Enemies are a fact of life. I would like to think that we could live so kindly, so compassionately and so selflessly that we could have all people like us and enjoy our company, and so eliminate enemies. That will happen one day, in heaven. But until then, enemies are a fact of life and a reminder that we live in a fallen world.
One question Solomon doesn’t raise directly is, "Who is my enemy?" Just who am I supposed to give food and water to? Mention the word "enemy" and most people conjure up images of armies arrayed on either side of a battle line, each raining bombs and bullets against the other side. That is one sense of enemy, and in this sense an enemy is someone we are against, someone we probably don’t like, and someone we are actively seeking to harm, even kill. This traditional sense of enemy pits "us" against "them."
But in Proverb 25:21-22 Solomon doesn’t give us the prerogative of not liking someone. This passage is about someone who does not like us. The enemy is literally "the one who hates you."1 This understanding of enemy doesn’t limit the discussion to the battlefield; it moves it into our personal lives. An enemy in this realm is anyone who harbors attitudes of ill will for us or who engages in behavior that is dangerous to us. As we will see in a moment, an enemy could be anyone who is deceitful toward us, angry, full of hate, a gossip or greedy. An enemy is someone who disturbs and disrupts peaceful life in the community of family, church, work, or anywhere else that people gather.
The real issue in the discussion of "enemy" is the heart. Proverbs doesn’t just address people’s behavior. It penetrates deeper, to the heart. The heart is the seed bed of future behavior. In the heart are hidden people’s motives, drives and inclinations. If we could peer into a person’s heart we could find there the stirring of their emotions and convictions that will lead to a person’s future actions, whether good or bad. This is why Solomon cautions us to "guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Proverbs 4:23).
What causes trouble among friends and brothers? A common word in Proverbs for disrupted relationships in community is "dissension." Dissension is brawling, contention, discord and strife.2 I think of dissension in relationships as a mountain stream or river. I’ve lived in Wyoming where there are streams, rivers and even irrigation ditches that flow down a mountain. These are not calm, inviting waters. Rather, these waters are rapid, tumultuous, even violent. The rapid force of the water creates a churning that can capsize a boat. Where the land levels off and the water pools the surface might look calm, but underneath the surface the water can still be excessively turbulent, so much so that a man can not even stand in three feet of water. The pressure of the water below the surface can knock a man off of his feet and drag him into the fury caused by the speed and pressure of the water cascading down the mountain.
Dissension in relationships can be like that. It can have the churning and fury of water crashing down a mountain or it can even have the illusion of calm on the surface with all the fury hiding just beneath the apparent calm. Some people or relationships carry all the tell-tale evidence of fury: a fierce some scowl, glaring stare, a drawn and tight jaw. They are ready for some dissension! Others mask their fury with a smile, but underneath the surface they are hazardous to your feelings and to relationships.
There are at least five behaviors Solomon discusses in Proverbs that contribute to causing dissension and disrupting kinship and friendship.
The first cause of dissensions is deceitful and manipulative behavior. "A scoundrel and villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart-- he always stirs up dissension." (Proverbs 6:12-14). "A scoundrel plots evil" (16:27). "As a scoundrel, he works to undermine the solidarity of the community for the sake of his own benefit."3 The scoundrel’s "behavior and speech create discord in the community ... their deeds and speech cause harm to others."4
The picture of this villainous scoundrel is one who cares only for himself and works only for his own selfish pursuits. He has no higher allegiance than his own appetites, and all of his work is to satisfy them. His appetites may be physical or material, such as for sex or monetary gain. Or, his desires may be emotional, enhancing his own esteem by belittling you . In either case, he is being selfish, but he isn’t an honest selfish. No, the bodily descriptions of his behavior indicate that he works on the sly: he winks with his eye (10:10; 16:30), signals with his feet and motions with his fingers. The scoundrel is being deceitful and manipulative, communicating with his partners in deception in "plotting perversity" (16:30).
Solomon advocates honest hearts that speak with candor and truth: "Better is open rebuke than hidden love" (27:5). Honest people share their plans openly, they reveal the content of their heart, they show their true hand. If they try to recruit you for a project, they are open about what they need and how you can help. If they are selling a product, they point out the benefits of their product but will also be careful to not oversell and not misrepresent what they are trying to get you to buy. But a deceiver and manipulator will conceal their real plans and will misrepresent the intent of their heart. They are not seeking to meet any needs but their own. If they have to lie they will. They use cunning, even employing the assistance of other crafty men with whom they communicate with covert body language.
