Proverbs 20:5
Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.
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(5) Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water.—The wise thoughts of a “man,” fitly so-called (comp. Proverbs 18:4), may be hid deep in his breast, like the waters of a well, but a man of understanding knows how to draw them out as by a windlass and bucket (Exodus 2:16).



Proverbs 20:1 - Proverbs 20:7

The connection between the verses of this passage is only in their common purpose to set forth some details of a righteous life, and to brand the opposite vices. A slight affinity may be doubtfully traced in one or two adjacent proverbs, but that is all.

First comes temperance, enforced by the picture of a drunkard. Wine and strong drink are, as it were, personified, and their effects on men are painted as their own characters. And an ugly picture it is, which should hang in the gallery of every young man and woman. ‘Wine is a mocker.’ Intemperance delights in scoffing at all pure, lofty, sacred things. It is the ally of wild profanity, which sends up its tipsy and clumsy ridicule against Heaven itself. If a man wants to lose his sense of reverence, his susceptibility for what is noble, let him take to drink, and the thing is done. If he would fain keep these fresh and quick, let him eschew what is sure to deaden them. Of course there are other roads to the same end, but there is no other end to this road. Nobody ever knew a drunkard who did not scoff at things that should be reverenced, and that because he knew that he was acting in defiance of them.

‘A brawler,’ or, as Delitzsch renders it, ‘boisterous’-look into a liquor-store if you want to verify that, or listen to a drunken party coming back from an excursion and making night hideous with their bellowings, or go to any police court on a Monday morning. We in England are familiar with the combination on police charge-sheets, ‘drunk and disorderly.’ So does the old proverb-maker seem to have been. Drink takes off the brake, and every impulse has its own way, and makes as much noise as it can.

The word rendered in Authorised Version ‘is deceived,’ and in Revised Version ‘erreth,’ is literally ‘staggers’ or ‘reels,’ and it is more graphic to keep that meaning. There is a world of quiet irony in the unexpectedly gentle close of the sentence, ‘is not wise.’ How much stronger the assertion might have been! Look at the drunkard as he staggers along, scoffing at everything purer and higher than himself, and ready to fight with his own shadow, and incapable of self-control. He has made himself the ugly spectacle you see. Will anybody call him wise?

The next proverb applies directly to a state of things which most nations have outgrown. Kings who can give full scope to their anger, and who inspire mainly terror, are anomalies in civilised countries now. The proverb warns that it is no trifle to rouse the lion from his lair, and that when he begins to growl there is danger. The man who stirs him ‘forfeits his own life,’ or, at all events, imperils it.

The word rendered ‘sins’ has for its original meaning ‘misses,’ and seems to be so used here, as also in Proverbs 8:36. ‘Against’ is a supplement. The maxim inculcates the wisdom of avoiding conduct which might rouse an anger so sure to destroy its object. And that is a good maxim for ordinary times in all lands, monarchies or republics. For there is in constitutional kingdoms and in republics an uncrowned monarch, to the full as irresponsible, as easily provoked, and as relentless in hunting its opponents to destruction, as any old-world tyrant. Its name is Public Opinion. It is not well to provoke it. If a man does, let him well understand that he takes his life, or what is sometimes dearer than life, in his hand. Not only self-preservation, which the proverb and Scripture recognise as a legitimate motive, but higher considerations, dictate compliance with the ruling forces of our times, as far as may be. Conscience only has the right to limit this precept, and to say, ‘Let the brute roar, and never mind if you do forfeit your life. It is your duty to say “No,” though all the world should be saying “Yes.”‘

A slight thread of connection may be established between the second and third proverbs. The latter, like the former, commends peacefulness and condemns pugnacity. Men talk of ‘glory’ as the warrior’s meed, and the so-called Christian world has not got beyond the semi-barbarous stage which regards ‘honour’ as mainly secured by fighting. But this ancient proverb-maker had learned a better conception of what ‘honour’ or ‘glory’ was, and where it grew.

‘Peace hath her victories

No less renowned than war,’

said Milton. But our proverb goes farther than ‘no less,’ and gives greater glory to the man who never takes up arms, or who lays them down. The saying is true, not only about warfare, but in all regions of life. Fighting is generally wasted time. Controversialists of all sorts, porcupine-like people, who go through the world all sharp quills sticking out to pierce, are less to be admired than peace-loving souls. Any fool can ‘show his teeth,’ as the word for ‘quarrelling’ means. But it takes a wise man, and a man whose spirit has been made meek by dwelling near God in Christ, to withhold the angry word, the quick retort. It is generally best to let the glove flung down lie where it is. There are better things to do than to squabble.

