Proverbs 20

Who can tell the agonies, the broken hearts, the blasted lives, the lost souls, that have been the result of failure to heed the warning of the opening verse of Proverbs 20? No other vice has so cursed the world and caused such awful misery and suffering as intemperance. Those who laugh at jokes about drunkenness should go out after nightfall through the dark streets of our large cities to see the disastrous results of this vice. The wretched victims of alcohol have been numbered in hundreds of millions; yet Satan has no difficulty in persuading thousands of reckless youths to start on the same fearful road that has lured many to their ruin.


Wine has its place. Scripture recognizes its medicinal virtue and a lawful use of it when needed (1 Timothy 5:23). But how easily it becomes a snare that destroys the will and wrecks the life.

“Wine is a mocker,” tempting the youth to his undoing and deceiving him who rashly supposes he can indulge as he pleases, and then set it aside when he desires. Even godly men have been deluded in this way to their shame and grief. See Noah and Lot (Genesis 9:20-21; 19:30-36). Consult notes on Proverbs 23:29-35.


See note on 19:12. “The powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). Therefore we must recognize their authority and submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake. To resist the power is to resist Him who appointed it and thereby to sin against one’s own soul. Challenging the king’s authority will provoke him to anger and his wrath will be poured out on the rebellious.

We may apply this proverb to the King of kings. Who can measure the power of Christ’s wrath when all His grace has been despised and He sits on His royal throne to execute judgment?

Hanun experienced the wrath of king David when he refused his kindness (2 Samuel 10).


See note on Proverbs 17:14. How strange the pride that makes a man dread to admit he has been wrong or unwilling to back down graciously for the sake of peace, even though he may feel he is in the right—providing no divine principle is at stake. “Let your [yieldingness] be known unto all men” (Philippians 4:5) is an important verse. A man of God will be ready to give up his so-called rights rather than to prolong a disagreement. But a fool will persist in contention and meddle with matters in which he should have no part. Even so devoted a man as Josiah failed for lack of having learned this lesson (2 Chronicles 35:20-24).


Ready with any excuse to abandon his labor, the sluggard neglects the cultivation of his fields when others are at work. Therefore when harvest-time arrives, his fields are bare, and he is found begging from (as he would put it) his more fortunate neighbors. The fact is, fortune has nothing to do with it. Their diligence has brought its own reward, and his slothfulness its natural consequences. Compare this verse with Proverbs 19:15, 24.


See note on 18:4. We have already been reminded more than once that it is only the fool who blatantly pours out a stream of words on every occasion (see 17:27-28 and 18:7). With the prudent man it is quite otherwise. His words are few, and only spoken when there is occasion for them. This is not because of his lack of sound knowledge and the ability to instruct; but he prefers to bide his time. Deep in his heart, as in a well, he hides counsel and wisdom. His quiet composure may cause foolish people to think he is inferior to themselves; but a man of understanding will be able to draw out what will be profitable at the appropriate time. See Joseph and Pharaoh (Genesis 41).


There is a moral connection between each proverb in this section, all dealing to some degree with the question and the test of purity. Most men are ready to justify their own uprightness and kindness, as was Job before he saw the Lord (Job 29-31). But faithful men who will vindicate God thereby proving all others to be liars are few indeed. In Elihu we see such a one as he speaks on God’s behalf (Job 32-37).

The man who is really just (made such by grace) demonstrates it by his lifestyle, not simply by the declarations of his lips. The children of such a man are blessed by his godly life. Abraham is a shining example of this (Genesis 17:1-9).

If any are righteous, it should surely be the king who sits on the throne of judgment and scatters away evil with his eyes. But even among such (or among men at large) who is there who will dare to say, “I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin”?

Many testify to their lack of integrity by using unequal measures. All such are evil in the eyes of the Lord (see 16:11, and note verse 23 below).

Even a child’s actions speak of his character, as in the instance of little Samuel in the tabernacle (1 Samuel 3:18-21). What should be said of the actions of those older in years, with added responsibilities?

Clearly, then, no man is pure in himself. But Jehovah gives the seeing eye and the hearing ear to those who wait on Him, that they may behold and do His will and hear His voice. When all pretense to purity in oneself is given up, it is found in Christ by those who receive Him.