Because of their deceit and manipulation, scoundrels are disruptive to families, churches and even the work place. They cannot be trusted or depended upon. They will work one person in the community against another. They will gossip against members of the fellowship, separating close friends (16:28). They work behind the scenes, recruiting people who are on the margin of the group, and use them to bolster their own position within the community. Even if their goals are honorable, their surreptitious methods negate any positive outcome. They are disruptive and destructive, and Solomon says the consequence of their behavior is destruction (v.15).
A second behavior that creates dissension is anger. "A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel" (Proverbs 15:18). "An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins" (Proverbs 29:22). Anger is the seed-bed of hatred (discussed below). Anger that is not repented of and is allowed to fester can become a dangerous force for destruction: "Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming ..." (Proverbs 27:4). Normally calm and gentle people can become dangerous and violent if the anger takes a hold in their hearts and is allowed to germinate.
Even the anger of God has a destructive force to it. Isaiah writes of the anger of God: "Therefore the LORD's anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. The mountains shake, and the dead bodies are like refuse in the streets. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised" (Isaiah 5:25). The anger of God, however, unlike that of most of us, ultimately has a redemptive purpose to it (Isaiah 43:1). God acts out in anger against his people at times to awaken their hearts and move them to repentance.
But the anger that most of us experience toward someone is not redemptive in nature. Our anger is generally not expressed to awaken spiritual need in sinners and urge them toward repentance! When we express anger it is generally a venting of our own hostility!
I heard psychologist Lynn Jones say that anger is the result of unmet expectations. We have certain expectations for how other people ought to behave. When their behavior does not meet our expectations, we get angry. If we don’t deal effectively with that anger, in gentle confrontation or personal confession, we will either vent, suppress or repress that anger. Anger that is vented is anger that is "let out." It lashes out at others and hurts them. Anger that is suppressed or repressed is "stuffed" in the heart and mind, building in intensity and fervor until it explodes in uncontrolled fury. The anger may explode outwards against others, or in the case of some people, it may be turned inward and wreck havoc against the individual harboring the anger in the form of depression, heart problems or even cancer.5
"A hot-tempered one commits many sins." A hot-tempered man is not the one who occasionally gets annoyed at people or circumstances. A hot-tempered man is one who carries past grievances with him, well past the point of when he should have dealt constructively with them. Now, he lives with his nerves on edge, his fuse short, his emotions a "time bomb." The slightest provocation could cause him to unleash the present anger and the anger he has stored up for years. Often, his explosion is way out of proportion to the incident that caused him to be upset. He may speak words that are cutting and hateful, or he may even commit acts of violence. "A hot-tempered one commits many sins."
Because of his many sins the angry, hot-tempered man is a detriment to community. People are afraid of him. They withdraw from him because they don’t want to be hurt. People who are scathed by his burning anger may even withdraw to the point of leaving a church, changing jobs or skipping Thanksgiving dinner at home.
For the one struggling with this kind of internalized anger, it is very important to acknowledge its presence in your life, openly confess it and repent of it before God, apologize and make amends to anyone you have hurt, and learn to process angry situations as they arise. Processing includes acknowledging your anger, identifying the unmet expectation that led to the anger, and then challenging the unmet expectation. Was your expectation realistic? Should you change the expectation if it was not realistic? Do you need to communicate openly (and calmly!) with the person you are angry at?6 When Paul tried to develop a greater sense of community among the Ephesians he taught that they would need to learn how to properly process their anger: "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry" (Ephesians 4:26).
A third cause of dissension hatred. "Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs" (Proverbs 10:12). Hatred is the opposite of love, which is also discussed in this verse. Love "covers over all wrongs." "Covers over" could refer to ignoring an offense (Proverbs 12:16; 19:11 and Eccl. 7:21) or to forgiving the offense (James 5:20). In either sense love works to alleviate hard feelings and fractured relationships. It will go so far as to bear a hurt, overlook an offense in the interests of relationship, and even forgive the offender. Love is forgiving, healing, and community-building.
