Proverbs Chapter 21  PDF  MSWord

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Go to Bible: Proverbs 21
Pro 21:1

“water canals.” The Hebrew word can also mean “streams,” like the streams of water that flow from a spring. However, in this case the word more likely means “canals” or “channels” and compares Yahweh to a farmer or landowner who channels the water running across his land as it pleases him.

“he turns it wherever he delights.” This sentence cannot be understood apart from the whole Word of God, which makes it clear that people have free will. God cannot just “turn our hearts” if we do not want them turned. Thus this verse speaks to the fact that we must look to God for guidance and be willing to allow Him to direct us.

There are dozens of places in the Bible where kings disobey God and do horrific things. There is a long list of the kings of Israel and Judah of whom it is specifically stated that they “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Solomon was one (1 Kings 11:6). So were Nadab (1 Kings 15:25-26), Baasha (1 Kings 15:33-34), Ahab (1 Kings 16:30), Ahaziah king of Israel (1 Kings 22:51-52), Jehoram (2 Kings 8:16-18), Ahaziah king of Judah (2 Kings 8:26-27), Jehoahaz (2 Kings 13:1-2), Jehoash (2 Kings 13:10-11), Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:23-24), Zechariah (2 Kings 15:8-9), Menahem (2 Kings 15:17-18), Pekahiah (2 Kings 15:23-24), Pekah (2 Kings 15:27-28), Hoshea (2 Kings 17:1-2), Manasseh (2 Kings 21:1-2; 2 Chron. 33:1-2), Amon (2 Kings 21:19-20; 2 Chron. 33:21-22), Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:31-32), Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:36-37; 2 Chron. 36:5), Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24:8-9; 2 Chron. 36:9), and Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:18-19; 2 Chron. 36:11-12; Jer. 52:1-2).

If God was making those kings do evil and turning their hearts away from Him, then He would be fighting against Himself because He also commands us to come to Him, obey His Word, and live righteous lives. God is not the author of confusion, and a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The very definition of “evil in God’s sight” is that it refers to thoughts and actions that are contrary to the will of God. But if God is the cause behind a king’s (or any person’s) evil thoughts and actions, then the person would not be doing that which was “evil in the sight of the Lord,” he would be doing the will of God—what God wanted him to do; and by definition, obeying the will of God is not doing evil.

So we see that Proverbs 21:1 is a true “proverb” in that it speaks of something that is ideally true or sometimes true, but it does not refer to a universal truth—something that is always true. It is similar to many of the proverbs in the Bible; for example, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,” yet we know there are good parents whose children turned away from God. Proverbs are generally true, but not always true. God can direct a king’s heart, and our hearts, if we are open to His guidance.

Pro 21:2

“Every person’s road is right in his own eyes, but Yahweh examines the hearts.” It is natural for people to think that what they do is right. The Hebrew word “way” also means “road,” and the phrase “right in his own eyes” is idiomatic and means, “is right to him,” or “seems right to him.” So the verse could be more colloquially worded as, “Every road a man decides to take seems right to him, but Yahweh weighs the heart.”

The fact that a person thinks that what he is doing is right does not make it right. Obeying God is right and disobeying God is wrong no matter how we think or feel about what we do. God is our Creator and Judge. If a person has an evil or unclean heart, then his thoughts and actions will be ungodly even though he does not realize it. That is why the Bible commands us in James 4:8: “purify your hearts, you double-minded!” Furthermore, we must guard our hearts against becoming evil, because the heart is always changing: “More than everything else you watch over, guard your heart, for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). If a person’s heart is so wrong that he never comes to God and gets saved, then he falls into the category of Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way that leads to death” (see commentary on Prov. 14:12).