Proverbs 20:4 is a parable as well as a proverb. If a man sits by the fireside because the north wind is blowing, when he ought to be out in the field holding the plough with frost-nipped fingers, he will beg {or, perhaps, seek for a crop} in harvest, and will find nothing, when others are rejoicing in the slow result of winter showers and of their toilsome hours. So, in all life, if the fitting moments for preparation are neglected, late repentance avails nothing. The student who dawdles when he should be working, will be sure to fail when the examination comes on. It is useless to begin ploughing when your neighbours are driving their reaping machines into the fields. ‘There is a time to sow, and a time to reap.’ The law is inexorable for this life, and not less certainly so for the life to come. The virgins who cried in vain, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ and were answered, ‘Too late, too late, ye cannot enter now!’ are sisters of the man who was hindered from ploughing because it was cold, and asked in vain for bread when harvest time had come. ‘To-day, if ye will to hear His voice, harden not your hearts.’

The next proverb is a piece of shrewd common sense. It sets before us two men, one reticent, and the other skilful in worming out designs which he wishes to penetrate. The former is like a deep draw-well; the latter is like a man who lets down a bucket into it, and winds it up full. ‘Still waters are deep.’ The faculty of reading men may be abused to bad ends, but is worth cultivating, and may be allied to high aims, and serve to help in accomplishing these. It may aid good men in detecting evil, in knowing how to present God’s truth to hearts that need it, in pouring comfort into closely shut spirits. Not only astute business men or politicians need it, but all who would help their fellows to love God and serve Him-preachers, teachers, and the like. And there would be more happy homes if parents and children tried to understand one another. We seldom dislike a man when we come to know him thoroughly. We cannot help him till we do.

The proverb in Proverbs 20:6 is susceptible of different renderings in the first clause. Delitzsch and others would translate, ‘Almost every man meets a man who is gracious to him.’ The contrast will then be between partial ‘grace’ or kindness, and thoroughgoing reliableness or trustworthiness. The rendering of the Authorised and Revised Versions, on the other hand, makes the contrast between talk and reality, professions of goodwill and acts which come up to these. In either case, the saying is the bitter fruit of experience. Even charity, which ‘believeth all things,’ cannot but admit that soft words are more abundant than deeds which verify them. It is no breach of the law of love to open one’s eyes to facts, and so to save oneself from taking paper money for gold, except at a heavy discount. Perhaps the reticence, noted in the previous proverb, led to the thought of a loose-tongued profession of kindliness as a contrast. Neither the one nor the other is admirable. The practical conclusion from the facts in this proverb is double-do not take much heed of men’s eulogiums on their own benevolence; do not trumpet your own praises. Caution and modesty are parts of Christian perfection.

The last saying points to the hereditary goodness which sometimes, for our comfort, we do see, as well as to the halo from a saintly parent which often surrounds his children. Note that there may be more than mere succession in time conveyed by the expression ‘after him.’ It may mean following in his footsteps. Such children are blessed, both in men’s benedictions and in their own peaceful hearts. Weighty responsibilities lie upon the children of parents who have transmitted to them a revered name. A Christian’s children are doubly bound to continue the parental tradition, and are doubly criminal if they depart from it. There is no sadder sight than that of a godly father wailing over an ungodly son, unless it be that of the ungodly son who makes him wail. Absalom hanging by his curls in the oak-tree, and David groaning, ‘My son, my son!’ touch all hearts. Alas that the tragedy should be so often repeated in our homes to-day!Proverbs 20:5. Counsel in the heart of man — Either, 1st, Ability to give counsel; or, 2d, The design or purpose of doing something of importance; for the word עצה, here rendered counsel, is frequently used in both senses, but the latter seems most proper here; it is like deep water — Is there in great abundance, or is secret and hard to be discovered; but a man of understanding will draw it out — By prudent questions and discourses, and a diligent observation of his words and actions. In other words, “Though the designs and intentions of another man, especially one who hath a deep understanding, are as hard to be found out as waters which lie in the secret caverns of the earth; yet there are persons of such penetration, that they will find means to discover them and draw them out.” “There are six ways,” says Lord Bacon, in his Advancement of Learning, lib. 8. cap. 2, “whereby the knowledge of men may be drawn out and disclosed; by their faces and countenances, by words, by deeds, by their nature, by their ends, and by the relations of others.”20:5. Though many capable of giving wise counsel are silent, yet something may be drawn from them, which will reward those who obtain it. 6. It is hard to find those that have done, and will do more good than they speak, or care to hear spoken of.The contest between reticence on the one side and pertinacity in search on the other is represented as by a parable. The well may be very deep (compare the marginal reference), but the man of understanding" has enough skill to draw up the water even to the last drop. Every question is, as it were, a turning of the windlass. 5. Counsel … water—that is, deeply hidden (Pr 18:4; Ps 13:2). The wise can discern well.Counsel; either,

