Friday, April 24, 2009

Rude Neighbors ... Character Development



The goal of Proverbs is clearly stated in Proverbs 1:2-3: "for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair." These last three words are ethical terms and shape a person to be able to live in wholeness with God and others. Wisdom, understanding and discretion all highlight necessary components in a person’s moral and ethical system to enable them to exercise skill in matters of daily living, navigating the problems of life (including relational problems), and living successfully in relationship with other people. (Longman, Read, 14-17)

Wisdom for Israel was a practical matter of understanding the laws of life and the world. Such wisdom was gleaned from experience and would be comparable to the wisdom or expertise an artisan or craftsman would glean from their years of working their trade. Proverbs wants to shape the ethics of a person and even move beneath the behavior to shape the heart and mind.

One possible setting for Proverbs is the post-exilic period. Israel’s political and religious systems had collapsed. These normal social structures that typically shape and mold young people were now non-existent. The community was in severe social distress and even the most basic of all social systems, the family, was likely in disarray. Israel’s only hope to instill theological and ethical values in her young people was to provide basic moral instruction to rebuild individuals of character and thus rebuild the family and eventually the larger community. (Brown, Character, 43-45) If this perspective on the historical setting for the book is correct, then Proverbs seems to teach that when society is falling apart, whether from political scandals, military conquest, or moral disintegration, the godly person turns to his family and seeks to build it on sound, biblical principles of wisdom and righteousness. Hard times are not an occasion to give up in despair, but rather a time to vigorously rededicate ourselves to the most basic of all societies: the family.

Proverbs 27:14-19

The individual proverbs in chapters 10-29 have not been arranged into an orderly group by subject or content, although there are instances of individual proverbs being linked together by key words or similar subject matter. There are two reasons to consider that the passage under consideration in this paper are connected by similar subject and content matter. One, all the verses in this text are concerned with relationships between two individuals. Two, friendship is a dominate theme throughout all of chapter 27. Verses 5, 6, 9, 10, 14, and 17 all testify to the value of friendship, and friendship is a key theme in verses 14-19." Further, in verses 14-19 two relationships are pictured that would be identified today as dysfunctional. They describe tension between friends (v.14) and between spouses (vss.15-16). Following the discussion of these destructive relationships there is a follow-up discussion of constructive interaction. (Bland, Leaven, 70)

In Proverbs the center of focus for developing wisdom and character is not in personal or private activity. The book does not discount personal experiences of prayer, observation or mediation and their value in shaping one’s ethic or spiritual development. The primary focus of Proverbs in shaping character, though, is in the midst of human activity. Consider Proverbs 1:20-21 where Woman Wisdom calls aloud in the street, raises her voice in the public squares, cries out in the noisy streets and makes her speech in the gateways of the city. Wisdom has a very visible presence and is active in the public arena. "Wisdom finds herself in a city teeming and bustling with the traffic of human life." (Bland, Leaven, 70)

Activity between people is important in Proverbs because through such interaction people receive insight and wise counsel from others. Some may spurn the wise counsel and in doing so choose the path of folly. Fools spurn human interaction, preferring self-evaluation. Consequently, they do not benefit from the wisdom and insight of others and their lives become burdensome and chaotic to everyone around them.

Such unpleasant interaction between people is described in Proverbs 27:14-19. Two different relationships are discussed in these verses, that of friends and spouses. Both relationships are chaotic and tension filled. Yet, within that tension lies the possibility that the participants may experience a transformation of their spirit and character.

"If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse." Proverbs 27:14.

The Hebrew word for "neighbor" also means friend. It is used in Leviticus 19:13 ("Do not defraud you neighbor or rob him") and 19:18 ("Love your neighbor as yourself"). Both of these occurrences of neighbor are used in a broad sense, indicating anyone an Israelite would have contact with. But, neighbor was also used in reference to people living in close proximity to each other. Exodus 22:10 discusses the legal issues involved in the injury or theft of farm animals entrusted to the care of a neighbor. It is reasonable to assume that the care of these animals would be given to someone living close by. Proverbs 3:28 describes a situation of neighbors borrowing and sharing personal possessions, something likely to occur among people living in close proximity.

