Proverbs 26:1-28

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Summer is no time for “snow (“dew” [LXX]), and rain at harvesttime would be unseasonable. Likewise, bestowing honor on a fool (a person who chooses a senseless and corrupt way of life) is unfitting. (26:1)

“Like a bird [or a sparrow] in its fluttering and a swallow in its flying, so a causeless curse will not alight.” The thought appears to be that the bird keeps on fluttering and the swallow continues to fly without landing on a perch or at the nesting site. Similarly, a baseless or an unwarranted curse will not come upon or affect the person or persons against whom it is directed. Numerous modern translations are more specific in their renderings than is the Hebrew text. “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, groundless abuse gets nowhere.” (REB) “A curse you don’t deserve will take wings and fly away like a sparrow or a swallow.” (CEV) “As the sparrow escapes, and the swallow flies away, so the undeserved curse will never hit its mark.” (NJB) (26:2)

A whip was used to control a horse, and a bridle [goad (LXX)] a donkey. To strike the back of fools (senseless individuals who chose to act defiantly and lawlessly) was deemed appropriate. (26:3)

Not to answer a fool (a senseless and corrupt person) “according to his foolishness” could include not placing oneself on his level with abusive retorts and ridicule. (26:4) Answering a fool “according to his foolishness” could include exposing the folly of his reasoning and establishing that his contentions do not support the facts. At the right time, an appropriate reproof of a foolish man can stop him from viewing himself as wise. (26:5)

To send a “word” or message “by the hand [or through the agency] of a fool” (a senseless and irresponsible person) is folly, for the individual cannot be trusted to accomplish the task. Sending a fool is comparable to cutting off one’s legs or feet and “drinking violence,” or choosing to injure oneself. According to Rahlfs’ printed Greek text, the one sending a fool “will drink reproach from his own feet.” Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Alexandrinus, however, read “from his own ways,” indicating that the individual will experience the consequences from his senseless actions. (26:6)

The legs of a lame man prevent him from descending the steps of a cistern to draw water or to perform other tasks effectively. Similarly, a “proverb in the mouth of fools” is useless, for they do not understand it nor can they apply it correctly. The Septuagint rendering suggests that taking away from someone’s legs the ability to travel or move is like taking a proverb (“transgression” [Codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus]) from “the mouth of fools” (senseless persons from whom nothing beneficial can be learned). (26:7; see the Notes section.)

Bestowing “glory” or “honor” on a fool (a person who chooses to live a senseless and lawless life), praising him or elevating him to a high station, is comparable to “binding a stone in a sling [margemáh].” If the binding denotes attaching the stone to a sling so that it cannot be released, it would signify doing something that is contrary to the use of a sling and would injure the person employing it in the customary way. The binding could also mean positioning the stone in the sling to secure it until it is released when the sling is used. Accordingly, the honor given to the foolish man would be like the stone with which he can injure others. (26:8)

A “proverb in the mouth of fools” (persons who live a senseless and corrupt life by choice) is like a “thorn going up into the hand of a drunkard.” An intoxicated man is not in control of his senses and can harm others with a thorny plant in his hand. Similarly, fools would make use of a proverb to inflict injury, using it to insult and humiliate others. A number of modern translations are more specific in their renderings than is the Hebrew text. “Like a thorn-stick brandished by a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” (REB) “A thorn branch in a drunkard’s hand, such is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” (NJB) “A thornbush waved around in the hand of a drunkard is no worse than a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” (CEV) The Septuagint conveys a different significance. “Thorns grow in the hand of a drunkard, but slavery in the hand of fools.” This could mean that intoxication results in harm comparable to one’s having piercing thorns sprouting from the hand and that the actions of fools lead to bondage. Another possible significance may be that a drunkard can cause injury as if thorns were in his hand and that involvement with fools and their ways can result in enslavement. (26:9)

Literally translated, the Hebrew text reads, “A great man wounding all [or everyone], and hiring a fool and hiring ones passing by.” According to one emendation of the text, the thought is that the man who hires a fool and passersby is like an archer who indiscriminately pierces anyone that comes within range. Extensive harm would result, and the purpose for the hiring would be completely defeated. (26:10)

In view of the obscurity of the Hebrew text and a number of possible emendations, translations vary in their renderings. “A master can produce anything, but he who hires a dullard is as one who hires transients.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “Like an archer who shoots at any passer-by is one who hires a fool or a drunkard.” (REB) “Like an archer who wounds at random is he who hires a fool or any passer-by.” (NIV) “Like an archer who wounds everybody is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard.” (NRSV) “An archer wounding everyone, such is he who hires the passing fool and drunkard.” (NJB) “It’s no smarter to shoot arrows at every passerby than it is to hire a bunch of worthless nobodies.” (CEV) The Septuagint rendering bears no resemblance to any of the wording of the extant Hebrew text. “All flesh of fools suffers much, for their entrancement [being beside themselves or out of their minds] is wrecked.” Their foolish words and actions (which they, in their deluded state, imagine to be wise) prove to be ruinous to them. (26:10)

A fool who returns to his foolishness, or repeats his senseless course of action, is like a “dog that returns to its vomit,” licking it as if enjoying it. Similarly, senseless ones, persons who choose to act in a corrupt manner, derive pleasure from their lawless ways and continue to pursue them. To upright people, their behavior is as repulsive as that of a dog licking its own vomit. The Septuagint adds that a dog comes to be hated when returning to its vomit, as also does the fool when, through “his own badness, he returns to his own sin.” (26:11; see the Notes section.)

