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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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Prov. 20:1

Verse 1
Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; And whosoever erreth thereby is not wise.

Alcoholic beverages are today ruining America. It is not only unwise to err in the use of them, but it is sinful also. Yes, Jesus used wine. It had a 4 percent alcoholic content, and even then was, in all probability diluted. See pp. 102, 103 in my commentary on Proverbs. The high-powered wine marketed today has up to 18 percent alcoholic content. Nothing is any more misleading than the allegation (true enough) that Jesus made eighty gallons of wine at the wedding in Cana; because that stuff which Gallo makes today is nearly five times as powerful.

Oh, but how about beer? The Anchor Bible renders this verse as: "Wine makes men insolent; beer makes them boisterous; no one who staggers drunkenly is wise."F1 The myth that the government cannot limit the use of this poison as a beverage is, of course, false. The Arabian countries can and do prohibit it.

The silliest thing that this writer has witnessed in his eighty-eight years of life is the hysterical efforts of the government to prohibit smoking, while at the same time actually encouraging the consumption of alcohol, which is a hundred times more dangerous. Yes, if a man smokes a pack of cigarettes every day for twenty years, he may get lung cancer; but, not long ago, in Houston, Texas, a teen-aged driver had a few beers at a party, loaded his car up with friends, hit a bridge column and killed five of them, not in twenty-years, but in one afternoon! Fifty thousand funerals a year, besides billions of dollars in damage, is too high a price to pay for the palaces of the liquor barons. God help America to wake up!

Let it be noted here that nothing is said about "excess drinking." It is drinking which is condemned. The very nature of alcohol is such that any consumption of it almost invariably leads to excess. Paul's instructions to Timothy to, "Drink no longer water, but a little wine for thy stomach's sake" (1 Timothy 5:23) did not mean that Timothy would never drink any more water, but that he would stop being a teetotaler. And regardless of what some social-drinking Christians think about it, the true and holy standard of Christian living is simply: "Don't touch alcoholic beverages, except as a medicinal requirement." The apostle to the Gentiles made this perfectly clear.

Verse 2
The terror of a king is as the roaring of a lion: He that provoketh him to anger sinneth [against] his own life.

This is exactly the kind of proverb we should have expected from Solomon. See the comments on Prov. 16:14-15, p. 190 in my commentary on Proverbs. This proverb is parallel to the thought there.

Verse 3
It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife; But every fool will be quarrelling.

"It does men honor to keep clear of strife: a fool quarrels with everyone."F2 There is no greater damage to human personality than that which is accomplished by a quarrelsome disposition.

Verse 4
The sluggard will not plow by reason of the winter; Therefore he shall beg in harvest, and have nothing.

This proverb repeats the teaching of the old Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ant. Provision for one's future needs must be made at the expense of working at inconvenient times and under unfavorable circumstances.

Verse 5
Counsel in the heart of man is [like] deep water; But a man of understanding will draw it out.

"There is no moral content in this proverb. A man's real purpose may be hard to fathom. The allusion is to men's disposition to conceal their plans. A clever man will try to discover them by shrewd inquiries and guesses."F3 `Deep water,' as already noted, is an idiom for things mysterious or difficult to find out.

Verse 6
Most men will proclaim every one his own kindness; But a faithful man who can find?

"Many a man protests his loyalty, but where will you find one to keep faith."F4 The thought here is similar to Paul's remark that, "There is none righteous, no not one" (Romans 3:9).

Verse 7
A righteous man that walketh in his integrity, Blessed are his children after him.

"He that walks blameless in justice, shall leave his children blessed."F5 There is no inheritance which a man can leave his children that is any more desirable than a good name. In this also, this writer, and also his wife, have rejoiced for a lifetime in the true and noble character of godly Christian parents, honored by their contemporaries as true and worthy saints of God. That is the greatest inheritance that any one can receive.

Verse 8
A king that sitteth on the throne of judgment Scattereth away all evil with his eyes.

The truth of this proverb hinges upon the character of the king. What is said here is true only of a wise and righteous monarch. "When a king sits on his throne to judge, he winnows out all evil with his eyes."F6

Verse 9
Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?

