This section of Proverbs 11 highlights several issues. The first two verses treat issues of honesty and dishonesty; verses 3-8 describe the security of the righteous. Verses 9-14 return to various concerns regarding the use of the tongue, which was a theme of the previous chapter.
HONESTY AND HUMILITY
Proverbs 11:1 urges honesty in economic transactions. The balance and the weight refer to the disks that a merchant would use to weigh out goods to determine price. Weights would be marked with a certain value, but dishonest merchants would carry a light and a heavy weight marked with the same value: A 1-pound weight that was more than one point for selling; a 1-pound weight that was less than one pound for buying. If he was buying and selling grain for 2 shekels a pound, he could sell less than one pound of grain for 2 shekels, but buy more than one pound with 2 shekels.
One of the striking things about verse 1 is the direct theological reference. Solomon is speaking about economic transactions, not about high and exalted “spiritual” realities, yet Yahweh responds with approbation or condemnation. God is not “too transcendent” to concern himself with “mundane” things like economics. He desires to see righteousness and honesty flourish in the details of human life.
“Abomination” has a specific meaning in Scripture, referring to an act that God finds so distasteful that He will spew His people from His mouth or from His land. An “abomination that brings desolation” is an act of defiance against God that leads to desolating destruction. That is how God regards unjust weights and measures: They are so detestable to Him that He will drive Israel from the land for these kinds of injustices. The prophets frequently pick up on this message, condemning not only Israel’s idolatries but also the unrighteousness that infuses Israel’s social, economic, and political life.
Many commentators have applied this Proverb to the modern issue of inflation. Inflation is not essentially a question of rising prices, but of an arbitrary increase in the money supply, which results in more dollars chasing a constant amount of goods and services. In inflationary economy, money does not have a fixed value, and commentators have suggested that this is a form of unjust weights and measures. Inflation gives an advantage to debtors, since they are able to pay off their debts with money that is less valuable, has less purchasing power, than the money they borrowed; for the same reason, inflation is a disadvantage to creditors. As Herbert Schlossberg pointed out, the greatest debtors in modern life are governments, who thus have a vested interest in inflationary policies. If this analysis is sound, then it suggests that our governments are systematically violating the requirement of just weights and measures, that is, systematically indulging in policies that Solomon says are abominable.
Proverbs 11:2 deal with pride and humility, and as elsewhere in Scripture tell us that pride, contrary to appearances, leads to dishonor. The contrasting line in 11:2b does not say that the humble are honored, but that they have wisdom. This needs to be read in the light of earlier teaching in Proverbs that honor and riches accompany wisdom. The “asymmetry” between dishonor in 11:2a and wisdom in 11:2b create a double contrast: The pride have no wisdom, and they receive dishonor; the humble are wise and receive honor. The great biblical exemplar of humble wisdom is Jesus Himself, the Wisdom of God who humbled Himself to become a servant and as a result was highly exalted.
Humility and wisdom seemed to be tied together in a couple of ways. First, the humble person is teachable, recognizing that he doesn’t know everything, and doesn’t have all the skills he needs to be successful. Meanwhile, the proud person is convinced that he knows all he needs to know; he doesn’t think he has anything more to learn from anybody. The humble person is realistic, the proud person is not, because everyone has things to learn. Second, a biblically humble person recognizes his place before God, and thus fears God, which is the beginning of wisdom.
Security is one of the great desires of all human beings. Nations strive for security, as we have seen in America since 9/11. Businesses spend thousands and millions of dollars on security systems, and some individual homes are guarded like a prison. People strive for financial security so that they can handle any disasters and live comfortably. Yet, Scripture teaches us that security is not found in arms, wealth, power, or any other ability that we can provide. Security is a gift from God, and the only true path of security is the path of righteousness and wisdom. That is the main theme of Proverbs 11:3-8.
Let’s look at 11:4. In a sense, wealth can provide a lot of protection. The residents of New Orleans who could afford to live above sea level, who could afford home and car insurance, who could get quickly out of town, were able to survive Katrina. Wealth’s power to protect and provide a kind of security makes it particularly tempting and dangerous. It seduces us into thinking that we are safe. But this proverb reminds us that riches cannot protect us from disaster. If God wants to blow away a rich man’s house and goods with a tornado, He can, and there’s nothing the man can do about it. More importantly, this verse points beyond the trials of this life to the “day of wrath” (dies irae) that is coming. At death, we cannot rely on our goods to save us. (The medieval morality play Everyman shows this: Everyman is called to die, and wants his goods to accompany him, but Goods refuses to go.) Before the judgment seat of God, after death, there is no hope for prosperity except in righteousness, the righteousness that is a gift of God. Verse 7 says something similar about strength: the strong man cannot rely on his strength in the day of death.
11:5 contrasts the way of the wicked, which is full of stumbling blocks and obstacles, with the way of the righteous, which is smooth and clear. This is true in a very concrete sense: A sexually promiscuous man places himself on a path where disease, high expense, scandal, and other things can trip him up. A greedy man who satisfies his greed through dishonest business dealings places himself on a collision course with the law (v. 6). A lazy man is making his life difficult – he’ll skip from job to job, never have enough money to pay his bills. All sin consumes time and energy and resources that might be used otherwise, and makes life more difficult.
11:8 winds up this section by promising that the Lord (the “divine passive”) will deliver the righteous from trouble, and substitute the wicked man in his place. Though this is true, it has a somewhat paradoxical twist when we think about it in the light of the New Testament. In the gospel, we proclaim the opposite, that God has delivered wicked men from the consequences of their actions, and replaced them with a righteous man. Ultimately, the righteous Jesus is also delivered from all trouble, because the Father raises His Son from the dead. But when we consider the resurrection, we should never forget the divine wisdom that substitutes a righteous man for the wicked, the divine wisdom that looks like folly.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Friday, February 13, 2009 at 11:54 am
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