Chapter 20: Commentary

Chapter 20 is a continuation of the second collection of Proverbs (10:1-24:34) attributed to Solomon. It consists only of single verse wise sayings of typical Hebrew poetry, somewhat similar to the wise sayings with which we grew up. There does not appear to be any real theme in the verses of this chapter.

20:1 Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.

     "Wine" has the power to mock a man's life and turn him upside down. In parallel, "beer" doesn't help any, either - just leads to lots of fights. Both drinks were consumed in the Bible world.
      So when wine mocked or beer brawled in a guy's life, it really wasn't much of an accident on his part. He allowed the drinks to deceive him and that didn't make him very smart (see also 23:29-35).
      We often talk in class about how we got deceived by a substance and wound up being shot, stabbed, beat up, arrested, lost a job or destroyed a good relationship. That's insanity and once we understand it, we can start making some changes. We don't have to live that way anymore!

20:3 It is to a man's honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel.

     The focus of this verse is strife and quarreling. Some (fools) choose to jump right in and join the fray, while others consciously decide to avoid the conflict.
      This proverb states a common theme in the Bible – generally the best response to conflict is to avoid it. Getting involved clouds our good judgment and we can wind up hurting others or getting hurt ourselves!
      On the other hand, it is standard operating procedure for a fool to start or perpetuate conflict – even to join someone else's quarrel. Consequently, a fool finds himself in constant turmoil and continues to perpetuate his own foolishness.
      Sadly, he seldom does this in a vacuum – a fool's involvement in conflict will inevitably bring difficulty into the lives of others, as well. So don't be a fool, and its best not to hang out with one, either.

20:4 Sluggards do not plow in season; so at harvest time they look but find nothing.

     "Sluggards" are regular characters in Proverbs. They are folks (masculine and feminine!) who can't be counted on to do the most basic – but essential – things in order to take care of themselves or their families.
      To "not plow in season" (late fall when the "former rains" soften the soil) will be a disastrous choice within just a few months. "At harvest time they look but find nothing" is the terrible consequence that next spring when there will be nothing to harvest - and no other source of groceries available! This is an awful situation to find myself, especially when I am also responsible for others. In the Biblical world, sluggards (and everyone else in the community) knew what needed to be done – they just couldn't make themselves do it. While life always shows up with its challenges, the sluggards' only really problem is their unwillingness to focus on and work at their main responsibilities in life.
      While addicts and alcoholics often play the part of this sluggard, they are not alone. Many of us stay busy doing lots of things – even good things. Yet, if we don't handle priorities appropriately, our careers, relationships and spirituality will slip away.
      For so many of us, our problem is not that we don't know what to do - but that we simply don't do what we do know to do! So let's get with the program, one "season" at a time!

20:5 The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.

     While deep waters may sound ominous to us, in the Proverbs it was not necessarily negative. Water was a valuable resource and deep waters meant much water and probably even food to eat.
      So this reference comparing deep waters to the purposes of a man's heart may not be a bad thing (see also 18:4 "the words of a man's mouth are deep waters"). "Purposes" is the standard Hebrew word for "counsel," which could be good or bad. I think the message of this verse is that there is depth of insights within a man's, any man's, mind. Not that these are automatically proper insights, but each man has some mental nuggets rolling around up there.
      The second part of the verse talks about the man of understanding. A practical and working use of "understanding" is "realization how right choices lead to a meaningful life." This is the ability to see the cause-and-effect relationship between our good decisions and the benefits of a meaningful life. So, this verse indicates that such a man is able to draw insightful nuggets from the minds of other men and can appreciate and benefit from them in his own life, as well as pass it along to others.
      Such is Helping Up Mission. Many of the spiritual truths I share today, I received previously from a guy in going through our program. I am not talking about insights about addiction – although almost everything I know about that I have learned here – but I am talking about insights in Biblical truth. I have an undergraduate and two graduate degrees in Biblically-related fields, 20 years of pastoral ministry, over 15 years of experience in Biblical archaeology and over a decade as Spiritual Life Director at Helping Up Mission. But I regularly get new Biblical and spiritual insights from alcoholics and drug addicts in class – sometimes from guys who could not even pass a urinalysis yet! It's a beautiful thing and it might even make me the man of understanding at the end of this verse!

20:6 Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find?