1. Wisdom or ability to give good counsel; or,

2. Designs or purposes of doing something of moment; for this word is frequently used in both senses, but the last seems fittest here.

Is like deep water; either,

1. Is there in great abundance; or,

2. Is secret and hard to be discovered.

Will draw it out, by prudent questions and discourses, and a diligent observation of his words and actions. Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water,.... Pure and undisturbed, but secret, hidden, and hard to be come at: such are the things of the spirit of a man, the thoughts of his mind, the devices of his heart; which, though easily known by the searcher of hearts, are not easily penetrated into by men; or it is not easily got out of them what is in them, especially in some men, who are very close and reserved. This is true of wicked men, who seek sleep to hide their counsel; and of good men, especially studious men, who have got a great deal of wisdom and knowledge in them, but not very communicative, being slow of speech, and silent in conversation;

but a man of understanding will draw it out; he will find ways and means to discover the secret designs of wicked men, whether against church or state; and, by asking proper questions, an understanding man will get out useful things from men of knowledge, the most reserved: some men must be pumped, and a good deal of pains must be taken with them, to get out anything of them, as in getting water out of a deep well, and which when got is very good; and so is that wisdom and knowledge which is gotten by an inquisitive man from another of superior knowledge, but not very diffusive of it.

Counsel in the heart of {c} man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.

(c) It is hard to find out: for it is as deep waters, whose bottom cannot be found: yet the wise man will know a man either by his words or manners.

5. will draw it out] as from a well, as the Queen of Sheba did, 1 Kings 10.Verse 5. - Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water. The thoughts and purposes of a man are hidden in his breast like deep water (Proverbs 18:4) in the bosom of the earth, hard to fathom, hard to get. But a man of understanding will draw it out. One who is intelligent and understands human nature penetrates the secret, and, by judicious questions and remarks, draws out (ἐξαντλήσει, Septuagint) the hidden thought. 28 A worthless witness scoffeth at right;

     And the mouth of the godless swalloweth up mischief.

The Mosaic law does not know the oath of witnesses; but the adjuring of witnesses to speak the truth, Leviticus 4:1, places a false statement almost in the rank of perjury. The משׁפּט, which legally and morally binds witnesses, is just their duty to state the matter in accordance with truth, and without deceitful and malicious reservation; but a worthless witness (vid., regarding בּליּעל, Proverbs 6:12) despiseth what is right (יליץ with accus.-obj. like Proverbs 14:9), i.e., scornfully disregards this duty. Under 28b Hitzig remarks that בלע only in Kal means to devour, but in Piel, on the contrary, to absorb equals annihilate; therefore he reads with the lxx and Syr. דּין justice instead of און mischief: the mouth of the wicked murders that which is right, properly, swallows down his feeling of right. But בּלּע interchanges with בּלע in the sense of swallowing only, without the connected idea of annihilation; cf. כּבלּע for the continuance [duration] of a gulp equals for a moment, Numbers 4:20 with Job 7:29; and one can thus understand 28b without any alteration of the text after Job 15:16; cf. Proverbs 20:12-15, as well as with the text altered after Isaiah 3:12, by no means so that one makes און the subject: mischief swallows up, i.e., destroys, the mouth of the wicked (Rashi); for when "mouth" and "to swallow" stand connected, the mouth is naturally that which swallows, not that which is swallowed (cf. Ecclesiastes 10:12 : the mouth of the fool swallows, i.e., destroys, him). Thus 28b means that wickedness, i.e., that which is morally perverse, is a delicious morsel for the mouth of the godless, which he eagerly devours; to practise evil is for him, as we say, "ein wahrer Genuss" [a true enjoyment].

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