See verse 4 of this chapter, and note Proverbs 6:9-11; 24:33-34. The warnings against slothfulness and self-indulgence are abundant. “Drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags” (23:21). The active and diligent are rewarded for their toil. “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5:14). Such are the stirring words addressed by the Holy Ghost to sleeping Christians in a world where all should be aroused to the value of time so rapidly passing away. “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).

David fell into his grievous sin by taking his ease (2 Samuel 11:1).


How common is the deceit mentioned in this verse! It is the characteristic falsehood of the bargainer. He depreciates the article his heart desires in order to procure favorable terms. When at last his price is agreed on, he goes his way, rejoicing in his shrewdness and boasting of his ability to get a bargain. But a holier eye than that of man was looking on, noting every action, word, and thought; and the day of accounting draws rapidly nearer. See Ephraim (Hosea 12:7-8).


Gold and gems are of no value compared with the lips that speak wisdom. No price can be set on the precious truth of God, the wisdom that comes from above. See Proverbs 2:1-5, and consider Psalm 119:72.


See notes on Proverbs 6:1-5; 11:15. Ruin and disaster dog the steps of him who unwisely promises security for another or who has any dealings with a strange woman. The only path of safety is to keep clear of both. When one weakens in his principles he generally invites defeat. Only the man who can say no and stand by it when tempted to compromise is secure. He who will not heed must learn for himself in bitterness of soul. See the example of Judah (Genesis 38).


It is only for the passing moment that deceit seems to prosper and to promise well. The full result is far otherwise. In place of a sweet and delectable morsel, deceit fills the mouth with hard and disappointing gravel. Compare 9:17-18, and see Matthew 26:14-16 and 27:3-5.


Rash and unthinking actions are to be deplored. Before beginning a project that may not easily be ended, one should count the cost and counsel with those who are known to be wise and prudent. Our Lord expanded and amplified this proverb when He said, “What king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace” (Luke 14:31-32). Read of the actions of Rehoboam and Shemaiah (2 Chronicles 11:1-4).


See notes on Proverbs 11:13,18:8, and 25:23. He who flatters someone to his face will as readily slander him behind his back. By soft, devious words and ways he will gain the confidence of his victim. Appealing to his pride and desire for approval, he loosens his tongue until the unsuspecting person relates things far better left unsaid. When he has thus lured him on to unlocking his heart, he will go to others and pour into their ears what he has just learned. He flatters them in the same way, leading them to believe that they alone are the recipients of his favor. No character is more detestable. Utterly lacking in moral principle and destitute of godliness, such a person can do untold mischief among a Christian assembly. The safe plan is to refuse altogether to listen to “him that flattereth with his lips.” By so doing, much sorrow may be averted. The one who praises his listener while he backbites another, deserves to be treated in the spirit that David displayed toward the Amalekite who brought him news of Saul’s death (2 Samuel 1:1-16).


See note on Proverbs 19:26. No parents are perfect in all their ways, but, like civil authorities, they are to be honored because of their position. They stand as God’s ordained authority over their children. To honor the father and mother is to honor Him who has created us and established the home, setting the individual in families. Therefore he who reviles his parents will find his light put out and he will be left in darkness. Even though a father or mother fail grievously, a son whose spirit pleases God will seek to cover and hide their shame. Only an ungrateful and foolish child will spread it abroad. This was the error of Ham (Genesis 9:22).


See Proverbs 21:6 and 28:20. Treasure rapidly accumulated at the expense of conscience and honor will yield little comfort. Proverbs 10:22 defines the source of true wealth: “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it.” “As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not; so he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool” (Jeremiah 17:11). They who set out with the determination to gather wealth at all cost will learn the bitter lesson that they have missed the true and lasting treasure which would have given heart-satisfaction and joy in its possession. See God’s word to the rich who have gained their fortunes by oppression of the poor (James 5:1-6).


