Chapter 21: Beneath the Surface

21:1 The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.

      This verse reminds me of the parable Jesus told about the wise and foolish builders (Mt 7). The wise man built his house with bedrock as his foundation. The foolish man built his house on the sand.
      I want to offer the ancients' perspective on this parable. They would all have known about building with bedrock as their foundation. I can testify to that, having excavated numerous houses and city walls build directly on bedrock in the Judean hill country of ancient Israel.
      The "sand' in Jesus' parable should be understood as the alluvial plain of a dry river bed common in the Holy Land. Hard rain is a regular phenomenon during only 4 months of the year in this region – November through February. During this period, rain runoff from the mountains fills the valleys and frequently creates flash floods. Otherwise these river beds are bone dry the rest of the year.
      Since the fast-moving water tends to level everything in its path, it is easy to understand the flat, open and dry flood plain it leaves the other 8 months of the year. While that would look like a good place to get a building up quick, the ancients knew better. I am certain that, when Jesus spoke this parable, people chuckled. Everyone knew you would never build in a flood plain or you would get exactly what Jesus described in the parable. The guy who did that was a moron (the actual Greek word Jesus used was moros, the root or our English moron!). It is this power of flowing water that created the analogy of our verse.

21:3 To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.

      It is instructive to realize that the Book of Proverbs does not focus on religious activity. Neither the terms "Temple" or "altar" are mentioned at all, while "sacrifice" is mentioned only 3 times (15:8; 21:3, 27) and "fellowship (or 'peace') offering" just once (7:14).
      But it is not that Proverbs is not anti-spiritual. Instead the book focuses on the everyday character and moral activity that demonstrate spirituality. After all, just going through the motion of doing a sacrifice is not spiritual and has no impact on our relationship with God.

21:5 The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.

      "Flies by the seat of his pants" is an expression that I grew up hearing in the 1950's. It comes from the early years of aviation and my dad, who was a World War II pilot, would use the phrase. Actually, it's the American version of the bit more proper English phrase, "flies by the seat of his trousers."
      In those days, the expression referred to pilots who flew planes based on their own initiative and perceptions without flight plans or instruments. It was popularized with the widely publicized 1938 transatlantic flight of Douglas Corrigan from New York to Dublin, Ireland.
      Corrigan had submitted a transatlantic flight plan and had it rejected – apparently because his plane didn't meet accepted standards. So he filed a plan to fly west from New York to California, instead. He took off and heading east! Upon landing in Ireland 29 hours later, he claimed his compass failed. Consequently, he became known as "Wrong Way Corrigan," a name I think he was probably pretty proud to have. The whole thing actually landed him in the movies, too. He stared as himself in the 1939 movie, The Flying Irishman).

21:9 Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.

      Ancient Israelite houses were typically built with stone foundations and mudbrick superstructures. Without basements (except an occasional cave in bedrock beneath the house), construction techniques and materials suggest many of these houses had a second story covering at least part of the ground floor.
      Either way, these ancient houses had flat roofs which were regularly utilized as part of the living space in the home (see also Dt 22:8; Jo 2:8; 1 Sa 9:25; 2 Sa 11:2). With minimal rain and virtually no snow, pitched roofs were unnecessary and inefficient for their lifestyles. In fact, it would be reasonable to think that there was even a small grass-style hut in the corner of many roofs. I suppose the idea relates to the modern proverb about "…being in the doghouse" (see "Living Like a Judge" Bible and Spade 26.4 2013: 94-97).