Hatred has just the opposite effect of love. Where love seeks to repair and rebuild, hatred seeks to tear apart and destroy. To harbor hate for someone is to desire ill-will for them, even to seek to do them harm. Hatred is both an attitude and a behavior. It is an attitude of ill will7 in one’s heart that finds expression in acts of ill will that hurt another. In the Old Testament God had cities of refuge built for a man to flee to who had "unintentionally, without malice (hatred) aforethought" killed his neighbor (Deuteronomy 19:4). The neighbor’s death was an accident, but the man responsible for the death was still in grave danger of being killed by the "avenger of blood." The city of refuge was a place the man could run to and wait in safety while passions subsided and an investigation into the cause of death could ensue. But the city of refuge was not a place for a murderer to hide out. God stipulated that "if a man hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him, assaults and kills him, and then flees to one of the these cities," he is to be taken from the city and given to the avenger of blood who shall punish the murderer without mercy (Deut. 19:11-13). Here, an attitude of hate led to the action of hate: murder. Jesus said it is not enough to say that you haven’t murdered anyone. If you harbor anger in your heart, a disposition that can turn to resentment and hate, you are already in danger of judgment (Matthew 5:21-22).
One of the anomalies of hatred is that it makes us blind to the destructive nature of our own behavior. Hatred becomes a defense mechanism to cover our own sins. Amnon was a young man who burned with lust for his half-sister Tamar. With the aid of his evil cousin Jonadab, the two devised a scheme for Amnon to rape Tamar. After he had violated his half sister, "Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her." Instead of showing any compassion to the woman he brutalized and hurt, Amnon yelled at her, "Get up and get out!" (2 Sam. 13:15).
Amnon demonstrates that hatred is such a powerful force it has the ability to destroy not only those whom the hate is directed at, but even the one who does the hating. Hate destroyed Amnon by hardening his heart and continuing the despicable treatment of his half-sister. Instead of having compassion for her pain and humiliation, his vile heart led him to hate her even more! Hatred became the cover for his sin, and also led to his inability to repent. Ultimately, hate destroyed Amnon because it led Absalom, Tamar’s brother, to kill Amnon in retaliation (2 Sam. 13:28-29). Hatred breeds hatred.
Hatred, like deceit and manipulation, is a selfish attitude that destroys. It destroys families, churches and business. It even destroys the one who does the hating. Hatred ultimately destroys community.
Gossip is another cause of dissension. "A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends" (Proverbs 16:28). A perverse man is one who cannot or will not live at peace with other people. His inability to function with others may come from low self esteem or sinful attitudes he is harboring. He is not at peace with himself so he can not be at peace with those around him. His inner disposition of discord and disharmony is projected outward toward others. One sinful behavior he projects outward toward others is gossip, a major cause of tearing apart relationships.
"A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret" (Proverbs 11:13). This verse is best understood when read with the last part of verse twelve: "A man of understanding holds his tongue." Solomon doesn’t provide all the details we would like to know about what the "man of understanding" is silent about. Is he withholding a critical judgment about someone? (See 12:a). Is he keeping a confidence? Is he refusing to sling mud about another person’s character? It may be all of these suggestions. What is implied about the man of understanding is that he is showing restraint in what he says about others. He is contributing to a positive moral climate rather than rob from it. Verses 12 and 13 set in sharp contrast the character of those who "conceal" and those who "reveal" matters that need to be kept in confidence. The character of those who practice restraint contributes to good feelings and positive interaction among people; the character of those who reveal, the gossips, contributes to feelings of betrayal and hurt. Good friends can be separated by the pernicious speech of the gossip.
What exactly is the "work" of the gossip? One word for gossip means slanderer. Interestingly, this word is a derivative of a word that means "to go about." Leviticus 19:16 says, "Do not go about spreading slander among your people."8 The picture is of one who goes from house to house bearing tales about other people (cf. 1 Timothy 5:13). Another word for gossip is murmur or whisper.9 In Isaiah 29:24 this word appears as "complain."
Looking at these various terms together, Proverbs presents a picture of the gossip as one who is unhappy about something or someone (maybe himself!). He expresses his unhappiness in murmuring and complaining. But there is a dishonesty to this murmuring and complaining: instead of confronting the one he is unhappy with, the gossip goes about from house to house offering his complaints to others in hushed, muffled tones. His speech is like a whisper, not meant for others to hear. He will say one thing in this house then may go to another house and say something else.
You can see why Solomon says, "a gossip separates close friends." No one can be in long term intimate communion with this person! Today you might be the recipient of this person’s talebearing about someone else, but tomorrow you may be the target! Since the gossip betrays confidences, can you be comfortable revealing anything about yourself to him? Not unless you want your personal life to become the subject at someone else’s table. "A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much" (Proverbs 20:19). The man who talks too much is not showing restraint. He is not like the "man of understanding in 11:12b who shows restraint by withholding judgment and keeping silent. The gossip has no restraint. He speaks about things and people in an uncontrolled manner. He speaks foolishly (RSV). His speech tears down the reputation of other people and pits people against one another by stories he tells.
