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Proverbs 10-31
Wisdom With Others

Roger Hahn

Proverbs places a high priority on the practice of wisdom in the home. Throughout the Bible we find the assumption that success in life begins with success in home relationships. First Timothy 3:4-5 even makes a good home life a requirement for church leadership. However, Proverbs also understands that wisdom in the home will teach a way of relating to others outside the home. Wise relationships with others and the wise use of words are foundational for right relationship with God. The person who has no friends and who cannot get along with his or her neighbors has not learned the basic lessons of biblical wisdom. Right relationships with others is a proving ground for right relationship with God.

Loyal Friendships: Proverbs 18:24; 17:9, 17; 27:6, 9, 10, 14, 17; 26:18-19; 25:8-10, 17, 19; 19:22; 20:6; 14:22

A significant series of Proverbs deal with one’s relationship with friends and neighbors. One of the most famous proverbs dealing with friendship, Proverbs 18:24, is also one of the most difficult to translate. The second line of the proverb is clear but the first line of the Hebrew text is rather obscure. The King James Version and the New King James make an excellent observation when they translate, "A man who has friends must himself be friendly." However, no up-to-date translation understands the Hebrew text in that way. The NIV translates, "A man of many companions may come to ruin." The New Jerusalem Bible has a similar understanding when it translates, "There are friends who point the way to ruin." The New American Bible has, "Some friends bring ruin on us."

The other way of translating the first line of Proverbs 18:24 can be found in the New English Bible and its replacement, the Revised English Bible, "Some companions are good only for idle talk." The RSV follows this line of thinking with the translation, "There are friends who pretend to be friends." The New Revised Standard Version follows Goodspeed’s American Translation, "Some friends play at friendship." So many ways of translating may be confusing, but Hubbard (p. 265) wisely points out that regardless of the translation, there is the same contrast between the first line and the second line of Proverbs 18:24. The friend who sticks closer than a brother is the kind of friend to seek and to be. Any other kind of friend or friendship is not reliable.

Proverbs 17:17 then defines the kind of friendship that a brother provides. To say that a friend loves at all times means that there is no "time-out" in friendship. The point is faithfulness in the time of need. We refer to "fair-weather friends" to describe the fact that people wanting to be friends are easy to find when things are going well. The true measure of friendship is how well they stick when things are not going well.

The Hebrew word for "love" in this verse has almost as wide a range of meaning as the English word does. The Greek translation made before the time of Christ is very interesting. Rather than using either of main words for "love" (agape or philia), the Greek Old Testament of Proverbs 17:17 reads, "A friend will be there for you in every kind of time." The parallel thought in the second line is that brothers are born to share adversity. The expression "are born for" reveals and important biblical truth. The purpose of life is not to achieve personal fulfillment but to be in a meaningful covenant relationship with someone else. The proverb understands that the very reason for a person’s life is to be present for another person regardless of how difficult life may be for that other person. Hubbard (p. 264) makes a beautiful comment on this verse, "Foul-weather friends are the only ones worth having. More important to the point of the proverb, they are the only ones worth being."

Proverbs 27:10 is unusual in that it consists of three lines rather than the customary two. The first line clearly repeats the advice to be a faithful friend. Friendships that cross the lines of generations are especially to be valued. A person who is both your friend and the friend of your parent is to be treasured. Good friendships require care and attention.

One of the tragedies of modern life is the way we move to new cities or new churches or new jobs and abandon the people that made our lives meaningful in the previous place. Hubbard (p. 265) mentions a friend of his, born in Greece, raised in Germany, who accuses Americans of "friendship inflation." The "habit of making lots of friends quickly and then dropping them lightly" violates the standard of faithfulness that the Bible holds for friendship. The intertestamental collection of proverbs called the Wisdom of Sirach warns, "Do not forget a friend during the battle and do not neglect him when prosperity comes your way." (Sirach 37:6, NRSV and NAB)

The second line of Proverbs 27:10 is more difficult to understand. At one level the instruction to not go to a brother’s house in the time of trouble contradicts the point of Proverbs 17:17. However, the proverbs often present both sides of an issue. While it is true that a friend and a brother are to be faithful no matter what (Proverbs 17:17), it is also true that it is not wise to push a friend or brother to their limits. Thus the point of the second line of Proverbs 27:10 seems to be, "Don’t pester your brother with all your problems." Proverbs 25:17 and 17:9 make the same point more directly. An important part of keeping good friends is knowing when it is appropriate and when it is not appropriate to "dump" on a friend. Sometimes sensitivity to our friend’s problems will tell us that it is not time to share our problems with them, but time to help them carry their load. If both parties in a friendship will seek that kind of sensitivity toward the other both will find their own needs for friendship met and they will not damage the friendship they so intensely need.