The fact that our hearts can be ungodly but we not be aware of it is why it is imperative that we enlist wise and honest counselors to help us stay on track with God (Prov. 11:14; 12:15; 15:22; 24:6). In the law of the United States, “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and the same is true for the law of God. The Word of God contains God’s commands to us, and we are responsible to obey Him even if we have not taken the time to learn what those commands are. That is why Jesus said, “the one who did not know [the will of God] but did things worthy of stripes, will be beaten with few stripes” (Luke 12:48), in contrast to the one who knew the will of God but ignored it who will be beaten with many stripes (Luke 12:47). We should want to receive a full reward in the next life, but we can lose it if we disobey knowingly or unknowingly (2 John 1:8). The Word of God is freely available to most people, and the wise take the time to learn it.

Pro 21:3

“righteousness and justice.” Living a righteous and just life takes humility and discipline. Life is not fair or nice, and the godly suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12), yet they are required to bear up under it without becoming resentful or bitter. Being “religious” and offering external things like prayers and sacrifices does not require clean, godly hearts; that is clear from the many ungodly priests of Israel who did the duties of the Temple. Jesus compared the religious leaders of his time to whitewashed tombs that appeared clean on the outside but inside were full of dead people’s bones and were full of uncleanness (Matt. 23:27). There are many verses in the Bible that are much stronger than this one about God not accepting the sacrifices of the wicked. Proverbs 21:27, later in this chapter, is one of them.

[For more information about God not hearing the prayers of the wicked or accepting their sacrifices, see commentary on Amos 5:22.]

Pro 21:4

“arrogant heart.” See commentary on Proverbs 28:25.

“the lamp of the wicked.” The Hebrew literally reads, “the lamp of the wicked,” and the verse reads “Haughty eyes, and a proud heart—the lamp of the wicked—is sin.” However, that is sufficiently unclear in English to call for the addition of the italics to bring out more clearly the meaning of the verse: “the lamp that guides the wicked.” The genitive phrase is a genitive of relation, and in the biblical culture people used lamps so they could see and be guided in what they did, so the “lamp of the wicked” can be understood to mean the “lamp that guides the wicked.” The point is that, for the wicked, it is their own haughty eyes and proud heart that provides the light that they walk by, not the Word of God or the truth. Thus the proverb is saying that just as a person uses a lamp in a dark room to guide himself, the wicked are guided in what they do by their proud hearts and haughty eyes. But their proud hearts and haughty eyes do not perceive life as it really is, and they are sin in the eyes of God.

This verse explains why wicked people so often misread other people’s motivations and/or don’t get facts correct. They cannot see the world by the light of truth, instead, they see the world by the light of their own arrogance and pride. When dealing with a proud and arrogant person do not expect them to understand or correctly assess your motives or actions; evil people will see evil in you even though it is not there, but you will usually not be able to convince them of that.

Pro 21:5(top)
Pro 21:6

“who seek death.” People who seek to “get ahead” and lie to get treasures of money and power think that they will be well off for their efforts. They won’t, although they do not know it, they are only seeking their own everlasting death. The truly wealthy may be poor in this life, but God will fulfill His promise of everlasting rewards to those who are godly and faithful to Him.

Pro 21:7

“the violence of the wicked will drag them away because they refused to act with justice.” Wicked people use violence to get what they want: they bully people and use their power, money, and influence to get their way; they are not concerned about being fair or just to others. The fact that they “refuse to act with justice” builds in our minds the mental picture of all the people they took advantage of in life who pleaded with them for justice but were simply dragged out of their way. On the Day of Judgment, they will be treated as they treated others: their own Violence, here personified as their executioner, will drag them away to the justice they deserve.

Pro 21:8

“the road of a guilty person.” This verse makes its point by having us picture two roads (the word “way” and “road” or “path” are the same in Hebrew). The road of the guilty person is crooked. The guilty are always changing their story and adjusting who they are. In contrast, the pure are “straight.” They walk a straight path in who they are and what they do.

“works.” In the Hebrew text “works” is singular, “work,” but it refers to his work as a collective noun, so “works” expresses the thought well in English.

