My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor,
if you have shaken hands with a stranger, Bible

“put up security for.” This proverb is almost 3000 years old, yet it speaks of a person co-signing a loan for a neighbor. It has always been the case that people who have money (which in the biblical culture might mean you have cows, goats, or land with fruit trees) have been asked to secure a loan for someone who is needy. The person who co-signs “puts up security” or “becomes security,” or, in the more precise financial terms of many versions, “become surety” for the one who gives the loan.

If the person who got the loan defaults, the “surety”—the one who promised to pay and put up the security for the loan—owes the money to the lender. If we were to put Proverbs 6:1-2 into much more colloquial English, we would say something like: “My son, if you have co-signed a loan for your neighbor, if you have shaken hands with a stranger, then you have been ensnared by the words of your mouth.” At that point, the father’s advice is to go and humble yourself and get freed from the commitment, and don’t rest until you are released.

Seeing the wisdom of this proverb could have saved many people a lot of grief. Co-signing a loan is rarely a wise thing to do. People who constantly need money are in that position for a reason. They may consistently have bad judgment and make poor decisions, they may not have learned to deny themselves the pleasures that drain their resources, they may not be willing to take the risk to quit a dead-end job so they can find other work and make more money, they may have loads of good ideas none of which actually work out, or they may just be lazy or not know how to work smart and hard. In any case, no matter how desperate their pleas, or how “good” and “profitable” their ideas are, the wise thing to do is to not take on their debt.

The needy person will try many angles to get you to help them get money: paint grand pictures of how wonderful things will be, tug on your heartstrings, or try to make you feel guilty for not helping. Follow the proverb and walk in wisdom; you will avoid many heartaches.

“shaken hands.” The Hebrew is more literally “struck your hands,” although the word “struck” can also be “clap” and can also refer to thrusting hands together as people would in a handshake. Thus, the Hebrew is an idiom that describes a custom that would have been the same as, or similar to, our modern handshake. It makes perfect sense linguistically that the Hebrew custom was not exactly described by the words involved. We do the same thing; for example, our modern “handshake” may not be a hand “shake.” Many times people today make an agreement by just clasping each other’s hand but not actually “shaking” it at all, but we still call that a “handshake.” So this verse is describing an agreement that was almost certainly made by some kind of handshake or clasping hands, not just by people who hit their hands together.

The origin of the custom of striking hands together, and the handshake, and exactly how they were done, is lost in ancient history. Like many things that were common and part of ordinary life, they were written about but never described. Here in Proverbs, written earlier than 900 BC, the custom of striking hands was already so well known that the writer did not have to describe it—it is obvious it was already being used to seal an agreement, just as we today use a handshake to seal a deal (or at least some people still do). Other than slim epigraphical evidence like this in Proverbs, early material evidence comes from Greece. In the Pergamon Museum in Berlin there is a base-relief of soldiers shaking hands on a funerary stele that dates from the 5th century BC. So the handshake was not only practiced in the ancient Middle East, but in other places in the world as well.

Commentary for: Proverbs 6:1