Bruce Waltke notes that these verses hang together around the theme of correction and discipline. Verse 17 starts the sequence with instruction about correcting sons. Verse 18 expands to correction and training, restraining, of an entire people, and verses 19-21 deal with treatment of servants and slaves. Embedded within these proverbs about servants is one concerning hastiness in speech, which, Waltke says, qualifies the warning about maximizing the power of speech by stressing the dangers of minimizing speech.
Scripture teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. As the Westminster Larger Catechism emphasizes, we are to act with faithfulness and love toward those above us, alongside us, beneath us. But Scripture’s teaching concerning love is not sentimental and soft. Love is bold, requires discipline, corrects and rebukes. Love seeks the genuine good of the other. Too often, what passes for love in our lives is simply indifference and self-indulgence. We “tolerate” because we don’t want to go to the trouble of genuinely loving others.
The first line of the proverb described a lack among a people. What are they lacking? The word chazon is usually translated as “vision” (Isaiah 1:1; Daniel 8:1), “revelation,” or “oracle.” In many instances, the word refers to prophetic vision and revelation, and we can get some idea of what the word means by examining some of the passages where it is used. Priests consult Yahweh by Urim and Thummim; kings receive revelation in dreams; prophets see visions.
According to 1 Samuel 3:1, Samuel was born in a time when the word of Yahweh was rare, and when there was no open chazon . During that chapter, Yahweh appears to Samuel and gives him a message for Eli and for Israel, a message of judgment. Without chazon , the people do indeed perish – Eli and his sons die, Israel is defeated by the Philistines, the ark is captured, the tabernacle torn in pieces. But there is yet hope, because the Lord has begun to reveal Himself to Samuel, and a vision is being restored. In a number of places, the word has specific reference to the promises of the Davidic covenant. Nathan receives word from Yahweh about an eternal dynasty, a place for Israel to dwell, a house of the Lord’s name, a son who would be son to Yahweh, and he reports the “word of this vision” to David (1 Chronicles 17:1-15). Psalm 89:19 also refers to the Davidic covenant as a “vision.”
The general point is that a nation or people is not dependent merely on place, land, resources, common language, common blood. A people may lack any number of those things and remain vital as a people. What unites a people, what gives life, is visions. When Israel was scattered among the nations, what kept them from perishing? Not power or place but vision, the hope that they would be restored to the land and the hope that the vision of Nathan about David would one day be fulfilled.
To this point, I have been assuming the AV translation of the verb para’ – “perish.” That may not be the best translation. The verb means to loose, to remit a penalty, to act without restraint. When Israel dances before the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, Aaron lets them “loose” (Exodus 32:25). The word sometimes has the connotation of “uncover,” especially uncovering the head for the purpose of mourning (Leviticus 10:6; 13:45; 21:10). Without vision, the proverb says, people go unrestrained, loosed, without direction.
The second line of this proverb shifts the focus significantly. Instead of speaking of a “people” as the first part of the verse does, the verb is singular “he guards.” Instead of the prophetic word chazon , we have the Mosaic word torah . This is not as sharp a contrast as we might think. Torah simply means “instruction,” and instruction can come by vision. Those who guard the instruction of vision are “happy.” The word is most commonly translated as “blessed,” used often in beatitudes in the Psalms (e.g., 1:1; 2:12; 32:1; 33:12; 40:4; etc.). Here, the situation seems to be a people without vision running loose, while the one who keeps and guards Torah is blessed.
The scene at the foot of Sinai might be particularly in view. Aaron has let the people run loose without vision. Moses comes with the tablets of the Torah and breaks them over the calf, and those who guard the Torah – the Levites who fill their hands with swords to kill the idolaters – are blessed.PROVERBS 29:19
Words are fundamental to the biblical view of things. God is Word, and God created by Word. Israel is to live by the Word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh. In the last days, God the Word became flesh to dwell among us and bring us to the Father. Yet, God is not just Word. God is Father, Word, and Breath. This proverb reminds us that this is not only a reality of God’s nature but also the reality of the world in which we live. Words are necessary; words are not sufficient.
The reason why words are not sufficient is given in the second half of this verse. Words communicate understanding, but they cannot compel a response. Yahweh may speak to His servant Israel, a master may speak to a servant, but that doesn’t make the servant listen and answer. The expected and anticipated answer is one of obedience. Words come from the master, and the good servant not only hears but obeys.
What more is needed in addition to words? This verse doesn’t tell us, but the rest of Proverbs provides an answer. Rod and reproof give wisdom; not only word, but chastening lesson provide correction. A servant needs not only instruction in word but also embodied example and embodied discipline. In theological terms, it is Word and Spirit, Word and the Spirit who convicts the world of sin, righteousness, judgment.
Verse 20 uses a verb that is related to the word for “vision” in verse 18. “Vision” is chazon , while “see” is chazah .
Solomon warns against haste several times in Proverbs. Whoever is hasty with his feet, hasty in the way that he walks, will end up sinning (19:2). Diligent men are deliberate in their thoughts and plans, and that leads to plenteousness, but the hasty man ends with poverty (21:5). It may be that this verse also distinguishes short-sighted men from those who take the long view: A hasty man doesn’t think very far ahead. Proverbs 28:20 warns that people who want to get rich quick will not be innocent; pursuit of riches will encourage us to cut corners, trample on people around us, ignore God’s commandments.
Here in 29:20, it is hastiness of speech that is condemned. Solomon has in mind a man who speaks before thinking, perhaps even a man who speaks so fast that the words tumble out. Hasty speech can come from anger – I say “Raca” before I think about the consequences. It can come from fear – I answer with a white lie to avoid exposure. It can come from a general hastiness in life – I am rushing to be rich, rushing with my feet, and my mouth has to rush to keep up.
A man who is hasty in speech is not the same as a fool apparently. But that’s not a compliment or reason for hope. A man who is hasty in speech is even harder to correct than a fool. A man who is hasty in speech has less hope for gaining w
isdom than a fool. He talks too much to listen, and so cannot be turned from a wrong way.
Like verse 19, this is another proverb about treatment of servants. Servants cannot be corrected merely with words, verse 19 tells us. Here, Solomon warns that those who pamper and treat their servants with softness from their youth will eventually find that the servant has become a son.
The verse is difficult to grasp partly because the language is unique. Two words (“pamper” and “to be a son”) are used only here in the Bible. Is the verse a warning: Don’t treat a servant too nicely, or he’ll expect to be treated like a son, expect things that only a son should expect, etc? Or is it a promise: Treat your servants gently, and they will eventually be as loyal to you, as beloved by you, as a son? Either one could fit the larger scope of Scripture.
On the one hand, servants who are treated with kindness become sons. We can think of the slaves who decide they want to be a permanent part of the master’s house, and are bored in the ear to mark that status. Understood this way, this little proverb embodies the whole of redemptive history. Yahweh created Adam as son, treated him gently throughout his infancy and childhood, and at the end, in the after time, raised him up to sonship in His Son. It’s not accidental that the word translated as “in the end” is used for the “latter days” envisioned by the prophets and fulfilled in Jesus.
On the other hand, servants who are pampered, left undisciplined, never corrected except with words (which are by themselves ineffectual), will someday claim a status that is not theirs. They will act as if they are sons, act as if they own the place.