     This proverb says a couple of true things about us all. First, "many claim to have unfailing love." "Unfailing love" comes from one of the strongest words of loyalty, love and commitment in the Old Testament. This love would be as good as it could possibly get!
      The verse also asks the question, "a faithful person who can find?" Another powerful Old Testament word, it denotes truth and honesty - it's the root for our English word "amen," meaning "truly," "verily" or "so be it!"
      I believe the correct answer to this question should be - no one can find a faithful person. The truth is that we all fall short in our own ability and power!
      But the message of this verse is not to disparage us or make us feel bad. On the contrary, it's designed to liberate and empower us!
      I will never measure up appropriately to either "unfailing love" or "a faithful person" in my own power - and God doesn't expect me to be able to do so! In truth, the whole idea is to get me to just be honest about the fact that I can't.
      At that point, I am ready and able to tap into the supernatural empowerment that comes from Him. God can create this "unfailing love" and "faithful person" in me.
      Our verse suggests the very reason why Jesus came to earth! I can have a supernatural spiritual walk by His empowerment, if I'm just willing to admit I can't do it in my own strength and accept that He can and will do it for me.

20:7 The righteous man leads a blameless life; blessed are his children after him.

     A man of good character (righteous) will do good things (lead a blameless life). That man will leave a heritage and legacy that sets his children up for blessings. Many of these blessings will come while he is still alive and active in their lives as their father.
      But the blessings he brings can also continue in his children's lives long after he is gone. Having observed his attitudes and actions, they will know how to live and will know the benefits of such a lifestyle. Of course, this verse is true about mommas, too!

20:9 Who can say, "I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin"?

     The question of this proverb is a rhetorical one which really needs no answer. Yet, to be perfectly clear...the answer is a resounding "no one!"
      Repeatedly the Bible points out that none of us "have kept my heart pure" or that we could possibly claim "I am clean and without sin." Not even your momma!
      Seeing myself as I really am is a starting point for eternal salvation, a daily spiritual walk and recovery from any chemical addiction or compulsive behavior.
      While there are eternal and immense spiritual benefits for getting this honest, there's another practical every day benefit for seeing myself as I really am. Everyone else in the room already knows it's true about me...they've just been waiting for me to admit it!
      It's particularly true with the American public today. We're so used to being lied to - by politicians, athletes, religious leaders, the media - that we'll almost fall in love with anyone who just tells us the truth about themselves!
      So, the best street cred any of us can ever have is to just be honest about ourselves and our decisions with the appropriate people. Obviously we don't say everything to everyone, but there should be a willingness on our part to just tell the truth about what's going on.
      I first heard this spiritual principle years ago - confess private sins privately, personal sins personally and public sins publicly.
      Such honesty is liberating and empowering. It also gains us the respect of others.

20:10 Differing weights and differing measures— the Lord detests them both.

     This verse discusses a very familiar piece of equipment in ancient commerce - the balance scale. It was typically constructed with two pans attached to an overhead beam which was, itself, fixed on a vertical center post. Product was typically weighed in one pan with the "official" weight-stone in the other.
      There are a number of verses in Proverbs which discuss dishonest weights or scales (11:1; 16:11; 20:23). Our verse notes "differing weights" (literally "stone and stone") and "differing measures" (literally "epah and epah").
      The fact that they're doubled or compared, seems to suggest a problem. That "the LORD detests them both" makes it clear that there's a serious problem!
      While those two "stones" should have been identical, some ancient merchants had a buying weight-stone (heavier) and a selling weight-stone (lighter) - and the same with the "epah" measure.
      Admittedly, it is God who we ultimately sin against. But the message here is about dishonest dealings with each other - and God hates it when we do that!

20:11 Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right.

     Our actions betray who we really are. We can say all we want to say but, at the end of the day, the reality of who we are always comes out in our "actions." As that modern wise saying goes, "I can't hear what you are saying because your actions speak louder than your words." This is true of anyone, "even a child." That almost makes this verse a warning – to anyone who is trying to act like something they are not. We will all eventually be known by our "conduct," which ultimately reflects our attitudes, what we really think.
      Yet, "pure and right" activity is not enough. In the Bible, it is always, "pure and right" in the heart first. That is the only way we will be able to appropriately live it out in our "actions" and "conduct."
      The phrase on the street these days is "keeping it 100!" That would be when my actions match my attitudes. Now that's something to be known for!