Pro 21:9

“the corner of a rooftop.” This proverb is sometimes taught as if it is just a disparagement of women and how emotional, contentious, or nagging they can be. While there can be people who are contentious like that, and it is best to retreat from them, knowing the heart of our Father God, we can also see this verse as good advice from our heavenly Father about how to preserve and improve a marriage or relationship in difficult times. The man going to the roof for a while likely happened more often than we might think. Houses had flat roofs, and when the weather was nice it was common to relax and even sleep on the roof. Some roofs even had a little room built on them (2 Kings 4:10). Even if the husband felt he was chased to the corner of the housetop, he still had space to get calm which was better than being attacked or being in a fight in the house.

If the woman of the house was being contentious, as the proverb says, or if the couple was having a hard time communicating without a lot of hurtful words and actions, it is quite likely that the man of the house would go to the roof to create some space between the couple. It is often the case when a couple is having serious trouble that it is good for them to have some time apart, and that is exactly what the proverb says, that it is “better” to live on the roof than to continue to live in the tension in the house. Culture dictated why the man would be the one to go onto the roof: women were generally not subjected to public view and also the work of the women, including the cooking and the care of the children, would be done inside the house, so she couldn’t really leave it.

The Bible never says how long the man would stay on the roof, and it seems clear he is not making the roof a permanent residence but rather giving some time for the contention to cease. Couples are usually able to work out how and when to get back together and in that culture, there was a lot of family support and advice for both the men and the women that would help them through difficult times.

Pro 21:10

“desires.” The Hebrew word avah (#0183 אָוַה) is very strong, and should be understood as a strong desire, a greedy desire, something longed for, sighed after, or craved. The wicked person longs so badly for what they want that they have no thought for the wants, needs, or rights of others. They have no mercy or pity for them.

Pro 21:11

“he accepts knowledge.” The Hebrew is ambiguous as to who the “he” is, the naïve one or the wise one. Actually, it applies to both of them, because a naïve person can learn if he wants to when he hears a wise person being taught. The verb “accepts” is in the active voice and thus indicates active listening and learning. Learning is not a passive action as if we could just sit back, do nothing, and learn. We have to actively accept the knowledge.

Pro 21:12

“A righteous person.” The Hebrew text reads, “A righteous,” using the adjective “righteous” as a substantive, describing something righteous, for example, “a righteous person.” There are scholarsa who believe that the phrase refers to God, and thus the right way to translate the substantive is by supplying the word “One” and understanding the phrase as if it started with the definite article: “The Righteous One.” They assert that it is God who keeps an eye on the activities of mankind and has the power to bring wicked people to ruin. That is true, and although many wicked people seem to escape being ruined in this life, no one will escape the Day of Judgment.

However, many scholars believe that if the verse were referring to God, the definite article “the” would have been supplied in the text, and it would have said “the righteous” instead of “a righteous,”b or the phrase would have been written differently. God expects rulers and those in power to protect good and godly people and find ways to get rid of, or limit, the influence of, evil people. Righteous people do not let evil go unnoticed or unchecked. The righteous “keep an eye on”c the wicked with a view to bringing their wickedness to an end.

“ruin.” The Hebrew is more literally, “evil,” thus, “bringing the wicked to evil,” but the idea is the ruin of the wicked.

Cp. Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 [NICOT].
Cp. Michael Fox, Proverbs 10-31 [AB].
Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon.
Pro 21:13(top)
Pro 21:14

“subdues.” The verse is about bribes; the second stanza is very clear about that, but the first stanza also clearly implies it. The Hebrew word translated “subdues” can mean to pacify, soothe, or subdue, but it can also mean “to avert.” Thus a bribe can both avert anger before the one expecting the bribe gets angry, or it can pacify a person who is already angry. This verse is not encouraging bribery in any way, but it is showing that bribes do work and therefore present a danger in any culture. The fallen nature of man is such that if bribes become the norm in a culture it is very hard to root them out and reestablish an honest society. Leaders are to be people who hate bribes (Exod. 18:21), and they should work very hard to discourage them and prosecute the people who take them and thus pervert justice and honest business. God tells us not to take bribes (Exod. 23:8; Deut. 16:19). Anyone who took a bribe in a judicial setting that resulted in shedding innocent blood was cursed (Deut. 27:25).

