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Deeper Commentary

Pro 21:1 The king’s heart is in Yahweh’s hand like the watercourses; He turns it wherever He desires-
"Turns" is the word for "incline", used by David of how he himself inclined his heart to God's word (Ps. 119:51,112,157). But David prayed that God would incline his heart towards His word (Ps. 119:36) and away from sin (Ps. 141:4). This is how the Holy Spirit works to this day- we are confirmed in the psychological attitudes we ourselves choose to have. The word is used of God's mighty "stretched out" arm and "strong hand" in human affairs (Ps. 136:12 and often in Isaiah). This powerful hand of God is at work in human hearts, confirming us in the psychological way in which we ourselves wish to go. In this sense God turns or inclines the heart where He wishes (Prov. 21:1). Solomon in the Proverbs places all the emphasis upon a person themselves in their own strength inclining their heart toward his teaching (Prov. 2:2; 4:5,20; 5:1). He fails to appreciate what David his father did; that God's word is His word and not that of the human channel through which it comes. And he totally puts the emphasis upon human strength of will, self inclination towards God's word, rather than perceiving as David did that without God's psychological help in this, we shall ultimately fail. As Solomon himself did.

When Solomon, as the current King, wrote this, it's possible to understand this as a claim that whatever he thought in his heart was in fact from God. He played God, having convinced himself that he was somehow automatically thinking on God's behalf. This is one of the dangers of mishandling the Divine truth and wisdom which is granted us to possess.

Solomon's heart was "turned away", or 'influenced' by his wives towards idols (1 Kings 11:3). Yet Solomon uses this very idea of the heart being turned or influenced in Prov. 2:2; 22:17 about the need to turn our hearts towards God's word. He taught, but did the very opposite. And perhaps Prov. 21:1 explains why he did this- he says there that Yahweh turns the heart of the King wherever He wishes- and so perhaps he thought that control of our thinking and inclinations is unnecessary, because somehow God will do it for us. And there's a lesson there for us, who may assume at times that God will somehow control our hearts for us, rather than our making a conscious effort towards mind control.

Pro 21:2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but Yahweh weighs the hearts-
Is he perhaps drawing a contrast between the infallibility of the King's thought, compared to the deceit of the human heart in the population? Thus Solomon came to see himself as somehow more than human.

We all know from our own experience with temptation that we can justify anything. Every way of man can seem right in his own eyes because of this feature of our nature (Prov. 14:12; 16:25; 21:2). The truth of this statement demonstrates the error of the humanistic approach of 'follow your heart', 'do what feels good and right to you'. There must be the influence of God's word to put us on the path to life.

Pro 21:3 To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to Yahweh than sacrifice-
This was quite a paradigm breaking statement, seeing Solomon was living under the law of Moses. His father David came to a similar, but far more mature conclusion after his sin with Solomon's mother, Bathsheba. He concluded that God wanted a broken, contrite, repentant heart rather than sacrifice (Ps. 51:17). Solomon instead speaks of doing righteous acts, rather than sacrifice. He had so whitewashed his father David that he closed his mind to learn the deep spiritual insights which David had come to as a result of recognizing his sin, rather than subconsciously denying it as Solomon did.

Pro 21:4 A high look and a proud heart are the lamp of the wicked, and are sin-
A "lamp" was understood as the inheritance and continuation as king (1 Kings 15:4). Solomon here has in view how his half brother Absalom, and indeed his other half brothers, had contended with him for the throne; but their "lamp" in this sense had been extinguished- because of their pride and the "high look" of Absalom. Again we see how Solomon constantly uses God's truth in order to justify himself and constantly have a dig at his competitors; just as many misuse "truth" today.

Pro 21:5 The plans of the diligent surely lead to profit; and everyone who is hasty surely rushes to poverty-
When he writes things like “the thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness” (Prov. 21:5 AV), he must inevitably be connecting his own fantastic wealth / blessing with his hard work. He was justifying himself by works rather than by faith; he assumed his righteousness and acceptance with God rather than struggling through the work of faith. Yet he could say “Labour not to be rich; cease from thine own wisdom” (Prov. 23:5 AV). He had all the right theory. Solomon was an active, industrious person by nature; and whilst all his many proverbs criticizing the lazy and glorifying the diligent are true as they stand, is there not in all this some element of self-justification, interpreting his own natural personality type as inherently righteous?

