Proverbs 21:22

A wise man scaleth the city of the mighty, and casteth down the strength of the confidence thereof.
– Proverbs 21:22

This proverb presents a military image. The wise man is skillful and shrewd. Through wisdom, he is able to take down a stronghold of the powerful. This proverb presents wisdom as better than strength, whether in terms of fortification or weapons (Ecclesiastes 7:19; 9:13-18). Wisdom is better than strength alone. The word for confidence means trust, or refuge. Hoping or trusting in strength rather than God is evident folly. Wisdom trusts in God and wise counsel and is therefore better than human strength (Proverbs 24:5-6).

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Proverbs 21:21

He that followeth after righteousness and mercy findeth life, righteousness, and honor.
– Proverbs 21:21

The word for righteousness means rightness, or justice. The word for mercy means goodness, kindness, and faithfulness. The word has a range of meaning that includes pity, but also loyalty, or fidelity. Sometimes it is translated as kindness or lovingkindness. The word is used to describe God’s remembering to show kindness to Naomi (Ruth 2:20), and Boaz doing the same for Ruth (Ruth 3:10). The two together describe a life in the way of wisdom and the proverb speaks directly to those pursuing that way. Pursuing and keeping to the upright way of wisdom enriches the life of the wise (Proverbs 3:16; 22:4).

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Proverbs 21:20

There is treasure to be desired and oil in the dwelling of the wise; but a foolish man spendeth it up.
– Proverbs 21:20

This proverb is straightforward and we shouldn’t pull its punch by trying to spiritualize it. Wisdom says the wise lay up in store and the foolish squander all they have. The word for wise means skillful and is used throughout Proverbs to refer to living prudently and righteously. Proverbs never instructs to seek wealth (Proverbs 23:4-5; 28:22), nor does it instruct to seek poverty (30:7-9). Rather, Proverbs instructs to sacrificially and persistently seek wisdom, for it is more important and valuable than earthly treasures (Proverbs 2:2-4; 3:14-15; 8:18-19; 16:16; 23:23). While Proverbs never promises wealth to those who acquire wisdom, wealth will generally come to those who acquire money wisely (Proverbs 10:4; 11:8; 16:11; 21:6; 22:22-23), and use money wisely (Proverbs 3:9-10, 27-28; 6:6-8; 11:24-26; 13:22; 22:9; 28:27; 31:16, 20-22). Proverbs also warns that wealth can be lost through folly (Proverbs 11:6; 21:5; 23:20-2124:30-31; 27:23-27; 28:22).

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Proverbs 21:19

It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.
– Proverbs 21:19

This proverb is similar to Proverbs 21:9. The word for wilderness means earth, or land. The word is common throughout the Old Testament. It can refer to the planet, the geographic land belonging to a nation, or even to ground, as in, the soil. It is put in this proverb over against living with a contentious woman, so wilderness or desert captures the idea of living in solitude, perhaps even without a house, being preferable to a house and the society of a mad woman. Wisdom teaches it is better not to be married than to be married to a quick-tempered and argumentative spouse.

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Proverbs 21:18

The wicked shall be a ransom for the righteous, and the transgressor for the upright.
– Proverbs 21:18

Commentators vary on the meaning of this proverb as it presents some difficulty. The word for ransom means covering and, in this context, refers to a price, or compensation. Theologically, we think of atonement with this word and I think that can put us off on the wrong foot. The same word is used in a couple different places in the law. The first is in a section of the law pertaining to ox goring, or more fundamentally, liability (Exodus 21:28-36). Exodus 21:28 refers to an accidental death by ox goring. The ox was to be stoned and not eaten. The owner’s liability was covered by the loss of the ox and there was no further criminal penalty.

However, if the owner knew the ox was disposed to goring and he did not keep it penned up, he would be criminally guilty when the ox killed someone. This would be like what we call involuntary manslaughter today where there is demonstrable criminal negligence leading to death. In this case, the owner shared in the guilt and was to be put to death along with the ox (Exodus 21:29). The law made a provision where the owner could pay a sum of money as a ransom for his life (Exodus 21:30). The phrase sum of money is translated from the same word as ransom in Proverbs 21:18. This was an amount set by the family of the victim, which would be approved by the judge or adjusted as he deemed necessary. The sum of money was a ransom price for the owner’s life, because otherwise he would be executed.