A man who is “wise in his own eyes” does not see any need to change his course of action and will continue to pursue his chosen, though undesirable, course. Therefore, there is “more hope for a fool than for him.” A foolish man is more likely eventually to come to recogize the error of his ways. (26:12)

The sluggard comes up with preposterous reasons for his idleness. His excuses are comparable to claiming that he would be facing the risk of encountering a young lion on the road or a lion in the squares. According to the Septuagint, a sluggard who is “being sent on the way,” responds with the words, “A lion [is] in the ways,” indicating that he is unwilling to go on account of the claimed danger. (26:13)

A lazy man stays in bed as long as he can. “Like a door turns on its hinge, a sluggard [turns without getting up or remains] on his bed.” (26:14)

The sluggard is portrayed as being too lazy even to feed himself. Although his “hand” is “hidden” or buried in the bowl of food (his “bosom” [LXX], or the upper fold of his garment), he is too exhausted “to bring it back to his mouth.” (26:15)

There is virtually no hope that the sluggard will change his course of idleness. He is “wiser in his eyes than seven men who can respond sensibly,” or a complete number of men who can give sound reasons for their actions. The lazy man, however, is quite pleased with his preposterous explanations for not working, regarding them as evidence of his being wiser than persons who labor. (26:16; see the Notes section.)

Meddling in someone else’s quarrel is certain to have negative consequences for anyone who is foolish enough to do so. It is comparable to taking hold of the “ears of a dog,” which would surely lead to being bitten. According to the Masoretic Text, the participle for “passing” applies to the one who passes by and “becomes furious in a quarrel not his own.” This is reflected in the renderings of a number of modern translations. “A passerby who gets embroiled in someone else’s quarrel is like one who seizes a dog by its ears.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” (NIV) Other translations depart from the indicated break in the Masoretic Text and render the words to designate a “passing dog” or a “stray dog.” “Like the man who seizes a passing dog by the ears is he who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” (NAB) “Like someone who seizes a stray cur by the ears is he who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” (REB) The Septuagint rendering likens the act of taking hold of the “tail of a dog” to taking on a cause or a legal dispute that is not any of one’s concern. (26:17; see the Notes section.)

Like a reckless or deranged man “shooting missiles, arrows, and death [or deadly missiles and deadly arrows],” seriously injuring and killing innocent victims (26:18; see the Notes section), is the man who “deceives his fellow” and, after his deceit is discovered, claims that he was just joking. (26:19; see the Notes section.)

“For lack of wood” or fuel, a “fire goes out.” Without a whisperer, talebearer, or slanderer to stir up hurt feelings or hostility, “quarreling ceases.” The Septuagint says, “With much wood a fire rages,” but where there is no one who is confrontational, “conflict is quieted.” (26:20)

“Like charcoal to embers [to keep them glowing] and wood to fire [for it to continue burning], so is a contentious man for kindling strife,” inciting and continuing quarrels and fights. According to the Septuagint, the “hearth” is for “coals and wood for fire, but an abusive man is for stirring up conflict.” (26:21)

For certain people, the words of a slanderer or a gossip are like tasty morsels, or things to be swallowed greedily. To individuals who listen to the slander or gossip, the words can end up being stored within them as if having gone down to the “innermost part of the belly” or the body. Upon becoming a part of the person’s memory, the slanderous words may give rise to suspicion, distrust, and hostility. In the Septuagint, the wording departs significantly from that of the extant Hebrew text. It says that the “words” of one who relates tales (literally, a “monkey man”) are “soft.” Possibly this means that the words appear to be innocuous, but they are not harmless. “They strike into the chambers of the entrails,” or they come to lodge in the innermost recesses of the body and influence the thoughts and emotions. (26:22; see the Notes section.)

