Proverbs 29:14-17

Proverbs 29:14-17 September 3, 2010


Verses 12-13 move toward the themes of verse 14.  Verse 12 is about a ruler who gives heed to falsehood, and verse 13 is about the poor.  Verse 14 combines the two interests with a statement about the role of a king.

According to the Torah, judges are supposed to judge righteously, without regard to social standing, wealth, or influence.  Judges ought not favor the poor (Exodus 23:1-3), nor accept the bribes of the rich (Exodus 23:8; Leviticus 19:15).  Judges are to do impartial justice to all (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).  Yet there are also passages that emphasize that judges are to give special attention to the poor, and these passages are often directly concerned with the actions of rulers (Psalm 72:13; 82:3-4; Isaiah 10:1-4; 11:1-5).  This proverb is among the passages that emphasize the duty of the king to judge the poor in truth or “faithfulness” ( emeth ).  In defending the rights of the poor, the king is imitating Yahweh Himself, who is particularly kind to the poor and the helpless (1 Samuel 2:8; Psalm 113:7).  Yahweh is Father of the fatherless, Husband to widows, the Help of the helpless, and Defender of the weak.

How do we put together these two sides of biblical instruction to kings?  If kings are to be impartial in judgment, how can Scripture use the treatment of the poor as a test of faithful kingship?  The answer, I think, is this: The wealthy and powerful have their own resources of self-protection and self-advancement.  When they get into legal trouble, they can hire the best lawyers and keep things going virtually forever.  The poor do not, and so the legal system must be particularly oriented to ensuring that the poor are not swallowed up and abused by the rich.  The fact that the rich get justice is not a sign that the system is just; it’s a sign that the rich know how to get their way.  But a system that actually protects the rights of the poor is a system that is doing justice impartially.

An example: In ancient Rome, the wealthy could exhaust the poor in court just by continuing to make appeals.  Each appeal cost both parties money, and eventually the poorer litigant was simply incapable of continuing.  No matter how good the poor man’s case was, he couldn’t win.  Constantine cut through the system by allowing litigants to appeal from the civil courts to ecclesiastical courts, where the bishop would conduct the trial without cost to either party.  Justice was thus put on a more equitable footing.  The sign that the system was working more righteously was that the rights of the poor were being protected.

Yahweh’s throne is established forever because He protects the poor (2 Samuel 7:16; Psalm 9:7; 93:2; 103:19).  The throne of Yahweh’s Messianic Son will also be established forever, for the same reason (Isaiah 16:5).  The throne of Jesus fulfills the promise of the Davidic covenant, that an eternal throne would be established for David (1 Kings 2:24-25).  A king’s throne can be established if he refrains from wicked acts (Proverbs 16:12), removes the wicked (Proverbs 25:5), and judges the poor in truth (29:14).

Scripture as a whole teaches that the test of a just legal and political system is the way that the poor, weak, marginal are treated.  The Bible teaches a “preferential option for the poor,” and policies should be tested by how well they serve the “least of these.”  For all the appeal to biblical standards, many on the religious right have failed to develop their political programs on this basis.  Conformity to the Constitution has been much more central to the Religious Right’s program.  Christians who want to promote biblical standards in modern political life must learn not only to justify their policies as policies that “faithfully judge the poor” but must also work out a policy agenda actually based on that principle.  Promoting prolife policies because we want to protect the unprotected should not be merely rhetorical.

This sounds like a “liberal” emphasis, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to “liberal” policies.  What kind of policies meet this standard?  The question is partly empirical: Do minimum wage laws help or hurt the workers who are lowest on the wage scale?  Do high taxes help or hurt those who pay the lowest taxes?  Are property taxes regressive?  Over the long run, do modern bureaucratic welfare systems help or hurt their clients?  Who actually gets hit by an embargo, or by tariffs?


This is, of course, one of many proverbs that speaks of the duty of parents to discipline their children by the rod and by verbal correction (13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14).  Some of these stress the negative effect of the rod and reproof: They purge the child of his folly.  Others emphasize the fact that the rod and reproof provide positive benefits: Strike a son, and you will rescue him from Sheol.

Proverbs 29:15 goes beyond all of these in highlighting the positive effect of faithful use of the rod and correction.  The rod doesn’t simply cleanse off dirt, but actually gives something to the disciplined child.  What it gives is wisdom, the skill in living that is the most important pursuit in life according to Solomon.  Wisdom dwells in the heart and brings pleasure to the soul (2:10).  Whoever finds wisdom is happy (3:13), and discerns the realities of the world, which were made by God’s wisdom (3:19).  Wisdom is the principal thing (4:7), a bride and sister (7:4), better than rubies and more precious than gold (8:11).  Whenever a parent picks up the rod, he or she should think that they are giving a precious gift to their child, the gift of wisdom.

In its initial uses in the Old Testament, the word “wisdom” refers to artistic skill.  And the pattern of Proverbs 29:15 applies also to that arena of life: If we want to develop skill in any artistic endeavor, we need to submit to correction and to disciplining punishment of some sort.  That, in fact, is the pattern of life in general.  We become skilled/wise in any pursuit – sports, acting, writing, singing, piano-playing, sculpting, driving, building, etc etc – by trusting submission to the rod and reproof.  Any football player who refuses to listen to the coach’s corrections, or avoids the shock of hitting and getting hit is going to spend a lot of time on the bench.

