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Proverbs 3:27-32 meaning

One of the clearest and most powerful manifestations of a heart of wisdom is the way one treats one’s neighbor.

Further exploring the relationship between the character building (internal) effects of wisdom and the circumstantial (outer) consequences of wisdom, Solomon gives the reader four Do not sayings. In Proverbs 3:21-26, he describes the value of wisdom in a big-picture, over-arching sort of way that primarily deals with internal choices of who we trust and how we look at things—the perspective we choose. Here he begins to get into the practical day-to-day applications of and responses to wisdom in making decisions.

Solomon is tying together the two threads he introduced in the last section—character and circumstances. Wisdom is like lacing a shoe. The way we are most effective and get the most benefit out of a life of wisdom is by linking together the lace of character with the lace of influencing others (for their good).

The first Do not saying is about helping others: service. Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to do it. Wisdom is not just a prize we get to keep in our hearts. It is practical. It informs not just how we think and believe but what we do and how we relate to others. Wisdom is a shared good. And if we withhold good, we are not participating in wisdom.

Wisdom involves doing good for others when it is due. The word translated from those to whom it is due appears fourteen times in Proverbs and is translated "husband," "owners," "possessors," "man," "schemer," and even "bird." The literal translation is, "Do not withhold good from its owners." The idea seems to be not to withhold good from anyone who presents an opportunity to give assistance. Always practical, the proverb adds when it is in your power to do it. In order for this proverb to be in effect, you must have the opportunity as well as the capacity to render support. If you have the opportunity and capacity to do good, but withhold doing good, you are not following wisdom.

This principle is found in the Mosaic Law. In Exodus we find these verses:

"If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it."
(Exodus 23:4-5)

This makes it clear that wisdom calls us to render aid, do good, even to our enemies. In this instance, it involves returning a stray animal, or relieving an overburdened animal. The opportunity to do good was presented clearly, and you're the one who can do the good. The principle deals with opportunities presented to us. There are clearly more people in the world in need of help than any one person can serve. Which is why the add-on is important; this wisdom principle applies to opportunities that are in your power to do it.

In Proverbs 3:19-20, Solomon talked about how wisdom is woven into the fabric of existence, that it is foundational to the created order. We are not just recipients and consumers of wisdom, but conduits of it. Therefore, the giving and receiving of wisdom, and walking in its path is a communal affair. Something we are meant to both give and receive.

This first do not saying: do not withhold doing good when it is within your power to do it comes with a specific example of what it looks like to withhold doing good. That is to delay doing good. To kick the can down the road. To filibuster the opportunity to do good. The passage instructs you to not deceive your neighbor (and yourself) by feigning a circumstantial obstacle. Saying to them, "Come back tomorrow and I will give it," when you have it with you. Delaying is withholding.

Withholding doing good reveals a heart of hoarding. You cannot effectively hoard good, or wisdom, any more than you can effectively hoard love. As soon as you try to do so, it morphs into foolish, self-destructive selfishness.

So, we are called to share wisdom. To spread that foundational element of creation into our spheres of influence.

The second do not saying is about devising harm against your neighbor. In the first, we harmed our neighbor through neglect; by withholding help. Here Solomon is talking about the kind of premeditated plan to harm others that sinners and fools engage in (see Proverbs 1: 11-15).

All of these Do not sayings show us how to constructively interact within a community—with our neighbor. Devising harm against your neighbor while he lives securely beside you is the opposite of wisdom. It is wicked because it is destructive to community. The entire biblical narrative makes clear that God's ideal for humanity is for us to live in voluntary, mutual cooperation. The Ten Commandments focus around this point (Exodus 20). God called Israel to be a priestly nation—one that demonstrated this point to its neighbors. The first four commands make clear that God is our authority and forbids adopting idols, which are "authorities" that justify immoral, exploitive behavior toward our neighbors (see Leviticus 18 for a description of such behavior common in the pagan practices of Egypt and Canaan).

The last five commands basically say "love your neighbor as yourself." Serve others by honoring and respecting their personal dignity and individual sovereignty. Protect and respect their person, their life, their possessions and their family relationships. Proverbs recognizes that it takes more than a command to have social harmony within a community. It takes wisdom. Wisdom stems from people making internal decisions to trust God and follow His ways as a means to serve their own self-interest.

Roughly a thousand years from the time Solomon assembles Proverbs, Jesus will come to earth as a servant to others and illustrate this point with divine love and service to all people of the earth. Then, after Jesus ascends from the earth to return to heaven, He sends the Holy Spirit to indwell believers, to give them supernatural power to choose voluntary, mutual cooperation. The scripture generally uses the term "righteousness" to describe living in this manner.

Wisdom leads to human flourishing, which means mutual benefit and social harmony. Devising harm disrupts social harmony. By devising harm, we destroy security. A lack of security suppresses mutual cooperation, and diverts resources away from creating mutual benefit for the community. Without security, the individual focus is on self-protection. When we devise harm against our neighbor, we disrupt self-governance and open the door for tyranny.