To be a friend or neighbor entails certain responsibilities. Our relationships with neighbors should never be damaging or harmful. Proverbs 3:29 admonishes, "Do not plot harm against your neighbor who lives trustfully near you." Those who do harm their neighbor are considered godless (Prov. 11:9) and perverse (Prov. 16:28-29). Instead of bringing harm to his neighbor, the godly man should be caring and thoughtful of all around him. Proverbs 17:17 says, "A friend (or neighbor) loves at all times."

"Friend" or "neighbor" has been a key term in this section. In 27:9 genuine friendship is compared to the sweetness of perfume and incense. Verse 10 admonishes the honoring of friendships, even those of one’s father, and the blessedness of having a friend or neighbor nearby when tragedy strikes. Both of these verses emphasize the sweetness and blessedness of sincere friendships where everyone is thoughtful of each other. Such relationships are mutually beneficial to all the parties.

But 27:14 introduces a new dynamic: insincerity in relationships. In this verse a man blesses his neighbor or friend, but the neighbor does not regard it as a blessing. Instead, he feels the weight of a curse.

Two features of the blessing indicate it is insincere and masks underlying attitudes and intents that are malevolent. One, the blessing is loud. The Hebrew word means "loudness in sound, being old in years, great in importance." (TWOT, 1:151) In 1 Kings 8:55 "loud" is used in reference to Solomon standing before the entire congregation and speaking loudly enough for all to hear him. As the king Solomon was great in importance and speaking before a large crowd would necessitate his speaking boldly and with great volume. The use of this word in reference to greeting a neighbor would indicate this was not a typical expression of "good morning," but was unusually boisterous for a greeting between neighbors and likely had a pompous flair.

Another feature of the blessing is that it was early in the morning when the neighbor was possibly still at rest or preparing for the day. The greeter "aims to make the impression that he has a deep veneration for his neighbor ... (but) his unnatural voice and timing betray him as a hypocrite." (Waltke, 382) The greeter has less concern for the welfare of his neighbor than he does for his own convenience. He is actually abusive, inconsiderate and rude, so his insincere greeting is taken as a curse.

"A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day." Proverbs 27:15

The deception of the man against his neighbor and the other a wife against her husband connect verses 14 & 15. Both the rude man and the wife are damaging to their relationships. The neighbor and husband had a right to expect blessing and considerate care, but in both cases he was deceived and received rude treatment.

Proverbs 27:15 is only one of several verses that address the challenge of a disruptive wife. Proverbs 21:9 says, ""Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife." A quarrelsome personality emanates from a disturbed spirit and spreads that disruption to everyone within reach. The quarrelsome personality tends to look for faults in others and generate intense emotions through criticism and arguments. People tend to be on edge around the quarrelsome person lest they draw their ire. Discussed in the context of the quarrelsome wife in 21:9 are people who are arrogant, wicked, liars, violent, incorrigible, and devious (verses 4 though 8). The quarrelsome spirit shares equally dubious company!

The hostile relationship patterns generated by the quarrelsome person are the opposite of what Proverbs seeks to produce in people. Proverbs 1:3 desires discipline and prudence in peoples’ lives. Proverbs 5:18 envisions a home environment that is blessed for the husband and wife and for their eventual children. "May your fountain be blessed" in 5:18 can refer to the joy of physical intimacy between the husband and wife or to their children who are the fruit of their intimacy. In either case, the Sage envisions a blessed home environment of peace and joy. The hostility and disorder generated by the quarrelsome spirit is antithetical to the purpose of proverbial wisdom.

A peaceful and happy home is a blessing worthy of our best efforts: "Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting with strife."(Prov. 17:1) Peace and quiet function as the opposite of the yelling and fighting that accompany a quarrel.

