַל (shaal, “to ask”) means “to beg” or “to inquire carefully.” At the harvest time he looks for produce but there is none. The Piel might suggest, however, that because he did not plant, or did not do it at the right time, he is reduced to begging and will have nothing (cf. KJV, ASV; NASB “he begs during the harvest”).
for the crop
The phrase “for the crop” does not appear in the Hebrew but is implied; it is supplied in the translation for the sake of clarity.
but has nothing.
The noun means “advice, counsel”; it can have the connotation of planning or making decisions. Those with understanding can sort out plans.
in a person’s heart
Heb “in the heart of a man”; NRSV “in the human mind.”
is like
The comparative “like” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is implied by the metaphor; it is supplied for the sake of clarity.
deep water,
The motives or plans of a person are “difficult to fathom”; it takes someone with understanding to discover and surface them (the verb in the last colon continues the figure with the sense of bringing the plans to the surface and sorting them out).

but an understanding person
Heb “a man of understanding”; TEV “someone with insight”; NLT “the wise.”
draws it out.
Many people profess their loyalty,
Heb “many a man calls/proclaims a man of his loyal love.” The Syriac and Tg. Prov 20:6 render the verb as passive: “many are called kind.” Other suggestions include: “most men meet people who will do them occasional kindnesses” (RSV); “many men profess friendship” (C. H. Toy, Proverbs [ICC], 384); “many men invite only the one who has shown them kindness.” The simplest interpretation in this context is “many proclaim [themselves to be] a kind person (= a loyal friend).” The contrast is between many who claim to be loyal friends and the one who actually proves to be faithful.

but a faithful person
The shift to the expression “a man of faithfulness[es]” in the second line indicates that of all those who claim to show faithful love, it is rare to find one who is truly reliable (as the word אֱמוּנִים [’emunim] indicates clearly); cf. NAB, NRSV “one worthy of trust.”
– who can find?
The point of the rhetorical question is that a truly faithful friend is very difficult to find.

The righteous person
Two terms describe the subject of this proverb: “righteous” and “integrity.” The first describes the person as a member of the covenant community who strives to live according to God’s standards; the second emphasizes that his lifestyle is blameless.
behaves in integrity;
Heb “walks in his integrity” (so NASB); cf. NIV “leads a blameless life.” The Hitpael participle of הָלַךְ (halakh) means “to walk about; to walk to and fro.” The idiom of walking representing living is intensified here in this stem. This verbal stem is used in scripture to describe people “walking with” God.

blessed are his children after him.
The nature and the actions of parents have an effect on children (e.g., Exod 20:4–6); if the parents are righteous, the children will enjoy a blessing – the respect and the happiness which the parent reflects on them.

A king sitting on the throne to judge
The infinitive construct is דִּין; it indicates purpose, “to judge” (so NIV, NCV) even though it does not have the preposition with it.

separates out
The second line uses the image of winnowing (cf. NIV, NRSV) to state that the king’s judgment removes evil from the realm. The verb form is מִזָרֶה (mezareh), the Piel participle. It has been translated “to sift; to winnow; to scatter” and “to separate” – i.e., separate out evil from the land. The text is saying that a just government roots out evil (cf. NAB “dispels all evil”), but few governments have been consistently just.
all evil with his eyes.
The phrase with his eyes indicates that the king will closely examine or look into all the cases that come before him.

Who can say,
The verse is a rhetorical question; it is affirming that no one can say this because no one is pure and free of sin.
“I have kept my heart clean;
The verb form זִכִּיתִי (zikkiti) is the Piel perfect of זָכָה (zakhah, “to be clear; to be clean; to be pure”). The verb has the idea of “be clear, justified, acquitted.” In this stem it is causative: “I have made my heart clean” (so NRSV) or “kept my heart pure” (so NIV). This would be claiming that all decisions and motives were faultless.

