“the one who exalts his doorway seeks disaster.” In this case, the King James Version, which reads “exalteth,” seems to be more on point according to the biblical culture than the modern versions that read something such as, “builds a high gate.” Proverbs 17:19 involves a custom that is not easy for Westerners to understand. In the West, it is generally considered a mark of dignity and respectability to make one’s home as attractive as possible. Yards are neatly kept, landscaping is carefully tended, and in general, the outside of a home is tastefully painted and made as beautiful as possible. That was not at all the case in the biblical culture; in fact, it was just the opposite.
In the East, the government and authorities were almost always the enemy. They had ultimate authority and were very often unscrupulous. It was wise in the biblical culture to disguise one’s assets as best as possible. There was no advantage to showing off one’s wealth or possessions (which is also why even the women were closely shielded). Revealing one’s wealth only invited thieves from the lower classes and envy and trouble from those in positions of authority.
Thus, with rare exception, Eastern houses, no matter how wealthy the owners, were made of rough and undecorated materials: rocks, mud bricks, and wood. Nothing on the outside was decorated or presented in such a way that it revealed what was inside. Furthermore, biblical houses had no lawns or gardens outside them. The Law of Moses allowed anyone passing by to take a fruit or vegetable and eat it, so there was no reason to keep a fruit tree outside the house, it would quickly be picked clean (Deut. 23:24-25). This is why Jesus would have eaten from the fig tree he passed on the road if it had had figs (Matt. 21:19). If a person had land, he would grow his fruits and vegetables in fields outside the village or city.
Larger houses had a courtyard where some flowers, vegetables, or a fruit tree might be grown and where people could sit in the shade and enjoy the outdoors, but that courtyard was invisible to those on the outside. Larger homes also often had a kind of foyer at the door so that people could be allowed to enter through the outer door into a sheltered area but still not see what was in the house behind the second door. Privacy was very carefully protected, and to be allowed to enter a house was a gesture of great hospitality and trust.
The word “destruction” in the verse is the Hebrew sheber (#07667 שָׁ֫בֶר), and means a breaking, fracture, crushing, breach, crash, ruin, shattering, or destruction. Therefore, some versions say, “broken bones,” instead of “destruction,” but destruction or ruin is almost certainly the reading. The Hebrew word translated “exalts” is gabah (#01361 גּבהּ), and it means to be exalted, to be lifted up, to be high, or to be arrogant or haughty. The stanza could also be translated something like, “The one who adorns his doorway,” or “The one who beautifies his doorway.”
Despite the number of modern translations that speak of making the door high, that is not as clear or accurate as “exalts his door.” Why would a high door invite destruction? It is, after all, built into the wall and would never be as high as the wall itself. Of course, if a person built a high, fancy door to attract attention, he would be building a “high” door, but more to the point of the verse he would be “exalting” his door (we could almost translate the verse, “he who makes his door haughty seeks destruction”). If a person were to be so audacious as to “exalt” his door and make it “haughty,” enlarging it, decorating it, and using it to demonstrate his wealth and position, he would only be inviting his own ruin.
When the second stanza of this proverb is understood properly we can see that it fits with the general theme of the first stanza. The person who loves “transgression”—loves to break laws and overstep personal and social boundaries—will get into many fights and eventually bring his own ruin. The person who builds a “haughty” door on his house also will eventually bring his own ruin. There is a great lesson in this Proverb about living wisely and not being the cause of needless problems and strife. This verse also teaches the lesson that there are times when it is a good thing not to “stand out of the crowd” and be noticed by others. The wise person knows when to attract attention and when not to be noticed.
[For more on houses in biblical times, see commentary on Isaiah 22:1.]