“The highway of the upright avoids evil;
those who guard their way preserve their lives.”
~Proverbs 16:17 (NRSV).
For a chapter of Proverbs that’s so fabulously divergent on the surface, there is a smooth theme of Wisdom—God’s superintendent elect—overseeing all of life, weighing intent, plans, decisions and responses, and responding in kind.
Those ‘Plans of the Heart’
The first six proverbs consist of two triplets that reinforce that: 1) in verses 1-3 the Lord never relinquishes control over the course of life—Wisdom reigns as God’s superintendent via the way life works. Everything serves Wisdom, not the other way around. Our motives are also tested and found pure or false often via the way life works out. 2) Verses 4-6 echo the sounds of God’s justice as not only are our motives in sight, but God’s too are made known.
Kings, Royalty and Authority Figures – Divining Our Hearts
It is fitting to find many allusions in this chapter to kings and royalty, for not only is God discerning the motives of our hearts—and also the ‘king’s’—but the kings of life are discerning ours also, in God’s name.
“Just who are these kings?” we may well ask. Anyone that’s in some sort of authority role over us is in a ‘kingly’ position, whether it’s situational or more permanent.
Verses 12-15 feature the main subset speaking of the kings’ character so far as the exercise of wisdom is concerned. Like God, kings “detest wrongdoing”. They take pleasure in hearing the truth and their “face brightens” in the presence of an honest person. A king’s favour is no fleeting or insignificant blessing.
Again, our kings are likely to be police, magistrates, our managers, teachers, lecturers etc. The respect of service to truth and to be faithful to these is no doubt very important. After all, what use is deceit before someone who somehow knows the deceit before it is even uttered? And not just that, these will make us pay dearly for a loss of credibility in the honesty stakes if or when we do err—that’s their job, to winnow out evil.
As a reversal we also come to rely on our leaders’ sense of justice and when they betray this trust they betray not only us but also their office too.
The Influence of ‘Weights’ and ‘Weighing’
There are only two proverbs discussing weights and weighing but these underpin the current trickling through Proverbs 16.
Of course, verse 2 proclaims that our “motives are weighed by the Lord,” which is enough of an idea just how God uses Wisdom to try to convince us to keep a straight heart; to be right-spirited on a good path and in the Spirit.
Verse 11 is astounding in its simplicity. Honesty and balance are from the Lord. Indeed, this is Wisdom—the law of balance. God has established everything in balance. Pity not the folly of those thinking they can catch God out. It’s never happened and it never will.
Pleasant Words Promote Instruction
The five-verse subset in verses 20-24 links the abovementioned theme nicely. Those with “pleasant words” are appropriately ‘persuasive,’ meaning they can understand the needs of situations without resorting to coerciveness. Words would not be “pleasant” if they forced anything.
It is easy to see then that such pleasantry in our communications encourages instruction. People drop their barriers and trust is enabled when instruction comes in friendly, even flexible, ways.
It is the heart, again, that’s at the root of such wisdom issuing the pleasant words. This approach is “sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (verse 24b [NRSV]).
Guarding Against the Perverse
Verses 27-30 provide a short model of perversity which warns us of its nature as we see it approaching. Unlike the pleasant-worded style above, “scoundrels concoct evil” and their “speech is a scorching fire,” leading us to be motivated to avoid these in wisdom, for they are full of potential for explosive anger and certainly vociferous gossip. Their words come back to haunt them.
There is a distinct lack of peace in the perverse one’s gait. They’re always up to some sort of mischief. Consistent false speech or the dishonest tongue reveals a perverse heart underpinning the thought-life of such a person. Watch their subtle body language—it’ll give away vital and obvious clues of things to be concerned about.
Patience – A Virtue of the Aged
In verses 31 and 32 stand a couplet that help finish the chapter in positive terms before the final verse takes us straight back to verses 1-3 (the plans of the heart versus God’s decision, which is final).
Grey hair is not often seen as a positive mark in our rather vain cultures. We would rather see that as a negative mark of physical aging than as a sign of wisdom.
For Proverbs and the ancients, however, grey hair is a “crown of glory/splendor,” and those of advancing years have grown (hopefully) in their mellowed patience, which is an attribute of higher personal and interpersonal importance than that of the capacity to win great wars.
Patience, here, is again seen as a mighty virtue in Proverbs’ wisdom.
© 2010 S. J. Wickham.