I am pure
The Hebrew verb translated “I am pure” (טָהֵר, taher) is a Levitical term. To claim this purity would be to claim that moral and cultic perfection had been attained and therefore one was acceptable to God in the present condition. Of course, no one can claim this; even if one thought it true, it is impossible to know all that is in the heart as God knows it.
from my sin”?
10  Diverse weights and diverse measures
The construction simply uses repetition to express different kinds of weights and measures: “a stone and a stone, an ephah and an ephah.”

the Lord abhors
Heb “an abomination of the Lord.” The phrase features a subjective genitive: “the Lord abhors.”
Behind this proverb is the image of the dishonest merchant who has different sets of weights and measures which are used to cheat customers. The Lord hates dishonesty in business transactions.
both of them.
11  Even a young man
In the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs the Hebrew term נַעַר (naar) referred to an adolescent, a young person whose character was being formed in his early life.
is known
The Hebrew verb נָכַר (nakhar) means “to recognize” more than simply “to know.” Certain character traits can be recognized in a child by what he does (cf. NCV “by their behavior”).
by his actions,
whether his activity is pure and whether it is right.
Character is demonstrated by actions at any age. But the emphasis of the book of Proverbs would also be that if the young child begins to show such actions, then the parents must try to foster and cultivate them; if not, they must try to develop them through teaching and discipline.

12  The ear that hears and the eye that sees
The first half of the verse refers to two basic senses that the Lord has given to people. C. H. Toy, however, thinks that they represent all the faculties (Proverbs [ICC], 388). But in the book of Proverbs seeing and hearing come to the fore. By usage “hearing” also means obeying (15:31; 25:12), and “seeing” also means perceiving and understanding (Isa 6:9–10).

the Lord has made them both.
The verse not only credits God with making these faculties of hearing and sight and giving them to people, but it also emphasizes their spiritual use in God’s service.

13  Do not love sleep,
The proverb uses antithetical parallelism to teach that diligence leads to prosperity. It contrasts loving sleep with opening the eyes, and poverty with satisfaction. Just as “sleep” can be used for slothfulness or laziness, so opening the eyes can represent vigorous, active conduct. The idioms have caught on in modern usage as well – things like “open your eyes” or “asleep on the job.”
lest you become impoverished;
open your eyes so that
The second line uses two imperatives in a sequence (without the vav [ו]): “open your eyes” and then (or, in order that) you will “be satisfied.”
you might be satisfied with food.
Heb “bread” (so KJV, ASV, NRSV), although the term often serves in a generic sense for food in general.

14  “It’s worthless! It’s worthless!”
Heb “[It is] bad, [it is] bad.” Since “bad” can be understood in some modern contexts as a descriptive adjective meaning “good,” the translation uses “worthless” instead – the real point of the prospective buyer’s exclamation.
says the buyer,
This proverb reflects standard procedure in the business world. When negotiating the transaction the buyer complains how bad the deal is for him, or how worthless the prospective purchase, but then later brags about what a good deal he got. The proverb will alert the inexperienced as to how things are done.

but when he goes on his way, he boasts.
The Hitpael imperfect of הָלַל (halal) means “to praise” – to talk in glowing terms, excitedly. In this stem it means “to praise oneself; to boast.”

15  There is gold, and an abundance of rubies,
The verse is usually taken as antithetical parallelism: There may be gold and rubies but the true gem is knowledge. However, C. H. Toy arranges it differently: “store of gold and wealth of corals and precious vessels – all are wise lips” (Proverbs [ICC], 388). But this uses the gems as metaphors for wise speech, and does not stress the contrast between wealth and wisdom.
words of knowledge
Heb “lips of knowledge.” The term “lips” is a metonymy for speaking, and “knowledge” could be either an attributive genitive or objective genitive: “knowledgeable lips.” Lips that impart knowledge are the true jewel to be sought.
are like
The comparative “like” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is implied by the metaphor; it is supplied in the translation for the sake of clarity.
a precious jewel.
16  Take a man’s
Heb “his garment.”
Taking a garment was the way of holding someone responsible to pay debts. In fact, the garment was the article normally taken for security (Exod 22:24–26; Deut 24:10–13). Because this is a high risk security pledge (e.g., 6:1–5), the creditor is to deal more severely than when the pledge is given by the debtor for himself.
when he has given security for a stranger,
The Kethib has the masculine plural form, נָכְרִים (nakhrim), suggesting a reading “strangers.” But the Qere has the feminine form נָכְרִיָּה (nakhriyyah), “strange woman” or “another man’s wife” (e.g., 27:13). The parallelism would suggest “strangers” is the correct reading, although theories have been put forward for the interpretation of “strange woman” (see below).
The one for whom the pledge is taken is called “a stranger” and “foreign.” These two words do not necessarily mean that the individual or individuals are non-Israelite – just outside the community and not well known.