The third line of Proverbs 27:10 points out that friendships with neighbors may be more important than relationships with blood relatives. Sometimes distance makes it impossible for family members to be all they need to be and want to be for someone. It is important then to have built quality relationships with neighbors.

Proverbs 27:9 and 6 also present two sides of a relationship issue. Verse 9 states that perfume and incense make the heart glad. The second line is also unclear in Hebrew but the point seems to be that good friends are as helpful to one’s soul as perfume and oil are to one’s body. A friend is to encourage and support, to find the best and nurture that in you. A friend is to build up rather than to tear down. However, verse 6 states another truth about friendship. Compliments are not always the sign of friendship. Sometimes a true friend must tell the painful truth for our own good. The fair-weather friend's compliments may be profuse and numerous, but a true friend’s "wounds are faithful." Alden (p. 190) points out that a wise person learns to accept criticism. A fortunate person has a friend(s) who will give criticism lovingly and constructively. We all have our blind spots. We desperately need those who will be honest with us without trying to destroy us. Better the temporary pain of a friend’s valid criticism than the continual damage we do when those faults are not corrected. As always the proverb tells both what kind of friend to have and what kind of friend to be.

Several proverbs deal with the importance of loyalty and faithfulness to a friendship. The two terms appear together in Proverbs 14:22 (though the words are translated differently in the various translations). We have encountered these words earlier in Proverbs (3:3 for example). The Hebrew words, hesed and emeth, are considered as important in the Old Testament as agape (selfless love) in the New Testament.

Hesed is most frequently used to describe God’s covenant faithfulness. Different translators use expressions like "steadfast love," "lovingkindness," "loyalty," "mercy," and "fidelity." The research on the use of this word to describe relationships between human beings yields two significant insights. First, hesed between friends will be the result of a sense of covenant commitment to that other person. Past history or blood relationships may motivate the sense of obligation but hesed only flows when there is a covenantal sense of commitment. Secondly, hesed is always the product of a free will. Even in the case of family members one chooses whether or not to live out the implications of one’s commitment to that other person. Loyalty to a friend may be an obligation, but it is a freely chosen obligation.

Emeth speaks of reliability and dependability. In the context of relationships between people there is no quality more essential. Without this kind of faithfulness the trust that creates meaningful relationship is impossible. Proverbs 25:19 recognizes that truth in a negative way. Trusting someone who is faithless leads to pain as painful as a rotting tooth. Trusting someone who is faithless is as dangerous as a foot slipping on the treacherous mountain paths of Palestine. This second metaphor is especially powerful. One’s foot may slip without a fatal fall. But the sheer panic of what could happen is heart-stopping. Likewise, one may survive the sudden discovery that a friend was unreliable, but the panic of the moment is devastating.

Enemies and Strife: Proverbs 20:22; 17:13; 24:17-18; 25:21-22; 16:7; 26:24-26; 10:12; 15:17; 17:1; 26:21; 17:19; 26:17; 17:14; and 18:19

There is a right way to get along with one’s friends and neighbors. There is also a right way to get along with one’s enemies. The frank discussion of the sages about enemies, revenge, hatred, and strife sometimes shocks the pious Christian reader. We may interpret the teachings of Christ and the New Testament to imply that we should have no enemies. However, Jesus’ teachings have no meaning apart from the real life struggle to get along with other people. Aitken (p. 172) points out that our enemies are not always of our own choosing. Sometimes other people choose animosity and bitterness as the basis of their relationship with us. Though we might wish otherwise, wishing will not change the way those who consider us as their enemies think. What Proverbs demands is that we not allow ourselves to be brought down to their level of thinking and acting.

There is a popular misconception about the Old Testament that distorts the thinking of many people both inside and outside the church. The "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," law mentioned in Exodus 21:23-24 is not the last word of the Old Testament about personal relationships. In fact, that law first functioned as a civilizing and positive restraint. The peoples of the Ancient Near East who lived in Palestine were part of a tribal culture that promoted escalating vengeance. (If your tribe kills one of our tribe, we will then kill two of yours. If you kill two from our tribe we will kill four from yours.) The Old Testament law of "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for life," was a way of stopping the cycle of violence. Only one life for a life; only one tooth for a tooth. Because that law was restraining it did not require that every deed be paid back in kind. It simply limited the payback to no more than what was suffered in the first place. The possibility of refusing to take revenge was there and the proverbs promote the value of choosing positive action toward enemies rather than punitive action.

