Proverbs 16:22
Understanding is a wellspring of life to him that has it: but the instruction of fools is folly.
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(22) The instruction of fools is folly.- While understanding is “a fountain of life” (Proverbs 10:11) giving health and refreshment and vigour both to the possessor and his friends, the discipline given by fools is worse than useless, being folly itself. Or it may mean, “the discipline which fools have to endure is folly.” If they will not be taught by wisdom, their own folly will serve as a rod to correct them.



Proverbs 16:22 - Proverbs 16:33

A slight thread of connection may be traced in some of the proverbs in this passage. Proverbs 16:22, with its praise of ‘Wisdom,’ introduces one instance of Wisdom’s excellence in Proverbs 16:23, and that again, with its reference to speech, leads on to Proverbs 16:24 and its commendation of ‘pleasant words.’ Similarly, Proverbs 16:27 - Proverbs 16:30 give four pictures of vice, three of them beginning with ‘a man.’ We may note, too, that, starting with Proverbs 16:26, every verse till Proverbs 16:30 refers to some work of ‘the mouth’ or ‘lips.’

The passage begins with one phase of the contrast between Wisdom and Folly, which this book is never weary of emphasising and underscoring. We shall miss the force of its most characteristic teaching unless we keep well in mind that the two opposites of Wisdom and Folly do not refer only or chiefly to intellectual distinctions. The very basis of ‘Wisdom,’ as this book conceives it, is the ‘fear of the Lord,’ without which the man of biggest, clearest brain, and most richly stored mind, is, in its judgment, ‘a fool.’ Such ‘understanding,’ which apprehends and rightly deals with the deepest fact of life, our relation to God and to His law, is a ‘well-spring of life.’ The figure speaks still more eloquently to Easterns than to us. In those hot lands the cool spring, bursting through the baked rocks or burning sand, makes the difference between barrenness and fertility, the death of all green things and life. So where true Wisdom is deep in a heart, it will come flashing up into sunshine, and will quicken the seeds of all good as it flows through the deeds. ‘Everything liveth whithersoever the river cometh.’ Productiveness, refreshment, the beauty of the sparkling wavelets, the music of their ripples against the stones, and all the other blessings and delights of a perpetual fountain, have better things corresponding to them in the life of the man who is wise with the true Wisdom which begins with the fear of God. Just as it is active in the life, so is Folly. But its activity is not blessing and gladdening, but punitive. For all sin automatically works its own chastisement, and the curse of Folly is that, while it corrects, it prevents the ‘fool’ from profiting by the correction. Since it punishes itself, one might expect that it would cure itself, but experience shows that, while it wields a rod, its subjects ‘receive no correction.’ That insensibility is the paradox and the Nemesis of ‘Folly.’

The Old Testament ethics are remarkable for their solemn sense of the importance of words, and Proverbs shares in that sense to the full. In some aspects, speech is a more perfect self-revelation than act. So the outflow of the fountain in words comes next. Wise heart makes wise speech. That may be looked at in two ways. It may point to the utterance by word as the most precious, and incumbent on its possessor, of all the ways of manifesting Wisdom; or it may point to the only source of real ‘learning,’-namely, a wise heart. In the former view, it teaches us our solemn obligation not to hide our light under a bushel, but to speak boldly and lovingly all the truth which God has taught us. A dumb Christian is a monstrosity. We are bound to give voice to our ‘Wisdom.’ In the other aspect, it reminds us that there is a better way of getting Wisdom than by many books,-namely, by filling our hearts, through communion with God, with His own will. Then, whether we have worldly ‘learning’ or no, we shall be able to instruct many, and lead them to the light which has shone on us.

There are many kinds of pleasant words, some of which are not like ‘honey,’ but like poison hid in jam. Insincere compliments, flatteries when rebukes would be fitting, and all the brood of civil conventionalities, are not the words meant here. Truly pleasant ones are those which come from true Wisdom, and may often have a surface of bitterness like the prophet’s roll, but have a core of sweetness. It is a great thing to be able to speak necessary and unwelcome truths with lips into which grace is poured. A spoonful of honey catches more flies than a hogshead of vinegar.