This is a plaintive note indeed. The implied response here is negative. Under the Old Dispensation, there was no such thing as the forgiveness of sins. "There was a remembrance of sins year by year" (Hebrews 10:3). Thus, there is an unspoken plea here for that Atonement that came only in the blood of Christ.

Verse 10
Diverse weights, and diverse measures, Both of them alike are an abomination to Jehovah.

We have already studied several proverbs in this same line of thought. The diversity of the weights and measures was a device used by dishonest traders who used one set of standards when buying, another when selling. The simple meaning of the proverb is that God hates dishonest traders.

Verse 11
Even a child maketh himself known by his doings, Whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.

"By his actions a youth makes it clear whether what he is doing is honest and upright."F7 "Even a child is known by what he does, as he behaves well or ill."F8 James Moffatt's Translation is preferable here. A well-disciplined, well-behaved child is already far along on the road to becoming an honorable and upright person.

Verse 12
The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, Jehovah hath made even both of them.

What an incredible marvel, really, is either one of these? Take hearing. One answers the telephone and hears a voice that he has not heard in ten years and recognizes it instantly! Or, one may detect delicate variations in colors with uncanny accuracy. This writer purchased a turquoise necklace from the Jordanian exhibit at the New York World's Fair in 1966; and then, without that necklace in his possession, he selected a perfect match for it from a Chinese collection that exhibited over five hundred different colors. Only God could have endowed men with such wonderful instruments of sight and hearing.

Verse 13
Love not sleep, let thou come to poverty; Open thine eyes, [and] thou shalt be satisfied with bread.

"If you spend your time sleeping, you will be poor. Keep busy and you will have plenty to eat."F9 "What is stated in the first line here is elaborated in Prov. 6:9-11."F10 See our comment on those verses.

Verse 14
It is bad, it is bad, saith the buyer; But when he is gone his way, then he boasteth.

This describes another trick of the dishonest trader. He belittles and downgrades what is offered for sale; and then, when he is able to purchase it for less than it is worth, he brags about his cleverness. Even as a child, this writer learned the ways of dishonest traders that falsely graded the cotton they bought.

Verse 15
There is gold, and abundance of rubies; But the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.

"There is indeed gold, and many pearls; but a precious treasure are lips full of knowledge."F11 The implication here, as often stated in Proverbs, is that knowledge is far better than gold, or other such treasures.

Verse 16
Take his garment that is surety for a stranger; And hold him in pledge [that is surety] for foreigners.

This rendition seems to catch the idea here: "Anyone stupid enough to promise to be responsible for a stranger's debts ought to have his own property held to guarantee payment."F12

Verse 17
Bread of falsehood is sweet to a man; But afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.

"A man may delight in making his living dishonestly, but after a time his mouth shall be filled with gravel."F13 This, of course, is a warning against dishonesty.

Verse 18
Every purpose is established by counsel; And by wise guidance make thou war.

This, and a number of other proverbs, are oriented toward the decisions that would have been required of a monarch, such as Solomon. Christ might have had this in mind when he said, "What king, when he goeth to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand" (Luke 14:31)?

Verse 19
He that goeth about as a tale-bearer revealeth secrets; Therefore company not with him that openeth wide his lips.

Similar proverbs are Prov. 11:13 and Prov. 18:8. See comments there. The meaning here is simple enough. "The talebearer will not keep confidences, so do not associate with him."F14

Verse 20
Whoso curseth his father or his mother, His lamp shall be put out in blackness of darkness.

Cursing father or mother was a capital offense under the law of Moses (Exo. 21:17; Lev. 20:9; Matt. 15:4); and there is an obvious reference to that in this proverb. In America today, a teen-ager may murder his parents, claim child-abuse as an excuse, and get off with ten years probation and a year of psychiatric counseling at the state's expense. When will we ever learn?

Verse 21
An inheritance [may be] gotten hastily at the beginning; But the end thereof shall not be blessed.

