Chapter 21: Commentary

     Chapter 21 is a continuation of the second collection of Proverbs (10:1-24:34) attributed to Solomon. It consists of mainly single verse wise saying 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.


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

     The ancients, like us today, were in awe of the power of flowing water. Flash floods have always been common during the rainy season in Israel. I have a friend whose sister died in such a flood there while guiding a group through a desert region.
      The watercourse of this verse can create its own "path" where there was none and carry things to places they would not normally be found. God's power and ability to direct things is compared to that flowing water in the verse.
      A king in Proverbs was the leader of a country and we would relate it to the President of the United States today. So, the verse suggests that whatever our government leaders do, regardless of their own faith, we can be confident that our God is still directing their activities.
      But the principle also applies to any leader, boss or supervisor in our lives today. Whatever they do or don't do is also in God's hands. He has the power and will, when necessary, change and redirect what the boss does. His heart is in the hands of the LORD -- and so is my life – so I need to just trust Him.

21:2 All a man's ways seem right to him, but the LORD weighs the heart.

     What a wonderful insight about us – I think everything I do is right! Really, if I thought I wasn't right, I would change. So I either believe I am doing the right thing, or I have the ability to just delude myself and justify my actions. But God looks right past my actions ("ways") and see my "heart" (my motives).
      While others may be impressed with my ways, and/or I may be very adept at justifying my actions, God actually knows what I really think and why I really do what I do. He will help me when I need help and call me on my stuff when I need that, too!
      If I can just remember that this is how things really are – and then live every day that way – life would be pretty good, and I will get much better at thinking and doing right things.

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

     The preceding verse (21:2) challenged my actions ("ways") as opposed to my motives ("the heart"), because God knows and judges my heart. This verse points out that my actions ("do what is right and just") counts more to the LORD than doing religious "sacrifices."
      "Sacrifice" in the Bible does not mean doing without something or giving something up. While there is an element of that, it actually refers to the religious act of bringing an offering to God at the temple and having it consumed on the altar.
      This verse says it is "more acceptable to the LORD" that we live right every day than do religious stuff in His name. This is, in fact, a rather common theme in the Old Testament - even though sacrifices are still a priority (see 1 Sam 15:22-23; Prov 15:8; Isa 1:11; Hos 6:6; Micah 6:6-8).
      But you say, "I thought God wanted us to go to church, give money, sing in the choir and teach Sunday School." He does! Yet, He wants us doing the right things every day - for other people and in His name. That's what gives power to all our church work!
      Sadly, I've known men who would rather usher in church every time the doors are open than be a caring husband and father at home. God is not saying it isn't good to serve at church, but He is saying what is "acceptable to the LORD" is our daily right choices. That's what Matthew 5:23-24 and I John 4:20 are all about - our dealings with others (horizontal relationships) are priorities in our daily dealings with Him (vertical relationship)!

21:4 Haughty eyes and a proud heart— the unplowed field of the wicked—produce sin.

     Three things in this wise saying "produce sin." They're not things we want to be doing.
      While "haughty eyes and a proud heart" may represent a physical act, above all else, they represent inappropriate attitudes.
      "High eyes" and "broad heart" don't really sound that bad - maybe even seem to be good. "High eyes" might suggest something positive - seeing and thinking with vision.
      "Broad heart" might suggest a great love and compassion. But this verse is clear that these attitudes "produce sin" - and that's not good!
      So we should understand "haughty eyes and a proud heart" as arrogant, self-serving attitudes - the exact opposite of what we might be thinking.
      Finally, there is "the unplowed field of the wicked." I admit to struggling with this translation because the Hebrew phrase "unplowed field" is also translated as "light" or "lamp."
      But keeping it practical, the best I can do here is to recognize that its something "the wicked" are doing. Don't be wicked and we don't have to worry about it...be wicked and whatever we do, won't be good!
      So...to summarize, self-serving thoughts and actions are bad. And so is whatever it is that the wicked are doing or have!

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

     This verse compares "the plans of the diligent" to "haste." One leads "to profit" while the other leads "to poverty."
      It is really no surprise to anyone that "the plans of the diligent" - which would include both diligence in the planning process and in the execution of that plan - lead to profit. At the same time, "haste" and the tyranny of the urgent that frequently accompanies it, regularly leads to poverty.
      While the "profit" and "poverty" of this verse can be taken as spiritual in nature, I don't doubt that this ancient wise saying was referring to actual wealth. Although few of us would dispute the verse, many would admit it is difficult to actually live this way. Those of us who have a tendency to "fly by the seat of our pants" (to quote a 20th century wise saying) need to grasp and practice on a more regular basis the truth of this wise saying.

21:6 A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare.