Proverbs 16:25 has no connection with its context. It teaches two solemn truths, according to the possible double meaning of ‘right.’ If that word means ethically right, then the saying sets forth the terrible possibility of conscience being wrongly instructed, and sanctioning gross sin. If it means only straight, or level-that is, successful and easy-the saying enforces the not less solemn truth that sin deceives as to its results, and that the path of wrong-doing, which is flowery and smooth at first, grows rapidly thorny, and goes fast downhill, and ends at last in a cul-de-sac, of which death is the only outlet. We are not to trust our own consciences, except as enlightened by God’s Word. We are not to listen to sin’s lies, but to fix it well in our minds that there is only one way which leads to life and peace, the narrow way of faith and obedience.

The Revised Version’s rendering of Proverbs 16:26 gives the right idea. ‘The appetite,’ or hunger, ‘of the labourer labours for him’ {that is, the need of food is the mainspring of work}, and it lightens the work to which it impels. So hunger is a blessing. That is true in regard to the body. The manifold material industries of men are, at bottom, prompted by the need to earn something to eat. The craving which drives to such results is a thing to be thankful for. It is better to live where toil is needful to sustain life than in lazy lands where an hour’s work will provide food for a week. But the saying reaches to spiritual desires, and anticipates the beatitude on those who ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ Happy they who feel that craving, and are driven by it to the labour for the bread which comes down from heaven! ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.’

The next three proverbs {Proverbs 16:27 - Proverbs 16:29} give three pictures of different types of bad men. First, we have ‘the worthless man’ {Rev. Ver.}, literally ‘a man of Belial,’ which last word probably means worthlessness. His work is ‘digging evil’; his words are like scorching fire. To dig evil seems to have a wider sense than has digging a pit for others {Psalm 7:15}, which is usually taken as a parallel. The man is not merely malicious toward others, but his whole activity goes to further evil. It is the material in which he delights to work. What mistaken spade husbandry it is to spend labour on such a soil! What can it grow but thistles and poisonous plants? His words are as bad as his deeds. No honey drops from his lips, but scorching fire, which burns up not only reputations but tries to consume all that is good. As James says, such a tongue is ‘set on fire of hell.’ The picture is that of a man bad through and through. But there may be indefinitely close approximations to it, and no man can say, ‘Thus far will I go in evil ways, and no further.’

The second picture is of a more specific kind. The ‘froward man’ here seems to be the same as the slanderer in the next clause. He utters perverse things, and so soweth strife and parts friends. There are people whose mouths are as full of malicious whispers as a sower’s basket is of seed, and who have a base delight in flinging them broadcast. Sometimes they do not think of what the harvest will be, but often they chuckle to see it springing in the mistrust and alienation of former friends. A loose tongue often does as much harm as a bitter one, and delight in dwelling on people’s faults is not innocent because the tattler did not think of the mischief he was setting agoing.

In Proverbs 16:29 another type of evil-doer is outlined-the opposite, in some respects, of the preceding. The slanderer works secretly; this mischief-maker goes the plain way to work. He uses physical force or ‘violence.’ But how does that fit in with ‘enticeth’? It may be that the enticement of his victim into a place suitable for robbing or murder is meant, but more probably there is here the same combination of force and craft as in Proverbs 1:10 - Proverbs 1:14. Criminals have a wicked delight in tempting innocent people to join their gangs. A lawless desperado is a hotbed of infection.

Proverbs 16:30 draws a portrait of a bad man. It is a bit of homely physiognomical observation. A man with a trick of closing his eyes has something working in his head; and, if he is one of these types of men, one may be sure that he is brewing mischief. Compressed lips mean concentrated effort, or fixed resolve, or suppressed feeling, and in any of these cases are as a danger signal, warning that the man is at work on some evil deed.

