A wise conundrum (Proverbs 24:26-27)

Proverbs 24:26-27 

            [] A dilemma

Two startling, seemingly unrelated texts occur side by side in Proverbs chapter 24:

‘Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips’ (Proverbs 24:26) and

‘Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field,

            and after that build your house’ (Proverbs 24:27).

The former proverb is something of a riddle as the idea of a kiss on the lips is only mentioned here in the whole of Scripture. It is probably hinted at in the Song of Songs 8:1 where close family relationships (‘like a brother’) are in view. (I first came across the term ‘kissing cousins’ in a poem of the American humorist Ogden Nash.)

The second proverb could be a piece of common sense, perhaps about a young man thinking to leave home and set up his own family life; first he needs to put himself on a sound economic footing before marriage. Then the very next verse (Proverbs 24:28) seems to tackle yet another topic, counselling the reader not to openly criticise one’s neighbour based merely on prejudice towards him.

            [] A pattern

These texts are part of a small section of Proverbs entitled ‘These also are sayings of the wise’ (Proverbs 24:23-34) – a kind of addendum to the thirty ‘words of the wise’ that preceded this addition (Proverbs 22:17 – 24:22). Since the thirty are grouped in stanzas of a few verses on a theme, we would expect to see this style continued. And that is clearly the case. In fact just two topics alternate here in an ABAB sequence – namely, expressing judgemental opinions (Proverbs 24:23-26 and  Proverbs 24: 28-29) and guidelines for work (Proverbs 24:27; 24:30-34)

[] An explanation

  1. Expressing judgemental opinions wisely (Proverbs 24:23-26; 28-29)

‘Partiality in judging is not good.’ For instance, ‘whoever says to the wicked, “You are in the right” will be cursed by … nations [= Gentiles, ‘outsiders’], but those who rebuke the wicked will have…’:

(i)   inner satisfaction (Proverbs 24:25a, ‘delight’);

(ii)  divine benediction‘and a good blessing will come upon them’ (Proverbs 24:25b);

(iii) brotherly bonding with others (Proverbs 24:26, ‘kisses the lips’). After all, the phrase ‘constructive criticism’ is self-contradictory, since criticism is essentially destructive of any unsafe building so that it can be replaced by a healthy structure. The Hebrew of our conundrum verse means ‘He shall kiss the lips that return right/straight words’ – here probably used as a metaphor for ‘he’ll marry an honest woman’. And don’t criticise your neighbour on mere hearsay or clash of temperaments with him (‘without cause’) because your lips would then be deceptive.

            * Let’s resolve to utter no undeserved criticism or prejudicial gossip. 

  1. Wise work ethic (Proverbs 24:27; 30-34)

(i) Prepare the ground for harvest (e.g. befriend non-Christians to receive your testimony) before building your house (e.g. the local church, in family bonding).

(ii) Then work diligently without slacking in preparation for a good harvest or there will be no growth, and you will be vulnerable to enemy attack (‘poverty will come … like an armed man’; compare ‘give no opportunity to the devil’, Ephesians 4:25-27).

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