and when he gives surety for strangers,
M. Dahood argues that the cloak was taken in pledge for a harlot (cf. NIV “a wayward woman”). Two sins would then be committed: taking a cloak and going to a prostitute (“To Pawn One’s Cloak,” Bib 42 [1961]: 359-66; also Snijders, “The Meaning of זָר,” 85–86). In the MT the almost identical proverb in 27:13 has a feminine singular form here.
hold him
Or “hold it” (so NIV, NCV).
in pledge.
17  Bread gained by deceit
Heb “bread of deceit” (so KJV, NAB). This refers to food gained through dishonest means. The term “bread” is a synecdoche of specific for general, referring to anything obtained by fraud, including food.
tastes sweet to a person,
Heb “a man.”

but afterward his mouth will be filled with gravel.
The image of food and eating is carried throughout the proverb. Food taken by fraud seems sweet at first, but afterward it is not. To end up with a mouth full of gravel (a mass of small particles; e.g., Job 20:14–15; Lam 3:16) implies by comparison that what has been taken by fraud will be worthless and useless and certainly in the way (like food turning into sand and dirt).

18  Plans
The noun form is plural, but the verb is singular, suggesting either an abstract plural or a collective plural is being used here.
are established by counsel,
The clause begins with vav (ו) on “with guidance.” But the clause has an imperative for its main verb. One could take the imperfect tense in the first colon as an imperfect of injunction, and then this clause would be also instructional. But the imperfect tense is a Niphal, and so it is better to take the first colon as the foundational clause and the second colon as the consequence (cf. NAB): If that is true, then you should do this.
make war
There have been attempts by various commentators to take “war” figuratively to mean life’s struggles, litigation, or evil inclinations. But there is no need and little justification for such interpretations. The proverb simply describes the necessity of taking counsel before going to war.
with guidance.
19  The one who goes about gossiping
The word describes a slanderer (NASB), a tale-bearer (KJV, ASV), or an informer. BDB 940 s.v. רָכִיל says the Hebrew expression “goers of slander” means slanderous persons. However, W. McKane observes that these people are not necessarily malicious – they just talk too much (Proverbs [OTL], 537).
reveals secrets;
therefore do not associate
The form is the Hitpael imperfect (of prohibition or instruction) from עָרַב (’arav). BDB 786-88 lists six roots with these radicals. The first means “to mix,” but only occurs in derivatives. BDB 786 lists this form under the second root, which means “to take on a pledge; to exchange.” The Hitpael is then defined as “to exchange pledges; to have fellowship with [or, share].” The proverb is warning people to have nothing to do with gossips.
with someone who is always opening his mouth.
The verb פֹּתֶה (poteh) is a homonym, related to I פָּתָה (patah, “to be naive; to be foolish”; HALOT 984-85 s.v. I פתה) or II פָּתָה (“to open [the lips]; to chatter”; HALOT 985 s.v. II פתה). So the phrase וּלְפֹתֶה שְׂפָתָיו may be understood either (1) as HALOT 985 s.v. II פתה suggests, “one opens his lips” = he is always talking/gossiping, or (2) as BDB suggests, “one who is foolish as to his lips” (he lacks wisdom in what he says; see BDB 834 s.v. פָּתָה 1, noted in HALOT 984 s.v. I פתה 1). The term “lips” is a metonymy of cause for what is said: gossip. If such a person is willing to talk about others, he will be willing to talk about you, so it is best to avoid him altogether.