Two sayings follow, which contrast goodness with the evils just described. The ‘if’ in Proverbs 16:31 weakens the strong assertion of the proverb. ‘The hoary head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness.’ That is but putting into picturesque form the Old Testament promise of long life to the righteous-a promise which is not repeated in the new dispensation, but which is still often realised. ‘Whom the gods love, die young,’ is a heathen proverb; but there is a natural tendency in the manner of life which Christianity produces to prolong a man’s days. A heart at peace, because stayed on God, passions held well in hand, an avoidance of excesses which eat away strength, do tend to length of life, and the opposites of these do tend to shorten it. How many young men go home from our great cities every year, with their ‘bones full of the iniquities of their youth,’ to die!

If we are to tread the way of righteousness, and so come to ‘reverence and the silver hair,’ we must govern ourselves. So the next proverb extols the ruler of his own spirit as ‘more than conquerors,’ whose triumphs are won in such vulgar fields as battles and sieges, Our sorest fights and our noblest victories are within.

‘Unless above himself he can

Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!’

Proverbs 16:31
takes the casting of the lot as one instance of the limitation of all human effort, in all which we can but use the appropriate means, while the whole issue must be left in God’s hands. The Jewish law did not enjoin the lot, but its use seems to have been frequent. The proverb presents in the sharpest relief a principle which is true of all our activity. The old proverb-maker knew nothing of chance. To him there were but two real moving forces in the world-man and God. To the one belonged sowing the seed, doing his part, whether casting the lot or toiling at his task. His force was real, but derived and limited. Efforts and attempts are ours; results are God’ s. We sow; He ‘gives it a body as it pleases Him.’ Nothing happens by accident. Man’s little province is bounded on all sides by God’ s, and the two touch. There is no neutral territory between, where godless chance rules.Proverbs 16:22-24. Understanding is a well-spring of life — A clear understanding and right judgment of things, like an inexhaustible spring, gives perpetual comfort and satisfaction to him who has it, and makes him very useful unto others; but the instruction of fools is folly — Their learning is frivolous and vain; their most grave and serious counsels are foolish; and, therefore, if they undertake to instruct others, they only make them like themselves. The heart of the wise teacheth his mouth — Directeth him what, and when, and how to speak, and keeps him from speaking rashly and foolishly; and addeth learning to his lips — Enables him to communicate his thoughts to others so judiciously and wisely, as not only to show his own learning, but to increase theirs. Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, &c. — Namely, the discourses of the wise, last mentioned, which yield both profit and delight; their wholesome counsels and refreshing comforts.16:12. The ruler that uses his power aright, will find that to be his best security. 13. Put those in power who know how to speak to the purpose. 14,15. Those are fools, who, to obtain the favour of an earthly prince, throw themselves out of God's favour. 16. There is joy and satisfaction of spirit, only in getting wisdom. 17. A sincerely religious man keeps at a distance from every appearance of evil. Happy is the man that walks in Christ, and is led by the Spirit of Christ. 18. When men defy God's judgments, and think themselves far from them, it is a sign they are at the door. Let us not fear the pride of others, but fear pride in ourselves. 19. Humility, though it exposes to contempt in the world, is much better than high-spiritedness, which makes God an enemy. He that understands God's word shall find good. 21. The man whose wisdom dwells in his heart, will be found more truly prudent than many who possess shining talents. 22. As waters to a thirsty land, so is a wise man to his friends and neighbours. 23. The wise man's self-knowledge, always suggests something proper to be spoken to others. 24. The word of God cures the diseases that weaken our souls. 25. This is caution to all, to take heed of deceiving themselves as to their souls. 26. We must labour for the meat which endureth to everlasting life, or we must perish.Wellspring of life - Compare Proverbs 10:11 note. "the instruction of fools" Not that which they give, but that which they receive. Compare Proverbs 14:24. "Folly" is its own all-sufficient punishment. 22. Understanding—or, "discretion," is a constant source of blessing (Pr 13:14), benefiting others; but fools' best efforts are folly. Is a well-spring of life, is continually suggesting wholesome and saving instructions,

unto him that hath it; and to others also, as is understood from the following clause. The instruction of fools is folly; their most grave and serious counsels are foolish. Understanding is a wellspring of life unto him that hath it,.... "The master" or "owner of it" (k). As he only is to whom an understanding is given; for, whatever understanding men may have of natural and civil things, they have none of things spiritual and divine, unless it be given them by Christ. This is no other than the grace of the Spirit of God, who is a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ; and this is a well of living water, springing up unto everlasting life, and it issues in it; with the knowledge of Christ, and God in Christ, eternal life is connected, John 4:14; and as this knowledge and understanding of things is communicated by wise and knowing men, they are the means and instruments of the spiritual life of those to whom they minister, and are made useful;

but the instruction of fools is folly; the best instruction they are capable of giving is downright folly, and issues in death.