     This wise saying offers a very strong warning to any and all who are dishonest in their dealings with others. While God isn't mentioned, I'd like to suggest that He's all over this one!
      "A fortune made by a lying tongue" is the issue here. It should be noted that it's not having a fortune that is the problem, but a fortune gained by "lying" to others that is.
      This verse should be understood in light of the oft-mentioned modern saying, "money is the root of all evil." Our modern statement is actually a misquote of 1 Timothy 6:10, which really says "the love of money is the root of all evil."
      The problem in our Proverb is not the getting of a "fortune," but getting it "by a lying tongue." And the threat - even sacred promise from God - here is that such a fortune will dissipate as quickly as "a fleeting vapor" and can be as dangerous to the one who has it as a "deadly trap."
      Having things - nice things, even a lot of nice things - is not a problem with God. But acquiring them dishonestly at the expense of others is.
      And such acquisitions will eventually be painful to us. In the end, they will wind up costing us more than any of us will want to pay!

21:7 The violence of the wicked will drag them away, for they refuse to do what is right.

     This verse is about "the wicked." They are wicked because of what's on the inside – their heart attitude. It is an attitude where "they refuse" to make good choices. Consequently, they don't "do what is right."
      Because of this attitude, the verse speaks of the wicked's actions – both omission (they don't "do what is right") and commission (they do "violence"). Unfortunately, the attitudes which lead to these actions will ultimately do them in!

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

     Living with a difficult wife (19:13; 21:19; 25:24) is a constant theme in Proverbs – because the book is guy talk, father to son! But the opposite could also be said and would be just as true. Women can say the same thing about us men.
      As we read through Proverbs in class here at HUM, guys love to reference one of these "difficult wife" verses and we all have fun with it. But then I like to ask the question – how did a guy ever marry a women as nasty as she is described? Do you suppose he said, "Man, is she ever mean. I think I'll marry her!"
      It is possible that he really didn't know her very well or that she deliberately hid her negative nasty ways from him. I'm sure that happens.
      But, based on all I know about us guys, I bet she wasn't this difficult woman when we married her. So how did she get that way?
      Inevitably, one guy in the room will then say, "she got that way by being married to me!" I think that is probably true. She may be pretty nasty today, but that happened over the years she spent living with us.
      Admittedly, she didn't have to stoop to our level, but she often do. So, at that point it might be better to do as this proverb says, and stay out of her way!
      Yet, the best thing for me to do is work on myself and make some personal changes. And just like we affected her so negatively in the past, we can now begin to make a positive impact on her today.

21:12 The Righteous One takes note of the house of the wicked and brings the wicked to ruin.

     This wise saying focuses of "the wicked" - both their situation (their "house") and their end ("to ruin").
      The other character is "the Righteous One." In capital letters, it's understood as a reference to God.
      Here, the "Righteous One takes note of the house of the wicked." God knows where we all live and what's going on in our lives - the good and bad!
      If we're hurting, He knows. If we are hurting others, He knows that, too. Such is the situation of the wicked.
      The way this verse is constructed, it isn't clear whether God "brings the wicked to ruin" or it's their own choices which bring them down. Both are possible but, either way, they're going down!
      While sometimes the wicked seem to get away with some pretty bad things, this verse is clear...God knows where they live - even where they sleep! But, in the end, their choices will be the reason for their undoing.
      Although an appropriate end for the wicked, it doesn't have to be that way. They can change. Helping Up Mission's got a campus full of just such guys!

21:13 If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.

     In this verse, "if a man shuts his ears" and doesn't listen to those who need help ("the poor"), it will be a reason why his own "cry out" will "not be answered." While it may be others that won't listen to this man, is seems most likely to me that is it God who won't be answering him.
      Consequently, I think this verse is a reminder of a Biblical truth that goes back to the 10 Commandments – the connection between our vertical relationship (me with God) and our horizontal relationships (me with others). In this case, we are reminded that our unwillingness to listen to the poor will affect our ability to be heard by God.
      In fact the Bible also says that both love (1 Jn 4:20) and forgiveness from the consequences of our daily sins (Mt 6:14-15) are related to our willingness to love and forgive others. If I am really in a right relationship with God, I will also be in right relationships with other people.
      Throughout Proverbs, the "poor" are important people in the world to whom we simply must pay attention. God will honor our willingness to help them.
      I have to say that my sensitivity to the poor has not always been so good. Coming to Helping Up Mission and reading the Proverbs has helped me gain a better perspective. It has also given me the opportunity to see the wonderful examples of Christian love that so many demonstrate here on a daily basis. But, even better than that – He's watching, too!

21:14 A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath.