The overlay on the earthenware is referred to as “silver of dross.” Although having the appearance of silver, it has neither its value nor its enduring quality. “Silver of dross” on pottery is like “burning” or fervent “lips and an evil heart.” The words may be kindly, friendly, and pleasant, but they conceal corrupt thoughts and evil intentions toward the persons to whom they are spoken. The Septuagint says that “silver given with deceit” should be considered “like a potsherd,” or like nothing of value. “Smooth lips [lips that are used to express pleasant words] conceal a grieving heart [or a sorrowful inner self]” or hide a “heart” or inner disposition that causes grief. (26:23)

A man who harbors hatred may dissemble with his lips and hide his feelings and objectives, disguising his real self with the words his lips express. Within himself, he “sets deceit,” firmly determined to take advantage of or to harm those whom he deceives with his words. As if sharing sorrow, an “enemy,” according to the Septuagint, “assents to everything with weeping” in the expressions that pass his lips, “but in the heart [or his inner self] he contrives deceit” or treachery. (26:24)

“When [an enemy] speaks graciously, do not believe him.” The words conceal what is in his heart” or his inner self. There are “seven abominations [evils (LXX)]” or a complete number of disgusting things stored within him. He is ever alert and prepared to carry out his evil plans. The admonition in the Septuagint is for one not to yield to the enemy’s beseeching with a loud voice, “for there are seven evils in his soul” or within him. (26:25)

A man’s hatred may be “covered” or hidden with deceit or dissimulation, but it cannot be concealed indefinitely. “His badness [or hateful intentions, treachery, and enticements to follow a ruinous course] will be exposed in the assembly” or come to light in the community for all to see. The Septuagint indicates that one who hides enmity promotes, strengthens, or contrives deceit; but, as one well-known in the assemblies, “he exposes his own sins.” (26:26)

He who “digs a pit [for his neighbor (LXX)] will fall into it,” and he who “rolls a stone away — to him it will return [rolls it upon himself (LXX)].” The man who seeks to gain by taking advantage of others usually will, in time, have to face the consequences for his wrongdoing. Future retribution will be comparable to his falling into the pit he intended for trapping others and having the large stone he rolled away come rolling back to him. (26:27)

A “lying tongue hates” the ones it oppresses or afflicts (“hates truth” [LXX]), “and a flattering mouth causes an overthrow.” A man who uses his tongue to utter falsehood has no sympathy for the ones whom he harms with his misrepresentations and lies. Flattery may be used to hide base objectives, and the one who is taken in by it may be defrauded, deceived, or harmed in other ways on account of his misplaced trust in the flatterer. The Septuagint concludes with the words, An “unguarded mouth [literally, a mouth without a roof] creates disturbances,” disorders, rebellions, instabilities, or insurrections. (26:28)

Notes

In verse 7, the extant Hebrew text contains a form of the verb daláh, meaning “draw” (water). Many modern translations, however, render the word according to an emendation (the Hebrew verb dalál [“hang down” or “dangle”]). In the context of verse 7, the emended text indicates that the lame person’s legs hang down or dangle uselessly. “Unreliable as the legs of the lame, so is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” (NJB) “A proverb in the mouth of a fool hangs limp, like crippled legs.” (NAB) “Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” (NIV) “A proverb in the mouth of fools dangles helpless as the legs of the lame.” (REB) “A fool with words of wisdom is like an athlete with legs that can’t move.” (CEV) If the Septuagint rendering of ancient extant codices is followed, the proverb indicates that wrongdoing is as characteristic of words that come from a fool’s mouth as walking is to the legs.

There is a measure of uncertainty about the significance of the Hebrew word margemáh (in verse 8). The meaning “sling” has the support of the Septuagint, the Peshitta, and the Targum. On the basis of Arabic, another suggested meaning is “heap of stones.” To place a stone, especially a precious stone, in a pile of stones would be a useless or senseless act.

In verse 11, the Septuagint, after wording that parallels the extant Hebrew text, includes a proverb that is also found in Sirach 4:21. There is a “shame that produces sin,” and there is a “shame that is glory and favor.” The “shame” that is looked upon honorably and with favor could include being ashamed of having committed sin and manifesting lowliness, humility, or modesty. When one is ashamed of his position in life or external factors that have no bearing on one’s merits as a person, this can lead to sin (an effort to conceal the truth through misrepresentation).

According to the Septuagint wording of verse 16, the sluggard considers himself to be wiser than “one who brings back a message in satisfaction” or fullness. It is possible that the Septuagint translator read the Hebrew word shiv‘ah (“seven”) as siv‘ah (“satiety” or “fullness”). The Septuagint rendering could be understood to indicate that the person is one who brought back the complete message accurately.

The reference to a “dog” in verse 17 appears to be to one of the wild dogs that roamed in cities and were primarily scavengers. (See 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23, 24; 22:38; 2 Kings 9:10, 35, 36; Jeremiah 15:3.) There is no indication that the Israelites in ancient times used domesticated dogs. The book of Job (30:1) quotes Job as mentioning “dogs of [his] flock,” but he was not an Israelite.

The rendering of verse 18 in the Septuagint bears no resemblance to the extant Hebrew text. “Like the ones doing healing throw out words to men but the first to encounter [their] word will be tripped up [26:18], so are all the ones lying in wait for their own friends” to take advantage of them. Then whenever they are exposed, they say, “I did it in jest.” (26:19) The obscure wording about the “ones doing healing” could indicate that the healers make many claims about the cures they can effect but that the first one to rely on what they say will be bitterly disappointed.

The wording of verse 22 in the extant Hebrew text is identical to that of verse 8 in chapter 18. In the Septuagint, however, the proverb in 18:8 is entirely different and does not correspond to the text of 26:22.