“secret bribe.” The Hebrew reads, “a bribe in the bosom,” but that is not clear to the English reader. The biblical custom was that people wore long robes and cloaks, and tied them up with a sash or belt in a way that created folds in which things could be hidden. So one person could slip a bribe to another person who would then hide it in the fold of his garment.

Pro 21:15

“terror.” The Hebrew word can also mean “ruin” or “destruction,” and those also sometimes apply. People who thrive on sin and preying on others are terrified when justice is done and they see their own punishment coming, and/or they also see their own ruin because they will lose their source of wealth and even the wealth and influence they have will be destroyed.

Pro 21:16

“dead.” The Hebrew is “Rephaim,” who were a branch group of the Nephilim (see commentaries on Genesis 6:2 and 6:4). The Rephaim were not saved so were dead, without life. Unsaved people will be thrown in the Lake of Fire and be consumed, at which point they become like the Rephaim—totally dead; annihilated.

Given the horrible consequences of leaving the path of wisdom and living a life of sin, this verse is strong encouragement for people to do what it takes to remain obedient to God.

Pro 21:17

“not become rich.” The phrase “will not become rich” is the figure of speech tapeinosis, or “understatement.” The truth is understated for emphasis. The person who loves pleasure will spend their money on all kinds of things that bring them pleasure but that they don’t need to spend their money on and they will eventually end up poor. The second stanza contains that same idea. the person who loves wine and oil will “not become rich,” that is, they will become poor, as the first stanza says.

[See figure of speech “tapeinosis.”]

One of the fruit of the spirit is self-control, and self-control is essential to long-term success in life. For example, if you want to have money to retire, you have to save regularly for a long time instead of spending all that you make on things you want and “need.” If you want your physical body to stay in shape, you have to exercise regularly year after year. If you want to lose weight, you have to eat properly and exercise over a long period of time. The Devil wants people poor and sick, so “the world” puts its emphasis on “now.” For example, “Buy it now even if you don’t have the money—just use credit.” The wise Christian knows the value of self-discipline and acting wisely, and the Bible has a number of verses on the subject (cp. Prov. 5:23; 6:6-11; 21:20; 23:20-21).

Pro 21:18(top)
Pro 21:19(top)
Pro 21:20(top)
Pro 21:21(top)
Pro 21:22(top)
Pro 21:23

“trouble.” The Hebrew is plural, “troubles,” but we would more naturally say “trouble” as a collective noun.

Pro 21:24

“Presumptuous, Proud, Mocker.” The three words are all nouns. It is possible that “Presumptuous” and “Proud” define “mocker,” as is represented in most versions, but the NASB, for example, sees all three nouns as names (and thus also descriptions). The word “name” is singular in the text.

“acts with arrogant presumptuousness.” The Hebrew is more literally, “in the wrath of pride.” Pride results in arrogant presumptuousness and wrath.

Pro 21:25

“lazy.” See commentary on Prov. 6:6, “lazy one.”

Pro 21:26(top)
Pro 21:27

“is an abomination.” Sacrifices and offerings made to God by wicked people are an abomination to God; He has no respect for them and will not accept them. Sacrifices and offerings were never designed to make a person with an evil heart acceptable in the sight of God. This verse has similarities with Proverbs 15:8.

[For more information about the sacrifices of wicked people being of no value, see commentary on Amos 5:22.]

Pro 21:28

“will go on speaking.” In other words, while the false witness will perish and so not be able to talk, a person who listens will live, and thus be able to go on speaking.

Pro 21:29(top)
Pro 21:30(top)
Pro 21:31(top)

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