The gossip has serious character flaws of self-control, honesty and integrity that must be addressed in his life before he can reign in his loose tongue. Until he address them, his speech will continue to light fires in relationships (Proverbs 26:20) and disrupt community. People will become angry at others simply on the basis of the gossipers talebearing! To limit the effectiveness of the gossip, everyone else in the community (family, church, work, etc.) must band together and refuse the prattling of the gossip lest the community suffer (2 Corinthians 12:20).
A final determining factor in creating dissension is greed. "A greedy man stirs up dissension, but he who trusts in the LORD will prosper" (Proverbs 28:25). Greed is the desire for more and more. Greed can be more than just a desire; it can become a burning passion. Greed can be as subtle as someone who habitually won’t pay his full share of the lunch bill or it can be as pronounced as someone who is never at home because he is always working or who cheats at business to make more money. At the lower extreme a greedy person can be annoying but at the more advanced stages greed can be devastating. "A greedy man brings trouble to his family ..." (Proverbs 15:27).
The basic character flaw in the greedy person is that he trusts in "things." The man set in contrast to the greedy person is the man who places his confidence for security in God: "A greedy man stirs up dissension, but he who trusts in the LORD will prosper" (Proverbs 28:25). The desire to acquire more and more betrays a confidence in that which one possesses. Money may give one a sense of security about the future; possessions may give one the feeling that they belong to a certain community or social group; a new and bigger home may give the assurance that one "has arrived." These are all an illusion. We know that money or possessions can not offer us any security or hope in end. We will leave this world without those things and they may certainly disappoint us while we are still alive. But a driving concern to acquire material things can lead a man to neglect his family and spiritual life, compromise his personal integrity, and disrupt the lives of those around him. A greedy person who takes advantage of family and friends for the sake of gain is a person we get weary of having around! This may be the man of Proverbs 28:24: "He who robs his father or mother and says, ‘It’s not wrong’ - he is partner to him who destroys." The greedy man is certainly described in verse 26:"He who trusts in himself is a fool ..." The greedy man thinks he can acquire what he needs on his own to be satisfied, safe and secure. That is foolish.
The opposite of the greedy man is one who trusts in the Lord. Proverbs promises that he will prosper. While it is possible that Solomon has material gain in mind (cf. Proverbs 12:14 and 14:23), he likely has in mind relational concerns. The man who trusts in God does not need to use other people for selfish gain. He can enjoy the company of other people simply for the pleasure of their company. A man who trusts in the Lord and has a godly character has a spirit of community and genuine concern for others so they will enjoy and benefit from his presence: "... goodwill is found among the upright" (Proverbs 14:9; cf. 14:26). His speech and behavior builds goodwill and goodwill builds a sense of togetherness.
The one who fears God has no need to fear what the greedy man fears: "Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the Lord will be your confidence ..." (Proverbs 3:25&26). The greedy man cannot trust in God for his confidence, but the one who fears the Lord can. God is his stability, and the values of God serve as his ethics for life.
Greed can be overcome like any other sin if one will acknowledge the futility and the foolishness of "trusting in himself." Until then, the greedy person will continue to be a hazard to himself, his family and anyone else around him.
What can we do with people like this in our lives? "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you" (Proverbs 25:21-22). My first thought upon reading this passage is to say, "No way! There is no way that we can respond to those who disrupt our lives with this kind of generous spirit!" My next thought would be to wonder if there are any examples in the scripture of people of God responding in this kind of charitable fashion to people who are mean to them. The answer is: yes.
In 2 Chronicles 28 there is a story about Ahaz, a young kind of Judah. In one battle Judah was defeated by Aram. Many of the soldiers of Judah were taken as prisoners to Damascus. In another battle with their northern brothers, the Israelites, Ahaz and Judah were defeated again. The Israelites took men and women of Judah back to Israel as slaves. But as the returning Israelites reached Samaria, they were met by a prophet of God who exhorted them to release their prisoners or else they would incur the Lord’s wrath. The soldiers of Israel listened and obeyed, releasing their prisoners. But they also took care of them.
The men designated by name took the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm. All those who were weak they put on donkeys. So they took them back to their fellow countrymen at Jericho ... (2 Chronicles. 28:15).
Recorded for us in the Word of God is a story of battlefield enemies showing mercy and compassion to their defeated foe. It may not have happened very often, but the fact that it happened at the instigation of the prophet of God shows God’s concern for the proper treatment of enemies.
