Chapter 17: Commentary

Chapter 17 is a continuation of the second collection of Proverbs (10:1-24:34) attributed to Solomon. It consists of single verse wise sayings of typical Hebrew poetry, somewhat similar to the wise sayings with which we grew up. "Fools" and parent/child relationships are reoccurring themes in this chapter.

17:1 Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.

     This is another of those "better…than" verses in Proverbs. To the ancients, a "house full of feasting" probably sounded like a pretty good place to be - and maybe to many of us, as well. Yet, it is frequently not as much fun as one might think.
      Places ("house") and things ("full of feasting") where there will be lots of people (with whom there may well be a good bit of "strife") are not automatically the best times. We all have experience with how "strife" (drama!) can be a real downer in a "house full of feasting." Most of us also know what it is to be in a big crowd and yet feel so very much alone.
      So parties might not be as great an event as we think they will be. Instead, our verse suggests something even "better" - learning to appreciate the little things in life (a "dry crust") along with some "peace and quiet" is pretty special, too.
      Such a situation may well lead us to an attitude of gratitude for every piece of dry crust and every moment of peace and quiet we get. Gratitude vs. drama, it's our call every single day, and this verse tells us how we can get there.

17:2 A prudent servant will rule over a disgraceful son and will share the inheritance as one of the family.

     This verse is about two different guys: "a prudent servant" and "a disgraceful son." While not necessarily in an enviable situation, the servant is called "prudent." It suggests the smarts to learn, grow and change.
      The son, on the other hand, is and does "disgraceful" things. From his position of privilege - sons stood to inherit everything their father owned - he could experience and accomplish so much.
      Sadly, from his advantages in life, this son didn't seem to learn anything. It seems he probably caused plenty of difficulties for everyone.
      The result of our wise saying is that this servant winds up with the responsibility to "rule over" the disgraceful son. He also ends up with an "inheritance as one of the family"
      The son, on the other hand, does not seem to lose his sonship inheritance, but would apparently have to share part of it with the servant. Even worse, he finds himself ruled over by this prudent servant.
      It doesn't do us much good in life to see ourselves as victims. This servant didn't see himself that way and made the most of his opportunities.
      The son's change of situation was the result of his own disgraceful choices - so he wasn't a victim. But he did have to live with the consequences of those choices.
      It's an age-old story...people going in different directions - based on their own choices. We all fit somewhere in this proverb and we can each chose to do something about it, if we want to!

17:3 The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart.

     These well-known metals had intrinsic value in the ancient world. But their value was enhanced by the refining process ("the crucible" and "the furnace"). This process involved heating both metals to high temperatures in order to change their characteristics and extract impurities.
      Just like those metals became even more useful and of greater valuable by their refining, the LORD does the same type of purifying process with ("tests") our hearts. All three processes are complicated and there is always a lot of heat. But the end product of all three is something beautiful and special.
      The LORD's refining process will make our hearts better. We can either accept it or fight it – and sometimes that is the hardest part of the process!

17:4 A wicked person listens to deceitful lips; a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.

     Two characters are mentioned in this proverb - "a wicked person" and "a liar." But the real focus here is on words.
      These are not good people, so it isn't surprising they don't do good things here. In both cases, each chooses to "listen to deceitful lips" and "pay attention to a destructive tongue."
      "Deceitful lips" and "destructive tongue" will do none of us any good. They don't lead to truth or anything helpful.
      These are words purposely designed for harm and evil. So, it's not a surprise to know that "a wicked person" and "a liar" are the ones who will "listen" or "pay attention" to such messages.
      Our wise saying points out the type of folks who are willing to hear words like this - the wicked and liars. And, if I'm listening with them, that puts me in pretty bad company!

17:5 Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker; whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.

     While most Proverbs focus on characters, this one focuses on attitudes. It offers two different wise sayings that still have a common theme - things none of us should do!
      "Whoever mocks the poor" is to speak derisively of those less fortunate. That is wrong on so many levels - but this wise saying points out, when we act this way, we "show contempt for their Maker."
      To disrespect the poor is to disrespect God! Never a good way to go!
      To "gloat over a disaster" in someone else's life is also not cool! This verse notes that such an attitude will also cost us - we'll "not go unpunished."
      So two questions:
      First, who is going to do the punishing in the second clause? The same One who is the Maker in the first clause - God doesn't like it when we think or act this way!
      Second, in an honest moment, who would say they've never done any of this? Not me!
      So to keep from suffering any of these consequences in our own lives, we must simply be honest about our inappropriate attitudes and actions - face them, deal with them and then...let it go!

17:6 Children's children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.

     This verse discusses family in the Biblical world--children, their parents and their grandparents. It says grandchildren make grandparents feel very special. The purpose of a crown was always to make someone look special. Also, in a Biblical family, children find pride in who their parents are and what they do.
      When family life is as it should be, there is great love and appreciation for each other--generation to generation. We understand this verse at HUM. In fact, after getting clean and starting to think clearly again, one of the first things a guy starts to feel and wants to begin addressing is his relationship to loved ones. Top of the list are his children, parents, grandparents and siblings.
      And, while we must work recovery for our own good, our loved ones are a powerful additional motivation to "get 'er done!" One day at a time.

17:8 A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds.