20  The one who curses
The form is the Piel participle of קָלַל (qalal), which means “to be light”; in the Piel stem it means “to take lightly; to treat as worthless; to treat contemptuously; to curse.” Under the Mosaic law such treatment of parents brought a death penalty (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:9; Deut 27:16).
his father and his mother,
his lamp
“His lamp” is a figure known as hypocatastasis (an implied comparison) meaning “his life.” Cf. NLT “the lamp of your life”; TEV “your life will end like a lamp.”
For the lamp to be extinguished would mean death (e.g., 13:9) and possibly also the removal of posterity (R. N. Whybray, Proverbs [CBC], 115).
will be extinguished in the blackest
The Kethib, followed by the LXX, Syriac, and Latin, has בְּאִישׁוֹן (beishon), “in the pupil of the eye darkness,” the dark spot of the eye. But the Qere has בֶּאֱשׁוּן (beeshun), probably to be rendered “pitch” or “blackest,” although the form occurs nowhere else. The meaning with either reading is approximately the same – deep darkness, which adds vividly to the figure of the lamp being snuffed out. This individual’s destruction will be total and final.
21  An inheritance gained easily
The Kethib reads מְבֻחֶלֶת (mebukhelet), “gotten by greed” (based on a cognate Syriac verb, “to be greedy”); but the Qere is מְבֹהֶלֶת (mevohelet), “gotten hastily [or, quickly].” A large number of mss and the ancient versions read with the Qere (cf. KJV, ASV “gotten hastily”; NAB “gained hastily”; NIV “quickly gained”; NRSV “quickly acquired”).
If the inheritance is obtained quickly, it could mean prematurely (e.g., Luke 15:12) or cruelly (Prov 19:26). The inheritance is gained without labor or without preparation.
in the beginning
will not be blessed
The form is the Pual imperfect, “will not be blessed,” suggesting that divine justice is at work.
The Hebrew verb means “enriched, made fruitful, prospered.” Whatever the inheritance was, it will not reach its full potential or even remain permanent.
in the end.
Heb “in its end”; KJV, ASV “the end thereof.”

22  Do not say,
The verse is directly instructive; it begins with the negated jussive in the first colon, and follows with the imperative in the second. It warns that the righteous should not take vengeance on the wicked, for only God can do that.
“I will pay back
The form is the Piel cohortative of resolve – “I am determined to pay back.” The verb שָׁלֵם (shalem) means “to be complete; to be sound.” In this stem, however, it can mean “to make complete; to make good; to requite; to recompense” (KJV, ASV). The idea is “getting even” by paying back someone for the evil done.
To “wait” (קַוֵּה, qavveh) on the Lord requires faith in him, reliance on divine justice, and patience. It means that the wrongs done to a person will have to be endured for a time.
for the Lord, so that he may vindicate you.
After the imperative, the jussive is subordinated in a purpose or result clause: “wait for the Lord so that he may deliver you.” The verb יֹשַׁע (yosha’) means “to save (KJV, ASV, NASB); to deliver (NIV); to give victory”; in this context it means “deliver from the evil done to you,” and so “vindicate” is an appropriate connotation. Cf. NCV “he will make things right.”

23  The Lord abhors
Heb “an abomination of the Lord.” This expression features a subjective genitive: “the Lord abhors.”
differing weights,
and dishonest scales are wicked.
Heb “not good.” This is a figure known as tapeinosis – a deliberate understatement to emphasize a worst-case scenario: “it is wicked!” (e.g., 11:1; 20:10).

24  The steps of a person
Heb “the steps of a man”; but “man” is the noun גֶּבֶר (gever, in pause), indicating an important, powerful person. BDB 149-50 s.v. suggests it is used of men in their role of defending women and children; if that can be validated, then a translation of “man” would be appropriate here. But the line seems to have a wider, more general application. The “steps” represent (by implied comparison) the course of life (cf. NLT “the road we travel”).
are ordained by
Heb “from the Lord”; NRSV “ordered by the Lord”; NIV “directed by the Lord.”
To say that one’s steps are ordained by the Lord means that one’s course of actions, one’s whole life, is divinely prepared and sovereignly superintended (e.g., Gen 50:26; Prov 3:6). Ironically, man is not actually in control of his own steps.
the Lord
so how can anyone
The verse uses an independent nominative absolute to point up the contrast between the mortal and the immortal: “and man, how can he understand his way?” The verb in the sentence would then be classified as a potential imperfect; and the whole question rhetorical. It is affirming that humans cannot understand very much at all about their lives.
understand his own
Heb “his way.” The referent of the third masculine singular pronoun is unclear, so the word “own” was supplied in the translation to clarify that the referent is the human individual, not the Lord.
25  It is a snare
It would be a “snare” because it would lead people into financial difficulties; Leviticus 27 talks about foolish or rash vows.
for a person
Heb “a man.”
to rashly cry,
The verb is from לוּע (lu’) or לָעַע (laa’); it means “to talk wildly” (not to be confused with the homonym “to swallow”). It occurs here and in Job 6:3.
This refers to speaking rashly in dedicating something to the sanctuary by calling it “Holy.”
and only afterward to consider
Heb “reflect on.” The person is to consider the vows before making them, to ensure that they can be fulfilled. Too many people make their vow or promise without thinking, and then later worry about how they will fulfill their vows.
what he has vowed.
Heb “the vows” (so NASB); CEV “promises.”

