Proverbs 20:28

Mercy and truth preserve the king: and his throne is upholden by mercy.
– Proverbs 20:28

The word for mercy is the Hebrew word, hesed. The word appears well over 200 times in the Old Testament and has a range of meaning difficult to capture in a single English word. The KJV follows the Septuagint in most often rendering it as mercy, but also sometimes as kindness, lovingkindness, and goodness. Vine’s Dictionary notes three basic meanings inherent in the word: strength, steadfastness, and love. Mounce defined it as, “unfailing love, loyal love, devotion, kindness, often based on a prior relationship, especially a covenant relationship.” The word begins and ends the proverb.

The word for truth means stability, certainty, and also conveys an idea of trustworthy, or faithful. Both are spoken of God in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 25:10) as exemplar, and urged upon kings in their derivative authority. The king is to be a righteous and merciful upholder of justice and by these his throne is established (Proverbs 16:12; 21:7; 29:14). Mercy and truth secure the kingdom and establish the conditions for human flourishing by mirroring the righteous reign of Yahweh (Proverbs 29:2).

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Proverbs 20:27

The spirit of man is the candle of the LORD, searching all the inward parts of the belly.
– Proverbs 20:27

The wording of this proverb is difficult and interpretations vary. The word for candle means to glisten, and so means a lamp or light. The word for belly means hollow, or the abdomen. It can be used more figuratively to speak of the body, or simply the inner parts. The image of the proverb is light searching out the inner parts and hidden recesses by shining light in the dark places. The image corresponds to Proverbs 18:4 & 20:5, where hidden things are understood by wisdom. The “inward parts of the belly” is identified elsewhere as a covert place of evil within, requiring stripes to expunge it (Proverbs 20:30). This proverb complements the other by showing wisdom to be an effective alternative to stripes. A man of understanding fears the Lord, has wisdom, and can see within himself what a fool cannot (Proverbs 3:7; 12:15; 16:2; 21:2; 30:12).

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Proverbs 20:26

A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them.
– Proverbs 20:26

The word for scattereth is the same as in Proverbs 20:8 (see commentary). The term combined with the use of the wheel in the second phrase completes the threshing, winnowing image. The previous proverb highlighted discernment in judgment. The winnowing image had to do with the searching eyes of the king separating the innocent and the guilty. This proverb uses the same imagery, but with two different emphases. Here wicked are not just sorted into proper categories, but rather the wheel is brought over them. So this proverb highlights the execution of just judgment and maintenance of justice by bringing punishment to evildoers.

The second emphasis is the attribution of the king who does this. He is wise. The word for wise means skillful. It was a term used commonly to describe a master craftsman; one who had learned the art and science of his craft and gained the technical expertise to execute a master work. The word was so used to describe the craftsmen who built the tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 36:4). The word was also used to describe the work of the craftsmen who fashioned an idol in Isaiah 40:20, where it is translated cunning. The word appears 46 times in Proverbs and refers to one who is skilled in applying the word of God in all areas of life. So a wise king is one skilled in mastery of the art of ruling well and maintaining justice in the fear of the Lord and according to his word.

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Proverbs 20:25

It is a snare to the man who devoureth that which is holy, and after vows to make enquiry.
– Proverbs 20:25

The wording is dark but two words bring light in this proverb. The word for holy means set apart, or consecrated. The word for vow means promise. So the proverb speaks to consecrating things to the Lord by a vow. The word for devoureth can mean to swallow but also in a more figurative way, to open the mouth as in speaking. The word for enquiry means to search out, or consider. The proverb then teaches a man is ensnared who rashly speaks a vow without considering the implications and obligations until afterward. Vows were voluntary by the law, but they were commitments that must be kept (Leviticus 27:1-34). It may be easy for a man to vow and later forget, but God doesn’t forget (Deuteronomy 23:21-23). The law did provide for redemption from vows, but it was costly. Vowing and not keeping the vow was a serious offense against God, and so Solomon warns about making vows rashly here as well as in Ecclesiastes 5:1-7.

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Proverbs 20:24

Man’s goings are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way?
– Proverbs 20:24

The word for goings means steps, or way. That his goings are of the Lord means that God ultimately directs the course of his life (Proverbs 16:9). The rhetorical question of the second phrase highlights that man cannot fully comprehend the whole course of his life. He cannot fully discern the twists and turns that attend life, and though he may plan and execute some things that prosper, many other things happen he does not intend or understand (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Contemplation of this without wisdom can lead to despair and fatalism. Wisdom means understanding that one’s life is in the hands of another and gives us incentive to seek good counsel and pursue wisdom (Proverbs 14:8; 20:18; Ecclesiastes 3:14).