     Bible scholars have struggled with the "charm" here, often translated "bribe" (see also 19:6). Its use in the Old Testament tends to be negative, but not always.
      While a bit confusing, I think there is a modern Middle and Far Eastern practice that can help us appreciate the concept. It's the well-known and accepted practice of baksheesh.
      Of Persian origin, the concept probably spread east and west with Moslem expansion to those regions. Think of baksheesh as a tip, tax, fee or just a charitable gift – sometimes even all at the same time!
      This verse explicitly states that baksheesh ("bribe") is "a charm to the one who gives it." I like the translation "charm" for the literal Hebrew phrase "stone of grace." Most baksheesh given today is a very small amount of money in response to a service provided.
      But currency as we know it did not exist in Solomon's day. So whatever their "stone of grace"/"charm" was, it probably wasn't large or expensive. But it did represent something of value that could be appreciated by the recipient.
      The second part of the verse does not say this baksheesh will make the giver rich, famous, important or powerful! But it will open a door or provide a desired service at the moment ("he succeeds").
      I've baksheeshed in the Middle East for everything from toilet paper in the restroom, to a tour of an ancient Egyptian tomb, to permission to shoot a photograph!
      But many of us have learned to basksheesh our way through life, as well - without actually handing out anything. A ready smile, a good word at the right time or some special attention to someone who appreciated it was all that was needed for us to "succeed" with something. I suggest we just keep the baksheesh coming!

17:12 Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool in his folly.

     A "she-bear bereaved" (see also 18:14; 28:15; 30:21) is the best translation of this passage and this bereavement is best understood as relating being robbed of her bear cubs. While the average bear might not be expected to be a big problem, running into this bear robbed of her cubs would be a very serious situation.
      But this verse says running into her is still not as precarious as it would be running into a fool doing stupid stuff. None would have to tell us twice to avoid that bear. Unfortunately, many of us somehow think it is okay to hang out with that fool because it won't be that bad.
      Bad move. You can't talk any more sense into the fool than you can with the bear. Get away or the carnage will be even worse than running into that bear.

17:17 A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

     The truth in this verse we previously stated in 27:10 – the value and importance of family and a good friend. A friend chooses to have a relation with us, so it is not a big surprise that you could count on them to love us and stand by us at all times.
      On the other hand, we don't generally choose our families, but they also generally have an intrinsic commitment to us, because we are family. This verse reminds us that we should normally be able to count on family to stand with us. Although, admittedly, sometimes their commitments calls for tough love in the midst of difficult times.

17:18 A man lacking in judgment strikes hands in pledge and puts up security for his neighbor.

     Striking hands in pledge and putting up security for a neighbor is the modern concept of co-signing a loan for someone else. In this case, the other person is my "neighbor," the same word also being translated "friend." This verse says that it is not a smart decision to co-sign a loan for a friend (see also a fuller discussion of the subject in 6:1-5).
      That may sound harsh, but co-signing for people we know can be quite complicated. If I co-sign for you and you have trouble keeping up with your part, I can really lose out and that would probably not be so good for our friendship. Either I get really upset with you or you start avoiding me – and before we realize it, there goes our friendship.
      Another problem is that God may not have wanted you to have that yet, but I got in the way of God's plan for you. Actually, if I really think God wants you to have something, I should just give it to you and not put our friendship in danger by you feeling the pressure to keep up your end of the deal. It is just not generally a good idea to co-sign for a friend.

17:20 One whose heart is corrupt does not prosper; one whose tongue is perverse falls into trouble.

     Another verse of Hebrew poetry, this one doesn't contrast characters like most wise sayings. Here, it's basically a comparison of two bad people.
      "One whose heart is corrupt" is a man or woman whose attitude is morally crooked or twisted. This person doesn't think right or make appropriate decisions.
      "One whose tongue is perverse" is someone with an "overturned" tongue. The phrase suggests that what they say is the underside or opposite of the truth. We just can't trust what they tell us.
      Admittedly, folks sometimes seem to get away with their crooked decisions and upside down words. But the Bible is clear - it will eventually catch up with them. Things may go okay for a while but, in the end, they will "not prosper" and will "fall into trouble."
      Once again, God isn't mentioned in this verse. And while I know He's at work in all our lives, I'm not actually certain God needs to do any direct intervention with what's happening here.
      Almost everyone understands the idea that "what goes around, comes around." We actually believe that, in the end, "we reap what we sow" and we're pretty sure that our bad decisions and words will come back on us.
      And then, beyond all that, there's still God...

17:21 To have a fool for a son brings grief; there is no joy for the father of a fool.

     This verse is as much about relationships as it is about a fool. A fool is not someone who is mentally deficient, it is someone who thinks they have all the answers and, consequently, makes bad decisions. It is painful to love and care about someone who operates this way. Men at Helping Up Mission often note how they thought they were only hurting themselves as they lived in their addictions. Yet the reality was "no joy" and only "grief" to their loved ones.
      Today they understand this. Unfortunately, many of them have children of their own now and have to experience this verse with their own children. One of the greatest motivations to do the next right thing – for many of us – is those that we love.
      The 17th century English clergyman John Donne wrote a poem that I had to learn a hundred years ago(!) in high school. Here is it.

17:28 Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

     This proverb is a good one for mouthy guys like me. It speaks of the "fool" – in Proverbs the person who thinks they have all the answers and know what is best. Here even the fool "is thought wise" and "discerning" if he just "keeps silent" and "holds his tongue."
      I am a mouthy guy. As a 12-year high school track coach and now 14 years working with adult addicts and alcoholics, I know how to talk trash with other guys (and gals)! While I just don't get vulgar or inappropriate, I talk too much and eventually say something stupid. Then I have to apologize – sometimes publically. It's one of my liabilities.
      So, you can understand that I have admired people who just quietly go through their day without announcing everything they know. I have also met guys who really weren't that smart, but they didn't say stupid stuff and they just appeared to have some real wisdom.
      God bless the guys who can just stay quiet and appear to be wise. God help the guys who just can't shut up and need to do better. This ancient proverb reminds me of a modern one I heard growing up – "it is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!"