(k) "domini sui", Pagninus; "domino suo", Mercerus, Gejerus; "dominorum suorum", Michaelis.

Understanding is a wellspring of life to him that hath it: but the {l} instruction of fools is folly.

(l) Either that which the wicked teach others, or else it is folly to teach them who are malicious.

22. unto him that hath it]. Elsewhere the thought is of the benefit conferred upon others:

“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life”;

“The law (or teaching) of the wise is a fountain of life”;

(Proverbs 10:11, Proverbs 13:14). Here it is of the benefit of wisdom to its possessor: the water “in him, a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14); not the “rivers of living water” flowing from him to bless others (John 7:38).

the instruction of fools is folly] Rather, the correction of fools is their folly, R.V. The A.V. has been taken to mean that all instruction bestowed upon fools, as assimilated by them, is only folly, it leaves them fools as it found them: “the only correction of their infatuation is a further increase of it” (Horton). But the parallelism is preserved and a good sense obtained by understanding correction to mean punishment: As wisdom is its own reward, so folly is its own punishment.Verse 22. - Understanding is a well spring of life unto him that hath it (Proverbs 10:11; Proverbs 13:14). The possessor of understanding has in himself a source of comfort and a vivifying power, which is as refreshing as a cool spring to a thirsty traveller. In all troubles and difficulties he can fall back upon his own good sense and prudence, and satisfy himself therewith. This is not conceit, but the result of a well grounded experience. But the instruction of fools is folly; i.e. the instruction which fools give is folly and sin; such is the only teaching which they can offer. So the Vulgate, doctrina stultorum fatuitas; and many modern commentators. But musar is better taken in the sense of "discipline" or "chastisement" (as in Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 7:22; Proverbs 15:5), which the bad man suffers. His own folly is the scourge which punishes him; refusing the teaching of wisdom, he makes misery for himself, deprives himself of the happiness which virtue gives, and pierces himself through with many sorrows. Septuagint, "The instruction of tools is evil." Five proverbs regarding wisdom, righteousness, humility, and trust in God, forming, as it were, a succession of steps, for humility is the virtue of virtues, and trust in God the condition of all salvation. Three of these proverbs have the word טוב in common.

16 To gain wisdom, how much better is it than gold;

     And to attain understanding to be preferred to silver.

Commendation of the striving after wisdom (understanding) with which all wisdom begins, for one gains an intellectual possession not by inheritance, but by acquisition, Proverbs 4:7. A similar "parallel-comparative clause" (Fl.), with the interchange of טוב and נבחר, is Proverbs 22:1, but yet more so is Proverbs 21:3, where נבחר, as here, is neut. pred. (not, as at Proverbs 8:10 and elsewhere, adj.), and עשׂה, such an anomalous form of the inf. constr. as here קנה, Gesen. 75, Anm. 2; in both instances it could also be regarded as the inf. absol. (cf. Proverbs 25:27) (Lehrgebude, 109, Anm. 2); yet the language uses, as in the case before us, the form גּלה only with the force of an abl. of the gerund, as עשׂו occurs Genesis 31:38; the inf. of verbs 'ה'ל as nom. (as here), genit. (Genesis 50:20), and accus. (Psalm 101:3), is always either גּלות or גּלה. The meaning is not that to gain wisdom is more valuable than gold, but that the gaining of wisdom exceeds the gaining of gold and silver, the common comparatio decurtata (cf. Job 28:18). Regarding חרוּץ, vid., at Proverbs 3:14.

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