Here again we see Solomon's works based attitude. He sees poverty as the result of laziness, and profit / plenty coming from hard work (Prov. 14:23; 21:5). He fails to appreciate the wider narrative in spiritual life. The good news is for the poor, which group may include the lazy. And works will not save, and God's salvation is what is ultimately required by man. But Solomon had no eternal perspective, because he thought his kingdom was God's. And so as he got older and closer to death, he reasons that the reality of death means that man has no profit or preeminence (s.w. Ecc. 3:19). If he had accepted the Gospel of the future Kingdom of God, he would have focused more upon salvation by grace through faith, and less upon the supremacy of hard work and profit / preeminence in this life.  

Pro 21:6 Getting wealth by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapour for those who seek death-
"A lying tongue" is the very phrase David uses about Saul's smear campaign against him (Ps. 27:12; 31:13 cp. 1 Sam. 26:19). This frequency of reference in itself indicates the weight with which this tragedy rested upon David's mind. It makes good homework to list all the lies Saul told David. But these words also apply to the lies told to David at the time of Absalom's rebellion, who for years prior to it had bad mouthed David to the men of Israel. Solomon repeatedly condemns "the mouth of the wicked" (Prov. 10:6,11,32; 11:11; 12:6; 15:28; 19:28). All he says is true enough, but he clearly enough has in view how his father David had condemned the supporters of Saul and Absalom as having "the mouth of the wicked" (Ps. 109:2). And these were the groups who were threatening his power and throne. Solomon presents himself by implication as having the mouth of the just / righteous. And yet we must note that David too had spoken multiple words of deceit in relation to the murder of Uriah. Indeed the phrase is used in Is. 53:9 as if the Lord Jesus was the only man who didn't have a "mouth of deceit". Solomon like David was in denial of the fact that we all sin with our mouths, as James makes clear in James 3:1-3.      

Pro 21:7 The violence of the wicked will drive them away, because they refuse to do what is right-
GNB "The wicked are doomed by their own violence". This continues the Biblical theme that the wicked are essentially condemned by themselves more than by the Lord; they "make the answer now", their behaviour is of itself their own condemnation. 'Driven away' is the figure of condemnation in Ps. 35:5.

Pro 21:8 The way of the guilty is devious, but the conduct of the innocent is upright-
Or "crooked... straight". Whilst the way of life of itself is straight and direct, it is far too simplistic to imagine that the righteous are totally innocent, the sinners are totally guilty; and the righteous walk in a direct path to the Kingdom, marching ever upright. This is simply not true to spiritual reality and experience. David was of course an example of how things are in reality. But as with many today, Solomon's simplistic dualism led him to assume that he was in the "innocent" category; he therefore didn't examine himself, didn't seriously think he was capable of major sin, and considered others to be in that group of "the guilty". And this led him totally astray.  

Pro 21:9 It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than to share a house with a contentious woman-
A man on a housetop recalls the story of David's sin with Solomon's mother, Bathsheba. I detected on Prov. 18:22 Solomon's justification of David's divorce with Michal. And here too there is a subtext, however unconscious even. Solomon appears to have totally whitewashed his parents, and any consequence of David's sins are blamed by Solomon upon his half brothers and foolish men, as if they were totally guilty and David totally innocent; for this was his worldview. See on :8,19; Prov. 25:24. 

Pro 21:10 The soul of the wicked desires evil; his neighbour finds no mercy in his eyes-
LXX "The soul of the ungodly shall not be pitied by any man". Solomon's judgmentalism and lack of pity is notable in the Proverbs. Yet had God not shown grace and pity to his father David, Solomon would not have been born. David was rebuked for not showing pity regarding the sin with Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 12:6). But Solomon shows no understanding of these things, no awareness of grace, and he acts as if David never sinned with his mother, and as if he too has never sinned.   

Pro 21:11 When the mocker is punished, the simple gains wisdom. When the wise is instructed, he receives knowledge-
This seems to be justifying David's command for Solomon to punish the mocker Shimei, who had cursed him at the time of Absalom's rebellion. At the time, David had forgiven Shimei and forbidden his men to kill him. But at the end of his life, David didn't maintain that level of grace, and commanded Solomon to ensure that he brought Shimei's grey hairs down to the grave with blood (1 Kings 2:9). And Solomon justified this collapse of forgiveness and grace by saying that it would give wisdom to others and instruct the wise.