Proverbs 20:22 suggests that it is better to wait for the Lord to sort things out and bring justice than to take matters into one’s own hands. Proverbs 17:13 gives a very pragmatic reason. As long as one is in the business of repaying evil that person is entangled in evil. It is better to trust God to take care of matters. The exciting truth of Proverbs 20:22 is the promise that God will help a person who is suffering evil at the hands of someone else. The command to wait for the Lord uses a Hebrew word that means to look with eager expectation. It is the same word that appears in Isaiah 40:31 to describe those who wait or hope on the Lord to renew their strength. In Proverbs 20:22 the promised result of eagerly expecting God’s help is expressed with a word meaning "help," "deliver," or "save."

Proverbs 24:17-18 provides another important corrective to the frequent misunderstanding of the Old Testament shared by many. These verses address heart issues rather than just externals. Secret rejoicing at the difficulties faced by an enemy is forbidden because the Lord expects us to think toward our enemies as lovingly and graciously as he thinks toward them. Proverbs 25:21-22 actually commands helping an enemy in their most difficult hours. These verses sound familiar since Paul quotes them in Romans 12:20. It is significant that Paul would choose to quote these Old Testament verses as the authoritative way to clinch his own summary of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

The sages had no use for strife. Proverbs 15:17 and 17:1 make that abundantly clear. Any humble circumstance with peace is better than the most lavish appointments surrounded by strife. Such strife is caused by hatred and a quarrelsome attitude. Proverbs 17:19 virtually equates sin and strife. The love of strife is the love of transgression. The clear implication is that strife lies outside the will of God. This places an important responsibility on the hearer. A person can "quit" the process of growing strife and quarreling according to Proverbs 17:14. The beginning of strife is as dangerous to people as a crack in the cistern that catches and saves their water supply. As quickly and urgently as a cracked cistern is repaired, so quickly and urgently one ought to put a stop to strife. The positive antidote is love as Proverbs 10:12 points out.

The advice of Proverbs is clear. We must not be the source of contention and struggle; peaceful relationships are too important. They are so important that though we may not begin the round of escalating hostility we are seriously advised to immediately put an end to it. Should we decide not to avoid conflict life will be as peaceful for us as if we had grabbed a passing dog by the ears.

Care for the Poor: Proverbs 17:5; 14:21, 31; 22:16; 30:14; 28:3; 22:22-23; 15:25; 22:28; 23:10-11; 22:9; 19:17; 28:27; and 21:13

The sages of Israel were very interested in economic issues and the way those issues affected interpersonal relationships. Wealth and poverty and the causes of both interested the wise men and women of Israel. Some of their harshest condemnation is directed at those who are lazy and thus poor. However, the proverbs never than draw the conclusion that everyone who is poor is lazy. They recognized that there are many causes of poverty including oppression by people who ought to know better. Regardless of the cause, Proverbs recognizes poor people as still being people. In fact, they are the outsider and the underdog and the God of Israel had always been interested in that kind of person. Thus the way one treats poor people was a critical indication of one’s awareness of the heart of God for the authors of Proverbs.

Aitken (p. 191) points out that Proverbs 17:5; 14:21; and 14:31 form a progression of thought. Verse 17:5 speaks of mocking, 14:21 speaks of despising, and 14:31 of oppressing. "What starts out in a seemingly harmless way (poking fun at the plight of the poor) soon grows into a fixed attitude (regarding them with utter contempt), which then bursts into the full flower of deeds (oppressing them).

But notice that the same verdict is applied to the bud as to the flower – and it is a remarkable verdict: God takes it as a personal insult!" The reason God takes disregard for the poor as an insult is because He is Creator. The Hebrew concept of Adam as a collective term for all humanity as well as a name for an individual person is reflected here. God is the Creator of all human beings, including the poor. To treat them differently than others are treated is to deny their value in the sight of God and thus to deny God’s commitment to them as their Creator.

Though these proverbs deal specifically with the poor the same principle holds regarding prejudicial treatment of any portion of the human race. Any form of oppression or discrimination is a rejection of the biblical understanding of God’s equal care and concern for all persons He has created. Proverbs 22:16 expresses a common biblical view that disregard for God’s care for those in want will lead to a life of want. The punishment so often fits the crime! The person who oppresses the poor will end up being poor and oppressed by someone. "What goes around comes around" is the way this proverb is expressed in contemporary culture. The sense of God’s concern for the poor is most powerfully expressed in Proverbs 19:17 where kindness to the poor is equated with lending to God! Beyond the audacious notion that a human being could lend to God the perspective of this proverb is very much like that reflected in Matthew 25:32-45 where kindness (or lack thereof) to the hungry, the imprisoned, and sick is equated with kindness to Christ himself.