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Proverbs 20:23

Divers weights are an abomination unto the LORD; and a false balance is not good.
– Proverbs 20:23

Dishonest business and trade practices have been addressed previously (Proverbs 11:1; 20:10), and all the same implications persist (See commentary 11:1 and 20:10). God is sovereign, meaning the just standard of measure is in his hand and he also sees through all deceptions and will judge justly. If we read this proverb with the previous in mind, we will not think it acceptable to cheat the cheater just because he cheated us first (Proverbs 24:29).

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Proverbs 20:22

Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the LORD, and he shall save thee.
– Proverbs 20:22

The word for recompense means to reciprocate, or to repay. The repaying of evil refers to revenge, or vengeance. The first phrase speaks of getting back, or getting even with someone who has done you evil. It is natural for man to want to give as he gets; to repay evil with evil. On the one hand we have an inherent sense of justice, especially when it comes to wrongs personally suffered. This is a remnant of the imago dei, though being marred by sin that image present in our conscience is flawed (Romans 2:14-15). On the other hand, our pride is offended in personal injury and we want to put ourselves in the place of God to mete out justice as we see fit. Wisdom, of course, teaches a better way.

Proverbs considers this common experience from a few different angles. In Proverbs 17:13, wisdom understands the one who repays evil for good shall reap what he sows. So when we suffer evil for good we have done, we can know the offender will not “get away with it.” Proverbs 24:29 plainly instructs us not to seek vengeance at our own hands. If we consider this proverb with the one before it (Proverbs 24:28), wisdom will not violate law and justice in order to repay one who has done the same to us. Proverbs 25:21 provides an alternative, positive response to being wronged.

Proverbs 20:22 appeals to the sovereignty of God as a wise comfort in suffering wrong. However, this proverb makes the unique contribution in the second line. Wisdom instructs to wait, which means have patience. But it is not to wait for Diving vengeance to fall on our adversary, but rather our own deliverance, or rescue as the word for save means. Rather than take vengeance in our own hands or wait for justice to come from elsewhere, we are to wait on the Lord and trust in him. Jesus exampled this for us (1 Peter 2:23; 4:19), and so Paul found comfort in his many sufferings (2 Timothy 1:12).

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Proverbs 20:21

An inheritance may be gotten hastily at the beginning; but the end thereof shall not be blessed.
– Proverbs 20:21

The word for inheritance means just that, and the word for hastily means in a hurry. Many infer some unscrupulous method of gain, and Proverbs does speak to that (Proverbs 13:11; 28:8). The emphasis in this proverb seems to be on the haste, “Easy come; easy go.” What is gained quickly can be lost quickly, and often is (Proverbs 28:20, 22). What is gained quickly is gained without also gaining wisdom. Wisdom does not come quickly. Though wisdom is accessible to the simple (Proverbs 9:4, 16), it’s not just lying about but rather is stored up for those who seek it (Proverbs 2:1-7). To acquire wisdom you must watch daily at wisdom’s gates (Proverbs 8:34), receive instruction and correction (Proverbs 3:11; 9:9; 10:8; 13:10; 17:10), and understand its value enough to be willing to pay a high price for it (Proverbs 17:16; 23:23). You also have to turn from your wisdom in order to acquire true wisdom (Proverbs 3:7; 26:12). To exhaust yourself to gain wealth is to be wise in your own eyes (Proverbs 23:4). So this inheritance is not blessed because it is gained by vanity in a hurry.

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Proverbs 20:20

Whoso curseth his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness.
– Proverbs 20:20

Incorrigible children were worthy of death by the law (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9). The law demanded the honoring of parents by children, as also in the New Testament (Ephesians 6:1-3). We infer from the law that honor is due to parents first because of their office and not their person. The modern, western ideal is to judge whether the person is worthy of honor or not. That is not in question in law. Children can bring shame to their parents by laziness (Proverbs 10:5), pride (Proverbs 11:2), failing to live up to their teaching (Proverbs 17:2), and squandering their wealth (Proverbs 19:26). Children may also sin more seriously by despising, mocking, and cursing their parents (Proverbs 15:20; 20:20; 30:11, 17). The consequence is serious in the image of their lamp being put out in obscure darkness. This imagery is used elsewhere to speak of judgment and death for those who refuse wisdom (Proverbs 13:9; 24:20).

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