Pro 21:12 The Righteous One considers the house of the wicked, and brings the wicked to ruin-
To 'bring to ruin' is the word for 'subvert' or 'destroy' in Prov. 19:3: "The foolishness of man subverts his way". But God, "the righteous One", overthrows the wicked. Solomon thereby equates the foolish with the wicked. But he seems to classify as foolish anyone who doesn't accept his take on life, or is ignorant of the wisdom he teaches. Ignorance, and even intellectual failure, is not of itself wickedness. Solomon has such a dualistic view of things that he assumes anyone who is not wise and thereby wealthy to be foolish and thereby wicked. But amongst God's people, things are not so black and white. And we are not to judge, largely because we simply cannot judge.   

LXX "A righteous man understands the hearts of the ungodly: and despises the ungodly for their wickedness". Solomon considered that his mere possession of Divine truth enabled him to infallibly judge people and to read their hearts. And thereby despise sinners. But Solomon wasn't infallible, knowledge of Divine truth doesn't empower us to read and judge human heart. God doesn't despise sinners (Job 36:5), but sorrows for them and seeks to save them.

Pro 21:13 Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he will also cry out, but shall not be heard-
Solomon speaks of the wicked within Israel as stopping their ears at the cry of the poor. He is alluding to how David his father had complained that the judges of Israel were like cobras who stopped their ear to the voice of charmers, refusing the voice of God's word (Ps. 58:4 s.w.). Connecting the ideas, the cry of the poor is the cry of God's word to us; our response to them is our response to them.

Pro 21:14 A gift in secret pacifies anger; and a bribe in the cloak, strong wrath-
LXX and GNB are rather different, and do not justify bribery: "If someone is angry with you, a gift given secretly will calm him down". But if NEV and MT are followed, this may connect with :15, which speak of how the righteous "do justice", and don't take bribes, therefore. Solomon's continual theme of justice and a just judiciary would be a swipe at his half brother Absalom, who had tried to become the judge of Israel and offered biased judgments towards whoever supported his attempt to take Solomon's throne (2 Sam. 15:1-6).

Pro 21:15 It is joy to the righteous to do justice; but it is a destruction to the workers of iniquity-
"The workers of iniquity" is a phrase repeatedly used by Solomon's father David concerning the supporters of Saul, and also those supporting David's half brothers- all of which were groups who were potential contenders for Solomon's throne. See notes on Ps. 5:5; 6:8; 14:4; 28:3; 36:12; 53:4; 59:2; 64:2; 92:7,9; 94:4,16; 101:8; 125:5; 141:4,9. So whilst Solomon speaks truly, so far as it goes, he uses language which subtly condemns his political opponents. Thus he harnessed God's truth towards his own self justification, as many do today.  

Pro 21:16 The man who wanders out of the way of understanding shall remain in the assembly of the dead-
GNB "Death is waiting for anyone who wanders away from good sense". I suspect this is the correct sense, because Solomon constantly speaks as if this life is the time for the reward for wisdom, and the punishment for unwisdom.

Pro 21:17 He who loves pleasure shall be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil shall not be rich-
"Pleasure" is s.w. "mirth" in Ecc. 2:1,2;8:15. Solomon had to re-learn this for himself rather than accept the direct Divine teaching about it which he knew and taught. But again Solomon appears set on seeing the outcomes as all in this life. For many who love oil and wine are rich, and the poor are not always pleasure lovers. But Solomon sees things within the terms of his simplistic dichotomy, where the wise are generally rich and the foolish and lazy are generally poor. 

Pro 21:18 The wicked is a ransom for the righteous; the treacherous for the upright-
"Treacherous" or "traitors" is the term used by David of Saul and his supporters (Ps. 25:3; 59:5; 119:158). Solomon uses this term, teaching that "transgressors" must be rooted out of the earth / eretz promised to Abraham (Prov. 2:22), and that the "transgressors" are to face judgment (Prov. 11:3,6; 13:2; 21:18; 22:12; 23:28; 25:19). All Solomon says is true, but he clearly has in view the house and supporters of Saul, who were a group he felt he needed to repress in order to keep his own kingdom and power intact.