No lesson is harder for some of us to learn than that of confiding all our affairs to the hands of the Lord, especially when we feel we have been wronged and mistreated. Yet it is plain from Scripture that the saint can make no greater mistake than to take charge of his own affairs in such a case. Nothing could be clearer than the injunction, “Recompense to no man evil for evil… Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). To determine to take revenge in the face of God’s command is to act in direct disobedience to God; we need not be surprised when all our efforts fail. The person who admits that the Lord has allowed all circumstances for his good, then bows his head and bends before the blast, will find God ever ready to intervene at the needed moment. To look beyond the human instrument of our grief, however vindictive he may be, and to see all the purposes of our Father working out, gives rest and comfort to the sorely-tried soul. This sustained David when Shimei cursed and stoned him. The whole passage is so tender and striking, I feel it must be presented here in full:

And when king David came to Bahurim, behold, thence came out a man of the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei, the son of Gera: he came forth, and cursed still as he came. And he cast stones at David, and at all the servants of king David: and all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left. And thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The Lord hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the Lord hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man. Then said Abishai the son of Zeruiah unto the king, Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? let me go over, I pray thee, and take off his head. And the king said, What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah? so let him curse, because the Lord hath said unto him, Curse David. Who shall then say, Wherefore hast thou done so? And David said to Abishai, and to all his servants, Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: how much more now may this Benjamite do it? let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord hath bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction, and that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day (2 Samuel 16:5-12).

It is doubtful if, in all David’s spiritual history, he ever reached a higher height of holy confidence in God than at this time of deep, deep trial. Shimei’s spiteful cursing in so public a manner and at so sorrowful a time must have deeply lacerated his already wounded spirit. But he bowed his head in submission instead of executing vengeance on Shimei. He did not seek self-vindication from the charges made, but held on in submissive confidence saying, “Let him curse,” and taking all from the Lord Himself.

Shimei was but an instrument, inspired by Satan, yet really permitted of the Lord, for David’s chastening and discipline. David views him as such and looks not at second causes, but at the great first cause Himself. This is most blessed! Would that every tested saint could follow his example!

The day came that Shimei was a cringing suppliant at the feet of the man he had cursed; publicly admitting that he had acted perversely he confessed “thy servant doth know that I have sinned” (2 Samuel 19:16-23). David’s royal clemency was extended in forgiveness—a far greater victory than vengeance would have been. During the reign of Solomon, in God’s righteous government, Shimei was put to death for the treachery that ever characterized him. “He that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons” (Colossians 3:25). I am not to interfere with judgment. Be it mine to bow in submission to all God’s ways, acknowledging His hand in everything that would otherwise disturb me.


See verse 10 of this chapter. This verse comments on the dangers of judging people by various standards, according as they relate to oneself or not. A Christian should be characterized by one true, honest standard of righteousness. Frequently in estimating the conduct of certain people we use a variety of principles. We excuse in one, particularly in ourselves, what we judge severely in another. But in the scales of the sanctuary both are tested by the same weights. God would have our balances patterned after His. Unequal weights are an abomination in His sight. See the half shekel (Exodus 30:15).


The prophet Jeremiah stated the same solemn truth as this proverb. “O Lord,” he said, “I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” So he added, “O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing” (Jeremiah 10:23-24). Concerning every one of us it can be said, “Ye have not passed this way heretofore” (Joshua 3:4). This is true of every step of our journey through this world. Each day we enter on new scenes and new experiences; therefore it is folly to depend on our poor, finite wisdom in order to understand our way. Only God knows the end from the beginning. With Him, all is one eternal Now. Who else but He can direct our steps? Happy the soul who can commit all his ways unto Him and sing with confidence and holy restfulness, “My times are in thy hand” (Psalm 31:15). To such He has said, “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye” (Psalm 32:8). But this daily guidance is only for the submissive, obedient believer. Others must experience the bit-and-bridle direction of circumstances and tribulations. See Israel at the Jordan (Joshua 3:4).


Two closely connected things seem to be referred to here, with a keen, underlying touch of irony that is meant to prick our conscience. It is foolish and dangerous to rashly call anything holy or to make a vow before fully investigating the situation; these could both result in much sorrow and trouble. Elsewhere Solomon speaks of making this mistake.

When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands? (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6)

The practice of making vows seems to be clearly contrary to the spirit of the Christian dispensation, in which grace is reigning. Under the old dispensation of the law, when God requested something of man, it was quite in keeping to make such particular pledges. Paul’s vow was evidently that of a Nazarite, taken prior to his conversion (Acts 18:18). It would therefore be vital to make sure that such a promise was according to the mind of God before making it. See Jephthah’s rash vow and its terrible consequences (Judges 11:30-40).