20:12 Ears that hear and eyes that see— the LORD has made them both.

     "Ears that hear and eyes that see" are aspects of our being and everyday life that we tend to take for granted – until we can't do either! This proverb reminds us to appreciate both as coming from "the LORD."
      It is a healthy activity to stop and recognize all the abilities and opportunities we have in life that come from God. He gave each to us – at least for today – so use it, enjoy it, share it with others and appreciate the privilege.
      When Moses was complaining to God about his inability to speak well, the LORD responded by saying, "Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?" (Ex 4:11). The reality is that God has the power and does make both the deaf, mute, seeing and blind. But, as with Moses and his speech, God uses these exact situations in each person's life to teach important life lessons.
      After all, as Job once said, "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised" (Job 1:21). So much of what we tend to take for granted is a gift from God and we should make the most of it one day at a time.

20:13 Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare.

     A common theme in Proverbs, this verse is about laziness. It's message is simple - "get up and go to work!"
      "Love sleep...grow poor" is a concept almost all of us understand. While everyone can appreciate a good sleep, if we're ever going to do anything or have anything, we're just going to have to wake up and do something.
      "Stay awake and you will have food to spare" is also something we understand. But we know "food to spare" isn't automatically our birthright and it won't magically appear.
      So, now that we're awake, we're supposed to do something constructive - something that will produce. We may or may not be entrepreneurs, but we can all work hard and steady.
      This is not a verse about getting rich or being important. But it is about doing the right things and ending up okay.
      It's a wise saying because it's a basic truth about life. And, then, beyond all that...there is God - who loves us and watches our back!

20:14 "It's no good, it's no good!" says the buyer; then off he goes and boasts about his purchase.

     Standing alone as it does, this verse has no context and seems out of place. It quotes a consumer verbalizing his disagreement with the price or quality of a product. But he apparently consummates the deal and then goes off boasting about his purchase.
      The meaning of this verse is pretty clear. The customer speaks and acts one way in his dealings with the businessman, but he communicates the exact opposite with others afterwards. While some would consider this just good business, I think the message of the verse indicates that this is inappropriate behavior for someone in touch with God. Jesus called this guy a hypocrite.

20:15 Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.

     Three items of value are mentioned in this verse – "gold," "rubies" and a "rare jewel." The first two are well-known natural mineral (as opposed to vegetable or animal) substances found within the earth's crust. They are just noted for what they are – out there, accessible and valuable.
      The third valuable item is not mentioned as a specific substance, but more as a finished product, potentially created from both of the first two or other valuable mineral substances. It is this item that is compared with "lips that speak knowledge."
      The verse suggests that there are lots of good, even valuable, things in life that people can appreciate. But a unique and "rare" one is "lips that speak knowledge." To be such a person in the world makes us "a rare jewel."
      Admittedly, being the mouthy guy I am, I struggle with being that person. As the modern wise saying goes – "even a blind hog stumbles over an acorn now and then" – so I can offer some valuable knowledge or insight. It is just that people have to endure all the other dumb stuff I say to get to it!

20:18 Make plans by seeking advice; if you wage war, obtain guidance.

     This is wisdom fit for a king. When we make plans, we need to get good advice. None of us are smart enough to figure it all out ourselves, not even kings. It is particularly true if we are planning to wage war.
      In antiquity, like in modernity, kings (and presidents) were not generally the smartest men in the room. Apparently, most ancient kings didn't even know how to read or write. They may or may not have even been good soldiers or generals, but they all needed good advice. So do we.

20:29 The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old.

     This verse notes the key attribute ("the glory") of a young man – his physical "strength" – as well as the key attribute ("the splendor") of the old man – his "gray hair." In the ancient world, a young man would have to live in the pecking order of the community where the old guys were respected and got to make most of the decisions.
      But the young man could enthusiastically bring his physical strength and energy to the table and would be essential in fulfilling the ideas and plans of the old man. The old guy, on the other hand, was a step slower and didn't quite have the strength or stamina he used to have.
      But he did have the life experiences and respect of others to be able to provide leadership. His gray hair reflected his years of experience and the wisdom that hopefully came with it (see 16:31). Society needs both these guys – and their female counterparts.
      These days I've got the old guy thing going on. Just wish there was a good verse about wise old bald guys!