Proverbs 20 is a collection of thirty assorted wisdom sayings. While the chapter does not seem to have an overarching theme, the topics of false weights, the king, laziness, and speech occur more than once.
Verse 19 warns about sharing secrets, “He who gives away secrets is a base fellow; Do not take up with a talkative man.”
III. Important Verses
v. 1: Wine is a scoffer, strong drink a roisterer; He who is muddled by them will not grow wise.
v. 4: In winter the lazy man does not plow; At harvesttime he seeks, and finds nothing.
v. 10: False weights and false measures, Both are an abomination to the LORD.
v. 12: The ear that hears, the eye that sees — The LORD made them both.
v. 13: Do not love sleep lest you be impoverished; Keep your eyes open and you will have plenty of food.
v. 14: “Bad, bad,” says the buyer, But having moved off, he congratulates himself.
v. 15: Gold is plentiful, jewels abundant, But wise speech is a precious object.
v. 17: Bread gained by fraud may be tasty to a man, But later his mouth will be filled with gravel.
v. 19: He who gives away secrets is a base fellow; Do not take up with a garrulous man.
v. 24: A man’s steps are decided by the LORD; What does a man know about his own way?
v. 27: The lifebreath of man is the lamp of the LORD Revealing all his inmost parts.
1. Hard drink
2. The king’s wrath
3. Rising above strife
5. The wise man
6. The faithful man
7. The righteous
8-9. The king (God?) and judgment
10. False weights
11. A young man’s actions
12. God created sight/hearing
14. A buyer
15. The value of righteous speech
16. Going surety
17. Unjust gain
18. Seeking council
19. Giving away secrets
20. Abjuring one’s parents
21. Quick wealth
22. Trust in God
23. False weights
24. God decides man’s outcome
25. A hasty vow
26. The king
27. God inside man
28. The king
29. The glory of the young/old
Like the chapters that precede it, Proverbs 20 does not seem to have an overarching theme. In terms of parallelism, mot of the sayings employ either synonymous or synthetic parallelism (antithetic parallelism continues to decline). In terms of structure, some of the sayings are juxtaposed because of their catchwords: v. 1 uses the word letz which was present in the last two verses of the previous chapter, vv. 5-6 use the word ish, vv. 10-12 use the word gam, vv. 12-13 have the word ‘ayin, vv. 16, 17, 19 have the word ‘arev (but note the different meanings), vv. 22-24 have God’s name, and vv. 24-25 have the word ‘adam.
It should be noted that many ancient and modern commentators (e.g. Kil’s Da’at Mikra) attempt to find structure and thematic sections in the book. However, Murphy writes (p. 154), “The recognition of a context within a chapter on the basis of catch words, and the relationship of one saying to another, and so forth, makes the reading of the book more exciting. At the same time, one must beware of creating false unities within a chapter. It is a delicate operation to read the mind of the collector. Moreover, how much is gained?” In other words, each proverb should stand alone; even if a saying is juxtaposed to another because of a catchword or similar message, the meaning of that verse should not be altered based on its particular placement in a chapter.
V. 1 speaks about the dangers of hard drink, “Wine is a scoffer, strong drink a roisterer; He who is muddled by them will not grow wise.” While this is a statement, Prov. 23:31-33 gives a stern warning: “Do not ogle that red wine As it lends its color to the cup, As it flows on smoothly; In the end, it bites like a snake; It spits like a basilisk. Your eyes will see strange sights; Your heart will speak distorted things.” Prov. 21:17 speaks about the effect wine has on one’s income: “He who loves pleasure comes to want; He who loves wine and oil does not grow rich.” This is similar to the saying about sleep in our chapter (v. 13), “Do not love sleep lest you be impoverished; Keep your eyes open and you will have plenty of food.” However, it is important to note that not all sayings about wine are negative: Woman Wisdom actually serves wine at her banquet (9:5-6), “[She says,] ‘Come, eat my food And drink the wine that I have mixed; Give up simpleness and live, Walk in the way of understanding.’”
V. 10 speaks about honesty, “False weights and false measures, Both are an abomination (to’avat) to the LORD.” Prov. 11:1 has an identical message: “False scales are an abomination (to’avat) to the LORD ; An honest weight (‘even sheleimah) pleases Him.” While the book of Proverbs never directly quotes the Pentateuch, these verses seems to reflect – in both meaning and vocabulary – Deut. 25:13-16: “You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights (‘even sheleimah) and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the LORD your God is giving you. For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent (to’avat) to the LORD your God.” For a similar message, see Lev. 19:35: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity.” For other proverbs similar to ours see 16:11 and 20:23.
While we have seen many of the sayings which appraise the value of Wisdom (e.g. 2:4, 3:14-15, 8:10, 8:18, etc.), v. 15 speaks about the particular value of wise speech: “Gold is plentiful, jewels abundant, But wise speech is a precious object.” A similar verse is 10:20, “The tongue of a righteous man is choice silver, But the mind of the wicked is of little worth.” Also see 25:11-12, “Like golden apples in silver showpieces Is a phrase well turned. Like a ring of gold, a golden ornament, Is a wise man’s reproof in a receptive ear.”
V. 17 speaks about unjust gain, “Bread gained by fraud may be tasty to a man, But later his mouth will be filled with gravel.” This message seems to be similar to the message of 9:16-18 where Woman Folly tries to tempt an unknowing fool, “[She says,] ‘Let the simple enter here’; And to those devoid of sense she says, ‘Stolen waters are sweet, And bread eaten furtively is tasty.’ He does not know that the shades are there, That her guests are in the depths of Sheol.”
V. 24 speaks about God’s control of man, “A man’s steps are decided by the LORD; What does a man know about his own way?” With this in mind Prov. 16:3 says, “Entrust your affairs to the LORD, And your plans will succeed.” This is similar to the message of Ps. 127:1-2, “A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain. In vain do you rise early and stay up late, you who toil for the bread you eat; He provides as much for His loved ones while they sleep.” Also see Jer. 10:23: “I know, O LORD, that man’s road is not his to choose, That man, as he walks, cannot direct his own steps. Also see Prov. 16:4 and 16:25.
V. 27 gives an interesting metaphor, “The lifebreath of man is the lamp of the LORD Revealing all his inmost parts.” It is reminiscent of Gen. 2:7, “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” This type of thinking seems to have caused Elihu to say to Job, “But truly it is the spirit in men, The breath of Shaddai, that gives them understanding. It is not the aged who are wise, The elders, who understand how to judge” (Job 32:8-9).
VI. Works Used
See “Commentaries” page.
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