26  A wise king separates out
Heb “winnows” (so NAB, NASB, NRSV). The sage draws on the process of winnowing to explain how the king uncovers and removes wickedness. The verb from which the participle מְזָרֶה (mezareh) is derived means “to separate; to winnow; to scatter”; the implied comparison means that the king will separate good people from bad people like wheat is separated from chaff. The image of winnowing is also used in divine judgment. The second line of the verse uses a detail of the process to make the point. Driving a wheel over the wheat represents the threshing process; the sharp iron wheels of the cart would easily serve the purpose (e.g., Isa 28:27–28).
the wicked;
he turns the threshing wheel over them.
The king has the wisdom/ability to destroy evil from his kingdom. See also D. W. Thomas, “Proverbs 20:26, ” JTS 15 (1964): 155-56.

27  The human spirit
The expression translated “the human spirit” is the Hebrew term נִשְׁמַת (nishmat), a feminine noun in construct. This is the inner spiritual part of human life that was breathed in at creation (Gen 2:7) and that constitutes humans as spiritual beings with moral, intellectual, and spiritual capacities.
is like
The comparative “like” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is implied by the metaphor; it is supplied for the sake of clarity.
the lamp
The “lamp” is the metaphor in the line; it signifies that the human spirit functions as a conscience, enabling people to know and please God, and directing them in choices that will be life-giving. E. Loewenstamm unnecessarily reads נִיר (nir, “to plow”) instead of נֵר (ner, “lamp”) to say that God plows and examines the soul (“Remarks on Proverbs 17:12 and 20:27, ” VT 37 [1967]: 233). The NIV supplies a verb (“searches”) from the second half of the verse, changing the emphasis somewhat.
of the Lord,
searching all his innermost parts.
Heb “all the chambers of the belly.” This means “the inner parts of the body” (BDB 293 s.v. חֶדֶר); cf. NASB “the innermost parts of his being.”

28  Loyal love and truth
The first line uses two Hebrew words, חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת (khesed veemet, “loyal love and truth”), to tell where security lies. The first word is the covenant term for “loyal love; loving-kindness; mercy”; and the second is “truth” in the sense of what is reliable and dependable. The two words often are joined together to form a hendiadys: “faithful love.” That a hendiadys is intended here is confirmed by the fact that the second line uses only the critical word חֶסֶד.
preserve a king,
and his throne is upheld by loyal love.
The emphasis is on the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:11–16; Ps 89:19–37). It is the Lord and his faithful love for his covenant that ultimately makes the empire secure. But the enjoyment of divine protection requires the king to show loyal love as well.

29  The glory
The Hebrew term תִּפְאֶרֶת (tiferet) means “beauty; glory”; in a context like this it means “honor” in the sense of glorying or boasting (BDB 802 s.v. 3.b).
of young men is their strength,
and the splendor
The Hebrew term הֲדַר (hadar), the noun in construct, means “splendor; honor; ornament.” The latter sense is used here, since grey hair is like a crown on the head.
of old men is gray hair.
“Grey hair” is a metonymy of adjunct; it represents everything valuable about old age – dignity, wisdom, honor, experience, as well as worry and suffering of life. At the very least, since they survived, they must know something. At the most, they were the sages and elders of the people.

30  Beatings and wounds cleanse away
The verb מָרַק (maraq) means “to polish; to scour”; in the Hiphil it means “to cleanse away,” but it is only attested here, and that in the Kethib reading of תַּמְרִיק (tamriq). The Qere has תַּמְרוּק (tamruq, “are a means of cleansing”). The LXX has “blows and contusions fall on evil men, and stripes penetrate their inner beings”; the Latin has “the bruise of a wound cleanses away evil things.” C. H. Toy suggests emending the text to read “stripes cleanse the body, and blows the inward parts” or “cosmetics purify the body, and blows the soul” (Proverbs [ICC], 397). Cf. CEV “can knock all of the evil out of you.”
and floggings cleanse
The term “cleanse” does not appear in this line but is supplied in the translation in the light of the parallelism.
the innermost being.
Physical punishment may prove spiritually valuable. Other proverbs say that some people will never learn from this kind of punishment, but in general this may be the only thing that works for some cases.

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