As it stands, this is ambiguous. Toy understood it to say that, "The heir does not wait to receive his inheritance in the due course of nature, obtaining it prematurely by foul means; no blessing, the proverb declares will attend property so acquired."F15 Deane applied it also to, "The prodigal in the parable who demanded and received his inheritance,"F16 squandered it in the far country and at last could hear the grunting of the swine in both ears!

Our personal view is that the proverb suggests the inability of the heirs of rich men to continue the successful operations of their father. Rehoboam is the classical illustration of this from the Bible. In Houston, Texas, the heir of the great merchant prince, Simon Sakowitz, soon lost his empire.

Verse 22
Say not thou, I will recompense evil: Wait for Jehovah, and he will save thee.

One who presumes to take vengeance upon another is usurping a prerogative that belongs to God alone. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament thunder the warning: "Thus saith the Lord, Vengeance is mine, and recompense" (Deuteronomy 32:35); "Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord" (Romans 12:19).

Verse 23
Diverse weights are an abomination to Jehovah; And a false balance is not good.

This is parallel with Prov. 20:10. See the comment there.

Verse 24
A man's goings are of Jehovah; How then can man understand his way?

"The steps of a man are guided by the Lord. But who is the man that can understand his own way."F17 Although the freedom of the human will and the individual responsibility of every mortal are continually affirmed throughout Proverbs, "This verse stresses the absolute sovereignty of God."F18 There is indeed a sublime mystery in every life. "The order of a man's life is a mystery even to himself. He knows not whither he is going, or for what God is educating him."F19 Toy, it seems to us, had a better grasp of what is taught here. "No man can comprehend fully the meaning of his own experiences; and the suggestion here is that man must throw himself on God, acknowledge, obey and trust Him; and then his life will be rationally and successfully directed."F20 The Anchor Bible also carries the same understanding. "It is by the Lord that a man's steps are directed; how (then) could a human being know which way to take"?F21

Verse 25
It is a snare to a man rashly to say, [It is] holy, And after vows to make inquiry.

Again, we have a proverb in which the Hebrew text, "Is not clear."F22 The `inquiry' mentioned in the second line apparently refers to a situation in which a man, after making a rash and ill-considered vow, begins to seek some loophole, "So as to escape payment."F23

Sometimes, people, under a sudden impulse will make pledges for benevolent or religious purposes, which are really beyond their means; and this proverb is a warning against such behavior. "It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vow."F24 "Jephthah is a startling example of one falling into the snare that is mentioned here (Judges 11:34-40)."F25 Jonah's mention in his prayer from the fish's belly that he would pay his vows is a strong indication that he also had made some rash vows (Jonah 2:9). "The Pharisees developed a casuistry regarding gifts to the Temple that Jesus condemned (Matthew 23:16-22)."F26

Verse 26
A wise king winnoweth the wicked, And bringeth the [threshing] -wheel over them.

Commentators usually try to soften the words here, suggesting that, "The words may be figurative."F27 James Moffatt accepted that theory in his rendition: "A wise king scatters wicked men; he drives hard over them."F28 However, the mention of threshing instruments here brings to mind Amos 1:3, where it is said that God brought judgment upon Damascus, "Because they threshed Gilead with threshing-instruments of iron." Toy also agreed that, "There is here the implication of destructive or serious punishment."F29 Atrocities of this kind were common in ancient warfare; and even King David was guilty of such destruction (2 Samuel 12:31).

Verse 27
The spirit of man is the lamp of Jehovah, Searching all his innermost parts.

"The word `spirit' here is from the literal Hebrew word `breath'; and it refers to that "breath of life" which God breathed into mankind in the person of Adam (Genesis 2:7)."F30 It is that which distinguishes man from an animal. "It is the equivalent of conscience, God's lamp, that searches out the innermost recesses of a man's heart."F31 This is a very important verse. "It stands alone in the Old Testament in its affirmation that the Divine element in human life is the conscience."F32

No matter how wicked a man may be, there is still within him that conscience which came from God; and which, regardless of his sins, bears witness, in some degree, to what he should be instead of what he is. There is no way by which any man can utterly destroy that inner witness of God. Some radical commentators such as James Moffatt and Toy omitted this verse; but it is significant that it still stands in the RSV. Satan himself is unable to take it out of the Bible.