Pro 21:19 It is better to dwell in a desert land, than with a contentious and fretful woman-
See on :9. I detected on Prov. 18:22 Solomon's justification of David's divorce with Michal. And here too there is a subtext, however unconscious even; however true Solomon's observation may be in more general terms. For David divorced Michael whilst he was still in the desert, on the run from her father Saul.

Pro 21:20 There is precious treasure and oil in the dwelling of the wise; but a foolish man swallows it up-
Again, Solomon teaches that generally, the wise are wealthy. This simply doesn't accord with observed reality, neither with Biblical history and lament that the wicked prosper in this life. Solomon comes to this simplistic dichotomy in order to justify himself, the one made rich by God's gift rather than his own hard work or wisdom. For he abused that grace by assuming that his wealth was because of his wisdom. Whereas that doesn't accord with the chronology of his life; he inherited riches from David, chose wisdom, and God then gave him great wealth as a young man. The idea seems to be that the wise hoard their treasure, whereas a fool "spendeth it up" (AV) if wealth comes to him. The Lord's parable of the rich fool who hoarded his wealth is therefore again seen to be correcting Solomon's perspective. That man was in the position of Solomon; his wealth was only for this life, and he had totally ignored the factor of human mortality, as many do today.

Pro 21:21 He who follows after righteousness and kindness finds life, righteousness, and honour-
The "life" which Solomon saw as the reward for wisdom was not therefore "eternal life"; because in this life, the wise "finds life". And "honour", good standing in the eyes of men, was so important to Solomon. He lacks any Kingdom perspective, nor an awareness of the future day of judgment. For he assumes that his kingdom is God's promised future Kingdom, and he is the Messianic ruler. As he got older and came nearer to death, he lost all faith- as seen in his musings in Ecclesiastes. His wives turned his heart to their idols. If he had more firmly accepted with all humility the gospel of the Kingdom to come, this could have all been avoided.

Pro 21:22 A wise man scales the city of the mighty, and brings down the strength of its confidence-
"Confidence" is literally 'fortress'. The secure fortress was Zion (Is. 32:18; Ps. 125:1 s.w.), "the stronghold of Zion, the same is the city of David" (2 Sam. 5:7). Whilst what Solomon says is true, and repeats the multiple cases of David in the Psalms professing trust in Yahweh as his strong fortress, Solomon as ever has his agenda of self justification; he saw his possession of Zion as a sign that he feared Yahweh acceptably, and that his children would continue the Davidic line of glory. But sacred space is not so ultimately important to God. Possession of the literal stronghold of Zion was nothing compared to trust in Yahweh. 

The allusion is to how Joab scaled the city of Zion. But Joab turned against David, and his family and supporters became one of the groups of opposition to Solomon. Solomon here gives credit to his father David, the "wise man", as he sees him, for scaling the city of Zion; when in fact it was Joab who did it. Again we see his desire to exalt and glorify his father.

Pro 21:23 Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue keeps his soul from troubles-
As explained on :21, Solomon sees the advantage of controlling our tongue as simply being that we are thereby preserved from "troubles" in this life. And yet David suffered "troubles" from Saul, although innocent (s.w. 1 Sam. 26:24; 2 Sam. 4:9). David understood that Yahweh was a refuge from "troubles" (s.w. Ps. 9:9; 10:1; 22:11; 25:17; 34:6 and so often); rather than thinking, as did Solomon, that we are somehow preserved from them due to steel willed self control  and wise speaking. Solomon glorified his father David, but totally failed to grasp his far more spiritual perspective.  

Pro 21:24 The proud and haughty man, scoffer is his name; he works in the arrogance of pride-
David had spoken of the house of Saul as scoffing at him (s.w. Ps. 119:51). And the line of David had been chosen to replace Saul because he had refused Samuel's reproof. David had accepted reproof and was open to it, notably from Nathan the prophet (Ps. 38:1; 141:5); and so again Solomon's Proverbs are true, but he harnesses them to the justification of himself and his father. But Solomon was only to remain the prophetic son of David if he accepted reproof (s.w. 2 Sam. 7:14); and he didn't. He refused to personalize his own wisdom, as we can.