A quarrelsome spirit is not the exclusive domain of wives. Men can also demonstrate such an unholy spirit: "As charcoal is to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife". (Prov. 26:21) This statement about the quarrelsome man is but one of a litany of examples of sinful and wicked attitudes that destroy individuals, families, and larger communities. Chapter 26 describes the problems of fools who repeat their folly, the lazy, busy-bodies who meddle in the arguments of others, deceivers, gossips, the smooth speech of those with evil intent, and liars. All of these behaviors are destructive of relationships. The behaviors described in chapter 26 betray a variety of attitudes, including selfishness, greed, hate and (verbal) violence. The quarrelsome spirit is one of these ungodly and unholy attitudes and behaviors.

The quarrelsome spirit is more than just annoying; it is destructive. The wise woman of Proverbs builds a home that is safe and warm for her family. Love and cooperation grow in such an environment (cf. Proverbs 14:1 and 31:10-31). The wise woman’s work is constructive; it produces healthy and godly relationships. The contentious woman’s work is destructive. Her husband "takes shelter under the roof of his home expecting to find protection from the storm. Instead, he finds that his leaky roof provides him no shelter from the torrential downpour." (Waltke, 383) It is his own wife, in fact, who produces this downpour! Instead of his own home and spouse providing him relief and safety from the rudeness of the world, the husband is subjected to a further barrage of verbal assault and humiliation.

"Restraining her is like restraining the wind." Proverbs 27:16

The metaphor of the constant dripping of water in a house "highlights just how annoying and depressing a contentious wife can be." (Longman, Proverbs, 480) Two images are used to emphasize the difficulty of the task. One is the weather. In v.15 the contentious wife was like a drippy roof that failed to offer appropriate protection from the outside elements. In v.16 the storm comes right into the house. Restraining the argumentative wife is like restraining the wind.

While wind (rfah) can be a light breeze, in this context it is to be understood as a destructive gale, as in 1 Kings 19:11. "Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind." Just as the Lord was not in the wind that assailed Elijah on the mountain, neither is he in the wind that assaults the husband in his home.

The second metaphor is oil. Oil has many positive connotations in the Bible. It is used to honor and designate the one God has chosen as the king. It is used as a healing agent for the ill. Perfumed oil is pleasant and is used in romantic settings. But the slick and smooth properties of oil also make it difficult to control, an image this metaphor draws upon. Oil cannot be grasped by the hand, and a man’s attempt to do so is as effective as his attempts to soothe, placate or control his angry and disturbed wife.

"Hand" refers to the protection of the husband. Frequently the Old Testament speaks of God’s right hand of protection. Psalm 37 says, "If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand" (vss.23-24). Similarly, the husband’s hand offers the position of protection and honor. As God protects his people, a godly husband protects his wife and family.

Both images, that of wind and oil, combine to describe a terribly sad condition in the home of the disputatious wife. The home should be a place of security and peace. The husband’s right hand, like that of God’s, should offer protection and care to all that live within the home. But the spirit of the fault-finding and contentious wife unleashes a storm that not even the strong hand of the husband can control. Instead of his hand providing peace, it becomes an ironic image of a man futilely seeking to restrain wind and grasp oil. It can’t be done. He cannot successfully halt the storm his dissatisfied wife unleashes in the home.

"As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Proverbs 27:17

A more literal rendering of this verse is, "Iron is sharpened with iron, and a person sharpens the face of his friend." (Waltke, 383-4) Face here implies the deeper qualities of a person, such as the feelings, attitudes and emotions.

Two "irons" are mentioned in this verse. One iron is the knife or sword and the second iron is the sharpening iron that hones them. The hardness of this sharpening iron is a metaphor in part two of the verse: "a person sharpens the face of his friend." "Face" is used in reference to the edge of a knife or blade (Ecclesiastes 10:10). Used of a man in part b of this verse "sharpens" refers not literally to the friend’s face or facial expressions, but to his personality and character that is reflected by those expressions.