Verse 28
Kindness and truth preserve the king; And his throne is upholden by kindness.

True as this proverb is, the quality of kindness was seldom found in the Oriental monarchs of ancient times, not even in Israel. "A king's guards are loyalty and good faith; his throne is upheld by righteousness."F33 "Loyalty (that is, loyalty to the sacred covenant) and faithfulness are here marks of the ideal king,"F34 and are not intended as a description of the kings that the ancient world often endured.

Verse 29
The glory of young men is their strength; And the beauty of old men is the hoary head.

"Youth is not better than old age, nor is old age better than youth. Each has a glory of its own; and each has its handicaps and temptations, also its triumphs and discouragements in a well-ordered life."F35 Nothing is any more ridiculous that an old person pretending to be young again! It also should be remembered that "the hoary head" is the glory of old age, only if it be found "in the way of righteousness."

Verse 30
Stripes that wound cleanse away evil; And strokes [reach] the innermost parts.

"Sharp blows purify the wicked; and stripes the innermost being."F36 The unmerciful use of corporal punishment in ancient times is emphasized by the terrible beatings and scourgings suffered by the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 11:23-26). Such public scourgings were inflicted upon criminals during colonial times in America; and public reaction against such punishments has led to a near-abandonment of the very principle of punishment as something deserved by the guilty, and absolutely required for the well-being of society.

No society should reject the punishment of criminals as a cardinal principle of public safety, especially to the extent that it has been rejected in America today. It is still true that the fear of punishment, justly and promptly inflicted upon the guilty, is the greatest single deterrent to wickedness that the world has ever known. This proverb endorses it, and in effect, commands it, regardless of the actual nature of the punishment.

It is an absolute must that any punishment of convicted criminals should be something utterly distasteful to the criminal. Incarceration in one of our modern air-conditioned jails, where no work is required, where a color TV set is provided, and a good bed at night, three square meals a day served free of charge to the occupants, medical treatments, dental work, and medicines, etc., all at taxpayers' expense -- all of this actually provides a safer and better living for convicted criminals than that which many honest and hard-working citizens are able to provide even for themselves, despite the fact that their taxes pay for all those benefits for the convicts. To call such behavior on the part of any society stupid is an unjustified compliment! It is criminal!

Footnotes for Proverbs 20
1: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1982). The Easy-to-Read Version of the Bible (Fort Worth, Texas: World Bible Translation Center, 1992), likewise warns against `beer' here.
2: James Moffatt's Translation of the Bible, 1929.
3: International Critical Commentary, Vol. 17, Proverbs, p. 384.
4: The New English Bible.
5: The Greek Septuagint (LXX).
6: The New International Version (NIV).
7: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1982).
8: James Moffatt's Translation of the Bible, 1929.
9: The Good News Bible.
10: Franz Delitzsch, in C. F. Keil, Keil-Delitzsch's Old Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), Vol. 6b, p. 48.
11: Ibid.
12: The Good News Bible.
13: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1982).
14: Broadman Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), Vol. 5, p. 65.
15: International Critical Commentary, op. cit., p. 391.
16: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 9, p. 387.
17: The Douay Version of the Bible (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1948).
18: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 4, p. 899.
19: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, a 1987 reprint of the 1878 edition), Proverbs, p. 58.
20: International Critical Commentary, op. cit., p. 393.
21: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1982).
22: International Critical Commentary, op. cit., p. 394.
23: Ibid.
24: The New International Version (NIV).
25: The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 726.
26: Ibid.
27: Wycliffe Old Testament Commentary, p. 573.
28: James Moffatt's Translation of the Bible, 1929.
29: International Critical Commentary, op. cit., p. 295.
30: The Interpreter's Bible, op. cit., p. 899.
31: Ibid.
32: Arthur S. Peake, A Commentary on the Bible (London: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1924), p. 408.
33: The New English Bible.
34: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 565.
35: The Interpreter's Bible, op. cit., p. 900.
36: The Bible, An American Translation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1923.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Proverbs 20". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  


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