     Typical parallelism of Hebrew poetry, both lines of this verse address the same basic concept. Each ends with a similar result - "soothes anger" and "pacifies great wrath."
      Activities in both phrases are also similarly qualified - "given in secret" and "concealed in the cloak." But the subject of each phrase is translated with differing connotations: "a gift" and "a bribe."
      We probably all agree with the message of both phrases of this wise saying. But, I would like to suggest a slightly different translation for "bribe."
      I don't think the term should automatically be understood as negative. In fact, I believe a better understanding of this concept is the well-known Middle Eastern practice of "baksheesh."
      While it could be a real bribe, it could also be a fee, tax, tip, payment or gift - depending on the context. In that part of the world, over the years, I've given "baksheesh" for a paper towel in the restroom I didn't really want, to use my camera inside a restricted archaeological site, and to get a "porter" at the airport to give my luggage back so I could leave!
      That's how this part of the world has operated for thousands of years and I believe it puts our verse into context. The idea here is to do something appropriate in order to defuse a difficult situation.
      Not publically, because it's not about getting credit - or because everyone else might want something, too(!) - but quietly doing something to help work through a tense time.
      Admittedly, our "bribe" can be something inappropriate - including enabling someone in their own mess. But, this kind of giving is something most of us do in our families, at work, in the neighborhood and at church all the time!

21:16 A man who strays from the path of understanding comes to rest in the company of the dead.

     This verse says "straying from the path of understanding" will cause us to end up settled down "in the company of the dead." That doesn't sound at all good to me!
      While we all eventually die, the context here suggests an inappropriate place where we don't need to be. In fact, "comes to rest in the company of the dead" seems to represent a bit of a process – it apparently doesn't happen overnight. But it can happen, even when we didn't have any intentions of going there.
      So, it's a bit scary because I don't find it all that difficult to wander off "the path of understanding." While most of us know there's a right path, there are still so many distractions and so many potential rabbit trails to explore.
      Yet we're reminded here that the consequences of our wanderings can be most severe. But the good news is that it doesn't need to be either scary or difficult. If we keep our daily focus on God and His plan for our lives, we will have no problem staying on "the path of understanding."
      But taking our focus off Him - and focusing on people, places or things instead - will set us up for a visit we would really rather not have to make. Ultimately it's my choice - one day at a time!

21:19 Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife.

     Similar to verse 9, this father-to-son wise saying strikes a familiar theme in Proverbs – living with a difficult wife (19:13; 21:9; 25:24). Its background would be as described in verse 9; a family home in a city or village. In that verse, it was suggested that it is simpler to live in a corner of the flat rooftop than to live inside the house with that nasty woman.
      As noted in our discussion of verse 9, it is most likely that this lady wasn't like this when she met him. Somehow, over the years of being with him, she's changed – and most of us guys have a pretty good understanding of exactly how that happened. Either way, this verse is a straightforward statement. The idea is that it is so bad living anywhere on or under the roof with this lady that it would be better living in a tent, isolated in the desert, with scorpions, snakes and wild animals!

21:22 One who is wise can go up against the city of the mighty and pull down the stronghold in which they trust.

     This verse teaches that the "one who is wise" defeats "the mighty." While most of us boys (and maybe a few girls!) were brought up to think the opposite – we were misinformed.
      Admittedly, sometimes it may seem that might makes right, but when the dust all settles and the smoke all clears that will just not be enough. There is more to life than just having the most muscles or biggest posse!
      The supernatural understanding that comes from God's wisdom can empower someone against the best efforts of human ingenuity. The wise can literally "go up against the city" and "pull down the stronghold" of the mighty, again and again.
     One of the big reasons it works this way is the focus of each - "the wise" and "the mighty." The wise see as God sees (our definition of wisdom) while the mighty trust in their own best thinking. Ask the very smart and capable guys of Helping Up Mission just how far their best thinking got them!
     While contrary to the way most of us were taught, this verse explains things as they really are. And blessed is everyone who understands, chooses to practice and then experiences the benefits of seeing and doing things God's way.

21:27 The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable— how much more so when brought with evil intent!

     In Proverbs, "sacrifice" in general is said to be not nearly as important as "doing what is right and just" (21:3). Religious activity, in itself, is not an acceptable end, in itself.
      "The sacrifice of the wicked" (see 15:8) is "detestable." While it doesn't say to whom it is detestable, there's little doubt that it is God!
      Sacrifices were actually prescribed by God as the basis for his dealings with people. Yet, just going through the motions doesn't count with Him.
      It is a key concept for all the Bible to remember that what makes someone wicked is not their actions, but their attitudes. It isn't that these guys do bad things, it is that they are wicked to the core! Their problem is internal, on the inside. So God doesn't accept sacrifices from the wicked – until they are willing to admit their issues and face their shortcomings.
      But, it's one thing to try and ignore my issues and go to God hoping something works out and it's another matter to bring their sacrifices to God with some sort of ulterior motives. Presumably this ulterior motive is directed toward God – and that's never effective. At Helping Up Mission, guys call this "a dope fiend move!"