The inner seed of devising harm against a neighbor is a heart of selfishness and greed—character elements contrary to wisdom. This is wickedness. It is also foolish because it leads to our own destruction (Proverbs 1:19).

In a strange sort of way, even when we discover something good, greed leads us to not want others to share in it. Rather than trusting God to increase bounty for all, we think of life as a zero-sum game—if they are winning, I must be losing. Or, even worse, we define winning as having coercive domination of others. We intend to extract from them for our own perceived benefit. So, we contend with a man without cause, when he has done you no harm. This is the third Do not saying.

We have already seen in verse 21 how to replace anxiety with trust. We lose peace when we fear what others might do to us. What they might say or think and the effect it will have on us. We might rationalize contending with a man without cause due to imagined slights. This kind of contending might be a get-them-before-they-get-you strategy. Perhaps subconscious. But always foolish.

When we contend with a neighbor who has done no harm, we set ourselves against him in order to steal his share of life's success and joy. This kind of behavior, like the other Do not sayings, reveals a heart that is not aligned with wisdom. It is self-seeking and destructive to others, to social harmony. And ultimately destructive to ourselves.

The last Do not saying is about our hidden, internal perspective. It is not enough to avoid doing harm. What is needed is to adopt an attitude of benevolence toward others. To wish them success. This is what frees us from the toxic poison of greed. Solomon prescribes: do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways. If we honor those who acquire ill-gotten gain, it leads us to follow their destructive path. When we envy the violent, it is a short step to practicing their ways. Rather than honoring a man of violence, we should recognize and shame the wreckage he does to our surrounding community.

All four of these warnings are to show Solomon's audience practical examples of how to exercise wisdom in community with others. Importantly, none of his admonitions depend on the actions of others. Solomon urges each of his students to behave with wisdom, unilaterally. Upon reflection, no one can stop this except oneself. It is something we can choose, and no one can prevent it. The implication of this insight is that leadership really matters. When one person is willing to behave with wisdom, it creates a beacon others can follow. Jesus uses the illustration of salt in advising His followers (Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34). A little salt can preserve a large slab of meat. Similarly, a few people behaving with wisdom can preserve an entire community.

Any time we engage in these controlling and devious behaviors we are forgetting the path of the wise. Only through a proper worldview mixed with practical expressions can we experience the full life of wisdom. Wisdom is the path to our true self-interest. Self-seeking is self-destructive, both now and in the age to come.

The Lord reveals the truth about the perverse: For the devious are an abomination to the Lord. The word for devious is the same word translated "vanish" in 3:21—"let them (wisdom/knowledge) not vanish from your sight." So those who forget, vanish, or otherwise deviate from the path of wisdom are an abomination to the Lord. The four Do not sayings are examples of perversion to be avoided—twisting God's design for the world/for human existence and remaking it in our own image. Foolishness is remodeled wisdom based on one's own understanding apart from God. This causes sin, separation from God.

These Do not actions reflect the attitude originated by Lucifer, the satan (accuser) who said in his heart, "I will ascend to the most high"(Isaiah 12:12-14). Lucifer wanted his own way. He did not want to trust or follow God. This self-serving attitude is that of a tyrant. Jesus said that Lucifer's two primary characteristics are murder and lying (John 8:44), which is stock-in-trade for tyrants.

On the other hand, He is intimate with the upright. The wise, the upright, are taken into his confidence. Jesus said that the ultimate experience and fulfillment of life ("eternal life") is to know God—to live in intimate relationship with Him (John 17:3). Here Proverbs tells us that the path to this great fulfillment that comes through intimacy with God is to be a person who lives upright.

The word for intimate in the phrase intimate with the upright is the Hebrew word "cowd", which is most often translated "secret." It can also be translated as "counsel" or "assembly." The idea is that intimacy means there is something shared just between you and God. This makes sense, as each person's walk with God is unique. Only you can choose to trust God. Only you can decide to walk in His ways. When any of us makes these decisions, it creates a relationship between us and God based on our unique experience together.

A central theme of Proverb's predecessor, The Book of Ecclesiastes, is that trusting in God necessarily includes an element we cannot control (Ecclesiastes 3:11, 11:5). We can either turn to our own intellect and (in vanity) seek a control that will elude us, leading to folly and madness, or we can trust God and walk in His ways, which leads to peace and fulfillment—the way of wisdom. This way of wisdom is the way of the upright. Those who practice wisdom gain this intimacy with God that is the ultimate treasure of this life.

In all our existence, we will have only one opportunity to live by faith. Just one human lifetime. When we get to heaven we will no longer live by faith, we will live by sight. The intimacy with God we can gain through walking in wisdom by faith is the greatest of treasures. It is a treasure we send ahead; it will await our arrival. It will include entering the joy of our Master (Matthew 25:21, 23). But this wisdom leads to immense benefits in this life also. It is the secret of reality and the key to effective community with God and one another.

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