The pressure of iron rubbing against iron is an abrasive action that creates friction. Through this friction the hardness of the one material wears and shapes the other. The knife or sword is worn and sharpened by the harder iron, making it more useful and effective as a tool. In the same way, "the friend/neighbor plays a primary role in the demanding process. This can be wearisome for the friend, making friendship less than an idyllic relationship." (Bland, Proverbs, 248)

The hardness of the iron images the hardness of a caring friend’s persistence. As a result of his untiring devotion to a relationship, the "hard" man (that is, the man with a firmly shaped and honed character) is able to sharpen his friend. This sharpening may occur through offering encouragement and instruction in wisdom, but can also come through offering rebuke.

"He who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and he who looks after his master will be honored." Proverbs 27:18

The wise take care of and honor those who employ them. "Fruit" is a metaphor for the consequences of one’s behavior. Those who tend (take care, honor, etc.) the fruit tree will enjoy the results of their activity; they will get to enjoy the fruit. Similarly, those who tend to the needs or expectations of their master will enjoy the fruit of honor.
The Hebrew word for tend means to "watch, guard, keep." (TWOT, 2:594-5) In addition to being used of watching and keeping fruit trees, this word is also used in Proverbs in an ethical sense of guarding the mouth (13:3), path in life (16:17) and heart (4:23). It is also used in Psalms of guarding the tongue (34:14). An important occurrence of this word is Isaiah 49:6 where God says he will "bring back those of Israel I have kept." Keeping Israel meant God provided oversight and protective care.

The Hebrew word for "looks after" means to "keep, guard, observe, give heed," and the basic idea of the word is "to exercise great care over." (TWOT, 2:939-40) Various applications of the word are to give careful attention to observing the obligations of laws and covenants and to take care of gardens, flocks and houses. It can also be used in the sense of giving heed to matters of personal discipline. For example, Proverbs 13:3 says, "He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin." For failure to guard one’s speech could ruin one’s life.

Waltke identifies numerous truths in the metaphors of the fig tree and the diligent servant. One, the fig tree was one of the most highly prized trees in Israel and was given great care. This is the mindset a faithful servant should have toward his master. Two, to protect meant to be "careful, precise and vigilant." Three, protecting and guarding is not an occasional disposition of the farmer or servant, but one of constant devotion. Four, just as it takes years of gentle planting and care of fig trees to enjoy its succulent fruit, it may take years of devoted service to earn the honor of a master. Five, as the fruit of the fig is sweet and refreshing, so is the honor received from a master. Six, the rewards are enduring. A healthy fig tree will continue to bear fruit for years, and a pleased master will bestow his favor upon a trustworthy servant for the duration of their relationship. (Waltke, 385)

Each of these truths suggested by Waltke have bearing upon the interpretation and understanding of the rude neighbor and the argumentative wife. Although the proverbs of 10:21 to 29:27 are generally regarded as randomly placed and unrelated to each other, this is not true of all of them. The irritating (even destructive) behavior described in verse 14 and vss. 15-16 make an obvious connection between them. These latter verses deal with the theme of friction (in relationships), patience, endurance, change and ultimate reward. Verses 17-19 describe how the offended neighbor and the verbally abused husband are to respond to the affronts paid to them.

Just as the farmer is to tend the fig tree with diligence and the servant heed the will of his master, so is the offended neighbor and husband to give devoted attention to the needs of the friend and wife. They may have to provide care and attention for years before they get to enjoy the delicious fruit of the relationships (mutual respect for the neighbors; peace and intimacy for the spouses), but such a positive outcome can only happen if they exercise diligent care, service, and even rebuke.

"As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man." Proverbs 27:19

The Hebrew word for "reflects" means to "answer." Water "answers" the person who peers into it, meaning the water is functioning like a mirror and is reflecting the viewer’s impression.
The Hebrew word for heart is l‘b, and refers to the heart, understanding, mind, and intellect. This word is used in such idioms as "to set the heart upon," "to think about" or "to want." While concretely it can refer to the actual physical organ in the body, metaphorically it refers to the inner nature of man. In biblical literature it is the most frequently used term for man’s immaterial personality functions, such as the emotion, thought, or will. Heart can often be translated as "mind" or "understanding." (TWOT, 1:466-7)