Proverbs 15:25; 22:28; and 23:10-11 deal with a specific kind of oppression to the poor – tampering with boundaries and landmarks. The "landmarks" were stone pillars used to identify property boundaries. All the Ancient Near Eastern cultures placed high value on land and ownership of property. One’s potential for survival was related to the land one controlled. However, Israel also theologized ownership of land. Each parcel of land was understood as a gift from God originally given to one’s family at the time of the conquest of Canaan. Property could not be sold or traded away because it was God’s gift to one’s own family.

Tampering with boundary markers was thus an affront to God who gave the land to each family proportionally according to His will. Deuteronomy 19:14 and 27:17 had already prohibited moving property line markers. The story of Naboth’s vineyard in I Kings 21:1-19 illustrates the Israelite view of property and the threat that poor people were under from wicked kings and ruthless rich people who wanted their land. The rich and powerful were able to have landmarks moved and then control the judicial process in their favor. The law of Deuteronomy, the prophets (Isaiah 5:8 and Micah 2:2), and these proverbs show that all parts of the Old Testament stood behind the poor person struggling to maintain the land God had once given to the ancestral family.

Wisdom with Words: Proverbs 18:20-21; 12:14; 18:4; 13:3; 21:23; 10:19; 29:20; 12:18; 18:13; 24:26; 25:11; 15:4, 23; 12:25; 16:21, 23-24; 27:2; 5; 25:12 and 27

These proverbs reflect the Israelite concept of the power of words. Life and death are in the power of the tongue according to Proverbs 18:21. Proverbs 12:14 and 18:20 indicate that a person who speaks appropriately is a success in all of life. No goal is worthy of greater attention than managing one’s words well. Proverbs 13:3 and 21:23 put the matter most bluntly. To guard one’s lips preserves one’s life and keeps you out of trouble. The opposite is also true. Failure to guard one’s lips puts one’s life at risk and covers you with trouble.

Proverbs 15:23 and 25:11 speak of the value of the right word at the right time. These proverbs speak of very real to life circumstances that most of us know too well. When introduced to or suddenly introducing someone we often grope for the right words to express the appropriate feelings. Being caught with our mouths open but no coherent speech when something wrong has been said or done has happened to most of us. How joyful it is to be able to say the right thing at the right time.

These proverbs on wise words recognize the power of words to bring joy and health. Proverbs 15:4 says that a gentle tongue is a tree of life. Like an oasis in the desert gentle words can restore hope and renew the soul. Pleasant words are as delightful as honey according to Proverbs 16:24. However, it is possible to get too much of a good thing and so Proverbs 25:27 warns that too many compliments are as sickening as too much honey. Praise is most befitting when it comes from someone else rather than self-praise. Aitken (p. 238) quotes a German proverb that says, "Self-praise stinks, friends’ praise limps, strangers’ praise rings." The importance of speaking the right words should regularly send us to the prayer of Psalm 19:14, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer."

Living in God’s Will: Proverbs 21:5; 15:22; 11:14; 20:18; 21:22; 24:5-6, 27; 16:1, 9; 19:21; 20:24; 21:30-31; and 16:3

The sages of Israel were keenly aware of one of the great theological questions of all time – the relationship of the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man. In the typical style of wisdom literature there are proverbs on both sides of the issue. Many proverbs stress the importance of planning. Proverbs 21:5 states, "The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance." Proverbs 15:22 declares that the greater the input into planning the more likely the plan is to succeed. Proverbs 24:27 sounds like a mother advising the child, "Plan your work and work your plan."

These and similar proverbs – in fact most of the proverbs – imply that human effort and wisdom are the key to success. This emphasis is strong enough that some scholars have described Proverbs as "secular." However, Proverbs is also sure that human plans by themselves are never adequate. Proverbs 16:9 expresses it clearly, "A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps." Human effort is required, but human effort is not sufficient.

This is not secular – only God is able to see to it that the plans accomplish the correct and ultimate goals. Neither is this the falsely pious "quietism" (so upsetting to John Wesley) that calls us to wait quietly for God to direct our every move. There are areas that God has turned over to human wisdom to discover and declare His providential will. We need not "wait quietly" for God to reveal to us whether He wants us to get up in the morning and go to work. He does. Human wisdom (common sense) can easily discern the will of God on such matters.