Pro 21:25 The desire of the lazy kills him, for his hands refuse to labour-
The Proverbs contain repeated condemnation of laziness. Lack of a zealous work ethic is a rejection of wisdom, according to Solomon. As Solomon explains in Ecc. 1, he was an active person, not lazy by nature. And yet he lacked spirituality. He claimed that his service of God was due to his spirituality, but it was in reality merely a semblance of serving God when it was really just reinforcing his own personality type. His mocking of the "sluggard" or "lazy one" is so frequent (Prov. 6:6,9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30; 26:13-16). But it is a reflection of his own works-based approach to righteousness; the 'wise' "do" good things, and the wicked don't do enough good things. Personal spiritual mindedness and relationship with God are simply not emphasized.

Pro 21:26 There are those who covet greedily all day long; but the righteous give and don’t withhold-
This is the phrase only elsewhere used for Israel's coveting of meat in the wilderness (Num. 11:4; Ps. 106:14). The reason for their lust was because they were lazy (:25). They ought to have instead thought of what they could give, rather than lusting for what they could additionally get. This generous attitude is  the antidote to lust.

Pro 21:27 The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination: how much more, when he brings it with a wicked mind!-
Solomon may have in view Saul's rejection from the kingship for his wrong attitude to sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:21,22). Likewise the attempts of Absalom and Adonijah to take the throne from David and Solomon involved the offering of sacrifices (2 Sam. 15:12; 1 Kings 1:9). What Solomon says in the Proverbs is true on one level, but he harnesses Divine truth to justify himself and his own agendas; just as we can.

Pro 21:28 A false witness will perish, but a man who listens speaks consistently-
The Hebrew implies that the man who has heard truth will constantly speak about it. Solomon has much to say about true and false witnesses (Prov. 6:19; 12:17; 14:5,25; 19:5,9,28; 21:28; 24:28; 25:18). Whilst his warnings are true enough, he surely has an element of self justification in what he writes. Because he was aware that his parents, David and Bathsheba, had been accused of many things which had led to all the opposition against David at the end of his reign, and which opposition Solomon had to contend with in order to retain the throne for himself. David laments the false witness of the house of Saul and his own sons, Solomon's half brothers (Ps. 27:12; 35:11). The continual condemnation of false witnesses must be understood in this context. Whilst it is all true so far as it goes, Solomon is harnessing Divine truth to his own agenda of self justification. And we who claim to hold His truths must take warning.

Pro 21:29 A wicked man hardens his face; but as for the upright, he establishes his ways-
"Establishes" is "understands". The same phrase is used in Prov. 20:24: "A man’s steps are from Yahweh; how then can man understand his way?". David here quotes his father's words in Ps. 37:23: "The steps of a good man are ordered by Yahweh". Man without God's help cannot therefore understand his "way". But God understands man's way because He alone understands the way of wisdom (Job 28:23 s.w.), and therefore David prays to be "made to understand the way" (s.w. Ps. 119:27). And Solomon has used this phrase about wisdom empowers man to understand his way (Prov. 14:8). The only way to understand life's way is therefore from the God who is ordering it; unaided, without His gift of wisdom, we cannot understand it.  

Pro 21:30 There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against Yahweh-
This appears to be stating an obvious truth, until we discern the allusion to Ahithophel's counsel to destroy David and take the throne away from him and Solomon. See on :27,28.

Pro 21:31 The horse is prepared for the day of battle; but victory is with Yahweh
"Prepared" is the word translated "established" in the promises of the eternal establishment of David's throne (2 Sam. 7:12,13,16 etc.), and Solomon wrongly assumed that the conditional nature of the promises concerning the seed were just irrelevant to him as he had wisdom. Therefore he uses the word of how his kingdom has been "established" (1 Kings 2:24 s.w.). The previous verses have all featured allusions to Solomon's contenders for the throne being stopped by God, they tried to prepare or establish themselves but it never worked out (2 Sam. 15:1; 1 Kings 1:5); and so surely Solomon has the idea in mind that he has been established as the promised Messianic seed of David with an eternally "established" throne and kingdom. This leads him to the conclusion that the outcome of wisdom and folly is in this life, and he has no perspective of a final day of judgment and eternal establishment of God's Kingdom on earth. This is why the simplistic dichotomies he presents between the blessed and wise, and the cursed and foolish, are not always true to observed experiences in this life. For it is the future Kingdom which puts them in ultimate perspective.