But the enemies Solomon is writing about in 25:21-22 may not be this battlefield variety. The enemy here is likely the woman at work who gossips about you, or the greedy in-law who never offers his house or food for family gatherings, or the co-worker who is envious and angry that you got the promotion and not them. These are the enemies we will likely face. And rather than responding to them in a similar odious fashion, Solomon counsels a compassionate response (cf. Proverbs 24:17,18).
How to Respond to our "Enemies"
Bearing in mind that our enemies are those who don’t like us, what can we do when confronted with people who are abusing or misusing us through their deceit and manipulation, their anger, their hatred, their gossip or their greed? How can we fulfill the kind and generous spirit of Proverbs 25:21-22 toward them?
First, I think we must tend to our own heart. Remember Solomon’s advice to "guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Proverbs 4:23). Do we harbor any ill will ourselves? Are we truly above reproach in the dissension we are in and the negative attitudes and behaviors being directed toward us? Have we flaunted a success in the face of a friend, co-worker, or a member of our family or church and given them cause for envy? Do we try to steal the limelight and help produce the anger in another?
Have participated in murmuring, complaining and gossiping against someone else? Do we harbor even slight anger or resentment toward another? Any of these sinful attitudes or behaviors could prompt another to respond in kind toward us, or they can color our perception of another’s behavior. The deceitfulness and envy we see in other people may be but the reflection of our own deceitfulness and envy!
Secondly, we must approach tense and troubled relationships with prayer. Jesus urged us to, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44). We can’t pray like this unless we have first tended to our own heart and life and identified any inappropriate attitudes or behaviors of our own. We can’t expect someone else to live by God’s principles of appropriate relational behavior if we aren’t willing to as well: "If anyone turns a deaf ear to the law, even his prayers are detestable." (Proverbs 28:9). When we are trying to live by the law we expect another to uphold, we can then pray for forgiveness, for God’s presence in the dissension, and for the good of our "enemies."
Thirdly, we must seek the good will of those who dislike us. "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him." (Proverbs 24:17-18). Everyone is sad when the starting quarterback sprains his ankle ... except for the backup quarterback. One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. A counselor or preacher who experiences a moral slip has a lot of people who grieve his actions, but he also has some who say from the shadows, "I figured he’d get his someday. See if he’ll act so holy now." Ah, we all know the joy of seeing an enemy stumble, don’t we? But Solomon warns against gloating when that happens. Who knows, the stumbling of our enemy may well be God’s action in his life! But if we take pleasure at another’s misfortune, God may respond to our own sinful spirit by removing the source of misfortune from the one we are gloating over!
Fourthly, we must NOT seek revenge. "Do not say, ‘I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.’" (Proverbs 20:22). Revenge is such a sweet emotion to experience! To see our "enemy" receive the pain and discomfort they have caused us to experience is a gratification that knows few rivals. But revenge is not our right. God reserves the right of vengeance for himself: "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’" (Romans 12:9). Our purpose in life is to be a blessing to the lives of others, not evil: "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called ..."(1 Peter 3:9). How can we crawl into the trenches of insult, gossip and revenge and not get contaminated by the moral filth we descend into? Our own hearts will get sullied in the process of evening the score.
Fifthly, we must seek reconciliation. Since Adam and Eve God has been at working reconciling relationships. God seeks the reconciliation of his children to himself, and he seeks the reconciliation of his children among themselves. God doesn’t just demand reconciliation of us; he seeks the reconciliation. God sought out Abraham, Joseph and others to lead God’s people in covenant relationship and communal living. God sent Jesus to be the means of reconciling all people to himself and each other. Today, as we live out the demands of covenant life, we emulate the work of God and Jesus by seeking reconciliation between people, including people we are estranged from! We take the lead. We step out in faith. We "work out our salvation in fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12), not in the sense that we earn salvation, but we work for the reconciliation of brothers.
Efforts made at reconciliation may be successful. We may win a brother back into warm fellowship. But, even our best efforts may be met with rejection and disappointment. We can’t control that. All we can control is our own attitudes and behavior. We must remember that "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps." (Proverbs 16:9). God is the ultimate author of reconciliation, and if it fits his schedule, God will allow the healing of wounds and the mending of friendship.
Warren Baldwin, 2006
1.Dave Bland, "Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs" in The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2002). p.229.
2.James Strong, "mâdôwn" in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001).
4.Leo. G. Purdue, "Proverbs" in Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2000), p.125.
5.Lynn Jones, Marriage Matters, St. Charles, MO, Feb. 20, 2000.
7.Gerard Van Groningen, "śane‘" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, et.al. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 2:879-880.
8.William White, "rakal" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, et.al. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 2:848.
9.William White, "r~gan" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, et.al. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 2:832).