The next occurrence of the word is in Number 35:31-32 where such a satisfaction is not permissible in the case of murder. The ransom was a just restitution to the aggrieved. This proverb becomes clear when we consider the relation of the wicked to the righteous. The wicked are variously described as plotting and planning evil (Proverbs 6:14; 24:8-9). Not only do they plot evil generally, but they plot evil against the righteous specifically (Psalm 37:12, 32; Proverbs 1:11; 24:15). Wisdom also teaches that the evil plans of the wicked will ultimately ensnare them (Proverbs 5:22; 11:5-6; 12:13). This justice will also come specifically because of their plans and schemes against the innocent (Proverbs 1:11, 18). So the wicked transgress against the upright in their plans and actions, and the judgment that comes to them exacts the ransom price from them.

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Proverbs 21:17

He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man: he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich.
– Proverbs 21:17

Loving pleasure, or joy, and wine and oil means pursuing and indulging in luxury. Wisdom warns such pursuits and indulgences lead to poverty. The word for poor means need, or lack. The word for rich means wealth, or abundance. The just in Proverbs 21:15 do not pursue pleasure (the same word is translated joy there) as an end in itself, but rather pursue judgment and find pleasure. The problem is not with the wine, oil, or even pleasure, but rather with the misplaced love that gluttonously pursues them. A greedy appetite will never be satisfied (Ecclesiastes 5:10) and will leave a man in rags (Proverbs 23:21).

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Proverbs 21:16

The man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain in the congregation of the dead.
– Proverbs 21:16

Wisdom takes the long view and is concerned with outcomes throughout Proverbs. The word for way mean road, or path. It is a metaphor for the course of one’s life. Just as roads lead somewhere, the way we go in this life has a somewhere we will come to. The word for understanding means prudence, and to wander is go astray from the way of wisdom, or prudence. The way of understanding is a way that leads to life (Proverbs 6:23; 15:24; 14:32). Despite diverse appearances, all other ways lead to death (Proverbs 5:32; 11:7). The fatherly addresses warn of the path to death with the strange woman (Proverbs 2:18-19; 7:26-27; 9:18). The word for remain means rest, not in the sense of refreshing but rather in the sense of dwelling. This is the destination of the way that departs from wisdom. The word for dead means shades and refers to the realm of the dead. So going in the way of wisdom or folly is literally a matter of life and death.

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Proverbs 21:15

It is joy to the just to do judgment: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity.
– Proverbs 21:15

The word for joy means gladness, or pleasure. Judgment refers to justice, or just dealing. It can mean a legal verdict in the official sense of justice, or it can refer to the just respect and treatment of others in our dealings. The word for destruction means ruin, or terror. The just and upright delight in justice being done and it terrifies the wicked, because they want justice to be bendable to their advantage (Proverbs 17:23). This proverb complements Proverbs 10:29 where the way of the Lord, which is the way of judgment, is a fortification for the upright but a terror to the wicked.

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Proverbs 21:14

A gift in secret pacifieth anger: and a reward in the bosom strong wrath.
– Proverbs 21:14

The word for gift means present and the word for reward means bribe. The first is neutral of itself and the second is usually negative. Commentators differ whether the proverb itself is positive or negative. The word for pacifieth means smooth, or sooth. It refers to reducing, or calming, anger and strong wrath. The word for secret means covered, or hidden, and this word gives a tinge of something untoward. The word for bosom means to enclose in the more figurative sense. The figure could also speak of concealment, or it could refer to being at the ready. The second sense would highlight the timing of the gift given more than the hiddenness of it.

Perhaps the difficulty demonstrates the fine line between a good and bad gift. Gifts are always wicked when used to pervert justice (Proverbs 17:23). They are disgusting when used out of vanity to gain favor or place (Proverbs 18:16; 19:6). However, Proverbs praises the wisdom that calms anger and appeases wrath. Gentle words can sooth (Proverbs 15:1). Controlling one’s own anger can calm others (Proverbs 15:18). A well timed word can do good (Proverbs 15:23). So, if we have wisdom and discretion, we can also calm anger with a discreet and timely gift.

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