No government is established in peace when lawlessness and violence are rampant among the people. It is necessary for the preservation of society, the peace of the righteous, and the stability of government, that those who oppose law and order be destroyed. So, before the millennial kingdom is set up, the wicked will be rooted out of the earth. See Isaiah 63 and Revelation 19.


The spirit of man is not mere breath or some impersonal idea. God “formeth the spirit of man within him” (Zechariah 12:1). The spirit enables man to think and plan, to weigh evidences, and to discern between things that are material, moral, and spiritual. “What man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11) In this verse it is evident that the spirit is the seat of intelligence. How would it sound to substitute the word breath for spirit in either of these scriptures? This would make them declare God formed man’s breath as an entity within him, and that by his breath he understands the things that concern him. In spite of all that deluded equivocators may allege to the contrary, the Bible clearly teaches the true individuality of the spirit.

In several versions of Scripture the word lamp is used in this proverb; the spirit is called the lamp of the Lord. Notice, it is not the light of Jehovah. The lamp is the vessel that holds the light, which itself is divine, proceeding from God. But man’s spirit can be a light-receiver and light-retainer, illuminating every part of his moral being. This gives him preeminence over all the lower creation. What an immeasurable gulf there is between the lowest type of man, with all his capabilities of divine enlightenment, and the highest type of animal, who is forever insensible to spiritual instruction.

The Scriptures declare that “there is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3:11). The savage gropes after Him because of his fear and desires to appease God’s supposed anger and hatred. He has no desire to love and serve Him because of who He is and what He has done. Even so, the most degraded savage gropes after God for his spirit is the lamp of Jehovah, dimly though the light may shine. But train an animal to the highest point of brute-intelligence, and he shows no recognition of responsibility to a creator, no sense of spiritual conceptions. This fact alone is enough to forever destroy the agnostic theory of evolution as taught by Darwin and Huxley; even though it is eagerly received by so many who are ever ready to run after what seems to be new and novel, particularly if it appears to eliminate God from His own universe.

Through the spirit, God communicates to man and pours His light into every chamber of his being. This is what produces a sense of need, a yearning after Himself. For in his natural state “there is none that seeketh after God.” When His testimony is received and the soul bows before Him in repentance, His Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures of truth, witnesses with our spirits that we are His children. See Elijah and the still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13).


In Proverbs 20:26 we saw that it was the king’s wisdom to execute judgment on his foes. Here we are reminded of the other side of his character. His throne rests on righteousness, but it is upheld by lovingkindness. The two are essential—lovingkindness and truth. “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). When He reigns, both will be displayed in perfection (Isaiah 32).


See note on Proverbs 16:31. In the economy of nature, as of grace, there is a time and season for all things. Youth delights in deeds of prowess and glories in physical strength. Age is the time for meditation and self-control; the gray head is a reminder of this, beautiful indeed in its place. In his first Epistle, the apostle John declared the same thoughts in a spiritual sense. The young men are those who are strong in the faith, in whom the Word of God abides, and who have overcome the wicked one (1 John 2:14). To the fathers, he simply writes, “Ye have known him that is from the beginning.” It is that experiential knowledge of Christ which is enlarged and deepened by the passing of the years (1 John 2:13-14).


A skillful surgeon is not always concerned to immediately heal a wound because added suffering may be required to purge the system of poisonous matter. There is often a probing and consequent inflammation that is very painful but good in its final result. So it is with God’s dealings when sin has been tolerated by His children. Stripes and sorrows may be laid on them, but only that the inner parts of the being may be purged of all hidden evil by self-judgment and full confession in His presence. The psalmist is not the only one who could say, “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word” (Psalm 119:67). It would be unwise for a patient to object to the pain caused by the surgeon while he endeavored to free the wound from impurities that might hinder healing and, if unremoved, poison the whole system. So is the saint foolish indeed who complains under a Father’s chastening hand and seeks to free himself from the stripes rather than to “hear… the rod, and [Him] who hath appointed it” (Micah 6:9).