Proverbs 22:20

Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge,
– Proverbs 22:20

The word for excellent things has been subjected to various difficult interpretations. It is variously translated as captain, lord, instrument of musick, great measure, measure, prince, and excellent things in this proverb. The word means a triple, or at least carries the idea of three in its range, which is why some take the word to indicate the number thirty. There are also extra-biblical incentives to take the word to mean thirty. However, trying to make this collection of proverbs fit the scheme of Thirty Sayings seems a stretch.

The word has a musical application, a military application, and an application to measurement—third part. Kidner suggested “chief proverbs.” I liked Toy’s summary conclusion in his commentary on verses 17-21, “Notwithstanding the difficulties of the text, the general thought of the paragraph is plain : the pupil is to devote himself to study, in order that his religious life may be firmly established, and that he may be able to give wise counsel to those who seek advice.” 1

So what do we do with this word? Verses 17-21 form an introductory paragraph to this collection of proverbs. It’s notable the word is coupled with written, since the transmission of proverbs referred to in the book is primarily oral. We can at least assume excellent things refers to a deliberate and orderly arrangement of the proverbs written. This would be similar in sense to the statement at the conclusion of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14).

The word for counsels means plans and the word for knowledge means understanding, or skill. The purpose of the proverbs in this collection is to enable the learner to make intelligent plans. In other words, wisdom equips the learner to know what to do.

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  1. Toy, Crawford Howell. A critical and exegetical commentary on the Book of Proverbs (Kindle Locations 9157-9160). Kindle Edition.

Proverbs 21:30

There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the LORD.
– Proverbs 21:30

Skill, intelligence, and plans do not stand against the Lord, nor do they succeed apart from him. You have to fear the Lord to even begin in the way of wisdom, so refusing that is only the way of folly and destruction (Proverbs 1:7). Wicked fools delight in their folly and in turning away from the wisdom of Yahweh. If they do not come to repentance and forsake their own ways, they will meet with judgment and destruction (Proverbs 1:22-33).

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Proverbs 20:18

Every purpose is established by counsel: and with good advice make war.
– Proverbs 20:18

The word for counsel means advice and the word for advice literally means steerage, and therefore, guidance. Elsewhere, the Scripture shows the importance of good counsel in going to war (2 Samuel 15:32-37; 16:15-17:23). The image of going to war, or battle, though not in the purview of ordinary people, illustrates the importance of the principle. The pattern suggested by the proverb is to make plans by seeking sound advice and wise guidance, and then to go to battle (Proverbs 15:22; 24:6; 25:8). The life or death nature of going to war highlights the importance of counsel proportionate to the importance of the decision. So the more important the decision, the more important it is to have good counsel. Contrast this with the fool who has no patience or relish for advice (Proverbs 1:7; 10:8; 12:15; 15:5).

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Proverbs 20:5

Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.
– Proverbs 20:5

The word for counsel means purpose and refers to inner intentions, or motives. The image of deep water is also used in Proverbs 18:4, and the meaning is consistent here. It refers to what is hidden, or beneath the surface. (For further explanation of the image, see commentary on Proverbs 18:4). What lies in the heart of men is hidden, but a man of understanding discovers it. The word for understanding means discernment. The point of proverbs is “To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion” (Proverbs 1:4). In other words, Proverbs teaches wisdom to those who will receive it. Wisdom discerns motives and true character hidden behind facades, or in this image, in deep water.

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Proverbs 19:20

Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in thy latter end.
– Proverbs 19:20

The fatherly addresses in the early part of Proverbs give repeated admonition to hear and receive wisdom (Proverbs 1:8; 2:1-9; 8:34-35). This proverb fits with general tenor of Proverbs that wisdom is accessible and offered to all (Proverbs 9:4-6). Though freely offered, wisdom is costly to acquire (Proverbs 2:3-5). Acquiring wisdom requires humbling oneself to hear counsel and receive instruction (Proverbs 2:1-2). The word for counsel means advice and the word for instruction means discipline. Both come to us from others and we must be willing to receive them. Ultimately, wisdom comes from God and he stores it up for the righteous (Proverbs 2:6-7). Being willing to receive counsel and instruction from others does not mean we merely take in all men’s opinions (Proverbs 14:15; 15:14). Acquiring wisdom is a lifelong pursuit and not a one-time event, but it does lead to blessedness (Proverbs 8:32-35).

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Proverbs 15:22

Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counsellors they are established.
– Proverbs 15:22

The word for counsel means a company of persons in close deliberation. The assumption about the counsel is that it is wise counsel. Proverbs treats bad counsel in other places (Proverbs 1:10-19; et al.). Fools are marked by either refusing all counsel or foolishly gorging all advice (Proverbs 15:14; 26:12). The word for multitude means abundance and is put over against having no counsellors. The word for established means to set upright, like the erecting of a statue. The essential truth of this proverb is seeking and receiving wise counsel makes our plans better and increases the likelihood of success (Proverbs 11:14; 20:18).

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Proverbs 13:10

Only by pride cometh contention: but with the well advised is wisdom.
– Proverbs 13:10

The word for contention means a quarrel or strife. The first phrase reveals how it comes by pride, or stubborn arrogance. The proud bringer of strife is identified as a scorner (Proverbs 21:24). They will not receive counsel because they know best (Proverbs 12:15; 1:7). This is shown to be foolish by the contrast with wisdom in the last phrase. Wisdom is frequently described as instruction or correction (Proverbs 1:2-3, 23; 3:11). Acquiring wisdom necessarily means listening to and receiving good counsel, instruction, and correction (Proverbs 19:20; 20:18; 25:8).

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Proverbs 12:15

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise.
– Proverbs 12:15

The fool in Proverbs isn’t necessarily unintelligent but rather he refuses instruction and correction. In fact, he despises it (Proverbs 1:7; 15:5). Solomon uses another description that parallels this proverb when he speaks of not being “wise in thine own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7). The fool stubbornly clings to his own thoughts and ways. If he is willing to receive any counsel, it will only be that he already agrees with. The word for hearkeneth means to hear intelligently. This is exactly what Solomon admonished his son to do and thus be wise. The only path presented to acquiring wisdom is to receive correction and instruction (Proverbs 1:5; 9:9; 19:20).

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Proverbs 11:14

Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.
– Proverbs 11:14

The word for counsel literally means steerage, and so direction or guidance. The fool is depicted as one who will neither seek nor receive counsel (Proverbs 1:7; 10:8; 12:15; 15:5). The end of their folly is falling. The word for safety indicates a rescue or some deliverance. In this case, a multitude of counselors rescues or delivers from the fall in the first phrase. The proverb assumes the counselors to give wise counsel. The emphasis is the multitude, or abundance, which brings some different perspectives. The wisdom in this is echoed through Proverbs (Proverbs 15:22; 20:18; 24:6). No matter how knowledgeable a man is, he doesn’t know everything. Every man also has biases and blind spots. A multitude of counselors help to see what we don’t and help us to think through things from different angles.

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