Part a of this verse is a metaphor leading to the real meaning to be found in part b. According to Waltke the reflection of one’s face in the water has two possibilities. One, a man may look into his own heart and examine its content. "One can gain an insight into his heart - his thoughts, feelings, and aspirations - by observing his actual behavior." Secondly, a man can see himself reflected in the response of other people to his attitudes, speech and behavior. In the reflection a man receives from others he can learn their evaluation of his character. From the affirmations and criticisms of others about his character, a man can be honed and sharpened. (Waltke, 386)

A number of proverbs discuss the heart’s capacity to reveal the inner content of a man. The heart can reveal a man’s foolishness: "The heart of fools blurts out folly." (Prov. 12:23) It can also reveal wisdom: "A wise man’s heart guides his mouth and his lips promote instruction." (Prov. 16:23) The ability of reflection, either from inward inspection or peer evaluation, to expose the substance of a man’s inner thoughts and attitudes means "the heart tells the story of the person. The heart is a general reference to one’s character. Thus character defines who and what a person is." (Longman, Proverbs, 481)

An issue to question further is, whose heart is being looked into? It could be that a man is looking into his own heart, taking an inventory of his thoughts and character. "Through introspection a person comes to a better understanding of the self." A second idea is that a man is looking into the heart of another person and seeing himself reflected in the responses of that man to himself. "Through interaction a person comes to a better understanding of the self." (Bland, Proverbs, 249)

The ambiguity of this verse is important for establishing the reciprocity of relationship. The reciprocity in relationship is another fiber connecting verse 19 to verses 14-16. In the encounter of the rude man with his sleeping neighbor and the quarrelsome wife with her husband, the contents of hearts are revealed. The loud man reveals insensitivity and lack of concern; the quarrelsome wife reveals unresolved issues of hurt and anger. In both cases the inconsiderate neighbor and abusive wife, if they take the time and energy to look, can see their character traits revealed in the response of hurt and withdrawal in their counterparts. "When one engages in rigorous interaction with another, such a person discovers new insights." (Bland, Proverbs, 250)

"How is it (v.19) to be interpreted - introspection or interaction?" (Bland, Leaven, 71) I think it is interaction. Interaction between individuals, with each expressing their views, asking questions, disagreeing, and proposing alternatives, promotes better understanding and clarity of thought than mere introspection.


Proverbs 27:14-16 presents the case of two dysfunctional and struggling relationships. In each relationship, one of friends/neighbors and the other of husband and wife, one party in the relationship is inconsiderate and verbally abusive and the other party is the abused. How is the abused to react and respond? By doing the difficult work of relationship building. That is the point of verses 17-19. The wounded parties must tend the relationship and look to the needs of the partner. At times that might mean being kind and gentle; at other times it might require offering rebuke.

Interaction with others can be peaceful or chaotic. While it could be hoped that every encounter would be friendly and pleasant, they are not. Frequently in involvement with the lives of others rudeness, disdain and even open hostility are experienced. But, while such encounters are not pleasant, from the perspective of proverbial wisdom and character building, they are not without value, either. It may be that from some of the more distasteful and painful experiences with other people, including one’s neighbor or spouse, character growth and development takes place. (Bland, Leaven, 70)

Proverbs 27:14-19 encourages tough and rigorous relationship building. It holds out hope that living wisely and godly can have a positive effect on the undisciplined and dysfunctional lives it rubs against. But, it doesn’t promise a positive, happy outcome in each encounter. "A proverb does not give guarantees; rather, it indicates the best route to a desired end." (Longman, DOT, 545) In this case, the desired end is character development and relationship building, and the best route is through faithful and honest interaction with others, even those with difficult and trying personalities. "The wisdom enterprise is a community effort." (Longman, Proverbs, 481)

Warren Baldwin
April 2009


  1. Very good counsel from proverbs for relationships, and very well written :)

    God bless you Warren

    Tamela :)

  2. Thanks Bill and Tamela. This is my site with longer articles. I have one with shorter posts here if you'd like to check it out: Thank you for visiting, reading and commenting. WB