On the other hand, human ingenuity and wisdom have not been granted to us to do with as we wish. Proverbs 19:21 affirms that all the planning and investigations of the human mind exist to accomplish the purpose of God in the world. Proverbs 16:3 commands us to commit our work to the Lord in the confidence that He will put our plans on a firm foundation. It is that common sense confidence of God guiding our thoughts that allowed Paul to declare in 1 Corinthians 2:16, "But we have the mind of Christ."

Proverbs will always frustrate some people because the book is not pious enough. But it will always be a favorite source of inspiration to those who want common sense answers. Because the proverbs are so practical they forever meet a need that God has created deep within us. No proverb tells us everything we need to know. Every proverb tells us something useful to know. As proverbs will do, they both describe reality and call us to participate more wisely in that reality. Proverbs 26:7 and 9 reminds us that proverbs are dangerous in the mouth of a fool, but all the Proverbs are designed to achieve the other alternative. Let us respond to the invitation of Proverbs. Let us learn wisdom and live well.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are a reflective review of the Book of Proverbs.

As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through his word. Ask the Holy Spirit to make the word come alive to you for that day.

First Day: Read the notes on Proverbs 10-31 – Wisdom With Others. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that were important to you. Describe why they were important.

2. Select a truth that has a personal application in your spiritual life. Tell how it applies to you.

3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to implant the wisdom of Proverbs in your heart and mind so that your thoughts will reflect the mind of Christ.

Second Day: Read Proverbs 1-4.

1. What is the most important verse in chapter 1 for you? Why is it important?

2. Summarize the benefits of wisdom described in chapter 2 in your own words.

3. What teaching in chapter 3 helps you obey the command of Proverbs 3:5 to trust in the Lord with all your heart? What do you still need to learn to fully obey that instruction?

4. What does chapter 4 teach you about the way of wisdom? What advice do you need to follow to stay on wisdom’s path?

Third Day: Read Proverbs 5-9.

1. Summarize the teaching of Proverbs 5 and 6 on sexual fidelity. Write a brief prayer for our country to learn the Biblical view of sexuality.

2. What do you learn about temptation from Proverbs 7? What spiritual growth needs to come into your life to be victorious over various kinds of temptation?

3. What promises does Wisdom make in chapter 8? How have you seen those promises fulfilled in people’s lives that you know?

4. Read Proverbs 9 and then write a brief explanation of verse 10 in your own words. Give a brief testimony to the effect the study of proverbs has had on your life.

Fourth Day: Read Proverbs 10-17.

1. What does Proverbs 10 teach you about the relationship of wisdom and work? Write a brief prayer offering God the opportunity to work in your life through your work.

2. Read Proverbs 11 and 12 looking for instruction on kindness and generosity. What insights do you discover that especially speak to your own life?

3. What insights into the words you should speak do you find in Proverbs 14 and 15? Which proverb(s) speak(s) most directly to an area in which you need to grow?

4. What does chapter 17 teach you about family relationships and friendships? Identify a proverb that speaks especially to you and ask the Lord to help you in that area this coming year.

Fifth Day: Read Proverbs 18-24.

1. What principles about peacefulness can be found in Proverbs 18? Which principles do you most need to learn? Why?

2. What principles of business are taught in Proverbs 20? Which of these most needs to be learned in our society? Why?

3. What does Proverbs 21 teach about pride? Why are these principles especially important in our contemporary society?

4. List your three favorite proverbs from chapters 23 and 24. Describe why you chose these three.

Sixth Day: Read Proverbs 25-31.

1. What principles are taught in Proverbs 25 and 26 that are important for leaders to remember? How would observing those principles make leaders better able to lead?

2. What do Proverbs 27 and 28 teach about the importance of work? What benefits may we expect if we work hard? What role does God play in bringing about those blessings?

3. What lessons about discipline can be learned from Proverbs 29 and 30? What lessons do you most need to learn regarding discipline? Ask the Lord to help you grow in this area of your life.

4. Read the poem about the ideal wife in Proverbs 31:10-31. Write your own paraphrase of these verses using illustrations from contemporary society. Pray for God’s grace and help in the life of a woman you know to live up to this vision of excellence.

5. Write a brief prayer asking God to implant the lessons you’ve learned in this study in your heart so that your thoughts, your words, and your actions will better reflect Christ in the days that lie ahead.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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