The second line of verse 15 reads literally, “a child being sent away shames his mother.”  The passive form of “send away” can refer to someone sent on a mission (Judges 5:15; Proverbs 17:11), someone dismissed from the presence of another or as in a divorce (Genesis 44:3; Isaiah 50:1).  The word describes those who are “cast out” (Isaiah 16:2).  The child in Proverbs 29 is not merely being “left” but is being dismissed, sent out.  Whether the scenario is that the child is being ignored or dismissed from the house (prematurely?), the contrast with the first part of the verse makes it clear that the child is not under the rod and reproof.  No longer under the disciplines of the household, he is also not a recipient of the gifts of the household, the gift of wisdom.

The result is a child who causes shame.  A number of proverbs speak of the shame that a wayward child brings on a home.  Lazy sons bring shame (10:5), as also is the son who wastes his father and chases away his mother (19:26).  Children are in this sense extensions of parents; they are not separable.  Reputation of one is the reputation of the other, and the clearest manifestation of the true moral state of parents is their children’s conduct.  For this reason, Paul says
that a man who has unruly children cannot be an elder in the church.  Paul doesn’t extract the man’s reputation from the conduct of his children.

“Shame” in Scripture is often associated with defeat.  “Let me not be ashamed; let not my enemies triumph over me,” David prays (Psalm 25:2).  Children are “arrows” in the hand of a mighty man, but if he “sends away” his children to go their own way, then his arrows are useless.  He will be shamed, defeated, humiliated.

Why would the shame of a wayward child come to rest on his or her mother?  The only other place where the bad behavior of a child is said to bring shame to his mother is in 1 Samuel 20:30, where Saul rebuke Jonathan for favoring David “to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness.”  According to Saul, Jonathan is acting like an illegitimate son, which casts doubt on his paternity, and hence makes his mother the object of shameful gossip.  In Proverbs 29, perhaps the idea is similar: By evil behavior in public, the son undermines his father’s reputation, and makes it seem as if his mother might be a whore.


The first line of verse 16 has a poetic symmetry.  The Hebrew, transliterated, reads:

birvoth resha’iym yirbeh pasha’

The first and third word are different forms of the same Hebrew verb, ravah .  In their lexical forms, the second and fourth words differ only in a single letter: rasha and pasha .  The symmetry of the poetry reinforces the symmetry of the process that it describes.  There is a direct proportion between the increase/multiplication of wicked people and the increase of transgression or rebellion.

The point is deepened when we note that the verb for “increase” is the word for multiply in Genesis 1.  Human beings are created to multiply (Genesis 1:28), and in the proverb the wicked are to that extent obedient to God’s commands.  They are indeed multiplying, but as they multiply, they fill the world with rebellion.  They will be destroyed as judgments “multiply,” just as the flood waters “multiply” over the wicked in Noah’s day (Genesis 7:17-18).

The point of the proverb is to show that the multiplication of the wicked will come to an end.  When they seem to be an unstoppable force, full of vitality and life, then they will fall.  The word fall is intriguing in several ways.  First, the Hebrew wording of the second line of the proverb is “the righteous in their fall shall see.”  The point is not so much that the righteous will see the fall, but that the fall of the wicked will clear the ground so that the righteous can see the landscape.  Seeing is judgment, and when the wicked fall the righteous will be able to make faithful judgments.

Second, the word is used in one passage to describe the corpse, the “fallen part” of someone who has been defeated in battle (Judges 14:8).  That is the story of Samson’s defeat of the lion, a lion that represents the Philistines whom Samson also will defeat.  Once he kills the lion, he takes honey from its “fallen part,” its carcass.  The proverb perhaps implies that the righteous will see the carcass of the wicked, and that they will be able to gather the sweetness of the land that has hitherto been overrun with the wicked.  Another honey story comes to mind as well: Jonathan finds honey during a battle and when he eats it his eyes are brightened and he is able to continue fighting (1 Samuel 14).

Finally, outside this proverb and the Judges passage, the word is used only in Ezekiel to describe the fall and ruin of cities (Ezekiel 26:15, 18; 27:27; 31:13, 16; 32:10).  When the wicked multiply and their cities grow large, the righteous can be confident that they are merely grass that grows and fades in the heat of the sun, like flowers whose petals fall in the evening.


This proverb contains another reminder to parents to correct their sons (as in 19:18).  Yahweh chastens His children (Leviticus 26:18, 28; Psalm 6:2; 38:2; 39:12; 118:18; Jeremiah 2:19; 10:24), and so should we.

In the earlier proverb, parents are assured that by faithful use of the rod and reproof, they give wisdom to their children.  Here, they are promised that there is a return to them.  The son who is corrected gives things back.  Two things are mentioned here.  First, the corrected son brings “rest.”  The verb is the verb at the root of the name Noah ( noach ), so named because he gave rest work and the toil of hands (Genesis 6).  A corrected son becomes like a new Noah, bringing rest, faithfully taking the world through the waters of the flood to a new creation.  When parents correct their sons, they can rest easy.

Second, the son gives delight to the soul.  The word is used of refined foods (Genesis 49:20; Lamentations 4:5), and may have that connotation here.  Our souls desire, and the hungers and thirsts of parents are fulfilled by a responsive and faithful son, who “feeds” them, bringing delight and refreshment.

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